Welcome to SKJ Travel ... my narrative blog where you can join me vicariously as I adventure around the world. In the archives you'll find posts from some of my travels ... these are very casual "letters to home" style accounts of what I did, with lots of photos. To read my formal articles, they're listed in each archive home page, or visit one of the blue buttons above: Articles/Guest Posts, Interviews, or Literary SKJ, or see the Travel Essays section (right side below archive -- mostly documentaries). Friday Photos are updated weekly, and Tuesday Tales are updated sporadically. You can follow SKJ Travel on social media at:
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please note all photos in this post can be viewed larger by opening in a new tab (right-click)
I had never traveled via ship before we signed up for this cruise to Antarctica, so for me it was pretty exciting and interesting. This post is largely for those of you who might not know what it's like onboard a ship. We were on the ship "Sea Spirit," which accommodates I believe 110 passengers. Something very near to that, anyway. When I tell people we went on a cruise to Antarctica, I think a lot of them are picturing Celebrity Cruises-type ships that are like floating islands, servicing many hundreds of people, with swimming pools and casinos. Umm, no. Now I always call it an "expedition cruise" to separate it from the typical Caribbean cruise. Here's a little diagram to show you where our main activities took place.
The ship was, by my reckoning, very comfortable -- far more luxurious than I imagined, to be honest. By the time we booked the trip, the two lowest grade of cabin were sold out. So we were in the "superior suite" class. Check out our digs:
There was a steward for every few cabins whom you could summon for anything you needed. Often ours (who hails from Guatemala) would be in the hallway when we returned from an expedition and he'd open our cabin door for us. I always try to look people in the eye when I talk to them, but he had a gold-rimmed tooth in front that I found I could never stop staring at, haha. They did bed turn-down every evening with mints on the pillows. If we left stuff lying around haphazardly in the room, we'd usually come back to find the clothes that had been strewn around the room folded neatly on the bed. Oftentimes we came back to find little towel animals waiting inside for us. I must admit I always delight in these things. (an elephant here)
For dealing with the ship pitching in rough seas (this mostly happens only during the crossing of the Drake Passage between Ushuaia, Argentina, the port city, and the South Shetland Islands), there are railings next to the toilet and inside the shower and all shelves have rails across them. In the living area, all dresser drawers and cabinet cupboards require an extra push to close them, they have little latches to lock them closer. A couple times on the passage over, we had not sufficiently fastened them all and in the middle of the night, dresser drawers slammed full open as the ship pitched to the side. I personally liked the movement while lying in bed and never felt ill.
The funniest thing was that all the hallways were lined with barf bags stuck into the railings at regular intervals. Sickness, I learned from Erik, can come on extremely swiftly and unexpectedly. A seasickness victim may not have time to run back to their room and may not have the luxury of being discreet in their upchucking. It was like some kind of amusement park fun-house or something trying to walk down the hallways during the Drake Passage. And we were told that we had such mild seas during our crossings that the crew was referring to it as the Drake Lake. I feel slightly disappointed that we didn't get to experience what a ship feels like in rougher seas. I was not alone ... a lot of passengers said the same thing when talking amongst ourselves.
And just in case something unfortunate were to happen ... we had to go through an evacuation drill on the first day. Here I am sporting a life jacket which I have managed to follow the directions and put on properly.
Sixto, the beloved and legendary bartender of the Sea Spirit, whose homeland is Costa Rica, told us a harrowing story of a large cruise ship he was working on in the Straight of Gibraltar that lost all of its power in a storm and therefore had not just no electricity, but no means to steer the ship or keep her upright; it pitched so violently that the slot machines came unplugged and slid from one side of the room to the other. No one could even get to their cabins, they held on to what they could for several hours; Sixto said he held onto a pillar in the bar room. OK, maybe I don't need to experience THAT kind of rough sea.
Here is the bar lounge on the Sea Spirit, which included nightly music at the piano, 4:00 p.m. hot snacks, and 24/7 jars of cookies, tea and coffee. Erik and I sat here sometimes looking through my pics from the day, downloaded onto our laptop. I regret that I didn't take a photo of Sixto. (he's probably on a bunch of other people's blogs, though, haha)
The one part of the ship that was criminally underused by us ... we only got in it on the last day ... was the hot tub on the lunch/grill deck. On the warmer days, lunch was offered outside on this deck. It was also a lovely place to sit and watch the sunset. The peeps in the first pic are a mother and son from Germany with whom we often ate meals.
I enjoyed the warmth of the hot tub water ... but can you guess what Erik did? When we first started the trip, I thought I might do it and Erik said "no way." But it turned out that I thought better of the situation and realized my heart would probably stop and then Erik would be stuck carting my lifeless body home. Erik, on the other hand, spent too much time with Sixto who talked him into participating in the polar plunge! He took a few shots of rum ahead of time for courage and one afterward for congratulations. Our neighbors in the cabin across the hall were a very nice couple, originally hailing from Britain and Sweden but now living in southeast Asia, and she was a brave soul, too! Erik said his technique was to simply walk off the boat edge rather than jump or dive so he'd have less distance to swim through the water back to the ship. I believe he captioned this pic on Facebook something like, "I was just walking along minding my own business when this happened ....." I think his technique looks suspiciously penguine and that he'd been studying the penguins for guidance.
All the plungers got a certificate verifying their deed. Erik said he's going to frame it and put it on the wall of his office ... it was a far greater feat, he said, than acquiring a diploma (which sits somewhere in an unknown box ... presumably). And if he ever has to write a resume, will be sure to include it, haha.
We didn't spend much time in our cabin, primarily only to change into our expedition clothes twice a day and typically nap in the afternoons, then sleep at night -- for which we had thick, black-out curtains to darken our cabin since it never got truly dark at night. But even in the cabin, we were treated to lovely scenes passing by. Actually, the only place we couldn't always see outside was in the dining room below decks. But just outside it in the hallway were porthole windows right at the water level, which I enjoyed watching out of ... you couldn't see the landscape or icebergs so much, but you felt the motion of the ship through the water as it sloshed up and down over the window. But here are some typical views from our cabin window.
The ship had an "open bridge" policy, so that it was basically open all the time for passengers to walk through and hang out in, even to talk to the captain (a hearty Russian fellow) and crew if they wished. The only time it was closed was while traveling through areas of denser icebergs, when the captain and crew were very busy delicately guiding the ship and needed full concentration on the work at hand. There were cameras along the sides of the ship and I saw the engineer walking back and forth along the deck during these iceberg navigation times. It was interesting to hang out in there for awhile just to see how a bridge operates -- the information that various crew gives to the captain, what he does with that info and passes it along to the helm, etc. My favorite scene, for some weird reason, in the 1990s Titanic movie is when the ship first hits the iceberg and the officer runs to flip the switch to close the watertight doors and you see the lights lighting up for each door. In the Titanic museum exhibit that has traveled around the States (I've seen it twice), they have that watertight door indicator panel on display. So I thought it was neat to see that same type of panel on this ship. I really, really wanted to yell, "Close the water tight doors!" But I probably would have been kicked off.
After awhile I felt rather fond of the ship and it felt like a bit of home as it became familiar and the daily routine sank in. Ordinarily I probably wouldn't like a ship crowding into a nice nature landscape, but here it was different, seeing my mobile home in the landscape, knowing it was what brought me there. I liked to take a picture of it in the surroundings of wherever it had brought us -- from one magical spot to another.
Here she is docked in port at Ushuaia, Argentina. This is when we first laid eyes on her from our hotel room the night before boarding. We could not have guessed what amazing sights and adventures she would imminently lead us into! Can't help developing fond feelings for the thing that carries you into your dreams. :)
We had brought some cards and games and books with us, but we had very little down time to engage in any of these. The expedition leader came over the intercom (speakers in every cabin and all common areas) usually about 7:00 a.m. with a wake-up call, "Good morning, good morning dear passengers ..." in her German accent. First breakfast, then preparing for the morning expedition which usually launched by 9:00 a.m. (for kayaking this entailed putting on all our gear as described in the first kayaking post; for zodiac cruises or landings, it was donning snow pants, rubber boots, various layers, life-vest (a smaller one than in the photo above). Then the morning expedition followed shortly thereafter by lunch. Then we usually napped, then prepare for the afternoon expedition which usually launched around 2:00 p.m. Then back to the ship to be met with hot tea in the lobby, and after changing out of expedition wear, it was just in time for happy-hour appetizers and drinks with Sixto. Then before we knew it, dinner at 7:00 p.m. We found various things to do in the evenings, but usually found ourselves tucked into our beds pretty early after an exciting day ... somehow elevated levels of excitement kind of wears you out! Plus if we kayaked or hiked on an island, that was physically tiring to us kids who aren't in very good shape!
Whenever there were particularly spectacular icebergs or whales to be seen, the expedition leader would come over the intercom to notify the passengers of which side of the ship to see them on. I really appreciated these heads-ups, otherwise we would have missed some neat sights. Didn't get any good photos of whales, but we did see them from the ship on a several occasions. Not quite as exciting as seeing them in the kayak, but still pretty neat. Here is a pair leading the ship onward into the sunset.
Of course, these waters, particularly in the South Shetlands, were mined for whales for many years in the 19th and 20th centuries. I was so stunned when the expedition leader pointed out that the whale bones we saw sometimes on the beaches of islands were there from the whaling ship days! They've lain there for decades. It was a sad reminder of the often cruel methods whalers used to capture whales and of the quantity of these magnificent creatures deleted from the oceans by the frivolous desires of humans.
But the worst thing we were told about was related to this rusting cauldron on a beach. This is correction from my first post -- I mixed up some things in my memory, as I know that Antarctic explorers often ate penguin and I was thinking this was a pot for cooking them. And I remember being told here on the beach that "they were thrown in alive." The horror that my little brain blocked out until Erik just reminded me, what the situation was far worse than just throwing the penguins into boiling water to cook. In fact, the cauldron was used to render seal blubber. So they were cooking seal fat, not penguins. Do you know what the penguins were used for? For firewood!! The sealers would throw the penguins on the fire itself like kindling. Because of their own high fat content, they apparently burned very well. As I've explained and shown you in my penguin posts, they have absolutely no fear of humans and they cannot fly or run very fast, so they're easily caught. Literally, on these islands it wasn't, "throw another log on the fire" (there are of course no trees), but "throw another penguin on the fire." I know that it was an era in which animals received little-to-no empathy or recognition as anything beyond a renewable consumer product, whether it be for eating or wearing, or what have you, but geeze, using as kindling is just unfathomable to me.
Some islands sported the reminders of the human history that has touched this region in decaying remains of wooden boats. A seal lies in the middle of the ribs of an old boat still mostly under snow.
The G9 camera that we took kayaking was often used by Erik on land, and we often traded it back and forth. I'm not entirely sure who took the picture below, but I think it's a really good one when you look at all the details captured (such as the seagull and penguin) and the composition and lighting (check it out larger!) .... which leads me to strongly suspect that Erik was the photographer. He took some close-ups of the old boat, as well.
So people have come to this part of the world to explore, to claim bragging rights of being the first to do a number of things on this continent, to hunt whales, and now most commonly to see it as a tourist or to do research in one of the many research stations scattered across the South Shetlands and the continent itself. I forget how many different countries have research stations here. But it's quite a few. Argentina has the most, sort of surreptitiously making the biggest footprint to be able to call the continent its own. You can tell which country each station belongs to by the national flag, often painted on the outside of the buildings. Here are a couple Argentinian ones we ran across:
I had no idea, and it seems to me crazy and terribly short-sighted, that the international treaty banning all military activity and territorial sovereignty claims, which preserves Antarctica as a global treasure and resource for exploration and research expires! In the year 2048. So a lot of countries are kind of staking out footprints under the name of research for if and when the treaty dissolves and the place turns into a potential conflict zone for ownership rights, which could include mineral rights and establishment of military bases. In case you're wondering, for purposes of the treaty, Antarctica is defined as all land and ice shelves south of 60 degrees south latitude. There are currently 53 countries party to the treaty, including some that seem so unlikely to me, such as Papua New Guinea and Monaco.
We visited the inside of the Chinese Great Wall research station. It wasn't a riveting expedition away from the ship, but I thought it was interesting and worth seeing what the inside of these stations looks like. Far more comfortable than I had imagined. The station had a basketball court and the Chinese researchers had ping pong tournaments with other research stations. Lounges, a huge kitchen, lots of rooms with computers and scientific equipment (pretty much none of which were being currently used, strangely). The gigantic snow-cat, however, was surely a regular employee!
There was a traditional Chinese bell outside. A Russian station had an orthodox church. Many countries build facets of their traditional culture into their stations.
Can't really tell where this dilapidated one is from, but I thought it would make a good backdrop for some story about somebody stranded in Antarctica for the winter, haha. Maybe a thriller involving deranged killer penguins.
Penguins do, in fact, take over anything abandoned by humans. These barrels make lovely nesting spots!
Having nothing to compare it to, as this was my only experience on a ship, perhaps my word is less valuable than somebody else's with broader experience. But for what it's worth, I would recommend both the ship, the M/V Sea Spirit, and the expedition company, Poseidon Expeditions, for anyone looking into their own Antarctic cruise. I also did something else for this trip that I have never before, which is book it through a travel agency. I'd also recommend them, Swoop Antarctica -- I was glad for all the advice and information they provided to me, considering I had far less idea what to expect from this trip than I normally do before traveling.
please note all photos in this post can be viewed larger by opening in a new tab (right-click)
I fashioned a title for the post, but let's be honest, *all* my photos depict spring life in Antarctica since we were there just before summer solstice! A post has to have a title, but once again, it's just kind of a jumble of pictures that I simply like either because of an action scene, an anthropomorphic gesture or expression, or an illustration of something idiosyncratic to penguins, or for any number of other reasons ... which boils down to my original statement: I simply like them. :) And they're fun to share.
But ... let's do consider some unique things about spring in Antarctica. The melting snow and ice is, of course, the primary plot upon which penguin lives evolve all their array of subplots. As soon as there is bare ground, they begin to stake out their little bit of territory and build and repair the nests.
As I was scrolling through thumbnails of my pics, I had to do a double-take on this one, for it looked as if there was a colony of penguins in the sky! This was a common issue in Antarctica -- it could be difficult to tell the difference between clouds and snow. The line where they met on a mountainside was often extremely vague, sometimes you really couldn't discern where snow ended and clouds began. Here, the snow in front looks like the clouds behind.
This fellow says, "I'm the king of the island!"
I don't know what these penguins' behavior looks like in the winter after they've given birth to their chicks. But in springtime, it's dominated by building their nests! As I already explained in my first penguin post, Penguins and Their Busy Little Lives. they are consumed with running to and fro, hither, thither, to the beach, to their neighbor's nest, gathering sticks and stones.
Do they squabble over something else in the winter? Or is the tension in a rookery unique to nest-building season and the great hatching event? (most baby chicks on a given colony hatch at about the same time, and that time varies from colony to colony) I was always amused by the poor nest-sitters who were constantly harangued by their thieving neighbors. So I got a lot of photos of one squawking at another. This one seems to have successfully told off the invader, who looks rather sufficiently chastised with its hung head.
The penguin who's about to get its tail feathers nipped looks so innocent walking by, but I don't know if there's such a thing as an innocent penguin!
Showdown at the O.K. Corral. That's actually a whale vertebrae the penguins are standing in front of. Who will get the disputed stone?
Penguin behavior is endlessly amusing -- the little dramas that play out are sometimes quite lengthy and involved. I guess that's one of the things that makes for the entertainment besides their anthropomorphic characteristics and actions. I watched this chase unfold below. I wish I could put these in a flip-book instead of one on top of another, but here's an excerpt from The Chase that covered significant distance across the beach, cutting through other penguins and their soap operas. Finally the chased penguin flopped onto his belly to try to out-distance his attacker. I think in general they can move more easily across the snow this way, but I'm not sure about on land! Once the chase hit the water, I could no longer keep track of it. But it seemed that the one was fleeing pretty successfully.
Once in awhile it's not another penguin who is thwarting a penguin's business, but a seal. These elephant seals are not in the market for penguin meat, so the penguins aren't in danger, even though this scene looks like the seal is lying at the terminus of a penguin highway, mouth open, just waiting for a careless penguin to stumble too close. But this penguin is too smart -- it's another showdown: penguin v. seal.
Springtime is perhaps the most dynamic time of year in Antarctica as the snow melts, sea ice breaks up, glaciers calve, icebergs are set free to roam the ocean. Although a person keen to get photographs of penguins can see them closer, see their expressions and gestures and little life dramas when on land with them, I think actually the favorite photos of this particular keen person, in the end, are the photos of them on the ice. It just seems somehow more iconic. I've seen penguins in South Africa who obviously are not riding on ice. So to me, the Antarctic penguins are best illustrated on the ice. These are some of my favorite pics. (though other penguin+ice pics are scattered throughout other posts).
I said in my first Kayaking Club post that I failed to capture a shot of the penguins jumping out of the water like dolphins around our kayaks, but it turns out (I didn't even realize it when I published that post) that I managed a couple shots of them from the ship. You may have to look closely to see them in the foreground. This pic is a particularly good candidate for viewing larger (right-click). :)
This gang is just getting ready to dive in. "Geronimo!"
These two completely crack me up. They are sentries or else trying to pretend they are globs of snow like the ones beside them.
Another thing about spring in Antarctica is the arrival of human tourists! The penguins, you may have noticed through my posts by now, have zero fear or wariness about humans. Which is so awesome. They are unconcerned yet often curious. Somebody in our landing party set this camera up and left it, presumably filming whatever walked in front of it. This penguin was first curious, even suspicious, and then I swear, became completely enamored with this camera and tripod. I watched him for several minutes try to tear himself away from it, but he always came back to eye it.
I think this penguin is earning a little cash on the side as a tour guide. "And behind us, we have the stunning Mount Bordenstock." (I don't know for sure what the peak's name is, that's just what the penguin called it.)
And these two are making some spare change as snow performers, with a little bit of ballet and interpretive dance. (their tip jar is just out of view)
This gentoo is entertaining us with the penguin version of a rather rounded Shuttle Tydirium. (Star Wars reference for all you SW nerds like me.) Penguins, especially the chinstraps, definitely have an Imperial quality about them. (like Erik's incarnation of Darth Penguin)
But of course, the primary event in the penguins' lives in the Antarctic spring, as in the world over in all climates and with many critters ... after obsessively building their nests, they welcome into the world new life. New little critters to populate our planet with their special uniqueness. It seemed about half of the penguins in their nests in Yankee Harbour were harboring (heh) chicks beneath them, in a variety of ages from almost half the size of an adult to only just exposed to the light of day. The day we kayaked at Brown Bluff, the rest of the ship passengers got to see baby penguins. And I was a bit bummed that I missed out on that when it started to seem like that had been the sole opportunity. But lo and behold, the last day of the expedition cruise, we landed at Yankee Harbour in the South Shetland Islands, on the way back north to Argentina, and there was a whole colony tending to their babies. I was beside myself. My photos of the chicks lack crisp focus, sadly, but it's a pretty mild disappointment in the face of having seen them with my own eyes, heard their din of little peeps across the island, and captured at least the essence of what they look like.
In this first pic, just one of a set of twins has broken its shell, and the little hatchling is keeping its sibling warm.
Mostly, if a chick was out from underneath its parent's pouch (could be either mom or dad, they both do nest duty), it was crying for food or looking pitiably upward at its parent's beak in obvious hope of an impending meal.
This chick got its wish! Mmmmm ... reach on up there, little chick, into mommy's open mouth to get that yummy half-digested food stored in her throat. Mmmm, making me drool right now. HA. I'm really glad I'm not a bird -- their infant formula seems particularly unappetizing.
This little quiet hatchling is just stretching its wings. Dreaming of being an airplane, haha.
One more post dedicated to penguins to come ... stay tuned. :)
please note all photos in this post can be viewed larger by opening in a new tab (right-click)
After the high we experienced kayaking at Brown Bluff, Sixto told us it only got better. We of little faith had a hard time believing this. But our next kayaking adventure at Cuverville Island was a whole new level of special. (pardon the photo titles which say Orne Harbour ... a mistake on my part that's too much effort to fix; it's Cuverville Island) Any and every adjective I've used previously to describe a landscape in my travels falls limp now when I think of employing it for this little expedition. It's like whispering a word to someone at the other end of a football field. You technically said the word, but it fails to be properly received. I've pointed this out before, but again, different people are of course affected differently by landscapes or animals or architecture, etc., so some may think my tear ducts simply had a malfunction that day, a crack in the water line that caused them to leak. But no, it was genuinely an emotional landscape to me. What does that mean? An emotional landscape? I don't know what to say, really, except that it brought me to tears. The size, the uniqueness, the drama of such a jumble of icebergs in such fantastical shapes and sizes, the ephemeral nature of it all shifting, melting, moving even as we paddled among them. A starter list of adjectives that could be weakly applied: sublime, transcendental, dramatic, magical, surreal, trippy, astounding, glorious, staggering, breathtaking, and the overused word I hate to pull out but is actually aptly applied here: epic.
I've never met a landscape so wholly incapable of being reasonably represented in photos. On the one hand it's disappointing because I can't properly share that drama and feeling with others. On the other hand, that's part of what makes it so special, it's something that only can be properly appreciated first-hand. And I waited decades to get here and spent a massive amount of money (by my budget) to experience this as the crowning achievement in my one and only life goal -- to visit all seven continents. And it turned out to be not just any crown, but the most opulent, bejeweled crown I could imagine.
(Again, let me point out all photos taken while kayaking were with my point-and-shoot G9 camera with pretty much no idea what I was capturing until I downloaded the pics onto my computer -- extracting the camera from my life-jacket pocket, turning it on and focusing in bright light with clunky wet gloves while trying occasionally to actually help Erik paddle, I was pretty pleased with what came out blindly shooting. Imagine what one could do with a nice camera and lens. But we were cautioned not bring expensive equipment onto our kayaks.)
So with all that being said, let me start with some photos that include some points of reference for the scales of size and distance. We'll start with the small ice bergs that we paddled through. It was so cool to see what looked like a maze of icebergs ahead of us knowing that we would get to thread our way through them.
In these photos below, you can see other kayaks on either side of the ice bergs. Actually, the first one shows our support zodiac on the right. One of the three kayaking guides was always in a zodiac in case anybody needed rescued or got tired. The second pic you have to look pretty closely to pick out the two kayaks at the far edges of the picture on left and right.
Here's a sampling of the kinds of random icebergs I got pictures of. I like the first one because of the two holes in it. Once again we had phenomenal weather and paddling conditions, with a dreamy calm sea which often lent itself to the magic of reflections. The darker colored water, almost black, makes the water around the icebergs, where they extend beneath the water's surface, a particularly greenish hue (as in above).
Although the day was overcast (and progressed steadily to more heavily overcast), there were still some lovely reflections to be had, as even diffused light is quite bright in the daytime. Here are some reflected landscapes as we paddled in more open water, and a few patches of blue sky.
Here is our kayaking club paddling serenely on the open glassy water. Erik and I are on the far left in the group photo. These were taken by the guide following us in the zodiac.
Okay, now I must decide whether to put the experiential highlight or the landscape (icescape) highlight next. I only have one photo to accompany the experiential highlight. Oh, let's do that one. It follows the chronology anyway; the photos I've shown to here were taken on the way into the harbor. The original plan was to circle around an island in the kayaks, but by the time we got around the backside to a labyrinth of icebergs, the guides decided they were too dense and moving too quickly, and that our safety would be compromised by heading into them. I confess I was disappointed, it looked like a splendid adventure. But of course the cruise company cannot risk 13 people being crushed by icebergs! You may wonder about their movement ... yes, they move through the water at an astonishing pace. On one of the zodiac cruises, we stopped still and just watched a large berg cover "ground" (sea) floating along. This gave me an epiphany of sorts in really understanding the accounts of early Antarctic explorers, of whom I am so fond, whose ships were endangered by this movement, and of course the famed ship Endurance which marooned Ernest Shackleton and his men. The ship Aurora, which carried the men and supplies that were to be laid down in advance of Shackleton himself crossing the land, was crushed like a handful of toothpicks in the ice. Erik coined the word "Shackletonned" as a verb for "to be surrounded and crushed by moving ice in Antarctica." So we did not want to be Shackletonned while kayaking around the island.
So instead, we paddled straight on ahead into the culdesac of a harbor. Which wasn't necessarily exciting, but rather, sublime. Just after the guide in the zodiac snapped the photo above, she suggested that we all be completely silent for "three minutes." Which was precisely what I wanted to do right then! She said not even to paddle, just drift apart from one another and soak up the incredible place in which we found our humble selves.
I was so happy for this. So we sat in an uncommon serenity. Silent. Silent. One minute passed. Then "phoooooffffffffff." We perked up and looked around. A few seconds later, it came again, like somebody blowing out a cake full of candles as quickly as they can -- a forceful rush of air breaking the crystal silence. The unmistakable sound of a whale clearing its blow hole. I was about to blow a fuse in my delight circuits, completely overloaded with joy. Everyone held to the three-minute code, and we watched as the whale passed behind us into the harbor's culdesac. A whale was the one thing I most hoped to encounter while kayaking. And though we'd seen a humpback our first day out, this minke whale, though much smaller, was much closer, and we watched it over several minutes as it circled completely around our little pod of kayaks in the harbor and then swam out the way we had paddled in. It was a much more intimate encounter than the humpback one ... the proximity and the stillness and silence in which we watched this creature of the sea move through the remarkable landscape with such exquisite timing made it one of those special moments I will always carry close to me.
I'm pleasantly surprised that I captured anything of this whale who blessed us with her presence. Once again, it's a photo that cannot convey the experience, but is presented merely as proof that I really did see what I say I did!
Exhilarated pretty far beyond description, it was with reluctance we turned around and followed our guide back to ship. Erik and I were passing beside an iceberg when we heard a rumble on the other side of it and then one of our club yelled, "Paddle! Paddle! Paddle!" We saw the wave approaching, but fortunately its momentum was broken by the iceberg and we barely felt a toggle. The other kayak, though, was close to the glacier that covered the land around the harbor when it calved a small calf. So close that ice hit one of them in the face and the splash sent water down her dry suit in spite of the rubber gasket around her neck. Fortunately, they were experienced kayakers and knew to paddle away on the same trajectory as the wave as fast they could. I don't know if Erik and I would have had the presence of mind to do the right thing; we may have ended up upside down!
The calm water was particularly nice because I hardly helped paddle at all, I was constantly taking out my camera from my life-vest pocket and snapping. I'd think, "okay now I'll help paddle" and zip the camera back into my life-jacket. Paddle 4 strokes, then, "Oh my gosh! Look at that! Amazing!" Paddle was put to rest across the kayak and out came the camera again. And here is where the tears welled up. The jumble of icebergs was just so wild and complex, colossal and overwhelming and fantastical, even beyond what my own quite talented imagination could have conjured. First let me present a photo at the end of the journey just to try to give a sense of scale to some of the following icebergs. This one shows our ship in the background behind some of the smallest icebergs depicted in the next set.
Hopefully the land will help give some scale to some of these other pics. The first one below is one of my very favorites, and I can't really say why. It just is. (remember that you can right-click on all of the photos in this article and open in a new tab to see larger)
In case you're wondering how we got into the water when all around us are only glaciers with sheer faces and unstable icebergs, the zodiac tows the kayaks from the ship into the water at our launch point and we get into the kayaks from the zodiac.
Although my favorite photos from this kayaking expedition -- one of my lifetime highlights -- are in the section above (the huge icebergs), I like this one below a lot, showing our guide's kayak tip for a reference point and a labyrinth of ice. It's just so ... *Antarctica!*
please note all photos in this post can be viewed larger by opening in a new tab (right-click)
The port city for our Antarctic adventure was Ushuaia, Argentina, at the very tippy southern tip of South America. It has adopted for itself the nickname, "The End of the World." This is also the gateway to the Argentinian side of Patagonia. Years ago, I backpacked the Paine Circuit in Torres Del Paine National Park on the Chilean side of Patagonia with my family, which was a heck of a trek. If I had to pick which country's side was more spectacular, I'd be forced to say Chile. But Argentina was astoundingly beautiful and I would recommend it to anybody! I would only recommend the sights accessible on the Paine Circuit to very fit people. We backpacked for 2 weeks around it. And it was probably the most challenging physical feat I've personally done. The sights we saw around the Ushuaia area, however, which include the well-known Tierra del Fuego National Park, have a variety of trail difficulties from super-easy to difficult. We didn't do any of the ones with a "difficult" rating. But even the ones rated "medium" were quite easy ... this from a not-particularly fit person. People often think because I have a slight frame it indicates fitness, but it ain't so. I don't necessarily sit on my couch, so I'll call myself a house potato (as opposed to a couch potato). I don't leave my property sometimes for weeks! (I have a lovely property, of course.)
So we spent two days hiking in Tierra del Fuego National Park. This park has a wide variety of landscapes and landscape features, plus a wonderfully dynamic sky always changing with fast-moving clouds. Tierra del Fuego is actually an island and is divided between Argentina and Chile. The national park of the same name is the southern-most park in Argentina and borders the Beagle Channel, so named after the ship of the same name that carried none other than Charles Darwin on his second voyage down the South American coast.
Some of the trails in the park follow the shoreline, and some head inland up steep hillsides. Our first day in the park we headed to the southern-most part, Bahia Lapataia. This is end of the Pan-American highway.
Although the Patagonia region in general is most renowned for its mountain scenery, with textured and colorful peaks rising very sharply and dramatically from sea level, what Erik found perhaps most captivating was the endless supply of perfect rock-skipping stones. I do not know how to skip rocks, but it's a favored past-time of Erik's whenever we come across the right stones. (I know what they look like and help pick them out for E.) Look at that back swing!
Besides the piles of skipping stones, there are many interesting rocks everywhere. I knew to expect the rocky peaks, but the rocks on the ground were unexpectedly beautiful and complex in their topography and color, sometimes sporting almost neon-bright lichen formations. I'm one of those people who likes rocks anyway and often walks along with her nose to the ground, and can't help herself from picking up a pretty one when she sees it. The likelihood of her subsequently taking it home depends on its size relative to the size of her pocket. Except if she sees a sign somewhere specifically prohibiting taking rocks out of a park, then she obeys the rules. Except once when she took them from Volcanoes Nat'l Park in Hawaii, but subsequently mailed them back. The park brochure provides an address specifically for mailing back rocks, so I was far from the only thief.
Ecologically, the Tierra del Fuego region (which extends beyond the national park into a whole province at the southern tip of Argentina) is a "subantarctic forest." I didn't even know there was such a thing until I got there. To look at it and walk through it, an ecological layperson such as myself would mistake it for more of a tropical forest, such is the lushness -- the moss, the density of bushes and trees, the birds singing all around, etc.
The only difference is the chilly temperature, even in the middle of summer (which is December-March in the southern hemisphere), and the fierce winds that blow as soon as you emerge from the forest. It's really shocking when you step out of the forest, which is calm and still, into the open and feel the blast of wind which you would never suspect from inside the forest. So suffice to say that Ushuaia is not a warm place, even in the middle of summer -- the closest piece of continent to the Antarctic peninsula. Astonishingly, the native Yaghan people lived there for thousands of years before Western contact in near nudity. We were there only a couple days before their summer solstice and needed layers and fleece jackets, yet those people walked around naked! Some archival photos show them with a light animal-skin cape hanging around their neck. Hardy folks.
I think this might be my favorite photo I took from Tierra del Fuego National Park.
One of my very favorite flower types is orchids. I try to grow them indoors at home all the time. So imagine my delight when I was walking along the path and spotted patches of these white orchids.
This curious fungus grows on many of the trees. When the round pods fall on the ground, they look like little fruits, and at first that's what we thought they were. In fact, they're referred to as beech oranges, a little Google research informed me after I got home, and native cultures in the area did eat them. Their scientific name, though, includes the name of the man who first classified them, Darwin, during his Beagle Channel voyage. Eventually they grow into huge tumors on the trees, but the trees seldom seem to suffer for it. The fungus grows on trees that only grow in the southern hemisphere.
Another compelling flower along the paths ... looks like a giant insect with long spindly legs crawling out of the bushes.
One thing I was very excited to see -- which had been mentioned in the park brochure as a possibility, so I had my eyes peeled -- was green parrots! We saw them one day on the Paine Circuit, too. But other than that, as I pretty much have only seen parrots inside of cages, I think it's super cool to see them in the wild. We knew what they sounded like from having seen a bunch in the trees in Colonia, Uruguay, just a few weeks earlier, so we actually heard them first and then looked around to spot them ... you can see they are a bit camouflaged. I could not get a good picture of them, but here are some lame ones, just to prove to you I saw them. :)
We ran across some other cool birds, too, but similarly, I couldn't get a good photo. This little brown one, I have a series of 4 or 5 pics of bare ground. That's where the bird was when I pressed the shutter, and by the time it opened and closed, the bird had flitted away. Pretty impressive how speedily it could hop around.
These geese are very popular throughout the park.
I was excited to learn there were lots of beavers in Tierra del Fuego, I really want to see one, and they live in my area but I never see them. Then I learned that they were imported into the area to breed for their prized fur, and have since become an invasive species and real problem. Too bad. I did see two of them, one swimming with a branch, but the pleasure was diluted with the knowledge it doesn't belong there and it's causing the native species big problems.
The strangest creature of all in the park was this outhouse troll. Had built a nest in an old, dilapidated outhouse just off one of the trails.
One afternoon we took a drive along the Pan-American highway out of town north and saw some very lovely scenery along the way.
After two days in the national park, we took another day to hike to nearby Lake Esmeralda, which I had read was one of the top-rated things to see near Ushuaia. The trail started out very muddy. Then it opened up to a couple different valleys with some striking mountain peaks rising up on the horizon.
Then back into a densely forested section, then into the open again where we were confronted with a large peat bog. The trail disappears and it's every man for himself finding tufts of moss solid enough to jump to and land on without sinking into the water. I've encountered these before backpacking (once on the Paine Circuit) and they really are not fun to navigate with a backpack whose weight hinders your jumping capabilities, and whose bulk messes with your balance. But sans backpack, it's like a game, like playing "Crocodile" as a kid, having to jump from one thing to another without touching the ground. Plus knowing at the end of the day we'd be relaxing in a heated hostel room with a hot shower rather than having to pitch a tent and crawl inside, made the risk of getting wet feet, or even falling in, nothing dramatic.
We made it to Lake Esmeralda just long enough to see that its name was warranted -- emerald green water, indeed -- before it started raining with a pretty good pelt factor. I was afraid of the bog getting more challenging to cross if it kept raining, so we did not stay for lunch as was our original plan, but instead high-tailed it out. (you can see a raindrop smudge already got on the camera)
So now it was raining hard enough that we dug out our rain pants from the day pack and began running back across the peat bog, not taking time to pick our steps so carefully as we did through the bog on the way in. One valid strategy to not sinking in is to simply run so fast that your feet never have time to sink unless you plant one in a really deep hole. So Erik was running pell-mell through the bog, jumping side to side onto the most promising patches of peat moss. I wish I could describe it better because I was behind him in stitches, it was so funny. He looked like a pinball or a pachinko ball on its way down.
By the time we got through the next stretch of dense trees to the next big meadow, the rain had ceased, the sun was out, and it was the perfect spot for our picnic lunch.
After the accommodation on board our ship, Sea Spirit, which we considered rather high-class and luxurious (for reference, we're typically budget to mid-range travelers), our humble hostel room in Ushuaia was a kind of culture shock, except it was accommodation shock. haha. Since we are used to budget digs, it was fine with us, but just kind of interesting. If you ever decide to go to Ushuaia, let me warn you that the price of everything is shockingly high. I figured Buenos Aires would be the most expensive city in Argentina, but not so by a long shot. Food, accommodation, toiletries, clothes, sunglasses (we found out) ... everything costs.
Although many people hitchhike around Ushuaia, I strongly recommend a vehicle. You can cover much more ground and far more conveniently. Of course, it's expensive, but my opinion is it's worth it. However, be warned!! If you need to fill up the car with gas before returning it, the line for the gas pump near the port is obscene. We waited for 30 minutes, and saw longer lines than the one we were in, stretched well out of the station and down the block on the street. So plan your time accordingly! In fact, plan your time in all things to account for gridlock traffic on the streets around the city center and port. Ushuaia's population is growing by 5,000 people per year with no evolving roadways to accommodate it. You can literally walk somewhere faster than you can drive in that relatively small area around the port. It's not the tourist industry that's booming, but manufacturing. Strangely, for such a spectacularly-located town, it wasn't founded by the Argentinians as a tourist destination either, but rather, as a prison.
There were two wonderful things about our budget room -- one was a very lovely view from a large picture window. The other was two friendly kitties who let themselves into our room when our door was open (for a little fresh air) and subsequently could be easily lured in to hang out with us and play and be petted. So this little kitten below, whom we named Loco Button, was a stray who had shown up at the hostel a couple days before we arrived. He was so crazy sometimes, he'd hide under the edge of the bed quilt on the floor and then sproing out and attack our feet as we passed by. He'd hide behind the chair in the corner and then leap up to the top of it and drop back down, leap back up, etc. Erik found a bird video on Youtube for him to watch on our laptop and he sat on our bed watching. He napped with us. One time Eirk and I were lying down napping after a day of hiking next to each other on our backs so our elbows were touching, and the kitten wanted to sleep with us but he couldn't decide who he wanted to cuddle with. First snuggled up to Erik, then to me, then back to Erik, finally he draped himself over our arms where they met so he was lying on top of both of us simultaneously. Over time he migrated down but always staying on both of us, so eventually he bridged the gap between our legs with his head pressed against Erk's leg and his arms stretched out and paws pressed against mine.
The other kitty belonged to the hostel owner. She was super friendly, and after she realized how nice it was to be in our room where she could be petted and played with, we could call out to her as we were walking back up to our room from being out or from breakfast, or whatever, and she'd come!
Now allow me to briefly reveal what you can get as "the better half" (like, $250-$350 per night). We stayed here one night because it was included as the first night of our Antarctic expedition in the port city. It's funny how many of the rooms in Ushuaia are listed with their square footage ... seems to be an important issue around there. And we amusingly went continually downhill (in all aspects) since our arrival. The room at Hotel Arakur is listed as 400 sq ft. Our cabin on the ship was an opulent 215 sq ft, and that's not being sarcastic because they were the largest rooms for a regular cabin class in the Antarctic fleet. Our hostel room was advertised as the largest private hostel room in Ushuaia at 189 sq ft. The Arakur was a high-tech hotel out of a movie (it seemed to low-class me). Everything was operated from a panel, so you pushed a button to make the window shades go down, to make a shade go down between bathroom and bed, a button for all your lights, a button for your alarm clock which was not a harsh "beep beep beep," but began softly as the soothing sound of ocean waves and then got louder and louder with seagulls calling and such.
There was an indoor pool and spa, which we intended to use during the day before boarding the ship, but a very strange kink happened in our car rental reservation, which was a pretty random fortune that we were clued into it before we landed back in Ushuaia and needed to rent the car. So we spent the afternoon sorting that out instead.
So a lovely stay in Ushuaia. Had we the time (and money), there were many more hiking opportunities we could have taken. But really, three full hiking days and a scenic drive felt just about right.