Awestruck in South Georgia

We were soon to land on South Georgia Island…
I hoped it would be something like the photos we had seen in travel brochures—it surpassed my expectations!

But back to where we left off in the previous post—at sea. After spending Christmas Day at sea, everyone was happy to see any land again. Shag Rocks, out in the middle of seemingly nowhere, had to do. Birders were happy, the rest of us could hardly wait to get to our first two stops in South Georgia—which we reached on December 27, 2020.


Snag Islands–an isolated group of islands off the coast of Antarctica.
65°8′S 64°27′W. Important nesting site for birdlife.

Once again our four groups took turns cruising around the islands and landing to view the wildlife. And what wildlife there was! The following pictures should be worth the proverbial 1,000 words. 

You really do not want to tangle with fur seals. We were told to watch each others backs in case of  aggressive behavior.

Fur seals have recovered from earlier days when they were widely hunted.


Early explorers thought these furry balls were a different species, but they are the young King Penguins.     More to come!                                                                                       

West Point Island and Stanley, Falkland Islands

Windswept and gorgeous West Point Island, Falklands

West Point Island
After our rewarding morning watching Rockhopper Penguins on New Island in the Falklands, we were eager to see more. The captain and activity leader continued to follow the weather reports and decided to keep us on the north side of the island group to find more sheltered conditions for taking out the zodiacs and for our landings.

We headed toward West Point Island for our afternoon’s adventure. The 5.67 sq. mi. island is on the north-west tip of West Falkland—a location that was judged to provide good protection from the prevailing winds (which incidentally reached 8, gale force winds, later that night).

Landing
Once again our groups took turns going over to land and touring in the zodiacs because only 50 people were allowed  on the island at a time. When we were on land, we walked about a 1.5 miles to a rookery and again were mesmerized by the activities of the Rockhopper Penguins and the Black-browed Albatross.

Privately held island
Like New Island, the terrain here was largely grassland, but with the addition of large masses of bright-yellow gorse and eroded sandstone cliffs. It probably would not have been safe to veer off our designed trail, but I wished we could get an even closer look at the rock formations.

 

The island is privately owned, but we were able to look into and around the collection of old barns and other weathered farm buildings. 

 

 

 

Stanley (or Port Stanley)

Stanley is the capital  of the Falkland Islands with a population of approximately 2,500 residents. It’s on the northern side of the island of East Falkland and is one of the wettest places in the archipelago. It’s a favored landing point (no zodiacs required) because it’s a unique British outpost. We were able to visit the small museum, a church, post office, and pub.

Commemorative stamped envelopes in Stanley’s Post Office.

We also had time to walk up the hill into the residential area where we’d been encouraged to visit because the home had a front yard filled with statues of leprechauns. 

Later, back on the ship we had a crazy hat competition as part of the Christmas Eve party. Some very interesting hats were created out of whatever props the participants could come up with—penguins were a popular theme.  

After spending Christmas Day at sea, our next stop would be South Georgia. The excitement in anticipation of seeing the wildlife there was in the air! 

An old pillowcase turned into a head for her penguin.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Antarctica & the Falkland Islands

Black browed albatross

Strictly speaking, the Falklands Islands (also known as Islas Malvinas Islands) are not part of Antarctica. However, on our recent cruise to the southernmost continent, it was one of the places our ship, the Ocean Endeavor, visited. In fact we made  three different stops—at New Island, West Point Island, and Stanley.

Avoiding Seasickness
Not, though, until we had spent one full day at sea. I found that day difficult; I was worried that I would get seasick.  Perhaps this was fueled by the many sailors’ tales that I grew up reading about the Drake Passage (named after British Explorer Francis Drake), which is still considered by many to be the roughest stretch of water in the world. 

Hearing the weather forecasts each night, did not ease my concerns. At one briefing, we learned about the Beaufort Wind Scale—(developed in 1805 by Sir Francis Beaufort, U.K. Royal Navy), which  rates wind forces on a scale of 0-12. Zero indicates that the water is as smooth as glass; twelve is a hurricane with winds 64 knots and waves  over 45 ft high. The reports indicated we would be experiencing seas in the 6-8 range—”strong breeze, near gale, or gale.”

Chairs bolted to the dining room’s floor was a sobering sight!

Precautions
It was suggested that we keep any heavy objects in our room on the floor instead of counter tops, and that if we did not want to hear objects in the drawers rolling around, that we stuff objects around them. One of the activities’ crew members said that he had been in seas so violent that he had taken his mattress off the bed and put it on the floor. 

I noticed that the chairs in the dining room had been bolted to the floor. 

But it seemed as if I was the only person worried about the motion of the ship; many of my shipmates appeared totally unconcerned about the ship’s bobbing up and down, side to side, and lurching. Those who were transfixed with the abundant bird life were rewarded with sightings of albatross and petrol ((and occasionally spouting humpback whales and dolphins).

Part of the problem was that my doctor had refused to prescribe medication—asserting that  such  meds were highly risky to those over 65, so I had brought ginger tablets and wrist bands, but I didn’t have confidence that they would work. As it turned out I did fine with what I had, but my fear definitely got the best of me for a time.

Landing by zodiacs on New Island, Falklands

Happiness is a zodiac ride!
Though the weather forecasts were sobering the first few days, it helped when I studied the maps and realized where we actually were in relation to South America and Antarctica. The Falkland Islands are actually NE of Argentina—we hadn’t even entered the Drake Passage.

We could have watched these Rockhoppers all day!

Things became much more exciting!
When it came to Days 3 and 4 on the ship, things definitely improved as far as I was concerned. We began to visit the islands by zodiacs. The Falklands were the first of the several stops where the amount of wildlife we would find was surreal. Not only did we see thousands of Rockhopper penguins on New Island and West Point Island, we were thrilled to be able to get so close to them. These entertaining birds have no natural fear of humans and so they don’t flee when people  approach. The colonies were full of activity and the best moments were spent watching them strut, mate, sitting protectively on their nests, or feeding their young.

Rockhopper colony

Please come back for more about Falkland Islands and Stanley in the next post. 

 

Jumping off spot for Antarctica–Ushuaia

It was becoming real!
Though our recent trip to the Antarctic officially began in Buenos Aires,it was when our travel company, Quark, flew us to Ushuaia, Argentina, that we could really believe that we were on our way to the 7th continent. After arriving in the town of 150,000, our group was allotted a couple of hours to explore.

Though Wikipedia calls this windy and chilly town on the tip of South American a resort, to me it felt more like a frontier town in Alaska. With its colorfully painted wooden buildings that appear to have had little in the way of city inspector’s approvals—to my delight—it felt like a stepping off point to a great adventure. It was an amazing setting—surrounded as it was by the bay of Tierra del Fuego, the Beagle Channel, and the backdrop of the Martial Mountain range. 

Exploring the town
There were numerous small buildings on the waterfront that offered tours of points south. I wondered how many people would come all the way to Ushuaia before making the big leap of signing up for a week’s (or more)  cruise through the Beagle Channel and down to Antarctica. Going to Antarctica is generally a major expense—I wondered who would do it on a whim.

As we walked along the main drag and up a few steep hills in town, we noticed several hotels and restaurants. I speculated that they were kept busy with people enjoying the natural setting at the end of the world, or with tourists waiting to head further south, or to take a ferry over to tour nearby Tierra del Fuego National Park—a gem featuring towering forest, waterfalls, lakes, and glaciers. 

A long way from home!

Ushuaia, “End of the World,” Argentina

After our brief walkabout, we boarded our ship, “The Endeavor,” which would be our home for the next 20 days. I was excited about what lay ahead, but also a bit nervous because I had read enough books to know that many early sailors and adventurers lost their lives sailing through the Drake Passage—and I also had heard from friends of their Antarctic vacation—which ended when their ship hit an iceberg and sank!

To be continued…

 

 

 

 

Exciting visit to Grizzly Bear Research Center

As much as we enjoy hiking trips, we also like driving trips to special places. Our recent trip to visit our friend Lorinda in Richland, Washington, was the starting and ending point of a rich, beautiful, educational, and just-plain-fun tour to the northeast corner of that state.

Richland (population 57,000) sits on the confluence of the Columbia River (the largest river in the Pacific Northwest) and the Yakima. Although it’s an arid region with hot summers and cold winters, the region supports large landholdings producing wheat, cattle, milk, apples, potatoes, cherries, grapes, and hops.

As one woman we talked with remarked, “I love living here, you have to seek out the special attractions.” Lorinda, knowing that Ralph and I love spending time outdoors, had lined up a special attractions–visiting the Grizzly Bear Research Center at Washington State University.

To Pullman and the Grizzlies

We reached Pullman, WA, after a two-hr. drive. Up the hill behind Washington State University’s handsome campus, we pulled into the center’s parking lot at Grimes Way and Terre View Dr. and headed for the outdoor area where the bears spend their days. We had chosen our arrival time for noontime because we’d read that the bears would be fed at that time, and given “enhancement” activities–activities to stimulate the bear’s problem-solving skills and prevent boredom.

Room to explore and play

We stood on the edge of the parking lot facing a compound surrounded by chain-link fencing. The dozen or so bears were in three kinds of enclosures. There were 4 or 5 large enclosed cells–each big enough for 3 or 4 bears to move around, jump in a huge tub of water, play with toys, and eat. Closest to us was a corridor where a bear could move back and forth and see into all the cells. And to the side of the caged area, was a large grassy area (also surrounded by cyclone fence) with a climbing apparatus where three or four bears could hangout during the day or even sleep out all night.

We learned that the bears were regularly rotated through the different areas. The adult males could go out together, as could a group of females. The four youngsters, who were siblings, also went out together.

Bears’ personalities

It was exciting to watch the grizzlies go about their activities and observe some of their personalities. One of the females, in particular, was very vocal; her growls were sobering even though there were two lines of fencing between us. She wanted her food and her banging on the metal door to the inner facility was loud. She was not pleased with the delay of lunchtime while the zookeeper hosed down the cages, moved the groups around, and set up play apparatus.

Enhancements to stimulate

When the food came, we were intrigued by how the food was delivered on this day’s enhancement program. The zookeeper scattered several handfuls of strawberries around the cages. Large blocks of ice were thrown in–the catch being that fresh fruit had been frozen into the ice. Different bears had different approaches–some would munch on the ice, others would bat the giant cubes around in order to break the ice apart.

In another cell, the zookeeper hung 2-foot long cylinders of PVC pipe from the ceiling. The cylinders were partially filled with food that would only come out if the bears could turn the cylinders upside down on the cord. One bear tried the nursing approach; he managed to grab hold of the cylinder, pull down the end with food in it , and suck from it. The second bear tried the brute strength approach–slamming the container so hard that the food flew all over the cell.

Close-enough photo op 

As if watching all this was not thrilling enough, one of the reseachers noticed that my photo-taking was difficult because of the double walls of fencing. So, he took us over to the gate of the outside enclosure and opened it just wide enough for me to stand in the opening. At first the bears were across the field, but when they noticed me (or more likely the open gate and the chance of food) they started heading toward us.

I kept a close look on them–assessing how long I would need to jump back all the while snapping photos. Lorinda kept telling me I should get out, but I was confident I could easily backup. Short as the time was, I was thrilled to once again be within spitting distance of a grizzly. 

To visit

To plan a visit to WSU Bear Center at Washington State University, check their website here. Visits are seasonal because of the bears’ hibernation. 

The WSU Bear Research, Education, and Conservation Center is the only grizzly bear research center of its kind in the United States. Federal and state biologists responsible for understanding and managing wild grizzly bears occasionally wanted to use captive bears in their studies.