Thursday, March 16, 2017

Godthul, S. Georgia and the Carpet of Bones

Godthul, S. Georgia with the Ortelius in the bay
     After a morning at Gold Harbour in the wind and snow, our afternoon landing at Godthul was completely clear and sunny.  Unfortunately, it was also laced with sad shadows of the past, much like Elsehul, earlier described.  When I stepped out of the zodiac, it was onto a carpet of bones.  Whale bones. 
   During the briefing about the landing, the staff advised that we needed to avoid the rusty metal container on one end of the beach, as it included some unexploded dynamite.  Apparently, they used to put dynamite in the bay and blow up the whales.  There were lots of rusty old barrels left near the metal container, which were used for whale blubber/oil.  Whales were processed here after death, and the bay was filled with their bodies.  In the early days, the blubber was stripped off, but there was no use of the meat or the rest of the whale.  Slaughter and waste.  They were simply left to decay.  Over time, the bones lined the beach, and while they would wash out to sea, they contained oil and would float, and end up back on the beach.  So in 2015, at least 45 years after all whaling supposedly ceased in S. Georgia, there was still a carpet of bones.   
The metal container is in the background
     The little bay is supposedly a  mile across, and looked peaceful in the sun.  There was no sign of marine life other than a few fur seals and a few elephant seals on the beach.  I tried to imagine living whales in this setting.  To have such a beautiful place bear witness to such disgusting whale massacres was hard to imagine. 
     Standing on, and walking around in, the bones was exceedingly creepy to me.  I had the same my-skin-is-crawling feeling all the time that I had at Elsehul, and as a result I found it difficult to enjoy this landing, despite the fact there was some wildlife.  Another challenge was the beach is quite small and was therefore quite crowded, so I could not go anywhere without other people, unlike most landings. 
An innocent elephant seal pup surrounded by whale bones
   Of course, seals were killed here too, and once again, looking at the adorable elephant seal pups, the large males that I found so charming with their giant noses and deep bellows, I could not imagine killing these creatures. 
     I could not look anywhere and not see bones.  I walked a little ways up into the tussock grass, which was hard to walk on.  Fur seals seemed to enjoy sleeping on tussocks, lazily barking if approached.
     There was a small colony of Gentoo penguins, some of which already had eggs which would hatch in a few months.
     I found this landing too depressing and too crowded to enjoy.  It was staggering to me that once again, man had left his trash behind when he had finished decimating the wildlife.  It was hard to imagine - after all these years no one had cleaned up after them either.  Permanent litter, at the far end of the earth.  Disgusting.

A fur seal on a tussock
A trio of weaner pups, amid bones of murdered whales

A Gentoo egg

A mated pair of Gentoos peers into their nest

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Gold Harbour, S.Georgia and Once in a Lifetime Wildlife Experiences

King Penguins with their chicks at Gold Harbour
     You may have seen video clips on the internet of some lucky tourist sitting in full gear on a cold beach, with a seal pup on his or her lap as everyone ooooohs and aaaaahs and takes photos.  I know I saw one, taken on Elephant Island, and wanted to go there immediately.  But, the thing is, it is pretty hard to get to, and as I said in a prior post, the itineraries that included that island had loads of days at sea and lots of risk we couldn't even land at places due to limited windows and unpredictable weather.  Lucky for me, though, elephant seal pups (which most such "seal on the lap" videos feature) are also on S. Georgia.  In one of the "vomitorium" briefings one super experienced guide said that these seal pups, "weaners," have finished their 23ish days of nursing from mom and mom has departed, and they are seeking companionship and if you sit still, all 120ish pounds of them will get up on your lap.  Well, you don't have to tell ME twice!!!!!!!  I am a person who 100% respects all the rules, but there is no rule against a seal pup coming up to me if I am just sitting there (and I don't touch it).
     The morning of Nov. 7 we were supposed to have a super early landing at St. Andrews Bay, a famous and huge colony site, but due to bad weather (no longer a surprise) we could not safely land there.  So instead we headed to Gold Harbour, beach with loads of King penguins and loads of elephant seals.  This was a great, great, awesome, super cool landing - despite the really windy, snowy, cold, and terrible-for-photography conditions.
A penguin chick gets a meal from its parent; they find each
other by their calls, despite the many penguins
   For one thing, it was the first landing where I saw King penguin chicks, called Oakum boys, a name from days gone by which refers to a kind of tarred fiber used in shipbuilding, which apparently the fuzzy brown chicks look like.  The penguin species do not all breed/hatch at the same time, and King penguin chicks take a long time, over a year (14-16 mos.) to mature.  So in November, we were seeing last year's chicks, and the other penguin species had not yet laid eggs, but were courting and nesting.  The Southern Ocean has a really limited window for animals to breed, and each week matters, so the time of year we were there, elephant seal pups were mostly born and nursing or weaners, fur seals were not get aggressive and mating, King penguins had one year old chicks, and Gentoos were making nests. 
Two "Oakum Boys" King Penguin chicks in the snow
     This was the first landing where my husband and I did the same thing: hung out on the beach with wildlife.  No hiking, no separate activities - so that was cool in and of itself.  I had to try out the waterproofish "bag" I brought for my camera and the lens hood to try and keep snow and wet off the camera.  It was super cold and windy and at times I just had to turn my back to the wind and wait, then continue on the beach when the wind died down.  The light and conditions in general sucked for photos (maybe some professionals knew tricks to get around this, but I didn't).  But it was still G-R-E-A-T.
     Although I am tragically bad at video, I wanted to try and capture the way these fat chicks (often bigger than the adults in their girth) walk - or waddle.  This super brief clip gives you some sense of sound and movement.

      After walking the length of the beach and seeing the amazing numbers of seals, penguins, and penguin chicks, I sat in the sand and low and behold - you betcha - a weaner elephant seal pup came up to me.  The approach was slow, the rolls of blubber flopping my way in the sand, the seal pup sniffing in my direction.  He (or she) called to me, had a kind of snotty nose, and seemed really interested in milk, nudging me the way a nursing critter does to try and release milk.  I sat still and savored the moment. 
Sitting in my Adventure Barbie/Michelin Man hideous pink
clearance price raincoat, waiting for the elephant seal pup to
check me out
     I felt bad for the pup.  I would have loved to hug and cuddle him or her and offer them a warm place to stay and treats - but in nature, one does not interfere.  Touching is not appropriate.  I cannot offer this seal a thing, except a temporary curiosity on a cold beach.  So I sat, as the seal pup investigated me, and my husband took photos.     I am not a selfie person and I hate photos of me, and my husband is not a photographer and hates taking pictures.....but I really, really hoped that he would capture this moment so when I am old I can look back on it.  The sounds of seals and penguins all around me, the sound of the wind, and the time I looked into those seal pup eyes - hoped the best for the little pup, and felt honored to be so visited.
     And the little bugger decided to sample-taste my polar boot.  That boot is tough so I never felt a thing, really.  Apparently it did not taste like milk, so the pup moved on.  I hope that he or she is still alive and well, and enjoying the southern ocean and all the things elephant seals like.....but I will never know.
Elephant seal "weaner" sampling my polar boot
     My husband is not as quick to jump into wildlife encounters, and doesn't seem to crave them in the way I do. He likes animals, but he doesn't have the same relationship with them that I do.  He likes wildlife travel, but I think it is a different experience for him than it is for me.  He didn't seem overly eager to have a seal pup in his lap....but then, he sat down.  And he got two of them - the first giving him a brief visit, as I had gotten from "my pup," and the second, which lingered.  And lingered.  And nudged.  And investigated.  And nosed.  And smelled.  And generally seemed enamored of my husband.  I took lots of photos.  And I had the same jealousy I have when one of my cats decides to cuddle my husband and not me.  It's unfair.  And I should not be jealous.  And I was genuinely happy for my husband.  And yet, why couldn't *I* get the seal that lingers?   Ah, such is life.  It is what it is.  And so, my husband and "his seal pup."
A "weaner" pup literally on my husband's lap
     The beach was long, with the penguin colony on one far end.  The trip passengers spread out, each doing their own thing, so although you could look up and see other people here and there, it was mainly like being alone with the animals, dropping in on them as they went about their business.  I saw penguins molting, seals nursing, penguins exiting the surf and making their way to the colony through a thick barrier of seals.  It snowed the entire time we were there, making photography very challenging indeed.  Every photo from this landing has snow flying through it.  I struggled with the plastic bag covering on my camera and the lens hood.
   I made my way to the colony and spent time there trying to get a good photo of one of the chicks - which was quite challenging.  This is my favorite close-up image.
I wonder where this little chick is now?
     At one point when I was near the middle of the beach, a huge male elephant seal decided I was too close to him or his harem and he raised himself up, taller than me, and bellowed at me, steam coming out of his mouth as he balanced on his flippers.  I did as instructed and backed away from him, with one of the staff telling me how many steps I could take before tripping and falling over another seal.  I wasn't afraid, I thought he was warning me to back away and I was, but it was super handy to have someone telling me what was behind me as I backed up. I could see myself falling on another seal or stepping on a penguin, neither of which I would ever want to do.     
There is no good way to capture the density
    After about 3 hours or so, the weather deteriorated such that we needed to get back to the ship.  Despite the fact we all wanted more time with the animals, everyone cooperated with getting lifejackets on, grouping into zodiac sized lines, and loading up for the trip back to the ship.  The zodiacs staggered themselves so that we could unload without waiting around, and by this time, I was getting the hang of the boarding and unboarding enough that - although always cautious - I was no longer actually expecting a dislocation or injury.  Everyone lined up for the disinfectant dip and very efficiently, in what seemed no time at all, everyone was back on board and warming up with lunch.
Male elephant seal looking over the beach at Gold Harbour
   As I said, not a birder - but two photos from this landing I couldn't help but take were a skua and a giant petrel.
Giant petrel

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Larsen Harbor, S. Georgia & Weddell Seals

     After a morning at Cooper Bay, we had an opportunity for zodiac cruising in Larsen Harbor in the afternoon.  The cruising, although cold, was beautiful and we had the chance to see a really huge Weddell seal with a huge pup nursing. 

Weddell seal pup with a milk mustache from nursing.  I wonder if seal
milk tastes fishy??
Weddell seal pup busy nursing, oblivious to his excited spectators
This photo shows the relative size of the mother and pup
      A small fur seal got out of the water, briefly visited the mother Weddell and pup, and got back into the water, disappearing beneath the surface.
A fur seal about to dive into the water
      Around a bend another Weddell was laying in the snow, and appeared to be pregnant and slow moving.
A possibly pregnant Weddell
    We saw a lone Gentoo penguin at the base of a cliff, looking lost.  Some skua and giant petrels rested in the snow here and there.  The remnants of a seal lay on the edge of the water; I wondered what the cause of death had been, and when.
A giant petrel pokes at the remains of a seal
     In the harbor the scenery was beautiful, with snow capped mountains, exposed rock now and then peeking through ice and snow, and the occasional animal dotting the landscape.  Everything was peaceful and quiet - no noise of humans other than the zodiac motor.  It didn't seem to disturb the animals, who ignored us or looked at us placidly.  Despite being on the zodiac, I was pleased with many of the photos.

     The wind had picked up, and the radio the guide was using to communicate with the ship crackled on.  The Captain came on and we all heard the tension in his voice as he said "Get back to the ship, please get all zodiacs back to the ship. The wind has come up and the forecast is 50 knots."  You'd be an idiot not to realize that in those kinds of winds the zodiac can easily flip.  As you may recall from one of the first postings about the trip, the math for survival doesn't work out well if you go in the water.  With how far we were from the ship and the other zodiacs, and multiple people plus the guide in the zodiac, a flip could be fatal.  I think everyone on the zodiac was aware of that.
     Immediately everyone tucked all their camera gear into their waterproof backpacks and braced for a speedy return to the ship as the guide called around to the other zodiacs to make sure they had gotten the message and were headed to the ship.  Two zodiacs did not answer.  The only responsible thing was to go and find them, so we did, heading farther away from the Ortelius.  We found one and it headed back as we went where the last one had been seen.  It was tucked around a corner in a small cove like area looking at some ice and hadn't gotten the transmission, but everyone was fine and now the last two zodiacs headed in.
       As soon as the Captain had called us in, a leisurely afternoon of wildlife viewing had switched immediately to an urgent desire to be safely back on board the ship.  The great group of experienced travelers were all calm and compliant, and I think we all shared concern for the safety of the other zodiacs when they didn't respond and understood the half hour detour to go retrieve them.  Once again though, I reflected on the fact that this particular trip is not for the faint of heart.  It is dangerous and you would have to be in denial or lying to yourself to think otherwise.  It is a danger I was willing to assume, and one I know my fellow passengers who had been to this island before well knew too.  But when you book a trip and you weigh the danger, it is analytical.  When you are hunched as far down as you can get into a Zodiac, with a bitingly cold wind in your face, and your heart rate is increasing slightly each time the zodiac hits a wave right and flips the front out of the water more where it could catch a wind gust and flip, it is a more visceral analysis of danger. 
Some impressive snow and ice, dwarfing the zodiacs
     I was greatly relieved when I got back on board.  I would have been worried about my husband if he had been on a different zodiac but he had been too tired after the morning hike to go cruising.  I often travel alone, and don't mind it at all.  On this trip I was very glad to have my husband with me as these were not conditions in which I would have wanted a random roommate.  However, we have different interests sometimes and this trip was great for catering to those.  At each landing, there would be a hike on offer, often on snowshoes but not always, and my husband would often take the hike while I focused on wildlife.  The result was that at this point in the trip, we had yet to be at a landing site together and had only been in the same zodiac once.  While I was glad he was safe on board the ship, napping, I was sorry he missed Larsen Harbor, as it offered the only chance on S. Georgia to see a Weddell seal - typically they were in colder waters towards Antarctica.
     There were some truly amazing landings yet to come, and they got better and better not only because of what we saw and the density of wildlife, but we had some cooperative weather, and I began to get the hang of gearing up and down so it was more efficient, less of a chore, and I was more comfortably prepared for conditions.  I'm still working on how to describe some of the sites as what we encountered was truly breathtaking in scope.  There were also a few more ugly shadows of the whaling past that would surprise me with their scope.
     Having begun, finally, to blog about this trip I am telling the story in the order it happened,  In part that entails sorting through photos to try and pick a few to illustrate each landing or animal.  I have over 7,500 photos from the trip (luckily organized by day, and some taken by my husband - the first trip he was motivated to undertake photography!) so that isn't an easy task.  One of the people I ate with often on the ship marveled at the camera equipment of some of the passengers, as he also used a simple point and shoot camera.  There was one person who had brought a million dollars worth of filming equipment.  Granted, there were people working on documentaries and other very serious professional photographers, but still, that's a staggering price tag.  "What do you think a picture with a million dollar camera looks like?" he asked one night.  I sure had no idea.  Another story he told more than once was of meeting a professional photographer on a past trip who had said this:  "You know what the difference is between a professional photographer and an amateur?  A professional takes 1,000 photos and shows you two.  An amateur takes 1,000 photos and shows you 1,000."  I think there is a lot of truth in that.  I'm trying to share enough photos to give a sense of place and experience without so much that it's boring or repetitive, and it is hard to choose from the many photos.
     I have a couple of very busy weeks coming up, so I don't think I can maintain a post per day in that timeframe.  However, I will try to post regularly as best I can until the rest of the trip is covered.  We visited Larsen Harbor on Nov. 6 and the trip ended on Nov. 28, for some perspective, but there were more storms (3) and more days at sea so not every day was blog-worthy.

Cooper Bay, S. Georgia: Macaroni & Chinstrap Penguins

Three young fur seals at Cooper Bay
    The next day we were landing at Cooper Bay, which we were told would be the only chance for us to see Macaroni penguins on this voyage.  The government of South Georgia had put out a booklet about what you can expect to see on S. Georgia which was several years old.  According to the information in that book and the photos, Macaroni penguins were by far the most prolific and easiest to see penguin on the island, with multiple huge colonies.  Yet, in 2015, there was this one place to see them on S. Georgia?  And it was not a huge colony.  The huge colonies were now King and Gentoo.  There was only one chance to see Chinstrap penguins as well, and it would also be this day. We would not be able to land near the chinstraps, however, as there had been some disease in their colony (avian cholera) and it would be an unacceptable biological risk to land and possibly spread it elsewhere despite precautions.  I was more than happy to comply with such a rule and glad it was in place, but it was weird that the numbers of penguins and their locations were changing so rapidly.
     Why?  Global warming has impacted the available krill, which is a major food source for penguins and many other animals in this part of the world.  In addition, krill is being harvested commercially for factory farmed fish and for extraction of oil.  There is insufficient regulation, using outdated data, of the amounts than can be harvested.  The net result of all this is far, far less krill in the southern ocean, and visably fewer penguins and whales, which rely heavily on krill.  A recent article in the NY Times explains these issues well.  On all of my wildlife trips I see impacts of global warming, and they are always depressing.  It is even more depressing that people still refuse to recognize the dangers, and that as a species we are not working together to do everything we can to slow it.
     The guides who had been coming to S. Georgia and Antarctica for years had taken photos over the years and shared in slide shows their personal observations - glaciers shrinking, ice melting, colonies of penguins shrinking, locations of penguin colonies changing as they seek colder water and more available krill. Yes, another layer of depressing on this trip on which there was no shortage.  Mankind is deeply and perhaps already irreversibly altering a critical part of the world ecosystem and all the species therein, yet little attention is being paid.  Scientists try and warn us, but most people are not that informed, and certainly not demanding action from their governments on the issue.
     Trying to focus on the one chance to see Macaroni penguins rather than all the depressing reasons I would not be having more chances than one, I geared up for a landing at Cooper Bay.  The briefing mentioned that there was a somewhat steep and difficult climb to get to their colony, and urged caution.  Apparently, it was at this landing spot on a previous trip where someone broke a leg and the ship had to go to the Falkland Islands hospital - ending the trip for all.  I renewed my commitment to try and be aware of my physical self, and to be careful and not get injured.
    A few of the guides/staff marked out the
Zodiacs landed on the small beach;  this is taken from above,
near the Macaroni penguin colony
route to the colony so that we were not making more than one trail, marking it with small flags.  The snow was quite deep, about 18-24 inches, and each step was very challenging as a result.  These "post holes" that occur from sticking a leg into the snow can be death to penguins as a penguin can fall into one and be unable to get out.  Therefore, we tried to step in one another's steps to make as few as possible, and we filled each one in with snow. Before returning to the ship, staff removed the flags and checked to make sure the post holes were filled in.  Again, I can't say enough good things about Cheesemans Ecology Safaris due to their attention to these kinds of details. 
Overlooking the Macaroni colony, which is on a bluff
     I really need to concentrate not to fall - I am hardly coordinated in regular gear, let alone 5 layers and giant, heavy polar boots (I was wearing men's size 11.  Huge.)  As a result I waited until most of the people had made the climb so I could go slower.  I made it to the colony and took this photo showing the tussocks, the snow, and the penguins overlooking the ocean.  Then I spent an hour or more trying to get a close up of a Macaroni.  Although I laid in the snow and tried several positions, I was never happy with my shots.  First, the grass often screwed up the focus, and there was also blowing snow, which ruined shots. 

Attempted close up of a Macaroni penguin
    If I were a serious photographer I am sure I could have managed it, but with the point and shoot, as much as I love it, most of the shots were throw aways.  I know my fellow travelers were able to get some lovely shots (of which I am jealous, but I am happy for them).  However, I never was able to get the shots I wanted here. 
     Even if you are wearing five layers, sitting or laying in the snow does make you cold - so I tried to move around enough to try another location.  The snow was sometimes so heavy I couldn't get any shots, and while usually we all spread out and didn't bother one another, here there was really only one vantage point of the
This is probably my favorite shot, and still not great.
colony and so everyone was clustered together trying to get photos.  Luckily this was a very polite group to travel with.  All the same, it was awkward jockeying for a way to take photos.
   As I previously mentioned, I am very inexperienced with taking video and I very, very rarely do it.  All the same, I wanted to try on this trip to capture a bit of the sounds of the animals and a little bit of their movement.  Here is a very short video of a macaroni penguin who has made his way up to the colony and is walking through it.
     The way most of the penguins got to the colony was around the corner from the small beach the zodiacs were landing on.  I visited it by zodiac - you can see the line of penguins here making their way up to the bluff and the colony.

Macaroni penguins make a steep ascent
     When I was ready to descend, having gotten cold and given up on photos, I encountered an elderly woman who was struggling to get to the top, so I gave her a hand.  With all the layers of clothing I don't know who she was, but I remember thinking that I really hope when I am her age I am still taking these types of trips and making the effort to see something amazing even if it is hard.
     I decided that there was no way I could safely descend on foot.  I was falling and tripping and it was taking forever to fill in post holes.  I was exhausted.  So I decided that I would sit down and slide back to the beach.  It was safer to slide than to try to climb down.
Fur seals curled up look just like rocks - this one is upright
    I sat down and began to slide down towards the beach, with my boots out so I could push off rocks as needed.  Unfortunately, I then discovered a problem.  Fur seals look like rocks when they are curled up, and there were a lot of them curled up along the route to the beach.  When you are tall, fur seals will leave you alone vs. attack, which is why you are supposed to raise your arms if they are attacking you and they back off.  I was sitting.  As the fur seals became aware of me sliding near them, several came for me.  They bark before/as they attack and give you a warning.  All of a sudden I had several coming for me.  I decided to try and speed up as much as possible vs. stand.  I was betting on the fact I wasn't bothering them that much and they were just giving me warning barks to stay away.  If they wanted to catch me they certainly could.  But if I stood for each one, I'd never make t down.
     Sliding down as fast as I could, trying to both be quick and not get injured, and trying hard not to get bit by a fur seal, I thought about how this was a most interesting and challenging vacation.  I hadn't expected this particular experience.  I was very relieved when I got to the beach unbitten and uninjured.
A large fur seal on the beach, which attacked one of the staff,
and was successfully tamed by a stick tickling his whiskers. 
I had to see it to believe it worked.
     At the beach, I took a zodiac over to see the chinstrap colony and the other wildlife in the area.  As we couldn't land at the chinstrap colony, it was very hard to get any photos of them from the bouncing zodiac full of photographers.  The guides did their best to give everyone a chance to see them, and I did see them - but once again I wasn't really happy with any of my photos.  Too much bounce and movement and I couldn't just sit and wait for shots - it was more of an aim, point, shoot, hope situation.  I managed to shift from one zodiac to the another on the water without incident to get a few more chances.  I did not end up with a close up I loved but here are the best of the shots I could obtain as well as a couple of the area from the zodiac.
Chinstrap penguin
Chinstrap penguin
      Overall, it was a really interesting morning, and I was happy to get back to the ship uninjured, warm  up, and get ready for the afternoon.  I was learning that many of the landing sites could not be made due to weather, but the guides and crew were always working to try and make something possible, even if not where planned.  Itineraries mean nothing and weather means everything, so you just have to wait for openings and take them when you can.  Although there are never guarantees in wildlife travel, on this kind of trip you really need to realize that you will not see everything you plan to see and that's life. 
     In planning the trip, I had considered a voyage that stopped at a lot of islands including the Sandwich Islands and Elephant Island.  I ended up not booking that trip due to concerns about the number of days at sea between islands and the fact that there was one chance to land at each place and if weather prevented it, I'd miss it.  Now that I saw what the weather was like in this part of the world I was really glad I picked an in-depth S. Georgia trip instead.  Even though we missed some landings, we had a lot of chances, not just one, to see more of the wildlife on the island, and no real time at sea after arrival at S. Georgia.
A small iceberg near Cooper Bay
A shag or cormorant (I forget which) in Cooper Bay


Saturday, March 11, 2017

Grytviken, S.Georgia Scenery

      I had intended to visit Shackleton's grave at Grytviken, but I decided not to when the day finally came.  The morning offered a hike to the site, but I had no interest in putting on all that gear and hiking, especially in polar boots and given that the hike would not really yield wildlife but views. (I'll hike almost anywhere for mammals but not for a view).  I was glad I didn't go because many who did were later sporting incredible sunburns from the snow glare, including one staff member who literally burned her eyeballs somehow and one crew member who had a completely red face for several days after.

Grytviken, where the whaling station is a museum
     There were landings at Grytviken in the afternoon to visit the grave, but it was an en masse event and I didn't care to visit it with other people.  I also had less than no interest in the whaling station and definitely did not want a tour to hear about the massive numbers of whales that were murdered there and how wasteful man had been in that timeframe with the whale bodies.  I was glad I didn't go because visiting Elsehul had already gotten me thinking too much about the massive slaughters of the past and I literally couldn't stomach the idea of visiting the actual station.  The scenery from the boat was good enough for me, and since the storm had passed I was better able to read.
    I like to read books on a trip that relate to the trip: the place, the environment, the wildlife or the history.  Not exclusively, but it is always interesting to be reading about a place while experiencing it as well. 
     I read "Two Years Before the Mast," which
The ice was impressive
was published in 1840 about a voyage from Boston to California and written by a young man who had taken a sailing job for the first time as a break from college.  It was very interesting, but the point of the voyage was to fill the ship with furs.  Basically there was (surprise) a massive, massive amount of animal killing, then a scraping and drying of skins, and then packing the skins very tightly in the ship.  We are talking thousands and thousands of animals killed - just for this one ship.  The author describes California as it was first being settled, the animals there now gone.  It's a great story, but certainly if animal massacres bother you and you happen to be thinking about them anyway, not great to dwell on the details. 
     The author did encounter storms in the Southern Ocean, and the description of those and how the crew coped with them on an old time sailing ship was really interesting and timely.  It meant so much more having had the experience of a storm in that location, and of course on a far, far more modern ship and not having to do any hard work of sailing it.
     I read "The Home of the Blizzard: A True Story of Antarctic Survival," (about an Australian exploration of the Antarctic 1911-1914) and "The Worst Journey in the World" (about Scott's last journey in the Antarctic), and "Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex" (supposedly the true story Moby Dick is based on, a whaling mission that ends in shipwreck).  These were not easy reading, and included descriptions of killing whales, penguins, and seals.  While the conditions in Antarctica were incredibly tough for the men, resulting in many well-described deaths and injuries, they actually took animals with them.  What a terrible idea.
A zodiac is in the lower right
    There was a description of horses brought to Antarctica, and how the horses were below deck during storms in the southern ocean, sometimes dying before reaching shore.  I love my horses every bit as much as people love their children.  I cannot imagine any person putting horses through storms in the southern ocean and then expecting them to survive in Antarctica.  Pure lunacy and cruelty. Every one of the poor horses eventually died from starvation, exposure, falling through ice, or otherwise in storms.  Brutal.
     The poor dogs fared a bit better but not much, always having some tragic, tragic end.  There were descriptions of dogs chained to the deck in storms in the southern ocean, repeatedly doused with cold waves, sometimes drowned, sometimes washed overboard. Again, what on earth possessed people to subject dogs to these conditions? The things the dogs were subjected to as they pulled sleds and helped man explore the newly discovered Antarctic continent would chill any dog lover.  I thought of my border collie waiting for me at home. 
     I can accept men wanting to explore and taking risks with their lives.  It's much harder for me to accept subjecting animals to such risks and conditions.  Clearly some of the men cared for the animals but were realistic about having to kill them, sometimes eat them, sometimes feed them to the other animals.  It was a harsh time, no doubt.  I wouldn't have wanted to have any part of it.
     For science, some of the early explorers made great efforts to obtain some Emperor Penguin eggs and some actual penguins.  It's so odd though that while the explorers describe the penguin colony with reverence and the birds as majestic and beautiful and they view their mission as one that will advance scientific understanding of the birds in the future - they would then describe having a few for lunch.  Kind of surreal.  Complaints were made about taste and texture.
    Another shocking description in these books was that ships would stop at the Galapagos Islands and stock up with tortoises, filling the ship with hundreds.  The live animals would be living in the dark with no food and water below deck until they were cooked and eaten.  They were considered a great food supply as they stayed alive and "fresh."  The description of how many hundreds were gathered by each ship for this purpose was another terrible shock - reflecting on the population decimation that took place.  How could it not occur to anyone that such pillaging was totally unsustainable?  Having been to Galapagos and seen the tortoises (and how few remain) again, it was appalling to think about how much destruction of other species man has managed in such a short time. How so many people could go along with these practices without concern or conscience I can't understand.
     Suffice it to say that the reading did not improve my conflicted emotions about visiting S. Georgia and Antarctica.  It also did not make me want to engage in dinner conversation; what can one possibly say with all these thoughts of animal massacre on such grand scale floating about?
     Sometimes birds landed on our ship, despite the fact we turned off lights and closed windows at night as instructed.  If they were just resting, that was great and they moved on eventually - but sometimes they were injured or killed.  Great.  We do everything possible to protect the animals and the environment where we are visiting, and we still take some lives.  Ug.  We were being so careful, I couldn't help but think about all the ships that weren't, and how many ships visit Antarctica these days.  Is the fact that the animals we are killing now are few and unintentional comforting?  Not really.

A sooty albatross on deck
I forgot what kind of bird this was, despite the guide telling me
      At the end of the day dinner was served outside on deck, surrounded by a gorgeous view - but it was super cold.  So cold one didn't want to eat, and I felt awful that the ship staff were trying to serve in those conditions.  I worried about each plastic cup or piece of paper that might get blown into the ocean by the wind and ran down several.  It seemed somehow like we were violating this place despite all efforts not to do so.  I really wonder if there are some places we just should agree not to go. 
     Then again, Japanese whalers are still whaling in the Antarctic every year despite an international ban, claiming whaling is for "scientific purposes," which is a complete crock.  Maybe tourist traffic gets in their way a bit?  In India the presence of tourists helps reduce poaching - I know of no studies on how it might impact whaling in the modern age. (Japan, Norway and Iceland are still whaling).  There is no question that we are doing far less damage now than in years past, and that this part of the world is a gorgeous, special place to visit.  There was also no doubt in my mind the company I was traveling with was serious about conservation and the environment and responsible.
     I wanted to be able to enjoy the scenery and feel at peace in such a beautiful setting, but I found it just wouldn't work.  I was still feeling deeply unsettled by my reflections at Elsehul on how easy the seal killing had been for decades and how mankind managed to almost completely destroy the marine mammals in this part of the world, in very recent times.  Reading was not proving a good distraction.  I was grateful that dinner conversation was impossible in the cold conditions, and hoped tomorrow would be a more uplifting day.  I wanted to leave Grytviken, and the horrors of sealing and whaling, behind me.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Elsehul, S. Georgia, and Shadows of a Dark Past

The Ortelius anchored off Elsehul
      The next day of our journey the weather was too bad to land where we had planned.  Later in the afternoon,  we were able to land at Elsehul, South Georgia.  Although there were once again lots of penguins and seals and the wildlife viewing was great, it was at this second stop that a darker shadow of the past began to really bother me, like a dangerous undertow that pulled at me as I walked along the beach.
     I knew that South Georgia had been a whaling station, primarily because of the story of Earnest Shakleton and his amazing survival journey which ended at a whaling station on South Georgia. The story of the Endurance and Shakleton's incredible leadership skills is a really gripping one, and if you haven't read "Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage," you really should.  Shipwrecked south of South Georgia, Shackleton and his men survived, and were eventually rescued due to a stunning small boat trip and a hike across the island of South Georgia to the whaling station.  (My husband had planned to retrace Shackleton's steps across the island on a two day hike, but the weather was deemed too bad to embark on the hike this day.)
      Certainly, the records of the Shackleton voyage contain a record of seals and penguins being killed, but they were killed to sustain shipwrecked men, not for sport, and not in excess.  Who can fault that?  It was necessity.  The whaling station eventually provided rescue to the shipwrecked men, and what a wonderful thing, setting aside the dark reason for its existence and the evil that was done there for so many years.
     Whaling in South Georgia was all about excess.  The first whaling station was established there in 1904 and then several more came into being, making South Georgia literally the world wide center of whale massacres. Whaling stations were at Grytviken (operating 1904-64), Leith Harbor (1909-64), Ocean Harbor (1909-20), Husvik (1910-60), Stromness (1912-61)and Prince Olav Harbor (1917-34). Yes, that's right, a continual killing spree from 1904 (when whales were plentiful) to 1965 (when many were on the brink of extinction). We killed almost all of them - literally.  It only stopped five years before I was born, and I was now standing on South Georgia a mere 50 years later at age 45, looking at what 50 years of recovery had brought to pass.
     But setting aside the horrific whaling for a moment, something at least most people are at least mildly aware of as a period in human history, dark and murderous though it was, there is yet another layer of disgusting evil in the shadows of the past that fewer people are aware of.  Before the whalers came the sealers.  Yes, seal killers.  They killed in massive, massive, massive numbers and when they had darn near killed all of the seals (literally), they moved on to the whales.  After all, whales are harder to take than seals.
     The sealing started in 1786, by the English, and started with the fur seals.  Fur seals are smaller (albeit the males can be plenty big) than elephant seals, and certainly can be killed by one man.  A ship of sealers could easily kill thousands upon thousands of fur seals, and so they did.  They did so with no thought to breeding cycles, conservation, sustainability, or anything but profit.  When they ran out of fur seals, they switched to the elephant seals.  Bigger, harder to kill, requiring more men, but still ever so manageable.  And when they ran out of those poor elephant seals, they started in earnest on the whales.  Supposedly, sealing activities on South Georgia had three marked peaks in 1786–1802, 1814–23, and 1869–1913.  Of course, seals were also killed between 1913 and 1965, but the numbers were far less because the populations had been completely and totally decimated.
Mother elephant seals with young nursing pups
  South Georgia, and the Southern Ocean, were essentially the scenes of mass murder from 1786 to 1965, and in those 179 years, mankind managed to all but exterminate the marine mammals.
     Standing on South Georgia in 2015, I looked at the fur seals and the elephant seals - the males, the females and the pups of both species.  These creatures were not afraid, not running away.  They do not naturally see man as an enemy but as a fellow animal, and they won't bother us if we don't bother them.  Sure, maybe they will charge or bellow or nip if you get too close, but protecting a little five foot territory around themselves is certainly reasonable.  If you have ever been to Galapagos you have experienced what it is like to walk among wildlife who do not perceive man as a natural threat.  Birds nesting at one's feet, iguanas, sea lions - all willing to say hello, to interact, or to go about their business and ignore us.  South Georgia is much the same only far, far, far, FAR better.
Mating elephant seals work on the next generation
      Galapagos is already way too touristy.  They have tried to protect it by marking trails and making boardwalks so all the tourists don't destroy the islands.  Quite sensible.  But no matter how you slice it or spin it, there are boatloads of hundreds of tourists downloaded to those poor islands daily, and so the once remote and isolated Galapagos are now nature-filled tourist destinations.  Man has literally overrun the place, which is what made a trip there (although also very good in many respects) a bit disappointing for me.  Too many darn people, and all the drawbacks that they bring wherever they go.
     South Georgia is what I imagine the Galapagos used to be more like (albeit way warmer) - actually remote, with no trails, no cities, no boardwalks.  South Georgia is divine in that respect.  A pure place of nature.  And unlike Galapagos, there are not a zillion ships packed with tourists.  It is such a hard and costly and lengthy trip not that many can do it, and only one ship at a time is allowed in each landing spot if they do.
A male elephant seal, nose and tail fins exposed
     So, in this place which is heavenly devoid of humans, which is still very natural, part of me rejoiced.  All the yucky things that come with humans - noise, garbage, talking, selfies, stupidity, destruction and so much more, were all absent. Wonderful.  And lots of animals who do not fear me, who tolerate me, who sit and look at me placidly as I try to take their photographs, who go about their animal business as if I am not even there.....what could be better?
A young male fur seal calls out to others
    Except that therein lie a great sadness.  These innocent creatures were just like this 179 years ago, and 150, and 100, when men came to kill them.  The baby elephant seals with their completely baby eyes just looked up at men who slaughtered them.  I could have killed any seal on that beach pretty easily; I could have killed them all.  They sat there. All those years ago their ancestors no doubt sat there too, just as innocent, and so they were slaughtered mercilessly and by the millions.    
     I could no more imagine the men who slaughtered them being able to do that than I can imagine how the men who go into a kindergarten with an assault rifle and mow down four and five year olds can do it.  I know the evil in the killers in those two scenarios doesn't compare, but the innocence of the victims does.  The killing wasn't "an industry" or "sportsmanlike" it was just a slaughter.  Senseless killing and wasting of life.  Sure, there was a market for oil, and profits were made, but there was no guiding moral compass setting reasonable limits, trying to minimize suffering, trying to ensure a sustainable resource.  It was just take, take, take, take until everything was gone. I thought about the men who could kill those seals - I would not want to meet such men. 
What could be more innocent that an elephant seal pup??
     The men who did the killing left evidence of their crimes as well, and I saw the first of that here at Eelsehul, in the form of "tri pots."  Heavy iron pots were located not too far up the beach.  Seals were killed and skinned and then the pots were used to melt down the fat and blubber and render oil. I felt, looking at them, much like I felt looking at the ovens used to cremate the Jews and other prisoners at Dachau.  I'm not comparing the moral wrong - I recognize that mass murder of humans is even worse, according to most moral compasses and philosophies, than mass murder of marine animals.  I understand.  But the feeling I had - the something creepy under my skin feeling - was the same looking into those pots on South Georgia as looking into those ovens in Germany.  In both instances innocent life was snuffed out in mass numbers and acknowledging that doesn't mean I am saying those lives are of equal value or the crimes in the killing are equal.
A fur seal peeks over the tri-pots left by sealers
      Faced with a material thing like a pot or an oven that has been used countless times to dispose of countless bodies is a repulsive thing.  A cute young fur seal peeking over the pots was in fact very cute, but not so cute that I could shake the feeling of revulsion.
     As I stood and looked around me, walked around the beach and saw the penguins going about their business of nesting, heard the seal pups calling for mom so they could nurse, heard the barks of the fur seals staking their territories, and felt the strong, cold wind, I was conflicted at the good of the present and the awfulness of the past. 
     The Gentoo penguins, unburdened by the past, were finding mates, making nests, and thinking about the future.  Male penguins collect small stones or items that they give as gifts to female penguins in courtship.  I watched several Gentoos jump out of the waves, climb onto the beach, and wander around looking for the right rock to win over their intended.  Although I hardly ever take video, I captured this small clip of a Gentoo looking for such a rock, and also some of the sounds of the seals in the background.  It's sweet.  But, if you look closely, you will see that what he is picking up, what he is wandering through, are vertebrae and bones on the beach. The future can't be separated from the past.

     But, in the moment, looking around, there was plenty of life to see.  The relatively few King penguins here seemed mostly to be resting.  I tried for a close up of this one that would show the feathers.

    I'm not a birder, but there were many birds I saw here for the first time.  In the interest of keeping the posts about this landing all in one place, I add the bird photos here.  Above it all, on a bluff, were grey-headed albatross.
Grey-headed albatross

A giant petrel.

A South Georgia pintail duck.

A skua bird.