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Antarctic Odyssey by Debra Parmenter

Photographer Debra Parmenter shot nearly five thousand images while on a three-week excursion in the South Atlantic and Antarctica. This photo odyssey presents an eclectic mix of some of her favorite images.  For Debra, photography is more than an avocation; it is a compulsion.  The camera is an extension of her soul, of the beauty she sees in nature.  Her aspiration is not to capture the perfect image, which she believes is impossible, but to constantly strive to capture the feelings she has as she witnesses the unfolding immensity and grandeur of the world she’s experiencing.

 

Photo of the South Shetland Islands in Antarctica, two triangular-shaped tall mountain peaks
South Shetland Islands

After a rough two days crossing the Drake Passage from South Georgia Island, the National Geographic Explorer came to the South Shetland Islands off the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula.  These massive triangular peaks stood like sentinels guarding the entrance to the southern continent.  The two icebergs (center and right) were both much taller than our ship.  The Shetlands were a welcome sight.  Once beyond them, the seas were considerably calmer, a relief from the gale we’d been sailing through.

Photo of a massive blue glacier atop a tall black cliff in Antarctica
Blue Glacier atop a Cliff in Antarctica

This blue glacier, the product of the snow and ice fields behind, was once much thicker.  Global warming has caused it to melt more rapidly, hence the waterfalls cascading down the black face of the cliff.  The ice has turned blue because of compression.  Air bubbles form in new ice; as the ice is compressed, the air bubbles grow smaller until the ice absorbs all the colors of the spectrum except blue, which is reflected back.  Blue ice forms over thousands or hundreds of thousands of years and is the oldest ice in Antarctica.

A huge bull elephant seal bites the neck of a cow seal as part of a mating ritual
Elephant Seal Mating Ritual

A large bull is nibbling on a cow’s neck, which she does not appear to enjoy, but these animals are not known for their delicate manner.  The bulls can grow to fourteen feet and weigh four tons; the cows top out at eleven feet and 900 pounds.   Elephant seals spend most of the year at sea, feeding on squid and fish.  They can dive as deep as 1,000 meters (3,300 feet) and stay submerged for thirty minutes.  The king penguins in the background are oblivious to the amorous activity taking place farther up the beach.

Photo of an elephant seal pup attempting to suckle from a man's blue coat at his elbow
An Elephant Seal Pup Attempts to Suckle from a Blue Elbow

Elephant seal pups are hungry and very curious.  This pup approached naturalist Michael Nolan, seeking a meal.  Their mothers provide milk during a month of lactation, during which the pups gain about twenty pounds a day.  Once they’re weaned and their mothers leave, the pups may seek other cows willing to feed them (or down coat elbows if no cows are available).  These pups are known as “double mother suckers.”  After the cows mate again and return to the sea to feed, the pups typically fast for a month before going to sea themselves and learning, without their parents’ help, how to be elephant seals.

Photo of tens of thousands of king penguins on the shore of South Georgia Island
Massive Colony of King Penguins on South Georgia Island

This massive colony of king penguins on South Georgia Island extends both left and right of the view area of this photograph and may contain more than a hundred thousand mating pairs as well as thousands of “oakum boys,” the yearling penguins distinguished by their brown feathers.  As the oakum boys mature, they moult into their adult plumage of silver-gray and white feathers.  While their parents return to the sea to feed, the oakum boys hang out in crèches of hundreds or thousands of chicks; when the parents return, they find their chick and feed it by regurgitating some of the food they’ve consumed.  King penguins were nearly hunted to extinction in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Now that hunting has halted, their numbers are returning.  South Georgia Island alone is believed to have 1.6 million king penguins.

Photo of a long line of penguins walking along a rocky shore
The March of the Penguins

A line of Adélie penguins waddles along a rocky shore, either returning from the sea or marching towards it.  The Adélies live in small colonies and are widely dispersed around Antarctica.  The floating ice beyond the rocky outcrops includes “growlers” (ice that rises no more than three feet out of the water, “bergy bits” (ice rising between three to thirteen feet out of the water), and icebergs, which are taller than thirteen feet.  Mammoth icebergs will eventually devolve into bergy bits and growlers as they slowly melt, but in the icy waters of Antarctica that process could take decades or even centuries.

Photo of a beach crowded with elephant seals and king penguins
A Crowded Beach at Dawn

King penguins, including a few oakum boys, share the beach with sleeping elephant seals.  One fat fellow on the left of the photo looks like a large boulder—and weighs as much—but that’s an elephant seal bull.  The penguins and the seals get along with each other on crowded beaches like this one so long as everyone observes proper beach etiquette and doesn’t become a nuisance.   Debra took this photo on a cold morning with rough seas, white water assaulting the shore at the upper left, mist drifting over the animals in the background, fog obscuring the mountainside beyond.

Photo of a blue iceberg with three penguins standing on it.
Penguins on a Blue Berg

Three Adélie penguins are perched atop a blue iceberg.  As it melted, this iceberg tipped on its side.  The flat slope angling toward the sea would once have been the flat top of the iceberg.  Now it’s a perfect platform for show-offs.  The Adélie on the right looks like a snowboarder, his feet planted, his wings spread, ready to start his slide.  With his dirty chest and cocky attitude, he’s Shaun White of the Antarctic.  Indeed, just after this photo was taken, he slid down the ice and did a nose dive into the sea.  Debra gave him a score of 9.2 (he wobbled a bit on his takeoff, but he had a clean landing, with minimal splash). 

Photo of a twisted blue iceberg shaped by the sea and the wind.
Iceberg Shaped by Sea and Wind

This delicate, twisted blue iceberg had a long blue neck like partially melted ice cream and small arches and windows on its craggy body.  It’s likely decades old, having calved from a glacier and drifted out into open water where twin artists—sea and wind—have conspired to etch and shape its surface.  Such natural beauty is omnipresent in Antarctica—and transitory.  Change may take minutes or months, but this iceberg will already have evolved to some other form, maybe as beautiful as shown here, but with rough seas and high winds, it may also have become as nondescript as the two growlers in the foreground.

Photo of an isolated pair of buildings in Antarctica during a snowstorm
Isolated Outpost in a Snowstorm

Antarctica is the most isolated continent on Earth and the least inhabited.  Small outposts like this one on the Antarctic Peninsula are few and far between, as they say.  Perched on a rocky outcrop covered with snow and ice, it is accessible only from the sea and is inhabited only in the spring and summer months.  It’s difficult to imagine spending much time here.  Everything necessary to make it habitable must be brought in, storms are frequent and often violent, and unless you are a scientist, you’d spend much of your time maintaining the buildings and machinery and digging out.  If you prefer solitude, however, and the endless beauty of this frigid environment, such an outpost could be nirvana.

Photo of a mountain side in Antarctica with massive glaciers on top the mountains and flowing down to the sea
Epic Glaciers in Antarctica

Light from the setting sun illuminates massive glaciers formed over centuries of snowstorms on top of these mountains.  The snow accumulates and settles, compressing the snow beneath until it forms ice.  The glaciers, hundreds of feet thick, slide inexorably toward the sea, forming the staunch white cliffs shown here on the edge of the continent.  Eventually, the glaciers are pushed out into sea and calve as fissures form, grow, and weaken, giving birth to icebergs as large as cities—and sometimes larger.  Sights as epic as this one are evidence of nature’s power, persistence, and patience.

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