Being at the tip of Antarctica brought about unusual wildlife viewing opportunities. I’m more accustomed to watching out for land-based critters in my travels. In Antarctica (the only continent without an indigenous human population), evolution still resulted in many “locals,” but they are mostly in the water. Even penguins, who go ashore to hatch and raise their chicks, spend much (maybe most) of their time in the water. Here, a good pair of binoculars and time spent studying the surface of the water and icebergs were necessary for success.
Because it was late February, the critters were “enjoying” the end of summer. Often, ice floes were populated by basking seals, mostly of the Weddell, Antarctic fur, and crab-eater species. We watched a leopard seal “take” a penguin for a meal one day, which was both gory and fascinating. We were also lucky to encounter elephant seals, on our first foray ashore (see the blog “Oh, Those Penguins!” dated Apr 9, 2018).
Here’s some Antarctic history: In the 1700s and 1800s, seal hunting (and then whaling – to come in the next blog) ran unabated in the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica, until many species were nearly wiped out. According to www.coolantarctica.com, “Captain James Cook visited the island of South Georgia in 1775 and reported that there were a great many seals present. Within 25 years of being discovered, the summer catch had climbed to 112,000 animals. By 1822, the southern fur seal was virtually extinct on South Georgia.” It was a story sadly repeated throughout the region.
It was the search for oil (of the seal and whale variety), however, that also led to exploration of the white continent. The first sighting is credited to Russian Naval Captain Thaddeus Bellingshausen in Jan.1820. The first overwintering experience (unplanned!) was a British crew on the ship “Lord Melville” in 1821 (they were rescued the following summer). Throughout the 1800s, intrepid adventurers peeled back the continent’s mysteries, mapping and exploring it (many seeking commercial feasibilities, although none were really found once the whales and seals were hunted down).
The “Heroic Age” of exploration lasted from 1900 to 1922, placing Robert Scott, Roald Amundsen, and Ernest Shackleton firmly in the history pages (along with many others). A familiar saying credited to Raymond Priestley is: “For scientific discovery, give me Scott; for speed and efficiency of travel, give me Amundsen; but when you are in a hopeless situation, when you are seeing no way out, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”
The first female to set foot on Antarctica wasn’t until 1935, when Caroline Mikkelsen accompanied her whaling captain husband there. Luckily, people of vision prevailed and treaties to protect this final frontier. In 1958, the International Geophysical Year initiated efforts to keep the place “non-national,” leading to the Antarctic Treaty in 1961. This has led to strict environmental controls over this fragile place (which seem to be heeded, refreshingly), and thank goodness for that.