USHUAIA, Argentina - 2/9/07 - They say when you eat a calafate berry, you will return to Patagonia. I ate a belly full. They taste a little like a cherry when ripe and quite bitter when not. But they look like a blueberry and have a similar rich, dark blue color. When ready to be picked from the thorny bush, it is hard not to prick yourself many times when gathering a small handful. But the price is worth paying.
You may know that I went to Antarctica, but -- and Iím trying very hard to resist saying this, but I canít help myself -- Antarctica was only the tip of the iceberg. There, I said it.
I am sorry this is a mass email, but I am very short on time with so many details to try and keep straight. I fear my head will become a haze of mixed up memories if I donít finish writing things up now. I will doubtlessly forget an email address or two in the mass mailing. I say Iím sorry now ahead of time.
I figure reading this email, and hopefully a few more to follow, is better than 100 ads a day for erection control and penis enlargement medications (such a lousy part of todayís reality, isnít it?).
I have a bunch of photos posted at www.dslinehan.com/antarctica.html. Some have descriptions, some donít. I hope that they make you laugh a lot, but some you will find are sad. I plan on updating the webpage with other photos, more descriptions, and video (the crazy motion and sounds of Antarctica) as time permits.
So, where have I been?
Before I begin with this, I must say that the people of Argentina are truly wonderful -- no matter if it was a tourist area, wilderness, tiny town, or big city. They are warm and kind. I would whole-heartedly recommend Argentina to anyone as evident from me pushing back my return date from 1/31 to 2/7 to 2/15.
My itinerary in short: I left Monterey on 12/27/06 and arrived in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on 12/28. I flew down to Ushuaia, Argentina, right away. Ushuaia is the southernmost city in the world. They call it Fin del Mundo -- the Bottom of the World. Ushuaia is on the island of Tierra del Fuego, which means Land of Fire as named by Magellan way back when.
I spent half a day here before starting the ocean voyage part of my expedition, which was run by Cheesemans' Ecology Safaris, an excellent outfit out of Saratoga, California. I left Puerto Ushuaia on a small, former NOAA research vessel called the M/V Ushuaia. It is not an ice breaker but is still designed to move through solid sea ice about 1-foot thick. We were also able to run over relatively small icebergs. At first, the sound of ice splitting in half and then scrapping along the hull as the ship pushes through was a very unsettling sound and vibration.
My friend Graham was sleeping in his cabin below the waterline near the bow when we hit our first big iceberg. He bolted out of his cabin ghost white. One half of the iceberg scrapped right alongside his bunk. ďI thought we were bloody well sinking,Ē he said when he was finally able to laugh about it. Anyway, Iím getting ahead of myself. But the whole iceberg and sinking thing is one that is sure to have people wondering.
The first stop was the Falkland Islands (I also put a map of my route on the webpage). Since this is just the itinerary part, Iíll spare the details about the penguins, seals, albatrosses, whales, etc., to a little later (the hook).
Next stop was South Georgia. I have to say that I was most surprised by this place more so than any other along my entire trip. I was completely blindsided -- or broadsided for a more applicable nautical term.
Prior to this trip, I would have foolishly skipped places like the Falklands and South Georgia if given the chance just to get to Antarctica sooner. These areas turned out to be among the richest areas in the world for wildlife. Where else can you see colonies of animals sometimes numbering as much as 500,000? And that is just one of the many different species sharing the land.
The South Orkneys followed. I witnessed my first giant calving of a glacier. The sound of an enormous chuck of ice breaking off and falling is unimaginable. It rivals the sight of it crashing down into the water. I was lucky to be looking in the right direction as I tried to snap photos of cape petrels -- a stunning looking bird -- darting in and out of the wave tops. So, my camera settings were perfect to catch the fast action of the ice tumbling into the water to become icebergs.
Now, on to Antarctica. I visited several islands along the Antarctic Peninsula, including Deception Island, an active volcanic caldera, 9 miles in diameter, shaped like a giant ďCĒ.
If anyone has heard the recent news, a Norwegian cruise ship, the M/S Nordkapp, hit rocks as it was trying to exit the harbor located inside of the island. I was there only two weeks prior to this happening. It hit rocks that were 8 feet underwater, about halfway across a 750-foot gap called Neptuneís Bellows. It is the gap that makes Deception Island look like a ďCĒ instead of an ďOĒ.
My last landing -- every place I visited I was able to go ashore on a Zodiac -- was continental Antarctica at Neko Harbor. This was the most stunning of all the landscapes Iíve seen on the entire trip. I hiked up a glacier with the expedition leader, Ted, and his wife, Renee. It was so hot; I wore only a long-sleeve shirt over a t-shirt. BUT, Ted didnít even where a shirt! I just figured if I slipped and rolled down the glacier, I might be more comfortable doing so wearing a shirt or two no matter how much I was sweating.
Next, the trip home across the Drake Passage, typically among the roughest waters in the world. I was in a quandary here. I wanted to experience the Drake in all its fury -- it makes for exciting writing. But, for those who know me only too well, I have a tendency to get motion sickness.
A few months previous to my voyage, the Ushuaia had encountered very rough seas and rolled 55 degrees to one side -- this doesnít count the roll back in the other direction! At 57 degrees, the ship does not roll back!!! The ship actually sinks. There isnít much time in this case to don lifejackets and proceed orderly to a lifeboat. Pretty cool, huh?
So, the reason why the landing at Neko Harbor was the last was because on the following day, the seas were so rough that each attempt to land at different islands had to be abandoned. The winds and waves were just too much.
Enter the Drake Passage. We hit the roughest seas of the trip late at night after our landing at Neko Harbor, but before our failed, last attempts at landing. Our maximum roll was just 35 degrees. So, we had 22 degrees to spare. The first officer described the Drake at the time as, ďEh, itís average.Ē (I have a video feature on my camera. So, I have a lot of video clips, too. Iíll add video clips to the webpage soon, including waves washing across the windows of the bridge.)
But, average didnít last for long. It quickly changed to the extreme in just half a day. The ship then entered what is affectionately calledÖthe Drake Lake, nice and super calm seas. I got my taste of rough water without having the taste of vomit more than twice -- the best of both worlds I guess.
I talked with a passenger from another ship -- a New Yorker -- who had just crossed the Drake only a week ago. Her ship had entered force-10 winds and waves that reached 75 feet high! Typically a 2-day trip, it took an extra half a day to cross (a little extra time to prolong the misery). She had been to Antarctica each year over the last 5 or 6 years. This was the first time she felt unsafe to leave her bed. One of the days during the crossing, she didnít. She just clutched the sides of her bed so she wasnít constantly rattled back and forth. An experience Iíve had but just to a lesser degree.
I returned to Puerto Ushuaia on 1/23/07. The land phase of my expedition took me north of Ushuaia, still in Tierra del Fuego, which is the southern part of Patagonia (a region of Argentina and Chile).
On 1/25, I headed northwest one and a half hours by plane to El Calafate, where the 3rd largest ice field in the world is located (Antarctica is number one and Greenland is number two). I watched the Perito Moreno Glacier calved at least 10 times an hour for the 3 hours I observed it. The largest piece of ice that fell was 55-meters high (about 165 feet) and 100-meters wide (about 300 feet).
Later in the day, I saw my first condors ever, 7 of them at one time. I got close enough to see them feed on a sheep carcass. Ironically, the first condor Iíve seen is the Andean Condor and not the California Condor. I got some photographs of them, but as I was getting close, I had squeezed every last bit of juice from my three camera batteries. So, I didnīt get any close ups.
Next stop Iguazu, which is northern Argentina, next to the border of Brazil and close to Paraguay. This is jungle in what is called a subtropical climate. I spent a few days at the waterfalls here. Eleanor Roosevelt once visited here. Upon gazing at the seemingly endless string of waterfalls, she said, ďOh, poor Niagara.Ē
The last stage of my trip was to be a week in Buenos Aires where Iíd practice my tango (refer to ďTrue LiesĒ). I must say, after being on a rocking and rolling ship, in all directions possible, for nearly four weeks, I figured my balance was pretty damn good. The simple act of getting down a corridor was like doing the cha-cha back and forth between the walls, slowing making forward progress (I donít actually know what the cha-cha is, but you get the point). So, you can imagine my improved balance after having openings that started out as doorways to the next passage rapidly change to hatches to the decks below as the ship rolled!!!
But all that preparation was for not. While heading from Iguazu to Buenos Aires, I decided to travel back to Ushuaia. Thatís where I am now. I plan to leave Argentina on 2/15. I headed back to where my adventure all started, to meet up with some new friends and to do some writing about the accident of Nordkapp.
The pristine beauty of this part of the world is astounding. The captain of the Nordkapp was reportedly an experienced captain. The cruise line was also very well respected. However, he still managed to hit rocks that were listed on the navigational charts. Now consider all the cruise ships that head out of Puerto Ushuaia day in and day out, some are so large they can carry 2,000 passengers. My ship had about 70.
Alaska has not fully recovered from the Exxon Valdez accident back in the 1980ís. And Exxon has still not paid the fine even after the most recent string of recorded breaking quarterly profits.
What would happen if a less experience captain from a less reputable cruise line cracked the hull of his ship on the rocks or an iceberg? It would simply be devastating.
Unfortunately, the accident has received little international press. Imagine the penguins slipping and sliding on fuel and oil -- feathers coated -- instead of slipping and sliding on simple ice and snow. The penguins would certainly not have particularly ďHappy Feet.Ē We all know what happens to animals coated in oil.
Sorry to end here on such a serious note. But, I needed to make sure to put the entire splendor Iíve experienced in balance and perspective. After all, I wasnít down here to just ogle the scenery and critters.
My best wishes to everyone,
PS. In an effort to get this email out, any inaccuracies, exaggerations, misspellings, typos, etc., are in part or fully due to Malbec wine, empanadas, and dulce de leche.