Friday, February 18, 2011

Antarctica Voyage

Below is a daily summary of our trip with Lindblad/National Geographic to Antartica aboard MV National Geographic Explorer.  We landed on the continent itself as well as several islands off the Antarctic Peninsula.  We saw penguin rookeries, seals, whales, predatory birds such as skuas, and some fantastic scenery.  Bruce even took a dip in the Weddell Sea!  In comparison with other things we have done or places we have gone, there is no comparison.  This trip is in a class by itself.  We even got to keep the parkas!  Which we should have done, given the price tag on this one.  I am not complaining,  because Antarctica is such a special place and we wanted to go once in our lives.  So we did.

Chile to Tierra del Fuego, February 6.

This was the first day of the Antarctica group expedition/tour with National Geographic/Lindblad.

We left the apartment in Providencia on Sunday morning, February 6.  A taxi took us, and our luggage, the short distance to the Grand Hyatt Hotel, in Las Condes.

It was like stepping into a different world!  The doorman opened the car door and greeted me, “Good morning, sir!”  Not, “¡Buenos días, señor!”  So you can see what kind of place it is.  Not a Chilean hotel, even though it is in Chile.  If you are wondering why we even booked into such a place, and it is an expensive gringo hotel, the room came as part of the National Geographic and Lindblad tour to Antarctica.  The room was plush, and very comfortable except for being hermetically sealed.  So there was no way to open the window, and Penny always suffers when that happens.  Even I woke up with my nose stuffed up.  Wi-fi service was not part of the deal, and so we didn’t pay their price for it. 

The package included a $35 hotel account credit for each of us, but concessionaire services were not included.  Neither were tips to the hotel restaurant wait staff.  We figured that $35 would go a long way until we saw the menu.  Penny’s open faced steak sandwich was overdone.  We did see hamburgers going to other tables and those looked pretty good.  I had penne al pesto and that was also fine.  But the sandwich came to the table along with mustard and ketchup.  That is normal in Chile, but there also comes a third bottle of ají, which means hot pepper, and that is a spicy sort of sandwich sauce.  No ají at the Grand Hyatt!  Penny asked for some, and the waitress looked a bit dubious.  They brought tabasco sauce.  We might as well have been in…Los AngelesHouston?  But it was a comfortable room, and of that there is no doubt.

Many of the group were arriving that morning on the long, overnight flights from the USA.  But there were quite a few who had come a couple of days early, hoping to see something of Santiago and Chile on their own.  That was nice to see.  We are still amazed at what we saw on the Rio de Janeiro-Barcelona repositioning cruise that we took last year.  So many of the passengers arrived in Rio de Janeiro on sailing day and gone straight to the ship, and meant to fly out of Barcelona to North America immediately on arrival.  The lava clouds from Iceland interfered with their plans, but that is another story.

A bus tour of Santiago was available for our group, and so we took it.  The bus drove down to the historic center of Santiago, passing by the Plaza de Armas, the Mercado Central, La Moneda, and so on.  We got a tour of the pre-Columbian museum.  Our guide was Chilean-German, and her English was difficult to understand.  Many of our group were understandably unhappy about that.  She was, however, quite knowledgeable about the artifacts in the museum.  Two of the people we have met in our group are Mexican, and both of those women were quite upset to see original Mexican artifacts in a museum outside the country.  They said they had asked their guide, who of course assured them that everything had been acquired legally because a Mexican ambassador to Chile had made the donation.  I wonder too.

A very early breakfast at the hotel, and the busses left for the airport.  We flew on LAN from Santiago to Ushuaia.  It was apparently a charter flight.  The views of the Andes were spectacular as the plane flew south.  We arrived at Ushuaia on time and cleared Argentine immigration and customs.  A couple of ladies were not as lucky as the rest of us.  Their luggage didn’t make it.  There had been a couple at the Hyatt scrambling to buy some clothes because theirs didn’t make it Santiago from the US.  As it turned out, those bags had arrived much later and arrangements had been made to put them directly onto to Ushuaia flight.  The other problem stemmed from a failure of the automatic sorting system at Santiago airport.  The ground crews sorted the suitcases manually, and some got misrouted.  We heard that a suitcase tagged for HKG had arrived in Ushuaia with us.  Wow!  (HKG means the Hong Kong airport.)  Penny had an extra pair of sweat pants and lent that to one of the unfortunate women.

We left Ushuaia on a bus tour of the Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego (Tierra del Fuego National Park.)  Sergio was a pleasant and very informative guide.  We learned about the problems that have resulted from the introduction of non-native species into the region.  The military government attempted to establish a fur industry and so introduced Canadian beavers to the island.  Their fur grew differently in the different climate and the result was commercially unusable.  But now, there are more than 100,000 beavers on Tierra del Fuego, chomping down trees, building dams and lodges, and doing other beaver things that have a severe impact on the environment.  

The mountain scenery was beautiful, and we drove along National Route 3, which ends at Buenos Aires.  The part of Route 3 in this part of the world is marked as the Pan American Highway, which begins in Alaska.  At La Pataia, we had lunch on board the catamarans that took us back down the Beagle Channel to Ushuaia where MV National Geographic Explorer was moored at the same pier as a couple of very large cruise ships.  We saw some amazing colonies of king cormorants, and this is just a tongue-whetting for what is to come! 

We embarked in our ship which got underway and sailed down the Beagle Channel and out to sea. 

By the morning, the seas were running 7-8 feet with an occasional 10 foot wave.  Those are not particularly large, except that the 165 degrees (true) course put us right in the trough.  But it got better as the ship moved south and passed over the Antarctic Convergence. 

We spent February 8 at sea, and it was quite pleasant.  The ship is small, and visitors are welcome to the bridge.  So of course, I had to go for a look.  As with Queen Mary 2 and MV CMA CGM Hugo, the pilot house equipment and displays were digitized to a degree far exceeding that of my time in the U.S. Navy.  But I have been retired from the USN for almost eighteen years now.  (Stop counting!)  This ship is small, and was originally built as a ferry to work in regions affected by sea ice.

We had an extensive briefing on political and ecological issues affecting Antarctica, and the rules for visiting tourists that have resulted from those issues.  They had a good phrase to summarize the philosophy:  Take nothing with you but memories, and leave nothing behind but footprints.”

10 February,  Antarctic landfall and Deception Island 

We made visual landfall at about 9 am, and the ship headed for Baily Head on Deception Island.  The beach conditions were good for landing in the Zodiac boats.  We were told that this was quite fortunate, because they usually are not so.  Because the ship made a good trip across the Drake Passage, we arrived early and there was time for this extra excursion.  Some of the naturalists said they were concerned because this was so spectacular, that other places might pale by comparison.

We suited up in our Antarctic gear for the first time, and embarked for the beach through the mud room.  Deception Island is a volcanic caldera, and the last eruption was around 1970.  We went ashore in groups, and the naturalists had coned off a path for us so that we did not interfere with the “penguin highway.”  There were some fur seals on the beach.  These aggressive animals were best avoided.  Deception Island is home to some 100,000 breeding pairs of chinstrap penguins.  We saw chicks that were molting, and some who had joined the parade of adults to the sea to get krill for food.  The adults brought back krill to feed to the younger chicks.  These birds showed no fear of humans.  Skua birds are a brownish looking species that looks to me like a mix of hawk and seagull.  They prey on the penguins, and we saw several carcasses of dead penguins as we walked to the top of the ridge.  At the top was a straight cliff on the other side.

The Lindblad/National Geographic videographer chose Penny to be interviewed on camera.  Just like the old days with Channel 7 in San Diego!  Well, not quite. 

The clothing gear worked quite well, and we felt quite comfortable in it, but we were still glad to get back aboard from this exhiliarating experience. 

The ship later entered Whalers Bay, the site of an abandoned whaling station that operated from about 1910 to 1931.  The three huge tanks held whale oil, and the guide said that about 175,000 whales were processed through the station.  Only oil was taken, because there were no facilities there to process meat or bone meal.  It must have been a gross, dank place.

Afterward, we enjoyed another nice meal with good company.

Thursday, February 10, 2011
Dorian Bay (Wiencke Island) and Palmer Station

Today was a very full day.  Our first event was a Zodiac boat cruise around the ice of Dorian Bay.  The shapes of some of the brash ice pieces were interesting!  The bluish color of some ice results from the prismatic effect of sunlight being passed through the ice. 

After cruising around the bay, our group’s turn to land came and we clambered ashore.  The island is inhabited by a rather large colony of gentoo penguins.  These have not fared well this winter because it was colder than earlier years, and the gentoos tend to flourish in warmer weather than do chinstraps or Adelies.  
The chicks have hatched late, and few are expected to be ready to survive on their own when winter arrives.  They usually lay two eggs, but one hatches a few days earlier than the other.  The younger one has a tough time competing for the krill brought by the parent birds, and then falls farther behind in growth.  We saw one pair of chicks feeding.  The poor smaller one kept trying to reach up into the parent’s beak, but never seemed to make it.  The larger sibling often pushed in front, and the parent seemed to make no effort to save the younger chick.  But our naturalist guide said that neither chick was likely to survive at all.

Also at this bay was a cruising yacht at anchor, near two refugios, or rescue shelters.  One belonged to the Argentine Navy and was stocked mostly with construction materials.  The other was British and had a variety of powdered foodstuffs and such. 

We returned to the ship for lunch, and then suited up again for an afternoon outing.  We first went by Zodiac boat to Torgerson Island, home to breeding Adelie penguins.  These look like Tennesee Tuxedo.  There is an experiment in progress.  A line is flagged across the island, and people are prohibited to cross it.  The goal is to see what effects proximity to humans may have on Adelie breeding success.  Apparently the ones closer to, or actually inside the area permitted to humans do better.  This may result from the skuas being more afraid of humans and tending to avoid them.  We also got a very good look at a skua chick and its parents.

Afterward, we embarked in the Zodiacs and headed over to Palmer Station.  This is one of three stations maintained by the U.S. Antarctic Program, National Science Foundation.  The other two are McMurdo, and Amundsen-Scott.  The latter is at the rotational South Pole.  We forgot to reinstall our camera battery after recharging it from the morning’s expeditions, so we are hoping that a friend may share a picture or two.  The scientists at Palmer were there to talk about their work.  I found the projects involving autonomous underwater vehicles quite fascinating.  One type of AUV is called a “glider” and is used at Palmer to collect marine biological data.  The researcher told me that a glider had once been launched on the East Coast of the United States and it went all the way to Spain.  My former naval self’s mind came out of hibernation as I mulled over the reconnaissance possibilities of such a platform.

We returned to the ship, and many of the Palmer staff also came on board for drinks and a nice dinner.  They seldom get fresh vegetables and fruits.

Penny and I were both very tired at the end of the day.  The warm clothing is working well, and keeping us dry to boot!

Friday, February 11, 2011
Maxwell Bay, King George Island

A passenger took sick in the middle of the night, and the ship got underway from anchorage to seek treatment.  This meant a transit north to King George Island from which an aeromedical evacuation to Santiago could be staged.  There were insurance issues that needed to resolved, and the ship was required to remain at anchor off the Chilean base at Maxwell Bay until that point.  The ship finally transferred the passenger and her husband around 9 pm.

While we waited, we were able to tour the two research stations at Maxwell Bay.  One is the Russian Bellinghausen station, which also provides logistic support to the Russian whaling fleet.  Chile maintains several facilities at the same site, and an underlying part of their mission is to reinforce Chile’s territorial claims in Antarctica.  There is a scientific research station.  There is also a Chilean air force base and contingent.  They have quarters, a post office, and even a BCi branch!  A Chilean Navy detachment also serves as the captain of the port.  Both of these armed forces facilities have rescue and area support missions as well.  All the Chileans were quite hospitable and happy to show us around their part of their country’s presence in Antarctica

Adjacent to the Chilean facilities is the Bellinghausen station.  They also have some scientific research projects in progress.  There is also a Russian Orthodox chapel there, and we met the deacon who is assigned there.  He doubles as a carpenter and a painter.

After returning aboard, we received a briefing from the research dive team that is aboard MV National Geographic Explorer and has been diving and videorecording it each day the ship has been anchored somewhere. 

Sunday, February 13, 2001    Landing on the Continent of Antarctica and swimming in the Weddell Sea.

Today was one simply phenomenal day.  After leaving King George Island, the ship headed to the east side of the Antarctic Peninsula.  The Weddell Sea was full of tabular icebergs, bergy bits, growlers, and ice floes.  We went ashore at Brown’s Bluff, a tuya located at the northern tip of the peninsula.  So now there is no doubt about it:  Penny and Bruce have each set boots on each of the seven continents.  We were able to hike up the face of a glacier and look out across the bay.  Returning to the rocky beach line, we walked along it for several hundred yards and enjoyed looking at the fur seals, the gentoo penguins, and the Adelie penguin colonies.  Many penguin fledglings were making their first forays into the ocean.  We did not see this, but one of the Zodiac boats was admiring the little penguins that had reached an ice refuge when a leopard seal surged out of the water and snatched a penguin for lunch.

After getting underway in the afternoon, the ship again transited the ice fields, but this time the sun was out and so the vistas were different, although both the morning and the afternoon scenes were spectacular in their own respective ways.  Four humpback whales obliged us by showing themselves as the ship passed by.  We posed for a group photo on the forecastle.  The captain brought the ship right up to the edge of a large tabular berg.

And then it came time for swim call.  Several of us took advantage of the opportunity for a Polar Plunge into the Weddell Sea.  This had been hyped for quite a while.  The ship’s doctor was standing by with a defibrillator, and so I had responded many times that I wasn’t about to go in if that were necessary.  How clueless did they think I was?  There are some questions for which you just don’t want an answer.  So after all that, I was one of the handful who jumped in.  The ship’s company put a Zodiac boat into the water for us to use as a jumping platform, and in we went.  It was cold!  It was also very clear underwater.  I swam for the ladder and climbed out.  Did I mention that the water was cold?  It was cold!

The ship then got underway to return to Port Lockroy, which was the landing visit that had been cancelled when the passenger became ill.

Sunday, February 13, 2011  Orne Harbor and Port Lockroy

Today has been the sort of blustery day that one thinks of along with Antarctica itself.  Wind, snow, and sleet.  The seas have been up a bit, but the ride hasn’t been at all bad.

The ship anchored in Orne Harbor and we went ashore.  Guess what was there?  Penguins!  Go figure!  This was a large colony of Gentoos.  We rode the Zodiac ashore and walked up on the ice to photograph skua, seals, and penguins.  The weather became a bit worse ashore when a katabatic wind came up and started blowing down the glacier.  Upon recovering all passengers, the ship returned to Port Lockroy where there is a British research station on a small island.

The British research station is also a historic site, under the care of the United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage Trust.  We went ashore in the Zodiac through horizontal snow and sleet.  There is a gift shop there, and we bought some souvenirs!  Who would have thought!  The weather station is preserved as a museum, and it was fascinating to see.  I am glad I was never stationed in such a place.  They had their Marmite, though!

We had dinner by invitation with Jay Dickman, the National Geographic photographer on board.  Almost everybody else at our table was a physician, a medical student whose father was one of the physicians, and his mother who was not one.  The dinner was an Argentine asado.  Meat!  Vinto tinto!  Meat!

Sunday, 14 February  Booth Island and Lemaire Channel

Today was the last day to land in Antarctica.  On Booth Island were colonies of all three brushtail penguins.  Like many other passengers, we opted out because we had seen these birds several times before.  A Zodiac cruise around the adjacent bay offered some fantastic pictures of ice, and of seals.  It got very windy and sleety as the boat returned back to the ship.  Following this last outing, we returned aboard.  The ship made its way to Dallman Island where several humpback whales chose to cooperate with the photographic aspirations of the passengers.  Then it was time to head north, back through the Boyd Strait toward the Drake Passage and on to Ushuaia.

15-17  February    Antarctic Waters to Ushuaia via Cape Horn

The ship sailed out via Boyd Strait, headed for Cape Horn.  This slight detour was so that we passengers could all say that we had seen that storied spit of land.  The passage was quite rough, and so we laid low.  But all’s well that ends well, and we headed for the Beagle Strait and Ushuaia with a fairly smooth ride. 

The LAN charter flight back to Santiago was smooth.  Lindblad checked in all the hold luggage of the flight’s passengers while we took a tour of Ushuaia.  The tour seemed aimed at filling time more than anything else, because we flew back on the same plane that brought the next batch of passengers down.

Many passengers had flights to North America that same evening, and they were rightly annoyed about the checked baggage.  They had to reclaim their luggage, clear Chilean immigration and customs, and then go upstairs to check in again and immediately exit through immigration!  If someone hadn’t already paid the Chilean visa reciprocity fee, that meant US$140 per person.  Lindblad should have arranged with LAN to allow those people to check their own baggage at Ushuaia through to their final destinations and remain in the international departure area at Santiago should they wish to have done so.

1 comment:

  1. Antarctica cruises and going ashore in brother-in-law just told me about the author of a technical blog that he follows. It seems that the person took a cruise and was disappointed that the ship did not run shore excursions to Antarctica. Instead, it was only a drive-by viewing. They got to go ashore in the Falklands/Malvinas and see penguin rookeries there, but they were unable to set foot in Antarctica.

    According what we were told on MV National Geographic Explorer by the Lindblad people, the International Antarctic Tourist Organization carefully regulates human intrusion onto the continent. Only 100 visitors are allowed at a time per ship. We were divided into six groups of 25 each, and a rotating schedule of Zodiac boats kept our presence within the maximum allowed number.

    I don't see how one could expect a large cruise ship to shuttle their passengers ashore in Antarctica. The landings are mostly wet ones, in which the Zodiac boat is beached. The passenger swings over the gunwale of the boat, stands in the water, and wades the rest of the way ashore.

    We were aware of these restrictions before we booked with Lindblad/National Geographic. I think the unhappy customer of the cruise line might have done some better research.