Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Chilean Outpost in Antarctica

     One thing I do not want in a wildlife trip is human settlement.  While true of all wildlife trips, it is especially disappointing when one goes through a very arduous and lengthy journey to escape human populations and encounter wild populations and yet encounters humans anyway.  The Galapagos was particularly disappointing for that reason - it was way too touristy.  While S. Georgia had been nicely unpopulated, it was still terribly distressing to see human detrius from whaling stations, etc. left behind.  It spoiled what should have been unspoiled wilderness.  To have gone through everything we did to finally get to the Antarctic Peninsula, the very last, last thing I wanted to encounter was more evidence of humans.  Yet, the landing site we were given was at a Chilean outpost.  While it was not yet inhabited for the season by people, there were multiple buildings.  It was also the site of a Gentoo penguin colony.  I was pretty disgusted to have an outpost for a landing site rather than a natural setting, but, one takes what one can get, and I had no choice in the matter.  I blame the French "leader" as she had alternatives but picked this site as it was "easy" and another ship that had to turn back could not use their slot there.  She pretended we were oh so lucky to get it but in reality, it was a crap site and she took it as it was easier for her, not because it offered anything interesting to the paying customers.
     The first landing with the new company was also a shock.  While the Cheeseman's staff was plentiful and emphasized safety at all times, the Oceanwide staff was sparse and there was no thought to safety demonstrated by anyone that I saw except the leftover Cheeseman's staff member.  The zodiac landing was awful, with a very difficult clambor on the ice.  It was quite hard to get out of the zodiac and climb up onto the ice without pitching into the water, hitting rocks, or stepping on a dangerous ice shelf.  I am noooo athlete and always trying not to dislocate a shoulder or otherwise injure myself, but I was more concerned about a few of my fellow passengers from the S. Georgia trip who were a bit older than me. Since no staff was around to help with disembarking, once I got ashore I helped haul other people up onto the ice shelf, watching until the "S. Georgia people" who were like minded were all ashore (I also helped plenty of young Europeans, but I was less worried about their ability to make it).   I was appalled at the poor choice of landing spot.  While Cheeseman's had taken great care to ensure all passengers could safely get ashore (I once saw an elderly woman assisted by three staff until she got her footing, and one thereafter), you could basically fall through the ice here and no one at Oceanwide would notice.  (A fact I later proved, unfortunately).
     Another complication was that the landing site was so full of people, it was very challenging to try and get photos without people in them.   It was also super, super annoying to see non-wildlife people in the middle of the penguins, who clearly did not care a whit about the penguins other than getting a selfie with a few.  There was even a guy who was more interested in spreading a flag and taking photos of it laying on the ice (right in the way of the penguins) than anything else.  Barf.
A Gentoo penguin comes ashore in snow
Leucistic Gentoo in the colony
     I had not ever seen the equivalent of an albino bird, but in the colony of Gentoos there was a leucistic penguin, very pale.  It did not seem to be ostracized by the others, but certainly stood out.

Gentoos nesting
The reddish stuff on the snow is penguin poop, colored by pink krill

A lone Gentoo heads up the slopes; perhaps an introvert
Penguins swam in a small bay below the colony
      These penguins were walking and sledding on their bellies along the bay.  I was walking in that same area, from the vantage point this photo was taken, when I fell through the ice.  Ice here is often a shelf, with no land underneath, along the edges of the land.  I was farther back than the edge, but I had no idea if there was solid ground or sea under the ice at that point.   That made it extra unnerving - I did not want to fall any farther! I had been walking with my husband, taking photos, when all of a sudden I crashed through up to my waist.  It was so fast it was shocking.  I had been reading a lot of books about the early voyages in Antarctica and how many people, dogs, horses, sleds, etc. disappeared after crashing through the ice, often into a crevasse.  I had not expected it at all here.  No staff was around, and I was very glad my husband was there to help me extricate myself and then try to fill in the holes.  There was still snow below, not water, but I have no idea what was beneath the snow.  As in S. Georgia, we tried to ensure all the post holes were filled in, but given the massive number of passengers, their lack of conservation mentality, and the very few staff checking on things, I find it hard to imagine that all the post holes from all the people who were at that landing site got filled in.  I certainly hope they did, but I rather doubt it.
A blue eyed shag - the blue eyes really were stunning, even for a non-birder
     Back on the boat, I went to the bar area to get hot chocolate, which had become a daily thing for the many weeks we'd been on the boat.  During the S. Georgia trip the bar was always filled with photographers who were processing and talking about images, and people quietly reading.  There was a really annoying bird photographer I avoided talking to because he was so obnoxious, but he stationed himself by the hot chocolate machine and I always glanced at his screen - his photos were outstanding.  Not worth talking to him to see, but I enjoyed the ones I saw over his shoulder as he went on and on about them to s small following of dedicated photographers.
     The Antarctica portion of this trip was quite a contrast.  Music, lots of people drinking and talking, almost no one reading or processing photos in the one common area - the bar.  Once again the contrast in the type of passenger was stark between the two journeys aboard the same ship.  It was more like a library area the first trip and a night club the second.  It was strange to see the staff remain largely the same, but the bartender did change as the original bartender had gone on holiday to the Phillipines, where he was from, for the second part of the journey.  All the Oceanwide ship staff were very nice and efficient.  I can't say the same for their expedition guides.
     If we had not been to S. Georgia, maybe it would not have been so disappointing.  However, given what we had experienced already, the landing was exceedingly disappointing on many levels.  At least there had been some wildlife, even if species we had already seen.  However, Antarctica seemed to be far more about scenery so far than wildlife, and the journey was far too difficult and expensive for me to justify for mere scenery.


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