Tag Archives: Whales

Navimag Ferry – Puerto Natales to Puerto Montt

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The Navimag is a large ferry that travels a regular route through the fiords of Patagonia from Puerto Natales to Puerto Montt, and back again. The trip takes four nights and five days, although the first afternoon and night are spent in Puerto Natales Harbour, waiting to set sail in the early hours of Day 2.

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While it was not the cheapest or quickest mode of transport in Patagonia, for the price we got many amenities, time through some amazing landscapes and food included. Alcohol was also available for purchase at the bar. The Navimag has been a transport for many years, but only in the last decade has been allowed to transport people.

The ferry was larger than the ship that took me to Antarctica, but there was about the same number of passengers. Much of the boat consisted of cargo bays, carrying vehicles and other cargo for the local market, including live cattle that could be heard mooing at the most unusual times.  Once we were onboard, the cargo bays were of limits to us.

The ship contained three levels we passengers were allowed onto during the voyage. At the top was the bar, a fairly large area where we spent most of their time when not eating, sleeping or doing some of the other activities on board.

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Level two contained the more expensive cabins and the dining hall. This large room was used for, well, dining, but also for lectures, which they gave twice, once in spanish and once in english. These lectures were about Patagonia, birds, whales, our destination and the like. In the afternoons/evenings they showed movies or documentaries here also. While we were sailing, they showed: The March of the Penguins, Ice Age 4, James Bond – Skyfall, The Vow and several others.

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Lastly, on the lowest level were the main sleeping quarters. There were several different levels of cabins, from ones with windows and toilets to ones without. Also in the sleeping quarters was The Dorm, a figure eight corridor with a series of 22 bunks set into the walls. Each bunk had a curtain, a light, a power socket and at the end a locker. There were several bathrooms scattered around the corridor. This lowest level of accommodation was adequate, but the noise of people going past or having conversations  kept you awake unless you have a good set of ear plugs.

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I boarded the ferry on Monday night and hung out in the bar with a friend before heading off to bed. The ferry left port at 8am on Day 2 and meandered its way along the fiords towards the southernmost part of the route, a place called the White Narrows, before it again heading north along a series of channels. The weather grew steadily worse as we went, but we did get a few pictures in the morning.

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While I was expecting landscapes similar to Antarctica because of our proximity to the South Patagonian Ice Field, the low cloud ensured we saw little of the ice field. The views were mainly of rocky islands with the occasional bird.

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There were apparent sightings of dolphins and a seal, but not while I was out looking for them. The White Narrow was the only place in the fiords the ship can pass through to head north without heading into the Pacific Ocean and while it was particularly narrow, it wasn’t white.

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For the rest of the day and night we worked our way through channels with the aim of coming out through the English Narrow into the Golfo de Penas. We were warned that the sea might get a little rough and many of us medicated with seasickness pills just in case. From the gulf we headed out into the Pacific Ocean to round Region Alsen del General Carlos Ibanez del Campo.

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The rain started before we headed through the English Narrow on Day 3 and continued for most of the rest of the journey. Strong winds hit us in the gulf as did the swell. While my group of companions and I held out fine, that evening the dining room was only half full and many people hovered in their rooms/bunks or threw up in the bathrooms. After my trip to Antarctica, I actually rather enjoyed the roughness of the sea, finding it fun fighting against the listing of the boat to get from one area to the next.

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An old shipwreck sitting on a bank.

In the afternoon of Day 4, we crossed back into the fiords and reached Canal Moraldes.  Overnight we sailed north through Golfo Corcovado, passing Isla del Chiloe before eventually arriving at Puerto Montt in the early afternoon of Friday. We’d been due to arrive earlier that morning, but the winds in the Pacific caused us to run 7 hours late. While cruising slowly into Puerto Montt harbour we were escorted by a Southern Right Whale, a pair of dolphins and a seal. And yes, I saw them this time.

While the weather wasn’t the best for the trip and the views weren’t always great, the cruise itself was still most enjoyable. I made friends and hung with them in the bar, playing my board games (Carcasonne and Coloretto). They were very popular as they were different to the standards: the chess, checkers, dominos and the like that was available at the bar.

From here, I spent two nights in Puerto Montt planning my trip north and getting supplies ready for hiking in the Lakes Regions, a slightly warmer region of Northern Patagonia.

The Boat Wanderer

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Antarctic Voyage – Next Stop, the Polar Circle

Find Days 1 – 3 here: We’re Going South Baby, WAY South!
Find Days 4 – 5 here: Along The Great White Peninsula

Day 6 – Antarctic Peninsula

Overnight the weather had changed and on awakening we found it had begun to snow. While we’d loved the clear days, it just hadn’t felt like Antarctic until now.

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We set out across the bay to an Argentinian base called Almirante Brown where some of us docked and the others cruised around the harbour in Zodiacs looking at the scenery and the natural colours in the rocks…

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As we moved through the water we could see the snow slowing beginning to freeze the water. We were told the process starts with a type of ice called ‘grease ice’, which gives the ocean a strange greasy look, then moves on through several more stages before the bay freezes over.

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It would have taken hours, so no chance of us being iced in. After 45 minutes of cruising through the icebergs we were dropped off at the jetty.

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We walked across the new snow to the base, stepping carefully so as not to slip into the sea…

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…and up the hill behind it where a pinnacle of rock provided a great, albeit foggy view.

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There’s only one real way down from the pinnacle: on your backside skidding down a previously rendered track. I shot down the first part but there was an older guy in front of me who was struggling to get going. I couldn’t stop in time and careened off the side of him to slide sideways down the rest of the hill. Awesome! If there had been more time, many of us would have climbed up and gone again.

Then we were back on the ship and heading out along the beautiful Lemaire channel, with great icy mountains and glaciers along both sides. Whales have now become a common sight and penguins are just everywhere. Icebergs larger than previously seen dot the waters, the very occasional one having a leopard seal napping on it. We came out into a bay known as The Iceberg Graveyard, full of huge icebergs some twice the size of the ship or larger.

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Our next stop was Booth Island. We land and see our fourth variety of penguin, the Adelie along with their tracks in the fresh snow.

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We then climbed a hill to get awesome views in all directions, but because of the low clouds only the base of several rocky spires could be seen.

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We couldn’t resist sliding down the hill before being whisked back to the ship. That evening the boat made its way down the peninsula in hope of crossing the polar circle. According to the captain, it depended on the weather and sea conditions if we were to cross.  We all went to bed hoping the conditions would be right.

Day 7 – Antarctic Polar Circle

The polar circles are defined by the sun. In winter, Antarctica is a sunless icy land, while in summer there is 24-hour sunshine.

Today the battery of my fairly new camera refused to charge, evidently affected by the atmospheric cold.  Thankfully one of my shipmates had a spare he could lend me. So, while I wasn’t using my own camera, all of the shots are my own.

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It was snowing when we were roused for breakfast and the seas were rather rough. At breakfast we watched the largest iceberg we’ve seen float past. It was massive, the part we could see above water was the size of a city block and perhaps 100m tall. Under the water, we’re told it’s 7 times larger.

Then just after breakfast, we gathered in the observation lounge and with a glass of champagne to celebrate the crossing of the polar circle. We had only a single landfall below the circle. Two hours later we entered a bay where the water was significantly calmer. After another 30 minutes we boarded the Zodiacs and make our way around icebergs to land at Detaille Island, site of a former English research base.

The snow was thick on the ground and there were two different kinds of seals just languishing on icebergs – the Crabeater Seal and the Weddell Seal. They peer up as we go by but we don’t interest them so they go back to their napping. On the island is the hut where the researchers lived and we were able to go inside. It’s fairly roomy and once housed 8 scientists comfortably.

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After our time on the island we were taken on a cruise through the icebergs to get a little closer to the napping seals.

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Then back onboard the Plansius we set off again, beginning the long journey back along the peninsula.

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Mid afternoon, after we cross the polar circle again, we came across a large pod of Orca hunting. We circled them for about an hour, trying to determine what they were doing. The pod was about 10 animals strong and had a huge male with them. We were told they were killing an Arnoux Beaked Whale by trying to drown it  They did this by lying on top of it to prevent it getting to the surface. Once they considered it dead, they began tearing into it. It’s nasty, but it’s nature. This kind of action takes documentary makers 10 years to find, and we were lucky to chance upon it. Pictures don’t give it justice, however.

Next, The Journey Back To Civilisation.

The Antarctic Wanderer

Antarctic Voyage – Along The Great White Peninsula

Find Days 1 – 3 here: We’re Going South Baby, WAY South!

Day 4 – More South Shetland Islands

The weather continued to be great, but it wasn’t the weather that was to darken the day… more on that later.  The beauty of the white islands was immense and even more so because of the blue skies.  Overnight the ship was moved further along the South Shetlands to Half Moon Island.

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We made landfall early and hiked along the beach with plentiful Chinstrap Penguins hanging out on the rock formations.  Nestled among one group we found a solitary Macaroni Penguin.

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While not as plentiful as the penguins, there were many fur seals in groups along the rocky beach.  They too were interested in us, but were more dangerous, so we took care not to get too close as they have a tendency charge. They’re easily warded off if they do by presenting a strong hand and calling ‘stop’, or by simply clapping hands.

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While not available to those of us who took ‘Last Minute Deals’ those who pre-booked the cruise were able to also book kayaking and diving. While today was too windy for the kayakers the divers got to get in the water, well, some of them at least…

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Not long after going ashore, we started hearing reports over our expedition leader’s walkie-talkie about a diver that had gone missing. For the rest of the morning our leaders began to act a little strange, anxious. Our stay on Half Moon Island was extended an hour longer than planned. Then after being ferried back to the boat, we were called to an urgent debriefing. The diver that had gone missing was an experienced Japanese woman. They’d found her drifting in 5 metres of water and had attempted resuscitation, but after 90 minutes she had been pronounced dead. No other news was forthcoming.

This set a somber tone across the boat and we weren’t sure if the trip was to continue. We eventually did get word we were and got back underway, but some of the crew were called to deal with certain things such as contacting next of kin, authorities, embassies and the storage of the body.

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That afternoon we sailed for Deception Island, one of the two known active volcanos in Antarctica. Centuries ago, Deception Island blew one of its sides and seawater flowed in to fill the crater. The plan was for us to sail into crater via Poseidon’s Bellows, where the wall had collapsed…

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But the weather wasn’t playing nice and with 35 knot winds, the captain decided it would be too dangerous. Instead we set sail for our next destination,  the Antarctic Mainland and The Great White Peninsula. On the way we spotting what was to become a very common sight… Humpback Whales.

Crossing the channel was an experience. Because of the winds the swell went a little crazy and that evening only a little of half of us passengers made it to dinner. It wasn’t long before I too retired to my cabin a little worse for wear.

Day 5 – Antarctic Peninsula

We were lucky, today was the fifth beautiful day in a row, clear and sunny. That’s five more than some expeditions. I awoke at 4am after going to bed at 8.30pm the night before and felt great. I peered from the cabin window and saw clear seas and the long white peninsula. We anchored at Cuverville Island surrounded by white cliff lines in a bay dotted with icebergs. It’s hard to describe the beauty of this place.

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We landed and wandered around the Gentoo Penguin colonies for some time.

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On the way back we were taken on a short zodiac cruise through the icebergs, many of which were a pure blue…

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I even had the wonderful experience of a leopard seal coming up to the craft to check us out before it went back to playing with the penguin that would eventually become its next meal.

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After lunch the ship moved into a large and beautiful bay strewn with icebergs with the plan to make landfall at the end. The boat slid gracefully through the crystal clear waters…

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…and in some places it was so calm the icy water mirrored the snow-covered mountains and massive frozen glaciers.

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We made landfall, and set foot on the main landmass of Antarctica at Neko Harbour. Woo-ha! And guess what? There were Penguins! Surprise!

We hiked up the side of a mountain to a great viewing spot. I was first to sit on a rocky outcrop looking out across the magnificent bay.

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Then some of us took a ‘polar plunge’, going for a swim among the icebergs.  Since salt water freezes at just below zero degree celsius, it was cold but not as cold as expected.  If anything, it was colder getting out.

Then in the beautiful clear evening what else do you do in Antarctica? We had a BBQ on deck, of course! It was a little chilly but great! We put down anchor in Leith Cove and watched the sunset.

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Next we’re heading further along the peninsula our Next Stop, The Polar Circle.

The Antarctic Voyager

Antarctic Voyage – We’re Going South Baby, WAY South!

Day 1 – Embarkment

In the mid afternoon of Day 1 we boarded the Plancius, a converted Dutch naval boat that’s been taking expeditions to both the Antarctic and Arctic regions for the past 9 years.

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Once settled in out rooms, we set sail along the Beagle Channel with the glorious Patagonian mountain ranges along either side.  Before dinner we were called to the main common area where we took part in the mandatory safety lecture and trial evacuation.

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Dinner was then served in the dining hall with a preset menu, which was brought to the tables by the wait staff. All onboard meals were three courses, including breakfast, but with the lack of gym facilities, we figured we’re all going to be putting on weight by the end of the voyage. The seas were calm and outside it was cold. Thankfully the agency I’d booked through had supplied warm clothing for the trip. As we ate our first whale was spotted, a sperm whale. Then as dinner finished we passed the last signs of civilisation, Puerto Williams, Chile.

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The boat wasn’t large but then it wasn’t small either. There’s the main common room/ forward observing deck/bar, where many lectures were held, and then two floors down and towards the rear is the dining hall. There are plenty of outdoor areas, but did I mention it’s rather cold out? This meant when there was a lecture, the only place to comfortably hang out was in your cabin. Mine was a twin share room.  But for the most part we all went to the lectures.

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Day 2 – The Drake Passage

Sleep was difficult during the first night not because of the constant listing of the boat, of which there was little, but that the blankets on the beds were overly hot. But without then it became too cold. It took some adjusting.

We were warned that the thousand kilometre, 2-day journey across the Drake Passage was often subject to high winds and rough seas, but on Day 2 we are blessed with a beautiful clear day and calm seas. Most of us were using sea sickness patches or tablets just in case.

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That morning we attended two lectures, one identifying the seabirds of the south we’d likely encounter and the other about why the weather is like it is in the Antarctic. The lectures were interesting and gave us something to do other than sit watching the expansive ocean go by.

After a three course lunch, including two massive trays of cheese, we relaxed in the common room playing card games and socializing until the afternoon lecture. The expedition leader announced that due to the good weather we’d be arriving in Antarctic waters 12 hours early, and would be going ashore on the South Shetland Islands the following afternoon. While the Islands are considered part of Antarctica, they’re still a distance from the Antarctic Peninsula.

Day 3 – The South Shetland Islands

During our wakeup call on the 3rd morning, we were alerted to a large iceberg floating past the port side of the ship.  While it wasn’t close, it was the first evidence of the great white land to come.

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It had been cloudy overnight, but would turn out to be another fabulous day in the Drake Passage, we even spied whales swimming beside us.

As was suggested, because of the good weather we were on target to arrive at the Shetland Islands 12 hours early.  By late morning we began to see the icy cliffs of an Antarctic Island ahead of us.

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As the hours passed, the white landmass grew along with the number of icebergs.  We began to see rocky islands, dispelling the idea that Antarctica is just a land of ice.

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We started to see signs of wildlife including the Giant Petrels with their 2 metre wingspan, and other birds mentioned in the lectures. There were occasional sightings of fur seals and more whales.

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But it was the penguins that stole our attentions. While we’ve all seen them on land, they swim like nothing we’d seen before, skipping gracefully out of the water for breath every few moments before darting off again at amazing speeds once back in the water.

We passed many small rocky islands and icebergs before nearing our first landfall site, Barrientos Island.

After a briefing, we dressed in out cold weather clothing and got into the Zodiacs that would deliver us to island.

Barrientos Island is a penguin colony with two different breeds of Penguin, the white-faced Chinstrap penguins …

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…and the red beaked Gentoo penguins.

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While on the island, we saw many different penguin behaviours and learnt a lot about them in a short period time. They have little fear of humans, often coming up to peck at our boots. There were plentiful of young learning to swim in the shallows, moulting out of the fluffy grey fur or being weaned off being fed by the parents.  The weaning process is called the ‘feed chase’, where the parent just runs away when the young comes to feed.  The youngster usually takes up a grand chase through the colony until the parent eventually gives in or more commonly escapes into the ocean, forcing the young to fend for itself.

All over the islands are strange white lines, sometimes several splaying out from one spot. It looks like someone has crazily marked the rock with chalk, but it’s actually squirt lines. The penguins lift their tails and squirt in a line up to half a metre in length.

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After a couple of hours Zodiacs delivered us  back to the Plansius in time for dinner after which we settled in for more socializing and card games.

Out first sunset in Antarctica was like nothing we’d seen before…

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…shining pink across the ice.

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Next, we’re off Along The Great White Peninsula.

The Antarctic Voyager.

Vava’u – Swimming with the Whales

Today is my last day in Tonga and I must admit that I’ve rather enjoyed this little backwater Pacific Kingdom. While Vava’u has been the most commercialised of the islands groups, it’s not really that commercial at all. Tomorrow I face a flight to Tongatapu, a long wait at the international airport until my midnight flight to Auckland. I arrive at 2am and sleep in the airport until my 7am flight to Brisbane and home, well what home I have left there.

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Every year as part of their breeding migration, Humpback Whales arrive in Tongan waters. This has led to a commercialised ‘swim’ with the whales all throughout the kingdom. No trip to these islands should be done without going on of the swims. I’m not sure I agree with the idea – some of nature’s creatures should be left to just get on and live, not be harassed by we humans. So, I’ve held out from going for most of my stay. But on my second to last day – yesterday – I caved and organised a trip. As I said, you can’t come to the islands without swimming with the whales.

The first objective of the captain is to find where the whales are, then get up ahead of them and send the swimmers into the water. The whales will often hang out and ‘play’ but if they move away, we get back on the boat and try again. We only try twice before ‘getting the hint’ and finding another set of whales. Because there are many operators, they often work in conjunction with each other to locate the animals and to share time with them.

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We headed out to the west side of the islands and quickly located a pair of juveniles playing. We hung out around them for a while, watching them and getting the boat into position before getting into the water. In our snorkelling gear we were able to watch these animals go past. It’s magnificent to see such huge animals in their native environment. They weren’t that playful, however, and moved off. So back on the boat, we followed them and had another go. They moved away quickly again, so we left them alone.

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We received a call from the other side of the islands. A crew working in conjunction had spotted a mother and her newborn. Like a tag team crew, we arrived at the specified location as other boat and it’s cargo of swimmers and they headed of – they’d been swimming with the whale for an hour – so it was our turn. We were in the water as the great juggernaut of the mother flowed past us with it’s baby – only a few days old and twice my size. The beauty of the mother just hanging there in the water was immense and we swum for a few minutes watching her interact with her baby before they swum off. Back on the boat, we followed and tried again. This time we managed only a glimpse before they give us the hint.

While I would have liked to have swum with them for longer, the mother and her calf were the last set of whales we saw for the day. We did a bit more snorkelling around the coral gardens and Swallows cave. It was a very sunny day today and the coral just shines in all its colours in the sunlight.

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Not many photos of this, unfortunately, as I did not have an underwater camera today.

Back to Brisbane tomorrow and time to organise more trail walks.

The Trail Wanderer