Tuesday, March 14, 2006


My mom wrote her own recap and since she's a better writer than me I'm just going to post that here. She keeps a great journal wherever she goes and it's a great resource for trip reports. I should learn from those wiser than me but unfortunately I've always been too lazy to update my journal when I've tried to keep one. Without further ado, here's mom!



I'm actually writing this message from the States. I'll be here until mid-April, then I plan to resume travels in South America until mid-May.

Two days into our Antarctic cruise, as Brandon and I were both bedridden with a severe case of seasickness, a crewmember came to tell me that I had a phone call on the bridge. I wasn't even sure what the bridge was, but eventually I groped and stumbled my way to the top deck of the ship and into the captain's quarters. The Russian crewmembers didn't even notice my presence, as they were keeping an eye on the rough waters which resembled a scene from the movie "The Perfect Storm". The only phone that I could see was a small plastic unit mounted to the wall. The receiver was dangling, so I picked it up and said a tentative "hello". After a trans-continental, trans-oceanic pause I heard a voice at the other end. It was my sister-in-law Kimberly, who had miraculously tracked me down in the middle of the Drake Passage. She was calling via satellite phone to tell me that my father had just passed away. Unfortunately, there was no possibility of Brandon and me returning to land before the ship had completed its 11-day cruise, so we spent the next week wishing we were home, yet completely captivated by the wonders of the southernmost, highest, driest, coldest, windiest, most remote continent on Earth.

So let's back up a few days. We flew into Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world. Ushuaia is the Yamana word for "bay that opens into the west". It is one of the windiest places in the world, where the indigenous people wore little more than a loincloth because it was so rainy that any clothing would get wet and lose its protective qualities. They smeared seal oil on their skin to keep them warm. And they had constant wood fires that gave this land its name, Tierra del Fuego, meaning land of fire. Fortunately for us, we arrived on the most pleasant summer day of this season, sunny, just barely warm, and not noticeably windy.

Our first morning was spent visiting Tierra del Fuego National Park, taking in the scenery and learning about the peat moss and three species of beech trees that grow there. At the bottom of 10-meter layers of peat moss there is coal, and Ushuaia is also rich in oil and gas. The Panamerican Highway, originating in Alaska, runs north/south through the Americas, ending here at La Pataia. The Andes also end here as they tumble into the sea, somewhat reminiscent of the Alps plunging into the Mediterranean in the South of France.

We soon boarded our "home" for the next 11 days, the Russian ship Akademik Shokalskiy. We had selected a tour that utilized a small ship, as we had been advised that the experience is much more intimate, with more frequent landings and Zodiac excursions, meaning more interaction with animals. The Shokalskiy has a capacity of 49 passengers, but there were only 25 of us on this trip, with 23 Russian crewmembers, a "hotel" staff of five, two naturalists, and our expedition leader/Arctic historian rounding out the count.

The first evening was pleasant enough, sailing out of the Beagle Channel toward the Arctic Peninsula, spotting seabirds along the way. Then came the dreaded Drake Passage. This stretch of ocean is notorious for rough seas, and we were "lucky" enough to experience the most severe storm of the season, which our crew characterized as a full-force gale with winds up to 60 knots per hour and waves, as I mentioned above, reminiscent of a Hollywood disaster movie. Our expedition leader later rated this storm as 11 on a scale of 1-12. I tried valiantly but in vain to remain "all natural" in coping with seasickness, by chewing ginger gum and munching on ginger altoids. But this was no 3-hour joyride to the Great Barrier Reef, this was a 2-day ordeal in a serious storm in the open ocean. I could tough it out in Australia with mind over matter, but was no match for the 45-degree swaying of the ship in either direction, first starboard, then port, and the rhythmic churning of my stomach acid and brain juices. Though it was hard to drag myself out of bed, let alone up the stairs and down the hallway, I went looking for the ship doctor to admit that I was ready for drugs. An innocent little adhesive patch of scopolamine helped immensely, though the nausea continued for another day.

The crew utilized the 48 hours through the Drake Passage to provide lectures on Arctic wildlife and history. I appreciated the good attitude of one of our naturalists who began his talk by inviting us to feel free to jump up and run out of the room if we needed to vomit. He said that happens frequently during his lectures, even those that take place on dry land (ha ha).

Then one day we awoke to the realization that we had crossed the Drake Passage. As if that weren't good enough in itself, we hopped into Zodiacs and had an early morning landing on a nearby island. Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins littered the shore where we landed...and stayed there as we hopped out and began to walk around. I can hardly describe the magical feeling of a place where animals have not learned to fear humans. Images of the Garden of Eden come to mind. And I can hardly begin to describe the absolute cuteness of these creatures in their black and white tuxedoes, surpassed in adorableness only by their chicks adorned in the finest fluffy down.

Then there's penguin behavior. The chicks were still somewhat dependent on their parents for food. Upon the parent's return from a fishing trip, the baby would act like any baby bird and beg for food. We must have caught the penguins during the weaning process, as the parent sometimes ignored the chick, resulting in the chick chasing the parent, which ended with the parent running from the chick. Try to visualize the comical image of these big, clumsy, tuxedoed birds running down snow-covered hills, tripping and sliding, and alternating between running and tobogganing (sliding on the belly). The parents were quite inconsistent and would end up positively reinforcing the seemingly undesirable behavior. After being pursued and chased and pecked by the chick, the parent would eventually relent and regurgitate some food. I'm sure there's an important adaptive reason for this behavior, but personally I would never regurgitate a jellyfish or a bit of krill after telling my kids 'no'.

A few more days and a few more landings later, we had spotted a variety of animals on the beach and on ice floes, including crabeater, Wedell, leopard, elephant and fur seals; Gentoo, chinstrap and Adelie penguins; skuas, terns, cormorants, albatross, snowy sheathbills, and other seabirds; and, most notably, whales! Not just the occasional spouting or dorsal fin far in the distance, but pods of curious and gregarious humpback whales that inspected our Zodiacs up close. So close that we were drenched by the water spouted by the whales, startled as the whales would disappear for a few minutes under the water and resurface no more than five feet away from our boats, and privileged yet somewhat grossed out to learn first-hand that whale breath is exceedingly unpleasant, conjuring images of a sewer in a waterfront neighborhood. We were absolutely mesmerized for more than an hour as the whales inspected us and cavorted around us. Words alone are just the tip of the iceberg in conveying the thrill, the excitement, the sheer bliss of spending time with these amazing giants of the open ocean. I am convinced that they trusted us, treated us gently, and enjoyed gawking at us. They could easily have capsized our Zodiacs, but they chose not to. What I can't understand is how whalers could have hunted and killed these intelligent mammals, these sentient beings, these gentle giants. But, then again, I'm a vegetarian, so there's a lot that I can't understand about hunting and killing...

The next morning it happened again, a close encounter with friendly and curious whales. This time the biologist guides absolutely flipped out, as in addition to humpbacks we spotted and cavorted with a Southern Right Whale, which is never found in these particular waters. All I can say is that it was just as playful as the humpbacks.

As if the animals were not enough of a highlight, there was the ice! Vast mountain ranges dripping with glaciers! Calving icebergs creating mini tsunami waves --sometimes right in front of our Zodiac! Spectacular sculpted icebergs, mind-boggling in size with amazing surface patterns! Vast expanses of ice chips covering the water surface after a recent calving! Glacial blue, glacial green, clear ice, dirty ice, whiteness! 70% of the Earth's fresh water is held in Antarctica in icebergs and glaciers! There is a glacier in Ross Bay the size of France!

I could go on and on about all that is spectacular and unique about Antarctica, but I have to stop somewhere, and you have to get on with your lives. Antarctica is so much more than "just the seventh continent", an item on the checklist of the Type-A traveler. It is endlessly fascinating, it is vitally important, it is almost absolutely pristine, it is inconceivably vast, it is stirs the imagination, and best of all it is real! And it was a privilege to have visited!



Anonymous said...

Thank you Brandon for using your mothers journal article. It was an excellent read. Your mother has serious skills, is she a writer? Sounds like an amazing expierience indeed. Know I know what I can do with my poker earnings, TRAVEL! Also, out of curiosity what types of food did you eat on the trip? Specifically on the ship?

Scott Boyd said...

No doubt. Thank you, indeed. That was a great piece, Antartica has just been added to my to-do list. Take care Brandon and I hope you enjoy the upcoming sports trips!

Anonymous said...

Schaefer, I hope one day I'm as cool as your mom.


Anonymous said...

what did you guys eat? im very curious.