The final countdown

Our last days in Atka bay

We have been here for over ten months now. It’s hard to believe, but on December 16th, 2016 we boarded the plane to Capetown and a few days later to Antarctica and we have lived and worked on this continent ever since. We have endured temperatures of -44°C and have even filmed in stormy conditions of 45 knots. We have seen the sea ice of Atka Bay break up and refreeze again, the emperor penguins leaving and returning again, mating and laying the egg, breeding and raising their young and now the chicks growing up at a rapid rate. Some of the things we experienced in January like seeing Orcas and Minke whales or filming emperor penguins jumping from the elevated ice shelf into the Weddell sea seem like they happened ages ago. When I look into the mirror, my hair has become long, my eyes have dark circles around them and my eyebrows and eyelashes are thinned out from pulling icicles off my face which would have obstructed my vision otherwise. A few days ago my wife and I had our first wedding anniversary, which we had to celebrate separately, just like we had to live our lives separately in the past months. I love Antarctica and I love the emperor penguins, but I feel the time has come to go home and be with my loved ones again. In around two weeks we will board the plane and depart from probably the greatest adventure we have ever experienced and in fact might ever experience in our lives.

 

Emperor penguins chicks on the ice shelf above the open water. Eventually they jumped into the water from this elevated position, which is not the usual sea ice fledging.

 

I will not lie and claim that everything always went super smooth and streamlined and that there weren’t any days when I felt frustrated. But I am glad we pulled through without any major issues and kept shooting until the very last day. Again, it is hard to envision what the final movie will look like. We have witnessed so many great things which cannot be compressed into a 50 minute film, so consequently some of them will have to be left out.

 

Broken ice floes (old sea ice) are drifting around in front of a giant iceberg in Atka bay.

 

The last weeks in the colony have been very eventful as the birds are quite active and the chicks are growing up rapidly. Even the first Skuas, Antarctic petrels and Snow petrels have returned to Atka bay. It was quite emotional to see them come back and put a huge smile on my face :-).

 

We had some wonderful and artistic flybys of Snow petrels in summer, which might not make it into the final program. They will be forever stored in our memories though.

 

The entire colony has split up into multiple groups now with most birds still being on the sea ice, but in separate groups peppered along the shelf. One group of a few hundred birds or so has made its way onto the ice shelf and positioned itself quite close to our container. On the one hand it is nice to see the birds standing around a little more losely which makes it a lot easier to get clean shots and isolate them against the white Antarctic landscape. On the other hand however, the colony does not look as impressive anymore as it did before the females laid the egg and all the birds were present. I will never forget the sight and the opportunity to fill the entire frame of an image with birds and not seeing a single patch of white snow in between. When I wintered in 2012 we never had one unified group of emperors standing together, but always two or three groups at the same time. So in 2017 it was also a first time for me to see the entire colony in one spot – absolutely magical.

 

The male emperor penguins of Atka bay huddling in front of the shelf ice during polar night. Never had I seen so many penguins on one spot, so closely packed, until 2017.

 

One aspect that comes to mind when thinking back of all the birds standing closely together is huddling of course. I have explained a few times that the emperor penguins work together in this clever system in order to protect themselves from the cold and make it through the dark and cold winter days until their mates return and their chicks hatch. Now, that the chicks have grown up and started running around in the colony on their own, sometimes both of their parents will be going to the sea at the same time, since the ways to open water have become shorter and can be overcome more quickly (due to the recession of sea ice extension). In the meantime, the chicks will stay in so called creches, which basically are miniature huddles consisting only of grey fluffy chicks. It is by far the cutest thing I have ever seen. What looks cute and adorable however is absolutely crucial for their survival. Huddling needs to be learned and organized to be successful so it is mandatory that this technique is learned from early on. Even though the chicks give it their best effort, they are not nearly as organized and disciplined as their parents. As soon as a creche forms you can see little chicks running towards the aggregation, simply bumping their heads into the crowd. Sometimes, you can even see chicks trying to get into the center of the huddle by unfairly leaping on top of the others and crowd-surfing into the center. Of course the other chicks are not exactly happy about this kind of behavior, but in the end there are no hard feelings and everybody is enjoying the warmth and the snuggles.

 

An emperor penguin creche, or chick huddle, where emperor penguin chicks learn how to huddle with their peers. It’s their secret weapon against the cold and the first step to independence from their parents.

 

Thankfully the days are getting warmer again and temperatures below -25°C have become very rare, so minor mistakes in chick huddle formation can be ironed out bit by bit by trial and error. Nevertheless the weather can still be quite unforgiving and is currently extremely unsettled. In the past three weeks we’ve had one(!!) day with wind speeds below 20 knots. On all other days the wind was above or well above this magical limit, which can decide if being outside will be pleasant or exhausting. Needless to say the days have been quite exhausting and with the Sun being up high in the sky, they have been quite long as well. We are at a stage now, where we are constantly missing meal times at station – even dinner, which is at 7pm at night.

 

We have seen quite a few sun halos in the past weeks, since the Sun was always shining through a thin layer of clouds and fog. Days are getting quite long and in only around 30 days, the Sun will not set anymore, but shine for 24h a day.

 

For the emperor penguin chicks the strong winds are quite dangerous as well, since wind will cause blowing snow. Blowing snow all by itself is not dangerous, but can lead to poor contrast and whiteout conditions. In that case neither man nor penguin have any sense of orientation, since landmarks cannot be seen and other individuals cannot be heard anymore due to the deafening noise of the wind. It is fairly easy to become disoriented in these conditions, which is the reason why we always carry GPS units with us in order to find the correct way back home. If you cannot see any features of the landscape however, the sea ice is quite a dangerous place without these tools. We have seen countless emperor penguin chicks falling into the gullies (which I explained in the previous blog post) which have become so high that once you are in, there is no way of getting out anymore. Seeing a chick struggling to get out even though there is no chance that it will ever make it is absolutely crushing and always saddens me deeply. But gullies are not the only danger. With blowing snow getting caught in their fine down feathers, some chicks have big lumps of ice growing on their faces which later on do not fall off anymore and will consequently obstruct their vision and sometimes even their beak, which means that they will eventually starve to death. The other day we saw a chick which had its head frozen to a lump of ice in the snow and could not get away anymore. It was 10m away from the colony, struggling to get free, but doomed nonetheless. While I love this season of bold and funny chicks running around joyfully and full of life, the scenes I just described make me hate this period at the same time. I know death is a big part of the emperor’s life and only the strongest and most healthy chicks will make it to adulthood, but all logic in the world cannot make me feel better about seeing a small innocent being suffering like that. Maybe this is one of the reasons why I feel that it’s time to go home.

 

A little gang of emperor penguin chicks is exploring the sea ice and running around during sunrise. The chicks are absolutely adorable at the moment, but still very vulnerable.

 

The windy weather has also taken its toll on me. With the temperatures being a lot higher than just two months ago windchill has become less of a factor when going out, but can still play an important role on very windy days. About a week ago we planned to film the chicks huddling in a storm of around 30-35 knots at temperatures of around -15°C. To be honest, this sounds a lot colder than it actually is and I never ever felt cold once during the entire 7h that we spent outside. However the only region of my body that I could not cover with clothing, my eyes and eyebrows got quite frostbitten without me noticing. Only when we came back inside I noticed that my forehead was swollen and the next day I could see dark patches of skin developing. It’ll be a few days until this has healed again and in the meantime every gust of wind in my face will sting like a needle when we are outside. I am quite angry about this happening so late, since it will ruin any photo of myself (or cause additional photoshop work ;-)).

We used some of the windy days in order to do some making off filming like showing and explaining the contents of our survival or mountain box. I have also spent a few hours on repairing sledges as well as defrosting and cleaning camera equipment. I actually managed to get every camera sensor of our stills kit spot free at f/16 until the first day we took them out again – then there was drifting snow. Ever since the last big storm we have abandoned our skidoo garages since snow accumulation in spring is so much more than in winter and digging out our skidoos from underneath giant snow hills became quite tiring and time consuming. I have to say I have not looked back since ;-).

 

The only nice thing about windy days on the sea ice is the snow drift which they create. Together with the Sun this will create some very atmospheric landscapes. Together with a silhouetted emperor penguin, it simply looks stunning.

 

A few days ago I also celebrated my 34th birthday, in fact the second birthday I have spent in Antarctica. The first half of the day was windy and unpleasant and for the second part of the day we went out to the colony and filmed. Consequently I announced at lunch, that I would postpone my birthday celebration until Sunday when the weather was supposed to be stormy again and we would not be heading out. However, that very same night when we came back, people at station had made a very delicious cinnamon cheese cake and even had organized some gifts like a self-made wooden Neumayer sign or a small penguin with a camera made of Fimo. Great little gifts which made my day quite special in the end. Our little celebration on Sunday was themed „Heavy Metal Music“, for which I prepared a musical three course menu of my favorite songs and also brought a guitar hero controller. Many of my fellow winterers had never played the game, but you could immediately tell who had a sense for music and who did not. Overall it was quite hilarious and a very nice evening and I think none of us will listen to Ozzy’s Crazy Train in the near future ;-).

 

For my birthday I had around 5000 guests on the sea ice, all dressed in the most elegant tuxedos. What a treat!

 

To end this blog on a positive note (pun intended, since we just talked about messing up Crazy Train on guitar hero), it has been a very eventful and educational time here in Antarctica and many of my dreams have come true. I can’t wait to be able to show you some of the new images and also to put some of my newly acquired skills into use at home. But first of all I will enjoy Christmas with my family and take a nice and long vacation – I am not sure yet, if I will take a camera with me…