Gentoo penguin
Gentoo penguin

Fly Me to the Moon (or somewhere just as far away)

Antarctica and the Falkland Islands, Nov. 26-Dec. 12, 2003
[Photos] [Video]

In the days leading up to departure for Antarctica, I commented to anyone who would listen that it seemed as though I was preparing for a Moon launch. It took the astronauts three days to travel from the Earth to the Moon, about the same amount of time (excluding sightseeing breaks) it took me to get from Boston to the Antarctic Peninsula. Like the astronauts, it was necessary to pack special clothing and giant boots to protect the human body from a hostile environment, and also to pack plenty of camera equipment to record the experience.

Blastoff was the day before Thanksgiving, Nov. 26, and later on Iíll fill in some of the details of the southward journey. But for now let's jump ahead to the afternoon of Dec. 1 when word came over the intercom of the Clipper Adventurer advising us to strap on our gear and prepare to embark in the Lunar Module, er, Zodiac boat for a landing on Roberts Island, home to a chinstrap penguin rookery and a resting place for elephant seals.

Boarding a Zodiac was one of my chief worries going into the trip. I had visions of my 120 fellow cruise passengers being a bunch of 30-something triathletes. My nightmares would start out with, "Never mind the Zodiac today Julio. Weíre just going to swim the mile to shore." I was concerned about picking up a nickname such as "That Clumsy Oaf" by dropping my camera gear or myself into the Great Southern Ocean. It was correct to have concerns, but it turned out that I was concerned about the wrong things.

I was actually one of the younger, spryer members of the contingent, with most being 70ish retired couples. What I should have been concerned about was being perceived as one of the dumber members of the expedition. Many of those on board had booked through the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and were professors emeritus of various sciences at prestigious universities. I felt like a bumpkin because my only advanced degree is from the University of South Dakota and is in business, not rocket science or geology. Getting in and out of the Zodiacs turned out to be easy, but staying interested in esoteric dinnertime conversations was a real problem. Fortunately there were some "normal" people on board so for at least some meals the talk did not center on academic trivia.

In all I made 12 Zodiac landings in Antarctica and the Falkland Islands. (I did skip one landing; more on that later.) We didnít lose any landings to weather, but the failings of humans and nations did cause significant changes to our schedule.

Typically there were 8-10 passengers and one driver in each Zodiac. To board it was necessary to don a lifejacket, climb down a stairway, grab hold of two guys in the boat, step in, and sit down. No seatbelts, just a useless rope to grip. For the first landing we embarked at about 2 p.m. local time (two hours ahead of EST). The sky was sunny and the temperature was cool but comfortable, but that first transit turned out to be one of the longer and rougher Zodiac rides of the week. We got a little wet from the spray, but not drenched. A few minutes after starting out we swung ourselves over the side of the boat into the surf and came ashore on an Antarctic island. We spent a couple of hours checking out the chinstraps and the gigantic elephant seals, and also circled a lone Weddell seal taking a nap just above the beach. The animals ignored us as long as we stayed out of their way, which we endeavored to do.

Over the next week it was easy to develop an appreciation for the penguins. Just imagine an existence divided between the coldest land on Earth and the depths of a frigid ocean. In the sea as they gather food for themselves and their offspring, they have to elude giant carnivores such as orcas and leopard seals. On land, the ones who arenít quick enough to stake out nests near the ocean have to walk long distances over rough and icy terrain on stubby legs. Itís easy to ascribe characteristics to them such as bravery, loyalty, perseverance, and a sense of community. Whether or not itís appropriate to use such words, thereís no doubt penguins are very good at creating little penguins, and what greater or more joyous accomplishment can any other creature claim?

Iceberg and ship
Iceberg and ship

Back in my cabin after the excitement of the first landing, I was wondering how I was going to dry out my "waterproof" pants, which were actually ski pants that had become soaked at the bottom. No problem; the cuffs dried very quickly. Although Antarctica is covered in places with miles of frozen water, there is very little annual precipitation and the air is very dry.

The second day (Dec. 2) we had two landings. In the morning we visited another chinstrap rookery on Half Moon Island, and in the afternoon we saw our first gentoo penguins at Hannah Point. There were a few macaroni penguins mixed in among the others. (Iím not going to try to explain what distinguishes one type of penguin from another, so I suggest you take a look at the photos after you finish reading this fascinating account.) Day 3 we landed at Cuverville Island in the morning and saw a large rookery of gentoos. There was a good, long hike and this was one of my longest stays on shore. Shortly after raising anchor, we were called out on deck to see a family of orcas breeching near the ship. As we proceeded south, we made our way through the scenic Lemaire Channel. That afternoon we reached our furthest point south and had an afternoon landing on Petermann Island where we saw our first Adelie penguins. The south latitude there is 65ļ 10', still more than a degree from the Antarctic Circle. Cruise staff said some boats later in the season might get down to the circle, but this early in the year there was too much ice and not enough wildlife to make it worthwhile. (So my most extreme latitude of the year remains Grimsey Island in Iceland, just north of the Arctic Circle.)

The morning of Day 4 was marked by a visit to the U.S. Antarctic Program base at Palmer Station. We were given a tour of the station by the resident staff, then visited an Adelie rookery on nearby Torgersen Island. We also took an extended Zodiac cruise to see the icebergs and glaciers up close. We were supposed to stop at Britainís Port Lockroy in the afternoon to tour the museum, drop off our mail and get our passports stamped, but the three-person station staff was nowhere to be found. Even though someone knew where the key was, the expedition leader decided it wouldnít be nice to put 120 people ashore without any station staff on hand. So we missed Port Lockroy but did land at nearby Jougla Point as scheduled to view the gentoos and snap touristy shots next to a reassembled whale skeleton.

Although landings became somewhat routine after four days, the excitement returned on the morning of Day 5 because we made our only landing on the continent itself. For some, it was their seventh and final continent. It was only my fourth, assuming England gets me credit for Europe. We went ashore at Neko Harbor and I spent most of the time on the beach photographing gentoos in and near the water. Anyone who says penguins canít fly should go stand on the shore at Neko Harbor for a while. As they porpoise along they do indeed fly through the air, even it if is for just a few yards before they nose back into the water.

After heading back to the ship, we were invited to assemble in the lounge for an announcement. The expedition leader, Julio, told us there was a significant change to the schedule -- our charter flight to Chile would be leaving from Ushuaia rather than Port Stanley in the Falklands. The Argentine government had decided not to allow charter flights to the Falklands to overfly their territory without landing in Argentina. The Falklands would not agree to this condition. Of course all this nonsense is part of the ongoing disagreement between Argentina and Britain over who owns the Falklands, a disagreement which in 1982 resulted in war won by Britain.

It was decided we would make two landings on islands in the western Falklands, then head back to Ushuaia. However, going back to Ushuaia required one extra day at sea, so we had to leave the Antarctic a day earlier than expected. Everyone took the news rather well and even applauded when Julio was done speaking. Even though an exact schedule was not announced in advance, I figure the petulance of the Argentines meant we missed Elephant Island (of Shackleton fame), one or two Falklands landings, and the opportunity to see Port Stanley.

We did have time to make one final stop in the Antarctic late on Day 5 at Deception Island, a huge volcanic ring that has served as a protected harbor for nearly 200 years. We made our landing on the black sand beach there at about 9 p.m. This time of year at that latitude (about 62 degrees south) the days are long, so there was still daylight for several hours. We did a walking tour of the abandoned building and machinery there, most of which date back to whaling days between 1906 and 1931. Only a few penguins strolled around the beach on that part of the island.

The only landing I skipped was further down the beach on Deception Island. One of the things to do (the brochure says) is to don a swimsuit and splash around in the hot spring there. I stayed on the ship and what I observed through the binoculars was staff digging a trench along the shoreline and several pasty-white passengers lying down in a few inches of steaming water. I concluded that there is a profound difference between "laughing with you" and "laughing at you," and didnít regret skipping that landing.

Rockhopper chick
Rockhopper chick under parent (left)

The hilarity concluded at around midnight and we headed for the Falklands. After two full days at sea we received the happy news that our morning landing on West Point Island would be "dry," which meant no big rubber boots. We landed at a dock next to a farm site. The rookery of rockhopper penguins and albatrosses was on the other side of the little island, so I was happy to be wearing hiking boots instead of those rubber things. The farmer did have Land Rovers to transport lazy people to the rookery, but I was happy to make the hike after two days cooped up in the ship. It was interesting to see the penguin and albatross nests right next to each other, so apparently the two species get along. We had seen eggs in the penguin rookeries further south, but here we saw our first tiny penguin chicks. They were hard to see with their parents sitting on them, which was necessary with predatory skuas hovering overhead, but every once in a while the parent would let the little head poke out to receive a small meal of krill.

After hiking back to the farm, there was no doubt we were in British territory. The Union Jack flew on a pole in the yard, and everyone was invited into the farmhouse for snacks and a spot of tea.

We had to wear the rubber boots one last time for our second landing in the Falklands, New Island in the afternoon. In addition to another rookery of rockhoppers and albatrosses, there was a small human settlement and a fairly large Canadian submarine tender wrecked on the shore. After returning to the ship we didnít raise anchor right away, so I got my binoculars out and started scanning the nearby rocks. I was able to claim seeing my sixth species of penguin, the magellenics. They were too far away to photograph, but as that moment marked the end of the penguin-viewing phase of the journey, I tried to burn the scene into my memory as the boat got underway and headed back to Ushuaia.

Now for some of the details on how I got from here to there and back.

Boston to Buenos Aires

I flew from Boston to Miami on Nov. 26th, then boarded an overnight flight to Buenos Aires which arrived the morning of Thanksgiving, the 27th. After getting some rest, we attended an interesting tango show that evening before dinner. On the 28th we did a city tour by bus in the morning. One of the stops was La Recoleta Cemetery which consists of block after block of elaborate above-ground family mausoleums. The guide brought us to the one for the Duarte family, which bore several plaques marking the resting place of a daughter named MarŪa Eva, known to the world as Eva Perůn, "Evita." Or should I say "°Evita!"

Tango
Tango

That afternoon was a river delta tour by bus and boat. All I knew about the the Rio De La Plata (River Plate) was that in 1939 the German battleship Graf Spee had gotten bottled up by the British in nearby Montevideo, Uruguay and eventually was scuttled to avoid capture. Turns out that the river delta is the fourth largest in the world behind the Amazon, Mississippi and Nile, and like those other rivers is an unappealing dirty brown. The glimpse we got of the Buenos Aires area showed it to be a big, fascinating place that might be worthy of a more extensive visit sometime in the future, but since Iím currently peeved at the Argentines for the little stunt they pulled with our charter flight, another visit isnít going to happen anytime soon.

Buenos Aires to Ushuaia

Very early on the 29th we took a flight from the Buenos Aires domestic airport to a refueling stop somewhere in the middle of Patagonia, and then on to the southernmost city in the world, Ushuaia on the island of Tierra del Fuego. The first stop was the national park where we saw terrific mountain and water vistas. In addition to waterfowl there also was a red fox skulking through the parking lot, apparently not too concerned about the dozens of humans in his domain. The next stop was a lunch and show with a gaucho theme. As the guide explained, tango is the dance of Buenos Aires, but what we saw in Ushuaia was the dance of the nation. Think tap dancing in heavy boots. After that cultural experience, we were dropped off in downtown Ushuaia to shop for knick-knacks. I took the opportunity to send a few emails, then we boarded the Clipper Adventurer for the first time in mid-afternoon. By evening we were heading down the Beagle Channel toward the stormy Drake Passage.

At Sea

Our first day at sea on the 30th was not enjoyable for many of the passengers. I woke up feeling fine and managed to shower and get dressed despite jolts from the choppy sea. After some breakfast I started feeling queasy and decided it would be prudent to head back to my cabin. Barf bags were strategically stuck in the handrails every few yards, and I grabbed one just in case. Thankfully it was never used. Most of the rest of the day was spent lying in bed and listening to the educational briefings on the intercom, although I did make it out for meals. Many other passengers did not make it out. Dec. 1 was somewhat less turbulent, and we made our first landing that afternoon. The crew told us that our first transit of the Drake Passage had been relatively calm, "relatively" being the operative word.

After our five days of landings in Antarctica, the recrossing of the Drake Passage Dec. 6-7 was much worse. The wind was blowing a gale and waves were 3-4 meters high. Although I spent much of the 6th stretched out on my bunk, the queasiness of the first passage did not return. It was just difficult to stand up, and in the dining room it was hard to keep the salt and pepper shakers from flying across the room. I decided it was safest to hold on to them until a waiter finally took them.

Our final day and a half at sea was heading back towards Ushuaia Dec. 8-9 after the Falklands landings. It was choppy at times, but nothing to compare to the Drake crossings. By the time of the Captainís Farewell Dinner, we were inside the Beagle Channel and didnít have to worry about salt shakers becoming projectiles.

Ushuaia to Santiago, Chile

After docking the evening of the 9th and spending one last night on the ship, we disembarked the morning of the 10th. With a few hours to kill they attempted to give us another bus tour of the area, but low clouds made it pointless to head up to a nearby glacier. After a short loop they just headed back to downtown and told us we could shop for 45 minutes before going to the airport. Since it was raining and since I didnít want to spend any more money in Argentina, I stayed on the bus. Our plane brought the next batch of cruise passengers from Santiago, and I'm sure they were wondering why all these people were lined up at the glass gawking at them. We were instructed by Clipper to lower their expectations by telling them, "It rained every day; we didn't see a thing." It was a jest of course, but it was obvious that with the unpredictable weather on these cruises the company needs to underpromise and (if possible) overdeliver. After our flight to Santiago, our trip from the airport to the Hyatt took us through the heart of the city. The tour guide told us just about everything in Chile was privatized, including the thousands of city buses that were buzzing around us. It all seemed quite chaotic. I was feeling quite tired so went to dinner immediately after getting to the hotel and went to bed early. In the morning there was a tour of the city, which a lot of people skipped. Since I knew I probably wasnít going to get much sleep on the upcoming overnight flight to Miami, I successfully forced myself to take a two-hour nap in the afternoon. We didnít have to check out of the hotel until 5 p.m. on the 11th, but still had a couple of hours to kill before heading to the airport. The tour company had a hospitality room in the hotel, so we were able to stash our carryon luggage there and roam around the pool area.

Splashdown, eventually

As I suspected, I got almost no sleep on the overnight flight. I was facing a long layover in Miami, but after landing was able to switch to a much earlier flight back to Boston. After yet another bus ride, this one from Logan Airport to Foxboro, I was able to reclaim my car and get home by 1:30 p.m. on Dec. 12th. I spent the next day and a half doing initial screening and processing of my digital photos, doing laundry, and packing for a 16-week assignment in Washington, D.C. On the 14th I drove 442 miles through a snowstorm, and it wasnít until I arrived at the hotel in the Washington area that I considered the journey that started Nov. 26th to be over.

Weather

The weather for our Zodiac landings could not have been better. Sometimes it was cloudy, but we also had periods of sun, and the temperature seemed to be in the 40ís most of the time. I suspected in advance that packing the recommended long underwear wasnít really necessary, but I did it anyway. The expedition parkas were quite warm, and quite a few people switched to something lighter when we got to the Falklands. The only time I got really cold was when I was out on deck while we were going through the scenic Lemaire Channel Dec. 2nd. The only bad weather occurred during our days at sea, particularly on Dec. 6th as I mentioned.

Black-browed Albatross
Black-browed Albatross

Other Birds Besides Penguins

Itís fairly easy to tell apart the different types of penguins, but to me just about anything seen flying over the ocean falls into the category of "seagull." Iíll never approach the expertise of the "combat birders" that frequented the aft deck of the ship during our transits, but I did figure out that the little ones with the chevrons on their wings were petrels and the big white ones with black-edged wings were albatrosses. Iíll have to look up some of the other birds to make proper photo IDís.

Canadians Sure Are Odd

The 120 passengers were mostly American with a few Brits and the odd Canadian. The hotel and tour staff was headquartered in St. Louis, so they were mostly American with, once again, the odd Canadian. The shipís officers were of various nationalities, led by a German captain. The waiters, maids and crewmen were Filipino. Expedition staff was from all over the place, with expedition leader Julio from Chile, several Americans, a Brit with extensive experience as a BBC underwater cameraman, and American and British professors serving as special speakers for AAAS. Guides in Argentina and Chile were local people. Everyone was very nice of course and the corners of my mouth got sore from smiling so much.

Photography and Electronics

I had my trusty Canon 1D digital SLR that has carried me through Florida, Iceland, Alaska and Yellowstone this year. However, I decided the 100-400mm lens was too heavy and bulky for this trip so I got a much smaller and lighter 70-200mm f4. I also brought my 1.4x and 2x teleconverters for those circumstances when 200mm wasn't enough, and they came in handy when the tiny rockhopper chicks poked their heads out. The only other SLR lens I brought was a 50mm, but the focusing mechanism failed during the trip and it was useless. As a result all but a few of the 1,650 shots with the 1D were taken with the 70-200mm telephoto lens. To cover the wide and (as it turned out) normal ranges, I bought a Canon S45, which has the equivalent of a 35-105mm zoom lens. For the city tours of Buenos Aires and Santiago, this is the only camera I took along. It also saw a lot of use from the Zodiac and for landscape shots, and I ended up with about 600 stills and short videos on it. I also brought along the Fuji GW690III medium format camera that saw service in Iceland six months before. The lens is the equivalent of a moderate wide angle, and it takes incredibly detailed photos on 120 roll film. I took 40 shots on Fuji Provia slide film.

To avoid running out of space on the memory cards used by the 1D and S45, I needed to download the photos to something. I didn't want to lug along a laptop, so I got a dual-function device called a Flashtrax. In addition to providing room on its 30Gb hard drive for my digital images, there was plenty of space left over for more than a hundred hours of MP3 music files. With a spare battery, there was enough power for about six hours of music on airplanes, and of course the ship had electrical outlets for recharging the batteries. To avoid the need to use headphones in the ship cabin, I brought some small Walkman speakers.

The ship had some limited email capabilities, and due to a gliche in the system they decided not to charge the $4 per message it was supposed to cost. I sent three emails from the ship, and also found internet kiosks in downtown Ushuaia and the Santiago airport.

Sports

There were kids playing soccer everywhere in Argentina and Chile. Not structured like in the US, just kids on the playground with no adults around to keep them from using their imagination. Thatís why they are good at soccer, and Americans are good at basketball.

Guides in both Buenos Aires and Santiago pointed out the huge horse racing tracks in their cities, so I guess horse racing is big. I also saw a lot of clay tennis courts.

There was a news summary available on the ship every day. I was most interested in the NFL scores. The first weekend, there was a one-sentence mention of the New England goal line stand against Indianapolis. The second weekend there was no story at all, just scores. It didnít seem as though anyone else on board cared much about football. I guess most football fans wouldnít think of leaving the US during the season.

Conclusion

It was great fun, but the travel was almost overwhelming. I calculated that fully one-half of the time was taken up by tedious travel, including six long airplane flights and three multi-day ocean voyages. Unless you have your own jet-powered seaplane, this investment of time is required if you want to see the incredible lands and wildlife of the Southern Ocean. Despite all the wonders we saw, everyone with any experience said South Georgia Island should be on the intinerary for the next trip. I had considered Clipperís Antarctic cruise that includes both the Falklands and South Georgia, but it was six days longer than the one I eventually booked and didnít quite fit my schedule. I saw tens of thousands of little penguins on this journey, but the promise of South Georgia rookeries containing hundreds of thousands of the larger and very elegant King penguin may tempt me to venture to the far south again some day. Update: I reserved a spot on Lindblad's Endeavour for a voyage in November 2004 to South Georgia Island. By summer 2004 the Argentine situation still had not been resolved, so Lindblad changed their itinerary to include fewer days on the island and more days at sea. I decided to wait for a better itinerary and switched to a Galapagos tour instead.

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