A report on our first cruise from reader (and passenger) Paul

It’s a small world: one of this site’s readers, Paul Hughes, as well as his wife Corinne, were along with us on our first trip from Valparaiso to Antarctica and back to Punta Arenas. Paul, a Brit, sent me a summary of his experience on the Roald Amundsen’s first Antarctica trip, and left it up to me whether to post it. Although it’s a bit self aggrandizing me to post encomiums from others, that’s by no means all that Paul had to say, and I thought it would be useful and interesting to hear the take of a science-friendly reader who experienced the same voyage as I. Paul’s comments are indented below, with one comment from me. Thanks to Paul and Corinne for their company on the trip!

I’ve asked Paul to read the comments and, if he wishes, to answer any questions that readers might have.

Paul’s email salutation to me:

I’m glad you’re having a great second trip, and am managing to control my outbursts of jealousy! When WEIT readers discovered that I was on the same trip as you, some of them cheekily asked me to report on your performance. So here it is. It is up to you whether you wish to post it or not, of course.

And his report:

The largest land “predator” in Antarctica is Belgica antarctica, the Antarctic midge (2 – 6 mm long), but recently there have been repeated sightings of a cat in the region. Experts have identified it as a Ceiling Cat. This is a known individual, PCC(E), and has been seen well away from its usual North American habitat. Ceiling Cats seem to have a fascination with penguins, particularly chinstrap penguins (Pygoscelis antarctica), but then again who in their right minds would not empathise with this behaviour!

Ceiling Cats are also renowned for their love of noms, so the MS Roald Amundsen is a natural habitat for them as the food is excellent. PCC(E) was often to be seen foraging in the Aune restaurant. My wife and I also ventured up to the “posh” Lindstrom restaurant. There is a 25 euro surcharge to dine there. The food was good, but rather nouvelle cuisine. For us, we preferred the more relaxed atmosphere, greater choice and larger portions to be found in the Aune [PCC(E) take note].

On a more serious note, the whole trip was AWESOME. Many travellers said that they simply ran out of superlatives to adequately describe the experience. I have been on many expeditions before, and I have stayed in 5-star hotels, but I have never before been on an expedition in a 5-star hotel! The whole wildlife experience was greatly enhanced by an excellent lecture programme and the opportunity to take part in citizen science projects.

Most people agreed that although all of the lectures were good, the best ones were delivered by PCC(E). As one reporter said to me, he not only learnt a lot but the narrative drive to the lectures, the excitement of the story-telling, was fascinating. The first lecture from PCC(E) was “The Fuegians, the Beagle, and Charles Darwin – how a collision of cultures influenced evolutionary biology.” I thought I knew this story well, but discovered so much more from the talk.

His second lecture was “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield – science and the Terra Nova expedition.” As a Brit I’ve been brought up with tales of Scott’s “heroic failure” to get to the South Pole first, but hadn’t realised how much important science was done on his expeditions. It has made me re-evaluate my attitude to the man. For example on the sled next to the tent in which the bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers were found were 35 pounds of Glossopteris fossils. PCC(E) elaborated expertly on continental drift and evolution at this point, much to the anger of two American creationists sitting in front of us. He also alluded to the fact that many Americans do not accept evolution. This was met with incredulity by many of my fellow British passengers, some of whom talked to our lecturer afterwards to find out more. PCC(E)’s last lecture wasn’t delivered, much to the chagrin of many of us, who felt that the Expedition team may have deferred to complaints from creationists and robbed us of another great story.

[JAC: I don’t really think this was the case; my own theory, which is mine, is that the talks coordinator just couldn’t find a slot to fit me in. Still, I really did want to give all three talks, as I want to earn my keep by working as well as having a great time. Further, each talk, with the background reading and slide-making, took a month to prepare. Finally, the audience on the ship is so appreciative and inquisitive that giving lectures helps me make friends and acquaintances. On this second voyage I did give my previously undelivered lecture—on adaptations of Antarctic animals—and with luck I’ll get to do the other two on this trip. Given the European interest in the phenomenon of American creationism, I’m also going to try to do a workshop on this topic.]

There were six Citizen Science projects to get involved in if you wished, and this was an important and fulfilling part of the trip for me. I was mainly involved with the bird survey and the clouds survey, whereas my wife Corinne spent time on the phytoplankton project. During my time on board we identified 22 species of birds. The penguins are amazing, but I also fell in love with the petrels and the albatrosses. The majestic soaring above the waves of the Black-browed Albatross (Thalassarce melanophris) and the mesmerising flocks of Cape Petrels (Daption capense) that sometimes surrounded the ship will live long in the memory. I have fallen in love with the Antarctic continent, and hope one day to return, but the trip has also made me even more determined to be an ambassador for this incredible place, and a campaigner for its continued preservation.

30 Comments

  1. Posted November 18, 2019 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    *Snort* No, the largest predator *on* Antarctica is the penguin. Penguins live on the land but dive into the water to catch fish — which they then eat.

    Now in the waters *just off* Antarctica is the orca, or killer-whale. The orca eats penguins whenever it can catch them, so it’s the biggest predator in the local sea.

    The cat, which stays on land, is safe.

    –Leslie <

    • Posted November 18, 2019 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

      What I said in my talk is that the midge is the largest fully terrestrial animal in Antarctica, and its only endemic insect. I believe that is correct.

      • Jonathan Wallace
        Posted November 18, 2019 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

        It would be interesting to know more about the midge. Antarctica presents some serious challenges to all life forms but particularly to terrestrial insects one would imagine!

      • Jenny Haniver
        Posted November 18, 2019 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

        You write that he midge is Antarctica’s “only endemic insect.” What non-endemic insects or insect-like creatures exist there?

    • EdwardM
      Posted November 18, 2019 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

      Well, to be a bit nit-picky, Blue Whales are known to feed in the Antarctic and as their chief food is Krill, they are predators too, though the grazing, gulping sort, and they are MUCH larger than Orca.

      Just saying,

    • Posted November 18, 2019 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

      My original post referred to “land predator”, and ‘proto-whales’ haven’t been on land for millions of years. However, I will grant that some orcas charge the beaches to seize penguins, as shown in amazing footage in one of David Attenborough’s documentaries.

  2. uommibatto
    Posted November 18, 2019 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    Brilliant additional commentary that gives us a 360 degree view of things!

    • Glenda Palmer
      Posted November 18, 2019 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

      Agreed.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted November 18, 2019 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

      +1.

  3. Posted November 18, 2019 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    Great report, Paul. I am crestfallen to know that two ignorant creationists got to enjoy this trip and I didn’t. I wonder how the creationists can explain the fossils of a sub-tropical plant in Antarctica other than continental drift. Did God put them there to fool us?

    • jimroberts
      Posted November 18, 2019 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

      Noah’s flood, obviously!

    • Posted November 18, 2019 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

      Two more creationists sat with us once at dinner. I asked one of them which version of creation they believed in, that described in Genesis 1 or in Genesis 2. She replied that I obviously knew my Bible better than she did! I explained that I had read it from cover to cover, which was why I was an atheist, to which her only response was “Well I know where I’m going.” British politeness prevented me from making any of the obvious rejoinders.

  4. Jonathan Wallace
    Posted November 18, 2019 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    It would be interesting to know more about the citizen science. What data is being collected and how is it being used?

    • Posted November 18, 2019 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

      There were 6 projects that you could get involved in:-

      1) Happy Whale – photographs of whale tail flukes are submitted to a database that uses photo-recognition software to identify individual animals (www.happywhale.com)

      2) Polar tag (https://polartag.org)- if you have a photo of an animal tag you can submit it to this site, who will notify the owner.

      3) eBird – this site is run by Cornell University. We submitted regular records of bird numbers seen during an hour each morning, and half an hour each afternoon. During these times we counted a total of 1494 individuals, of 35 different species.

      4) NASA’s Globe Observer app allows you to record cloud cover in detail. These records are then linked to satellite observations to give a more accurate observation of cloud cover at all levels in the atmosphere. During the voyage we made 62 observations, 51 of which could be linked to satellite observations.

      5) Fjordphyto – this data is being contributed to a PhD project on phytoplankton diversity and distribution, and how it is affected by meltwater. From Zodiacs we identified the meltwater profile by deploying a probe that measured temperature and salinity at various depths. Plankton was collected, concentrated, and sent off for genomic identification of species (www.fjordphyto.org).

      6) Secchi disk – in this app we recorded visibility in the seawater. This is part of a global study on phytoplankton density.

      7) A seventh project – Ferrybox – was carried out by machinery installed on what is called a “ship of opportunity” (ie not a dedicated research vessel). It samples water at 5 metres depth for a whole range of parameters, including temperature, oxygen concentration, organic carbon, chlorophyll, etc. It also samples for microplastics.

      • Mark R.
        Posted November 18, 2019 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

        Wow, those projects are fascinating; that would be a blast to participate in, and the science is important. Thanks for these extra details.

      • Posted November 19, 2019 at 10:48 am | Permalink

        +1

  5. rickflick
    Posted November 18, 2019 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    Great report. Thanks Paul. I think you’ve persuaded me to make the trip myself.

    • Posted November 18, 2019 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

      It’s not cheap, but it is well worth it. This is the most amazing adventure my wife and I have made. What’s more, you will be travelling on the world’s greenest Antarctic vessel, so your footprint will be small. DO IT – you won’t regret it.

      • rickflick
        Posted November 19, 2019 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

        I’ll discuss it with my wife. I’m sure she’d go.

  6. merilee
    Posted November 18, 2019 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    Sub

  7. dabertini
    Posted November 18, 2019 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    Wait a second! “Workshop on American creationism”? Isn’t that an oxymoron?

  8. Diana MacPherson
    Posted November 18, 2019 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

    Oh no. Paul used the word, “awesome” and in caps. One of the hated words.

    • Mark R.
      Posted November 18, 2019 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

      It’s funny how many times I want to write ‘awesome’ on WEIT posts and choose another word. I’m self-conscious now of hated words, even while speaking. Oh boy. I think that’s a good thing for a lot of “hated words”, but I’ve never had anything against ‘awesome’. Maybe ’cause it’s a word generated by my generation. And Jeff Spicoli, of course. 🙂

      • rickflick
        Posted November 18, 2019 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

        What a rabbit hole. I ended up clicking on the sub-links and ended up with Samantha Bee. Weird.

        • Posted November 19, 2019 at 2:30 am | Permalink

          Awesome is a word I hardly ever use, but in this context I think that even PCC(E) might let me off. The Antarctic environment really does engender awe! Being shouty and using capitals is also a crime I seldom commit, but it’s difficult to find superlatives that are adequate. My wife and I are stil so excited by the trip that we have been stopping random strangers in the street to tell them how AWESOME Antarctica is.

          • John Crisp
            Posted November 19, 2019 at 7:09 am | Permalink

            Hi Paul. Great to read all this stuff. My wife and I are doing a similar trip on the MS Fram (a sister ship of the Amundsen) in early January next year. Starting to feel a sense of anticipation, and of course the inevitable worry that the weather conditions will be unkind… By the way, I think it is legitimate to use the word awesome when something actually is awesome.

            • Posted November 19, 2019 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

              Thanks John. Whatever the weather, I’m sure you’ll have a fabulous time on the Fram.

              • John Crisp
                Posted November 21, 2019 at 4:49 am | Permalink

                Hi Paul. If it is not too much hassle, I would like to ask you a couple of questions about kit, a bit more detailed than the generic information provided by the shipping line. If you are okay with that, my email address is john_crisp@btconnect.com. Many thanks.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted November 19, 2019 at 10:25 am | Permalink

        I use it all the time, sometimes in combination with “sauce”.

  9. Posted November 20, 2019 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    Is PCC a monad? I.e., a species which is just 1 individual? (This is early modern metaphysics and logic, but … :))


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