A great story from one of our passengers last season, as he recounts his expedition for the Auckland District Law Society.
Mr Casey’s brother Barney had planned the trip for a group of four and Mr Casey made a rapid decision to join the expidition when one of the other members had to pull out. The group flew to Buenos Aires and then on to Tierra del Fuego, Argentina’s southern-most province which is located across the Strait of Magellan from the mainland. The province’s capital, Ushuaia, is the closest city in the world to the bottom of the globe.
This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Falklands War and Mr Casey said that signs commemorating the conflict and condemning what Argentinians regard as Britian’s illegal occupation of the Malvinas were prominent in the city.
In Ushuaia, the expedition members boarded a boat with 50 other passengers and 30 crew for two days of a very stormy passage across the Southern Ocean south of Cape Horn to the Antarctic Peninsula on the eastern side of the continent.
Scott Base, with which New Zealanders are most familiar, is located in West Antarctica, on the main body of the continent. Mr Casey said he enjoyed the experience of extremely rough weather in the storm-tossed ocean, describing it as one of the memorable parts of the trip.
“I found it really exciting crossing the Drake Passage and facing all that nature could throw at us. It’s cold in Ushuaia and colder when you get down south. Although in summer the air temperature is around 0 degrees, the wind often makes it much colder.”
The converted Russian research vessel on which the party sailed is chartered by an Australian company, Aurora Expeditions, and those on board hailed from Australia, Holland, Germany, Spain, the United States and Canada as well as New Zealand.
Mr Casey said that the furtherest south the expedition travelled was 65’08” south, meaning that it did not reach the Antarctic Circle marking the limit of the midnight sun. The passengers included scientists and biologists who gave lectures as well as providing commentaries during shore execursions.
The travellers left the boat on each of the seven days that they were in Antarctica by Zodiac to go ashore and view the spectacular scenery and wildlife up close, or to cruise around the ice formations.
On one memorable night, the group took sleeping bags and slept out in the open on mats under the stars. Mr Casey summed up that experience as “cold, but magnificent”. Mr Casey said that, as a resource management lawyer, he was particularly interested in experiencing the Antarctic environment first-hand.
He said that Aurora Expeditions was a founding member of the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators and had a strong commitment to ensuring that its voyages did not result in any pollution of the continent or even any cross-contamination between different sites.
No waste was discharged in Antarctica, special fuel was used, gear was checked and cleaned before shore excursions and gumboots provided to the travellers were sterilised before and after every trip onto the ice.
“When you go there and see what a vast continent it is, the volumes of ice held there and the cold, dense water that flows from Antarctica into the Pacific and reaching into the Northern hemispheres, you can understand how it influences climates in New Zealand, Australia and elsewhere. The impact we’re having must be pretty significant if we are causing change to the environment when you consider the vastness of the Antarctic region and its influence on the world’s climate.”
Mr Casey said that the voyagers had also been given strict instructions not to disturb the wildlife. “But to be honest, the wildlife doesn’t seem to be at all concerned. If anything, it was curious. We had a very inquisitive leopard seal come up and bit the side of the Zodiac. The penguins were not bothered and often came right up to us.”
Mr Casey said that there were a number of research stations on the East Antarctic peninsula as Chile, Argentina and Great Britian all claimed some protectorate over the area. The group also visited historic huts and derelict whaling stations.
He said that some huts had been restored and one of them was a museum, funded by visitors such as those from Aurora Expeditions buying souvenirs. The group saw a penguin colony living right beside one base, with a scientific study confirming that the penguins had apparently suffered no ill-effects from their close contact with humans.
Mr Casey said that an option for experienced dry suit divers on the expedition was to go diving and 17 travellers had done that most days. “They were very enthusiastic about it. Two of them, when the leopard seal swam around the Zodiac, put on masks and snorkels and jumped in with the seal.”
Other voyagers on another day had the option of jumping off the side of boat for a polar plunge into water with a temperature of 1 degree celsius. Mr Casey was one of the brave souls to make the leap for a once in a lifetime experience, followed quickly by a spell in the ship’s sauna.
He said that the travellers saw different species of penguins, with the Gentoo penguins being particularly appealing and having an almost compulsive practice of stealing small pebbles from each others’ nests.
Most penguin colonies were notable for the awful stench emanating from the guano. There were many other bird species, including graceful albatrosses, petrels and terns. The voyagers also saw Antarctic fur seals casually lounging around, as well as leopard, crab-eater and Weddell seals.
They viewed humpback, fin and minke whales and, on one notable occassion, watched orcas gorging themselves on the flesh of a minke whale they had just killed. “Although you could not see the carcass under the water, there were the tell-tale signs of orcas repeatedly diving down to feed and an oil slick on top of the water from the dead whale’s blubber. The birds were feeding on the debris as well. That was nature at its rawest.”
As the expedition took place in summer, the ship was able to push its way through the floating ice to visit several islands as well as the mainland. The party saw vast numbers of glaciers, icebergs and snow-capped mountains. One day they cruised around Paradise Harbour, which Mr Casey described as the highlight of the trip. The boat was surrounded by glaciers, snow-covered peaks and beautifully-coloured water, with the colours of the ice reflecting both off the land and from under the water.
by Catriona MacLennan, Auckland District Law Society.