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Exploring the Wonderful World of Cruise Ships

Ushuaia

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We threw open the curtains this morning and looked out on Ushuaia.  Across the pier from us are three expedition vessels, affirming Ushuaia‘s position as the primary starting point for consumer expeditions to Antarctica.  The town has the feel of an outpost, a bit of civilization clinging to the end of the earth.  The expedition ships only help to reinforce the notion that untamed adventure lies just beyond this shore.

The physical setting of Ushuaia is achingly beautiful.  To the south the sea, to the north snow capped mountains, the sun glinting off the peaks, the billowing clouds crowning all.

We’ve chosen to take a catamaran cruise through the Beagle Channel, named after Charles Darwin’s ship, as our shore excursion.  It strikes us as amusing that, after some seven days at sea, we get right back on another ship.  The Beagle Channel offers the opportunity to view more wildlife up close, however, and we can’t pass it up.

Catamarans, we learn, can sail in as little as six feet of water, enabling them to get remarkably close to the outcroppings of rock which characterize most of the islands in the channel.  One of the islands is literally covered with sea lions and cormorants.  We get so close to the sea lions we can almost touch them.  Most assuredly we can smell them.  The cormorants stand silent guard on the rocks, amidst the bellowing seals, looking very much like small penguins from a distance.  As you approach, not quite certain if you are looking at penguins or cormorants, one or two take to the air, revealing their true identity.

Everywhere you turn, new vistas appear, each one my new favorite.  The day is beautiful, this place is beautiful.  I won’t forget how special this all has been.

Sea Lions

Cormorants

Ushuaia

Drake Passage and Cape Horn

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The infamous Drake Passage lies between us and safe harbor in South America.  Discovered by Sir Francis Drake in September 1578 when his ship was blown off course, it is among the most treacherous stretches of water on the planet, claiming many  unfortunate ships.

Our journey, thankfully, is not the stuff of legend.  Once again luck is with us and we are experiencing relatively moderate seas.  Perhaps, however, we have simply developed our sea legs.  A shout brought us from the Horizon Court out to the indoor pool area to investigate.  The pool, still covered with its mesh barrier, was responding to what was clearly a higher sea than our senses registered.  The water was careening from one end to the other, throwing sprays 10 feet or more into the air as trhe water hit the end of the pool.  What a remarkable sight!

We continue north, anticipation mounting as we approach Cape Horn, the southernmost tip of South America.  High winds prevent us from circumnavigating the island as planned, so we content ourselves with the leisurely sail past the point which marks the confluence of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.  One moment completely overcast, the next the clouds opening up enough for shafts of sunlight to appear, the sky provides a dramatic touch.  Our approach is close enough, the air clear enough, the light strong enough that we are treated to the sight of the famed Albatross memorial in the distance.

The pool in motion

Cape Horn

Rainbow, Cape Horn

Deception Island

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Again the day dawns a leaden gray.  Nature has been kind to us in this worst-of-all weather zones, but she has given us a taste of her whims nevertheless.  We have witnessed her face in many lights.  Today she is stern, austere.

Deception Island rises dark out of the sullen sea, her bleak rock dusted with snow.  The name derives from the secret this land holds.  It appears to be much like many islands in this part of the world.  It is only when one comes upon the break in the coastline that it becomes  clear that this is no ordinary island.  It is, in fact, the flooded caldera of a volcano.  Surprisingly, it’s still active.  It last vented its displeasure in a major way as recently as 1969, destroying two Chilean research stations in the process.

The opening, known as Neptune’s Bellows, grants entrance to one of the largest natural harbors in the world.  The Star Princess is too big to enter, but smaller expedition vessels can, giving their passengers the amazing opportunity to swim in Antarctica in water warmed by hot springs.

Our allotted time over, we begin our journey north, passing a large penguin colony on the island‘s eastern shore, as if bidding us farewell.  Snow Island, hazy and ethereal in the distance, is the last land we see in the Antarctic region.

Neptune's Bellows, Deception Isand

Snow Island

Gerlache Strait

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Oh, what a difference a day makes!  Still overcast, but the sky’s not pressing down on us.  We’ve entered Gerlache Strait, a body of water defined by the islands of the Palmer Archipelago on one side and the Antarctic mainland on the other.

The view from the deck is awesome, majestic, overwhelming.  This experience cannot be contained.  It flows past the boundaries your mind futilely erects to understand it.  This is elemental, Nature in all her glory.  This is not our place, we have no power here, we’re just transients allowed a brief look at Beauty.

The islands are much closer to us, their peaks towering over the ship, eliciting gasps from those who have ventured outside.  To port lies Antarctica.  We still can’t believe we’re here.

We continue to sail south, each minute bringing us further south than any of us has ever been.  Everywhere you turn new vistas appear.  We watch awestruck, trying to absorb it, trying to find the words that only poetry can provide.  The only choice is to suspend any attempt to categorize or compare, and simply allow the experience to transport us.

We continue along the Strait for several hours, the clouds gradually clearing, until we reach our turning point, the furthest south we are to go.  The snow-covered peaks glisten in the sun.  Huge, billowy clouds crown the land.  The plan is to turn around Wiencke Island and enter the Neumayer Channel, exiting at the north end back into the Gerlache Strait.  As we approach, the Bridge advises that we can soon expect stronger winds.  Off the bow, we have visual confirmation.  The water is much choppier ahead.  A katabatic wind, howling down one of the glaciers, is crossing our path.  The wind increases almost instantly from 5 knots to 80 knots.  Entering the narrower Neumayer Channel is out of the question.  With some difficulty, the wind fighting us all the way, the Captain and his bridge crew turn the ship back into the Gerlache Strait.  We miss seeing the Channel.  Our consolation?  We get to retrace our path back up the Strait, bathed in sunlight, impossibly beautiful.  Eyes tear on deck. perhaps from the wind.IMG_4162IMG_4164IMG_4182IMG_4187

Admiralty Bay

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Once again the morning sky is leaden.  This time, however, we’re not quite so lucky. Wind, sea, ice, snow – all conspire to keep us out of Hope Bay and Esperanza Station.  The sky is low, the air obscured by mist and snow, the whole world painted in shades of hazy grays.  Instead we head directly to Admiralty Bay, arriving well ahead of schedule.  The winds, however, are not cooperating, and we head back out to sea, waiting for our chance to enter the bay.

On deck, however, the mood is anything but gloomy.  Crew members who have never seen snow are coming up to experience it for the first time. They lift their faces to the sky, feeling the sharp, wet touch of the flakes, dancing around and posing for pictures to send home to their families.  Their delight is my delight.

Admiralty Bay is home to several research stations.  Our goal is the Arctowski Polish Research Station, in service since the 1970s.  Several of the researchers are scheduled to come on board to begin their journey home.  They‘ll be accompanied by a couple others who will give a short presentation on their work and the rigors of wintering in Antarctica.  We watch them from the deck, our view blurred by the falling snow, as they leave one of the station buildings and make their way slowly, slowly in a sort of snow tractor to the zodiac.  Not a sound reaches our ears.

After the lecture, those scientists who will winter in Antarctica, make their way back to the shore, carrying a welcome supply of fresh fruits and vegetables.  Choppy seas and quiet snow falling from the heavy skies foretell what lies ahead.  Ours is the last ship they will see until the return of Spring, some eight months from now.

Tabular Iceberg

Tabular Iceberg

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Arctowski Research Station

Elephant Island

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We’ve been forewarned that the weather here can be capricious. The last cruise here on the Star, just prior to ours, arrived in a thick fog, so thick that the stern of the ship could not be seen from the bow. The bridge knew they had arrived because the island was visible on radar, but totally obscured from sight.

Once again we’re lucky. The sky is leaden, as is the reflecting sea. The air, however, is crystal clear. Elephant Island rises straight out of the sea, its black, austere cliffs etched by a recent snowfall, every crack and crevice adding to the dramatic effect.

Elephant Island has a prominent place in the history of Antarctic exploration. It was here that Ernest Shackleton’s expedition made its first landfall after some 16 months of survival against all odds. If you are unfamiliar with the story, I cannot recommend highly enough that you learn a bit about it. Two good sources are “Endurance” by Alfred Lansing and “Shackleton” the television miniseries with Kenneth Branagh. It is an astonishing story of human survival, of almost unbelievable courage and tenacity, and of truly remarkable leadership.

We linger off Point Wild for awhile, the second landing site and the one which was home to most of the expedition party for 4 months. While they waited in the harshest of conditions, Shackleton and two others undertook the almost impossible task of sailing 850 miles in a 22 foot boat through the worst seas in the world to the whaling station on South Georgia Island.

Point Wild, named after Shackleton’s second in command, Frank Wild, treated us to a sight rarely seen – the memorial to Luis Pardo, the captain of the harbor tug from Punta Arenas that sailed back to Elephant Island with Shackleton to rescue his men. Our Ice Captain, Bob Parsons, comments that this is the first time he has seen it in 8 seasons.

As we continue to sail around the island, past Cape Valentine, the first but ultimately untenable landing site, the clouds lift, the sun comes out., and the massive face of Endurance Glacier sparkles. A cloud bank literally roils above the peaks, cotton in motion. This experience is transformative!

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Point Wild, Elephant Island

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Elephant Island

The Falkland Islands

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The day dawned cool, clear and windy. The seas are choppy, though not as bad as yesterday. The ship is too big to dock here, so we anchor in the outer bay and tender to the pier. It’s a slow go because the tenders are bouncing on the waves. Any faster and the jarring would be difficult to take. We’re lucky, however. The sun is shining brightly and we made it into port. Yesterday two ships were unable to get their passengers to the pier because of the high seas and simply bypassed the islands. No doubt passengers and residents alike were disappointed.

Fortunately for us, yesterday’s rough seas only delayed our arrival. Patrick Watts, the owner of the company which is to take us out to Volunteer Point to visit the King penguin rookery, informed me by email that our delayed arrival will still give us enough time. Patrick holds permits to take visitors out to the Point, and does so for about half the price Princess charges. Highly recommended. The captain, Ed Perrin, has also extended our stay until 7PM, giving us ample time.

The trip out to Volunteer Point is an adventure in itself. The paved road ends shortly outside of Stanley and becomes a packed gravel road. Not so bad in a 4 wheel drive vehicle. After perhaps an hour we veer off the road and onto a private farm and across its peat bog. This city boy didn’t have any clear notion of just what a peat bog is. Now I know, and now I also know that I need never traverse one again. In essence we simply bounced up and down, forward and backward, side to side for an hour in each direction. The only respite was when we got mired in muck and had to be towed out by another member of the caravan.

Volunteer Point is remarkable. King penguins, the second largest variety after Emperor penguins, form the largest rookery, joined by Gentoos and Magellanic penguins in smaller numbers . Penguins have no land predators and exhibit no fear of humans as long as our movements are not too abrupt. They regard us as rather tall penguins and betray only minimal curiosity at best. Mostly they simply hang out. On occasion small groups of 2 to 4 will take a stroll. I can’t help thinking of them as little old men, hands clasped behind their backs, discussing some philopsphical notion. They’re an absolute delight to watch, charming and unintentionally comical.

Prior to returning to the ship (Oh lord, here comes that peat bog again!) we walk for a while on the magnificent crescent beach of powder white sand, watching the penguins swim in the aqua water. If there were palm trees, this beach would be indistinguishable from the finest beaches in the tropics.

Tomorrow is a sea day as we sail south. Next stop, Elephant Island.

The Three Musketeers

The Three Musketeers


Where should we put the blanket?

Where should we put the blanket?

Antarctica

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Antarctica has beckoned for some time. Finally, I heeded the call. The Star Princess, roundtrip out of Buenos Aires provided, for me, the perfect balance of experience and cost. It also offered the opportunity to treat my mother to a soft adventure without requiring more physical exertion than her age and health would allow.

We arrived in Buenos Aires after the long flight from JFK and took the pre-arranged car to the Marriott, chosen because Princess offers pre-check in there the night before departure. They also offer this service at the Intercontinental. Passengers staying at other hotels are welcomed to come to either of these hotels and use the service as well, if they so choose. Luggage is collected the following morning and brought to the pier. The next time you see your luggage is in your stateroom.

I cannot recommend this highly enough. Buenos Aires’ port defines chaos, and anything you can do to lessen the stress is advisable. While working your way through the confusion, the only useful way to respond is with humor, knowing that eventually you will be on the Star. Once on board, the welcoming atmosphere of the ship quickly washes over you, easing the stress. Now, without any question, the adventure has begun.

Two days at sea await. Time to relax, attend lectures by the scientists and naturalists on board, and anticipate our first port of call – the Falkland Islands.