It's almost a week since Michael and I got back from our little expedition to Antarctica. We flew by way of Buenos Aires to Ushuaia, Argentina, a 21st century boomtown in a stunning mountainous setting on the Beagle Channel, at the tip of Tierra del Fuego. Ushuaia began as a penal colony. Now it's a gateway to Antarctica trying too hard to be a modern tourist destination. We boarded a Chilean ship with 76 others from a dozen different countries for an eleven day voyage to The Antarctic Peninsula. We had to sail through Drakes Passage, here the Pacific, Atlantic, and Antarctic waters converge. It's a two day challenge to one's equilibrium, each way. Every meal on the way out brought the sounds of dishes crashing and smashing on the floor, followed by a roar of laughter as we sought to cope with a situation slightly out of control. Michael and I fortunately had our Scopolamine patches in place; others were not so lucky and sat out some good meals. I was sure I'd roll right out of bed, but never did. The ship was escorted by large pelagic birds, Albatross and Petrels that swoop and glide right beside and behind the ship for hours, without rest, rarely flapping their wings. They land on solid ground only for breeding.
The time spent in the Antarctic seems like a dream. This was early in the summer season so all was pristine. Later, we're told, there would be mud at landing sites. The penguins are just going through their mating rituals and we saw plenty of pairing off, bowing in sync, mating (he stands on top of her), and males carrying one pebble in their bills at a time for nest making. We left the ship and boarded zodiac craft seven times. Several times we landed and for other outings we remained in our zodiacs and explored bays, around islands, glaciers, and icebergs, there being no opportunity for landing. The icebergs really are vivid neon blue, when the snow they're made of has been compressed over thousands of years, leaving little air pace, and then reflect back only the color blue. Quite astounding in that world of white. We traveled as far south as Petermann Island, where Adelie Penguins breed, but couldn't see the penguins or the island due to blinding horizontal snow. We turned back and the weather changed for the better. In all those days we passed one ship. In addition to pelagic birds, we saw King Cormorants nesting, Brown Scuas stealing eggs, snowy Sheathbills who clean up the mess made by penguins, Arctic Terns who get to enjoy two summers a year but work awfully hard for it, Antarctic Terns who get to enjoy only one summer, and of course the endearing penguins. We visited colonies of Gentoos. They have bright red-orange bills and feet and are endlessly entertaining. Some Chinstraps too, one solid black headed Adelie in a colony of Gentoos, and one lone Emperor spotted atop an iceberg. In the Beagle Channel we later visited a colony of smaller Magellanic Penguins with a sole Gentoo in their midst. We saw a pod of Orcas swimming in sync, a Minke whale right next to the ship, Weddell Seals at various locals, and numerous South American Sea Lions on islands in the Beagle Channel. We could easily spot the one huge male, darker and with a mane, who lords it over his harem of females.
When we weren't visiting sites, two on-board scientists lectured on bird and marine life, and arctic and antarctic ecosystems, in Spanish at 3:00, English at 4:30. We also viewed films and programs on Shackleton and a less known but equally resourceful Swedish explorer named Nordenskjold. We dropped off two indomitable young women at Port Lockroy, a British base where early ionosphere research was conducted, leading to the discovery of the ozone hole. The women are running a tiny museum and counting penguins for the next five months.
A Chilean film and diving crew were with us, filming the Antarctic segment of a 12 part series for Chilean tv. Halfway through the trip we discovered that the sole woman on the team was Celine Cousteau, Jacque Cousteau's granddaughter. We dined with her and her partner toward the end of our voyage, learning much about dry suits (not wet) for diving in below freezing water, scary regulator malfunctions due to the cold, and frozen fingers bringing a brief 20 minute dive to an abrupt end. The last night on the ship, they shared their underwater images of beautiful anenomies, sea urchins, giant kelp, and paired Michael's music to a four minute video of an iceberg dive. The Antarctic sea is exceedingly rich with life although the krill, a small shrimp-like crustacean which a wide variety of marine life depend on, Humpbacks and penguins among them, are becoming endangered due to thinning sea ice.
Back at the port of Ushuaia, we hiked to a local glacier's edge and alongside a torrent of glacial spring meltwaters, back through lichen draped forest, to town. From the foot of the glacier, we looked way back to the Beagle Channel below. The next day we were back on the water to get a close look at wildlife on islands in the Channel; sea lions, king cormorants, and penguins. Our final landing was at Estancia Harberton, the earliest farm in Tierra del Fuego, which was huge at 60,000 hectares and grazed 9000 sheep. The descendants of the first British settler now support a marine mammal museum on the site, where a lovely Colombian biologist intern eagerly gave us a private tour. She was learning how to cook, clean, and prepare bones and then reassemble them for their 2700 specimen collection. Before landfall, my small point-and-shoot battery had died, my Nikon had stopped functioning the day before, and Michael's new camcorder had succumbed to cold and snow on our second outing, so we relied on Michael's iphone for the Estancia shots. Back by bus, much of the way on dirt road through dramatic mountainous countryside to Ushuaia and our last dinner, looking out over the Beagle Channel and the antics of its abundant birdlife. Ushuaia's restaurant offerings are surprisingly exceptional. Next morning we stumbled into a cafe away from the main drag, in what had been a general store from 1906, stocked full of period tools and hardware, food tins, sewing machines. There we met an Argentinian architect from Houston whose nephew is a phd candidate in Spanish Lit. at UMASS. He was the first person we'd met on the trip who knew of our hometown. While he sipped his mate (pronounced ma tay), we commiserated on the state of present-day America, said our farewells, and left to catch the first of three flights home.