Posts Tagged ‘Antarctica’
To add a bit to the previous entry, here are a couple of my favorites from what’s been scanned in. I’m still scanning, but in the mean time Matt has many of his amazing trip photos online already.
I can’t seem to grasp the concept that it’s not summer up here, and I’m still expecting that everyone will be speaking Spanish, but otherwise it hasn’t been too much of a shock to the system coming home. Photos are getting scanned in slowly, but please be patient as there are thirty-one rolls, including a couple from other trips. I’ve only gotten through four rolls thus far, but as they get scanned in the Antarctica photos will be showing up in the Antarctica & Patagonia gallery in the Photography section of the site.
The voodoo magic that lies behind airline ticketing baffles me. Apparently there was a secret handshake or a super-spy decoder ring required to actually get a ticket for the direct flight that Aerolinas Argentinas had tried to re-book me on, so now after visiting four different ticket counters I’m back to a three-connection slog across America. Luckily even with the delays the journey home will still take less than three days (barely).
I’m not sure what just happened, but after talking to the new guy who showed up at the Aerolinas Argentinas desk I’m suddenly reserved on a direct flight from Miami to San Francisco (as opposed to the Miami – Tampa – Dallas – San Francisco ordeal I was on previously) and will be arriving an hour sooner than I would have if the flight from Buenos Aires wasn’t delayed. Even more remarkable is that when I went up to the desk I was simply trying to find out if the plane was still scheduled to depart Buenos Aires at 4:30.
Another photo from Joyce that she took at Cierva Cove while we were watching a humpback whale sleeping on the surface. I would be the one wearing the very sexy llama wool hat (with earflaps) second from the right. Ramrod is sitting in the bow of zodiac and Mighty Matt Mueller is behind me wearing the blue coat and grey hat. Note that this was not the whale into whose blowhole Matt’s mother spewed forth — that event came three days later.
When I purchased my ticket from Buenos Aires to Miami it said the flight would leave at 11:30 PM. When I got my boarding pass today it said 1:45 AM. The lady at the gate is now saying the flight has been delayed until at least 4:30 AM. While at one point I had a four hour layover in Miami, it now looks like I’ll be an hour too late to make my connecting flight. The two day slog may become a three day event.
The long slog home (five connections over two days) has started. A number of folks from the most recent M/V Polar Star voyage are on this flight, and unfortunately it seems that there was a mishap on their trip while visiting South Georgia and the boat was run aground, causing a small tear in the hull and forcing them to return to Ushuaia. Arnie was not the captain for that trip, and the boat should return to service for its next scheduled trip, but it’s nevertheless sad to see her damaged.
The last day of the trip was spent with perfect weather hiking in the national park, although an amazing allergy attack made the trip more interesting than it otherwise might have been — after walking through a field of some kind of grass my right eye practically swelled shut and I was having a heck of a time breathing, although luckily that subsided after a couple of hours.
Upon returning to town I discovered that the M/V Polar Star had returned to port. It was good to see her again before leaving — she was a great home for the twenty-three days that I was aboard.
I completely misjudged the weather this morning when I woke up at 7:00, and thinking it was going to rain all day I slept in, waking up again much later to discover the best weather I’ve yet had in Ushuaia. No doubt tomorrow I’ll rush out of bed before 7:00, be off to the park, and then spend the day hiking in a torrential downpour.
Ran into the gal from San Francisco in the afternoon, so we did a bit of hiking together around the park and then headed to dinner where we bumped into a Brazilian guy from the hostel — the backpacker circuit is indeed a small world. On the return to town the Spanish language took a beating as the bus driver and I attempted a conversation, and there is little doubt that we each came away thinking we had been discussing completely different subjects. Once back in town I discovered that my web server is yet again having communications issues, and at this point I’m no longer willing to try to debug it from eight thousand miles away, so my apologies, but the site will probably be unavailable until I get home next week.
After an evening spent at a really cool bar with a gal from San Francisco and a great group of Australians I was somehow still able to get out of bed this morning at 7:00 and catch a bus out to the national park. The weather was perfect for a stroll along the shores of Lago Roca, and due to the early arrival I got the trail all to myself. This entry is being written at the end of the trail near the Chilean border (which is carefully guarded by a “No Trespassing” sign) while perched on some driftwood and with a view that includes the lake and Andes stretching off for miles. While hiking out here a group of three magellanic woodpeckers was investigating the trees about ten feet from the trail, an event that would have sent the bird watchers from the Antarctica trip into an absolute frenzy — this woodpecker is the park’s “must-see” bird due to its large size and crazy red crest, but when we came here in December we saw only one from quite far away. If only I was a birder…
Kaiyote, me, Chris, Margi, Marlene and Rod at one of our Antarctic barbecues. Photo courtesy of Joyce, and yes, I’m toasting with a half-eaten rib. Note that neither Kaiyote nor I realized we would be eating in a snowstorm, and shortly after this photo was taken there was a mad dash to get several more layers of clothing.
Decided not to go to the National Park today (I’ve still got a few more days left) so I’ve been hanging out and trying to get the site back in order. The internet connection from Ushuaia isn’t the fastest thing I’ve ever seen, so please bear with me as I try to convert the site over to the new domain name. The new URL for the journal will be http://www.mountaininterval.org/journal.html, although the old URL should still work for a while (please let me know if anything seems broken). For anyone wondering, Mountain Interval was the name of Robert Frost’s book of poetry that included “The Road Less Traveled”.
I’m most likely going to be in Ushuaia for the remainder of this trip, so provided the server again agrees to speak to the internet I should be a bit better about uploading the journal entries and answering email. Nothing too exciting to report for today, it was mostly just a travel day. Tonight will be the first time in ten days that I’ve eaten a decent meal — no idea how much weight I’ve lost, but I’m very much looking forward to gaining some of it back shortly.
There was a small part of me that was hoping for rain this morning so that I could stay in bed and rest, but luckily the weather is again perfect and I’m enjoying a clear view of Mt. Fitz Roy from the shore of Laguna Capri. The body is complaining, but I’m slowly moving along nonetheless. From here it’s a relatively easy eight mile loop past Cerro Torre and back to town, although once I return to town it will unfortunately be time to leave this amazing place.
Days are better when there’s time to watch the sun rise and to see the sun set. Having Mt. Fitz Roy and a herd of guanacos silhouetted in the light doesn’t hurt, either.
It rained in El Chalten for the five days prior to my arrival, but for the past four days the weather has been perfect — I fear that I may be burning up what good karma remains to me in this lifetime. Slept in until 7:45 this morning and then set off on a trail with unbelievably beautiful panoramas of Fitz Roy, Cerro Torre, and each of the surrounding mountains, lakes and glaciers. In addition to being scenic the trail was also a quiet one, and I saw less than ten other people all day.
While the body is close to meltdown, it hasn’t yet given up on me despite the long hike and 3200 feet of elevation change. It is even more unbelievable that the body and I are still on speaking terms when you consider that I missed a fork in the trail and had to retrace a mile uphill, and also took the scenic route for a half hour on the return trip before again finding the main trail. Tomorrow night I return to El Calafate, and hopefully the corresponding day or two of downtime will provide an opportunity to recover from the recent burst of activity.
Another 4:30 wakeup, and with stars blazing I hurried off to the Fitz Roy overlook, covering the route in just over an hour instead of the normal hour and a half. I arrived drenched in sweat but in time to see the first hints of purple light on the glaciers. After filling another roll of film I moved down the trail to Cerro Torre, spent most of the afternoon braving insane wind gusts at Lago Torre, and finally returned home to a much-needed dinner.
Despite hiking nearly five miles further than yesterday my body seems to no longer be angry with me — I’m sore, but presently in no danger of collapse. If the weather holds I’m going to attempt one of the tougher trails tomorrow, so the battle of willpower versus manpower may yet come.
The weather gods have blessed me, but my body is convinced I’m trying to kill it. High clouds when the alarm went off at 4:30, but after the long hike to the overlook the mountain was visible with the clouds above it. Unfortunately the light was flat, but when the clouds finally burned off I went through a couple of rolls of film pretty fast. I love this mountain.
My legs were hurting from yesterday, so rather than killing myself by hiking back to the lake (1300′ of elevation in an hour…) I took a different trail towards Cerro Torre, which is another amazing set of rock spires that blast up from the surrounding mountains to an elevation of 10,177 feet — even if Fitz Roy wasn’t here it would still be worth visiting just to see Cerro Torre. The alarm is set for tomorrow morning at 4:30, so if the weather holds out I may find out just how much the body can take before it quits on me.
When the alarm went off this morning at 4:30 the weather looked like it might be decent so I strapped on my pack and set off in the pre-dawn darkness through town and up the trail towards Mt. Fitz Roy. An hour and a half later I arrived at an overlook as the clouds were clearing and the light was getting dramatic. I reached into my pack, took out my camera, and realized that all of my film was back at the hotel. The eleven shots from the roll that was already in the camera will be all I have to show for the absolutely perfect weather today — I could have easily shot ten times as many photos, but with luck the mountain will show itself again at least once in the next four days.
After my photographic debacle I hiked the remainder of the trail (round trip about fifteen miles) and the views were mind-blowing. The final uphill stretch was a killer (1300′ of elevation change in an hour), but was absolutely worthwhile as the trail ended at a turquoise lake surrounded by an awe-inspiring cathedral of stone and ice. Fitz Roy is most definitely a mountain like no other.
I’m physically exhausted and going to bed early with plans to be up before sunrise — this feels like a vacation again. I’m back in El Chalten, although this time with a room and a tiny bit of sun. It was raining when I got here, but blue sky has appeared from time to time so I did a four hour power hike to see (some of) Mt. Fitz Roy. Pictures weren’t taken due to the clouds, but if Fitz Roy is just a mountain then most other mountains should be demoted to hills — this thing is a monster that practically defies the laws of physics with its giant, razor-like towers and sheer faces. The trails in the area are good ones, so provided the weather cooperates I’m going to be very, very sore and tired by the time I leave here in six days.
If I had a digital camera there would definitely be a picture of the Perito Moreno Glacier attached to this entry. The glacier is big (by non-Antarctica standards) and it is also amazingly picturesque. Today mother nature made it even more beautiful by providing a clear sky and warm temperatures — the guide says this is the first time in three months that it has been clear enough to see all of the surrounding mountains. In addition, the Argentinians that are here visiting are an amazing bunch — the women are beautiful (as always), and unlike in the United States people are willing to sit and enjoy the scene, rather than just snap a photo and move on. Someone broke out a guitar midway down the trail, most folks brought a picnic, and there were even a few people reading books while waiting for the glacier to calve.
Tomorrow I’m off to El Chalten again, but this time with a room reserved. Hopefully the good weather will continue, and if so I’ll do my best to bring home a few decent photos of the mountain.
It looks like internet access may be a bit more difficult than I realized, so I’ll continue keeping a journal but may not be able to upload it very often. Email is also going to be a problem, so if you’ve written in the last few days and I haven’t responded please give me at least one more week.
I’ve re-grouped after yesterday’s disaster, although I must be getting old as plans have changed from dormitories and shared bathrooms in hostels to single rooms with showers in low-end hotels. The corresponding price increase from twenty pesos ($6) to about one hundred and forty pesos ($42) has absolutely ruined any dreams of keeping to a budget — my father will be disgusted, my mother will be pleased, and my brother won’t understand why I’m not staying in five star hotels.
After arriving in town at 11:15 last night a bed in a dormitory was luckily available (sleeping outside of the bus station was the other option), so I shared a room with four Israeli girls and a German fellow — there are an amazing number of Israelis in Patagonia right now. First thing this morning I found a hotel room in El Calafate and went to a travel agency and reserved five nights in El Chalten. I’ll have one more day in El Calafate to do laundry and rest, followed by six days in El Chalten for trekking. I may no longer be a part of the backpacker circuit, but as long as the weather cooperates at least I’ll still be able to see Mt. Fitz Roy.
Utter disappointment. After a long, noisy and dusty bus ride I arrived in El Chalten in the rain and discovered that every room, bed, and piece of rental camping equipment in town is booked for at least the next two days. I’m carrying too much gear to make it feasible to trek without a home base, and a brief hike into the backcountry convinced me that sleeping out in the rain without a tent would be a very, very bad idea. As a result I’m reluctantly returning on the bus to El Calafate, and hopefully the next day or two will provide time to re-group and figure out another plan.
Despite the downward turn of events the day was not a complete loss — the ride to El Chalten was beautiful, with scenery ranging from rolling grasslands to badlands to turquoise blue lakes, and the Andes were always hovering on the horizon. In addition to the scenery, several herds of guanacos (think llamas but with less hair), six grey foxes, and a handful of Andean condors all made appearances during the journey.
It seems that the site may have been on holiday whilst I’ve been away. Hopefully things are back to normal, although I fear that Google may have dropped the site since it was down for so long. For anyone who cares, the problem is with the router and the software that tracks the server IP address — if the computer is like a taxi and the router is like the taxi driver, the problem is similar to trying to get across the city when you only speak English and the driver is a recent arrival from Pakistan; the taxi works fine, passenger and driver are fine, but you aren’t going to get to your destination. I’ll see what I can do to fix the problem permanently when I return.
Still in Ushuaia today, although I’m catching a flight to El Calafate tonight with plans of then heading up to El Chalten and Mt. Fitz Roy. Spent the evening at a nice little hostel sharing a dormitory with a South African, a Brit, and a Scottish gal whose accent was absolutely captivating. Dinner with some of the folks from the trip was quite delicious, although the cost somewhat blew my budget for the week.
Last of all for today, Jason found this photo of a brown skua, one of the many animals that tried to kill me while in Antarctica.
The M/V Polar Star docked in Ushuaia this morning, and after lunch I said goodbye to most of my friends from the trip. Matt, Hugh, Jim and Ken are in town for a few days, so we’re meeting up for dinner tonight, but after that I’ll be on my own for two weeks in Patagonia. My Spanish is really, really poor, so it may be an interesting time.
Six to eight meter waves on the Drake Passage — about half of what a big storm would bring, but still enough to send the boat rolling at a twenty-five degree angle. Chairs and glasses were crashing at breakfast, and my brief attempt to get a picture of the waves from the seventh deck ended quickly when one crashed over the bow and drenched me. I finally gave in last night and took some motion sickness drugs, and today I’ve got blurred vision but no naseau. It’s fun to experience a bit of rough weather, but it’s also rather a shame as the waves are keeping most folks in their rooms. Hopefully once we round Cape Horn in another hour or so the seas will calm a bit and everyone will again be venturing out.
A few random memories:
Also worth noting is that Doug generously offered to bring me back on the 2005-2006 trip as a zodiac driver, so in addition to Ted’s South Georgia trip in April there’s an excellent chance that I might again be a visitor to this end of the earth. I’ve asked him to let me verify that I’m still employed when I get back to the States, but provided Warner Brothers still needs me then I’ll be signing on for a return visit to this land.
After hundreds of whales, tens of thousands of seals, millions of penguins, and countless memories we’ve started the trip home across the Drake Passage. Last night’s party was a fairly low-key affair for the time that I was there — I left around 12:30 and on my way out accidentally triggered the bell at the bar which Tim and Carter had boobie trapped with fishing line. We’ve still got today and tomorrow for bird and whale watching on the decks, but sadly the main part of our trip has come to an end. It’s been a great one — I’d recommend Cheeseman’s to anyone looking for a nature experience that will be remembered forever.
My fingers are frozen, and it’s making typing really, really difficult. Our last day in Antarctica, and there’s been a little of everything. We successfully landed at Bailey Head this morning, and I was recruited to help with the zodiacs in the rough surf. It was a blast — landing was a piece of cake, but when leaving we had to grab the zodiac, swing it around, hold it while people rushed in, and then push it out before the next big wave came in. Jim Davis and the other Alaskans loaded in about six seconds — when we had the boat stable Jim (who must be in his mid-60′s) barely touched the beach as he ran and jumped into the boat while fully loaded with camera gear. It was the most impressive performance of the day.
When not loading zodiacs Bailey was a great place for chinstrap penguins. There is only one route from the beach to their colony, and the “chinstrap highway” was loaded with thousands of birds in motion. Oddly enough they followed American driving rules, and I’ve got photos that clearly show the birds walking on only the right side. After Bailey we headed to Hannah Point, a place that is simultaneously one of the most beautiful and revolting places I’ve ever been. In one wallow there were over seventy elephant seals all piled on each other, but the reek was beyond words. When the beasts would rear up the stench that was released from underneath of them could have been used in chemical warfare. The seals didn’t seem to mind it though, nor did the thousands of gentoo and chinstrap penguins (and one macaroni penguin, who I think was very, very lost). Carter also gave me a quick zodiac driving lesson, although that was cut short in order to chase two humpbacks that dropped in on us.
Tonight folks are hanging out together for our last seasick-free night of the trip. Kaiyote, Marlene, Rod, Hugh, Carter and I were having drinks on the stern until Ted decided to lead another landing, and for the first time I’m skipping a landing — a forty-five minute return trip in high swells and wet clothes wasn’t the ending I wanted for this trip. It will be good to end it socializing about how great the month has been, and there’s a good group of folks that I’ve been lucky enough to share the experience with.
Our first brush with civilization in weeks came this morning while landing at the USA’s Palmer Station, and I forgot to ask about the football scores. Rocky, the Canadian chef, apparently bets on the professional games so we get those results relatively quickly, but for the college games we’ve only had rumors that USC beat Michigan and LSU beat Oklahoma. The rest of the news I’m actually happy not to know.
Matt and I were pumping the folks at the station about how to get jobs down here, and apparently they get about 5000 applicants to fill a few hundred jobs (Palmer only has 40 people, but McMurdo and the South Pole are larger). polar.org is one outlet to apply, but like anywhere else it seems that knowing someone on the inside is almost essential. But who knows, maybe they’ll have a great need for computer programmers with janitorial experience.
The nice weather we had after leaving Palmer has disappeared, and it’s near whiteout conditions outside with really cold winds. After leaving Palmer the bulk of the day was spent steaming up to Paradise Bay, although there was a long detour to watch an orca chasing a group of minke whales. The orca apparently wasn’t hunting, but was instead just stalking and harassing the minkes. During the hour we were watching them the whales twice came right under our bow, and the clarity of the water provided some awesome viewing. Paradise Bay was also a great spot, although after the obligatory group photo most of us were spending the time grabbing photos of fellow passengers. Tomorrow is the last day on the peninsula — the weather gods really need to send us one last good day so that we can make the Bailey Head landing and see the chinstrap highway.
Despite the fact that I’m by far the youngest one out here, there’s been a core group of people who I’ve had a blast hanging out with. Rod, Carter, Tim, and Hugh have been non-stop entertainment, whether they’re doing elephant seal impersonations, playing butt darts, or giving each other unending grief. Dave & Ann can be counted on to always be the other folks that hike to the remote parts of the landing sites, and they’re also the ones who brought this new party game to us. Kaiyote has been a mystery throughout the trip, but she’s also the first to climb a mountain and is one of the sweetest people out here, even when clamoring to get Arnie to drive through an iceberg. Ted has been doing this sort of thing his entire life and has seen more remote places than anyone I’ve ever met. The Alaskan contingent, especially Jim and Ken, are always good for a conversation, and Jim has managed some real zingers (“What’s the name of them crazy shit-eatin’ birds?”). Margi & Chris are fellow Case Western grads, and Chris is even a fellow Shaker High alum. The list goes on and on… Neil, Jim, Marlene, Mary & Ken, Arnie, Doug & Gail… it’s been a great trip with a great group of people.
A memorable day in many ways — we started out at Port Lockroy with penguins and ended with many empty wine bottles and Rod uttering the now famous words “Follow your dreams. When I was a kid people said I’d never be able to fit four quarters up my ass, but look at me now.” Rod & Marlene, Margi & Chris, Ted, Carter, Tim, Kaiyote, Dave & Ann, Rocky and Hugh were all involved in the festivities, but you really had to be there to understand the madness as we sat in the snow on the stern eating and drinking, and then spent nearly an hour playing the southernmost-ever game of butt darts. Between Rocky’s Canadian longjohns, the USA vs. Canada grudge match, and a dozen other shenanigans we should all be committed, but it was a heck of a time nonetheless.
Even without the evening’s insanity today was still a fun day, despite the snow and clouds. Port Lockroy had a ton of penguins and shags, and the snow let up somewhat during our landing. The Lemaire Channel is supposedly one of the most scenic spots on the planet, but it was mostly shrouded by clouds and snow as we passed through. Peterman Island was my favorite island thus far on the Antarctic Peninsula despite the fact that the weather was uncooperative. While there I climbed a big hill in the center of the island, causing far too much concern amongst some of the other passengers. The view from the top was great, and watching the adelies toboggan across the snow as I descended was an added bonus. Two more days here, and they should be good ones.
Anyone coming to Antarctica should make sure that Cierva Cove is on the itinerary. No sooner had we lowered zodiacs this morning when a minke whale showed up and began circling us. The water is so utterly clear that the twenty foot long whale showed up perfectly as he swam under and around our boats. Shortly thereafter we moved towards the head of the cove and saw numerous leopard seals out on the ice flows, often only a few feet from the zodiac. That experience was followed by a humpback whale sleeping at the surface.
After the excitement at Cierva Cove my thought was that the rest of the day would be a wash, but after lunch and with perfect weather a humpback and her calf decided to come right up to the bow of the ship and hang out with us for ten minutes. When leaning off of the bow you could see both whales below in the water, and people were yelling “Port! No, starboard!” and racing across the deck as the whales swam under the boat. My 75mm lens was too close for pictures — at times the whales were surfacing no more than ten feet from me. An incredible day, and we’ve still got an evening landing at Cuverville to go.
Terrible, terrible weather, but a really fun morning. The landing at Bailey Head was cancelled, so we moved to the more protected shores within Deception Island (the island is an old volcanic cone). Snow was causing near-whiteout conditions, winds were blowing at 30-40 miles per hour, and there were no animals (five Weddell seals and a few skuas being the exception) but Hugh, Carter, Rod and Marlene started flinging snowballs and suddenly we were all about six years old again. Rod and I did a bit of hiking afterwards and had a skua following us at eye level and only a few feet away for a bit. Given the chance I’d have been happy to stay out and continue to experience the more adventurous side of Antarctica, but the staff (wisely) decided that conditions were deteriorating too quickly and pulled everyone out. Our afternoon landing will probably also be scrubbed, but with luck we may still salvage tomorrow’s excursions.
As Doug would say, our karma returned this afternoon and we spent several hours with a group of feeding humpbacks. The cold was pretty intense, but no one was complaining. Just as we were getting ready to depart one of the young whales began breaching, making for a memorable sendoff.
Forty knot winds (about 45 mph) inside of the caldera, so the afternoon landing is scrubbed. No complaints though, it’s pretty cool just to look out of the window and see the snow blasting around us. It should be even more interesting to see what the open ocean is doing when we get out of here.
After spending the afternoon out on deck and seeing only a few distant whales I was sitting down to write a journal entry about the lack of whales when two minkes started lunging out of the water next to the boat. Forgetting the irony of waiting six hours to see whales and having them show up ten minutes after I quit looking, these whales provided a lot of good looks during the fifteen minutes that they stuck around. However, aside from the few sightings that we’ve had it’s been an unusually slow trip for whales — Rod and the rest of the staff say we would normally be seeing dozens of whales at this point, but today we saw five, and three of those were fairly brief.
The day started with a landing on Brown Bluffs, which is an old volcanic formation that is now home to thousands of relatively human-tolerant gentoo and adelie penguins. Wanting to get away from the group I did a bit of scrambling up to the higher slopes, and had the countryside and penguins all to myself. A few of the passengers are grumbling that they’ve seen (and smelled) enough penguins to last a lifetime, but I’d be quite content to spend a lot more time down here with the little buggers. The next stop will be Deception Island, and as we’re steaming there the snow is falling heavily. Four more days on the peninsula to go, and I wish it was a lot more.
Arnie and the crew managed to navigate the pack ice, and we arrived at Paulet very early this morning. I felt like a kid at Christmas — I woke up before the wakeup call, was at breakfast at 5:45 AM, and had all my gear ready to go shortly thereafter. The scene outside was exactly what you imagine when you think of Antarctica — penguins everywhere, glassy water, thousands of icebergs varying in size from ship-sized chunks to pieces the size of a zodiac, and cold temperatures. I was the first on land, sat with thousands of adelie penguins as they poured in and out of the water, and then hopped on a zodiac to cruise around looking for penguins on the ice flows. Later in the day Ted led a group up to the 1200 foot high volcanic cone in the center of the island, and the view was unreal — amazing visibility, seas that perfectly reflected the surroundings, and thousands upon thousands of pieces of ice floating in the waters.
Still cruising along. Despite ominous weather reports the seas have been calm, temperatures have been hovering around freezing, and we haven’t seen the pack ice since morning. I had one good orca sighting after breakfast, Hugh and I spotted a minke whale after lunch, and Mary (from New Hampshire) spotted two humpbacks about an hour ago. There were also nice leopard seal and crabeater seal sightings, but otherwise it’s been a slow day with only a few distant whale sightings and the usual penguin sightings. Tomorrow is Paulet Island, although so far this year no boats have been able to make it through the ice to the island. With luck the Polar Star can punch through, but we’ll soon see.
Today was our first day to sleep in while on this trip, but I woke up at 4:45 because the boat had slowed down. Looking out of the porthole I realized we were surrounded by pack ice, so I went outside to watch the boat pushing and plowing through ice that was at times several feet thick. One thing that I wasn’t expecting was that there were enormous icebergs within the pack ice — since the ship is about 300 feet long I’d guess some of the ‘bergs had to be close to a half mile in length. Not a lot of wildlife out here, but we’re keeping a watch out for whales, and seals sometimes haul out on the ice. Practically a full day already, and it’s not even 6:00 AM yet.
I woke up this morning and knew something was wrong. It was only after walking down the hallway without being violently thrown into a wall that I realized the seas had calmed and the boat had stopped rocking. Shortly thereafter we finished navigating a vast number of icebergs and set anchor in the South Orkney Islands. While anchoring Arnie nearly backed the ship into one of the ‘bergs, and only when the stern of the ship was about ten feet from the ‘berg did he casually say “Oops, hard to port.”
Our landing at Shingle Cove in the Orkneys was a nice one, although very cold and snowy. The adelie penguin colony that was there provided ample entertainment as the parents would return to feed the chicks, who would in turn rush the parents, overwhelming them and causing them to eventually flee the ravenous youngsters. The ensuing chaos in which adult penguins were wildly running everywhere with the chicks in hot pursuit was great fun to watch. We left just after noon, and will be making one last crossing before reaching the Antarctic Peninsula. The weather report is an ominous “very strong gale warning”, but at least for the moment the seas aren’t too rough.
One last note, while Rod was out on deck expounding on his belief that rather than burial or cremation he would prefer to be publicly blown up (“but people would be kept back so they wouldn’t have pieces of me splatter on them — that would be gross”) Tim made the observation that it wasn’t quite as cold if you stood downwind of Rod, seeing as there was so much hot air flowing out of the man. Gotta love the staff.
The passage to the Antarctic Peninsula is continuing. Tomorrow we’ll have a brief stop at the South Orkney Islands, and then it’s on to Antarctica. The winds have calmed a bit, but the swells are much bigger; as a result the boat isn’t rocking as often, but the rolls are more pronounced and will often send chairs, drawers, and people flying. While listening to Tim Davis give a presentation on his digital photography (the man creates some amazing images) the chairs were sliding from port to starboard with each swell. The weather hasn’t bothered me except for late into dinner last night when I got a bit queasy. Since then I’ve been wearing motion-sickness bracelets, and thus far the waves have been fun rather than vomit-inducing.
Our last day at South Georgia, and it was a another good one. Winds kept us out of Cooper Bay early in the morning, so we instead took the boat into Drygalski Fjord, and Arnie cruised to within probably ten feet of the glacier at the head of the fjord. Forgetting any concerns about the glacier calving while we were sitting there, it was pretty neat to be that close. We then returned to Cooper Bay and enjoyed the remainder of the day among a colony of macaroni penguins. It took me over two hours to take my first picture, but after realizing that the essence of a macaroni is being grumpy, hopping on rocks, and having a wild yellow feather crest the photographs came fast and furious. Also of note is that while we were onshore an elephant seal wedged itself into some rocks, and since the staff felt it may have been trying to hide from us a rescue was undertaken, and after almost an hour the seal was freed.
Now we’re underway for Antarctica via the South Orkney Islands, and the seas have kicked up to insure that we enjoy the ride. The winds are sustained at about fifty miles an hour, gusting up to seventy, so we’re rocking and rolling as water breaks over the bow. I was out taking photographs from the bridge (deck seven) and got drenched by spray on a couple of occasions. Most of the passengers seem to have disappeared, so I’m guessing a good number of folks won’t be making it to dinner tonight.
Completely exhausted, but it was a great day. We had the option to skip breakfast and go ashore at 5:30 this morning, so obviously I jumped at the opportunity, along with about fifteen other people. Got a few photos of the king penguins and elephant seals in the morning light, then took off for a hike up to the face of the glacier. On the return trip the terns attacked (apparently they were nesting nearby) and after escaping their onslaught I ended up emerging on the wrong side of the penguin colony. The long trek around the far side of the colony was done through swampy filth that the elephant seals seemed to love wallowing in, but several gentoo colonies along the way made the detour worthwhile.
After a brief lunch and a ten minute power nap I returned to land and took off up the side of one of the mountains that circle the harbor. The terns were again ferocious, but after a long climb over razor-sharp shale the view of the glacier-covered inland mountains and surrounding iceberg-filled ocean was incredible. The descent was a bit hairy, but in the end there were only a few scrapes and bruises to show for it. The ship’s captain (Arnie — great guy) had earlier been climbing the same mountain and required twelve stitches on his return.
Due to the unseasonably warm weather today (I was in a t-shirt all afternoon) the elephant seals were suffering a bit and had to take measures to stay cool. The sight of them all lined up along the river with their heads submerged was a bit comical, but by evening they had moved into the ocean and the sea was so thick with the beasts that you probably could have walked off shore without getting your feet wet. Tomorrow there’s a 5:30 wakeup planned, so the South Georgia marathon continues.
After getting blown out of St. Andrew’s Bay we steamed for the more protected Gold Harbor. A steady stream of icebergs marked our path to a steep-walled harbor with giant icefalls tumbling down into it. We went ashore despite strong winds, and were immediately greeted by a massive pile of elephant seals and numerous king penguins, gentoo penguins, skuas, fur seals, and sundry other critters. While the harbor didn’t offer the abundance of wildlife that other landings have provided, it made up for it with quality. I took tons of photos, had skuas pecking at my boots and resting in the sand six inches from me, sat encircled by king and gentoo penguins, and was often eye-to-eye with elephant seals at distances of only a few feet. We’re anchored here overnight, and I’ll be getting up early for a 5:30 return trip in the morning.
Today’s visit to St. Andrew’s Bay was supposed to be an all day affair, but near-hurricane force winds forced us to retreat in a hurry. I’m no meteorologist, but the katabatic winds were described to me as being caused by a large, still air mass cooling over the inland glaciers and then rushing out through the valleys. We had a small storm front this morning that apparently was sufficient to trap air inland, and as soon as the storm front moved out we went from no wind to eighty mile an hour gusts in less than an hour. After being recalled the last zodiac battled the waves and arrived back at the boat to find the majority of the passengers photographing or videotaping our ordeal. It honestly wasn’t that bad of a ride considering the weather, so being captured on film by nearly a hundred folks is a bit of an embarrassment.
Prior to blowing us away St. Andrew’s Bay was a neat spot. We had sun early in the morning, and I’ve hopefully got some good photos of the hundreds of elephant seals and 300,000 king penguins that were there. The number of penguins was overwhelming — they completely covered the landscape, filling practically every available nook and cranny. A herd of scrawny reindeer was also roaming about, and one of the many skuas decided to attack me for a while, so despite the early departure it was a pretty great experience.
This morning’s trip to Fortuna Bay had less wildlife than in other spots on the island, but the few hundred fur seals, elephant seals, king penguins, and gentoo penguins that were there provided ample opportunity for photos. The gentoos were nesting on a high cliff overlooking several glaciers, and due to the remote location I was one of the few that visited the colony. After sitting amongst them for about an hour I realized that the penguins had moved in around me and were as close as a foot away.
In the afternoon we moved on to the old Grytviken whaling station, currently in operation as a British base. It was a bit sad to see even such a small sign of civilization here, but I immediately hiked up to the hills and the base was soon out of sight. Antarctic terns can now be added to the list of animals that have attacked me on this trip — the little buggers let me walk deep into where they were nesting, and then attacked in force, driving me back down out of the hills.
Also, a few observations thus far:
The day’s last stop was at Albatross Island, a spot that is specially protected due to the declining numbers of the wandering albatrosses that nest there. We again landed and ran the fur seal gauntlet, and then hung out amongst amazing hues of green moss on the higher portions of the island. Toward the end of the day, when most everyone had returned to ship, Ted led a group to the highest part of the island where the albatrosses were soaring on their giant wings and also doing their courtship displays. This entire visit to South Georgia is a nearly spiritual experience — I can’t help but feel that I’m seeing life the way it was supposed to be seen.