Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Antarctic Convergence

Map showing the Antarctic Convergence

The key to understanding the impressive diversity of wildlife in Antarctica is the Antarctic Convergence, which is basically a line encircling the continent ( between 50° and 60° S), where the warm, more saline waters coming south from the tropics meet the cold, denser and mainly non-saline waters moving north from the Antarctic. These conflicting currents clash, converge and sink. The mixing waters provide a conducive environment for an abundance of plankton, so the Convergence nourishes huge numbers of seabirds and mammals.

Large swarms of krill maybe ten of thousands of metres across, containing densities of as high as 10,000 per square metre! Such super-swarms may involve several million tonnes of krill and they move through the ocean almost like a single organism, making it easy for creatures that prey on them. This super abundance of prey in the Antarctic waters, in turn, supports an amazing density and diversity of wildlife. For example, it is estimated that seabirds alone take about 40 million tonnes of krill per annum! The largest animal on our Planet, the Blue Whale can consume between 4-6 tonnes of Krill in a day!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Floating Gods of the Antarctic !!

What made the deepest impression in my mind and soul in Antarctica, the very edge of the world, are not the wonderful animals and birds i saw but the starkness and the raw beauty of the landscape...and the breathtaking spectacle of some truly magnificent Ice-Bergs!! These mighty creations of Mother Nature...crafted and sculpted by the raw power of the elements of Antarctica touched me and mesmerised me beyond words...i came back even more humble than before about the immense Beauty, Scale and Power of Mother Nature.

Just gaze at these Gods of Antarctica and simply admire them...of course, you can never get a true idea of the ‘atmosphere’ in which they exist and their real scale..but this is the best i can do to ‘convey’ what i went through and felt...(please double click on the images..)

The first big Ice-Berg we we we approaching the White Continent the Weddell Sea.They come in all kinds of sizes and beautiful shapes.

This is one Colossus...a ‘tabular’ Ice-Berg, probably 150 metres across !

This Beauty loomed out of the mist one late evening...she was....GIGANTIC !! Probably 30-40 metres tall!! Typically only 1/8th of the height of the Ice-berg is can simply imagine how big this one was beneath the surface of the ocean !!

Another view of The Beauty....i was dumb-struck by her sheer presence...and kept watching her from the deck until i almost froze myself..from the cold Antarctic winds !!

As these Giant Ice-Bergs melt in the Antarctic summer...they trigger a whole chain of bio-chemical events in the surrounding waters...the amount of fresh water which is discharged itself creates a mini-ecosystem around them as they keep moving because of the ocean currents. You can see a deep blue colour all around the Ice-Berg, which is nothing but freshwater mixing with the saline waters of the ocean.

Another Goddess....

You can see the intricate ‘sculpting’ on her walls...beautiful patterns as she melts away and gives sustenance to the Oceans plankton and Krill..which are the basic elements of the marine food chain..and in turn sustain the bountiful wildlife of the Antarctic..the Penguins, Seals and the Whales...just to name a few!

The Ice-Bergs of Antarctica are ‘calved’ or break off from the huge ice shelves surrounding the Continent. Some well known ice shelves are the Larsen ice shelf, which we almost touched, and the largest of them all, the Ross ice shelf, which covers about 5,00,000 sq kms!
Just to give an idea of their size..a recent Ice-Berg about to calve was measured at 880 sq kms in size! The biggest so far has been B 15, which calved from the Ross ice shelf in 2000 and was 275 kms in length and 37 kms across..which is about 11,000 sq kms in size!! B 15 was estimated to contain so much water that every human on Earth could get about 50 tons of fresh drinking water from it!!
The Ice-Bergs of Antarctica give you an idea of the character of the Continent itself.
Antarctica is an ice-dominated Continent..almost 99% of it’s 14.2 million sq kms (twice the size of Australia or equal to USA and Canada combined!) is covered by ice-sheets. The average thickness of the ice is 2 kms and thickest is 5 kms ! This also makes Antarctica the highest continent..apart from being the coldest, windiest and the driest place on Earth!
Antarctica holds 90% of the World’s ice and 70% of our Earth’s freshwater is locked up in this ice...perhaps now you can place these colossal Ice-Bergs in perspective!!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Ursus maritimus !!

I never dreamt that one day i would see Polar Bears !! The largest and the most powerful...and indeed one of the most beautiful predators on our Planet !!

The land of these Bears in strikingly simply numbs can these animals live and survive in such a harsh environment? We saw this female with her two small Cubs from far away...and she was hurrying to keep some distance between herself and a marauding male Bear!

This female was prowling the shores of an island searching for eggs of breeding Ducks...the closest we got to a Polar was one of the most exciting wildlife encounters in my life!!

This is my most favourite and enduring image from my Arctic Journey...a large male Ice Bear...surrounded by pack the Northern-most point on Earth i have reached..we had crossed 80 N latitude!! Just gaze at the sheer beauty of his habitat..with gentle Snow falling on him...simply mesmerising!!

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Arctic Tundra and...a Polar Bear !!

The Arctic Tundra is an intriguing landscape...this biome lies between the Taiga forest and the permanent Arctic Sea Ice. The Tundra or the treeless plains lies above 66'33 N latitude or the Arctic Circle. Here the vegetation has to contend with extreme Arctic conditions dictated by the short growing season, low precipitation and temperatures (as low as -35 C in Winter!) and wind. Even in this extreme landscape, life thrives in the short summer months....

Barnacle Geese seen with chicks at Ny Alesund. Many birds like these Geese fly to Svalbard to breed in the summer.

The beautiful 'hanging gardens' of Svalbard...most people will not believe such a riot of colour in the Arctic, which is rendered by moss and lichen in many colours and spectacular flowers!

We saw many beautiful Arctic flowers on our walks on the Tundra...

This lovely pink flower is the Moss Campion ('Silene acaulis'), which is also known as the Compass plant, as the flowers tend to concentrate according to the direction of the summer sunlight!

A herd of Svalbard Reindeer grazing on the lush summer grass...they have to feed as much as they can in the short summer season, to prepare for the long winter, where they get almost nothing to eat for about 6 months!

These Reindeer allow close approach, mainly beacuse they are in such an urgency not to waste any feeding time during the short summer! The few animals which live here have to contend with very harsh conditions..i was thinking about our Chital...they have such an easy life, with food available all the 365 days in the year!

When our Expedition leader announced one evening that we will be sailing into 'prime Polar habitat' by the morning, i could hardly sleep that night! I was out on the freezing cold observation deck very early, the next morning, scanning the distant islands for a long time. A lady next to me, asked me to check a suspicious moving object, with my 'better binoculars'...and there is was..a Polar Bear!!! I just could not believe my eyes!! A Polar Bear in the the Arctic!!
Our ship changed direction and we approached the 'Ice Bear' turned out to be a female hunting for eggs of nesting ducks on the shoreline...

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Dramatic Arctic Landscape!

The Arctic landscape is something which can evoke only one word in anybody's mind: 'Dramatic'! It is a dream-like land with ice, snow, glaciers,mountains and sea...all weaving a magical tapestry which captivated me endlessly...even today i dream of it constantly...
And what also struck me is the silence of the landscape! It is a quiet world...almost eerie at times!

The July 14th Glacier...60% of Svalbard's 62,000 km is covered by glaciers!
Some like Austfonna are as big as 8412 sq kms!

A closer view of the July 14th Glacier...the light blue colour indicates oxygen. As you know, glaciers are nothing but frozen fresh water.

Tinayrebukta fjord...a fjord is deep sea inlet, surrounded by mountains..Spitsbergen's fjords have been sculpted by huge ice-age glaciers.
You can see our ship Plancius anchored in the fjord..we were on a hike.

The fjords are beautiful with calm seas and rugged glacier-laden mountains.

In the Arctic summer one can see this kind of landscape where the snow melt exposes the rocks and can see grass,moss and even flowers! And this is also the time of 24 hours of Sunshine!

Alkefjell...touted as the most dramatic bird nesting colony in the Northern hemisphere! 350 metres high granite cliffs rise from the sea, where about 2,00,000 pairs of Brunnich's Guillemots nest on these cliffs every summer..

The Arctic is the youngest ecosystem on Earth...just 10,000 years old! It certainly has a sense of freshness!

Single year pack ice or Fast which has formed an year back...

Pack ice (multi-year) or Sea ice which we were surrounded with, when we sailed north of 80 degrees North Latitude....the realm of the Polar Bears! This ice is an accumulation of many years and can be very thick..sometimes a few metres! This ice drifts with the ocean currents and winds...the North Pole is surrounded by this kind of ice and therefore so formidable to get to!

Spitsbergen means 'pointed peaks' in Dutch...who discovered these islands accidentally in 1596 (by William Berentsz)
Please double-click on these pictures and enjoy them in a wider canvas.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Arctic Tern !!

Although an Arctic journey was very high on my 'bucket list', i was surprisingly under-prepared for this trip. 24 hrs before we were to emplane to Brussels, i was still in Bandhavgarh! So i was quite blank on what to expect on this trip...which was in a way a big blessing !

The navigation map on the aircraft monitor says it all...that we were really flying to the very top of the World! Our destination is the archipelago of Svalbard or Spitsbergen, which is Norwegian territory. It is located 3200 km (4 hours of flying on a Boeing 737!) from Brussels, from where we had boarded our chartered flight. I never imagined that i will be one day travelling so North !

We landed at Longyearbyen, which happens to be the Northernmost permanent settlement in the World (Pop: 2000). This is also the Northernmost civilian airport in the world! Svalbard itself is about 62,000 sq kms in area and one of the largest stretches of unspoiled Arctic wilderness.

The geographical coordinates of Svalbard has a tale to tell !

Smack! I was taken aback at this unexpected aggression when a bird hit me on my head, as i stepped off the road in Longyearbyen to investigate a 'white bird' sitting on the ground! It turned out to be a bird i always dreamt of seeing-an Arctic Tern!!

It's mate was sitting by it's ground nest with a single egg! Arctic Terns breed in the Arctic during the summer (June-Aug). They take about 3 weeks to incubate the eggs..another 3-4 to raise the fledglings and then the family embarks on the longest migration in the world-a 20,000 km one-way journey to the Antarctic, to be there in time for the summer!

The Arctic Tern completely amazes me...just look at it's supremely aero-dynamic shape..and the deeply forked tail. It is a bird of astounding beauty and grace! Can you imagine what an intrepid traveller it is...flying from one end of the world to another and enjoying a life of perpetual summer!

A pair of Arctic Terns attacking Dr.Case, a fellow traveller! They are extremely protective of their nests and defend them fearlessly and with screaming dives aimed at the intruder!

I managed to capture these pictures as they attacked me on the same crouching on the ground and using my camera as a shield!

A true master of flight and aerobatics! A bird which epitomises beauty, grace, endurance and the spirit of survival! What a treat and a privilege to watch these stunning birds! My trip was already made on Day one!

Friday, June 24, 2011

Polar Bears !!

After travelling between Kabini, Kanha and Bandhavgarh for the last two months, now i am off on another dream the Arctic to see the Polar Bears and other amazing animals and birds! This has been in my 'bucket list' of habitats and animals to see...and i am so lucky that i am actually going on this trip!! It will be a 10 day cruise around an island in the Artctic circle..just 500 miles from the North Pole..called Spitsbergen. So wait for pictures and trip report in about two weeks time!!