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Day 10 |
Jan 12, 2012

Ushuaia, Argentina

By Peter W. Damisch, Historian and General Naturalist

Co-ordinates: 53o 19’ S, 066o 08’ W
Weather: Clear skies with seas calming but still some whitecaps
Air Temperature: 9o C / 48 o F
Pressure: 995 HPa
Wind: 65 km / hour

We are coming to the end of a relatively fast transit across the famous (or infamous) Drake Passage. Just a few days ago the Captain and Expedition Leader took a look at the projected weather. They identified the timing of a storm system that was passing by and scheduled a wonderful late afternoon landing at Yankee Harbor. This allowed us to sneak behind the storm and slide more easily north towards South America.

This morning Albatross and Cape Petrels were soaring quite fast behind the ship with their wings gracefully slicing through the swift wind currents that swirl around our stern. Quite early we traveled north past the latitude of Cape Horn, which was out of sight in the distance to the west. However, it still gave us a brief wake up call with just a few larger waves that built up as the sea bottom slightly shallows up during the transition from deep ocean to continental shelf.

After a nice breakfast with the Expedition Team I walked up to our theater to assist in the set up for our first presentation of the day, “Legends of the Deep” given by Uli Kunz, one of our expert onboard marine biologists and experienced under-ice polar diver. He provided wonderful insights into the mysterious life forms that dwell at depths rarely seen or explored by humans. There are so many square kilometers of ocean floor and so many cubic kilometers of oceanic water column that have yet to be discovered. Uli reviewed such wonderful creatures as Giant Squid, Lantern Fish and Coelecanth, an animal previously believed to be extinct for millions of years. In many respects we know more about the surface of the moon than about the floor of the ocean. It was a great review of the unknown sea that remains to be investigated.

Next up in our on board lecture program was “Fascinating Wanderers; Principles of Bird Migration”. This presentation was given by Franz Barlein, one of the world’s premier experts on migration and Director of the European Migration Center. Franz has spent a lifetime exploring and expanding human knowledge regarding the vast distances that so many avian species undergo every season. In the past the world has only known about the start and finish points but with almost no knowledge of the intervening path or how the birds maintain their energy balance during such long flights. Part of this pioneering work has been accomplished through the development of incredibly miniature day / night sensors that can track birds’ location by the light cycles that they undergo from one day to the next. It was wonderful to learn how much has been discovered in just the past 10 years.

During the late morning the Silver Explorer had reached far enough to the north that we began to receive some wind protection from the South American continent. As a result the oceanic waves began to drop down to almost flat, mill pond conditions as we approached the entrance to the Beagle Channel, named after the ship of exploration utilized by Fitzroy and Darwin during the early 1800s.

Entering the Beagle Channel between Chile to the South and Argentina to the north in early afternoon brought us to one of the truly fun points of the voyage. This is the time for Richard Sidey, our brilliant onboard photographer and videographer, to have the premier of his voyage film taken during the past 10 days. It is amazing to consider (and I don’t know how he does it) but Richard shoots, produces and edits a full documentary film relying only on images taken during this trip. It is a chance to go down ‘memory lane’ to remember all of the wonderful, beautiful and stunning areas that we had the privilege to visit plus the wide variety of wildlife including multiple species of both penguins and seals. As usual, the video was gorgeous, heartwarming, moving and instantly transported us back to each of the areas visited in the Antarctic. I always love Richard’s film and, personally, it is one important reason why I come back from one season to the next.

Continuing our passage up the Beagle Channel we soon picked up the Argentinian pilot to advise our Captain as he proceeds towards the port of Ushuaia. This is a normal legal requirement but it is still interesting to watch the little pilot ship delicately come alongside the Silver Explorer and carefully transfer the pilot onto our rope ‘Jacob’s Ladder’.

Other guests were on deck becoming reacquainted with ‘green things’, something that we haven’t seen for some time in the Antarctic. How quickly we forget and how forceful the surprise when we begin to see trees and shrubs along the shoreside of the channel! In addition, an even more careful look revealed large numbers of Magellanic penguins swimming through the cold waterway. These penguins do not live in the Antarctic and thus the Beagle Channel is our only opportunity to view these black and white penguins whose relatives live down in the far south.

Soon enough we passed the entry lighthouse to Ushuaia, sitting amongst small islands teeming with South American sea lions. Then, with a deft hand, the Captain maneuvered us up to the pier without the need for any tugs, the sign of a true professional.

Despite our later than usual departure from the Antarctic, the great decision to dodge that bad weather system allowed us a slightly shorter duration voyage back to Argentina and gave us a great opportunity to arrive this evening. Many individuals took this opportunity to take a walk about town and enjoy a beautiful evening at Ushuaia, which often describes itself as “El Fin del Mundo” or the End of the World. It was a fitting ending to a stupendous journey to the great, unspoiled Antarctic continent, an area of stunning vistas, huge icebergs and abundant wildlife.

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