Tuesday, February 16, 2010


Mostly, visitors to Antarctica experience the sounds and sights and sensations of Antarctica from small and large ships, and don’t set foot in the region. You couldn’t see as much otherwise. You’d compromise what you hope to observe if everyone set upon the land.

But there are still opportunities to do what you instinctively hanker to do – to stand where the explorers did – and to talk to the researchers who now work there – to get up close and personal with the people and frozen white lands they are studying.

We had a special opportunity to visit the Chilean Frei research base on King George Island where there was an air strip for landing, provided you could get there through the weather.

Holly and I and about 48 other soul mates wanted to reach the frozen land for similar reasons – and this was the way we could do that – the experience of a lifetime.

The problem was that, in order to get there, the weather has to be just right. And you don’t know how it’s going to be until you get there.

The cloud cover and fickle weather system can prevent any landing and this is in large part because the flying is VFR, visual flight rules, meaning you fly where and when you can see.

It’s treacherous enough that the flight charts for the approach to the King George airport warn to watch out for “ice bergs on approach.” Of course, it makes sense. You never know where a berg is going to wind up in the winds that wend their way through the island channels.

We assembled on the ship at about 6:45 am to take a tender from the ship to land, a bus to the airport and a small jet plane to King George Island.

We had been advised to wear 4 pairs of socks, thermal underwear, sweatpants, ski pants, 4 shirts, a parka, two pairs of gloves, ski headband, sunglasses and ski goggles. We all took this instruction to heart.

Our self-selected group of adventurers wanted to join the 65,000 folk who have ever stood in the Antarctic region.

It’s an exclusive club and, in a way, it is the saving grace for this icy desert.

Anyone who had ordinary footgear was encouraged to pull on special boots over their shoes for protection from the icy wetness they’d find if we could set down in Antarctica.

When our flight was close to the island we were above the clouds and still didn’t know whether we would get to land.

But we put on all the layers of clothing and warmth, we’d left off until the last possible moment – partly for fear of jinxing the mission but also because we didn’t want to cook in these clothes on the flight to King George.

Several recent flights had turned back at this point because the pilots couldn’t see anything.

Our pilot dropped down through the clouds, and the misty grayness was all you could see out the windows.

But then we saw the veils pass and thin, and then there was visibility - a cloudy mist permitting a view of the black white capped waters below, floating bergs, a dark gray sky and the sloping land ahead with prominent black rock outlining what was King George Island.

We dropped out of the sky at about 500 feet above the water and no bergs obstructed or endangered our approach.

We were later told by several pilots that our altitude was about the minimum we could have for a safe approach; one thought it was a risky height.

There were three pilots in the cockpit and two of them had less than the 2,000 flight hours required, but they had a third pilot who did have the hours; the problem was that the third pilot was 69 and too old, by law, to fly himself.

No matter. Our pilots did real well.

When we landed on the gravel airport, the pilot had to use care not to use his engines in such a way as to suck the gravel from the landing strip into his engines.

At a full stop, the crew and passengers drew a deep breath, and let out a cheer, clapped, and then quickly unbuckled, pulled on gloves and hats, grabbed packs and water bottles and headed to the gang plank.

It was a breath of cold moist air, in a light snow, and gusts of wind that greeted us as we walked down the metal stairs to set foot on a black gray muddy surface.

We could see the nearby hangar, and the vintage aircraft inside.

There was a helicopter about 100 feet away.

The vista that surrounded us was ice and snow covered cliffs and in the slight valley nearby a partly frozen lake that was the source of water for Chilean and Russian research stations that adjoined one another by the bay ahead of us.

We gathered at a totem that had sign posts to various points of interest around the globe, running up a 100 feet or so, and this told you how far you were from home.

Betsy Pincheira, a wildlife veterinarian, who had spent 26 years visiting and living in Antarctica, introduced us to Alejo who would be helping us explore the base and a nearby island. Alejo had been to the South pole repeatedly, and he looked like you’d imagine an explorer should. He was hatless and relaxed, tanned, and his face wore a rugged reassuring mask, that said guy could set you straight and keep you safe; of course, he didn’t say much, not even when he helped us into the Zodiacs later.

Betsy explained that about 10% of the area was clear of ice and snow so that the base could do its work, at least during the summer.

But during the winter the snow could be 9 feet and that’s why there were bamboo poles attached to the water lines from the lake and pipes containing the electric lines that ran from the diesel generators to multi-colored buildings, variously designated as hospital, bank, post office, souvenir shop, base station, dwellings and more.

The exploitation of Antarctica, the kind that would destroy what attracts us to its wildness, is in a state of suspended animation, because of the Antarctic Treaty that holds territorial claims on hold, and prohibits mining minerals, nuclear testing, and, more positively, encourages joint research and cooperation and ecological conservation and sustainability.

Nor is this a recent history. During the cold war, when nations couldn’t talk, Russian and American teams in Antarctica were cooperating. So there’s an ethos here that doesn’t exist elsewhere.

Don’t get me wrong. This place and what they are doing with it is is not innocent in the sence of na├»ve or inexperienced. This collective of researchers and adventurers and governmental representatives have been at this too long to be simple or gullible.

They are all sensitive to the fact that perhaps what now exists is the calm before the storm when nation states will awaken, like from a Rip Van Winkle sleep, to their ordinary and unnatural condition of fierce competition, then elbow past each other, maybe war against each other (as in the Falklands), to stake claims and extract the treasure in mineral and wildlife from this last frontier on earth.

Sadly, we all worry that they will do this even at the risk of destroying what has been a unique way of life since about 1959 when the Antarctic Treaty was signed.

But in the here and now, what is going on in Antarctica is special.

It is cooperative across barriers of geography, culture, language, religion and understanding.

It is a hopeful conservation minded way that bears being repeating elsewhere in the world, other than at the frozen underside of our planet.

We walked to the home base, about a mile walk, and saw a blue catholic church atop a nearby hill in the Chilean section and it was made entirely out of metal cargo containers.

Across the shallow valley on a nearby hill was a Russian Orthodox Church designed in Russia with interconnecting parts that are held together by the gravity and design of its components.

I spoke with the priest at the Church. Our overlap was what English he understood. He’d only been there a few days to make this mission. Inside the church there were the most beautiful iconic paintings and decorations. Plainly he was excited to be on King George Island and he interrupted our conversation to ring the afternoon bells. He closed the doors to the church and all the windows save one. It was from this window the four bells sounded, and then he played a gorgeous symphony that echoed across the Russian base and could be heard in the Chilean section as well.

We posted cards, at $2 a stamp, from King George’s Island, and bought a neck warmer from the souvenir shop (PX).

At the base station, we studied petrified wood found on the island suggesting that this island was an extension of the Andes, once connected to South America, for, why else, would there be trees here – or so the Scotian hypothesis goes.

We then made it to the Zodiacs to travel to nearby Ardley Island and to visit the Gentoo penguins. Holly and I suited up in life jackets and got in this rubbery craft with an outboard motor. We had been encouraged not to stand in the boat as we would not want to make the vessel collapse into the freezing water. They got that right.

We motored out into the waters and past ice bergs and returning researchers who had been diving to observe underwater specimens. We were so close to one ice berg that the blue was pulsing incandescent. Not a sight easily duplicated in a digital photo or on film.

We set upon the land by sliding over the rubbery hide of the Zodiac onto the beach at Ardley Island where thousands of penguins lives.

Our appearance, though few, at about 20, prompted Skua birds to try to attack the penguin young. Betsy said these birds were opportunists.

Anything you do affects what you are observing and can dramatically harm the beauty you seek to enjoy.

The common vernacular now embraces the basic notion of Chaos Theory (or Complexity), the theory that small changes of initial conditions can have dramatic mega-effects. Some call it the butterfly effect, how the sweep of a butterfly’s wings can cause a tsunami somewhere else in the world.

Accordingly, there are strict constraints on how many may visit these special areas. Dr. Bernard Stonehouse had the notion that they should investigate the effect people had on penguins by measuring the penguins’ heart rate when exposed to people in certain numbers, and certain proximity and at certain sound levels. The results were that 20 people at a certain distance present no danger to the penguins.

Based on this research, we sat down, no longer loomed over the penguins, removing what was intimidating about our presence, and the penguins came right up to several of our cohort.

Also on land, there was a juvenile elephant seal weighing hundreds of pounds. It made some noise that we were disturbing its sleep, made a slightly intimidating effort, and then decided we weren’t worth his energy, and buried his head in the kelp and sand.

When we were leaving the island, the ropes that tied our Zodiac to shore were covered in Kelp and Krill (tiny little shrimp-like creatures).

It is these aspects of the Antarctica that form the building blocks of life in the Antarctic. One researcher told me that visitors are only interested in the charismatic mega-flora, and they miss the significance of how interconnected is the natural fabric of Antarctica in its region and with the rest of the world.

Water is another good example of what’s essential. Despite all the ice, fresh water is a rare commodity.

As I’ve said, Wildlife Vet Betsy has spent 26 years visiting and living in Antarctica. She said that the fresh water for a cabin her family maintained for years came from melting ice from the glacier, but eight years ago, the glacier began to shrink as the temperatures dropped from global warming, and each year the glacier shrunk more until it was no more.

They could no longer live there without fresh water, nor could the wild life, and thus the research station had to disband and move as well.

The melting of Antarctica will raise waters world-wide, submerging coastal plains, changing weather prompting extreme storms where none had existed, and wiping out species that can’t possible adapt in time.

Betsy said, “I see the changes and they have been dramatic in Antarctica. We cannot elude our responsibility any longer. We humans are affecting global warming.”

Chris Gunn, a naturalist and researcher, explained that most people don’t understand how critical are these life forms, the Krill and Plankton, are to the cycle of life.

Krill, as small as they are, constitute a critical building block in the chain that feeds the penguins, seals, whales and birds we observed, but this chain of life affects us all, even at a distance.

It’s not generally appreciated that nature is a system that we can compromise and have and that it won’t right itself unless we change our ways – assuming it’s not too late to correct the harm we’ve already caused.

When we left, we were exhilarated by the visit, but sad to be leaving this special place.

We had trophies to confirm that what had occurred was real; we had pictures, sent postcards, even a certificate attesting to our visit, all memorials of our adventure.

But it’s hard to think that an experience like this doesn’t change you forever in some way.

You have to take from this something that changes your perspective and gives you the impetus to find some way to protect this special place – even if it is to tell others what you’ve learned - because, in doing so, you protect not only this place but where you live and those you love as well.


Thursday, February 11, 2010

We've made the Drake Passage - but it was rougher going North

The Drake passage is unpredictable because of the weather.  Moments ago, the waves washed up against the window on the 5th deck where i'm sitting.  The waves are huge.  So we are passing up the opportunity to swim to Cape Horn.  We may return to Antarctica by plane - if the weather permits.  For the time being, I've made a sketch that captures something of what we experienced.


Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Stepping out while we cruise through the Drake passage.

We had a chance tonight to dress up and then watch a sunset at about 9:45 p.m.  The days here are long as they start at 4:45 am.  At least during the "summer."



The waves are 4.5 to 7 feet and so they are fairly moderate. We’ve heard some scraping of the ship. Maybe the wind or small growlers are rolling beneath the ship. Or maybe it’s a tyro pilot who doesn’t know the gears. We are pitching back and forth but I don’t know the list of the ship. Visibility is about as far as my car in the Leesburg parking lot to the Starbuck’s front door. When you’re walking, you wonder if your inner ear still works. I’m taking some seasick medicine as a precaution. It’s a patch you place behind your ear. It seems to make me calmer almost to the point of sleepiness. You have to take it before you might be seasick, and then it lasts three days. Watch this space – if I can stay awake to write what happens.



We awoke about 6am Antarctic time (two hours later than the East Coast) to observe Deception Island. It’s at South 63 degrees and .894 minutes latitude, and West 60 degrees, 17.56 minutes longitude.

It’s the kind of harbor you’d expect pirates of old to use. It’s shaped like a donut that the gods took a bite of so you could sail or be seized in the open area surrounded by the island.

It’s dark, the landscape is dark brown, adjacent to the ice cliffs, and seascape has resumed its neutral shades.

The cold persists, as you’d expect, but it seems more piercing. Other upper deck rail grabbers said the same about the cold in between taking underexposed photos. So maybe it’s not just me.

The sun is trying to burn through an overcast sky. It’s a dull circle of grayish white. But it all fits the venue.

This island is volcanic residue that may erupt again. It sits atop a caldera, a collapsed volcano. It last erupted in 1969 destroying the research facilities on the island. I’m told the volcanic activity heats the water and allows for swimming. But we’re passing up the opportunity for a hypothermic swim.

Of course, there are other things swimming in the waters nearby. We sighted the fluke of a humpback cow whale with her calf, at the sterm starboard. Then we saw another whale, a killer, an Orca, but only the fluke. Holly said, “Real whales eat krill.”

There were large bergs by this dark island, we’re told more than usual, and probably because of the high winds. I These may have been the largest we’ve seen.



When Sir Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, began to break up, Shackleton drew a sketch of how his ship was being pushed in several unfortunate directions (see sketch above)(my hand copy). The sketch’s significance was that Shackleton thought the ship’s destruction was imminent.

Shackleton and his crew were trapped in the ice the whole Arctic winter long (March to October 1914-15) and, as the ice pack moved, and at great distances, about 900 miles across the Weddell sea, it took his ship and crew with it for a long ride.

The ship was immobile in an ice pack the whole time and the circumference of their movement on foot were the interlocking ice floes.

Several times, they saw breaks coming close to their ship. They tried to escape their icy prison by digging toward these breaks and they thought they would escape. But there was always some insurmountable obstacle.

The courage and heroism that is Shackleton is his persistence and imagination and ability to inspire others to believe their circumstance was not hopeless.

As for the ship, however, finally he had to write that “the [ice] pack within our range of vision was being subjected to enormous compression, such as might be caused by cyclonic winds, opposing ocean currents, or constriction in a channel of some description.”

Shackleton went on to describe “huge blocks of ice, weighing many tons, were lifted into the air and tossed aside as other masses rose beneath them.”

Today we have so many who wrongly think they can master nature or ignore the consequences of compromising the natural order.

At one of his darkest moments, when Shackleton anticipated he would lose his ship, and put his crew at risk, and that he had find a way to lead them to safety, he must have been anxious – he wrote, “We were helpless intruders in a strange world, our lives dependent upon the play of grim elementary forces that made a mock of our puny efforts.”


Tuesday, February 9, 2010


Holly and I are trying to wrangle a flight to King George Island to put our feet on land at an Arctic Research Station.  It's called Villa Las Estrellas Research Station.  The challenges are the weather that make any flight risky, even though the Chilean Air Force maintain a base there.  The name means Village of the Stars (pictured above).  It is a significant meteorological station and, if we get there, we'll get to see their working and living quarters and hike to nearby wildlife preserves and glaciers - up even closer than we've been.  We won't know until the last moment two days from now if this is a go.  But we're kind of excited at the opportunity.  JPF


One of the things about Holly that first caught my attention was her sense of adventure. She had climbed to 18,000 feet in the mountains near Everest. When I was writing a book a few years ago on how our government compromises the health of patients suffering chronic pain, I asked Holly what was her dream. She said to go to Antarctica. So we planned this adventure and, as we did, I became infected by her vision to study a place that has been partly despoiled by humankind even though the environment is so harsh they can hardly live here except for short periods in base camps that are for research (and no doubt some to stake claims to minerals – when and as that becomes possible). We are quite well aware as well that trips such as the one we are taking may be curtailed or eliminated in the not so distant future. We have no illusion that we are not attempting anything like Ross, Amundsen, Shackleton, or what any of the others attempted or accomplished, but you get an appreciation by being here, you can only imagine.



This morning, we traveled Southwest down the Gerlache Strait, islands to the North, the Antarctic Peninsula to the South. We began our sail early this morning at South 64 degrees, 4.616 minutes Latitude, and West 61 degrees, 52.81 minutes Longitude. In all directions there were snowy cliffs and rock, breath-taking cloud formations, bergs on every side. In the early hours, the ocean was black. You can only imagine the early mariners in ships no larger than the small tender that took us ashore in the Falklands coming south down this strait, not knowing what to expect, having mariner’s tools, but nothing like we have today, watching this land of wonder unfold, taking measurements, risking that they might become encased in ice and not return, and yet they pressed on.

We had sun and patches of blue sky that broke through the shades of black and white.

The cliffs that breed bergs are more obvious here, and the rocks beneath appear riven from the separation of berg from glacier and cliff.

The shapes of these bergs, like the lines and incidents of a human face, tell you something of the history and character of these bergs and bergy bits.

We saw seals on the bergs, rare birds that sailed almost motionless above on wind currents in silouhette waiting for the right moment to fish.



The waters of the Arctic can be as quiet as a lake and in a matter of minutes the air is full of extraordinary pressure and a gale that has you hanging on to the ship.

Our ship rides comfortably in the water because of its weight and the skill of the crew on the bridge but it’s like have a large sail above the water line with a keel that cannot run deep enough to resist the push across the surface of the water by the 50 knot winds that spring up. In fact, we changed course yesterday and bypassed ice berg alley because we were traveling sideways faster than we were going forward.

This morning I stood at the bow of the ship with my back to the wind and, with my arms outstretched, leaned backwards into the wind, and I was held fast and could feel the give and push of its force; I resisted risking too great an angle

Later in the day, when the wind pressed anew on the ship, this massive ship tilted at 6 degrees, prompting some small panic on board, water spilled from pools and tubs, dishes slid across tables and fell to the floor, and the captain issued warnings about walking on the top decks: “hold onto the rails if you do.” There was an advisory not to let the wind close the doors on your hands.

This wind came at us at 80 knots.

We were headed toward Neumayer Channel, north of the Antarctic peninsula, but the substantial force of the wind in that tight passage made any attempt foolhardy, in the words of the Captain, and so we backed out of the katabatic wind.

There’s a name for everything in Antarctica.

There are 100s of words for every variation of snow and ice – and the old hands can distinguish one from the other with ease.

Wind is no different.

As I’ve indicated in an earlier blog, we are in an in between place where the northerly waters around the world come in contact with the circumpolar waters of Antarctica.

Simarly, there are a powerful set of winds called the katabatic winds.

These are powerful gravity driven winds that have stronger inertial energy than other winds.

These winds descend from the inland snowfields toward the coast.

They scour the surface snowfields as they approach the coast and that makes them cold and they entrain a considerable volume of snow which gives them inertia, a thickness that makes them slow to warm when they do come to the cost.

When these winds drop from the plateau to the coast, the steepest descent, the winds can reach staggering velocities.

That how we found ourselves punched up and about by winds at 80 knots. When a cyclone and a katabatic shake hands, watch out. They act in concert.

What’s so amazing is how calm and comfortable it will feel standing outside, and then the waves have white tops, and wind is blowing and the ship is tilting.

The winds are fierce or muted – and there’s little in between.



Yesterday, we served as a taxi for some science researchers who were dropping off on King George Island and we were going away with two others who were not going to winter in Antarctica. It was the Arctowski Base named after Henry who overwintered (as they call it) in this station in 1897-1899. It’s a base managed by the Polish Academy of Sciences. The two scientists boated out from the base and gave us some idea of what it was like to live and work there. Mostly they were concerned about marine biology, oceanography, geology, glaciology, meteorology, seismology, magnetism and ecology. This is a site designated as a site of Special Scientific Interest (SSI). Holly and I may catch a flight if the weather permits to fly to another research base on this same island. We all wanted to know the mundane things. How do you communicate? Of course, by internet and they phone by skype. They come with a year’s frozen food. They have a small gym. They visit the nearby Brazilian research station. The Americans have a station nearby they’ve nicknamed the Copacabana because it’s on the beach. But they are – ahem – most of them anyhow – on the beach, on the coast. This location has an opportunity to observe whales and seals, and is very busy. They get back and forth in small vessels called Zodiaks.


Monday, February 8, 2010


In the last blog, we described how it appears.  We thought this photo might give you some idea of what we mean.



When Holly and I came out on the top deck, within a few miles of Elephant Island, about 61 degrees South latitude, and 54 degrees West longitude, the northernmost island of the South Shetland Islands, there were ice bergs off the starboard side (right) and a blast of icy wind that froze the skin.

We dressed in layers of warm underclothing, ski coverall pants, thick gloves, wool socks, and the kind of head gear any respectable burglar would wear.

As my eyes and nose were the only thing exposed to the elements, and I was dressed all in black, Holly said, I looked like a Ninja. I took that as a compliment – but, of course, I’m a guy.

The not-well-planned-ahead challenge was how to take off the gloves to push the tiny buttons and turn the gauges to capture digitally the incredible sights spread all around.

In addition, I was trying to mark latitude and longitude on a hand held GPS – not that the captain’s equipment wasn’t state of the art, and not that he didn’t share his findings. In fact, he made frequent oral and written postings of every relevant statistic you could possibly imagine about weather and location and what we could expect. We also had a raft of experts to supplement and observe what we were seeing. But it’s not the same as having a device that makes the measurements instantaneously, by steps you take, by doing it yourself. At least, that’s how I felt about it.

After gathering ourselves, Holly and walked forward to the tip of the spear, the prow of our ship, where the wind and cold were more severe and the view was equivalently spectacular.

We couldn’t take our eyes off the bright blue ice of a nearby berg, off port side, against a field of gray sky and churning waters.

Looking closely, we saw that the berg had squatting tenants, first appearing like dots, then moving, and then you realized there were penguins aboard the berg, who somehow climbed to the upper reaches of these gargantuan ice crystal creations.

As our ship turned in toward and past these ice bergs, and bergy bits (not to be confused with the still smaller growlers), they appeared differently at different angles.

The character of a berg begins with its birth and release from its parental glacier, “calving” they call its separation, and how this is accomplished, the stresses and fractures that the icy offspring undergoes, affects its size and shape, as does the wind, water, islands, ice floes, and whatever else it brushes and bangs against once it has been released from the glacier.

If you have the patience to just be quiet and observe for a time, to embrace the peace of the moment, despite the harsh cold, you’ll appreciate a natural aesthetic in the shape and variation of this lumpy mass of countless cold hexagonal ice crystals, made into a berg, now turning slowly in the icy arctic waters.

Words are a poor expression to capture the exalted feeling when tasting this ice cold ocean air, feeling it sting your hands, while surrounded by bergs and white cliffs and clouds and open water in every direction.

The most striking observation I found besides the feeling of vastness was the relative absence of color.

Yes, there are colors, the glacier blue, green tints, mineral impurities, marred brown patches, and refracted sunlight through the waters.

But color is the more dramatic by its sparseness. Color is an accent.

I would compare the experience to Anselm Adams’ famed black and white nature photographs although these images are of the sea in an atmosphere that blurs the sharp images that Adams preferred.

What you see is a dark gray sea, rising and falling, defined principally by black brush strokes and lines and shifting blocks of black shadow that contrast sharply with the white swells and swirls at the heights and valleys of the ever-changing seascape waters.

Where land and ice meet, the air, the snow, fog, mist and clouds obscure the curved horizon that is distinguishable mostly by the lighter shade of battle gray.
Not all the time, but there are extended periods when the seas, bergs, snow, cliffs, land, clouds, mist and sky seem to merge into each other’s domain, challenging your perception to distinguish one element from the other, solid from liquid and from gaseous substances, as they participate in some indescribably glorious union, that is so complex as to appear chaotic, while allowing but one conclusion to reconcile the observation, and it is that what we’re observing is truly interconnected and interdependent, and we are necessarily part of this grand natural order.


Saturday, February 6, 2010


If you have been following this blog, you will notice that on several occasions, I have said that Shackleton left his men on Elephant Island and went to King George Island. Wrong!

King George is an island in the S. Shetlands that we will pass tomorrow or the next day but that’s not where Shackleton went to save his men.

He had to travel 800 miles from Elephant Island but it was northeast to SOUTH GEORGIA island.



We’ve been traveling since last night and all day south of Port Stanley, heading South.

Since the 50th parallel we’ve been in an area called the convergence. As I write this, we are at the 56th parallel latitude south of the equator. We are approaching the Southern Ocean that encircles Antarctica.

The conversion is the collision and merging of the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans. The colder temperatures of the Antarctic waters slip below the warmer waters of the other water bodies and there is a rapid drop in water temperature. Think freezing and ski attire. We are.

This change in temperature prompts a fog and mist. It’s a blue gray haze that we’ve observed at somewhat of a distance, closer to the horizon. Mariners call this ice blink, and they take it as a sign that ice floes are nearby. We have noticed this haze becoming more prominent over time. The waters look dark blue almost purple. Soon we expect to see the first floating ice. And to hear it rattling down the side of the ship.

This zone of convergence is an ecological barrier for warmer species going south and vice versa. This is summer now.

If you think of the Antarctic as a continent as more akin to the sun, at the center of things, the waters of the Southern Ocean revolve around it in a west to east direction.

This Southern Ocean is a major conveyor belt of waters from all regions of the world.

It moves at a rate – so we’re told by our expert docents on board – of 170 million cubic yards per second.

You’ve seen how waters get caught and spin around by the contours of a shore. The Weddell sea is south east of our heading and it is where my hero, Shackleton, sailed to make his cross-continental expedition.

The circumpolar waters come into that sea and turn around in a gyre that circulates and delivers the needed nutrients for Antarctic life.

In the winter this area we are sailing through now is covered in ice at a depth of 3 meters or about 9 feet. In the winter, if we could be at this same location, we’d see ice in all directions. And that’s why we’re here now – in the summer.

There are great and beautiful books to read about this part of the world. David Campbell wrote a book called the Crystal Desert, Summers in Antarctica. It is gorgeously written. He describes the Southern Ocean as “a manic sea” because “between the tempests there is tranquility and light.” We are headed toward the South Shetland Islands, a chain of Islands including Elephant Island where Shackleton’s men were marooned while Shackleton went for help. According to Campbell, “the distance between cyclones is measured in time, three to five days apart.” So you have a taste of what that means, Campbell wrote, “The cyclonic winds march around the compass, so at one moment they will heard the icebergs against the shore in a groaning cluster, and a few hours later waft them out to see like feathers on a pond.”

I wouldn’t recommend another book if it wasn’t also terrific. Stephen J, Pyne wrote a book, The Ice, years ago and it is poetic and marvelous for its word sketches of this amazing area of the world. On this subject, Pyne says, “storm cells swirl over the ocean, epicycles of the polar vortex; sea ice floes, like a belt of asteroids, circle endlessly, a life cycle of freezing and melting; ice bergs, large and small, circle like comets around their peculiar icy sun.”



They have a cappuccino to die for aboard ship. And it’s not enough to give you a coffee, there is an abstract design they place with loving care from the steamed milk they add as the final act of presentation.

At Starbucks, as you may know, they serve three sizes, tall (regular sized), grande (bigger), and vente (biggest).

I’ve decided that you can figure out the three principle ice formations the same way.

The biggest is the ice berg, the bergy bit is the next size down, and the growler is the smallest.

When you look at an ice berg, you have to think of a sail boat, traversing the icy waters when it’s not stopped cold in an ice pack. There’s the sail (which you can see) and the keel (which you cannot). That ratio is one of the ways you can consider what you are seeing and how dangerous it may be. The rule of thumb is 1 above and 7 below.



The way ashore from the ship to Port Stanley, two miles from the ship, is by tender, a compact little craft that bounces in the rough waters at about 20 knots.

The weather in the Falklands did literally change by the moment. There was snow on the tender even as the sunlight shone. And then there was rain dripping through the ship’s seals prompting our companion mariners to duck and move about to be dry. It was cold then warm, dry then wet.

But mostly it was fun.

There are several points of interest at this squid fishing port surrounded in the countryside by 500,000 sheep.

A British intelligence officer came to Stanley to see the battlefields. He couldn’t tell me exactly what he did in the Falklands during the war there. But he was highly interested in lectures about battlefields on the island.

Holly and I took a look at the home where Sir Shackleton stayed plotting how he would save the 22 men he left behind at Elephant Island when he fled at risk of life and limb for King George island to recruit ships to help him save his men.

I wrote a little about Shackleton in an earlier posting.

This was a guy who set out to cross the Antarctica continent from the South American side to the Australian side stopping at the South pole along the way.

But the ice trapped, crushed and sank his ship and his men escaped with three lifeboats they carried over the ice until they reached water and made their way to Elephant Island.

But the island was uninhabited, would never be visited except extraordinary luck, and so Shackleton took off with four other men for King George Island where they knew there were some whalers.

Several whalers did help at first on King George Island but they had to get back to work when they couldn’t get to Elephant Island. The seas were terrible and they just couldn’t get through.

Shackleton was working his way through the British and Argentina and other nation states to help. He finally found a Chilean tugboat captain who believed he could do the deed.

It was interesting to think of Shackleton pacing the beach on nearby Ross road by the piers there (as reported by local historians), desperate to get to his men who were eating who knows what back on Elephant Island.

Like I said, he finally found a Chilean navigator who made it happen. Meanwhile his men were eating what seal and penguins they could find.

Elephant Island is shaped like an Elephant ear but it is really named after the Elephant Seals once found there.

It is where we are headed presently aboard ship.

As for the Falkland Island, we can testify it only takes a few people to overrun the inhabitants. There are about 2,300 natives.

We’d heard and seen so many pictures by this time, and there was so much talk about them, we went off to see the penguins for ourselves.

We took a short hop on a local bus to Gypsy Cove where there were hundreds of Magellanic penguins (see pix from an earlier post to see the variety one can expect to find). The ground leading to the beach is somewhat like walking on a boggy carpet. There is peat everywhere and a thin cover of short cropped grass, found that way naturally. Of course, there was sand as well.

We found them preening in the sun and there were a few holes in this lumpy landscape where the molting young were hiding protected until they were old enough to strut the white beaches themselves.

Off shore there was a school of dolphins and diving sea birds including the albatross.

Old school lessons die hard. I kept thinking of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, have since the first sighting, and the Albatross in that rhyming story that led the ship through the ice, only to be repaid by being shot, sacrificed by the Captain’s crossbow.

Bad luck then cursed the ship, the wind stopped blowing, and the death of his ship mates followed.

The Captain’s guilt, he wore it, like an albatross about his neck.

In the poem, as I may imperfectly recall it, the albatross is a savior, a Christ-figure, sacrificed like Christ, and the Captain wore the albatross afterwards rather like a cross round his neck.

The Captain was alone on the open sea.

The albatross we saw also gave delight.

But our Captain showed no inclination to fire a cross bow or unkind word at this south sea bird.

We wandered off the beaten path when we were at Gypsy Cove and we do believe we came upon a land mine that we had the sense to leave where it was and try to describe afterwards where it could be found.

It was mostly underground – as you’d expect – and there were two copper like prongs protruding from the earth.

This may not have been as unusual as you’d think.

We drove past teams, in unprotected gear (in my opinion), crawling across the island looking for these mines, years after the 1982 war. I assume they’d be blown away if they handled one wrong.

One island family thought they’d lost their mare to a mine field. It went past the signs that proliferate on the island, marking off where you should NOT go. This mare jumped a fence and for weeks, they thought the mare was lost to a mine. But then it escaped, jumped back, returned to its own field, and the horse was a favorite after that at races for its luck – although its luck didn’t extend to horse racing; the mare lost all the time.

Over time, the mare’s survival made some of the locals suspicious that perhaps the mines were not dangerous after all.

That’s what they thought until there was a fire in that same field and it went on for days, and the closest landowner reported that there were 26 explosions he counted. So the locals respect the land on which they carefully walk.

We found a large World War II artillery gun and got some shots of ourselves (foto of course).

The adventure was fun enough so we tried another cove called Bluff Cove farther out from Port Stanley.

We took a bus from the Stanley out near the privately owned 34,000 acre sheep farm. Then we transferred to these rugged 4-wheel drive safari vehicles. The reason was that we had to cross these peat bogs to get down to where the penguins were by the shore. That’s right. No roads. You may drive across a field in your four wheel drive but you probably haven’t done much like this. The bog is a wet muddy oozing field of dark brown-black peat mixed with grass in a climate where rain and snow come and go and so the driving chaos is well maintained. You get kicked around these vehicles like jiffy popcorn in a tin bag on your heated stove. We dropped several feet into holes and popped out seemingly intact, crossed creeks and climbed hills. As we came to the water, the terra was firmer.

The largest penguins are the emperors and, when we walked across this fine green grass, think short curly hair, entwined in peat and sand, we saw the second largest of the penguin family, a group of King Penguins.

They were males and they were incubating the eggs that are their young. (You must have seen one of the dizzy flicks by now in which the men actually rear the young.) They had their backs to the somewhat cold wind. For conservation reasons, the area is marked off. But they were fairly close to us and the wardens came over to tell us what we might otherwise miss. Warden Richard was both enthusiastic and informative and it’s what we found generally on the island.

We then went on to see the hundreds of Gentoo penguins who were closer to the water, quite active and visible in every direction. We watched them plan their beach activities, and wander over curious, perhaps looking for a treat.

As I try to tell why you might enjoy this, it’s like trying to catch a sweeping vista with a camera to show your friends, you only mark the memory of what you observed in person – as you can’t capture the scope and dimension of the event.

Having said that, you can well imagine and be amused by the different personalities these birds exhibited. They strut, wave, thrust out their white stomachs and pose, run, flap their wings, groom, swim and sleep. If you like people-watching, you’d like penguin watching.

The woman who runs the ranch that we visited had a cottage nearby and made fresh tea and exquisite diddledee (low-to-the-ground berry) jam, with homemade butter and scone.

Afterwards, we discovered that they used whiskey to kill all their germs, to purify their milk containers. This is what they do instead of what Pasteur “suggested.” Maybe that was the calming effect we enjoyed on the jiffy pop ride back to Stanley and our love me tender.


Thursday, February 4, 2010


You can be an expert on the penguins with this handy chart (above) that shows the penguins that you may see not just in the Falklands but anywhere else as you travel South toward Antarctica. JPF


The Falkland Islands, called that by the British, are also called the Isla Malvinas, by the Argentineans. Indeed, the Argentineans have a rhyming slogan in Spanish – “Las Malvinas son Argentinas.“

We will be arriving at Stanley in the morning. It’s named after Lord Stanley, the former British Secretary of State for the Colonies. But in 1982, the Argentineans decided to reclaim what was theirs. The war lasted months and mostly in the Eastern Island, East Falkland Island. 649 Argentineans were killed in that war.

When I stopped by the memorial in Buenos Aires a few nights ago, the three men I met that sweltering evening said it was a waste of young lives. I agreed and still do but Argentina still claims it and I favor their claim despite how futile was that effort in 1982.

If you want a picture that captures the resistance, Holly found one not far from where I had that conversation in the dark of night.

A bronze plaque showed the British with outstretched claws, grabbing at the Eastern Falkland Island, and then there are the hands of Argentina trying to keep what they insist is theirs.

The sentiment abides that this land is Argentinean. Many and not just Argentineans resent the British presumption, particularly since, if they have their way, they’ll despoil the history and the entire way of life that attracts most of the folk on this ship.

It shouldn’t surprise you that, for Great Britain, this is all about the oil and gas they want to extract from these rough ocean waters.

It is a island with only a few thousand people who sheep farm and fish, and where it rains or snows 250 days of the year. We’ll report on the weather tomorrow but the island is known for wide swings in wind speed, temperature, wetness, and sunshine.

You may not think an island could make a living. But there are 500,000 sheep on these islands, and that’s a lot of wool. As for fishing, they bring in about $40 million, mostly squid.

For the naturalists, there are 120 species of birds, and penguins, particularly the gento, rockhopper, king and jackass (this is not a typo). I’ll send along a picture guide so you can figure out what penguin is what. There’s a special bird that caught my attention. It’s called the quark – and I thought that was a subatomic particle.

It shouldn’t surprise you that this was one of Darwin’s stops.

I don’t want you to think you can go just anywhere – as there are still land mines from the war in 1982.

Nor is this a small problem. There are 125 unexploded ordinance sites. The maps of where they put the explosives has been “misplaced.” There’s one such site near where you visit a penguin colony at the Gypsy Cove. Some smarter folk have tried to smuggle out the land mines as “souvenirs.”

You have to hope you don’t live next to that genius.

Sir Shackleton walked the beaches here considering how he would get to the South Pole and by what route.

Anyhow, we’re looking forward to going ashore by tenders in the morning and, as the ocean waves are now peaking at 12 feet, we are somewhat sobered at what that may be like. JPF


There is a scale that allows you to figure out – if the experience alone of turning green and watching women and children go over the side is not enough – how calm or really rough the ocean is. It was contrived many years ago in 1805 by Commander Francis Beaufort, Royal Navy, who decided to set standards of wind force at sea. He designed this scale at a time when no one had any ability to measure wind speeds in the ocean, so the based his measure on how the sea looked and how it affected ships. It’s been improved over the years and it runs from 0 to 17, the worst being a hurricane. I’ve enclosed the chart and you can click on it or copy it if you want to impress your friends with the Beaufort scale like an old whaler or sealer. JPF

Magic on Board

1-4-10, at 8:30 PM, heading south toward Stanley in the Falklands. There are lots of shows on Board even when the sea is rough. As Holly and I both follow politics closely and appreciate misdirection, we went to watch Alan Chamo, a magical mentalist, in the Vista Loung to watch him peform a grand delusion. As we sipped our rum drinks in the front row, Holly was recruited to be the magician’s assistant. Holly tried to suck herself into her Mai Tai but Alan was on to her, and kindly invited her up to the stage. Holly dressed the stage well, projected like she’d always done this, and assisted the Great Chamo in his magical performance. Not to stretch this out but she took two silver dollars and put them on strips of duck tape and pasted them on Chamo’s bald head across his eyes so he couldn’t see, after certifying she couldn’t see through the silver dollars or the duck tape herself. Then Holly gathered items from the audience and, at the Great Chamo’s suggestion, she held them beneath his hand and he divined without benefit of sight what each item was. And he got every one correct. Enthusiastic applause. But there was more. He then asked Holly to draw a sketch of something she cared about. Of course, it was a rough fast sketch of a Jack Russell. With the Great Chamo’s eyes still covered, and without showing the sketch to the audience, at his unseeing direction, she put the sketch in her pocket. He then asked Holly to concentrate on what she sketched with her eyes closed. And she did as the Great Chamo instructed. Beforehand, with some obviously painful difficulty, the Great Chamo ripped the duck tape from his head and face. Holly did offer to help, got a laugh for that, but the Great Chamo preferred to do himself. He then walked over to a large white paper pad at center stage while Holly kept her eyes closed and he asked her to think again of what she sketched. Believe it or not, he sketched a similar dog, took a bow, and Holly’s tour as a magician’s assistant was well concluded. After the show, one woman asked if I was an entertainer – I suppose – to figure out if we were shills for the Great Chamo. But we were not. You all know that. Really, his performance was great. JPF

The Fishing is for the birds!

2-4-10, at 2PM, heading south toward Stanley in the Falklands, at S 44 degrees 49.541 mins, and W 56 degrees, 36.335 mins. As you probably know latitude runs from zero at the equator and increases as you travel south to 90 degrees at the South pole. If you check our GPS readings, you’ll see that we have passed the mark for South 40 degrees latitude, and you can tell by reading the longitude, that we moved east from Buenos Aires, and now we’re tacking slight West as we travel south toward the Falklands. When you’ve passed S 40 degrees, our fishing experts tell us that ships pick up all manner of birds. So we sat aft in the sunshine, the worst wind blocked by the ship behind us, and looked at the wide Atlantic panorama behind us, no land in sight, not for these near-sighted eyes. The water was wine dark (like Homer used to write) and an aquamarine highway in our wake, broken by extended white swells, and crashing waves, breaking higher than the morning waves, and in the splashes of dark and light blue color were the silhouettes of birds fishing aft, air surfers tilting sideways in flight with the changing angle of the waves. We’re almost certain it’s the albatross of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. With each sweep, it appears they pick a morsel from this oceanic buffet.  JPF

Rainbows in a rougher sea.

2-4-10, at 11AM, heading south toward Stanley in the Falklands, at S 43 degrees 56.879 mins, and W 56 degrees, 27.594 mins. (Incidentally I have this great battery operated Garmin GPSmap 76CSx that I’ve been using to get our latitude and longitude – picking up as many as 11 satellites to fix our position). Out late at night dancing, as you can see in an earlier post, we rose to a ship rolling in the waves, creaking, persons looking off balance, and some looking a tad green. The waters are considered calm but one’s steps are uncertain as the deck becomes a sideways moving skateboard. At the top deck, the sea was rougher and the winds stronger. The waves, at about 4 feet in height, hit the ship on the starboard side (right side) forming foam and a mist. The mist caught the refracted morning sunlight and a rainbow formed, and, with the next wave, more foam and another rainbow, then another and another. The calming sound of the Atlantic, then a whoosh, an imbalanced moment, and these glorious rainbows sweep out before you, transfixing your attention so that you could hardly notice the back and forth swaying ship side. Some decks were closed, pools were emptied by the hand of the storm, and everybody walked a little more carefully. Holly and I tried out the tread mill. Now that was an experience. As the ship dipped you became light, almost floating, and then the ship came up again, and your legs pushed down against the force. There are rails on the walls all about the ship, and they are now being used. There is no protocol in the cabins but, trust me, walking one at a time is the best practice – although it’s more sporting if you are two and both trying to do anything at the same time. JPF

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

What one explorer did - that inspires others to go to Antarctica!

Probably everyone who is caught by something has some hero who embodies what’s best about that sport or profession or art.

For this Southern passage, I am in awe of Sir Ernest Shackleton who explored Antarctica in 1914.

He was not the only person to explore this brutal environment. Nor did he succeed in the way he hoped, But he used his wits to take a ship and a crew to the South Pole. And something unexpected happened along the way. They got trapped and it didn’t appear they would escape.

Sir Shackleton could well imagine the risks involved before he set out. He had been there before.

He was skilled in the treacherous waters. He took dogs to pull the sleds. He had the best men who all shared his passion. He covered his decks with coal so they could have the fuel to navigate around the bergs to find the summer water to get them close enough to their target for the continental trek.

Sir Shackleton did what he could to make a record of what transpired. He took cameras and film. He took notes.

But the ice he finally couldn’t avoid lodged his ship solid on either side, and then, as the ice expanded hour by hour, for days, and over time, it literally crushed his ship.

Before their hopes at passage to the south pole and their ship were shattered, the men would climb off the ship and play soccer on the ice.

Of course, one man slid into a crevasse and was almost lost when pulled free.

The men even got ropes and tried to pull the ship from the ice.

But to no avail

The men finally took the lifeboats and pushed them along the rough terrain of hard ice packed with their supplies so that they camp on the hardened ice until they could navigate themselves away to one of the northerly islands whenever the winter ice finally gave.

Shackleton helped his men survive until the ice melted, and prevented them from falling into the icy waters.

He got his men in the life boats to one island and went on against all odds to another island to get help.

He sailed in a small boat through rough waters under cloud cover except for a short time when his hand-picked navigator on what everyone assumed was a suicide mission, made a dead reckoning of their course and they found land and climbed over icy cliffs and rocks that no man had ever crossed to find a whaling village.

Sir Shackleton simply knocked on the door of a whaler who would never have believed his ears if his eyes didn’t behold Shackleton himself standing before him.

It was an extraordinary feat and it was told with great panache and detail in a journal published by Lord Schackleton.

So how does that grand adventure, deemed a failure, compare with what we’re doing?

We will sail cross some of the same icy water and see bergs like those that Shackleton engaged in another time and see much but not experience half as much as Shackleton did. But that’s as it should be when honoring a legend by an excursion to appreciate what he accomplished.

While it is still summer, we will enter the waters where there are tabular bergs in a few days, large chunks of ice, 100 feet high above the surface.

There can be terrible fog and we may see nothing at times. Of course, that presents certain navigation challenges.

The weather is severe or gentle, cold or colder, winds as high as 120 miles, water rough as you can imagine south of South America.

We have an ice pilot aboard ship to study how best to traverse the ice and to find a safe channel.

The fear that Shackleton had, other than getting stuck in the ice, was that the propeller or rudder would be damaged, preventing him from running forward.

To a much much lesser degree, these are all still matters of safety concern but technology increases the odds dramatically in favor of the ship and its passengers.

What we experience we expect will be nothing like the danger Shackleton had to confront with his men.

Shackleton’s ship was aptly named the endurance.

The ship lasted as long as it could but it was the men who endured.

Shackleton gave the men strength and conviction and directed their talents and blunted their anger and frustration.

As we leave the warmth of Buenos Aires, hour by hour, and the winds rise, as the air chills, and dolphins and seals and whales and sea birds are sighted from the ship, there is an anticipation and excitement to be even colder and stand in awe of this barren but beautiful continent to peek at what provoked Shackleton to help write the history of this continent.


Dancing Fools.....

There was a big dance on board and Holly and I danced the dance of the tangled legs. Or so it would appear.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

"Steaming" toward the Falklands - and the air is balmy and tropical

1:35 am, ship time, the moon in the southern sky, at S 34 degrees, 34.877 minutes, and W 58 degree, 21.868 minutes.  We're aboard ship and we're making our way south to the Falklands.  I'm keeping track of the latitude and longitude so we can compare where Shackleton and other explorers traveled.  We  are having lectures in the morning aboard ship from experts on the ports, the animals, the weather, and the withering ice.  Before we boarded, we toured Buenos Aires in a bus so big it banged trees and branches hanging down in the most quaint sections of town ( a town of 3 million people).  You feel their Plaza de Mayo outside the orange presidential palace, is like Lafayetter Park outside the White House.  As it's late, I was struck with the art that abounds, murals, bas reliefs, statutes, often hard working folk, especially in the Boca section.  You see rick thickly bodied figures, makes you think of Goya in his dark period, you know, not his court paintings.  Expressive and dramatic works.  Everywhere there are the tangled swining legs of the tango and the music.  you can have cappuccino to a tango.  or lunch or dinner or a drink.  Don't get me wrong, there's a poverty that hurts your soul here, hand made cinder block buildings with corrogated metal roofs, painting in aquamarine and purple, poor and hungry people, and not that far from some of the best restaurants in the world.  But I've got to wrap this up.  There's an elan on board that everyone is engaged in a novel undertaking, only a few have ever been or recently thought to go to Antarctica, and perhaps it's because soon you may not be able to go.  That's it for today.  Will write more manana.  JPF

Monday, February 1, 2010

Oops - what was I thinking?

I said we'd see polar bears.  Of course, we won't except in movies of the North pole.  There are none in the South Pole.  And you wonder why we couldn't get a retainer from National Geographic to underwrite this trip.

South To Antarctica - an Unfolding Adventure

(Posting: 1-1-10, at Midnight, local time, Latitude 34 degrees 35.382 minues, and Longitude 58 degrees 22.785 minutes)... Buenos Aires, Argentina. Holly and I are traveling to the cold dry South that is the moving blue ice mass known as Antarctica. We are only in the foothills of our trip, having flown by United from Dulles, an 11 hour "hop," to "don't-cry-for-me" Buenos Aires. We are staying only a few blocks from where Eva Peron is buried. The shop keeps talk ill of the politics that badly govern them - and talk with awe and respect of Peron still to this day. When we tell them we will visit the Falklands on the watery road south they talk ill of Great Britain and the US pushing them off the island they "know" was rightly theirs. We visited a large park where an eternal flame burns in memory of the young Argentinian men beaten and killed by the English who were helped by Chile next door. It was in the dark of night and three men gathered in the dark under a tree smoking pot. One of them asked me what was the significance of the memorial. I said bad policy by Great Britain and the United States and a needless loss of the young lives listed on this memorial somewhat like those found on the Nam memorial in DC. Each then spoke in turn in support of what I'd said, in their own way, and shook my hand and marveled at the senseless loss of life. The temperature during the day upon our arrival was 97 degrees Fahrenheit and, except for an occasional soft breeze off the nearby waters, there's little relief from the heat even in the evening but for the sweet helados and delicious havana rum drinks. We shall go from the heat of this marvelous Latin city by the coast by a large cruise ship to a land of penguins and polar bears to experience the shades of the adventure that beckoned explorers in truly dangerous times. This port city is our point of disembarkation, for an outing that is a pale mimicry of the challenges faced long ago when the rough waters and ice floes were unknown and the fixed study of a sturdy breed of seaworthy men who sought to conquer this dry thick continent of blazing white pointed ice sculptures. But it promises to be exciting nonetheless for the printed journals of Lord Ernest Shackleton, who tells a riveting story of hardship and vision, only give you the appetite to have a taste of what he risked both blood and bone to know and survive. JPF