Photos and commentary from Feldman family vacations.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Useful Island, or Again with the Penguins

From Antarctica
Sunrise: 0453

We went on our last Zodiac ride on “Useful’ Island. The temperature was 40 degrees and the sun was shinning brightly. In the afternoon, we saw 5 killer whales in front of the ship. One of the researchers went out with a team to try to get a DNA sample from one of the whales by shooting a dart into one of the whales. She spent more than hour but was unsuccessful. We are now entering Drake Passage which has high swells (ten to fifteen feet) so the boat is really bouncing about. We have to secure everything so I must put up the laptop.

We will be home Friday – long, long way to get home and even though we will miss this frozen paradise we are ready to be back to civilization.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Communing with Humpbacks: Adelaide Island

From Antarctica
Sunrise: 0437
Sunset :2244

Today we are crossing the line of latitude which marks the Antarctic Circle. It is this human-created line of latitude which is actually determined by the tilt of the globe where there is twenty four hours of daylight at least at the summer solstice. We had exceptional weather so we were able reach the large island of Adelaide and the mainland called Gullet. During the morning we chose the Zodiac ride first and the hike on the island second. What a fortunate choice for us as another OMG moment happened – a very curious humpback whale was spotted and we were able to be by his side for almost an hour along with about five other Zodiacs.

This big fellow (or gal – no one knows) was most curious indeed about us. He came along side the Zodiacs time and time again. One time he even lifted his head so far out of the water that you could see his eye – again he was looking right at the passengers. One person actually touched him. I thought that might be a bad idea but the guide said that the whale probably did not know the difference. This whale could have swam off at any point but he seemed to enjoy playing hide and seek with us. Humpbacks are not predators in the same sense as sharks or orkas – they don’t eat seals or penguins but rather mostly krill. The males sing – they all sing the same song for about a year and then they make up a new song. How is it that people can kill these beautiful animals? I understand that the Japanese are now lobbying to be able to kill the larger whales – everyone should continue blogging about this so that we can help the youth in Japan realize what their government is requesting.

That afternoon we went on a hike on the island. It was strenuous because we were walking almost entirely on rocks. We saw one small fur seal that was dying on the beach. Someone asked if we could give him the last rites. I made the sign of the cross and said a Hail Mary. We did not know why he was dying – there appeared to be no injuries. Here we saw numerous fur seals and lots of penguins (even a lone Emperor, the only one we saw all trip). Mike got some great pictures.

It was a tiring day and again I had an afternoon nap before the cocktail hour. Every day we have brief lectures on various topics from the naturalists and researchers. I might also mention that there are two underwater divers with us that film what is going on underneath the water during our trip. They show the film in the evening and tell us about the plant and animal life living below the ice!

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Port Lockroy, Lemaire Channel & Booth Island

From Antarctica
Sunrise: 0452
Sunset: 2206

Port Lockroy started as a British base in 1944 and operated for eighteen years. The main building was restored in 1996 and operates as a historic reminder of the early days of Antarctic exploration and an official post office. We sent our granddaughter a post card from there so she will have the Antarctica post mark and a picture of a penguin. Mike visited this site but I stayed behind and worked out in the ship’s gym which is fully equipped. I was feeling sluggish from the large meals we get every day. Mike saw some whale bones and Gentoo penguins on nearby Jougla Point.

Then we set sail through picturesque Peltier Channel arriving at the northern end of the Lemaire Channel. We finally anchored at Booth Island. This is a historic location of the famous Charcot Expedition and for Mike and I another OMG moment. Two other couples and one gentleman joined us on the Zodiac ride around the Island. Weather was nice and waters calm. First we saw two Minke whales that swam quite close to our boat. About ten minutes later,  a Leopard Seal appeared at the back of the Zodiac – he surfaced and stared at us. The guide turned the motor on low and this fellow looked to be about thirty feet long, weighing about six hundred pounds (they can weigh up to 900 pounds) - Mike felt like the leopard seal's head looks like a serpent . This leopard seal seemed to be very curious about us. He swam under us and went from side to side – each time lifting his head out of the water – staring at us. The seal swam with us for about eight to ten minutes. Later, I found out that some of the seals have actually taken a bite out of the side of the rubber Zodiac and they measured the bite to be about eighteen inches (between upper and lower canine teeth). No one has ever been hurt but these animals are predators so I moved away from the side of the Zodiac when he was circling. It was a thrilling experience to be that close to a wild animal however. We lived to tell the tale!!

Friday, February 05, 2010

Kayaking around Cuverville Island & Errera Channel

From Antarctica
Today was a real adventure for us – ocean kayaking.  I was grateful to my daughter Michelle who patiently taught me how to paddle a kayak last summer in the Long Island Sound.  Ocean kayaks are supposed to be virtually impossible to tip over as they are a hybrid of regular kayaks and inflatable ones, and have no upper deck. They have a rudder at the back which can be operated by your feet --  one foot forward and one foot back and the paddles have drip guards on them . Naturally I let Mike, the engineer, handle the rudder.  You enter the kayak from a platform which is next to the ship.  They put a little yellow box around your neck with an emergency button on it that you can push at any time should you need help (our leader stressed that needing hot chocolate was not an emergency!) and would automatically go off if you landed in the water. I was not nervous about this activity because I once kayaked with my brother-in-law off the coast of Maine where the water is also quite frigid. We were given strict instructions about where to go, to what we could get close, and from what to stay away.  We could get no closer than one hundred feet to ice cliffs and “growler” icebergs (defined as less than three feet out of the water).   We could get much closer to brash ice, which is the small chunks of ice.

So Mike and paddled out in this lovely cover towards Cuverville Island and the Errera Channel.  We had only paddled a little way when suddenly a leopard seal jumps up with a penguin in its mouth – thrashing it in one direction and then the other – just like you see on Animal Planet only we were a few feet from it happening live.  Of course, then seal ate the penguin.  You felt sorry for the little penguin but then these animals have to eat and it is part of the food chain.  Amazing.  We continued to paddle around the channel for about an hour observing nature in all its glory.  It is here that we saw our first Antarctic plants – there are only two that grow here – plankton and diacoms.  Mostly – moss!  Mike has a great picture of the mountain where these lovely burnt orange and green plants are growing on the side of the rocks.

Just spotted some Minke whales so must go port side.  I hope this does not sound silly but to me it is such a privilege to be here in this breathtaking frozen wilderness. 

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Deception Island

From Antarctica
As our guides told us we are not on a cruise – the ship is an expedition/passenger vessel! Today we went to an area called Deception Island and Whaler’s Bay in the South Shetlands. It is called that because it initially appears to be just an island with lots of jagged mountains and a shallow coastline. However, if one hikes up a few miles and peers through an opening in the mountain you can see that the island is actually like a doughnut with a lake in the middle. When we arrived in this area we learned that the wind gusts were exceeding fifty miles per hour so we decided to err on the side of caution and stay on the shoreline rather than take a hike. Turned out to be a good decision since most hikers turned back and only a few stalwart souls (the twenty-somethings group) made it to the destination.

Mike and I took a long walk along the shoreline looking at the remnants of an old whaling station. It was operational from about 1902 to 1930. Activities of the whalers nearly made whales extinct in the area and it was actually the depression that reduced the need for whale oil and later fossil fuels replaced it all together. The buildings were damaged by a volcano eruption in 1969 when a huge mud slide went through the middle of the buildings. On board our ship is a British guide who was in the British navy and was part of the rescue of the British researchers staying in the area at the time. He had some film clips he showed us later of the actual rescue.

The mile or so walk that Mike and took was amazingly taxing – the wind gusts were not so bad when they were at our back but returning when the wind was in our faces was hard. I could only do about thirty paces at a time and then I would turn my back to the wind and rest. I was grateful that the friends who made this trip last year told me to bring ski goggles because that was very helpful in deflecting the wind and blowing snow. We stopped half-way to see a lone fur seal sitting on a little bit of mud. He angled his head towards us – we were no more than fifteen feet from him and of course we snapped his photo. Later several Adelie penguins were right in front of us as we went back to the Zodiac to return to the ship. Some fools took the “arctic plunge” which is entering the frigid water in a bathing suit. This is unlike last year when the water was actually warm. The temperature was forty degrees or less. Again the young folks did this activity.

We ate our lunch and immediately returned to our cabin completely exhausted. We fell asleep completely clothed – I even had on my jacket.  Thought I would just rest a bit but woke up two hours later!

That afternoon the captain took us very close to some very large icebergs that could have come from either the Roth or Larsen ice shelves. I have learned many things about ice such as the salt water is highly corrosive to ice and the icebergs can roll and when they roll they are extremely dangerous. The National Ice Center tracks glaciers, icebergs, ice shelves, etc. Icebergs can travel great distances and one was tracked to New Zealand last year. Some are one hundred fifty by twenty nautical miles long – they can be 300 feet thick.

We loved watching the penguins playing on the icebergs sliding up and down and sometimes suddenly being washed into the sea. Several whales were also spotted during the afternoon. That evening we entered Cuverville Cove – again majestic with lots of activity between fur seals, birds and the ever present penguins. Let me explain that there is no set course for our route as the captain makes decisions based on weather, wind speed, ice flow etc. so it is often a surprise as where we might go next.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Paulet Island or Little Dudes in Tuxes

From Antarctica
I woke early in the morning and pulled open the shade to our room and gasped at what I saw --- there were icebergs in every direction --- different sizes and shapes, some blue with brown mud stains and others appeared to be pure white. The majestic quality of this great white continent cannot be described in words. It is almost overwhelming to the human eye! Eighty-seven percent of the world's ice is here in Antarctica. This is Alaska's icebergs on steroids. Only in this area are the large Tabular icebergs that have a flat top.

Scientists have been studying this pure landscape for decades. In 1991, they noted an increase in the amount of melting ice which continues today. This is important to all of us because if the rate of melting continues, it could change the sea level. A rising sea level could be a potential threat to all the nations on earth.

Today, Mike and I stepped foot on Paulet Island -- meaning that Mike has now been on all 7 continents! We spent an hour and half walking among the Adelie penguins – thousands of them. They are such funny creatures making a lot of sound as they head to the waters to fish and clean their coats. None seem to enter the water alone – a whole line goes at once. You can tell how uneasy they are as they fear that a sea lion might be under the water to snatch one of them up. I witnessed a mama penguin scolding and pushing her baby penguin (they are covered in soft downy brown fur) because he wanted to go into the water. She was very loudly vocal and pushed him gently back up to the colony. The other funny thing to watch is the nest building with small pebbles carried in their beaks. They steal each other’s pebbles and sometimes a little fight breaks out. None of the penguins seemed to mind our presence although we were very careful not to get too close or touch them or block their passage way going to and from the water.

Just a few minutes ago we entered what is called "Iceberg Alley" -- all I can say is OMG!! These are huge icebergs at least one hundred feet high and as big as three city blocks. One after the other – one more powerful looking than the other. It is a beautiful site and eerie all at the same time.

As Ernest Shackleton said, “We had seen God in His splendors, heard the text that Nature renders. We had reached the naked soul of man.”

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Antarctica: Elephant Island

From Antarctica
The weather was better than expected so for the first time this season, the ship was able to go to Elephant Island. When we first arrived there we spotted a killer whale which is apparently not seen very often. This island is famous because this where most of Shackelton’s expedition was stranded for four months. His journey started in December 1914 and their ship, the Endurance, sank due to heavy ice. There is a small statue in honor of Shackelton because he was able to save all of his men by taking a life boat to South Georgia under very hazardous conditions and obtain help. There is a lot more to the story but hey, no one wants a history lesson.

At Elephant Island, Mike and I had our first experience riding on a Zodiac – it is a small rubber boat that carries about ten passengers. They have a number of these on the ship. We learned that no more than one hundred people may visit these islands at a time so we went in shifts.

The zodiac boats are launched from a door just above the waterline of the ship and two men assist you in boarding the boat. We were experiencing some sea swells so this is a little tricky as the zodiac bobs along side of the ship. It was a little scary sitting on the zodiac not but twelve inches from the ice blue water. I hung onto the ropes on the side and thought to myself, "This girl will not go overboard without a fight!" We did not go onto land but rather circled the small island where we saw the tall jagged mountains dotted with chin strap penguins and fur seals. Fur seals are actually sea lions.  Stay tuned for more wild tales from this icy wildnerness....

Monday, February 01, 2010

Journey to the South Pole: Santiago, Tierra Del Fuego & Beyond

From Antarctica
Greetings from Antarctica!

We are now steaming our way towards the Antarctica Peninsula. Here is a brief report of what we did and saw in our first three days of this journey:
Our plane route was a 3.5 hour flight from Houston to Panama City where we changed planes and then had a six hour flight to Santiago. We arrived in Santiago, Chile on Friday morning January 28. It was in the seventies and we enjoyed exploring the area around our hotel and resting from the trip to this city. On Saturday, there was a city tour planned by National Geographic which we did not find very interesting.

That evening there was a welcoming cocktail party and dinner with the group. We have about one hundred forty-four passengers from all over the US, Australia and India. You know it is a small world when you meet someone from Cape Cod and he knows your Houston friend’s parents. There are ten people from Texas including another couple from Houston. People range in age from fourteen (with his parents and two brothers and they are the only kids on the ship) to people in their eighties. There forty-seven single people – mostly females in their fifties and sixties.
We boarded a charter flight to a small city in Argentina called Ushuaia then boarded buses and took a trip into the beautiful Tierra del Feugo park. This town is known as the end of the earth and is inhabited by about 65,000 people.

After driving about twenty minutes, we got out and boarded these very large double-decker catamarans. We cruised the Kami river and had lunch. The landscape surrounding this river was magnificent. We were very lucky because it was fifty degrees and sunny. Our guides told us that it is usually raining and very cold. They also talked to us a lot about conservation efforts in the park. Historically, missionaries brought in foreign animals, including beavers and silver foxes, into the park, devastating local species. The park is 63,000 hectares of the southern tip of the Andes and borders neighboring Chile.

While on the catamaran, we went by a small stretch of land where we saw sea lions and birds that look like penguins, called Imperial Cormorant. Just as a reminder, the primary difference between sea lions and seals is that a sea lion has ear flaps and a seal does not. I really wish Michelle had been with us when we hung over the railing and stared at these wonderful creatures. We had our lunch on the catamaran and then took the bus to the ship where our delightful crew and on-board naturalists were waiting to greet us. I am glad Mike chose the largest room for us where we have plenty of space to move about.

We set sail around six in the evening. We had heard a lot about how rough the Drake passage seas would be but again we lucked out and had calm seas that gently rocked us to sleep after dinner. Food on the ship is good. We eat each meal with different folks - so interesting to get to know new people. Today I worked out at the ship’s rec center which is located toward the bow of the boat. It had glass on the front that enables you to watch the ocean and the birds at the same time as burning a few calories! We also had a safety session with the ship's captain where we learned what to do in case we abandoned ship.

Later, we were introduced to the naturalists -- most of whom have Ph.D’s in various areas of study including marine biology, ecology, marine mammals, etc. We also have two young female researchers on board who are studying for their advanced degrees in penguin research. I read a book while flying here on penguins and their current seventeen species. I was stunned to learn that in pre-historic time there was a five foot, seven inch penguin that weighed over 300 pounds – now that would be something to see!

We had a lecture on birds this afternoon. We have seen many even though we are in a vast ocean area. Oceanic birds, as they call them, spend eighty percent of their time out in the ocean. Some species like the Stormy Petras travel 17,000 miles between fall and winter even their wing span is only sixteen inches wide. There are several categories of Albatross birds and Mike has photographed one which we believe to be a Wandering Albatross. These beautiful blue-gray birds can stay out to sea for five to seven years without ever seeing land and fly as fast as fifty-seven miles per hour. Now that’s a job! All of these birds are scavengers for food on the ocean’s surface.

We have the captain’s dinner this evening and then off to bed early as we will reach the Antarctica peninsula and land by zodiacs. I am glad that we had a few days rest before the landing. The ship provides a mud room where we can put all of our big boots and other gear in lockers so we don’t have to take it to our room every day. They made everyone whose boots or back packs had been used before this trip to come to the mud room to be “disinfected” as they want absolutely no organisms or seedlings that might be stuck in the boot treads to be carried into Antarctica. They speak constantly of conservation and how to are to conduct ourselves while visiting this vast arctic wilderness.
Onward Ho, to the Land of Ice and Snow!