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January 23: Day 2 of the Drake Passage
The day started with the Polar Star pounding into seven-meter swells. Our passage was made tolerable due in large part to the deft handling of the boat by our captain. He seemed to choose the optimal angle of attack as we plowed through heavy seas. The bridge and wings on either side were crowded all morning, as many of our passengers gathered there to get photos of spray over the bow, which sometimes covered the entire deck.
As we made our way north, there were expected transitions in the species of birds that we were seeing. Slender-billed Prions replaced Antarctic Prions and Blue Petrels filled the void when we stopped seeing Snow Petrels before they, too, disappeared. During the afternoon, albatross numbers increased and I saw my first two Northern Royal Albatrosses of the trip. The second day on the Drake seems to be where we most often encounter this species. We were surprised to get brief looks at a probable Buller’s Albatross that cruised in front of the Polar Star. Unfortunately, it disappeared in the haze before we could make a positive ID. I've not seen this species since I saw many off Vina del Mar (central Chile) in the 1980s.
Gray-headed and Black-browed albatrosses became more numerous as we neared Cape Horn. I had mixed emotions as we saw two "Big A's" (Southern Royal Albatrosses), our last of the trip. It is always exciting to see this massive albatross, but I was wondering..."would I ever see this magnificent bird again?" The reappearance of Sooty Shearwaters signified that we were returning to more temperate waters.
Our last day on board concluded with a busy evening of social events – our Antarctica digital image viewing, dinner, the captain’s toast and introduction/appreciation of Polar Star crew and Cheesemans’ staff. The final activity was our auction to raise money for the "Save the Albatross" campaign. Past auctions have raised, on average, about $5,500 from the sale of products, photos, and drawings that staff and passengers have donated. This year's highly-successful event raised another $5,700 in support of this worthy cause. Thanks go to Craig Poore, who did masterful job in orchestrating this event!
With disembarkation looming the following morning, the evening ended with a fevered round of luggage packing and contact information sharing. The seas became increasingly calm as we entered the Beagle Channel. Ultimately, it felt like we were cruising on glass. The morning found us docking at the pier at Ushuaia – another highly successful, rewarding, exhausting, wet, fantastic, fun trip to the Great White South completed. Would I ever see it again? I certainly hope I do since there is no place like it on earth.
I leave this cruise with vivid recollections of penguin-filled beaches, lunge-feeding whales, the grandeur of iceberg filled bays, graceful albatrosses on the wing and on nests with young, multitudes of feeding seabirds, extraordinary Minke Whales under my zodiac, growling fur seals, glissading down snow fields, the splendor of snow-capped mountains, and the broad smiling faces of enthralled passengers. I hope that I’ll have the opportunity to visit again since the Antarctic isn’t just a place, it’s a state of mind – an unparalleled experience that defies words – a place that will forever be calling me back. My sincerest thanks to the Cheesemans--Doug and Gail and Ted-- and the entire staff for making this yet another great trip!
All photos by Jim Danzenbaker
January 22: Day 1 on the Drake Passage
A fairly slow day today. In my experience the Drake Passage is never loaded with birds. Today was no exception. Southern Giant-Petrels patrolled behind the ship all morning and Gail Cheeseman saw a Light-mantled Sooty Albatross just before we entered a pesky fog bank that cut visibility for a while. Since there were few birds to watch, we were able to give our full attention to Doug Cheeseman, Ted Cheeseman, Hugh Rose, and Patrick Endres, who all gave excellent presentations. I updated my program on birding in Panama, which I would present later in the day.
My day was marked by, horror of horrors, a crashed computer drive! Needless to say, this provided just a tad more than a minor distraction for the remainder of the day. From the afternoon on into the evening hours, the seas kept building. By 9pm we were watching water occasionally pouring over the bow. Getting to sleep was accompanied by the additional challenge of figuring out how to avoid getting rolled out of bed.
Photo by Jim Danzenbaker
January 21: Hannah Point – Our last day on shore
One look out the cabin window caused me to wonder whether we could conduct the last landing of the trip. The winds had ramped up about 5:30am, generating some big swells and a nasty wind chop – not the best conditions for launching zodiacs! However, as we drew closer to Livingston Island in the South Shetlands, the waters settled enough for us to consider going for it. Launching the zodiacs proved less difficult than expected so we managed to get everyone ashore in a mostly dry state.
Gail Cheeseman and I immediately started to mark routes from the beach. Our chosen path weaved through Chinstrap and Gentoo penguin colonies and ended up on a beach with cavorting Elephant Seals. Along the route, clusters of Antarctic Hairgrass and Antarctic Pearlwart were evident. The Chinstraps appeared to be thriving with young in most nests. The adults were, as usual, very noisy whether it be defending a territory, advertising for a mate, or renewing pair bonds. Their chest muscles clearly expanded and contracted as they belted out their calls. By contrast, the calls of the Gentoo Penguins were more subdued - softer in tone although no less effort made.
The Gentoo chicks were looking very healthy at this colony – some approaching the size of the adults and already molting their juvenile down. Unlike previous years, there were not many Gentoo chick chases – an indication that the nesting season may have been delayed by a week or so. As usual, the Elephant Seal wallows were putrid. There were about 20 molting animals lined up like huge snorting sausages. Farther along, another group of Elephant Seals featured occasional sparring matches. Southern Giant Petrels were nesting on the ridge behind the penguins. We had to assume that the giant petrels were brooding a single chick, though our viewing angle prevented us from seeing into their nests.
Most passengers returned to the Polar Star for lunch, but about 20 remained ashore to capture some last moments with the Antarctic wildlife. I served as ballast (can I put this on a resume'?) for Rod Planck’s zodiac as we ferried passengers back to shore after lunch – a wet proposition since the wind was still gusty and the seas remained agitated. During the afternoon we were overcome with the realization that we counting down our last minutes with the Elephant Seals, Gentoos, Chinstraps, Kelp Gulls, Sheathbills, skuas and giant petrels. After nearly a month of being immersed in this alternate reality, I found myself with a heavy heart as we left the landing for the last time. I hope that I will have the opportunity to visit Antarctica again, but not knowing when that might occur brought on a wave of emotions. There was palpable sadness as anchor of the Polar Star was pulled for the last time.
As we commenced our long homeward leg of the trip, we headed west along the southern edge of Livingston Island before turning north to the Drake Passage. All on board hoped that we would somehow side-step the predicted storm that was being predicted for our second day on the Drake. Ten-meter swells and 45 knot winds would be extremely uncomfortable at best.
All photos by Jim Danzenbaker