Leaving the Antarctica Peninsula
Antarctica - Into the Icebox
All passengers are on deck to enjoy the last glimpses of the Peninsula as a castle-like peak breaks through the fog that is engulfing the shore. We are even indulged with a bit of sun to brighten up the moment. As we leave the enchanting land of ice behind, we are followed by a beautiful Painted Petrel who seems to be bidding us farewell. The wind is so strong that there is snow streaming off of the tops of the icebergs. I bet if you were on top of them, you would not be able to stand upright!
Knowing that our time here is coming to and end, my need to shoot just one last photos of the icebergs grows into a non-stop clicking of the shutter. As the icebergs grown smaller and smaller in the distance, the sea becomes white-capped again (yea! My idea of a good time.)
The afternoon finds us back in the South Shetlands where we visit King George Island and 2 research stations. The landing takes us first to O’Higgins Station, at the Chilean Frei Base, and has a large sign proudly boasting its 42 inhabitants. The station is named for Bernardo O’Higgins who liberated Chile from Spain. The station’s buildings of yellow, red, and blue are a stark contrast to the black lava ground. I think that they must need the bright colors to keep spirits aloft in the gloom of seemingly never ending winter. What I find most amusing of the numerous things to see: medical facility, church, living quarters, mess hall, machine buildings . . . the Mile Post towering a 20 feet overhead. The base whale bones supports the pole displaying at least 30 different destination signs, including one for Springfield-11,360 km. Not sure if it is for our hometown, Springfield Missouri, or another Springfield, but pretty cool anyway. Close-by the little blue Church made from shipping containers has a very clever “steeple” and arch windows. We are reminded that this is a real community when we see 3 little children bundled up like Eskimos playing atop some of the last snow piles along the “street.” A little plane takes off from the air strip as we made our way uphill to the next research station.
Bellinghausen, a Russian station named for the Captain who spotted and described Antarctica, but did not know it was a Continent! The base was in a very bad state of disrepair in the 1980’s when help came to keep it alive. Cruise ships dropped off volunteers to clean it up and do some very badly needed repair work. The most eye-catching thing here is the Russian Orthodox Church. It is a tiny log structure, 2.5 stories, with gingerbread trim and onion domes with crosses on top. Probably the smallest Church I have ever seen. Not room for many patrons, but then again, there are only 4 people at this base!
It is on the beach in front of the Chilean base that we have our best encounter with Chinstrap penguins who appear to be wearing black helmets held on with “chin straps.” Time is again taken for more penguin photos as they parade back and forth in front of us, and in and out of the water. We also notice a few Gentoo on the beach. Then, what is it? A blue and red penguin? No, it is one of the little children from the base who is taking his daily stroll with the penguins. Can you imagine, instead of growing up with our favorite dog, Fido, you grow up with your favorite Penguin! It must be a different world for these people . . . a very cool one (no pun intended).