Saturday, December 31, 2011

Dear Antarctica

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
– Mark Twain

Dear Antarctica:

We only knew each other for a short time but your impact has changed the way I view the world as well as my life. Maybe it was the illusion that you were impossible to meet, that you were cold and distant or I was not up to the challenge but Antarctica it was love at first sight.

It is the explorers who marked the way for me that are the giants and need to be remembered. Edmunson, Shakelton, Gerlache and Drake lead the way and I can only follow their footsteps with comforts that they never knew. To the many nameless men who died while exploring you, it is those who I thank for the opportunity to have just touch the surface of what you have to offer.

No land has ever mesmerized me like you have. Nobody can take away the fact I walked upon your shores or came within metres of your deep blue glaciers and icebergs. I was entertained by your whales, seals, penguins and birds. Your oceans showed their strength and your winds howled their songs. There was a constant sun that played with my patterns while the Drake Passage at first showed its mercy and then made sure I understood how small we really are.

- No words can describe you and no photos can do you justice.
- You are the mysterious love we all want but are afraid to pursue.
- You are the first girl I ever kissed and that will be etched in my consciousness forever never be forgotten no matter how long it takes for us to meet again. The kiss that enriches my memories and has taken my travel and life experiences to levels I never thought could be possible.
- You are only three colours but are the most colourful place I have ever seen
- The hues of blue you produced everywhere stopped me cold
- Your winds were strong and your oceans powerful.
- The sun produced a sliver of warmth that cheered everything up
- You have no Television, telephone or Internet. The only devices I needed to use were my eyes and ears.
- Your inhabitants were not afraid but playful and welcoming.
- You are inspirational but deadly, beautiful but treacherous far but very near
- You are at the end of the world but now close to my heart.
- You are the land that takes your breath away with just one look.
- You do not need more than your three colors to be beautiful.
- To respect the power of your oceans is an understatement.
- No engineer could ever design your icebergs
- No artist could match your use of blue
- No weatherman can predict your moods
- You have the ability to melt hearts and change the world

You have opened my eyes to what is possible. Thank you for changing my life.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Antarctica Day 10: Into The Calm Waters Of Terra Del Fuego

I am the albatross that waits for you at the end of the earth.
I am the forgotten soul of the dead sailors who crossed Cape Horn from all the seas of the world.
But they did not die in the furious waves.
Today they fly in my wings to eternity in the last trough of the Antarctic wind.
--- Poem “At Cape Horn”

We are paying for our Christmas Day experience and easy trip across the Drake Lake. As with all things Mother Nature sure has a way of balancing it out. It would be over 40 hours in the Drake Passage and everyone, myself included had had enough. Like these Crabeater seals our heads were just above the waterline but we were breathing. We were not defeated but the Drake Passage and Mother Nature certainly let us know who was in charge. The good news and I mean the very good news was we would be arriving at Terra Del Fuego and the South American mainland by 11 am. It would bring calm seas and calm stomacks. As fast as it started seas settled down just as quick. It was time for bed (a recurring theme these last couple days) I went right back to bed and slept soundly for 3 hours. The return from the Drake Passage started off as an fun way to spend time on the bridge with the crew learning about the ship, the ocean, weather and wind patterns and a little history lesson on the Drake Passage. It ended with the relief that it was over but being happy to have experienced it.

With calm seas and full bellies we sat through a final presentation by the staff. They put together a great DVD of our trip including lectures, itineraries and a photo essay. It was a very nice departing gesture and tied the entire trip together. Our final dinner was real good. Mussel and shrimp salad, soup and beef tenderloin and a little red wine to wash it down. There was a pretty big party but I stayed sober and went to bed earlly. Wake up call was 6 30 am and I wanted to part of a large hangover while trying to get off this ship in the morning. I needed to catch up  and connect with people that are important to me.

With the first daylight, we moored at the harbour in Ushuaia. After our last breakfast on board it was time to say goodbye to ship´s crew, staff, and the USHUAIA, which had been our home and shelter for the last nine days. With big smiles we walked down the gangway with a total navigated distance of 1575 nautical miles now in our memories.

Antarctica Day 9: The Full Wrath of Mother Nature

“Men wanted for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.”

--- Sir Ernest Shackleton

The Drake Passage laughed at us as he showed us who is the real Boss. We were his quivering bitches that is for sure. We were about to discover what 40 hours of being a human pinball and there was nothing we could do about it, was all about.

Through the night I was tossed around pretty good but still managed to get some sleep. I woke up at 630, drank a quick coffee with only spilling it twice and headed to the bridge. The seas were rolling pretty good but nothing serious. The captain said we were at a force 4 and we could expect a force 8 by dinner time. I have to tell you I was more than intrigued by that. I spent the better part of the day lounging around, eating and more lying around. I think I saw the lazy lives of the Weddell seals and decided to copy it. Sleep, eat, sleep, poop swim and eat. However there is that constant fear of getting eaten by Orca that they have going for them.

I went back to the bridge at 500 pm because in the bar it was getting chaotic and we were bouncing around pretty damn good. The swells were getting to 10 metres. That is 30 feet. They were coming from the left and you could see them growing before they hit. Now I absolutely respect the power of the southern ocean. To stand on the bridge and see these swells come at you from the distance is over powering. I tried to take some pictures and videos but they will never do it any justice.
The captain and two crew members were just hanging on the bridge doing thier thing. They showed no fear or emotions so that made me man up a little because I was just about to start to get nervous. Bah, kidding this was awesome!

Around 10:00 pm there was about 30 minutes of “what the hell” as the ocean switched gears and took it to a new level. It was not time to find my happy place because our little boat of steel was getting battered and us along with it.
The immediate look in many eyes had gone from excitement and fun to a small sense of “this is pretty serious shit” and "holy crap that last wave was huge".  We were paying for our sin of cockiness. Again I saw the crew smiling so I just went with that. This steel gal has been through this and worse many times before. I think a little fear crept into a few who suddenly turned shades of white and or green and rushed off to bed.

The notorious Drake has flexed its muscles and has our undivided attention.

Antarctica Day 8: Whaler´s Bay - Deception Island / Half Moon Island - South Shetland Islands.

They are extraordinarily like children, these little people of the Antarctic world, either like children or old like old men full of their own importance and late for dinner, in their black tail coats and white shirt fronts – and rather portly withal”
--- Apsley Cherry-Garrard – The Worst Journey on the World.

From our itinerary: We Enter Deception Island through 1300 feet wide gap in the wall known as Neptunes Bellows so named because of the violent winds that sometimes blow across the mouth of the entrance.
Deception Island rises 1600 feet from the sea bed and has a submerged base diameter of 15 miles. The caldera is about 6 miles in diameter and has a depth of 585 feet. It was formed by a big collapse due to an eruption of an unknown age. At least 85% of this island was formed by volcanism prior to the collapse.

Well that was a night! The ocean had a bit of a had a bit of a temperament last night. At around 11 pm the ship started to roll a bit and by 11:30 things were falling off the desk and the chair fell over. I took a peep out the port hole and since it was still daylight I could see the ocean in all its nastiness. My room is on the second floor but when we rolled I was no more than 10 feet from the deep blue instant death. I was rolling in my bed and at one time made a point of hanging on to the bed railings. The waves were 3 metres (so I found out in the morning). That now puts the passage back to through the Drake into perspective. Estimated waves going back are to be 6 to 8 metres. That’s up to 25 feet!!

Today we pulled into Deception Island. I dragged my butt out of bed and headed to the warmth of the bridge because the winds were howling. Along with 10 others we watched the captain navigate into the bay through a tight but manageable 1600 foot entrance. The wind prevented us from a landing so we moved onto Half moon bay, 3 hours north.

I went back to bed and slept very soundly until the noon lunch call. After lunch we would be taking our last Zodiac out to Half Moon. We would have the opportunity to walk around and if the spirit moved us, go for a swim. Yes that is exactly what I said, go for a swim. Swimming in the Antarctic sounds great in theory but I have never been very theoretical. The glacier views were stunning and in the distance a couple humpbacks were swimming in the bay. We hung around for about an hour then the call came out. “Whoever wants to swim now is the time. It was go time!

**I understand that we should always be open to trying new experiences and to challenge ourselves whenever we can, but diving into the Antarctic did nothing for me, not even a little bit.
I cheered the 15 or so who did go in and it was hilarious to watch. If the screams were heard were in any city on the planet the police would certainly have been called**

It was time to settle up my bar bill and get ready for the 2.5 day cruise back to Ushuaia. We have a great contest started. The rules are very basic. You cannot take any sea sick medication and whoever throws up last wins. A $1 entrance fee gets you in and we even had the crew announce it over the speaker system. When I asked Hector the crew manager if anyone has ever had a contest like that he just smiled and said “no but you people do not surprise me anymore”. There is a nervous energy on the boat as we wait to see how nasty Mother Nature is going to be to us.

Posted on the daily agenda:Just a reminder that later today we will be entering the DRAKE PASSAGE – Please make sure to secure your cabins by placing all breakable items in the drawers or on the floor, and take your sea sickness medication.

As we entered the Drake we took one last look at the calm of the ocean and the rocks of Antarctica. The second and I mean literally the second we entered the Drake the growing ocean swells knowingly smiled as they started rolling towards us growing by the minute all the while the crew started taping up vomit bags along all the corridors and handrails. Ignorant really is bliss.

Antarctica Day 7: Hydrurga Rocks – Mikkelsen Harbour

“An Antarctic expedition is the worst way to have the best time of your life”
--- Apsley Cherry Garrard – The Worst Journey in the World.

Holy cow do I feel lazy today. I think all this fresh Antarctic air has gone to war with the years of ingested smog in my lungs compounded with the excitement of yesterday has me groggy today. I mean dumb as a chestnut groggy.  It is not a bad day at all, this is Antarctica but sometimes you just have to take a break. Its grey and snowing today but the weather changes here in an instant and it may be sunny in a hour. That is a part of the charm of Antarctica.

Adele Penguins
 The first zodiac went out at 9:00 to a Hidrurga rocks home to Chinstrap and Adele penguins. The Hidrurga rocks are named after the scientific name for the Leopard Seal. It is a small landing site at the northern entrance to the Gerlache Strait.  However the first thing off the zodiac we encounter are 3 fat and lazy waddle seals. They looked up at us, yawned and went back to sleep. I could seriously relate to that today boys. The island is small and not even mapped so walking it was a breeze. More seals along the way and then a rookery of Chinstraps.
** New fun word of the day has to be rookery**
I then spotted my first Adele penguins. These are what you think of when you think penguin. Black back, white front and gorgeous blue eyes. There were only a few of them but they had my attention for a while. Probably because I am attracted to blue like a moth to light. Pathetic really.

I have noticed that some of our little crew has become animal paparazzi, almost to the point of embarrassment. I love taking photos with my little idiot proof camera and having owned an SLR I know the fun they can be. There are some serious camera setups here with some brilliant photos taken. Now back to the paparazzi comment. I don’t understand the multi-frame bursting when taking a picture of a sleeping seal, or the insane reactions when said seal moves a little bit. Seal yawns 10 photos needed, seal craps get those shots, penguin sitting on the ice, snap snap snap and an iceberg passing with each cm is a different angle so get them all. There is a guy on this ship that has taken over 6000 photos and this is only day 6. I can see how that can happen and we are all laughing at the insanity of it all. Digital cameras are so crazy but allot of fun. 

After yesterdays whale chaos I don’t think anything was going to be as dramatic but this was still a nice experience. This island is back dropped by a dramatic glacier and the oddest shaped icebergs added to yet another Antarctic Experience.
I took a pass on the second zodiac trip today, as did half a dozen others. Mikklesen Harbor was discovered by the expedition of Nordenskjold. It is a small bay in the southern side of Trinity Island. There is a small unmanned hut and Gentoo Penguin rookery. I sat in the bar writing this blog, chatting with the others and finally the rocking of the ship put me to sleep. No worries, the coffee on board is great and it snapped me awake for dinner.

Antarctica Day 6: Neko Harbour (Andvord Bay) / Orne Harbour

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time”.

--- T.S. Eliot

Seven thirty am wakeup brought a mild case of “red wine” head. Sebastian, the main guide and our voice over the airwaves started his day a little worse for wear. He gave us a good morning and Merry then paused for 15 seconds. Then we heard ok let’s try that again, “Good morning and Merry Christmas everyone, breakfast is now ready in the dining room”. He did not turn off the microphone and we all heard “Ok I did it, now I have to go to bed”. He was rocking at the party last night and as suspected went right from the party to the microphone. It was brutally funny and we tortured him the entire day. Little did we know that Christmas Day was going to be a banner day.

Today we landed at Andvord Bay for our first stop. The briefing before the launched talked about the possibility of huge chunks of ice falling from the glacier into the bay causing huge tsunamis so we had to get up to the 5 metre lever right away. We had an opportunity to climb up to a rocky outcrop maybe 300 metres high that provided lookout over the bay and it did not disappoint.  It was eerily quiet with the 20 or so of us sitting there just taking it in. Ice flows were starting to fill the bay and it was surrounded by an immense glacier. You could hear the glacier cracking and in the distance the telltale booms of falling ice and snow. It did give me a sense of how powerful these glaciers are.

After an hour I walked down and to the beach side of the bay. I crossed over a small rise and found myself alone and out of view of everyone. I had the beach full of penguins and shifting ice to myself.

**I did tell the guides where I was going so I was not going to be left behind**

The penguins waddling on the beach seemed more that a little shocked to see me but I hung with them for an hour. I had the place to myself and it was remarkable. I also think I got my best ice pictures here. There were huge bergs in the bay, smaller bergs near the shore and black ice covered mountains in the distance. Any more self reflextion and I am sure I would have turned into a penguin and swam away like Mr. Limpit.  (Yeah I know, he turned into a fish)

How could the day get better? Well sir, let me tell you how. Back on board we get the announcement of Minke whales in the harbour. Yeah sure we have seen this before. This time 2 playful Minkes followed the last zodiacs returing back to the ship. They swam in and around the zodiacs for an hour or so. We lined the rails of the boat and watched in amazement as these 9 metre monsters were having the time of their lives. At one time someone on one of the zodiacs let out a scream because she turned around and the whale was right in front of here. The laughing was contagious, and even the whales recognized it because both of them went to the boat. (Check out that ice blue water)

Exciting stuff as we all retreated into the bar to talk about the experience. Not 15 minutes later we hear that the Minke whales are swimming off the bow, so off to the bow we go. What a treat. There were 5 whales leading the ship and jumping through the water like dolphins, huge 9 metre dolphins.  They would swim just below the surface and then break the water sometimes 3 at a time. They would dive under and spin then jump again. This lasted for 30 minutes or more until the captain had to increase our speed and off they went, back to where ever they came from. What a Christmas gift.

We had another of my favourite Zodiac cruises through the glaciers and icebergs. No amount of pictures can ever do the majesty of this place any justice. We found Crabeater seals who oddly enough do not eat crabs.  Gentoo penguins were everywhere and we and a huge group of Gentoos swimming together which looks funny as hell. I was lucky enough to take this picture of Gentoo penguins jumping and torpedoing through the water.This is another wonder of Antarctica that you can never get tired of.
At dinner it was the general feeling that Christmas was good to us. The crew said with everything going on and the clear blue skies it was a rare day indeed.  Having eaten a nice meal of fish and salad and waiting for desert there was a rap on the dining room window and a very excited Monica (the lead biologist) jumping up and down. It was chaos with everyone jumping out of their seats to get outside. HUMPBACKS!! So close to the boat you could reach out and touch them. I was more startled then anything. These suckers are massive, I mean beyond realistic massive and they fall somewhere in the middle of sizes of whales. They were feeding in pairs as we counted 6 in different locations around the boat. I got to the top of the bow and squeezed in with everyone else. They were close enough for good, well great photos. The highlight of this being a couple of them started towards the ship right at us. Holy crap! They passed the bow at just below the surface and went under the boat. Although they are herbivores if I was a fish I would be getting out of there pretty freaking fast.

The captain slowed the ship and letting us enjoy the experience. The whales were moving away from us and seem to find specific areas that they were going to feed in. The captain literally followed and almost like he knew how to make the most of it pointed the ship into the sunset with the whales between us. Shit, in Canada I can have trouble getting a second cup of coffee at a diner and here a ship’s captain is manoeuvring a ship for us to get the best photo. It was then decided that we would stay here for the night, the movie was cancelled and after a while most of the cameras were put away. Some of us hard core just hung out on the deck, freezing our asses and watching humpback eat and play in the twilight. I checked the time and it was 3:30 am and the cloud formations just punctuated what was an absolute perfect Antarctic day. The sky was clear and the sun had no intention of setting but I went to bed.

Antarctica you just kicked Santa’s ass as far as Christmas presents are concerned.

Antarctica Day 5: Lemaire Channel-Pléneau Island-Iceberg Alley / Port Lockroy – Jougla Point / Danco Island.

“You could live without penguins but why would anyone want to?”--- Monica Shellate - Ushuaia Biologist and Team Leader

From our itinerary: The Antarctic Peninsula’s remarkable history will provide you with a type of excitement often only associated with the early explorers. You will have plenty of time to explore its amazing scenery, a pristine wilderness of snow, ice, mountains and waterways, and an incredible wide variety of wildlife. Apart from penguins and seabirds you are very likely to see Weddell, Crabeater and leopard seals as well as Minke, killer (orca) and humpback whales at close range. We hope to navigate some of the most beautiful waterways (depending on the ice conditions): the Gerlache Strait, the Neumayer Channel, and the Lemaire Channel, the latter are narrow passages between towering rock faces and spectacular glaciers.

The sea ice was too thick so we could not get through the Narrows channel. It was not a disappointment because it was so incredibly beautiful. The ship hung around the channel entrance for 30 minutes before heading back up the Gerlache straight. It was time for plan B. Danko Island and the British preservation station at Port Lockroy. This was an old whaling station but now is manned by a team of 4 volunteers whose role is to maintain the station, sell goodies to the tourists and man the post office. This is an actual working post office, the only one in Antarctica. The thing to do is off course sell postcards and postage and have tourists mail postcards from Antarctica.

There was a small museum of the history of Port Lockroy which was interesting. Just when you think you are a bit of a tough guy visit this place. It will show you what tough really is. There were whale bones and a skeleton as well as chains and other historical items scattered on the Island. Oh, and of course Gentoo penguins have moved in.

The afternoon zodiac was all about glaciers and icebergs. The sea was calm and we spent 2 hours zooming in and around icebergs of every size and shape. I thought volcanoes could never get boring which is true, but icebergs and glaciers take that to a whole new level.

It was Christmas Eve and everyone had that, “ok this has been really fun but now it’s time to party” look in their eyes. So after dinner that is exactly what we did. Beer is oddly cheap on board, $3 and we are working on the chit system, basically an open tab to be paid at the end. It was a bit cold outside so naturally I went out and started a bit of a trend. I took off my shirt and a few of us were laughing our asses off at being so stupid when we noticed that everyone on board was taking pictures of me, paparazzi style. When I got back inside there was a big round of applause and lots of laughs. However it did not stop there. Next up was the suggestion to go to the bow of the boat where the wind was hitting us full force and go shirtless. Yeah we did it and lots of people joined in.

It was now 11 pm and we are in 23 hour days with 1 hour of dusky type of night. The crew was having a party down below and as one of the crew said “you guys are just crazy enough to join us so come this way”. We obliged and were not disappointed. In the bottom of the ship there was a hold big enough for loud music, booze of every type, music and dancing. It was great fun and I would like to say what time I got back to my bunk but it was still daylight and I had no watch. I drank a bunch of red wine with my beer so I guzzled lots of water knowing what pain the morning would bring.

Whatever, I am in Antarctica.

Antarctica Day 4: Cuverville Island – Almirante Brown Station / Paradise Bay (Continental landing), navigation of the Gerlache Strait

“We live in a world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures that we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open”
--- Jawaharlal Nehru

From our itinerary: The Antarctic Peninsula’s remarkable history will provide you with a type of excitement often only associated with the early explorers. You will have plenty of time to explore its amazing scenery, a pristine wilderness of snow, ice, mountains and waterways, and an incredible wide variety of wildlife. Apart from penguins and seabirds you are very likely to see Weddell, Crabeater and leopard seals as well as Mince, killer (orca) and humpback whales at close range.

Cuverville Island was named by De Gerlache after a vice admiral in the French navy who helped to provision his expedition. It stands like a stopper in the northern end of the Errenra Channel. Five thousand pairs of Gentoo penguins breed on the long shingly beach. The paths that the birds have carved through the snow from the rookeries about the beach look like a complex freeway system or a demonic bobsled track. Grubby penguins heading down to the beach to bath and fish are met by clean, plumb, well fed birds returning from the sea.

I have now been on all 7 Continents
 I wrote this at 11:20 pm and it is still daylight. It looks like 6 pm out the boat window. I am now in 24 hour daylight and this is crazy new for me.
Today was a brilliant day filled with so much. After breakfast we worked out way to Cuverville Island. The ship’s crew was bouncing off the walls with excitement as it was sunny and clear blue skies. They said they have not see it like this for months so again karma is on our side.  However I still believe Mother Nature is going to kick our ass somewhere along the way.

When I woke up, walked to the bar and grabbed coffee I looked out the window. This was Antarctica. We were surrounded by high mountains dripping with ice blue glaciers, Icebergs of all sizes and shapes everywhere in the channel and penguins, lots and lots of penguins. In any direction there was another perfect picture. We organized for the zodiacs to take us to Cuverville and off we went. Zipping through icebergs and clear blue water we hit the beach to the squawk and smell of our friends the penguins, the funny little bastards. The goal of this landing was the trek up to the top of the island to enjoy the 360 panoramic views. Usually not an issue but climbing with Wellies proved a bit challenging but not outrageous.  The sun was shining and by 10 minutes into the 30 minute climb I started shedding clothes, gloves and my hat. I stopped every 5 minutes as I do to have a look and holy crap, picture perfect Antarctica. Reaching the top was just another exercise in photo insanity. Looking left, right, up, down, East or west each direction was more majestic then the previous. Now comes the fun part. It was time to pose for photo on top of a mountain without a shirt in Antarctica. It was not as bad as it sounds. The sun was out and we were in a wind protected bay and it was warm....but still cool to be shirtless in Antarctica.

I climbed down with everyone and next up was an hour zodiac trip in and around the icebergs.  It’s unfair how something could be so naturally beautiful. The hues of blue are indescribable and pictures are never going to do them any justice. To have the ability to get so close to glaciers and realize how magnificent they are, even the smaller ones makes you fall in love with the ice faster than you can imagine.  This is the real deal.

Back on board while drinking some pretty damn good pea soup with coriander the call came out, Humpbacks on the port bow. A little too far for my camera to take anything decent I just enjoyed them. Walking back inside another call came over the loudspeaker. There are Minke whales breaching on the right side of the boat. I grabbed a beer, when on deck and just enjoyed being in Antarctica. Nothing is EVER going to top this place.

Paradise Bay is a beautiful place where an Argentinean summer station (Brown Station) is located on a point of land of the Antarctic Peninsula with steep sea-cliffs on one side and the sheer face of a tidewater glacier on the Eastern side. There is a small Gentoo rookery site among the buildings of the station. Skontorp is a nearby cove with gorgeous Ice formations.

 Paradise bay has that name for a reason, because it’s an Antarctic Paradise. This was yet another bay of crazy glaciers, icebergs, penguins and an abandoned whaling station. Hell people actually lived out here. A short hike up to the highest peak produced more insane pictures and views. We did have the opportunity to slide down on our butt (Villarrica revisited) and that was good fun. This trip was followed by 90 minutes in the zodiac into the bay itself. As one elderly lady on the trip described it “I have been to heaven and have returned to talk about it”

I am repeating myself, end of the world glaciers, magnificent icebergs and the ability to get up close and personal. However I was getting cold as was everyone else. We had gone from warm and sunny to cloudy and freaking as cold in a span of about 6 hours. Stopping to take a few photos of some Crabeater seals we put the zodiac in high gear and headed back to the Ushuaia.

A hot shower and a few beers and I was right as rain. The strangest thing has been happening on this ship. When someone sees something new or interesting they just yell and let everyone know. It’s actually pretty funny and when we are on deck taking the photos is usually with lots of laughs. That being said I did not think Antarctica could wow me anymore in one day.

I was wrong. Across the bay the oddest thing appeared. A deep blue fog crept over the mountains. I mean a Blue Fog, really? Come on Mother Nature stop messing with me. I guess the explanation is that the sun’s rays hit the ice but the fog prevents it from going back so the blue reflection just hovers in the fog.  It seriously looked photoshopped on the horizon

We had a review of the day and about tomorrow.  There is a good chance we will be blocked from our destination because of sea ice. Now that’s more like it! We parked our asses in Paradise bay for the night, admired the odd blue fog that was now everywhere and talked about the day.

“Ladies and Gentleman, across the stern you will see two Humpback whales moving slowly through the bay”. Come on this is sensory overload. Time for another beer!

Antarctica Day 3: Drake Passage, Aitcho Island (South Shetland Islands).

“The best way through ice is around it”

--- Anonymous

From our itinerary: The first sightings of icebergs and snow-capped mountains indicate that we have reached the South Shetland Islands, a group of twenty islands and islets first sighted in February 1819 by Capt. William Smith of the brig Williams. With favourable conditions in the Drake Passage our lecturers and naturalists will accompany you ashore as you experience your first encounter with the penguins and seals.  The South Shetland Islands are a haven for wildlife. Vast penguin rookeries, beaches ruled by Antarctic fur seals and Southern elephant seals make every day spent in this amazing island group unforgettable. Sailing through the narrow passage into the flooded caldera of Deception Island is truly amazing. King George Island, the largest of the South Shetland Islands, features colonies of nesting Adélie and Chinstrap Penguins, Kelp Gulls, Blue-eyed Cormorants, Antarctic Terns and Southern Giant Petrels and is home to scientific bases of many different countries. Macaroni, Chinstrap and Gentoo Penguins as well as elephant seals await you at Livingston Island.

We made real good time coming across the Drake Passage; our captain said we made up 12 hours because of calm seas. The upside of this, besides the lack of everyone getting sick was we now could make an unscheduled stop on the South Shetland Islands. We had a morning brief on behaviour in the Antarctic and it was followed by a Zodiac loading and unloading seminar. Me like everyone else are chomping a bit to get off this boat. At 3:00 we hit the beach. We received our permanent life vests plus our Wellies. To those living in Canada and the US those are Rubber boots, but Wellies is another fun word to say.

The zodiacs are cool with a big old C and after lining up and loading up I was off. We hit the beach in about 10 minutes. I really did not know what to expect. Well our first stop was pretty damn sweet. There was a small briefing after landing but it was hard to focus because there were penguins everywhere, chinstrap and Gentoo penguins

I spent the next hour checking out all the different rookeries on the hills and the beach. Some would ignore you but others waddled up to about 2 feet and just stared at me. I found a mother and newly hatched chick plus others fighting, finding mates, pooping everywhere (oh my god the smell on this bit of paradise) and well just being penguins. We then wandered for 20 minutes to the other side of the island. The new views were impressive, there more penguins and sea lions, large, fat and smelly sea lions.

Returning back to the ship everyone was having a post landing beer when to our port side we saw a huge fin of a Humpback whale. It was close enough to try and take a picture but not close enough for them to be any good. It was just impressive to watch this big old boy eating and diving.

 ** First sighting of an Iceberg contest goes into effect today. The first person to see and iceberg and calls the bridge and informs the captain wins a bottle of wine. Everyone was oohing and ahhing while I was looking for the closest house phone. Guess who had wine with his dinner?**

Landing on the South Shetland Islands just took my travel experience to a whole new level and proved to me that not only can you do anything you can go anywhere.You just have to decide to do it.

Antarctica Day 2: Crossing the Drake Passage

“First view of Antarctica is always an iceberg. It may be a monolith hovering on the horizon, a barely discernible spectre looming out of the mist, or perhaps a sun-spangled, dazzling icon marking the gateway to this new world. It will undoubtedly be icebergs that leave the most lasting impressions on the imagination of visitors”.--- Mark Jones “Wild Ice”

From our itinerary: Named after the renowned explorer, Sir Francis Drake, who sailed these waters in 1578, the Drake Passage also marks the Antarctic Convergence, a biological barrier where cold polar water sinks beneath the warmer northern waters. This creates a great upwelling of nutrients, which sustains the biodiversity of this region. The Drake Passage also marks the northern limit of many Antarctic seabirds. As we sail across the passage, Antarpply Expeditions’ lecturers will be out with you on deck to help in the identification of an amazing variety of seabirds, including many albatrosses, which follow in our wake. The USHUAIA’s open bridge policy allows you to join our officers on the bridge and learn about navigation, watch for whales, and enjoy the view.

The staff told us that when we left the Beagle Channel and entered the Drake Passage the waters would get rougher. I was sleeping soundly, the seas were calm. Then as if the staff knew what he was talking about we left the Beagle channel and crossed into the Drake Passage and we started rocking. I woke up and it was 5:05 a freaking m. I am on vacation for FU** sake!
At our briefing the night before we were told that the weather looked good and when we get into the passage it will be more like the “Drake Lake”. No wind and calm as calm as the passage can be. We were rolling in 1 – 2 metre seas. I find the difference between rolling in the Drake Passage and bouncing around in Pacific on the Navimag is on the Navimag we were getting hit by waves. On the Ushuaia the entire sea seems to be rolling and you can see the swells develop and move towards you.
A good quote From the adventure a director. “I have not seen the Drake this calm, ever in 9 years. You can bet it’s not going to be like this on the way back (big huge shit eating grin). I hope the Drake is more like itself when we cross back in 10 days. Come on Drake you big sissy let’s see how much game you have got.
This was a very casual cruising day and we were kept busy with lectures on Birds, Geography and Penguins. The sun is out and it’s warm so maybe there will be a really nice sunset. Lots of reading and hanging about but I did notice people are starting to have a drink or two. I stood on deck for hours just watching the swells and enjoying the warmth.
Also we are also not going to starve. Food is always available and the bar is reasonably priced so I have that going for me as well.
Tonight’s movie appropriate enough was March of the Penguins

Antarctica Day 1 - Ushuaia, Beagle Channel, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina.

People do not decide to be extraordinary. They decide to accomplish extraordinary things”
--- Sir Edmund Hillary

I find it very odd that today I am leaving for Antarctica. I don’t know why because it’s as easy as buying a package vacation to some Caribbean all inclusive snore fest. Just saying Antarctica conjures up thoughts of adventure and mystery. Regardless today we set off for the land of ice and penguins.

Normal checkout time of the Cruz del Sur hostel is 10.  I did not need to be on the dock until 4 so they let me hang around in the common area, use the WiFi and cook my lunch. I left at 1:30, made a very important 20 minute phone call at 2:00 and then wandered down to the pier.  I had all my paperwork and vouchers ready to go and oddly enough a few butterflies in my belly. Check in was a breeze, tossing my bags onto a scanner and I was waved through. A second full scan 20 feet later (?) with the most old and bored drug sniffing dog on the planet sent me on my way. I think if that dog did actually sniff anything out his heart rate would have increased and he would have dropped dead right there on the spot. My ID was not checked until I arrived at the ship so no vouchers were really needed.  However they took and are holding my passport for security reasons. Security reasons!! How about my Passport separation anxiety bitches!!
My double room is big enough and I am sharing it with a German named Wolfgang, how awesome is that? A German named Wolfgang.  I have the top bunk which has a portal so I can look at the ocean watch the swells and it brings some light into the room. I am not sure about getting into that bunk during high seas or after to much time in the bar but I have no choicve. The shower is hot, the tap water is drinkable and the bar is open. There is no Wifi so I will be cut off from the world for 10 days.
The MV Ushuaia built in 1970 and is and was originally a research vessel so it does not have a tourist feel to it. The ship being smaller than most allows us to get into too places that none of the larger ships can get to, whatever that means.

We left right on time, 6pm and everyone myself included were running around the ship checking it out, meeting others and taking way to many photos or nothing in particular. We had our welcome briefing with champagne and snacks. We were introduced to the crew and the doctor got the biggest round of applause. Take your sea sickness pills because when we leave the Beagle Channel and get into the Drake Passage, some of the worst waters in the world. We were to get there around 5 am and the swells could get to 10 metres....that is 30 freaking feet! I did not have any pills but was given a few patches that contained Dramamine. You put them behind your ear so I am looking like all the other fools walking around with a patch behind my ear. The things you do!

We also had a security briefing which like all security briefings nobody was paying attention. We did have a “live drill” and the siren scared the crap out of me even as I was expecting it. The drill seemed silly as we waddled around with over sized life jackets but the importance was obvious.
It was a great feeling to be cruising towards Antarctica. The waters were calm, it was a nice evening and there was a sunset. Little did I know that this would be the last sunset I would be seeing for the next 10 days. I never even thought of 24 hours of daylight as we moved south.
** Fun fact of the day. If you fall into the ocean you have between 10 and 15 minutes before hypothermia sets in followed by death, depending on the person**

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Glacier Martial

Its Sunday so that means lazy, however there is a small glacier near here that is calling my name. I am a little slow on the draw having found the Irish pub last night. One of the ships, the Explorer just returned to port after a trip to Antarctica. That gave me a great chance to listening to everyone tell thier storys and ask a million questions about the beer flowed!

I found it kind of odd that most everyone I met were from the Explorer was from Canada or the US. I was told that most people on the ship were from North America as well. Just a weird observation.

Today it was time to test drive the Merrells. There is a small glacier within walking distance of town, Glacier Martial. It is actually the reminents of one large glacier that receeded back from the Beagle channel about 10,000 years ago. This was worth a look.

I walked to the park from town in about an hour. There was a winding road that made the walk easy however there was a trail that took time off the walk but I would do that on the way down. My legs really have not fully recovered from Torres so its going to be slow and steady.

Forty five easy walking minutes brought me through the park to the trail head. This place had a little edge to it and I could see a trail that wound up to the glacier. My billygoat genes got all excited. There was a great stream that I drank from and an easy rocky trail that lead up to the mountains. There were very few people on the trail and most of the time I had the place to myself.
This place had a kind of odd feel to it. Not a huge challange as far as hikes go but there was a sense of old school strength and wisdom in the park and on the trail, if that makes any sense. I have not felt that anywhere else, but maybe I was just tripping.

The higher I got, the colder it got and fast. My new hat, gloves, jacket and shoes all got thier first chance to work as a team and they did not disappoint. Even my MEC rain jacket made a short appearence giving the Doite a rest. My sister Kelly will be pleased to know that not all the garments are blue.

Remember when we use to sew Canadian Flags on our backpacks and gear when we went abroad. Now those flags are few and far between as we are recognized by our MEC gear.

I have seen some odd signs along the way, many with funny uses of english. This one just cracked me up. You are watching the glacier. I guess if I sat there for a few years something might have happened but I do not have that kind of time or patience.

** Spanish has a verb Mirar - To Watch/Look and Ver - to See. I mix them up all the time so I will give them this one. **

The walk up was actually pretty tough as it was short but steep. It was also sand and scree so each step up reminded me of how difficult the walk down would be, but that was later. When I got as far as I could go without proper gear I just chilled and watched some trekkers hit the ice and snow up the right glacier. They were kicking it! I took some more water from a small pond, something I am finding addicting. I can not remember water tasting so good.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

I'm Sorry Merrell, Welcome Back.

If you dont think that a very good pair of shoes makes a difference when walking or trekking long distances go ahead and by something average. Use them for a while and then buy a pair of Merrells. I am not brand loyal and most people know that if there is a prominent logo on a piece of apparel that I like I usually will not make the purchase. Its not etched in stone and sometimes can not be avoided but I detest being a walking billboard for someones product.

Now all that drivel being said Merrell are the shit. I switched to Solomons for this trip and it was probably price related, but discounted Solomens Ken, Come on! Well enough was enough and today these glorious creatures are hugging my feet and the Solomons have taken thier stinky, worn down and over supinated selves to a used clothing store here in Ushuaia.
**If you think that talking to my shoes makes me more than a little crazy thats not the case. My jacket says its ok and the Doite is always right**

It was time to say good-bye to Chile and hello to Argentina. I was not looking forward to the 14 hours bus ride from Pto Natalies Chile to Ushuaia Argentina. My chariot was comfortable and there were only 17 people on board meaning lots of space to spread out.
We left Pto Natalies at 7am for Punta Arenas where I was told we were to switch buses. I was more then concerned because my bus left Punta Arenas at 8 30 and according to the schedule this bus would not arrive until 9 30. Nothing I could do and odder things have occured over the last 10 months. We are 90 minutes in when the steward opens the door and yells "people for Ushuaia, 10 minutes. I had a sudden "Saving Private Ryan" moment. Just before they hit the beach in the opening scene the troop carrier driver shouts out "3 minutes". I dont know where my mind goes sometimes but this did not make me feel any better. Some things I dont question while here any more so lets just see what happens. Sure enough a bus coming from Punta Arenas was heading our way and blinked its lights. We pulled over to the side of the road and did a switch right there in the middle of the barren highway.  Five minutes later we were off. Next stop the Strait of Magellan. I love Latin America.

Not a pretty waterway but historically (if that is your thing) I found it was amazing to be standing on the shores of the Strait of Magellan. These are the waters that you only learned about in school but you would never go there. Hell you would be on Terra Del Fuego and that is just lunacy.

There was a great moment of nature during the half hour ferry trip. If you have ever watched The Blue Planet narrated by David Attenborough you can appreciate this. A flock of about 20 comorants flying about caught my attention just as a dolphin broke the surface of the water. When the dolphin came up the birds left the water, when she dove so did the birds. Well holy crap they were working together. The dolphin scaring the fish to the surface and the birds eating and scaring them back down.  It was far enough away that no photo would do it justice, regardless I am trying to learn to just appreciate these moments as they are.

We pulled ito Ushuaia (oo-shweye-ya)  the city the furthest south in the world but not after a butt tightening ride the final 10 or 15km.

** From Wiki: Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina is considered the southernmost city in the world. It has a population of about 64,000 residents. Puerto Williams, Chile is further south but only has about 2,000 residents and lacks the amenities of a genuine city. **

(Dear Mom, Dont Read This Section) This ride was a very typical scene anywere in the world that has high mountains, roads not wide enough, buses moving way to fast down hill and into open ended cliff hugging curves plus tired drivers. The bus was moving slowly up a series of mountain switchbacks and perilously close to what can only be described as "not big or strong enough roadside barriers". If we veered right a little to far, well Bus Sur would certainly be getting a strongly worded letter and more then daily hauntings from my bleeding crushed ghost! I did notice, when my eyes were opened  (yeah I said it so what!) that many sections of the barriers were brand new, meaning.......

Once off the mountain switchbacks and I pulled myself out of the toilet, we had long stretches of clean driveable highway but our driver kept hitting the shoulder at 100 km. Unlike Chile or any other country I have been in the Maximum 5 hours of driving does not apply in Argentina, even if you start in Chile. If I would have know this ahead of time I would have brought Scotch, very good Scotch and not boxed Pineapple juice for the journey.

This is a serious Port Town with 90% of all travellers to Antarctica come through Ushuaia. The port is massive and that the first thing you see as you enter town. Get past that and you find a really cool little town sitting on the Beagle Channel and surrounded by the beginning or end of the Andes, depending on how you look at it.

I checked into my hostel, the Cruz Del Sur Independent Hostel and was immediately overwhelmed with the sound of Yiddish. I like listening to languages and Yiddish has a great nuance to it. The majority of people in this were from Isreal. My defenses immediately went up as I heard stories about hostels full of Israelis and the bullshit that they cause. I can not believe I allowed this to happen.

** This following  not NOT an anti sematic statement and not a statement against the Jewish religion. It is a statement about the Nationalism of Isreal and the two are NOT the same.**

The Isrealis are certainly a different breed. Most if not all were under 25 and coming off thier mandatory 3 year term in the military. That means 3 years of front line duty where walking to a pizza joint can get you killed and being mortared was a daily occurance. Understandably this gives them a very direct, blunt and certain aggressive nature. This is a country constantly under some type of military threat and none of their neighbours want them there.
I was a bit taken aback a first and was told to just listen to my Ipod and zone out. Great advice but that would defeat the purpose of being on the road and learning right?. Its was time to listen to my own talk. I grabbed a bottle of wine and offered it up. To a person, man or woman there were big smiles and thanks. Finding out I was from Canada the conversation immediately turned to Canada is really the USA anyways, and if Iran gets nuclear weapons then that will be the begging of WWIII because Isreal will be standing alone. President Obama does not have what it takes to be the leader that Isreal needs. "The leader that Isreal needs". I found that a very interesting statement. I listened to long interesting storys of Ben Gurion, Isreals first prime minister, and the history of Isreal from this new generation of Israelis. Most had small bags of weed and bottles of vodka, were loud but friendly and aggressive in the "I have zero tolerance for bullshit" kind of way. I was really enjoying myself.  I mentioned I had friends in Ushuaia from Poland and the generic response was "oh they are just Russians". Such brutal generalizations freaked me out. Anyways a couple hours and I was mentally exhausted but exhilerated.

A little Argentinian History fact:
On the 24th of March 1976 the Democratically elected government of Isabel Peron was over thrown in a coup d'etat by the military. This lead to almost 13 years of repression and over 30,000 people being disappeared. Of all the juntas, repressions, dictatorships, civil wars and other issues in Central and South America I absolutely did not know this.

Finally this gem. Argentina you tried to take back the Falkland Islands and Britian kicked your ass to the curb in 14 weeks. Let it go.

Finally I walked down to the Beagle Channel (thats really fun to say) a couple times over the last few days. Each time the waters were rough and the waves were beating the hell out of the private yachts. The Beagle Channel leads into the Straits of Terra Del Fuego and some of the roughest waters on the globe. This freakin ship I am taking to the Ice better be prepared!!

My first couple days in Argentina have been interesting to say the least.