Detomo's Abroad

Detomos Abroad

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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.

THE WILDERNESS BEYOND – PATAGONIA & CHILEAN FJORDS – SANTIAGO & BUENOS AIRES

12:50 pm

For a number of years, we had been looking for a trip to South America that included Easter Island – a location to which we wished to travel and visit.  When the opportunity arose, we scheduled this trip beginning on Sunday, January 7th, 2019 and lasting 3 weeks.  Our trip would start from Miami, take us to Santiago, Chile and then to Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and back to Santiago.  From there, we would fly to Buenos Aires, Argentina and, after a few days, travel to Ushuaia, Argentina where we would board with 150 passengers on the ship, “The Stella Australis”.  For five days we would then explore southern Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego and the Chilean Fjords before disembarking in Puenta Arenas, Chile and traveling overland to the Torres del Paine National Park.  From here, we would travel to El Calafate, Argentina to explore Los Glaciares National Park and the Perito Moreno Glacier. We would then return to Buenos Aires before returning home through Miami.

Our trip began auspiciously enough as, after we drove 3-hours to Miami International Airport, we boarded our plane to Santiago, Chile, and we immediately met with an engine problem which resulted in an over 2-hour delay forcing us to return to the gate for repairs.  Once underway, we flew overnight to Santiago, Chile and were met late Monday morning by our guide, (Mercedes, or “Mechy”) an energetic Argentinean woman with passion, wit and humor.  Here we met our fellow 14 travelers for a quick walking tour of the city.  Our “local guide”, Felippe, took us on the city’s subway to the city-center, where walked past the many shops of La Moneda to the Presidential Palace (the President no longer lives there).  Here we saw the Statue of Salvadore Gossen who is credited with writing the Chilean constitution. However, in 1973 the country’s “leftist” government experienced a coup d’état which included bombing, air force raids and military snipers (likely paid for by the USA’s CIA) downtown on the Palace. With the new Military rule, the USA wielded significant influence for the next 17 years.  During this time, Chilean culture went underground, and it wasn’t until 17 years later that democracy finally ruled, and the underground cultures could emerge. Today, car, houses, phones and all the trappings of a socially upward mobile society, paid for with credit, is the norm.  Many Chileans aspire for a life imitating what they see in American movies, but with a 19% National Sales Tax that is included in everything one buys. 1990 until today has also seen the nationalization of the minerals industry (principally copper mines) and the success and growth of the Chilean Wine Industry.

City Center Pedestrian Street in Santiago

 

View of S. Hemisphere Tallest Building

Today, the city’s main square houses a restored and rebuilt Presidential Palace, a Church (The Cathedral of Santiago), other government buildings, and the National Historical Museum.  After exploring the history of the square, we rode the subway back to hotel, where we then had a few hours to explore on our own. We checked out the local mall and Starbucks, before settling at a nearby little Italian restaurant, “Don Vito’s”, where we drank “happy hour” Pisco Sours and relaxed in the sunshine. Later that evening, we met the rest of our group and had a short meeting on regarding the next day’s activities, enjoyed a glass of champagne and then walked to Giratorio- a revolving 17th floor restaurant about 10 blocks away – for dinner.  Here we drank more Pisco sours and enjoyed a fish dinner with fruit and vegetables and a fruit plate for dessert, all while rotating one revolution per hour to get a complete view of the city.

The next morning, we must say “goodbye” to Santiago, and we travel to the Chilean island of Rapa Nui – Easter Island – to continue our adventure. Five days later we will return briefly to Santiago, but only to make an early morning transfer at the airport and to fly to Buenos Aires, Argentina.

 

The Andes Santiago to Buenos Aires

 

Buenos Aires Slums

Once in Buenos Aires, we check into the hotel, and then set out to walk to the famous Teatro Colon – the city’s world-class Opera House.  The tickets will be for the next day, so we continue our walk to a bookstore that is in an old 1919 theatre that has been beautifully restored.  The “Ateneo Grand Splendid” is stunning (and is known as the world’s most beautiful bookstore) that even sells vinyl records. From there we visited a few local shops at the nearby mall (Galerias Pacifico) which has a fresco/mural ceiling painted by 5 renown painters.  Then we return to the hotel for a group meeting, (22 of us now) and follow this with an hour’s worth of basic tango lessons. 

The Ateneo Grand Spolendid Bookstore

Buenos Aires is a large city whose metropolitan area includes nearly half the population of country! From the hotel, we walked to the old waterfront of the River Plata (the Silver River).  The La Plata River forms the border between Argentina and Uruguay, but Uruguay is a small country and has many fewer people in the region. In this area, Puerto Madero, a large canal for ships was dug and was outfitted with cranes and warehouses. The intent was to provide a world-class hub for goods coming from the interior of South America to be able to be quickly transferring on ocean-going ships. However, by the time the port was finished, the size of ocean-going ships exceeded to port’s width and depth, and the port was rebuilt further along the river closer to the ocean.  The area was then abandoned and fell into disrepair until the government and private investors recently “gentrified” it by turning the warehouses in restaurants with upstairs’ condos and apartments that now covers a strip of land 2 ½ miles long! The canals are crossed with pedestrian bridges, and historic tall ships and old cranes decorate the wharf.  That night we did dinner on our own at one of these waterfront restaurants, “Cabana La Lilas”, where we sat at a waterside table and enjoyed a starter of caprese with eggplant, salmon, cheese bread, gazpacho and prosciutto before tackling a spectacular ribeye steak with baked potato and sautéed mushrooms.  All executed with one of the best waiters we’ve ever enjoyed.  Truly a meal to remember!

Monday morning, we met with our local guide, Cynthia, and we began a city tour via bus. The first thing our bus must do is cross onto the “9th of July” Avenue, the widest avenue in the world.  The 9th of July in 1816 is Argentina’s Independence Day, and the 9th of July Avenue was created by removing an entire city block for several miles!  The avenue is 352’ wide and include metro-bus lanes and linear-parks in the middle – it is so wide, that pedestrians need 2-3 traffic-light cycles just to cross all of it.  In the middle of the avenue stands a 210’-high obelisk commemorating Argentina’s independence, (the May 25,1810 revolution & the July 9, 1816 signing of their independence), that is surprisingly reminiscent of the Washington Monument.  At the one end of the avenue stands a large building with a massive lighted profile of Eva Peron, (Evita), holding a microphone and addressing the people, on it. Even today, she remains as controversial a person as she was in life, and Argentineans are still polarized about her. The Colon Theater backs onto the avenue, since it was built in 1908 before the avenue was created. It fronts onto LaValle Square where there are a series of massively large trees, flowers, (the Ciblo is the National Flower), and various art displays and monuments.  It is considered one of the three best Opera houses in the world, and even today, no electronic microphones or amplification is needed or used in its presentations.

Independence Day Monument on 9th July Ave

We then head to Mayo Square – the seat of the Executive Offices of the Government.  When Buenos Aires was founded in 1580, this square was beside the River Plata, and the city grew south from there.  Today, the square is faced by the famous Presidential Palace – the “pink” Palace! It was originally a “fort” that was pink because of it being “painted” with sand, clay and bull’s blood.  This was one type of “paint” that would hold-up in the area’s high humidity.  Ever since, the tradition of it remaining pink has endured.  Also facing the square is the Cathedral (the home-church of the current Pope – Pope Francis), the Cabildo and a bank.  The Cabildo served as the residences of important people born in Argentina during colonial times.  In those times, a Spanish Colony needed four things to be recognized by Spain: 1) a Town Square, 2) a Fort, 3) a Church, 4) a Cabildo. The Presidential Palace today is only where the President of Argentina works, as he lives in the suburbs of town, and helicopter’s in to work. The Cabildo has been converted to a Museum and the bank sits on the site of what used to be the town’s original cemetery. One of the balconies of the Palace is where Evita famously spoke to the people of Argentina, and it was also the actual site where Madonna famously portrayed her and sang “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina”, although Evita never said those words.

The Presidents Famous Pink Palace

In the 1970’s, after President Peron had died, his Vice-President, Isabel, was overthrown by the military and a dictatorship ruled the country until after the Falkland’s War in 1982. During those year the dictatorship was in power, over 30,000 people went missing in the country, and many are presumed dead or killed by the regime. During those times, it was illegal for people to assemble in groups larger than 2 people, or to stand still in Plaza de Mayo, or to demonstrate.  A group of mothers and grandmothers (the “Crying Grandmothers”), wanted to know what happened to their children who had disappeared and began assembling in Plaza de Mayo as individuals who would walk in a circle around the square, wearing white kerchiefs and holding pictures of their missing children. Today, they still assemble every Thursday at 3:30pm to continue the march and the search for the truth.  Many of these missing individuals were pregnant women who were killed, and their babies given by the dictatorship to families in Spain as favors. As of today, only 140 of these missing children have been found through DNA testing.

May 25 1810 Revolution Memorial

 

White Kerchiefs of Crying Grandmothers Org

We then went to the London City Coffee House, a favorite haunt of author Arthur Julio Frenencio Cortazar who would write his novels here, to meet and talk with one of these “found children”. Diego was 42 years old, married with two children, living in Miami, but working between Miami and Buenos Aires. His birth mother and father went missing when his mother was 8 months pregnant in 1976, and he was an adopted son of a couple in Spain. His adopted father told him that he was “purchased” in Spain because they desperately wanted a child.  After his adopted parents were deceased, Diego went to the “Crying Grandmothers Organization” and was tested and discovered that his 93-year-old grandmother, Delia, was still alive and still looking for him.  When he met his Grandmother, she told him how men had come in the middle of the night and took his parents from their home but left his 3-year-old sister asleep on the sofa, whom his grandmother had then raised.  Unfortunately, his sister had passed away just the year before and so he could never meet her.  His parents were likely beaten and tortured, killed and dumped in the river, like so many others whose unidentified bodies had washed up. His grandmother was one of the original 12 founders of the organization and she had vowed to never give up.  Today, he works with his grandmother to help find other missing grandchildren – babies of women taken while pregnant – there are still 370 of them missing!  Many believe that the trade in babies was a secondary business of the dictatorship, used to generate income and to trade for favors with high-ranking supporters in Spain and elsewhere in the world.  When the dictatorship ended in 1983, the newly elected government put all the dictatorship’s leaders on trial for these crimes, and after a short reprieve, most are still in prison today.

After tea and our conversation with Daniel, we headed down into the Buenos Aires subway which was first line built in 1903 and was one of only 5 in the world at that time. The original subway cars were wooden and were originally built in Belgium in 1903. The subway started with the use of token, which continued until the car were finally replaced in 2013!  The new replacement cars are from China and tradition dictated that each train route is color-coded, along with the stations and the trains. This was done to accommodate the large immigrate population in Buenos Aires who could not read.  Even today, the subway costs only ~50 cents. Leaving the subway, we reboarded our bus and headed south into La Boca!

Originally, the city of Buenos Aires has grown south towards the mouth of the river, (La Boca means “The Mouth”), which is relatively shallow (<20 ft.), but is up to 150 miles wide.  Rumor has it that it was named “River Plata” (Silver River) to lure the many treasure seekers to the area, and the area grew modestly in the 1600’s and 1700’s. However, when the great Yellow Fever plague of 1871 hit the city, all the affluent people moved north, and the Boca area was reclaimed by immigrant Italians, Polish, Spanish, etc.  The old houses we repaired with old tin and scraps from the port and ships and painted in whatever leftover paint could be gotten at the docks.  What resulted was a colorful melting pot of culture, art and music which gave birth to the Tango.  Carlos Cabelle is the most famous of the Tango singers and is said to come from this area. This area is the home of La Boca Football Team (founder 1905) and their blue and yellow colors dominate the landscape.  However, these were not always their colors, and history relates that they played a rival club for the rights to Argentinean colors – blue & white, with the loser having to take the colors of the next ship’s flag into port. La Boca lost and the first ship in was a Norwegian freighter.  Today, their chief rival is from the northern part of town – River Plata Soccer Club whose colors are red and white.  We visit the La Boca neighborhood, (La Caminita), only in the day, as recommended, and work our way through the tango dancers, artists, musicians, souvenir shops and restaurants.  From here, we head back to the hotel passing a campus of the University of Buenos Aires.  In Argentina, graduation from a public University requires hard work and good study habits, and the University of Buenos Aires is widely regarded as the best.  It currently has ~350,000 students spread across all age groups and many campuses.  It is here that we see players on horseback practicing an unusual national sport , Pato, played with a ball covered in handles which is thrown from player to player while riding.

La Caminita Neighborhood in La Boca

 

Tango Dances in La Caminita

 

La Boca Stadium – The Candy Box

Once democracy was re-established in Argentina in 1983, the country began a cycle of turbulent political and financial crises, which some people finding their savings devalued to half overnight.  In fact, during this time, Argentina once had 5 different presidents during a single week.  Currently, Argentina is suffering another financial problem with rampant inflation eroding the buying power of its citizens and the country falling deeper into debt. The average income for an Argentinean worker today is only ~$600 USD per month, and the minimum wage is set at ~$250 USD per month.

Upon returning to the hotel, we left for a walk back to the Teatro Colon – the Opera House – for our previously purchased tour. The Teatro Colon was built in 1908, with the best acoustic design possible, and with newly available electricity for lights. It was fully cleaned & restored in 2006-2010.  Today, everything in the Opera House is still original, including the different marble foyers and stairways, the art and the French gallery furniture.  Busts of musicians look down from above the hallways and one enters the ~3000 person, (400 standing), theater.  There is a full orchestra pit with a huge stage – the theater is 20 meters high with 9 decks and 3 underground floors.  Even today, no amplification or microphones are needed for the performances on stage because the acoustics are so good.

The Teatro Colon Opera

After our tour, we returned to the hotel to get ready for dinner hosted by a local couple for 5 of us. Monica and Roberto are a retired couple living a short 10 minutes away by bus.  Their flat is located up 6 floors via elevator and is a roomy 3-bedroom condominium (with a balcony) which they purchased in 1995, and where they raised their 5 children for at least a few years.  Roberto was a foreign diplomat (economics) in Germany 3 times and in Brazil.  Today, their 5 children are located in California (2), Germany (2) and Brazil.  We talked about economics, politics, retirements and the “younger generation”, (of course)!  For dinner, we had wine, a posada casserole, (a common dish in Argentina), and a beautiful salad of greens, nuts & fruit with a home-made dressing.  For dessert we had a flan with cheese, quince and honey, before saying our “good-byes” and ending our wonderful evening.

The next morning, we left for an early domestic flight to Ushuaia, the southern-most town in the world!  On the way to the airport, our driver played us Madonna’s “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina”, but we would soon return. After our adventures in Terra del Fuego and Torres del Paine, we would fly back to Buenos Aires from El Calafate, Argentina to extend our adventures in this city.

Upon our return on Friday, January 25th, we check back into our same hotel and have a little time to do some final shopping at nearby “Galleria Pacifico” a huge 4-level shopping mall immaculately decorated inside, and housing spectacular ceiling murals.  In is located on our hotel’s street and adjacent to the popular pedestrian-only street – Florida Street – a 12-block-long hub of commercial activity and shopping.  That night, we meet for our Farewell Dinner, held back at the old Puerto Madero waterfront at a restaurant called “Estilo Campo”, located just down the street from the restaurant we ate at the last time we were here.. Dinner is ribeye Argentinean steak with 2 different sauces, following a “warm-up” with beef empanadas, salad and fries, and followed by wine, ice cream and coffee.

The next morning, we go in search of coffee at one of the many Starbucks in town, only to discover that they are closed until 9:00am in this part of the world.  After settling for hotel coffee, we meet our local guide, Cynthia, again, to continue our exploration of the city.  Our first stop is slightly north of our hotel in an area called “The Recolleta”.  This was a high-class, more expensive part of the city that was built during the “high times” after World War I when Buenos Aires was known as the “Paris of the Americas”. It includes a mix of French, Italian and Spanish architecture, and centered around a Religious Monastery & Nunnery and their Catholic Cemetery originally founded on the outskirts of town in 1732.  The Recolleta Cemetery eventually became a “showplace in death” where wealthy people build more and more extravagant mausoleums. Eventually, many of Argentina’s most famous people were buried here, where the space is now all accounted for, and one can only purchase an existing mausoleum.  Originally, purchase prices were in the $300-600 USD range, but these have now escalated to ~$60,000 USD, (~$3000+ per sq. meter). Purchase comes with rules and with a ~$3500 USD charge for maintenance per year.  Many of the Family Mausoleums have 25-45 bodies entombed there. If the maintenance is not paid, the mausoleum will fall into disrepair, but cannot be sold unless the previous owning family specifically agrees. Today, it is 12-15 acres big and is famous for the spectacular mausoleum architecture, elaborate crypts and their decorations.  Also, although there is still the occasional burial there, most Argentineans today prefer cremation. 

Recolleta Cemetery

 

Eva Perons Crypt in Recolleta

Eva Peron is buried here in her family tomb, along with her sisters, brother and relatives. Eva was born Eva Duarte and was one of 5 children.  Her father died when she was only 7, and her mother opened a little hotel and worked hard to support her family.  At 17, Eva wanted to be actress, and for the next nearly-10 years found occasional work as a cover.  In those days, she was considered very beautiful and she began to take on a role as a radio personality.  She met Juan Peron at a festival after his first wife had died of ovarian cancer. They lived together for some time, and then got married.  When her husband was elected President of the country’s new Socialist Government in 1946, she took an active role as first lady opening foundations and donating monies and goods to the working-class people in her country, and around the world.  She supported building schools and the Peron Government helped redistribute wealth from the Upper-Classes to the Lower-Classes. However, she died soon after of cervical cancer, but not before giving her famous speeches to the people from the Pink Palace balcony.  She was only 33 years old!  Her body was embalmed and her funeral lasted 44 days, (the country ran out of flowers), and she was displayed in a crystal casket so her people could see her.  However, her casket and body soon disappeared and was “lost” for 18 years.  Eventually, her body was returned to Argentina, kept at Juan and Isabel’s home for quite some time, until she was finally entombed in the family crypt. Juan Peron’s policies did not sit well with many powerful people in the country and around the world, and his Government was deposed by a violent coup in 1955 and Peron fled the country.  In 1973, when the country was ready to have democratic elections again, Juan Peron returned with his 3rd wife, and was elected a second time, with his wife as his Vice-President.  However, he died soon after in 1974 and his wife, Isabel, assumed the presidency supporting a more fascist group.  This led to more social unrest and a military coup in 1976 which crippled the country economically, removed most social and political freedoms, and gave rise to a very dark period in Argentina’s history until after the Falkland’s was in 1982.  When democracy returned in 1983, Argentina took 20 years and seven presidents to did themselves out of economic ruin and social instability.  The 1980’s and 1990’s were filled with corruption, protests and economic problems.  In 2001, the Government devalued their peso currency by 40% overnight! However, all that changed in 2002 when President Kirchner, a Peronist, stabilized the country’s economy, (voting in presidential elections is mandatory in Argentina).  In 2007 he forfeited his presidency to his wife, Cristina, who suffered a 129-day strike by farmers and agricultural unions in 2008, but increasingly grew support for herself, especially after the death of her husband in 2010. Today, Argentina struggles with inflation, (50% in 2018), but maintains a positive outlook and is welcoming a growing Tourist Industry, (second-largest part of the economy). 

Leaving Recolleta Cemetery, we head back towards town center along Avenue del Libertador and Avenue Alvear, the avenue of the wealthy during the 1920’s, (from 1880-1930, Argentina was the 8th largest economy in the world).  Many homes here are huge and built with imported European materials and with European architects.  However, the stock market crash of 1929 wiped out many of the wealthy citizens holdings, and the following depression forced the sale of most of these mansions – in many cases to foreign governments.  Today, they serve as the Embassies of many foreign countries having been maintained and restored, and in wonderful, near-original condition.

Next, we went to the area of town referred to as “Little Palermo” – an historic neighborhood with large gardens, a planetarium, Japanese gardens, rose gardens, a jogging track, a large fitness club and the beautiful Palermo racetrack and restaurant. Buenos Aires is a city whose center is home to 3-million people and consists of 48 distinct neighborhoods covering 80 square-miles.  The Buenos Aires area covers over 2000 square-miles, consists politically of 15 districts with a total of 9-million people.

Next, we head ~20-miles to the far-north of the city to the area of El Tigre – a deltaic area on the river made up of thousands of islands and historically the location of weekend and summer camps and houses for people of the city to escape to.  The area is named for the jaguars that used to roam the area and encompasses 3 provinces and an area as large as The Netherlands.  Today, it is a mixture of camps and gated-communities and the country’s capital for rowing and kayaking. Here we take a Tigre Delta boat ride for an hour around a number of islands, (the water is only ~12-feet deep), drinking coffee and eating aljafors (2 soft biscuits with cream in the middle).  After the boat tour and a quick lunch, we head back to the hotel to collect our belongings and head to the airport to take our flight home.

El Tigre District – Venice of the South

It is now Wednesday February 6 and we are returning to Buenos Aires after only ~2-weeks to begin our trip to Antarctica.  We arrive in Buenos Aires on a domestic flight from the Argentinean side of Iguazu Falls, and take a bus from the airport to our hotel, The Emperador, located in the Recolletta area of the city.  After checking in we decided to explore a few of the nearby parks which we had seen from the bus on our earlier visit here. We walked to Parc de la Flor to see an Architectural wonder, the Floralis Generica, a giant stainless-steel flower blossom that blooms every morning.  It is a work from an Argentinian architect Eduardo Catalano that opened in 2002.  At 23-meters high and 18 tons weight it was the first sculpture of movement in the country.  It is a complex and precise high technology system that makes the petals (~3500 kg each) open with the first sunlight until its shape is complete, and then close again at sunset daily. 

The Floralis Generica by Eduardo Catalano

We then had a welcome dinner at the hotel to meet our group that would travel to Antarctica with us.  There are 10 of us plus our guide. Marco.  Marco is from Chile and has been a guide for 25+ years and has been doing tours to Antarctica for 11 years, although this will be only his second time to the South Georgian Islands. In our travel-group, there are 2 couples from Florida, and one couple each from Illinois, California, and Pennsylvania, and all appear to be very seasoned travelers.

On Thursday morning, after breakfast, we met our local city guide, Eileen, for her unique version of our city tour.  She is from Northern Patagonia.  We travel south down Avenue Alvear, past the Vatican and Brazilian Embassies to the district of San Telmo where we again visit the Plaza de Mayo and review the early history of the city.  From there, it is back to Recolleta Cemetery, and then on to La Boca and their 55,000-seat soccer stadium (The “Candy Box”). (by the way, in order to prevent violence in the stadium, only the home team fans are allowed to attend games in Argentina).  After visiting La Caminita again, we travel by bus through the northeast side of Puerto Madero where there are many avenues and parks dedicated to Women and their leaders.

After returning to the hotel, and taking a stroll back to Galleria Pacifico, we were off to Seraphin for lunch, a small local restaurant across from the park in the Recolleta area for pizza and wine – an awesome little local place filled with locals.  We then walked back to the Recolleta Art Museum that gets its walls repainted every 2 months with a new mural. We then strolled down Avenue Alvear looking at all the gorgeous mansions that have now been turned into embassies, before making a stop at the Post Office for stamps, on to the grocery for wine, and back to the hotel to pack.  The next morning, we fly to Ushuaia to board the M.S. Fram, our Expedition ship to Antarctica.

Wall Mural on Recolleta Art Museum

THE WILDERNESS BEYOND – TORRES DEL PAINE & NORTHERN PATAGONIA

February 13, 2019 4:35 pm

On Monday morning, January 21st, after a wonderful buffet breakfast, we left Puerto Natales on our bus to continue our trip north to Torres del Paine National Park in Chile.  In 2-hours, we reach a small town at a crossroads called Cerro dos Castillo’s.  This little town has a nice cafeteria and store, and sits right at the border with Argentina, but today, we are continuing north in Chile.  After a quick bathroom break and a bit of souvenir shopping, we continue our trip north. The countryside is dry and wind-swept, consisting only of dry, small grasses and small hardy bushes.  Here, the principal industry is ranching with lamb for wool and food, and cattle.  Sheep herds are plentiful in the countryside, as is beef, but everything else that the people here need – fruit, vegetables, medicine, etc. must be brought in via ships and ferries that make their way up the fiords from the north.  These same ships then take the beef, lamb and wool from the processing plants back to the coast to be shipped around South America and the world.  We pass a small village near the “Waters of Last Hope” Fiord where our local guide, Kris, lives with her boyfriend and dog in a very modest house with no running water, and with propane to cook, wood to heat and rationed electricity. She moved here because she enjoys the outdoors, and the government paid her to build a house as part of a program to get people to move to this sparsely populated area.  Her 1-acre property cost $10,000 USD 8-years ago, but now is worth nearly 8-times that because of a huge land-grab being driven by tourism. The “Waters of Last Hope” Fiord was named so because it was “the last hope” (unsuccessfully) during the area’s early exploration to find another waterway across Patagonia. Today, the town is growing, and things are changing rapidly.  Before this past year, the nearest hospital was in Punta Arenas – over 3-hours away by car!  This drove the locals to cross the border and use the Argentinean hospital instead – less than 1-hour away!  Today, they have a new hospital in Puerto Natales which is much closer.

 

Hotel in Puerto Natales

 

Map of Torres del Paine National Park in Chile

Since the primary industry of the area is ranching (and now, tourism), the region is dominated by very large Estancias (ranches) raising either sheep, or Hereford or Angus cattle – no milk cows. Small ranches are ~8000-10,000 acres, and large ranches can be over 200,000 acres. The sheep are Corridales from the Falkland Islands, and are of Scottish origin. Alpaca were once tried to be raised in the area, but those efforts were unsuccessful.  The region also hosts a large number of rhea’s (smaller ostrich-like flightless birds), guanaco’s (a llama-like animal), and herds of wild horses and wild pigs that still roam the countryside.  Watching over all of these animals are a significant number of pumas roaming the range, and, in the higher altitudes, a large number of condors that soar overhead watching and waiting for an easy meal.

Julie on Hike in Torres del Paine National Park

We finally arrive at the Lake Sarmiento Entrance to the Torres del Paine Park, where we check in and pay our park fees, and immediately begin our first hike.  We hike ~4-miles from the ranger’s station, up a hill to a number of lookout views of the Paine Massif and of the “Towers”, and to the lookout at Laguna Amarga, passing along the way various guanaco’s who paid little attention to us, However, we were warned not to get too close, as they spit much like their distant-relatives – the camel.  All along the hike, we faced 35 mph headwinds and occasional rain, but the brief periods of sunshine and the views made the hike so worthwhile.  After our hike, we took a short drive to Nordenskjold Lookout where we ate lunch in the bus while facing growing winds outdoors, before exiting to take in the view.  Then, we traveled north to Salto Grande Lookout to look at one of the more famous waterfalls in the park.  Once arriving, we took a short, 15-minute walk into 60-65 mph wind gusts that made any walking difficult, but finally made it to the small boardwalk for pictures and the view.  Finally, we traveled south a bit to Pehoe Lookout to look over Lake Pehoe. By now, the winds had abated, somewhat, and from here we had a good view of the local hostel which was located on an island in the lake accessible by pedestrian bridge only. Some of the area had been devastated by forest fires – nearly all of them started by man – and there were large areas with whitened, lifeless tree trunks and only small shrubs. In response, all along the lake, over 200,000 beech trees were planted two years ago and hopefully they will form the basis of a future forest. We then traveled to our hotel, the Rio Serrano – one of the few hotels within the park – where the rooms and the lobby were lined with glass allowing an overlook of the nearby plain and “the Three Horns”and “Towers”  Mountains that rose into the clouds not far away. After checking in, we take a swim and sauna in the spectacular indoor pool, before meeting as a group for a buffet dinner.

Young Guanaco watching us

 

Resting in front of the Paine Massif

 

View of the Paine Massif

 

Pehoe Rivers in Torres del Paine National Park

 

Waterfall at Salto Grande Lookout

 

The Towers and Horns of the Paine Massif

 

View from the Rio Sorrento Hotel

 

Impressive View of the Towers

The next morning, we are greeted with a beautiful rainbow at breakfast before we set off to hike to a view of Grey Glacier.  The park’s glaciers are in significant retreat, and Grey Glacier is disappearing at a rate of 56’ per year for the last 70 years!  Grey Glacier and Grey River were named for an early Swedish explorer that spend time describing the area.  We drove to the southern end of the Glacier’s lake where we began our hike through arctic forests, across the Grey River on a rope bridge, and then 1-mile across the glacier’s 400-year-old terminal moraine which stretches to an island lookout point.  After climbing up a rocky trail to the island’s viewpoint, one could watch the icebergs float by and catch a glimpse of the mile-long dual faces of the Grey Glacier.  Although our hike began in the rain, and we crossed the moraine in gusting winds, when we arrived at the lookout the skies cleared, and we were greeted with gracious sunshine.  Because of the weather, we encountered no one else on our journey there, but passed a huge number of tourists beginning their hike on our way back.

View of Grey Glacier from Ancient Terminal Moraine

 

Icebergs from Grey Glacier

 

Crossing the Mile-long Terminal Moraine

We arrive back at the hotel in time for lunch, and then it was time to go horseback riding.  Only 8 of decided to participate, and we met our guides at the stables, got introduced to our horses, and began our ride.  Unfortunately, about 40 minutes into our ride across the plains and into the woods, the winds again picked up significantly, and we needed to head back.  If the winds get too high, it can spook the horses, and can make sitting up on horseback unstable.  Since we returned early, we decided to take a traditional “tea time”.  Apparently, a very independent woman, Lady Florence Dixie, came to the area and began the tourism industry back in 1879.  She was an accomplished hunter and developed a number of recipes for the widely available rhea of the time. While in the area and guiding others, she instituted tea time and it has remained a local area tradition ever since.  Lady Florence Dixie eventually returned to England and while there wrote a hugely popular book called, “Across Patagonia“, that documents many of the details of living in the wilderness at that time. That night we have a dinner of fish with mushroom stuffing.

Horseback Riding in Torres del Paine Park

On Wednesday morning, we meet to quickly review our time from Puenta Arenas through Torres del Paine before returning to our bus to leave Chile.  From here, we take the 2-hour bus ride back to the Cerro dos Castillo’s crossroads for the border crossing to Argentina.  Along the way we pass Torres Lake, an area that looks green and lush with beech and cypress trees and populated with private estancias raising beef cattle.  We arrive at the crossing at ~11:30am, in time for lunch taken upstairs above the gift shop.  After lunch, we walked to the Chilean Border Crossing for passport control before reboarding the bus, crossing the border fence at the top of the hill, and then stopping at the Argentinean Passport Control & Customs Office on the other side.  Here, we switch from a Chilean bus and driver to an Argentinean bus and driver and continued our journey.  In Argentina, out in these desolate and open spaces, the side of the road will occasionally have red-decorated “shrines” dedicated to Gaucho Antonio Gil.  Legend has it that if you stop at one of these shrines and leave something of high importance to you there, and fulfill a promise to Gaucho Antonio, that good “karma” will watch over you.  This is very popular with many of the long-distance truck drivers in Argentina, and so we stopped and left various items, including a can of beer over the ground in front of the shrine.  Apparently, our sacrifice worked, because we were immediately greeted with a Southern Crested Caracara falcon and had a smooth journey the rest of the way to El Calafate.

Entrance to Cerro dos Castillo Ranch

 

Gaucho Antonio Gil Shrine

 

At the Border with Chile and Argentina

We arrived in El Calafate around 6:00pm and checked into our hotel, the Kosten Aike, which was located only 4 blocks from the local bay, and only 2 blocks from the town’s Main Street.  After an early dinner of Trout with Vegetables or Lamb Stew, we explored Main Street and the shops and brewhouses located there.

Thursday morning, we began our adventures driving along the bay-front, stopping to take pictures of the pink flamingoes and black- and white-headed swans that clustered in the area.  The bay is a part of Lake Argentino, (first described & extensively explored by Fransisco Murino) a lake formed by the glacier waters coming from an enormous ice cap (the second largest continental ice field in the world – after Antarctica) and the heart of Los Glaciares National Park (over 50 glaciers). Unlike most glacier fields which typically form at altitudes above about 8200’, most of the glaciers of Los Glaciares form at around 5000’.  Fransisco Murino was the country’s first recognized naturalist who was instrumental in preserving the local environment and is widely regarded as Argentina’s “Teddy Roosevelt”.

Lake Argentino

 

Flamingos at Lake Argentino at El Calafate

As we leave the town and lake behind, the air chills and dries, and the landscape is again brown, short grasses, and the vistas are endless.  Local ridges are stained from the residence of numerous condors, and sheep, rheas and guanacos populate the landscape, along with skunks, moles and armadillos. This area is shielded from most rainfall by the Andes Mountain Range, and only receives 15” of precipitation per year. The only trees here are poplars that have planted by local ranchers as wind blocks, as they do well near water and creeks.  With 100 miles to go, we can already see the higher reaches of the famous Perito Moreno Glacier which dominates this area and forms the basis for most of the town and region’s tourism. Along the way, we spotted eagles and condors overhead, but then we come upon a dozen condors on the ground feasting on a deceased lamb.  Condors can live over 30 years old, and they raise their young in the nest for 2-3 years before they fledge and go on their own.

Condors Feasting on a Lamb

Soon we enter Los Glaciares National Park which was created in 1937 and is the second largest National Park in Argentina. Here is located Perito Moreno Glacier, towering over 200 feet above the Lake Argentino, and moving at 3-6 feet/day towards and into the lake. The glacier has been stably doing this since recorded times in the 1800’s, but no one knows if it is getting thinner, thicker and remaining stable upslope.  The glacier’s face comes very close to a point of land that the park has used to install an extensive network of catwalk loops that are clearly labeled by color and that circle back and forth in front of the falling and extensive ice face, allowing one to view all aspects on the glacier.  In fact, every few years, the glacier moves far enough to join the point of land, blocking the water flow from upstream into Lake Argentino.  This causes the dammed water upstream to rise over 50’ higher before the dam breaks and a balance in restored. After exploring all the walkways, we grab a quick hot chocolate at the gift shop before returning to town for shopping and dinner on our own.  We decided to “bar hop” and started at a local brewery pub listening to a hand-drummer before moving on to a lamb burger pub and finishing with nightcaps and then returning to the hotel.

Perito Moreno Glacier in the Distance

 

Perito Moreno Glacier at the Upstream End

 

Perito Moreno Glacier

 

Perito Moreno Glacier at Lake Argentino

On Friday morning (January 25th) we arose early and went for a long, early morning walk along the bay front looking at the flamingoes and swans before returning for showers, breakfast, and a final meeting to share our favorite highlights of the trip.  Then, it was off to the airport for the flight back to Buenos Aires.  The El Calafate airport is new (2005) and has significantly raised the tourism of the region.  We board for our trip east, but our adventures were not over, yet!  During the flight, one passenger had a medical emergency which required intervention and monitoring and medical evacuation upon our arrival.  Luckily, she recovered fine, and the trip ended on a “high note”!

THE WILDERNESS BEYOND – TIERRA DEL FUEGO & THE CHILEAN FJORDS

February 7, 2019 9:28 pm

January 2019

The southern tip of South America has long been shared between Argentina and Chile. The continent was originally divvied up between Spain and Portugal based upon an agreement along a particular longitudinal line that divided the North Atlantic. Unfortunately for Portugal, the line only happens to have cut through the eastern tip of Brazil, leaving the rest of the continent to be claimed by Spain. The south eastern part of the continent is dominated by a huge island named Tierra del Fuego – “Land of Fire”! The story goes that it was named such by Magellan as they searched for a way past the continent for a route to the Spice Islands of Asia.  Tierra del Fuego was populated at the time by the Yamana people – a group of tribes that spent most of their time naked in their canoes searching for food.  They would carry fire with them, and the observance of their fires in the dark gave rise to the island’s name.

Map of Fjord Route

We flew south from Buenos Aires, Argentina to Ushuaia, Argentina – the southern most city in the world – located on the Beagle Channel – a more southern passage around South America than the famous, more northern, Straits of Magellan discovered earlier. After arriving at the airport, we walked briefly around town and got a local beer call a “Beagle”.  The “Beagle” was the name of the ship that Charles Darwin was on with Captain Fitz Roy, when he visited the area in the 1800’s. The city’s name “Ushuaia” is Yamana for “Bay facing the sunset”, and the town sits nestled on the southern shore of the Tierra del Fuego island, just east of the dividing border with Chile, and on the channel that serves as the southern border with Chile. These borders were historically disputed between the two countries until the Pope intervened and set the agreed upon borders of today.

Ushuaia Town Welcoming Sign

The town originally served as a Spanish penal colony founded in 1902. Then President Peron closed the prison in 1942, and the old prison now serves as a set of museums. In those days, the prisoners survived on sparse ship deliveries, and whatever fish and sea lions that they could catch, and many of them stayed when the prison was closed.  In this area south of the east-west Darwin Mountain Range, the winds are very strong and out of the west making all aspects of life difficult. Before the new airport was completed in modern times, airplanes would get pushed off into the channel from the old north-south runway.

After World War II, the town was a key base for the Argentine Navy.  The Military Dictatorship in the 1980’s was struggling with a great deal of protests and unhappiness of the Argentine people, and in 1982 demanded that Great Britain cede the Falkland Islands to Argentina. Although long-claimed by Argentina as “The Malvinas”, the British had colonized the Falkland Islands and had supported them continuously. The British refusal resulted in Argentina declaring war on Britain in April 1982.

To better understand this bit of their history, we sat down in the afternoon with “Daniel”, an Argentinian Navy veteran of that war. Daniel was a young 19-year-old gunnery crew from Buenos Aires assigned to the “Hildago”, a former WWII & Korea USA “730” Destroyer. Argentina had purchased the old ship in 1970, but it was originally commissioned in 1940. Daniel’s ship left Port Arenas on March 30, 1982 with no knowledge of what their mission was, and immediately headed to the Malvinas in a support role for troops that were sent ashore there.  Only once underway were they told that Argentina was taking the Malvinas back from the British. The young sailors were shocked and surprised, but they were proud and excited. As a support vessel, they backed up the ships that had arrived to take the Island’s port where there were ~300 civilians living.  The first death came soon thereafter – an Argentinean Commander.  However, they took the port and had expectations of success and a quick victory when no more troops or ships arrived.

Daniel – Argentinean Veteran of Faukland War

Soon thereafter, the British announced a 200 mile “exclusion zone” around the islands and backed it up with the British Navy.  On April 11th, the Hildago had a mission to the south to protect communications’ lines and support another Destroyer in a planned Argentinean attack on the British.  The Argentineans moved inside the exclusion zone for the attack, but, at this time, the South Atlantic was very rough, and the Argentinean Navy lacked the technology to coordinate an attack in such bad weather, and the attack was cancelled. While coming back to position outside the exclusion zone on May 2nd at 4pm just before dark, the “Submarine Attack Alarm” went off and the crew scrambled to their positions.  Daniel worked in the forward “Combat Tower” as part of the artillery.  He was heading to the restroom when the alarm sounded, and as he ran for cover, he could hear the torpedoes bypass their ship.  Instead, their sister-ship was hit!  They began anti-submarine maneuvers throwing depth-charges overboard, but the seas were over 25’ high and they did not have the technology necessary to be effective.  Their sister ship began to sink with all 700 crew aboard, but the Hildago was ordered to leave the exclusion area immediately. After 10pm, they returned to the area to look for survivors. On the next day they found their first raft of survivors, terribly hurt and burned with petrol and with body parts missing.  It took them many hours to rescue all the survivors, working against the clock in terrible weather.  In the end, they rescued 277 survivors, but their ship was only a crew of 300 and their ship was overcrowded to the extreme with 577 now aboard.  Those aboard gave the injured everything they had – food, beds, clothes, medicines – whatever it took – still today those involved remember how awful and bad it was.  When the ship returned to Ushuaia, they began to receive news via the local radio stations saying that Argentina was winning the war, which those aboard knew wasn’t true.

Daniel’s family had no knowledge of either himself or his 17-year-old brother who was also at sea in the Navy. The lack of information and the lies that the dictatorship was telling made it a very difficult time in the country. The rendition and the end of the war was on June 14th, and when they returned to their home port, there was no one their to greet them or welcome them home. The most difficult moment of all was when he finally got to see his father whom he hardly recognized. His father has lost a great deal of weight and had aged considerable in such a short time with worry and grief over the unknown fate of his two sons. When Daniel returned to his old neighborhood in Buenos Aires, neighbors would come up to touch and hug him.  Daniel remained on the Hildago until 1983 and retired from the Navy in 1984.  He moved to Ushuaia and works with the many local veterans that retired there. Last year 120 veterans died from cancer, heart attacks, and suicide.  He received medals for Combat, the Presidential Medal, and the Province’s Remembrance 35th Anniversary Award.  His final comment was:” We went as hero’s but came home through the back door“

After such an emotional engagement, we stayed for a group dinner at “La Cantina de Freddy”.  There we had crab soup followed by whole king crab with butter, rice and french fries. Dessert was a bonbon with Patagonia Calafate berry ice cream – an amazing meal!

King Crab Dinner in Ushuaia

Wednesday morning, we walked to the nearby former Ushuaia Prison, which houses 4 interesting museums in the radial arms of the former jail-block’s: the Argentina in Antarctica Museum, the Military Prison Museum, the Ushuaia Jail Museum, and the Naval Models Hall. After the tour, we walked down the town’s main street, San Martin Street, for some shopping, (they have a Hard Rock Café)!

For lunch, we visited a local couple, (Gaby & Gustavo), who are raising their two daughters, (Lara – 7 and Sol – 12), in a nice home up on the side of the hill overlooking the town. We explored their home and learned about their lives here in Ushuaia. There were both in the travel agency business and enjoy meeting travelers from around the world.  For lunch we had lentil stew and spinach cheese biscuits with milk cake and meringue, and brownies with caramel and chocolate for dessert.  After lunch, we had a lively discussion about the building of their house, family, education, and the custom of mata – a tea-like herb that is mixed with hot water and sipped through a filtering straw.  It is the most common form of greeting and social interaction among Argentineans.

After lunch, we visited the Tierra del Fuego National Park which makes up much of the island.  It was created by Francisco Murano and was the first national park in Argentina created in 1960.  Today, one of the park’s glaciers is named after him. Argentina and Chile share the 3rd longest border in the world and the island is shared between them. The road, Route 3, is part of the Pan-American Highway stretching over 28,500 miles from Alaska through Buenos Aires to its ending in the park.  After walking to “The end of the Road” we visited Ensenada Bay Post Office and received passport stamps marking the occasion.  We then hiked through a series of trails that took us through forest of beech trees, gave us great views of the east-west Darwin Mountains, and the Andes in the distance, and took us through sub-arctic meadows. The beech trees here are not true beech trees, and as called “false beech trees”.  The can grow to 100’ high and can live up to 500 years.  There are three types, including one that stays evergreen throughout the winter. We then took a hike along Lake Acigami, (Lake Roca) where we were in sight of the border with Chile. We then made a brief visit to Lapana Bay, a “false” lake that is actually part of the Beagle Channel.  We then returned to Ushuaia to board our ship, the Stella Australis – our home for the next 5 days.

The ship had large guest rooms with good size private bathrooms. There was an open, outdoor viewing deck on the sixth level, and a large comfortable indoor lounge (Darwin Lounge) with open bar and an outdoor stern viewing deck on the fifth level.  The fourth level housed the Bridge and had a smaller lounge (Sky Lounge) with staterooms, as did the third level (Yamana Lounge).  The second level included the Reception Desk, Gift Shop and more staterooms, and the 1st level were crew quarters and the kitchen and dining room.  There were many screens around the ship with activities listed, as well as a GPS tracking of our route.  Meals were at 8am, 1pm and 8pm. All excursions would depend upon weather, wind and waves, but, in general, there were two planned every day!  We left port and made our way south into Chile and out of the Beagle Channel, heading for the famous outpost, and our first tentative excursion in the morning – Cape Horne!

These islands became a National Park in Chile in 1945 and became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2018.  Cape Horne is the most southern inhabited place in the world (other than Antarctica), and the lighthouse there is manned by a Chilean Service man with his wife and children.  Cape Horne is still 593 miles from the Antarctic peninsula and is renowned for the more than 800 documented shipwrecks that have occurred there, and the over 10,000 sailors who have died trying to round its point.  The seas and weather here are highly variable, and our likelihood of being able to make a landing tomorrow is only 50-50%.

On Thursday morning we are lucky and the seas (4-8 ft) and wind (20-35 knots) are manageable, although it is cold and raining and sleeting. Before breakfast, the crew lowers the six 10-man zodiacs that are carried on the top deck, verify the safety of the landing, and begin taking ashore 10 at a time.  We are in the last group of 30 planned to disembark, and while we are waiting, the wind picks up and the seas grow.  The Captain begins to get worried, and although he allows us to travel to shore, he cuts short the visit of the passengers already on shore so that he can begin to bring them back to the ship. We make it to shore for a strenuous 120-step climb up the hillside to the Cape Horne monument to the lives lost there, braving winds in excess of 40 miles-per-hour, protected in our layers of waterproof gear.  After making it to the top, we do not have time to visit the lighthouse or the chapel, or visit the family living there before we begin our descent back to the boats to return to the ship.  The weather continues to degrade, and we finally arrive at the ship in time for the Captain to lift anchor and head back north for the safety of the islands and to reenter the Beagle Channel.

The Landing at Cape Horne

 

The Albatross Monument at Cape Horne

 

View of the Lighthouse at Cape Horne

After breakfast, we took in a film on Shackleton’s ill-fated journey to Antarctica and the South Georgia Islands which covered over 400 days of starvation, heroics, lost at sea, and frozen in ice – but with no casualties! A true miracle!  After lunch, and in better weather in the Beagle Channel, we again boarded the zodiacs, and headed to shore in Wulaia Bay – the site of an historical house from the 1930’s that served as an old radio station of the Chilean Navy, and that was put here to support their claim to the area.

Inside the historical house was a big barrel that visitors could deposit post into, and from which travels could take post out under the condition that they would see that it was delivered. This was the typical postal system for many years for the sailors that passed through this region and were away from home for years. Beyond the house was a series of optional hikes, and we took on the “Demanding” one that entailed climbing the local hillside through beech forest and over rumbling streams to an 800’ high lookout with a view over the Bay.  The 16 of us trekked for over an hour, up to a spectacular location where we sat silently for minutes enjoying the view and the sounds of nature. Along the way, our guide, Luciano, related the story of a Yamana local boy named “Jimmy Button” by Darwin, and taken by him to England to be “civilized”.  For 2-years, Jimmy was the hit of London, learning English and aristocratic customs, wearing fine clothes and even meeting the Queen of England.  When Darwin then brought Jimmy back to Wulaia as his emissary to convert the natives, the Yamana, to Christianity, Jimmy disappeared for some time, but when Jimmy finally reappear, naked, with his mother and tribe-folk, he told Darwin that he would always be the son of his mother, and he would always remain Yamana.  Jimmy left behind his fine clothes, his “civilized” customs and left with his people to never be seen again

View of the ship and Wulaia Bay from the Viewpoint

Today, the island has issues with mink, beaver and rats, all introduced by European settlers and trappers into the area for which no natural predator exists. The beavers were brought from Canada to start a fur industry, but with no predators and a different climate, their coats changed making their pelts worthless. After making the equally difficult climb down and returning to the dock to board our zodiacs, we were greeted with hot chocolate with a shot of whiskey. Then it was back to the ship for showers, a dinner of beef tips or spaghetti, and a movie called “Living on the Edge” about life of the penguins and seals in the area.

The Ice Fields of The Darwin Range

On Friday, we were well into the Darwin Mountain Range, and are greeted at every turn with soaring mountains, glistening icefields, and glacier-filled valleys. After breakfast, the ship set anchor, and we boarded our zodiacs to go ashore and explore the Pia Glacier.  This glacier is a tidewater glacier that, along with many of its neighbors feed an enormous number of icebergs floating around the ship and among the zodiacs.  The calving takes place on this glacier every 10-15 minutes, with a multitude of loud cracks and pops in between.  Our zodiac maneuvers through the ice floes before landing us on a large rock positioned on the side of the glacier-carved fiord, just a few hundred yards away from the glacier’s blue-ice face.  From here, we spend some time watching and observing as ice chunks drop off into the sea with a thunderous boom. The Pia Glacier if slowly receding, but not at a steady rate, as it is highly dependent of the amount of snow in the icefield feeding it that falls on a yearly basis.  Many glaciers in the Darwin Range are, in fact, growing, or are stable.  To the one side of the Pia Glacier is the Sinos Glacier – a hanging valley glacier that does no longer reach the sea, and which consists today of a massive ice sheet covered with rocks and dirt, obscuring the view of the ice below it.  After a bit, we climb a few hundred feet up to a better viewpoint where we can observe the glacier.  For the first time of the day, the sun came out making the ice sparkle.  We finally left to re-board our zodiacs, enjoying our customary hot chocolate with whisky at the shore first.

The Pia Glacier from the Zodiac

 

Climbing the Shore near Pia Glacier

 

Climbing to Viewpoint with Sinos Glacier in the Background

 

View of the face of the Pia Glacier

After raising anchor, we began a journey to our next fiord.  During lunch, the number and size of the icebergs grew tremendously, and the Captain announced that we would not be able to maneuver any closer to our destination, the Garibaldi Glacier, and he set anchor.  Although this would mean that we would not have enough time to take everyone to shore, we would still be allowed to board the zodiacs for a boat-ride to the fiord and to approach the face of the glacier.  The Garibaldi Glacier has receded almost ½ mile from its terminal moraine, which makes a natural levy at the exit to the fiord.  However, there is enough room for the zodiacs to enter the fiord, and to avoid the rocks and the kelp beds that flourish in the perfect mixture of water from the sea and melt from the glacier.  The glacier has been stable for the last 75 years, but no one knows exactly why.  After enjoying the view at the face of this tidewater glacier, we began our trip back and ran across two large pods of sea lions on the rocks on the shore.  Each pod had a dominant male and a hareem of females, many of which had either just given birth, or who were in the process.  The birthing activity and the tiny black pups attracted the interest of a flock of predator birds that circled low overhead.  After getting as close as we dared for pictures, we returned to the ship for drinks, dinner, and a movie, “Fire & Ice”.

The Stella Australis Ship while heading to Garibaldi Glacier

 

The Garibaldi Glacier

 

The Sea Lion Colony with their Newborn Pups

By Saturday morning, we had traversed the Cockburn Channel and entered De Agostini fiord and the De Agostine National Park. After breakfast, we set anchor ourside the Condor Gracier terminal morraine and prepared to board the zodiacs. In the early 1900’s, the Condor glacier extended to front of the bay and was stable but beginning about 70 years ago it began to melt rapidly and recede, and did not reform, as many of the other glaciers did. A huge waterfall pours from underneath the glacier as the water carves its rivers underneath the ice.  It is still not understood why some glaciers in this region are growing, some are stable, and others are receding, such as the Condor Glacier.  On the return to the ship, we saw several cormorants as well as some small kelp geese. 

Riding the Zodiac in front of the Condor Glacier

 

The Condor Glacier

After lunch, we moved briefly to the entrance of the Aguila Glacier and assembled or small group oshore for a hike along the beach created from an ancient terminal morraine.  The morraine formed a high arc nearly a mile long and 100-200 yards wide, but it was densely populated with trees, bushes, flowers and berries such that we needed to hike around the terminus end of it and back around the inside of the arc to a protected bay fed by the Aguila Glacier Although the Aguila Glacier appeared to terminate into the bay, it was actually sitting on a bed of rock and had been stable for as long as anyone has recorded it.  We hiked up to near the glacier’s face and observed the rocks and cavern along the edge of it  After taking a small “nature walk” through the dense nearby forest, we hiked back the way we came for our “post-hike-treat”, and our trip back to the ship.

The Aguila Glacier

Saturday night, the ship would exit the Island Channel’s and enter into the Pacific Ocean, before entering the Straits of Magellan at it western end. The Straits of Magellan is 310 nautical miles long and was the primary route for the transport of goods and people to a growing California and USA West Coast until the Panama Canal opened in 1914.  Early Sunday morning, we will pass Cape Forward – the southern-most point along the Straits of Magellan route. Then we will head north within the Straits until we reach our final destination port – Punta Arenas. We feel the rolling of the ship in the night and we arise early to see the sights, but we are disappointed to find the we are setting anchor just off the port.  During the night we lost one of the ship’s two engines, and the ship can travel no further.  We had hoped to get a chance to visit nearby Magdalena Island – home to over 60,000 penguins.  However, it was not to be, and when repairmen were unsuccessful, we were forced to wait for tugs to come and push us in to the wharf.  While waiting, we were fortunate to spot a number of whales spouting in the area, which kept us entertained until we finally departed the ship at noon.  By the way, the problem was so serious that the next two trips on the ship had to be cancelled.

As an aside, Magdalena Island is a Chilean National Park where penguin colonies can be observed close-up. There is a coastal path to the lighthouse (~850 meters hike) where the Magellanic specied of the 17 different species of penguin can be found.  They are not too tall (50-70 centimeters) and can live up to 20 years.  They typically weigh 3.5-5.5 kg and are heavy and dense.  Their chick is grey and fluffy and does not develop it characteristic marking until it is past 3 years and becomes a full adult.  Penguins spend 80% of their time in the water, and the 20% of the time on land is for molting, birthing and caring for the chick.   They waterproof their feathers with an oil they secrete and must be ever vigilant onshore for bird that will attack their eggs and chicks, and in the water where seals and whale seek them for food.  Fishermen used to use them for king crab bait in the crab traps, but that practice is now illegal. The breeding males arrive on the island early in September and begin to make their nest in preparation for the arrival of their partner (penguins mate for life). When the female arrives, she adds twigs, etc. and the couple engage in beak kisses and vocalizations (raising their head in the air and making sounds like a donkey).  They then mate, the female lays her eggs, and incubation takes 35-40 days, (both male and female care for chicks) Penguins eat just fish and squid and they molt once a year where they over feed, come to land and molt, and don’t return to the water till their new coat is ready.

The 500th Anniversary Sign at Puenta Arenas

After we leave the ship, we enter Customs, and then explore the town on Puenta Arenas.  This Port was founded in 1520 on a strategic point (Puenta) of land along the Magellan Strait,  Today, this southern Patagonia city houses 120,000 people of the 160,000 in the whole region., and is really the only large city in Patagonia. The City Square houses statues of statues of Magellan and Mermaids holding the coat of arms of Chile and Spain surrounded by natives.  The area has a long history of influences from the British explorers and their navy and today still observe tea time.  The main meals here are still lamb and potatoes and the town was beginning to make preparations for celebrating its 500 Birthday next year.  However, we had a long bus ride ahead of us as we were traveling north in Chile to the Torres del Paine National Park – over a day’s travel away.  Next stop – Puerto Natales!

We arrive in Puerto Natales by late afternoon.  Puerto Natales is also on the Magellan Strait, but is a small town of only 21,000 people.  It is a popular town for hikers and campers to kick off their exploration of Patagonia.  We check into our waterside hotel, and head off to shop the Herman Eberhard Street crafts, shops and restaurants.  This town has made all plastic bags illegal because of the strong and constant winds that make them such a nuisance.   That night, we dined on salad, salmon and dessert before calling it a night, and getting ready to set off by bus again in the morning for our all-day bus ride to Torres del Paine National Park.

PATAGONIA – THE WILDERNESS BEYOND – EASTER ISLAND

February 1, 2019 11:20 pm

Tuesday, January 9th, 2019, and today we paused our exploration of Santiago, Chili to head to one of the furthest outposts of mankind – Easter Island!  Easter Island is the most isolated, inhabited place in the world – many thousands of miles from any other inhabited place, and a long 5 ½ hour plane ride from Santiago. European’s named the island because it was discovered on Easter Sunday.

Easter Island, (“Isla de Pascua” in Spanish), or Rapa Nui as it is known by the native Polynesian ancestors of its first inhabitants is also known as “the naval of the world” harkening back to local beliefs that all spirits’ power originated there.  The island is formed from 3 ancient volcanos, (Rano Kau, Poike, and Maunga Terevaka) forming the apexes of a triangle, with the southwestern one providing the peninsula for the airport and the island’s only town – Hariga Roa. The airport is quite modern, and the runway is the longest in the southern hemisphere, as it was built by NASA as an alternative landing site for the US Space Shuttle. Our “hotel” is a lovely but quaint “mom and pop” establishment with beautiful gardens of fruit trees and flowers, located in town just up the beach from the island’s principal harbor, beach and port.  From here one could watch the bevy of local surfers, eat at a range of the town’s restaurants, or observe the Oceana Cruise ship “Marina” (1275 passenger & 800 crew) sitting in the harbor. For our stay, we had a local Rapa Nui descendent, Noi, who would serve as our guide, and who, along with our trip leader, Meche, and our dedicated driver, Jose, would be sure we got to see and understand the island’s history and sights.

Map of Rapa Nui

Rapa Nui was likely settled in the 13th or 14th century by Polynesians sailing from Tahiti. They brought with them all that they thought that they would need, but the island offered no mammals, sparse fishing, little fresh water and a lack of resources with which they could build boats to ever leave  In spite of the hardships, the original few hundred Rapa Nui grew into a civilization numbering over 10,000, before civil unrest, starvation and fighting shrunk their numbers considerably.  When Europeans landed there in the 1600’s, the introduction of disease and foreign species reduced the Rapa Nui to only a few hundred from which their descendants today are derived.

Soon after we check-in, we set out into town to visit a local grocery/bakery, where we stock-up on water & wine, and get to sample the largest empanadas we have ever seen, (~10 inches long filled with creamy cheese and tuna). Then we headed north to Ahu Akivi – the only group of Moai not along the coast and whose platform was erected during the 14th century facing the water.  These seven Moai statues were toppled around the 15th century but were restored to upright status in 1961.  They are set to align with the winter solstice.

The Moai at Abu Akvi

The Rapa Nui society was initially ruled through lineage to one of the 12 “clans” that had divided the island, and a single king.  The King was thought to be Godlike, and the Moai were erected by families as a way of collecting the power of their souls – their “manna”.  The Moai were only represented from pelvis to head with no limbs and sculpted androgynously.  There are 1045 known Moai’s worldwide, however, only 1020 are still on the island and many of these are still in the in the local quarry at various stages of completion. Once their sculpting is complete, the Moai were then moved to the sites where they will stand. Today, there are still 400 statues at the quarry. Important members of the “clan” are buried in the platforms surrounding the Moai, so all platforms are sacred. The eyes of the Moai are open mean the manna is alive in the Moai. Nearly all Moai face inland from the shores, facing the people. These Moai at Ahu Akivi are rare as they are facing ocean. The eyes of the Moai were painted or decorated with shells or coral, as the Rapa Nui believed that if there were no eye socket, then the Moai had no manna. The first restoration of Moai took place on the island in 1951. During the fall of the Rapa Nui civilization, the Moai were all pulled down with their faces facing down to destroy the manna of the rulers, so many Moai were re-raised in recent times, although many remain damaged from their fall.  In addition, many of the later Moai that were erected were fitted with “top knots”, or “tocow”, on their heads.  These were circular crowns carved from a specific reddish pumice stone that is lighter in weight so that it could be raised to the top of the Moai.  It would take 8 months to 2 years to carve a Moai, but no one is sure how they were moved to their platforms.

Rainbow over the town of Hariga Roa

After visiting Ahu Akivi, we were supposed to travel to Puna Pau – the quarry where the top-knots were carved.  Unfortunately, the quarry and the road were closed for maintenance. Therefore, we traveled to Aruenga – a private property with a single Moa located on it. It also faces east aligned with the summer solstice, but this Moai actually has 4 hands engraved upon the stone – the only one on island like this and one of the few on lands not specifically controlled by the military during the times when the island was ruled by the Chilean Navy.

We then returned to our hotel for a quick freshen-up, and a brief 10-15-minute walk to a waterfront restaurant for dinner on the outdoor second floor balcony overlooking the oceanfront. Dinner was a salad followed by a tuna fillet with smashed sweet potatoes and strawberry passion fruit ice cream. As the sun set on the horizon, we watched the sailboats at anchor and the long boats, kayaks and surfers enjoy the last light.

The next morning, we traveled east to the coastal area of Vaihu, where a typical “family center” of life of the Rapa Nui has been recreated.  All structures are made of stone stacked up in creative ways.  We were surprised to see long stone piles resembling upside down boats that serve as chicken houses known as “hare moai”.  Our guide, Noi, removed a stone from the wall, and out came a steady stream of adult and baby chicks.

Chicken emerging from their hare moai at Vaihu

The rocks are also used to make circular gardens whose tall walls protect plants from animals and winds and yet keep moisture inside.  Grasses were used to make similar boat-shaped houses, “hare vaka “, including a stone porch for more wealthy. The houses were only used for sleeping, as everything else was done outside. Each family group would have 4-5 houses at their center.

Next, we continued east down the coast to Akahanga where we encounter a series of Moai facing inland, but still toppled and with their topknots removed. With the eyes facing the ground, the belief is that the manna is gone. Here we found at least 27 Moai in three platforms of 9 each and with a crematory on the point of land located behind one.  These crematories are still used and revered, and we were careful to respect the area.  Above the Moai was a large cave believed to have been used by workers and serving as the source of stones used in the “Ahu” (platform) construction below.

We then continued our journey east to the famous quarry of Rano Raraku, where ~400 Moai remain in various stages of sculpting and movement. All Moai are carved at top of mountain while still attached to the earth along their back. The Moai is then cut out at last and gently moved down hill into a staging hole where it was slid into an upright position and sculpting was completed.  Moai’s left in this position have had their holes filled over the years, but 33 years ago one was dug out and exposed and demonstrated that it now extends 75 feet underground.  After walking around the quarry and looking at the many Moai abandoned there, we came upon the most unusual Moai on the island, a sculpted man with a goatee in a kneeling position.

The Moai at the Rano Raraku quarry

 

Unfinished Moai still at Rano Raraku with over half underground

Next, we continued our travels east along the coast to one of the more famous settings at Tongariki.  This large platform located on the southeastern coast was the setting for 17 Moai by the quarry’s owners, demonstrating their great wealth and strong manna.  In 1960, an offshore Chilean earthquake generated a tsunami which came ashore and toppled and scattered the Moai over a large area.  After this, one Moai was taken on world tour to raise funds to restore them, and today, 15 Moai stand back at the site, (2 Moai were too damaged to re-raise them, and they still sit in the field nearby. Originally, all these Moai had topknots, but today, only a single Moai could be restored with this component.

The large platform at Tonganki

 

The Moai at Tonganki

From here, we drove north across the island to the northeast shore to Anakena, the site of a platform with restored Moai, and the islands only swimming, white and pink sand beach.  Here we changed into our bathing suits and swam between the black lava rocks in the gentle surf of the Pacific and sunned ourselves on the beach.  In ancient times, an offshore carbonate reef provided the materials for the sandy beach here.  After a refreshing break, we returned to the hotel for dinner on our own.

The beach at Anakena

For dinner, we strolled south along the waterfront of the surfing bay and checked the menus at several places before settling on Haku Hanu.  Here we sat on the patio watching the surfers and enjoying our Pisco Sour and jumbo shrimp meal. After dinner, we walked to a small restaurant behind the town’s soccer field to meet up with our fellow travelers and enjoyed another round of Pisco Sours.  On our way back to the hotel, we passed the local gym where, hearing music, we stopped in to see the local townsfolk practicing native dances in preparation for the local festival next month. It was very interesting as there were over 100 women there dancing along with a few men. January and February are the summer months in Rapa Nui, and the schools are out of session, and the island’s festivals are in full swing. We then strolled along the main commercial street looking for souvenirs before returning to the hotel and calling it a day.

We started Thursday with breakfast before driving south to Vaiatare and up to the top of the Rano Kao volcano crater’s rim. In the later stages of the Rapa Nui civilization, this site known as Orongo, was sacred, and was where the King lived and where sweet potatoes were first grown. In ancient times, Manutara migratory birds would come to the offshore islands during September and the Rapa Nui families would send a representative to compete in the Bird Man Competition to decide the next year’s King and ruler. The Bird Man Competition consisted on being the first man to bring an unbroken egg from the Manutara bird’s nest, which entailed climbing down the rocky cliffs, swimming the frigid, dangerous Pacific waters to the offshore island, scaling the cliff faces to get to a nest and returning with the egg intact being the first of the year. The last of these competitions took place in 1886, but no birds come there any longer.

Remnant Birdman Houses at Orongo

 

Offshore Islands where Bird Man competitors would seek the first egg

In the early years, Peru took thousands of Islanders as slaves and Jesuits brought European diseases leaving less than 200 native survivors. Today there are around 4000 natives recognized as descendants. 54 of the local houses used by the competitors are still there, although many drawings and petrographs had been stolen by foreigners. This spot is the coldest and windiest place on island, so people lived elsewhere most of the rest of year. The Rano Kau crater is protected and only native Rapa Nui people are allowed to hike into it for spiritual reasons. The crater contains plants not found elsewhere in the world, although the water in it is only 8-10 meters deep.  For the ancient Rapa Nui, this was one of the few sources of fresh water on the island.

On the other side of the volcano, we visited the Vinapu site where there were two platforms: Vinapu and Taheda.  The platform at Vinapu was constructed with a different style using large rectangular blocks mixed with large squares, carved to fit together perfectly and without small stones – more like Inca culture used. These platforms were constructed at the beginning of Modern Era late in the Rapa Nui civilization. The second platform was destroyed when European explorers went looking for gold, noting the similarities to Inca architecture. At Taheda, an unusual Moai was found consisting of a female with breasts and arms and 2 heads. This Moai was recorded by earlier sketches but is missing its heads today.

We then traveled back to the north side of town where we visited the Island’s Museum that told the story of an early German explorer who took many pictures of the island and later published a book on Rapa Nui when he returned to Germany. This Museum’s exhibition told the story of the native people and the Moai and is free to all.

Below the Museum towards the coast, we walked to lunch with a local Rapa Nuian (Uri) who can trace her ancestry back to the original Rapa Nui founders. She still lives on her family land where she inherited her house, and now works on solving the issue of trash and recycling, since the island has grown population-wise. Her family served us a lunch of rum guava aperitif with an empanada starter followed by tuna ceviche w/ rice and salad.  She served a Chilean wine “Akenna”. The salad was grown in the Music School’s organic garden. The Music School was built out of recycled plastics and aluminum.  She let us ask questions and then she asked us questions. The meal was outside in a tent with every table set with a vase of flowers. Her property encompasses the land all the way to the ocean, including her family’s Moai with brings manna to her family.  From here, we walked back to our hotel for a “free” afternoon. 

Uri’s family Moai – Tahai

In the afternoon, Rocky and three others decided to arrange a trip to explore one of the island’s lava tubes.  Lava tubes are horizontal caves formed when molten lava flows over the ground and the top solidifies in the air creating a tube that the hotter molten rock keeps flowing inside of. Once the molten rock all runs out, a long tubular cavern with a thin roof is left.  The Rapa Nui would use these caves as a source of fresh water, a safe place to defend themselves, and as natural protection from wind and weather.  We hired our driver, Jose, to take us to the Ana Te Pahu lava tube.  It is located inside the National Park, and about a mile hike from the Park’s entrance.  We enter through a hole in the lava tube’s roof where a collapse has occurred and are greeted by a multitude of banana trees and tropical plants that thrive in the sunlight with access to water and protected from the surface wind.  After exploring a short dead-end direction, we begin the 1/3-mile hike within the tube, climbing over small roof collapses, circumnavigating pools of water, and avoiding knocking our heads on the low-hanging rocks that occasionally greet us in the darkness of the cave.  We meet a British group who are also exploring the lava tube and assist them until they exit through a large “window” in the tube’s roof.  We explore on until we can go no further, and back-track to exit at the British route to arrive on the surface in a mist of light rain.  We begin our trek back to Jose excited by a unique adventure that was well worth our time.

The Ana Te Pahu Lava Tube

That evening, we return to our luncheon site for sunset viewing over the Moai at Tahai Beach – 3 platforms all connected by a single rock berm.  Here, one of the Moai still has its eyes in place – eyes that are made from white coral) and has its red top-knot. This site also houses some original Rapa Nui rock houses, and many people are out on the hillside doing the same. Here, our guides treated us to a beautiful sunset celebration complete with champagne and nibbles, while meeting some local children and dogs, and watching a new bride who was having her wedding photos shot.

Local Canoes entering the water at Tahai Beach

 

Sunset of our last night in Rapa Nui

The next morning, Saturday, we were up very early to travel back to Tongariki to see the sunrise over the ocean behind the 14 Moai statues. The gates open at 6:00am, as a small crowd gathers to look at the beautiful stars.  However, as the sun rose, the clouds came blocking the orange and pink colors of the sunrise making it less spectacular than we had hoped. From here, we traveled back to hotel for breakfast, showers and a final packing. Once ready, we had time for a leisurely walk around town, stopping on the waterfront for coffee and to watch youngsters taking surfing lessons. As it was Saturday morning, the town was sleepy, and few people were out before 9:00am. Before departing, we stopped in the post office to get our passports stamped for Easter Island, and then traveled to the airport for our trip back to Santiago, Chile.  What a great adventure!

Greenland – The Island of Snow & Ice

September 25, 2018 2:34 pm

August-September 2018

Greenland – The Island of Ice & Snow

We had already had a visit to Iceland planned, so it only made sense to take an extension and use the opportunity to visit Greenland.  Greenland only has a population of ~57,000 with most of them living in a few towns on the southern east coast.  We, however, are going to visit the southern west coast where small, isolated towns are populated by Inuit residents, many of them living similar lives as their ancestors.

The Southeastern Coast of Greenland

The nine of us flew a 2-hour “domestic” international flight from Reykjavik, Iceland to the airport at Kulusuk island housing the community of the same name – Kulusuk, Greenland.  Our plane was a rather new 60-seat plane that had quite a diverse collection of people on-board, including a number of hikers and kayakers. Once we collected our luggage, we caught a local van for the 1-mile trip to the Kulusuk Hotel, a small, rustic building located between the airport and the Kulusuk Community. The community of Kulusuk was the last native settlement in Greenland discovered by the Western World around 1900.  At that time, the community was around 400 people – today the population has dropped to 200 people.  After checking in, we took a hike down to the pier and tanks located nearby on the island’s bay.  From here, we walked further out onto the peninsula looking at the local flowers and marveling at the parade of icebergs floating through the straights.  After returning to the hotel for a buffet lunch, we gathered in the van and took a drive 1000 feet up the coastal mountains to a abandoned USA radar station – “Difour”.  It was originally built in 1956 as part of NORAD’s 10 radar stations that ran from Alaska to Greenland to provide early warning for any missile attacks coming over the North Pole.  When US personnel were stationed here, they were not allowed to leave the base and visit town or mix with the local villagers. The facility was removed after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War.  From the top of the cleared military base location, we had a spectacular 360-degree view of the mountains on one side, and the north Atlantic on the other, with its huge icebergs moving along the coast.  After our drive, it was back to the hotel for a brisk 30-minute walk down to the community of Kulusuk.  The town has a grocery, post office, school, church (Lutheran), museum and a boat dock and small harbor. This town can only be accessed by air or by boat, but boats can only travel here between June through September, as the polar ice-pack make access impossible.  Since snow in this area can easily reach 5-meters in height, these towns must have a high degree of self-sufficiency during their brutal winters with only a small amount of emergency supplies available by air for two-thirds of the year.  In town, we explored the local grocery and church before walking back to the hotel to unpack and get ready for dinner.  After dinner, a local Inuit Dancer came to perform a “Drum Dance”.  The “Drum Dance” was a local tradition which is slowly disappearing, but she performed a haunting sing-song chant with a rhythmic drum-beat while dressed entirely in beaded seal-skin, from boots to headdress.

View from our Peninsula Walk in Kulusuk

 

Coastal View from Former US Radar Base

 

Icebergs Floating Past the Island

 

The Community of Kulusuk

 

That night saw a weather-front move-in, bringing rain, 50-60 mph wind-gusts and 40-degree temperatures, which cancelled our planned helicopter flight to the village of Tallisaq.  Although only 25 kilometers away, Tallisaq is on a different island, and transport in this region is weather dependent, and relies on regular helicopter flights as the local form of “bus” transportation.  The weather confined us to the hotel for movies, reading and games of cards until late in the afternoon, when it let up enough for a brief stroll outside.  The storm brought fresh snow to the mountain-sides and moved a new series of icebergs into the waters around our island.  After dinner, our Danish van driver recounted his recent 20-month retirement “trip-around-the-world” with power-point slides and personal stories.  He would be leaving the island with us and returning home to Denmark, as the end of Greenland’s visiting season was quickly arriving and winter would be here soon.

Helicopter “Bus” to Tallisaq

The next morning brought good weather, and after breakfast, we made the short journey back to the Kulusuk Airport for our Greenland Air helicopter flight to Tallisaq.  Our helicopter was a 9-passenger version which completed the 9-minute flight quickly but gave us spectacular views of the waterways and landscapes around us.  Upon arrival, the hotel van transported us up the side of a hill to our lodging, a hotel owed by the same brothers with whom we stayed in Kulusuk.  Here, we dropped our luggage, and shuttled to the beginning of a trailhead to hike into the Valley of Flowers.  The hike starts past a few village dog kennels, which are often at the edge of villages.  These sled dogs are not pets, and they are kept chained outside and fed a diet of raw meat 3 times a week.  These towns and villages each have assigned quotas for native hunting for polar bears and narwhales, (seals are unlimited).  Once past the kennels, we explored the village’s cemetery – an organized collection of graves, each with an identical unmarked white cross.  The Inuit believe that names should not be on the graves, and they should be “freed” to be used by the living.  Past the cemetery, the trail undulated up and down past ponds and lakes and hillsides of colorful flowers, before we arrived at a waterfall, and began the journey back.  At the hotel, we had a buffet lunch before leaving for a walking tour of town.  The church here is hexagonal with a picturesque landscape of the area painted on the ceiling. Tallisaq has ~1000 residents and is the 6th largest village in Greenland, and the largest on the East Coast. In fact, all East Greenland is home to only 3000 residents.  In Greenland, no one can own land, and one must get a permit from the government to build, and there is quite a bit of government-supplied housing available at ~3000 Kr/month.  The economy of Greenland is fully supported by Denmark, even though Greenland has some autonomy in the operation of its affairs. In fact, there is no army in Greenland, and the police force is completely provided by Denmark. In Tallisaq, the homes have running water and flush toilets, where nearly none of the surrounding settlements do.  Like Kulusuk, there is no access to the town by sea from October through June.  When the first ship arrives in summer, the town fires its 3 cannons, and the town gathers at the dock to unload long-awaited supplies. The cannons fire again on the town’s biggest holiday – the Summer Solstice on June 22nd, and a final time when the last ship of the season departs in October.  Hunting and fishing are critical to their surviving the harsh winter.  This year, Tallisaq had a 30 polar bear limit, which was already filled.  Tradition has it that the person who sights a polar bear, the person who kills it, and the person who touches it first are all entitled to share its meat.  It is illegal to pay to hunt in Greenland.  Here, the traditional drum dance and the local shaman have both disappeared.  School here is only grades 1-9, with 10th grade optional and necessary for University entry in Western Greenland.  Those not going to University, go to “Nuk”, or local trade school, and in either case, all schooling and teachers in the country are paid by the Danish Government.  While in town, we visited a local craftsman shop where narwhale tusks were being carved, went to the town’s post office, and visited an old turf-house which was made to house ~25 people through the winter.  Next, we walked to the harbor where we boarded a local ship.  We had to navigate our way out since the previous week’s storms had grounded an iceberg right at the harbor’s entrance.  Once on the open water, we toured the fiord where we saw numerous icebergs.  Upon returning, we traveled back to the hotel for dinner, and watched a 1938 B&W movie filled in the town with locals playing all the roles.  The film was a drama, but it depicts well the customs and people of the time, and many of the town’s residents today are related to those in the film.

Town and New Pitch at Tallisaq

 

Iceberg blocking Tallisaq Harbor

 

Anonymous Graves on the Countryside

 

Huskies for Dog Sleds and Winter Transport

 

Codfish Drying

 

Julie on Iceberg Cruise

The next morning ended our trip here, and we helicoptered back to the airport in Kulusuk.  Here we had a long layover and great weather, and so we took the opportunity to take one final walk for 2.5 hours out to the end of the island’s peninsula before returning to our former hotel for lunch and goodbyes.  We then departed Greenland and arrived back in Reykjavik at 7pm, had a group dinner and revisited our adventures with all our new friends.  The next morning, it was on to the International Airport and everyone’s trip home.

Sisters