Monday, January 20, 2020

Snorkeling with Sea Lions in Patagonia

  A quick minute and a half movie of my experience snorkeling with southern sea lions off the Patagonian coast. The ride was super rough out of Puerto Madryn, Argentina. The boat was small and didn't seem to handle the choppy waves well as you can see. Even after we got in the water the waves crashed over us and the wind whistled past our snorkels. But it was all worth it to jump in and swim with a new species of sea lion. It felt like a true adventure...and I brought a few guests along for the wild ride. If you ask them, just getting into the dry suits was an adventure in itself!

Sunday, January 12, 2020

First Impressions of Antarctica

Common zodiak tour conditions
Icy day at the side gate
 After three voyages spanning six weeks in the far south of planet Earth, I finally have a moment to sit down, connect to the internet, upload some photos, take a breath, and really look back and the incredible experience that was Antarctica.

Several scientific bases dot the peninsula
Kayakers dream day
  It is on average the driest, windiest, coldest continent on Earth. 99% of it is covered in ice, the other 1% leaving a tiny opening for hardy creatures carving out a niche for themselves amongst the inhospitable conditions. While life can be tough it means that competition is limited as are the number of predators and pests. Summertime brings twenty-four hours of daylight, which in turns creates conditions perfect for massive blooms of photosynthetic phytoplankton. Practicall all larger animals, from penguins, to seals, to massive whales, all feed on the zooplankton that thrives on these phytoplankton blooms.

Early season snow conditions
Antarctic Iceberg Sculptures
  There are many tales of heroic travel to Antarctica in the past. Not all the stories end well once the explorers reached these conditions. But nowadays, myself included, it is possible to travel a bit more style and comfort. Aboard Silversea's Silver Cloud it is about an luxurious as you can get. Imagine butlers in every room, limitless wine, multiple restaurants to choose from, a spa, heated pool and hot tubs on the top deck, gym, photo studio and more. I'm working as part of the expedition staff, leading hikes, driving zodiac tours, and lecturing as one of the resident marine biologist.

First time at Cuverville Island
  Each day we try to get to two different locations, either for a landing and walk or a zodiac tour. The landscapes are breathtaking, with mountains rising up straight out of the reflective water and massive glaciers tumbling down into the bays. The landscape presents itself in shades of black and white with an occasional deep blue of some deep compressed ice laid bare by a glacial calving.

A lonely Skua

Penguin highway
   The wildlife abounds, sometimes in huge numbers. Gentoo penguins are the usual suspects, although we do see adelie and chinstrap penguin colonies as well. One wayward emperor penguin floated by on a large iceberg but that species is mostly farther south, past the pack ice.

Gentoo colony with glacier behind
Gentoo penguins and the Silver Cloud
  The colonies hold thousands of breeding pairs, sometimes hundreds of thousands. The caucaphony of calls can be overwhelming after a while. Watching the social antics of the penguins can be an all day activity. From stealing rocks from each other's nest to slapping their neighbors with their oversized flippers, they certainly entertain.

Paradise Harbor

Type B Orca sighting

 Whales also abound down here around the ice. Humpback lunge around the bergs, corralling the abundant krill in their giant mouths. An occasional minke whale paces the channels between islands. Elephant Island seems to be the place for fin whales...the 2nd largest whale in the world. But it is often glimpses of those huge black dorsal fins belonging to the killer whales.

Orcas off the bow, lit up by the midnight sun
  On a couple of occasions we came across pods of orca in the Gerlache Strait. We had perfect whale watching conditions both times with flat calm water. Both encounters came quite late after most guests had finished dinner and retired to their suites. However, even at 11:30pm at this time of year Antarctica provides plenty of light for whale watching. I was still shielding the sun out of my eyes as it hung low in the late night sky. You can check out the eternal daylight in the video below.

Weddell Seal
Deception Island volcano walk
  Seals also abound, with four types on the usual suspect list. Weddell seals were the most often seen, although southern elephant seals took the prize for the biggests groupings on land. Crabeater seals were difficult to find with 5 or 6 sightings over the three trips. But the big find for Antarctic seals on these trips has to be the apex predator among the bunch, the beautiful, and huge, leopard seal.

Weddell seal yawn
Leopard Seal yawn
  Most of the time these seals would be lounging on a beach or an iceberg, so getting a good photo of them could be a challenge. On a few occasions I had my camera out just as the seal would yawn, showing off its impressive array of teeth.

  There were so many magical moments of beauty and serenity down here in Antarctica. I feel very lucky to have traveled here for work. And very lucky to have shared this experience with so many excited guests. Perhaps the best part of all was getting to know all of my fellow expedition staff. Their passion for this part of the world is contagious.

  These are a few of my favorite photos from the past month of a half. Now its time for some well deserved family time in Maui.

Gentoo portrait

close Humpback encounter
Humpback and Krill

Zodiak tour in Antarctica

Dive, dive, dive!
One of my favorite views

Soaking in the geothermal heat

Chinstrap Penguin portrait

Remains of whalers past

Crabeater Seal
Luecistic penguin

Tabular Iceberg from Larsen Ice Shelf

Glacier in the mist

Chinstrap with colorful background

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Heading to Antarctica: Chapter 1

 Heading to Antarctica: Chapter 1

 I've made it to the beautiful Silver Cloud, my home for the next five and a half weeks. The first voyage is a big one traveling from Buenos Aires, Argentina to the Falkland Islands, on to Antarctica, and finishing in Ushuaia, Argentina. We will cross the Drake Passage twice, sail the waters of Cape Horn, visit the bottom of the world, and hopefully see lots of penguins, but let's start from the beginning.

   Day 1: First line of action is getting all the paperwork cleared and then moved into the cabin. My roommate for this voyage is Patrick, the Assistant Expedition Leader, who lives in Finland but is originally from Germany. Turns out he is also one of the best fooseball players onboard. We are pretty involved in the guest checkin procedure, but end up sailing off the pier around 6:30pm.

Proud Gentoo mother
King Penguins!
 Day 2: We spend this day at sea, cruising from Buenus Aires to Puerto Madryn, Argentina. A typical sea day for us involves deck time, where we are assigned to be outside with binoculars and cameras, pointing out any birds or whales that we might pass. It’s a nice time to mingle with guests who are always interested in learning what the animals are that we are seeing. I spent a lot of this day with our resident ornithologist, Dmitri, since almost all of these birds were new to me as well. We saw albatross, petrels, storm petrels and shearwaters, with a couple of Peale’s dolphins as well. We also have trainings, desk duty, lectures, and recaps scheduled for these days at sea. It was my night to dine with guests as well… so a big first day.

Black Browed Albatross colony
 Day 3: We are alongside the pier at Puerto Madryn all day, sending out shore excursions ranging from snorkeling with sea lions to all day bus trips visiting penguin, elephant seal, and sea lion colonies. The weather was too windy for the whale watching trips, but luckily the snorkeling with sea lions still happened since that was the one I was assigned to. The ride out was pretty wild even though we were right next to shore, and conditions in the water were also pretty rough, but it was still a success as we had some close encounters and I was able to grab some underwater GoPro footage of the sea lions. I looked for nudibranchs to no avail, but it would have been impossible to dive down with the drysuits we were wearing.

Commerson's dolphins surfing
 Day 4: Another day at sea heading east towards the Falkland Islands, or Isla Malvinas as the Argentinians call it. There was a little more deck time looking for birds, but a majority of the day was spent combing through everyone’s gear for a mandatory biosecurity check. The Velcro fasteners on pants, gloves, and jackets turned out to be the most likely place to find hitchhiking seeds and little grasses. We don’t want to transport any of that to the Falklands or to Antarctica so we do a very thorough search.

 Day 5: The great weather and light winds continued so we switched up our published landing spot for a real gem called Saunders Island. The weather conditions have to be favorable to land here so we decided to take advantage. Three kinds of penguins breed on Saunders; gentoo, southern rockhopper, and the elusive King penguin. The island, like most of the outer Falkland Islands is privately owned by a family who have a big sheep ranch. The family paid us a visit from there home, which was about 10 miles away, and even had a few souvenirs for sale out of the back of their land rover. We took the guests on a hike across the island and up this carpetlike grassy green hill to a beautiful overlook amongst the rockhopper penguins and black browed albatross who were nesting on the same hill. The water below looked almost tropical rolling into the sandy beach, and commerson’s dolphins were surfing in the waves as they foraged over the sandy bottom.

Rockhopper penguins
  The afternoon was spent on another private island called West Point Island. The owners of the island go way back with Silversea, and they are famous for inviting us into their little farmhouse for tea and cookies. The other big draw is the hike across the island to an albatross and rockhopper penguin colony. It was an amazing place where you walk through this Dr Suessian tussock grass about 6ft tall and all of a sudden come face to face with a nesting albatross. You really had to make sure you didn’t step on them. At the end of the day I ended up giving two locals a lift from West Point Island to a neighboring island where their car had broken down. When I pulled up to the shore to drop them off there were penguins everywhere. It made me realize that we were just seeing a small fragment of the islands and they must be covered in penguin and albatross colonies everywhere.

 Day 6: Today we spent all day in Port Stanley, the capital of the Falkland Islands. Here, even my British coworkers said that they’ve never been to a place that felt more like England. There is an interesting history here of a sizeable conflict in the early 1980’s in which Argentina, trying to deflect attention away from domestic political problems stoked the flame of nationalism by invading the Falkland Islands and replacing the British flag with their own. They quickly overwhelmed the small force of British marines in Stanley, and then figured that Britain was too far away to really care much about fighting to get the islands back. Theresa May however did not want this black spot on her record so she sent about 6,000 troops and a fleet of war ships to take the islands back. The following battles were intense, and even though the Falklands War was over within the year with Britain regaining control of the islands, the effects are still felt as parts of the islands are closed due to unexploded ordinances and mine fields left behind. I led a hike across the island to a beautiful beach called Gypsy Cove, but on the way we passed a shoreline being combed by orange vested workers using metal detectors trying to find buried mines. I don’t think there is enough money to convince me to sign up for that job.

Eye to eye with a black-browed albatross
Day 7: The days have been busy so everyone is ready for another sea day. Especially since we know the next stop is Antarctica. I can’t wait to finally explore the white continent after all these years. 

Beautiful Gypsy Cove in the Falkland Islands