The following post was contributed by artist and photographer J.J. L’Heureux. L’Heureux’s prints of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean are currently on display as part of the Nature Museum’s exhibition “Faces from the Southern Ocean.” In this post, she describes visiting Antarctica’s Snow Hill Island Emperor Penguin Rookery and some of the snowy challenges she and her group encountered.
I was raised in Michigan and I am not unmindful of harsh winter conditions. The trip to the Snow Hill Island Emperor Penguin Rookery added some new twists on winter. In order to visit the rookery we had to helicopter from the ship to a landing site about two kilometers from the rookery and behind a grounded iceberg. The first day we did this the day was lightly overcast, a little windy and just a bit cold.
Weddell Seal Pup (J.J. L’Heureux)
Antarctica is all about snow and what 100,000 years of snow looks like in all its forms. There is an enormous amount of ice that was really snow that did not melt. Antarctica is also the driest continent on Earth and yet it has most of the fresh water of Earth locked up in the ice that can be miles thick. The ice is created by snow falls that generally do not melt. From year to year, these snow falls build up on one another and ice is created by the pressure of each new layer covering the thousands of previous snow falls. The skin on top is often crusty snow or ice particles. When a wind comes up blizzard conditions can develop almost immediately, even if there are no clouds or fresh falling snow. The wind-driven snow then acts like a Zamboni on a hockey rink. The ice that lies beneath the crusty skin becomes extremely smooth and slippery. The higher the velocity of the wind, the harder it becomes to walk on the very smooth, slippery ice. These conditions briefly describe the second and third days on the ice south of Snow Hill Island. It was challenging to walk upright; the high wind and slick surface were difficult for everyone including the penguins. In fact, most of the Emperors were tobogganing across the ice rather than walking to the open sea to fish seven or eight miles away.
Emperor Penguin Chick (J.J. L’Heureux)
Drifting snow/ice crust builds up when the sun melts the surface covering and it then freezes during the night and stays frozen until the sun comes out again or there is a new snow fall. There were drifts to be negotiated on the back and forth treks across mostly barren slippery ice to the rookery. Since the crusty surface of the drifts had been wind swept away one sometimes found themselves in knee deep or waist deep drifts that would not support your weight. The smart thing then was to play follow the leader, just like the penguins, and make a path through these drifts. These paths are always blazed by a lead party that checks for crevices or other hidden dangers and they lay out a red flag marked trail. At one point I stepped one foot off the path and went into the drift such that I could not free myself. Fortunately, right behind me was Russ Russell, a mining engineer from Guernsey, who is easily 6' 6" and capable of Superman feats. He just reached out and like the cranes that bring the zodiacs aboard, lifted me effortless from my snowy prison. Keep in mind that we were working against high winds and vertical snow. The second and third days were the most difficult for me because the cloud cover contributed to colder conditions and much darker lighting.
This provides a sense of the conditions for the three particular days of the Snow Hill Island Emperor Penguins Rookery landings, and under these conditions many wonderful and special events took place that one can only marvel at in their uniqueness.
Read more about J.J. L’Heureux’s experiences in the Southern Ocean and Antarctica by visiting her blog. You can also learn more about her work by visiting her site, Penguinspirit. Get a glimpse into the world of the Southern Ocean by visiting the “Faces from the Southern Ocean” exhibition, now on display.