Pondswimmer goes to the Antarctic
Trip Start Jan 16, 2009
1Trip End Feb 03, 2009
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Long, long flight from DC, where I have been staying with Robert, Debbie, spouses and grandchildren - something I must do more often this year - via Houston to Buenos Aires. It clocked over 6000 miles which would be 12000 for the round trip. 14 air hours but slept at least half of it - even sitting up in steerage. As I am flying free on old air miles from the time in the 80's when I lived in and travelled all over the USA I am intrigued to know whether, as they were registered on the boarding pass, they will register positively on my account - giving me more miles free! I doubt it but you never know your luck.
Arrived by smooth hotel transfer at the Art - a small downtown arty hotel in Recoleta - and went to a cafe for light lunch. Asked the hotel for a city map and read this over lunch. Thought the adverts a little "unusual" but looking at the map cover found it is the Buenos Aires Gay Guide. They gave it to me because I am on my own? Look that way? Or just what came to hand? Did I really write that!! Is this sin city? - certainly sun city today. Will look for a concert tonight. That should be safe....
.....To bed for 3 hours and instead an Argentinian dinner at traditional steak house Rio Alba with Miriam and Chacho, friends of Micky Unger, my dear friend from Philadelphia. My first real Argentinian steak and it was superb. Then they gave me a late night city tour of their neighbourhood and some of the fine old, but disappearing for new development, colonial mansions. Bed 2.00 am; with a week's worth of things to do and see in three more days.
Next morning slept until Nigel arrived and then went to the famous and grandiose cemetery with ritual obeisance at Evita's tomb and a walk through the park to the Latin American art museum. Passed statue of Louis Braille and Nigel took a photo to show to his blind friends! Back for an early dinner and early night.
Next morning we took the train to Tigra and the Delta of the Parana River. We took the local bus/boat going up and down the backwaters where there are a mixture of holiday homes and people living. Interesting to see locals
Wednesday to Boca where
The flight into Ushuaia next morning was breathtaking with a landing directly over the Beagle Channel and settled in an excellent B&B. Went to the Glacier and did four hour trek up from the base of the ski lift to the bottom of the glacier. Today we went to the National Park
Next day we got up at a leisurely pace, left our luggage at Nigel's B&B and went to the city museum and on for the worst lunch in the worst restaurant in Ushuaia. Just the thing to make us feel sick before encountering the notorious Drake Passage. We boarded The Polar Star at 4.00 pm for our 12 day voyage. It would be two days out to the Antarctic Peninsula, 8 days in the Antarctic and two days back again to Ushuaia. We selected the voyage which went far south rather than the one which takes in South Georgia and the Falklands.
Up in the morning to see the birds following the boat. This was the time to see the Albatross, especially the Wandering Albatross, which with a 12 foot wingspan has the largest span of any bird. It is a wonderful sight to see them skim over the water taking lift from the waves. We were fortunate that the weather was fair with a heavy swell but nothing worse. It was comical to see the passengers crossing the lounge, trying to maintain balance and walking penguin fashion as demonstrated by Hannah in her introduction the day before. "One hand for you, one hand for the boat" was the general rule. Whales were sighted but not by me. Some passengers had impressive cameras with huge telephoto lenses supported by a pole, but I just had my excellent pocket camera and a new pair of binoculars bought specially for the trip.
The routine for these two days was early breakfast followed by two lectures; lunch followed by two lectures then dinner followed by a film on some Antarctic topic. The team included two geologists, a recent member of the Antarctic Survey, a marine mammal specialist, an ornithologist, a historian and Hannah who is a wildlife artist, zoologist and absolutely in command as team leader.
After two days passed quietly like this we woke the third morning actually in The Antarctic to navigate the spectacular Lemaire Channel before our first landing at Peterman Island.
Day four and overnight we had passed the magic figure of 66033' which meant that we were now below the Antarctic Circle. We had planned to land on Detaille Island but there was just too much densely packed sea ice
"We arrived at the mouth of the channel at approximately 15:00. From
the bridge we could see that the Polar Star's ice breaking credentials would be tested as pack ice filled the strait
through the ice. The ship shuddered as we smashed our way forwards, which added significantly to the excitement. Thankfully, once we had passed the main body of ice there was clear water which allowed us to drop 6 Zodiacs and undertake a cruise of the southern extent of the channel. We saw kelp gulls, Antarctic cormorants, Skuas, Antarctic terns, Wilson's storm petrels and snow petrels as we puttered around icebergs that lay in the shadow of the huge, crevassed ice cliffs that dominated our views from the boats.
Next morning landing on Prospect Point, an abandoned base which had been dismantled under the Antarctic treaty. Climbed up and took photos and when the Zodiacs went back was allowed to stay behind on the beach with Ali a New Zealand geologist and Veronika a Hungarian expert on Oceanography and climate change who was my official photographer for my third swim and my first off the Antarctic Continent. I went out to a baby iceberg and back, climbing on and showing off for the camera en route. It was wonderful how Hannah and crew encouraged my swimming without all the usual regulatory and health and safety nonsense. They practiced what I had learnt from John Stuart Mill at A level. A person should be free to take risks as long as he does not endanger others in so doing. Came back for a really interesting lunch table. Pauline from Newcastle a retired teacher who has given her house to her daughter and travels as much as she can. From here she will travel through South America for five months ending up in Bolivia or Columbia where she hopes to join some volunteer project. After teaching she also had a career in the professional theatre mainly appearing in small North East locations. She shares a cabin with Fumino a Japanese girl who is travelling on the proceeds of her book on having a man's brain in a woman's body. He has just broken up with his girlfriend and talks openly about his issues. It was a great breakthrough when his father appeared with him on Japanese TV and even more when he invited Fumino to join his business for which she had long been rejected as a mere girl. Now Fumino is unsure if he wants to ! Pauline jokingly threatens to sue the shipping company for making her share with a man!
The afternoon promised a Zodiac cruise through Mutton Cove otherwise known as Iceberg alley.
Next morning we landed at the Vernadsky Ukranian base where the hole in the Ozone layer was discovered. The scientists there thought their measurement device was faulty as it consistently gave unprecedentedly low readings. When a replacement device arrived to their great surprise it confirmed the absence of this critical layer normally only 3mm thick but which filters out the UVA and UVB from the sun's rays. After a station tour we moved to Wordie House on the other side of the Island which is an old British base from the 1960's preserved as a museum.
After lunch a landing on Pleneau Island., where we saw Scuas eating a dead penguin and went really close to a Leopard seal sitting on a rock who winked at me as we went past. I decided not to swim that afternoon! The island has a large Gentoo colony and we walked feely over the rocks keeping to the 5 metre rule. The snow was white, pink and green - the colours coming from algae. Later we had another zodiac cruise and I was more than happy I had not swum when we saw another leopard seal sitting on an ice floe who bared his teeth at me as we passed. I got his picture - definitely my best of the trip.
Next day up at 4.30 am for a visit to Cuverville Island. This has a long shingle beach and hundreds of pairs of nesting penguins. Left aligned photo tag:
Took lots of penguin video. Back, and off again mid morning to the Argentinian base in Paradise Bay. Climbed to the top of the hill for a superb view over the bay and we all slid down again on our bums. Each location is more stunning than the last and this provides a wide lagoon surrounded by snow capped peaks.
After lunch those who were still standing went for our third landing of the day to Goudier Island with the world's most southerly Post Office and gift shop in another British base museum. Then over to Jouglar Point on Wienke Island for more penguins and blue eyed shags
Next day was our last in the Antarctic before returning over the Drake Channel back to Ushuaia. This has been an absolutely amazing, awesome, astonishing, astounding and adventurous expedition. I have been far from home in a vast white desert which dwarfs all other immensities with the sheer scale of the continent. We have been in huge panoramas with the knowledge that what we can see is but a tiny fraction of the whole, a pinprick on the edge of a vast continent. I have been so far from my daily life that my mind has become disassociated from its normal thought patterns, concerns and routines.
In the morning we went to Deception Island in the South Shetlands and landed at an old whaling base destroyed by a volcano. Here tens of thousands of whales were caught, killed and the blubber taken aboard the factory ships. The remains were thrown into the bay which was scarlet with their blood. These remains were dragged on shore and rendered down in vats which we're fuelled by live penguins forced into the furnaces. By the time the whale trade ended 96% percent of the world's whale population had been destroyed. It is slowly recovering from 4% to about 15% of the previous population, but sadly some countries are still catching and killing these magnificent creatures. The seals which were also decimated by the sealers have recovered to earlier levels. We walked around the old whaling installations and after a hike up a hill for a spectacular view went back down to a hot bath dug in the volcanic remains at the seashore. Many swam in the sea for a moment or two and then wallowed like seals in the warm bath. I did not swim saying that "I do not like crowded beaches"!
In the afternoon we were due to land at Hannah's Point a place full of wildlife and dear to our Hannah but the seas were too high for the zodiacs so we crossed the Livingston Island bay and landed on a beach with a superb elephant seal - the largest and deepest diving of the seals and a colony of chinstrap penguins - the first of these that we had seen. Had my final swim in the company of Fumino!
Then two days back over the still calm Drake, more lectures, bar talk, reading and chess and finally back to Ushuaia and off for my next adventure in the Patagonian Andes
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Where I stayed
MV POLAR STAR