Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Logbook: Antarctica II - Part 1

Antarcticaiipart11On Monday -- my last day in Ushuaia -- I packed up, checked out, stashed my gear, did a few chores and generally got ready to get moving again. I wanted to spend some time online, but the internet all over Ushuaia was very unstable so I didn’t get to check in with my “peeps” -- such is life as a digital aboriginal. At four o’clock I retrieved my gear and walked to the pier where I cleared security and went to board MV Polar Star. With only about 60 passengers to board, the check in process was fast and easy, followed by a few minutes of finding my cabin -- a very nice “double” with a pair of large windows and plenty of room (especially since I have it to myself!) -- and settling in. Because I will be in the same cabin on the Polar Star until I reach the Canary Islands six weeks from now, I did a proper “move in” and stowed my gear in drawers, closets, etc. Having so little stuff, however, the whole process took less than ten minutes. Promptly at six o’clock we cast off lines and left Ushuaia for an evening cruise down the Beagle Channel that was delightfully calm, clear and scenic. It had a real feeling of “going to sea” and as we all familiarized ourselves with the ship, made our introductions, performed the mandatory lifeboat drill and had dinner, there was a true sense of heading out on an expedition.

In the evening as we approached the Cape, the seas began to roll a little and we became aware of Polar Star’s primary -- possibly only -- drawback: As a converted ice breaker, it is built for capability not comfort. Although its rounded hull design is perfect for working in the ice, it makes the ship prone to rolling in swells and without any “stabilizers” such as are common on larger cruise ships, there is nothing to mitigate the effects. As a result, upon entering the Drake Passage in moderate swells, our first night at sea was “lively” and made for poor sleeping. The swells and rolls continued Tuesday morning but eased off during the day which was spent attending informative lectures on the wildlife and geology of Antarctica, getting fresh air on deck, reading and napping. By the evening, the swells had reduced further and I slept very well that night. Yesterday was also a day at sea, during which we had our mandatory Antarctic briefing, got ourselves fitted out with boots and attended some more informative lectures. The weather was so nice and the seas were so calm that it was truly a fine, fine day -- and overnight -- at sea.

Antarcticaiipart12At 5:15 this morning we received our wake up call in time to be on deck as the ship passed through “Neptune’s Bellows” -- the only gap in the otherwise perfectly formed volcanic caldera that is Deception Island. Once through the Bellows, we were in a vast lagoon inside the island, large enough that it took almost an hour to steam to the opposite shore. Thus, at about 6:30 we suited up for the first time, got into the Zodiacs and landed at Telefon Bay where we climbed up one of the Island’s many, smaller volcanic craters -- about 600 feet high -- and were rewarded by spectacular views. The weather was simply stunning and the scenery was breathtaking. After returning to the ship, we had breakfast while steaming back toward the Bellows then anchored in Whaler’s Bay. Our landing there included a beach walk among seals and penguins then some exploration of the ruins of a British Antarctic Survey base (that was destroyed by mud flows during an eruption in 1969) and ended with a swim! That’s right, a swim in the Antarctic waters!

Due to the geothermal nature of the island, hot water is available just below the surface of the black sand beach. The crew dug an impromptu hot tub and a number of passengers had a soak. Yours truly -- along with a few other brave souls -- did a “full dunking” in the really, really cold Antarctic water before dipping in the hot tub then making a swift return to the boat for a hot shower and hot lunch. It was one of those lifetime experiences that I am so glad I did and will never forget! In the afternoon we steamed to Half Moon Island where I had landed a month earlier on the Discovery cruise. Thankfully, the Chinstrap Penguin colony was far, far less aromatic and we were allowed to walk down the beach to visit the Camara Argentine Station. I was one of the first to arrive at the Station, and received some fine hospitality including hot coffee and a guided tour. In due course, some of the young women from the ship arrived and you can imagine that I quickly lost the attention of the young, all-male naval personnel. Go figure! So, I caught a Zodiac back to the ship, poured my dram and have been reflecting quite happily on a fantastic day in Antarctica. The spectacular weather and three varied, interesting landings combined to make this one of the best days yet on The Voyage of Macgellan!

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Logbook: Fin del Mundo III

Findelmundoiii1I had arranged to spend Wednesday “On the Route of Darwin” -- an excursion which Betsabe (my local travel expert) suggested. She told me it was a brand new trip and that although she didn’t know much about it -- and didn’t know anybody who had actually taken it -- it sounded like something I might like. She also said that since I was so “tranquillo” about things she was comfortable sending me on it without worrying I would be disappointed and hoped I would give her a full report. Her “close” was along the lines of me being an explorer, after all, and here was my chance to explore on her behalf. What could I say besides “I’ll do it!” So, early in the morning I was picked up and driven to the local marina where our first stop was a little shack in which my documents were reviewed and my passport was stamped out by an Argentine official. By means of this event I learned that the trip would involve crossing into Chile, and being loaded onto a water taxi -- basically a Zodiac with an awning over the front -- confirmed that we would do so across the Beagle Channel. Heading out of the harbor we made a quick detour to circle around the “Octopus” -- one of Paul Allen’s mega-yachts -- which was in port (and making quite an impression on the locals) in preparation to take an Allen-Gates all-star gang on a cruise to Antarctica. (Their invitation must not have caught up with me, eh?) Anyway, from there it was a hi-speed, freezing cold, bone-crushing 30-minute ride across the Beagle to Puerto Navarino, a very small, rocky harbor occupied by a lone building belonging to the Chilean Navy.

After waiting awhile for an immigration official to arrive -- during which time I played with the Station’s dog and tried to keep warm -- papers were examined and passports were stamped into Chile. A few minutes later, the Schooner Victory -- our ride for the day -- arrived and the assembled group of about 15 people were ferried aboard in a dingy. The first impression of Victory is very impressive. Obviously, someone has taken a lot of trouble -- and a ton of money -- to restore this old boat in an authentic way. The few modern amenities -- like working heads and a diesel engine -- are well out of sight so you immediately get the feeling that you have gone back in time somehow to an era of sailing ships in exotic foreign waters. Indeed, our two hour cruise from Puerto Navarino, through the Murray Canal and past rugged shores and islands was fabulous. The captain and crew were friendly and engaging, the guide did a good job of narrating in both Spanish and English, and the boat was a delight to ride.

Findelmundoiii2Arriving in the small, natural harbor of Wulaia, we dropped anchor and were ferried ashore in the dingy to explore the abandoned great house which was once the center of an agricultural community, then the base of a small Chilean force which maintained a territorial presence in the area, then a radio relay station for southern expeditions and, now, a place where fishermen occasionally hang out to get dry and stay out of the wind in bad weather. (The photos of this unlikely structure don’t really do it justice but they will give you some sense of it.) From there, we walked through the woods and up the hill to a bluff overlooking the harbor at Wulaia. I’m not going to go into all the historical details -- you can read them for yourself in books such as the recent best-seller “The Darwin Conspiracy” -- but it is an important place in the history of the area: Darwin, Fitzroy and their ilk all came here, it is the site of the famous massacre when missionaries returned with Jeremy Button and it is a focal point of various border conflicts between Chile and Argentina. After some time to sit and enjoy the view of stunning, rugged, primitive scenery and ponder history, we walked down the hill, ferried back on board and had a barbecue feast of meat! (What else?)

Our return cruise was equally enjoyable and a fine end to an excellent day trip. Unlike other excursions in the area which focus mainly on “activities”, “On the Route of Darwin” offers a sense of history and is more “intellectual.” I recommend it. Upon our arrival back in Puerto Navarino, we had to have our papers checked and our passports stamped out of Chile -- of course! -- and after the water taxi ride back across the Beagle to Ushuaia (which was thankfully less rough than the morning crossing) we had to be stamped back into Argentina. For those of you who are keeping score, that’s four passport stamps in one day and a good insight into the really silly protocol between the two countries -- not unlike how siblings argue over an imaginary boundary line in their bedroom!

Thursday was cold and rainy so I did some chores and “other” work, then spent most of Friday checking out the museums in Ushuaia. I give the “prison museum” high marks for its breadth of subjects and quality of displays, and the “Fin del Mundo” museum poor marks for its lack of the same. On a bad weather day in Ushuaia you can make good use of your time in the former and skip the latter. Yesterday I began -- and today I will finish -- the process of getting ready to move on by packing up my gear, updating the website, backing up my drives and checking in with my “Peeps” on Skype.

Tomorrow I will board the MV Polar Star for my six weeks combination cruise: Back to the Weddell Peninsula of Antarctica, a repositioning cruise up to Brazil and an Atlantic Crossing to the Canary Islands. I will have no internet access on board ship so website updates will be impossible. I will capture and process media along the way and post updates whenever I can at ports of call. The next date of which I am reasonably certain is March 15th when I will have the day back here in Ushuaia. I regret the long time between updates that this involves -- and I hope you will mark your calendars to check back on the 15th -- but like all things in life, “it is what it is” on The Voyage of Macgellan!

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Haircut Chronicle: #5 - Ushuaia, Argentina

Img_0413_2 Img_0411 Img_0412

#5 - February 22, 2007, Ushuaia, Argentina. After seven weeks from my last haircut, it was time for a trim.
Silvina didn’t exactly gasp in horror when I took my hat off, but she knew she had her work cut out for her.
That’s more like it! Let’s hope this haircut holds up for the next eight weeks while I am at sea! Cost: 20 Pesos ($7)

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Logbook: Fin del Mundo II

Findelmundoii1It’s been a really good “mixed use” week on The Voyage! First, I used some pretty nasty weather -- cold, rainy and windy -- as a good excuse for a couple of days of R&R (doing nothing but reading books, watching movies, etc.) Second, I spent a few days on “other” work. Third, I did some decent exploration which I will recount here: One day, I went on a day-long “excursion” into the National Park for a hike along the Beagle Channel and a little canoe ride down a river whose name remains unknown to me. The hike was very nice -- a three hour one way trip along the rugged shore and through the woods -- but I thought the pace was a little too fast. This is not because it was a hard hike, but because I would have preferred to take more time to enjoy the scenery. As seems to happen so often on “organized excursions” there is a tendency to try to cram too much into too little time. If you are ever down here, I suggest you visit the Park and do the walk on your own. The trail is easy to follow and you will be able to take it at your own pace -- I would have done the three hour hike in about four hours.

The canoe trip was also very nice, made even more fun by my “canoe partner” Orly -- a delightful young woman from Israel -- who quickly realized that she didn’t have to over-compensate for her lack of experience by paddling harder or faster, and relaxed into her front seat role as “being along for the ride” unless I informed her that some specific assistance would be helpful. For those of you who have canoed down a gentle river, you know how easy it can be to “over work” the situation. By the time our two hour ride was over, we had pretty much mastered the routine together and celebrated our success with a team photo. Where we ended our trip is of some significance because it is the terminus of “Route 3” which alleges to go all the way to Alaska some 17,000 kilometers away. (I say “alleges” because I know for a fact that it doesn’t exactly cross Columbia -- nothing does -- but there’s no sense letting a little detail like that strange country get in the way of a really good point, is there?) Anyway, the notion of “the end of the road” at “the end of the world” is pretty charming and nobody goes there without having their picture taken at the sign -- yours truly included!

Findelmundoii2My other day of exploration started with a cab ride to a lodge at the Martial Glacier area that sits in the mountains above Ushuaia then continued with a chair lift ride further up and an hour long hike still higher. The glacier was okay, but what I really enjoyed was stopping at a panoramic viewpoint on the way down to get a great look -- and a few photos -- of how beautiful this area is. In the photos, you can see how Ushuaia is nestled in a very small space between the mountains and the water. On a clear day, the view around here is as good as just about anyplace in the world! On my descent, I decided to forego the return ride on the chair lift in favor of a delightful walk down the mountain. Upon reaching the lodge, I further decided to forego the cab ride back into town and thoroughly enjoyed a nice, long, downhill walk. The total of about 15 kilometers ended up taking me about three hours, due mostly to my stopping to play with every dog I met along the way!

Which brings me to the funniest thing of the week, a “dog story”: Like every place I’ve been in Central and South America over the past few months, Ushuaia has a large population of stray dogs. The other day when I was at the market picking up supplies, I decided to get some “dog treats” to have in my pocket to share with various dogs I came across. Being a good, caring, compassionate dog lover, I eschewed -- great word here, huh? -- the nutritionally worthless “cookies” in favor of healthy, protein rich “chews.” Well, the first dog I offered one to didn’t even bother to take it out of my hand -- no interest whatsoever -- and the next few dogs accepted my offerings but promptly spit them out and left them on the sidewalk. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why stray dogs didn’t want treats!

Then, last night on my way home from dinner, I walked down a side street where I saw a pack of dogs waiting outside the kitchen door of a restaurant and -- right before my eyes -- a cook came outside and tossed the dogs a HUGE pile of meat scraps! Of course! In this town -- and this country for that matter -- where meat is king and you can’t get a plate with less than a kilo of meat on it, there is always a ton of it left over that goes to the dogs! No wonder they didn’t want anything to do with my nutritious, processed protein “treats”... They dine on meat every day! And, no wonder the stray dogs around here all look so healthy, with shiny coats, clear eyes and good body weight! Macgellan is an idiot!

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Musing: Lost In Translation

LostintranslationI am sure that by now all of you have experienced the pros and cons of computer spell checkers -- or “smell” checkers as some folks call them. They are great at finding mistakes if the typed word doesn’t exist, but they don’t find properly spelled words that are wrong in the context in which they are used. Hence, for example, the spell checker -- even on my fabulous Mac -- will not fin this typo. You get my point. As bad as this problem with computer spell checkers is, the problem with computer translation programs is far, far worse. From time to time on The Voyage, I come across examples of where someone has obviously used a computer translation program to render their native language into English with odd, often funny results. So far, I have simply had a grin or two and gone about my business.

The example above struck me as so funny, however, that I decided to start sharing some of them with you in the form of a new “Special” page for things “Lost In Translation.” (You can click to it in the sidebar to the right.) In the process, something occurred to me which is the point of this little Musing: Beyond its hilarity, “and you eat fried Spanish women” is irrelevant. The important, useful words in the translation are loin, cheese, egg, bacon, lettuce and tomato. Based on these, I have a pretty good idea what kind of sandwich it is, and that is what I really want -- need -- to know. So, in a sense, I’ve been informed and amused -- a pretty good deal if you ask me!

In thinking about this, I have reflected on the many times people have asked me how I handle “the language barrier” on The Voyage. After all, English may be “the world’s second language” but it is my only language. So, let me share my strategy for getting by in foreign lands with foreign languages:

1) Learn and use “words.” Forget about learning phrases, tenses, grammar, etc. You will never learn enough to be literate so don’t even try. Making a hash -- which is the best you can hope for -- out of “Can you please tell me where I might be able to get a good seafood meal somewhere nearby?” will get you nowhere and probably confuse, possibly annoy, the person you are asking. Instead, use simple words like “Please. Restaurant. Seafood. Near.” I guarantee the person you are asking will be engaged by your question -- human beings are pre-disposed to be engaged by puzzles -- and they will invariably make enough sense out of your “words” to get the gist what you are saying. In reality, there are probably only 50-100 words you need to know in any given language in order to “get by” or “function” in it. (Maybe one of these days I’ll make a list of them!) Learn and use these words, and forget about trying to learn future imperfect participles or the like.

2) Remember that the other person may speak “English as a second language” only about as well as you speak their language. Apply the rule above in reverse and engage in the puzzle of figuring out what their words are trying to convey. Vocabulary is a multiplicative function, and a little of each between the two of you can vastly expand your mutual understanding. Above all, just because they may speak some English, do NOT expect that they should speak it well and shame, criticize or otherwise be judgmental if they do not.

3) Set your expectations low and your patience level high. You are not going to get exact, perfect results from your verbal interaction so don’t even think about it. The other day, for example, I was in the mood for a steak. I asked the waiter for “Meat. Grilled.” and was served a platter with about four pounds -- this is Argentina, after all -- of mixed grilled meats. I could recognize the pieces of beef, lamb and chicken but I had no idea what the rest of the parts, pieces and various organs were. I said, “Thank you” and proceeded to eat what I could recognize and try small pieces of the rest. I didn’t get my “steak” but I got the “Meat. Grilled.” that I asked for -- and plenty of it. As the Rolling Stones put it, “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try, sometimes, you get what you need.” Amen.

4) Smile, laugh, be goofy and even act a little helpless or self-deprecating. Although what Willie Sutton said is true -- that “You can get more money from a bank with a gun and a smile than you can with just a smile” -- don’t underestimate the power of a smile. Human beings are also pre-disposed to feel fondly toward helpless creatures that smile -- It’s how nature keeps us from eating our young -- so use it to your advantage. I know I have written before that my friend Greg does this as well as anybody, but it’s worth repeating. His smile, positive attitude and infectious good humor are so effective at engaging people that it is simply amazing how fast he strikes up a rapport, communicates his meaning and gets positive, helpful responses. How else do you think he gets his picture taken with so many lovely young women in foreign countries! Smile and the world smiles with you.

5) When all else fails, use pictures. I always try to “talk” first, but when this gets me nowhere I pull out my secret weapon: A Visual Translator. I carry one called Kwikpoint -- there are many sizes and styles -- and I swear by it. Basically, it is a laminated page, covered in a multitude of simple, clear, colorful icons on which you can point to what you want. It isn’t as much fun as doing “the language thing” but it has it’s advantages including precision, time and universality. After all, you can’t get “Lost In Translation” when there isn’t any translation.

Lost In Translation: Ushuaia, Argentina

Img_0294Restaurant Menu

ACA Canal Beagle Hotel

Ushuaia, Argentina

February 2007

Just can't get enough of those fried Spanish women!

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Logbook: Fin del Mundo I

Findelmundoi2After being on board ship for a month I was feeling ready to stretch my legs and do some serious walking, so I arranged to have my first exploration be a “glacier hike.” I was picked up pretty early on Friday morning by a van carrying about eight “twenty something” passengers -- this detail will become relevant soon -- and driven about 20 kms out of town to the tour company’s mountain lodge. We were told that the first part of our hike would be across a “little muddy part”, given rubber boots to put on and instructed to tie our hiking boots to our packs for use “in a little while.” (We were not, however, issued any of the crampons that were available in the lodge -- another detail that will become relevant soon.) In truth, the “little muddy part” was mostly an ankle deep bog -- like a plowed farm field after a heavy rain -- and the “little bit” was about 5 kms. I’m not going to rant about it, but the combination of the uncomfortable rubber boots and the heavy going made the trip just a bit of a grind. Nevertheless, we were treated to some lovely scenery of snow capped rocky mountains and interesting beaver dam lakes.

I was pleased to be in the company of a young Swiss man named Christian with whom -- because of his fluency in English, fine intellect and good humor -- I was able to more happily spend the time talking than swearing at the trail. Although we all walked pretty much as a group across the level part of the trail, I will admit that I was a bit slower than my much younger comrades on the steeper ascents. I didn’t really seem to slow them down -- their ten minute rest breaks were simply shortened to seven or eight for me -- and we all had some good laughs about me being “maybe a little old for this kind of thing.” As we approached the snowy spot you can see in the photo above, our guide informed us that we would not be about to go all the way to the glacier due to icy conditions. This, of course, did not surprise me. (Due to our lack of being issued crampons, I suspect they knew all along the conditions were not amenable to reaching the glacier.) We were able to see the glacier, but even that was a little disappointing due to its rather small size. After a few minutes of enjoying the view, talking about geo-politics -- It turns out I am not a typical American after all! -- and eating the tasty bag lunch we were provided, we headed back down the steep incline. By the time we had walked back through the bog to the lodge, I will admit I was pretty tired. After the ride back to town I was ready for a hot shower and dinner. I met Christian a little later for a beer and another lively conversation, then crashed pretty hard for the night. All in all, my first exploration was only marginally satisfactory -- fair in terms of “interest” and poor in terms of “enjoyment.”

The next day, Saturday, was entirely different as the “4x4 and Canoe” day trip was a complete delight. Our first activity was a very pleasant, hour long canoe ride on a lovely little lake. The scenery and wildlife were very enjoyable, but the good humor of our guides made it really fun. With just the right amount of racing, splashing, etc., we all had a good time. Next, we left the paved road in our 4x4 Land Rover Defenders and had a blast cruising along old logging roads. We stopped in to see a local man who had just skinned a recently caught beaver and were entertained by his tales. From there, it was on to the serious 4x4 experience where steep hills and deep mud were all handled with skill and humor. You really have to see the Report to get the sense of it! In due time, we stopped on the shores of Lago Fagnano where our guides cooked us a truly outstanding Argentine barbecue lunch -- consisting of meat, wine, meat, wine and meat! With our bellies full, it was time for a wild ride along the lake shore then back onto the road toward town.

Findelmundoi1Along the way, I learned that the tour company runs dog sled trips during the winter so I begged my guide, Seba, to stop and visit the dogs. We did, and I went totally nuts! I ran into the lot of about 50 sled dogs and hugged and loved every one of them. Within minutes I was completely covered in dog hair, saliva, mud and everything else you find in a dog lot. Plus, there were puppies! Anyway, I had such a good time and made such a fool of myself that the nice Brazilian couple with me had a really good laugh. From there it was back to town after a great day -- fine in terms of “interest” and fabulous in terms of “enjoyment.”

On Sunday I took it pretty easy -- still recovering, I will admit, from my trek on Friday -- and spent the day reading, napping and talking to folks on Skype. Yesterday was mostly occupied with some pretty major website maintenance, and today I did some iLife plus some “other” work. I have arranged some more exploration for the coming days, so stay tuned for whatever is next on The Voyage of Macgellan!

Friday, February 09, 2007

Report: Nunatak 4x4

There’s nothing like a 4x4 ride through beautiful and difficult terrain. If you’re ever in Ushuaia, I recommend you check out Nunatak Adventures and take their 4x4 day trip. Special thanks to my driver, Seba, for his skills behind the wheel and behind the camera.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Logbook: Ushuaia

Ushuaia1Our northern crossing of the Drake Passage was as calm as our voyage south. In fact, the only real commotion on Monday involved our packing up in preparation to disembark. Contrary to my regular vigilance, I had picked up a few additional items over the past month: a Panama Hat, a couple of tee shirts, a bright red parka (courtesy of MV Discovery for shore landings), a cap and a coffee cup (from Jess, Billie and Poppy) and a bottle of scotch (from their parents, Jan and Rhian). Not really that much stuff all things considered, but still enough to complicate my already efficient -- read: tight -- packing system. Thankfully, my additions were no where near the magnitude of that acquired by others. The point is that there was a fair amount of hustle and bustle as passengers figured out what to keep, what to give away to the crew and how to jam it all into their luggage. Plus, of course, there was an almost comical amount of scurrying around as passengers figured out and distributed tips, attended disembarkation procedure lectures, paid their accounts, said farewells to new friends and generally prepared to get moving after one to six weeks of being on board.

As always, I was up very early for our arrival into Ushuaia on Tuesday morning -- the deck crew outdid themselves in their usual activities right above my cabin -- and had my coffee while watching this little town at the end of the world wake up and come to life. As soon as the ship was cleared by Argentine customs, I grabbed my Mac pack -- temporarily leaving the rest of my gear on board -- and hit the town in search of a new home. My little bit of research had pointed me to a hotel run by the Automobile Club of Argentina where there was some hope that my AAA membership might get me a handsome discount. In cold and misty weather I walked two blocks from the pier, and entered the reception area where I inquired about the discount (“Si”), internet (“Wi-fi, si”) and a room (“No!”). So, I made a reservation for the first available night -- tonight -- then went around the corner to the Albatros -- an overdone, over priced, Euro-style place -- and got a room for two nights. I dropped off my Mac pack and headed back to the ship where I grabbed the rest of my gear, said my good-byes and bailed out of Discovery for the last time.

By then the weather was cold, rainy and windy as hell. In at least a 40 mph gale, I dragged my gear to the Albatros and dumped it in my room. For the rest of the day -- regardless of the weather -- I walked all over this great little town to familiarize myself with what’s what. Along the way I stopped into a tour office and was very fortunate to meet Betsabe who was very helpful in setting up some day trips to the Park, the glacier, etc. By the end of the day I had my “infrastructure” set up and my “exploration” mapped out for the next week! I spent most of yesterday on-line doing all the usual and enjoying the freedom to walk at length in this absolutely stunning setting, eat fresh roasted lamb and get a decent cup of coffee!

Ushuaia2From just about every corner in town, I could see the pier and the ships that were tied up. In the picture above, you can see some behemoth in the background with Discovery in front on the left. As I’ve said, Discovery is “small” by comparison to most ships, but it is a behemoth itself compared to my next ship -- the MV Polar Star -- which happened to be in port and is the little red “boat” you can see at the right of the picture. The Polar Star is an exploration class ship that is ice capable and much better suited to Antarctic cruising. I’m stoked about boarding it later this month and having it be the home of The Voyage for the next six weeks through the Weddell Sea and the South Atlantic Islands then repositioning north and across the Atlantic to the Canary Islands in April. Meanwhile, I transferred over to the Auto Club’s Hotel Canal Beagle this morning and am now very happily ensconced in a neat, tidy, inexpensive room with decent wi-fi, a desk and enough space to sort out my gear. I am almost giddy with excitement looking forward to a wide variety of exploration over the next three weeks in “Fin del Mundo” -- the “End of the Earth” -- on The Voyage of Macgellan!

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Logbook: Antarctica I

Antarcticai1After a very gentle crossing of the Drake Passage, I got up Thursday morning and had coffee to the sight of the Henryk Arctowski Polish Antarctic Station on a shore of King George Island. One’s first impression of Antarctica is that it looks just like it does in the books: Cold, dark, desolate and inhospitable. There is practically no natural color at all, mostly black -- or very dark grey -- and white. The only color you really see is the mustard yellow paint scheme of the Station’s buildings -- very basic structures that seem hopelessly out of place. Weather conditions were cold and a bit windy, but good enough for the captain to let us make a landing.

Here is the going ashore process which we repeated for all our landings: First of all, the ship’s deck crew lower six Zodiac inflated boats into the water. These boats, under the command of a team of specialists we picked up in Chile, handle all transportation between ship and shore. Second, a couple of dozen crew members go ashore to establish and attend a landing site, to create a perimeter using orange cones that designates the area that can be explored, to supervise interaction between humans and wildlife and to assist any passengers who might need help walking on uneven terrain. Then come the passengers. In order to make a reasonably organized -- and fairly “low impact” -- landing on rugged but ecologically fragile sites in Antarctica, the 600 passengers were split up into six groups of 100 each. These groups were further divided into sub-groups of 10 -- the capacity of a Zodiac -- to be ferried ashore. Upon landing, the clock is checked and a “return time” is announced for one hour later. When your hour is up, you return to the landing site, have your boots cleaned -- to reduce the amount of nasty, smelly penguin guano that is carried back to the ship -- and make the return the Zodiac ride. When all the passengers have been ashore -- along with a lucky few crew members who have been able to grab empty seats on a Zodiac here or there -- the crew all return to the ship, the boats are hoisted aboard and the ship steams on. The process which begins at about six in the morning is completed by two or three in the afternoon, a total of about eight or nine hours.

Now, back to our first landing on King George Island: The pebble beach verged into a rocky path along an isthmus of sorts between what amounts to large boulder piles. Elsewhere in the world you might think it was all pretty ugly, but in the context of Antarctica it was stunning, almost beautiful. Although there was not a lot of wildlife in terms of numbers of animals, there was a pretty good variety. All in one place -- and almost side by side -- we were able to see a few Chinstrap, Gentoo and Adelie penguins plus a small group of seals. My alloted hour on shore was plenty of time to walk the area, take some great video and photos -- which really tell the story -- and be ready to leave when my hour was up. We spent the rest of the day and all of Friday cruising around, enjoying the amazing sights of the rugged coastal mountains and immense glaciers plus icebergs of all sizes and the occasional whale sighting.

Antarcticai2Yesterday morning was calm and temperate so we made a landing at Paradise Harbour where we had our first exposure to the almost overpowering smell of a real penguin rookery. Trust me, thousands of Gentoos really make a mess and the smell is intense! Paradise is the home of a fairly large and well developed Chilean Naval Station, including a little shop where -- in addition to post cards, trinkets, etc. -- you can buy Antarctic certificates officially stamped and notarized. Because the rookery and the station are situated together, you get to enjoy the experience of wandering around among the penguins. You actually have to watch where you walk -- especially when looking through your camera -- because you could easily step on one of them. The weather was so nice -- almost warm -- that our time on shore was very pleasant and our cruising later in the day provided excellent views of icebergs and the amazing terrain. This morning we arrived at Half Moon Island and made a landing to visit the rookery of a very large number of Chinstrap Penguins. For the rest of today and all of tomorrow we will be sailing north, back across the Drake Passage and up to Ushuaia where I will disembark.

In closing, I have to comment that it is very, very difficult to describe Antarctica. The vast size and nature of the terrain, the immense significance of the weather and the astonishing wildlife are beyond my ability to put into words. If you have any interest in Antarctica, you really have to see it for yourself. This cruise has proven that anybody who wants to can visit and get a taste of the White Continent. If these people can do it, so can you.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Report: Feed Me!

Adult penguins are attentive and tolerant parents. Sometimes, though, the young -- whose snapping at their beaks triggers a reflexive regurgitation -- can be just a little too persistent and demanding for feeding. At Paradise Harbor, Antarctica, I captured this video sequence which follows the process from adorable start to acrimonious finish. An homage to the challenges of parenthood from The Voyage of Macgellan!