The long slog home continues. The boat landed in Ushuaia this morning, and the goodbyes began as we left Tom, Rene, Sarah, and others. After arriving in Buenos Aires the farewells continued, with most of the group either overnighting for two days or taking different flights. A handful of us remain on the flight to Dallas tonight, and fewer still will be on tomorrow’s flight to San Francisco. For all intents and purposes the trip is over, and it’s very, very sad to see it end.
On a random note, Tim took a photo of me a couple of weeks ago that was so good we decided it needed to be made into an album cover. The ongoing effort since then has been coming up with track titles. Here’s the lineup thus far (inside jokes for three people, but since I’m one of the three I’ll write ’em down):
T.W. : Chasing the Llama
- Chasing the Llama
- Man, You Crack Me Up
- Is She Bumpy?
- Father Nelson
- Noodling and Hogging
- Hugh, or You?
- Peckerhead Bob Hit a Possum
People are doing their best to move on from yesterday’s tragedy, and the mood on the boat has been relatively upbeat today. The hours until dinner were fairly slow, with few birds on the horizon and fewer passengers on decks, but everyone showed up for the captain’s farewell and an after dinner slideshow of images from the trip, highlighted by Craig and his auctioneering skills. I’ll be back on land tomorrow morning, and barring delays on the long flights should return to the Bay Area in another two days. The friends from this trip will be greatly missed, although with luck it may not be a full two years before I have the opportunity to see them again.
The trip is ending on a tragic note, as one of the older passengers, Joyce Leedy, fell on a flight of stairs during mildly rough seas and has passed away. It’s an awful end to an amazing trip, but there is inherent risk in traveling to places that are so remote, so most people on the boat are taking the news as well as could be expected. Until the accident it had been a relaxed but good day, with those not seasick hanging out on the bridge deck and in the observation lounge. The social hour last night lasted until 2:00 AM, after which I got my best night’s sleep of the trip on the bar couch before getting up to announce breakfast, which I had told Natasha I would do so that she wouldn’t need to wake up. Natasha was of course already there, and after the evening’s festivities my voice was somewhat scratchy, but it provided a bit of levity in the morning hour. The mood on the boat is fairly somber, but hopefully everyone will remember the trip for all of its amazing days rather than its sad conclusion.
In addition to being the last day on the Antarctic Peninsula, today will go down in history as the first time a penguin ever threw up on me. First, catching up from yesterday, after zodiac cruising in Paradise Harbour we enjoyed another barbecue and then moved to Neko Harbour for an evening landing. For the first time I chose not to go ashore, and instead spent the time with Rod, Marlene, and Peckerhead Bob photographing the amazing mountain scenery from the top deck of the ship. The evening festivities later moved to the bar and lasted until 2:00 AM, and it was with a major struggle that I stumbled out of bed this morning.
Today after lunch we arrived in warm (around 40° F) but overcast conditions at Hannah Point, and after my final shift unloading zodiacs I spent the remainder of the day with the gentoo, chinstrap, and macaroni penguins, as well as a wallow of about sixty grumpy and sneezy elephant seals piled on top of one another. The gentoo penguin chicks were particularly curious, and while taking photos I noticed several gathered around me. When I sat down they practically jumped on top of me, and for fifteen minutes it was like playing with puppies. The weather started to get nasty, so I put the camera gear away and roamed the beach a bit before sitting down with another gentoo chick. The little bugger was nipping at my glove and snuggling up to my boots, and it was a great moment until looked up at me with his nice little face, started shaking his head in a really cute way, and then sprayed penguin vomit all over me. I wasn’t terribly disgusted (although I did run down to the water to clean up) but can say with authority that for such a small critter, penguins hold a LOT of vomit.
Rod, Marlene, Craig, Ted, myself and a few others were the last to leave the landing, and after a bit of a battle to figure out who would have the honor of being the last person on land Rod and Ted pushed us off and we said goodbye to what is almost certainly the greatest place on earth. Our forecast over the next two days is for storms in the Drake Passage, so after a month of calm seas it looks like there may be a few folks missing at mealtime before we return to port.
Gentoo penguin being “chick-chased” at Hannah Point.
We made a late night landing last again at Peterman Island until 11:30 at night, and the sunset was absolutely amazing. While enroute a crabeater seal crossed the bow of the boat, surprising Rod who identified it by yelling out “Whale! Minke whale! Wait, leopard seal! Shit, what is that? Animal!” Classic Rod.
The good weather continued this morning at Port Lockroy, an old British station set amidst amazing mountains. Everyone is pretty tired on the trip, and while unloading zodiacs Marianne, looking a bit dazed, stepped out of the boat on the port side (the boat was anchored to starboard) and into neck deep water. It was a bit of amusement for the morning as the staff all rushed to pull her out and get her back to the boat and into dry clothes. The afternoon was spent in Paradise Harbour, where we went zodiac cruising under a massive glacier that absolutely refused to calve. After trying everything from yodeling to group yells of “Mambo sawa sawa!” we finally admitted defeat and went off to watch seals on the ice. This evening we’re having another of the famous trip barbecues, followed by a late-night landing at Neko Harbour.
Adelie penguin on Peterman Island.
Since the plan for the day was to cruise south to the Antarctic Circle the bar scene lasted until at least 2:00 AM last night, with everyone occasionally heading outside to admire the scenery and twilight. The highlight moment of the evening came when the bar phone rang, Rod picked it up and immediately said that we were busy cooking possum, and from there proceeded with tales that left everyone laughing so hard that they were gasping for air.
After I had been sleeping for a few hours in the library and a few more in my bed, Doug woke everyone up at 6:15 to say that we were crossing the Antarctic Circle. The rest of the morning was a return trip towards Fish Island, where we had a brief landing with adelie penguins. After returning through thick ice to the boat I got the OK from Ted to go for a quick swim, and ran down the gangway and jumped in with two rescue zodiacs standing by in case I went into cardiac arrest or had other issues due to the below freezing waters. After hitting the water my memory is a bit fuzzy, although I did yell out several words that my mother wouldn’t approve of before doing a few strokes and then swimming for all I was worth back to the gangway. It took two tries to get out, with the whole ordeal probably lasting less than a minute. It was one of those things that had to be done, mostly so it would never need to be done again. Rod probably summed things up best when he came up to me, still shivering unstoppably on deck, and said “God damn, you are [colorful expression] nuts.” Another memorable day is now in the books.
The day started with awful weather at Palmer Station, so I spent my time there putting my mad zodiac holding skillz to good use. The work allowed me two shifts at the station instead of just one, and since Palmer is known for its brownies I ate more than my share. The station holds only 45 people, so the atmosphere there is pretty friendly — as just one example, they have a weekly science presentation, and this week’s presentation was being given by a researcher who had visited the Russian Vostok station (an awesome place — read about it if you can). The presentation was about her experiences there, but someone had added the subtitle “Vostok: An American woman and several cold, lonely Russian men.”
After leaving Palmer we headed for the Lemaire Channel, and while it was mostly clear it was overcast enough to fall slightly short of its “Kodak Gap” reputation. We did see the first two groups of killer whales for the trip, so that was a highlight. The afternoon landing was at Peterman Island, which local researchers have placed under several severe and often confusing restrictions. The ongoing joke was that we were pretty sure it was OK to go on land, but moving or making eye contact with penguins seemed questionable. While we were there the light turned absolutely amazing for photography, and with my special photographic abilities I think I may have managed to turn the beautiful scenery into truly mediocre images.
Skua bathing on Peterman Island.
One of the highlight days of the trip today. The morning was spent zodiac cruising in Cierva Cove, with leopard seals, gentoo penguins and a few crabeater seals on the ice. The best part of the cruising, however, was a mother and calf humpback that spent a couple of hours hanging around with us. They were occasionally bubble feeding and at one point we noticed a circle of bubbles surrounding our zodiac; Tim (the zodiac driver) told everyone to hold on as the whale came up about a foot off the stern, got slightly out of the water, and then quickly (and luckily) aborted its ascent. Totally awesome. More whale watching followed from the bow of the Polar Star for over an hour as we were leaving Cierva Cove.
Fog moved in during the afternoon, and what was intended to be a half hour nap ended up lasting nearly three hours, but as a result I was well rested when we arrived at Cuverville. Sadly the light wasn’t great for photography, although some of the scenery emerged briefly before we returned to the boat. Off to Palmer Station tomorrow morning, and with luck it will be clear for the trip south through the Lemaire Channel.
Humpback whale and zodiac in Cierva Cove.
Doug woke everyone up this morning at 5:45 to announce that a group of humpback whales was lunge feeding around the ship. It took me a while to get out on deck, but once I finally did it took only a few minutes of watching whales lunging and fluking within spitting distance of the ship before I got my camera. As usual my photographic skills were only sufficient to capture some shadows on the water that might (with imagination) look like whales, but it was fun.
On a slightly different note, during conversations at the bar last night Carter was talking about mountain lions and said he had a problem with them “chasing the llama”. When I asked if that was a metaphor it was realized that, while he does actually own a llama, it should be a metaphor. It works for anything:
“What were you doing last night?”
“Oh man, I was up all night chasing the llama.”
“You feeling OK?”
“Dude, I’m chasing the llama”
“Man, you crack me up.”
“That’s ’cause I’m always chasing the llama.”
Another great but exhausting day. After the early wakeup call I joined the staff ashore to catch zodiacs in the waves at Baily Head. Luckily the swell wasn’t bad, and the job was relatively easy. After unloading boats and admiring the thousands and thousands of loafing penguins on the black sand beach the trail led through a gully dubbed the “penguin highway” on which thousands of penguins were walking, incoming on the right and outgoing on the left. The colony itself is set within a natural amphitheatre, and over a hundred thousand penguins filled every available bit of space, making for an incredible sight.
After visiting the colony, returning, and sending off the last zodiac, Ted led a hike across the island from Baily Head to Whaler’s Bay. The Bay sits in the interior of the island on the flooded caldera of the old volcano. It was an awesome hike, with only mild shenanigans from Rod, Hugh and Marlene. After finishing the hike the hot springs that seep from the sands at shore were the sight of the trip’s Antarctic swim, and about fifteen swimmers bathed in the hot (and cold) water while about fifty photographers captured the event. Being camera shy I figured it might be better to just jump off the gangway later in the trip, well away from any lenses. The most memorable moment during the swim was probably Craig’s rush out to cold water, quick disrobing (underwater), and then issues with getting his swim trunks back on in the cold water. Certain Seinfeld episodes came to mind during that particular moment.
The Cheesemans re-arranged the afternoon schedule to allow for a brief evening landing at Hannah Point, but despite the numerous humpback whales as we motored there I was dead to the world and took a nap. We arrived at Hannah Point under almost perfect skies, but by the time all of the zodiacs had been guided past Doug Cheeseman rock and onto shore clouds had arrived, and the elephant seals, penguins, petrels and other birds had to be viewed under cloudy skies and with cold winds blowing. I took a shift for forty-five minutes as giant petrel police, but Albert, Barbara, Clovis and Daryl weren’t huge attractions, so I had the time alone with the birds before returning to the ship.
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 on Paulet Island.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sky pointing light-mantled sooty albatross in Gold Harbour.
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 in St. Andrew’s Bay.
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 in Fortuna Bay.
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.