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Posted: 11:22 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 12, 2014

WHAT I DID ON MY WINTER VACATION (Or was it Summer? Dang, this is confusing) 

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By Neal Boortz

Yeah .. I’m back home  Sunny Naples.  This time last week I was still in Antarctica on The National Geographic Explorer getting ready to head back north across The Drake for Ushuaia, Argentina, the world’s southernmost port. 

            Last week I posted some notes about an amazing day spent romping on 3 to 4 foot sea ice on top of 1,900 feet of water south of the Antarctic Circle.  The response from that posting was amazing.  Apparently there are a lot of people who are as intrigued as I was by our highest, driest and windiest continent.  Many readers asked for more … so here you go.  I actually kept somewhat of a journal addressed to my granddaughter while I was on this trip, so I’ll refer to those notes to try to give you a better idea of what this amazing experience was like.

            First .. a bit about the ship.  There are quite a few companies that offer cruises and trips into Antarctica.  The choice for me came down to two.  It was either going to be Abercrombie & Kent’s Le Boreal or Linblad Expeditions’ National Geographic Explorer.  No doubt, the Le Boreal is larger and more luxurious.  I chose Linblad Expeditions though because of the smaller size, fewer passengers, and the fact that this trip is truly engaged in Antarctic research even while carrying cruise passengers for a tour of this fantastic region.  We had John Evans, the first man to scale Mt. Vinson, Antarctica’s highest peak; Carsten Peter, a National Geographic photographer, and at least 11 other naturalists experienced in Antarctic geography, wildlife, diving and photography.  All of these people were constantly conducting seminars and giving lectures.  It was not only a visually and physically stimulating trip, but tremendously informative as well.  By far my favorite was a character named Dennis Cornejo.  He was the undersea specialist who would make daily dives with an HD camera, or send a remote controlled camera under the ice to take spectacular pictures.  He would then narrate these videos every evening during out “recap” of the day’s activities .. and those narrations would not only be informative, they would be so side-splittingly hilarious that people would have tears in their eyes.  Click here for a link to one of Dennis’ videos – though unfortunately it is not narrated. 

Now we get in the wayback machine and go to Sunday afternoon, January 5, we’re heading up the Gerlache Strait off the Antarctic peninsula headed north toward the South Shetland Islands.  We’re on the way, as I said, to Ushuaia.    At  about 12:30 we are supposed to drop off a researcher.  It’s the guy who does those “critter cam” videos for National Geographic specials.  He’s going to epoxy some cameras to Leopard Seals so that we can watch them gobbling penguins under the ice.  Wonderful.  They’re not sure they can drop him off, however.  It’s open sea out there, and it may be too rough.  The real concern is that they have to bring the ship to a stop to put him in a Zodiac and get him to shore.  During that time the ship will be bobbing like a cork in the heavy seas and the passengers will be bobbing in front of their porcelain appliances getting rid of some of that cruise weight.  That’s a lot of really unhappy passengers just before tip collecting time.

            As a matter of fact, even though we’re in the Gerlache Strait right now, the ship is rolling pretty good.  They can’t put the stabilizers out right now because there is still plenty of sea ice.  Let some little berg rip a stabilizer off and we’re in deep penguin guano for the crossing.  When we get into the Bransfield Strait between the continent and the South Shetland Islands it will only get worse. 

            So … speaking of the crossing, maybe I should go back to day one of this trip.  I’ll go through my notes and try to relate some of the experiences.

            Last Sunday morning, a week ago today, we were on the busses at 6:00 at the Caesar Park hotel in Buenos Aries hotel headed for the airport.  There we would catch a LAN charter flight to Ushuaia.  Ushuaia is the southernmost town in the … world.  Fin del mundo. Tierra del Fuego … the Land of Fire … and the very southern tip of Argentine and just a few miles from the tip of Chile.  Once our charter flighty landed (with a mighty thump) in Ushuaia we jumped on some more busses and headed down the last 20 miles or so of the Pan American Highway to the Tierra del Fuego National Park.  This is the southern end of the Pan American Highway … the northern end is in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska a little over 11,000 miles away. 

It was really sort of strange to be at the very southern end of that road … the furthest south you can drive anywhere in the world … and there -- right there -- was an RV park with about 5 motorhomes in it. Now these weren’t fancy Prevost Millennium coaches .. but motorhomes they were, covered with dirt from thousands of miles of bad roads.  One as far away as northern Europe, but no … you won’t ever find the BoortzBus there.  The other end of the road --- maybe.  But not there.

 We walked around the park for a bit and ended up on a catamaran.  There we would be served lunch as we cruised the Beagle Channel back to Ushuaia to meet up with our ship, the National Geographic Explorer.  I believe the idea of the bus trip and the catamaran ride was to give the ship the time it needed to clean up, load all the luggage, refuel and be ready to go when we got there at 5:00.   Fine … saw some interesting things in the Beagle Channel (named after Charles Darwin’s boat, by the way) and started to get acquainted with fellow passengers.  A good plan … and I got to stand at the end of the road.

Boarding was a snap.  Someone led me to my cabin and my luggage was safely there along with the cold weather gear I bought on line.  Not stuff I need every day in Naples.  Had dinner, explored the ship a bit, and hit the sack.  As I went to sleep we were cruising eastward in the relatively benign Beagle Channel.  I knew that in a few hours the ship would clear the channel and turn south toward Antarctica … and shortly after that we would be in Drakes Passage, by some accounts the roughest ocean waters in the world.  I had the scopolamine patch behind my ear.  Had never tried that before, so I didn’t know what to expect.

You’ve heard of the wee wee hours of the morning, I’m sure.  Well, the call of nature hit around 2:30, and things just weren’t the same as I headed to the nicely appointed bathroom.  I think I bounced off about three walls and the shower door before I somehow stabilized myself over the great white sphinx.  Common sense would dictate that you sit down for all functions in rough seas, but common sense was still back there on dry land.  I was on my own.

When I woke up Monday morning (12/30) were still at sea.  I bundled up and headed to the bridge.  The first mate showed me a weather map of The Drake and explained that we were going to have about 30km of pretty bad stuff before we reached the shelter of the South Shetland Islands.  Rough it was … that’s when the waves started breaking over the bow of the ship.  There were very few people at breakfast on morning No. 1.

Before I go any further … NO … I did not get seasick during the trip.  YES .. I was wearing the patch.  No side effects.  There are about 30% of the people who just will not get seasick.  I don’t think I’m in that 30%, and this wasn’t going to be the trip where I would find out.  Later on day one I did notice the patch was no longer in place though.  No idea when it came off.

            December 30th was spent crossing Drake Passage.  On December 31 we arrived at Half Moon Island. This was our first landing.  Half Moon is hope to a good-sized colony of Chinstrap Penguins and an Argentine research station (unoccupied at the time).  This was my first Penguin experience, and now I can tell you why they’re kept behind glass at the Atlanta Aquarium.  They stink.  They don’t just poop … they projectile poop.  I’m guessing they take a point of pride in how far they can squirt that stuff away from their nests. 

            Now since this was my first time ashore in Antarctica, I was certain I was about to freeze to death.  So .. on goes the thin moisture wicking longjohns.  Then the heavy long johns.  Then the long-sleeved undershirt, followed by the heavy outer shirt.  Zip ‘em all up and then it’s the waterproof pants.  Waterproof boots are next, then the glove liners and then the gloves.  Then you have the orange parka complete with a thick interliner.  A nice hat lined with rabbit fur with flaps that can pull down over your ears, a neck gaiter, then the life preserver for the trip to shore and you’re all set. 

You waddle on down to the “mud room” in the lower deck, and there you board a Zodiac to take you to shore.  As you step out of the mud room to the Zodiac you are required to slosh around on a giant sponge in a tray filled with some kind of bacteria and plant killing glop.  The object here is to avoid taking any foreign organism onto the Antarctica landscape.  I did an admirable sloshing job and was soon headed to shore.  As we stepped out of the Zodiac we had to wade the last few feet to land in 28 degree water.  Great boots. 

This landing was pretty much like other landings to come.  The Chinstrap Penguins had arrived perhaps a month or so earlier looking for a dry piece of land for their nests. These dry pieces of land were generally uphill a good bit where the winds had already cleaned the rocks of snow … so it’s uphill we go. Thank goodness for the exercise program, and for the fact that we begin our climb at sea level.

OK … time for another hint for those of you who might plan to make this trip in the future.  If you’re going to take pictures, gloves aren’t going to do it for you.  You’ll have to take them off and find a place to stuff them when you’re futzing with your camera.  Mittens … that’s right, mittens.  Specifically those types of mittens where you can take the end – where your fingers are – and fold it back to expose your fingers for camera work.

The penguins were sitting on eggs.  Some of the chicks had already hatched, and the Skuas were sitting around waiting for a tasty lunch of just-snatched-away-from-its-mother penguin chicks.  It’s frowned upon to toss rocks at the Skuas to try to scare them away from the penguins, so I didn’t do that.  Besides, nobody saw me so you can’t prove anything. 

After a few hours of exploring it was back to the ship … never again to bundle up so thoroughly for a landing.

That evening was New Year’s Eve.  This was the first New Years in 44 years that I wasn’t with The Queen.  Now we have never been the type to stay up drinking and hell raising on New Year’s Eve,  but we were together nonetheless.  This time .. not.  Besides, after crossing The Drake the Queen would have already rolled me up in a sheet while I was sleeping in order to safely bludgeon me with a lamp.  I really didn’t have the option of just sleeping through the celebration.  The ship’s lounge is literally right next to my cabin, and the partying was going to keep me awake, so what the hell.   The intrepid seamen had brought the ship’s bell into the lounge, and at the stroke of midnight (NYC plus 2 hours) the oldest and the youngest passengers (93 years oldest, 7 months youngest) rang in the new year.  Then … off to bed.

The next morning it was kayaking around Cuverville Island.  I teamed up with a lady from Australia and we paddled in and out of the icebergs, the berger bits, and the growlers, not to mention the penguins and seals.  I was wearing a GoPro on a chest harness, so hopefully I got some good video.  While we were kayaking around I heard what I thought was a jet flying overhead.  The roar was loud .. and I could see nothing else happening.  One of the staffers floating nearby told us the sound was a huge avalanche happening somewhere in the interior.  We were also told that if we happen to be in the vicinity of a glacier and a huge hunk of ice breaks away into the water (calving) we should aim the kayak right at the place where the calving occurred because there was going to be a wave.  Maybe a small one, perhaps a big one, but we wanted to be aimed right at it so that it wouldn’t hit us broadside and capsize the kayak.

Later that day we visited Neko Harbor.  Here we climbed over 700 feet to a Gentoo penguin colony.  Two things special about this stop.  First – there was a huge glacier just off to our left as we climbed, and it calved at least twice on the way up.  Secondly … on the way down several people decided it might just be easier to sit down and slide down the hill.  I waited my turn, adjusted the GoPro to get all of the action, and down I went.  It was so fun I climbed back up the hill and did it again – after all, if you hit the ledge at the bottom just the right way you could get air time.  The penguins sat there looking at us like we had lost our freaking minds. 

When we left Neko Harbor the captain decided to take the Lemaire Channel .. an inside passage that wasn’t passable – blocked with ice --just a few weeks ago.  I can’t describe how amazing it is to stand on the bow of the ship while it pushes through these ice flows.  Every once in a while the ship would shudder as it struck a larger piece of ice, sometimes several feet thick.  No bother .. the ship just plowed right on through.

Later that evening people started paying attention to the progress of the ship as it sailed south.  On previous cruises this summer no ship had reached the Antarctic Circle at 66 degrees 33 minutes south.   We crossed that latitude at 10:53 that evening while it was still bright daylight outside.  As a matter of fact, since we were now south of the Antarctic circle, there was going to be no sunset.  It was 24 hour daylight until we traveled many miles north on our way back to port.

The next day was our adventure on the sea ice, but you’ve already read all about that.

            That pretty much describes our time cruising the Antarctic Peninsula.  Beautiful sunny days cruising past some of the most majestic scenery you have ever experienced.  Plus .. the wildlife.  There were the penguins and seals on all of our landings.  While at sea we also had Killer Whales alongside the front of the ship, as well as humpback whales.  The whales were doing that bubble curtain trick to gobble down thousands of pounds of krill.  Watch this video … this is what we saw going on just fifty yards or so from the ship.  If I’m ever in the Arctic or  Antarctic in a kayak, and suddenly my kayak is surrounded by bubbles, I’m first going have a very unfortunate and embarrassing accident, and then I’m going to paddle like there’s no tomorrow – because there probably won’t be. 

On the last day before we headed home we stopped by an old British research station at Port Lockroy.  Here, in addition to the penguin colonies, we could see the evidence of whalers from many decades ago.  The bones of humpback whales were scattered among the rocks.  There also we found a gift shop!  That’s right … the Brits have found a way to help fund their research activities with a gift shop!  I bought some very special people (The Queen and the Princess) gifts here … and had my passport stamped as well.  Go ahead – look at your passport – tell me if you see an Antarctica stamp. 

The trip back to Ushuaia was two days at sea – two days crossing Drake Passage … again.  This time there was an added element.  One of our fellow travelers had fallen ill on the ship … ill enough that the ship’s doctor thought it prudent to get her to a hospital as quickly as possible, though not crucial enough for a helicopter rescue.  This meant that the captain was going to take the shortest and fastest route back .. and that meant right through a Beaufort Scale force 8 storm, complete with 45 foot waves hammering the ship.  I was in my cabin and in my bed .. and there I was going to stay.  I could see the bow crashing through waves on the TV in my cabin, and could see turmoil in the sea out my large cabin window.  With waves that high it just wasn’t safe to go wandering about --- besides, though bright daylight outside, it was the middle of the night, so there was really no place to go.

The incredible seas lasted several hours … and late the next morning we sailed into the Beagle Channel.  Six hours later we were tied up in Ushuaia.

From that point here’s the chronology:  The charter flight from Ushuaia to Buenos Aries lasted about four hours.  I waited another four hours before I boarded my Delta flight back to Atlanta.  By 7:30 the next morning I was in my Atlanta condo.  I drove to PDK airport to plug in the block heater on my Mooney.  I don’t like to start that engine when it is below 40 degrees.  It was back to the condo to unpack – and then repack for Naples.  Then, after breakfast/lunch, it was right back to PDK, in the Mooney, and on the way home.  I landed at Naples airport around 4:30 that afternoon.  Oh man … it felt good to be home.  

I know there are a lot of wonderful places to visit in this world .. I’ve been to many of them and have many more on my list.  Later this year, after about seven months touring the west and northwest in the BoortzBus, The Queen and I are heading to New Zealand for several weeks.  Zip lines.  Jet boats.  Sheep.  But let me say this …. If there is any way you can swing it, put Antarctica on your list.  Truly one of the most amazing places I’ve ever visited in my life.  I’ve been back for several days now .. and the buzz is still strong.

One final note:  The day after I arrived home in Naples I went to breakfast with Rick Pitner, an old friend.  There – in that restaurant – were Dan and Debbi Issac, a wonderful couple that had just spent the previous 10 days with me in Antarctica.  What are the odds? 

Oh … When I got back I found out that 0bama was still president. 

Reality sucks. 

Neal Boortz

About Neal Boortz

Neal Boortz chronicles his 42 years of talk radio in his book "Maybe I Should Just Shut Up and Go Away" Available on line and printed from Barnes and Noble and Amazon.

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