Wednesday, December 31, 2008
We got a 5:00 wakeup call today. We were told the day before that this would be quite a busy day. At 5:30 the zodiacs took us over to Cuverville Island. There were two Gentoo penguin rookeries - one on either side of our landing spot. Our landing spot was a little precarious. The "beach" - nothing more than small-to-medium sized rocks - was less than 3 meters deep. Behind it was snow that was knee-high deep. Between many of the rocks was frozen water, so the options were 1) walk in the water, 2) walk on the slippery rocks, or 3) walk in the snow. We chose #1, and our feet got quite cold.
This was the first time we had seen a large group of Gentoos. We had seen them all over, but usually only in very small groups or solo. It was interesting to see their penguin "highways" through the snow. The site we were at should have been good for getting pictures, but where we were was in the shade and everywhere around was in the sun. So the background kept getting washed out of our shots, and we also had to keep fiddling with our sunglasses. The background was nice enough in and of itself - snowy peaks, lots of ice, brilliant blue sky with some clouds.
Back at breakfast, we had some entertainment from people trying Vegemite and Marmite on their toast. A couple of people brought the spreads with them from home, and were trying to get unsuspecting tourists to pick a favorite. While Vegemite wasn't liked all that well, it was still much preferred to Marmite. We stuck with butter, or nothing at all.
After breakfast, we all went outside, either on the bow or on the roof, to check out the scenery as we travelled through the Neumayer Channel. The views were great (although still not able to convey appropriately through photos), and there was other scenery as well. We had several whale sightings, and also a pod of Orcas (sorry, best shot we got) that came right past the left side of the ship.
We also saw more porpoising penguins, and penguins on floating icebergs. The whole time there was a giant glacier in front of us - it looked like a dead end. But right before we got there, we made a right turn and kept going. We came in and removed some layers, planning on going up to the bridge. 2 minutes later, though, Anja made an announcement to put on warm clothes as were about to make a landing at Damoy Point.
Damoy Point had a bunch of Gentoo penguins, but it also had something new, a Weddell seal. Many people walked up to a peak for a panoramic view - we opted to walk towards the seal instead. Either way, there was a ton of snow, and we were trudging along in snow past our knees. Crystal actually got one of her boots stuck at point, and had to dig it out. Justin and Adam (one of the more avid, if not most avid, photographers on the trip) were at the front of the line, and were falling in the most - everyone else more or less followed their steps. It was good exercise (and we weren't cold anymore, except for Crystal's foot), but it was very frustrating, but everyone seemed to find it more humorous than anything. The Weddell seal was very lazy - it slept 99% of the time we were there. We were all contorted to get a picture of the 1% when it moved. Meanwhile, there were penguins all around that were being ignored.
We took the long walk back for lunch, and then it was nap time. Crystal went right to sleep; Justin tried to stay awake, but ended up falling asleep in the bar (not from alcohol, by the way). Shortly before our zodiac landing, we brought the head of the small fort at Port Lockroy on board to tell us a bit about the area. We're not sure what the purpose of this is, but given how remote this area is (there are only 4 people at the fort), perhaps he just wanted to talk to a group of people. Anyway, after he was done, we got on the zodiacs and then split into two groups. Half went to Port Lockroy, and the other half went to a neighboring island, Jougla. We started there, not particularly interested in doing more shopping (and the gift shop at Port Lockroy made the other places we had been seem like a flea market).
On Jougla, there were even more Gentoos, and a lone Chinstrap penguin. There were also some terns and shags. One pair of shags appeared to be doing a courtship dance. Compared with our other landing sites on the trip, this one was nice in that many contours. There were a lot of small hills, allowing vantage points both up and down, shooting angles we hadn't had previously. Perhaps because we had been to numerous rookeries now, and had seen Gentoos all over the place, we weren't as interested in getting photos. Instead, we sat around and watched them do their thing. They have penguin highways all over the place for going between areas, going to the water, and so on. They have rock nests, and are always stealing rocks from their neighbor's nest to make their own nest bigger. After watching them for an afternoon, we got the impression that all they do is steal rocks or fight off others from stealing their own rocks.
Both Jougla and Port Lockroy had baby Gentoos. We had seen some on the Shackleton hike (just before getting to Stromness), but many people had not. Some of the chicks looked as though they had just been born, while others seemed about the same age we had seen on South Georgia. Because it warms up first on South Georgia, chicks are born in South Georgia earlier in the season than on the peninsula. There were some skuas around, and the penguins made this weird shreiking noise, trying to scare them off. On the short zodiac ride from Jougla to Port Lockroy, Crystal saw a leopard seal in the water. It followed the zodiac around, and popped its head out a couple of times to see what was going on. She saw it again just before leaving Port Lockroy; Justin was in a zodiac and it went right under the zodiac. In the water, it really looked serpentine. It sort of slithered through the water, like an eel or a snake would.
We got back to the ship a little after 7pm, and went to the bow of the ship for an outdoor barbecue. The food was very good, but it was freezing (perhaps literally) outside. In retrospect, we should have never taken more than one item at a time, since whatever wasn't being eaten right at the time got cold in a big hurry. We came inside around 9pm, and hung out in the bar. Shortly, nearly everyone was in the bar, and it was packed until after midnight. We were at a table with Brigita & Peter (and kids), and Nick & Lesley.
We went out on the bow for about 5 minutes for the countdown. Dr. Fudge was plastered, and kept trying to start the countdown prematurely, but Cristoph gave us the accurate countdown at midnight. We also heard many interesting stories about Dr. Fudge. One was that earlier in the day he tried to slide down the hillside on a plastic bag, and lost the plastic bag, and then made no effort to pick it up. Fortunately someone else grabbed it before it made its way into the water. We also heard a story about a previous cruise where Dr. Fudge was so drunk he tried to bring an axe (yes, an axe) onto one of the zodiacs. He was surprised to learn that this was not a good idea, either for the passengers that might get decapitated or the zodiac that might get popped. Assuming that was true, we have no idea how he ever got another gig on board the ship.
It was still light outside at midnight, which got us to wondering how many people celebrate New Year's in the light. Since Ushuaia (and its neighbor, the more southerly Puerto Williams) were both quite (if not completely) dark by midnight, the only people who would see New Year's in the light would be those people who worked in Antarctica or were on cruise ships - altogether, less than 10,000 people. So that was pretty cool.