This may be the most beautiful place in the world

Trip Start Jul 21, 2009
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Trip End Apr 28, 2010


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Flag of Antarctica  ,
Wednesday, March 24, 2010

This really might be the most beautiful place in the world.  I became convinced of that sometime before sunrise this morning.  We appeared to be lucky -- as the sky started to lighten above Neko Harbor, it became abundantly clear that this was going to be another amazing day.  The blue and pink skies at sunrise were just fantastic, there was no wind, and the water was reflecting back the mountains and glaciers in every direction.

At 9 AM, after breakfast, we set out on our first activity of the day.  We shuttled by Zodiac to the nearby ice-covered beach at Neko Harbor, landing in the middle of a colony of Gentoo penguins.  Our first destination was a short hike up a hill, and across a glacier, to two viewpoints, where we sat for at least an hour, taking in the panoramic sights of the bay.  Wow.  We watched the glacier calf (little bits, and a few little avalanches), watched a little baby bird sit on a rock while its parents flew around, and in general, soaked it all in -- this was our first landing on the actual continent of Antarctica.

When we had taken in the views, and our toes were getting cold, we headed back down for some penguin-viewing before we had to head back to the ship.  After looking around a bit, I found a rock and sat down to observe.  And apparently, I found the best and luckiest rock on the beach.

If you sit quietly, the young curious chicks will come close to you.  (Or, at least, closer than the 15 feet you have to stay away from them)  So that was, of course, my hope in sitting down -- to attract a curious little penguin chick.  The amazing part, though, was that it worked.  And I didnīt just attract one chick -- over the course of 20 or 30 minutes, at least a dozen wandered past, well within that 15-foot limit.  In fact, at one point, I had three within a three foot radius of me, just off to my right.  While I was sitting there thinking that was pretty awesome, someone pointed to my left.  I turned, and not a foot away from me, there was another chick looking up at me expectantly.  It was a most amazing experience -- aboslutely fantastic. 

In all, we spent about three hours on the peninsula, on a bright sunshiny day with blue skies and only wispy strands of clouds up above.  We were assured that we had a beautiful January-like day: with the sun, the temperatures above freezing, and the wildlife -- it was more suited to a day in peak season, when people pay twice as much for the same cruise just for a chance of better weather and wildlife!

But that was just the morning. 

After lunch, we landed at Waterboat Point, and stopped at the Presidente Gabriel Gonzalez Videla Chilean research station.  Although they didnīt explain much about the station at the time, we later leared that this was one of the two stations that simultaneously discovered the hole in the ozone layer.  We had a brief look around, and took care of two very important errands.  Mission One:  we got our passports stamped on Antarctica.  Although it has no legal relevance, itīs just cool.  Mission Two:  We sent postcards.  Or, more accurately, we dropped off postcards.  Itīs late enough in the season that this station was fresh out of stamps.  But someone from this station will be going to another Chilean station soon, and they will take the postcards for us, and buy stamps there.  Then, when someone from that station goes home, theyīll mail them.  Then the postcards get sent to their final destination.  All said, they should arrive to the US in about four months!  (unless, of course, they get lost somewhere along the way).

On a side note, almost, the station is located in the middle of a colony of... did you guess it??? Gentoo penguins!  (our third colony), in the middle of a beautiful bay.  So we also saw penguins and looked at amazing scenery -- itīs amazing that those things could be considered "secondary" for any particular stop!

Part of the reason that this stop was a bit rushed was the fact that we actually had a THIRD activity scheduled for the day -- another zodiac cruise. 

We arrived at a place called Paradise Harbor, which easily lives up to its name.  Even before it was our turn for the zodiac cruise, we stood on deck in awe -- there were mountains and glaciers all around, amazingly calm water, great reflections, and fabulous end-of-the-day lighting -- it was stunning.

At any rate, right as the sun was starting to drift behind the mountains, it was our turn for the zodiac cruise.  As we pulled away from the ship, we paused to take in the sunset, then headed for some glacier close-ups.  Approaching the ice, someone saw a seal in the water up ahead, so we slowed to try and find it.  As we were all intently staring ahead, waiting for it to surface, we got quite a surprise -- it surfaced just a few feet away from our boat!  It was a very large female leopard seal, and she was quite curious about us!  After two looks on the left side of the boat, she swam around for a quick look on the back right before deciding we were boring and swiming away.  Absolutely amazing!

After that, it sounds almost boring to say that we also saw a crabeater seal floating on an iceburg, and a second (male) leopard seal sunning on a different iceburg.  And yet, they were very cool too -- even gave a lazy wave with a flipper as we went by.

After the seals, we spent our time zipping around, admiring glaciers and the spectacular setting, and reconfirming my suspicions that this just might be the most beautiful place on earth.

As we were approaching the bottom of a very large glacier, which looked as if a house-sized chunk was going to fall off any moment, one of the passengers got into a discussion with our guide regarding a grey spot on land -- rock or seal?  As we quietly pulled in closer, the rock revealed itself to be a large, spotted looking seal.  Once you knew what to look at, it was quite obvious, but without knowing it was there, it passed easily as just another rock.  This one, as it turns out, was a Weddell seal -- bringing our total to four types of seals spotted in two days -- not bad!  After the seal, it was (sadly) time to go back to the boat for dinner.

Even after only two days, this trip was already an amazing incredible adventure, and worth every moment of seasickness.  And yet, we still had three more days of this! Wow!

(Have I used enough superlatives yet???)
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