We awoke on February 6 in Admiralty Bay at King George Island, the largest of the South Shetland Islands. It was cold, overcast and hazy.
King George Island is the largest of the South Shetland Islands, sitting about 75 miles north of the Antarctic Peninsula. Discovered in 1820, it was named after British King George III. Today it is claimed by Argentina, Chile & Britain (all suspended by the Antarctic Treaty). It is host to the annual Antarctic marathon. We also visited here briefly in 2012 before the captain hightailed it north to avoid a storm, and the weather then was much worse:
Ten countries have science stations on King George Island, four of which are in Admiralty Bay. We think we saw all of them, but are not 100% sure that all the pictures here are correctly identified. But they probably are.
The first one we encountered was Arctowski Station, operated by Poland. When we passed this station in the fog in 2012 the name of the station was painted in big letters on the side of a building, but we didn’t see that this time. Established in 1977, it is named for Henryk Arctowski, a Polish scientist who was a member of the first expedition to winter over in Antarctica in 1897. It houses some 40 people and the area around it is full of wildlife and whalebones left over from the whaling operations that were here at one time. The base welcomes visitors and maintains a tourist information center where you can purchase souvenirs. Of course, we couldn’t go ashore so no souvenirs for us.
Comandante Ferraz Antarctic Station is operated by Brazil. It was first opened in 1984 on the site of an earlier British outpost. But in 2012 most of it burned down in a fire that started with an explosion in the building housing the electricity generators. Two people were killed in the fire and the Brazilians carted away what remained of the base. They have been rebuilding the station, larger than before, ever since. It was scheduled to become operational in 2018 and perhaps it did, but the pictures below show that quite a lot of construction activity is still going on. It is now powered, at least in part, by an array of windmills installed a little way up the hill from the station. Nearby is a graveyard with five crosses, most of which contain the remains of British citizens associated with the old British station that was once here.
Near the station is a skeleton of a Blue Whale. We have read that it was pieced together by a Jacques Cousteau expedition, but aren’t sure about that. Also nearby some Gentoo penguins were hanging around.
We passed two other bases. Peru operates the small Machu Picchu Base, established in 1989. The United States maintains the tiny Captain Pieter J. Lenie Base, situated on Copacabana beach about a mile from Arctowski. It is open only in summer and is devoted to monitoring penguin populations.
We finished sailing around Admiralty Bay before heading out to sea.
About six hours later we caught sight of Elephant Island in the distance. It was originally named by seal hunters in the 1820’s who saw a lot of elephant seals on the island. But today the island’s name is also thought to refer to its shape, which looks a lot like the head of an elephant (with big ears to the west and a long trunk to the east). We think these pictures are all Elephant Island from a distance.
But before reaching Elephant Island we encountered another mile long iceberg. If you look closely at the first picture of the iceberg as we approached from a distance you can make out four extensions on the other side enclosing three bays. Our route to the big iceberg took us through a field of floating ice with a perfectly defined border, all ice on one side and none on the other.
We sailed around to the other side of the iceberg for a close look at the three bays. Pretty impressive; you could definitely sail a pretty good sized boat into those. One of the ship’s penguins was captaining the ship in the window of the bridge one level above us and another of them was assisting in another window. This iceberg may have been anchored on the bottom, as it was taller than the ship and must have extended down quite a way. One of the dining room staff told us he remembered seeing it the last time he was here, three or four years ago. Notably, the pictures here do not really convey how BIG this iceberg was in person.
There was wildlife near the iceberg (not just stuffed penguins). We saw skuas, pintado petrels, southern giant petrels and what we think was a wandering albatross. There were also a few whales nearby and another large iceberg, but nowhere near as big as the one we had just passed.
And so in late afternoon we headed toward Elephant Island. This is where Ernest Shackleton finally found refuge after a harrowing winter spent on floating ice after their ship was crushed. They made the long journey across treacherous Antarctic seas in three of the ship’s lifeboats. The island looks pretty forbidding from the sea.
Shackleton’s party first made land at Cape Valentine, at the tip of the elephant’s trunk. As you can see below, this wasn’t much of a place to set up camp, with little land and mostly rocks jutting out from a mountain. But at least they were on land, after surviving more than a year floating on the seas. Dusk was beginning to fall as we reached this point and the air was pretty hazy.
So Shackleton sent his second in command, Frank Wild, to look for a better place. He found one about seven miles further up the elephant’s trunk at a spot now called Point Wild. There was enough of a land shelf here in front of a mountain to set up camp. Most of the crew, 22 men, spent almost five months on this spot, eating seals and penguins and waiting for Shackleton to return to rescue them . . . if he survived the almost impossible 800 mile journey to South Georgia Island in one of the lifeboats, the James Caird. They made a shelter by overturning the other two lifeboats supplemented with tent canvas. They had no idea whether Shackleton had survived the trip or whether anyone in the world knew they were there until on August 30, 1916 they spotted the Chilean Navy boat Yelcho approaching. This was Shackleton’s fourth try at a rescue, the first three failing because of impassible ice or engine trouble. Amazingly, Shackleton’s entire crew survived the entire ordeal.
By the time we reached Point Wild the sun was setting and the skies were hazy. It would be hazardous for a ship Prinsendam’s size to get too close to this rocky shore and really we could hardly see much when we were there. But happily the pictures turned out a little better so you can see Point Wild in them. We have read that the beach has mostly eroded away during the last 100 years, but the rocky outcropping is clearly visible in front of the huge glacier behind. In 1987 the Chileans erected a bronze bust on the rocks of Luis Pardo Villalon, the captain of the Yelcho which finally rescued the men. This is a breeding area for chinstrap penguins and the small white objects you can see around the sculpture are them. The beach, we think, is behind the rocks to the right of the bust.
So that’s it for our four day Antarctica adventure, although we still have South Georgia Island to go. So we will leave you with the traditional towel animals on our bed and a beautiful sculpted watermelon in the Lido.
The morning of February 5 found us in the Antarctic Sound, at the northeast corner of the Antarctic Peninsula.
The Antarctic Sound is not, as one might expect, named after the continent. Instead, it is named after the ship that transported the 1902 Swedish Antarctic expedition here. The six scientists were to winter over on Snow Hill Island, then the Antarctic would pick them up again in the summer. But the ship was prevented by floating ice from reaching the island the next summer. The ship was locked in by the ice, which eventually crushed its hull. The Antarctic crew was able to reach Paulet Island, where they spent the next winter, surviving by eating about a thousand penguins. The original group had no idea what had happened or why the ship failed to return, and had no option but to spend another winter on Snow Hill Island. The next Spring the two groups met by chance while exploring in Hope Sound. An Argentine ship was sent to find them when the Antarctic failed to return. We heard a slide lecture about this expedition while we were here; quite harrowing and the series of unlikely coincidences that led to the rescue would sound entirely implausible if set out in a novel. But it was real & the stone huts in which the groups wintered are still there, although we didn’t see them.
As we entered Hope Bay we passed a large Argentine science station.
Base Esperanza (“Hope”) was built in 1953 on a spot that had housed a naval post since 1930. Some 55 people live here year round (out of a capacity of 100) . What is unusual is that it is set up as a village, with about 10 families including children. This was part of Argentina’s effort to establish sovereignty over the Antarctic Peninsula (Chile has a similar settlement in Antarctica for the same reason). In 1978 the wife of the station’s leader was flown here when seven months pregnant to record the first birth in Antarctica, Emilio Marcos de Palma, and over the next few years there were seven more births. The community has a regular school, a radio station, an infirmary, a chapel, and a scout troop. There is a stone hut nearby where three of the Swedish expedition spent the winter of 1903, living on seal meat, but we didn’t see it.
The base also has a bust of General San Martin, the liberator of Argentina.
You probably notice a lot of penguins hanging about in these pictures. In fact, Esperanza Base was built in the middle of a large penguin rookery, so the penguins have a pre-existing claim to the space. Hope Bay is actually quite full of penguins, more than 200,000 according to what we have read (down about 17% over the last 25 years). They were everywhere, inside the base and out. Most of the penguins in this area seem to be Adelies. Given how bad penguin habitats smell, living in this settlement must take some getting used to!
In addition to the penguins, seals were lounging on the ice. We think they were mostly Weddell seals, but who knows for sure.
Apart from the wildlife, Hope Bay was full of icy scenery.
Leaving Hope Bay we passed Esperanza Base again. Yep, the penguins were still there, standing around waiting for something to happen.
As we headed out of the bay we spotted penguins in the water and Giant Petrels in flight.
The Antarctic Sound has a lot of floating ice, including large flat icebergs that have broken off from the Larsen ice shelf in the Weddell Sea. These are called tabular icebergs because they are flat like tables. Some are so big they run aground in the Sound, where the can sit for years until worn away by sea and wind forces.
You may wonder how the ship manages to navigate safely among the icebergs. Throughout the Antarctic portion of our voyage there was an experienced ice pilot on board to guide the way. During a Q & A following the Antarctic portion of the cruise he was asked just what his role was on the bridge. He said “I sit there and I say ‘See that iceberg over there? Don’t hit it.’” We are pretty sure he does a good deal more than that.
We approached pretty near that large tabular iceberg you saw above. We were told that it was about a mile long, and it was taller than the ship. That means it reaches pretty far down under the water, perhaps far enough that it was anchored in place on the bottom.
As the ship held its position by the iceberg a small boat was sent out with the ship’s photographer and some members of the Antarctic expedition team. Their mission was to take pictures of the ship next to the iceberg. At about the same time Rick went down to the platform in the very front of the ship to take in the view from that location.
After the photographs of the ship were done, the folks on the boat didn’t want to come right back. They spent some time at a nearby iceberg photographing penguins (who wouldn’t want to do that?).
While he was on the bow Rick took some pictures back toward the ship.
You might have thought we were done with wildlife for the day, but you would be wrong. Still lots of penguins out on the ice. We were told last time we were here that penguins out on the ice probably means there are Orcas or leopard seals in the water hunting. We didn’t see any of those, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they weren’t there. We did see some penguins diving into the water from the ice, so maybe that wasn’t the case this time. You can tell when a penguin is about to dive because it first bends its neck far forward.
We also saw some penguins sharing an iceberg with a seal.
Birds — including Cape or Pintado (painted) petrels, giant petrels and what we think were Antarctic shags (cormorants) – were flying around the ship and hunting low over the water. We also saw some whales, although not nearly as many as we had seen on previous days. On grand voyages (ie. these long ones), HAL leaves presents on your bed on many of the gala nights. One that came in particularly handy was a set of matching grey gloves, scarf,, stocking hat and blanket. You can see Rick below sporting the hat, scarf & gloves in the cold & windy weather.
Our adventurous Captain wanted to take us through the Sound into the Weddell Sea. That would have been pretty cool, but it was not to be. I mentioned earlier that the Antarctic Sound is often crowded with floating ice. As we neared the end toward the Weddell Sea, the Captain & the ice pilot concluded that we might well be able to get through into the Weddell Sea, but that we might not be able to get back again through the gathering ice. So we turned around and headed back north as clouds began to close in and the sun fell toward the sea. So all that is left to show you for this day is some more of Antarctica’s never ending seascapes.
When we woke up near Anvers Island on February 4 the weather was the opposite of what we saw the morning before. It was very foggy so there was little to see.
With all the fog we didn’t spend much time outside during the morning, but there was a special event scheduled. The United States has a science station on Anvers Island called Palmer Station. Opened in 1968, it houses some 45 people in the summer and is primarily focused on marine biology. The only US station north of the Antarctic Circle, it is named for Nathaniel B. Parker, the first American to see the Antarctic Peninsula in 1820.
Last time we were here, in 2012, we could see Palmer Station in the distance:
But not today, thanks to the thick fog. Nonetheless, a contingent of personnel from the station came out to the ship in a zodiac. They have an arrangement with Holland America to give a presentation to the passengers on the ship and in exchange they get hot showers and hot meals and supplies to take back to the station. We were not up yet when they boarded the ship around 6:30 AM but we did attend their presentation a few hours later. Several of them gave talks about life at the station and their scientific studies, then all six of them came on stage for a question and answer session. It was all very interesting and gave us a connection to the US Antarctic program. Particularly entertaining and informative was the doctor (in the green shirt), who explained that you don’t want to have a toothache while in Antarctica because he is the only one there who can treat it.
We were at the rail of the ship when they left around noon. The zodiac from the station appeared out of the mist, then pulled up next to an opening in the ship at water level that must be a cargo loading dock. A few of them stepped out from the ship into the zodiac, then they began loading supplies. Box after box came out while we waited to see if there would be room left for all the humans. From our viewpoint it looked like most of the boxes contained wine or soft drinks (lots of them), but there were also some bags of fruits & vegetables. A tall stack of cargo boxes filled the middle of the boat so the people had to sit on the inflated sides as the boat left for the station. A final wave, then it disappeared into the fog.
We sailed northeast along the Antarctic Peninsula, but it was still quite foggy.
But by mid-afternoon when we reached Wilhelmina Bay (named in 1897 for the Dutch queen) we had outrun most of the fog. It was a beautiful area, looking even more so because we had spent so much of the day wrapped in fog.
We came upon some penguins on an iceberg.
Wilhelmina Bay is known for having a large population of whales. It is nicknamed “Whale-mina Bay.” We saw quite a few, many swimming in groups.
Four whales went by, looking like a motorcycle gang cruising for trouble.
Some more penguins were sharing an iceberg with a napping seal.
A bunch of seals came cavorting near the ship, leaping in and out of the water, something we hadn’t seen before. Unfortunately they were swimming away from the ship so mostly we saw their back sides.
Well that was pretty much it for Day 2. We did go into Hughes Bay (according to the map we were given) but not until about 8:30 at night while we were eating dinner. So we think these last pictures are all from Wilhelmina Bay.
After a day spent crossing the Drake Passage toward Antarctica, we woke up on February 3 as the sun rose over a mountain peak in Paradise Bay on the Antarctic Peninsula. We rushed to grab the camera & put on enough clothes to step outside, but by that time the sun was already above the mountains.
The day was absolutely glorious, nothing better could be hoped for. Last time we were in Antarctica the weather was bad for all but one afternoon. You can see the first day in Antarctica in 2012 here:
If you wonder why whalers named this Paradise Harbor in the 1920’s (now more often called Paradise Bay) all you have to do is look around.
Wildlife was abundant in these waters. Humpback whales were surfacing and blowing their spouts all around the bay, then showing us their tails as the dove under again.
Penguins were in the water as well. They are strong swimmers, usually in groups. They use a technique called “porpoising,” in which they alternatively swim just under the water and leap into the air. Quite a show. These are Adelie penguins, the most widespread species in Antarctica. They were first spotted in 1840 by French explorer Jules D’Urville, who named them after his wife. They are identified by their all black heads and crazed looking white eyes.
We saw many icebergs floating in the water. A large percentage of the icebergs in Antarctica break off from ice sheets, so they tend to be large and flat, unlike the craggier ones you tend to see in Arctic waters. Although there are quite a few of the craggier ones here as well. Of course, most of an iceberg is under water, which gives you pause when you see one that is taller than the ship and as big as a small city (which we will, later).
We came to a large iceberg with a pool of water in the middle. It was full of Adelie penguins, along with a few Gentoos (white earmuffs across their heads from eye to eye), some bathing in the pool. To see the pool we had to climb up two decks from the lower promenade deck. The penguins watched as the captain turned the ship to the right to bring us as close as possible for a good look, then all of a sudden they turned tail and hightailed it to the other side of the iceberg, out of sight. Guess they thought we were going to ram them.
Yet more whales & more scenery.
Returning to our room, we spotted a zodiac from our balcony carrying three people, out among the whales. The whales came quite close; it must have been pretty exciting. We weren’t sure where such a small boat could have come from, but then we spied a Hurtigruten expedition ship in the shadow of a glacier. They are small enough to enable passengers to go ashore in zodiacs (inflatable boats); the limit is 100 passengers for ships to be allowed to disembark in Antarctica, we believe.
More scenery. You would think that would become tiresome, but it never did. As you probably know, icebergs are mostly under water, but if the water is clear and the iceberg close enough you can see some of the underwater portion looking like a luminous blue halo around the iceberg. The edges of the mainland where the glaciers break off as they reach the sea, leaves an infinite variety of beautiful, though temporary, patterns in the ice walls.
We came upon some leopard seals (we think) relaxing on an ice flow. The second largest seal species in Antarctica, these nasty guys eat penguins, among other things, and their only predator is the Orca. They grow up to 11.5 feet long and have been known to attack humans on rare occasions.
In an earlier episode we mentioned that Argentina and Chile both claim sovereignty over the Antarctic Peninsula, the location of Paradise Bay. They are two of the seven countries that have made claims to parts of Antarctica. But the Antarctic Treaty, signed in 1959 by all the nations with claims in Antarctica, suspended those claims and established an international system to preserve Antarctica for science and eliminate all military activity there. Today 54 nations are signatory to the treaty, most of which do not recognize any of the suspended claims, and some 30 of them have scientific stations in Antarctica. All told, there are some 45 year round stations and another 30 open only in the summer.
Argentina has a station in Paradise Bay named for Admiral William Brown, father of the Argentine navy. It was first built in 1951 as a naval base but in 1965 it was converted into a biology laboratory. In 1984 the station’s doctor burned down the entire facility because he was disgruntled at having been ordered to stay there for the winter! The personnel were all successfully evacuated to the U.S. Palmer Station. Argentina rebuilt the facility in the late 1990’s and since 2007 it has been open in summer only.
Excursion ships, like the Hurtigruten we saw earlier, often land their passengers here for a visit. They can climb up the hill behind the base and many then slide back down sitting in a sort of luge track worn in the snow. About 250 yards from the base is a refuge house built by the Argentine navy in 1956.
On a rocky outcropping near the station was a group of birds we thought were penguins. But on closer inspection it turned out they were not penguins, but probably Antarctic Shags (or cormorants).
We encountered a particularly beautiful glacier with a craggy ice wall sporting ice caves & peaks & crevices, all reflecting in the remarkably calm water.
More wildlife – there was so much of it! We saw much more wildlife the first morning than we did in the entire three days of our first visit to Antarctica. Here are some seals and swimming penguins.
We sailed past what we believe to be the entrance to Paradise Bay. The tall mountains peeking out from the clouds in the distance are probably part of Anvers Island. Pretty spectacular view.
Chile has a science station in Paradise Bay named after a former president, Gabriel Gonzalez Videla, who in the 1940’s became the first head of state of any country to visit Antarctica. Built in 1951, it was active until 1958 then again during the 1980’s. Today it is sometimes visited during the summer by tourists and Chilean delegations. A sailboat was moored nearby when we were there, so somebody must have been home.
Gonzales Videla Base sits on a small outcropping of land called Waterboat Point, which is an island at high tide. Its name came from a two man British party that spent a year here in 1921-1922 in a shelter made of an old whaling boat they found here.
The waterboat expedition generated the first scientific study of penguin breeding. Today the entire base is occupied by Gentoo penguins. Usually when you see a large colony of birds they all seem busy: building nests, caring for chicks, flying around looking for something to eat. But not penguins. They look like they are just standing around in fancy dress hanging out, like a crowd of theater goers waiting for the doors to open. There sure are a lot of them though!
One notable thing about large penguin colonies like this is that you can smell them before you actually see them. Not really just standing around, the penguins do eat and, like everybody else, they poop. And they do it right where they happen to be standing. When thousands of them are close together, that makes for quite a lot of excrement and the foul smell really carries. You may be sailing toward a picturesque crowd of penguins when, all of a sudden, the odor hits you like a brick wall. We wouldn’t want to live near them, but it is tolerable when on a ship that will soon be further away.
A group of penguins porpoised by, very close to the ship. We were able to look almost directly down on them and the water was clear enough that we could see them under the water as well as when they leaped out.
We passed more seals out on the ice and a large brown bird, probably an Antarctic skua.
We had a special wildlife encounter with a friendly whale. It swam by, rolled over to extend its fin in what looked like a greeting, then dove under the water.
We encountered one more large penguin colony today.
During the afternoon we saw a hillside covered with reddish snow. Since there were penguins around we thought it might be their poop. But it turns out this is called “watermelon snow,” and is caused by an algae. It reduces the amount of light reflected by the snow, which makes the snow warmer and promotes quicker melting. Some scientists are beginning to worry that this effect may spread and help speed up climate change. Not quite so pretty when you think about that!
We continued cruising for the rest of the afternoon, passing more mountains and icebergs and ice walls. Really, the beauty never stopped all day long. But being of a certain age, we eventually tired out and went inside until dinner time.
Although we remained inside during the evening, the wildlife did not stop. We saw whales and penguins through the window as we waited for our dinner table to be ready at 8:00. Not the best pictures because it was late & the window wasn’t very clean, but here they are anyway just because they were there. Finally, this was not only our first day in Antarctica, but also Super Bowl Sunday. The ship’s penguins were, as always, dressed for the occasion.
Thus ended a very long and unbelievably spectacular day. Is it possible to have a better day on a cruise ship in Antarctica? We think not. We had, in just the first day, seen everything we had been hoping to see and then some. A great beginning to our Antarctic adventure.
Ushuaia is the southernmost city in the world (Puerto Williams, Chile, which sits nearby across the Beagle Channel, is further south but has fewer than 3,000 people). It sits on the southern coast of Isla Grande, the largest island of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago and of South America. Officially founded in 1884, a little more than a decade after the first missionaries arrived, Ushuaia today is a small city of 60 to 80,000 people (depending on the source) in a spectacular setting surrounded by the imposing Martial mountains and the Beagle channel.
Although indigenous people had lived in the area for some 10,000 years, Tierra del Fuego was discovered for Europeans by Fernando Magellan in 1520 during his global circumnavigation. Seeing smoke from so many fires maintained by the locals in this cold area, Magellan called this Tierra del Humo (Land of Smoke). It was the king of Spain who (correctly) concluded that Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire) would be more evocative.
When we were here in 2012 the water conditions were bad enough that the harbor master would not let us dock or tender, even though we were almost close enough to the pier to swim:
This time the weather was a whole lot nicer, though still pretty cold & very windy. The worst part was walking down the long pier to shore, during which it felt like you might just be blown into the water. One of our cabin stewards told us he intended to go ashore, but turned back when he encountered the cold wind on the pier, which was nothing like he was used to at home in Indonesia. We were booked on a private tour to Tierra del Fuego National Park during the morning, so we had to be up and off the ship pretty early in the morning.
Our guide drove our small group in a van to Ensenada Bay in the Park. Our first stop was at the Post Office At The End Of The World, the southernmost post office in the Americas (there is one further south at Port Lockroy in Antarctica). It is a corrugated metal shed that looks like a shipping container with a slanted roof, sitting on top of a stilted wooden pier that extends into the bay. The walls are covered with stickers, pictures and advertisements, and there is a wood stove near the door to provide warmth in this frigid environment. As you might expect from such a remote yet popular tourist attraction, the prices in this tiny post office are usurious: $5.00 US to buy and send a postcard to the United States! It is in a beautiful spot though.
Our first hike was along the shore of Ensenada Bay, then up into a forest. The sea views were very nice, including some windblown trees known as “flag trees” because they extend in only one direction.
The forest in this area is primarily populated with Lenga beech trees, but there are other species as well. Our guide told us quite a bit about the flora and fauna, but unfortunately too much time has passed for us to remember much of it. We saw a beautiful bird that we think is a Chimango Caracara.
Some of these trees had what looked like tumors around the trunks. It seems that this is Pan de Indio (Indian Bread), a fungus that was an important part of the diet of the Yamana people who lived here before the Europeans came. Apparently bright orange globes of fungus grow out from it, but not while we were there. It is still used in salads and to make jam.
One of the most interesting things in this forest was the wide variety of lovely lichens, often several kinds growing together. The only one whose name we know is “Old Man’s Beard” (Usnea), the fuzzy one that looks a little like Spanish Moss.
And of course there were some woodland flowers too.
We drove in the van to Roca Lake, then walked along the Lapataia River. The lake is large with a mountainous backdrop.
As we set out on our walk (toward the left in the pictures above) we came upon a group of Upland Geese. The darker females were too busy eating to pay any attention to us, but the white headed male kept a wary eye on us the whole time we were nearby.
As we walked along the river there was much flora, including a variety of mistletoe hanging from the tree tops. On our right was the lush marshy river and on our left was a fairly dense lenga forest.
The river walk took us to the Alakush lodge, which had a small buffet restaurant where we could eat (but didn’t). It also had a small museum discussing the history and ecosystem of the area, but it was all in Spanish so we mostly just looked at the pictures. A statue of a penguin stood in the hall just outside the large gift shop.
Outside in and near the river was quite a bit of fauna. We saw black necked swans, a Southern (or crested) caracara and ducks that may be pintails that are known to live around here.
We drove from there to a place called the Green Lagoon, which had a nice wooden overlook of the lagoon with a beaver house in the middle. It also afforded a spectacular view of the mountains in the distance, which we think is the Cordilla Darwin.
We continued on to Lapataia bay, where there is a wooden walkway out to the scenic water front. We stopped at an overlook, then walked down to the sign marking the end of the Pan American Highway, the other end of which is in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, some 19,000 miles away. We saw the bridge where it crosses the Panama Canal, but further south in Panama is the Darien Gap, where a rainforest breaks the highway’s continuity. People routinely have their pictures taken with the sign & we were no exception.
We walked across the wooden walkway that protects the environment from tourists’ feet to the dock. From there we could see a family of Steamer Ducks in the water and a group of Upland Geese on the land.
We walked back along the wooden pathway to re-board the van, in a spot where there was a stunning view of the distant snowy peaks.
At the end of World War II the economy of Tierra del Fuego was in a slump. “I have a great idea” someone said to the Argentine Navy Secretary, “lets get some beavers down here & we can start a fur industry!” We don’t know whether the conversation actually went like that, but we do know that in 1946 the Navy Secretary imported 20 beavers from Manitoba, Canada, and released them into the wild for just this purpose. It turned out to be a really bad plan, however. The fur industry never developed but the beavers did and today there are a couple of hundred thousand of them busily destroying the old growth lenga trees in this area. The population became uncontrolled because the alien beavers have no natural predators down here. They are destroying trees by gnawing them down to build dams (as anyone could have predicted they would). Unlike their favorite trees in Canada, the lenga trees do not regenerate after being cut, and the dams built by the beavers have flooded large areas filled with lengas that cannot live in a watery location. So the beavers have changed the ecosystem of some 15% of Tierra del Fuego so far, the largest alteration here since the last ice age.
We visited a site typical of the beavers’ work. There is nothing here but whitened tree stumps and branches, really an image of devastation. Argentina and Chile have recently begun a program to control and hopefully reduce the beaver population, but most experts seem to think that eliminating them is not really possible. An object lesson that a lot of thought is needed about possible consequences before introducing an alien species into a new environment.
Leaving the park we returned to the ship, stopping on the way to take the picture at the beginning of this episode. We changed our clothes & spent the afternoon exploring the city. Walking up the two steep blocks to San Martin street, the main commercial thoroughfare, we turned left & found the Iglesia Nuestra Senora de la Merced (Our Lady Of Mercy Church). Billed as the southernmost Catholic church on the planet, this simple but brightly painted church was built in 1898 by convicts from the prison (Ushuaia began as a prison colony & the prison was in operation until 1947). The bell tower was added during a restoration in the 1940’s.
We walked a good way further out this commercial street, full of shops & restaurants, to find the public library, the Biblioteca Popular Sarmiento de Ushuaia. Brightly painted on the outside, it is open and airy inside.
As we walked back toward the city center we passed some colorful flowers, then stopped for a late lunch at a place called Tante Sara’s. We had huge and delicious Argentine steak sandwiches (we should have shared one) along with Beagle Beer from (you should have guessed it by now) the southernmost brewery in the world. As we sat by a large street window watching the action on the boulevard, a tall fellow came along wearing a penguin suit. When he saw Rick’s camera he stopped an posed for a picture. You just never know what you are going to see!
Quite a few birds were flying and swimming around the ship when we returned., including cormorants, kelp gulls and (probably) sooty shearwaters.
From the ship we could see the red and yellow church, the old government building (now a museum) and the current government building behind it. Off to the right we could see the old prison, shaped like the spokes of a half wheel and sitting behind some more conventional red roofed buildings. Beginning in the 1890’s Ushuaia served as a penal colony, modeled on the British one in Tasmania & the French one on Devil’s Island. Situated this far from civilization in a forbidding environment, escape was unlikely (only two prisoners managed it, and then for only a few weeks). The convicts actually built the prison, which opened in 1902 and was closed in 1947 by Juan Peron. Today it houses the Maritime Museum.
As we sailed away heading South away from South America, we had a nice view of Ushuaia in its storybook setting.