Amalia Glacier (Nikon D4, 70-200mm)
Sailing among the Chilean Fjords, a milky fog is our constant companion. A hush hangs over the rocky islands — everything is still. Elegant black-browed albatrosses, my favorite seabirds, along with fulmars, lovely blue-grey birds, soar in the breeze alongside the ship . Finally the fog lifts a little and snow-dappled mountaintops appear, while the highest peaks continue to hide in the blanket of clouds. Wolf and Dan Cox spot a fur seal projecting from the water, and they aim their cameras just in time. Dan, Wolf’s good friend and an renowned wildlife photographer, has come on the journey to teach and lecture along with Wolf about photography. The two are on deck helping passengers capture the seabirds in flight. We continue to wind through fjords and straits that surround the islands like an old man’s crooked fingers. Suddenly the two-mile wide Amalia Glacier appears from the brooding fog like a mirage. The light grows brighter bringing out a range of blues in the ice as though it were a piece of Mirano glass.
Plaza Munoz Gamero
Situated in the Straight of Magellan, Punta Arenas is the southernmost city of Chile. Before the construction of the Panama Canal, ships sailed through the straight avoiding the wild waters around Cape Horn. Punta Arenas was once an important stop along this route for provisions. We stroll Plaza Munoz Gamero, the main square, where a statue of explorer Ferdinand Magellan stands above an array of vendors selling knitted hats and sweaters made of sheep’s wool and alpaca. I stop to admire a knitted hat and speak with a mother and her daughter. The little girl peers out from the window of their booth. She tells me she is learning English at school and I tell her I am studying Spanish. We take a few minutes to practice together, talking about the rich wool and the hats. As I go on to stroll the streets near the plaza, I admire the elegant mansions of wealthy sheep farmers and a charming cathedral. Along other streets, I am surprised by a variety of colorful murals.
Plaza Munoz Gamero: Colorful knitted hats and sweaters
Seabourn Quest in front of the Garibaldi Glacier
Waking to find mountains and islands shrouded in mist, we cruise the Beagle Channel. Our ship sails into the narrow Garibaldi Fjords to see the Garibaldi Glacier. The prodigious blanket of ice appears amidst the low clouds. A chunk of ice calves from the glacier’s edge, plunging into the water below. This strait, in Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America, is home to albatross as well as condors, Chile’s national birds. It is difficult to spot birds in the fog, but stunning white South American terns swoop above the water
Ice pebbles in the Garibaldi Fjord
Seabourn Quest approaching Ushuaia
Ushuaia "Capital de las Malvinas" read little signs around this town along the Beagle Channel at the southern tip of Argentina. Argentina continues to lay claim to the Malvinas, known to us as the Falkland Islands, and we have seen signs of the ongoing contention with England over ownership. When we departed Buenos Aires, a group of protestors had lit tires on the dock and carried signs to protest our intended visit to the islands. They needn’t of worried since weather prevented our visit to the islands.
Ushuaia, situated on the Beagle Channel at the foot of the Martial Mountains, is a jumping off point for ships sailing to Antarctica. I am surprised to find five cruise ships here arriving from or departing for Antarctica. When we sailed to Antarctica in 1986 there may have been this many ships traveling to the Antarctic total; now I have heard about 25 are sailing these waters.
I stroll around town and Wolf accompanies a train excursion. Argentinean prisoners built the railroad in 1910 from Ushuaia to Tierra del Fuego National Park — it became the southernmost railway in the world. They had arrived in 1896 for the formation of a penal colony. The train ride through the foothills near Ushuaia led to the national park overlooking the dramatic Beagle Channel.
The train to the end of the world
Forest in Tierra del Fuego National Park
Light-mantled sooty albatross (Nikon D4, 200-400mm lens)
The sea is rolling beneath sunny skies as we sail on the Seabourn Quest for Ushuaia at the tip of South America. White caps jolt the ship, but this is a far cry from our crossing more than twenty years ago on our trip to and from Antarctica. The Drake, named for the English explorer Sir Frances Drake, is known for its raucous waters. The passage connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and was a critical route before the opening of the Panama Canal. On our previous journey, on the Society Explorer, the ship pitched, jolted and bucked its way through the malevolent waters. Wolfgang was celebrating his birthday drinking shots of tequila with his buddy, penguin expert Frank Todd. Well into the evening, after chugging his share of shots, Wolf danced with me as the ship jostled in the sea. We hung onto the ropes dangling from the lounge ceiling and danced while trying to keep from flying across the room. On this larger ship the crossing is more peaceful and Wolf is leading photographers as they shoot pictures of seabirds. Light-mantled sooty albatrosses are the stars of the show, soaring in the wind above the ship’s wake. Cape petrels, southern fulmars, black-browed albatrosses, gray-headed albatrosses, and giant petrels all come into view. Wolf advises the passengers to use high shutter speeds between 1/1,000 of a second and 1/1,500 of a second to catch them in flight and to stay out of the wind to avoid shaking their cameras. The shots are wonderful. By evening the swells have grown, and dinner becomes an exciting show with great waves, like moving mountains, rumbling towards us. They rock and roll the ship as though it were merely a timid row boat at sea.
Light-mantled sooty albatross ballet (Nikon D4, 200-400mm lens)
Grey-headed albatross (Nikon D4, 200-400mm lens)
Seabourn Quest at Yankee Harbour, Greenwich Island
Sailing northwest from the Gerlach Strait during the night, we arrive at Yankee Harbour. The sun is lighting up Greenwich Island’s colossal glaciers. The coast is lined with a massive, jagged ice shelf. At the base of a mountain, a narrow spit provides a resting place for elephant seals and a path to the water for a colony of 5,000 Gentoo penguins. A small flotilla of zodiacs head for shore, but Antarctica’s capricious weather has other plans. The winds have begun to gust and great swells are crashing on the bows of the zodiacs, showering the travelers with icy water. The ship’s captain has sounded a blast — all of the zodiacs must return to the ship and the day’s landings have been canceled. Low clouds are creeping in and settling over the glaciers. Before returning, Wolf and a team of travelers have gotten shots of Gentoo penguins incubating their eggs and the wild island where the penguins come to breed. We set sail for the Drake Passage departing the South Shetland Islands and Antarctica. Wolf leaves behind his favorite place on earth, a place where he is able to step into a pristine and natural world. The waves begin to jostle our ship and Cape Petrels once again escort us across the temperamental sea that separates Antarctica from civilization.
Gentoo penguins incubating eggs at Yankee Harbour, Greenwich Island (Nikon D4, Nikon 70-200mm lens)
Gentoo penguins on Cuverville Island, Antarctica (Nikon D4, Nikon 70-200mm)
Escaping civilization can be as hard as sledding on water. But the Gerlach Strait, where icebergs parade through a channel crowned with basalt mountains resembling Rhein Castles, feels like the edge of the world. This paradise belongs only to the Gentoo penguins, seals and killer whales. The sun is glistening on the pristine glaciers surrounding this slip of water — this is the perfect day in Antarctica, the day that makes the whole journey worthwhile. As we rumble through the water in our zodiac, teams of Gentoos porpoise through the straight. We hear the splash and plop as they thread the water like synchronized swimmers. On shore on Cuverville Island we keep our distance from the colonies so as not to disturb the penguins that are preparing to lay their eggs. But the curious Gentoos saunter up to us to get a look at the giant orange birds that have arrived. In their rookeries, pairs of penguins let out a raucous braying sound, greeting a mate that they recognize by sound. Penguins occasionally squabble with their neighbor and come and go as they head to sea to feed. This is a scene that would charm Walt Disney. As we return to the ship, I have the pleasure of sharing stories with travelers from South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Germany who all agree this has been one of the best days of their lives.
Seabourn Quest at Cuverville Island (Nikon D4, Nikon 24-70mm)
Sunburst at Cuverville Island (Nikon D4, Nikon 24-70mm)
From left: Chefs Edwin, Miroslav and Robert
It is Thanksgiving Day, and we are sailing on the Seabourn Quest through Bransfield Strait in the Scotia Sea past snow-capped islands. Wolfgang has befriended Miroslav, the Slovak chef in the Colonnade who speaks perfect German. Miroslav promised Wolf a schnitzel for lunch today. When we arrived at the restaurant, the aroma of sauerbraten and gulasch filled the lobby. We discovered an entire buffet steaming with German entrees from gulasch with rot kohl to kassler and spatzle. And so Wolf began his Thanksgiving feasting… During meals and on deck, we have gotten to know the expert Antarctic biologists, ornithologists, and geologists on board.
Wolf and I recognize Wayne Trivelpiece, with the Antarctic Ecosystem Resources Division of NOAA, from our trip in 1986. He has come on board from his research station he fondly calls Copa Cabana and will be traveling back to South America. We recall stories from our visit years ago and the fellow scientists Wayne and Wolf have known over the years. Wayne recalls how the first time he came to the Antarctic Peninsula he sailed on board the Hero, a wooden vessel that bucked and bounced its way through the rough and wild Drake Passage. Wayne and Wolf also recall the Explorer, an expedition ship they were both fond of that went down in Antarctica a few years back. Antarctica is such an interesting place because of the stories and the research happening at the many bases around the region.
At Copa Cabana, Wayne has been studying a colony of Adelie penguins for many years collecting a range of data. I mentioned in yesterday’s blog how the temperatures along the Antarctic Peninsula have increased more dramatically than anywhere else on the planet and how these temperatures are affecting the penguins. Wayne explains to me that a boon in krill fishing in the area is also taking its toll. These krill-rich waters have lured fishing vessels, many from China, who have a found a lucrative source for omega 3. The demand in America is tremendous, he points out, and so the industry is one more factor negatively influencing the food chain.
Sunset in Bransfield Strait (Nikon D4, Nikon 70-200 mmm)
Adelie penguins, Hope Bay
This morning we motor in zodiacs through the waters of Antarctic Sound, taking in the surrounding glaciers, tabular icebergs and ice floes. Approaching the shore near Esperanza, an Argentinian base, we spot clusters of Adelie penguins, part of a colony including hundreds of thousands of penguins. I am sitting next to Wayne and Roger, two scientists who have come to Antarctica for years to conduct studies of the wildlife and ecosystem. We watch the Adelies scrambling up lofty hillsides to their rookeries. I never thought of them as hikers — veritable mountaineers. Just like Seattlites, they consider the hilltop nesting sites prime real estate. Wayne explains that this is where the bare rock stays clear of snow early in the spring, giving the penguins a head-start on their breeding season. I watch the penguins diving into the sea as they make their way out to feed on krill. Wayne has been studying the penguins in this area for years and has found a substantial dip in the local population in recent years due to warming of the peninsula and the resulting decrease in algae which forms under the ice. The krill depend on the algae and the penguins depend on the krill. On shore, more Adelies gather on the ice, waiting for the penguins in front of them to take the plunge into the water. Diving in and purposing in groups, they avoid lurking predators like leopard seals. One zodiac group discovers a leopard seal circling their boat. Following the zodiac excursion we board the ship to cruise the Antarctic Sound.
Livingston Island Panorama
We sail alongside a tabular iceberg, over a mile long, that has drifted in with currents from the Weddell Sea. Turquoise crystals line the base while infinite layers of ice, like tree rings at home, lock in the history of centuries. Four fifths of the berg is hidden beneath the surface. The sea has tunneled smooth blue caves into this giant ice fortress. We continue to spot bergs: one like a curled up Wolf, another a snowbound cabin. Outside, the wind blasts across the deck and snow crystals whip our cheeks. I push through the gust to breath in the frosty Antarctic air and take in the ice-filled landscape, while Wolf advises other travelers about photographing the icebergs.
Upcoming Photo Tours and Workshops: Iguassu, Botswana, Pantanal, Alaska, Spitsbergen
Adelie penguin, King George Island
If the Drake Passage is the loneliest place on Earth, Half Moon Island is the most beautiful. Half Moon and Livingston Islands, draped in glistening white glaciers, rise from the sea like a pair of brides. I have never seen a white so bold, so pure, so sincere. Along the shore, where the glaciers lick the sea, turquoise crystals fringe the ice like crystal beads on silky white veils. With the wind whipping at 40 knots, we are unable to land. I am disappointed to miss my favorite island, but the striking view alone is worth the journey.
Now we sail south towards King George Island to visit scientific research stations. Arriving at Arctowski, a Polish scientific research station, I am surprised by some autumn-like colors — rich rust-colored lichens paint the volcanic rocks. Word is that our unplanned visit is a well-received surprise for the scientists who must feel so isolated and pleased to receive fresh vegetables and fruits from the ship. We motor in zodiacs to the black volcanic beach.
On shore Adelie penguins scamper over rocks to come eye the visitors. Obviously curious, they watch us while we watch them. With a colony up on a bluff, the penguins come and go from the sea, sometimes reclining on the beach for a rest before returning to the nest to relieve their mates of incubation duty. Large, brown skuas swoop above the colony, preparing to snatch unguarded eggs. An elephant and leopard seal, swimming in the bay, know that meals await them when the penguins dive into the sea to go feed. It is the opportunity to observe penguins, seals, seabirds and whales in their remote and unique habitat that keeps Wolf coming back to Antarctica. It is this window into the natural world — the opportunity to experience life in one of the greatest wildlife havens — that keeps him spellbound.