Monday, February 14, 2011

Non Plus Ultra

We're back in Ushuaia now, enjoying some sunshine for the first time in several days. It's kind of sad, in a way, as we have made a number of friends on board the Akademik Sergei Vavilov. We had kind of a downbeat breakfast at 7:30 and everyone was ashore by 8 or so. Since our hotel's check-in isn't until 1pm, we left our bags with the Quark baggage storage and wandered around town with a friend we'd made on the ship. We'd hoped to go on a short boat tour to pass the time, but the nice weather we'd enjoyed on arrival devolved into rain by the time we were ready to take the trip. Not being able to do outdoorsy stuff, we had a leisurely coffee and enjoyed the Wi-Fi for a bit before checking out the incredibly poorly named Ushuaia Maritime Museum. This museum does in fact have a number of maritime exhibits, but also is the site of the former prison/penal colony they had here for a number of years (think Devil's Island). Furthermore, there's also a large section devoted to Antarctic exploration. And a small art gallery.

Noelle's covered the details pretty well, so I'm just going to add some impressions now. On February 9 I woke up at the campsite at Ronge Island, unzipped my tent flap, and looked out at the campsite. People were packing up their sleeping bags and loading up the Zodiac. On either side of the site a Weddell seal had decided to take a nap. Penguins (Gentoo or Chinstrap, I forget which) watched us curiously as we went about our business. I think this particular moment crystallized the "OMG, I'm in Antarctica!" feeling for me. High cliffs and glaciers rose behind us while more more mountains rose across the strait. All during the night we heard bergs being periodically calved. A curious fur seal attempted to spend the night with us, before we shooed it away (they can be aggressive so we didn't want them in our campsite). Most of the campers were sleeping in bivvy sacks (watertight plastic bags essentially that went around their sleeping bags) in shallow trenches they dug in the snow to keep them out of the wind. I, having a little more sense than that, elected to sleep in a tent. It's not really camping to me unless a tent of some sort is involved. Consequently, I think I slept a lot better than most of the other campers. :-) Sleeping in Antarctica was really incredible and I still can't believe I actually did it. I was sad Noelle couldn't come, but she was still a bit under the weather.

The trip is kind of hard to wrap my head around for several reasons. The scale of the continent is hard to grasp, it's so stark and harsh and gigantic. The mountains seem huge and are not really like anything in my experience. They seem primeval, from some bygone era. The mountains outside of Homer, Alaska come close, but still kind of fall short. There were animals everywhere we went, almost all of whom were completely unfazed by our presence. I saw three kinds of penguins, four kinds of seals, at least a couple kinds of whales, and more ice than I have seen in my whole life. Giant ice bergs the size of buildings, brash ice clogging the harbors, and glaciers slowly grinding the jagged mountains down.

The palette of Antarctica is mostly black and white, but there's a surprising amount of blue there too. More than I had expected, certainly. It's everywhere, really. Every so often other colors creep in: yellows and oranges in the penguins' bills and feet, crimson from the algae or from dead animals, greens and browns in the non-basalt rocks of the continent.

Overall I found myself marveling at my good fortune to be able to go to such a remote place and see such fantastic sights. Making landfall on the continent was a humbling experience, as well as an exciting one. Besides camping, I think one of the most incredible experiences we had was a zodiac ride near sunset amongst some titanic bergs in Paradise Harbor. The sky was a light purple and the water was like glass. The mountains ringing the harbor had a plethora of glaciers. I was really overwhelmed with how beautiful it was there.

Finally I think it's worth noting what a good experience we had with Quark Expeditions. I was expecting a rudimentary vessel, but it was actually quite pleasant. The food was good and all the staff without exception seemed excited to be there, very professional, and very knowledgeable about the Antarctic. We had a number of interesting talks related to the various species of animals and the things we'd be seeing as well as historical discussions. I would happily travel with them should the opportunity arise in the future. The only down side is that since our time was always managed for us, it's going to be hard transitioning back into normal life, where we don't have people telling us where we need to be in so many minutes. Life aboard the ship is life without time. I lost track of what day it was and when exactly things in the past had happened. Now I guess we'll have to figure things out on our own. I am sad to see our new shipboard friends and the Quark staff goodbye, but all good things must come to an end.

Now a few more days in Tierra del Fuego and then on to El Calafate!

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