Detomo's Abroad

Detomos Abroad

A Visit to Puerto Vallarta – Mexico’s West Coast

December 3, 2019 8:14 pm

November 2019

Our close friends, Bob and Diana, kindly invited us to join them for a week at the Vidanta Resort located on Mexico’s west coast near Puerto Vallarta on Banderas Bay. The Saturday flight to Puerto Vallarta is an easy one connecting through Houston, Texas, and the airport exit is the typical chaos of hawkers, salespeople and taxi drivers.  This weekend is the annual “Day of the Dead” festival, and tourists are crowding the small facilities.  We finally found our way to our transport to the resort, which required entrance through an impressive security gate and passage through miles of meticulously gardened roads.  Apparently, the resort owners are terra-forming the many acres of reclaimed ground into a mini-Disneyland of Mexico’s west coast.  The resort itself is huge with multiple timeshare, hotel and condominium buildings, numerous restaurants, and a half-dozen pools, including swim-up bar, a lazy river, wave pools and cabana service. We checked-in, drank our complimentary margarita, met up with Bob and Diane, and made our way to our 6th-floor, two-bedroom suite in The Grand Bliss, a central building overlooking a pond, a pool, the beach and Banderas Bay. The suite included a complete kitchen, 2 ½ baths, a balcony and a private plunge pool!  All the facilities and amenities at the resort are connected by walkable paths but can also be accessed via a complex golf cart transportation system, as automobiles are not allowed into the guest areas. Dinner was at Epazote restaurant where we dined on traditional Mexican fare, including guacamole made fresh at our table-side.  That evening, we enjoyed fireworks over the Bay, and prepared a plan to explore the next morning.

Local egrets (Nivea Garza) wandering the extensive gardens.
View from the Suite’s balcony of Banderas Bay.

Sunday morning, we were up early for a walk on the beach where we saw many tracks from active Olive Ridley Sea Turtles nesting during the night.  At the southern end of the resort, there is a point of land where the Ameca River flows into Banderas Bay, and it was populated with numerous local fisherman casting from the beach. On the way back, we watched two local men swim their gillnet through the surf and manually haul it in, reminding us of similar fishing techniques that we watched local tribes do in Nigeria. As the sun rose over the mountains to the east, we watched the many dolphins playing and eating just offshore before heading back to get breakfast.  After consuming huge crepes at the Sweet Paris Creperie, we walked to the resort’s local grocery to stock-up on water, wine, rum, cheese and snacks.  Then it was off to the Concierge to book any tours that we wanted to do later that week, which would include a trip to the town of San Sebastian, and an excursion offshore sport fishing.  Then, it was off to one of the swimming pools for a relaxing afternoon of reading and margaritas. Julie and Bob took a couple of trips around the Lazy River, where they enjoyed waves from the wave machine, while large 3-foot-long Green Iguanas along the way took little notice of them.  After pool-time, we all headed up to the suite for a dip in the plunge pool and a glass of wine, before getting ready to head out for dinner.  That night we dined “french” on lobster, escargot, and scallops at the Azur Restaurant, which we finished off with an excellent crème brulee. 

Local fishermen with mornings catch.
Relaxing in the suite’s plunge pool.

Monday morning, we had a light breakfast at the suite, before meeting our bus for our excursion to San Sebastian.  San Sebastian del Oeste is a town 60 miles from the resort located high up, (over 1-mile in altitude), in the mountains.  The town was founded in 1580, and at one time was home to over 30,000 people – most making their living from the vast silver mines located there.  During the revolution of 1910, the mines were blown up, and the town has shrunk to less than 1000 people today. Their economy is now principally driven by agriculture and a growing tourism business.  Until relatively recently, the trip to San Sebastian would have taken many hours over dirt and gravel roads and old river crossings.  Today, the road is paved, and a new bridge crosses the principal river gorge making the trip only about 90-minutes. Along the way, we stopped at Raicilla de El Nogalito de San Sebastian, a local family-run tequila maker that only makes small runs of tequila monthly from their locally grown blue agave plants.  There, we tasted Blanco, Reposado and Areanas tequilas, and tasted their local flavored blends, including our favorite – coffee. We then traveled to the edge of the town, San Sebastian, where we stop to explore a local coffee plantation – the Café de Altura La Quinta.  This small plantation (~12 hectares) has been operated by the same family for over 100 years, originally founded by a Spanish settler who married a native woman.  The coffee trees are shaded by an extensive fruit orchard that towers over them, providing both the right amount of sunshine and the necessary soil nutrients to be successful.  After exploring and tasting their coffee, we walk into the town of San Sebastian, where the building and stone cobble streets are still original from the 19th century.  Access to town for the surrounding population was principally still via donkey carts until 2010. We stop for lunch at a local restaurant, “Jardin de Ninos”, where we have a fantastic traditional meal of quesadillas, machaca, chicken mole and refried beans.  After lunch, we walked into the town’s center looking at the pre-revolution architecture, including the old silver company store, the jail (still in use) and the church.  After free time to explore and shop, we board the bus for the trip back to the resort, go for a quick walk on the beach where we watch the “Fiesta Mexicana” show and firework.  That night we relax at the suite enjoying drinks and a light dinner.

New bridge across river gorge on the way to San Sebastian.
Blue Agave – the principal source of Tequila.
The quaint still used by the local family for tequila.
The streets of San Sebastian.
San Sebastian Old Town Square
Inside the San Sebastian Church.

On Tuesday morning, Rocky arose early to try his luck fishing from the beach but only caught two small stingrays. After a light breakfast, we assembled at the pool for another relaxing day.  From 11am until 3pm is “happy hour” at the swim-up bar, and we take advantage of the 2-for-1 drinks, cooling off from the sun with frozen margaritas. We both decide to ride the Lazy River before coming back for a poolside lunch of mussels and quesadillas. After the restful day, we had dinner on the beachside restaurant, “The Havana Moon”, where we enjoyed Cuban preparations of salads, shredded beef and barbequed pork ribs.

Julie on the Lazy River.

Wednesday morning gave Rocky another chance at fishing from the beach, but with no success at all this time.  However, the early start did offer the chance to see one Ridley Turtle finish laying her eggs and make her way back into the sea.  The Olive Ridley Turtles are only ~18” to 2’ long, and their nests are very shallow, making them easy targets for predators such as birds and racoons.  After returning to the suite to clean-up, we all headed to a complementary buffet breakfast at The Café Largo Restaurant. This was an appointment scheduled for Bob and Diana to review their current membership status, but the breakfast offered some of the best empanadas and Mexican treats that we had had.  After breakfast, we headed to the pool and “happy hour” for the rest of the day before making reservations for a traditional Mexican dinner at La Cantina.  This novel sports bar boasts stools made from horse-riding saddles and traditional décor and food.

Mexico’s Green Iguana – about 2 1/2 feet long.

Thursday morning, we were all up early to catch our taxi transport to Paradise Village Public Pier for a day of sport fishing. At the pier, we were met by the captain and first mate of the “Luky”, a twin outboard sport fishing boat.  As we motored out into Banderas Bay, the weather was good, and the seas were calm.  By the time the sun started showing over the eastern mountains, we had motored west ~20km to a point near Destiladeras where we began fishing for bait and potential lunch.  While there, Rocky caught two Spanish Mackerel and one Skipjack, Diana cause a Spanish Mackerel and Yellowtail, Bob caught 2 Spanish Mackerels at one time, and Julie caught a Spanish Mackerel, as well. With these fish and others that the first mate both brought and caught, we continued our journey to the southwest to get beyond the bay and into deeper, cooler waters where mahi and billfish might be caught. With seven lines out at various distances, we fished for the 4-hours past the Marietas Islands and all the way across the outer edge of Banderas Bay, however, we never got a bite. As noon approach, the first mate cleaned and filleted several of the mackerel, and made an outstanding ceviche, which we ate with chips for a delicious lunch.   As afternoon began, we headed back to the port, stopping briefly to watch the frolicking dolphins that came to investigate us.  After returning to the resort, we went for a walk on the beach, explored the Turtle Nesting Nursery, and spend some time at the pool.  Dinner that night was via “room service” where we had steak and fajitas and watched a movie, “Deja Vu”, in Spanish on the television.

Sunrise from out on the water.
Fishing in Banderas Bay.

On Friday morning, Rocky again tried his luck fishing at the beach, but again with no luck.  Julie came down to encourage him and to explore and got to witness not only a nesting turtle, but also the release of baby turtles back into the sea from the Turtle Conservancy located there. They have a regular program where they collect turtle eggs from their beach nests, rebury them in a protected area, and then release them into the sea when they hatch.  After our morning beach excursion, we headed to “Sweet Paris” again for a crepe breakfast, and then again spent the day poolside before making reservations at “Gong”, an Asian-style restaurant.  Here we had one of the best tempuras we’ve ever tasted and complimented our meal with dumplings and red wine.  Then, it was back to the suite to pack for our journey home the next day.

Nesting Olive Ridley Turtle.
Baby Olive Ridley Turtles

Saturday was “travel day”, but, after arriving at the airport, we were excited to discover that part of our trip we were upgraded to first class.  This was a great way to conclude a fantastic and relaxing week.

2019 Bicycling the Seine from Paris to Normandy

September 13, 2019 3:15 pm

August September 2019

After four sightseeing-filled days in Paris, Thursday morning, August 29th, 2019, saw us meeting our bicycling travel group in the lobby of the Balmoral Hotel. The 23 of us were met by two of our four Backroads Guides, Otis & James, and we proceeded to load our luggage and ourselves onto a large motor-coach and head west out of the city to a farm where we were fitted to our bikes, received a safety lecture, and began our first ride to Versailles for lunch.  Of the 23 in our group, 12 had e-bikes (battery/electrically assisted), and 11 had “regular” bikes.  Now, by “regular” bikes, I mean Backroads’ custom titanium and carbon-fiber-frame bikes with electronic shifting!  Bikes that are certainly well out of my price-range to purchase!  In our little group of four, the two boys were on regular bikes, and the two girls had e-bikes. The ride to Versailles was short (~9-miles) but was a good chance to get used to our bikes and make sure everything was okay.  Unfortunately, not everyone had as smooth of a ride as we did, and a few spills and bruises were already collected.  Lunch was in the gardens of Versailles, very much near where we ate lunch during our visit two days before.  After lunch, we rode another 8-miles through a national forest and a state park to a viewpoint overlooking Paris.  From here, we could see the landmark weather balloon that rises over Paris daily, and were informed that our Riverboat was located at the base of it. For those who chose to do so, we rode the additional 8-miles into Paris – dodging the tourists and pedestrians – and making our way to the wharf where the AmaLyra was located.  For those who chose to take the van from the overlook, wine, beer and snacks were readily available. Once there, Backroads retook possession of our bikes, and we checked into our lovely upper-level staterooms, complete with balconies and sliding glass doors. After showers, we toured the decks of the ship before meeting in the lounge at 6:00pm for “Welcome-Aboard” drinks and meeting the Captain (“Jackie”) and crew.  Our Captain was from Romania, was 32 years old, and had “cut his teeth” on tugs and commercial boats.  This would be his first voyage as Captain of this riverboat!  Most of the crew was either French, Romanian or Portuguese. There were ~120 passengers on the boat, and our group, the most adventurous aboard, numbered 25 in total with our guides.  Dinner was in a lovely dining room and included free-flowing wine and beer.  After dinner, we all went up on-deck to say good-bye to the lights of the city, to observe the wheelhouse move up and down to fit under bridges, and to get to know our fellow passengers.  That night we socialized on-deck until ~11:30pm and enjoyed the French wine and the beautiful warm summer evening.

James’s Map of our Bicycling Adventures in France
Julie on Deck of our Ship – The AmaLyra
Our Family of Adventurers

Friday morning, we arose at 6:30am for breakfast, and then disembarked the boat in the town of Vernon.  Here, we met our other two Backroads Guides, Carlos and Clem, and boarded our bikes for a 13.4-mile ride to the town of Les Andelys.  As we began, the boat left to join us downstream.  After getting out of the town’s traffic, the ride was quiet and pleasant along parts of the Seine River and through the local countryside.  Upon arriving in Les Andelys, we grabbed a couple of snacks and had the option to either ride a 19-mile hilly loop back to town or take a guided tour of the ruins of Chateau Gaillard – the castle stronghold of Richard-the-Lionhearted. Rocky took the tour while the other three of our group rode the loop. The loop started with a 450-foot high hill and a gently rolling ride through the countryside.  The tour of the castle was led by Natale and explained that this large portion of what is today, France, was once ruled by Richard-the-Lionhearted, who was simultaneously King of England and feudal Duke of Normandy. In the 1180’s, The King of France struck and alliance with Richard to join the Crusades to free Jerusalem.  While Richard was gone, his brother, Prince John would rule in his stead, (remember the stories of Richard, Prince John and Robin Hood!) After battling at the Crusades, the King of France returned home to France, and began to make a deal with Prince John for annexing Richard’s lands.  The immensely popular Richard arrived back in time to stop the transfer, but decided that the French could not be trusted, and set forth to build a fortress castle on the banks of the Seine to give warning to any French attack from Paris. The castle was built high on the limestone cliffs above Les Andelys and used a novel design of curved walls that was a learning of Richard’s from his failed assaults in Jerusalem. Construction began in 1196 but was competed in just two years in 1198. Château Gaillard has an advanced design and uses early principles of concentric fortification. The castle consists of three enclosures separated by dry moats, with a keep in the inner enclosure. Unfortunately, in 1199 Richard was wounded in Limoges by an arrow to the shoulder from which he subsequently died, and the region slowly fell under strong French influence. Château Gaillard was captured in 1204 by the king of France, Philip Augustus, after a lengthy siege. In the mid-14th century, the castle was the residence of the exiled David II of Scotland. The castle changed hands several times in the Hundred Years’ War, but in 1449 the French king captured Château Gaillard from the English king definitively, and from then on it remained in French ownership. Henry IV of France ordered the demolition of Château Gaillard in 1599; although it was already in ruins at the time.  It was designated a “quarry” and many of its stones were taken and used to build the local towns and villages.  From here, the tour visited the town of Les Andelys, and the flying-buttressed church that anchors the town.  After the tour, and upon the return of the loop-riders, we were visited by Madame Micheline and Monsieur Jaques Renaut who offered us the opportunity to taste some authentic Normandy treats.  We started with their homemade “pommeau” – a sweet apple liquor and enjoyed a 100-year-old recipe for a neufchatel cheese and savory bacon-pea muffins.  After that, the Amalyra was ready for us to re-board in time for a lunch of escargot and baked trout.  The afternoon was spent cruising down the Seine through a series of locks. Before dinner, our Backroads group met at the Chef’s Table Room for wine and cheese and individual introductions, and then adjourned to dinner and a night on the dance floor.

Chateau Gaillard – The Stronghold of Richard-The-Lionhearted

Saturday morning, the ship arrives and docks in the port city of Le Havre and moors at the Quay of Marseille.  Le Havre was completely destroyed by the Allied Bombing of World War II, but today is completely rebuild with innovative uses of concrete. We get to sleep-in as we meet with our group and disembark at 9:30am.  From here, we take a short bus ride to the other side of the estuary where we board our bikes and ride 9.1-miles west through the countryside of Marais Vernier past thatched-roof houses to a small coffee shop operated by a southern French lady with Spanish ancestry who you would not want to cross!  But she makes a spectacular cappuccino! From here, we ride another 6.1 miles to La Cremaillere where Monsieur and Madame Delaunay welcome us for lunch. We are served a delicious fish with carrots and broccoli, finished off by an apple tart and apple gelato.  After lunch, we continue our ride for another 11.8 miles to the colorful port city of Honfleur, located downstream and across the estuary from Le Havre at the mouth of the Seine River.  Upon arrival, we are met at the Quay with oysters on the half-shell, wine and snacks.  Once our group is all assembled, three of us decide to tour town instead of riding the optional additional 14-mile loop.  The old port is picturesque with shops and restaurant, an antique merry-go-round, Ferris wheel, and all the enticements of a tourist’s mecca. The Sainte-Catherine church, which has a bell tower separate from the principal building, is the largest church made from wood in France.  Honfleur, with no significant targets, was bypassed from the Allied bombing during World War II, and thus survives in its old beauty. We sightsee, shop and enjoy some chocolate crepes before catching the bus to cross the estuary and re-join the ship in Le Havre.  Since the ship is staying docked overnight in Le Havre, we take advantage to explore the town and go ashore for dinner.  There is a festival going on in town, but we find a popular Italian restaurant, La Lucciola, where we enjoy pizza, beer and wine – some of the best pizza we have ever had! After dinner, we wander back to the ship and enjoy a nightcap before turning in.

The Port City of Honfleur at the Mounth of the Seine

It is now Sunday, September 1st, and we arise early for breakfast and disembark the ship for a 2-hour bus ride to the Normandy Beaches.  Upon arriving at the American Memorial and Cemetery at Omaha Beach, we meet our guide for a 2-hour walk tour of the German bunkers and encampments, the American Memorials, and the American Cemetery. It is a moving day trying to imagine the shear will, determination and sacrifice of those young men & women who landed on those shores on D-Day just 75years ago.  Shortly before lunch, we climb aboard our bicycles and pedal a mere 7.5 miles down the coast to a small castle, “Chateau d’Asinieres en Bessin”.  Carl, the owner, gives us a brief history of the castle from the time it was built in 1672, and then rebuilt in 1783, through World War II to become the Bed & Breakfast that it is today, (it still has its moat!) It turns out that Carl is also a Chef, and he provides us a lunch of smoked duck spring rolls, salads, cheeses and apple compote.  Today is also our guide, Clem’s, birthday, and so we have all ridden with balloons on our bikes, sing him “Happy Birthday” and share a bit of cake before setting off again for a 14.5-mile ride through the countryside to an ice cream shop located at a milk farm.  After enjoying ice cream, we finish our daily ride with another 15 miles to the town of Bayeux – the old capital city of William The Conqueror.  Here is located the world’s longest tapestry, the 1000-year old Bayeux Tapestry displayed in a custom museum.  The Tapestry is 70-meters long and depicts the story of William The Conqueror. Across from the Museum stand a 1000-year old waterwheel that still works, and a huge, stark cathedral. After touring the town, we boarded our bus for the short trip back to our ship which has now moved back up-river and is docked in the town of Caudebec-en-Caux.  After boarding, we catch a bit of a 1-hour history presentation by Nigel on the D-Day Invasion.  Nigel is a Brit, World War II history expert, artist and published author who has lived in Normandy area for decades. When he finishes, the ship sets sail to continue up-river, and we ready ourselves for dinner. And an evening of classical music.

The American Cemetary at Omaha Beach
Memorial to D-Day Troops that Stormed France
The Bed & Breakfast at Chateau d Asinieres en Bessin

The boat travels during the night and arrives the city of Rouen at about 4:00am. We have breakfast and meet on the Quay at 8:30am to prepare the day’s bicycle ride. Today’s ride begins with a difficult 1.5-mile, 400-foot steep, uphill climb before reaching a plateau and coasting another 4.5-miles along the shores of the Seine River to a local ferry crossing.  We arrive at the ferry crossing, but the ferry is having technical difficulties and is testing maneuvers in the river.  After a 45-minute wait, the ferry has deemed the difficulties resolved and we board for the short crossing to the other bank.  Once there, we relax at a local café for a hot coffee before pedaling another 25-miles along the Seine to another ferry crossing back across the river, and then to the town of Jumieges.  Here we enjoy a delightful lunch of salads, fish and squid at a small restaurant and take the opportunity to explore the 7th-Century Auberge des Ruins – the ruins of the Abby of Jumieges!  The ruins are remarkable in their stonework, their soaring arches, and their durability.  Then, it is time to bicycle back to the ship.  Along the way, we stop for a quick snack at the Abby of St. George de Boscherville before completing our 23.4-mile return, including one very substantial hill and arriving back at the quay.  Once back, we meet our local town guide, Natalie (again!) and start a tour of the historic sights of the city of Rouen. Much of the old town along the river burned during the Nazi occupation, (45% gone), but much of the other old parts of town survived, including the Gothic Cathedral of Notre Dame, Medieval Clock and Parliament building. The cathedral’s gothic façade was completed in the 16th century and was the subject of a series of paintings by Claude Monet which are exhibited in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. It did take 2-hits by Allied Bombs, but survived rather unscathed from the war, and was quickly repaired. Down the street, the Gros Horloge is an astronomical clock dating back to the 14th century, of which only a few others have survived, including one in Prague and one in Venice. The city is also known as the site where Joan of Arc was brought in 1431 to be threatened with torture and subsequently burned at the stake. Today, in the center of the Place du Vieux Marché is the modern church of St Joan of Arc. It is a large, modern structure that represents an upturned Viking boat. Nearby stands a cross marking the site where she died.  At the end of the tour, we learn that tonight there will be a light show at 9:30pm displayed on the façade of the cathedral.  At the tour’s end, we return to the ship for the Captain’ Gala Cocktail Reception and Dinner.  After dinner, we stroll back to the Cathedral for the light show and take seats on the surrounding steps to enjoy the ~30-minute show with music and creative animations.  Then, back to the ship for night-caps and bed, with the ship disembarking at ~4:00am.

The Ruins of the Abbey of Jumieges
TheGothic Cathedral of Rouen
Memorial to Joan of Arc in Rouen

The next morning (Tuesday) the ship is still underway, and so we take a late breakfast and then relax in the ship’s on-deck hot tub. After lounging the morning away, we meet on the sun deck for today’s ride briefing, have a quick lunch, and disembark to our bicycles when the ship docks in the town of Vernon. Vernon was founded in the 9th century but is principally known today as the gateway to Giverny and Monet’s house.  We climb on our bicycles and ride the short ~3 miles to Giverny, dismount and enter the gardens of Monet.  Monet moved here in 1883 with his wife and 8 children and settled into the green-shuttered pink house known as “The Cider Press”.  He was an avid gardener and lived and painted there until his death in 1926.  The gardens consist of two parts – the Clos Normand Flower Garden near the house, and the Oriental Water Gardens, that are so famous, located across the street. These gardens were the subject of over 500 paintings by Monet.  In 1960, Monet’s son bequeathed the property to France, and it subsequently deteriorated until 1977 when a significant fundraising and restoration effort began. The restored Gardens and home were opened in 1980, and today are carefully tended.  We wandered the green-bridge paths around the water-lily ponds, strolled along the small diverted stream, and marveled at the abundance and variety of flowers in the house’s gardens.  After visiting the house where the walls are covered by Monet’s works and other of his art interests, we shop in the small gift shop before making our way back to our bicycles and heading off on another 9-mile ride to The Chateau de La Roche Guyon – a medieval castle build into the soaring white chalk cliffs on the banks of the Seine. The extensive rooms at the back of the Chateau that tunnel back into the rock were used by the Germans during World War II for ammunition storage. Today, the castle’s restoration is still underway, but the portcullis, terraces, chapels and a series of lounges, subterranean passages, dungeons and casemates are open to view and wander through.  Even the comic author’s, (Edgar Jacobs), “chronoscaphe” is still preserved there in an eerie and strange setting.  Then it was time to ride the 18-miles back to the ship for the short sail to La Roche-Guyon and to prepare for drinks, dinner and the evening’s entertainment – a musical tribute to Edith Piaf by singer Caroline Nin. The moving story of Edith’s life told in narrative and song was punctuated by Rocky being taken to the stage to dance and support Caroline’s show.  After the show, we joined the guides and Caroline for drinks, stories and laughs before calling it a night, as the ship set sail for Conflans St. Honorine.

The Water Lily Gardens of Monet in Giverny
Chateau do La Roche Guyon built into the Limestone Cliffs

The ship reaches Conflans at about 7:00am, and after breakfast, our group meets onshore to review today’s route that includes gravel and some rough off-road portions.  Once prepared, we begin our 10-mile bicycling trip along the shores of the Oise River to the town of Auvers-sur-Oise and the last home of Vincent’s Van Gogh and where he spent the last 70-days of his life. The Auberge Ravoux is a French historic landmark located in the heart of the village and where van Gogh was a lodger. During his short stay at Auvers, Van Gogh created more than 80 paintings and 64 sketches before supposedly shooting himself (?) in the chest on 27 July 1890 and dying two days later. We tour the old house, take time to visit the local cathedral, and have a relaxing coffee at the Absinth House before re-boarding our bicycles and setting off on a scenic 9-mile loop past the Van Gogh brothers’ graves and across the rolling hillside and meadows before returning to Auvers for a final bicycling picnic.  From here, it’s a return 10-mile ride back to the ship and saying a final goodbye to our bicycles and our guides Carlos and Clem. We clean-up for a spectacular lunch in the dining room highlighted by mussels and oysters on the half shell, and a subsequent afternoon ice cream social up on deck as the ship leaves Conflans and heads for Paris. In the afternoon, we repack most of our belongings and prepare for our last night aboard. At dinner time, our group takes over the Chef’s Table Dining Room for a special group 7-course French dinner and a chance to socialize with each other and with our Backroads guides, Otis and James.  The ship arrives back in Paris at ~9:00pm, and we promptly all take our drinks up on deck as we sail along the Seine and watch the sparkling light show on the majestic Eiffel Tower.  It’s a beautiful and perfect end to a wonderful trip, as we head back our room for a good night’s sleep.

Auberge Ravoux – The Last Residence of Vincent Van Gogh
The Sparkling View of Paris at Night

The next morning, we set our luggage out, have a good breakfast, say our final goodbyes, and board our taxi for the Charles de Gaulle Airport.  It has been an exciting and informative adventure that we are very glad we did.

2019 The Sights of Paris

September 12, 2019 4:26 pm

We very much like to take trips to go places we haven’t been before, and to see things that we haven’t yet seen.  However, we also like to be active, which means we look for trips with bicycling, hiking or multi-sports as the basis of them.  We also hate to unpack and repack every day as we adventure our way along, and so, for the first time, we engaged on a riverboat-bicycling trip with the Backroads Bicycling Company, in conjunction with Ama Waterways’ river-boat, for an eight-day trip down the Seine from Paris to the coast at Normandy, and back to Paris.  This would allow us to explore a greater portion of the countryside and obviate the need to pack or unpack along the journey.  It would also allow us to take in the wonders of Paris, (with a personal 4-days spent there – pre-trip), travel the historic lands of Richard-the-Lion-hearted, learn the history of the Normandy Region, honor the fallen on the French beaches of the English Channel at Omaha on the 75th anniversary-year of D-Day, and wander through the water-lily gardens of Monet and visit the home of Van Gogh.  This seemed to meet all of the criteria of my wife and I and our traveling companions, her sister and brother-in-law.

Map of Paris

Our adventure began with my wife’s sister and brother-in-law meeting us in Washington, D.C. for our overnight flight out of Dulles International Airport.  In order to get us used to “European Travel”, we took the complicated, (but inexpensive), route involving buses and metro-trains from Huntington Station in North Virginia, all the way to the airport – about a 2-hour trip!  This, of course, was followed by the typical 2-hour check-in/security/wait/board routine that all international flights require, and then by an 8-hour flight to Paris De Gaulle Airport, arriving Sunday morning, August 25th, 2019.  From here, we took a bus to Paris city-center and finally exited the bus across the street from the Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile (“Triumphal Arch of the Star”) and walked the 2-blocks to our hotel – The Balmoral.  Although it was only ~10:00am in the morning, they checked us in, and after a quick clean-up, the four of us set forth to start our exploration of Paris. It seemed obvious that the first place we should explore was the Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile located at the western end of the Champs-Élysées Boulevard, at the center of Place Charles de Gaulle.  This circle used to be named Place de l’Étoile — the étoile or “star” of the juncture formed by its twelve radiating avenues that emanate away from it. The Arc de Triomphe honors those who fought and died for France in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, with the names of all French victories and generals inscribed on its inner and outer surfaces. Beneath its vault lies the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from World War I added in 1920. We found the underground tunnel that took us to its entrance, bought tickets, and climbed the 202 steps to the mezzanine level to enjoy the view, and then the additional 82 steps to the terrace level/roof observation deck. The Arc de Triomphe was designed in 1806 and was inspired by the Arch of Titus in Rome, Italy. It was sanctioned by Napoleon and took ~30 years to construct, being competed in 1836.  Napoleon’s ashes were buried there in 1840.  It is 164-feet tall, 148-feet wide and 72-feet deep. Three weeks after the Paris victory parade in 1919 marking the end of World War I, Charles Godefroy flew his Nieuport biplane under the arch! After the tour of the Arc, we had a light lunch and began a leisurely stroll southeast down the Champs-Élysées Boulevard past designer stores, until we reached the Grand Palais.  From here, we crossed the Seine River on the spectacular Alexander III Bridge and walked back west along the “Riverbank of Invalides” to the bridge Pont de l’Alma with an excellent view of the Eiffel Tower.  We then walked up George V Boulevard past Rolls-Royces, Bentleys, Porches and Lamborghinis to return to the Champs-Élysées and our hotel.  That evening, we enjoyed a classic Fish & Chips Dinner at a British Pub and discovered a local Supermarket where we bought wine and pate for a late-night snack.

The Arc de Triomphe de l’Etoile
The 202-Step Spiral Staircase up The Arc de Triomphe
View of The Eiffel Tower from The Arc de Triomphe

Monday morning, we had a quick breakfast before crossing the Seine and walking to the Eiffel Tower.  We had not been able to pre-buy our tickets 24-hours in-advance, and so we took the next best option to avoid any long elevator lines – walk-up! It was 354 steps up to the First Level where there are a food and drink options, and a small historical display.  Then it was another 320 steps to the Second Level which offered additional options, an excellent 360-degree views of the city, and access to the elevator to the top. The Eiffel Tower is located on the Champ de Mars and it is named after its engineer, Gustave Eiffel, whose company designed and built the tower. It was constructed in only 26-months, completed in time for the 1889 World’s Fair and is the most-visited paid monument in the world with nearly 7-million visitors ascended it in 2015. The tower is 1,063-feet tall or the same height as an 81-story building, and the tallest structure in Paris. Its base is square, measuring 410-feet on each side. During its construction, the Eiffel Tower surpassed the Washington Monument to become the tallest man-made structure in the world, a title it held for 41 years until the Chrysler Building in New York City was finished in 1930. The top level’s upper platform is 906-feet above the ground – the highest observation deck accessible to the public in the European Union. The Tower also served as a centerpiece for two other World Fairs held in Paris over the next 45 years.  After enjoying the view from the top, we took the elevator back to the Second Level, walked the 320 stairs down to the First Level, and then took the elevator down to the Ground Floor.  We then crossed the Seine and walked towards the Louvre Museum. Along the way, we decided to stop and visit the nearby Museum de l’Orangerie which is an art gallery of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings located in the west corner of the Tuileries Gardens next to the Place de la Concorde. The museum is the permanent home of eight large Water Lilies murals by Claude Monet, and contains additional works by Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, Renoir, Rousseau, and others. After touring the Gallery, we strolled through the Tuileries Gardens and associated sculpture parks until reaching The Louvre.  The Louvre is the world’s largest and most visited art museum and is housed in the Louvre Palace, originally built as the Louvre castle in the late 12th to 13th century. In 1546 it was converted it into the main residence of the French Kings. In 1682, Louis XIV chose the Palace of Versailles for his household, leaving the Louvre as a place to display the royal collection, During the French Revolution, the National Assembly decided that the Louvre should be used as a museum to display the nation’s masterpieces. The museum then opened in 1793, although it has grown quite a bit since then. We then crossed the Seine River again to see the status of the Notre Dame Cathedral after the horrendous fire that severely damaged it earlier this year.  We walked around the entire Cathedral observing the structural supports and massive construction and repair that is underway.  After this visit, we ventured underground and caught the Paris Metro-train to arrive back near our hotel.  For variety, that night we ate Chinese and finished the evening with a few glasses of French red wine.

The Eiffel Tower from the Seine River.
View down the Seine River from The Eiffel Tower
The view East from the Eiffel Tower
Monet Painting in Museum de l’Orangerie
The Louvre from The Tuilerie Gardens
Repair Underway at The Cathedral of Notre Dame

Tuesday, we had reserved for a visit 12 miles outside of Paris to The Palaces of Versailles. The Palace of Versailles was the royal residence of France from 1682, under Louis XIV, until the start of the French Revolution in 1789, under Louis XVI. To get there, we needed to take the Metro-train to La Defense/Port Maillot and transfer to an RER Train that would take us to Versailles.  We had already purchased “skip-the-line” tickets, and so entered immediately a bit before our scheduled time of 10:00am. The palace is now an historic monument and UNESCO World Heritage site and is also a very popular place to visit.  We started our self-guided tour through the main residences with English audio-phones and spent nearly 2-hours marveling at the amazing Hall of Mirrors, the Royal Opera, and the suites of royal apartments, including those of Louis XV’s two unmarried daughters, Marie Adelaide and Victoire. After the French Revolution, the Palace was stripped of all its furnishings, but today, many pieces have been returned and nearly all the palace rooms have been restored. Then we proceeded to the immense gardens and grounds of Versailles with fountains, canals, and geometric flower beds and groves, laid out by André le Nôtre, and where we were treated to a special “Musical Gardens Day” with dancing fountains and classical music filling the groves.  After a lovely lunch under the trees at a restaurant in the gardens, we continued our walking tour to visit the other royal residences located here, including the Grand Trianon and Petit Trianon, residences built in the 1760’s for Madame de Pompadour, (Louis XV’s mistress), and later occupied by Marie Antoinette.  By 5:00pm, we were exhausted, and so we headed back to Paris via the train, took showers, went to the “Beer Station” for drinks, and had a light salad dinner before calling it a night.

The Entrance to The Palaces & Gardens at Versailles
A Few of the Extensive Gardens at Versailles

Wednesday was to be our last day on our own in Paris, and we had arranged to have lunch with a couple of young friends who now live just outside the city.  The restaurant was in the northern part of the city, and so we decided to take the metro there and visit the nearby Basilica of the Sacred Heart, locally known as Sacré-Coeur Basilica.  It is a popular landmark in Paris, and it sits atop the summit of the butte Montmartre, the highest point in the city. Construction on the Basilica began in 1875 and was completed in 1914. Today, it also serves as a base-location for numerous artists and portrait artists. After climbing the hill to the base of the Basilica, we visited the church, and then undertook the climb up 300 narrow spiral staircase stairs to the viewpoint on the church’s spire.  From here, all of Paris and the surrounding area was visible, as will as the nearby bell tower.  After climbing back down and exiting, we wandered among the artists and did a little shopping while making our way back to the base of the Basilica. From here, we rode the Funicular down the hillside, and started walking toward our lunch restaurant. The restaurant was “Montcalm” and was located further north of the Basilica, requiring a tortuous up-and-down hike to arrive just on time at 1:00pm.  Here we met our friends, and the restaurant owners who were childhood friends of theirs.  After a lovely French lunch of beef with potato puree and spinach, with a rice pudding desert, we walked back to the Metro and traveled south to Place Denfert-Rochereau. This square is the location of the Paris Catacombs museum and is where the entrance to the underworld is located. It is also frequently the place where demonstrations and protest marches in Paris either start or end.  Again, we had bought “skip-the-line” tickets and entered the catacombs at 4:30pm. The Catacomb Tour told the entire history of these catacombs from when the tunnels were created in Roman-times as a quarry for limestone blocks to build the buildings of Rome, through their lost recognition and terrifying fatal collapses in the 1700’s, to the underground ossuaries of approximately 6-million people today. The ossuary extends south from the city’s “Gate of Hell and was created to eliminate the city’s overflowing cemeteries. Serious work began after a 1774 series of gruesome cemetery-wall collapses and a growing concern about disease and unsanitary exposures. From 1786, daily covered wagons transferred remains from most of Paris’ cemeteries to a mine shaft opened near the Rue de la Tombe-Issoire, where the remains were dumped in and a mountain of remains grew. Soon, a group undertook “organizing” the remains – stacking the bones and skulls into “vaults” of geometric and artistic patterns. This The ossuary then remained largely forgotten until it became a novelty-place for concerts and other private events in the early 19th century.  It has been open to public visitation since 1874, and although the ossuary makes up only a small portion of the underground tunnels of Paris, they are certainly the most visited.  After a ~1.5-mile journey through the tunnels, we exited and began our Metro ride back to our hotel for dinner, and to pack to begin the next (bicycling) portion of our adventure.

The Basilica of The Sacred Heart on the Summit of Montmartre
The Ossuarie in the Catacombs of Paris

Sailing the Amalfi Coast of Italy – Week 2

August 19, 2019 3:41 pm

Rocky at the Helm

Sunday morning, August 4th began our second week of exploring the Gulf of Napoli and Amalfi Coast, and we set out on our 46’ Dufour Grand Liberty Sailboat from Marina Sud Cantieri in Pozzuoli and headed northwest into the Tyrrhenian Sea to the Isola di Ventotene, the largest of the Pontine Islands. The island was known in Roman times as a popular place to exile ex-wives and other important “undesirables”, and still hosts an abandoned penal settlement on nearby Isola di San Stefano.  Here, we tried to get a spot at Marina di Ventotene, but after initially claiming to be full, we were belatedly offered space for an exorbitant 250 euros per night.   We politely refused, and instead, dropped anchor in the channel and moored our stern to the free city wharf on the east side of the harbor.  Then, Nikki & Jordan immediately went shopping and exploring the city and overlooking bluffs, and secured dinner reservations for all of us at an excellent restaurant that was overlooking the harbor from high up in the city.

Ventotene Harbour with San Stefano in View
The Inner Harbour at Ventotene

The next morning, on Monday, August 5th, we made the short trip motoring back southeast to the Island of Ischia, but this time, we went to the western port city of Forio.  Forio is small town on the island but with a beauty and beaches that are now famous.  Here, history enthusiasts will find plenty of interesting sights such as the remains of the Aragonese Castle, the Villa Colombia and more. Once into the marina, Nikki & Jordan went ashore looking for places to visit and for dinner, and the rest of the girls went to the beach to swim.  That night, we ate ashore at a restaurant overlooking the shore watching a beautiful sunset.

The Beach at Forio on Ischia
Sunset at Forio

On Tuesday, August 6th we continued our travels southeast across the Gulf of Napoli to the Port of Cassano, located down the face of sheer cliffs below the town of Piano di Sorrento and about 1 mile east of Sorrento.  After getting showered and collecting some ice, we all took the elevator located inside the cliffs to the top of the bluff, where we walked about ½ mile to the town’s train station, bought tickets, and took the local metro-train two stops west to the center of Sorrento.  Here, everyone dispersed to change money, shop and enjoy the lovely views until we met up again at the top of Sorrento’s scenic viewpoint at a little café.  After drinks and nibbles, most of us headed back to the Sorrento train station, while Nikki, Peter and Rick walked the mile-plus back to Cassano.  We all arrived back at the marina at the same time, where we took seats at a local restaurant for dinner and drinks.

The Harbour at Cassano
Coastal view from Sorrento

After leaving Cassano on Wednesday morning, we rounded the Sorrento Peninsula and headed east-northeast down the coast to revisit the town of Amalfi.  Again, our favorite marina chief met us and expertly navigated us into position at the dock close to that place where we had been before.  This time, we explored the city more extensively, including hiking the local tunnels and switchback walkways weaving through local enclaves around the sides of the city’s steep cliffs.  After drinks and people watching, we gathered for dinner at a favorite Amalfi restaurant, and settled in for a windless, warm night nestled into the corner of the marina.

The East coast from Amalfi

The next morning, Thursday, August 8th, we again made a stop at the fuel dock to top off our diesel tanks, and then made the short trip back up the coast to Positano where we met our favorite “ormeggi” water-taxi-man, who connected us to a mooring ball and taxied us to shore. We set a time of 7:30pm for everyone to meet to return to the boat, and after a day of shopping, eating, drinking, and taking chairs and umbrellas at the beach, everyone except Nikki, Peter and Jordan met and ferried their way back to the boat.  While ashore, Rocky and Julie celebrated (a day late) their 46th Wedding Anniversary with a spectacular meal.  The three ashore made an attempt to gain entrance to a favorite haunt of celebrities, and after modest success, returned to the boat late at ~10:30pm.

The Amalfi coast from Positano
Anniversary Dinner

Friday morning, August 9th, we began our long trek back to base, initially motoring, but then sailing for 4 hours across the Gulf of Napoli to the Gulf of Pozzuoli.  After tacking back and forth in the Gulf of Pozzuoli enjoying the quiet sailing time and eating a late lunch, we finally headed in at ~3:30pm and took up our spot at the Marina Sud Cantieri Dream Yacht Base.  We “checked out” the boat, enjoyed the excellent facilities there, and then headed back to Un Pizzico Di for a final group dinner. That night, Nikki, Peter and Jordan packed for an early morning exit the next day while the others reminisced and shared stories.

On Saturday morning, August 10th, Nikki, Peter and Jordan left at 6:30am and headed to the train station for the next leg of their adventure in France and Hungary. The rest of us left in a taxi at 9:30am and headed to the center of Naples where everyone had arranged accommodations for 1 or 2 additional nights.  We (Julie and Rocky) upgraded our room at the Star Hotel and got immediate early entrance.  After a quick change, we headed over to the train station and caught the local metro-train to Pompeii, where we explored the ruins for ~3 hours.  Upon exiting the park, we grabbed a quick lunch before catching the express train to return to Naples and a relaxing late afternoon at the hotel.  That evening, we explored the center of town by foot, before grabbing a light dinner and a bottle of wine to enjoy back in our room.

The streets of Pompeii
The ruins of Pompeii
City Centre Naples

Then, the next morning, it was a taxi to the airport and a flight home to end a busy and beautiful visit to Italy’s Amalfi Coast.

Sailing the Amalfi Coast of Italy – Week 1

3:25 pm

It was Friday, July 26th and time to leave the heat of the east coast of Florida, and fly to Newark and then to Naples, Italy, which was in the midst of its own heat wave.  We arrived in Naples on Saturday morning July 27th, and took an adventurous taxi ride, (numerous complaints and stops to ask for directions), to the northwestern coastal suburb of Pozzuoli, to Marina Sud Cantieri where we met Mario with Dream Yacht Charter Base. It was still early, so we dropped our gear in the Dream Office, and proceeded to get breakfast at the café across the street.  We then checked out the local grocery store and walked into the town of Pozzuoli to visit some local Roman Ruins.  Soon, Peter, Nikki, Mary Jane, and Rick arrived at the Dream Office, and when Elaine and Terry arrived, we gathered for lunch at Un Pizzico Di, whose proprietor we convinced to open early for us. Then the girls went shopping at the local supermercado for groceries and supplies, and we completed our boat check out for our 46’ Dufour Grand Liberty sailboat named “Boqueirao”.  Groceries were delivered at ~6pm, after which we all went out to eat near the waterfront in Pozzuoli where the Antipasto (3-course) and wine completely filled us up. Then, we headed back to the boat for chat, drinks and sleep.

Map of our boat travels in Italy
Roman ruins in Pozzuoli
City of Pozzuoli

Upon awaking on Sunday morning, July 28th, Mario informed us that the weather would quickly deteriorate, and we must leave by 10am or stay in the marina another day.  We immediately left in rain and 20 knot winds from the west and sailed our way to the Isole d’Ischia, where we went to the northern harbor of Casamicciola for the night.  Although the sails were reefed the whole way, the rough seas and strong winds had left many on our boat a bit seasick and the quiet harbor was a welcome relief.  Rocky’s first Mediterranean Mooring had a bit of an adventure as we snagged a slime-line on the aft of the keel-bulb while backing in, but it was quickly solved as Rocky free-dived to the keel and dropped the line to the seafloor. The island of Ischia is an island of active volcanism, having experienced its most recent eruption in the 1300’s, and is now the site of many natural hot springs and spas.  Some of the women took a taxi to experience one of the spas, and for dinner we all went ashore to a local pizzeria where we enjoyed mussels, fish and pasta.

Beach at Casamicciola on Ischia

The next morning, Monday July 29th, after a brief grocery run, we left Casamicciola, circumnavigated the island of Ischia, and took advantage of the good wind to head east to the small neighboring island of Procida and the little harbor of Chiaiolella where we moored at the marina dock.  From here, some of us explored the large local beach, and walked the bridge that connected Isole di Procida to the nature preserve island of Vivare.  After exploring the western end of the island, one group took a taxi to northwestern port of Marina Grande while the other group made the 45 minute walk through the city’s streets all the way across the island to meet up and have dinner at a quaint restaurant on a piazza with locals who were singing and playing music all evening long.  After a bus ride back to the marina, we enjoyed nightcaps before calling it a day.

Walking through the Town of Procida
Marina Grande Harbour, Procida

On Tuesday morning, July 30th, the winds left us, and we began a daily pattern of 3-5 knot winds in the morning, slowly rising to 7-10 knots in the late afternoon with the skies clear and the weather hot.  Thus, we motor-sailed southeast towards Isole di Capri, famous for its people watching and shopping.  Unfortunately, we could not get a reservation into any of Capri’s marinas, (only to find out later that this was because Heidi Klum was there preparing for her wedding in the Capri Marina on Saturday, August 3rd), and so we traveled through the Bocca Piccola between the island and the Sorrento Peninsula, to the southern side of Capri where we set anchor outside of Marina Piccola near the oft photographed Pillars of Isola Faraglioni.  From here, we took our folks ashore by dingy to explore the town.  The town of Capri is actually up on a ridge between the Gulf of Napoli and the Gulf of Sorrento.  From the southern side, this required a bus trip up from the water’s edge, where from the north, there is a funicular that moves people up the steep slope.  It was during this shuttling that we discovered that our dingy was not only very small and difficult to manage, but also had a “soft floor” which also made it a bit unstable, causing Peter to take a motor into the ribs which bothered him for a number of days.  To make matters worse, the dingy ran out of gas on one of the return trips making for a source of numerous good stories and a long string of expletive adjectives that characterized our dingy.  Needless to say, after this day, we never put the dingy in the water again! That night we ate spaghetti aboard the “Boqueirao” and enjoyed an evening at anchor.

Isola Faraglioni near Capri
The southern shores of Capri

On Wednesday, July 31st, we pulled up anchor and headed to the coastal town of Positano, about 15 miles to the east-northeast from Capri.  That morning, the seas were again calm, and we motored across the Bocca Piccola where we surprisingly came up on a Pilot Whale crossing our path.  We followed him for a bit before he dove deep and left us, and we celebrated our luck in seeing him.  Upon reaching Positano, there is no marina, and so we picked up a mooring ball with the help from the local ormeggi – “Grassi Junior”, which came with water taxi service to and from shore. Positano is a town built into both sides of a ravine, and we chose to visit a former stop of Peter and Nikki’s located up on the south side for lunch.  From this area, the view was spectacular, and the lunch was just as impressive.  After lunch, we broke into groups visiting local bars, shopping and generally sightseeing much of the town.  There was even a public beach where many locals and tourists were cooling themselves off from the hot afternoon sun. When the sun went down, we took the water taxi back to the boat for dinner and a night under the stars.

Pilot Whale
Positano from the Restaurant
The ravine of Positano

Thursday morning, August 1st we dropped the mooring ball and made the short trip further down the coast to the town of Amalfi.  The city of Amalfi is located 16 miles East away from Capo Punta Campanella, the headland at the SE extremity of the Bay of Naples, and eight miles W of Salerno on the Tyrrhenian coast of Italy. The city lies at the end of a ravine and is the center-point of a coast famous for its dramatic scenery and picturesque mountain villages. An earthquake and tsunami in 1343 destroyed much of the city and was an event from which the town never fully recovered especially the harbour. However, when the British classes discovered Amalfi, a modest tourist boom beginning in the 1920s, and has brought the town fame and prosperity. Unfortunately, it has also filled its harbour to bursting point and distance along its mole is at a premium during the summer months. Fortunately, we had a reservation at Marina Coppola which was acquired ~4 months in advance. The Marina Chief was a veteran of International sailboat racing and maneuvered our boat at breakneck speed through a tangled maze of lines, boats, docks and swimmers to snugly fit us into an inside dock space only 20ft from shore!  Unfortunately, the Marina’s bathrooms and showers were wiped-out in a recent landslide, and were currently under construction, forcing us to check out the nearby dockside restaurant for drinks and facilities.  Then, we all walked to the city center where we explored the spectacular local church and shops before returning to the marina for a quick beach swim and getting ready for dinner at an over-the-water restaurant.

The town of Amalfi

On Friday morning, August 2nd, we were chaperoned to the fuel dock where we topped-off our diesel tanks and began the trip back to the Gulf of Napoli.  Terry and Elaine were planning to see Pompeii on Saturday, so we decided to head for a marina just west of Pompeii in an industrial area called Castelamarre di Stabia.  Inaugurated in 2007, the marina of Castellammare di Stabia is considered one the greatest in the Mediterranean Sea with 900 berths for boats up to 80 meters long. This port is equipped shipyard 220-ton travel lift, shipyard shop, garage, among other services, which provided a convenient berth for an Italian Aircraft Carrier, and a suite of mega-yachts. After a long day of motor-sailing with only a short motor-less interval, we next experienced a long delay and communication issues with the marina.  After idling around for an hour, we were finally shown where to go, and we found ourselves in a very welcoming but non-tourist part of the coast with many little street restaurants and shops along the waterfront for nearly a mile.  After, showers at the marina, we decided to eat at a wharf-side restaurant called “Anna Maria’s” where were sat upstairs looking over the water and had an outstanding meal of fish, prawns and pasta fagioli.  After dinner, we all wandered down the wharf through the crowds of locals to see some of the mega-yachts that were docked, including the Walton family’s world-class 350’ “Aguila” and the record-setting 404’ “Al Lusail”, owned by the Sultan of Qatar’s 4th son.  After returning to the “Boqueirao”, we played music, had drinks, and chatted with a young local couple that Nikki had befriended on the wharf, before calling it a night.

The Marina at Castelammare de Stabia

Saturday morning, August 3rd, would bring the end of our first week’s sailing adventure.  Terry and Elaine left the boat in Castelammare di Stabia, and we then set off motoring across the Gulf of Napoli to our home base in Marina Sud Cantieri in Pozzuoli. We arrived about 1:30pm, and Guy and Sue were waiting for us and ready to board the boat.  After getting them aboard, we all headed back to Un Pizzico Di for lunch. The afternoon was spent restocking the boat with supplies, changing out all of the linens, and preparing to welcome Jordan, who would not arrive until late that night.  For dinner, we headed down into the heart of Pozzuoli to an outdoor restaurant where we people watched and drank a great deal of wine.  Upon returning to the boat, we awaited Jordan’s arrival via an arranged taxi from the airport. Jordan arrived around midnight, and after greetings and settling in, we finally went to bed about 1:30am, prepared to begin our second week.

2019 Antarctica – The Southern Continent Part 2

March 2, 2019 6:53 pm

We rose early on Sunday morning, February 24th to view our voyage to t Harbour.  To get there, we will sail back across the Bransfield Strait and return to the Antarctica Peninsula. Along the way, we saw several humpback whales giving us an early morning show of breeching, fin slapping and tail slapping. The whales could be viewed in front of us, and on the side of us, and behind us, giving us an incredible show!  Once we were in Orne Harbour (which is on the Arctowski Peninsula) the Expedition Crew went ashore to mark a trail.  Here, the landing site is very small, and we will then hike directly ~300’ up the steep, snow-covered hill in a zigzag manner. The hill/mountain is covered in snow and ice and we can see the “paths” where other groups have made the hike.  There are some sea lions sunning themselves on the rocks and on the top of the mountain one can see silhouettes of chinstrap penguins looking down at us.  Several birds live in the area, but so far this morning it is very quiet. As we hike up the snow, some of the Expedition Crew cut crude steps into the snow to make it easier to climb. Once we arrive at the top, the view is exquisite. We could see Humpback Whales in the next cove and there was a Chinstrap Penguin colony as high as us in the surrounding rocks!  It is amazing that these ungainly little penguins can make their way up these steep, rugged slopes to colonies so far from their home in the water.  From our viewpoint, we could see the “penguin highway” paths that they travel, which came from the next cove. We could also see that it is truly the tourist season in Antarctica as, in the distance, we could see the National Geographic Explorer ship, and an Expedition Ship we saw in Ushuaia, the Marco Polo.  The season is at the summer’s end and many of the summer bases are already fully closed.  As we’ve gone south, the weather has gotten steadily colder and we are seeing much more ice. The hike down from the ice-covered ridge was a little more treacherous as the top layer of snow was melting and the downhill view was steep and scary.

Map of Track & Stops Antarctica Part 2

 

Humpback Whale Breaching

 

View of Orne Harbour

 

Chinstrap Penguins at Orne Harbour

 

View Down the Hill in Orne Harbour

 

The Climb at Orne Harbour

 

Rocky & Julie at the Mountain Top

Once back on board and during our buffet lunch, we start sailing to Errera Channel. 

Errera Channel is home to a great many leopard seals and the crab-eater seals.  While the second group of kayakers took off for a tour, the rest of us to rides in the zodiacs (polar crikel boats) around the channel to see the wildlife. Because it was so sunny, there were seals on all the small icebergs. The leopard seals are spotted with a long nose and sharp teeth for catching and eating penguins and are ~500 pounds in weight.  They are so mellow when they are sun-bathing and did not pay us much attention.  The crab-eater seals only eat krill and have shorted muzzles and are a beautiful silver in color. 

Leopard Seal in Errera Channel

 

Crab-Eater Seal in Errera Channel

During a buffet dinner, the Captain moved the ship further down the channel to Danco Island where there is a beach area and a flattish-area for putting up 15 tents for those who have chosen to camp tonight in Antarctica.  The camping rules dictate no food can be taken ashore and there should be no impact to the environment.  Therefore, the campers will camp in tents on snow, and they will go to shore around 8pm and return by 6am.  Once ashore, they will set up their own 2-person tents with only mattress pads, sleeping bags and a bottle of water. That evening, there was a beautifully colorful sunset followed by an evening briefing.

Monday morning, with the campers back on board, we begin a beautiful slow cruise to Paradise Bay, which was named by the whalers because it was so beautiful.  There are 2 bases in the bay.  The first of these is a Chilean Base, “Gonzales”, a summer base only and the 12 staff stationed there left 2 weeks ago.  There is a huge Chilean flag painted on one of the buildings. Their focus has been the study the local penguin colonies. Further along is the Argentinean Base, “Brown Base”, still staffed with its icebreaker ship stationed out front.  They also study penguins in the area by motoring around with a smaller water boat. Next, we turned into the Ferguson Channel, where we are met with some huge icebergs.  All along the way we see Humpback Whales just floating on the surface, barely moving. Lucy, our whale expert guesses that they are already gorged and are taking a brief rest before beginning their migration north out of Antarctic waters. From here we turn right into Gerlache Strait and head northwest to enter the famous and scenic Neumayer Channel. Neumayer Channel is often not passible due to extensive ice, however, recent word from other ships is that we may be able to travel along it.  All along the way, the sky remains overcast with clouds blocking the view of the tops of the mountain peaks.  However, at 10:30am the weather and the view allow us to assemble all the passengers on the bow of Deck 5 for a group picture. The Captain was in the windows of the bridge waving to everyone.  This was an ideal place for the picture since Neumayer Channel is shaped like an ’S’ and is 15 miles long. Belgian explorer Adrian de Gerlache named Neumayer Channel after German explorer and scientist Georg von Neumayer, who sailed it during his Antarctic Expedition of 1897-1899. It is surrounded by high mountains, ice-covered cliffs and steep glaciers. As we head for Damoy Point, we pass Vinca Island which is named for a sailor who was washed overboard on Gerlache’ Expedition while he was cleaning out a ship’s scuppers. 

Entrance to Neumayer Channel

 

Reflections in Neumayer Channel

We did an early lunch in preparation of our landing at Damoy Point as the two of us will be kayaking today.  We arrived at at Damoy Point ~12:30pm, and in the interim, we changed into our long underwear and 2-pairs of socks, and then head to deck 2 to put on polar fleece jumpsuits and neoprene dry suits. We then added neoprene boots and neoprene mittens that connect directly around the kayak paddles.  Finally, with hats, scarves, neck buffs, lifejackets and cameras, we board the zodiacs for a short ride to a rocky beach on Damoy Point in Dorian Bay where our kayaks are waiting. Damoy Point was originally discovered by the French Antarctica Expedition of 1903-1905 under Jean-Baptiste Charcot.  While we kayak, the rest of the passengers will explore scientific huts and the hill’s viewpoints.  There are Gentoo penguins here and blue-eyed cormorants.  The one hut was built by the British in 1973 and was used for several years as a summer aircraft landing facility.  The landing strip was on thick, blue-ice that has since melted away and was used for planes to bring supplies to Port Lockroy.  Since this area stayed frozen so much of the year due to its southernly latitude, the runway had allowed researchers in Port Lockroy and Rothera Bases to get an early start on their research without having to depend on ships. It was last occupied in 1993 and has been designated as a Historic Site. Today, Rothera Base has its own runway. There is also a hut here built by the Argentinians and kept supplied by the nearby Uruguayan Base. Once we approach the beach in our zodiacs, we unloaded into cold waters of the bay to walk ashore since the area was very rocky. We adjusted our kayak pedals and paddles, climbed in, and then were gently pushed into the frigid waters. There are 14 of us in seven double kayaks and 2 guides in single kayaks. The water, while extremely cold, is very clear and it is very quiet out there. There are penguins in the waters around us and the current quickly moves us out of the bay toward the ship. Once everyone is accustomed to paddling, we explore the area around the bay, stopping for a group photo. After ~3 hours, it was time to return to the beach and return to the ship.

Kayak View of Argentinian Base at Damoy Point

Despite all the clothes our feet and hands were quite chilled, so, after arriving, we head straight to the hot tubs for a warmup and watch the remaining passengers hike back to the zodiacs to return to the ship.

Dinner was an “Arctic & Antarctic” buffet.  The Captain then took us on a slow, leisurely cruise in the Lemaire Channel past “Eunice’ Tits” Peaks and Booth Island.  The channel is 5 miles long and at its maximum, is only 1600 meters wide. It is very much a picturesque moment.  However, tonight the clouds are low, and one cannot see the tops of the peaks.  We sail slowly, dodging the icebergs of varying sizes. In a small bay, we spot a small polar ship but, since there is no base nearby, it is probably doing some sort of research. Eventually, we exit Lemaire Channel and enter into French Passage and are in front of Pleneau Island and Petermann Island that we will visit the next day.  However, there are a large number of moving icebergs here, so the Captain backtracks up the Lemaire Channel to wait until morning, when we will again sail to Petermann Island for a landing. Then, later in the Panorama Lounge, four of the Expedition Staff did a talk show based on the research of Rob with birds, Sam with plankton, Beluga with whales/dolphins, moderated by Monica, who was also a bird researcher.

The next morning is Tuesday, February 26th, and our last day in Antarctica!  The ship was moving early this morning back down Lemarie Channel to Petermann Island.  In order to enjoy the view, we were up early, ready for breakfast, and prepared to be the first passengers ashore for an early landing on Petermann Island (latitude – 65 degrees 10 minutes south).  Petermann Island is small and close enough to the mainland to see Mount Shackleton and Mount Perry. Petermann Island was originally discovered by a German whaler Eduard Dallman and named for German geographer August Petermann.  It is most famous for its 1909 resident, Jean-Baptiste Charcot was forced to winter here in his ship in a tiny cove of Petermann Island which he named Port Circumcision (and which is now our landing location). There is a cairn and plaque from his expedition on a hill near the ship’s old anchorage. Today, there is an Argentinean Refuge hut located here, along with a commemorative cross, and it has also been designated as a historic site. The 1950’s era Refuge hut is also now kept up and regularly visited by Ukrainian staff from the Vernadsky Station, which is a little further south of us. Today, the penguins (Gentoo’s and Adelie’s), the blue-eyed cormorants, the storm petrels and the polar skuas rule this island.  This island is ~1km long, rises 150 meters above sea level, and is mostly ice covered with small, rock-cobbled bays near the shore. We hiked to the southern-most point on the island for a view of the Archipelago and then to a point just north of the landing site for a view of a few Adelie penguins.  Adelie penguins are very shy and are moving further south away from visitors, and to places where there is less habitat competition with Gentoo’s.  In contrast, the gentoo’s are curious and will walk right up to you to see what’s going on.  This island has so many penguins there are penguin highways worn into the ice and snow, and there are large areas that are pink with penguin-poo. When we leave the island, we have potentially set our last step on the continent of Antarctica.

Morning on Lemarie Channel

 

Landing at Petermann Island

 

Hiking with Penguins at Petermann Island

 

Adelie Penguin at Petermann Island

 

A Curious Gentoo Penguin Inspects Bag

 

View along Petermann Island Hike

 

Remnants of penguin Egg

 

Penguins at Play in Freshwater Ice Pond

 

Chinstrap, Gentoo & Adelie Penguins at Petermann Island

 

Julie Conquers Petermann Island Hike

 

Rocky after Petermann Island Hike

After everyone returns to the ship, the Captain starts a slow cruise south in the Penola Strait looking for wildlife and we see a variety of leopard, crab-eater, and Weddell seals lying about on the ice flows. The crab-eater seals are particularly numerous and are the largest seal population in the area, spending a great deal of their time on the ice.  The leopard seals feed on the local penguins, and the Orcas feed on the seals when they carelessly venture off the ice. As we sail around avoiding the ice, we can see the Vernadsky Station, the Ukrainian base that maintains different Refuge huts in the area.  It can be easily spotted by the several high antennas they have erected.  This base was originally operated by the British and is the site credited with discovering the Antarctic ozone hole. 

Seals Resting on Ice Flow in Penola Straight

We have sailed as far south as we can go due to ice (65 degrees 40 minutes south) and we are less than 100 miles from the Antarctic Circle. but now we turned north into the French Passage and then head west out into the sea. This is a slow and tedious journey due the amount of ice, and every little ice flow seems to have a crab-eater seal on it.  We also come upon a couple of really massive icebergs, one of which was grounded in 120 meters of water with another 40 meters above the water-line.  The next large iceberg was tabular and 840 meters long, 81 meters high, clouded in mist and towering over our ship. Our Safety Officer has been measuring the visible part of the icebergs with his sextant! The Captain has been measuring the underwater part of the iceberg with sonar and this one is 185 meters deep! We have also seen several whales: Humpback, Fin, Minke, and even a couple of Orcas. 

Orca Killer Whale on Hunt for Seals

 

The Final Day on Antarctica Ship

After exiting the French Passage, we enter the beginning of the Drake Passage. We are still ~650 miles from where we will pick-up the Channel Pilot to enter the Beagle Channel, and we will have 2 full days at sea to get there. Tonight, the waves are building to 3-4 meters, and people are already seeking their cabins.

Wednesday is a sea day, and many people have sleep-in.  The waves have already dropped to less than 3 meters and the air temperature outside is noticeably warmer.  

In the morning, we take a tour of the bridge of the ship.  The Fram has 4 diesel-electric engines and two propellers that can be independently rotated 360 degrees.  Currently we are only running two of the diesels, and the propellers are set to be “pulling” us through the water. The Captain related that as we traversed from South Georgia to Antarctica and the seas were so rough, we needed the electric power of 3 diesels to make acceptable headway. The bridge is totally electronic – there are no paper plots or charts.  The sonar and radar are such that the smallest items on the surface can be seen, and the base of submerged icebergs can be accurately determined. We were running via computer automatic pilot at a speed of 10 -12 knots.  Later that day, we began to prepare to end our trip by returning our muck boots to the Expedition Crew, gathering up our stuff, and spending time in the Panorama Lounge watching the waves and calming seas.  That night we dine on fish & chips and finish the evening with a Late Night “Talent Show” and party hosted by the crew.

Thursday is also a sea day and is spent packing, checking the billings, validating flight information and getting ready to disembark the ship early the next morning. In the afternoon, our Whale Expert from the Orca Foundation, Lucy, gave us a summary of what we have recorded on the trip – 7 species of Cetaceans, 6 other species of marine mammals, and ~1644 individually counted animals.  The count looks like this:

  • Commerson’s dolphins – 38 (black and white with gray babies)
  • Peale’s Dolphins – 16
  • Orca (Killer) Whales – 10 – of the 4 ecotypes, we saw 9 type-C, and 1 type-A

A) Largest, prefer open sea & they hunt Minke’s whales

B) Sub-Antarctica

C) Brown Yellow coloration, largest eye patch, hunt seals

D) Sub-Antarctica

  • Minke whales – 46
  • Sei whales – 38
  • Fin whales – 126 (they appear to look like logs in the water and were the largest whales we have seen
  • Humpback whale – 301 (exhibiting lots of different behaviors, breeching, slapping the fins, slapping the tails, and in an icy area blowing bubbles to clear the ice before surfacing)

We also saw 206 “whale blows” where no whale surfaced, thus there was no identification.  The best whale display was near Shag rock where you had 4-types of whales and hundreds of blows with whales, seals, and birds all coming out of the water.

In the afternoon, we pass Cape Horn, which we visited with a landing on another trip last month. The evening has us take aboard a Channel Pilot and bring us into the Ushuaia Harbour in the early morning daylight, finishing the Antarctica Expedition part of our trip and 3768 nautical miles traveled by ship.  Now, it is off to Buenos Aires for a night of dinner and Tango, before our flights back to Atlanta and New Orleans to begin our next adventure – Mardi Gras 2019!

2019 Antarctica – The Southern Continent Part 1

6:31 pm

We have been sailing from South Georgia Island to Antarctica, and it is now Thursday morning, February 21st. It is a very overcast day, but the conditions are tolerable, and we are excited to awaken to whale blows quite near the ship.  It is quite cold outside, (28 degrees) and still a bit windy (25 mph winds with gusts up to 60 mph), and we are now observing icebergs in every direction one looks. Soon, we can see Elephant Island in the distance covered by mist/clouds. Elephant Island is 25miles long by 7 miles wide and has the crude shape of an elephant’s head with a long, extended trunk. As we approach the island, we get a good view of a series of jagged peaks composed of metamorphic rocks, the tallest of which is 2500 feet. Point Wild is ahead and is where Shackleton left his men while he and a small crew went to the South Georgian Islands looking for help to rescue them.  The area of Point Wild is all mountainous with a very small beach in a tiny protected cove where the men lived for 4 1/2 months.  They lived under what was left of their lifeboat turned upside-down and were led by Frank Wild. There were no penguins here in 1914 only sea lions which is all there was to eat for those many months. Today, the beach is smaller than 1914 and the adjacent glacier has receded some, but there now is a colony of Chinstrap penguins in the area who are the only regular visitors to a single bronze bust of Captain Pardo erected there by the Chilean Government.

Map of Track & Stops Antarctica Part 1

 

Approaching Point Wild on E;ephant Island

 

Monument to Piloto Pardo at Point Wild

Our Captain held our ship in the bay for us to take photos for nearly 30-minutes, despite the katabatic wind gusts coming down the glacier.  The ship’s deck-5 observation area developed frozen patches of ice due to the extreme wind chill. The glacier in that bay is massive and its colors are amazing, but it brings with it its own weather conditions.

We continue to sail around the east end of Elephant Island to a place called “Cape Valentine” where Shackleton’s party originally landed on Valentine’s Day but were forced to then move on to Point Wild.  As we sailed west past Cape Valentine, it began to snow heavily, and the wind howled. We continued south west down the Bransfield Strait towards the west-end of Elephant Island to Lookout Point or Cape Lookout, pass Rowett Island which is now all covered in new snow. Cape Lookout was discovered in the 1820’s by Captain George Powell. Today, there are ~10,000 Chinstrap penguins living in the waters between these 2 points. Here we saw many penguins in the waters all around us, as well as a few fur sea lions. Also, along this route we have seen a number of Sei- and Fin- whales.  After Elephant Island, we turn south again and cross open water towards the Antarctic Peninsula.  In a couple of hours, we pass Gibbs Islands – small, barren, ice-covered set of rocks in the middle of nowhere. When we approached Gibbs Island, we come close to a massive tabular ice sheet and are hit with hurricane-force katabatic winds yet again, preventing us from going any closer.  Therefore, the Captain turned the ship and we are head straight towards the Antarctic Sound, which was discovered in 1825 by Captain Wendell.

Fin Whales in Antarctica Sound

The afternoon lecture that day was given by Lucy from the “Orca” Foundation. “Orca” is a British-based non-profit organization that was founded in 2001 for long-term studies of whales and dolphins.  It is now a global organization with 6 full-time employees who encourage everyday “citizen-scientists” to help with the monitoring of the whales and dolphins.  Lucy talked about the scientific order of Cetaceans, how to identify them and their differences. She also reviewed the mammals we have seen on this trip: Commerson’s dolphins, Peale’s dolphins, Minke whales (most common to Antarctica), Humpback whales, Sei Whales, Fin whales, fur seals, elephant seals, crab eater seals, leopard seals, wendell seals and penguins (chinstrap, rockhoppers, king, gentoo, macaroni, and adelie).

That night, after our buffet dinner, it was time for another night in the hot tub.  Although the seas were calmer, the air was extremely cold, and our hair began to freeze. Later that evening, there was a presentation review of our time in the South Georgia Islands. The review reminded us how the weather had driven the ship to sail up and down the northeast coast of South Georgia 4-times in search of safe locations for landings.  One of our expedition staff, Tom, reviewed for us the extent of emergency gear that needs to be taken ashore prior to every time we land.  Emergency gear for 100 people for 24-hours of survival is placed onshore for every landing in case of changes in the winds or weather that prevent us from getting everyone back to the ship.  This gear includes blankets and pads to sit on, tents for shelter, and water & basic food. In the 9-years that the senior Expedition Staff have being doing these trips – the emergency equipment has only been used once! The review then featured Bob, who explained that katabatic winds are a result of cold air from top the mountains and above the glaciers rushing downhill because of its higher density.  These cold winds then ride under the warmer air creating very strong gusts.  Finally, the passengers played another game of “Antarctic Jeopardy” with 2– categories Penguins and Non-penguins.  The guests were divided up into two-teams – Port and Starboard.  We were part of the Starboard Group and we won – yea!  Then, it was off to bed.

The ship sailed all Thursday night and Friday morning through the Antarctic Sound heading toward the Argentinian base “Esperanza”.  Along the way, we are surrounded by icebergs of many sizes and shapes, and the Captain expertly avoids the largest ones.  As we sail into sight of the base, we see many humpback whales and other types of whale blows.  “Esperanza” is a permanent research station open year-round, on Cape Hope. The base’ motto is “Permanence, an act of sacrifice.” Built in 1953, the base houses 55 inhabitants in the winter, including 10 families and 2 school teachers. The base has a civil registry office where births and weddings are recorded.  The first child ever born on the Antarctic Continent was born here in 1978. The base also has some minimal “tourists’ facilities” and hosts about 1,100 tourist a year who stop to visit.  The 43-buildings of the base have a combined space of 3,744 square meters (~40,300 sq. ft covered). The base uses 18,000 liters, (4,800 gallons), of fuel annually by its 4 generators to produce the electricity for the station.  Research Projects include glaciology, seismology, oceanography, coastal ecology, biology, geology and limnology.

Argentinian Esperanza Base on Antarctic Penninsula

The Antarctic Sound lies between the very tip of the Antarctica Peninsula and D’Urville, Joinville, and the Dundee Islands. It was named for the ship “Antarctica” in 1903 when the Swedish South Polar Expedition Captained by Carl Larsen explored the area. This area is known as “Iceberg Alley” due to the astonishing assortment of floating ice, both large and small.  The Sound is 30-miles long and is often difficult to navigate due to the amount of ice. This area has a high concentration of Adelie penguins, (~500,000 nesting pairs).

As we approach the base, all the buildings are painted orange and one of the larger buildings has an Argentina flag painted on its roof.  This color-scheme is the norm for any Argentine Base in the Antarctic.  There is very little snow here, but it is very cold and windy, and the base is built on a cobble beach, surrounded by glacial ice and mountains. Also located at this Base is a historic, large rock-hut that was built by a shipwrecked 1903 Expedition Team for survival through the winter – the first people to successfully winter in Antarctica. We arrived at the “Esperanza” Base at ~9am and Expedition Team goes ashore first.   The Base Commander has offered to receive tours of the Base in groups of 20-25. We learned they have a small gift shop and are encouraged to bring money with us. The Expedition Team has us broken into 8 groups and today our group goes last.

Historic Equipment at Esperanza Base

We loaded into the zodiacs at around noon and, as we pulled away from the ship, are surprised by a huge humpback whale surface right behind us, showing us his backside before diving. We arrived at a little dock but leave the zodiac in the shallow water on a rocky slope. We were greeted by a large contingent of gentoo penguins before the Captain of the Base comes to welcome us and take us on a tour. Not only are the buildings painted orange, but all of the Argentinean Antarctic gear is orange, as well. which makes this base different from everyone else.  As we walked up the hill to the base, there were an old set of railroad tracks, old sleds and vehicles from years ago that were used to move supplies up from the coast.  This equipment is now considered part of the museum.  The indoor part of their museum has fossils with leaves imbedded in them, stuffed penguins, equipment from their first hospital in the 60’s-70’s.  It has pictures of other explorers that have made it to this point in Antarctica, including a picture of the 3 Swedes who built and survived in the rock hut in 1903.  Argentina had founded Esperanza as a Base in 1903 and have just celebrated 115 years at this location. There is a small chapel on the Base that has a donated cap from the current Pope. The Base has its own accredited residential Primary and Secondary school which will begin in March and will have 17 students from the 8 families that will be on base for the winter.  There are 2 teachers – a husband wife team. They will teach the Elementary students and then facilitate the Secondary students with classwork delivered online. They have 3 physical classrooms, a chemistry lab, and an indoor gymnasium.  These students will get the same curriculum as all other Argentinian students.  It is the only school in all of the Antarctic Continent.  We then visited the Cafeteria Building where we were served sweet coffee, signed the guest book, and visited the gift shop, (t-shirts, polo shirts, hats, patches and post cards with the seal of the base).  At the conclusion of the tour, we returned to ship for a late lunch. Then, the Captain took us for a sail around Antarctica Sound, which was loaded with a tremendous amount of ice debris in the water, and numerous icebergs.  We soon came across another massive tabular iceberg, bigger than the ship, which has broken off the Weddell ice shelf.

Gentoo Penguin at Esperanza Base

 

Gentoo Penguins near the Base’s Cemetary

 

Julie at Esperanza Base

 

Gentoo Penguins acting Goofy at Esperanza Base

 

Tabular Ice from Antarctic Ice Shelf

 

Ice Flows in Antarctic Sound

Antarctica is the 5th largest continent on Earth, with a total area of 5.5 million square miles. During the winter Antarctica “doubles” in size, due to the large amount of sea ice that forms at its periphery.  Antarctica is more than 95% ice-covered and contains about 90% of the world’s fresh water. Antarctica has no native human population. Even today, its only residents are scientific teams and their support staff that stay no more than one-year at-a-time.  (This is also true at Esperanza.  However, we learned that once someone spends a year on the Base here, they often apply again to return. This is true of the teachers who met here year’s earlier.)  Antarctica is the coldest (record -126.9F in 1960) and the driest continent (less than 2-inches of rain per year in the interior) and is therefore actually considered to be a desert. The Antarctica coast line, however, receives about 15 inches of rain a year. While we were visiting ashore, we saw another cruise ship, the National Geographic Explorer, for the first time since we left Ushuaia.    

That evening, after receiving our “evening briefing”, we went to the panorama lounge to witness the “lottery” for those wishing to camp one night on the ice in Antarctica.  There were 30 spaces in the tents for camping and 50 people wanted to camp, thus a lottery was drawn to see who received the 30 slots. After the lottery the kitchen crew provided us with entertainment in the form of fruit carving, cake decorating, napkin folding and ice carving.  The fruit was carved into fishes with seaweed and flowers by the cold food chef. The sheet cake was decorated in a “Fram” theme with handmade flowers by the crew chef who doubles as a pastry chef. The napkins were folded by our dining room waiter who made swans, peacocks, flowers, ships, hats, and people. The ice carver took a large block of 2ft x 3ft x6in ice and carved a beautiful fish. Each piece of art was created skillfully by beautiful and talented people.

Saturday morning is crisp and clear, and we have traveled west to arrive in the South Shetland Islands at Half Moon Island, which is a small island between Greenwich Island and Livingston Island. Here, there is summer-only Argentinian Research Center with 5 buildings.  Currently, their shutters are down, and they are already closed-up and gone for the winter. This island has many chinstrap penguins, terns and gull nests.  Some areas are closed to us because of their environmental sensitivity and to be sure we don’t disturb the wildlife. Onshore, there is an old shipwreck from the 1900’s which is both historic, and in unsafe condition, and so we stay clear of it.  The water is calm and glassy, and the sun is shining brightly which makes for good kayaking and comfortable adventures onshore. The South Shetland Islands are a string of islands running parallel to the Northwest coast of the Antarctica peninsula with snow & ice covering ~98% of the islands.  There are bases of 12 different nations on these islands – eight of which are permanently manned and 4 of which are manned in the summer only.

Approaching Half Moon Island

 

Argentinian Base at Half Moon Island Closed for the Winter

 

Gentoo Penguins at Half Moon Island

 

Adult Fur Seal at Half Moon Island

 

A Pair of Chinstrap Penguins

 

Young Chinstrap Penguins in the Snow

 

Chinstrap Penguin Colony at Half Moon Island

 

Chnistrap Penguin Posing for a Picture

 

Huge Chinstrap Penguin Colony

 

Curious Chinstrap Penguins at our Landing Site

After our shore excursion and lunch, we sail south to Deception Island which is currently a dormant volcano with part of its ancient caldera wall collapsed, forming an enclosed bay that is now flooded by seawater.  One can only enter the caldera through a narrow gap named “Neptune’s Bellows”. We sailed through the Bellows and into a small internal cove to the right called “Whalers Bay”, which was already occupied by a ~50’ sailing Ketch and a large Chilean navy ship.  All the Chileans came out on deck to welcome us with waving and cheers. Although Deception Island is dormant now, it did last erupt in 1970 and destroyed the Chilean base that was on the island.  The black volcanic sand is still warm and steaming reminding us that the magma is not far beneath the surface. Whaling took place here in Whalers Bay from 1912-1930’s and the remnants of the old whaling station are still here, but not safe to approach too close.

 

Abandoned Whaling Station at Whaler’s Bay Deception Island

 

Whaler’s Bay with View of The Window and Neptune’s Bellows

 

The Hike down from Deception Island Viewpoint

Today, there are two bases still located in Deception Island – Argentinean and Spanish – both located within the caldera around the larger bay, which is named “Port Foster”. There is a small abandoned airport with runways and hangers near the far end of the whaling station which used to be part of an old British Base that is also now abandoned. Since there was an eruption in 1970, there are buildings broken and buried in the lava sands and huge 90-year-old whale bones lying about. We walked from the landing site past the old fuel tanks and tanks used to recover the whale and seal oil, past a huge British “manor” to the abandoned Aircraft Hangar.  After looking over the dilapidated Hanger, we begin to climb Ronald Hill to the “lookout”.  We climbed 350 feet steeply-up, to the top of the hill and the location of a magnificent viewing point.  Here we look over the caldera and take pictures before beginning our climb back down.  Once down, we retrace our steps back towards the landing point and then head the other way walking to viewpoint “cut” in the volcanic crater wall called “the Window”, which gives one a view of the entrance outside of Neptune’s Bellows of the Bransfield Strait approach and all the way across to the Antarctica Peninsula. While we were busy hiking, another Expedition Ship made its way in, sailed round Port Foster, and then left. We then again returned to the landing site, it was time for Rocky to do the “Polar Plunge”.  There was an old piece of iron whale equipment that made a nice “changing room”.  As the temperature was 28 degrees, he ran across the rocky black sand and into the water which is at 32 degrees.  Thankfully, the ship had towels ready and recorded everyone brave enough to take the plunge, (they also had the doctor standing by for safety).  After a quick swim, it was a rush to shore to dry and dress, and to catch a quick trip on the zodiac back to the ship.

Once everyone was back on board, the Captain elected to cruise around Port Foster so that we could see the ice-sheets covered in black ash, as well get a quick view of the Argentinean and Spanish bases, located opposite of Whalers Bay. After a dip to warm up in the hot tub and then dinner, we had our evening briefing describing the plan for the next day, and then a talk show exploring the intricacies of the “de Gerlache’s 1897” Expedition to Antarctic. Gerlache was a Belgium Explorer who took the first team of scientists to explore Antarctica.  However, they unexpectedly got frozen into the ice and drifted for over a year before finally getting free and making it back to safety.  Many of the places that we will pass were named by this Expedition, and it set the precedent for scientific research in Antarctica. 

2019 Antarctica Expedition – The South Georgian Islands

5:12 pm

Having left the Falkland Islands and passed Shag Rocks, we now travel on our Expedition Ship, The M.S. Fram, to The South Georgia Islands.  South Georgia is considered part of the Antarctic environment and waters and air temperatures here are some of the coldest on earth. We prepare for our time there by attending a lecture by one of our Expedition Team’s Zoologist, Rob, who lived in South Georgia on Bird Island (one of the most northeastern islands) for 3-years from 1983-1986.  He worked for FIDS, (Falklands Island Dependency Survey), now called “The British Antarctica Survey”, and he was flown there by the British Royal Navy via helicopter.  While there, his responsibility was to study and count birds, including penguins, skuas, petrels and albatrosses.  Skuas and Giant Petrels (“Northern” petrels have red tips on their beaks, and “Southern” petrels have green tips on their beaks), have done really well in the area.  Also, fur seals on the island have also rebounded from the 19th Century Seal hunters where there were only 10 remaining fur seals counted at the beginning of the 20th Century, and today the local population is over 3 million.  Rob noted that when he was there with a Team, the only time any of them got sick was when visitors arrived.  His Team was consisted of 8 people in the summer and only 3 of them stayed the winter.  Their base subsisted on British Navy Stores, including a good bit of alcohol. Bird island is still the smallest base of British Antarctica Survey, and Rob has never before returned to the South Georgia Islands and is excited to be heading that direction.

Map of South Georgia Island with Key Stops

South Georgia has the most mountains of all southern islands and was populated in the late 1800’s until the 1960’s with an abundance of Whaling Stations, (mostly Norwegians, Irish and Argentinians).  With the collapse of the Whaling Industry, most of these Whaling Stations are now abandoned and deserted. Today, they consist of rusting iron works, grounded and sunken ships, and asbestos contamination.  The only inhabitants of many of these stations are the old fur seals that have taken them over.  Our first stop must be the capitol town of Grytviken, an old whaling station that was not deserted until late 1990’s, and so its buildings are in better shape. Here, there is a small office and research center that manages the islands. We will need to clear a bio-inspection here and the ship inspected before we will be allowed to land anywhere in the islands.

At most of our landings, we will only expect to see penguins and female fur seals and their pups as the males have already departed shore and gone back to sea.  Fur seals can be aggressive and move quickly, and we are instructed to “make ourselves big” if charged by one. Male fur seals can weigh up to 150kg each.  We will also see male elephant seals which will weigh-in at ~3-tons and be around 9-feet long, however, they move relatively slowly and can be easily avoided. In general, all the areas near the shore, including the yards, will be full of seals.  In addition to fur seals, there are Leopard seals which eat penguins, are aggressive, and have nasty teeth.  However, they are usually only around ice sheets, and we will likely not see them until we reach Antarctica.  What we will see are different types of penguins – Rock-hoppers, King, Gentoo, Chinstrap and Macaroni. We will also see a great variety of other birds, including: The Storm Petrel of which over 1.5 million breeding pairs are located here; the Cape Petrel with its pretty, lacy feathers and its making sounds like a chicken; the scavenging and predatory Skua bird (which is often seen in penguins colony trying to eat their chicks); the Sheath-bill petrel which likes to steal food from baby penguins; and the Pivot (only 3 thousand pairs) which is the only songbird in the Antarctic region.

There are no native shrubs or trees on South Georgia, only the windbreaks that were imported earlier by the whalers.  In addition, the Whalers brought reindeer, cows, horses, and, unfortunately, the European brown rat (accidentally introduced over 2-century ago).  The brown rat was particularly a serious problem, since the massive bird population nests on the ground, and the rats devastated the eggs and chicks.  In 2010, a program was instituted to eradicate brown rats from South Georgia, and rat poison was carefully distributed by hand and by helicopter to all the infested areas.  The program continued through 2015 and included rat-sniffing dogs and verification baits.  Since 2018, the islands have been declared completely rat-free and bird colonies are on the increase.  The highly successful program cost only ~$15M USD and over 67 nations contributed to its funding.  In the future, all ships that come to the islands will be inspected by dogs at the Falklands port prior to being able to come to South Georgia.  In addition, all reindeer were eradicated from the islands in 2012.  Today, the sealing industry does not operate here, and seal populations have exploded to the point that they are starting to erode some beaches.

We will also hope to see the declining Wandering Albatross – the largest seabird with a 3-meters wing span and 40 inches in height.  These birds only breed every other year, and care for their young for ~11-months before the chick leaves the nest. They require daily meals of over one kilogram of fish or krill to survive, and their numbers are slowly decreasing, although it is not clear why.

Friday morning, February 15th, we get up early to watch our ship pull into Cumberland Bay in front of Grytviken. When we arrive, the South Georgia bio-team was waiting on shore for us to bring them to our boat to commence bio-checks and immediately come aboard.   The 3 Government observers aboard who come aboard bring a speaker from the South Georgia Heritage Trust, Sarah, who reviews the history of the island and the guidelines to protect the animals. As the ship is being inspected, Sarah gives us a briefing instructing us to leave no evidence of our visit, to keep our voices low on the island.  She also reminds us that the animals have priority/right-of-way, and that we need to move slowly when near them.   She informs us about the invasive species eradication programs and relates that the glacier between the center section and the north section of the island is retreating at about 2-meters a day.  She also recommends a book – “Reclaiming South Georgia “- to those who are interested in learning more.  Currently, Grytviken is hosting whale biologists who are studying Right Whales which breed off the coast of South America, but whose calves are beaching themselves and researchers don’t know why.

Check out the website: www.happywhale.com

Currently, 2 humpback whales in South Georgia are outfitted with trackers and are at the southern end of the island.  The Trust is also researching Grey-headed albatrosses, which have declined 43% in 11 years and are unsure why, (they suspect illegal long-line fishing by-catch).  The Trust has a program for individuals to help by participating in their “Protect a Hectare” (2.4 acres) Project/Sponsorship – see:

Facebook/southgeorgiaheritagetrust

Their goal is to become the nesting site of a hundred million more birds!

After a detailed inspection of every individuals boots and gear with headlamps and magnifying lenses, we are allowed to go ashore.  The “hikers” were taken ashore first followed by the rest of us. They are doing the Maiviken hike starting from Grytviken and climbing to the Shackleton plateau 200 meters up high. The hike is for experienced hikers as it is steeper and longer than any other hikes we have done, and it will take 2-3 hours, which will limit their time in town.  We opted to spend our time in town instead.

 

View of the Whaling Station of Grytviken from Cumberland Bay

We spend the next 2+ hours exploring the area. We start with the cemetery where Shackleton is buried and where his headstone immortalizes his contribution to the region.  From here, we pick our way among the fur seals and king penguins towards the old whaling village.  All around us, there are numerous baby seals frolicking at the shore line, calling for their moms, and curiously checking us out.  A few large male elephant seals were around lazing in the sun. We were able to walk the area of the old whaling factory, as this site was cleaned-up and all asbestos was removed.  We finally arrive at the old Managers Villa, which is now the Island’s museum. The museum has lots of South Georgia and Whaling artifacts and tells the story of the Whaling Camps and Industry quite well. They even have a Post Office (only open in the summer) where we purchased postcards and mailed them back to the USA.  The town’s name “Grytviken” means “pot” and was based upon the fact that the first settlers found old pots left behind by transient whalers there. The Grytviken Whaling Factory was run from 1904 until 1965, when it was closed for good.  Along the coast, beyond the original camp is the research station at Edward Point, run by the British Antarctica Survey (BAS). Besides the Museum and the Post Office, Grytviken also has a gift shop and huge fuel tanks for petrol to run the village. They obtain their stores regularly from the BAS base.  There is also the original one-room church which the whaling station sponsored to keep the men “in-line” (unsuccessfully).  It was where Shackleton’s funeral was held, and last month there was even a wedding held there. The local Gallery contains South Georgian art and holds a replica of the boat Shackleton took from Elephant Island to South Georgia after his Antarctica ship was crushed by the ice.  We also took a 20-minute guided tour around the camp with an intern stationed there for the summer.  All the fuel containers and whaling equipment for harvesting meat and oil and blubber are still there, as well as some wrecks of the “whale-chaser” ships in the main harbor. We were then back aboard the Fram by about 12:15pm.  Soon thereafter, the ship lifts anchor and we left Grytviken and head back southeast to St. Andrews Bay.  This bay is home to over 200,000 King penguin-pairs, and only 100 people may be ashore at any one time.  This will require us to stagger our visits in order to allow all some time on the island. The weather has been 38-40 degrees, but the lower winds and full sun will hopefully make for a very pleasant visit.

Curious Fur Seals when we Come Asore in Grytviken

 

Shackleton’s Grave Stone in Grytviken Cemetary

 

King Penguins and Fur Seals in Grytviken

 

A Mature King Penguin

 

A Young Fur Seal

 

Abandoned Tanks at Grytviken Whaling Station

 

The Original One-room Church at Grytviken

 

Abandoned Whale Bones at the Old Whaling Station

We arrive at St. Andrews Bay at about 3:30pm only to be greeted by dark clouds, strong winds and cold temperatures.  The wind and swell were too high to safely launch and land the zodiacs, but we could see king penguins in the distance all over the beach and moraine. We could also see the Heaney Glacier and Cook Glacier coming down into the bay. After maneuvering the ship several times to try to accommodate the swell and block the wind, the Captain cancels the landing and we set sail, instead, for Royal Bay located down the coast.

Massive King Penguin Colony at St. Andrew’s Bay

On the way to Royal Bay, we came across a lone humpback whale blowing, breeching, and slapping the water with its fins, making splashes and putting on a show that all of the previously disappointed passengers thoroughly enjoyed.  The Captain followed the whale for ~40 minutes before continuing our journey to Royal Bay.  In Royal Bay, we saw the huge Ross Glacier and the Hindle Glacier.  On this Bay, in the 1860’s, was once of the first settlements on South Georgia Islands. However, the winds were again too high to do more that cruise the ship into the bay for a look-see, making our way around some icebergs in position to view the glaciers.  We could also see a large king penguin colony on the beach on the left side of the bay. But, because we cannot land, we leave this bay as well, reverse course, and head back northwest towards the opposite end of the island to attempt a landing the next day.

Breaching Humpback Whale on the way to Royal Bay

That night was Italian Dinner Buffet and while we ate dinner, we saw fur seals and small Humboldt penguins swimming in the water next to the ship. We also were informed that the ship received a rare perfect-score of 100% from the Island’s inspectors on our ship’s bio-security checks today!!  Tonight, in the ship’s panoramic lounge, the Captain arrives with 10 others of the crew (sailors and engineers) to hold a knot tying demonstration, with each crew member coming to a guest’s table with ropes, lines, pictures and instructions.  It was a great way to meet crew members that we don’t usually get to see. 

During the night, the ship makes its way to Prion Island in the Bay of Isles, and we awake on Saturday morning to see penguins diving & swimming outside of our window. While checking the view on deck, we see huge Wandering Albatrosses circle overhead.

At 7am, the Exhibition Crew makes ready to go ashore as the weather is perfect for a landing.  Prion Island is a very small island and was named after the Prion Bird that nests under the Tussock grass on the island.  We are not likely to see any Prions during the day, as they emerge and hunt principally at night.  This island is a “Specially Protected Area” by the South Georgian Government and has always been rat free. It was discovered in 1912-13 by Robert Murphy, an American naturalist, and is also the home to breeding Wandering Albatrosses. The Naturalists built a controversial raised boardwalk from the beach to the top of a small hill to ensure that nests could be counted without creating any further damage or impact to the environment.  The boardwalk, with 2 viewing stations, was built in February-March 2008 and it provided a convenient path for us (and the local fur seal population), to see several nests with the albatrosses sitting and guarding their eggs. The island is also a breeding area for the South Georgia pipits and the burrowing petrels. Since Prion Island has this special status, only 50 people are allowed on the island, (including Expedition Crew, guides and safety personnel), at any one time.  Therefore, the ship will spend the whole day here so that everyone gets a good chance to visit.

Gentoo Penguin at Prion Island

 

Young Fur Seal at Prion Island

 

Large Male Fur Seal Sunning on the Beach

On arrival we were greeted by seals, gentoo penguins and one lone King penguin. It turns out that there are very many fur seals here, including a great number of seal pups, many moms and even a few dads. As we walked the boardwalk, we found seals in every little nook and cranny of the grasses beside us. We even saw a seal pup suckling from its mom right next to the boardwalk. The higher we climbed, the more birds were found. Two skuas landed right next to us chasing off a third and claiming his area and meal! At the summit viewing station, we saw a number of huge albatross’ nests with Wandering Albatrosses sitting on them and totally ignoring us.  There were several Wandering Albatrosses flying overhead and tending their nest, as well.  And many a seal pup tried to walk with us on the boardwalk. As we returned to the beach to get on the zodiac, a large male fur seal decided to rest in the middle of the beach path, probably weighing in at over 600 pounds!   This was a unique island and one the ship doesn’t get to stop at very often, as many of the exhibition crew had never been here before.  While we were on the island, several people took the double kayaks out for a ride, since the winds were low, and the surf was calm. Since Prion Island is in the Bay of Isles, the protected area there was perfect for kayaking.

After the Prion landings were complete, the ship set sail to Salisbury Plain, which is also in the Bay of Isles. Here we saw a very large king penguin colony – the 2nd largest colony in the South Georgia Islands, after the St. Andrews colony.  The day was getting late so we didn’t have time for a landing here, but, since the waves and wind were calm, we did put the zodiacs in the water and took cruises up and down the beach.  There were king penguins everywhere, with a few seals mixed in. The beach almost had an orange-yellow hue due to their coloring and density there. The penguins also played in the water next to the zodiacs and were climbing and diving off the ship’s bow bulb. Once back on board, there was a Mexican buffet dinner followed by a briefing on the next day’s potential landings – Fortuna Bay and Stromness Bay. By night, it is snowing wet big flakes and we gather in the panorama lounge for an Officer’s Fashion Show, featuring the ship’s Officers and Expedition Crew modeling clothing from the gift shop.  The DJ is Jose, our cabin housekeeper. The officers/crew modeled t-shirts, sweaters, coats, and accessories.  But the best display was a guide dressed up in knickers and a coat from the early 1900’s. The finale stole the show as it included 2-crew dressed in white terry cloth robes wearing 1920’s one-piece striped swimwear!  The lounge was packed with passengers for this event and it was the best attended night-time activity, yet.

King Penguins Greet us at Salisbury Plain

 

2nd Largest King Penguin Colony at Salisbury Plain

 

King Penguins Come Out to See the Ship

Afterwards the fashion show, we went into the hot tub outside on deck-7 and watched the snow fall around us.

On Sunday, when we awoke, we were surrounded by the snowy white peaks of Fortuna Bay and we see king penguins and seals playing in the water outside our window – it is 38 degrees outside. We arrived in Fortuna Bay in the middle of the night and stayed here since it was well-protected and calm. Fortuna Bay was named for one of the first whaling ships that operated in the area.  The inaptly named Fortuna ran aground at Hope Point in 1916, as her helmsman was reading a letter from home. This bay is home to both king & gentoo penguins, fur seals, elephant seals and many species of birds, including the albatrosses and the giant petrels.  The king penguins prefer to nest at long open beaches with large swells. The colony of penguins here at Whistle Cove in Fortuna Bay is one of the most easily assessable in South Georgia Islands.

Gentoo Penguin Chick at Fortuna Bay

At 7:30am, the Expedition Crew went ashore and began setting up the landing. Soon, we took the zodiacs to shore and were greeted by many more seals and king penguins.  The king penguins were everywhere and they not shy – they walked right up to us and were curious about the seldom seen humans. We began our walk left down the beach toward the valley, and there were penguins all along the beach.  We finally crossed a small river and then the area we were in was dominated by thousands of fur seals, some of which we needed to hold off from their charges.  We continue our walk until we reach to a hill, and from on top the hill, all one can see is fields full of king and gentoo penguins – over ~10,000 pairs – squawking and tending their nests.  After many pictures, we walk back down to the beach and the penguins begin to follow us. Eventually, we return to the ship, but on the way back, we find a group of penguins again sitting on the bulb at the front of the ship, creating their own little playground. They were using the bulb as a platform, diving into the water and then climbing out and diving again – they were so cute. The penguins have been playing in the waters around the ship the whole time we have been here, (they can swim at 12 mph). The whole excursion was done with sleet and snow falling and a combination of clouds. and then sun, and then clouds again.

Curious Seal Comes to See Us

After the excursion, we eat an early buffet lunch in anticipation of hiking part the Shackleton Trail in the afternoon.  When Shackleton reached the South Georgia Islands with their lifeboat from Elephant Island, he and two others hiked across the islands to Fortuna Bay, and then to the Whaling Station at Stromness Bay. However, we soon learn that due to very low visibility on the mountain pass, the hike was canceled. However, we are still going to sail around to Stromness Bay and go ashore and hike part of the trail to Shackleton’s Waterfall and back.

When sailing into Stromness Bay, on our right is Leith Harbor, the site of one of the largest old whaling stations in the islands.  We can also see the rusting site of the old Husvik whaling station that also used this bay. It was here at the Husvik station that the entire whaling staff volunteered to rescue Shackleton’s 22 men who were still stranded on Elephant Island. However, the men of Husvik would not be able to get through the ice flows surrounding Elephant Island and that first rescue attempt failed. It would take 4 attempts in total, and over 4 more months for Shackleton to finally reach his men and effect their rescue. When we go ashore at Stromness, it is a wet landing on the beach, and we are greeted by many elephant and fur seals. The hike to the back of the valley takes a solid hour, across glacial streams and braided channels of rocks and ice.  Once we arrive at the back of the valley, we get to see Shackleton’s waterfall, the largest waterfall on the island, and the point at which he descended from the mountain pass to get to the Stromness Whaling Station. As we walked to the waterfall, we come across some colonies of Gentoo penguins in a small side valley – they have walked over a mile across the grass and rocks to get here. Stromness Whaling Station is still there, but it is now abandoned, and because the site has not been cleaned-up, we are required to stay 200 meters away from its contaminated, decrepit structures.  Stromness Whaling Station was active from 1907-1961, but no one lives or stays here now.  The weather for the afternoon’s hike has been overcast with a mixture of snow, sleet and intermittent rain, and the katabatic winds, (30-60 mph gusts), from the mountain glaciers come and go.

View of the Valley at Stromness Bay

 

Successful Hike to Shackleton’s Waterfall

On our return, we divert our route and head over to the back side of the old whaling station where we could hear elephant seals trumpeting in the distance and where we could get a better view of the relics.  The ground here was solid muck with your feet sinking on every step. After a plodding 20-minute walk and a brief sighting and pictures, we reverse our route and head back to the ship. While waiting to board the zodiac, the king penguins and fur seals surrounded us.  There were a huge number of young baby seals here, and they are very curious about us and what we are doing.  As we returned to the ship, a rescue-lifeboat was being lowered into the bay as part of normal seafaring rules and safety checks.  The rescue-lifeboats need to be lowered every 14-days while at sea, and the engines run and checked. That night, after an Asian buffet, we went to spa tubs on deck, and found a small Diving Petrel bird huddled in the corner next to the tub.  We notified the Expedition Crew and they picked it up, kept it warm for the night and released it into the wind in the morning.

It is Monday morning, February 18th, and today will be our last day in the South Georgia Islands.  The weather expected for today is not good, and will include snow, rain, sleet, and high wind and swells.  In the morning, we head to explore Gold Harbor. It is called Gold Harbor because surrounding mountain peaks are so high and angular that, with sun on them, they look yellow and give a “golden glow” to the bay.  When Captain Cook arrived here, he was disappointed to have discovered that it was not the Southern Continent that he had hoped to find.  This area is a breeding ground for king and gentoo penguins as well as light-mantled albatrosses.  As the ship enters the bay, we can see king and gentoo penguins on the beach.  However, one can smell them before you even see them!  Pictures of the glacier that comes into this bay from 2004 clearly shows its rapid retreat of many meters per year. After the ship circles a number of times, the Captain determines that the katabatic winds make it impossible to launch zodiacs or make a landing here. Therefore, we decide to head down the coast to Cooper Bay & Cooper Island.

Cooper Island was discovered by British explore James Cook in 1775, however, the island and facing bay are named for Lieutenant Robert Cooper, an officer aboard the HMS Resolution.  Cooper Bay has large number of sea birds, including snow petrels, Antarctic prions, and over 12,000-pairs of black-brown albatrosses. On the exposed outcrops here, we see chinstrap and macaroni penguins (~20,000).  Both types are in the water around the ship as well as on the shores. It is so windy here that it is difficult to even hold the camera still for a picture.  After holding the ship’s position for ~20-minutes for pictures, we head through the narrow neck of water between the island and the mainland, nimbly passing close to huge rocks on either side.  In front of us, are the South Asian Mountain Range with Ferguson Peak, Douglas Crack, and a number of mountains that are over 2000 feet high.

After passing Cooper Island, we head for the Drygalski Fjord.  It is the largest and truest fjord on the island, with several very large glaciers located at its end. The fjord is named for Erich Dagobert von Drygalski, a professor of geography and geophysicists at the University of Berlin.  Drygalski led the German Polar Expedition in 1901-1903 and helped describe the area. We cruised all the way to the end of the fjord for pictures. Since the mountains are so tall on both sides of the ship, it is very quiet, but also very windy.  We have not seen another ship in these areas and the Captain works hard to keep the ship positioned in the center of the fjord.  Eventually, he pivots the ship expertly, and we leave the fjord slowly.  Once we exit the fjord, in the distance, we can see a massive, tabular shelf iceberg from Antarctica that has broken off the ice-shelf.  As we draw closer, we can estimate that it measures ~1.9 kilometers in length!

Drygalski Fjord with Glacier at the End

 

View out of Drygalski Fjord Narrow Entrance

 

Tabular Iceburg off Cooper Island

Since the winds have been uncooperative today, the Captain has announced that we will set sail immediately for Elephant Island and Antarctica to the south, and whatever new adventures await us there. Consequently, it was a quiet afternoon on ship with a Spanish Buffet dinner.  However, by the evening, the waves had grown to nearly 50 ft and seasickness has driven a large number of passengers to their cabins.

Rainbow in Spray Fighting Katabatic Winds on Way to Antartica

Today is Tuesday, February 19th, and we will spend the next 3-days battling winds and swells to arrive in Antarctica. Upon awakening, the waves and swells are less than the brutal conditions of the previous night, and the breakfast buffet is reasonably well-attended. Since the entire day will be at sea, lectures are offered to help everyone pass the time on-board.

The first of these was a lecture by our Russian Expedition Team Member, Katya, titled, “Destination Antarctica: Life and Work in Antarctica”. Katya is a marine biologist with ten-years of experience working in Antarctica. She showed us a beautiful sunlight picture of Paradise Harbor/Bay taken from the Almirante Brown Station where a good percentage of the time it is sunny. Antarctica is the windiest and driest place on earth, however, there are ~70 permanent research station scattered throughout the continent representing 29 countries.  Katya has worked on a Russian base, a German base and a British base.  As a student, she went to King George island in the Southern Shetland Islands. King George Island is a glacier-covered island except for a small peninsula on the southern end. There are 5 different bases and an airport in this area, that allows more reasonable access and cooperation.  Although Katya is Russian, she splits her time between Russia and Washington D.C.  The Soviet Union used to have 12 bases but, after the cold-war ended, closed 5 of them, and now has only 7, 2 are temporary bases that hold weather stations and other electronics, and that are only visited temporarily. Base Bellinghausen is jointly staffed with Russian and Chilean personnel and opened in 1968.  The Russian side of the base can hold 50 personnel but only 10 in the winter, and no women are allowed to stay over the winter.  They have a library, an Orthodox church (wooden – which means they had to get special permission to bring in specially treated wood to construct the church), a hospital, garages, labs, workshops, and housing. The base also has a runway and a helicopter hanger. Some of the research done is the study of Antarctic “hair grass” which is an invasive species.  The researchers map the area covered by the grasses by GPS and have continued to monitor whether it is spreading or dying.  They also study Adelie, Gentoo, and Chinstrap penguins, especially the breeding pairs.  Although these penguins are everywhere across Antarctica, their local population changes are of significant interest to scientists. Penguins are very curious and will readily approach humans.  There studies are finding that Gentoo penguins are on the increase, but the Adelie and Chinstrap penguins have been decreasing over the past 20-years. This long-term research has also noted that the Weddell seals and the south-polar skuas are also declining in this area.  In addition to the wildlife counting, the research personnel also hunt and record fossils. The fossils that are found on this island show evidence of plants, animals, and wood that clarify the geologic history of the island. Also, since the base has a helicopter, they have participated in a variety of rescue operations. Although the Russians share the base with the Chileans, they each have their own area and set of buildings. The Russians have green-colored buildings in the front of the base, and the Chileans have multi-colored buildings at the back of the base. The Chileans personnel are mostly military-based people, who have 2-to-3-year commitments, and therefore they are allowed to have their families with them.  Altogether, the Chilean base has about 100-people of which 25 are children (the first baby born in Antarctica was to a Chilean family at this base). They also have a school, grocery and a bank. They even offer a tourist program – “One Day in Antarctica”. There are flights to the base from Punto Arenas 2-3 times a week.  Also, nearby, is the Chinese base, which has 50 people in the summer, but usually only 10 people in the winter. However, the Chinese have really good laboratories, which they are willing to share.  All of the bases are open to all people on Antarctica at any time. Each base in Antarctica keeps its own time zone – usually tied to their home country.  For example, the Chinese operate their base on a Chinese time zone, where the Chileans operate theirs on Chilean time zone. Although this is convenient for communications to home countries, it does make inter-base communications and visits complicated. All bases are also a minimum of 25-kilometers from the ice edge and, if a ship comes in, it pulls up directly next to the ice-shelf. Katja also worked on an ice breaker ship for nearly 3-months, doing research on the Southern Ocean and Antarctic Krill. They too had a helicopter, which they used to count whales and spot krill gatherings. She also spent time at the German base, Neumayer, which was established in 2009 and is built on innovative hydraulic stilts, as the ice is always moving beneath it.  Katya also worked on the British base, Rothera, which opened in 2008 to study ice rocks and the Antarctic water. The base is unique in that it has hills around the camp, and the personnel located there are able to ski and snowboard. However, since there is no lift system, they use snowmobiles to get to themselves to the top of the hill.

As the day went on the swells/waves got bigger and bigger.  Dinner was minimally attended, and all evening sessions and lectures were canceled due to the waves. The outside decks were roped off, and everything was battened-down for the rough seas. That night, everyone went to bed early, as the waves reached the top deck of the boat 20-30 meters high, and wind was 50-70mph.

Waves Crashing the Bow of the Ship

On Wednesday morning, everyone awoke to much calmer conditions, and it was obvious that people were feeling better since breakfast was well attended.  Today, we will be at sea all day again, and hope to get to Elephant Island sometime tomorrow morning. There was a kayak briefing for those of us who want to try kayaking in Antarctica, which we hope to be able to do, but is very weather dependent. Only 50 people want to try this activity, so excursions will be limited to 12-14 that will go at any one-time.  The appropriate gear is to wear long underwear covered by a polar fleece jumpsuit and with an outer layer of a neoprene dry-suit.  The dry-suit comes with neoprene boots and mittens which hook directly on to the paddle.  If we get the chance, we will use 2-man kayaks.

The sailing today is so much calmer but with lots of clouds. It has snowed or rained off and on nearly all day, and the air temperature is dropping – now reading at just a few degrees above freezing.  In today’s lectures, we learn of the Chilean rescue part of the Shackleton Story from our Chilean Guide, Marco.  After 3 failed attempts to rescue his men from Elephant Island. Shackleton enlisted the aid of the Chilean Navy.  The Chilean culture has a long history of rescues, and the Chilean Navy assigned the task to Captain Piloto Pardo, the Captain of the Yelcho, a coal-fired, single hulled ship stationed in Punto Arenas, where he was responsible for resupplying the Navy bases along the Beagle Channel and Chilean fiords. Captain Pardo accepted the task with determination, and, after stopping to take on a load of coal, took Shackleton and his two mates past Cape Horne and sailed slowly through the fog towards the Antarctic Peninsula.  After 3-days of avoiding icebergs in the fog, they arrived at Elephant Island, sent a rowboat ashore and, within one hour, were able to rescue all 22 men that were stranded there.  They then headed back to Punto Arenas.  Piloto Pardo had had no radio or technological equipment on any kind – just determination, perseverance, and the knowledge on how to carefully and skillfully sail through the fog.  When he arrived home with the rescued men, he was offered 25,000 pounds sterling from the British Government as a reward.  However, he was a humble man and refused the money, stating was only “doing his job”. Today, on Elephant Island the mountain ridge is called Pardo Ridge and a small peninsula is called Cape Yelcho.  Here on Elephant Island at the point of the rescue, there is a bust of Pardo in recognition of his service. Yet in Punto Arenas, and in the British stories of Shackleton, there is little recognition of him.

That night, we had a seated dinner in honor of Shackleton with proper “British” food – lamb, potatoes, brown bread, etc.  That night we spend a lazy evening, take a dip in the hot tub, and prepare for tomorrow. We should then officially be in Antarctica!

2019 Antarctica Expedition – The Falklands Islands

4:30 pm

We are staged in Buenos Aires at the Emperador Hotel where we assemble for a quick coffee at 5:30am before heading to the domestic airport for a 6:30am flight to Ushuaia which will take 3.5 hours.  For this part of the trip, we are under the guidance of the Norwegian Company, Hurtigruten, as we will be on their Expedition Ship, the MS Fram.  The flight is a charter flight on Latham Airline, and it will be carrying only people who are doing the same Antarctica trip as we are. Our luggage was taken by truck at 10pm the previous evening and we will next see it at the Ushuaia airport.

We arrive in Ushuaia at around noon and are greeted by wind and rain. We quickly transfer to buses for a very brief city tour showing us a scenic viewpoint from the old airport and driving us past the port and through downtown. We were then given an hour and a half on our own, and since we had been in Ushuaia before, we went off on our own looking for king crab soup and some gifts.  There was a large Princess Cruise ship in Port, and the restaurants were crowded with tourists, so we finally settled for a crab bowl – a crab fondue served in a bowl made of a crusted bread. We finished our shopping and then headed back to the bus for a short, five-minute drive back to the Port and down the wharf to our ship.

We checked in, received our ID’s which are also a photo ID, a room key and a charge card, turned in our medical clearance forms (which were required for the trip) and picked up our Antarctic waterproof/wind jackets. These jackets, along with our rain pants and provided “muck boots”, are required on every shore landing in these pristine environments.  Our cabin is on deck 6, and consists of 2 single beds, a bathroom, 2 closets, a small desk, a TV and a tray for our muck boots, which we will receive the next day. Our ship has 8 decks:  8 – Observation and sauna, 7- Panoramic Bar lounge, gym, whirlpools and sun decks, 6 – cabins, 5- cabins and observation terraces, 4 – dining room, gift shop, lobby, coffee station, and lecture halls, 3 – cabins, 2 – hospital and landings deck for zodiacs (polar Crikel boats), and 1 – crew quarters. While the boat holds over 250 passengers, at this sailing there are only 193 of us aboard. There are very strict landing rules in the Falklands, and especially in the South Georgian Islands and Antarctica. Ships with more than 200 passengers are not allowed to dock or anchor or offload passengers to the shore in the Antarctic Region.  Due to our boarding, tonight’s dinner is buffet style; soup, salads, entrees and desserts (a comprehensive menu with many healthy choices and numerous vegetarian dishes). There are 3 official passenger languages on this trip: English, German and Chinese. Next was our mandatory briefing on how to put on a survival suit and life jacket then we reported and reviewed our muster stations.  Finally, that evening, there was the Captain’s Welcome with drinks (champagne) and crew introductions.  The expedition team on this trip is very large (17 people) with interpreters, geologist, biologists, marine biologists, historians, PhD students, researchers, and even a representative from ORCA here to observe and count wildlife.   There will be lectures and photography classes and various other science lectures throughout the trip.

Map of the Falkland Islands

The ship left port ~2-hours late due to a late fuel delivery, and the late sun was setting as we sail east out of Ushuaia, through the Beagle Channel, towards the Falkland Islands. And so – the adventure begins.

On Saturday, February 9th, we are up early for a quick trip to the ship’s gym which has a stern and side view of the ocean. We followed this with showers, and with enjoying the breakfast buffet which included pancakes and soft- or hard-boiled eggs.  We are just now exiting the Beagle Channel into the Southern Atlantic Ocean, and the seas soon change from 1-2-meter waves to 2-3-meter waves.  Today, we will be at sea all day as we travel east to the Falkland Islands (The Maldives, as per Argentina).  After breakfast, we head up to the forward observation deck on level-5 to meet with the ship’s naturalists, watch albatrosses and petrels soaring near the ship, and to look for whales.  In a distance, we see a few whales blows, but nothing near to the ship. Later that morning, there is a briefing on what to expect for excursions, and on how to enter and leave the boat and the zodiacs. The passengers have been broken into 8 boat-groups with between 20 and 25 based upon travel groups and language. Following this, we are called by boat group to try-on and pick-up our “muck boots” which are required since all of our landings, which except for two, are “wet” landings.  These boots are waterproof above the upper-calf and need to be inspected and cleaned regularly to insure no contamination of environmentally sensitive areas occurs. Lunch was a buffet with 4 choices of a main course, and in the afternoon, we were entertained by a lecture presentation titled, “An air of extreme desolation – introduction to the Falkland Islands’ natural history”. 

Although there are a few indications that man may have set foot on the Falkland Islands earlier, they were uninhabited when the English explorer, John Davis, first sighted them in 1592, and when the English Sea Captain landed there in 1690 and named them in honor of Viscount Falkland.  There are two principal islands – East and West, and numerous other smaller islands making up the islands, which are principally upraised sedimentary rock formed in the collision of the Scotia plate with the American plate. In the 1690’s, French merchants and sailors from St. Malo names the islands “Islas Malouines”, which evolved in Spanish to Islas Malvinas.  The French created the first settlement at Port Louise on East Falkland in 1764, and the British settled on Saunders Island in North West Falkland Island in 1765.In 1833-1834, Charles Darwin sailed there from Argentina with Captain Fitzroy aboard “The Beagle” and explored the islands and described the geology and the fossil record.  Subsequently, the British removed the French from the East Island, and settled Scottish settlers across the islands.  In 1982, Argentinean troops landed and the British responses with the 3-month Falkland War.  Today, the Islands claim their own sovereignty as a British Protectorate, although the Argentineans still claim them as rightfully theirs.  This is not likely to be resolved as the exploration for oil and gas around the islands has already begun.

After the lecture, we sat in the 7th-floor panoramic lounge, watching the scenery and the growing waves.  By tonight, they will each 16-20 in height, and many are starting to feel their effects.  At 4pm, they ship serves a very proper British Tea, complete with scones and cakes, and with and assortment of teas and coffees.  After dinner, we have a briefing about the following day’s landing.  The plan is to go ashore at New Island Nature Reserve in the morning, and then move to the West Point Island site in the afternoon.  We are reminded not to approach the wildlife too close as they do bite, and they can become stressed.

First sighting of Falklands near New Island

On Sunday morning, we are up early to go to the gym, and as the ship slows its speed, we can see various rock islands around us and some curious dolphins in the water.  We arrive at New Island and, after the Expedition Team prepares the landing site, we begin to ferry ashore on the zodiacs, ~10 passengers at a time.  The Expedition Team has brought ashore anything we might need for being stranded here for up to 24-hours, and has marked our ecologically-acceptable route with cones and flags.  After a cold windy ride to shore it was an easy landing on a cement pier from which we begin our hike.  This site is characterized by a small “museum” which was once the 1813 home of a ship wreaked American sealor, Captain Barnard.  Once he was rescued, he wrote a book titled, “Marooned” and the small museum stands in his honor.  There is a sunken ship, (“The Protector”), in the harbor, but we land a little up-the-coast on the western, leeward-side of the island and walk across to the large rock-hopper penguin rookery on the other side.  Here, we see masses of rock-hopper penguins and many types of birds (including upland geese pairs, black-browed albatross pairs of which there are over 10,000 pairs, and cormorants).  There are also over 2-million breeding pairs of Thin-billed Prions, a small burrowing petrel that is only seen at night.

The Museum at New Island

The rock-hopper penguins are identified by the colorful “eyebrows”, and they hop from rock-to-rock in their shared community with black-brown albatrosses. The young rock-hoppers are still maturing and haven’t yet left the area and are identifiable by their incomplete markings and traits.  The albatrosses build their nest by piling-up mud and debris to form a mound, and their nests are filled with fluffy, young chicks that cannot yet fly.  The rookery stretches over numerous hillsides and the penguin pairs number well into the thousands, many of them now molting.  After observing the rookery for a while, we trek back to the leeward side of the island and climb an observation lookout for a view over the bay.  This post was once an observation location during the Falkland’s War, and a crude stone shelter still stands there.

Rock-hopper Penguin Colony at New Island

New Island is located on the far-western side of the Falklands and is privately-owned by a U.K. trust as a non-profit charity for wildlife conservation and scientific research. The Trust also owns several other small islands, of which most are uninhabited.  This island currently has only 4 residents: an island manger, Gisela, an assistant, Alec, and two researchers. Gisela is in her first 6 months as manger on 2-year assignment here.  Most visitors arrive here by ship. although there is a tiny airstrip at one end of the island which can accommodate a 2-passenger plane. The island also supported sheep and cattle farming in the early 1900’s, but in 1972, the island was sold to a British couple, and since then farming has decreased as research and tourism have grown. The island is rich in natural fresh water springs, and has 41 species of birds, as well as sea lions and Peale’s dolphins. 

A Young Rock-hopper Penguin

 

A Mature Rock-hopper Penguin

 

A Cormorant

 

Brown-black Albotrosses at Nests with Chicks

 

Rock-hopper Penguin Colonies in front & at Distance

After visiting the museum and talking with Gisela, we prepare to return to the ship by washing our rain pants and boots in the surf before climbing in the zodiacs. Once on board the ship, we use brushes and hoses to again clean our boots to ensure no contamination of soil makes it to our future landings. Finally, we are greeted with hot tea and coffee and then a buffet lunch.

At the Overlook at New Island

While eating lunch, our Expedition ship moves around to the leeward side of West Point Island.

West Point island is a small island with a large bird colony of 2100 pairs of albatrosses and more rock-hopper penguins.  The local family there is expecting us and has prepared a set of cookies and treats for us ashore.  However, we were unable to take the leeward channel into the West Point landing as the wind was too strong, so, instead, the Captain takes us around a large reef and tries to enter the Bay of West Point from another direction.  But the winds are still too high for a landing and we regretfully leave the area. As we leave the area, we saw a flock of terns diving in the water for food, and upon looking more closely, we saw a group of penguins porpoising through the water bringing a meal back to their young.

That night we enjoy a dinner buffet, and later that evening we have a briefing regarding the next day’s program, hopeful that the weather will allow us to be able to return to West Point in the morning.

Monday morning, we were up for buffet breakfast and looking forward to an 8am landing on West Point, the island we attempted to reach the day before.  However, the wind is howling this morning, and so we travel further down the channel to see if we can pull into the windward-side of Saunders Island.  Saunders Island is relatively large – 51 square miles – with a coastline of 66.4 miles.  It consists of 3 peninsulas linked by narrow necks of land. It is owned by a single British gentleman named David.  The first settlement on the island was in 1765 by the British. The sea in this area is full of albatrosses and gulls, with many white caps on the waves as the wind is now gusting at 50-60 knots. If we can land, we plan to do a 5 mile-hike today.  As we approach from the windward side it was so windy that the Captain did not even want to attempt to anchor, so we decided to sail around the island to the leeward-side. However, the landing by the Expedition Team was difficult, so they bring David back to our ship for lunch and hope for better conditions later in the afternoon. By 2pm the Captain has moved the ship even closer to shore and we are finally able to ferry to shore – this time on smaller zodiacs with only 6 passengers at a time.  The reward for our patience to get onto the island was well rewarded. Once ashore, we were greeted by thousands of Gentoo penguins and a few petrels. As we walked to the far end of the beach, we saw even more gentoo penguins and then came across ~ 20 king penguins. On the hill above were a flock of sheep which seem to get along just fine with the penguins.  As we continued to make a loop of the colony, we saw rock-hopper penguins up in the rocks of the hillside. Then we spotted our first Magellanic penguin among a flock of Gentoo’s. It was then we noticed some penguin chicks being protected by dad – a fluffy ball of white feathers. We also witnessed mom regurgitating krill for her young chick to feed. As we headed back to the dinghy, we marveled at the flocks of penguins who were wave-surfing up onto the beach.  Near our exit location, we spotted an entire colony of Magellanic penguins burrowed to in the hillside. Such an awesome day.

Gentoo Penguins at Saunders Island

 

Part of the Gentoo Colony at Saunders Island

 

Whale Skeleton at Saunders Island

 

Gentoo Penguins Squawking

 

King Penguins Grooming

 

View back toward Beach Landing Site

We returned to the boat for a Norwegian buffet dinner, and while the food was good, everyone was talking about the amazing beach of penguins. After dinner we had a briefing for the next day: a day in the town of Stanley, the capital of the Falklands. 

Tuesday morning, February 12th, and we are up early to watch us sail into the Port of Stanley, which is protected from the seas through a narrow neck of water which larger ships cannot pass through. Stanley is the Capital of Falklands and was settled by the French in 1764 and later taken over by the British.  The first government house was built in 1845. Today the population of Stanley is ~3,500, and, given that this is the capitol of the Falklands, there is a post office in city hall where one can buy lots of philatelic stamps, as well as a dance hall and a courthouse with courtrooms.  The only jail in the islands is here and it only holds 13 prisoners maximum. Stanley’s site was well chosen for early settlers as there was a steady supply of peat which used to be the popular choice for heating & cooking during the 19th and 20th centuries.  However, less than 19% of the population still use peat, and most residents have switched to propane.  There is an airport with weekly flights to Punta Arenas and twice a week flights to Great Britain.  There are no flights to Argentina since the Falkland’s War, and locals still remember when the Argentinians invaded the island in 1982. The main export for the Falklands is sheep, and most everything else had traditionally arrived by ship.  However, in the last few years huge gardens and green houses have been erected for the islands to have a steady supply of fresh fruit and vegetables grown locally.

Entrance to Stanley Harbour with Large Cruise Ships

We started our day with a long hike out of town around the bay to Tysons Cove and Gypsy Cove, passing the shipwrecks of the Lady Elizabeth and the Plym.  At each of the coves on the outer edge of the island we encountered large Magellanic penguin colonies.  As we continued around the peninsula, we come upon some of the 14 abandoned mounted-gun stations and, in contrast, nesting penguins in burrows in the same hillside. On the way back to the ship, we walked along the bay’s shoreline and collected sea-glass. Once we arrived back at the ship, we filled our thermos with hot chocolate and caught the shuttle to town, where we were dropped at the Historic Dockyard Museum. Along the way we saw several whale skeletons left over from early whaling days!  Once there, we toured the Dockyard Museum and explored the heritage and history of the islanders, learned about the early explorers, the invaders and the liberators, the animals, rocks and plants, and the sea around us, (Charles Darwin spent longer in the Falklands than he did in Galapagos). The Government house was refurbished, and the Jubilee Villas were built in honor of Queen Elizabeth’s 60th anniversary.  We saw the whale-jawbone arch in the center of town and checked out the souvenir shops, the post office, and a local bar.  At the Victory Bar, we had beer and one of the best fish-n-chips we have ever tasted! Of course, we continued walking before sitting at the waterfront drinking hot chocolate and people watching. There were 3 ships in port that day: A Celebrity cruise ship – The Eclipse registered in Malta; a Holland American cruise ship – Prinsendam from Rotterdam; and ourselves on the M.S. Fram, registered in Norway.  There was also a beautiful private white yacht in harbor the “Game Changer” complete with helicopter and pad and a submarine on board. 

Old Shipwrecks at End of Stanley Harbour

 

Gentoo Penguins at Gypsy Cove

 

Young Magellanic Chick Penguin in Nest Burrow

 

Governor’s House in Stanley

 

Stanley Church with Whale-Jaw Arch

We finally took the shuttle bus back to the ship when it started to drizzle to end a thoroughly enjoyable day! When we arrived at the ship, it was Tea Time with tea, scones, and small sandwiches in a proper British manner, (and the scones are still warm from the oven and are quite lovely).

Dinner that night was served in sit-down manner and with a very French menu of chateaubriand and béarnaise sauce. That night, we are advised by the Captain to batten down our things in the cabin as there will be a bit of rough seas.  And then, we head to the open seas for the next 2 days in route to the South Georgian Islands. We are quite privileged to go there, as the South Georgia Islands only receive ~7000 visitors a year.  In fact, it is remote enough that many of the ship’s crew have not yet been there, and it is out-of-the-way from the more normal Antarctica route.

Wednesday morning, we get up early to go to the gym as this is a to be a full day at sea.  The waves are a bit “rolly” and one must keep both hands on the treadmill, even while walking. Breakfast was poorly attended this morning, likely due to the waves and weather.  At breakfast, two jelly jars slide off the buffet line making a sharp and sticky mess on the dining room floor. The rest of the morning, we sat in the lounge on the 4th deck and did email as a few waves crashed over the ship, covering the windows completely. The Captain announced that we would have waves of 21-25 feet tall with 35 mph wind gusts, and that passengers should be careful walking.

Since it is a sea day, the ship’s crew practice an emergency drill at 10:15 am. At the same time. the Expedition Crew gave us a briefing on the South Georgia Islands and Antarctica.  Passengers will have the opportunity to do several hikes in South Georgia and potentially kayaking and camping in Antarctica.  We then learned about the need for bio-clean outerwear in order to protect the environment in both areas and will spend the afternoon getting our clothing vacuumed and our boots cleaned, inspected and sanitized.  We actually have observers on board from IAATO (International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators) to make sure we comply with the rules and regulations, and we are told that an inspector from South Georgia will come aboard to certify and allow us ashore.  Biosecurity cleaning will be a part of every time we leave and re-board the ship. We also watch a required movie about proper procedures and rules for our excursions and time ashore.

That night dinner is seated, but with minimal items on the table as the boat is still rocky and rolling – no water pitchers, no wine glasses, and minimal items that can slide off or fall over.  Tonight, we start to see a few passengers with arms in slings, and with a few bandages who have obviously injured themselves during the past day. After dinner, the Shackleton Story movie was shown and then we watched a slide-show recap of the Falkland Islands presented by the Expedition Crew.  We even played a small “Jeopardy” game whose categories were “Penguins”, “Petrols and Albatrosses”, and “Ducks and Geese” and the game gave the crowd a good energy boost.  That night, we skipped the outdoor hot tub visit as there was way too much wave-action and sloshing taking place.

Thursday morning, February 14th and it is Valentine’s Day!  Last night there was a time change and, since we have traveled east. we are now the same time as Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, Brazil, although it is apparent that several passengers forgot to change the time on their watches and phones.  Breakfast buffet takes place with a multitude of “Happy Valentine’s Day” wishes.  Today is an “at sea day” again, and the day will be filled with various lectures on whales, birds and the history of the South Georgia Islands.  Today, the wind is from the northwest at only ~20mph (a lot less than the day before) but the temperature has slowly been dropping – today it is a high of 40 degrees and the water is at the same temperature.

After lunch, while relaxing in the panoramic lounge, the Captain announced we would soon be coming along-side of “Shag Rocks” as we continue to sail towards South Georgia Islands.  It is raining and cold, but we go outside to get pictures. The rocks look a bit like the remnants of a caldera, but we expect to see a variety of birds around them.  However, we are pleasantly surprised when the Expedition Crew spots several whale-blows straight ahead of us.  The Captain obliges by moving in that direction, and we are soon beside a huge pod of whales feeding voraciously of the abundant krill in this area.  There are many Sei whales, as well as lots of larger Fin whales and at least four humpback whales.  The whale specialist on board estimated that there were at least 100 whales in this group, and even one male Orca was spotted. At one point, there were whales on both sides of the ship, as well as at front, and we also saw small dolphins and seals and many seabirds participating in the feast. The captain kept them within sight for ~45 minutes or more. Although it is known that whales like to feed around Shag Rock. no one can ever remembers seeing that many different types of whales feeding together at one time. The Sei whales are plentiful around the Falklands and can often be easily spotted by their blows, which are 6-8 meters tall.

Shag Rock Islands on way to South Georgia Islands

 

Two Sei Whales among Many Blows

 

Fin Whales and Sei Whales

 

Diving Humpback Whale Tail

 

Large Fin Whale ~20 meters long

 

Numerous Whales in Feeding Frenzy at Surface

 

Sei Whales and Fin Whales Feeding on Krill

 

Sei Whale (front) and Fin Whale (back) Cruising with the Pod

That night, we had another seated dinner with a vegetarian theme.  Marco, our guide presented us with a bottle of champagne to mark us having been together for 45 years. After dinner we attend the mandatory briefing discussing the landings tomorrow and the environmental rules, and then it was followed by a “talk show” hosted by two of the expedition guides who discussed Shackleton.

2019 Iguassu Falls, Brazil & Argentina

February 19, 2019 3:40 pm

Having just returned from Patagonia and the Chilean Fjords, we quickly readied ourselves for a Saturday, February 2nd flight back to South America.  From New Orleans, we flew to Atlanta and then Sao Paulo, Brazil, where our connection left us only 80-minutes to clear international immigration, pick up luggage, clear customs re-check the luggage, and race to the gate for our 1 ½ hour domestic flight to Iguassu Falls, Brazil!  We arrive at the gate just as the staff start the boarding process.  

The airport in Iguassu Falls is being totally reconstructed. Luckily, our luggage also arrived, and we are then off to find Veronica, our guide for this trip. Our total group are only 4 people which will make for an interesting and intimate excursion.  It is only a 10-minutes to our hotel, the “Bourbon”, which is lovely with huge trees shading the front drive, and a very green interior of lush vines and vegetation.  The hotel is quite large with its own convention center, 5 dining spaces, and 2 pools (one out door and one indoor (heated). There is a full spa and gym as well as a vegetable garden and orchard, 3 hiking trails, tennis, volleyball, soccer fields, a jungle zip line and rope course, an aviary, mini-zoo, and a child’s play area that includes a tree house, rock climbing wall, cinema, and game/activity center.  As it is Sunday and, although the city is almost 250,000 people, most of its shops downtown are closed, and we walk, instead, away from town, to the local shopping mall and found a small restaurant that served Brazilian shawarmas for lunch.  After returning to the hotel, we used the afternoon to hike the hotel’s trails and then took a swim in the heated pool. Later we met up with our guide Veronica to learn the next day’s plan and meet the other 2 guests (Al & Sherilyn) in our party.  We celebrated with a native Brazilian welcome drink – a Caipirinha – served with a nibble of warm nuts.  Dinner that night was a buffet in the hotel’s restaurant.

The Bourbon Hotel in Iguassu Falls – Brazil

 

Brazilian Parrots Roaming behing the Hotel

Tuesday after breakfast, our guide introduced us to our bus driver, Eduardo, who drove us to the Brazilian National Park at Fox de Iguassu – “the confluence of 2 rivers”. Here, the Pianera River meets the Iguassu River and forms the border between Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.  The Iguassu Falls are downstream of the junction of these rivers and is still the border between Brazil and Argentina.  From here, the river continues its journey to eventually join the River Plata. Both countries have National Parks around the Falls, and the Park is surrounded by a larger buffer zone to protect the local flora and fauna.  Most of the buffer zone was originally used for farming, but increasingly is being put aside and allowed to recover naturally.  In 1986, UNESCO declared the area a World Heritage Site.  Iguassu Falls normally delivers only 1/8 the volume of Niagara Falls, but in size is the second largest to Victoria Falls in Africa.  There are actually over 275 individually named waterfalls here with the Brazilian side encompassing ~100,000+ hectares, and the Argentinean side another 60,000 hectares. The Falls are over 2-miles wide and were first described by a Spanish explorer, Alvar Nunez, in 1542.  He originally named them the “Holy Mary” waterfalls. The Brazilian side was named a park in 1939.

Map of Iguassu Falls and the Trails on each side of the Border

 

View of Iguassu Falls from Brazil

The parks are populated with many native species, including toucans, jaguars and quati – a racoon-like animal that roams all over the park looking to scavenge or even steal an unsuspecting person’s lunch. In 2001 there were 41 jaguars in the park, but their numbers have grown and 95 now call the park their home.  Other species are also doing well in the park, including a number of local palm trees that used to be killed and harvested for their palm heart.  Today, this food crop has been replaced by a more tolerant species of palm grown in the north of Brazil.  Also, the acai plant grows wild here, and is useful as an antioxidant, for skin care, and in the treatment of adult diabetes.

After we arrive, we begin a walk to the river’s side when we come upon our first large and colorful Toucan. Our first view is of “the Three Musketeers”, a lower tier of three falls where our boat excursion the next day will take us.  Next, we come upon a viewpoint of “the Devil’s Throat”, a 2,300-foot long spectacular narrow canyon where the torrents crash in from 3 sides and the spray is like a hurricane rainstorm.  The Brazilians have built a walkway out over a ledge facing these falls and the view is breathtaking and wet.  We then take the glass elevator up to the main park road where we visit a small food court for lunch.  Here we ordered salami baguette and fries with a beer and a caipirinha, all while protecting our lunch from thieving quatis.

Brazilian Walkway to View The Devil’s Throat

 

The Devil’s Throat from Brazilian Side

 

The Three Muskateers Falls – We boat under the right one

After lunch, we take a little tram jungle tour through the park’s secondary rain-forest, as the park does not allow any tourism in the primary rain-forest.  Here there is a strong conservation effort trying to preserve the rain-forest as there are less than 20 trees left here that are over a hundred years old. Historically, trees in this rain-forest had been cut for their wood, and these species grow very slowly. After our tour, we transfer to an old Jeep and head down closer to the river’s cliff-face where we board a funicular that takes us down to the river’s edge.  Here we put on life-jackets and then board a special zodiac with twin mercury engines. We cruised down the river to “the Three Musketeers” water-falls and run the boat first next to and then under the first of the falls.  This is then followed by a wild ride through some of the rapids and a series of “donuts” on the water for a thrilling river ride.  After drying-off, we return back to our bus via Jeep and tram.

Funicular to the Iguassu River to boat to the Falls

 

Boating under the Three Muskateers Falls

Dinner that night was on our own, so we again walked to the local shopping mall and had a Churrasco meal-for-two with chicken, pork and steak including fries, rice and salad and ice cream for dessert. It was much more food than we had expected, and we were glad that we could walk some of it off as we headed back to the hotel. 

Wednesday morning, we were up early for a buffet breakfast prior to readying ourselves to cross into Argentina to see the Falls from the other side.  In order to execute this, we drive to Brazil’s Border Crossing, exit the bus and present ourselves to Brazil Immigration, then re-board the bus and drive a short distance to the Argentina Border Crossing and do the same. When crossing the bridge over the river border, the bridge changes colors from yellow & green to blue & white.  Along the river are people fishing for surlie, dorado, and pachoo, some weighing-in at over 100 pounds.

The Argentinian side of the falls was named a park in 1934 and declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984.  By regulation, each side of the park has only a single resort/hotel, and it must meet “green” requirements to remain open within the Parks’ boundaries. When we arrive, it is 8:30am and the there is a huge line of vehicles waiting to enter the park.  We enter nearly first and after walking through the gates, we board a small-gauge train to transport us through the pristine rainforest to the site of the Falls located at the 3rd stop.  From here, we hike ~1100 meters to the other side of “the Devils Throat” along a well-built “moonwalk trail”.  From this side we are at the top of the Falls looking down into “the Devil’s Throat” and again immersed in a rainstorm of spray.  After finishing this “loop”, we take the train back to the first train station and walk the Superior/Upper trail (~1750 meters long loop) to see Falls up close where yesterday we viewed them from across the gorge.  A number of places were looking over the edges of the Falls, and the mist provided for a damp picture-taking day.  Upon completing the Upper Loop, it was time for lunch at a small food court, where we had empanadas and cervasas. 

The Argentinean Ecological Train to the Falls

 

Argentinean Walkway to the Top of The Devil’s Throat

 

Overlooking The Devil’s Throat from Argentina

After lunch we headed to the Lower Trail (`~2300 meters long loop) that takes us past the Argentinean Viejo Hotel.  This hotel was first built and opened in 1919 but was closed in 1978 because it was too small to receive World Cup visitors.  It was then that the new hotel/resort opened.  In 2017 they reopened the old Viejo Hotel as a Park Office and as a place to give Park Researchers additional space from which to work.  As we walked, we saw four Chestnut Arasari Toucans (not as colorful as the yellow billed toucan) and then we saw Plush Crested Jays.  We continued own walk down the Lower Circuit of the Falls where we had great views of San Martin Island and Falls named: Salto Bossetti, Salto Eva, Salto Adan, Alvar Nunez, Salto Chico, and Salto Mbigua.

Two Chestnut Arasari Toucans

 

The Second Level of Falls from Argentinean Lower Circuit

 

Argentinean Circuits allow Close Experiences with Many Falls

After a long day of walking, we returned to the hotel, again passing immigration in Argentina and then re-entering Brazil (for which our visa was required) and then onto our hotel.  That night, we had a group dinner at the hotel for our last night in Brazil.

 The next morning, Wednesday, February 6th, we meet in the lobby at 9:30am for our bus departure again to the Argentinian border.  We are flying from Iguassu Falls on the Argentinean-side of the border to take a domestic flight to Buenos Aires.  We clear Brazil customs and Argentina immigration smoothly, just like the previous day.  However, when passing through the border, we notice a huge traffic line of vehicles trying to cross into Brazil stretching miles long.  Further down the highway we begin to see cars and buses parked on the side of the road and several are turning around.  When we pass the Argentinean National Park Entrance that we visited the day before, it is closed and protected by numerous Park Officials sitting in their cars and with Police in riot gear lining the road. All around the Park’s entrance there are protesters who are objecting to a plan for a new “Native Village” to be developed in the park.  This native village would cause locals with businesses outside of the park to lose business and income, since it would centralize tourism even more within the park and keep the profits internally.  It might also potentially jeopardize their UNESCO World Heritage Site status.  Since the park knew of the planned protest, it was closed to visitors, which is why the buses and cars were parked on the surrounding roadsides, and why some are trying to visit the Brazilian park instead.  Many tourist buses are parked, hoping the protest would soon end and the park would reopen. Luckily, we are able to make our way through and arrive at the local airport, which is very small (only 2 gates).  From here we board our flight and head to Buenos Aires for the next adventure.