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Unearthed: Five awesome things Mark Robinson saw in Antarctica

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Daniel Martins
Digital Reporter

Sunday, April 6, 2014, 4:59 PM -

It's hard to miss on a map, but Antarctica is still a mystery to most people, so remote that hardly a soul has ever walked on its shores.

The Weather Network sent Mark Robinson and George Kourounis down there make the region the focus of an episode of our new series, "Unearthed."

The first episode airs Sunday night at 7 p.m. Eastern, but Mark, who is an avid photographer, gave us plenty of eye candy as a warm-up on his Flickr page.

We've selected several that we feel showcase five awesome things he and George encountered on their expedition. Have a look.

Seals

Antarctica is famously one of the most hostile places on Planet Earth, so it's actually slightly hilarious how often you'll see seals just lounging about like they're on their living room couch on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

That's a young elephant seal up above (we'll get to those in a moment)l, one of only a handful of species of seal that congregate on the shores of Antarctica.

In the sea, they have to be on guard for marine predators, but out of the water, most of the time the seals are more or less safe, which we presume explains why they always look so mellow.

Here's a crab-eater seal shot by Mark on an ice floe, quite unconcerned with the nearby film crew.

Mark also glimpsed several leopard seals on his jaunt. Those are the second largest seal type in Antarctica, powerful enough to feed on other seals and even penguins.

They have been known to attack lone humans on one or two occasions, and one of them dragged a British marine biologist underwater to her death in 2003.

They can grow more than 3 m long, but they're still second fiddle to the real king of Antarctica's shoreline:

That's another young southern elephant seal, and although it's hard to tell from this angle, it can grow to be enormous, reaching up to 5 m in length.

They're commonly found in the Antarctic region, and even reach parts of southern Argentina, Tasmania and New Zealand.

When breeding time rolls around, they are very social, gathering in large colonies on shore.

It's probably not a good idea to get too close when they're clustered like that, but several of Mark's shots include penguins who seem to escape the notice of the behemoths.

Antarctica is penguin central

Even more so than seals, the shores of Antarctica, along with islands such as South Georgia and Kerguelen, are thronged with penguins.

Not all penguins live in the region, but they're associated with the Antarctic just as polar bears are with the north.

Like the seals, in the water they're subject to being preyed upon by orcas and the seals themselves, but on land, they have no real predators, so that's where they gather to socialize and breed.


The land may be relatively safe, but of course the water is where they are most at home.

Their specially evolved wings are for swimming, not flying, and their waddling gait on land couldn't be more different from the ease with which they zip through the icy waters of the Antarctic.

Their diet consists mainly of fish and krill, no match for them once they get their fins in the water.

In all, there are seven different kinds of penguins that call the waters of Antarctica home, including the iconic gentoo and emperor penguin species.

Robinson saw no shortage of the birds while on his Antarctic jaunt.

His photo feed is filled with pictures of them ... certainly much more than pictures of another, much larger tenant of Antarctica's waters.

A haven for whales

There are plenty of places for whale watching in Canada, but for a real good view of our planet's largest mammals, there seems to be none better than a zodiac raft in Antarctica.

Look how incredibly close that group got to that humpback whale. At an average maximum length of 14 m when fully grown, he easily dwarfs his hovering spectators.

In the past, a similar-sized boat may have been filled with whalers, but with that activity all but banned for decades, and the Antarctic ecosystem thorough protected by international treaty, the cetaceans have nothing to fear from visitors.

More than a dozen species frequent the waters of Antarctica for at least part of the year, often as one end of a long annual migration.

Residents include the blue whale - at 30 m in length, the single largest animal anywhere on the planet.

Whatever the species, they all seem well at home among the drifting icebergs in the seas around the frozen continent.

Actually, about those icebergs...

NEXT PAGE: Otherworldly icebergs.

The icebergs of Antarctica are absurdly beautiful

Wander over to Mark's Flickr page, and one thing you'll notice about his Antarctica pictures is they are dominated by shot after exquisite shot of towering icebergs.

And they were towering. Some of the huge floating chunks of ice can be the size of a city, easily visible from space.

The ones Mark encountered were not quite that large, but still. If that zodiac looked small beside a humpback whale, you'd barely notice it in longer shots when set against these water-borne ice mountains.


And that's just the portion you can see, given that no more than 10 per cent the mass of a given berg is visible above the waves at any time.

Calved from the continent's mighty glaciers that slowly, and unstoppably, push staggering amounts of ice to the sea, there is understandably no shortage of them.

But we weren't prepared for just how otherworldly some of them looked.

So many of them, when viewed up close, just don't fit the standard, popular image of a jagged but shapeless chunk of ice drifting with the waves. 

The one above features a small pool of meltwater looking drab against the vivid blues of its parent.

And the one below - with the tidal motion against it, the lower half looks like it was moulded by hand, rather than a natural phenomenon.

And the one below looks like it's actually bleeding blue ink into the water.

We know it's just a trick of the light. Beneath that patch of "blue water" is another portion of the berg, and the vivid hue is just the sunlight refracting differently due to the difference in water depth.

And at the glacier's mouth itself, sometimes the ice cracks just right to make a fissure look less like a a simple rupture, and more like a cavernous entrance to some icy kingdom.

So much of what we've seen so far is based in the sea, or just along the shores of a vast but desolate continent.

But as Mark saw, and we see also, desolation can be beautiful in itself.

Antarctica itself is stunning

Zoom out and look up from the teeming sea and giant icebergs, and you'll see an untouched continent.

Antarctica is mountainous, and even has volcanoes, but most people wouldn't be able to recognize the continent's jagged peaks. They're just not in the public mind.

You can drift in the shadow of impressive peaks even when simply passing through the Lemaire Strait.

With views like that, you can see why Antarctic cruises are so popular.

We're a little envious of Mark, having a backdrop like that to shoot against.

And that's just when he GOT to Antarctica. 

The sunsets over the Southern Ocean while en route seemed to have been spectacular enough all on their own.

And the expedition got a great taste of what was to come just before they left the shores of South America.

The genesis of many an Antarctic jaunt is Ushuaia, on the Argentine half of Tierra del Fuego, the Americas' most southern tip.

People in the city live and work against a backdrop of their own mountain view, the southern extreme of the great Andes.

We regret we weren't able to tag along with Mark and George. We'll have to settle for living vicariously through that Flickr account.


UNEARTHED: Catch more of Mark and George's Antarctic adventures in Sunday night's premiere episode of "Unearthed" at 7 p.m. Eastern.


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