Falkland Islands or Islas Malvinas?

Saturday, February 25, 2017

We are sailing the Drake Passage on our way to the Falkland Islands, or, if you are Argentine, Islas Malvinas. It’s foggy and a bit windier today. We’ve been warned to expect gale force winds in the afternoon. We’ve seen several albatross skimming along above the waves, looking for fish. They are large birds and have the ability to soar on updrafts for long periods of time, not unlike the eagles we see flying over the Mississippi River and the lakes of Minnesota.

The Falklands consist of two main islands and 776 smaller ones. It has been a British Crown colony since the mid-1800’s, and most of the inhabitants there are of British descent. Argentina has long maintained, and still does, that the islands belong under their government.

We enjoyed a couple of talks by General Sir Michael Rose, retired British Army general, who lists among his many credits the command of Special Service operations during the Falklands War. Argentina invaded the Falklands in early April, 1982. I recall at the time thinking that this was a foolish move on their part. I was of the impression that the British military was much stronger and had more resources.

I didn’t know my history at all. Argentina had a larger Air Force and more warships, plus the advantage of proximity. However, it sounds like they were outclassed by the British in strategic thinking and planning. Both sides made mistakes, some of which caused the war to last longer than necessary. The Argentines could have won if they had worked on strategy. During this 74 day war, about 1,000 people lost their lives and almost 2,500 were wounded. The British did win, and diplomatic relations were reestablished between the two countries in 1989. However, in 1994, Argentina added its claim to the territories was added to its constitution.

Crystal offered a backstage tour this afternoon, which we took advantage of. It’s amazing to see how many costumes and props they can fit into a relatively small space. Costumes hang from the ceiling, props are hung on the walls, tonight’s costumes are arranged on the dressing room chairs for easy access. The tour guides are a married couple, both dancers, who have been doing this for many years. He has been on this ship for 9 years. He talked about the challenges of dancing on a moving stage. He has to judge whether to delay or accelerate a move in order to land properly.

The performers go through a two-month training at the Los Angeles headquarters, then another month on board, getting familiar with the ship and the stage, all before their first performance. Many of the costumes are made by NBC, and it was easy to see the quality. Our guide mentioned that sometimes they are too realistic, i.e. a coat designed for a movie set may be too warm for dancing.

We enjoyed a show after dinner featuring songs from the British Invasion. For the under 60 crowd, I can only say,”look it up.”

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Following Shackleton

Friday, February 24, 2017

Whales and penguins over breakfast – yes!

We sailed past Elephant Island in the fog this morning, where Ernest Shackleton and his crew had landed after having to abandon their ship, the Endurance, which had been crushed by pack ice in 1915. Shackleton wanted to reach the South Pole, one of many adventurers who hoped to be the first to reach the pole. His ship was named the Endurance, inspired by his family’s motto: “By endurance, we conquer.”

Shackleton and his crew of 28 set sail from South Georgia Island in December, 1914, the beginning of summer in Antarctica. Unfortunately, they ran into pack-ice just a day’s journey from land on Antarctica. They were soon solidly iced in, and remained there for about 10 months until the Endurance was toppled by the ice and ultimately crushed. There was no hope except to retrieve their provisions from the ship, load up their sledsand lifeboats, and tow all toward open water. This took over five months. They then entered the water and sailed three lifeboats to Elephant Island, where they set up camp at Camp Wild in Cape Valentine, with no food sources except penguins and seaweed or kelp.

Shackleton was aware that there would probably be no ships passing near until the following summer, so he and five crew members decided to take one of the lifeboats to South Georgia Island where there were whaling stations. South Georgia was almost 800 miles away; the sun was only visible 3 days during this trip (necessary for calculating direction;) and yet they reached the island after 11 days, starving and thirsty. They landed near a fresh water stream, and located some (delicious) albatross hatchlings to eat. Unfortunately, they landed on the wrong side of the island, and had to hike 21 miles over the ice covered mountains to reach a whaling station.

Even then, it took three attempts to reach the crew who were still on Elephant Island. In spite of tremendous odds, Ernest Shackleton managed to bring all of his men home. For me, he is the epitome of a hero, a leader to be emulated. I had read “Endurance,” by Frank Worsley, probably about 17 years ago, and I was very impressed with Shackleton’s story. I really didn’t comprehend the difficulties they faced until I could actually see the desolate, ice covered, islands here in Antarctica. I’ve ordered another copy of the book to read again.

The sun came out, yet again, so amazing. The waves are a little higher today, but who cares if we have sun? We saw whales and penguins at breakfast, and fishing birds this afternoon. What a day! We’re so lucky to have this experience.

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But Wait! There’s More!

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The morning started out cloudy, and there was a little rain and snow early on. The seas remain fairly calm. We sailed along the South Shetland Island Archipelago today. I thought we saw lots of glaciers in Alaska. I thought we saw lots of glaciers in Chile. Antarctica puts them to shame.

Decepcion Island is the caldera of an active volcano which last erupted in 1970. The center of the island provides safe harbor, so is frequently visited by tourists. There are also a couple of research stations here. Decepcion is home to about 100,000 nesting pairs of chinstrap penguins. Although too large to enter the harbor, our ship spent about 30 minutes here to give us the opportunity to see them. Fortunately, the island was on our side of the ship, so we could ooh and ahh from our balcony. We saw penguins on the beach, on the hills, and in the water. We also saw several seals on the beach and swimming in the ocean.

The sun came out this afternoon, and because the weather is so good, the Captain decided to take a detour into Admiralty Bay along King George Island, the largest of the South Shetland Islands, with more, yes even more, glaciers and amazing views and penguins and seals. There are numerous research stations here as well as the southernmost lighthouse in the world, at the Henryk Arctowski Station Station, which we sailed by.

The seal above was enormous. One of Serenity’s tender boats was out in the bay with photographers, and when they pulled up to this ice berg, we could really appreciate the size.

This was a little bittersweet for us because we would have flown to this island had we been able to fly to Antarctica from Punta Arenas last week. Still, we have no complaints.

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Screaming 60’s?

Monday, February 21, 2017

This is the term given to the gale force winds that are not unusual in this latitude. Fortunately, it didn’t apply today, and even the Captain is surprised at how calm the seas are. We are cruising to Palmer Station in Antarctica, with the expectation of arriving tomorrow morning around 4:30 am. I probably won’t wake up for that.

It’s a sea day, so we’ve been attending some lectures and classes. There are some very good speakers on board: General Michael Hayden, former head of CIA and of NSA, and the highest-ranking intelligence officer in the armed forces, who spoke a few times about issues of national security;  Rob Caskie  who told stories about early expeditions to find the South Pole; Martin Frost former US Representative from Texas, former DCCC Chair, and chair of the House Democratic Caucus,  Ken Rees, former Controller of News and Current Affairs for HTV television in the UK; Tony Leon, former Ambassador from South Africa to Argentina;  Robert Schrire, South Africa political analyst based at the University of Cape Town; and Marc Ginsberg, former US Ambassador to Morocco.

I took a beginning Spanish class today so I would know more that the basics (por favor, gracias and baños.) It was a very good class, Berlitz style, and my brain was hurting by the end of the hour. I just hope I can remember some of it tomorrow. Mi hombre es Kathleen. Mi espousal es Mark. Yo soy de Los Estados Unidas.

We have another formal night, and I’m kind of getting sick of wearing a long gown (can’t believe I would ever say that,) and I know Mark is getting tired of the tux. No one said beauty was easy.

Tuesday, February 22, 2017

Again, the seas are remarkably calm. We can’t believe our luck. Our ship picked up several scientists from Palmer Research Station at about 8am. Two Zodiacs brought them to our ship. They look so small, yet move so very fast in these cold waters. Each one carried 10 people.

While waiting for the Palmer Research team to reach and board our ship, we gawked at the glaciers, the ice bergs, the mountains, the seals, whales and penguins. It was a gorgeous morning – something we did not expect.

We enjoyed a presentation by Bob Farrell, station manager at Palmer Station, and Randy Jones, lab manager. The Palmer Station, located on Anvers Island, is one of 3 permanent stations that the US maintains in Antarctica. Research by the United States Antarctic Program is funded by the National Science Foundation, and includes research for fundamental knowledge of the Antarctic Continent, research on Antarctica’s role in global systems, and research using Antarctica as a platform, i.e. climate. The Palmer Long Term Ecological Research Program is a member of the Long Term Ecological Research Network, funded by the National Science Foundation. Sea life is being studied for possible uses in the medical area, with promising data for the treatment of melanomas and other cancers.

The maximum population at Palmer Station is 44, including 23 support staff, a physician and 20 scientists. There are two research ships. The station is powered by two redundant diesel generators, and has two redundant water systems. Everyone must pass a physical before going to the station. The on staff physician can perform minor surgeries, but if there is a medical emergency, it’s necessary to wait for a ship to take the patient to the mainland. There is no way to land an airplane at this station.

Antarctica’s largest land animal is a wingless fly, the belgica antarctica, the southernmost insect in the world. Penguins and sea lions are considered ocean animals. Changes have been observed in the penguin populations since the 70’s, with decreases in the Adele and increases in the Gentoo. This doesn’t mean that the Adele is endangered, but that it is moving to other locations.

You can find more information, as well as a webcam, at the US Antarctic Program Portal.

Antarctica is the fifth largest continent, covering 5.4 million square miles. (I don’t know how that compares to the newly discovered continent, mostly submerged, of Zealandia.) In spite of the fact that 98% of the continent is covered by ice averaging more than one mile in thickness, it is a desert with only about 8 inches of precipitation per year along the coast and less inland, although there are numerous lakes and rivers, and even a mountain range, under the ice. Recorded temperatures have reached almost 130 below fahrenheit. There is some vegetation and a few species of animal here (the largest being the fly I mentioned earlier.) About 1,000 – 5,000 scientists reside here during the year, at the 30 plus stations on the continent.

The weight of the ice has caused the continent to sink by .3 – .6 miles. The glaciers have been retreating over the past years. In the 1970’s, the glacier was just outside of Palmer Station, now it’s about a mile away. There are numerous lakes and rivers under the ice. The continent is covered with mountains as well, the highest being Mount Vinson at 16,066 feet.  It appears these mountains are an extension of the Andes.

The continent is a condominium, governed by the Atlantic Treaty System since December 1959. Among other things, the treaty provides that the continent shall be used for peaceful purposes only, that there will be freedom of scientific investigation, and that the results of that investigation shall be shared freely. No interference with nature. No fishing for food. All food must be brought in by ship, all garbage must be removed.

Crystal sent a care package back with the Palmer crew, including 80 pounds of lamb as well as some fresh fruits and vegetables. While having lunch, we overheard at least one of the crew exclaiming about the mangoes – a real treat.

As we sailed back east and north past Anvers Island, we were treated to fabulous views of glaciers, mountains, icebergs, seals, and penguins. It was difficult to tear ourselves away from the unbelievable scenery. One of the staff on Crystal told us that this was even better than going through the Northwest Passage last summer. I won’t bore you with the 200 photos I took today, but will offer a sample.

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Cape Horn and the Ferocious Fifties

Monday, February 20, 2017

We got up early today to witness the rounding of Cape Horn. The cape was named for the town of Hoorn in the Netherlands, where Captain Willem Corneliszoon Schouten. Schouten was looking for an alternate passage to the Strait of Magellan. The captain discovered a high pointed promontory that he mistakenly thought was the southernmost end of the South American continent. Instead, it is a small island. Although the waterway here is much wider than that of the Strait, the wind can be ferocious, and many ships have failed in navigating around the Cape. Perhaps the best known navigator to fail was by William Bligh, later captain of the HMS Bounty.

About 25 years ago, a memorial was created by José Balcells, and sponsored by the Cape Horn Captains Brotherhood to memorialize the many people who have died here. The memorial incorporates the shape of the albatross. The following poem by Sara Vial is included at the memorial:

I, the albatross that awaits for you at the end of the world…

I, the forgotten soul of the sailors lost that crossed Cape Horn from all the seas of the world.

But die they did not in the fierce waves,

for today towards eternity in my wings they soar

in the last crevice of the Antarctic winds.”

The wind was very strong, yet we were told that it was actually pretty calm for the Cape, where gale force winds can create waves of up to 65 feet. This area, near the 50th parallel, is know as the Ferocious Fifties. When we were heading south, I thought we would be blown off the deck. It was very difficult to remain upright, and most people only ventured out for a minute or two – just long enough to get a photo – then scurrying back to the warmth inside. Once again, I was so happy that I had my down parka with me.

There are several islands, many of which are craggy and others, clearly older, that looked like they had grass growing on them. We crossed from the Atlantic Ocean back to the Pacific Ocean, then the ship headed up to the northern side of the island where it was less windy. For at least one sailor, it was a good day near the Cape. The sky was mostly sunny all day, something that happens only about 35% of the year.

The Chilean Navy Station and Lighthouse are actually located about one mile east-northeast of Cape Horn itself.

We are now heading into the Southern Ocean. It will be a few days before we get close to Elephant Island, the northernmost part of Antarctica (as always, weather permitting.)

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Watch Your Heads, Guys!

We heard that several times during today’s excursion.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Amazingly, we had another mostly sunny day, but rain would not have deterred us. The motto of today’s tour company, Canal Fun & Nature Excursions is “Never judge a day by the weather.” Excellent advice in a region that has sunny days only 35 – 40 days per year.

On our way to our destination, we stopped for a few photo opportunities, including one at Carbajal Valley, a large glacial valley where peat is harvested for fertilizer. This peat is wet, being almost 70% water, which is safe to drink if you need it. The peat moss here grows at a rate of only about 1 millimeter per year. In some places, it is 10 meters thick, so it has been growing there for 10,000 years.

The Carbajal Valley is surrounded by mountains at the southern end of the Andes. These mountains are not very high – the highest one, Mount Olivia, is about 4,350 feet high. It’s still impressive, though, with its sharp peak.


We then hiked along an old woodcutter’s trail into the Fuegian forest. Here again, there are the three types of native trees, one evergreen and two deciduous. They are all related. Of the two deciduous, the lenga beech is used for furniture and construction as it grows quite tall and straight. The other deciduous is a low growing version. We saw quite a few downed trees. Geographically, this is fairly new land and the soil is not very deep. A shallow root system makes these trees vulnerable to the strong winds that blow through Tierra del Fuego.

The trees can take up to 1,000 years to decompose because the climate is often not warm enough to foster the bacteria that cause decay. For that reason, trees that look like fresh fall may actually be decades old. Many are covered with beautiful green moss. When they do begin to decay, they can act as nursery logs for new trees and plants. The trees are slow growing.

We saw several examples of damage by beavers who were introduced here in the 1940’s to try to develop a fur trade. Only 20 were originally brought here, but, with no natural predators, they now number about 100,000. The fur was not marketable – it takes a colder climate for the beaver’s fur to become long and thinks. These beavers are destroying the Fuegian forests, which cannot regrow quickly enough to replace what the beavers take down.

After our hike, we boarded a Land Rover for an exciting ride on muddy roads and across flowing streams. This is when we heard the admonition to watch our heads – several times. We stopped at one point to see a large beaver dam and several beaver huts, surrounded by dead fall. Each year’s new beaver crop build their own huts and so the devastation continues.

Lunch was served at Llanos del Castor Restaurant. Besides a meal, the tourist can play mini-golf (I saw two holes,) rent snowmobiles in the winter, or take a sled dog ride. They had several sled dogs there, including Alaskan Huskies and Greysters, a mix of Alaskan Husky, German Shorthaired Pointer and Greyhound. They have great endurance and can run even faster than the Alaskan Husky.

Back to town and the ship, where I PANICKED!! My camera was missing! You almost didn’t get to see my photos today, and I know how disappointed you would have been. Fortunately, the ship was able to contact the tour guide who found my camera in the vehicle and returned it. Yay!! I do back up all of my shots each day, but would have lost those from today, and would have had to borrow Mark’s camera for the rest of the trip. Or, buy a new camera.

On board, we enjoyed a presentation by Ice Captain Keith Johnson who served many years on ice breakers for the US Coast Guard. He was appointed Commanding Officer of the USCGC Polar Sea in July, 2000, on board which he participated in six Operation Deep Freeze deployments to Antarctica and five extended Arctic scientific expeditions, being at sea for up to six months at a time. As Ice Captain aboard our ship, he will advise the Captain on navigation and meteorological matters while in the Antarctic waters.

Captain Johnson showed a video from the Polar Sea, showing life on board the ship as well as the ice breaking activities. This ship has 3 turbines and 6 diesels, generating 45,000 hp. It could cut through 21 feet of ice as it cut its way to McMurdo Staton, a US Antarctic research center on the south tip of Ross Island. Polar Sea held two helicopters, and carried up to 35 scientist. It has been out of service since 2010.

We left Ushuaia around 6 pm, and are headed to Cape Horn, the most southerly part of South America, and the northern boundary of the Drake Passage. The Atlantic and Pacific Oceans meet just south of Cape Horn.

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City at the Bottom of the World

Or so they say in Ushuaia, Argentina (54.8 degrees latitude south). You might hear something different in Fort Williams, Chile (54.9 degrees south.)

Saturday, February 18, 2017

We docked here last night, earlier than planned, and got to see the city lights as we were finishing dinner. This morning, it was cloudy with a 60% chance of rain so we donned our rain gear for this morning’s visit to Tierra del Fuego National Park. According to our guide, Sergio, Ushuaia experiences sunshine only 35 – 40 days per year. They get excited about sunny “moments” rather than sunny days. The average temperature during winter is about 32 degrees Fahrenheit, and in summer about 50 degrees, not much of a range. There really is no summer here.

Ushuaia, the capital of Tierra del Fuego Province in Argentina, boasts a population of about 40,000, compared to only a few thousand just 25 years ago. To solidify their claim to this land (Chile had tried to claim it in the past,) Argentina encouraged people to settle here by offering “hardship” pay. Although the pay here may be 50% or more higher than in the rest of the country, so are the prices. Ushuaia has one of the highest costs of living in the world. They do raise sheep here, but fruits and vegetables must be imported from the north. A stroll through town verified that prices are indeed high.

The town served as a penal colony for Argentina in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Ushuaia Penitentiary was constructed here in 1902, built by the convicts themselves. These prisoners also built the basic infrastructure of Ushuaia and laid the track for a narrow gauge railway. The penitentiary was closed in 1947 by President Juan Peron.

It’s also home to the southernmost golf club in the world – the Ushuaia Golf Club – with a 9 hole course.

The area is rich in natural gas, so heating is very inexpensive if you can connect to the resource. For those parts of the town that must use propane, it’s about ten times as high to heat a home.

We rode once again on the Pan American Highway, through the Beagle River Valley, to the Tierra del Fuego National Park, which was created in 1960. The park covers 266 square miles. There are only three species of trees that grow here, two deciduous and one evergreen. Some of these trees can grow fairly tall but they have shallow root systems and are easily toppled during strong winds.

There is very little pollution here, as evidenced by the “old man’s beard” lichen that grows on many trees.

Unfortunately, beaver were brought here from Canada in the 1940’s to develop a fur trade. That didn’t pan out, and, without any natural predators, the beaver have proliferated. They have been destroying the forests to build their beaver dams.

We stopped first at Lapataia Bay, a saltwater bay where we were fortunate to see some dolphin along with other wildlife in the park.

Then on to Roca Lake with more wonderful views, including Chile on the other side.

We then visited Alakush Lodge for refreshments and more views, including several Patagonia black necked swans swimming nearby.

Our last stop was at Ensenada Bay and, yes, more fabulous view.

From here, back to Ushuaia town, where we walked around a bit looking for souvenirs. Didn’t get any – very expensive. I was surprised to see a Hard Rock Cafe here – they seem to be everywhere.

At about 3:00 this afternoon, the sun came out, for more than a minute or two. I think we now belong to the 10% club of Ushuaia. The blue skies above the snow covers mountains provided yet another gorgeous view, and the temperature is 52 degrees – a heat wave!

We enjoyed a show featuring local dancers again tonight, some just young boys.

And, to end a beautiful day, a beautiful sunset.

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