Sunday, December 27, 2015

MV Ushuaia Expedition to the Antarctic Peninsula--November 2015

After sailing away from our unforgettable four days on South Georgia, life on the MV Ushuaia reverted to its usual routine during a crossing:  three big meals a day, a lecture or briefing every morning and afternoon, lots of reading and watching seabirds and a feeling of suspended animation.  When the sea was calm, I was fairly functional, but if the swell kicked up a bit, I took to my bunk to sleep and read.  In retrospect, I should have made use of the scopalomine patches that I had bought on the recommendation of my sister, but I preferred to try to sleep off the low-level seasickness.
Iceberg floating past South Georgia
Our trip down from South Georgia to the Antarctic Peninsula was long, the longest crossing of the trip.  We left on the late afternoon of the 5th, after our sail up Drygalski Fjord, and didn’t come into sight of land until nearly sunset on the 8th, when we passed Clarence Island and, in the distance, Elephant Island, another key site in the Shackleton saga in 1917.  We did have things to look at, luckily:  lots of icebergs are swept up along this route by the prevailing currents and waves, and some of the bergs were a perch for penguins, particularly Adelie penguins.  We spotted fur seals swimming in the open ocean, and two of the keen birdwatchers, Stefan and Andrew, thought they had seen macaroni penguins swimming by as well.  Of course we had our usual accompaniment of albatrosses (royal, black-browed and wandering), petrels (Southern giant and Cape), storm petrels, prions and terns.  However the sightings that got us most excited were whales.  The afternoon that we were sailing towards Drygalski Fjord, Ricky spotted a spout right beside the boat, and as we gathered to look, we realized that we were surrounded by between 15 and 20 humpback whales, feeding and displaying.  One of them turned on her side to give huge flipper slaps to the water surface, presumably to disorient or stun prey.  For at least ten minutes, there were spouts all around us.  At other times a single spout would appear and then there would be no further sight of the whale; the biologists said these were probably beaked whales of some sort.  Another day we had a good 8 or so whales running parallel to the boat, but not close enough to get a real look at them.  It was good to see that with whaling banned in the Southern Ocean, the number of whales is at least stable and may be slightly increasing after being pushed to the brink of extinction (for the right and humpback whales, anyway). 

We ran into more headwinds and contrary currents than anticipated, which meant that we had to jettison plans to visit Elephant Island as it was too late in the day to go visit in daylight hours.  This was a big disappointment to Oz, who wanted to see where Shackleton and his men survived for months under an overturned lifeboat.  In the event, we got a dramatic view of neighbouring Clarence Island as we sailed past; the icy slopes and big glaciers reminded me a bit of Muztagh Ata.
First view of the Antarctic Peninsula
We woke up early on Monday, November 9th to find ourselves in another world.  Overnight we had steamed to the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula at Esperanza Station, and most of us scrambled outside before breakfast to take pictures of the dramatic scenery.  On our right the Antarctic mainland extended in a series of ice cliffs and tumbling glaciers.  On our left a series of islands, ringed by pack ice, enclosed us in a long, narrow strait of ice-free water.  
Huge tabular iceberg near Esperanza
We spent the early morning on deck, taking photos by the dozens of the landscape, of the huge passing tabular icebergs, of the smaller bergs and their animal denizens (particularly Adelie penguins and Weddell seals).  The colours and shapes looked unreal, too straight-edged and uniformly white to exist in nature.  We used up a lot of camera memory as we continued steaming towards the Argentinian scientific station at Esperanza, one of the locations associated with Nordenskjold’s ill-fated expedition in 1901-04.
Adelie penguins hitching a lift on a berg

The plan was to land at Esperanza or at nearby Brown Bluff, one of the largest colonies of nesting Adelie penguins on the planet.  We put on our landing gear (insulated waterproof trousers and jackets, rubber boots, life jackets) and lined up for a Zodiac ride to shore.  As always, Monika, Agustin, Mariela, Ale and Kata went first to assess landing conditions.  I thought things looked too windy and rough to even contemplate a landing, as gale-force katabatic winds howled down off the ice cap to drive big white=capped waves across the water.  I thought that if it weren’t our first chance to land on the mainland of Antarctica, there was no way that we would even be thinking about landing.  Sure enough, in a few minutes the guides were back shaking their heads:  landing was out of the question given the conditions.  We were all pretty disappointed, given that we were keen to land on the seventh continent, but it was the right decision.
The iceberg that it took us an hour to circumnavigate

Instead, we did a cruise around the Antarctic Sound in the ship, taking pictures of the truly massive tabular icebergs, pack ice, Weddell seals and mainland glaciers.  One tabular iceberg was well over a kilometre long on a side and over 20 metres high (and hence about 180 metres deep!!).  The crew and the guides were impressed by the quantity of ice floating around; some of them hadn’t seen so much ice in almost 20 years of sailing to Antarctica.  They called it a “Shackleton year”, in memory of the fact that Shackleton’s 1914 expedition was doomed by a year of extraordinary quantities of ice.  There are suggestions that the Antarctic Peninsula and parts of West Antarctica are shedding ice into the ocean at an ever-increasing rate because of warming, because of water getting underneath the glacial tongue, and because of the collapse of ice shelves such as Larsen B which releases ice to flow into the sea more rapidly.  Whatever the cause, it was an unforgettable experience to see the huge, simple shapes and colours of the outsized icebergs, sort of like being part of a Lawren Harris painting. 
Imposing iceberg barrier at the mouth of Antarctic Sound

After lunch, since the wind had not yet dropped, we set sail early for a long haul around the tip of the Peninsula and down the west coast towards Brown Station, our next target.  As Monika said, the problem with visiting Antarctica is that the number of places where you can actually land on the shore is very, very limited, and with 2015-16 being a Shackleton year, some of that very limited supply of landing spots are ruled out by excessive ice.  Deception Island, a famous spot where a volcanic caldera encloses a hot spring bubbling into the Antarctic Ocean, is completely iced in this year and it seems unlikely that any tourists will swim within its natural harbour this season.  As we headed north and then west around the very northern tip of Antarctica, we had to pick a path between dozens of tabular icebergs, most as big or bigger than the monster we had sailed around earlier.  It was incredibly impressive to see this much ice, and even the crew popped out on deck to snap photos of the maze of icebergs on all sides.
Beautiful calm waters near Brown Station
We slept well that night, and in the morning we found ourselves steaming up the Gerlache Strait, close to Brown Station.  The weather was perfect, and the surface of the ocean was glassy calm, between the increasingly frequent small icebergs and their irregular surfaces.  One of my favourite images was of an irregularly shaped iceberg with a swirling natural Jacuzzi pool at one end in which a mother Weddell seal and her juvenile pup were swimming.  There was an almost unnatural calm over the water and the land, and it was clear that we would finally be able to land on the Antarctic mainland. 
Weddell seal in his ice jacuzzi

We split the passengers into two groups, and Terri and I were in the first group to land at the long-dormant Brown Base, another Argentinian scientific base.  We clambered ashore and were surrounded by hordes of gentoo penguins on shore and fishing offshore.  Cormorants flew by with nest-building materials in their beaks, snowy sheathbills flew silently by, and Weddell seals lounged on the shore nearby.  
Finally on the mainland of Antarctica, Brown Base
Dramatic glaciated peaks towered over the base, and the waters of Gerlache Strait looked almost black, like an ancient obsidian mirror.  We wandered around, took photos of the comical gentoos and revelled in the views.  When our shore time was up, we clambered into a Zodiac and cruised around the glassy waters for another hour, looking for seals and admiring the glaciers with their calving faces tumbling into the ocean. 
Amazing colours and textures
Monika told us that when she first came to Brown 20 years earlier, the 6 separate glaciers now visible all flowed together into the ocean some 2 km further out to sea.  We saw the cliffs where the cormorants were building their nests, and admired the icy architecture of the mountains.  Monika steered our boat between icebergs, and even through an icy passage where one huge iceberg had an underwater connection between two above-water sections.  When we returned to the ship for lunch, we were all greatly satisfied with our taste of Antarctica.
Gentoos at Brown

While we ate, the ship moved a bit up the Peninsula towards our next destination, Orne Island, a huge nesting site for chinstrap penguins.  The weather was perfect, and the views over the icecap that covers the entire central spine of the Peninsula were epic,  We passed a distant Quark Expeditions ship anchored near another penguin colony (the same ship that would hit an iceberg in the night a few nights later and put a big gash in her hull) and admired from afar another huge colony of Adelie penguins.  
Chinstraps dancing
Orne Island was a tiny gem, full of chinstraps (which we had not yet seen) and a few rogue gentoos.
Chinstrap penguin
  We spent our shore time photographing the chinstraps, the gentoos and the offshore icebergs.  Just as Terri and I were turning our back on the iceberg-filled bay, we heard a big crunch and crack, and running back uphill, we were in time to see a huge iceberg split in two and then turn over completely, unbalanced by its new shape and mass.  
Watching the iceberg rolling over at Orne Island
It was one of the things we had most wanted to see, and so watching an iceberg turn over felt like the icing on the cake.  We had a group photo taken at the high point of the island, and then headed back to the ship past a sleeping Weddell seal that had not moved a centimetre since we had passed it on the way to shore.
Lazy Weddell seal

That night we set sail for the South Shetland Islands, and in the morning we woke up to a driving blizzard, through which we could see the islands in the distance.  An after-breakfast briefing by Monika delivered the unwelcome news that a massive weather system was passing through (the tail end of a full hurricane) and that it was out of the question to try to land in these conditions.  In fact, we would spend the day hiding in the lee of the South Shetlands and then try to make a run for it across the Drake Passage at night between the receding hurricane and another approaching gale.  The Drake Passage crossing was going to be a 9 out of 10 for discomfort.

We spent the day in limbo, having a lecture, watching videos and then having a wonderful Antarctic Quiz, in which the team I was on led until the very end, when a round about music and film and TV themes scuppered us and handed victory to the Argentinian photographic safari crew. 

The two full days spent crossing the Drake Passage were truly miserable.  The ship rocked and heaved more than ever before, and meals were impossible, as I could not make it through a meal without being overwhelmed by nausea.  One of the expeditioners, Tom, was thrown clean out of his berth in the middle of the night and managed, through sheer luck, to land on his feet.  On the afternoon of the 13th of November we finally came into sight of the islands south of Tierra del Fuego and within a few hours we were in the protective lee of the archipelago.  It was such a relief to have a stable ship under our feet that we were quite giddy as we had the traditional ceremony of getting landing certificates, having a final toast and then having an Olympian feast for our final supper. 
Orne Island bergs

The next morning we woke up to find the familiar confines of Ushuaia Harbour closing in around us.  We had a final massive breakfast and then lined up to collect our 10% rebate in crisp dollar bills (always useful in the strange currency exchange world of Argentina!) before being released.  Most people headed to the airport that day, but Terri and I headed to our hotel for long nap and then a walk around Ushuaia.  That evening a few of us who hadn’t yet left town gathered for a beer or two at the Dublin Pub.  It was hard to believe that after 20 days, our once-in-a-lifetime trip was over.  It was time to head off for new adventures in Patagonia.

Practical Tips:  I think that if you’re going to spend the big bucks and go to Antractica, it’s worth paying more to include South Georgia and the Falklands, both of which are visually impressive and have incredible concentrations of birds.  They also have more guaranteed landing spots than the Peninsula.  It’s also worth checking whether it’s a big ice year (a Shackleton year) and whether this will make much of the Antarctic Peninsula’s landing spots inaccessible.  A good starting point for any Antarctic expedition is Daniela Gonzalez’ Ushuaia Turismo website, which lists every single departure out of Ushuaia, its itinerary and its list price.  Last-minute specials are available; the best price we saw was for US$ 3500 for a 10-day Antarctic Peninsula trip.  The longer trips (such as ours) are discounted much less often and by smaller amounts.  It’s a lot of money, but I thought it was worth every last cent.  Just do it!

Friday, December 25, 2015

Stunning South Georgia (Retrospective from November, 2015)

When I signed up for our cruise on the MV Ushuaia, I confess that I really only knew two things about South Georgia.  I knew that the Falklands War in 1982 started when Argentina invaded South Georgia, and that Ernest Shackleton and his men had sailed a life boat across the open South Atlantic to safety on South Georgia in 1917.  Reading up on the island while on board, and listening to the lectures from Monika and our biologists, I realized that South Georgia has other claims to fame and infamy.  It was the centre of Southern Ocean whaling until 1965, playing a huge part in the devastation of the populations of southern right whales and blue whales.  It is also, now that whaling is a thing of the past, perhaps the most important and largest seabird nesting site in the world, featuring prominently in BBC nature documentaries such as Frozen Planet and Life of Birds. 
King penguins at Right Whale Bay
As we steamed across the huge expanses of the southern ocean which separate South Georgia from the Falklands for three entire days, I settled into a somewhat lethargic routine involving lots of time in my bunk, escaping the low-level nausea of mild seasickness by sleeping, reading and listening to podcasts.  It was only on the third day that I finally felt more myself and went out on deck in unseasonably fine weather and calm seas to watch seabirds and take picture of the approaching bulk of Shag Rock, the first outlier of South Georgia.  Finally, on the morning of Monday, November 2nd, we woke up to find ourselves at anchor off the beach of Right Whale Bay.  Our original plan had been to land a bit further up the coast at a location that sometimes has macaroni penguins in residence, but the sea had been too rough and the wind was in the wrong direction, so we had proceeded directly to our current location.  The weather was fairly awful, with snow squalls turning gradually into a full blizzard.  We lined up for the Zodiacs and were ferried ashore in groups of 9.  The beach was full of elephant seals lolling about like overstuffed sausages, with the occasional hyperaggressive southern fur seal (actually a kind of sea lion) to keep us on our toes.  Kata, one of our biologists, carried a boat paddle and used it to warn off any fur seals that looked as though they were contemplating a charge at us.  The fur seal males come ashore before the females and try to stake out a territory into which they can entice a harem of females once the females land in a few weeks’ time. 
I am too sexy for this beach
We stepped ashore and almost immediately were confronted by the sight of skuas and giant petrels pecking away at the bloodied corpse of a stillborn elephant seal pup.  Our attention, however, was diverted by our first king penguins wandering by along the beach.  They look a lot like a smaller version of the emperor penguin, with dramatic orange colouring on their beak and chest.  They waddled by singly or in small groups, often in single file, marching along solemnly past their huge mammalian neighbours.  I couldn’t stop taking pictures of the penguins; they make the most perfect photographic subjects.  Eventually we wandered a bit further along the beach toward the distant rookery where juvenile king penguins in their brown juvenile plumage, looking as though they were wearing their grandmother’s fur coat, were gathered in huge throngs for safety while their parents were out fishing for their lunch.  We couldn’t get very close to the rookeries, but from a distance the sheer numbers of birds, many thousands of juveniles and adults, was awe-inspiring.  A fin whale skeleton lay on the beach, its bleached bones a mute testament to long-ago whaling activities.  We filed back onto the Zodiacs a couple of hours later, feet frozen in our rubber boots and heads spinning with the overstimulation of so many sights, sounds and smells.
Sort of a king penguin Abbey Road cover
After a hearty lunch of chicken, pea soup and a delectable dessert of dulce de leche-based cake, it was time to sort through hundreds of photos, selecting the best shots, before heading off for our afternoon trip to Prion Island, a tiny offshore island where wandering albatrosses, the endemic South Georgia pipit, southern giant petrels, light-mantled sooty albatrosses, fur seals, elephant seals, skuas and gentoo penguins all compete for space.  It’s one of the few places on earth where tourists can easily see wandering albatrosses nesting, and landing parties are limited in size to fifty, so we split into two groups of 44.  There are only two boardwalked paths to follow, and we did a pretty good job of completely filling the boardwalks wherever a juvenile wandering albatross, almost a year old, sat on the ground, looking enormous and very Ugly Duckling-esque with their fluffy immature plumage.  Their parents have been tracked flying as far as the coast of Brazil in search of fish to feed their offspring, a week-long round trip.  Prion Island is one of the few islets off South Georgia never to have been infested with rats from whaling ships, so it is a safe place for ground-nesting birds such as the wandering albatross to nest.  As well, a number of South Georgia pipits, fairly unremarkable-looking birds, made an appearance, flittering around from bush to bush.  There were dozens of giant petrel juveniles interspersed among the albatrosses, some of them practicing take-offs and landings in the biting wind.  Skuas, looking predatory and very velociraptor-like, sat in pairs on the snow-covered grass. 
Juvenile wandering albatross on Prion Island

Down on the beach fur seals competed aggressively for space and Kata had to get very fierce and scary indeed with one particularly truculent male.  Some of the elephant seals had day-old newborn pups, and skuas were pecking away at them to remove the last bits of placenta.  On the beach gentoo penguins, my favourite species, waddled past the fur seals on their way to and from the water, sweeping their stubby flightless wings far behind their torsos for balance as they walked.  On our way back to the ship, I managed nearly to fall into the ocean getting out of the Zodiac in a heavy swell, ending up on my backside back in the Zodiac.  I had neglected the cardinal rule of quickly getting both feet up onto the side of the Zodiac before putting a foot onto the ship.  On the bright side, though, putting the insoles from my hiking boots into the rubber boots kept my feet much warmer than they had been during the morning.  That night, after a hearty meal of lasagne, we relived the excitement of the day’s landing in the lounge before turning in early to enjoy a night of deep, refreshing sleep in a calm anchorage.  I felt as though the main course of our Antarctic expedition had begun.
Juvenile king penguin rookery

Our second day on South Georgia, November 3rd, began with a landing at Salisbury Plain, the so-called Serengeti of the South.  As we lined up for our Zodiacs to go ashore, I realized that there were three tourists dressed in penguin suits:  Ricky and Renee, an American-Malaysian couple on their honeymoon, and Jenny, a Canadian oilsands engineer.  We found ourselves in king penguin heaven, a huge nesting colony filling most of the land area of the beach.  There were of course elephant seals in huge harems, as well as preening fur seals, and Antarctic terns wheeled in great numbers in the air.  The endemic South Georgia pintail duck was well represented on the various meltwater streams that cut the beach at regular intervals, necessitating muddy river crossings or long detours.  But overwhelming our senses were the king penguins by the tens of thousands, many walking in single file to or from fishing expeditions in the ocean.  Thousands were moulting, standing apart from the crowd as they flapped their wings in irritation at what must have been an itchy experience.  
Perfect fur coats
Tens of thousands of juveniles, almost a year old, stood in huge aggregations, some of them coming right up to us in curiousity.  They cawed furiously for their parents, and Terri and I were amazed that they could find each other in the cacophony of penguin calls.  Here and there a penguin skeleton littered the beach, victims of stillbirth or skua attack or starvation.  It really was overwhelming, and after a while I stopped taking photos and just squatted down and watched the penguins come up to us within touching distance and stare at us.  I had the same feeling as I had had twenty years before with mountain gorillas in Zaire, that I was intruding into their living room with my camera.  Eventually we pulled ourselves away to return to the ship, sated with the sensory overload of too many penguins in one place.
Ruins of Stromness whaling station
After lunch and picture downloading and sorting, it was time for a different sort of landing in the afternoon.  We sailed down the coast to Stromness, one of the whaling stations that once dotted the shoreline of South Georgia.  Monika had given us a lecture on the history of whaling in the South Atlantic, and I was amazed (and somewhat horrified) at how widespread the use of whale products was in foods, industrial processes and even tennis racquet gut until the 1960s.  Stromness had been a Norwegian station until the abandonment of South Atlantic whaling in 1964, and now lies abandoned and in ruins, with warning signs keeping us 200 metres away from the shattered buildings.  There is both a physical danger, from winds sending scrap metal flying through the air, and a biological hazard from the asbestos used to insulate the buildings.  We landed on the beach in another driving snowstorm and set off inland, glad to stretch our legs and walk an appreciable distance for the first time since Port Stanley.  A glacial valley led inland from the ruins, between glaciated peaks, and along the path small, hardy gentoo penguins strolled along.  
Gentoo on a mission, Stromness
Gentoos, despite their comical appearance and small size, are the hardiest mountaineers of the penguin world, and often establish colonies inland in order to avoid competition for space with king penguins, elephant seals and fur seals.  We followed one individual for a long way; he was completely unfazed by our presence, and despite his tiny legs and waddling gait, he set a pace that was barely slower than our own.  Eventually we gave up the pursuit, as the gentoo colony appeared much further from shore than we felt like walking.  On the way back we passed skua couples setting up nesting sites, a few more gentoos and (of course) elephant seals, a single outsized male keeping an eagle eye over the much smaller females of his harem in case a rival male should suddenly appear.  Pintails were everywhere, swimming in the meltwater ponds.  A huge steel anchor lay on the beach, a still-life memento to the impermanence of human endeavour.
Walking up into the hills behind Stromness
This whaling station has historic connotations to do with Shackleton, as it was here, in 1917, that Shackleton and his companions completed their 36-hour dash over the island in search of help from the whalers.  Looking up into the snowy mountains, I was once again impressed by their speed, determination and mental toughness, crossing unknown mountains with no equipment in a do-or-die mission.  That night at dinner, we spotted our first icebergs floating past on the currents from the Antarctic Peninsula.

Terri, Alejandro the biologist and the MV Ushuaia
Our third full day on South Georgia began after a restless night of steaming around, as prevailing heavy winds prevented the captain from finding a calm anchorage anywhere along the coast.  We departed early (8 am) for a landing at Fortuna Bay.  It was in some ways my favourite landing site, enclosed by some of the most rugged scenery seen so far.  There were, of course, National Geographic quantities of fur seals, elephant seals and king penguins all over the beach.  The fresh-fallen snow blanketing everything (it was, of course, another driving blizzard) lent an air of drama and photographic contrast to everything.  There were skuas nesting everywhere, giant petrels scavenging dead elephant seal pups, gentoos climbing high above the beach up steep couloirs and then tobogganing down, king penguins sauntering around in large groups like bus tourists on a Florida beach.  
Elephant seal love
As we returned to the boat, Terri and I saw a male elephant seal holding down one of his (relatively) tiny mates with a flipper.  Eventually he decided to mate with her, and we watched, captivated, like voyeur zoologists, as he had his way with her.  As soon as it was over, she scooted free, moving with surprising speed for such a big animal, probably relieved to have escaped.  Again I felt as though David Attenborough should have been narrating the morning’s proceedings.

As our Zodiac got close to the ship, an unmistakeable aroma filled the air.  “Barbecue!  It’s a parillada!”  And sure enough as we came around the stern, we could see the kitchen staff gathered around a huge grill lashed to the portside railings of the ship.  We started with sausages as an appetizer in the lounge, and then moved to the main course, huge slabs of grilled beef, at the lunch table.  I ate until I thought I might possibly explode; I love Argentinian beef!  By the time we had finished our delicious dessert, we had steamed into Grytviken harbour.  Grytviken had once played host to three separate whaling stations (two Norwegian and one Scottish), and is now the capital of South Georgia, inhabited by the couple who administer the entire archipelago and a handful of British scientists.  After two and half days of dreadful weather, suddenly the skies cleared and the sun glinted on the thick blanket of fresh snow that covered everything.  While our passports were being stamped (with a neat entry stamp featuring penguins), we listened to the wife of the First Family talk about the huge effort being made to exterminate every single last rat on the entire archipelago.  It’s too early to tell yet, but the first indications are that there are no rats left alive anywhere.  If that is true, it’s great news for nesting seabirds.  There are currently 55 million birds nesting on South Georgia and its outlying islands; in the absence of rats (which prey on the eggs and chicks of ground-nesting birds like pipits, pintails and wandering albatrosses), that number could grow fairly rapidly to a mind-boggling 180 million.  Several of our fellow passengers were impressed enough with the project to donate to the charitable trust doing the restoration work.

Terri and the Boss, Grytviken
We were eventually released to go ashore, and we spread out along the beach and through the remains of the whaling station (which, unlike Stromness, has been cleaned up enough not to be hazardous to visitors).  There is an impressive museum, staffed by a succession of volunteer curators, which has an amazing collection of objects, animals and information about the history of whaling, the Falklands War (which started on South Georgia) and Shackleton (a replica of the lifeboat he sailed from Elephant Island to South Georgia lies in one building of the museum).  The current curator, a young Englishman, gave a couple of historic walking tours, but Terri and I tore ourselves away to visit the whaler’s church (where I got to play the organ and toll the bell), write postcards (South Georgia makes good money selling postcards and its own stamps) and take pictures of the elephant seals that now dominate a landscape that was once redolent of death and horror.  We walked out to Sir Ernest Shackleton’s grave with Oz, the 86-year-old Aussie Antarctic addict and Shackleton fan, and tried to locate the grave of Frank Wild, Shackleton’s second-in-command, who was re-buried here five years ago, under the thick snow.  
Finally located under the snow:  The Boss's right hand man
The visit ended with everyone at Shackleton’s grave, drinking a toast to “The Boss” and listening to a very brief speech by Oz.  We were completely happy as we Zodiacked back to the MV Ushuaia, watching the sun play on the fresh snow atop the high peaks lining the fjord.
Peak above Grytviken
November the 5th, our last day on South Georgia, was a great send-off for us.  We finally had a great night of restful sleep in a very calm anchorage, and everyone woke up refreshed.  We got to St. Andrew’s Bay, perhaps the largest king penguin nesting colony in the world, only to find that high winds were driving waves onto an exposed, steep, dissipative beach.  After a brief confab, Monika and Agustin decided that it was too rough to land, but instead we would do Zodiac tours of the coast.  At first we were disappointed, but it quickly became clear that it was a brilliant solution.  
Leopard seal 
We had a completely different view of the animals and birds than we did from the shore, and we had a memorable encounter with a leopard seal who followed our Zodiac, showing us his huge top predator teeth.  An elephant seal swirled around in his own pseudo-Jacuzzi pool, while two other elephant seal males fought a blood-soaked duel on the beach.  
Five tons of elephant seal facing off against another five tons 
We watched giant petrels fishing offshore, and trying to take off with a comic-book series of running steps across the water.  We were surrounded by groups of king penguins fishing, wading ashore or diving into the surf.  We were in our Zodiac with Ivan and Guille, two of the Argentinian photo tour group (although Ivan is a Guatemalan), and it was mesmerizing to watch them trying to take good photos from the bottom of our violently bobbing boat.  Looking at the final results, though, I was impressed at the quality of the photos; of course, if, like Guille, you take 4000 photos in 90 minutes, you should end up with a few good shots.
Giant petrel takeoff run
In the afternoon, after lunch, we started the long sail southwest towards the Antarctic Peninsula.  Yesterday’s sunny weather was a distant memory as we detoured up the Drygalski Fjord, sailing up between towering mountains and hanging glaciers as snow accumulated on the deck and passengers had snowball fights.  We felt very small and insignificant as we got to the head of the fjord and stared up, way up, at the calving face of the glacier.  We slowly turned around and then steamed out to sea, past a series of huge icebergs, headed for Antarctica proper after four unforgettable days of wildlife encounters on the magical island of South Georgia.  It was hard to believe that we had been part of such an orgy of birdlife and mammals.  It was also hard to believe that Antarctica itself could compete with this, making us glad that we had signed up for the full three-week three destination experience.

Iceberg floating past the southeast corner of South Georgia 

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Falkland Island Fanfare--Antarctic Cruise Part 1 (October 2015 Retrospective)

Antarctica is one of those place names, like Timbuktu or Jerusalem or Lhasa, that resonate in your mind long before you ever set foot there.  There are so many stories and images that percolate through our culture:  Scott’s doomed expedition, Amundsen’s successful dash to the Pole, Shackleton’s epic survival tale, emperor penguins and their unimaginably frigid months-long vigil in the dark with their eggs.  I had wanted to visit Antarctica for many years, but had always thought that it was far beyond my financial means; it was only when Terri and I began to plan our post-Switzerland travels that we decided that since we had both long harboured dreams of visiting Antarctica, it was time to break open the piggy bank and pay for a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the coldest, driest, highest and most unpopulated continent.
MV Ushuaia, our home for 20 days
We began looking in earnest almost two years ago, thinking of a trip over Christmas, but quickly decided that it would make more sense to make it part of a longer trip when we weren’t working.  I subscribed to newsletters from various tour operators, watching prices in the hope that we could get a last-minute special.  As we did our research, though, it seemed to us that it made more sense to pay a bit extra and get a much longer trip, including the Falkland Islands and South Georgia as well as the Antarctic Peninsula.  We watched the website of Ushuaia Turismo (which details all available departures from Ushuaia) and finally settled on a 20-day trip to all three destinations on the MV Ushuaia, operated by Antarpply Expeditions, leaving on October 26th.  Unfortunately, we couldn’t commit to it until we knew when Terri’s Swiss citizenship would be granted, so we waited anxiously throughout the northern summer as we rode bicycles down the Danube, as I sailed and rode through Scandinavia, as Terri worked her last term in Leysin, as we went trekking in the Pyrenees.  Finally the date was confirmed and we knew that Terri would be free to go to Antarctica at the end of October.  We wrote to Daniela, the owner of Ushuaia Turismo, hoping that there were still tickets left at the cheapest price of US$ 9200.  She said that there were still tickets available, and after an endless series of e-mails, problems in paying by bank transfer, reams of paperwork and the like, we were finally confirmed in early October.

After our Pyrenees and Corsica trips, Terri and I made our separate ways to Ushuaia from Switzerland.  Terri flew to New Zealand to visit her family and stopped off in Bali along the way, while I flew to Ottawa to visit my mother.  We rendezvoused at the Ushuaia Turismo office on October 25th and collected our Antarctic gear (very warm waterproof trousers and massive overjacket, included in our package price) and settled in for our night in a very comfortable room in the building behind the office (also included in our package price). 
A little bit of Argentinian nationalist delusion on the waterfront
After an afternoon walking around Ushuaia and a long night’s sleep, we spent the next day getting ready for our afternoon embarkation, buying bottles of Argentinian wine (much cheaper than buying wine on board the ship), moving much of our cycling-specific and camping gear to the Hotel Antartida Argentina, where we were going to stay after the cruise).  It was only a few blocks’ walk down to the pier, where we went through various bureaucratic steps, admired the Argentinian obsession with the Falkland Islands (“Ushuaia is the capital of the Malvinas” is painted in big letters on the harbour wall; “We do not allow English pirate vessels to dock here” is the sign right at the tourist pier) and milled around waiting for the all-clear to go aboard.  Precisely at 4 pm we filed on board, put our luggage in our surprisingly comfortable cabin and went upstairs to the lounge for our welcome toast on board.  The Ushuaia has a capacity of 87 passengers, and we were only 77, so a few people got an upgrade in cabin class, to their delight.  In the lounge, the pastry chef (who became our favourite person on board) had created a gingerbread model of the ship, and another gingerbread company logo.  We met the people who would run our lives for the next 20 days:  Monika, our German expedition leader, and Agustin, her Argentinian sidekick; Kata and Ale, the two biologists, and Mariela, understudy to Monika and Agustin. 
Our gingerbread expedition ship

We also met some of the characters among our fellow passengers whom we would get to know over the following weeks:  Tom, the young chicken farmer from Australia with his biblical patriarch beard; Andrew and Emma, keen birders from England; Stefan and Claudia, birders from Houston; Yvonne and (another) Tom, who had won the trip in a contest run by a radio station in Holland; Oz, an 86-year-old Australian, born and raised in Turkey, who had been to Antarctica five times, including two overwinterings, for work, and whose last item on his “bucket list” was to see the grave of his hero Ernest Shackleton on South Georgia.  We sipped our welcome champagne, listened to the first of many, many briefings outlining rules on the boat, and had our mandatory lifeboat drill.  We filed into dinner in the dining room and had the first of a series of really good meals that would pace our days, and then Terri and I went out onto the upper deck with our Singleton’s single malt to toast the start of the trip.  It was a full moon, and the sea and wind were calm as we steamed east along the Beagle Channel, our wake glimmering in the moonlight.  It was a perfect start to our long-awaited adventure.
Beautiful water on the Beagle Channel
The next morning, after sleeping very well, I was awoken (as would become the norm) by Monika’s voice over the loudspeaker telling us that we were back in Ushuaia due to a “serious situation” and we would have a pre-breakfast briefing to explain the situation.  As Terri and I headed out of our cabin, it became clear that the problem related to a fire, as a giant pile of smouldering cardboard was on the deck just outside our cabin door.  A strong smell of smoke permeated the boat.  As we assembled in the lounge, rumours and stories circulated about what might have happened.  When we had all appeared, Monika told us that there had been a fire in the walk-in freezer compartment of the ship that had been found the night before as we were heading to bed.  It had been burning very slowly for a while, probably since the morning, and was only smouldering because of the lack of oxygen in the sealed freezer.  The crew had sprayed water on the outside of the freezer to reduce the temperature, and then carefully aimed fire extinguishers inside the freezer without opening the door more than the minimum, to avoid feeding oxygen to the flames.  They had turned the boat around and headed back to Ushuaia while the crew continued to extinguish the fire, and the smouldering wreckage outside our cabin was the start of a long process of removing months-worth of frozen food boxes from the freezer before the entire freezer could be examined for further damage and the cause of the fire.  Then the Argentinian Coast Guard would have to certify the ship as sea-worthy, the freezer would have to be re-stocked and we could head out again, probably in two days. 
Cormorants near Ushuaia
We were disappointed; Monika told us that the recertification as sea-worthy was not a guaranteed deal, and that the underlying cause of the fire had to be identified and the electrical system on board comprehensively checked.  We had visions of the entire expedition being cancelled, and our dream trip going up (literally) in smoke.  Even if we did sail, if the delay were long enough, would they have to cut one of our three destinations from the itinerary?  Terri and I mused about this that morning as we spent that morning soaking up unseasonably warm sun and warmth on the upper deck, reading and juggling and sketching.  We gathered for lunch and another briefing:  the ship’s electrical system was apparently not at fault and it seemed a cigarette end or something similar had ended up in one cardboard box in the process of loading.  Monika was modestly optimistic that we would be able to get underway the next day.  Some passengers were less hopeful, and Stefan and Claudia, having read the fine print of our contract of passage, told us that Antarpply, the company running the trip, was under no legal obligation to refund us anything for days lost on the trip or even for complete cancellation.
Upland goose in flight
That afternoon, to give the passengers something to do while the crew continued to empty the smoky wreckage into a giant garbage container on the dock, we embarked on a couple of buses for a tour into the mountains behind Ushuaia.  The intentions were good, but a bus tour on an overheated vehicle put half of us to sleep, and the views that we should have had were swallowed by low clouds, rain and snow flurries.  We drove past the local ski resort, and past cross-country ski areas where snow still lingered with ski tracks still visible.  We went over the Marconi Pass and down to Lago Escondido, a small lake full of birds that woke me up enough to spend a happy half hour with my binoculars looking at unfamiliar species.  We snoozed our way back to the ship for dinner and another briefing.  Monika told us that now everything hinged on the Coast Guard’s approval of the ship’s seaworthiness, and the speed with which provisions could be bought and delivered.  She was hopeful that the OK would be given in the morning, and that we would be able to sail the following afternoon.  She also said that the company was arranging a boat trip around the Ushuaia area to look at wildlife the next day.  We went to bed more hopeful that the day before.   
Sea lions lolling around near Ushuaia
The boat trip, on a catamaran run by Rumbo Sur, was excellent.  It was one of those outings flogged by outfits all over the Ushuaia waterfront at greatly inflated prices that we would probably never have paid for ourselves, but now that it was a freebie, we could enjoy ourselves.  We headed out to several of the tiny rock outcrops that dot the Beagle Channel to view cormorants and sea lions.  Everyone’s cameras snapped into action, and I realized that the big group of 14 Argentinians who hung around together were a group of professional, semi-professional and serious amateur photographers under the guidance of one of Argentina’s most renowned photographers, Marcelo Gurruchaga.  Some of our other passengers also had huge, impressive cameras with lenses the size of a small bazooka, and the air was thick with the sound of clicking shutters.  We then headed over to a small island where we could go ashore and check out some of the bird life.  The weather was sunny and warm, and the light on the kelp geese and upland geese was perfect.  We returned to the boat re-animated, and another excellent lunch with a baked apple dessert (the pastry chef would quickly become one of our favourite people on board) we had a lecture on sea birds and then set off by 4 pm, larders restocked and optimism rekindled.  Monika also told us that Antarpply had agreed to give us all a 10 percent discount on the price of our trip (having lost 2 days out of 20, that seemed fair enough), so Stefan and Claudia’s worst fears weren’t coming true. 

We steamed along the Beagle Channel again, this time earlier in the day, and by the time we were tucking into a delicious salmon dinner, the ship was just beginning to leave its sheltered passage and head into the open South Atlantic.  I started to feel queasy just after dessert, and suddenly had to run upstairs to be seasick over the side.  It was my body’s signal to me to go to bed immediately, and I did so.

I slept well, woke up and headed to breakfast the next morning feeling refreshed.  Breakfast was always a big buffet, well-stocked with fruit, toast, cereal, yoghurt, bacon, eggs and croissants, and I was devouring my morning quota of bacon and eggs when another wave of nausea drove me outside again.  I took some seasickness medication, went back to the cabin, read, napped through lunch and awoke feeling completely better.  This time going upstairs in the rolling sea had no effect on my well-being and I spent the afternoon on deck with most of my fellow passengers, watching the seabirds that tirelessly followed in our ship’s wake.  
The Falklands flag flying over the MV Ushuaia
Black-browed albatrosses and southern giant petrels were among the most numerous and prominent of the ship-followers, but smaller birds such as prions and Cape petrels and storm petrels were mixed in, while occasionally a huge, slower-moving wandering albatross or royal albatross would show up behind.  It was a wonderful spectacle, under clear skies and brilliant sunshine.  By mid-afternoon we were coming into sight of land, the furthermost western outliers of the Falklands Archipelago.  

On the beach at New Island, West Falklands
Our destination was New Island, a penguin, cormorant and albatross nesting ground, and by 5 o’clock we were dressed up for our shore expedition and queuing up to board our Zodiacs to be shuttled to the island.  The late-afternoon light made for dramatic colours, and we put ashore on the beach amidst oystercatchers, kelp geese and upland geese.  The island was once a sheep station, but is now run as a nature conservancy, providing shelter for many thousands of black-browed albatrosses, rockhopper penguins and king cormorants, not to mention almost a million fairy prions (of which we saw precisely none).  We said hello to the couple running the island, took some photos on the beach and along the path through the tussock grass, and then, atop a cliff looking out to the open South Atlantic, we came to the nesting site.

Terri amidst the penguins, albatrosses and cormorants
It was an unforgettable hour and a half that we spent there taking photos, looking through binoculars or just gazing in wonder.  In incredibly close quarters to each other, completely mixed together, the three nesting species jostled for space, squawked cacophonously and posed for our cameras.  My favourites were the rockhopper penguins, small birds with bright yellow “hair” on their heads a bit like bleached punk Mohawks.  They made their way painstakingly uphill from the ocean beach far below, hopping their way up one rock at a time.  
Punk rockhoppers
The cormorants too were visually striking, with bright blue eyes and weird orange patches of crumpled skin, like balls of felt, at the top of their beaks.  From time to time they would make their way to a convenient launching point and hurl themselves into the air to go fishing offshore.  Meanwhile the albatrosses, looking out of place because of their much larger size, perched atop small earthen nests or else soared effortlessly overhead.  
We sat in the tussock grass, less than a metre away from the melee, and soaked in the sights and sounds.  I felt as though I were in a BBC nature documentary narrated by David Attenborough, and I could hear his unmistakeable voice giving a running commentary in my ear.  Eventually we climbed down to the ocean to watch the rockhoppers coming and going, and to get a view from underneath of the albatrosses.  
Rockhopper making his way slowly uphill from the sea
A few striated caracaras (aka Johnny rooks), a species almost endemic to the Falklands (a few are found on outlying islands of Chile down towards Cape Horn) flew by from time to time, almost lost in the maelstrom of cormorants and albatrosses.  And then, all too soon, it was time to trudge back to the beach, already in shadow as the sun sank towards the horizon, and catch a Zodiac ride back to the MV Ushuaia. Conversation over a supper of Manchurian beef was an excited babble as we relived our experiences, and we lingered in the lounge after supper to talk more with fellow passengers before heading upstairs for a celebratory taste of Ardbeg whisky.

Black-browed albatross soaring
We spent the night steaming around the outside of the Falkland Archipelago, and by 10 am the next morning (Friday, October 30th) we were making our way through The Narrows to dock in Port Stanley.  The idyllic warm calm weather we had had on New Island was a distant memory, and we docked in a biting wind that sucked the warmth from our bodies.  Landing formalities seemed to take forever as HM Customs inspected the boat and our passports were stamped.  Finally we were released and Terri and I led the charge into the wind on the half-hour hike into town from the ferry dock.  

The town of Port Stanley has a population of only 2100 people (out of the 3000 who inhabit the islands), and it’s a tidy, neatly-kept town of low-rise houses, each with a Land Rover parked outside (there are essentially no paved roads outside the capital).  Terri and I were headed in search of fish and chips, and after we couldn’t find our first choice, we ended up at Shorty’s Diner, run by a Chinese family, where we had great fish and chips and beer.   The clientele were all local residents (always a good sign) except for a couple of soldiers from the UK military base which is there to dissuade the Argentinian government from launching a repeat of the 1982 invasion.  The local accent was very English, and the money we got back in change from our meal was the local version of British notes and coins, with Falklands wildlife on the coins. 
Just in case the Argentinians were in any doubt....
As we walked through the streets, bundled up against the ferocious winds, signs of the islanders’ British identity were everywhere, from the local flag (a Union Jack in the corner and a coat of arms bearing a sheep in the middle) to the popular bumper stickers stating “The Falkland Islands—British to the Core!”.  
Falklands War Memorial
Terri and the Iron Lady, Port Stanley
We bypassed the local museum but walked out to the monuments to the 1982 Falklands War, featuring a bust of Margaret Thatcher (a local hero for her resolute response to the invasion; she is far more universally admired in Port Stanley than in any city in the UK, I would imagine) and a memorial wall for the 200 or so soldiers, sailors and Marines who died retaking the islands.  A bit further along the sea wall is an older memorial to a naval battle fought in the first year of World War One just off the Falklands between the UK and German fleets in which the British managed to defeat the Germans.  We walked past the neatly kept grounds of Government House, then headed to the Victory Bar for a pint.  This local watering hole was buzzing late on a Friday afternoon, partly with locals and partly with about half the passengers and crew of the Ushuaia.  The ceiling was decorated with hundreds of tiny Union Jacks, and military-themed displays covered the walls.  I wondered what the Argentinian crew of our ship made of it, and how it squared with the nationalist obsession with recovering the islands that makes up so much of their schooling and upbringing.

The Victory Bar, Port Stanley
We struck up a conversation with a local guy who works in the fishing industry, and after a couple of pints we had learned more about Falklands history and current affairs than we would have gained from an afternoon in the museum.  The Falklands have become very wealthy over the past 30 years thanks to selling fishing rights to Spanish, Japanese, Taiwanese and other fishing fleets.  Very few Falklanders work directly in the industry, except, as in the case of our conversational partner, in the organization of fishing permits and arranging of local business partnerships.  The fishery, for the lucrative Patagonian toothfish (aka Chilean sea bass) is said to be one of the best managed fisheries in the world, with fish populations and sizes healthy and thriving.  The revenue from these fisheries pays for most of the Falklands government budget, allowing for low income taxes and government schemes to pay for any Falklander graduating from high school to go to the UK to pursue higher education free of charge.  I couldn’t imagine the current Argentinian government, with its chronic economic mismanagement, being able to run the islands nearly as efficiently.

WW2 war dead from the Falklands
Our interlocutor was a small boy when the Argentines invaded, and he remembers the young Argentinian conscript soldiers being baffled by why they were being greeted with sullen indifference and active hostility, instead of being welcomed as liberators as they had anticipated.  He seemed up to date on Argentine politics, and was modestly hopeful that if Macri won the presidential election (as he did a few weeks later in a run-off against the Kirchnerist candidate Scioli), Macri would tone down the angry nationalist rhetoric that has been a feature of Argentine pronouncements on the Falklands (Malvinas) for the past decade.  Just before we had to head back to the ship, the third-place game in the Rugby World Cup came on, pitting the surprising Argentinian team against the South Africans.  The locals were cheering the South Africans, but were pretty tolerant of the excited pro-Argentina cheers of our ship’s crew.  It was a hopeful sign that on an individual level Argentines and Falklanders could at least tolerate each other.
Albatrosses following our ship

Safely back on board, and having added three passengers to our roster (a Norwegian couple working on oil exploration off the Falklands—recent results were not very encouraging—and Aussie Tom’s mother Sally, a wonderful firebrand of energy who had been visiting friends in the Falklands for a week), we set off towards South Georgia and the next leg of our triangle of exploration, fully satisfied with the nature, history and present-day culture that we had seen in the Falklands.