by Barry B. Burtis D.V.M.
Did you see any polar bears? It seems to be a common question asked of people who have been to Antarctica. The answer, of course, is no. There are no polar bears there to be seen. It's the Arctic where you must go to see them. However, that's not to say there aren't some amazing things to see in the far south of our planet. In fact, there's even a polar bear replacement that fills the role of top predator in this part of the world. More about that will follow, as I share some of my memories of a recent visit to the most southern continent.
Unless you are a researcher, film maker or otherwise working in Antarctica for some reason, travelers must get there by boat. There are no commercial air flights onto the continent or accommodations for tourists who wish to visit. For most North Americans, the cruise to Antarctica will begin where ours did - Ushuaia, Argentina, the Fin del Mundo (End of the World). Once a penal colony for Argentina, Ushuaia, now a popular cruise spot, is quite a boom town. Located on Tierra del Fuega Island, the city has quite a lot to offer, on its own, as a tourist destination. When you depart Ushuaia, the first part of your journey can sometimes be a bit challenging, as you cross the Drake Passage. It's 500 miles of open southern ocean between the tip of South America and the Antarctic peninsula. This area near Cape Horn is notorious for weather systems and sea conditions that can make a crossing quite an adventure.
Once you reach your destination, though, some seasickness on the journey is usually quickly forgotten. With its clean, crisp air, its pristine landscape and sounds of nature, all unblemished by humankind, Antarctica is a magical place. Giant, snow covered mountains stand at the edge of deep blue sea. Immense, white glaciers march slowly down mountain sides to eventually calve into the water. Huge icebergs, sculpted by water, waves and melting, drift slowly and silently to their eventual demise. Around some of them float chunks of ice fluctuating in a state between presence and absence, by the whims of surrounding temperatures. How wonderful to experience this world.
Here, also, in this land where even in the middle of summer, snow and ice and cold rule, there are animals. Whales are the largest inhabitants there. We saw humpback and minke whales, but there are many other species found in the waters around Antarctica. Penguins must be the most numerous inhabitants, unless you include krill, the living shrimp-like creatures at the bottom of the food chain that fuel most of Antarctica's life forms. Penguins can be seen just about anywhere. Sometimes you'll see them popping out of the water, swimming dolphin style. Sometimes you smell their colonies or hear their raucous calls before you see them. In summer, those colonies have penguins - young and old - in the thousands. Sometimes you see one or two penguins, all alone in the vastness, watching their world from atop an ice floe. Chinstrap, gentoo, Adelie or macaroni, in any variety, penguins are such delightful creatures to watch. There are many other birds to see, as well. Some - like skua and snowy sheathbills - are constantly, closely watched by the penguins on whom they prey. There are also gulls, blue-eyed cormorants, Antarctic terns and, of course, on the open sea many varieties of albatross, petrels and other smaller seabirds. There are also many species of seals found in Antarctica. Fur seals, elephant seals, Weddell seals, crabeater seals and leopard seals all live in this part of the world. It's also from this group of animals that has come the Antarctic's replacement for the polar bear. Leopard seals are fierce predators, the most formidable hunters of all the seals and the only ones that feed on warm-blooded prey, such as other seals. They use their powerful jaws and long teeth to kill smaller seals, fish, squid and penguins. Leopard seals are to Antarctica what polar bears are to the Arctic - the top predator in the food chain. We came home from this 'trip of a lifetime' journey with memories of a truly amazing place. Barry Burtis is a local companion animal veterinarian. Past Pet Tales can be found at www.baycitiesanimalhospital.ca