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.

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