23 October: Steaming south

Our second day at sea is much calmer. The wind has shifted and we are running before it, which is altogether more pleasant, and the weather is fair and mostly warm, occasionally clouding up. We are out of sight of land, about 70 miles off the eastern coast of Argentina, and there is nothing but the sea and the sea birds for two full days. We have spent most of the day up on the bow with our binoculars and an assortment of naturalists and hard-core birders.

The sea birds are spectacular – Albatrosses with 11-foot wing spans; Shearwaters (mostly Great Shearwaters today); White-chinned and Giant Petrels (which are nearly as big as the Albatrosses), and occasional tiny Storm Petrels looking like grasshoppers on the surface of the water, Kelp Gulls (which are, most unusually for gulls, very easy to identify, as they are the only species of gull that occurs here); and, every once in a while, Magellanic Penguins bobbing up. We saw a couple of Brown Skuas (a very fierce, large, predatory bird) chasing a smaller Shearwater – not exactly hunting it, but trying to get it to drop its food (which it did). The naturalist tells us that if it doesn't, it might end up being the food after all.

Sometimes there are only a few that we have to search for, but they are often drawn to the ship and we are never entirely without them. Sometimes we come upon something tasty in the water and we get circling crowds, birds landing on the water, once a huge cloud of great birds of all kinds right next to the ship – why? No clue. Something of enormous interest to sea birds. Not us, as the ship policy forbids dumping garbage or kitchen scraps of any kind.

Steaming south, hanging out on the bow

There are interesting presentations and lectures every few hours, and of course they feed us constantly. The food continues excellent, and is more interesting to me today in the “fair winds and following seas”. This is a very fine relaxing way to begin our adventure, before the mad scramble of intense activity that will begin tomorrow when we reach Peninsula Valdez.

We have just had a lecture about what to expect there – two large, shallow, extremely protected gulfs (on either side of the very narrow neck of the peninsula) off the perfect breeding ground for the Southern Right Whale. Hunted almost to extinction by the beginning of the 20th century, it was the first whale to be protected, and has made an impressive comeback. Ships such as this one are starting to see them in new places every year, as they increase their numbers and expand back into the areas from which they had disappeared.

We will get off the ship in the early morning, board busses to the other side of one of the gulfs, and take local whaling boats that have been chartered for us. They won't allow the ship to use the zodiacs, which is right and proper as it allows our tourist dollars to support a local, sustainable tourist industry. This is the kind of thing that Lindblad and National Geographic try to do everywhere they travel.

There will also be lunch at an estancia that happens to be right by a breeding colony of Magellanic Penguins. The weather looks good, and it promises to be a great experience – the only catch being that we get a wake-up call at 5, breakfast at 5:30, onto the bus by 6 am.

24 October: Patagonia

We disembarked at Puerto Madryn (a Welsh name, oddly enough – the Welsh were some of the first settlers in this region of Patagonia in the late 19th century) we boarded buses for a very long ride out to the peninsula – 400km round trip. This is a desert, in the rain shadow of the Andes, and the landscape looks pretty much like Nevada. The population is very small, and most of the roads are dirt or gravel. In addition to sheep (the major export is Merino wool), some cows and horses, there are quite a lot of Guanacos, a type of llama. They are related to camels, but act more or less like large deer, although not as skittish.

The entire peninsula, which is very large, is a national reserve. While the whales are here, no one is allowed in the water in either of the large gulfs, even to swim, except for a few whale-watching boats that are tightly controlled and restricted to a small area. The tiny town that serves them has a small hotel, a hostel, and some restaurants. It is clearly popular with Argentines as well as foreign tourists. It was a good plan to get us there early so that we were the first group out; by the time we got back, there were already crowds waiting. They reserved three boats for us, and said that we had fewer people per boat than is usual, but we still thought it a bit crowded.

The whales were magnificent! We were lucky with both the weather and the whales. The guides told us they don't always see so many, and they don't generally breach as often or as enthusiastically as this. There were many mother-and-calf pairs, and they often came close to the boats – not right alongside, but 20-50 feet away. These Southern Right Whales are distinguished by callosities, irregular white bumps or patches on their noses and heads, by which individuals can be identified. They come up often, since the babies have to breathe more often, having smaller lungs. They seem to love waving their tails or flippers, and both adults and babies breach, sending their entire huge bodies out of the water with their powerful tails.

After an hour and a half, we went in and piled back into the busses, and had another longish ride to the Estancia San Lorenzo, a restaurant that serves a breeding colony of Magellanic Penguins on the shore of the other gulf. This was also very well done, with knowledgeable local guides keeping people on the marked pathways and making sure they don't disturb the nests or try to touch the penguins (!) -- one guide asked Rick what our area of study was. She assumed we were researchers because we were all so respectful and well-behaved.

The penguins were wonderful, as penguins always are, but look surprising and odd in this desert environment. They nest in burrows, under a bush if they can or underground, both to protect their eggs and chicks from predators, and from the heat. This was an unusually hot day, 80 degrees or so, and many of them had come out from their burrows to avoid overheating the eggs, and were panting. They often lay two eggs, although typically only one of the chicks survives. There were no chicks yet, they hatch in mid-November.

We were also lucky enough to see a Hairy Armadillo, somewhat larger than the Texan variety, with hairs sticking up between the plates. It scurried around looking for somewhere to hide, but every time it poked its nose into a burrow, the nesting penguin snapped at it with its powerful beak and sent it right out again. (That's a big reason they try to make sure you don't try to touch the penguins – not just for the sake of the penguins!)

After a very dusty and crowded ride back we got barbecued lamb (Asado) and flan back at the rancho, then the very long bus ride back to the ship. We saw a Burrowing Owl (actually we were in the front seat and spotted it), a Rhea (the South American version of the Ostrich, too far away for pictures), and an Elegant Crested Tinamo (kind of like a chicken with a long slender neck and crest).

Whales and Penguins and Asado

24 October: At sea, on the way to the Falklands

Today we are on our way south southeast through extraordinarily calm seas, with not a cloud in the sky. During the talk on Cetaceans of the Southern Oceans the ship inexplicably began to roll heavily. After a few minutes, the captain announced that we had spotted Southern Right Whales ahead of the ship and that we had stopped to observe them. The ship was rolling because when we are not making headway, the stabilizers cease to work. Lesson One: When the ship starts to roll, head for a viewpoint. We all rushed outside and captured some more great whale shots. After that is was time for Rikkie Swenson's talk on photographic techniques, followed by an excellent lunch.

As of this writing we have been almost three entire days at sea. Three days steaming with nothing from horizon to horizon.  We will likewise spend two more days after we depart the Falklands before reaching South Georgia.  That is how remote that island is.  Last night, after dark, I stood upon the bow of the ship at looked up at the southern sky - so dark you could make out the milky way and way unfamiliar constellations even through the ships  running lights. Awesome.

The weather has been exceptional for a part of the world known for the roaring 40s and the screaming 50s.  The seas outside the window are almost like glass.Somehow I don't think that will last. . .  Back to the bow and the birds.

Tomorrow: the Falklands/Malvinas.