Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Ushuaia - Woodpecker Search

I was also able to spend a bit of time in Ushuaia away from the water. Before we headed south we went to a small park on the west side of the downtown area and found a large group of Black-chinned Siskins and some Rufous-collared Sparrows. The siskins were working over the dandelion seadheads.

I found one good spot with some dead stalks that proved to be a good perch for both species.

When I returned to Ushuaia from my first trip south, I had high hopes of getting out to Tierra Del Fuego National Park to get some walking in and look for the (for me) elusive Magellanic Woodpecker. Elise and I were finally able to get out of town a bit later in the morning than I had hoped via one of the numerous bus transport companies that go back and forth to the park. The place that was recommended to me to go for the best chance of finding woodpeckers was the trail along Lago Roca so that was where we headed. It turned out to be a very nice trail through a wonderful old Nothofagus (Southern Beech) forest.

Scattered throughout the forest were these ascocarp of the fungi Cyttaria darwinii.
I found the following text on this fungus here:
During the last 165 million years, South America was connected to the southern super continent known as Gondwanaland. As Gondwanaland began to break up, South America and Australia were bridged by Antarctica, providing a path for the dispersal of many organisms. Among these organisms were fungi in the genus Cyttaria, the "traveling fungi", and their host, Nothofagus, the Southern Hemisphere Beech. This round tree gall fungus has coevolved with its host into two distinct phylogenetic clades, or groupings, since their biogeographic isolation by the separation of the southern continents. Today, Cyttaria gunnii and Cyttaria septentrionalis are endemic to parts of Australasia, while other species within the same genus, such as Cyttaria darwinii, are only found in South America. Cyttaria has also traveled to England, but only with the help of Charles Darwin during his exploration of South America! --R. Holbert

It was great get out and walk without sinking up to my knees in snow and smell vegetation rather than processed krill. Walking through the forest was also quite a treat for me. I don't get to do that often anymore since the forests of eastern Montana aren't really much to walk through. The beech trees were talking to one another as the wind moved them around. There were many Ent voices as we moved slowly through the moss draped trees. We didn't see a lot of bird species because we were mostly walking through mature forest but what we did find was certainly not anything I get to see everyday and it was great.

White=throated Tree Runners were quite common at the Lago Roca campground along with the Patagonian Sierra Finches.

and Thorn-tailed Rayaditos.

Other bird species we found were Chimango Caracaras, Upland Geese, Austral Thrushes, White-crested Elaenias, and Southern House Wrens.

We found a couple of beautiful orchids as well.

The White Dog Orchid Codonorchis lessonii

And the Yellow Ground Orchid Gavilea lutea

We also found lots of sign for the fabled Magellanic Woodpecker. In the photo above you can see Elise examining a feeding cavity where the bird was extracting grubs from the old beech tree.
And then finally there it was.

Not really. This was as close as I got again. Woodpecker sign and a woodpecker sign.
After walking up the trail and back Elise and I caught our appointed bus back to Ushuaia without seeing a Magellanic Woodpecker. Of course, at one point on the trail we met another couple and they inquired what we were looking for. I told them that we were looking for the Magellanic Woodpecker to which they replied "You should be at the Lago Verde campground where we are staying - they wake us up each morning with their knocking on the trees."
And when I got back I found this trip report from Pete Morris at BirdQuest from earlier in November where they saw woodpeckers near Ushuaia before and after their Antarctic trip.

One of these days I will hopefully have the time to spend a couple of days in this wonderful area, not only to look for the woodpecker but also just to get out and see some of the gorgeous landscape and the creatures that inhabit this amazing portion of the world. One of my freinds from Glasgow, Woody Baxter, and a couple of his friends from Western Montana were in Patagonia this December as well. They were planning on driving and hiking throughout the area and I am curious to see how their trip turned out.

This is the last photo I had on my camera from Ushuaia before I headed back to winter. When I got home and drove to work the next day the thermometer told me it was twenty below zero. Oh to be back in balmy Antarctica!

Friday, December 26, 2008

Ushuaia Shoreline

Female Flying Steamer-Duck

Rather than do a day by day recap of the last few weeks with photos, I am going to try to put them into groups and have photos from both trips combined. I am going to start with Ushuaia.

I wasn't able to get out of town much during this trip because of work and ship schedules but I was able to spend a fair amount of time along the shoreline in Ushuaia at the begining of my trips and in between voyages. Early mornings were nice and quiet and I could get away from the hum of the ships engines and the bustle of the busy pier for a while.

Female Kelp Goose

Male Kelp Goose

Dolphin Gull - this has got to be one of the most colorful gulls around and quite a striking bird.

Crested Ducks

Chiloe Wigeon

Dark-bellied Cincloides

Black-crowned Night Heron

Early in December there were two very large tour ships at the pier. In the photo above you can see the the forward end of the National Geographic Explorer in front of a very large ship. In the foreground is a group of kayakers. There were so many people in town that day from these two ships that there was a large cloud of dust west of town from where all the buses were coming and going to Tierra Del Fuego National Park.

South American Tern

Male Flying Steamer-Duck

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Home Again

Home again after nearly 28 hours of airports and airplanes. Lots of photos to share soon. Here is one to start.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Penguin Royalty

When I arrived on the bridge of the ship early Thursday morning, December 18th, we were just arriving at Paulet Island. Paulet is a volcanic island located in the northwestern part of the Weddell Sea near the Antarctic Peninsula. It is not very large, but it is home to over 60,000 pairs of nesting Adelie Penguins. Even from well offshore you can see the colonies, light pink amoeba-like stains on the rocky slopes and beaches of the southeast side of the island. The usual landing spot was choked full of ice so we opted to land at a point further down the beach. The major concern when we arrived on shore was exactly where to land everyone. From the shoreline on the falling tide it was difficult to see the top of the cobble beach to determine if this was the only spot on that part of the beach where there was a gap in breeding penguins wide enough to allow guests access to the interior. It was.
Aileen and I were off soon after getting to the beach towards the usual landing site because that was where our work needed to get done. We threaded our way between the colonies to the spot where we needed to count the Blue-eyed Shag colony. The shag colony on Paulet is also one of the largest in the area and it rises above the beach on a steep scree slope above the beach. After completing that count we took some photos of the colony to double check our counting later on. We then headed towards an Adelie colony near the remains of a historical stone hut where Captain Larsen and 22 men over-wintered during the 1903 winter after loosing their ship to ice in Antarctic Sound. They subsisted almost entirely on penguins and it is a bit ironic that we are there to count the number of nesting Adelies at a relatively small Adelie colony near the remains of the hut. After completing that work we made our way between more nesting penguins on the slopes of a plateau rising above to a point overlooking many of the colonies where we took some reference photos. We then headed to the other end of the plateau, again weaving between the penguin colonies, overlooking the large flat beach area near the landing site where we took more reference photos of the colonies from high above. Our time on the island was up and we headed back to the landing beach and joined that last of the staff on the island in the last zodiac back to the ship.
Once we were all onboard the ship headed east even further into the Weddell Sea with plans to reach Snow Hill Island, a bit to the southeast of our position at Paulet. This portion of the Weddell Sea is littered with icebergs – more so than anywhere else on the peninsula. It also has very large tabular icebergs, remains of ancient ice shelves that cover portions of the ocean surrounding Antarctica. These flat-topped, steep sided, huge bergs are often well over 100 feet tall above the water with probably close to 900 feet ice hiding below the water. Some we observed may have been remains of the Larsen Ice Shelf which used to cover significant portions of the sea along the southeastern side of the Antarctic Peninsula but which has since mostly disintegrated or they may have drifted from the Ross Ice shelf on the other side of the continent. As we made our way through the ice I headed to the top of the bridge to try to get some more Snow Petrel photos. I was also looking hard to find an Emperor Penguin on the ice too. There is a small Emperor colony near Snow Hill Island and although they were done breeding by this time, there is always a chance to find one out on the ice in this area. I lasted for a while in the cold wind and then dropped down into the bridge. Almost as soon as I arrived I noticed a dark spot on a flat piece of ice off in the distance. I pointed it out to Richard White, perhaps the person with the most experience in the world with birds in the Antarctic Peninsula and the Drake Passage, having worked on Lindblad ship in Antarctica for the last 7 years, and he had just noticed it too. We watched for a bit and were pretty sure it was an Emperor. The Captain started moving the ship towards the bird and I headed out to the bow. We originally thought that is was a young bird, but as we got closer we realized it was an adult. It was preening at the ice edge and we moved slowly closer. Soon we were right at the edge of the ice and the bird was just off the bow of the ship. It was the best looks I have had of an Emperor and it was a great treat for the afternoon. However, soon after pulling away from the bird, the wind picked up considerably and the ice started to move. We had to scrap the plans for Snow Hill Island and make our way back towards the peninsula before the ice closed in on the ship. We spent the rest of the evening dodging ice and heading back through Antarctic Sound to the west side of the peninsula to get out of the wind.

Deception Island

On Wednesday morning the 17th of December we woke up just off of Deception Island, one of the most famous of the South Shetland Islands. Deception is a volcanic island and the collapsed caldera forms a wonderful sheltered bay with entrance to the bay through a narrow passage known as Neptunes Bellows. But before heading into the center of the island we visited one of the most famous Chinstrap Penguin colonies - Baily Head. Baily Head is a smaller bowl on the outside edge of the island with Chinstraps nesting on the slopes around the bowl. To get to the center of the colony you must walk along a small meltwater stream around a rocky outcrop and when you make the corner into the bowl, the sound becomes something you can feel (the smell of the colony you can detect on the ship well offshore). Although this colony is still very large, those on the staff who have been doing this for years recall many more birds here in previous years. This year we were in for a very special treat. The landing here, which normally is very challenging with a usual heavy surf, was very calm. The staff loved that since it can be quite challenging getting people out of the zodiacs before the next wave breaks over the stern of the boat or pushes it way up the beach. Aileen and I heading up the slope to count nests at a few colonies we regularly monitor and right away we noticed that many of the nests had newly hatched chicks. We also found nest where the chicks were still hatching. We completed our counts then headed to the edge of the rim to take reference photos of the colony to have a record of the extent and distribution of the colonies. Baily Head is such a great place to observe Chinstraps with so much going on all over the place. We watched penguins coming and going in black (outward bound) and white (incoming) streams or loafing and preening on the black volcanic soil. There are also great materials for teaching penguin anatomy scattered throughout the site with the recent penguin remains to show people penguin feathers and feet, mixed in with older remains where we can show the skeletal structure of penguins.
In the afternoon we moved into the caldera and walked around the remains of a shore based whaling station in Whalers Bay. I hiked up to the edge of a cliff and found some nesting Cape Petrels tucked into the rocks. Later I stopped to look at an old Leopard Seal hauled up on the beach near the cliff. There are no penguin colonies in the interior of Deception so we looked for banded Brown Skuas at a meltwater pond near the landing site where the birds like to bath. We found one banded bird that had been banded at a nearby Spanish station. Many of my fellow passengers took the opportunity of a bit warmer water than is typically found in Antarctica to take a quick dip just before we headed back out of the inside of the island and may our way towards the Weddell Sea.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Typical Day for an Oceanites Researcher

The morning of 12/16/08 began with a quick breakfast at 0700 before heading to my cabin to outfit myself for the day. Long underwear and windpants, t-shirt, fleece and outer shell for clothing. One pair of regular socks and one pair of thick socks and a pair of rubber boots for the feet. Sunscreen, fleece hat, University of Montana baseball hat (Go Griz!), scarf, and sunglasses for the head. A pair of fingerless gloves rounds out my clothing. The front pouch on my outer shell is filled with pencils and notebook, sampling supplies, and two way radio. Then I filled my backpack with camera, spare gloves and hat, monopod, and assorted field items. Around my neck went the last couple of items - the ship ID (to check in and out of the ship) and my high tech penguin counting device (a small metal clicker). Then I headed to the mud room on the ship to put on my life vest, grab the snowshoes, and catch our ride. That morning Tom Smith was out chauffer to a small island near Cuverville Island were a few small colonies of Chinstrap Penguins are located. The wind was blowing a good 20 knots and our mile ride to Orne was a bit choppy and wet as we cruised through a kingdom of icebergs grounded between Cuverville and Orne.
When Aileen and I arrived at Orne we were very thankful that we now have snowshoes. The snow was deep and wet and without the snowshoes it would have taken at least twice as long get the work done. The Chinstrap colonies on Orne are pretty small so we divided the colonies and trudged through the still deep snow to our respective colonies. From one end of the island to the top and then back down we pause at the few exposed areas where the Chinstraps are still hanging on to click our way through the nest counts. As we wound up I radioed back to Tom that we were nearly done and by the time we reached the last colony Tom was nearby waiting for us. A quick stop at a nearby smaller island to count the small colony of Gentoos and then over to Cuverville. Last time we were there we had to hastily estimate a few smaller colonies since our time on the island was done and the ship was ready to leave. We wanted to get a good count on those colonies and we had the time so Tom dropped us off at a spot close to the colonies we need to count. We decided to leave the snowshoes since it was only a short 40 yard walk to the colonies.
Not such a good idea.
We postholed our way up the slope, sinking in the slushy snow at least up to our knees or worse. We were able to finish up those last colonies and then joined the other folks for a zodiac shuttle back to the ship.
The Explorer was moving as soon as we were all back aboard, heading for Port Lockroy. After getting our field gear off and grabbing a bite for lunch, we headed back down to our cabins to get geared up all over again. We had planned to visit a nearby Gentoo colony but the winds stopped that idea in its tracks so we headed to nearby Jougla Point to do another Gentoo nest count there. We also needed to collect eggshells for our fellow Oceanites researcher and graduate student Mike Polito. Mike is using the shells to look at penguin diets and he needs about 30 shells from each site we visit, so in between counting we collected shells we found – either abandoned in the colony, hatched and laying out of the nest, or in the snow after a skua has cleaned out the inside. Oh yeah, it was blowing about 40 knots by this point with a driving sleet. On go the snowshoes and we trudge off through the snow which by this point has the consistency of wet concrete. I headed up the ridge and Aileen counted on the flats. The wind was blowing so hard at the top of the ridge I nearly got blown over a couple of times. We completed the counts, gathered a number of egg shells and headed back to the landing site. Soaking wet (last week I worked in a t-shirt here)we headed over to the station for a couple more souvenirs and then caught the next zodiac shuttle to the ship.
Off went the field gear and after a quick shower we headed up to the lounge of the Explorer for a recap of the days events. Then we all head forward to the dinning area for dinner at 7:30. Dinner is still work – the outreach and education goals of Oceanites are often best done as dinner conversation so Aileen and I each sit at a different table and explain our work in a conversational setting over dinner.
Once dinner was over I moved down to the mud room and gathered the egg samples we collected during the day and the cleaning supplies (there is usually lots of penguin guano and egg remnants on the shells). Then I headed to the tender entrance of the ship to clean eggs. After I got them cleaned I placed them in a tray and moved them to a small room around the exhaust stack of the ship where it is quite warm to dry the shells out. Then back to my cabin to complete a few emails and finally turn in about 10:30.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Moot Point

December 15th found us in Crystal Sound. We had hoped to visit a site called Prospect Point and the nearby Fish Islands where there are breeding Adelie Penguins. However, the ocean and ice had different plans for us. Prospect Point and the Fish Islands were both surrounded by heavy pack ice so we continued north. Much of the morning was spent moving through pack ice and around large chunks of glacial ice – bergs, bits and pieces. The best part of the morning for me was watching the Snow Petrels moving across the pack ice and following the ship looking for food items among the overturned ice caused by our passage. Late in the morning we found a patch of open water where the guests were able to kayak at the edge of some sea ice. It was a gorgeous day but there were no penguin colonies nearby so we were just enjoying the day at that point. We headed out in a zodiac with Mike Nolan and C.T. Ticknor and a zodiac load of guests to see what we could see. It was perfectly calm and sunny and when we stopped the zodiac for a bit I mentioned that this was perfect weather to hear a whale because the sound would carry for a long way. Within 20 seconds we heard a whale blow and shortly afterward we found 3 Minke Whales feeding nearby. One became curious in us and circled the boat a few times and came quite close. He finally got tired of us and moved off so we went to where the other whales were feeding but they weren’t as interested in us as the other whale and they moved away fairly fast. We returned to the ship and we headed north again to Peterman Island. Since Peterman has recently been surveyed by some other Oceanites researchers on the National Geographic Endeavour, our plans were to visit the nearby Moot Point to survey the nesting Gentoo Penguins there, but our plans became moot when we arrived and the channel was again jammed with pack ice. No landings there either. We then continued through the Lemaire Channel in the late evening heading for nearby Cuverville Island where we hoped to finish up some Gentoo nest counts that we had to hurriedly estimate the last time we were on the island and also survey Chinstrap Penguins nesting on nearby Orne Island.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Day the Sun Never Set

Sometime in the early morning hours of December 14th we crossed the Antarctic Circle again. This time we were further east heading south on the outside of Adelaide Island. Later on in the morning we entered the northern end of Marguerite Bay and headed to Bongrain Point on Pourquoi-Pas Island, the site of a small Adelie Penguin colony. When we arrived we found a rather tall ice shelf at the landing with no way to get many of the passengers aboard the National Geographic Explorer onshore. While Matt Drennan, our expedition leader, regrouped and organized tours along the coastline in zodiacs, Aileen and I scrambled up the ice edge and started to count Adelie nests. It was snowing quite heavily off and on during the time we were onshore and although the colony looked fairly small from the shore, much of the colony was tucked up in and around some rock outcroppings where the cobble raised beach met the base of a large cliff and there were more nests that we had anticipated. We were able to count all the nests and complete what is probably the best estimate of the size of this colony. There have only been four visits to this colony by the Antarctic Site Inventory over the last 15 years and only rough guesses at the size before that. All the other visits took place later in the season (when ice usually relaxes enough to allow ships into this area) and were rather rough guesses at the population size. It felt good to get an accurate nest count at this location. There were also Snow Petrels nesting in the cliffs above the colonies and a small Blue-eyed Shag colony on a small island just off the point south of the landing area, with Kelp Gulls and South Polar Skuas also nesting in the cliffs and on the cobble plain. A couple of Snow Petrels were perched in the cliff just above the colony we began working at and when we were done I went back to try to get some photos before we had to get picked up but they were gone when I got there.
In the afternoon we headed further to the north and east of Pourquoi-Pas into Bourgeois Fjord where satellite imagery suggested some fast ice remained. As we proceeded up the fjord there was lots of fast ice scattered around with many Adelie penguins perched on the slabs. Approximately half or so of the birds were first year Adelies. Usually it is hard to tell the age or sex of an Adelie, but birds that are less than one full year old (or haven’t completed there first full molt) have a white chin, making them readily identifiable. They are rarely seen at colonies during the first year so it was really nice to find them hanging out in the fast ice. There were also large numbers of Crabeater Seals on the flows too and the depth finder suggested why – there was lots of plankton in the water, most probably krill.
We berthed the ship in the fast ice at the upper end of the fjord and lowered the side-gate and let everyone get out and walk on the ice. There was a nearby group of Crabeaters that we were able to approach observe for a while. We also attracted a number of the young penguins. I have had this happen before, but never to this extent. Apparently, to penguins, people walking on the ice in the distance are quite attractive. I am not sure, but I suspect we look like a lot like penguins – what else would walk upright on the ice? Small groups would spy us from the distance and toboggan across the ice from far away (1/2 mile or so) and then mingle in amongst all the people on the ice. It was quite entertaining to watch them come right up to people standing or sitting on the ice, inspect them and then head off to the next group of people.
After getting everyone back on board, we began heading north again.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Albatross Days

After a brief time on shore and a quick visit to Tierra Del Fuego National Park on Thursday morning, I am back at sea – this time not horizontal in my bunk and with all my luggage on board. I have never been so happy to see my own underwear in my life, not to mention the snowshoes.
We are heading south again, but this time even further south than before. We hope to get to Marguerite Bay and a few areas near Rothera, a British Antarctic Survey base. Our Captain feels that this area of the peninsula is now like what the northern part of the peninsula was like 20 years ago. Abundant krill, ice, and wildlife. I hope his prediction comes true.
To get to this part of the peninsula requires two full days at sea and we are now starting our second (12/13/08), just west of the South Shetland Islands. We have been observing numerous Black-browed Albatross, Northern and Southern Giant Petrels, and Cape Petrels following the ship. Yesterday there were many Blue Petrels scattered across the waves. I got a quick look at one Light-mantled Sooty Albatross yesterday and there were also a few Gray-headed Albatross, presumably Antarctic Prions (I need to consult some additional resources and my photos on that one), Southern Fulmars, and Wilson’s Storm Petrels around. It is a real pleasure to watch the albatross cruising above the waves. They skim over the tops of the waves, pitch up slightly, tip one wingtip towards the water and pivot over the wing to head off in another direction. Occasionally they rise higher above the waves before gliding back down to start all over again. Often they preen or scratch themselves at the apex of their pitch. The Cape Petrels are also fun to watch. They are much more maneuverable and speedy than the albatross, darting over the waves and up alongside the ship, often only feet away, glancing at me, then back to the water, looking for anything near the surface to eat.
The Humpback Whales are also making their way south and this morning we observed a few of them heading across the Drake Passage as well. There were a couple of breaches in the distance and as I was typing this sentence, we found another group of Humpbacks on the horizon.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Last Few Days

We are now slowly making our way up the Beagle Channel back to Ushuaia. The last couple of days have been pretty much non-events for me. I was completely horizontal in my bunk for all of yesterday and most of this morning. Not completely seasick but knowing full well that if I tried to get up and move around I would be. About noon today I was able to get up and around.
But, lets go back a couple of days to Sunday December 7th. We spent that morning counting Gentoo Penguin nests at an island called Cuverville. The walking was much better on this island and I wasn’t all the way up to my knees in snow with every step. There were lots of Gentoos on the portion of the island that we counted but there were also lots of abandoned nests, apparently due to the amount of snow that had been falling this spring. The nests were inundated with snow and melt water and then abandoned. We counted lots of nests though. The afternoon found us at Neko Harbor where we again counted Gentoo nests. This colony appeared to be much better off for some reason and there were fewer nests at the periphery that had been abandoned.
On Monday we counted Gentoos again at Paradise Bay. We also counted a small colony of Blue-eyed Shags on cliffs near the Argentine Station Admirante Brown. We then headed to the nearby British Antarctic Trust base at Port Lockroy. This was a British Antarctic Survey station for many years but was then abandoned. It has been restored and is run as a museum with a very popular gift shop where you can go shopping for Antarctic souvenirs. We counted all the Gentoo nests and Blue-eyed Shag nests at nearby Jougla Point and then headed over to see what was new at the shop.
After we were done at Port Lockroy we headed north in Dahlman Bay were we had a rendezvous with our sister ship the Endeavour. It was a lot of fun with passengers from the Endeavour coming over to have a look at the new ship (I even ran into someone I knew from many years ago in Bozeman) and the crew having a big party with fellow crew members from the Endeavour. We also got to visit a bit with our Oceanites counterparts too.
After that we headed into the Drake passage and that was it for me. We are in Ushuaia for less that 24 hours and we head back into the Drake tomorrow night. Hopefully it will be better for me this time around. Keep your fingers crossed.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Even further South

OK, where did I leave this last? Oh yeah, we were heading to Peterman Island. We did make it to Peterman on December 4th. We first made a landing at Pleneau Island. We managed to make our way through the thigh deep snow to the top of the island and then began counting our way back to the landing area. I was really wishing I had those snowshoes that are sitting in Ushuaia. I haven’t had that good of a workout in a long time. It was exhausting pulling my legs out of the hole I had just created in the snow, only to make another one just as deep – uphill. We managed to count all the Gentoo Penguin nests on the island just in time to catch the last Zodiac back to the beach. The we headed a bit further south to Peterman Island. Peterman was the site of an Oceanites field camp for the last few years and I haven’t had to count penguins here in a long time because there were always staff on the island. That project ended last year and this time I had to count. And count and count.. The island has been divided into two sections and we picked one section and headed off to count more nests. We had hoped to go to the nearby Moot Point, but a snow squall moved in about that time and we couldn’t get over to that area. Gentoo populations are exploding on the Antarctic Peninsula in response to the changing environment and it certainly seemed there were more than the last time I visited It seemed that everytime I finished one count as I worked the back side of the island, there would be one more Gentoo colony just around the corner. All of this took place in snow conditions similar to those on Pleneau Island. By the time I we finished up as the last boat was heading back to the ship, I was pretty wore out.
That evening we tried to head south, but there was very limited visibility due to snow and fog, which makes it tough for the crew to navigate so we headed outside of the islands and continued south in open water. By 7:30 the next morning (December 5th) we had crossed the Antarctic Circle and we continued just a bit farther south before heading east and then north into the Crystal Sound area. That morning we had a large number of Antarctic Petrels following the ship, along with one Light Mantled Sooty Albatross and a few Cape Petrels, Giant Petrels, and Black-browed Albatross. We had hoped to make a landing at the Fish Islands in the area but fast ice and dense pack ice around the islands canceled those plans. We wound up moving the ship through some areas of pack ice and had numerous Snow Petrels following the ship along with a few Crabeater Seals, one Leopard Seal, and another Leopard Seal and pup on the pack ice. We also tried to stick the ship into the fast ice but it when one of the crew stepped off the ship he sank to the top of his hip waders in snow and rotten ice so we canceled those plans too. We then opted for Zodiac rides along the ice edge where we found a few Adelie Penguins but little else. We did have a number of Snow Petrels flying around the ship though and a small group of Cape Petrels and one Antarctic Fulmar readily approached the Zodiacs as we idled near the ship, even picking at something on the side pontoons as we looked down on them. Conditions had improved a bit by then and we headed north through the night through the ice and wound up this morning in the Argentine Islands. This morning Elise and I headed out to a small group of islands called the Yarlour Islands. This series of small islands had approximately 8000 Adelie Penguin nests in 1982. This morning we counted nearly 2000 (again in very deep snow and again very tiring). As much as Gentoo Penguins are increasing on the peninsula, Adelie Penguins are declining even faster. We had a bit of a break this afternoon when we visited Vernadsky Station, a Ukranian base formerly run by the British as Faraday Station, where the ozone hole was originally discovered. We visited with the guys on station a bit and then headed out to count a small Gentoo Penguin colony that recently formed at the station and then around the corner to another small Gentoo colony. Again in deep snow. My legs are now quite sore but thankfully all of this is happening at sea level so I have gained a bit by coming for a bit of elevation in Montana. Not much though. This evening we traversed the LeMaire Channel, a very scenic, narrow passage with towering mountains covered with glaciers lining both sides. The setting sun cast a nice light on the mountains as we moved through. We are heading to Couverville Island tomorrow and we will be counting Genoo Penguins there again. Undoubtedly in deep snow again!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Drake Passage and Beyond

We left Ushuaia on November 30th and headed south through the Beagle Channel as the sun disappeared to the west and shortly after dark, entered the Drake Passage. The Drake was a bit rough this trip and kept me pretty much confined to my cabin with a couple of forays above deck to see what was about. We spent all of December 1st bobbing around, nothing horrible, but my sea legs must have been in my checked bags. The best part was that we made excellent time across the Drake and made landing at a small island in the South Shetland group called Aitcho Island about noon the following day. Despite a fairly stiff wind, my penguin counting partner Elise Larsen and I were able to get a good count of the number of nesting Gentoo Penguins on the island. During a recent previous visit by the National Geographic Endeavour our Oceanites colleagues had conducted a site-wide census of all the nesting Chinstrap Penguins. We also counted Giant Petrel nests at the far end of the island as well. While counting a Gentoo colony on a small ridge near the landing area, I heard a very different call. I was in the middle of a count and couldn’t afford to look away, but shortly afterward Matt Drennan, our expedition leader, called me on the radio to tell me that a King Penguin was at the next Gentoo colony over. Although somewhat expected based on previous reports, it was still a very nice treat to see a King, particularly a well plumaged adult.
We cut our visit somewhat short as another vessel had this landing on the schedule and we needed to get out of their way. Off we headed to Deception Island in an increasing wind. We made our way through Neptune’s Bellows, a small gap into the inside of the doughnut of Deception, and headed to the far side of the caldera for the evening. After dinner plans for a short walk were canceled by 40 knot winds. We spent the night in the old volcano, with plans for another landing in the morning. After breakfast on December 3rd it became apparent that we would not be doing a landing at Deception Island this trip. The forecasted winds of 40 to 45 knots had materialized and there was no way we were going to make any landings. We headed out of Deception into the Bransfield Straits and headed towards the Antarctic Peninsula further south. During our transit of the Bransfield we experienced hurricane force winds with gusts exceeding 90 knots! Despite my notoriously weak stomach for heavy seas, I managed to make it to the bridge for a short while to take some photos I have wanted to take for years – waves breaking over the bow. I was able to do that before heading back to my bunk for the remainder of the afternoon. We are still heading south trying to get out of the way of this fast moving massive storm and hope to make a landing tomorrow at Peterman Island.
Oh yeah, my bags finally showed up at Ushuaia – on Monday. At least they will be there and I can have my clothes for the next trip south.
Lots of photos but they are too much trouble to try to post until I get a better connection.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Charlie Foxtrot

It started with the belt. Or maybe it didn’t, but let’s start with the belt anyway. I started my trip with a 4 ½ hour drive to Billings on Thanksgiving so I could catch my early fight to Denver. I thought I had packed my belt (why I wasn’t wearing it is a very good question I really don’t have an answer for), but even then I knew I had packed another one just in case, since I couldn’t find my usual belt. Turns out the last time I could have used the belt I had was somewhere in the early 80’s when my waist size was much smaller. So at 9:00 pm I was off to a large chain department store that stays open all night on Thanksgiving to get a new belt. I wrapped a few different sizes around my waist but I truly couldn’t try them on because of the plastic hanging apparatus so I wound up buying a belt that was too big. At least I can punch holes in too make it work. The next morning as I was finishing putting stuff into my bags I found my good belt and pulled that out and put my new belt in the bag. That was the last bit of luck I was to have for the next day and a half.

I checked my three bags at the United counter (two baggage labels on each bag for some reason – one to Denver and another with the list of the airports I would be traveling through – Miami, Buenos Aires, then Ushuaia). No charge the computer said. Great.

The plane for Denver left on time but was delayed getting into Denver due to fog. No problem – I had changed my ticket so I had more time in between flight and although 4 hours is a bit long it was better than missing my plane. Then it began in earnest. Early on in my layover there was a spilled water incident where I wound up spending some of that four hours backed up to the hand dryer in the men’s bathroom trying to dry out the seat of my pants. Funny looks from fellow passengers are worth having a dry butt.

Off to Miami on time. I arrived in Miami at the J concourse and since I was switching from United to American I had to get to the E concourse. Fine, except to do that you have to go out of the secure area and back through security to get to the E concourse. Not horrible but certainly more trouble than a person should have to go through, but that’s the Miami airport. Then the train to my gate was not working. I had to get on a bus to get driven to my gate, which then required a set of escalators to reach. Except the second escalator stopped working half way up and I watched the young boy in front of my nearly do a header into his Thomas the Tank Engine carry-on. I hauled my carry-ons up the rest of the stairs only to find that the gate I was supposed to go to said “Aruba at 11:47”. Mild panic set in with the thought of trying to get back into the main airport, but a quick question later and I found out that I was indeed at the right gate. Whew.

Then I got on the plane and found out I had the worse seat in the house. I was in the inside right seat of the center four seats in the extreme back of the plane and there was a metal box under the seat in front of me that took up most of the foot room. And I don’t fit on the things they call seats on airplanes well anyway, especially not on a nine hour fight. At least I sat next to an interesting fellow traveler who told me about his work in London as a trader in emerging world markets.

Fast forward to the next morning to the baggage carousel in the Buenos Aires International Airport. I made it through immigration fine and stood to the back as people gathered around the carousel and grabbed their bags. Finally the carousel stopped and there were NONE of the 3 bags I had checked the morning before. None of them. I spent the next half hour filing a claim and then had to get the boarding pass for my next flight to Ushiaia. This, I found out, required a short walk to the nearby domestic terminal. In muggy, sweaty Buenos Aires, in clothes I had already been wearing for a day. Yeah it was bad. When I got to the domestic terminal there were only two security people in the very large room full of a maze of ribbon dividers leading to the counter. I inquired and found out that I was in the right place to get my boarding pass to Ushuaia. I weaved my way to the counter and started looking around for someone to help me. Again, just as I was starting to feel a bit of panic with the thought of how much time I had left and how much time it would take to get through security, a woman came around the corner and jumped over the baggage scale to check me in. “Any checked baggage?” she asked.

When I received my boarding pass I was then directed back to the terminal I had just come from to a gate I had just walked by to get through customs. OK. After a thankfully cursory security check, I arrived at the gate and a short time later boarded another bus to get on the plane on the tarmac outside the terminal where I had to go to receive my boarded pass! By this time I was laughing (probably a bit hysterically) but it all seemed just too bizarre to be really happening to me. At this point I thought that maybe they just checked my bags all the way through to Ushuaia anyway and I would find them there, or at least I was hoping that was the case.

Unfortunately it wasn’t true. After again waiting until the baggage carousel stopped and none of my bag emerged I knew that it was going to get even more interesting. I had already been planning what items I need to purchase on the flight down and now I had to put the plan in action. First I needed to get to the hotel where reservations had been made for me. When I arrived at the hotel, I inquired about my reservations and after a few minutes of clicking on a computer behind the desk, the front desk clerk determined that I had no reservation, nor had my penguin counting partner, Elise, checked in either despite having arrived the day before. I checked my name, her name, Oceanites, Ron Naveen – nothing. Things were really starting to get on my nerves at this point. At least they had a room and after getting settled and getting online and sending a few emails, I found out that I did indeed have a reservation and in fact Elise had checked in the day before and was only two doors down.

After quickly somewhat washing my clothes in the tub, I put them back on – still mostly wet – to go on an incredibly expensive shopping spree for clothes I already owned and should have been with me. I don’t particularly like shopping anyway and this was miserable. I wound up with the some clothes and cold weather gear to get me through my first trip but my wardrobe is certainly more limited than I had hoped. Hopefully my baggage will make it to Ushuaia in time for my next trip south. But as for now I am heading to Antarctica with essentially no clothes. I guess it makes a good story.