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

Friday, December 20, 2019

A New Beginning with Silversea Expeditions

    After being stuck in the middle seat of the middle row of an 8hr red eye flight from Miami to Buenos Aires I checked into the company provided hotel right in the mix of the old part of the city. I was able to do a lot of walking, checked out a famous memorial graveyard filled with massive tombs, crypts, and statues, and visited a local arts fair selling things from leather made goods to local foods, to jewelry made out of horseshoe nails. I met a few of the other expedition team but it wasn’t until the next morning when the vans pulled up that I realized about 20 of us were all embarking at the same time.

I knew the incoming Expedition Leader, Brad, from my time of the Silver Muse in Alaska. And my good friend Ceili, who has also worked at UnCruise and Tole Mour, would be on, but otherwise it was a lot of new faces and names for me to learn. Not to mention the fact that I was going from an expedition team of 2, to a team of 28! Pretty soon I would meet other marine biologist (Kirsty and Fede), a geologist (Brent), several ornithologist (Dmitri, Frankie, and Oscar), historians (Dot and Vic), a botanist (Viktoria) and a lot of general naturalists. I was looking forward to being surrounded by a team like this and the feeling reminded me of when I first started at the Catalina Island Marine Institute of Toyon Bay. The only difference is that this time we are all much further along in our professional careers, and the team represents countries from around the world. We have Russians, Brits, Aussies, Canadians, Netherlands, German, Austria, South African, Kenyan, Norwegian, Argentinian, Costa Rican, and three from the U.S.A.
   Figuring out my way around this ship, named the Silver Cloud, turned out to be much easier than my initial contract with the company on the much bigger 596 passenger Silver Muse. The bar and restaurant names were the same, deck 3 is still the crew deck where I can find the crew and officer’s mess, the crew gym, and the crew bar. So things felt pretty familiar to me from the get go here on the Cloud. The atmosphere is a bit more relaxed on the expedition style ship vs the classic ship culture on the Muse. There are still chances to get dressed to the nines for events like the Captain’s Welcome and Venetian Night, but the guests mostly stick to a casual business type dress. The other big difference is on the expedition style Silver Cloud there are no after dinner musical singing performances. Everything really revolves around the expedition adventures, lectures, recaps, and briefings for the next day’s adventures. We rotate through the voyage dining with the guests which also adds a way for the guests to interact with the expedition staff on a more one on one basis.
   I am looking forward to getting to the Falkland Islands and then onwards to my seventh continent after that. The zodiacs and kayaks are all strapped and ready for some rough weather on the way. We have lots of trainings scheduled and quite a few of the big wig office folks onboard as well. There are around 200 crew for me to meet and over 200 passengers to share in the experience of traveling to the bottom of the world. Antarctica here I come!

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Fall Turns into Winter in Vermont

  A lot has happened this Fall. Mostly it has been taken up with the antics of our two wonderful kids. There is nothing to quite prepare you for having two under two. It used to be that when I was carrying Catalina, then Heidi would be having a little I look over and we each have one in our arms. That just means I need to take both of them, one of the back and one on the front. In between family time in Vermont I have squeezed in a few short UnCruise rotations in Alaska, Pacific Northwest, and finally Hawaii.

   Now it is November and changes are afoot. The golden orange and red leaves have long since fallen, and have been replaced by snow and ice. The Vermont view is beautiful in both of these seasons. We had an exceptionally majestic morning after an evening of light snow that I managed to capture these psuedo time lapse pictures of. This is looking right down the driveway to the tallest mountain peak in Vermont, Mt. Mansfield.

   And with the coming of winter it means I am switching up things professionally. Instead of finishing the season in Hawaii I am heading down to Beunos Aires, Argentina to jump on a Silversea adventure cruise ship called the Silver Cloud. I'll be a naturalist and zodiac driver for trips to Antarctica, the Falkland Islands, and eventually across the ocean to Cape Town. Not only is this a new adventure to be excited about but it will also be my seventh continent.

  So stay tuned for more updates to come!

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Hiking Olympic National Park with UnCruise

A Taste of Alaska in Washington's Olympic National Park

View from Hurricane Ridge
Inside the forest at Lake Crescent
Port Angeles describes itself as the gateway to Olympic National Park. This is where we dock the Safari Quest on the last day of our Pacific Northwest trips here in Washington. Scenic, 5000+ ft Hurricane Ridge is a 45 minute drive, and the glacially carved Lake Crescent is only 30 minutes away, giving us two great options to choose from.

  I have been taking my groups to Hurricane Ridge, to explore the totally different environment that one can find at 5000+ft . Mountain firs and hemlocks abound, grey jays jabber from the limbs, and Mt Olympus pokes up from behind the remaining glaciers deep within the park’s 1,000,000 acres.  During the spring trips we encountered 10ft snowbanks… I’ll be sure to bring snowshoes next Spring. During the fall we found that we could escape the heat from below and exchange it for nice crisp mountain air above.

Walking the ridge, 5000+ ft
 However, this week the rain and snow had settled in high in the mountains and on Hurricane Ridge, so I decided to switch things up and take the group south and east from Port Angeles to Lake Crescent.  I expected the lake to be clear and beautiful, as it was carved out by a glacier and has an unusually low nitrogen content making it difficult for phytoplankton to grow and murk up the water. What I didn’t expect was to be blown away by the forest on the trails around the lake. 

  We hiked the moderately easy 1.5 mile trail to Marymere Falls, and almost instantly I was transported to an ancient old growth forest of Alaska. The trees were impossibly strait and tall. We reached a douglass fir that took five people with outstretched arms to wrap around. Then we reached a bigger one. Then there was a seven person western red cedar. The big leaf maples were in full fall colors, reflecting off the river below the falls. My photographers in the group just couldn’t get enough. I’m surprised I was able to get them back to the bus at all. 

  We finished the visit with some free time around the Lake Crescent Lodge. Some folks sat by the fire, while others walked the pebbly beach lakeside, while a few others dug into the legends and history of the area, even finding out the storied history of the phone booth at the Lake Crescent Lodge.

  We just get to break the surface of what Olympic National Park has to offer… and after today everyone wants to come back for more.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Kayak Bliss at Sucia Island, Washington

  The UnCruise Pacific Northwest trip holds some real gems for our typical adventure travelers. There are places where we can kayak, stand-up paddle board, beach walk, and go for a skiff tour all before lunch. We can hike up ridge lines and quite often end up atop the tallest summit in the island archipelago. The wildlife abounds and the geology stuns. Some days are just so perfect here that even a casual kayak excursion can be etched in your mind for years to come. And for someone like me, it is always nice to have a few pictures to make that memory last even longer.

 This week we had such a kayak around one of the northernmost  San Juan islands, a little chunk of wilderness called Sucia Island. It is a state marine park, filled with well maintained trails for hiking but lacking the crowds that generally go along with such trails. There is no way to get to the island except by private craft…and there is no way to get there quite like the luxury and comfort of the Safari Quest.

 After a morning of long hikes and easy meanders, we geared up for water activities after lunch. I took a group of twelve kayakers out into glassy calm conditions. The high tide allowed us to get up close to the shoreline which Sucia is famous amongst geology circles for. The island is a rare combination of sandstone and siltstone sedimentary rocks here in the archipelago, and the winter storms have eroded them into mesmerizing shapes. The reflections of the rocks off the calm water made the scene even more surreal.
We made it out to an offshore island almost completely covered by the high tide. The tiny bit of exposed rock was itself covered by bellowing sea lions…almost the same size as our kayaks. Timid harbor seals stalked from around the shallows until we turned to head back to the shoreline of Sucia. It was then we realized that just under the waters edge the rocks were covered in purple and orange sea stars, a marine park indeed. A final surprise of a sea lion surfacing right next to our kayaks was the icing on the cake for this otherworldly experience.

 There is something so quiet and calming about sea kayaking in these conditions. It is why I love Alaska and now why I love the Pacific North West as well.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Hiking the Eagle Cliff Trail on Cypress Island

Hard Charging Mountain Climb
Near the top of Eagle Cliff
  As the expedition leader aboard the Safari Quest one of my many daily challenges is to find destinations that can offer multiple level s of challenge to the guests. This may be a choice between a kayak and a skiff tour, a beach walk or a long hike, or maybe even a climb up a mountain vs driving up. The more options that guests have for activities means it is easier to self select which group to go out with. One of the great things about the Pacific Northwest itinerary is that every spot we go to gives us multiple options of difficulty level so I can easily personalize the activities for the passengers we have on that week.

Hard Chargers on the Summit
   This week we had a group of hard charging hikers onboard so I searched for a good challenge. It came in the form of a mountain ridge climb on the little known Cypress Island, one of the 172 San Juan Islands. The total hike is only around four miles, but a nice steady uphill leads to one of the most stunning overlooks in the island chain. A 750’ rocky precipice juts out over the Rosario Straight. It is called Eagle Cliff…which it may be called because you look down upon soaring eagles flying over the low lying forest below. 

Didn't even break a sweat
View from the top
  The guests were breathing hard by the end but everyone agreed it was worth every step.  We finished off the experience by cruising on the Quests right under the cliff. It was fun watching all the hard chargers point out the cliff summit to everyone else on board.