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After the high we experienced kayaking at Brown Bluff, Sixto told us it only got better. We of little faith had a hard time believing this. But our next kayaking adventure at Cuverville Island was a whole new level of special. (pardon the photo titles which say Orne Harbour ... a mistake on my part that's too much effort to fix; it's Cuverville Island) Any and every adjective I've used previously to describe a landscape in my travels falls limp now when I think of employing it for this little expedition. It's like whispering a word to someone at the other end of a football field. You technically said the word, but it fails to be properly received. I've pointed this out before, but again, different people are of course affected differently by landscapes or animals or architecture, etc., so some may think my tear ducts simply had a malfunction that day, a crack in the water line that caused them to leak. But no, it was genuinely an emotional landscape to me. What does that mean? An emotional landscape? I don't know what to say, really, except that it brought me to tears. The size, the uniqueness, the drama of such a jumble of icebergs in such fantastical shapes and sizes, the ephemeral nature of it all shifting, melting, moving even as we paddled among them. A starter list of adjectives that could be weakly applied: sublime, transcendental, dramatic, magical, surreal, trippy, astounding, glorious, staggering, breathtaking, and the overused word I hate to pull out but is actually aptly applied here: epic.
I've never met a landscape so wholly incapable of being reasonably represented in photos. On the one hand it's disappointing because I can't properly share that drama and feeling with others. On the other hand, that's part of what makes it so special, it's something that only can be properly appreciated first-hand. And I waited decades to get here and spent a massive amount of money (by my budget) to experience this as the crowning achievement in my one and only life goal -- to visit all seven continents. And it turned out to be not just any crown, but the most opulent, bejeweled crown I could imagine.
(Again, let me point out all photos taken while kayaking were with my point-and-shoot G9 camera with pretty much no idea what I was capturing until I downloaded the pics onto my computer -- extracting the camera from my life-jacket pocket, turning it on and focusing in bright light with clunky wet gloves while trying occasionally to actually help Erik paddle, I was pretty pleased with what came out blindly shooting. Imagine what one could do with a nice camera and lens. But we were cautioned not bring expensive equipment onto our kayaks.)
So with all that being said, let me start with some photos that include some points of reference for the scales of size and distance. We'll start with the small ice bergs that we paddled through. It was so cool to see what looked like a maze of icebergs ahead of us knowing that we would get to thread our way through them.
In these photos below, you can see other kayaks on either side of the ice bergs. Actually, the first one shows our support zodiac on the right. One of the three kayaking guides was always in a zodiac in case anybody needed rescued or got tired. The second pic you have to look pretty closely to pick out the two kayaks at the far edges of the picture on left and right.
Here's a sampling of the kinds of random icebergs I got pictures of. I like the first one because of the two holes in it. Once again we had phenomenal weather and paddling conditions, with a dreamy calm sea which often lent itself to the magic of reflections. The darker colored water, almost black, makes the water around the icebergs, where they extend beneath the water's surface, a particularly greenish hue (as in above).
Although the day was overcast (and progressed steadily to more heavily overcast), there were still some lovely reflections to be had, as even diffused light is quite bright in the daytime. Here are some reflected landscapes as we paddled in more open water, and a few patches of blue sky.
Here is our kayaking club paddling serenely on the open glassy water. Erik and I are on the far left in the group photo. These were taken by the guide following us in the zodiac.
Okay, now I must decide whether to put the experiential highlight or the landscape (icescape) highlight next. I only have one photo to accompany the experiential highlight. Oh, let's do that one. It follows the chronology anyway; the photos I've shown to here were taken on the way into the harbor. The original plan was to circle around an island in the kayaks, but by the time we got around the backside to a labyrinth of icebergs, the guides decided they were too dense and moving too quickly, and that our safety would be compromised by heading into them. I confess I was disappointed, it looked like a splendid adventure. But of course the cruise company cannot risk 13 people being crushed by icebergs! You may wonder about their movement ... yes, they move through the water at an astonishing pace. On one of the zodiac cruises, we stopped still and just watched a large berg cover "ground" (sea) floating along. This gave me an epiphany of sorts in really understanding the accounts of early Antarctic explorers, of whom I am so fond, whose ships were endangered by this movement, and of course the famed ship Endurance which marooned Ernest Shackleton and his men. The ship Aurora, which carried the men and supplies that were to be laid down in advance of Shackleton himself crossing the land, was crushed like a handful of toothpicks in the ice. Erik coined the word "Shackletonned" as a verb for "to be surrounded and crushed by moving ice in Antarctica." So we did not want to be Shackletonned while kayaking around the island.
So instead, we paddled straight on ahead into the culdesac of a harbor. Which wasn't necessarily exciting, but rather, sublime. Just after the guide in the zodiac snapped the photo above, she suggested that we all be completely silent for "three minutes." Which was precisely what I wanted to do right then! She said not even to paddle, just drift apart from one another and soak up the incredible place in which we found our humble selves.
I was so happy for this. So we sat in an uncommon serenity. Silent. Silent. One minute passed. Then "phoooooffffffffff." We perked up and looked around. A few seconds later, it came again, like somebody blowing out a cake full of candles as quickly as they can -- a forceful rush of air breaking the crystal silence. The unmistakable sound of a whale clearing its blow hole. I was about to blow a fuse in my delight circuits, completely overloaded with joy. Everyone held to the three-minute code, and we watched as the whale passed behind us into the harbor's culdesac. A whale was the one thing I most hoped to encounter while kayaking. And though we'd seen a humpback our first day out, this minke whale, though much smaller, was much closer, and we watched it over several minutes as it circled completely around our little pod of kayaks in the harbor and then swam out the way we had paddled in. It was a much more intimate encounter than the humpback one ... the proximity and the stillness and silence in which we watched this creature of the sea move through the remarkable landscape with such exquisite timing made it one of those special moments I will always carry close to me.
I'm pleasantly surprised that I captured anything of this whale who blessed us with her presence. Once again, it's a photo that cannot convey the experience, but is presented merely as proof that I really did see what I say I did!
Exhilarated pretty far beyond description, it was with reluctance we turned around and followed our guide back to ship. Erik and I were passing beside an iceberg when we heard a rumble on the other side of it and then one of our club yelled, "Paddle! Paddle! Paddle!" We saw the wave approaching, but fortunately its momentum was broken by the iceberg and we barely felt a toggle. The other kayak, though, was close to the glacier that covered the land around the harbor when it calved a small calf. So close that ice hit one of them in the face and the splash sent water down her dry suit in spite of the rubber gasket around her neck. Fortunately, they were experienced kayakers and knew to paddle away on the same trajectory as the wave as fast they could. I don't know if Erik and I would have had the presence of mind to do the right thing; we may have ended up upside down!
The calm water was particularly nice because I hardly helped paddle at all, I was constantly taking out my camera from my life-vest pocket and snapping. I'd think, "okay now I'll help paddle" and zip the camera back into my life-jacket. Paddle 4 strokes, then, "Oh my gosh! Look at that! Amazing!" Paddle was put to rest across the kayak and out came the camera again. And here is where the tears welled up. The jumble of icebergs was just so wild and complex, colossal and overwhelming and fantastical, even beyond what my own quite talented imagination could have conjured. First let me present a photo at the end of the journey just to try to give a sense of scale to some of the following icebergs. This one shows our ship in the background behind some of the smallest icebergs depicted in the next set.
Hopefully the land will help give some scale to some of these other pics. The first one below is one of my very favorites, and I can't really say why. It just is. (remember that you can right-click on all of the photos in this article and open in a new tab to see larger)
In case you're wondering how we got into the water when all around us are only glaciers with sheer faces and unstable icebergs, the zodiac tows the kayaks from the ship into the water at our launch point and we get into the kayaks from the zodiac.
Although my favorite photos from this kayaking expedition -- one of my lifetime highlights -- are in the section above (the huge icebergs), I like this one below a lot, showing our guide's kayak tip for a reference point and a labyrinth of ice. It's just so ... *Antarctica!*
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The port city for our Antarctic adventure was Ushuaia, Argentina, at the very tippy southern tip of South America. It has adopted for itself the nickname, "The End of the World." This is also the gateway to the Argentinian side of Patagonia. Years ago, I backpacked the Paine Circuit in Torres Del Paine National Park on the Chilean side of Patagonia with my family, which was a heck of a trek. If I had to pick which country's side was more spectacular, I'd be forced to say Chile. But Argentina was astoundingly beautiful and I would recommend it to anybody! I would only recommend the sights accessible on the Paine Circuit to very fit people. We backpacked for 2 weeks around it. And it was probably the most challenging physical feat I've personally done. The sights we saw around the Ushuaia area, however, which include the well-known Tierra del Fuego National Park, have a variety of trail difficulties from super-easy to difficult. We didn't do any of the ones with a "difficult" rating. But even the ones rated "medium" were quite easy ... this from a not-particularly fit person. People often think because I have a slight frame it indicates fitness, but it ain't so. I don't necessarily sit on my couch, so I'll call myself a house potato (as opposed to a couch potato). I don't leave my property sometimes for weeks! (I have a lovely property, of course.)
So we spent two days hiking in Tierra del Fuego National Park. This park has a wide variety of landscapes and landscape features, plus a wonderfully dynamic sky always changing with fast-moving clouds. Tierra del Fuego is actually an island and is divided between Argentina and Chile. The national park of the same name is the southern-most park in Argentina and borders the Beagle Channel, so named after the ship of the same name that carried none other than Charles Darwin on his second voyage down the South American coast.
Some of the trails in the park follow the shoreline, and some head inland up steep hillsides. Our first day in the park we headed to the southern-most part, Bahia Lapataia. This is end of the Pan-American highway.
Although the Patagonia region in general is most renowned for its mountain scenery, with textured and colorful peaks rising very sharply and dramatically from sea level, what Erik found perhaps most captivating was the endless supply of perfect rock-skipping stones. I do not know how to skip rocks, but it's a favored past-time of Erik's whenever we come across the right stones. (I know what they look like and help pick them out for E.) Look at that back swing!
Besides the piles of skipping stones, there are many interesting rocks everywhere. I knew to expect the rocky peaks, but the rocks on the ground were unexpectedly beautiful and complex in their topography and color, sometimes sporting almost neon-bright lichen formations. I'm one of those people who likes rocks anyway and often walks along with her nose to the ground, and can't help herself from picking up a pretty one when she sees it. The likelihood of her subsequently taking it home depends on its size relative to the size of her pocket. Except if she sees a sign somewhere specifically prohibiting taking rocks out of a park, then she obeys the rules. Except once when she took them from Volcanoes Nat'l Park in Hawaii, but subsequently mailed them back. The park brochure provides an address specifically for mailing back rocks, so I was far from the only thief.
Ecologically, the Tierra del Fuego region (which extends beyond the national park into a whole province at the southern tip of Argentina) is a "subantarctic forest." I didn't even know there was such a thing until I got there. To look at it and walk through it, an ecological layperson such as myself would mistake it for more of a tropical forest, such is the lushness -- the moss, the density of bushes and trees, the birds singing all around, etc.
The only difference is the chilly temperature, even in the middle of summer (which is December-March in the southern hemisphere), and the fierce winds that blow as soon as you emerge from the forest. It's really shocking when you step out of the forest, which is calm and still, into the open and feel the blast of wind which you would never suspect from inside the forest. So suffice to say that Ushuaia is not a warm place, even in the middle of summer -- the closest piece of continent to the Antarctic peninsula. Astonishingly, the native Yaghan people lived there for thousands of years before Western contact in near nudity. We were there only a couple days before their summer solstice and needed layers and fleece jackets, yet those people walked around naked! Some archival photos show them with a light animal-skin cape hanging around their neck. Hardy folks.
I think this might be my favorite photo I took from Tierra del Fuego National Park.
One of my very favorite flower types is orchids. I try to grow them indoors at home all the time. So imagine my delight when I was walking along the path and spotted patches of these white orchids.
This curious fungus grows on many of the trees. When the round pods fall on the ground, they look like little fruits, and at first that's what we thought they were. In fact, they're referred to as beech oranges, a little Google research informed me after I got home, and native cultures in the area did eat them. Their scientific name, though, includes the name of the man who first classified them, Darwin, during his Beagle Channel voyage. Eventually they grow into huge tumors on the trees, but the trees seldom seem to suffer for it. The fungus grows on trees that only grow in the southern hemisphere.
Another compelling flower along the paths ... looks like a giant insect with long spindly legs crawling out of the bushes.
One thing I was very excited to see -- which had been mentioned in the park brochure as a possibility, so I had my eyes peeled -- was green parrots! We saw them one day on the Paine Circuit, too. But other than that, as I pretty much have only seen parrots inside of cages, I think it's super cool to see them in the wild. We knew what they sounded like from having seen a bunch in the trees in Colonia, Uruguay, just a few weeks earlier, so we actually heard them first and then looked around to spot them ... you can see they are a bit camouflaged. I could not get a good picture of them, but here are some lame ones, just to prove to you I saw them. :)
We ran across some other cool birds, too, but similarly, I couldn't get a good photo. This little brown one, I have a series of 4 or 5 pics of bare ground. That's where the bird was when I pressed the shutter, and by the time it opened and closed, the bird had flitted away. Pretty impressive how speedily it could hop around.
These geese are very popular throughout the park.
I was excited to learn there were lots of beavers in Tierra del Fuego, I really want to see one, and they live in my area but I never see them. Then I learned that they were imported into the area to breed for their prized fur, and have since become an invasive species and real problem. Too bad. I did see two of them, one swimming with a branch, but the pleasure was diluted with the knowledge it doesn't belong there and it's causing the native species big problems.
The strangest creature of all in the park was this outhouse troll. Had built a nest in an old, dilapidated outhouse just off one of the trails.
One afternoon we took a drive along the Pan-American highway out of town north and saw some very lovely scenery along the way.
After two days in the national park, we took another day to hike to nearby Lake Esmeralda, which I had read was one of the top-rated things to see near Ushuaia. The trail started out very muddy. Then it opened up to a couple different valleys with some striking mountain peaks rising up on the horizon.
Then back into a densely forested section, then into the open again where we were confronted with a large peat bog. The trail disappears and it's every man for himself finding tufts of moss solid enough to jump to and land on without sinking into the water. I've encountered these before backpacking (once on the Paine Circuit) and they really are not fun to navigate with a backpack whose weight hinders your jumping capabilities, and whose bulk messes with your balance. But sans backpack, it's like a game, like playing "Crocodile" as a kid, having to jump from one thing to another without touching the ground. Plus knowing at the end of the day we'd be relaxing in a heated hostel room with a hot shower rather than having to pitch a tent and crawl inside, made the risk of getting wet feet, or even falling in, nothing dramatic.
We made it to Lake Esmeralda just long enough to see that its name was warranted -- emerald green water, indeed -- before it started raining with a pretty good pelt factor. I was afraid of the bog getting more challenging to cross if it kept raining, so we did not stay for lunch as was our original plan, but instead high-tailed it out. (you can see a raindrop smudge already got on the camera)
So now it was raining hard enough that we dug out our rain pants from the day pack and began running back across the peat bog, not taking time to pick our steps so carefully as we did through the bog on the way in. One valid strategy to not sinking in is to simply run so fast that your feet never have time to sink unless you plant one in a really deep hole. So Erik was running pell-mell through the bog, jumping side to side onto the most promising patches of peat moss. I wish I could describe it better because I was behind him in stitches, it was so funny. He looked like a pinball or a pachinko ball on its way down.
By the time we got through the next stretch of dense trees to the next big meadow, the rain had ceased, the sun was out, and it was the perfect spot for our picnic lunch.
After the accommodation on board our ship, Sea Spirit, which we considered rather high-class and luxurious (for reference, we're typically budget to mid-range travelers), our humble hostel room in Ushuaia was a kind of culture shock, except it was accommodation shock. haha. Since we are used to budget digs, it was fine with us, but just kind of interesting. If you ever decide to go to Ushuaia, let me warn you that the price of everything is shockingly high. I figured Buenos Aires would be the most expensive city in Argentina, but not so by a long shot. Food, accommodation, toiletries, clothes, sunglasses (we found out) ... everything costs.
Although many people hitchhike around Ushuaia, I strongly recommend a vehicle. You can cover much more ground and far more conveniently. Of course, it's expensive, but my opinion is it's worth it. However, be warned!! If you need to fill up the car with gas before returning it, the line for the gas pump near the port is obscene. We waited for 30 minutes, and saw longer lines than the one we were in, stretched well out of the station and down the block on the street. So plan your time accordingly! In fact, plan your time in all things to account for gridlock traffic on the streets around the city center and port. Ushuaia's population is growing by 5,000 people per year with no evolving roadways to accommodate it. You can literally walk somewhere faster than you can drive in that relatively small area around the port. It's not the tourist industry that's booming, but manufacturing. Strangely, for such a spectacularly-located town, it wasn't founded by the Argentinians as a tourist destination either, but rather, as a prison.
There were two wonderful things about our budget room -- one was a very lovely view from a large picture window. The other was two friendly kitties who let themselves into our room when our door was open (for a little fresh air) and subsequently could be easily lured in to hang out with us and play and be petted. So this little kitten below, whom we named Loco Button, was a stray who had shown up at the hostel a couple days before we arrived. He was so crazy sometimes, he'd hide under the edge of the bed quilt on the floor and then sproing out and attack our feet as we passed by. He'd hide behind the chair in the corner and then leap up to the top of it and drop back down, leap back up, etc. Erik found a bird video on Youtube for him to watch on our laptop and he sat on our bed watching. He napped with us. One time Eirk and I were lying down napping after a day of hiking next to each other on our backs so our elbows were touching, and the kitten wanted to sleep with us but he couldn't decide who he wanted to cuddle with. First snuggled up to Erik, then to me, then back to Erik, finally he draped himself over our arms where they met so he was lying on top of both of us simultaneously. Over time he migrated down but always staying on both of us, so eventually he bridged the gap between our legs with his head pressed against Erk's leg and his arms stretched out and paws pressed against mine.
The other kitty belonged to the hostel owner. She was super friendly, and after she realized how nice it was to be in our room where she could be petted and played with, we could call out to her as we were walking back up to our room from being out or from breakfast, or whatever, and she'd come!
Now allow me to briefly reveal what you can get as "the better half" (like, $250-$350 per night). We stayed here one night because it was included as the first night of our Antarctic expedition in the port city. It's funny how many of the rooms in Ushuaia are listed with their square footage ... seems to be an important issue around there. And we amusingly went continually downhill (in all aspects) since our arrival. The room at Hotel Arakur is listed as 400 sq ft. Our cabin on the ship was an opulent 215 sq ft, and that's not being sarcastic because they were the largest rooms for a regular cabin class in the Antarctic fleet. Our hostel room was advertised as the largest private hostel room in Ushuaia at 189 sq ft. The Arakur was a high-tech hotel out of a movie (it seemed to low-class me). Everything was operated from a panel, so you pushed a button to make the window shades go down, to make a shade go down between bathroom and bed, a button for all your lights, a button for your alarm clock which was not a harsh "beep beep beep," but began softly as the soothing sound of ocean waves and then got louder and louder with seagulls calling and such.
There was an indoor pool and spa, which we intended to use during the day before boarding the ship, but a very strange kink happened in our car rental reservation, which was a pretty random fortune that we were clued into it before we landed back in Ushuaia and needed to rent the car. So we spent the afternoon sorting that out instead.
So a lovely stay in Ushuaia. Had we the time (and money), there were many more hiking opportunities we could have taken. But really, three full hiking days and a scenic drive felt just about right.
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Also, if for some freaky reason indigenous nudity bothers you, this post is not for you.
OK, here is the last part in my photo essay series on faces I encountered in northern Namibia during the filming of "African Witchfinder." I just like so many of them. In this current atmosphere (I'm writing in January 2017) where empathy for those different from us seems at an all-time low, I feel even more motivated to share the beauty of the human world -- the faces of kindness and joy, the extraordinary and the mundane, the faces of those who are confronted with the same fundamental challenges that we ALL are, irrespective of the differences in the clothes we wear, the houses we live in, our explanations for things which we don't understand.
As with Parts 1 and 2, there isn't much rhyme or reason to the order of these pics. They just sort of spill from my arms, or rather, my camera, onto the table for you. Something I tried recently was converting a few portraits into black and white. So l guess I'll present those first. And draw you in with the adorability of children ...
A few more black and whites. Chief Petrus' sister praising God that he recovered from his bewitchment (though for me, it's the little girl who steals the show in the photo); Chief Kapika's youngest wife; blind man at the Himba village near Epupa Falls.
Well, okay, let's just go ahead and stay in the Himba village. Some slices of daily life that I like.
A rare candid photo of Princess Kaviruru. Usually she is posing for photographs with the stoic "National Geographic" sort of "indigenous dignity" look ... which becomes her, for sure, but I like the few I captured of her as herself.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Kaviruru and her mother privately to ask her some questions about her arranged marriage to the much-older white man, Koos. Although we had about an hour together, unfortunately it wasn't nearly enough time to learn much of what I was interested in. Going through a translator (Koos's adopted daughter) takes time, the Himba have a very slow way of talking anyway, with lots of pauses for thought, and a lot of answers to pretty simple questions I asked were replied to in more detail than I expected, so that all took a lot of time. There is the added trickiness that my translator basically sees Kaviruru as a foe, and does not want her adoptive father marrying the princess. So ... I have no way of knowing the accuracy of her translations of the answers I got from Kaviruru (nor indeed, of the questions put from me to her). I had hoped to film the interview, but Chief Kapika forbade any filming of his daughter.
In the end, though I didn't learn a lot of the details I would have liked to know regarding Kaviruru's feelings about the marriage and the man she's supposed to marry (also, this problem was compounded by her mother often answering for her, so I didn't get her own thoughts a lot of times, just her mother's), I came away with an insight into how the women in general in Himba society feel about arranged marriages. Certainly Kaviruru's mother has her own relevant feelings about the practice, since she was given to the chief to be his third wife and had no say in the matter. They both expressed a sort of pensiveness, something approaching melancholy but stopping short of it, over the lack of control over their own lives. But I've talked with women from cultures of arranged marriage in other countries and this is the most common attitude -- that it sure would be nice (sigh) to choose one's spouse because they're in love with them, but it's such a far-away notion, it seems so out of their reach, that they don't experience real sadness or regret, just an acceptance for the way things are. Not a bitter acceptance, merely acceptance. It's a romantic thought that they could just run away with a lover and live happily ever after, but their worlds don't work that way ... the hurdles to overcome, the ostracizing by their family and community. I'm sure it has happened occasionally, but for most girls and women, it is nothing but an idle daydream.
Kaviruru seems to have come around beyond just accepting her arrangement, to actually embracing it and embracing the man to whom she was promised at her birth. They are not married yet, but he courts her and brings her gifts.
Below, Kaviruru helping maintain her mother's high-maintenance hair.
The Himba children are so captivating. And as I mentioned in another post, I find myself particularly attracted to them now that I have learned about the insidious witchcraft culture that pervades the adult world. They are just so much more precious to me when I know how their lives will change from innocence in a world of smiles and play to one riddled with accusations and perpetual fear.
Kavango children ... same scenario of fragile joy and innocence soon to be shattered by the fear and jealousy that fuels the witchcraft machine. A couple of these I already posted as Friday Photos. But here they are again in a "Faces" post.
The two boys below crack me up, as they seem to be suffering a curious form of bewilderment. We were interviewing their grandparents about witchcraft when I took the photo. It was a rare moment when I wasn't chasing chickens, as they were particularly bothersome in this interview. Berrie met the father of these kids at a hotel in the Kavango region and thought that he could become one of the "soldiers" in the fight against the witchcraft machine. But when we came to interview him and his parents at their home, rather than denouncing witchcraft or expressing skepticism, he merely went on and on about how witch doctors perform their ceremonies and "skills," giving excruciatingly detailed accounts of how they divine who in a community is a witch, etc. He was clearly wholly enveloped in the culture. The second photo below is the man's mother (the children's grandmother), a sweet-seeming soul.
This is another Kavango woman. I'm not sure exactly what I like about this photo because I'm not really enamored with the look on her face. Maybe the colors, and I think the way the two cups are arranged at her feet ... I dunno, but I do like it.
Okay ... I guess it's an abrupt ending, I have no summarizing thoughts that haven't already been expressed. Hope you've enjoyed this three-part journey with me through the beautiful faces of northern Namibia.
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So many penguin photos … how should I organize them to share? Same conundrum I had with safari last year, haha. But I get lots of requests to share penguin pics … so I’ll make at least a couple posts. I thought for this first one I’d share some pics that show the daily routines of penguins. I’d seen nature shows about these amusing creatures on television (and of course the March of the Penguins movie), but it’s quite different to witness them first-hand. And let me point out that the penguins who nest along the sea shores are different than the emperor penguins that the March of the Penguins movie is about. The ones we saw – gentoos, chinstraps, and adélies – all make nests out of rocks near to shorelines in highly-populated rookeries. These penguins’ behavior all centers around nest-building. They’re so anthropomorphic in their behavior and expressions. (How does a penguin make a facial expression without any moving muscles in their face except their blinking eyelids and jaw? Haha, this is very curious, but I think a lot of it has to do with the rest of their body language. Plus the way they walk around on their little legs and big floppy feet like awkward people ... so endearing.)
First let me briefly introduce you to the three different penguins species we saw. Here's the adélie with its black head and stark, white-rimmed eyes.
The chinstrap, with its … well, you can see why they were given that name. I think they often look so happy with their little "helmets" on (like the guy on the right, below). But they also look like stormtroopers. Erik made up a little cartoon chinstrap character, Darth Penguin.
The gentoo, the most common species we saw, with the white stripe from eye to eye across the top of its head. They always look sinister or angry or suspicious … they are somehow the most expressive. On the ship before our first landing, we had a briefing explaining the protocols to observe while on land. We were not to approach penguins closer than 10 feet, but if they approached us, then we weren’t to run away or anything! They did in fact come up very close to us and sometimes seemed as interested in us as we were in them (as in the first photo below that Erik took of me and a penguin considering one another). Sometimes we'd be boxed in by them walking all around us, and we had to stand still until they finally moved on far enough away to obey protocols, but sometimes there was no way we could keep 10 feet away! The second photo below really cracks me up how the one penguin casually walks up and stands in the middle of the people, like, "Whatcha guys looking at?"
The last slide in the briefing about penguins ordered, “Do not cross the penguin highways.” I thought this was terribly amusing but I had no idea what it meant. The expedition leader assured us we would recognize them. Indeed, these are the penguin highways … troughs cut through the snow that the penguins use to commute from their homes – their nests up on land – to the sea, where they catch their food in the water. It was so funny to watch them commuting on these, and sometimes they get in little traffic jams when penguins are trying to go opposing directions on the same highway. As you saw in the Kayaking Club post sometimes they commute in mass packs along the shoreline.
The penguins live for perfecting their nests, which are made up of small stones and sticks that they find on the land or steal from their neighbors. Both sexes of a couple do all the chores of nest building, nest defense, egg incubation, and feeding their chicks. So when on nest-building duty, they putter around all over the place on their little floppy feet and look for pebbles and sticks either on the ground or in somebody else's nest. When they decide on the new addition to their nest, they carry it back and place it carefully on top or on the side, then turn around and go back out to look for more. Sometimes they roam way far away to get just the perfect pebble that appeals to them.
This guy is contemplating quite the addition to his nest ..... I think he's calculating if he can dig it up, fit it in his mouth, lift it up ... he's got visions of a total mansion in his head.
It's not just stones and sticks in their nests ... you can see here a bone in this one. I would guess it belongs to a fellow penguin? But I have no idea.
You might think the partner out gathering and stacking stones is the one “at work.” Sometimes the penguins sitting on their nests look positively serene.
But defending the nest from all the resident thieves … basically every other penguin on the colony … is ceaseless work, always on the look-out, yelling at the thieves when you catch them. This poor gal was yelling back and forth from one thief to the other, they were closing in on both sides. While she was yelling at one, the other one would take the opportunity to start sneaking in, then she'd whip around and yell at him, at which time the first thief moves back in, she turns back to him, etc. etc. back and forth. It looked completely exhausting! This pic turned out kind of funny because I think the thief in the foreground looks completely admonished, like he's dropped his head in shame. The other thief is the one standing up facing us in the back. He's eyeing the scene waiting for the right moment to swoop in (in about 2 seconds).
If a penguin is sleeping while its partner is out feeding or something, its nest will certainly will be raided, but gathering stones seems to be the raison d’etre for the penguins, so it keeps them continually, happily busy -- they hardly seem to feel the setback of a depleted nest. One time another couple on the ship told us that they watched a penguin hunt around for a long time for just the right stone to take from an existing nest. They really do spend tons of time inspecting the rocks around them before deciding on one to carry back to their nest. You wonder what a particular penguin's criteria is for an appealing stone. So anyway, this one penguin peruses all the stones in this nest, whose occupant remains curiously silent, and finally decides on one. Picks it up and carries it around to the other side of that nest and places it carefully on top. He had raided his own nest for a stone. I guess at least you know he agrees with his own taste in pebbles.
It's hard to know if these two penguins are just randomly arguing beside somebody else's nest, or if one of them is co-owner with the sitting penguin and chewing out a potential thief.
As I mentioned in the Kayaking Club post, the sound of a penguin colony can be almost as overwhelming as the stench of it. Not quite. But it's loud. In addition to yelling at thieves, they engage in duets and choruses for reasons unknown to me, there seems to be no rhyme or reason sometimes, just all of a sudden a whole bunch of them stretch their necks and point their mouths to the sky and start calling into the air. They're not always standing near their nests, so it doesn't seem like they'd be calling to their mates. ? I missed the on-board lecture about penguins, which I guess I regret now, because I have to go do some research to find the answers (gasp!).
Additionally, they seem to go through a little ritual each time the parents of an egg switch over incubation duty (to keep either eggs or chicks warm), which involves calling back and forth at each other for awhile. I don't know what they're discussing ...
"Okay, my turn to be with the kids, you take the highway to the ocean now."
"Nah, I'm comfy, why don't you go steal some stones or something."
"No really, I want to get off my feet, it's my turn on the nest. YOU go steal some stones if you're not hungry."
"Look I'm really not in the mood for this, there was a terrible traffic jam on the highway getting home, plus several seals on the beach I had to walk around. I just want to sit on the nest now."
Etc. etc. ?? Who knows.
If you wonder which penguin gets latrine duty, that would be none of them. In case you wonder why the feathers on their tummies are sometimes yellow or reddish, it's because they were sliding on the ground through ponds and rivers of penguin poo. You can see the white, yellow, green and red streaks decorating the exterior of their nests ... their exterior painting is poo.
Then of course the nest serves its purpose once the female penguin lays her eggs, typically two. We were fortunate to visit one rookery where penguins were just starting to hatch. I was unfortunate with my camera that I failed to obtain nice focus on the little boogers, but I think in spite of that shortcoming, their cuteness is still well-enough discernible. I might typically put photos of hazy focus into my personal bin … pics I keep and enjoy for myself but don’t share with others. But I think it would be a shame not to share these cute critters regardless of photo quality. Hope you enjoy a few, too.
please note all photos in this post can be viewed larger by opening in a new tab (right-click)
I've never been one for clubs, societies, organizations, the like ... they're mostly contrary to my introverted and hermit nature. We didn't know it was going to be called a "club," but for the 16 slots available for kayakers (in 8 tandem kayaks) on an expedition ship of 110 passengers, they call it the "kayaking club." But wait ... where am I? you ask. What am I doing? Last you knew, I was posting from the withering hot climes of southern Africa. What happened?
Well, happily, the universe conspired on my behalf to send me to Antarctica, which completed my lifetime goal of visiting all 7 continents. The goal was born when I was 17. I won't say how many years it's taken to finally realize the goal, because some of you might be good at math. However, that's not a complaint that I *finally* got there, because frankly I never realistically expected that I would, mostly on account of the price tag. But several factors all came together at just the right time, and suddenly Erik and I found ourselves booked into an Antarctic expedition cruise.
In spite of the fact I haven't even finished posting all I want to share from my travels earlier in the year, I'm just so excited to start sharing about Antarctica. It was hands-down, unequivocally the most unique traveling experience I've had. I've done some really cool things to nurture the cultural side of travel (i.e. indulging in my interest in traditional cultures), so this was the coolest thing ever in terms of landscape and outdoor experience. Sublime, dramatic, transcendental, riotously amusing at times ... and a stretch of fabulous weather (which the crew told us was quite special and rare). Our entire 12-day trip enjoyed phenomenal weather in context of where we were. So, the universe came through all the way to the end to make our Antarctic adventure a once-in-a-lifetime, magical adventure.
The most unique and wholly wicked-awesome, spectacular thing we did was sign up (and pay extra) to be able to go kayaking. Although 16 spaces are reserved per expedition, only 13 people were in our club. So it was a nice, small group, with 2 guides in kayaks at all times and one guide in a support zodiac always following us in case there were problems with a kayak, or somebody got too tired, or somebody tipped over. Yes, apparently that is not a remotely uncommon event! I honestly presumed that very rarely happened. But nope ... the guides explained the various ways in which people tip over. The most common seemed to be because they leaned over too far to take a picture of something in/under the water (like an iceberg) or to pick up something they dropped. Fortunately Erik and I are too paranoid of tipping over to do such silly things.
It was a bit of a task to get dressed for kayaking. First of course a couple layers of clothing (thermal underwear and various fleece layers, and socks plus I attached to them some chemical foot warmers each time). Then the full dry-suit with built-in footies (like kid's pajamas) to get velcroed tightly at the ankles and then pull on polypropolene booties over them, squeeze your hands and neck through the rubber gasket-like holes which keep all water out, zip yourself shut across the front, latching the zipper so no water can get in there. Then put your spray skirt on over your shoulders, and then your life vest, and then gloves and hat and sunglasses. And camera in pocket. Whew. Now we are roasting inside our cabin and must go outside on deck quickly! Here are our dry-suits drying out after an outing. We would hang them from the ceiling vent to dry, and I was continually startled when I caught them in the corner of my eye, thinking somebody was standing in our room.
So here are the members of our kayaking club. Pics taken by the guide in the zodiac. That's me and Erik on the far left.
Now, this is not a circumstance in which you can take your nice, fancy, expensive camera and long lens, as it will get wet just from the water dripping off your paddle even if you don't tip over. A couple people had Go-Pros they mounted to their kayak. But I had my well-loved G9 point-and-shoot camera that fit just perfectly into the outer pocket of my life vest. So with the strap around my neck and tucking it into the pocket after each picture snap, I was able to capture some of our time on "film." At the time, I had no idea whatsoever what I was getting because I couldn't see the screen in the light, and I was often snapping quickly at something, not taking any time to check if it was focused or correctly metered. So it was a pleasant surprise to see what turned out. I think, if I may say so myself, that I got some fun ones. Which I will now share with you. If you just want to look at the best pics, scroll down a bit, for I'm writing chronologically.
So ... our first day out. In the South Shetland Islands, north of the Antarctic Peninsula. We launched from the beach of Barrientos Island (other days we got into the kayaks in the water, directly off the zodiac). I was so tickled how the penguins came right up and milled around our kayaks, just going about their business as if the kayaks were just part of the natural landscape around them.
Now I confess to you a secret hope, but not expectation, that I had, which was to see a whale from our kayaks. I thought this would be turbo cool but knew that the odds weren't necessarily in our favor. But I was having a blast anyway as the penguins saw us off and we started around the island in lovely weather, clear blue sky and the slightest of breezes, so it was easy paddling. No more than 15 minutes into the excursion (the goal was to paddle around the island), our guides told us that a crew member on the ship radioed them to say they could see whales right ahead of us.
"What? Whales?" I couldn't believe it. I was thinking to myself, Are you serious? Really? Whales?
Surely I did not hear correctly.
But then I heard the sound of water being expelled from a blowhole, and there they were, a mom and a calf, straight in front of us. We could see the top of their long bodies as they surfaced and arched down into the water with their dorsal fin sticking up in the air so gracefully. Humpback whales. I looked back at Erik in the rear seat (the steering seat) of the kayak and said, "Did you see them? Whales! There are whales ahead! Can you see them?"
Of course he could see them, but I was so incredulous that I had to make sure I wasn't just dreaming, that he could see them, too. Since their bodies are visible above the water for only a few seconds, it's super difficult to get a photo. I managed one, but these two were taken by our guide in the support zodiac. (The red buildings in the background are a research station.) I present these pics basically just to prove that I'm not lying to you!
So, I was happy as a peach, though of course I had no idea what awaited me in the subsequent days. I figured everything from then on was icing on the cake. Here are a couple pics from the other 45 minutes of that outing. Depending on whether or not we also chose to go to land, our kayak adventures typically lasted between one and two hours.
So we landed on Barrientos Island and spent the next hour there with loads of penguins. I'll share those photos in another post. But suffice here to say it was one of the best days ever ... kayaking through the ice with humpback whales in sight and then so much fun with penguins, which I was so excited to see in Antarctica, though I came with no idea how many we'd see or how close! (stay tuned!)
But then the next day dawned on Brown Bluff. A rather mundane name for such a lovely place. But here I suppose you can deduce the origin of the name.
The weather was splendid beyond all reasonable expectations. Clear blue sky and glassy water, so utterly still, allowing beautiful reflections and easy paddling. Even the guides were giddy over how wonderful the conditions were. At Barrientos we were paddling through ice, but now we were paddling among icebergs ... like, true, genuine, big, impressive, beautiful, magical, fantastically-shaped, penguin-populated icebergs. THIS was what I had in my imagination that it would be like kayaking in Antarctica, even though I was completely happy with what we had experienced the day before. Though I had carried this in my visual imagination, that was no preparation for how amazing it was in real life ... which means I also cannot adequately explain to you through my words and pictures. So I kind of think I won't bother trying with words right now, but here are some fun photos that turned out a lot better than I would have guessed while I was blindly snapping them. The first one is our ship anchored.
A seal! He was nice enough to look up as we passed by and give us a nice pose. Or maybe he was just practicing his yoga.
I was never quick enough getting the camera out of my pocket and turned on to catch the penguins that swam alongside or in front of our kayaks. The way that dolphins often swim around boats, penguins look just like miniature dolphins the way they swim in little pods continually jumping out of the water. It was so fun paddling with the penguin pods. But I did capture some pics of them hanging out on icebergs.
There is something particularly captivating to me about lone penguins. Well OK, I'll say that later about penguin pairs, too. And about baby penguins. haha. But I really do love lone penguins in this giant landscape. I always want to caption the photos something like, "OK guys, where'd you go?" or "Very funny, guys, where are you?" Sometimes they look forlorn. Sometimes they look epic, like they are bravely undaunted by the landscape ...
This guy looks lost, and I would like to have seen him get on that iceberg in the first place! Penguins can launch themselves out of the water onto land or ice with surprising velocity and height. Still ... it looks so improbable that fella even got up there. (I say fella but it could be a gal, too ... no way to tell the difference) Can you spot him?
From lone penguin to penguin colony ... these are some of the penguins on Brown Bluff, below. As we were approaching them in the kayaks, we began to hear the din of their continual calling. I tried to record it on the camera but didn't really come out. It was SO loud. And even from the water we could catch the stench associated with penguin colonies, created by the tons of penguin poo. Sometimes there were literally rivers of poo running down the slope, ponds of it in the snow, and when they don't feel like leaving their nest, they just stick their butt in the air and projectile-poop so it lands usually somewhere on the outside of their rock nest and drips down. I adore those penguins, but man, they could use some latrine etiquette.
Please open this pictures below in a new tab to see it at larger size (hopefully you're looking at a big monitor!) so you can hopefully discern what is going on. All the little white dots on the land are penguins ... you can see a line of them on the right leading up to the top of the knoll, and that the ridge on the left is topped and lined with them. At first I thought they were rocks in the landscape or spotty patches of snow but they're penguins who, with their little feet, waddle all the way up there, up the steep, rocky slope to build their nests. And they have to commute every day down to the ocean for food. Can you imagine?
Typically the highest house on a ridge is the most prestigious one, but I think the penguins have it backward ... the ones up there have to work so much harder!! Why are they there? We were told that wherever the nests are, is where the snow typically melts first. So these prominent knolls and ridges must be the first to shed snow in the spring. But if you know about the emperor penguins who trek for something like 50 miles across the ice and snow to nest, you know that penguins have a hell of a work ethic. In the pic below you can see them all commuting in the same direction along the shoreline. As Erik said, it was like rush-hour traffic, everyone heading to the same place (presumably for food, though penguin behavior can be inscrutable sometimes).
A lot of the time we would be paddling through little chunks of ice. I think Erik made the perfect analogy, that it was like paddling through a frozen margarita or a slushie.
We were given the option to take the kayaks to land and visit the penguins on Brown Bluff. As much as I love the penguins, it was just too damn cool paddling through the ice and icebergs. We unanimously voted to stay in the water for the duration of the expedition time. (that's me and Erik on the right in the second pic, taken by the guide in the support zodiac)
This night at happy hour, which we always observed in the bar (they served little appetizers and sweets at 4:00 pm there each day), we were talking with the bartender, Sixto, with whom we would become special friends ... often it would be just the three of us chatting at the bar (and Erik spent even more time than I did with him). We were amped up with excitement over our kayaking adventure and telling Sixto how it was just the coolest day ever -- we were a little beside ourselves at how neat the experience was for us, explaining that it would go down in our travel records, which are fairly extensive, as one of the very best days.
He said, "Oh just wait. It gets better."
"What? That's impossible. No way!"
"Just wait, my friends. You'll see."
Erik and I both were openly and genuinely skeptical. But Sixto turned out to be a wise man, indeed.