Day 272: m/v Plancius – Antarctica – Mar 16th

Graciously invited to the Vernadsky Research Base by the researchers on board, it was our first visit to a functioning research base! Built by the British, but operated now by Ukraine, it was a very interesting glimpse at current living conditions upon the continent. Because the British didn’t need its base anymore, but under the Antarctic Treaty they were required to dismantle everything. So to avoid the hassle, they sold the base at a meager price of £1 pound to Ukraine, and the coin now sits proudly…..in the middle of the bar!

The compound contains a large fuel tank, a mechanical/generator building, a small church, and a large research/living quarters building. The landscape was still similar to what we’ve seen in the Antarctic, with penguins dotting the area alongside the research station. The best part was the station symbol, using the peace symbol as a replacement for the V in Vernadsky, adding a touch of humour and lightheartedness despite living in the most remote and most hostile continent on Earth. Inside the living quarters it reminded Alan of the portables in school, with its narrow hallway and sheet metal construction. Each research had their own ‘thing’ going on in the rooms, and despite not having any women working at the base they actually had a ladies bathroom! Upstairs was more interesting, with a barebones kitchen (they seemed to like Heinz ketchup just as much), a post-office/souvenir shop where they’d send postcards for you (the pickup happens twice a year!), and more importantly, an extremely cozy bar!!!

A few shots of ‘artesanal’ vodka produced locally here in Antarctica with the glacier waters over thousands of years old!! The vodka was smooth and tasty, giving a bit of warmth to the body and a rush to the head. We also visited another abandoned British base, known as the Wordie House, which was a precursor to the base in Vernadsky.

Outside the base, something else was happening. A leopard seal, a vicious predator only matched by Orcas in these waters, managed to catch a penguin swimming otherwise happily along the shores. The worst part was that the seal didn’t seem hungry, but it went into its natural ‘predator’ mode, and played with its prey. Having grown a strong affection towards these cute birds, it was a disturbing sight nonetheless but just another day in nature. The seal would swim into the penguin from below, hold the penguin in its mouth and violently fling the poor bird up into the air, leaving splashes of blood and salt water in its trail. The poor penguin struggled aimlessly as its flippers/wings broke, leaving it swimming furiously in circles as the seal observed the bird for a few seconds of silence before rushing forward and throwing up another toss….. It was a grueling 30mins before the seal got bored, possibly a bit hungry, and FINALLY ate the penguin. From this point on, leopard seals started giving us the creeps… especially when it circles your rubber Zodiac, and it definitely did not help being shown pictures of a deflated Zodiac lying on the shores after a few leopard seals bite into the boat…..

The afternoon, we landed onto Petermann Island, which was another serene and tranquil Antarctic setting with some happy penguins running around. We were much happier this time as the penguins were back in their clumsy, cute nature on the ground and doing their funny penguin stuff. Unfortunately, out on the shores another leopard seal caught another penguin, and this time everybody was there to witness it. It was just a gruesome as this morning, but the seal was probably hungrier and toyed with the helpless bird much less….but a few gross pictures were taken….. It was also crazy as some of the fearless divers actually went in to snorkel along with their fancy cameras to try to capture the whole thing! They were about 7-8m away from the seal demolishing the penguin, but every time the diver got close the seal would swim away with its prey. It wasn’t too keen on sharing….

We did take some very nice landscape shots, too, as the scenery is just utterly breathtaking. Then again, when I look back, the image of a penguin being savagely destroyed by a seal lion still sits atop the top of the things I remember in the Antarctic.

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