Sunday, December 30, 2012

Looking Back

Welcome to my 2012 Photo Review
When I think back on 2012 these are my images that stand out in my mind.
I wish you all a wonderful New Year as we welcome in 2013.

Photo: The wonderfully sweet and endangered West Indian Manatee (Trichechus manatus latirostris) of Crystal River Florida are at risk not just from boaters but from changes in climate as well.

Filmed on location at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, Crystal River, Florida courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.


Photo: A Laysan Albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis) chick on Midway Atoll asks us to stop smoking and stop plastic pollution. Unfortunately Midway is a victim of not only marine debris but of budget cuts as well. Reopened for tourism in 2008, Midway lost over 1 million dollars in funding and has had to eliminate it's visitor and volunteer programs as a result. It's up to those of use who have had the privileged of visiting and exploring this amazing location to let people know the plastic is still out there - it's still a fight worth fighting even if we can't see it first hand any longer.


Photo: Remember the Keystone XL Pipeline? It's still looming out there and last March I visited the Platte River in Nebraska with the National Wildlife Federation. The Platte is an important area for migrating Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis) and TransCanada wants to travel right through... an oil spill would be catastrophic. Two years after the Kalamazoo River Pipeline Oil Spill in Michigan the clean up is still not complete! That spill went largely unnoticed because all eyes were on the Gulf of Mexico. What's making this clean up so difficult, costly and time consuming? Tar Sands Oil. Still think Keystone XL is a good idea?


Photo: Royal Lipizzaner Stallion at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. A lifelong dream come true was to visit the Spanish Riding School and see the beautiful white horses perform. They are far more more beautiful in person than the tapestry that hung on my wall as a child.


Photo: Ah, Alaska! It just doesn't get much better than fall in Denali National Park.



Photo: Swimming with Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in the Kingdom of Tonga was an incredible experience. There's nothing in the world quite like having a creature the size of a city bus give you the eye and then leave you miles behind with one slow casual stroke of its fluke.


Photo: A total geek-out-highlight moment of 2012 was being invited to join the California Science Center as they welcomed the Space Shuttle Endeavour to its new home in Los Angeles where it will continue in its mission to inspire children to reach for the stars.


Photo: Return of the river otter (Lontra canadensis)! This gregarious and playful river otter showed up in the ruins of the Sutro Baths this year much to the delight of wildlife watchers. Once plentiful in the San Francisco Bay area the river otter was hunted and poisoned right out of the city. Sam gives us hope that nature can and will recover from our meddling.


Photo: It doesn't get much cuter than a Weddell Seal (Leptonychotes weddellii) resting in the snow. One of my favorite Antarctic moments was lying in the snow near this guy waiting for a stretch or a yawn and occasionally being honored with a wink.


Photo: If you've followed me for any length of time you'll already know that Albatross hold sway over my heart. I was so thrilled that weather conditions on our return voyage from Antarctica enabled us to visit Diego Ramirez Island just off the tip of Chile because it meant meeting the Grey-headed Albatross (Thalassarche chrysostoma).


Sunday, December 23, 2012

Baily Head - Important Bird Area

Baily Head, Deception Island
62°58’S, 60°30’W
"Get out of the boat, GET OUT OF THE BOAT!!!!" Easier said than done when you find yourself on the high side of a tipping zodiac! A moment later the rolling wave retreated and I scrambled to join my companions on the beach.

And what an amazing beach it was! Over 100,000 pair of Chinstrap penguin (Pygoscelis antarctica) return to Baily Head each year to raise their chicks, making this spot one of Birdlife International's Important Bird Areas (IBA). With it's large swells and breaking waves, Baily Head is considered by some to be Antarctica's most dangerous but worthwhile landings. However we had good weather and conditions so per our skipper, ours was just a "sporty landing."

One one side of the massive rock outcrop is a small horseshoe-shaped cove with a dramatic steep slope which leads up to the massive colony above. The diminutive little penguins trudging upward through the snow to reach their mates - on a warm day the snow gives way, making the accent relatively easy... on a cold day the snow turns to ice and the slope more of a slick toboggan run.

The other side of the outcrop boasts a long beach of black sand with a long gentle slope and a winding trail of penguins marching to and fro with purpose. The beach is dotted with large chunks of blue ice which drift ashore and give predators a nifty spot to hide.

Leopard seals only look cute and cuddly
Yup, when you have that many penguins in one spot, chances are you are going to run into quite a few critters who are looking to benefit.  I watched in amazement as a large leopard seal (Hydrurga leptonyx) surged ashore not ten feet behind one of my companions, scattering penguins in every direction. My shouts of "TURN AROUND" were lost in the din of wave, wind and penguin chatter - he had no idea the seal had been there. The penguins were lucky and escaped unscathed this time. Further up the beach I found a couple of penguin bearing wounds from narrowly escaping the seal.

Skua with a stolen penguin egg
The threat isn't over once the penguins reach shore... the Brown Skua (Stercorarius antarcticus) and Southern Giant Petrel (Macronectes giganteus) will take advantage of any unprotected nest, scooping up eggs and chicks alike. Before you judge them too harshly, remember every community needs a sanitation crew. Together with the snowy sheathbill (Chionis albus) these birds help to keep disease from spreading in a colony as they keep everything tidy. With a short season and hungry mouths everywhere, nothing ever goes to waste in Antarctica.
Southern Giant Petrel

Snowy Sheathbill is the clean up crew of the penguin colony
A leopard seal rolls off a rock after a failed attempt to catch a penguin 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Sailing to Antarctica

Thump, thump, thump... 

creak, snap


The boat kicks and rolls, tossed about on the wave like a chew toy by a Doberman.  A nervous giggle bubbles up from one of my companions throats as a new wave breaks over the wheelhouse, white foam retreating from the porthole window as the boat lurches to meet the next wave. A glance out the starboard porthole revels only the deep aqua blue of the ocean below as we cut forward at almost a 50 degree angle. Suddenly we are weightless but for a moment then we crash into the bottom of the next wave rising to meet us. 

Then the engine cuts and we are at the mercy of the wind once more. I can hear the waves sloshing on the other side of what feels to be a paper thin hull. Our speed slows and the waves fall into a steady, rhythmic thump, thump against the hull. Poseidon knock, knock, knocking as if to ask if any among us might want to join him in the icy depths below. 

But the Sarah Vorwerk is a stout vessel. All 54 feet built for rough seas. Where we landlubbers crawl and claw our way from our berths, her skipper strolls the deck with all the confidence of a man born of the sea. Henk has made this trip many times before, at least three runs per season for the last 18 years. His devilish grin puts us all to ease as he waves a hand... "Yah, yah there's nothing to worry about."

Our quest was to visit the Antarctic Peninsula at the very earliest in the season possible. In that we have succeeded. We receive word that the Lemaire Strait is still completely iced in, only the largest of icebreakers have the hope of passing and so we head instead for the South Shetland Islands. We drop anchor in the sheltered cove of Deception Island and our first mate and one companion who have been suffering terribly from seasickness spring miraculously back to life. Henk remarks that this is the first time he has seen Deception covered in snow.

Abandon Building in Whalers Bay
A Weddell Seal sleeps blissfully unaware of the history of Whalers Bay
A memorial to a carpenter
Our first landing is at Whalers Bay and we stumble about as we try to get our land legs back beneath us. This place is a reminder of our violent past. Originally a safe haven and base for sealers, Deception became a home for factory whaling ships in the early 1900's. Large boilers used to boil whale carcasses for additional oils are still present on the island as are several derelict buildings. When whale oil prices dropped during the Great Depression the station proved to be unprofitable and was abandon (1931) but not before claiming the lives of the 45 whalers buried on the island. The cemetery itself was buried deeply after an eruption of the volcano in 1969 and only two memorials remain in sight.  The pristine snow makes us feel that we four are the only people to have visited this place in hundreds of years but patches of black sand, snow-free from volcanic warmth, show a plethora of boot prints, betraying the hundreds of visitors this site receives every season.

A skua takes flight after a long bath in a pond of melt water