Awesome Antarctica Arriva

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January 20th 2013
Published: January 21st 2013EDIT THIS ENTRY

I can hardly imagine what those early sailors in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries must have felt when the lookout yelled “Land Ho!” from the crow’s nest following an Atlantic crossing to the New World, but our journey to the bottom of the world certainly made us feel like we were being transported to a whole new world. Our arrival was initially marked by our crossing the Antarctica Convergence, where the ocean surrounding Antarctica is a completely different ecosystem from that in the ocean north of the convergence. The convergence itself is a band of ocean about twenty miles wide. In the convergence the temperature fluctuates lower; until, finally the ocean temperature stabilizes at about 4.5 degrees Celsius (or 41 degrees Fahrenheit). They say that the ocean color is distinctly different; indeed, it appears darker and clearer and you certainly wouldn’t want to fall into it.

We awoke on the morning of our arrival to heavy fog, and probably five to ten foot seas. We hadn’t noticed to rolling of the ship during the night as much as we had the previous night. Having gone to the Vigil Mass the previous afternoon, we headed straight for breakfast, where we were seated at the same table for four as the previous morning, and again, we were seated first. It almost seems like we had fixed seating. Our breakfast mates expressed concern regarding the fog; although, we could see that sunlight was increasing. The captain had warned that increased sunlight is not always your friend when it comes to fog because with all of the reflectivity off of the water particles in the air, it can actually make matters worse. By the end of breakfast though we could see that the fog was indeed lifting, and we were soon able to see many miles across the ocean, and we had renewed hopes for a wonderful day. I had my Scottish steel cut oatmeal and Sharon had her typical sea-day fare American breakfast.

We went to the Showroom to see Chris Wilson give the much anticipated talk on Penguin Passion, but he might want to consult with Marisella Two about the Penguin Macarena Dance, sipping on Pisco Sours by the Christmas tree before speaking on Penguin Passion again, at least as far as Magellanic penguins go, that is. He didn’t even do the underwater, high pitched voice imitations of, “I missed you so.” Actually his talk was wonderful, and people were hanging on every word. I hadn’t realized how precarious the continued survival of penguins is. At least three species are endangered and many more are threatened. Only a couple species have populations that are on the rise. With so many Magellanic penguins visible on our earlier ferry tour, I hadn’t realized that they too were considered “Threatened”. His talk compared two families of birds: The penguins and the auks. The famous giant auk is now extinct. He compared them with a chart showing their sizes, and line show the limit at which birds can fly. The smallest of the penguins appear on the chart right at that line, but of course with the added fat to keep them warm and without the air pockets to make them light, penguins don’t fly. And the auks appeared on both sides of the line… the giant auk of course did not fly (it was right up there with the largest penguins). There are fossil remains of the largest ever penguin found near Peru, but it, like the giant auk, it too is now extinct. From the talk I learned that the Puffin is a member of the auk family, but is only found in the north, as we saw them in Alaska.

After the lecture I decided to spend some time with a very lonely looking blackjack dealer. As you might imagine when sailing scenic waters such as these, many people will be on the promenade decks and upper decks to take in the sights. Sharon went back to the cabin to post the previous day’s blog. I sat down at my favorite spot, waited for the dealer to shuffle the cards, and started to play. At first it went back and forth; except the hands that I was winning were the doubles and splits, so I was making money. Not much too extraordinary was happening, and I didn’t even finish the shoe, leaving the table with two extra green chips.

Sharon decided to ditch me again for lunch, but several of the choices I had spotted on the menu when I made my normal post-breakfast tour to check the daily menus and pickup up Sudoku were things I wanted to try. I was seated at a couple from Nebraska that Sharon and I had eaten dinner with earlier in the cruise, joined me for lunch. We had some nice conversation. Without Sharon as my dining partner to order that extra appetizer for me, I had no choice but to choose both the crab tower with avocado salsa and the seafood croquette. Neither portion was particularly large, but sufficient to whet one’s appetite. I think I enjoyed the croquettes the most. I also had the tortilla soup with mushrooms, and again, it was a typical HAL bouillon based soup. The real treat was the Indonesian themed dish Nasi Goreng. It included grilled chicken satay already dipped in the tastiest and quite spicy peanut sauce (it opened my eyes). There was also a chicken leg, rice, and a most delicious fried banana. I’ll remember this as one of my favorite lunches on the cruise.

I had just enough time to get to Team Trivia, which due to the popularity of the Crow’s Nest for scenic viewing, relocated to “The Mix” on Deck 8. We grabbed some unsuspecting souls with British accents. We’ve learned that it can help to have an international flavor on your team. Three is no doubt a new low for us, even though I starting to recognize many of the questions from previous cruises. Questions like, what is the most common name for a male baby born today? It’s not John, and it’s not Richard, and you note that it doesn’t say anything about being an American name! What two Disney characters an umbrella? I actually got this one right, but my team convinced me that one of the characters I came up with wasn’t a Disney character, so we went with Jiminy Cricket and Minnie Mouse. I should have held my guns and stuck with Mary Poppins. Who remembers that Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets anyway, unless you were on a previous HAL cruise with that question or you teach English literature. Even our British teammates couldn’t help us with that one… they said 8… only missed it by 146! We did get the longest river in Europe, because we knew from a previous cruise that it wasn’t the Danube. The bonus was to name the state whose state flower is mistletoe. We needed Ruth on our team. Sharon is sure that being from Rhode Island, she could have helped us with the bonus question. Of course Sharon should have gotten the # of black keys on a piano but she was one off. We’ll have to talk to her piano teacher Penney about that one. Nine points was enough to win today’s Trivia Team title.

Kelsey, our Cruise Director, did her sun dance and came on over the ship’s PA system to announce that she’d been successful, and that the fog was lifting. Shortly afterwards the captain noted that Antarctica was visible off the starboard bough. Grading the trivia sheets had to wait while everyone rushed into the casino to see Antarctica, some such as myself, for the first time. There was much debate in history as to who was actually the first to see land, or bare rocks, on the Antarctica continent itself. Some suspect it was a Russian whaler, but there was no real documentary evidence, and it’s certain that if he was the one, he didn’t know what he was looking at when it happened. The Veendam cruised for some time off of the coast, looking for the narrow bay inlet, and waiting for the fog to lift so that we could navigate the passage. What we saw when we looked outside the window was amazing, even though it was a fraction of what awaited us. We saw rocks of the continent of Antarctica rising from the sea, solid proof of the landmass beneath all of the snow and ice. It makes one appreciate the difference between the Arctic and the Antarctic, the former being an ocean surrounded by continents, while what we were witnessing was the fringe of a frozen continent surrounded by oceans. Navigating the waterway, we were enjoying the peaceful calm in this part of the world that can be ravaged by harsh and violent winds… the water was as smooth as glass today. Floating ice passed by us, some with the aqua and deep blue coloration of varying amounts of trapped oxygen. At the water’s edge the heavily packed snow and glacier would rise one hundred feet or more, as the weight of the snow behind it would continuously be pushed forward, eventually calving into the sea. The sound of such transformations was constantly reminding us where the ice flows about us were coming from. Icebergs we now know are floating ice formation that reach at least sixteen feet above water. Smaller bits of floating ice are sometimes referred to as “bergies”. Either way, what you see above the water is about one-eighth of the actual size of the floating ice formation. In this crystal smooth water with excellent overhead sunlight the underwater shape and size of the actual iceberg can sometimes be seen for those near the Veendam. Looking at this other-worldly frozen vista of ice and water and rocks, it is easy to forget that despite the harshness of what we were seeing, there is life out there. First we spotted some Adele penguins in the water, and then a group on a bergie. One by one the penguins would dive into the water. You could see them pierce the surface with their perfectly adapted bodies moving rapidly through the water. It makes sense that for a flightless bird to survive in these waters, with predators such as leopard seals or orcas more than happy to make a meal of them, they’d better be fast… and darn fast at that. The penguin’s body, with its feathers slicked down with the “body grease” from the special oil gland near its tail, provides the penguin with a near zero coefficient of friction while swimming through the water. So perfectly adapted to the cold is the penguin that its real danger on land is from becoming overheated. It’s not uncommon to see a penguin, lying on its belly, with its feet extended, and flippers stretched away from its body in order to stay cool.

A number of humpback whales were also spotted, with their signature double spouts as the air rushing from their blowholes at such speed that it literally boils the water spewed into the air. While we spotted a number of whales, including several in a group, we saw mostly the spouts and their hump as they skimmed the surface and a mere flick of the tail before they would dive. I didn’t see any of the classic big display of the fluke before these mammoth creatures would descend for ten to twenty minutes before resurfacing. A pod of several orcas was spotted, which caused a lot of excitement on the starboard side of the ship. Sharon got some pictures.

On another bergie a leopard seal was draped over the ice, its long sleek body barely visible against the top of the ice. Every once in a while he would lift his head, look around, and then rest again being content to soak in the sun, surely a rare treat in this part of the world. While on deck taking pictures, Sharon happened to meet the guest musician for tonight’s Showroom performance. Sharon had noticed some penguins climbing/sliding up/down a hill of snow to their nests high above so pointed those out to her. As it turns out, she came onboard in Ushuaia, one of the entertainers the port authority allowed to board in the rough seas. She didn’t know the cruise ship was going to Antarctica, so she didn’t bring anything but summer clothing. One of the crew loaned her a parka, and she was out on the lower promenade deck by our cabin on the port side.

Tonight was our third formal night, and Sharon and I had reservations at the Pinnacle at five-thirty. We dressed, and showed up a few minutes early. The advantage of this was that we were given our choice of seating, so we chose a table for two next to a window and we both could see the astonishing view passing by the sometimes narrow passageway we were navigating. Regarding navigating in these waters, the captain had informed us that he had pulled in one of the stabilizers as we began making our way through the icy channels, for safety reasons. He cautioned that this could mean we would feel more rolling. As it turned out, the waters remained perfectly calm. While we read the menu, we saw penguins, many birds skimming along the water, and even another leopard seal taking a nap, all set against a backdrop of Antarctic rock rising to and literally reaching the clouds. The fog which had lifted earlier seemed to be threatening to come into play again, but for now the ocean and ice were quite mesmerizing. I ate both of our complimentary appetizers: I’m not sure what it was, but it was very tasty. I ordered the Jumbo Shrimp Cocktail while Sharon ordered the Crab Cakes (for me). I needed more cocktail sauce, which they brought me, and perhaps when I come again I’ll ask for some additional on the side (They brought out an eighth-cup sized container with more sauce, and added part of that to what I already had.) The Crab Cakes were also good, but I may try something else next time. I ordered the lobster bisque. They bring out a bowl with lobster cut up in it, and then they add the lobster bisque stock from a hot-pot with a valve to pour the soup over the lobster meat. It was quite good. In the past the Pinnacle has been famous for its French Onion Soup, but I didn’t see that on its menu. Sharon ordered her filet and the mashed potatoes. I had the no-bone rib-eye steak with scalloped potatoes and button mushrooms. The food was, as always, fantastic… The view continued to be fantastic. In the Antarctic summer, there is daylight until after ten at night, and the sky will be getting light again after three in the morning. Where we are there are just four or five hours of night. For dessert we ordered the chocolate lava cake with whip cream and the chocolate soufflé with Grand Marnier sauce. We shared the desserts, and I could feel that my pants weren’t going to tolerate my eating too much more. I think we both liked the soufflé the best. It takes an extra 15 minutes to prepare, so if you’re in a hurry you should order it while you’re on your entrée. After ordering ours, it took about 35 minutes for the desserts to come; but, given the view we were enjoying, it was “no problem”. “No Problem” is the pet peeve of my best man Ron… that is, wait-persons who respond to a request as “no problem”. It makes his blood boil.

We made a quick stop at our cabin after dinner and there were two humpbacks right outside so Sharon was able to get out to see them. As she turned to come back into the cabin an iceberg floated by with a bunch of penguins on it so she got pictures of that too.

We went to the Show, still dressed up, and saw Judy Carmaicle, the lady Sharon had met on deck. She told the crowd how she was unaware she would be enjoying the beauty of Antarctica when she was booked for this cruise… all she knew was that she would board at Ushuaia and get off in Buenos Aires and she thought that the ship would simply round the Horn. She told a story about how she always does a sound check with the piano she will perform with that night, as she had done on the Veendam. For one of her performances for a private party in New York, she showed up and all that she could see was an electric piano. When the very bubbly young woman in charge came over and asked her if everything was okay, she answered her by asking when her piano would be arriving. She lamented to the audience that it has been her experience that the bubblier they are, the more problems you’re going to have. The girl said, “Well… that over there. Isn’t that a piano. They told me that that is a piano.” “It’s an ‘electric’ piano,” Judy told her. I play an acoustic piano.” “Well can’t you just unplug it?” the girl asked. She had a lot of fun with the paired down accompaniment of the drummer and sax player from the Veendam support band, and we had a lot of fun listening to them ad lib in a jazzy performance. She explained how she models her playing on the classic jazz form known as the stride piano. She very carefully spelled “stride” for us because she once met someone who had heard her play, and that person commented, “Oh yes, Judy Carmaicle… aren’t you that snide piano player!" The musicians stayed with her, and enjoyed their solo moments, following her lead by ear because she doesn't give them music to play to.

Sharon wanted to go back to the room and check email, and I thought I might give that lonely blackjack dealer some company. Before dinner I had spotted all of the dealers around the roulette wheel, and I don’t know if they were just fooling around, or they were training someone how to deal roulette, but there really is nobody playing the table games. I opened the table, and again I had to wait for the cards to be shuffled. Things went along very nicely, the dealer wasn’t winning more than three hands in a row, and I was getting decent cards. We played at a nice pace, and before the shoe came to an end, I found I’d won eight hands in a row. The last six hands I played were all stiff hands against either a nine or face card. I made 20 or 21 on every one of those hands; except, the last one where I busted. I won four of the others, twice with twenty-one against dealer’s twenty (and we pushed once). Being up $85, I decided to call it night, and wondered if anyone else would be playing table games tonight.

I met up with Sharon in the cabin and we got ready for bed. I moved the elephant towel sculpture from the bed, and decided to try and make Sharon laugh by taking the cut-out elephant eyes and doing my Mr. Magoo impersonation for her. It worked.


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