Ryan's Journal

"My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?" — David Mitchell

Paulet Island

Posted from Paulet Island, Antarctic Peninsula at 9:10 pm, January 15th, 2006

In the bar last night Tim discovered that the only phrase that can’t be answered with “Man, you crack me up” is that phrase itself. Dubbed the preemptive strike, the joke has been used to death in only its second day of existence.

After the evening in the bar today’s wakeup call was at 5:30 for a landing on Paulet Island. Operation Cumberbun was put into effect, and not only do I now have photos in a tuxedo with penguins, but Rod found a mummified seal carcass. We laughed uncontrollably while taking photos, but it’s safe to say that the tuxedo will never be worn again. After a brief bit of snow the remainder of the day was spent in beautiful weather with the 150,000 pairs of adelie penguins, the weirdest of the penguins we see on this trip. Rod and I also made a hike to the top of the volcano in the center of the island, although my memory failed me and I managed to lead a group of passengers the wrong way onto a rather steep and mildly dangerous slope (doh!). We’re on to Baily Head tomorrow, which usually has rough surf and is the most difficult landing of the trip, so I’m off to bed in preparation for a 5:15 wakeup call.

Sky Pointing Adelie Penguin

Sky pointing adelie penguin on Paulet Island.

Breaking Ice

Posted from South Atlantic Ocean at 9:00 am, January 14th, 2006

Very late night in the bar last night, during which it was determined that the response “Man, you crack me up” is appropriate in any situation, and that Carter can’t describe anything age-related about his fiance without using either “almost” or “and a half” in the description. Good times. Doug got on the PA this morning at 6:15 to wake everyone up with the news that an emperor penguin was on the ice; they’re tough to find in these parts, and it was only the second time on a Cheeseman trip to the Peninsula that they’ve seen one. Marlene claimed it as her birthday present, although we’re still working on her request for a blue whale and a sperm whale.

The sea ice really closed in around the ship last night, forcing us to slow down and detour north. While there isn’t really a danger of becoming stuck and having to cannibalize each other for food (or something slightly less gruesome), it will delay the arrival at Paulet significantly, so more than likely the remainder of the day will be spent in transit, with a planned landing at Paulet tomorrow morning.

South Orkney Islands

Posted from Shingle Cove, South Orkney Islands at 2:25 pm, January 13th, 2006

Our arrival in the South Orkneys was marked by huge numbers of giant icebergs. Doug was so excited that he accidentally sounded the wakeup call a half hour early at 5:30, but a number of people were already out on deck watching the scenery. The landing was at Shingle Cove, which is home to an adelie penguin colony as well as several nesting birds including skuas, pintado petrels, snow petrels, and the omnipresent Wilson’s Storm Petrel (aka “Wilson!”). Craig and I were drafted to help guide people across the rocky terrain to the snow petrel nest, and after a few hours of lying about how fragile the mosses were (“it can take some of these mosses almost a million years to recover from a single human footprint…”) I headed off to photograph a particularly stinky bunch of elephant seals (I tried to capture one sneezing, but elephant seal snot is elusive) and some of the numerous adelie penguins.

We made a lunchtime departure from Shingle Cove, but rather than finish lunch I headed out on deck and discovered a safari of animals on the pack ice. Before we had departed the South Orkneys we must have seen over two hundred seals — leopard, crabeater and Weddell — as well as thousands of adelie and chinstrap penguins on ice flows and hundreds of giant icebergs. We’re now motoring full speed towards Paulet Island in fog, with a planned landing tomorrow afternoon.

Quote of the day (from Rod’s slideshow last night): “For me, getting into a dry suit is like… trying to stuff a squirrel into a Pepsi bottle.”

Open Ocean

Posted from South Atlantic Ocean at 6:40 pm, January 12th, 2006

Today has been the first real down day in a while, and after all of the activity of the recent days I pretty much just passed out. After waking up early to watch birds and whales (and there were tons of whales this morning) I started getting droopy before lunch, and crashed for three hours this afternoon. Luckily it’s been a slow afternoon for birds and whales, so after seeing around thirty fin whales this morning I’ve not missed much during the afternoon hours. In other news today was the day for a haircut; the dome was getting fuzzy, and that fact combined with all of the Grateful Dead being played around here was leading to rumors of my turning into a hippie. Shingle Cove in the South Orkney Islands tomorrow morning, then on to the Antarctic Peninsula the following evening.

Drygalski Fjord

Posted from South Atlantic Ocean at 8:50 pm, January 11th, 2006

It should be known that during the afternoon out on deck my attire in the 35 °F weather was a winter coat, a hat, gloves, jeans, and Teva sandals; while I’ve mostly adjusted to the colder climate, my feet remain in training. The seas are relatively calm as we’re heading to the South Orkneys with icebergs and seabirds on the waters. There were huge numbers of albatross, prions, and petrels following us as we left South Georgia, including one that sent the birders wild — the Kerguelens (pronounced “Kirk’s Whalen”) petrel, or some such. To me it looked like a dull brown gull-like thing, but Rod, Jim, Marlene, and the Cheesemans all yelled and screamed anytime one came near the boat; there may even have been high-fives. The first few times someone yelled “Kerguelens” I got excited, only to learn that instead of a whale the sighting was something small and in flight. The whales remain elusive, with only a couple of distant blows sighted tonight.

Cooper Bay

Posted from Cooper Bay, South Georgia Island at 10:15 am, January 11th, 2006

The good luck with weather ran out today, and we were greeted by icy, blowing snow upon arrival at the macaroni penguin colony at Cooper Bay. It was too nasty to take out a camera, so the macaronis remain the only penguins I’ve seen but don’t have any decent photos. There were two options at the landing: walk through fur seals on the beach to see macaronis hopping up to their colony, or climb a steep, slick slope up to the colony. I ended up helping folks along the slippery rocks on the beach, and at one point the path led past a brown waterfall raining down from the colony — use your imagination to guess why the water was brown. Dubbed “Guano Falls”, the wind was whipping the water around, making for the single most disgusting hike I’ve ever done. On the way back I stood fairly far out from the cliffs, telling people that I’d help them through deeper water, or they could walk by the cliffs “but I really recommend that you keep your mouth tightly shut if you do so”.

The winds blasted us out several hours early, so we’re making a departure to Drygalski Fjord and on to the South Orkney islands. I’m currently up on the bridge, partly to watch the wildlife on the seas outside, and partly because everyone’s gear is drying in the lower decks, and I fear that as clothes dry the full effect of Guano Falls may soon be wafting through the air.

Gold Harbour

Posted from Gold Harbour, South Georgia Island at 8:40 pm, January 10th, 2006

The weather thus far on the trip has been ridiculously good — there has been some rain, but most days have been like today where we’ve had periods of perfect weather with tiny bits of rain and clouds worked in. This morning I probably could have gotten away with short sleeves, although it was chilly and a bit rainy when the last zodiac returned to the boat at 6:30.

The landing for the day was Gold Harbour, which is a beach with 25,000 pairs of king penguins surrounded by hanging glaciers and craggy mountains. Shortly after helping the last person out of their zodiac, Rod, Marlene, Hugh, Carter and I took off up a gully, over a mossy area, and then up loose scree to just below the summit of one of the surrounding mountains. While not quite the Meatball that I was at the trip’s beginning I’m still not in great shape, so the heart was pumping pretty good by the time we reached the top of this hike. The view from the top of lakes, mountains, glaciers, and coastal cliffs was incredible, and the conversation in the clean air was great. I came down shortly after everyone else had descended and met Rod and Marlene on a cliff edge to look for light-mantled sooty albatross. The birds are probably the most graceful looking albatross, and after a few minutes of watching birds fly by one called out from a hidden nest about twenty feet away, so several hours thereafter was spent taking photos and enjoying being around the birds. The bird in the nest would occasionally fly off, always returning with a female who would check out the nesting area, do an albatross dance, and then head out to sea again to check other options; a rough denial for my friend, but he accepted it well.

After quite a bit of photography I again made the long slog up the mountain to retrieve my sunglasses, which in a moment of genius I had accidentally left just below the summit. The boat’s hotel manager, Natasha, was up there having climbed the rough route in rubber boots, and of course my ego demanded that I explain that the reason I was sucking air so badly was that it was my second trip of the day. A smarter man might have realized that this explanation would force me to admit to having been dumb enough to leave my glasses behind, but I am not such a man. Fur seals and penguins greeted us when we returned down to the beach, as did a skua who was investigating the pile of gear left by passengers. He was fearless, and in order to get him to quit pulling away boots and pecking at bags I literally had to push him back several feet. Tomorrow is the last day in South Georgia, and while everyone (yours truly definitely included) needs a rest, it’s a shame to see the time here end.

Light-Mantled Sooty Albatross

Sky pointing light-mantled sooty albatross in Gold Harbour.

St. Andrews Bay

Posted from St. Andrews Bay, South Georgia Island at 8:15 pm, January 9th, 2006

The full days and late night last night caught up with me today, and a part of me was actually hoping that bad weather might delay our landing at St. Andrews by a few hours so that I could rest. Luckily that didn’t happen, and for almost eleven hours I roamed around with 350,000 king penguins and a handful of fur seals, elephant seals, skuas, petrels, sheathbills and even reindeer. The weather went from sunny to rainy and back every five minutes, and I actually fell asleep onshore twice, but it was still a great day. The penguin chicks are as curious as always, and it was pretty much guaranteed that whenever I would stop there would be at least one running up to me to nibble on my glove or to follow me around. In addition, while the vast piles of elephant seals are now gone, there were a few groups of the giant beasties lying around, and you can’t help but love a four thousand pound sausage-shaped critter with giant cow eyes that stinks, belches, and ripples blubber when it moves. Time has flown by, and sadly tomorrow will be our second-to-last day on this incredible island.

King Penguin Chick

King penguin chick in St. Andrew’s Bay.

Fortuna Bay and Grytviken

Posted from Grytviken, South Georgia Island at 11:20 pm, January 8th, 2006

It’s very late so I’ll have to write more later, but today’s landings were at Fortuna Bay in the morning and at the abandoned Grytviken whaling station in the afternoon. The afternoon landing was followed by a barbecue and an evening in the bar, the highlights of which included an amazing sunset, discussions about unisex (“you haven’t had that?”), Rod’s triumphant return to Antarctic sporting glory, and Hugh’s tales of thirty days rafting in the Grand Canyon with a soundtrack provided by the unending melodies of the Grateful Dead.

Gentoo Penguin Chick

Gentoo penguin chick in Fortuna Bay.

More Salisbury and Prion Island

Posted from Prion Island, South Georgia Island at 9:00 pm, January 7th, 2006

To add variety to our return visit to Salisbury Plain, Mother Nature sent several leopard seals in to harass king penguins and then hang out on the beach. For those not familiar with the species, imagine a huge seal with a head and teeth out of Jurassic Park, and you’ve pretty much got it. They’re a really unusual sight for these parts, and the photographers in the group burned many pixels. Aside from time with the leopard seals my wanderings this morning took me all over the actual plain, past tons of penguins and fur seals. I’m liking the fur seals more and more, and have gotten comfortable enough with their charges that I’ll stand my ground, allowing the seal to stop a foot or so away and then whimper as it sniffs me. Whether or not it’s smart to trust a wild animal to be bluffing when it charges, snarling and teeth bared, is a question that will probably only be answered when I either visit or avoid a trip to the ship’s doctor.

My time spent helping with landings paid off today during the afternoon visit to Prion Island. Restrictions in place to protect wandering albatross limit the number of people that can be on the island at once, but I was able to go ashore with the rest of the staff and help flag paths up the island to the nests and also to spend the entire five hours ashore. Although I ended up running up and down the trail five or six times helping passengers negotiate the mud and terrain, there was still plenty of albatross time. Very worthwhile despite the rain, as a day spent with wandering albatross is a fairly spectacular way to pass the time.

Right Whale Bay and Salisbury Plain

Posted from Salisbury Plain, South Georgia Island at 8:45 pm, January 6th, 2006

A ridiculously great first day on South Georgia. Overcast but dry weather greeted us when we dropped anchor just after eight, and I was on the first boat ashore at Right Whale Bay. Marlene Planck and I were given two bamboo poles and assigned the task of creating a safe path through the literally thousands of fur seals that were barking, growling, and charging at us from all directions. It was mostly bluster on their part, so the job proved to be hugely enjoyable as we walked along the beach and up to the penguin colony with seals rushing at us from all directions. I later ended up heading off on my own to sit amongst the seals, with the animals either ignoring me or coming up to give me a sniff.

Shortly thereafter we sailed to Salisbury Plain, home to 250,000 king penguins. I got completely slammed by a wave that filled my waders while assisting with landings, and after later hiking back to an out-of-the-way spot to wring out my socks and empty my boots looked up to see Rod Planck leading a photo workshop of ten people around the bend; there may be some embarrassing photos at the end of this trip. Following the workshop fun I decided to roam around the king penguin colony. Since I’ve got a lot of pictures of king penguins, and since the conditions weren’t great for photos, most of my time ashore was spent playing with the young penguins. Furry brown young king penguins were wandering up to me throughout the day, and almost anything I held out to them (tripod, mitten, sleeve, finger) they would grab onto. It seemed that the more I played with the penguins the more it attracted a group, and at times there were as many as fifteen of the critters following me around.

Fur Seal

Blond fur seal in Right Whale Bay.

South Georgia Eve

Posted from South Atlantic Ocean at 8:00 pm, January 5th, 2006

Another day at sea, and while there weren’t gobs of birds and such to see, a southern bottle-nosed whale made the afternoon interesting. Having a bit of time alone on deck with the iPod pumping out tunes was also a nice change – I recommend Van Morrison for calm weather on the open ocean, although Kid Rock and Eminem worked surprisingly well. Our first contact with the outside world thus far was word from Doug that Texas beat USC for the national championship, and given the number of Californians aboard the amount of cheering was surprising, especially that coming from yours truly (gotta root for the team that Ohio State nearly beat, y’know).

Watchin’ Birds

Posted from South Atlantic Ocean at 10:45 pm, January 4th, 2006

Probably could have slept the entire day today, but stumbled out of bed at eight and spent the majority of the day on deck watching for birds, whales and dolphins. The whales disappointed, but my dolphin spotting prowess continues, and the bird watchers were busy teaching me the names of the greater shearwaters (“the pretty, small bird”), soft plumaged petrels (“fly like they’re on crack”), and diving petrels (“the flying potato birds”). The evening hour found people in the forward lounge telling stories that included childhoods spent making oxygen-acetylene bombs (“a balloon of oxygen makes a neat fireball, a balloon of acetylene does too, but the mixture is just awesome“), Rod dusting off slides using an enema ball (“I purchased this with a four pound block of cheese, and got a lot of weird looks from the checkout girl”), and some reminiscing about Rod’s high fiber training methods. Two more days until we arrive at South Georgia for a week of beauty, wonder, and further sleep deprivation.

Steeple Jason Island

Posted from South Atlantic Ocean at 10:00 pm, January 3rd, 2006

Steeple Jason Island is one of the highlights of this trip, provided there is good enough weather to land there. Luckily this year the forecast cooperated, although due to an incoming storm we had to wake up at 4:30 AM for a 5:00 AM landing. Having agreed to help out with the difficult landing I spent an hour onshore assisting people up the slick rocks, and then sat for five hours with 100,000 pairs (that’s 200,000 total for the mathematically challenged) of black-browed albatross, the second-largest albatross colony in the world. The place is magical — albatross have an aura of tranquility that permeates the entire place.

When finally I tore myself from the albatross it was to struggle up the steep saddle in the center of the island, on top of which I found Rod and Marlene sitting with several caracara, which are curious hawk-like birds. The birds on this island are notorious for stealing things from people, and anyone who falls asleep is likely to wake up with a handful of the birds standing around them. When coming down the mountain I passed within only a few feet of several of the birds, and the only response from them was a curious head turn — several even hopped along behind me for a bit.

After departing Steeple at 2:00 PM I debated trying to catch up on sleep, but instead joined Rod and Jim on the deck to watch for birds and other animals. My tired eyes were playing tricks on me, and after mistakenly identifying a distant albatross (big white bird) as a floating penguin (tiny black bird) I was so ridiculed that it seemed no salvation was possible. Luckily, after passing through miles of water stained red by millions of baby squid I started spotting dolphin after dolphin, many of which were leaping several feet out of the water in our bow wave and wake. By the time the day ended not only was my reputation restored, but I’ve now been given the dubious distinction of having the best eyes of any non-birder Rod has ever met, and honor which will surely be rescinded when I make my next gross misidentification.

West Point and Carcass Islands

Posted from Carcass Island, Falkland Islands at 7:25 pm, January 2nd, 2006

Tons of hiking this morning at West Point Island, and tons of photography this afternoon at Carcass Island. The morning’s landing offered a rockhopper and black-browed albatross rookery, but what was more interesting to me were the grassy, mossy, licheny (my word, just made it up) hills that made up the terrain. After the relatively easy walk to the colony, the hike up a neighboring hill kicked my butt, revealing why Aaron has recently nicknamed me “the Meatball”. The top offered amazing views, including that of a raft of hundreds of king cormorants floating together on the water. When one of these birds would dive other nearby birds would follow, starting an amazing ripple through all of the other birds. It was a cool effect, and was repeated in reverse each time the birds surfaced. After descending the hill I immediately ascended the hill on the other side of the colony, and returned to the ship a tired man.

After helping out with the unloading of zodiacs the afternoon stop on Carcass Island offered the chance to hang out with magellanic penguins, which are burrowing penguins that seem to me to always be a bit paranoid. A highlight of the day came when, after sitting with a group of them for a long, long time, one had finally gotten comfortable enough to drift off to sleep while another was poking his head out of a burrow five feet away. In addition, there were large groups of nesting skuas; normally a nesting skua will spot me from a long distance away and begin mercilessly attacking, but for whatever reason the skuas on this island were letting people approach to within only a few yards with absolutely no signs of distress. Tomorrow is a 5:00 AM landing on Steeple Jason Island, with the hopes that we’ll beat a storm that is barrelling towards us out of the Drake.

Magellanic Oystercatcher

Magellanic oystercatcher on Carcass Island.