Packet Sea Foam: Antarctic adventures

Hilton Head resident shares stories from a vacation to the South Pole

March 7, 2011 

Thanks to former Hilton Head Island High School principal Helen Ryan for taking time away from her role as chairwoman of the Wine Auction Gala for the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina on March 19 to share the story of her photographic vacation -- to Antarctica.

Helen writes:

On Jan. 26, I left on a National Geographic Expedition to Antarctica. I was ready for the 30- to 36-degree temperatures, wet landings and rough seas. We all saw that famous news clip in December of the ship rolling in a storm as it crossed the Drake Passage. However, I read Caroline Alexander's "The Endurance" and was ready for my photographic pursuit of the last white continent.

With a Nikon Coolpix P90, I was ready to create my own exciting and evocative photo diary from Ushuaia, Argentina, down the Beagle Channel to the open sea and the 60th parallel.

Four days of travel later, I was ready with layers on, parka and muck boots, to take off with my group for the first day of exploration among the Shetland Islands. Zodiac wet landings around a very large ice cap and glaciers were exciting, and I followed the directions of our photography experts and got down on the gentoo, Adelie, macaroni and chinstrap penguin level to take creative photos.

Hundreds of penguins and penguin chicks waddled up and down the hills. Some kept their babies snug under their bodies as they stood at attention. Others rested flat on their bellies, and others chased their mothers around begging for food. The funniest group swam in a formation similar to relay swim races referred to as porpoising. Hundreds of shots later, I moved on to the elephant, Weddell, Antarctic fur, crab eater and leopard seals. Patience is a virtue when taking photos of seals; they tend to lie around on top of each other and yawn or scratch their heads. Every now and then one may move. I decided to focus on their eyes and yawns.

We moved around the Antarctic Peninsula constantly. Three groups of researchers were on our trip: killer whale, penguin and underwater microbiologists. Needless to say, we never skipped a beat or slept a whole lot.

The captain would call out, "Killer whales at 10 o'clock port side," and the race was on; throw on the layers and run up to the correct part of the ship and focus. After trying to catch the perfect shot, I just had to stop and watch these amazing animals swim, jump and dive all around our ship. It really did not matter that you were freezing, the wind was fiercely blowing in your face and you left your Gore-Tex gloves in the cabin because you were so excited. You could warm up later.

By the fourth day of Zodiac adventures, I was ready for some kayaking. The sun was shining, and it was, believe it or not, 50 degrees. Tubular icebergs with an electric blue hue shining through cracks and crevasses along with a sunken whale boat, a skeleton of a blue whale on the beach, and research huts from the 1950s made my day. I thought I was going back to the ship to rest when the captain said, "Emperor penguin at 11 o'clock starboard side." It was not anticipated that we would see any due to our current location. There he was, standing alone on an iceberg floating down the channel. Identified as a 2-year-old, he strutted, turned to the side and even bowed as we all clicked away.

Time to head back, and the hope was that moving toward Cape Horn would mean smooth waters. Not quite. Mother Nature decided to throw those waters far above the deck and knock all items on a desktop smashing to the floor. Our captain changed course and, after a few hours, moved us into calmer waters.

Back in Ushuaia, we went ashore to an Irish pub to watch the Super Bowl. Now we really knew Antarctica is behind you. Time to travel back to paradise -- Hilton Head Island -- and my retirement career.

Just before the Christmas holiday, my husband, Don, asked me to chair a Wine Auction Gala for the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina. The center has not held a wine auction since 2007, and my background knowledge of rare, unusual and unique wine lots on a scale of one to 10 was right around 2.5.

However, the bottom line was this fundraiser supported the educational and outreach programs the arts center offers to thousands of children, and funds special festivals and arts programs at Programs for Exceptional People. I do a great deal of volunteer work with a smile on my face, and knew I could get many more hardworking volunteers in our community to help out.

But there was just one more glitch; a year ago I planned this two-week trip to Antarctica described above. Good thing I was right: We do have a community of hardworking volunteers, and they worked their hearts out over the past 10 weeks. Come March 19, the arts center will have a wine auction, which will be just as exciting as my adventure in Antarctica.

Hopefully, both the wine auction and my journey to the coldest, driest, windiest place on Earth will serve as a reminder to one and all that we must protect what we love so it will be there for those who follow in our footsteps.

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