Playing out the string

Not much left to the cruise but three days at sea and a day in Montevideo, Uruguay. I meant to blog about our last day in Antarctica a few days back, but we had such an amazing time in South Georgia that I'm only getting to it now, late at night as we head away from South Georgia on the ~1400 mile journey back to the continent. So you'll have to content yourself with this rambling post about our last day in Antarctica, our three days in South Georgia, and a little bit on what I think it all meant to us.

On our last day in Antarctica we spent a few brief hours in Hope Bay near Esperanza Station, an Argentine base. There was no good place for a landing where you could see the wildlife so we were limited to a zodiac tour, and we were very fortunate that we went out with the first group of the day as bad weather forced Seabourn to cancel the rest of the groups. Throughout our cruise we had heard stories of the previous cruise, which went from Buenos Aires to Valparaiso via Antarctica, where one fortunate zodiac had a penguin accidentally jump in the boat. Well, I'm not sure whether it was the stormy seas or our general luck, but for our cruise and for our one group that was able to go out we averaged one penguin PER zodiac. These were Adelie penguins, the smallest, cutest, and generally the craziest of all the penguins. We were one of two zodiacs who had not one but two penguins wind up in our boat (4 others had 1, the last 2 had zero). The first one came over on the bow, right between two people, and flapped around nervously until our driver, Lucciano, was able to help it out. The second one came into the stern, where we were sitting, and anxiously tried to escape out the back right where Jie was sitting, making for a hilarious video that I will post when we have the bandwidth. It was a very memorable day, not just for the two penguins in our zodiac but also for the tens of thousands (no exaggeration!) outside of it.

We then spent two days at sea traveling up to South Georgia, a British island that is in no man's land in the South Atlantic, about 1200 miles due west of Tierra del Fuego. For comparison, Washington, D.C. is slightly less than 1200 miles from Santa Fe, New Mexico. This is an extremely nutrient-rich part of the Southern Ocean which leads to very high concentrations of krill, which in turn leads to very high concentrations of things that eat krill, like whales, seals, and, of course, penguins. We spent our first day at Cooper Bay where we first went kayaking and then later had an incredible zodiac tour. On our kayak we were surrounded by fur seals, elephant seals, and king penguins. The fur seals in particular were incredibly curious and, as one of the kayak guides remarked, it was very hard to determine who was being observed and who was doing the observing between the kayakers and the seals. Walter and I had one juvenile fur seal show off for us for a while and then follow us for several hundred yards when we had to move on to the next spot. It was a lot of fun, if nerve wracking at times given that fur seals are known to bite the occasional tourist. On the zodiac tour we were also treated to a colony of macaroni penguins (so named from: "he stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni"...I kid you not), which you'll see in the pictures we will one day post. In the afternoon as we moved on to our next spot we also saw dozens of humpback whales. We didn't get as close as our encounter at Yankee Harbor, but it was still pretty neat.

On our second day on South Georgia we went to the main "town," Grytviken. This was originally a Norwegian whaling depot (run by Norwegians who formed an Argentine company yet recognized that Britain had sovereignty over the islands and paid British taxes...only important vis a vis the Falklands War in the 80's). Here we had another beautiful spot, this time with a landing and a walk around close to elephant seals, fur seals, and a few king penguins. We also got to walk around the ruins of a turn-of-the-20th-century whaling station, which were both fascinating and an incredible backdrop to our photos. You'll see what I mean when I upload them. Here we paid our respects at Shackleton's grave and did our best to avoid the hormonal juvenile male fur seals. I'm particularly proud of some of the photos I took on this part of the island, and I think you'll see why. Admittedly, the wildlife did most of the work and all I did was crouch down and capture it. Another amazing place.

Finally, just this morning we went to Salisbury Plain, where we hoped to land among the ~250k king penguins who breed here. Unfortunately, the weather and surf were against us and both our kayak trip and zodiac landing were canceled. We had to content ourselves with a zodiac tour about 30 yards offshore, which while still amazing was also freezing cold and resulted in only a few dozen sub-par photos. There was an incredible amount of wildlife on the beach in front of us, with tons of king penguins and fur seals all along the way. There were also a number of petrels, skua, and other birds, waiting in the wings to feast upon an abandoned fur seal pup or dead penguin. Indeed, on our tour we saw several petrels fighting over a dead fur seal pup, and on the last tour of the day they saw a male fur seal kill a king penguin and then leave the body for the petrels to consume. Apparently it was horrible to witness, though I'll confess we're still hoping to see video of it. It's nature after all, right?

Each night we have a briefing by the expedition team, both to review the day's events and also to cover the following day's activities. Today was the final briefing, capping 9 days of landings and/or zodiac tours, and the final talk today was about what we take home with us. The speaker, one of my favorites, encouraged us to do like the early explorers and take home a journal of our thoughts and feelings rather than merely photos or gifts, as it will be the journals that inspire others, much as many of the expedition team were inspired at an early age by the journals of those early explorers. I think I've done a fair job at representing what we have done or what has happened to us over the last several weeks (and indeed, the last six months), but perhaps not with enough emphasis on how we felt or how this might be affecting us. So I'll attempt to do some of that now, with a specific focus on this cruise around Antarctica and South Georgia. I'll save broader thoughts on our gap year to a future date, though probably not so far away as I think we're done with our international travel (and thus I'll need a new name for the site..."5 continents with a 7 year old" doesn't have quite the same appeal).

First off, I would very strongly encourage anyone considering a trip to Antarctica to go, and go soon. The continent must be seen to be believed and it is a positively incredible experience. Both New Zealand and Norway were similarly impressive scenically, but here you have the scenery and on top of that the wildlife befitting an Africa safari, the combination of which is just incomparable. So if you've been considering a trip to Antarctica or haven't but can afford it, get off your butt and book it. You will not regret it. I would encourage you to also try and find an itinerary that goes to South Georgia, which for Seabourn is only the Christmas itinerary, but I'm sure there are options with other, albeit smaller, boats.

Beyond that, I find myself at a loss for wise words. Those who know me best know that I'm not really a tree hugger, but here I find myself tearing up thinking about the plight of the whales in the early 1900's. Or for the fate of the adorable Adelie penguins today. Whether you admit climate change is man-made or not, there can be little doubt that the world is warming and that it will have a very large (and almost assuredly negative) impact on many of the species we've seen here. And these species are fighters, having learned to adapt and thrive in one of the most difficult environments on the planet. I think they deserve our protection, not to be hunted to extinction for their skins (fur seals), or their oil (whales and elephant seals), or to die as we overfish their food sources (penguins). Further, as we were down here I read an article in the New York Times about how countries are already angling for mineral rights when the Antarctic treaties expire. I can't help think that it's a tragedy, that surely this grandeur is worth more than the oil or diamonds that may be found beneath the ice. If you do agree with my thoughts then you should get down here, see it before it changes further. And if you don't agree then you should also come down, as I can't think of a better way to change your mind than if you witness firsthand the spectacle that is the Antarctic.