ANTARCTICA & THE SHACKLETON SAGA
January 9, 2001
One can never get too much polar exposure. We are off on a trip to the Antarctic, however we won’t get below the Antarctic Circle. (More about this later.) The purpose of the trip is really to visit the significant locations in the Shackleton Saga.
Prior to Amundsen and Scott making it to the South Pole, Ernest Shackleton made the furthest south penetration however turned around when he realized that his party might not survive if he persisted. This deepest excursion earned him a knighthood. After the pole had been attained he organized an expedition to cross the Antarctic Continent. His ship, the Endurance, became trapped in the ice of the Weddell Sea and eventually crushed. All of the men abandoned the ship with three life boats and lived on the ice until it broke up. They sailed to Elephant Island and established a camp on a low spit of land. Since there was no hope of rescue, Shackleton and five others in the James Caird, one of the life boats, and made an epic 800 mile journey across some of the roughest ocean in the world to the tiny dot, South Georgia Island. Because of adverse winds, they were only able to land on the uninhabited side of the island. He and two others made an unprecedented crossing of the mountains and glaciers to reach the whaling station at Stromness. Those remaining on the other side were immediately picked up. However, it took him four months to be able to reach the others on Elephant Island. All of the men survived!
We will be traveling in somewhat better circumstances. Our ship, the Clipper Adventurer, has been chartered by Zegrahm Expeditions. This is the perfect combination; Clipper runs an outstanding "hotel" and Zegrahm provides absolutely top-notch expedition leaders, lecturers, and naturalists.
When friends are advised that you are going to the Antarctic the response is on the order of, "Do you have family there?" "Are you staying in a hotel?" And finally, "Why?" I find this a hard question to answer. The Antarctic is a unique place. There is fascinating wild life. The icebergs are unmatched by those of the Arctic. It is a continent devoted to science and not owned by any nation.
Our trip started, as usual, at LAX where we checked in with LANChile. Our flight will take us directly to Santiago, Chile with a brief stop in Lima. Usually South American trips start with a needless detour through Miami or Dallas for the convenience of either the tour operator or the airline. The LAN flight is almost directly south-east from LA and is quite convenient. Since there is such a large number of people from California on the trip who are taking this route, Zegrahm has made it one of their two "official" routes and has sent three staff members along as escorts, Mike Messick, the Expedition Leader, Conrad Field, a naturalist, and one of the office staff. Mike is the "M" in Zegrahm. We have traveled with both before.
Other than its duration from noon LA time to 6 am Santiago time, the flight was rather pleasant. The food and service were quite good; the seats on the Boeing 767 were about as comfortable as could be expected. (I used to think that Business Class seating and service were pretty much the same on all airlines until we flew Swissair and found out differently. They have taken air travel to a new low, even worse than American Air Lines.)
We arrived on time just before dawn to clear skies and comfortable temperatures. After paying our $45/person reciprocal fee (reciprocal to what?) we quickly passed through immigration and, wonder of wonders, found our bags waiting for us at baggage claim. There were Zegrahm representatives at all stages of the entry to direct us to the next stage. When we emerged from customs we joined the group and wheeled our luggage to the waiting bus. We then drove into the city as dawn was breaking over the snow capped Andes. Our room was waiting for us and our baggage quickly arrived. After a brief rest we set out to explore the nearby business district.
The Hotel Plaza San Francisco is located in the center of town on the main street, named after the Chilean revolutionary hero, Bernardo O’Higgins. Few stores on the several walking streets were open at 8 am but it was pleasant to stroll about. We found a supermarket and enjoyed looking at the differences between US supermarkets and their Chilean counterparts. All we bought was a bottle of water. We have received conflicting comments regarding the safety of the hotel water so we decided that 90˘ for 1.5 L of water was a cheap price to pay for peace of mind.
When the stores opened at 10 we again strolled the area but made it back to the hotel in time for the 11 am brunch. It was a typical brunch with many good salads based on sea foods. The waiters prevented our wine glasses from ever getting empty. Of course, they were pouring some of the excellent Chilean red wine.
After lunch and a brief nap we took an optional city tour that was ok but not exceptional. The high point was to be the Pre-Columbian Museum however due to pro and anti Pinochet protests at the nearby Supreme Court that part of the trip was canceled. We did take a short walking tour of a residential area to view the contrast between the various architectural styles. There was also a scenic drive to near a mountain top but no visit to the statue of Christ that overlooks the city.
The day concluded with a cocktail party and a dinner, all included. The process of meeting our fellow travelers continues. Beside the people who booked with Zegrahm, there is a group of 50+ from Stanford University and a few from the National Heritage Trust. So far it seems to be a good group. Tomorrow its up at 5 am to fly to the Falkland Islands.
We are well under way. Our trip to the Falkland Islands was uneventful. It was a charter on a LANChile Airbus 320. This is a new airplane to them and they are trying it on all of their routes. The good service we experienced on the flight from LA continued, although we were back in steerage since there weren’t enough seats in business class. After the famous Falkland War with Argentina, Great Britain built a military airfield at Mt. Pleasant which is the only airfield in the islands. Although passenger and private aircraft are allowed to land there, no photographs are allowed until departing the field.
The bus ride into Port Stanley takes approximately 1 hour and, as the route approaches Stanley, passes many Argentinian mine fields left over from the war. There are also some geological features called stone runs. These are vast stretches of broken stone that somewhat resembles a road. Our first stop was the Upland Goose Hotel where we had a very good brunch; little sandwiches, fried chicken legs, pizza, salad, etc. The hotel is named after the geese which are very common on the islands. There are also many beautiful, Flightless Steamer Ducks. The steamer name comes from the spray they generate when moving through the water at high speed, using their stubby wings to aid movement.
We then had a couple of hours for doing the town in a slight drizzle. First we went off to the nice but very small museum. It is a mix of very interesting old stuff and mementoes of the war. We walked back to town stopping at the post office for some post cards and then the British Army Mine Office to buy a minefield warning sign. As part of the purchase we received a certificate stating that we have the sign legitimately rather than stealing it from a field. (Actually the signs are not sold, they are given to you in exchange for an unspecified donation to an organization for legless veterans.) Jodie managed to purchase a kilo of wool yarn produced in the Falklands.
Finally we boarded the ship. After a cocktail we went to the cabin and unpacked, had dinner and went to bed, only to be awakened at 5:45 am, breakfast starting at 6. Landings at Bleaker Island started at 7. We were in the third group. The total hike was 3 miles. Bleaker is a smallish island with one residence on it. It is owned by a Stanley businessman. (Zegrahm pays $15/passenger for landing on these islands. This is a nice supplement for the declining wool market.) From the nice sandy beach we hiked up to a small Magellanic Penguin rookery then to a King Shag rookery that abuts a Rock Hopper penguin rookery. We also saw some all white Sheath Bills, which eat anything, and, of course, Skuas.
The afternoon’s hike was on Sea Lion Island, another private island, this one with a resort and a dirt air strip. We were offered the option of an easy stroll on the beach, a moderate 3 mile hike, and a 7 mile hike. We opted for the 7 mile which was led by prime birder Peter Harrison, the "H" in Zegrahm. After about 4 miles of stop and rush looking at birds I dropped out for the 3 mile group. Jodie continued on.
The island has quite a number of Gentoo penguins - a lot of Gentoos! There is also a fresh water pond that has quite a nice population of birds plus a couple of seals. There were several Sea Lions, males, females, and newly born pups on the shore. When looking at a mature, "beach master" it is quite evident why they are called Sea Lions. They look like lions and even sound like them when they roar.
Jodie continued along on her hike and eventually reached a Rock Hopper Penguin rookery where the approach required by the penguins was quite difficult. They allow the large, violent, surging waves to hurl them onto the shear, rocky cliffs with the hope that they could clutch a bit of sea weed on the rock face to which they could hang on rather than being washed back into the pounding surf. As the waves recede they hop on up the cliff.
One of my rewards for not continuing on the long march was a visit to the lodge on the island. There were 13 guests there that day. We were treated to freshly baked cookies and punch, coffee, or tea. Alan White, one of our naturalists and a Falklands resident, told the hostess he was interested in staying at the lodge and asked how far in advance he needed to book. She told him they book up quite far in advance.
In the evening we had the Captain’s welcome cocktail party and dinner. There are 113 passengers and 83 crew, a ratio of 1.36. The crew is from 10 different nations. The captain, Olaf Hartmann, is German. When he is not taking ships through the ice he works as a pilot on the Kiel Cannel. Both the first and second officer are German. The remainder of the officers are a mixed lot although most of the cabin and dining room stewards and stewardesses are Filipinos
After our first day on the ship with an early rising and two landings, we have been allowed to sleep in each of the past two mornings until 7. This isn’t really as good as it sounds since we have had to set the clock forward an hour each night before going to bed. We are headed almost due east at 14 knots and apparently keep changing time zones. Why this matters on a self-contained ship that is visiting mostly uninhabited places I don’t know. (We were later to learn that this was an artificial time change was to prepare us for the "opportunity" to arise especially early to view a sunrise.)
This is our second day at sea on our way to South Georgia. The days are being filled with lectures and eating. Seems like a good time to describe our little cabin, #224. There is a 6˝ ft by 3 ft. bed on either side of the double window. All of our suitcases easily fit under the beds. A very small 2-drawer night table is bolted to the wall between the beds. The drawers are almost too small to be of much use. To the right of the entrance there is a good space for wet stuff. It has a hanging rod, room for boots below, and an open shelf on top. Next there are two closets, each with hanging space on one side, three drawers on the other making it a short hanging space, and a shelf on top. There were not enough hangers for all our stuff. Life vests and spare pillows fill part of the shelves. The bathroom is to the left of the entrance. It is the typical very small ship facility. There is a very small shelf on the wall that holds a few items. There is also a largish open shelf under the sink that is mostly full of supplies however there is some room for passenger use. There is a pull-out clothesline in the shower but no shower rod. The final room furnishing is a very small dressing table with chair and mirror between the bathroom wall and the foot of the bed. A hair dryer is provided. Ship voltage is 240 v., 50 Hz (round-pin plugs are required.) There is a flat-bladed, 120 v. outlet provided in the bathroom, suitable only for razors. The only accessible 240 v. outlets are at the dressing table. Room dimensions are a little over 8 ft. wide by approximately 14 ft long. Since the walls are plastic-covered steel, our magnetic clips work just fine to hold maps and bulletins, etc.
The meals have been good. Breakfast is available as a self-service buffet in the longue and as self-service and table service for cooked items in the dining room. Lunch is only available as self-service in the dinning room. Dinners are served in the open seating dinning room. There is usually a choice of a meat entree, fish or seafood, pasta, and vegetarian. The few desserts I had were excellent, and fortunately, small. The chef reported that he was able to buy fresh, hydroponically grown lettice, tomatoes, and peppers from a grower in Port Stanley. The order for this must be placed well in advance.
During the night we passed through the Antarctic Convergence Zone, the area where the cold, nutrient-rich Antarctic surface waters sink beneath the warmer northern waters. The ocean temperature has gone from 6o C. to 2o C. Our sun with scattered clouds has given way to fog, another characteristic of the area. The seas have become much more rough with waves occasionally splashing our windows. In spite of the seas, the ship is still fairly stable, at least in our cabin which is lower and toward the stern. The bow area is probably much more active. There is little roll.
After I wrote those words we experienced a monumental roll which submerged our window below the surface of the water. It wasn’t a wave splash, it was the ocean! I spent most of the day in the cabin since it is the most stable place on the ship. I went once to the lounge but found the bounce too much and retired to the cabin. I could listen to the lecture from there and the slides weren’t needed. Dinner was interesting. During the big roll before dinner, a lot of the stem ware fell from the preset tables so we had bar glasses on the wet tables. (The table cloths are moistened in these circumstances to reduce the slippage on the surface.) Probably 20% of the passengers were absent as were some of the dining room staff. The meals were well prepared and well served, however.
Our sleep was fitful however the seas calmed by early morning.
This was our first day at South Georgia. Our first stop was at Prion Island, home to many Fur Seals, Wandering Albatrosses, and Storm Petrels. The mating season for the Fur Seals has past, otherwise we would have had to fight the beach masters to access and cross the beach. As it was, the only seals left were subadult and not too aggressive, although the crew carried paddles and poles to fend them off from us. We crossed the beach and climbed up a small stream bed to reach the heights where the birds nested. The area was dotted with. placid albatrosses sitting upon their nests. Here and there there were couples courting and males attempting to attract overflying females. (Once an albatross fledges, it leaves its home island and never sets foot on land for 7 years. Once mature, the bird returns to its home island and mates.)
The path to the top of the island was intermingled rock and mud. Tussock grass provided the primary coverage. Hidden among all this were deep, boot-grabbing sink holes.
During lunch the ship moved to an anchorage off of Salisbury Plains, home to 30,000 King Penguins and some Fur Seals. We spent our time wandering among the penguins. They seemed to not only not be disturbed by our presence but to be quite curious about us. They were of all stages of development; adult, adults incubating eggs, subadults, chicks still clad in brown down. It is quite a feeling to stand still and have one or more penguins approach you and eye you as if trying to decide what kind of penguin you are. Its no wonder that they were so easily slaughtered by the early, exploitive visitors to the area.
Today was the day to visit whaling stations. It was also the day to pay homage to Sir Ernest Shackleton. We arose early to join the optional hike that covered the final 3.5 miles of Shacklelton’s epic hike across South Georgia from King Haakon Bay to Stromness. His hike was 50 miles done in 36 hours nonstop without benefit of food or maps. We took four hours with frequent rest, photography, and view stops.
We landed at Fortuna Bay and worked our way up a stream bed through the aggressive young fur seals. The route continued upwards across shale and other fractured rock until we reached melting snow fields. We were alternately bathed in brilliant sun or cold winds; sometimes both. Eventually we reached the 1,000 foot saddle. The uphill portion was gradual. The downhill was more steep. It also varied from deep snow banks to scree slopes. We came down next to the water fall that the Shackleton group descended by rope. We reached a vast moraine field cris-crossed by ribbon streams. A population of introduced reindeer wandered around, but never near us. After passing through a Gentoo Penguin rookery we boarded the zodiacs at Stromness.
Stromness is an abandoned Norwegian whaling facility that has fallen into complete collapse. Fortunately for Shackleton, it was in full operation when he and his two companions arrived. They knew they were near when they heard the morning whistle calling the men to work.. When we reached the point where we could view the settlement, the ship whistle was blown to recreate that sensation. Now the only residents of Stromness are King Penguins, Elephant Seals, and Fur Seals. The Gentoos just pass through on their way from their rookery on the hills to the ocean. It was disappointing to not be allowed into the settlement however the authorities have deemed it too dangerous because of the decrepit buildings.
During lunch we motored over to Grytgiken, another abandoned whaling settlement. The one-man government of South Georgia is located there, along with a post office and a gift shop. Sir Ernest is buried there. We went ashore and drank a toast of good single malt Scotch to him at his grave and posed for a group picture, then toured the ruins of the whaling facility. It was built and operated for many years by the Norwegians who sold it to the Japanese when whaling became unprofitable. The Japanese applied "scientific whaling" to the process and harvested the remaining whales from the area and then shut the facility down. It was subsequently destroyed during the aftermath of the Falklands war. The Japanese continue to hunt whales to extinction deeper in the Antarctic using factory ships, contrary to various treaties and will probably exterminate even more species than they already have. I suppose when they have exterminated all other living things on the planet they will have to start eating people, probably starting with Koreans.
These abandoned whale factories have a common color, rust. Almost all structures were of sheet iron. The oxidization of some has been hastened by fire; some buildings were set on fire. Grytgiken, for example, was occupied by British troops after driving the Argentines out. Out of boredom or malice they pretty well shot up the area and set fire to some of the buildings. When the Japanese left the station it was in good shape and still functional. (The hydroelectric generation station could be started up by anyone who visited.) After the destruction, the station was further looted by Russian ships.
The seals and penguins are reclaiming their former homes. In addition to the governor and his family, there is a small British military installation.
...and as our ship sinks slowly in the west we bid a fond adieu to South Georgia Island. It has been a remarkable 3 days here. To start our last day, we were offered the opportunity to go ashore at 5 am to view the sunrise at Gold Harbor. After our hike of yesterday we opted out, however 83 of our shipmates accepted the offer. From what we have heard, the sunrise was brief and mostly sunless except for a brief interval that illuminated the glacier face. Since 83 of our fellow travelers were off the ship, breakfast was quite uncrowded for us.
We left the ship at the much more civilized hour of 7:30 as the early risers were coming back. Gold Harbor was supposedly so named since the seal pelts that were harvested here were literally worth their weight in gold. Anyway, now there are quite a number of Fur Seals plus an even larger number of Elephant Seals. At this time of year the mature seals have all left, leaving only a number of pups who haven’t figured out that mom isn’t coming back so they need to go out and hunt for them selves. There were also a bunch of adult male Elephant Seals who were unsuccessful during the breeding season and who have come back to molt and practice dominance.
There is also quite a population of King Penguins. They are always fun to watch. Their breeding season is over and most of the chicks have hatched. There are quite a number of chicks wandering around in their fluffy brown down. Shirley Metz, another "M" in Zegrahm, found two Light Mantled Sooty Albatross sitting on nests on a cliff face at the far end of the beach. We climbed up to view them. They are incredibly beautiful. They have a wingspan of 6 to 6˝ feet and weigh around 7 pounds. It is hard to describe grey as beautiful however their plumage is grey and it is beautiful. (The King Penguins also have dark grey plumage which is also outstanding.)
We returned to the ship for lunch while it repositioned for the afternoon visit to Cooper Bay. A small Russian tourist ship was late getting out of Cooper Bay so we made a side trip to Larson Harbor to kill some time. This is a narrow fjord which we entered, pivoted the boat and left. There wasn’t much to be seen there except for some Waddell Seals. This is the farthest north breeding location at which they are found.
At Cooper Bay we visited a very large Chinstrap Penguin rookery. There seemed to be a mix of King Penguins and Macaroni Penguins there also. There were quite a number of chicks in the rookery along with the usual squadron of Skuas. We saw them successfully grab a chick from an inattentive parent. Both the Macaroni and the Kings seems unaffected by our presence.
After an hour there we reboarded the zodiac and moved to the other end of the cove where we could climb up a tussock-grass covered slope to visit a Macaroni Penguin rookery. They are the most plentiful penguin in the world. Perhaps one reason is that they nest on inaccessible cliffs. This is the only rookery that Zegrahm has been able to locate that is somewhat easily accessible by humans.
We are now off to the Orkney Islands and face a day at sea, rockin’ ‘n rollin’.
I neglected to describe the conditions of our climbs. The hills are covered with Tussock Grass. It grows in hummocks of varying size, some that are several feet across. They rise several feet from the ground leaving a serpentine lambrith to negociate if you choose to go between them, or you may step from top to top if they have been sufficiently mashed down by the resident Fur Seals. If the ground is the least bit flat the space between is filled by a foul smelling muck composed of rotting vegetable matter, seal poop, and penguin poop. The areas most desired by the birds are rather steep. The way to ascend is to follow the edges of the paths used by the seals, look for a foothold and then grab a large handful of tussock grass and pull yourself up. All the while you must be on the alert for Fur Seals that will attack if approached too closely.
Starting at about 5 am, the ship picked its way through pack ice and around great tabular ice bergs. Penguins, Fur Seals and Crab Eater Seals graced many of the floes. During our day at sea yesterday we encountered a large pod of Sei and Fin whales, one estimate was that there may have been as many as 12 in all. Seis hang out with Fins for feeding purposes. The Fins are deep feeders and when they return to the surface they trail Krill behind which the Seis feed upon. There were also a number of seals accompanying them for the same reason.
We had trouble finding a place for a landing because of the pack ice. As we cruised along the south coast of the South Orkneys we found that a south wind had packed most bays with pack ice that was either too thick for the ship to enter or too thick for zodiacs even if the ship did enter. Eventually we made a landing on the North coast of _____ Island. In this location Gentoo, Chinstrap, and Adele penguins all nest. There were also Giant Petrels, Pintado Petrels, and Blue-eyed Shags nesting there.
Fog frequently shrouded things. As the day wore on it dissipated.
We toured the shore by zodiac and ventured into the strangely twisted, beautifully colored pack ice before returning to the ship for lunch. We are now on our way to Elephant Island, where Shackleton and his entire party made their first landfall after leaving the ice in the three ship’s lifeboats. This is where 23 members of the party waited for four months for his return, eventually in the Chilean steam-powered tug, the Yelcho.
We dined with Capt. Olaf Hartmann this evening. A brief snow shower enlivened the evening.
Elephant Island was far more desolate than I could have ever imagined. Point Wild, the site where the 23 men lived for the four months was a flat shingle that didn’t seem to rise more than a few feet out of the surf. The only indication of the location is a bust of Luis Prado, the captain of the Yelcho, placed there by the Chilean government. While we were there, the weather was unpleasant, a cold, wind-driven drizzle and a fairly rough sea. The waves were breaking on shore but not over the spit.
All areas have been taken over by the Chinstrap Penguins, so much so that it is no longer possible to land on those rare occasions when the weather or surge would allow it. Our visit was limited to a one-hour zodiac tour. We were constantly surrounded by porpoising penguins on their way to and from feeding grounds just off of the island. Clusters of feeding birds, penguins and petrels, dotted the sea. There were also some Fur Seals and Crab-Eater Seals lurking about. A Leopard Seal grabbed one of the swimming penguins and flailed it back and forth until bits began coming off. It devoured each hunk it tore off. Our little fleet of zodiacs surrounded it to film the display, just before our lunch.
Our zodiac was driven by Conrad Field, one on the naturalists. He scooped up a Thompson’s Salp, a urochordate which consumes cocopods. This creature is common to the area and popular food for the birds. They appear as strings of red beads. Actually each bead is the digestive organ of one animal. The remainder is a gelatinous mass. The string is composed of a number of individuals who adhere to each other making for more efficient swimming and feeding.
We are awaiting permission to land at Cape Esperance, the Argentine colony on the continent. This is the location where a woman was delivered of a baby a few years ago in an effort to enforce their claim on the continent.
This morning we landed at Paulet Island, home to over 30,000 pairs of Adele’ Penguins. It is also the location where 20 men wintered over in 1902 (or so) after their ship, the Antarctic, was crushed and sunk by the ice. They took a ship’s lifeboat and rowed 20 miles to the island and built a hut out of the nicely available rock. The roof was canvas and the walls were banked with snow to block the wind. Paulet is an extinct volcano. The caldera is now a "fresh" water lake. Much of the penguin poop and dead birds wind up in this lake. This was the water source for the 20 men who were marooned there.
The Argentinians have gone to rather extreme measures to buttress their claim to part of the Antarctic pie. Their colony at Hope Bay includes four families; there have been 8 births there. Eight children are currently resident and attend school. There is no sensible reason for families to be there, let alone children. It is a barren, windswept glacial moraine. There seems to be a patina of scientific work being done however during our visit there were very few people there and none of the families. They were all off on Summer holiday. Winter winds have reached 220 mph; snowfalls of 20 feet are possible although the snow quickly sublimes away.
We were met at the landing by the site manager, Juan Carlos. The passengers were divided into four groups and led on a tour of the facility. Since we were the last ashore our leader was Juan Carlos. Although he has some English, Rene’, a zodiac driver, acted as a translator. There are quite a number of dwellings, each suitable for 5 to 7 people. The family dwellings have cooking facilities but there is a dining room for the visitors. All of the buildings are tied down with cables. There is a small chapel, a school for the resident children, a medical facility, and shops for vehicle maintenance. Juan took great pains to point out the bales of waste stashed on a hill side waiting transport back to the mainland. (I shouldn’t feel too superior; at the US McMurdo station the trash used to be stacked on the fast ice where it would sink into the ocean with the spring thaw. This is no longer done.) To build their station, they bulldozed part of an Adele’ Penguin rookery. Their impartial research indicates that the penguins that are exposed to the most human presence have developed better than the isolated ones. Similar results were obtained at the US Palmer Station.
There is an old stone hut there that was occupied by three members of the Larson expedition. They were dropped there by the Antarctic with the purpose of traveling to where Nordenskjöld’s party was to tell him that the ship couldn’t get through the usual way and was coming around the other side. The ship got caught in the ice and sunk and the crew moved to Paulet Island, as described above. The three couldn’t reach Nordenskjöld because of open water where they expected ice. When they realized that the ship wasn’t returning they built the hut and spent the winter. In the summer they linked up with the Nordenskjöld group. Larson and five men rowed over and eventually found the rest and brought them back to Paulet where they spent another winter. (During their stay there they consumed 10,000 penguins.) A rescue ship eventually picked them up. Only one member of the party died and is buried on Paulet. He is thought to have died from heart problems.
Dr. Fredrik Cook, the Belgian Expedition 1898, on what penguins taste like. "If it’s possible to imagine a piece of beef, odiferous cod fish, and a canvas-backed duck roasted together in a pot, with blood and cod liver oil, the illustration would be complete."
Horizontal snow driven by 30 to 50 mph winds greeted us at our 5 am wake-up call. The reason for the early call was the "opportunity" to go ashore at Hanna Point, on Livingston Island. This is reputed to be a good bird place and, in addition, there are fossilized plants. We stayed in bed. After this inviting stop, the ship moved to Deception Island. This island is actually a volcano whose center collapsed after a large eruption, leaving a 3 mile wide crater in the center. One side of the wall also collapsed so the interior is accessible by ship. Our intended landing at Bailey Head was scrubbed since the shore was inundated by waves resulting from the wind. We proceeded directly to Pendulum Cove where another priceless opportunity was offered, the chance to swim in volcanically heated water. However you had to remove your outer clothes to get in. A few hearty souls did and found that there wasn’t very much warm water. The very hot water flows out of the sand and runs into the 33o ocean water. The trick is to enter where the water enters and then settle where the temperature is comfortable.
The final stop at Deception Island was at Whalers’ Cove. At one time this was a whaling station. Later it was a British Antarctic Survey station. The last eruption of the volcano in 1970 destroyed the station. Jodie went ashore where she was pelted with horizontal sleet and nearly blown over by the wind. (I was enjoying the ship cold that day and did little but lay on my bed and look our the window.)
After the Zegrahm Cocktail party we had dinner with Mike Messik. Since the purpose of this party is to sell forthcoming trips, the Stanford group held their own, separate reception. Unlike other groups with whom we have traveled, the Stanford group mixes well. I think that is because they didn’t know each other prior to the trip.
We got an extra hour’s sleep last night since the ship clocks were set back. We have now picked up the two hours we lost at the start of the trip. The only reason for that move was so that people would have been willing to get up at 5 am for the big sun rise; they probably wouldn’t have been willing to get up at 3.
Today we visited Port Lockroy, approaching it through the Neumayer Channel. This is a narrow, bending approach with glaciers and peaks on either side. The Antarctic is monochromatic. The intense black of the rocks is ovelayed by the unremitting, virginal white of the snow. It looks a bit like a marshmallow sundae.
Port Lockroy was a British Antarctic Survey station that was abandoned some time ago. Since the signatories to the Antarctic Treaty are required to either maintain stations or to remove all traces, the British have elected to man the station only during the summer and restore it as a museum. I believe that the only duties of the two men there are to sell stuff to passing tourist ships. The Marco Polo was leaving as we arrived. Although it can carry 600 passengers, it is limited to 400 for Antarctic trips. With that many people it can’t be much of a visit. We found out later that they weren’t allowed to land, the two residents visited the ship instead.
Gentoo Penguins abound in this area. They nest everywhere, even under the station building. I fully expected to see one on top. The conversion to historic artifact hasn’t been too spectacular, mostly because the facility deteriorated rather badly during it period of abandonment. Snow and water got in and turned to destructive ice in the winter.
We left Port Lockroy via the Lemaire Channel, a very narrow 7-mile channel. Feeding Minke whales accompanied us on our passage. The Kaptain Dranitzian was anchored at the southern end conducting a landing at an island there.
Last night, at approximately 10:30 the ship crossed the Antarctic Circle, contrary to the stated itinerary. This event was duly celebrated with a champagne toast on the upper deck. The ship’s whistle was blown as we crossed. We continued on south, passing through The Gullet around 2 am. Our intent was to reach some island that had never been visited by a tourist ship before. However around 4 am, at 67o 25.37" south, Mike and the captain decided to turn back. Although we weren’t in ice, the wind had shifted to a very strong north wind which could fill northern end of The Gullet with ice which would require a 140 mile detour to get out. The wind at times reached 70 knots. Our return passage through The Gullet was scenic and uneventful. We continued to encounter varying amounts of pack ice. During one such encounter Peter spotted not one but two Emperor Penguins! He describes them as the "impossible bird" since they are so difficult for birders to see. Each was situated on its own large floe, selected as a suitable place to spend their three week molting period. Since they were molting they could not enter the water however they didn’t seem especially alarmed. It was later reported that the second one did leave the floe as we left.
While we were occupied with the Emperors, a nearby ice berg rolled over. The mass below the water melts, causing the berg to become top heavy so it rolls. After that it continued oscillating back and forth in a ponderous manner, similar to elephants waltzing.
Our only stop below the circle was Detaille Island. The remains of a British Antarctic Survey station are on the island, as well as a bunch of Adele’ Penguins, Skuas, and gulls. The station was in operation from 1956 to 1959. It was a poor location choice; it is unapproachable in winter because of heavy ice however all ice and snow leave in the summer making expedition sledging from there impossible. It seems to have been hurriedly left since there are numerous personal items laying about, such as alarm clocks, electric guitars, etc. Its only use now is for an emergency shelter since there is a lot of food stored there. The food containers I saw weren’t in very good shape however I believe that the "good" stuff is in the loft.
One of the things left behind was a Mawson sledge. They are constructed of wood that is lashed together rather than fastened with screws or nails. The lashing allows the structure to flex when going over the rough surface. Rigid fastenings would break. There were also some 20 man-day boxes. Each box contains enough food for one man for 20 days. Everything was canned, including bacon and chocolate bars.
In the morning we paused at ___ Island for a zodiac cruise among the grounded ice bergs. We were greeted when we awoke by the Sun! The sky was a beautiful blue with a few wispy clouds hanging around. Some remains of grey fog clung to the mountains.
The sun brought out the intensity of the white and aqua, curiously shaped ice bergs. We cruised among them for a magical hour. Flatter bergs were crowded with sleepy Crab-Eater Seals. Sun reflecting off of their pelts gave them a silvery look. There was also a Leopard Seal that closely approached one of the zodiacs however we didn’t see it. Our ride was shortened a bit since one of the 2-stroke zodiac engines failed and we towed it part way back until the engine mechanic came out and fixed it.
(Clipper has recently acquired some 4-stroke outboard engines. These seem much more reliable and are much less polluting. Hopefully they will replace all of the older 2-stroke engines with 4-stroke.)
Our tour through these bergs and the numerous others we have seen set me to thinking about what glacial ice faces look like. The faces of the newly calved bergs and the glaciers have a carved, chiseled look the resembles some pure white rock, perhaps the finest marble. It bears many sharp angles and flat surfaces. In the right lighting it takes on a beautiful aqua color. Some exhibit bands of almost clear blue ice created when melt water flowed into a crack and refroze. Freshly calved icebergs have the same characteristics until the sea has had time to work on them. Melting causes rounding and scalloping. As melting under the water continues, the center of gravity changes and they shift position, even rolling over. As a result the table top assumes some angle.
After lunch we visited Palmer Station, the US base on the peninsula. The passengers were divided into three groups. Our group first visited the Adele’ Penguin rookery for an hour. The rookery is divided by a line of green flags. Human visitors are to stay on one side of the line. Twice a year, a census is taken to determine how the disturbed birds are faring compared to the isolated ones. Curiously enough, the isolated bird population is not doing as well as the ones that are visited. One possible explanation is that human presence causes the Skuas to stay away.
After our hour on the Adele’ island we were ferried to the base. This is a much smaller base than the McMurdo Sound base. There is a permanent staff of 10 which swells to 40 in the summer when the scientists arrive. Two research vessels are associated with the base, one an ice breaker. We didn’t see much inside the buildings except the souvenir shop, the mess hall, and an aquarium. It contained some specimens that had been collected on a recent trawl. There were small octopus, a sea spider, and several anemone.
Our final hour, actually less, was spent on a zodiac ride in the bay. The "high" point was a view of the Bahía Paraiso hulk. This was an Argentinian ice breaker that was being used as a tourist ship and also to supply their colony at Cape Esperance. The captain carelessly entered the harbor by the wrong route at high speed and struck some rocks. The ship sank quickly. At that time there were four other tourist ships in the harbor that quickly launched their zodiacs and saved the passengers and crew. The ship is now laying almost completely inverted so that the holes caused by the impetuous captain may be seen. At the time of the accident 645,000 L. of diesel fuel were released which adversely affected the resident shags. They still haven’t recovered. A hole was cut in the hulk and an attempt was made to pump out the remaining fuel. The brave captain was awarded a medal by the Argentine government!
Since we are still a bit ahead of schedule we went back South through the Lemare Channel and spent a magical hour or two in Paradise Bay. Although the brilliance of the Sun was somewhat muted by high cirrus clouds, the ice on the mountains was still magical. Hotel Manager Carline Miller and her assistant Mimi Chung brought a large thermos of hot spiced wine up to the top deck which took a bit of the chill off.
We’ve spent the last two days blasting north towards Ushuaia, Argentina. It has been variably quite rough to rough. The days have been filled with lectures and eating. On the final day in the Drake Passage the winds were 60 knots and the waves 30 feet high. The ship has bounced around quite a bit and there is a tremendous pounding noise as the bow dips into some of the deep troughs. The captain’s farewell cocktail party was slipped from 6 to 6:30 pm to give us a chance to get into calmer waters. The half hour delay worked since we were able to get behind Cape Horn and into the Beagle Channel. The staff said it was an average passage.
The trip covered 3316 km.
Today was the day we were kicked off of the ship at 7 am after being awakened at 5:45 am. We had a slow, token tour of Ushia which ended at the airport. The Ushia airport is a strikingly modern wooden building that seems quite new. It has obviously been built to accommodate the many cruise ship passengers who pass through, since the town population is only 40,000. We had to wait a bit for the X-ray machines to warm up but then passed through a token security check. We boarded the charter LANChile cramped, uncomfortable 737 around 8 am and sat and sat. Finally we found out that the plane was overweight and some of the baggage had been removed so that at 9:45 we took off. The pilot assured us that the removed baggage would be shipped to Santiago on a later flight. Unfortunately they used no logic in removing the luggage and removed some of the luggage that was only to have gone as far as Punta Arinas. Two members of our group will not receive their luggage until tomorrow.
We are now on an extension to the Explora Hotel in Torres del Paine National Park. The park name means Blue Towers. These towers are the most prominent scenic feature of the park. We were met at the airport by a fleet of 12-passenger vans, some with trailers for the luggage. There was a bit of a Chinese fire drill getting the luggage and the passengers loaded however eventually all was accomplished and we set out on the 6-hour journey to the park. The first part was across a rolling, arid plain. Although the vistas were pleasant, the most exciting parts were the views of Gunacos and Reas. We stopped at a very old hotel for lunch. We were served warm chicken sandwiches that were constructed on a thick slice of bread. In addition to the chicken there was avocado, lettice, and tomatoes. It was a very good sandwich. Then back into the vans for another 1˝ hours. We made a potty stop at a souvenir shop and then on into the park.
The park features a rugged spine of the Andes plus many lakes. It is exceptionally scenic. The hotel is quite luxurious with each room situated for a maximum view. For example, the wall of the bathroom has two windows cut in it so that you can see the mountains while you are standing at the sink or seated on the jon. All booze and wine is included as are the meals. Each day there are a number of half and full day guided hikes offered of varying difficulty.
After we arrived last night, we had a lecture about the park and then the guides explained what hikes would be available. We selected a moderate hike in the morning and an easy hike for the afternoon. At 9:45 am we showed up in the lobby for the hike. The six of us plus guide set off to Las Cornisas. This is a hike that climbs to a ridge above the hotel then traverses the ridge then goes down a valley to the road. We found it to be a difficult hike. The uphill part was quite steep with nothing resembling a switch-back. Once we attained the ridge we found a magical land. The ground was carpeted with white clover (an exotic plant), dandelions, and many beautiful small flowers. We were told, "You should have been here in November," Spring in this part of the World. There is a unique flower, the Lady’s Slipper, that is a bright orange and has two petals. The lower one is quite large and has a pure white band across it. There were also some cranberry-like plants bearing a tasty red berry. The plant is a Permettya. The only animals we saw were a pair of curious Gunacos and a Black Breasted Buzzard Eagle. I guess we should also count the man we encountered at the fire lookout.
We followed the ridge, up and down, and eventually headed down an valley. By this time it was after 1 pm which was the time for lunch at the lodge and we were at least two miles away. Our next hike was scheduled to start at 3 and I had no hope of making that hike, or lunch either. Wonder of wonder, one of the lodge vans was waiting for us at the bottom. We weary hikers were driven back to the lodge and arrived just before 2, in time for lunch.
Because of our late arrival, we decided to skip the 3 pm hike and go on the 3:30 hike instead. This turned out to be a wind and rain blown experience which we cut short. We did get to see the falls but then headed back to the van by a loop trail.
For our second day, we chose two easy hikes. The first was to Lago Grey to view Grey Glacier and its attendant ice bergs. The approach was across a swinging bridge, capacity limited to 2 persons at a time. There were a couple of Torrent Ducks feeding under the rushing waters. After hiking over rocks yesterday it was nice to walk among trees and trip over roots instead. We emerged from the forest with a vista of a vast moraine plain. The little ice bergs were all grounded at the south end of the lake. After an unpleasant, long walk across the loose gravel we hiked around a rugged, wooded peninsula and then back across the gravel. Along the way we dined on Winter Berries, a cranberry-like fruit that is sweet and has a very pleasant flavor. They are so named because they are available all through the winter. There are also the tiny blue Bay Berries. Legend has it that if you eat them and spit out the seeds you will return to Patagonia. They are rather tart and quite full of little seeds. They, by them selves, would not induce me to return however the scenery and the flowers could.
The afternoon hike was billed as an easy flowers and bird hike with Patti, a naturalist, and Pedro, a lodge guide. It wasn’t easy since it was up and down some very rough trails, if they can be dignified by that title. We did see and have identified many flowers and several birds. We left the lodge at 4 pm, got to the trail head at 4:15, and reached the van at the other end around 7 pm. We scrubbed our visit to park headquarters and the museum because of the time.
Rain and wind! No hike up French Valley for us. Instead we took the photo safari to the bar-b-que which is at an estancia outside the park. Patti and Pedro led the trip in one of the lodge vans. We took a long, slow trip to the bar-b-que on the other side of the towers. There were frequent stops to view birds. Perhaps the best sighting was a pair of Great Horned Owls. We also saw a male Rhea with his flock of 20 young. Females are promiscuous and lay eggs in several nests. The males brood the eggs and then care for the chicks until they are old enough to care for themselves. Hope this trend doesn’t catch on among humans.
The only spectacular natural wonder we saw was the Rio Peine Waterfall. We also stopped to look at the unusual calcium carbonate formations along the shore line of receding Lake Sarmiento. They formed under water and seemed to have crystalized only on the surfaces of other rocks.
All in all, it was a very pleasant, low-key view of the park and the surrounding area with many opportunities to see the wildlife. Eventually we reached Largo Azul Estancia, the site of lunch. There is a purpose-built octagon building where the lamb was cooked and where we ate. There is a fireplace in the center covered by a very large hood. A wood fire is built under the hood which heats a suspended oil drum. Since both ends are cut out of the drum, it acts as a chimney, drawing the heat and flame through it. Of course, the drum becomes quite hot. Several lamb carcasses are spread flat on metal frames and arrayed around the drum and cooked for four hours. The radiant heat from the drum slowly cooks the lamb and also melts a lot of the attendant fat.
While we were enjoying a Pisco Sour after our arrival, a Andean Condor landed on the steep hillside across the way. As it landed we had an excellent view of its white wing bars. It hopped up the hill a ways then took off and soared away.
After the meal we had a 2-hour hike along the lake, nothing spectacular however it was flat, easy, and pleasant.
Bags out at 8, us out at 9 for the long journey back to Punta Arenas. We had one less van so the 12-passenger vans were even more crowded than on the way in. The crowding was made worse since they also seemed to not have enough trailer space for the luggage and some of the smaller pieces were placed inside. The weather was quite "brisk." There had been wind and rain all night long. When we awoke the mountains were cloaked in clouds. As the clouds blew away a fresh powdering of snow was visible.
Although the purpose of the trip was just to get back to Punta Arenas, we did slow down for wildlife sightings. Included in this was a fairly good look at a fox and a spectacular, close look at a low flying Condor! It had just taken off from a carcass and flew straight at us before turning. We also visited the Myradoon cave. The skeleton and some skin fragments of this giant sloth were found here. All that is present now is a cement recreation. The cave is quite large and was eroded out of a cement conglomerate by wave action when it was below sea level.
Lunch was the same place as we stopped on the way in. The sandwich wasn’t quite as good, thin, tough beef instead of the chicken. We also made two stops for tiny sips of gasoline for our van since it was running on empty. Apparently there is some preferred location in town where they purchase gas since he never put in more than 14 L. As we got closer to town the traffic became more congested and the driver became more wild.
After checking into the hotel and getting our bags, including the two that were stored at the hotel, we went out on a shopping tour. Although the sun was shining brightly, there was an intense, cold wind blowing. Our shopping was only moderately successful although we did get a bottle of Chilean red wine which we enjoyed before dinner and Jodie bought a wool vest.
We spent the night at the Finnes Terre hotel, an establishment of moderate quality. Our final meal was a buffet affair on the top floor of the hotel. Once again, bags out at 8, us out at 9 for a town tour. A generously-sized bus took us to a museum with a sad collection of stuffed animals, but a good collection of Indian artifacts and a nice petroleum industry exhibit. The last stop was an open air agricultural museum, then to a very good lunch featuring good American jazz music, Dave Brubeck.
At 4 pm we boarded another of the very uncomfortable, cramped LANChile 737s. I think that model of airplane has become my most disliked. On the 2+ hour flight to Puerto Montt we were served a sandwich and wine. After that stop we were served a meal during the 1˝ hours it took to reach Santiago. We had to change to the international terminal from the domestic terminal. Our flight home was not scheduled to leave until 11:15 so we spent the time in the business lounge talking to some of our fellow travelers.
The flight home was uneventful but long with a very late night one-hour stop in Lima.
Trips like this are strange. A group of complete strangers comes together in a random manner, some meeting at the airport, some at the first hotel, finally all at the ship. We stay together and become a closed community for a brief interval, then slowly split into smaller groups, finally all separated.