Sunday, February 10, 2013

Not Enough Superlatives

In case you’ve been wondering just what the BCs – and Petey – have been up to for the last couple of weeks while taking a break from the blogosphere, the short answer is that we headed South (way, way South) for a bit of “Summer” vacation. And was it ever amazing! Actually, it was more than amazing. Some things in life are really hard to convey in words – just too spectacular – and the trip we just returned from was one of those. We’re truly at a loss to come up with enough superlatives to describe what we saw and experienced in . . . Antarctica!

That’s the short answer as to where we were. The long answer is that after spending a couple of days touring the hot, sunny, and very pretty city of Buenos Aires (our interim destination) and enjoying the sights, food, and wine of Argentina’s capital, it was finally time to meet up with our expedition companions and board our charter flight on LAN even further South – to Ushuaia. (Oosh-why-ah.) Surrounded by the stunning, snow-capped peaks of the Andes Mountains at the tip of South America, Ushuaia is the southern-most city on earth, aptly nicknamed Fin del Mundo. . . the End of the World.   However, for the BCs, Petey, and about 140 other intrepid travelers, it wasn’t the end, it was the just the beginning of an indescribable adventure!

There in Ushuaia, we boarded our ship at last, the 300-foot National Geographic Explorer, and headed out into some of the roughest waters in the world, the Drake Passage. The infamous Drake, which separates Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America from the Northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, is where the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Southern Oceans come together.  That typically makes for a very turbulent mix, especially since there is no landmass to block the winds that constantly circulate around Antarctica.  Handrails in cabins and corridors kept us more or less upright as we walked around the ship, while heavy ropes strung in the restaurant area (serving as grab lines) allowed us to navigate to a table without tumbling headfirst into furniture, buffet stations or other passengers. Fortunately, all the chairs in the dining room were strapped to the deck, so when the inevitable big waves hit, you only needed to grab the liquids on your table to keep them from launching themselves into space or, worse yet, onto someone else’s lap. But as long as you were seated, your chair couldn’t slide more than about eight inches before the strap stopped your motion.  A scopolomine patch was the accessory of choice for BC Eileen and many of our shipmates, while a few on board, including BC Judith, were born with sea legs and enjoyed the rough crossing, spending a great deal of time up on the bridge getting photos of waves breaking over the bow.

After about a day and a half of rockin’ and rollin’ (accompanied along the way by majestic birds, including Wandering Albatrosses and Giant Petrels), we got our first glimpse of “The Ice” and its many fascinating inhabitants . . .

Icebergs!  Everywhere.  Astounding beauty!

No two alike.  Some just floating chunks a few feet on a side.  Some the size of city blocks!

On closer inspection, they are simply more fantastic!

Our ship was an ice class vessel, and our Captain loved nothing better than steering into massive sections of sea ice . . . creating cracks, then using the bow to push the ice away, forming a channel for the ship to pass through.  We loved it, too.  Endlessly entertaining!
Sometimes, though, smooth sailing and calm waters were just as breathtaking.
There was even more to see on land.  Here, on one of our many landings via zodiac boats, the penguins welcomed us ashore.  (In truth, we happened to pull into one of their favorite beaches, and they were simply going about their business . . . heading out to sea to stuff themselves with krill.)

Petey tried to make friends with the Gentoo penguins, but they were too busy to stop and chat.
On another landing, more penguins going about their business.  These are Adelies . . . all black faces with white around their eyes.
Chicks chasing an Adelie parent. "Feed me!"

Another chick in the colony gets its wish . . . a feeding from Mom or Dad (it's nearly impossible to distinguish the genders from a respectful distance).

A quiet moment for a Gentoo family on their nest.
And another quiet moment as this molting Gentoo enjoys the falling snow.
Sometimes we observed a rookery from land (where we also experienced the unforgettable "aroma" of large quantities of slimy, pink penguin guano).

Other times, we spotted the colonies while cruising in the zodiacs (and if we happened to be downwind of the penguins, we were also treated to their unmistakable "aroma").
On land, penguins are slow and waddling, but surefooted.  In water, they are sleek, porpoising speed demons!

The seabirds who followed our ship were also fascinating, graceful creatures.  Here's a Black Browed Albatross. This bird has a wing span of nearly 8 feet!

. . . here, a Wandering Albatross, with a wingspan of up to 11.5 feet.
. . .  and some Pintado Petrels.
We spotted many seals of several varieties. In the water, they are hard to photograph. But napping on ice floes, they are much easier to capture.   Here's the much-feared (by penguins!) Leopard Seal -- a ferocious mammal with long sharp teeth, weighing more a thousand pounds.  Since humans in red parkas are neither his prey nor his predator, he allowed us to bump right up against his iceberg -- for our photo op -- with nothing more threatening than a few stares and a yawn or two.

Did we mention we saw whales?  So many, we lost count!  Here's a breaching Humpback.

And Minke whales swimming around and under our zodiacs. The naturalist driving our zodiac that day told us that she had rarely seen such a playful display from Minkes.  We saw many Minkes on our expedition, including [cue music from Jaws] . . .

. . . the morning the ship got a 5:30 AM wake-up call that a pod of Killer Whales was spotted off the bow.  Two of the world's leading Killer Whale researchers, John Durban and Bob Pitman, were on the Explorer with us, so, with the Captain's assistance, our ship followed the whales.  The Killer Whales (approximately a dozen) zeroed in on a lone Minke -- breakfast! -- and began the chase.  Experts Bob and John gave the Minke a slim chance of escape.  But, sometimes the underdog -- or underwhale -- wins.  And after 13 miles and 2 hours of open sea chasing, the lone Minke managed (against all odds) to elude the Killer Whales.  Watching this life-and-death contest play out was truly one of the highlights of our trip!

The Minke's unexpected success provided a major opportunity for the Killer Whale research team.  The defeated Killers were tired from the long chase, and in no rush to leave the area around our ship.  So the researchers took to a zodiac, wielding cross-bows fitted with arrows bearing tracking transmitters.  Bob and John managed to "tag" 3 Killer Whales in this pod . . . the first time this type of Killer Whale had ever been tagged with depth-dive transmitters!  Now the researchers can follow the whales' movements and learn more about this species. 

Of course, no "southern" vacation would be complete without water sports.  Here, BC Judith is kayaking in her fashionable Arctic Muck Boots.

And naturally, all that beautiful blue water meant  . . . swimming!  Or at least a "polar plunge."  If you packed your swimsuit and had the nerve, you could jump off the ship's platform into the 29-degree water.  How refreshing!  BC Judith "took the plunge"!  BC Eileen wimped out (and took the picture).  By the way, the woman in the blue parka in the left zodiac is the ship's doctor, a specialist in emergency medicine.  (We're happy to report that all the plungers survived without need for her services.)

After all we saw and did, it was sad to say goodbye to the wildlife.  (These penguins, though, don't seem too broken up about our departure.)

And sad to say goodbye to this incredible continent, more beautiful than we could have imagined.  Words aren't enough.  These photos don't do it justice.  This wild, unspoiled place is, hands-down, one of the most spectacular places on this planet.  The BCs will never forget it.  And we will always feel so very fortunate to have been there.

Photo Credits: DC BasketCases


At 4:55 PM, Blogger fr mike said...

:) PEACE! Thank you DCBCs for sharing your wonder-filled journey with us. I am so happy you had the opportunity to make thta journey, that you got to go kayaking and cold water plunging! WOW! Welcome home! Just in time for Monday night's game of the season. Glad you are blogging again.

At 7:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, What a trip. Just reading about the ropes in the dining room was making me seasick. Welcome back. Big game tonight and I'm worried about our team in the last 5 minutes. They looked gassed in the last game against Wake. Suiting just 6 is tough. If I was Duke, I'd press all game and go to the bench early.

At 11:38 AM, Blogger DP said...

Want to add my thanks as well. Not only were the pictures extraordinary but the narrative really gave us a clear view of your trip.

At 11:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Spectacular trip & thanks for sharing pictures of someplace I will never veture. It's just too cold even in the summer!

At 9:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing your photos and comments ... what an
incredible journey! The Expedition Staff at Lindblad-National
Geographic sent 'Daily Reports' of your trip and I followed along
at my cousin's suggestion; she was with you on the adventure. I
liked getting an account from the perspective of a passenger on
board ... Lindblad never mentioned navigating about the ship in
rough seas :-). And your photos make me long to see Antarctica.

At 11:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amazing so jealous. Photos are spectacular and loved your descriptions of events and sights. You are so fortunate to have made the trip to this wonderland. And thanks for sharing your experience with us. R

At 11:15 AM, Anonymous Sue/Durham said...

Best travelogue ever! I am grateful for your talents and senses of humor. Thanks for taking us along on your spectacular adventure!


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