Thursday, Nov 8.
We had overnighted in Santiago, Chile, on our way to the National Geographic Explorer, which is embarking from Port Stanley in The Falkland Islands in a few hours. We’re in our cabin now, having flown to The Falklands this morning on a very early flight from Santiago. By very early, I mean that our wakeup call in the hotel was at 3:30–a completely brutal and inhumane way to wake travelers who are just past their prime. Okay, way past their prime. The process of checking out, getting some hot tea, waiting for the buses, waiting on the buses, checking in for our charter flight, going through customs, waiting to board the plane, and then flying for nearly three and a half hours to The Falklands was ample evidence of senior citizen abuse.
The Falkland Islands are raw–rough, very windy, and beautiful in a bleak way. The landscape features
rolling hills; sparse, wind-blown vegetation; and “rivers” of glaciated rock. It’s perfect sheep-grazing country, and there are more than 3,000 sheep on the East Falkland Island. They are unfenced, so you see them–singly, in pairs, or in small groups, grazing along the road and in rocky pastures beyond. Many of the trees in the Falklands have branches on only one side of their trunks–the leeward side, those on the windward side having been beaten and blown into submission. At this latitude in the Southern Atlantic, the wind blows almost constantly, and it’s a cold wind. I’m not sure how people can sustain themselves here in winds that are sometimes strong enough to push you one way or another and sometimes knock you down. But the Falklanders we spoke to loved it here and loved life most when they were here.
Stanley is the capital of the Falklands. About 2,000 strong, it is smaller than many minor American towns. The buildings are stout, cinder-block walls several times thick, and sturdy roofs. Most of the cars have elevated exhaust pipes, which indicates that they must sometimes have to endure high water. The dominant feature of Stanley is the harbor, and it’s been welcoming ships since early in the 19th century, including The Beagle, which brought Charles Darwin to this part of the South Atlantic on his way to the Galapagos Islands.
Nine pm, and we are on our way to the west Falklands, where we’ll land tomorrow. The sea is unruly but not rough. The seas are rolling the ship, so we’re experiencing unpredictable shifts and sways as the ship plows through the white water. We are assuring ourselves that this amount of movement is normal. Rougher sea will lie ahead.
Despite layers of clothing today, the fierce wind brought biting cold, and this, too, is mild compared to what we’re likely to experience in Antarctica.
Friday, Nov 9
Overnight, we arrived at Sawyer Island, which is in western Falklands. This is a mostly barren rock island with low grasses like tiny cauliflower heads. It is home to Magellanic Penguins as well as Black Brow Albatrosses. The penguins dig burrows for nesting and breeding, and the nesting pairs remember which burrow is theirs. The albatrosses build their nests on the rocky coastline, where nesting pairs dig in the mud with their beaks and build a raised round nest of mud that looks like a small brown tire. The female lays her eggs in these nests, and she and her male companion take turns sheltering the eggs while the other looks for food. The sea below has horizontal kelp growing out from the rocks. Kelp is a source of food for fish who also live amongst the kelp, which provide sustenance for the birds. The Black Brow Albatross is one of the smaller of the species. They live on the rocks above windy coasts. Their bodies are too heavy and their wings too slight for them to take off in calm conditions. They launch into the wind, so the wind can provide a power assist, much like Navy jets on aircraft carriers taking off into the wind.
We disembark the ship in Zodiac rubber boats that hold about 8 guests and 1 crew member. The rides, even in relatively calm conditions, are rough, waves threatening to wash into the boat with every surf. Heavy clouds are covering the sky, and the wind is whipping up white caps on the ocean. Tonight, we sail for South Georgia Island, which is two and one-half days away. We’re expecting a more turbulent ocean during this passage. Yesterday, Debra and I put sea sickness patches behind our ears to help combat the rocking and rolling of the ship. During the transit to South Georgia we’ll know whether the patches are working.
Friday afternoon we took another Zodiac ride into shore–this time at Westpoint Island in the western Falklands. We hiked about 2.5 miles to a colony of albatrosses and Rockhopper penguins. They were nesting in on a rock river leading to the sea. The colony was a chaos of black and white, and we initially thought it was all albatrosses. But when we studied the movement of the birds, we could see some smaller creatures waddling along, and albatrosses don’t waddle. Though they were difficult to distinguish, we realized that small penguins, hundreds of them, were intermingled among the albatrosses. It reminded me of a crowded intercity where people from two ethnicities live amongst each other in harmony and peace. I can’t imagine humans doing that, but these birds managed.
ADDENDUM. Turns out I was naively optimistic about the albatrosses and penguins living together in
harmony. They tolerate each others’ presence but Debra saw an albatross stealing a penguin’s nesting material, and the nearby penguins were squawking like mad. Another example of the more powerful taking advantage of the less powerful. As the world turns.
Rockhopper penguins are the goofiest looking creatures, even among penguins, which are already goofy looking. The Rockhoppers have bright red eyes and feathers on the tops of their heads that stand straight up or careen in odd directions. For them, every day is a bad hair day.
Saturday Nov 10.
We’re twelve hours into a two and one-half day journey to South Georgia Island. The sea is battleship gray and churning, six-to-eight-foot waves criss-crossing each other in majestic pandemonium. The ship is rolling but not so much that you lose your balance walking from the bed to the head, which is good because not making it to the loo in time would produce an unwelcome outcome.
“A ship in a harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are for.”
That we live on a water planet is evident when you look outside and see nothing but dark waves and white foam in every direction. As the ship plows through the turbulent water we can see hundreds of seabirds trailing us, swooping over the ocean, gliding just above the riotous surface, and plunging when a fish beneath them rises foolishly within reach. These vagabonds, these birds, must have nests somewhere, but we’re at least a hundred miles from their homes. We wonder why they follow the ship. Does the ship churn fish up to the surface for easy pickings? Or are we an anomoly, a traveling carnival that excites the birds’ imaginations? A great white behemoth so unusual that it draws a crowd of eager avians seeking stories to tell their friends and families, stories about the curious monstrosity they discovered slicing through their fishing grounds? Like finding an unearthly troll raiding your refrigerator? Whatever the appeal, the birds have become our companions in this shared journey, as it has been so for thousands of other seafarers throughout the centuries.
Sunday, Nov 11.
I am not a sailor, but I can understand the appeal of the sea. In its infinite horizon lie boundless possibilities. Here there are no traffic lanes, no signs to guide you nor any to curb your purpose. All avenues seem to have equal merit, although the poet Seneca warned that if you don’t know where you are headed, no wind is the right wind. Still, there is pleasure in simply experiencing a vastness that offers both sustenance and solitude, that proclaims the terrifying indifference of nature as well as a riotous confirmation of life. From the sea we came; to the sea we shall return. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. But in between we dine on the sublime experiences our Earth provides.
Antarctica is twice the size of the lower 48 states and is both the highest continent in the world and the driest. In places, its ice is more than 15,000 feet thick. Some Antarctic mountains are so covered in snow and ice that they are invisible. We will not see the interior of Antarctica. We’ll be landing at the Antarctic Peninsula, which is 1,120 miles long.
But at the moment we are still sailing from The Falklands to South Georgia, a distance of 750 miles. Though we are not yet in Antarctica, we have entered what’s called the “Antarctic Convergence,” the ecological zone in which the weather patterns and ocean water are antarctic in nature–with lower surface temperatures, changes in ocean water salinity and density. Those ocean changes boost the abundance of plankton, which increases the population of krill, a primary food source for whales, seals, and penguins. We haven’t seen whales yet but expect to in the days to come.
South Georgia Island can be snowy and bitter cold or it have clear skies–and be bitterly cold. We won’t know what to expect until we arrive. Even then, we may not be able to make landfall on some beaches because they may be fully occupied with fur seals or leopard seals, either of which can be aggressive toward humans, and if a beach is crowded with animals, we wouldn’t land there anyway because of the danger of disturbing them. We are prohibited from going with 5 meters (15 feet) of penguins and 100 feet of seals. We’re told, however, that if we sit near a penguin colony, the curious birds will likely come to us.
Monday, Nov 12.
We have arrived at South Georgia Island, which is actually a rugged chain of islands. They rise starkly out of the ocean, an archipelago of gray rock, greenish yellow tussock grass, and scattered snow and ice on the mountain slopes and peaks. Brown patches in the ocean reveal floating forests of kelp. The gray beaches are home to fur seals, leopard seals, and elephant seals. The latter lie on the beach like giant slugs. They can weigh as much as four tons. Leopard seals can be vicious but the elephant seals are the undisputed kings of the beach.
Our approach to South Georgia took us through water where penguins and seals were fishing, the numbers of animals in the water increasing as we neared the islands. The individual islands of South Georgia grew from misty shadows in the distant fog to the formidable landscapes we now see. I imagined what that must have looked like to the whalers and other sailors who visited these waters centuries ago. They would have found food and abundant freshwater from the snow melt. South Georgia Island has around twenty lakes, and we’ve seen many waterfalls plummeting from the steep slopes and ridges to the ocean. On the nearby cliffs we can see hundreds of albatross, white dots on the rugged hillside. At any one time, dozens of them are flying out from the cliff and soaring over the ocean. They remind me of the World War II films of aerial dogfights.
Tuesday, Nov 13.
This morning we sailed to Possession Bay, so named because when Captain James Cook landed here he claimed possession by the British. He named the island South Georgia in honor of King George III. Cook initially thought he’d discovered the Antarctic continent, and he was disappointed when he rounded the southern tip of the island and realized that it was just an island. Consequently, he named the southern-most bay Disappointment Bay. We had a lengthy sojourn in the Zodiacs this morning. The bay was calm and it was partly cloudy, so the ride was warm enough except when we drove at speed, and then the wind chill reminded us where we were. The shores of this bay are crowded with male fur seals and the occasional elephant seal. The males are staking out territory–and frequently fighting with each other over prime spots–while they wait for the return of the females. When the females return, they will generally give birth to pups within a day or two. Then, perhaps a week later, they will mate again. Fur seals do not eat while they’re onshore, and they burn about three pounds of fat each day. The females will nurse their pups for
four months before returning to the sea to eat and regain their size and strength. Fur seals are dark brown so until you learn how to distinguish them it’s difficult to tell whether what you’re seeing on the beach is a seal, a rock, or a mass of seaweed. As we circled the big bay we saw thousands of fur seals and one rarity–a white fur seal nearly hidden in tufts of grass. He raised his head and peered at us as we moved past.
This afternoon we went ashore at what’s called the Salisbury Plain, which is a long, broad beach of black mud and tussock grass with intermittent streams carrying snow melt to the ocean. The Plain is home to 400,000 King Penguins, the second largest colony on the island, as well as many fur seals and a few elephant seals. It’s difficult to fathom how many animals this is until you see a panorama of the Plain. We hiked among the penguins, keeping our distance from them–and especially from the fur seals, who are aggressive. The seals’ mouths carry 150 different types of bacteria, and we were told that if anyone was bitten by a fur seal, the entire expedition would have to return to The Falklands so the victim could be transported to a hospital in Chile. Needless to say, we kept our distance from fur seals. We were supposed to come no closer than 15 meters to the penguins, but in practice, the penguins came much closer than that to us. They are inquisitive creatures, especially the “Oakum Boys.”
Oakum Boys sounds like a country western group. “Folks, let’s have a big hand for the Oakum Boys!” But on South Georgia, the Oakums are fledging penguins, perhaps a year old, and they haven’t lost their brown juvenile feathers. They are squat youngsters with fluffy feather coats that reminded me of people in the 1920s wearing raccoon coats. The oakums are rotund, and their coats look like big oak barrels, although their name comes from oakum, not oak. Oakum was the tar-like substance used on wooden ships to seal the space between slants. When early sailors saw these goofy creatures, they named them “oakum boys.”
The adult penguins on the beach made a cawing sound now and then. It’s best described as a high-pitched “whir-r-r, whir-r-r, whir-r-r, whir-r-r.” Imagine the cacophony on the beach when hundreds of them are “whir-r-ring” at the same time. I’m told that each penguin has a unique sound, like we have different voice qualities. Penguins can find each other in this mass of birds by hearing the sound of the penguin (mate, parent, or child) they seek. They are awkward at best while waddling on the beach but are sleek and agile swimmers.
South Georgia Island was the site of whaling and sealing in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They decimated the whale population and nearly wiped out the fur seals. Between 1786 and 1825, sealers killed more than 1.2 million seals and the species was nearly extinct. When their numbers recovered, sealing began anew but ended permanently in 1912. Today, there are around 6 million fur seals on South Georgia Island, so many that we can’t land on some beaches because they are thick with seals.
Wednesday, Nov 14
Today, we landed at Stromness, an old whaling station that is most notable because it’s where British explorer Earnest Shackleton arrived after 18 months of struggle to return from Antarctica, where his ship Endurance became trapped in the ice and sank. Shackleton was determined to save all his men and was successful, though their trip was harrowing. When Shackleton and part of his crew arrived at South Georgia Island they landed on the wrong side and had to trek over the mountainous spine of the island to reach Stromness station. We hiked 1.8 miles to a prominent waterfall where Shackleton and two other men descended into the valley that led to the station–and rescue.
The waterfall itself was not spectacular, but the valley was starkly beautiful, ringed by snow-capped mountains and criss-crossed by numerous fast-flowing snow melt streams. The ground included mushy marshland near the coast, long stretches of tussock grass, and broad rivers of rock, including some boulder-size rocks and lesser ankle-turning rocks we had to step around. Near the coast, we had to navigate between resting fur seals, some of whom showed us their teeth and made aggressive moves toward us. Our guides stepped between us and the seals, huffed at them, and used their walking sticks to move prohibitive movements that made the seals reconsider. There were relatively few penguins in this valley, which was unusual, but there were occasional Antarctic Terns, whose nests in the grass we circled around when one of the terns became concerned about us.
As I said, the waterfall was not spectacular, but it was meaningful because Shackleton arrived at that point and descended into the valley when they heard the whistle callng the whalers to work and knew that they were close to the end of their ordeal. Shackleton had left many of his crew behind on Elephant Island (hundreds of miles away) and had to borrow a ship to go rescue them. Their saga, told in the book Endurance, is a tribute to the hardiness and will of his crew and to Shackleton’s first-rate leadership. Their ordeal ended in 1916, just over a century ago. Shackleton returned to South Georgia Island in 1922 and died of a heart attack. He is buried at Grytivken, where we are headed tomorrow. Grytivken was a Norwegian whaling station that has been restored and is, to the best of my knowledge, the only occupied settlement on South Georgia today. They have a post office there, as well as a whaling museum.
South Georgia Island is an extension of the Andes mountain chain. From the Andes on the western part of South America, the chain runs below the surface of the ocean, constituting a submarine line of mountains. It surfaces to form South Georgia Island and then sinks beneath the sea again at the southern tip of South Georgia. As we sit on the deck, looking out across the mountains of South Georgia and at the deep blue sea, I am struck by how remote this part of the world is. The men who built the whaling stations here had to bring everything, all their building materials, wood and tin, and all their tools and comforts, and much of their food. South Georgia has rock but no trees. It is a perfect environment for the creatures who live here. The sea is rich with krill and other food, and the animals don’t need shelter. But the earliest sailors who ventured here lived beneath their overturned boats on hard ground and in often fierce weather conditions. The snow melt streams would have provided fresh water, but there is no fuel for fires unless they collected oil from blubber, and the wind is frequently harsh. It blew so hard today that gusts knocked me sideways as I was returning to the ship. We wore rubber boots so crossing those ice-cold streams was not difficult, although the water was deep enough in some places to flow over the tops of your boots, and the current was swift enough to push you over. It was possible to cross some fast-moving streams only with the aid of walking sticks to help you keep your balance.
I took a panoramic video of the valley I crossed and will post it when I return home. Suffice it to say that the views are incredible and the experience overwhelming. One wants to stop, as I did frequently, just to watch and listen and take in the scenery and to reflect on those intrepid souls who made South Georgia their home, however temporarily, and lived and worked in such a raw and beautifully bleak part of the South Atlantic.
Thursday, Nov 15
Grytivken is an old whaling station, the only location in South Georgia that is still occupied by scientists and preservation staff. Except for residences, a museum and post office, and reserach buildings, which are
well maintained, the site is an industrial carcass, rusted tanks and machinery, wrecked boats, the spindly remains of piers and jetties, and debris from centuries of whaling–all lie in rusting profusion. There are avenues to wander through this rusty graveyard as though strolling backward through time, the occasional fur seal watchfully at rest like a delinquent teenager ready to bark or strike if you wander too near. It is well that fur seal males compete with each other for territory because if they worked together, like killer whales, they could be even more fearsome adversaries to explorers like us.
The day is bright and warmer than normal, around 44 degrees F. We’re told that the gods of weather are smiling upon us, though deteriorating weather is forecast for tomorrow. We take advantage and wander through the station without gloves, wearing only a thinner inner parka liner, and no long underwear. We
feel less stuffed and more agile, and some photographers become too relaxed. I see one backing toward a fur seal, unaware that it’s behind him, and yell his name to warn him. The museum is staffed by young people who spend six months at Grytivken during the spring-summer-early fall tourist season and the other six months at home in Britain, Germany, or Norway–wherever they’re from. They are part of the South Georgia Island Preservation Trust. At the end of our tour, we make our way around the bay to the small cemetery where Ernest Shackleton is buried. Sixty of us gather there and are given small cups of whiskey. We raise a toast to “The Boss,” as he was called, and then, according to custom, pour the remainder of our whiskey onto his
grave. We don’t know how long this custom has been observed, but perhaps for nearly a century (he died in 1922). If so, his bones must be well pickled by now. As customs go, this seems fitting for an explorer as rugged and determined as Shackleton was.
In the afternoon, we sail to Godthul bay (Godthul means “good harbor”). The sea is calm and there are light winds. We take a lengthy Zodiac ride around the vast bay, stopping at waterfalls and coves, winding our way around acres of Medusa Kelp, so named because thick ropes of the brown plant swirl in the waves like a giant head of hair. Kelp grows about a foot a day. Beds of it provide homes for crustaceans and fish and good hunting ground for penguins, petrels, gulls, and terns. Snow-melt water pouring over the cliffs has produced walls of moss and lichen, green, yellow, gold, and white, the colors darkened by moisture. I wonder if any painter could capture the light and colors as beautifully as we witness them in person.
We saw a pod of humpback whales today. They swam near our ship for hours, a group of six surfacing and sliding back into the sea, expelling air as they surface, and sometimes raising their tails above the water as they dive deeper. They have distinctive white patterns on the under sides of their tails, which is how scientists can identify a particular individual. Every whale’s white pattern is unique. As I watch them, I think how different their circumstances are now compared to a century ago
when these whales would have been killed and harvested, perhaps at the station we visited this morning. It is a credit to us as human beings that we have learned to protect these species and set aside sanctuaries like South Georgia Island for them.
In the evening, we learn of a tragedy, however, which tempered our mood from what was otherwise a brilliant day. A visitor on another ship was ashore photographing wildlife and was bitten by an elephant seal. He was apparently unaware of the seal and stepped backwards towards it. The seal struck suddenly and bit him repeatedly on his backside. We’re told that he lost much of one buttock and part of his thigh. He is on the way back to The Falklands, where he can be airlifted to a hospital, presumably in Santiago. The trip to The Falklands will take at least two days, however, and his prognosis is uncertain. Preserving these wild animals is an imperative, but they are dangerous and don’t observe any boundaries but their own.
Friday, Nov 16
We are in Gold Harbor. As predicted, the weather has deteriorated. The seas are choppy, white waves crashing on shore, and the swell at the ship is running to five feet or more, making it difficult to get on or off the Zodiacs. We were to make a landing a ten this morning, but that is in doubt until the scout boat returns and the crew tells us what’s possible. A low fog hangs over the cliffs beyond the beach. The air is crisp and moist, not icy but raw and penetrating. We may be ship bound unless the captain can find a more protected bay.
They did make a landing, but I stayed aboard to write. There is a large kind penguin colony in Gold Harbor along with the ever-present fur seals and, at this site, an unusually large number of elephant seals. Both types of seals are more aggressive now because it is mating season. The females are returning from the ocean, where they’ve spent months eating. The pregnant females will come to shore now to give birth to their pups and then, ten days later, mate again while they are weaning the pups. So the males are staking out their spots on the beach and fighting with other males for prime territory. Each male may mate with as many as twenty females. Most of the animals here are deep divers. Gentoo penguins may go down 300 feet to search for food. King penguins dive as deep as 1,000 feet to search for lanternfishes and squid. Elephant seals routinely dive to 3,000 feet and as much as 5,000 feet, and sperm whales can submerge for as long as 90 minutes to depths of 10,000 feet. Nature has made amazing adaptations in these animals to enable them to withstand the pressure at those depths.
Later on Friday
The weather has taken a decided turn for the worse. The wind is blowing at 60 knots with gusts to 70. The ship is rolling from side to side as it fights 10 to 15-foot waves. White water advances like a line of soldiers across the sea, a fine spray blown sideways from every crest. We can hear the gusts at our cabin windows, a moaning where the sliding door meets the glass wall as though the wind were begging to be let in. Drops of water slide down the glass and the wooden deck on our balcony is soaked, the water having nowhere to drain. The ship is making steady progress, but we can feel it being knocked around by wind gusts. Everywhere outside, the slate grey water is churning, one powerful wave after another being overtaken by other waves, swelling and falling and swelling again. We imagine braving this storm in a rowboat, as Shackleton’s men did–with stones lining the bottom of the boat for ballast and just a thin piece of canvas to protect hem from the water, but nothing to protect them from the cold except the threadbare garments they wore. Misery loves company, and those men had plenty of it.
Now the fog is descending on the horizon and the storm, which had extended to the horizon, seems closer to home, a local phenomenon, a grey dervish in a bath. The captain has turned the ship into the wind, and the crew is making ready for a sea voyage, battening down the hatches, as it were, and securing everything on deck. Over the intercom, we’re being warned to take our seasickness medicines and ensure no loose items remain on desks or bathroom counters. The ride is rough and getting rougher, and we don’t know how long it will last. There is no going ashore now. You’d be dashed on the beach and left for the seals and sea birds to prepare you for your final rest.
7:15 pm. We’ve now been in the storm for seven hours and it shows no sign of abating. We’re out at sea, headed southwest from South Georgia Island toward the Antarctic Peninsula. We should arrive at the tip of the peninsula around noon on Sunday (a day and a half from now). Meanwhile, we will endure these strong seas and wind. This afternoon, we rode out the storm in our cabin and will likely stay here until we reach Antarctica unless we come to calmer waters first. During one particularly violent lurch today, a drawer containing Debra’s clothing went sailing out of a wall cabinet and dumped her things all over the floor. Nothing that isn’t tied down or put away is safe from becoming airborne. The captain tells us that the waves are now cresting at twelve to fifteen feet. Neither of us is seasick, but the bigger danger is being thrown against furniture or a wall when the ship suddenly pitches. After so many days at sea, we seem to have gained our sea legs, but nothing helps when you’re thrown violently and have nothing to hang onto.
Saturday, Nov 17, and Sunday morning, Nov 18
The storm has continued now for two days. Towering waves, peaking at 15 to 20 feet, roll past, rocking the boat from side to side and pitching on the boat’s longitudinal axis, the bow plunging into the troughs and the stern slamming down in response. Sometimes, the waves are so high you can’t see the horizon, and our cabin is four stories above the water when it’s calm. Moving about the ship has been perilous. Just when you think it is stable enough to take a few steps, the ship lurches violently and if you’re not holding onto something you are thrown this way or that, sometimes careening into a wall. The ship has railings in its passages, but the doorways don’t have railings, so it is especially hazardous to move through those. You try to time your steps, holding onto a railing when the ship lurches and stepping quickly through doorways when there is a moment of calm. Sometimes your timing is accurate but when it’s not you slam into the door jamb or the wall beyond. In the broad reception area of the ship and in the dining room, the crew has strung a thick white rope, which is tethered to stainless steel columns and bolts along the wall. Hanging onto the ropes is all you can do when you risk going to the dining room, not that it’s easy to keep food down. The dining room is near the bow, so the pitching of the ship is more pronounced there.
Last evening, we rode out the storm in bed, but we could not sleep. During the most violent movements of the ship you’d slide across the sheets and be in danger of flying off the bed. I just managed to catch myself dozens of times. Then we learned to hold onto each other, the mass of two bodies more resistant to flying off the bed than one body. All night the ship shuddered and groaned. We could hear and feel deep vibrations from below and worried that as sturdy as the ship appeared to be rivets might be popping somewhere. The eerie moaning of the ship after a period of vibrations sounded like an agonized cry. Not to be melodramatic about it, but when you’re clinging to each other in the dark and things are flying around the cabin during especially violent plunges, your mind can’t help but imagine worst-case scenarios.
The signal to abandon ship is nine short blasts of the horn followed by one long blast. Surely, we’ll never hear it, I tell myself. Then something else in our cabin crashes to the floor. I realize my bladder’s full and I need to use the head, but that means getting out of bed and making my way to it. I turn on the bedside lamp and catalog what is strewn on the floor–a camera battery charger, a tablet, my watch, a notebook, but fortunately no broken glass. I set my feet on the floor and begin to inch my way around the bed. A sudden lurch throws me toward the desk. I catch myself but just barely. My knee slams into the bed frame when I start moving again. Then I sense a moment of calm and move quickly toward the head, but then I’m propelled forward and have to grab the railing next to the door. I turn on the light and step through the threshold. Then I have to manage undressing and doing my business while the small room around me is pitching and yawing.
Nine short blasts followed by one long one. I wonder if I should get dressed in all my warm clothing before getting back in bed. Is that being too paranoid? Or is it being sensible? Outside, the storm continues. The ship keeps moaning in response. It slams into some waves with a sharp slap of metal on water that reverberates throughout the ship. We are due to reach the Antarctic peninsula at noon today, and the captain says there should be shelter there. I haven’t been seasick yet but the rocking and rolling of the ship is fraying my nerves. It’s Sunday morning–two days after the storm began. The captain shows us the weather radar map. We’re skirting a large orange blob with a reddish center. That is the storm, and it’s a hundred miles across. We are sailing on its periphery but nonetheless are enduring 40 knot winds with gusts to 50 or 60. The captain says in the center of the storm the winds are surpassing 100 knots. But when we reach the lee of some Antarctic islands we will be protected from the storm.
A century ago, Shackleton and his men endured seas like this in rowboats. Compared to their ordeal, we have it easy. I hold that thought as the ship lurches again, threatening to upend the chair I’m sitting in as I write this. Two legs of the chair come off the floor, and I am kept from toppling only because my back slams into the wall. I open the drape and gaze at the sea. Fifteen-foot waves march past, colliding with other waves, forming mountains of water that turn quickly to depressions as one giant wave passes on and another follows, an endless churning that began two days ago but is as old as the planet. The ship shudders throughout as though protesting this rough treatment, and it vibrates ominously, a pushing and pulling at the seams, teasing welds. The islands at the end of the Antarctic peninsula are no longer just our destination; they are our salvation.
Sunday, November 18. 12 pm.
At long last we are nearing Antarctica. We first glimpse icebergs ahead, then two towering peaks, their mountains shaped like perfect equalateral triangles. We sail on and more icebergs appear. Some tower over the ship. We’re told they are 100 to 150 feet high, and only twenty percent of the ice is above the water line. As much as 600 feet of ice lies concealed. We’re now at 60 degrees of latitude, sailing into a realm of snow and ice. Some rocks also raise their heads above water, scattered sirens warning of too close an approach. The first sailors here came in wooden boats propelled by sails; ours is a steel hull powered by modern engines, but these hazards in the water are coldly indifferent to humans. They’ve been here for eons and would callously rip a hole in our ship if we were foolish enough to assume that the only hazards we face are the ones we can see. Our visibility is limited by low fog and lies over the distant sea and the snow-capped mountains of South Orkney Island, where we are headed.
In the lee of this island we finally reach calmer seas and blessed little wind. We are taken ashore in Zodiacs to see a colony of Adelie penguins, who have perfectly black heads with little white circles around their eyes. Naturialist Doug Gaultieri jokes that there are two types of penguins–black and white–and which ones you see depend on whether they are coming toward you or are walk away from you. I look up on a snow slope and see that he’s right. The ones walking downhill toward our ship look all white; the ones walking up the slope are all black. They look like perfect gentlemen in their tuxedos, and we feel woefully underdressed. As we land on the shore, we are happy to be on terra firma. It is cold, 33 degrees F when the wind isn’t blowing and 20 degrees less with wind chill. But we’re bundled up in four-to-six layers and are so happy not be throw around like popping corn that we don’t mind the chill that is trying hard to worm its way inside our clothing.
The landscape here is stark–black rock, fields of snow and ice, and bluish glaciers, of which there are many. Compacted ice is blue because of its density. The crushing weight of decades of compacted snow causes glacial ice to reflect blues while absorbing other colors.
Tonight, we will sleep soundly, having had almost no sleep last night.
Monday, November 19
This morning we disembarked for a Zodiac ride around Coronation island and Monroe Island. We see large colonies of Chinstrap penguins, so named because they have a black stripe that runs beneath their chins. They nest on rocks, and on all the snowless surfaces we see ashore there are hundreds of chinstraps. Thousands. They line the ridges and populate every bare area of rock along the shore. Hundreds of thousands of them live along these bays and coves, and they attract the most vicious of predators, leopard seals. As we drift near the shore beneath penguin colonies, we see many leopard seals. They are large–11 feet long, weighing 700 to 800 pounds. They lie in ambush where the penguins enter and leave the water, and are fast swimmers. When they catch a penguin, they bring it to the surface and shake it so violently that the penguin turns inside out, making it easier for the seal to eat. Leopard seals are not known to attack humans, we’re told, although you wouldn’t want to sit on shore with your feet dangling in the water when a leopard seal is in the water nearby. Leopard seals do bite the Zodiac boats now and then, puncturing the rubber and causing worried passengers to scurry back to the ship before deflation puts them in frigid water where leopard seals lurk. For an hour, we watch leopard seals surface within five to fifteen feet of our Zodiacs and look at us, but they are just curious and don’t consider us a threat, so we and our rubber boat are safe.
Noon. We are now headed west and south into the Weddell Sea and toward the Danger Islands. We are in
open sea again. The swell has picked up, waves cresting at five to seven feet, and the fog has descended further. We can see icebergs perhaps a half mile away but have lost sight of land. Snow is falling from gray skies over the slate gray sea. Except for the occasional blue ice of an iceberg, we now inhabit a monochrome world. This is life in black and white.
UPDATE. We learned tonight that the storm we endured last Saturday was stronger than they’d first believed. The wind was steady at 60 knots (gale force) gusting to 70 knots (hurricane force), and the seas were bigger: 28 to 35 feet. No wonder we spent a rocky night with objects crashing around our cabin and us nearly flying out of bed. We were told that had conditions been even worse they would have strapped us into our beds.
Tuesday, November 20.
This morning we are entering the Weddell Sea, where we are likely to encounter pack ice. The sea is much calmer–just low, rolling swells–and there are no white caps on the water, but the sky remains gray, which portends lower temperatures. The Danger Islands consists of nine islands in a chain 13 miles long. We are likely to see Adelie penguins there–and more leopard seals. Before our arrival there we pass through a sea filled with tabular icebergs, which look like great white slabs. Some are ten times higher than the ship and are miles long and thick. Most are flat-topped but the tops of some are slanted to such a degree that it looks like you could be poised on the highest point and slide all the way down to the sheer cliff at the end of your ride–and then you’d plunge hundreds of feet into the ocean. The flat-topped bergs appear manicured on top, so smooth and horizontal and long that you could land a 747 on them.
We had no doubt that we were in Antarctica before seeing these icebergs, but their sheer mass and shape confirms what we had always imagined about the southern extreme of our planet. With gray skies and a gray sea, the white and blue of the icebergs is a stunning contrast. These floating islands of ice are unmoving–the majority of their mass is below sea level–so they appear to be stable, as though they will always be here. I want to name them and show them on a map. I imagine cities springing up on them and trade routes emerging between icebergs–they are that massive. But like astronomers peering at distant galaxies and knowing they are looking back in time, what we see floating in the Weddell Sea are glimpses of the past–thousands of years ago when snow was deposited on the ice and was compacted by later snowfalls, crushed until it became ice, then crushed again and turning blue, and sliding from high mountain ridges and valleys to the shore until a fault line appears and city-size blocks of the glacier set sail from the icy shore–and appear before us now, fellow travelers on a long ocean voyage.
We have reached the Danger Islands, and it’s snowing. It’s about 25 degrees F outside but looks colder. We can’t land on shore here. The snow and ice at the landing spots is too steep. So we are loading into Zodiacs to cruise the shoreline in our little rubber dingys.
We motor over to Henne Island, one in the archipelago chain. From a distance it looks like in between the snowy slopes are large patches of green, grass perhaps. But as we draw near we discover that these patches are nesting Adelie penguins, one and a half million of them. The sea is rough, waves slamming the shoreline. We bounce up and down in the Zodiac as we power into a large protected cove. Clear water gives way to floating ice, and we are soon making our way through a sea of white, broken chunks of ice and some larger, bluish masses of ice the size of cars. Even the largest of these chunks of ice bob in the water as waves push them toward the end of the cove. We spot a leopard seal poking its head above water. It eyes us curiously before diving and then surfaces farther into the cove and leaps up onto a large piece of floating ice. It looks plump, no doubt because it has so many sources of food lining the shore line. The penguins know it’s there. They line up along the water’s edge waiting for one intrepid soul to leap first into the sea. When one does, the others follow in a mad rush. There is safety in numbers.
I’m wearing four layers of clothing but can still feel the chill on my back and legs. My neck warmer is snug around my throat and I pull it up over my nose, which is freezing. I’m wearing thick gloves but they aren’t enough. My fingers are growing stiff with cold, so I take off my gloves, put on glove liners, and then replace the thick gloves. It seems to help but that may be wishful thinking. An hour and a half later, when we return to the ship, I realize how cold my fingers are–and how cold my feet. A cup of hot chocolate later, I’m warmer but still feel the chill in my back and feet. Dressing for the cold in Antarctica is a work in progress, but being cold out in that environment is preferable to being snug and warm inside the ship. You want to experience as much as you can while you’re here, I tell myself, and that applies to life as well as to this journey to the kingdom of ice and snow.
A thick fog has descended, and as I write this the ship is passing by some massive icebergs, passing within 50 yards of them. They look like they’re sculpted from white marble by a divine artist. Some are so long that it takes nearly half an hour for the ship to pass them, and we are moving at a fair clip. I’ve had enough experiences in my life to already feel humbled by the natural world’s scale and beauty. Mother Earth surpasses us in every way, and the sheer magnitude of these icebergs is not a new lesson in humility. Just a reminder.
Wednesday, November 21
We are anchored this morning at Brown Bluff, which is at the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. Brown Bluff is an extinct volcano, which erupted sub-glacially about a million years ago. It is so named because of its steep slopes and brown-black hyaloclastite rock. To arrive here the ship had to plow through pack ice and dodge icebergs. All morning while the ship was in motion we could hear the crunching and grinding of ice beneath the bow.
Previously, we had landed on islands off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula, but Brown Bluff, the northernmost point on the tip of the peninsula is a contiguous part of the Antarctic continent. If we’d had a mind to do it, we could have walked from Brown Bluff to the South Pole. Gentoo and Adelie penguins inhabit the shores and slopes of Brown Bluff. We walk amongst them, not coming too close, and observe them nesting on eggs, building or rebuilding their nests with small rocks, and heading to land’s end to return to the sea. A horde of them will congregate on a snowbank overlooking the water, waiting for one to become brave enough to leap first, and when one does the others follow rapidly. Then they go porpoising across the water searching for food. This should be a dangerous area for penguins because of leopard seals lurking below the surface, but we don’t see any seals in the nearly three hours we spend in Zodiacs or hiking along the shore.
Now back on the ship, we gaze across the ocean. Pack ice lies in the water like a giant jigsaw puzzle where the pieces are laid out on a table but none have been joined to others. As far as we can see, there is nothing but pack ice, occasional open stretches of water, and icebergs. The ship shudders as it grinds more ice to pulp beneath the bow, and we drift along slowly in a light snow. We were going to land this afternoon, but the pack ice is too thick, so the ship is making its way through the ice floes. The snow is heavier now, blowing sideways.
But it cleared up after lunch. The sun came out and the air warmed to above freezing. We explored nearby ice cliffs from the Zodiacs and saw countless colonies of Adelie and Bentoo penguins. Then we explored nearby small icebergs, including one that had a iridescent blue side. The water reflected the blue of the ice and made the whole area around it glow in a blue light that seemed almost florescent. It was relatively shallow beneath us and the ocean water was clear, so we could see the rocks covering the bottom of the cove we were in. It was so clear we could see penguins swimming underwater beside us. They are awkward, funny looking creatures on land but are graceful and swift swimmers underwater. It was startling to see how fast they swam after we watched them waddling along in the snow on shore.
Thanksgiving Day in Antarctica
This will be our most unusual Thanksgiving holiday. In Antarctica. We’re having a traditional holiday meal–turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and roasted pumpkin soup. Outside, it is snowing, a white haze over the gray sea. We’re passing pack ice and bluish white icebergs. Some guests are partaking in the Polar Plunge, a leap into the frigid water. One friend said that an hour after the plunge her hands and feet had regained warmth but her teeth were still cold. I’ve jumped into Electra Lake when the water is freezing. I’ve already experienced my heart stopping and restarting when I plunged into frigid water and decided I didn’t need to do that again. We had a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner with new friends and gave our silent “thankfuls” for being here for the holiday.
In the afternoon, we had a two-hour Zodiac ride around Lindblad Bay. The glaciers in this bay go all the way to the ocean, so there are no rocky shores where penguins can build their nests and breed. We did see some derelict Bentoo and Amelie penguins on large ice floes or icebergs. They were perched on the ice, fluffing their feathers to keep warm, and gazing about as if wondering where to go next. They would spend an hour or so on these icy way stations before plunging back into the sea and porpoising to the next way station, perhaps having a krill snack along the way. Numerous sea birds were also present on the water, swimming, ducking into the water, and eating something as they returned topside. We invaded their space in our Zodiac and saw large schools of krill just below the surface. The krill are like tiny shrimp, two inches long. They are red, so they’re easy to see in the water. Nearly every bird and mammal in Antarctica feed on them. The krill population was steady until whalers took most of the whales in this area and sealers took most of the seals. When widespread whaling and sealing ceased decades ago the krill population grew exponentially, which allowed seal, penguin, and whale numbers to grow. The water in the bay was clear enough for us to spot swirling spheres of krill, thousands in each school, numerous enough to satisfy hundreds of seabirds and penguins whom the krill had called to dinner.
I am living my “thankfuls” today, celebrating this holiday in one of the remotest parts of the world. I can’t take the time to list all I am thankful for, but this experience–at sea amongst the icebergs and pack ice and wilderness of weather and animals, having the cold breach my clothing no matter how many layers I wear, being tossed by the sea or gently rocked by it–every part of this experience is a rare gift. This is a journey like no other, and I am thankful for it. The glacial cliffs, the black volcanic rock swept by snow and ice as though spattered with white paint, the steel gray sea full of life in this bitterest of environments. When you land on these shores, onto the black pebbles and round rocks, onto the soft snow and ice whose texture and color are crafted by thousands of penguins and seals leaving reminders that this is their land, not ours, when you stand near a penguin colony and smell their pungent, earthy odor, when a resting seal–all 800 pounds of him–lifts his head and gazes warily at you, you are in a wilderness of frigid water and ice.
Saturday, November 24
We walked on a vast sheet of ice yesterday. The ship plowed through miles of pack ice on our way to Wilhelmina Bay, where we encountered fast ice–ice that is held “fast” to the shore. We disembarked in Zodiacs, which nudged their way up onto the icy plain. Where we landed, the fast ice was about four feet thick, and it extended for miles to distant glaciers. I snow-shoed on the ice; Debra traversed it on cross-country skis. It had snowed heavily on our way to the fast ice, so the surface was covered in soft snow about a foot thick. I trudged through it, nearly losing my balance several times. I walked away from the crowd and found a quiet place where i could pause and just listen to distant ice cracking. There were human sounds behind me, but if I faced away from the lines of fellow travelers and gazed at the glaciers in front of me I could imagine being alone in this forbidding world. The glaciers had blue cracks coarsing vertically from the snow pack on top to the white shore below. People walking atop the glaciers would know them as crevices.
We landed this morning at Port Lockroy in Paradise Bay. Port Lockroy is a small permanent station maintained by the UK Antarctica Trust. The three buildings here (actually, small green huts) were built shortly after World War II. They were manned by British scientists and were primitive by today’s standards. The museum at Port Lockroy offers a glimpse of what life must have been like–1950s decor, small bunks, bulky radio equipment, a tiny metal bathtub, and a safe for storing alcohol and ammunition. One team of men stayed here for two and a half years back in the 50’s, and one of those men painted risque pictures of centerfolds on the walls in the bunkhouse. Later, someone painted over those images; later still, someone else removed the outer layer of paint and revealed the “painted ladies” again. The small gift shop at Port Lockroy sells postage stamps with some of the “painted ladies” images. By today’s standards, these images are tame, but they offer insight into how those men lived and what they missed during those long winter months below the Antarctic Circle. Besides the UK Trust volunteers who operate Port Lockroy today, the station is home to a colony of Gentoo penguins.
Late this afternoon, we took off in the Zodiacs to explore Paradise Bay, which is ringed by tall mountains with sheer black, snow-swept slopes. Arctic Terns nest on those slopes, each outcrop, no matter how small, a site for breeding and raising chicks. Like a high-rise apartment complex, the cliffs housed birds from near sea level to the towering heights, which were capped by overhanging cornices of ice. The bay is home to pack ice and icebergs and their lesser companions the bergy bits. To be classified an iceberg, the block of ice must rise 13-15 feet above sea level. The smallest chucks of ice (up to 3 feet high) are called growlers, so named because when trapped air escapes from them it sounds like an animal growling. Chucks of ice from
3 feet high to 13-15 feet high are called bergy bits. We are navigating around the bergy bits, many of which consist of dense ice, so they are blue, sometimes a light blue like turquoise and sometimes a deeper cerulean blue. In many cases, the blue permeates the ice beneath the water, and those pieces of ice can look like they are lit from beneath. They glow as though their submerged mass is iridescent. Many of the bergy bits we pass are massive but not high, large enough that they don’t rock in the waves and dangerous enough to damage ships that run into them. Some have been hollowed out by sea water and have arches, holes, and channels carved into their sides. We can ride over the growlers, however, and when we do it sounds like a sled crunching over rocks. When we stop with the engine off, we can hear the ice making sounds like the snap, crackle, and pop of Rice Krispies. Seasoned Antarctic travelers like our guides call this phenomenon “ice krispies.”
Our Zodiac travels miles away from the ship. We’re following glacial cliffs around the bay. Some cliffs are high, sheer bluffs poised on the edge of the continent, massive, sturdy walls of ice with shimmering blue cracks. Other cliffs are tenuous stacks of broken seracs, columns of ice that have broken away from the glacier and look like drunken sailors ready to collapse. None of them fall while we’re passing, but we do see an avalanche race down a narrow chute near the peak of the mountain above the glacier.
Our ride becomes rougher and we realize that the sea is no longer calm. Now we have five-foot waves and winds that we estimate are between 20 to 30 knots. Our guide turns the Zodiac around and we race back toward the ship. The fierce wind chill bites exposed flesh and I can feel the cold settling inside my layers of clothing. Each time the bow of the Zodiac slams into the waves, we are doused by spray. With one hand I hold onto the rope on the side of the Zodiac and with the other I hold onto the hood of my parka and pull it as tight as I can around my head. But nothing can keep out the cold. It wraps around my body and clings to me like a wet sheet. My fingers are numb, and the chill in my legs feels like it is bone deep. Now and then, I hazard a look ahead, trying to see how near or far the ship is, although whenever I glance forward my face is slapped by sea spray. Finally, we reach our destination. The Zodiac bobs at our entrance to the ship, rising and falling four to five feet as we try to step off. We have to time our step into the ship. We’re helped by the crew, but it’s still an acrobatic feat to land aboard while keeping your balance.
We have one more day in Antarctica, and we pray for good weather tomorrow.
Sunday, November 25
In our last day in Antarctica, we stopped at Yankee Bay in the South Shetland Islands and then at Half Moon Bay. Yankee featured a long natural jetty about four feet off the water. The protected water inside the jetty was calm enough to be nearly transparent. We found three elephant seals and one Weddell seal asleep on shore. A small colony of penguins were nesting on the rocks. Periodically, one or more would head for the sea to feed. They tend to travel the same paths to and from the ocean. The snow on these paths is crushed and stained a brownish green. We step over these penguin highways to avoid disturbing their well-travelled routes. Off shore, a leopard seal is lurking in the water, waiting for a penguin snack.
At Half Moon Bay, we climb a small snow-packed hill to see a colony of chinstrap penguins. Their eggs have been laid, and the males are squatting on the eggs to keep them warm while the females head out to sea to regain their strength. While we’re watching, one male leaves his egg unprotected while he searches for small rocks to add to his nest. A kelp gull swoops in and steals the egg while the penguin is distracted. When he returns to his nest, he looks confused for a few minutes and then keeps adding more stones to the nest. At another colony, which lies above a long, steep snowy slope, penguins leaving their nests glissade down the slope on their bellies while returning penguins waddle uphill. It looks like a broad intermediate slope at a busy ski resort. You could sit here all day watching the antics of individual penguins as they go about their penguin business: guarding eggs, finding rocks to build up their nests, waddling among fellow penguins nesting (and sometimes raising a ruckus), sliding downhill to the beach dinner party, waddling back up to their nests, or just waddling in circles with no apparent aim. At the beach, they congregate in groups of ten or twenty, all intending to leap into the sea but waiting to see who’ll go first. They can’t see into the ocean until they take the plunge, so a waiting leopard seal would be undetected until it’s too late. Finally, one brave soul dives in and the others follow in a flurry of feathers and bubbles.
Monday, November 26.
We are now heading north west through the Drake Passage to Tierra del Fuego on the southern tip of South America. The Drake is known for rough waters and we are not to be spared. A series of low pressure cells are moving easterly. The captain says he’ll try to steer us in between two large cells, but we still encounter 20-foot seas and 35 to 40 knot winds. We feel like experienced sailors now. We’ve been through worse, but the ship still pitches wildly and is buffeted from side to side by strong winds. At dinner, a particularly deep plunge causes dishes and glasses to slide toward the edge of the tables. We rescue most but one red wine bottle topples over and breaks on the floor. We learn to recognize when the bow is pitching upward at an angle that will cause a precipitous drop, and for a few seconds we are in free-fall, weightless as we wait for that slap and boom as the bow smacks into the waves. Back in our cabins at night, the best we can do is put everything away where it won’t fly through the cabin and then lie in bed, holding on as the cabin rocks from side to side.
I want to shoot a video of the rough sea outside, and I open the sliding door to our balcony. Immediately, the temperature in the cabin drops and the wind whips through the opening. I’m filming the roaring sea when Debra yells for me to come back inside. The ceiling panels are buckling and she’s afraid of the cabin coming apart. So I shoot the rest of my video through the closed glass door.
To head off seasickness, she stays in bed all day. I chance it outside a half dozen times but walking through the hallways is hazardous. Depending on how the ship is being buffetted, your forward progress may be retarded or accelerated and you may be thrown this way or that as the ship rolls. It’s best to stay low, hang on, and wait for periods of calm, which don’t come until the following day when we enter the waters around Tierra del Fuego. Here, the sea’s wrath is tempered by land on both sides of us as the ship sails for Ushuaia.
We are at journey’s end. It has been a breathtaking trip, far better than I could have imagined. The southern end of our planet is, for now, a pristine wilderness. We saw no human waste or neglect evident in Antarctica or South Georgia beyond the decrepit whaling stations and sealing pots on some beaches, and those are being preserved for their historical value. The guidelines for visitors are strict and carefully watched over by the guides and naturalists who accompanied us ashore. You can’t look at this ice wilderness without wanting to do your part to preserve it and protect it from the worst of human environmental neglect so prevalent elsewhere in the world.
In the months to come, I will post better photographs of our journey on the Reflections Blog. Debra’s taken some great photos, and we’ve met new friends who will share their photos as well. So be on the lookout for photo exhibits and essays on South Georgia and Antarctica.
Arriving in Ushuaia was not the end of our journey, just the end of our expedition to Antarctica. We had three days left before returning to Durango. Ushuaia is the southernmost city not only in Argentina but in the world. It is literally at land’s end. For hours our ship passes small islands and then lengthy mountain ranges rising from the sea—the southern end of a ring of mountains (part of the Andes chain) that define the massive Ushuaia Bay. The small town of Ushuaia is a commercial shipping port and tourist hub, the main streets lined with hotels, restaurants, bars, and tourist trinket shops. The town’s principal tourist attraction is a maritime and prison museum converted from a maximum security prison founded in the late 19th century. During that period, Argentina sent its most dangerous offenders to a prison in Ushuaia, much as Britain sent its most dangerous prisoners to Tasmania and France sent theirs to Devil’s Island. Ushuaia was remote and escape was impossible. Today, the Argentine Navy has a base at Ushuaia, and its maritime museum is co-located with the old prison, which was closed in 1947 by Argentine president Juan Peŕon because of its dismal conditions and reports of abuse.
After leaving the ship, we toured the prison, which had long cell blocks emanating from a central hub. The cells were dank and grim, five feet by five in size, with gray metal walls—cold, barren, flaking and rusted. When the prison was operating, beds with thin cotton mattresses suspended on metal bands took up half of each cell’s space. While standing, prisoners had only a few square feet to move. The only other object in each cell was a slop bucket. Each long cell block had two wood stoves in the center of the corridor to provide heat, which was not remotely adequate, so the cells were frigid, bitterly so at night, and stank with ever-present human waste. On trips to San Francisco, I’d seen Alcatraz, and its accommodations were luxurious compared to these. Still, some of the desperate men incarcerated at Ushuaia Prison managed to create paintings and sculptures, which were displayed in a gallery in a converted cell block. Some people have an unquenchable need for expression despite or because of their circumstances.
Upon arrival in Ushuaia, we had officially entered Argentina, although we did not go through Customs. But inside the main entrance of the museum, you could get your passport stamped. The stamp depicts a weary prisoner peering through the bars of his cell, and around that image are the words “Presidio Del Fin Del Mundo Ushuaia” (prison at the end of the world). I wondered if having this stamp in my passport would raise eyebrows when I reentered the United States, but the bored U.S. Customs official in Newark Airport either didn’t see the stamp or took one look at me and wasn’t surprised that I’d spent time in an Argentine jail.
From Ushuaia, we flew to Buenos Aires, where we had decided to stay for two days. We’d never been to Buenos Aires and wanted to see some of the city. When we booked our travel, however, we hadn’t known about the G20 Summit, which was to take place in Buenos Aires the day after we arrived. The authorities were expecting protests and were guarding against terrorist attacks, so the city was in virtual lockdown and all the usual tourist sites were closed. During our ride from the airport, we saw small clusters of police and armed troops at strategic points and intersections along the route.
On Thursday, the day we arrived, we settled in our room and then walked through the city. Our hotel was centrally located near monuments, government buildings, and the port. We walked in the early afternoon—lunch time for Argentine city dwellers—and the streets were alive with people: business people, shoppers, a few well-dressed people out strolling, lunch goers, students, a number of young people with no apparent purpose, and a few tourists like us. Hawkers stood outside many small shops, handing out colorful coupons or other enticements, though we didn’t see many people in the stores. Traffic was heavy and noisy, matched by the buzz on the streets. We found a restaurant called London City that had English menus and one hostess who spoke English. We sat at a very small round table and ordered what looked to be modest portions of food, but what was delivered would easily have fed six.
I’ve often heard Buenos Aires described as the Paris of South America. What I saw didn’t match that description. We walked at least five miles through the streets, and the city we observed looked, to be generous in my description, “well lived in.” It was frayed at the edges, with narrow streets and narrower sidewalks, dull shop windows in need of Windex, and intersections of buildings and streets encrusted with brown grime. Each block had two or more large dumpsters parked on the street with stenciled lettering on their sides: “Ciudad Verde,” or Green City, an obvious attempt to encourage residents to keep their discarded wrappers, cigarette butts, and trash off the streets, a failed effort grown very long in the tooth. Only the graffiti artists appear to have succeeded in their quests.
That night we ate at the Claridge Hotel’s bar and met Sergio, one of only two of the hotel staff who spoke any English. Sergio was a lean man of about forty with a swarthy complexion on a long, roguish face darkened on cheeks and chin by black stubble. He was as friendly as he was an efficient host and told us, sadly, that we would not be able to see the best of Buenos Aires because everything had been closed for the G20 Summit. Later that evening on television, we saw world leaders arriving. Our room was on the 14th (really the 13th) floor of the hotel, and we had a huge balcony overlooking the streets below. We watched apprehensively for signs of trouble, but saw and heard nothing alarming. However, the cityscape echoed what we’d observed earlier, that, like fine art exposed to centuries of smog, this was a city whose skirts were threadbare and whose façade was marred by encroaching films of grit.
Argentine news did cover some protesters who had inflated “Diaper Donald,” the large balloon effigy of Donald Trump wearing a white diaper that last appeared in London. Sadly, we didn’t know where they were that afternoon or we would have walked miles farther to see that particular spectacle.
Friday, the following day—the first day of the Summit—was an eerie contrast to what we’d witnessed on Thursday. Having nowhere else to go and not wanting to stay in our room, we left late morning for the port, where we’d heard a number of open-air restaurants would be open along a canal. This time, the streets were quiet, deserted, strangely empty. We walked several blocks without seeing or hearing anyone. Then we saw a lone man standing outside an open, 24-hour market. He gazed at nothing in particular, smoking a cigarette, and barely registered our presence as we walked past. Another block, and we saw three police officers looking bored. Then five more, clustered on a sidewalk next to a black barrier that closed off the street to their right. No one spoke to us or seemed to care that we were there. Streets so crowded yesterday were now bereft, as though we’d stumbled into one of those end-of-the-world horror films where sole survivors wander a vacant city that is deadly calm.
As we drew nearer to the canal, we saw more people, but not many, except for the police, who were omnipresent. They wouldn’t allow us access to the port. Terrorist concerns, we imagined. But we were able to walk down one side of the canal. We chose a restaurant overlooking the commercial district on the other side of the canal and ordered a modest lunch. Debra selected a ½-portion of a garden salad, wanting only something light, but the waiter delivered a salad large enough to feed her for three days, and that was the half-portion. We decided then that Argentine food portions at restaurants were super sized. Maybe they all eat “family style” when they go out.
We saw no protesters, heard no riots or explosions. In fact, the first day of the G20 Summit was a sleepy affair from our vantage point. The next day when we checked out we learned that our hotel was in the restricted zone, so the car we ordered to take us to the airport could not park closer than a half mile away. We had to haul our luggage over nine very long blocks. Fortunately, the hotel took pity and had Sergio help us. So we three manhandled the luggage past closed shops and government offices, over silent, mostly empty streets, until we reached a hotel where our car was waiting.
The trip home was long, sixteen hours in the air. When we arrived in Durango we discovered that it had snowed the day before. Six inches of snow lay on our drive when we got home. It was late, and we fell into bed without unpacking. It snowed that night and all the next day, heavy flakes at times, piling more snow on top of what had already fallen.
When we had first arrived at the ship, Lindblad Expeditions gave us heavy orange parkas. During our excursions ashore in the Falklands, South Georgia, and Antarctica, we wore those bright orange parkas. We would sometimes walk miles on the shore, past thousands of penguins clattering at their nests. It would occasionally be snowing or foggy and we’d gaze into the distance and see tiny orange figures lined up at the edge of a penguin colony, or slogging their way across the ice, and we’d say to each other, “See those orange creatures in the fog? What kind of penguins are they?”
On the Sunday after we returned to our home in the Colorado countryside, so much snow had fallen that our long driveway was impassable. Tired though I was, I had no choice but to clear the snow. So I put on my orange Lindblad parka and walked out to our tractor. I sat while the tractor warmed up, watching fat flakes of snow fall on the trees and the road and in the frozen fields, one solitary orange penguin adrift in a sea of white.
All photos by Debra A. Parmenter.