Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Getting Home

Short summary:

  • Four airports
  • Went through immigration control four times (Argentina exit, Chile entry and exit--without leaving the airport, US entry)
  • Customs twice (including an extensive check in Chile by the Agricultural Department)
  • Stood in 16 lines
  • Actually slept fairly well on red-eye from Santiago--was really tired.
  • Seven hour scheduled wait in Miami--but the flight was on time in spite of blizzard (Plane left Detroit before the blizzard hit that city)

Miscellaneous thoughts on trip:

  • It was an amazing trip
  • If I have to pick one highlight it would be the penguins--over a million penguins, seven species, surprisingly different behaviors. As one naturalist said, some penguin species are on speed, others are on quaaludes.
  • It was odd watching Neil Armstrong standing in line with the rest of us.
  • What species penguin is the open source mascot? (only geeks will understand this)
  • There are really 18 species of penguin--17 biological species plus Opus
  • From Ralf--the staff photographer for Lindblad--the more pixels you burn (pictures you take), the lower the cost of every picture on this trip.
  • This kind of trip is all about organizing the details and flexibility and Lindblad is expert at that. Major plan changes on this trip happened four times (you have to expect that with a three week trip to Antarctica) and everything went smoothly.
  • Got home to temperatures 20 degrees F BELOW the coldest we saw in Antarctica--we did go south for warmer weather--like Minnesotans typically do in winter.

The last day at sea: Neil Armstrong, Global Warming

Our last day at sea:

  • Got up late--9 AM--just in time to hear Neil Armstrong’s second presentation. He is obviously very tired about.
  • A second presentation by Neil Armstrong about exploration. About the first attempt to reach the north pole by air. Great presentation but he clearly is tired about talking about the moon (as anyone would be in his unique situation).
  • A presentation on logistics--have our luggage outside our door by 6:30 AM for transfer to the airport (a charter flight to Santiago)
  • A 90 minute presentation plus a half hour discussion on climate change. One of the naturalists gave a very science based presentation on the evidence for climate change and the evidence that is is caused by us. During the discussion period, a number of people who did believe the premise that humans are causing significant climate change raised specific questions about some very minor parts of his talk (e.g. the Nobel Prize for Al Gore, that a number of the companies that support climate change legislation have a vested economic interest in the legislation). A couple people commented that reducing the use of fossil based energy sources would not only reduce climate change but improve the efficiency of the US economy, reduce the US dependency on foreign energy supplies, and improve our security--the argument was that we should not require agreement on reasons when we can agree on the action for different reasons.


The executive director and two staff from Oceanities were on the ship for the whole voyage. Oceanities is a nonprofit organization that is conducting a multi-year biological site inventories at a variety of critical environmental sites around the Antarctica Peninsula. Oceanities is a small, independent research organization funded by foundations, individual contributions and the National Science Foundation. They are the only non-governmental research organization operating in Antarctica. More information about Oceanities is at their website at http://www.oceanites.org.

It’s been great having the Oceanities researchers onboard. Ron, the executive director gave one talk on their research that was very interesting. But more important, when they are not counting penguins and doing photo documentation of sites, they act as additional naturalists--very knowledgeable naturalists. (Lindblad/National Geographic provides logistics support by allowing the Oceanities researchers to use their cruises to access the sites.)

Some major points from Ron’s talk:

  • The Antarctic Peninsula warming 5 times faster than the average over the whole earth
  • Adelie and chinstrap penguin populations are rapidly dropping in the Antarctic Peninsula as the area warms. Since they rely on sea ice, as the area warms their range is shrinking as it moves south.
  • The gentoo Penguin population in the Antarctic Peninsula area is increasing. Since gentoo penguins’ food supply is in warmer water, their range is moving south as the climate warms.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Birds (but not penguins), tea and biscits, rats (not) and more penguins. Sunday, December 6

The morning landing is on the privately owned Carcass Island. (It was named after Lord and Lady Carcass. If I remember what one of the naturalists said correctly, they provided some funding for a 18th century research and survey expedition. What a bad name to be stuck with. It is owned by a sheep ranching family. But int he last few years, the bottom has fallen out of the wool industry (it can now cost more to sheer a sheep than you can get for the wool). The family now makes their living from landing fees for tourists (paid for by Lindblad). They have three things that get cruises to stop at their island--one really cool and two that are kind of just nice additions:

  • The most important reason is that the island has surprisingly remained rat-free. This means that it still has a great population of the many ground nesting birds--especially the song-bird varieties. It’s kind of surprising that the island has remained rat free because the family doesn’t require cruse ships to take any special precautions when landing. For some reason, for all the years that sheep, feed and supplies has been landed on the island, no rats have been hitchhikers. The birding on this island is amazing!
  • They’ve built a large restroom facility. This is the first place we’ve visited (other than Port Stanley) that has had restroom facilities.
  • They serve tea, biscuits (cookies) and cakes to the people who land. The variety of cookies is amazing.

One plentiful bird was the a local thrush that looks had behaves exactly like the North American robin (at least a faded robin--no red breast). It is in fact very closely related.

That afternoon, we visit New Island, the western most of the Falkland Islands. Again, a privately owned island, much of it was used for grazing sheep--the tussuc grass has been replaced by a European grazing grass.

We land in a sheltered natural harbor and then hike across a narrow point to the northwestern side. On the hike, we see numerous kelp and upland geese. They have thrived since the sheep were removed--the love the grassy areas. The area we hiked to had been fenced off while sheep were here (to keep them from falling off a high cliff into the ocean.so there is still plenty of tussuc grass. The area below the clifts and along the edge are filled with nesting black browed albatross, Blue-eyed shags (a cormorant) and rock-hopper penguins. We hang out there for over two hours. Lots of “pixels are burned.”

The rock-hopper penguins are the smallest penguin--only about 16 inches tall and are related to the macaroni penguin. They seem to be able to hop up about 12 inches and down about 18 inches. It is amazing watching them move around. They are the first penguin we see that makes a more traditional nest--out of mud, grass and guano.

The albatross makes a rather high pedestal nest out of mud, grass and guano. There seem to be the clumsiest birds when landing--most times falling over in the process. To take off, they walk to the edge of the cliff, wait for a gust of wind and jump.

The blue-eyed cormorants have amazing blue eyes a beautiful blue-black feathers and bright orange tufts of feathers around their beak.

The Lindblad staff managed to make the last day on-shore a great climax.

Albatross, Rock Hoppers, Changeable weather. Saturday, December 5

This morning we’re at Steeple Jason Island. It is one of the chain of Jason chain of islands stretching 40 miles northeast of the main Falkland Islands. It is owned by a nonprofit that is starting to restore it. It is usually not included in cruises--even by Lindblad because of the difficult landing conditions. However, today the wind is right for a reasonable landing. We hike about two kilometers up a ridge. When we get over the ridge, we are treated to the world’s largest black-browed albatross colony, containing about 157,000 breading pairs (over 300,000 birds). The colony is over three miles long along the rocky beach. The number in the air is amazing. A few of us make our way through the tussuc grass mounds down to the edge of the colony. We end up right under the flight path of the albatross.

Nesting among the albatross are rock-hopper penguins. These are the smallest of the penguins we’ve seen. The lichens are amazing--orange, brown, red, green. Some really cool green lichen that forms ribbons.

At lunch we are at the same table as Melissa--one of the people from Oceanities. Her real job is working for Rathyon’s Antarctic Services division. They have the contract with the National Science Foundation to provide all the logistical support and manage the three US research stations on Antarctica as well as the two research ships. Melissa’s job there is project manager for research projects that work away from the three bases in tent camps. She takes vacation and leave to work with Oceanities in Antarctica. She gave us a feeling for the complexity of getting materials to the Antarctic bases for research.

That afternoon we land at Saunder’s Island. Landing was easy but as we walk toward the rock-hopper colony the wind picks up. Sand is blowing across the beach. I’d guess it was about 40 miles per hour. Then it gets cloudy and we’re in a driving sleet. The sleet lasts only about 10 minutes and the sun comes out. Wind is still strong but the sleet at least stopped the sand from blowing. Just another case of the weather changing very quickly and very often in the Falklands.

At sea, Port Stanley, Falkland Islands, Friday, December 4

After the morning at sea, we tie up to the industrial dock at Port Stanley at 1:30. We take the “two hour tour” option. Kind of looks like a retired Crockidle Dundee with a very dry British humor. “We don’t have a lot to show you in Stanley, so we have to show you everything.” Some interesting things about Port Stanley:

  • The capital and largest city in the Falklands--about 2500 population (total of about 3000 in all of the Falklands).
  • Much of the peat on the island is in common ownership--families have specific plots and can harvest peat for heating.
  • Peat is kind of soggy pre-coal. You have to let it dry before burning it.
  • No indigenous trees. But imported trees in Stanley and at the settlements ("settlements" appear to be the Falkland term for central buildings on a ranch.)
  • One garden had numerous gnomes. Gnomes show up at the post office with notes saying, please put me in the garden with my fellow gnomes. Our guide referred to it as the Port Stanley botanical garden.
  • The Falklands earn enough from fishing licenses to be self supporting except for defense.
  • As a self governing “overseas territory of the UK", they control most everything except foreign affairs and defense--both controlled by the UK government in London.
  • Most people in the Falklands work for the government.
  • A fair number of new houses--financed by the fisheries income.
  • Many houses and buildings brightly colored with brightly colored metal roofs. This really looks great against the landscape of the Falklands.

The weather changes by the minute here. Sleet followed by sunny skies, followed by stiff winds followed by calm, followed by a driving downpour, followed by sunny skies (in a period of four hours.

After the tour, we do some gift shopping in downtown Stanley with some on foot sight seeing. We end by going into the Global Tavern Pub. It appears half the ship also decided to stop at this pub.

As soon as we get onboard, we head off to tomorrow’s landing--in the far northwest of the Falkland Islands.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Photography tips from the Photography Department

It turns out that all of Lindblad’s trips to Antarctica include photography experts who are there to help the guests. It has been great asking both Flip Nicklin (the National Geographic photographer on board) and Ralf Hopkins (the Lindblad staff photographer on our trip) for advice and help. Besides the one-on-one help they provide, Ralph did a session in the lounge on Ten Tips to Improve Your Images. Here are some tips I really liked:

  1. Seeing the light: think about the direction of light (for example, sometimes it works great to have back-light or side-light. Sometimes light is too harsh. Sometimes there is too much contrast. Sometimes using fill-flash will help. “Find the best light and shot what’s in it.” For back-light, sometimes have the sun in the picture--just shoot at a high f-stop and pinch the sun with mountains or trees or rocks. Side-light can set up great reflections (e.g. the light in an animal’s eye.
  2. Choose the Right Lens. A murphy’s rule in photography: “No matter what lens you have on your camera for a specific situation, it is always the wrong lens.”
  3. Look for Color: “Vivid and saturated colors make your images pop.
  4. Show motion: Experiment with slow shutter speeds (e.g. 1/8 second for flowing water). Pan with moving objects--hopefully the object will be clear and the background will show a blur.

(From Ralph Lee Hopkins, RalphLeeHopkins.com)

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

At sea to the Falklands Wednesday, December 2, Thursday December 3.

At 1 AM a passenger is transferred aboard from another company’s cruise ship. He had broken his hip and we will be the fastest way to get him to a hospital in the Falklands (since that is our next stop). Our doctor does an evaluation and we end up leaving immediately for the Falklands to get him to the hospital as soon as possible (we had planed on one more stop on South Georgia this morning). According to the expedition leader, they have platted a course to avoid the worse weather--going between two weather systems.

We head to the northwest end of South Georgia and take a course west-south-west. We have a 40 knot (45 MPH) wind on our starboard with hugh ocean swells. I put on a sea-sickness transdermal patch at about 4 AM. Bev and I skip breakfast and sleep in--it is great to be able to sleep in and not miss anything.

Because of the rough seas--ten to twelve foot swells--we don’t have the typical buffet for lunch. The wait staff brings us our food.

Staff organizes an Antarctic/South Georgia Jeopardy game. We both pass

Thursday is more rough sees. I don’t feel bad about having to wear the sea-sickness patch--staff members are getting sea sick.

History day on South Georgia. Tuesday, December 1.

We start in Stromness Harbour--a whaling site that was in operation until the mid 1960s. It is also where Shackleton’s 36 hour hike from the other side of South Georgia finally ended. From here he got a steam powered whaler to go around South Georgia to pick up the men he left on the other side of the island. Since it was getting to be winter in Antarctica, it took him four tries to finally get to the men he left on Elephant Island.

South Georgia government prohibits approaching closer than 200 meters (2 football fields) to the old whaling station because the strong winds can pick off pieces of sheet metal from the old buildings and send them flying. (It seems to be an example of a little overly cautious British Government.) We get fairly close to the old station by zodiac. It has been taken over by fur and elephant seeds and sea birds. We then land and hike back from the beach for more nature. We have to land on a beach with lots of breeding fur seals. The keep the tourists in line and the fur seals in their place, they have set kayaks up to provide a corridor up the beach to an area where the fur seals are less numerous.

During lunch we head to Grytviken--again on the open sea during lunch but today isn’t as bad as Monday. The Norwegians started whaling at Grytviken in 1904 and it changed ownership a number of times--ending with a two year lease to a Japanese company that was trying to develop a market for frozen whale meat. They were not successful because most of the whales had already been killed. This is also where Sir Ernest Shackleton died of a massive heat attack at the start of an expedition he launched in the 1920s. He is grave is here and we visit it and toast him with a shot of rum. Steve (the naturalist who also specializes in history) gives Shackleton a great tribute. The passenger who is the trumpet player played Bramhs (spelling?) Lullaby at gravesite. I thought that was a strange choice but we learn at the wrap-up that it is the same song that was played on banjo by one of Shackleton’s crew at Shackleton’s funeral. There are a number of people on this trip who came specifically because they are Shackleton history buffs so this is a very significant stop for them.

The museum here includes a lot of information on Shackleton (including a recreation of the 23 foot lifeboat he used to sail sail the 800 miles from Elephant Island to here), information on whaling history and natural history. It also includes history of the Falkland war (Argentina invaded South Georgia and occupied the research station, government offices and old whaling station for about two weeks.) It is a really good small museum in the middle of nowhere. Much of this whaling station has

been torn down for safety but we are allowed to walk around the remaining buildings (which have been stabilized). Whaling ended here in 1965.

In the last few years of whaling they seem to have made use of much of the animal (not just the blubber for oil). Some of the pictures are pretty gruesome. It turns out that if you ate margarine in the 1950s or early 1960s, you were eating hydrogenated whale oil.

Evening wrap-up: Some great stories about the Shackleton expedition but the highlight is a presentation by the staff from the South Georgia government and the British Antarctic Research facility. Some interesting random facts:

  • To reduce their carbon footprint, the government/research station has re-commissioned an old hydro electric dam built by the Norwegians years ago. It now produces enough power for the research facility, government offices and museum--about 300 kilowatts. They just started using it a month ago so they haven’t used it through the winter but expect it to work year around--totally eliminating the need for diesel fuel for heating and electricity.
  • There is concern that the amount of krill in the ocean around South Georgia significantly dropped last year. The drop was caused by a shift in the location of the Antarctic Convergence (where the warm and cold oceans meet) to south of South Georgia. This resulted in warmer, less nutrient rich waters around the island. With the reduction in food, there has been a reduction in fur seals breading and the Gentoo penguins on South Georgia failed to raise chicks last year. This looks like a temporary situation, the Antarctic Convergence has moved back north and the penguins are mating this year. However, with climate change it may be happening more often than in the past.
  • The government actively manages the fishery to the territorial limit of 200 miles around South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. Commercial fishing licenses fund the enforcement that includes observers on all the fishing ships. They actively control the catch and the methods (e.g. bottom trawling is strictly prohibited). The South Georgia tooth fish (also known as Patagonian tooth fish, Antarctica sea bass and Chilean sea bass is certified by the Marine Stewardship Council as a sustainable, well regulated fishery (check for the marine council logo).

Hiking, rain, moss. Monday November 30

We are at Molke Harbour in Royal Bay--specifically because it is sheltered from strong northerly winds. But it is a wet, kind of miserable morning. Zodiac ride to shore in a 20 MPH wind (about 42 degrees F) with a drizzle and very cloudy skies. As we hike away from the beach, the wind calms down and the drizzle almost stops. Two reindeer herds, one with a large buck standing watch. We hike up a small river that is fed by melting snow. It’s surprising how far up the river the elephant seal weaners have come--especially considering that they can not lift themselves up on their flippers; they move more like maggots. The river isn’t very deep and the bed is about full of fist size and larger rough rocks. Moving down the river to get back to the sea must be really hard on the skin on their bellies.

There is a great variety of mosses and lichens on the hills.

During lunch it is very rough--the bow is pounding into the sea and spray is going as high as the bridge. A lot of people don’t finish their lunches and disappear into their cabins. Luckily, I had taken the sea-sickness medicine about a hour before we left the relative calm of Molke Harbor. But after a light lunch I also lay down in the cabin for a quick nap. That seems to be one of the best ways to avoid sea-sickness--just sleep through rough seas.

We get to Jason Harbor--again chosen mainly for being sheltered from the northerly wind. Bev decides to keep napping. We have to wind our way through the fur seal males--keeping our distance from all of them. It is a strange landscape--tussuc grass mounds that have been grazed very short by the reindeer with standing water between them. You have to step from one mound to the next to make your way back to higher ground. More reindeer, some Antarctic Terns that are unhappy with us, some molting king penguins standing in a middle green grass.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Macaronies, life and death and glaciers. Sunday, November 29

This morning we see macaroni penguins from the zodiac. For a few reasons (including breeding fur seals on the beach--very nasty, territorial males--we can not land on the beach. Penguin species count is at six. The zodiac cruise includes checking out a few other coves along the coast with fantastic rock formations. They look like something out of a fantasy novel.

We do land on a different beach in Cooper Bay and find a dead elephant seal being pecked at by skuas and giant petrals. The giant petrals really have the vulture niche in South Georgia. They even have same behaviors--charging with out stretched wings, tail in a vertical posture, getting their whole head into the carcass.

One of the king penguin chicks seems to be desperate for food. Keeps going up to anything (including people and tripods) begging for food. We take a hike up a snow field looking for albatross nests. No nests but a great walk.

The afternoon is a zodiac cruise up the very narrow Larson Harbor. This is a scenery excursion, not wildlife. It was amazing. Later, the ship cruises up Drygalski Fjord to the tidewater glacier at its head. To leave, the captain uses the bow and stern thrusters to pivot the ship.

In the wrap-up before dinner under-water videos from the ROV--some cool, strange things live on the floor of the ocean here. Also a song by one naturalist about krill--”All you need is krill.” (think Beatles)

West side of South Georgia, one million. Saturday, November 28.

Our first stop is at Gold Harbor on South Georgia. Staff had offered a landing before sunrise at 5:00AM (for the photographers who are looking for that “magic light”) but it was cloudy and raining. Rain stopped and we were on the beach by nine. Elephant seals, fur seals and king penguins. Lots of king penguins. The noise from the adults and the chicks were amazing. There were the creches of brown fluffy chicks making songbird like calls--waiting for mom or dad to come back and regurgitate a meal. The sailors who first saw them referred to them as “the okum boys” because they looked like the rope and tar caulk called okum that was used to fill cracks in ships. They look like a sea of brown with a black and white and orange adult scattered among them. I think I shout 400 pictures before I just put the camera away and just watched. The penguins (adults and chicks will walk to about two feet from you. If you sit down by a wiener seal (the young elephant seals) it is not unlikely they will come over and try to nurse you boot or your knee.

“The Government of South Georgia” is serious about enforcing the regulations for tourists. This site is has video surveillance from a number of points of view to insure tour groups stay out of restricted areas (sensitive animal habitats)

Much of the land beyond the beach is covered by tussoc grass. It is a challenge to walk through. Bev did and climbed a ridge to see a albatross nest with chicks. (She still needed binoculars).

Oceanites doesn’t count king penguins (not in their study plan) but Ron notes that they would be very hard to count. While the brush tail penguins (chinstrap, Adelie and gentoo penguins) all mate at the same time and the chicks leave the nest before winter, kings are on a 18 month breading cycle. Many times you will find single molting penguins, chicks, and pairs incubating an egg, all at the same colony.

In the afternoon we head to St. Andrews Bay. Elephant seals, fur seals, king penguins and reindeer. No tussoc grass at this location (the reindeer graze to the ground. We head off to the south following a naturalist. Go up a ridge and look down on the largest colony we’ve seen. Over 400,000 king penguins. The largest colony of kings on South Georgia. We have now seen over one million penguins.

While I’m writing this in the ship library, I’m watching four snowy-sheath-bills out the window. White birds about the size of a pigeon, a face sort of like a chicken and at first glance appear rather dumb and clumsy. But they are checking everything out. Pulling on wires, pecking at latches, tugging at straps (all on top of the enclosed life boats). They also are very coordinated--just saw one land while going backwards.

snowy sheath bill.

At sea, bio-sanitizing and South Georgia Island. November 27.

After breakfast we all attend a required briefing on South Georgia. South Georgia is part of the United Kingdom and administered from government offices in the Falklands. We see a video by “The Government of South Georgia” (that seams kind of a strange term since the only people who live here are the staff of two small U.K. research stations). The basic message is “we are really serious about not bringing in any more exotic plants or animals and we are really serious about protecting the wildlife.” It also has some safety warnings, like “stay away from fur seals!” (punctuated by a picture of a person’s hand after being bitten--you can see pieces of finger bones.) Exotic species currently on South Georgia include a beetle, reindeer (introduced by the whaling industry to provide fresh meat), dandelions, and the Norway rat. Since the birds on South Georgia evolved with no land predator, they have started to eradicate the Norway rat.

After seeing the video, we are all required to go through bio-sanitizing. This includes have all our outerwear inspected--and camera bags and pockets vacuumed out. They pay particular attention to checking for seeds stuck in Velcro. (This is our second bio sanitizing--our first was before we set foot on any antarctic island.) As with Antarctica, we step in a disinfectant before leaving the ship and when returning from the ship.

To kill the time, another naturalist talk--an introduction to South Georgia. Did you know the South Georgia Pintail is a vampire duck? It will eat the blood from the wounds on seals.

Our first stop on South Georgia is the caves at the inlet to King Haakon Bay where Shackleton first landed when they reached South Georgia. We then head into the bay and take the zodiacs ashore at Peggotty Bluff--the final stop for Shackleton’s long boat and where he and two crew headed across the island (over a mountain range and glaciers) to find help at a whaling station on the other side.

Onshore the first thing you notice is that there are green plants (besides algae and lichen). The second thing is elephant seals. The pups that have just been weaned (“weaners”) are really cute with hugh black eyes. The adults are really ugly. We walk up a stream of glacier melt water. There is an alluvial plane of the rock powder created by the glacier as it slides down the mountain. It looks like a small version of the alluvial planes you see in the Japer park area in Canada. There are a couple giant giant petrels(birds) fighting over the remains of a dead seal--petrels fill the vulture niche at South Georgia.

There are about a dozen king penguins molting by the beech. The first king penguins we’ve seen.

Back on the ship, “the photography department” (Ron and Flip) have invited anyone with a laptop to create a three minute slide show sampling what they’ve shot so far. Some really impressive photography. Some really cool ideas I’m going to steal. We just didn’t seem to have the time to put a slide show together.

Oceanites also announces the winner of “how may penguins have we seen so far” contest. The winner was only 32,000 penguins off. So far, we have seen over 402,000 penguins (I was way off--I guessed 15,000)

  • 224,000 Adelies,
  • 18,000 gentoo,
  • 160,000 chinstrap.

Friday, November 27, 2009

At sea, a little rock’n and roll’n, More talks, Thursday, November 26 (U.S. Thanksgiving Day)

We are at sea all day today, headed for South Georgia Island--on the open ocean. More naturalist/staff talks to keep us out of trouble.

The first talk of the day was about the Shackleton Expedition in the early 1900s. More talk about ships getting caught in ice, ships being crushed by ice. Shackleton had taken the long-boats from his ship, his crew pulled them across the surface ice, launched them and got to Elephant Island. This is the island we spent much of yesterday trying to get through the pack ice to see.

The second talk was about plate tectonics. The talk started by noting that a 17th century Anglican bishop had calculated the exact date God created the earth--on a Saturday, 4004 BC, at sunset. (A couple sarcastic notes--would god work on the Jewish Sabbath? at sunset where? He calculated it using the bible and “other sources.” That the extreme fundamentalists pin their belief of a “young earth” on a calculation made in the 17th century Anglican bishop is beyond me. (The talk then explained plate tectonics and how Antarctica ended up at the southern pole and why it has been stuck there.)

Next talk is 10 tips for improving travel photography with Rolf Hopkins (the Lindblad staff photographer on board). If I get around to it, I’ll write a post specifically about his talk. As a teaser, two bonus tips are:

“If you want to take better photos, stand in front of better stuff.”

“Find the best light and shoot what’s in it.”

Happy Thanksgiving Day in the U.S. Dinner options included a traditional turkey dinner. I had the grilled salmon.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Trying to get to Elephant Island, Wednesday, November 25

We were woken up be things falling off shelves. The sea is getting rougher.

We’re trying to get to Elephant Island--where Shackleton’s crew overwintered The island is surrounded by pack ice. Spent the morning moving around trying to find an opening in the ice, through the fog.

We came up on two humpback whales, followed them for a while. After the captain turned back to finding a way through the ice, the whales stayed with us for about 20 minutes more. The sonar indicates a concentration of just below the surface. The whales were eating without have to go deep

Just announced--the pack ice is too extensive. It is a mix of surface ice (OK kind of ice) glacier ice (you really don’t want to hit with a ship), multi year ice (also a no-no). We can not find a way in that would also guarantee us a way out. So we are abandoning our attempt to get to Elephant Island.

On our way to the South Orkneys, the bridge spots five fin whales-the second largest of the baleen whales. Spend about half an hour watching them, the are doing very shallow dives.

Tonight, the first showing of a new Lindblad movie, “Counting Penguins.” It is about Oceanites, the only non-governmental research group working in Antarctica. More about Oceanities in a future post.

Late update. We are skipping the South Orkneys--today’s ice report shows even more ice around the South Orkneys than around Elephant Island. So we will get an extra day on South Georgia. You have to be flexible when on a Lindblad trip. They take advantages of changing conditions with quite a few changes in plans.

Walking on ice--this is a big deal?? Dumb human tricks. Traveling north Tuesday, November 24

Another chance to walk on sea ice. I decide--big deal, walking on ice. It turns out there were seals on the ice and it was warm. Oh well, i got spent a relaxing morning on-board.

The other activity this morning was another polar plunge. Since the law that requires Minnesotans to play “hardy Minnesotan” anytime they are out of state only requires one polar plunge per trip, I again stay on board. Turns out is was much warmer and much more pleasant that the first one. But it was still a polar plunge!

After crashing into the ice again for a marketing shot (we left the photographer on the ice), we head north, destination Elephant Island sometime tomorrow.

We cruise by an emperor penguin siting on broken sea ice with five Adelie penguins. The ship

does a U-turn and slowly creeps up on the penguins. Most of the passengers put on parkas and head for the bow--in a stiff wind driven snow. Didn’t get too close, and the emperor never stood up. It is clearly much bigger than the Adelie penguinsThe ship backs away and turns back on coarse.

We have three talks by staff in late morning and afternoon. One about the ice and climate of Antarctica. One on the history of Antarctica discovery, starting with the ancient Greek predictions of a southern continent. [Interesting note of strange symmetry--the Arctic is an ocean surrounded by continents and the Antarctic is a content surrounded by ocean.]

The last talk is a quick history of whale photography by Flip Nicklin the National Geographic photographer who is on the cruise. Flip IS the history of whale photography.

  • His father owned one of the first dive shops in Southern California and was given an underwater still camera and underwater 16 millimeter film camera. He shot the first underwater still pictures and film of a whale in the early 1960s.
  • Flipp has done 19 feature photography articles for National Geographic, 17 on whales and dolphins.
  • He was involved in the early whale research that used photography of flippers, fins and flukes to identify and track individuals.
  • He photographed the first hydrophone research of whale song. [Interesting note: Whales were first protected in 1966 but National Geographic did the first whale story that didn’t treat whales as an economic commodity until 1971.]
  • When doing whale work, he assumes he works on site 100 days, actually gets on or in the water 70 of those days and that all the useful pictures come from just four days.

There seems to be a preoccupation on this ship with ships being destroyed by ice. There are a number of books about the Titanic, the Lusitania and Shackleton in the library, books about the Titanic and the Lusitania and a Shackleton DVD for sale in the gift shop. During the recap tonight, naturalists tell us about how “growler” ice warned sailors of icebergs nearby and read first-hand stories of sailing ships being crushed by icebergs.

Rounding the tip of the Peninsula, Antarctic Sound and Weddell Sea. Monday, November 23

We’ve been sailing northeast all night and this morning are rounding the northwestern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. Heading through the Antarctic Sound we go between a very large tabular ice burgs. (Tabular as in “Table”) These are huge, flat pieces of ice shelf. Many are bigger than multiple city blocks. Standing on top of the deck above the bridge, you can just barely see over the top of them--That makes them 23 meters high (about 75 feet)--that’s above the water, over 200 meters (over 2 football fields) is below the water. There is no comparison to the broken sea ice (about 2 meters thick) or Ice burgs we’ve been going through.

The tabular ice burgs are big pieces of the Antarctic ice shelves that have broken off. An ice shelf is formed when a land glacier slides out into a protected sea or bay and starts floating instead of breaking off near land. This forms and ice shelf. The tabular ice we’re seeing are from the Larsen, Ronne and Flichner ice shelves. A normal ice burg is formed when a glacier breaks off (calves) at the sea edge. Broken sea ice is the remnants of a section of the sea that froze (think lake ice).

[Note: this is the life, writing this while headed to Elephant Island, having a mocha, listening to Victor play Girshwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”]

We land at Brown Bluffs--a landing on the continent that includes Adelie and gentoo penguins. Lots of Adelie penguins here. Selected a rock as close to the 15‘ limit as possible with as little guano as possible and sat and watched penguins for half an hour. Took a few pictures but mainly watched. Watched penguins adjusting their eggs, watched penguin pairs greet each other, watched penguin sex, watch penguins build nests with small rocks, watched penguins steal rocks from their neighbors nests.

Back on the ship and we head into the Erebus and Terror Gulf of the Weddell Sea. Actually quite calm (the gulf is really named after two British “bomb” ships that had been converted to research vessels). We are the first non-icebreaker in the Weddell Sea this season. We end up with the ship stuck bow first into fast ice (on purpose) for the night. See our first emperor penguin of the trip (we weren’t planning on seeing any, they are just leaving their nesting area quite a bit south of us.). You can make out it’s markings in the birding scope. Our fifth penguin species (including the Galapagos Penguin). Only 12 to go.

Today we heard a talk by Ron Naveen. the founder and Executive Director of Oceanites. He and two of his staff are on board doing penguin censuses at each of our stops. I think Ocenites deserves their own blog post.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

More penguins, some Antarctic history and the continent. Sunday, November 22

They’ve split the passengers into 4 groups with only three on shore at a time (to follow the Antarctic Treaty guideline of only 100 tourists on land at a time). Today for the landing we were in the group that started with a zodiac cruise among the Icebergs. It’s a cloudy gray day so the Icebergs aren’t the fantasic blue color but are some fantastic shapes.

We next head to a Gentoo penguin colony on Pleneau Island. (I think I may be getting a little tired of penguins!.) I decide sit and watch the penguins hopping in and out of the water. Fascinating. Bev decides to stay a little longer and I take a zodiac back to the ship. Of course that’s when a Leopard Seal swims up and starts checking out penguins for lunch. According to Bev, the penguins immediately move away from the beach--rapidly. [Sarcastic note to Apple--how about naming the next operating system and updates after seals?]

In the afternoon we head to Port Lockroy. This was an anchorage used by explorers and whalers. In World War II, the British built a small outpost on the very small Goudier Island that was part of a secret British project to monitor German shipping movements during World War II. Seven people would overwinter here. After the war, the base was used for civilian science until 1964. It is considered a historic Antarctic site and has recently been restored by the United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage Trust as a museum and Gift Shop (They accept Pounds Sterling, US Dollars, Euros, MasterCard and VISA).

Four people staff the station during the summer tourist season. They live in rather primitive conditions--not unlike the conditions the crews when the station was operating. (Although they do get to shower on board cruise ships they are invited aboard.) They are also limited to a very small Island that also has lots of penguins--and therefore lots of penguin guano--I wouldn’t want to be hear in February after a summer of nesting penguins.

We also visit Neko Harbor for a landing after dinner. Up until now, all of our landings have been on islands in the Antarctic Peninsula archipelago (Geologically and geographically part of the continent). This landing however is on the Antarctic mainland. If we wanted to, and were equipped for it, we could walk from her to the South Pole (It would be the long way of getting there).

Back on board and there’s a pick-up jam session with the ship’s staff pianist (Victor) and a passenger who brought his Baritone trumpet on the trip.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Lemaire Channel, Booth Island, Sailing South, Saturday, November 21

7:00 AM, we cruse through the Lemaire Channel. Very narrow, very tall snow-covered mountains on both sides, bergy bits, brash ice, broken sea ice, growler Ice in the sea (There seems to be a variety of names for different kinds of ice in water).
At the south end of the channel, we stop at Booth Island--one of only a few places where all three species of brush-tale penguins breed in the same ares--Chinstraps, Adelie and Gentoo Penguins. This time I just sat down on a rock and watched the penguins--ended up with one about 2 feet from me.

We also kayaked here. It was a very calm bay but with lots of small chunks of ice. We were warned not to get too close to any chunks of ice over about 3 feet tall (anything you can not see the top of). (Some are over 20 feet tall.) Large chunks of ice can break off or the ice could roll over--either of which would not be good for a close by small kayak. The kayaks are inflatable--which means they are extremely stable. They wouldn’t be good in any wind since they sit very high in the water.

In the afternoon we started “sailing south” to see “how far we can get.” We stopped about 9:00 PM at 65 degrees 45.255 minutes south latitude and 64 degrees 34.6 minutes west longitude. The ice just was too thick to go futher--about a degree short of the Antarctic Circle. Spent time until about 11 PM there taking pictures in really cool lighting.

The recap concentrated on Orkas--we saw two pods of them today. One for an extended period. Interesting fact: Orkas are tool using animals. They have been documented (including by Lindblad nature staff) creating waves to break=up sea Ice and wash seals on the Ice into the sea. First they create upwellings by swimming vertically to break-up the ice and to separate the pieces of ice. Then three to four swuim fast toward the piece of ice with the seal on it to create a large wave to wash the seal off the ice. They are using water as a tool to get at the seals. They have even been documented practicing the techniques and teaching the techniques to calves.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Dorian Bay and Palmer Station. Friday, November 20.

7:00 wake up call. In the zodiac to go ashore by 8:15. Step off the ship into the zodiac with horizontal sleet and snow in your face. 28 degrees F, wind gusting at 30 to 45 MPH. We’ve had great weather until now--actually overdressed for our outings yesterday. Today, that isn’t a worry.

Dorian Bay has a Adelie penguin colony, a former small British station (now a “refuge hut) and a Argentinian “refuge hut”. The Argentinian “refuge hut” has a large Argentinian flag painted on it’s side. The “refuge huts” seem to be the way nations with claims to Antarctica (put in “abeyance” by the Antarctic Treaty 50 years ago) to “tweak” the noses of nations with competing claims (the British and Argentinean claims overlap).If you knelt down on the snow or laid on the snow you could avoid most of the wind and just watch the penguins. Best way to describe the difference in the behavior of Chinstrap Penguins and Adelie Penguins was provided by one of Steve--one of Lindblad’s staff naturalists on board: “Chinstraps are on speed; Adelies are on quaaludes.”

By the afternoon, we have reached Arthur Harbor to visit the Adelie penguin colony on Torgersen Island and Palmer Station, the smallest of three U.S. Antarctic Program research stations in Antarctica.

Torgersen Adelie colony: More time to just watch the behaviors. This time in pleasant weather--32 degrees and almost no wind. Also, five sleeping Elephant seals. The elephant seals open their eyes, stretch their flippers, scratch, and go back to sleep. This is also the site of a 30 year research project to determine of well-mannered tourists have any impact on penguin colonies. Half of the island is totally off limits to tourists and any other researchers. So far, the research has shown no impact. Just to my eye--clearly not a scientific study, the penguins are so busy dealing with their breading that they totally ignore the dumb tourists.
Palmer Station: ( http://pal.lternet.edu/) Only twelve cruises are allowed to tour Palmer Station each summer and they have invited our cruise to tour (not surprising--more on that later). Before we go to Palmer Station, the Palmer Area Director and
Palmer Science Director come on board and explain what they do. The very short version:
Palmer Station is a place to conduct scientific research. A lot of earth science and biology research is conducted there. The station is funded by the National Science Foundation and researchers apply to conduct research and are chosen through a peer review process.
After the tour, there is a coffee and brownie reception in th
e Palmer staff dining area. Talking with one of the scientists, we express some interest in his research and are immediately invited to tour his lab. Really cool. They have developed “gli
ders” for remote sensing.
These are small semi-autonomous vehicles that can carry sensors and send back data. (for example measuring water temperature and Oxygen content at various depths over a 100 mile section of ocean.) They are about six foot long, one foot in diameter cylinders with short central fins and a control tail. They are powered by “a bunch” of standard high output D cell batteries. When the glider surfaces, it uses the antenna at the top of it’s tail to call home using the Iridium satellite phone system, downloads data and location (it uses the GPS satellites to determine location) and uploads its next set of instructions.Much of the staff of the Palmer Station is invited onboard for drinks and dinner and to attend the evening lecture. It’s not surprising that Lindbland/National Geographic has such great relationship with Palmer.

Daily Wrap-up: We get a short presentation by the nature staff (I’m just going to call them that--even though they include expertise in geography, history, geology, meteorology and climate) summarizing what we’ve done and seen in the last two days and adding some perspective. This one included some video they had taken earlier in the day using the Remote Operating Vehicle they have on board. Great video of the Antarctic Ocean floor from one site we visited--with all kinds of strange creatures.

Neil Armstrong: Did I mention that we were cruising with Neil Armstrong? After dinner he gave a presentation on “Random Thoughts on Discovery” about the importance of discovery and tying the Apollo program to the James Cook’s voyages of exploration and the early explorers of Antarctica. Fantastic talk--from notes with NO powerpoint crutch.
The staff at Palmer Station were really excited that he toured their station--they even staged a staff photo with him. The ship stayed at anchor to allow them to stay on board for Armstrong’s talk.