Tuesday, March 10, 2015

ANTARCTICA CRUISE - The Trip Of A Lifetime

     I have been remiss in my blogging. Scroll down to my last posting and it's clear I haven't had anything to blah about (as in, "blah, blah, blah") since last July. My other blog, (jd-mysearchgoeson.blogspot.com/) has been almost as quiet with a September date on my last posting. I feel guilty about that one because I need to add subsequent chapters to close out my research on my mother's Kansas connection. We made a genealogy road trip to Topeka last summer so it would be a shame not to fill out that posting with information gathered. I'll get to it one of these days, I promise.

     This blog, "JD's Blahs," carries no guilt when I don't post. I just haven't felt the need to blab about much lately. Until now, that is. Sandi and I recently enjoyed a fourteen day cruise in South America, including two days of cruising through the Antarctica Peninsula on the northern extremities of that continent as well as an up-close look at Elephant Island. Between my cell phone and two cameras I took over 1400 photographs and recorded videos on each day of the trip. I'll try to trim that down a bit for the remainder of this post. As much as possible I'll let the images speak for themselves (unlike the commentary I added to the photos I posted on Facebook).  I entitled my Facebook album, "Antarctica, the trip of a lifetime."  It was all that. And more! So I reused the title on this blog. 

                     Our official cruise ship photograph


We cruised on the Celebrity ship, "Infinity" out of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Everything was coordinated through a travel agency out of Pinellas Park.  The agency manager got comped a stateroom so we even had a "mother hen" of sorts to rescue us if we got lost.  The only thing we had to pay for outside the agency was a "reciprocity" fee of $160 to Argentina.  The flights to Buenos Aires (Tampa to Dallas/Ft Worth, then DFW to Buenos Aires) were mostly smooth but cramped in coach. Ten hours on the last leg was agonizingly long but at least at night so we could try to sleep.   The ship,  "Infinity," on the other hand was a great size for the cruise with a passenger capacity of only 2174. Big enough to handle any rough seas but small enough so we didn't feel crowded like on the big super ships. The ship crew were friendly and efficient but some of the passengers, I won't mention what nationality, were frequently rude and noisy. It was evident their Southeast Asian culture doesn't honor the principles of "first come, first serve."  They were very good at embracing, "me, me, and more me." 

We departed Buenos Aires at 5 pm Sunday and cruised to the bottom of South America in three "at sea" days. The swells increased in size as we made our way southward but not bad. Buenos Aires temps were mid seventies so each day we sailed south the thermometer started to drop. Monday's low 70's dropped to 60's and 50's and finally 40's  over Tuesday and Wednesday. Thursday, just before dawn we pulled into the harbor at the city of Ushuaia, Argentina. Ushuaia advertises itself as the "southern most city in the world" and with a population over 60,000 it's technically correct. Chile has a town with 2000 residents located on the south banks of Beagle Channel that lays claim to the same slogan so the two countries just have one more thing to bicker about. We were warned to wear multiple layers of clothing if going ashore as temperatures were going to be in the 30's with gusting winds lowering the wind chill factor into the teens. We should have known better when we got up at dawn to witness the arrival in port and saw a dramatic sunrise in clear skies and in temps still in the high 40's. Sandi and I went on a combination catamaran/bus tour that took us east on Beagle Channel (named after the ship Charles Darwin sailed on a 5 year exploration of South America) and finished up on a bus tour through Tierra del Fuego National Park. The tour was great except for the weather predictions...most of the day was in the 70's so we ended up peeling off those recommended layers to avoid sweating to death. 

We wonder if this mailbox belongs to Birdman!

Our ship departed Ushuaia Friday night and headed eastward back out of Beagle Channel and then turned south again with Cape Horn as our destination. Cape horn is infamous for it's weather and often violent seas. At this part of the world the winds and the waves are always out of the west heading east for a collision between the South Pacific and the South Atlantic Oceans. Throw in the sucker punch of cold air flowing North from Atarctica toward South America and Cape Horn becomes the bulls eye for some of the most violent meritime weather on the planet. Thus, Celebrity Cruise Lines made no guarantee that they would hold to the scheduled arrival at Cape Horn planned for 6am to 8am on the sixth day of our cruise. We arrived just before dawn and were pleasantly surprised with fairly smooth seas and clear skies. We were extremely fortunate. Even the temperature was treating us kind with temps holding in the mid 40's. We had a clear view of the Chilean Navy Station that also maintains the memorial sculpture of an albatross dedicated to the sailors who lost their lives trying to navigate around Cape Horn. A Chilean pilot boarded our ship while we floated a mile or so off from the rocky coast. The ship made a couple of slow 360's so that passengers on both sides could view the Horn from their balconies and decks. Our photos were taken from our balcony. 

We departed Cape Horn shortly after 8am and headed south on a heading of 165 degrees into the Drake Passage. The temperatures remained in the 40's but the seas picked up significantly with fairly large swells creating a moderate rock and roll motion that wasn't difficult to get used to but most noticeable when trying to keep our balance while walking down the hallway to get to our stateroom.  One "rogue swell" came up during dinner that evening and the motion was accentuated by the sounds of food trays all of a sudden falling over with retaining pan covers, glassware, and silverware clattering to the floor while waiters and their assistants quickly hurried to put things back in order. I don't think they violated any five second food drop rules but we and our fellow diners were too busy to notice. We were all ears and wide eyes waiting for the abandon ship call to be announced from the bridge by Captain Michael and hoped if such orders were issued he would speaka' more cleara'ly than hisa' daily updates on the loudspeakers had been.  The stabilizers quickly recovered the ship to more horizontal attitudes and kept us sashaying like a Hollywood bombshell back on our journey towards Antarctica. 

On Saturday we entered Schollart Channel in Antarctica about 11am with temps in the high 30's and a light but hazy fog. We left the swells behind us in Drake Passage with the islands and Antarctic Peninsula shielding us from the open sea. As we cruised south toward Paradise Bay the fog slowly dissipated and we were able to see the sights more clearly. We were accompanied  by whales from time to time but only saw their backs, no breaching of the surface. We also saw penguins leaping through the water as though racing the ship. And we noticed a few sea lions resting on the snow banks. There were also some pretty huge icebergs that seemed awful close but Captain Michael kept us safe and managed to avoid them.  The map below shows the direction of our cruise through Antarctica on Saturday culminated with our arrival at Elephant Island on Sunday. And by the way, the photos of us holding newspapers were our attempt to gain fifteen minutes of fame by submitting them to our home town newspapers. The paper in Sun City followed through with our photo with another Sun City couple on the cruise. Not sure if the Massachusetts newspaper will be so accommodating.

Antarctica and Elephant Island Photos

You have to look real close to see penguins in this and next photo.

Two of the fourteen days of our Antarctica Cruise were spent in  Antarctica. We are not disappointed at all. We had excellent weather throughout the cruise and none of the itinerary had to be adjusted. We would have liked to have been able to take one of the "cruises" that actually land on Antarctcia with zodiacs (we saw a few of the "expedition-type" ships) but the cost was prohibitive. And I'm wondering how they would have handled the swells in Drake Passage. Nevertheless, we feel our once in a lifetime journey to Antarctica was a good choice and we have absolutely no regrets for booking this cruise. I'll condense a little more on the remaining legs of our trip. We made port calls and enjoyed land tours in the Falkland Islands, Puerto Madryn, Argentina,  Montevideo, Uruguay, and finally a full day in Buenos Aires.

The Falkland Islands is thoroughly British and the residents are proud to show you battle sights and relate war stories about their defense of their home from Argentina's attack in the 1980's. Land Rovers are the predominant vehicle for tours as you have to travel over some pretty rugged countryside to see the wildlife. Gentoo penguins, King penguins, Galloway Belted cows, and geese are the main sights. The Gentoos were all babies (less than a year old) who were waiting around for their parents to return from fishing to feed them.  Some slept, some went to the ocean but stopped short of going in as they are too young to swim. All put up a pretty good racket similar to geese honking.  The King penguins with their colorful markings mingle with the Gentoos and the two species just seem to ignore each other.  Mankind should learn a lesson from these creatures! The harbor at Port Stanley is not deep enough for cruise ships so it was the only stop where our lifeboats were used to tender us in and back between the ship and the town. Again, the weather cooperated with calm seas as some cruises have to cancel tenders when the waves get too big and wild, even inside the Port Stanley harbor. 

We departed the Falkland Islands Tuesday evening and cruised northwest to Puerto Madryn, Argentina where the Infinity docked in their port Thursday while we toured Peninsula Valdes National Park. A two hour bus ride through the desert countryside was required to reach the park but the motor coaches were new and clean and most of the roadway was paved. Inside the park the roads were a little more rugged combining dirt and gravel. Puerto Madryn is in the area of Argentina known as Patagonia. Few grasses grow here and most of the vegetation is low scrub brush, the official names I don't remember. What I do remember is that the sparse growth provides little nourishment to any animals except sheep and wild guanacos, a relative of the llama. We saw plenty of both on our monotonous bus ride. The Patagonia wilderness is unsuitable for cattle because there isn't enough grass for them to eat. The animals that thrive in Peninsula Valdes are sea lions, elephant seals, and Magellan penguins. Some tours have reportedly seen orcas come up on the beaches to grab seals. Fortunately for the seals we did not witness orcas or orca feedings. But the penguins were plentiful and made themselves available for our cameras while being oblivious to our wandering among them. We had to stay within well marked paths but the penguins had no such restrictions. The sea lions were on a beach which we observed from above on some high bluffs. Nobody in their right mind would want to mingle with them as some of the bulls were huge. The bulls with harems of up to twenty-some females spent a lot of time chasing off younger males who wanted a piece of the action. 


The last port of call during the cruise was on Saturday, February 14th in Montevideo, Uruguay. We took a city tour by bus that was narrated by a tour guide throughout and saw various places of interest associated with the country's history. Uruguay lays claim to being the origin of the tango. So included in the tour was a visit to a "museum" that advertised itself as a museum/tango show/restaurant/antique shop. The proprietor, a young man who appeared to be in his thirties, explained in broken English that he had inherited this museum from his father who was a collector of oil lamps. Lamps used for lighting, heating, and cooking. But the main attraction was a piano player, a singer, and a couple who gave an energetic tango demonstration and then shared a few dance steps with any in our group who wanted, mostly just photo posing opportunities. Tourist trap? You bet. Fun? Absolutely!  Our general impression of the city was that the buildings overall were newer or better constructed than those in Buenos Aires because we didn't see a lot of cement decay and stains in Mentevideo.  Most buildings appeared to have individual cooling units mounted in the windows or on the walls so assume central air is a rare luxury. The harbor where our ship docked was right next to a jetty where a slew of junk ships appeared to be sunk and deserted. Not sure if this was just a convenient dumping ground or perhaps a breakwater.  And there was one abandoned tugboat mounted on braces almost as if it was a model put on display. Very strange. 

The last tour we enjoyed was after disembarking from the Infinity in Buenos Aires. We were off the ship by 9am and weren't scheduled to fly out until after 11pm so we booked a tour that would show us the city and then traveled into the countryside outside the city to visit a ranch.  We could have booked a tour that included another tango demonstration (Buenos Aires also lays claim to being the origin of the dance) but after Montevideo we wanted to see more than just city attractions. The areas outside Buenos Aires are in what's called the "Pampas" region, lush farming soil and grass for cattle to graze on. Hence, the famous Argentinian beef that the country is so proud of. We had lunch at the ranch (another tourist trap but entertaining nevertheless) where we enjoyed beef steaks, ribs, pork and beef sausages, and Argentinian wines. Very tasty and you could easily fill up but it was served on hot griddles in sample sizes. After all the hype about Argentinian beef I would have liked to sample just one sirloin or filet but never got the chance. We were entertained at the ranch by gauchos dancing (with gauchettes?), men and women in native costumes. Again I got a chance to dance on stage with one of the girls but Sandi was unable (or unwilling?) to get a good picture of me. These South American women must have a sense for my manliness and keep asking me to dance! I'm not sure why. After the dancing we were given a gaucho horse riding display which was fun to watch. In the city we got to tour a famous cemetery that consisted of individual family mausoleums. Recoleta Cemetery is filled with mausoleums housing the coffins and remains of many prominent Argentinians including Evita Peron. I didn't see hers to recognize it but couldn't hear everything our tour guide was telling us. Evita is in there somewhere, supposedly embalmed with glycerin that preserves the body and the organs for ages. That thought and the cemetery itself was kind of creepy but real interesting and provided great photo ops to see the artistry and creative imagination that went into construction of each family plot. 

Our flight out of Buenos Aires left around 11:30 pm (they are two hours ahead of Florida time, three ahead of Texas) and got into Dallas/Fort Worth around 10 am. Cramped spaces in coach again but after a successful cruise we couldn't complain. All in all, the Trip Of A Lifetime.