Thursday, January 31, 2008

MacQuarie Island Recap

We are on the move again heading north to Auckland Island. The weather is sunny and, for 50 degrees south latitude, warm. Lunch was served on the aft deck. Albatrosses and other birds ride the turbulent air behind the ship, first swooping low over the water than riding the wind above the ship.

The MacQuarie Island visit yesterday was outstanding. We made two landings, one at the far northeast corner of the island, near the permanent base and than later in the afternoon about 4 or 5 miles south of their but still on the east shore.

The elephant seals were impressive. The adults weigh 3 to 4 tons and are well over ten feet long. They reminded me of Jawa the Hut from Star wars, massive blobs that spend most of the time lying on the beach or in the grasses next to the beach. They are pretty benign and you often walk within 10 feet of them.

The penguin populations were great. Kings, Gentoos and Royals were abundant. A population of Rock Hoppers were visible on the hill side as we cruised in the Zodiac's back to the Orion.

The King penguins were especially cute. They are very curious and would walk to within a few feet of you regularly. We were able to take some wonderful close-ups of the King penguins. Their colors are striking so they make great photographic subjects.

The bird life at Auckland island should be equally prolific so we look forward to an enjoyable visit there tomorrow.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Southern Ocean Experience

We are still about 100 miles from MacQuarie Island. Yesterday we got a taste of what the Southern Ocean (the waters that surround the Antarctic continent) can dish out. The "furious fifties" is a term often applied to that region of the Southern Ocean in from 50 to 60 degrees south latitude.

In the early morning of Tuesday, January 29th, a steep pressure gradient passed overhead. The winds popped up to 60-70 knots with occasional gusts over 80 knots. The seas increased to 10-15 meters of steep and chaotic waves.

Most people stayed in their cabins while the worst conditions passed by. Breakfast, for those interested in one, was an egg & bacon sandwich delivered to your cabin by a crew member. Lunch was also prepared sandwiches from galley. By dinner time, the staff gamely opened the main dining room for those who cared to navigate the passageways.

In order to provide the most comfortable conditions, Orion's captain slowed the boat down to 3-5 knots and changed the course to keep our nose to the wind. Unfortunately, this direction was not the one that would take us to MacQuarie Island.

By this morning, conditions improved sufficiently that the captain put us back on course for MacQuarie Island. We should arrive there this evening and do our landings on this World Heritage designated wildlife preserve tomorrow morning.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Cruising North

Our visit to the French Antarctic base at Dumont D'Urville (DDU) on the 25th was a real treat. The base is set amongst several rocky islands directly offshore from the continent. Because of the relatively shallow waters (100' to 200'), many ice bergs ground themselves offshore. The fanciful shapes of the grounded bergs and the free floating ones enhance the beauty of the setting.

The ship's company was divided into five different groups and each group did both a Zodiac cruise among the islands and walking tour of the French base. The metal walkways at the station are elevated above the Adelie penguin rookeries. The penguins seem to ignore us as we walk above their heads by just a few feet. Additionally, the walkways go past snow, storm and cape petrel nests.

The next day, January 26th, we cruised past the ice tongue of the Merz Glacier. The glacier projects about 30 miles into the ocean from the continents coast. The glacier stands over a hundred feet high above the water which means another 700' to 800' of the glacier is below the water line since the glacier is floating. Towards the end of the ice tongue, the stresses of wind and current cause the glacier to birth ice bergs into the ocean.

Besides the glacier viewing, the ship celebrated Australia Day on the 26th. Most of the ship's guests are Australian. The few non-Australians were granted leave to be Australians for the day in a "solemn" ceremony involving sun screen dabbed on the nose, eating lemingtons and singing the Australian anthem.

Yesterday, January 27th, was a slow day for everyone as we cruised north. The expedition staff gave several lectures on various Antarctic topics during the day.

Currently, Monday, January 28th, the Orion is cruising North towards its next destination, Macquirie Island, an Australian sub-Antarctic Island. We should reach Macquirie sometime tomorrow.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Antarctica Report

Internet connectivity has been spotty on account of our far southern latitude. We are currently on the fourth day of our time in Antarctica.

The voyage down was uneventful. The 3-5 meter swells experienced at the first were the largest. Most of the time the swells were in the 1-3 meter range and the wind chop was moderate. Lots of blue sky, too boot.

Our first day at the continent was at Port Martin. There the katabatic winds were fierce (40-50 knots) so we were unable to launch the zodiacs for a cruise along the ice fronts.

The second day was to Cape Dennison where Mawson had his hut. Conditions were excellent with only light winds. The zodiacs shuttled everyone to shore where we were able to wander amongs the Adelie penguin rookeries. It was a picture perfect day.

On the third day we moved to Point St. Jules. In the morning we did a zodiac cruise of the area but then the zodiacs were recalled on account of a small ice berg drifting toward the Orion. The Orion hoisted its anchor and moved out of the way to let that one and several more pass by. Fortunately, this occured during lunch.

After lunch, the Orion reanchored and the zodiacs were launched for a landing. The expedition crew does a great job of preparing the landing areas so getting a shore is usually not a lot of fuss despite the icy shores.

The scenery is truly fabulous. Having seen glaciers on mountains around the world, the glaciers on Antarctica are in a class by themselves. It is difficult to grasp the concept that the ice sheet you see in front of you extends for 1400 miles to the South Pole at an average depth of nearly 5000 feet thick.

Today we hope to make a landing at the French Antarctic base at Dumont D'Urville (DDU for short). The movie "March of the Penguins" was filmed at an Emperor Penguin colony near here. With the exception of one lone Emperor all we have seen so far are thousands and thousands of Adelie Penguins.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Onboard and Heading South

On the afternoon of Thursday, January 17th we boarded the Orion. It is a lovely vessel, considerably smaller than the cruise ship we were on last Summer when we to the Norway Coast. There are 90 or so passengers on the Orion versus 1300+ passengers on the Holland America cruise ship in Norway.

We had a bit of confusion when we first boarded because  we were shifted to a different cabin but it was sorted out before we left.

It is 1400+ nautical miles to Commonwealth Bay on the Antarctic coast. The Orion travels between 11 and 13 knots depending on sea conditions. With 900 miles to go we should be there in 3+ days.

As I write this, 10 AM Saturday, January 19th , we're nearing 51 degrees South latitude. We are driving pretty much straight south so our current longitude of 147 degrees East will remain the same.

The seas aren't too bad. There isn't a lot of wind chop but the swells are in the 3-5 meter range. Hopefully it won't get a whole lot worse.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

A Busy Time in Tasmania

Marcia scheduled our time in Hobart wonderfully. We've been busy every day since we arrived.

Saturday - This was a recovery day but since there is only 5 hours difference between Seattle and Hobart (ignoring the date difference), our biological clocks reset pretty quickly. We walked to the downtown (about 3 km) then took the bus back. Hobart is the second oldest city in Australia after Sydney.

Sunday - We took a tour to Port Arthur (we used Bottom Bits Tours), the prison for those convicts sent to Tasmania. It operated for about 50 years in the 19th century. Convicts were a key element in the settlement of Tasmania and Australia.

Monday - Freycinet Peninsula and Wineglass Bay. We took another tour up the east coast to a lovely beach area. The weather in Tasmania primarily comes from the west (Indian Ocean) so the east shore is the dry side of things. Lovely beaches and coastal features. There was a human habituated wallaby at a look out. Marcia was able to give a drink from her water bottle.

Tuesday - Into the mountains this time with a tour to Mt Wellington (right above Hobart) and Mount Field, a national park. On the way back we visited a wildlife park that had Tasmanian Devils and wombats.

Wednesday - We were on our own today. We walked over to the Royal Botanical Gardens which were really lovely. From there we continued down town and had lunch at a seafood restaurant that specializes in the local seafood. They serve the local oysters raw so Marcia says she wants to have lunch there tomorrow as well.

We board the Orion tomorrow and are looking forward to the next leg of our journey.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Hobart Tasmania

Despite 30+ hours of continuous traveling spread across 4 flights, we made it to Hobart in pretty good shape.

When we arrived, it was extremely windy and hot (upper 80's). Today, however is quite pleasant. We spent the morning doing some grocery shopping and walking through a nearby park.  This afternoon we'll walk down to the city center and scope things out there.

Tomorrow (Sunday) through Tuesday, Marcia has lined up trips to various spots around the island. These are mostly 7:30 AM to 7:30 PM trips so we'll be pretty busy.

Wednesday is a recovery day and, probably, laundry. Thursday we board the MV Orion for the cruise portion of the trip.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Off to Antarctica

While checking on the construction of our new boat at the Seahorse Marine boatyard this last fall, we spent a considerable time with Margie & Don McIntyre who are also having a boat built there. The McIntyre's are Antarctic guides for a cruise line based out of Australia. We mentioned our long held interest in visiting Antarctica and they responded that last minute opportunities occasionally come up.

In early December, we got a call from Don saying that if we were interested, there were some vacancies on a sailing in the middle of January. After mulling it over for a half hour or so, we called him back and said we're in.

The cruise embarks from Hobart, Australia on January 17 and disembarks at Bluff (Invercargill), New Zealand on February 4. Since it is both expensive in money and time to get to Australia, we decided to take time on both the beginning and end of the trip for a little touristing. We leave Seattle on Wednesday, January 9 and return five weeks later on Wednesday, February 13.

Below is our trip schedule with links for maps (Google Earth) or weather (Weather Underground) if available. A large scale map of Antarctica and the various territorial claims can be found here. Where we will be traveling is the small section in the lower right of the map between Australia, Antarctica and New Zealand.

Date Location Links
1/9-1/11 Many flights: Seattle to LA, LA to Melbourne (via Auckland), Melbourne to Hobart  
1/11-1/17 Touristing in Hobart Tasmania. We'll be staying at the Hostel International facility in Hobart (lodging) Map
1/17 Embark from Hobart on the MV Orion MV Orion
1/18-1/22 Cruising to Antarctica. It will take 5+ days to make the 1400+ nautical mile crossing to Antarctica.  
1/23-1/26 We'll be cruising along the Antarctic coast in the Commonwealth Bay region. This is near both the French and Australian Antarctic research bases. It is also very near the magnetic South Pole. We hope to visit the hut left by Douglas Mawson, the earliest Australian Antarctic explorer (Mawson's Hut). Map
1/27-1/29 Start heading back north  
1/30-1/31 Visit the sub-Antarctic Macquarie Island. We hope to see four kinds of penguins here, King, Royal, Gentoo and Rockhopper (penguins). Map
2/1 Cruising north  
2/2 We visit Auckland and Enderby Islands. These are New Zealand conservation areas. We may see Yellow Eye penguins, an albatross colony and a Hooker Sea Lion colony. Weather
2/3 Our last visit will be to Snares Island. Lots of bird life here including the Snares Crested penguin. Map
2/4 Disembark in at Bluff, New Zealand, the port for Invercargill. We'll probably spend the night here. Map
2/5-2/9 We'll work our way back to Adelaide, Australia (description). Here will spend several days visiting local sites (Kangaroo Island, Barossa Valley). Map
2/10-2/12 Our last stop before heading home will be Brisbane (description). Map
2/13 Retrace our steps home. Brisbane to LAX, LAX to Seattle.