My Antarctica Expedition by Dub Graham | Jan. 1 – 11, 2013
Our jumping off place was Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world (pop. 60,000). For 10,000 years the area was inhabited by tribes of natives who were quite primitive. They wore no clothes and soaked their bodies in seal oil to stay warm. Tribe members lived happily for thousands of years until missionaries, who arrived mid 19th Century, baptized them and made them wear clothes. The baptisms caused little harm, but the clothes destroyed the immunity their bodies had acquired over the ages. All of them died.
The next phase of Ushuaia life was as a penal colony (1902-1947). However, today it’s a charming resort destination for skiers in the winter and tourists in the summer. I spent three days there at the Las Hayas Hotel, in the hills overlooking the city and the Beagle Chanel coast. On December 31st, my birthday, hotel guests were treated to an Argentina style party with great music, dancing, food and revelry. It made me feel young, like I was seventy five years old again. But at mid-night I was disappointed to learn that it was not my birthday but another event they were celebrating.
We spent a morning touring the Argentina National Forest and viewing mountains and lakes carved out over millions of years by glaciers. I enjoyed photographing many of the sites, including the southernmost out-house in the world. In the afternoon we cruised the Beagle Channel where we got our first introduction to penguins and seals. The latter are the ugliest and laziest animals I’ve seen since Amos, my precious bulldog died. For some reason, however, I didn’t bond with the seals as I had with Amos!
I loved Ushuaia! There is so much of interest to see and enjoy there…including beautiful views in every direction. Laura, our pretty Argentinean tour guide was my favorite view. I understand now why former Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina chose to travel to Argentina rather than hike the Appalachian Trail.
IN HIS BOOK, LIFE OF PI, YANN MARTEL WROTE: “.…[T]he most dangerous animal in the zoo is man…our predatoriness (sic) has made the entire planet our prey.” Perhaps this characteristic is why before boarding the Corinthian II, we were required to sign a lengthy, complex document, obviously prepared by a lawyer, agreeing that we would in no way annoy or inconvenience any animal, leave behind any litter or remove anything, even the smallest rock. So, my apologies to those I promised to bring an icicle! We were also told not to take ashore any seeds, grass or plants. I guess this was because they won’t grow in the frigid climate. When the N. C. State Alumni heard this they packed up and returned home.
SOON AFTER BOARDING THE CORINTHIAN II, we were put through various safety drills, instructed how to put on life vests and told how to get on and off the Zodiacs which would take to the places we would explore. It was suggested we take care when in the zodiacs because falling into the icy water can be embarrassing and may lead to other consequences like near instant death. We were then required to take our knee high boots to the stern of the boat for decontamination and storing. My boots were borrowed so I tried them on to make sure they fit. I nearly panicked when I could not get my feet in them. But then I remembered it was because of the miniature bottles of gin I stored in the toes to get them by airport security.
We found the tables, chairs and other items on the ship bolted to the floor, and we were warned to tightly secure our bed belts before going to sleep. We braced ourselves as we approached the Drake Passage, where warm water of the Atlantic and colder water of the Pacific converge to create the most treacherous sailing area in the world. I looked forward to my most exciting experience since I last bungee jumped (my hair was solid black before I did it). But I slept while crossing the passage each way, except of course, for the multiple times I had to go to the bathroom during the nights. The crew told us the crossings were the calmest they could remember.
YES, THERE ARE PENGUINS IN ANTARCTICA. On our first landing we were greeted by thousands. Our guide told us not to get closer than fifteen feet to any of them. Apparently, the penguins were not told to stay fifteen feet from us, because they wandered up all around us. When one came a few feet in front of me the guide yelled. “Get back!” So I backed up…and stepped on a poor little penguin which had waddled up behind me.
Penguins live interesting lives. They mate at least until they have raised their first offspring. When one returns from searching for food, it and can recognize its mate among flocks of thousands. It’s an exciting reunion, but unfortunately their long beaks prevent them from kissing on the mouth. I’m told that they have other ways to show affection. Like Canadian geese, penguins aren’t very sanitary. Nature takes care of it by providing flocks of little white birds to clean up their droppings. But there’s nothing to clean up after the little white birds.
In addition to penguins, we saw lots of various kinds of whales, seals and gorgeous birds, including the beautiful wide winged Albatross. It was easy to approach the ugly, lazy seals as they stretched out on rocks or ice, enjoying the sunshine. When they get hungry they dive in the water and catch a young penguin. Rather than quickly killing the penguin the seals violently throw it around in the water, torturing it until it dies. It isn’t a pretty sight. Male seals, fight for the privilege of serving a harem of as many as two hundred females. We were shown a movie of two fighting, with only their mouths as weapons. Hundreds of females flocked close together, watching, waiting, and undoubtedly hoping that the most virile combatant would prevail. Two hundred females!!! It seems to me that should be more than enough for a single male. Why can’t he forego his outrageous behavior and make do with just a hundred or so? But, who am I to tell a seal how to conduct his sex life.
There aren’t many sharks in the cold waters of Antarctica. However, we did encounter one as our zodiac carried us back to the ship. Fortunately, he recognized me as a lawyer and out of professional courtesy let us pass.
TWO OF OUR EXCURSIONS WERE TO RESEARCH STATIONS. One belongs to the Ukraine and the other to the United States. Only eight persons, all male are stationed at the Ukraine station. They seemed glad to see fellow humans, and greeted us with large shots of what they called vodka. It tasted like kerosene, but served its purpose. I understand that any leftover was to be used to help fuel the generators.
The U. S. facility is manned (did I say manned?) by both women and men. I don’t recall how many people are there. I would guess thirty or so. Each person has to commit to a year of continuous service. They are serious about learning as much as possible about the frozen continent before all the ice melts and if sinks into the sea. They entertained us with coffee and brownies.
MY TRIP TO ANTARCTICA WAS AMONG MY BEST EVER. It wasn’t because of the beauty of the majestic ice fields at the bottom of the world, or the chance to intermingle with the continent’s rare animal inhabitants, or the opportunity to hear about brave exploits by men like Shackleton, Amundsen, Scott and many others. Neither was it because I can now brag that I’ve set foot on all of the world’s continents. Those things made the trip special to be sure. But what made it stand out among my many others, was the quality new friends I made among me fellow travelers. The fact is, Captain Denis Radia could have parked the Corinthian II atop Mt. Arafat and I would have still enjoyed the time aboard…so long as the same passengers were aboard.
The most dangerous thing about the trip was the food. It was so good it was hard not to eat too much. I soon abandoned my heart healthy diet. The ship also had a complimentary bar, well stocked with premium brands and expensive single malts. During nightly lectures cocktail waitresses circulated among us asking “Do you need another drink?” I would usually answer. “No, as a matter fact I didn’t need this one, but perhaps you can rephrase your question.” Trying to follow the lectures after a couple of single malts was difficult, but I learned enough from them to know I don’t have to worry about the national debt any longer. By the time it comes due there won’t be enough of the planet left for it to matter.
Getting back to the folks on board: My fellow travelers included three couples and me from our UNC alumni group. It didn’t take long for us to get acquainted since it seemed like we had known each other for years. Another alumni group was from a school called Harvard, which I understand is up north somewhere. Its leader was a lovely lady whom I thought was single, but couldn’t confirm it. There were also other single ladies in that group. Were I younger and better looking I would still be chasing after one of them. One of my favorites was only 29, and looked about 19. I wanted to adopt her as my fourth granddaughter, put her in my pocket and take her with me, but was afraid that would be felony larceny. Perhaps the biggest celebrity on board was Lidia, the Italian chef, who owns a chain of restaurants and has a popular television show. Her friend Harry had been a successful casket salesman in Brooklyn. We enjoyed each other until I told him I was going to be cremated. He never spoke to me afterwards. The Harvard group provided the main lecturer on board. He is obviously brilliant and his lectures were well attended and well received. However, from time to time someone would shout out. “Why don’t you sit down, and let your attractive Irish wife talk!
In addition to the UNC and Harvard alumni groups, there were seventy five others aboard. All were interesting. A Russian group consisted of about thirty well educated and attractive individuals. The Road Scholars group, formerly the Elder Hostel, seemed to have more fun than anybody. There were several from the Wilderness Society, whatever that is, and a number were guests of our tour company, Travel Dynamics.
Other interesting passengers include a few from my generation. A banker from Oklahoma City had two of his granddaughters with him. Both were recent college graduates and lovely. He had carried them on several adventures including a tour on the Siberian railroad. He looks forward to doing the same with their younger twin sisters. Herb, from Manhattan was there with his grandson. A gentleman from Lincoln, Nebraska, was accompanied by three of his children, including a charming daughter who is in graduate school at the UNC School of Public Health. One of the ship’s favorites was a pretty young recent graduate of the University of Wisconsin. She and her parents, who are from Eugene, Oregon, were visiting their seventh continent. She’s only a little over twenty and has now achieved what it has taken me 83 years to do!
THIS IS THE SMALLEST SHIP I’VE TRAVELED ON. I know now for sure that there are small ships and there are large ships, but the best ships are friendships. After this trip I have many new ones.