Monday, November 30, 2015

The GCW Tour, Buenos Aires & Antarctica: I Wonder Which Will Expire First, Me or the Passport

Check it out. I got two Antarctica stamps in my passport:

Now this raises some interesting quesions. Antarctica is not a country and doesn't have a government. Yet the passport is, I thought, intended as an official record of your border crossings. So why did I get a stamp for Port Lockroy and what I assume was the Arctowski Science Station? Moreover, why does the Ushuaia Tourist Information Center offer to stamp your passport with an "End of the World" stamp of Ushuaia, which, officially speaking, is just a city in Argenina?

The answer, of course, is that the stamps no longer really have any meaning. They're just government sponsored sourveniers. Immigration officials are barely even looking at your passport anymore; they're looking at their compuers ("this is the computer I use to look up the people that are crossing the border"). So why bother? Wouldn't it be easier if your passport was just a card like a drivers license, rather than it's current booklet form?

Hanging on my wall is my great-grandfather's passport. It's this giant sheet of (thick) paper with his picture glued to it, a section where someone's written in a bunch of descriptors of him (e.g., height, weight, hair color, etc.), some bureaucractic gobbledygook, and on the back are all the stamps.

So passports do change with the times. It seems to me we're due for an upgrade.

The GCW Tour, Buenos Aires & Antarctica: How to Keep 200 People Entertained for Sixty Hours

At the "peak economy" cruising speed of 12.5 knots, it's about sixty hours from Ushuaia to Antarctica or vice versa. On the way down, that time is filled handing out jackets and boots and generally getting everyone ready to walk on the ice. Plus, everyone's excited and doesn't care what they do.

The way back is a slightly different story. We've had bridge tours and lectures -- "It's Going to Get Hot: Global Climate Change in the 21st Century," "The Nursery of Ice Giants: The Development of a Snow Flake into a Glacier," etc. -- and there must be half a dozen partially completed jigsaw puzzles, most with a missing piece or two, spread out on the tables in the meeting area.

And even with all of that going on, there's still a lot of extra time in the day -- especially for people who are now ready to move on to the next stage of their journey.

But the bridge tour made for an interesting twenty minutes, mostly for how disappointing it was. You gotta say this for computerization: it's pretty much made the modern work space generically universal. "This is the computer I use to bring up my patient's records" looks a lot like "this is the computer I use to bring down the global economy" which looks a lot like "this is the computer I use to drive the boat."

But, to give the boat a slightly unique flavor, not everyone gets a chair. So that's different.

The GCW Tour, Buenos Aires & Antarctica: And That, as They Say, Is That

And with that, we're pretty much done with Antarctica. With the departure from Port Lockroy we're now officially headed back to Ushuaia and points north. Here's one last shot of Antarctica. It's not the best picture I took, but it was one of the last. In all likelihood, by tomorrow morning we'll be cruising through the Drake Passage and the only scenery will be open ocean.

The GCW Tour, Buenos Aires & Antarctica: The Penguin Post Office

I don't usually do postcards when I travel, but how can you resist sending postcards with an Antarctic postmark? I couldn't.

The "Penguin Post Office" is the unofficial name of the Port Lockroy station. It was started by the British back in the 1940s, in secret, as part of the war effort, but it's utility for the war was very short lived. It then became a science station focused mostly on high atmosphere weather research, but that didn't last long either. At this point it's a museum, gift shop and post office feeding off the summer tourists who stop by for the chance to send a psotcard from Antarctica.

They're also doing research there on the effect of interaction wtih humans on penguins. Go figure.

The primary purpose of Fort Lockroy is chartible, though. The monies raised through the gift shop and donations are used to maintain Great Britian's historical outposts on Antarctica. If I recall correctly, there are eight or nine buildings they keep up.

Of course, the postcards I sent have to get to Seattle by way of Great Britian, and are mostly carried by cruise ship, so I'm told it takes in the neighborhood of six weeks to three months to receive them. So don't feel bad if it doesn't show up in your mailbox tomorrow.

For that matter, don't feel bad if it doesn't show up at all. It didn't really occur to me that sending postcards from Antarctica would be possible, so I didn't bring an address book. I'm working from memory here, which means there aren't many postcards going out. And in a few cases I was guessing at the zip codes so they may not make it at all. Sorry.

But in place of a psot card, here's more pictures -- including a shot of the dirtiest penguin I saw in my entire time in Antarctica, and a couple of shots of the pin-ups that the original residents of Port Lockroy painted on the walls (and which were subsequently painted over and only discovered when the restoration crew started scraping the walls in preparation for repainting and found them). 

The BBC did a documentary on the post office which they played on the boat. It was worth watching. You can find information about it a the end of this link.

The GCW Tour, Buenos Aires & Antarctica: Happy Thanksgiving (in Motion)!

Today is Thanksgiving, and aboard the MV Fram this was celebrated by including turkey and hamburgers among the forty different dishes they served for dinner. Unfortunately, the afternoon landing had to be abandoned when the ice wouldn't cooperate by creating a safe path from the Fram to the landing site. So instead, the landing got moved to the evening. This made a leisurely Thanksgiving meal pretty much a non-starter. 

Ah well. Penguins are better.

And this time they're even even better, since I actually managed to take penguin video. Now, for the first time on this blog, you can see penguin birth and penguin death in living color and action. Well, actually, mostly what you get is penguins standing around or walking around since it's not quite the time of year yet for birth and death. But still. Motion!

(Please note: I am a worse cinematographer than I am a still photographer, and, based on these twenty second videos, an even worse sound designer. Since all you'll hear is wind, I suggest turning the sound off on your computer.)

And speaking of the circle of life, the law of the jungle and all that, here's hoping for safe day at the mall for all of you that are heading out tomorrow in pursuit of Black Friday sales. Personally, I think I'd rather be a lone penguin swimming among a group of leopard seals.

The GCW Tour, Buenos Aires & Antarctica: Art Gallery or Icebergs?

Once we got through the Lemaire Channel, the Fram set its anchor and we all got to go out on a zodiac -- or rather, Polar Cirkel -- to get up close to the icebergs. As out boat guide put it, "I prefer icebergs to art galleries." I'm not sure I'd go that far, but he's got a point.

Oh yeah, and a few more penguins for good measure.

The GCW Tour, Buenos Aires & Antarctica: The Lemaire Channel

The Lemaire Channel is a seven mile long, one mile wide passage between the mainland and Booth Island. The best part of the passage was hearing -- and just catching a glimpse of -- a chunk of glacier falling off the mountain side. It sounds like thunder.

The GCW Tour, Buenos Aires & Antarctica: Another Quick Cancer Update

I noticed something today that I hadn't really noticed before. In short, I'm starting to look like a hairless cat or some other weird creature that by all rights should have hair but doesn't. Granted, I shaved my head to get rid of the wisps, but now I'm realizing that I'm pretty much down to wisps most everywhere.

The strangest illustration of this struck me when I was looking at my nose in the bathroom today and realized I could pretty much see up into my sinuses. I've not seen my sinuses before, as typically my nose is full of hair that blocks the view. Not anymore. At this point, all my nose hair is gone.

Can I just say that it is incredibly disconcerting not to have nose hair? It also serves to explain why my typically annoying post nasal drip has turned into a post nasal flood. Without any nose hair, there's nothing to slow it down.

The treatment manuals they give you when you start cancer treatment really ought to include this kind of detail. At this point, most everyone starting chemo is aware that they're going to wind up either looking like a conehead and/or sporting more hats and scarves than they thought possible, but how many people think that one day they're going to look in the mirror and see way more of their nose than they ever wanted to? Personally, this was a surprise I could've done without.

But on the plus side, it appears my ears are now nearly hairless, too. (It's harder to see those in the mirror to know for sure.) Those hairs I won't miss at all.

The GCW Tour, Buenos Aires & Antarctica: What Do You Do with a Penguin Infestation?

I haven't been able to hunt down our ship's official ornithologist to ask the question, but today I was struck by a puzzle: given that penguins are protected and all that, what do you do when where you live becomes the location of a penguin infestation?

The Fram's path today took us past that abandoned Chilean science station. Turns out, people don't start to occupy it until after Christmas. But check out some of the pictures. How on earth do you get that many penguins to make some space without violating any of the rules about what you can do to them?

I can't say I'd be looking forward to my arrival if I was a Chilean scientist.

Which reminds me of a story we heard today about a different Chilean science station we passed. We didn't get close enough to get pictures, but it was explained that the station had been abandoned twenty or so years ago due to fire. Not the "oh no! there's a fire! someone find a fire extinquisher" sort of fire, but the "I'm not staying here another winter so hand me the gasoline" sort of fire. The leader of the group apparently burned the station to the ground so he wouldn't have to stay there any longer.

And people say scientists are boring. Anyway, here's some scenery from the cruise, including a few shots of a Chilean science station overrun by penguins...