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.
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.
Blond fur seal in Right Whale Bay.
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).
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 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.
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 on Carcass Island.
The trip’s first landing came with surprisingly strong winds and rough seas, and as a result I was recruited by the staff to help out. Having been informed of my duties less than a minute before boarding a zodiac I had only my hiking boots and gaiters on, and as a result of time standing in the ocean catching boats spent much of the day with very wet feet. It was a great day though — due to the lousy weather I put my camera away and headed off for a hike around the island. The hike started with a climb up a hill that offered terrific island views, followed by navigation through a skua nesting area (they attack), then some relaxing with two caracaras that were sitting a few feet away, and finally a half hour on a five hundred foot high cliff watching albatross hover on the wind only feet away. Rod Planck showed up on the horizon shortly thereafter, so he and I set off for a long hike along the cliffs, discovering some absolutely incredible scenery and amazing albatross and fur seal colonies along the way. One of the requests the Cheesemans made on the trip was that you always tell someone where you’re going when hiking, and when it occurred to me that I had only told Rod where I was headed, and that he had only told his hiking plans to me, we set off back towards the landing area. Skuas divebombed us for a bit on the walk back, and caracaras watched our every move, but it was a really, really enjoyable time.
Following our trek around the island the weather began to clear up, so we made the brief walk across the island to the rockhopper colony, where we saw wave after wave of rockhopper penguin coming ashore. In addition, Tim came over to point out an albatross that was having flight issues due to the sudden lack of wind (“the poor dumb sucker has been bouncing off of rocks all day”), Rod produced a bag of his gorp (made with only the highest quality peanuts), and one of the passengers surprised us all by uttering what may be the first use of the word “peckerhead” by anyone in the world so far in the new year. Good day.
Rockhopper penguins coming ashore on New Island.
We rang in New Year’s tonight with champagne and the Fillipino staff singing Abba on karaoke, and while I may be guilty of having slipped away early (or run away…) it was still a memorable way to celebrate the holiday. Prior to the evening’s festivities today was ridiculously good for a day spent at sea. I got up a bit before seven this morning and joined Rod and Jim on the deck of the ship to see what might show up. Birds were flying around in abundance, and despite my limited mental capacity Jim managed to teach me the names of a few more.
The day’s highlight occurred during lunch when Doug came on the public address system and announced that they “might have sighted some sperm whales”. Since sperm whales typically dive for thirty minutes at a time I figured there was time to eat, but shortly thereafter an announcement was made that on closer inspection the sperm whales had morphed into a pod of eight fin whales. Fin whales are the second largest of all whales, and this group stayed with us for nearly an hour. Unfortunately, having run for the decks as soon as Doug said “fin whale” I was protected against the cold and wind by only a light thermal; luckily the adrenaline rush from having a pod of giant whales lunging out of the water as close as fifty feet away allowed me to ignore the frantic messages my body was sending about freezing. Only forty-five minutes later when the whales had departed did the effects of high winds and temperatures in the forties become fully obvious, but I probably can’t complain given that Carter was standing next to me during most of the sighting wearing nothing more than a short-sleeved shirt.
The day’s other activities included a beautiful slideshow by Rod, and my own miserable attempts at photographing birds that were flying by the boat at high speeds. If only giant petrels really were blurry in real life, or if albatrosses without heads were a common sight then I would have some great images, but sadly in the non-bizarro world I think I’ll end up deleting all of them and declaring today’s photo shoot to be practice for later in the trip.
After reminiscing with Ted over beers until 2:00 AM last night I managed to get up just after 6:00 AM and join a bus into Tierra Del Fuego National Park. I’ve really missed Rod Planck, so despite my better judgement I hopped on the bird watching bus (which Rod was leading) and spent the next couple of hours with an interesting yet highly obsessive group of folks; until you’ve sat in a field for twenty minutes with two dozen people scrutinizing every visible dot with wings for the sole purpose of discerning whether or not it’s a northern double-crested pileated thrush or the less common (and thus more exciting) southern variety, the experience would be quite difficult to describe.
After a brief bit of time back in town the Polar Star pulled anchor, and the boat slowly set off along the Beagle Channel with birds circling, penguins swimming below, and the occasional sea lion popping up to say hello. The weather was amazing and we sailed under a crimson sunset with picture-perfect clouds lining the skies. And in case it’s not obvious, I was pretty damn happy to be setting out again.
The energy level dropped considerably today during a four hour delay on the flight from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia, with the only entertainment being a mad effort to learn the names of people in the group (at which I failed miserably). Things stayed slow until the Andes popped out of the clouds around Ushuaia, and now despite the late hour my energy level is so high that I’m bouncing off the walls, ready to run up a mountain or swim across the Beagle Channel. This will almost certainly be the last time I have internet access for the next month, but things will only get better from this point forward, and I can’t wait.
American Airlines apparently made the decision that passengers on eleven hour flights to South America need just enough legroom so that a six foot tall person can sit with circulation only partially cut off by the seat in front of them, so the trip down was a bit uncomfortable and I didn’t really sleep at all. Upon arriving in Buenos Aires I retrieved my bag, was too tired to protest when some shyster grabbed my luggage and said he’d take me to my ride (“just to help, it looks heavy”) and of course later demanded a couple bucks, and tried but failed to stay awake during the ride into the city.
Once at the hotel I set the alarm for a two hour nap, and a little over four hours later woke up and headed out to roam around. First impressions of Buenos Aires are that it’s a bit like Paris in that it is filled with beautiful old buildings and narrow streets that are quite pedestrian friendly. They really, really love the tango here, and while a blind, one-legged street performer playing three instruments simultaneously while also riding a unicycle, controlling two lions, and with six juggling monkeys might draw a crowd of ten, two people doing the tango (and there were many such performers) would always have close to a hundred onlookers. Granted, the tango dancers were talented and also pretty easy on the eyes, but I guess I’m more of a juggling-monkey kind of guy.
The plan is to go to bed early tonight, roam a bit more tomorrow, and then catch the flight to Ushuaia early in the afternoon. If I don’t have a chance to make any updates while in Ushuaia then this might be the last entry for a bit, but I’ll continue keeping a daily journal and upload everything at the end of January once an internet connection is again available.