Monday, January 30, 2012

South Shetland Islands, Aitcho Island

On the voyage south across the Drake toward the Antarctic penninsula, the sighting of the first iceberg was a momentous event, marking our arrival to a world that people only suspected or imagined a little over a hundred or so years ago.   
First Iceberg !
It was a time of personal wonder and amazement.  Wonder at what lay ahead.  Amazement at all the things that somehow coalesced in my life and brought me from Weatherford, Texas, to the Antarctic.  I took just a moment to feel thankful for my luck and good fortune.

Soon, towering snow covered black volcanic mountains appeared off the bow.  The snow covered peaks form rivers of ice that flow slowly down to the ocean to calve, creating an endless parade of icebergs that eventually melt, their crystal clear fresh water evaporating into the air to form snow...
and the life of the mountains begin again...

The air is so perfectly clear, with no smoke, smog, or haze, that perspective as to distance or size becomes impossible.  An iceberg that appears to be small and just over there is actually kilometers away.  Taking a zodiac over to it's face takes a long time, as the berg gets bigger and bigger.. your zodiac becomes smaller and smaller... until it's dwarfed by 20m (70') of ice

We were advised that this would be a "wet landing", so we planned accordingly.  Long underwear, top and bottom.  Fleeces. Rubber pants.  Gum boots and parkas.  Time to suit up, layering on the clothing, hoping for the best, preparing for a sudden change in the weather that could bring on the worst in minutes.  We met aft  and bathed our gum boots and pants legs in Virkon, a disinfectant that kills bacteria, spores, fungi, and viruses.  These folks are adamant about protecting the environment, no effort too large or small.  Next, we boarded our zodiacs for the trip ashore...
Our ride's almost ready
We were bound for little Barrientos Island (Aitcho Island).  At a mere 1.5km long, has steep cliffs (70m) on one end and tapers gently to the sea on the "landing" end.  It featured colonies of Gentoo penguins with their chicks, Chinstrap penguins still on their eggs, giant petrels, the ever-present and always vicious and opportunistic skua gull, and finally, elephant seals laying around on the northern and western sides of the island.     
On the way to Aitcho Island

The cliffs on the left hardly look 70m tall, but they are!

One of the Gentoo colonies patiently watch and await our arrival.  I'm sure that they were all thinking that these "were the ugliest. yellow. birds. ever.  And it's simply comical... they way they toddle around.  And look!  They all look just alike!"

Strolling down to the beach to have lunch
Providing for the family
In the two previous images, the first gentoo is just waddling around.  Perhaps to go to the beach for lunch.  The second image shows one of the funnier traits of the gentoo.  Kleptomania.  They're compulsive thieves.  This one has just stolen a small pebble from a neighboring bird's rock nest (they will not nest on snow), and is taking it back to the family nest.  Pebbles and small rocks are penguin lucre.  Cash.  Moolah.  And on rocky Barrientos, it's easier to steal a rock than go find one.  All the good rocks have already been found, anyway.

The image below seems to represent a typical penguin nesting area here on the penninsula.  It consists of a rocky nest, with one of the parent penguins (they take turns), and one or two chicks. They are strategically placed, with great care, to allow 1) toddling room between nests, plus 2) enough room - maybe 1cm - to avoid getting pecked by the neighbors as you toddle through, and 3)  room to lift your cute little brushy tail... and squirt to your heart's content.
Gentoos with their chicks

Gentoo chicks have been described as ever-growing bags with a large opening at the top and a smaller, but equally busy, opening at the bottom.  The parents consume so much pink krill, and digest it so rapidly, that they don't even get complete food absorption.  Hence the pink penguin poo.  And the chicks... their diets until fledging?  Regurgitated krill.  Yep, kids, you're having that for breakfast AGAIN.  Eat up, it's good for you, and you'll grow up big, and strong enough to kick a skua's ass.

Barf.  It's what's for lunch today.

A gentoo gets all gussied-up
My favorite penguin is the Chinstrap Penguin.  Slightly smaller than a gentoo, but better looking.  Note that it's little wings are white underneath...
Cool Chinstrap Dude (Dudette?)
 This chinstrap's wings are pink...
Chinstrap hottie

A penguin has an outer coat of very tiny, but thick, oily feathers, that cover a down layer beneath.  Keeps it dry and warm.  Sometimes, a bit too warm when the temperature rises and hovers around -2C gasp, pant...  They react by dilating their vessels in their wings to rid them of excess heat.

and then... Cool Again.  Mmmmmm.
Joe Cool
As I mentioned earlier, gentoos and chinstrap penguins nest only on bare rock, making their nests with pebbles and small stones that they gather or (preferably) steal.  If no good nesting areas are found near the beach... they climb.  They really climb.  Damned near straight up.  Until they find a suitable area to build a nest.  So.  Those ugly big feet are good for something!

Check out how high these birds have climbed, one little hop at a time, to find suitable nesting...  The will to breed and multiply is strong.

These gentoos, having no nesting area on the beach (too close to predation) begin the hike up a snowy hill in the quest for nesting areas, leaving behind a prodigious pink penguin poo path that marks their progress.  POO.

The skua gull is Chief-in-Charge of Antarctic clean-up.
Skua - by land

Skua - by sea
It's omnivorous.  It's crafty and determined.  It only eats two kinds of food:  food that moves, and food that doesn't.  It's one of the major predators for penguin eggs and chicks.  
"Happily ever after" for penguins doesn't occur very often.  Less than half the time.  Much less, probably...

Another bird on the clean-up list is the Snowy Sheathbill.  A jack-of-all-trades, if you will.
Snowy Sheathbills
The Snowy Sheathbills are the only bird species in Antarctica that doesn't have webbed feet. They roost well up the cliff-sides out of harm's way... and oddly enough, usually on one foot.  Well adapted to the Antarctic, they eat anything.  Eggs, chicks, fish, dead stuff, yes..penguin poo, krill, and even algae.  Mmmm good.

All these thoughts of food were making me really hungry.  Lucky for me it was time to leave Aitcho and head for the ship.  And supper.  Ohhhh, I'm hoping that the chef will regurgitate something really tasty.  And kind of soupy.  And warm.  Mmmmmm.

On the way back, our zodiac took us by the cliffs on the end of the island to see some seals...
The word "coexist" came to mind...
...and and gave us a brief tour of the iceberg that Sea Spirit had dropped anchor near...

Even prettier close up and personal...
This was a free floating berg.  The water, at -1C is generally warmer than the air above, thus the berg slowly melts from below.  The ice gradually becomes lighter and floats higher in the water, producing the "age lines" seen above.

This evening, at the bar, I'm in a quiet, pensive mood.  I finally determined that I'm in a state of visual overload, unable to process all that I've seen.  One more sip, and off to dinner with those rowdy-assed Aussies.

Tomorrow, Half Moon Island and Yankee Harbour, South Shetlands.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Drake Passage

Sir Francis Drake was not only an explorer, but was also an extremely successful pirate.  September 26th, 1580, Drake sailed into Plymouth England after completing a journey of 2 years and 10 months, with pirated treasures worth over 10 million dollars.  It was for this plundering that Queen Elizabeth knighted the wayward explorer!

It's a Gull !
Sailing South through Beagle Channel we left Tierra del Fuego bound for the Antarctic Peninsula.  We saw wandering albatrosses,  and many, many gulls, cape petrels and giant petrels.

Cape Petrels 

Would we discover the "Drake Lake" or the "Drake Shake" off the bow of our boat?  Sometimes the stickmen ("they say" - y'all quote them too) say the the Passage can be as smooth as a bab.. as smooth as glass.  Our official forecast from the bridge, was for "some movement of the boat... please secure your cabins..."  We cleared Beagle into open water around midnight.  It was not going to be the "Lake".

While the glassware in the bar and bath were thankfully snugged in their places, everything else was obeying one of Newton's more important laws, and seeking it's lowest possible point.  Thank goodness that the lid to the head was shut. Winnie and I would have surely lost our Rx meds, toothpaste, and brushes to the Neptune of the commode bowl.  Okay.  Maybe not exactly lose them.. they float?.. but you get the picture.  What woke us from our sound sleep... were drawers in the chest opening.  And closing.  And opening.  And closing.  Doors slamming.  Things falling off of our tabletops.  Things falling off the tabletops in the next cabins.  Colourful language from the Brits, Aussies, and Kiwis.  Colorful language from we Americans.  There are wonderful nuances there that make me yearn for a trip to New Zealand to pick up their accent and learn a new way to curse.

What we had ahead of us for the next 100+ nautical miles were 40Kt winds from the WSW,

 And moderate seas of 3-4m.

The seas were quartering a bit from starboard, so the boat not only pitched... it rolled.  The expression "One hand for the boat at all times" was becoming more and more apparent with each pitch and roll.  And having a shower?  Think of yourself standing with one foot on top of a basket ball in a moving vehicle while trying to soap/rinse/repeat/wipe hands on pants.

On the plus side, though...Yum.  Breakfast is going to be wide open in the morning.

After we re-secured our stuff, we slept wonderfully, rocked to sleep... down, left, up, right, down, left, up, right... by Drake.

"Some of us are over the seasick stage and no longer want to die."  Hartford after 10 days on the 'Nimrod' wtih Shackleton in 1907.

Tomorrow morning, after breakfast with plenty of elbow room... a bio-security briefing, followed by a zodiac briefing.  I think that we're going to be going ashore on the South Shetland Islands by afternoon!

Friday, January 27, 2012

Fin del Mundo

Early in the morning on New Year's Eve 2011, we happily left Buenos Aires, flying South on Aerolinas Argentinas to the "southernmost city in the world".  Ushuaia.  Capitol of Tierra del Fuego, South America.  As we boarded the B737, Winnie presented the lead flight attendant with her card, identifying her as a Delta Airlines captain, and then we proceeded to our seats.  About 2 South American minutes later a very nice (and very young) Captain came back, apologized that first class was full, but assured us that next time we met, he'd again try to upgrade us.

Two and a half hours passes a Lot faster when you're excited and anticipating the commencement of your next big adventure.  The aircraft descended VFR between the mountains of the southern end of the Andes, lower, and lower... until

Ushuaia Airport, Fin del Mundo

we completely ran out of land.  WELCOME TO FIN DEL MUNDO came over the p.a. system in 4 languages.

Ushuaia, Argentina
There's very little business in Ushuaia that isn't related to tourism.  It's a good looking little town that reminded me of many of the small towns in Southeastern AK.

Lupines are the native flower, and grow wildly anywhere they can find a few inches of dirt.

We endured an endless briefing at our hotel about our impending morning expedition.  They were mentioning some stuff that we'd need to know on board over the next two weeks.  I think that Winnie was listening.  Or something.  I just wanted to get down to the docks and check things out for tomorrow's sailing.  I wanted to be first in line!

Yea!  A "Welcome to Ushuaia Port" sign with "Puerto Y Puerta a la Antartida" on it.  We're getting warm!  And it seemed to be less than a metre from the "U R Here" (Ushuaia) arrow, across the Drake Passage to the Antarctic Peninsula.  Heck, we'll be there in no time.  What could Possibly go wrong?

Okay, Winnie, we go this way tomorrow.  I got a grip on things.  I am in control.  (Oh wait, that's been said before, I think.. so.. well, uh, nevermind.  I never liked that sumbitch anyways.)  

Then I noticed this sign, indicating a little, teeny, tiny, itty bitty hint of the spirit of cooperation between Argentina and Great Britain... :
Check out the last paragraph.  More about that later.  But, hey, the sign was old and I was pretty sure that they'd probably worked everything out by now.  

So again, nothing's going to rain on our parade.  Train's on track, full head of steam, and then we met:
The Captain of the Sea Spirit
Captain Fran Cisco Schittino.  Nyaah, not really.  This was just some guy I met in this dark, quaint, Argentine bar.  I left after one drink.  His personality had a kind of woodenness to it that made conversation a bit awkward.

Paraphrasing Snoopy the author... "It was a dark and sleepless night..."  but FINALLY it was sailing day!  The Expedition was going to begin!  (I did Snoopy's happy dance.)  Winnie and I raced down the dock to...
You can see a small Customs and Immigration station in the background.  It has a gate that swings up and down.  And a very important uniformed officer in charge who operates the gate.
Us:  "Sir, do we need to come through here to get to the Sea Spirit?
OIC:  "Nah, mate, I think the gate over there is still open.  Just go through there and 'ang a right. then a left."
Me:  "I'm good with that.  Buh-bye."

And then we come upon our home for the next two weeks.  The Sea Spirit.  
The Sea Spirit
The first order of business:  setting sail.  Or whatever you call it for a motoring vessel.  Winnie's the boat person, not me.

18:00 - Cast off

18:30 - Mandatory Lifeboat drill.  I think that they do that on all the better cruise lines.  Like Costa, for example.

Luckily, we were able to find our life vests (very important, in the -1C water, it helps the Coast Guard find you and save you... if it's say... oh, I donno... LESS THAN 3 FREAKING MINUTES!) and don them correctly... and find our life boat.  I think that if it were obviously going to be more than three minutes, I probably wouldn't don my "life" vest.  Pardon the expression.  I think that I'd rather just make my own personal contribution to the food chain.  Does your next of kin get carbon credits for that, or just your Senator?

19:00 - Dinner in the restaurant on deck 2.  Little did I suspect that this would mark the beginning of the road on my long, long, trek to the Betty Ford Food Clinic after my return home, and the embarrassing, but absolutely necessary first step... I am so afraid...  "Hello folks.  I'm one of Bill's friends.  And I'm a foodaholic."

20:30 - Parka and boot distribution.
We got some bright yellow parkas, with fleece zip-ins (from my favorite outfitter, Columbia), and lined up for gum-boots.  Why boots?  Well, statistics show (and, mainly, cruise line income shows) that if you wear your own boots through all that pink penguin poop... no matter how much you try to clean them... if you pack them up to take them back home.. bottom line... everything in that particular suitcase is going to smell like penguin shit for the rest of its life.  And that's no... well, you get the point.  The good news:  those gum-boots were Really comfortable, warm, and dry.  And very light-weight.  No need for two pairs of socks until the temps drop to around -15C.  Or so.  Love those boots.  I'm going to buy some for WA state.

Good bye, Argentina
After, supper, it's good bye Argentina.  We're finally heading South on our expedition.  The excitement is still high, but there's maybe a teeny bit of trepidation, too.  Where we're heading is a helluva long way from home.  Or anywhere else, for that matter.  If we don't got it now, there ain't no convenience stores for the next two weeks.

Beagle Channel
Finally, heading down the Beagle Channel, sailing in the last calm waters for a bit.  We spent the last hour of our evening securing everything in our cabins in case of heavy seas in the Drake Passage tonight.  Locked down tight.  What could possibly go wrong?

The last mountain coming out of Beagle, at the end of the world.  Time for bed?  Yep.  One scotch (open free bar, whole trip) and head for the rack.  I closed my eyes and thought of the fun rides to come on the Zodiacs strapped onto the back of our ship... and the crew's admonition that "all landings will be wet landings".  Can hardly wait.

Next, Mid-night in the Drake Passage.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Order of the Recoletos built a convent and church here on the edge of Buenos Aires in 1732.  Apparently they didn't make much headway with the heathens, and wandered off less than a hundred years later.  After they left, the garden next to the convent was converted into the first public cemetery in BA and inaugurated by the Governor of the area, Martin Rodriguez.  Unfortunately for the Governor, he soon became one of the first of many state and national officials to be buried there.  Since then, according to Wikipedia, 4691 stone and marble tombs have been built on its 14 acres, 94 of which have been declared Argentine National Monuments.  

Recoleta Cemetery

Quietly strolling through the forest of monuments, domes, and statuary fostered a sense of wonder within me.  Many of the tombs and mausoleums contained the bones of military heros, governors, the wealthy barons of Argentina, and Argentine Presidents and their families.  I couldn't help but wonder though, who were these other people?  What were their lives like?

Family Crypt

This is typical of many of the tombs. Glass doors and fronts.  

Ladders to descend into family histories.  
Layers of family caskets for all to pay respects to.  
Leftovers from lives and family relics adorn the shelves.  
Lives.  Gone, but not forgotten.
Longing from loved ones who remain.

To me, one of the most personally touching of all the monuments 
was that of Liliana Crociati de Szascak.  The 26 year old bride was
honeymooning in Innsbruck, Austria when she was killed by an 
avalanche.  Heartbroken, her mother designed her tomb...

 Her father wrote the poem beneath the life-size bronze statue of Liliana in her wedding dress:

To my Daughter

Only I ask myself why
You left and left my heart destroyed
That wanted only you, why?
Why? Only destiny knows the reason, and I ask myself why?

Because we can't be without you, why?
You were so beautiful that invidious nature destroyed you. Why?
I only ask myself why, if God exists, does he take away that which is His name.
Because He destroys us and leaves us to an eternity of sadness!

Why? I believe in fate and not in you. Why?
Because I only know that I always dream with you, why is that?
For all the love my heart feels for you.
Why?  Why?

Your Papa

After her dog, Sabu, died, the original sculptor added a bronze of the dog, with Liliani's hand resting on its head.  

As I thought of my daughter, Val, my throat tightened, and a tear fell.

But I had come to see the tomb of the woman who pissed of Argentina's elite by being buried in "their" public cemetery... While little Eva was reviled by the elite of society, she was the heroine of the working masses.  Born, the illegitimate child of a rancher, then  abandoned with her mom and siblings, she rose from the dregs of humanity to become the first pro-labor First Lady of Argentina.  With 4000 tombs, how would I ever find it? 

I followed the crowd...

to find...

Turns out, I felt much much more looking at Liliana's final resting place.

Next... Heading for Fin del Mundo!