Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Elephant Island

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We Came, We Saw, It Conquered

For the last 2 ½ days our ship has sailed south towards Antarctica, finally crossing the 60 degree south parallel. The weather has been very favorable, in fact it has been about as good as you can expect in these waters. As is normal, storms develop in the west and rush to the east, passing through the Drake Passage south of Ushuaia about every 3 to 4 days, but as if by some miracle, after making the passage, they have been turning northward slamming the Falklands, and leaving the area in which we have been sailing enjoying pretty good conditions.

Our destination of course is Antarctica, but initially we will start our journey at the northern tip and then sail southward. Our first stop is Elephant Island which is actually at the outer reaches of the South Shetland Islands, and which lies just off the coast of Antarctica itself. We stopped at this destination because it is famous for being the location at which Shackleton and his men first reached land after losing their ship the Endurance to ice in the Weddell Sea.

Elephant Island must be one of the most desolate locations on the planet. The island supports no significant flora or native fauna. The sides of the islands are sheer rock which reaches an elevation of around 2,800feet, and the prominent feature of this small landmass is a huge glacier, the Endurance Glacier, which discharges directly into the sea. There is no safe anchorage on the island, and the normal weather is foggy with snow and howling winds which can reach speeds of 100mph. Shackleton and his crew managed to establish a camp on a small spit of rocky land off the northern tip of the island, today known as Point Wild. DSC00666The area that they eventually called home is hardly big enough to walk on, and offers no shelter from the elements. Eventually the crew used their upturned lifeboats, surrounded by boulders and canvas as makeshift shelters. Once they realized that there was no hope of rescue, Shackleton and five other men set out on an incredible risky voyage in one of the lifeboats in a desperate attempt to reach South Georgia. The 21 remaining crew had to live and survive in these horrible conditions for four months before Shackleton returned to rescue them. It is one thing to read about this experience or even to watch a film about this epic story, but quite another to actually see firsthand how absolutely impossible their survival seemed. Then we ventured out from the boat into the elements, and at that point, I was overwhelmed at what they had achieved.

Conditions upon our arrival were a rather dense fog, a pretty good swell, and with what seemed to be strong winds. It was snowing, or more correctly, the sky was spitting grapple, small ice balls. Our ship maneuvered into the lee of the surrounding cliffs, and conditions improved considerably. The fog lifted a little, and the winds died down to around 25mph. The temperature was -4C or 24F. The ship sent out a scouting party to see if it was possible to actually land on Point Wild, the actual location of Shackleton’s camp, but they reported that the swell was too great to permit a safe landing. Therefore, we were going to be treated to a one hour zodiac ride around the area which would include a close-up view of the monument erected by Chile to Shackleton on Point Wild, and a ride along the glacial front.

As I prepared for the ride, I stuck my nose outside our sliding door, and I don’t care what they said conditions were, the “feel” was altogether different than South Georgia. So, for the first time I climbed into “all” the gear with which we had been outfitted, and literally waddled down to Deck 3, our departure point. Once there, the Hotel Director, himself, gave me an inspection, and when I was done, I felt like a little kid having been dressed by my parents to go out and play in the snow. The problem was that I was so dressed that I could hardly move. I did make it into the zodiac, and once we left the lee of the ship, I got to experience just a small fraction of what Shackleton’s men endured every day. I had to insure that every area of exposed skin was protected.

We were the first zodiac, and so our tour started with a visit to Point Wild and the monument. As we approached closely, I was amazed to see just how little land was open and what there was, was simply rugged rock outcroppings. The little spit of land was filled with penguins in large numbers and a few fur seals. In fact, one of the real joys of our zodiac ride was the constant stream of little penguins darting along and in front of our zodiac. DSC00688Clearly they were enjoying our company. As we left point wild for a ride along the glacial front, I begin to notice that my hands were becoming cold. On my left hand, I had the really heavy glove that we had been issued, and inside of that, I was wearing an additional silk glove liner. So the left hand, while becoming cold, was really OK. My right hand was another matter. I was also wearing the silk liner, but this glove was one that we had found on the internet that offered a slit in the forefinger and thumb which allowed me to extend these digits in order to operate my camera. I quickly learned two things; first, the glove was in no way up to what I needed for this weather, and second, my extended fingers were quickly becoming painful. As time progressed, I no longer had any feeling in my finger, the hand was also becoming painful, and I realized that I was in trouble. Fortunately, I had a good hand warmer with me, Lisa’s armpit! I forgot taking pictures, and for the last half of the ride, I kept my right hand in her arm pit; all the while I prayed that our little trip was quickly going to end. With her help, I made it back without incident, but I will not use that glove in these conditions again.

It is pretty easy to go cruising along in a nice warm ship wondering at the amazing scenery outside, and occasionally opening a sliding glass door to quickly snap a picture or two. Today was my first real exposure to conditions in Antarctica, and it was a lesson quickly learned – this place can kill you. Later in this trip, we will make actual landings on the continent of Antarctica itself. This brief experience has really made me realize even more what a fantastic achievement the eventual rescue of Shackleton’s crew really was.

So, welcome to Antarctica – and hang on, there will be more on the way.


Sunday, November 25, 2012

Paying Our Respects To Shackleton

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Since I last wrote, Lisa and I have experienced two absolutely spectacular days continuing our visit to the South Georgia Islands. We are now en route to the Antarctica Peninsula; a trip of around 800 miles which will take two days of sailing.

At the end of my previous blog because of the weather, the Captain had decided to seek shelter in Cumberland East Bay which offers one of the best shelters on the Island. As a result, we had a calm and restful night; when I awoke in the morning, I opened the curtains on an absolutely beautiful day with sunny skies, and nearby was a rather large iceberg and also nearby I could see King Edward Cove which is where the principal settlement of Grytviken is located.

While we enjoyed breakfast, the Captain moved the ship into nearby Cumberland Bay which is home to the immense Nordenskjold Glacier. This glacier offers one of the largest walls of ice sliding into the sea anywhere in the world. Even though it was quite windy, the ship determined that it was safe to operate the zodiacs, and so we were treated to a 90 minute zodiac ride up to and along the glacial wall. DSC00030The temperature of course was around 35F, but with the strong winds it made for a cold ride. However, all of us had been properly prepared by the cruise ship before coming to this region, and we had each been given new parkas that were more than capable of keeping us safely warm.

As we approached the towering ice shelf, we could clearly hear the popping sounds of air being released from the warming ice. We had to weave our way around a sea of floating ice, which ranged all the way from a floating mixture of slush and seawater, to large icebergs. Occasionally there would be a loud noise as if a gun had been fired, but it was only the sound of a large chunk of the ice wall calving off and falling into the water. At one point, the driver of our zodiac moved us into the slush filled water and cut the motor on our boat so that we were floating soundlessly. Even with my poor hearing, I was aware of the popping sounds which filled the air, and the ever present swish, swish of the floating icy slush; amazing. Before we knew it, our time was up and we returned to the warmth of the ship.

I might mention here that sometimes the large swells make getting into and out of the zodiac a real challenge, particularly for someone like me who has developed balance issues. The seamen and expedition staff manages to pull off some of the most amazing feats in this regard. The seamen are hanging on a moving platform in cold conditions and no matter how rough the situation; they are real professionals at insuring our safety.

During lunch, our ship back tracked to Cumberland East Bay and this time entered King Edward Cove, which is where the little community of Grytviken is located. At one time Grytviken was home to a whaling station. Later it also became home to a meteorological station. When whaling died out, a ship repair facility was established, but it, too, was closed. Today the little community is home to the South Georgian Government and is a very popular destination for cruise ships visiting the Antarctic.

More important is the fact that it is here that the remains of Ernest Shackleton are buried. His story is so classic and enduring as well as being such a significant part of the history of Antarctica that I really must take just a moment to briefly outline the highlights of an incredible exploit. Shackleton was a famous explorer of Antarctica. In 1914 he set out on yet another expedition in his ship the Endurance. However in January, 1915, an early winter captured his ship in the pack ice and in spite of the heroic efforts of her crew to free the ship, it steadfastly refused to become free. The ice sheet, in which they found themselves trapped, was floating around in a clockwise rotation in what is known as the Weddell Sea. Shackleton reasoned that they would be trapped for the winter, but that when spring returned his ship should be returned to the approximate location where they had become trapped, and they would simply continue with their expedition at that time. The challenge of spending the winter on the ice was huge, but at least they had the safety of their ship and plenty of supplies.

All that changed when on October 27, 1915, the ever moving ice closed in on the ship and actually fractured the hull. There followed a race against time to remove as many of the supplies from the ship as possible before she sank; in the end, this left the crew stranded on the ice with little protection. The story which follows is one that deserves to be read in detail, but in short, Shackleton and 28 of his men managed to reach the shores of Elephant Island in the Antarctic Peninsula. Here they were at least on land, but their prospects for rescue were basically zero and their supplies were becoming exhausted. In an absolutely daring attempt to save his men, Shackleton and five other men managed to make the approximately 800 mile journey all the way to South Georgia Island in a fortified lifeboat, where they knew there was a permanent whaling station in Stromness Bay. They managed to make landfall on the southern side of the island. However, the whaling station was located over the mountains on the north side of the island. Having just barely survived the raging seas around the Island, he and two other men took the unprecedented risk of attempting to climb over the glaciers and mountains to the other side. No one in history had ever attempted that feat. By some miracle, they arrived at the Stromness administration center, and requested help in returning to get the remaining men on the other side of South Georgia Island, but more importantly, Shackleton wanted to launch a rescue mission to save his crew still in Elephant Island. I do not have the entire history in front of me, but it took several months to mount a rescue. Even then, all he was able to commandeer was the assistance of the Chilean government who dispatched an ocean going tug for the attempt. Eventually, Shackleton rescued all of his men, and the history of his achievement is one of the great legends of Antarctica.

Our afternoon outing from the ship was a visit to Grytviken, but first the zodiacs transported all of the passengers, along with a number of the crew, to a landing site just below Shackleton’s grave. From there we all walked up the hill into a well maintained, but very small graveyard, where his tombstone and his remains are buried. Shackleton actually returned to Antarctic exploration. However, he died of a heart attack while on a cruise in 1922.DSC00104 His family elected to have him buried on this island; so in a moving tribute, the ship had hauled up champagne glasses to the site so that all of us could take part in a toast to Shackleton’s memory and his heroic achievements.

From the graveside up on the hill, we all made our way into the small community. There was located a restored church from 1813, and a large number of buildings from the site’s past. The former manager’s house has been turned into a well done little museum and gift shop. It was with some sadness that we departed this little community, but not before some members of the community came onboard to give us a wonderful presentation about the efforts to restore the island to its pristine shape, and afterwards the party joined us for dinner.

Before leaving the issue of Shackleton completely, I feel compelled to relate an incident which occurred on our cruise to the Arctic in June. At that time access to the bridge of the ship was not restricted so that at any time we were free to go forward to observe operations. To reach the bridge, you first walked through a small foyer which is surrounded by the rooms for the ship’s officers. At the end of the foyer is the door leading to the bridge itself. I was mesmerized by the photographs placed all around the foyer. There are copies of many of the surviving prints from the Shackleton adventure including a picture of him and a picture of the Endurance stuck in the ice. Their ship carried a photographer; however, when the ship had to be abandoned; only a very small fraction of the glass plates on which this history was recorded could be saved. Here in this small area are many of those surviving prints. While I was standing there a young officer passed by and I commented on how historical these prints were. He looked at me with a blank expression, and so I asked if he was familiar with the Shackleton story. His reply absolutely floored me. He had never heard of Shackleton, and even though he went by these pictures every day, they meant nothing special to him. I am sorry, but if you are going to be an officer on a ship headed to the Arctic or to Antarctica, I would almost think that it would be required reading to know this story – just my opinion, mind you.

The next day Saturday, Nov. 24, dawned clear and sunny. We could see that out to sea there was a dense sea fog just offshore, but for our landing into Gold Harbor, the conditions were favorable with the exception of the winds again. Our Captain managed to expertly maneuver the ship into the lee of the surrounding hills where we had enough shelter to commence landing operations. I was curious as to why he selected a really small area of beach at the end of a much longer run. When I asked him about it, he smiled, and asked me to look closely at the beach. Then he asked, “Where else could we land?” Well, in looking closer I saw that every square inch of space was taken up by wildlife across the entire stretch of beach with the exception of the one small area he had chosen. Can you imagine a stretch of beach so populated with animals that there was quite literally no space left to land? That fact combined with the fact that the location he had selected offered the best shelter from the strong winds, and it was once again obvious that he knew what he was doing. Gee, I guess I best leave it to him to navigate the ship!

We went ashore to what our Expedition Leader calls her most favorite location in the entire world; Gold Harbor is regarded as one of South Georgia’s most beautiful sites. It is an amphitheater of hanging glaciers, large descending waterfalls, and vertical cliffs rising straight out of the sea.DSC00230 The towering snow covered peaks of Mt. Paterson create an unforgettable vista. The area is home to an abundance of seabirds and seals. King penguins rule, but we also find Gentoo penguins and a large number of albatrosses. The most unforgettable creatures occupying the beach however are the huge Elephant Seals. These creatures spend upwards of 80% of their life in the ocean, and come ashore only to bred. A large male can reach a length of over 16 feet and weigh almost 8,000lbs. They have been known to hold their breath for more than 100 minutes and can dive to over 7,000ft. They are excellent swimmers; however, on land they look to me like giant slugs! After our wet landing, Lisa and I walked the beach, being careful not to get too close to the wildlife, but in fact the wildlife came to us. The animals are not afraid of humans and many are naturally curious. At the water’s edge there was a constant stream of penguins going to and from the water. They would walk for large distances to reach the beach, then go and find food, only to return and walk back to their nest to feed the chicks. We saw some penguin colonies at what seemed like impossible heights up the steep cliffs, and wondered in amazement at how these cute little animals could make the trip up and down.

After our journey ashore, the Captain moved the ship back to sea, where we entered the fog for our short journey down the coast to Cooper Bay. As we entered the Bay, the fog lifted to a mostly overcast sky, but the winds were howling at a steady 35kts, gusting to 40kts. The ship will not, for safety reasons, launch zodiacs with winds exceeding 30kts, so an outing was in question. Once again our Captain managed to position the ship such that the winds were within safe limits, and even though it was windy, and the swells were a little rough, we launched for a one hour zodiac cruise into the many little coves around the Bay.DSC00265 Nestled on the rocks within the coves, and nesting among the large tuffs of grass were the Macaroni penguins. Actually more fun than the cute little penguins were the seals which found our little zodiacs almost irresistible to play around. For an hour we were ceaselessly entertained, and while we never got ashore, we got a lot of good photographs, before returning to our ship.

At this point, we all thought that we were saying our “goodbyes” to South Georgia and heading off to Antarctica; however, around 7pm our evening briefing was stopped, and we were told to grab our coats and cameras so that we could go outside for a little surprise provided by the Captain. As we all ran to do as suggested, I looked outside to see some stunning scenery. By the time I got on deck, it was raining, but I could see that the Captain was taking our ship through a narrow passage. Macaroni penguins were swimming in the sea and up on the cliffs. After we got through the small opening, the ship was surrounded on all sides by high ice-capped mountains with a glacial front right before us. There was not much room for the ship to maneuver, so after reaching the middle of the little bay, the Captain slowly rotated the ship and returned out to sea, as we all sat in awe at what we had seen. What a wonderful farewell to South Georgia.

Today and tomorrow we will be at sea on our way to Elephant Island.

Tomorrow I hope to have time to work on my photographs, but in the meantime I hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving.


Friday, November 23, 2012

Welcome To Antarctica

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Yesterday afternoon we crossed into Antarctica- well perhaps; and therein is a story worth telling.

You may recall from our trip to the Arctic that a general definition when you are actually in the Arctic is when you are north of the 60 degree North parallel. Remember, the equator is defined as zero degrees, and the North Pole is at 90 degrees north. Similarly in the South, anything south of the 60 degree South Parallel is considered to be in Antarctica, and the South Pole is at 90 degrees. These parallel lines drawn on the earth’s surface were not done at random, but are based on the fact that the axis of the earth is at an angle to the sun, so that the 60 degree parallel marks the location on our planet where the summer solstice, at 60 degrees north there is 24 hours of sunlight, and at 60 degrees south on that date there is 24 hours of darkness. The winter solstice simply reverses everything with 24 hours of darkness in the north, and 24 hours of light in the south.

So, regarding Antarctica, the international treaty which governs this vast continent, defines all territory south of the 60th parallel south to be within Antarctica. At this point in time, we are visiting the Islands of South Georgia and the Sandwich Islands, both of which are possessions of the United Kingdom, and are above the 60th parallel. However, as I will explain, most scientists would consider them as part of the Antarctica territory.

To understand the reasoning behind this, I need to introduce another concept that of the “Antarctic Convergence.” The boundary at which the cold waters of Antarctica converge with the warmer waters to the north is defined as the Antarctic Convergence. This is an extremely important physical boundary in science, and it is relatively easily observed. By way of example, every two hours our ship records the water temperature. Yesterday afternoon we were in beautiful sunny skies and moderate temperatures. However, within a matter of six hours the water temperature had dropped by 8 degrees. Our sunny skies gave way to sea fog, and the outside temperature was noticeably colder. We had crossed the Antarctic Convergence Boundary. This boundary is what scientists consider as the real delineating factor as to what constitutes Antarctica and its boundary. Even while moving slightly from year to year, this boundary is amazingly constant in its location. It is very close to the 60th parallel, but not synonymous with it. In most places, it is actually slightly north of the 60th parallel, but in a few locations it is actually south. So, back to our location, yesterday having crossed the Convergence Boundary, we technically entered Antarctica, even though we have yet to cross the actual political boundary, the 60th parallel.

I know it is confusing, however at the convergence, the waters are incredibly nutrient rich and hence, a great feeding area for wildlife. These waters can also be unpredictable and at times extremely rough. This is one reason that the Drake Passage is so well known for its rough waters because the boundary passes right through it. We will talk about the Drake Passage later when we actually transit it on our way home. A good example occurred on this trip. We just visited the Falkland Islands. The have very little if any snow in a year, and never see an iceberg. By comparison, we travelled about 800 miles almost directly East, so we were at the same latitude as the Falklands, but the South Georgia Islands still had a great deal of snow on the ground, and the very first sight that greeted me when I opened our curtains, was a very large iceberg silently gliding by my window. We had indeed crossed the convergence.

This morning we awoke to a low overcast sky from which we could from time to time get either rain or light snow. The temperatures were slightly above freezing. The winds were moderate at first, causing a little swell, but as the morning progressed both the winds and the swell increased dramatically. We had all been made aware of an approaching storm, but the forecast indicated that we should be able to make our wet landing on the Salisbury Plain and retreat back to the safety of the ship before the winds and waves became too intense. It was a good plan that almost worked!

Our reason for visiting this location was simple; here is the second largest King Penguin colony in the South Georgia Islands. At last count, there were reputed to be around 150,000 nesting pairs of birds, and since their little chicks had recently arrived, the actual number of birds in this location was probably closer to 400,000. It was a truly incredible sight, but it did offer a few challenges. The weather was far from perfect, and predicted to worsen as the morning progressed. For this reason, we started operations very early in the morning. Our group managed to make the shore without incident, but the wet landing was a little rough. At that point, Lisa and I were confronted with a very uneven stone covered beach on which to walk and we both had our walking sticks. Then there was the little matter of the male fur seals who had staked out their territory along the beach. DSC09697It was nearing mating season, and the males were in the process of claiming a good spot right on the beach as near to the water as possible in order that when the females would arrive they might be the lucky suitor. When we landed, they were not yet too aggressive, but both Lisa and I had the aroused seals charge us with a loud roar. Considering the little darlings weighed between 800 to 1,000 lbs., it was an intimating site. We both did as we had been told, and that was to growl back, clap our hands, and not to retreat an inch. If you retreated then it was a sign of weakness, and they would continue charging and very likely give you a bite on the leg. I was threatened several times, but Lisa had only the one event fortunately. Of course, we were not the only objects of their threats. We witnessed several all-out fights between groups of males, and I can tell you that it was rather viscous. In fact, most of the animals had large gouge marks and open wounds on their sides, so this was a serious matter.

The little, or should I say, large King Penguins were another matter altogether. DSC09732The entire beach was filled with them, and we had to remember that a penguin always has the right of way. We were prohibited from approaching them any close than 5 meters, but if we stood still the penguins became curious and would walk right up to us. I was absolutely having a blast– this is something that I have always wanted to see! As I watched, I saw that the penguins on the beach were in transit between the large colonies just up the hill from the beach, to the ocean where they were hunting for food to bring back to the newly hatched chicks. Because the colony itself was rather far up the hill, I could only observe the big brown chicks from a distance, but it was an amazing sight to see so many in one place. At the beach front, large numbers of King Penguins were jumping into and out of the roiling surf. It struck me as funny that I never saw just a single penguin jump in or out of the water. Instead it was always groups that moved in unison.

Because the wind was increasing as well as the rain, Lisa and I decided that it was time to return to the ship – that proved to be a good decision. After we had all our safety equipment on, we walked down to the water’s edge to grab our ride back to the ship. The surf was really up and as our zodiac approached, a wave caught the front, pushed it into the air, and the wind just about flipped it over. Miraculously the driver barely managed to stay in the boat, none-the-less a disaster was narrowly averted. By the time the crew managed to wrestle the little boat into position for us to board, it had filled with about six inches of water. We had a really rough ride back to the ship, but I was so excited about having finally seen a King Penguin, that I hardly noticed the ride.

By the time we had dried off and changed clothes, the weather outside had really worsened. This meant that the predicted storm had moved in much sooner than anticipated. We went to get a cup of warm coffee planning on doing some reading when we realized that a real life drama was unfolding. Conditions had continued to deteriorate at the landing site where it reached the point that one of the craft almost flipped over, and most of the little zodiacs had filled with too much water to be safe. So, the shuttles were stopped, however that left 33 people stranded on shore in worsening conditions.

I was extremely impressed with the way in which the crew and the Captain handled the situation. First, the group on shore had all the emergency equipment needed to safely spend several days there if necessary – that had been planned for well in advance. Also planned in advance was an alternate landing site that offered a little more shelter from the wind. It had not been selected in the beginning since it was almost 2 miles from the colony and the beach was full of “really” aggressive males, which only added to the excitement. Everyone had been fully briefed on the importance of wearing proper clothing just in the event that something like this occurred. So even though the winds were now howling and it was a rain/snow mix, the group managed to make the 2km walk without incident. In the meantime our ship had repositioned, and once things were ready, a fleet of zodiacs was dispatched to retrieve the poor stranded travelers from their cold walk.

During lunch, our ship repositioned to Stromness, which is a former whaling station on the northern coast of South Georgia Island. The historical significance of this location is that it represents the final destination of Ernest Shackleton’s epic rescue journey in 1916. The main event for the afternoon was an opportunity for people to walk the same 4km journey as that taken by Shackleton, and to visit what is now known as Shackleton’s waterfall. For people like Lisa and me, a ride to the beach to view the wildlife and the abandoned station was also offered. While walking the beach area, we saw mostly Adele penguins and Fur Seals. A few Elephant Seals were scattered about, but given the cold and the wind, we stayed long enough to enjoy the experience before returning the our ship.

Because of the bad weather, and in an effort to position the ship for a meaningful day tomorrow, the Captain decided to move down the coast to a more sheltered bay, and then to anchor there overnight. That proved to be a wild ride! At one point, we had 21ft waves and 40 mph winds, all of which made for a challenging experience before we pulled into our shelter where we spent a calm and pleasant night.

Tomorrow we are visiting Grytviken where believe it or not, we must clear customs and immigration before proceeding ashore. It is at Grytviken that Shackleton is actually buried, and today it is the home to a research station and also the local administrative offices.


Ps I am posting this on our blog along with a map, however I have taken so many pictures that there is almost no way I can edit them to add to the project. That may have to wait until I am home.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Back Home On The Silver Explorer

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We are now back on board our absolute favorite cruise ship, the Silver Explorer, and frankly it feels a little like coming home. So many of the crew are familiar faces, and the welcomes were warm and genuine on both sides. Our good friend, Fabien LeConte, the Hotel Director, was kind enough to join us for a “welcome” dinner together. Our cabin was setup just the way we liked it, and the refrigerator was even stocked exactly to our preferences – it could not be any better, but then again Fabien is a perfectionist.

Let me back up one step. When I wrote last, Lisa and I were preparing to leave Buenos Aires on an early charter flight provided by the cruise line. Our flight southward to the most southern city in the world, Ushuaia, Argentina, took around 4 hours.Buenos Aires, Argentina On arrival, we were driven outside the city, almost to the entrance of the National Park, where a wonderful lunch had been prepared at a lodge nestled among the wilderness of the countryside. Once lunch was over, we made our way to the ship for a speedy check in, and there were so many hugs and kisses all around among the wonderful crew that, as I said, it truly felt as if we were coming home.

Our first day was spent at sea en route to the Falkland Islands. It was a busy day spent getting our gear together and being briefed on zodiac operations for the days to come. At no point on this journey will our ship actually be docking. All departures to shore will be done by zodiac. During our day long cruise, I marveled at the large number of birds which surrounded the ship. I could sit for hours marveling at the constant swooping and diving of so many different types of birds. I have written about this before, however by way of but one example, take the albatross; it will spend its entire life at sea returning to shore to breed only once every two years. Pretty amazing stuff for a land lubber like me to absorb!

Early the following morning we disembarked to visit West Point Island in the Western Falklands. Lisa and I have been to the capital of the Falklands, Stanley, on three occasions, but never before had we actually seen other parts of this beautiful countryside. The Island of West Point is privately owned by the Napier family and is run as a sheep farm. In fact, there are more sheep on the Falklands than there are people. West Point Island is slightly less than 6 square miles, and we are visiting here in order to hike to an area known as Devil’s Nose which are home to large colonies of Black-browed albatross nesting side-by-side with the cute little rockhopper penguins. From our room’s balcony, we could watch as the crew set up the zodiac operations, and to our amazement the area was home to a large number of dolphins who felt that the zodiacs had come to play with them.West Point Island, Falklands We were able to watch in fascination as the beautiful animals frolicked alongside the zodiacs. Our landing was a dry landing onto a concrete jetty, but then we were faced with a steep uphill climb and a hike of a little over 1.3 miles across the island to reach our destination. Fortunately for Lisa and I the owners of the island were kind enough to offer rides in their Land Rover to people who were not quite up for the long hike there and back! While we were waiting for our ride, we looked around at the beautiful scenery. Right in front of us, and indeed all around us, were large birds known as Cacarra. I have a great picture of one on a pink float. West Point Island, FalklandsThey are clearly birds of prey, but we were told that they would not harm us; however we needed to be careful because they were curious, and if presented with an opportunity they would carry away whatever they could grab. Our ride arrived and we squeezed into the back like sardines packed in a can. The ride was steep and rough, and there was no way that either of us could have made that walk. We finally arrived at our destination, Devil’s Nose, and from the top of the hill we could overlook a spectacular rock formation and valley leading to the nearby ocean. The sky was full for birds of all types, but the huge albatross was clearly the most awesome. In order to see the nesting penguins, it was necessary to descend down a steep incline through very tall saw grass, which hid the many burrows made by the birds. It was a difficult walk for Lisa and I, and no sooner had we started down than Lisa took a very bad tumble. Her footing slid out from underneath her and she rolled downhill, turning over and over until finally coming to rest. People rushed to help her up and she was whisked by the car back to the home of the local family where she could rest.

Meantime unlike Lisa, I had brought my walking stick, but even then it was with a great deal of difficulty that I managed to get to where I could photograph the little rockhopper penguins and the nesting albatross. West Point Island, FalklandsI grabbed some pictures, but moved along rather quickly to return to see how she was doing. I found Lisa sitting outside in the nice weather where she claimed to be just fine. She mentioned that she had a headache, and had hurt her knee and hand, but would be just fine. “Sure” I thought to myself. I never had an opportunity to go inside the home where I understand the owners had assembled a huge layout of pastries and cakes for our party. Instead I was fascinated by the fact that every spare space on the top of the house was home to a giant red-necked vulture. West Point Island, FalklandsAt one point, I counted 10 of the birds atop the home. The owner told Lisa they were quite tame, but they made for a chilling site. By the time we returned to the ship, Lisa was starting to feel the affects of her fall. The Hotel Director immediately provided her with some ice packs, and she returned to our room where she fell asleep and stayed that way the rest of the day. I am guessing that she had a mild concussion since later in the afternoon she had trouble focusing, and she had to excuse herself from dinner because the noise in the dining room was hurting her head. Fortunately after taking the afternoon to rest, she was up the following day and she seems to have fully recovered.

During lunch, the ship moved some 175 miles from West Point Island to Saunders Island, again in the Western part of the Falklands. Our landing that afternoon was what is known as a “wet” landing, where the zodiac is pulled up close to the beach and we get out in the water and wade ashore.Saunders Island, Falklands The winds had picked up considerably for the afternoon, which made loading the zodiacs from the ship a bit tricky. I can tell you that the crew does the most amazing job of insuring that everyone is safely loaded on and off the little boats sometimes in the most difficult conditions you can imagine. Likewise when going ashore, here again they preform what I consider a miracle to get someone like myself, who is neither exactly petite nor nimble anymore, safely through the surf.

Saunders Island is approximately 51 square miles and is run as a sheep farm.Saunders Island, Falklands We were landing and taking a short walk across a sandy isthmus to see mostly Gentoo penguin colonies along with some Magellan penguins, AND my very first ever sighting of a King Penguin.Saunders Island, Falklands Two things of interest happened besides seeing all the penguins as I was walking among the penguin colonies; I looked up to see a family sitting on a nearby rock. The kids were running around clearly enjoying the day, and I could not help but wonder where on earth this family had come from. I assumed they must live on the island. However a few minutes later, an entire family of children and parents arrived to make sure that we stood behind the penguin colonies for protection. I could not imagine what it was we needed to be protected from until I hear the pounding of hundreds of hoofs rapidly approaching. Over a nearby hill came a running herd of sheep being herded by people on motorbikes and horseback. The sheep by some miracle avoided the penguin colonies; hence standing behind one gave us some shelter because as many as there were of the stampeding sheep, I think they would run anything in their path down. The entire family of people and sheep disappeared almost as quickly as they had appeared, but we still had this nearby family vacationing out in the middle of nowhere. The man of the family got up and came over to talk to me wanting to know where I came from and a little about the ship. As it turns out, he is a Royal Marine who is aircraft commander of a helicopter at the nearby military base. He and his family are doing a one year tour of duty on the Falklands, and on such a beautiful day, he was permitted to take a helicopter with his family so that they could have an outing on Saunders Island. It is amazing what you can run in to in this world.

Overnight our ship sailed almost 800 miles to the East Falkland Islands where early in the morning it managed to pull into the small cove just off the capital of the Falklands, to the city of Stanley.Stanley, Falklands Lisa and I had visited Stanley on two occasions, and each time the weather was not good and the winds were very strong, making just walking around miserable. On these visits, we had arrived on very large ships which could only drop anchor way out away from the city. We then had to undergo a 45 minute ride to shore on a tender in rough seas. What a pleasure it was to be only a 5 minute zodiac ride from the center of town, and just to top off the occasion, except for some strong winds early in the morning, the day was warm and sunny. As part of our stay, SilverSea had made arrangements for us to enjoy a 3 hour complimentary tour of an area known as Bluff Cove. This was the very first time I had ever gotten to see what it looked like outside of Stanley, and it was an absolutely wonderful experience.

From the pier, we were loaded on little mini-busses which gave us a quick drive around the little town before heading out into the central part of the island. We drove for around 30 minutes before departing the paved road, and continuing on a well maintained gravel road across absolutely beautiful country. Our little bus pulled over into a small lot where we were met by a fleet of Land Rovers which would transport us to the cove. Whoa! I have been off-roading many, many times, but this was the most incredible experience I have ever had. I cannot believe that the Rovers did not break an axle or puncture an oil pan, but other than the one that became stuck and had to be towed out by two other Rovers, they performed flawlessly – of course when we alighted, I felt as if I had played too many games without a helmet. Yes, Lisa did not fare too well with the rough journey, but she is a trooper and managed to enjoy the day and after some rest is doing well.

The cove is home to over 1,000 pairs of Gentoo penguins, as well as having a small colony of King penguins. Bluff Cove, FalklandsThe sun was out and it was a beautiful day, except the wind was blowing a bloody gale, which made it – well, let’s say “uncomfortable.” We had an hour to wander on our own before returning to the ship, but we were encouraged to visit the Sea Cabbage CafĂ©, which was hidden from view behind a grass-bank facing a beautiful sandy beach. Unbelievable, is all I can think to say. The lady, who runs this little hideaway for tourists, had filled the little kitchen with an outlandish offering of cookies, cakes and pastries, all of which were prepared by her. Bluff Cove, FalklandsToday she has a number of volunteers to help serve coffee and tea, and all of this is complimentary and part of the tour. Lisa and I enjoyed our respite from the wind, while enjoying some truly delicious treats. All the while, we could look out the window to watch the constant stream of penguins walking to and from the surf. It was all rather magical. Then of course we had to undergo that hellacious ride back into town, but it was all really well done and everyone had a wonderful time. Once back in town, we took a few minutes to visit the Cathedral in front of which is a “one of a kind” archway made from the jaw bones of blue whales. Stanley, FalklandsThe Anglican Cathedral is the southernmost Cathedral in the world.

Yesterday we departed Stanley around 1:30, and headed east towards the South Georgia Islands. Unbelievably the sky was blue and without clouds. The seas calm and we are having a wonderful time – it would be nice if this weather holds, but since we are heading into some of the roughest waters in the world, I suspect that the fun is yet to come.


Saturday, November 17, 2012

Headed South–Buenos Aires, Argentina

Map picture


I actually have very little time to send this blog about our one day experience in Buenos Aires; however, there were a number of interesting things that I thought worth sharing.

Our 24 hour journey from Kansas City to Buenos Aires was relatively uneventful, with the exception that when we landed I found I had a good old-fashioned cold. So instead of doing anything on our first day, I spent the entire time in bed sleeping; I literally slept away the day.

Thursday was our one full day in the city, and we arranged for a guided three hour driving tour of the city which ended up taking four hours. Buenos Aires is architecturally a beautiful city of over 3 million people. It has wide boulevards, and lovely, violet trees that were just beginning to blossom. DSC08894The city is so beautiful that in fact, it reminds me of being in Europe. The weather was absolutely beautiful, without a cloud in the sky, and temperatures in the mid-70s.


But underneath this beautiful exterior, there lies what I would call a “rotten core;” I started to notice that things were not exactly as they seemed. By way of example, when we entered our car I commented to our driver that his radio was missing. It was missing for the simple reason that it had been stolen the week before. The thieves broke his window, and stole the radio in the short time between when he parked to go get a cup coffee and returned to the car. When I made the comment, "well at least it's covered by insurance," he told me that the window would be covered, but not the radio. Apparently the theft of a radio is so common that insurance companies no longer provide coverage that was my first clue that the city had an underlying problem.

One of our stops was at the plaza in front of the Presidential Palace and the city’s main Cathedral. DSC08931Standing in the plaza, we could clearly hear only a few blocks away, the sounds of a riot. People were yelling, there was constant gunfire, which we assumed to be rubber bullets or teargas. The only affect the nearby mayhem appeared to have on the local populace, was that the constant gunfire would scare the pigeons into flight. Other than that, the people simply ignored it. When I asked what was happening, and why there was gunfire, our guide merely shrugged her shoulders and said there are demonstrations everywhere around Buenos Aires all the time.

As we were driving, our guide gave us a serious lecture about security while traveling in the city. We should not have anything on us of significant value since pickpockets are everywhere throughout the city. In addition, we should have our cameras around our necks at all times, and we should always travel together as a group rather than allowing anyone of us to become separated. Also, we must carry copies of our passports with us at all times, but never the originals because they could be easily stolen as well.

As we traveled through the five districts of the city, some districts were elegantly opulent with their own private security forces scattered at every corner. In other parts of the city it was run down and in shambles. At one point, our driver and guide made sure that all of the doors in the car were locked. Our tour guide put her purse underneath her seat, and when she needed to make a phone call she refused to take her phone out and use it until we had left the confines of that district. I asked her why she did not use her phone, wondering if there was some crazy restriction regarding phone usage, but she replied that if she had it in view, then there was a large chance that someone would break the window and take it. Obviously, that did not give us a great deal of comfort when she suggested that we go for a 20 minute walk by ourselves through the central area of that district.DSC08966

It really is hard to explain the dichotomy that we are seeing. Parts of the city as I said are lovely, and yet there are other parts were even our guides were afraid to go even in broad daylight. I have never been to a city where I have personally witnessed in just one day so many protests, some of which were obviously becoming violent.

In fact, Lisa just reminded me that on our drive from the airport to our hotel, we stopped at one traffic light and looked to our left only to see a huge stair leading to a governmental building which was filled with people all of whom had dropped their pants and underwear and were standing there with their butts hanging out. The police seem to just be standing around and not paying much attention. In fact, the only attention they appeared to be getting was from the TV cameras taking a picture of the scene. According to our guide, this was some protest by Greenpeace, and she had no idea what it was about.

On a lighter note, Lisa and I were fascinated by the appearance of a large number of mostly young people who were walking through the parks with as many as 20 dogs in tow. These were referred to as “dog walkers.” Since most people in Buenos Aires live in apartments, if they own a dog, then they hire a “dog walker” to take them out during the day while they are gone to work. It is quite a sight to see someone handling so many dogs at one time, but much to my surprise, all of the dogs seemed to be really well behaved. Also somewhat surprising, all of the dogs were really large. It would seem that small dogs are not in much favor in Argentina.

On a quick final note, I asked our guide point-blank why Argentina felt that the Falklands islands belonged to them. Argentina calls the islands the Maldives and they are shown on every map of Argentina as if they belonged to this country. Our guide became quite animated at the question, and said with more than a little anger that the islands had been taken from them by Great Britain, and that they belonged to Argentina and should be returned immediately. When I challenged her on that version of history, she flatly told me that I was wrong. So I spent the afternoon researching the subject, and she and I will have another conversation as she takes us to the airport since her version of history was not exactly accurate.

Tomorrow morning we leave the hotel at 5:45 to catch a charter flight to the city of Ushuaia, which is at the very bottom of South America. There we will join our ship and enjoy an 18 day cruise of the Antarctic area. So stay tuned – more to follow.


P.S. After writing this blog, Lisa and I went to dinner at a REALLY wonderful Italian restaurant called Bella Italia Ristorante. There I was presented with the most creative and impressive wine list I have ever seen. Are you ready: it was on an iPad! You could press a button and change to one of five different languages. You could turn the pages as with a traditional wine list, or it offered the option of selecting wines by color, variety, or price. If a particular wine was of interest to you, merely selecting it would bring up a picture of the bottle and a full description of the wine. If you decided that was your selection, you pressed a button which then transmitted your choice to the staff, which would then show up with your choice. Besides being creative, the food was wonderful, and the price reasonable. What a wonderful way to end our stay in Buenos Aires!