Jul 132018
 

Whales are so mysterious, rising from the deep the way they do. It begins with an impression of presence, then your eyes discern a change in the darkness of the water, then, yes!, there’s something there. Right there! See it? A whale!

For those, like me, who mainly come from earthbound realms, seeing whales could never get old. Sometimes they are so distant that you only see the far-away puff of “blow” as a whale exhales at the surface. Sometimes you get lucky, and they swim past more nearby. Either way, it must be impossible to be a lover of nature, and not love whales.

Humpback blow

Humpbacks rising from the deep!

Here’s some interesting sleep research trivia related to whales. Sleep occurs in phases, include rapid eye movement (REM) and non-REM (NREM) sleep. During REM sleep, the tone of voluntary muscles is completely absent, rendering one essentially paralyzed. This bodes poorly for mammals who are swimming! Not wanting to drown, dolphins and whales have evolved the ability (researchers say) to skip REM sleep. However, the restfulness produced by NREM sleep is so essential that marine mammals do something called “split-brain” NREM sleep. “When it is time for sleep, the two sides of the brain can uncouple and operate independently, one side remaining awakes while the other snoozes away,” according to Matthew Walker in Why We Sleep (p.64).

During our time plying the Antarctic waters in January & February, 2018, travelers aboard the National Geographic Explorer saw fin, minke, humpback, and killer whales, and also a couple of the mighty (and mighty rare) blue whales. Even our naturalists were excited to see the blue whales there in the waters south of the South Shetland Islands.

Killer whales surface near the ship!

Our collective excitement stemmed from knowing how, as seal populations faltered in the face of the hunting frenzies of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, whale hunters swept into the region. They targeted one whale species until it became scarce, then another, and another, until the whalers worked their way through populations of humpback, blue, fin, sei, minke, and sperm whales. Now, most have rebounded some, but they’re far from safe.

An artfully-arranged whale skeleton

The blue whale population is still rebounding from the decimation of their numbers. In all, more than 300,000 blue whales were taken. The world population now estimated at about 2,000 is still just a fraction of the pre-1911 population. To see them at all, even for seasoned veterans, was highly encouraging.

The whale’s blow-hole — up close!

Blue whales aren’t the only ones in trouble, though. The killer whale researchers onboard our ship said that those they studied on this visit seemed thin. Their theory is that as sea ice diminishes (the place is warming faster than anywhere else), there are fewer stores of krill, which are the shrimp-like creatures relied on for nourishment by all the creatures along the food chain there. Of course, this is worrisome. The researchers are dedicated to monitoring the situation. Armchair whale lovers everywhere: support the science being done on behalf of these magnificent creatures, won’t you?

May 042018
 

As mentioned in the previous blog post, ice is the most prominent feature in Antarctica. No surprise, considering that the continent is covered with it. Add to that the ice shelves and sea ice that greatly enlarge its area in winter.

Under the ice are vast mountain ranges and sprawling plains, crushed to elevations measurably depressed by all that massive weight on top.

This was a huge iceberg!

Scientists report that if all the ice in Antarctica melted, it would raise sea levels by about 200 feet. It’s pretty cool to see on this photo from NASA how the continental US would look superimposed on the “white continent.”

Closer up, ice offers an unending array of otherworldly and beautiful vistas. Here are some more images from my January/February 2018 visit to the Antarctic Peninsula.

The suggestion was made after the previous blog post to mention how incredibly hard old glacial ice is. It’s an excellent point. I tried to bite some crystal clear glacial ice in Alaska once and was unable to make a dent. The effort nearly broke my teeth!

Notice the seal tracks!

My reader went on to comment that the density of glacial ice is, “part of the reason the Titanic came away so badly damaged, and why the [National Geographic] Explorer [our ship] pushes relatively blithely through sea ice, but is very, very respectful of even small pieces of glacial ice. Whether the pitcher hits the stone, or the stone hits the pitcher, it is still going to be bad for the pitcher. Ditto ships and glacial ice, I believe.” And he’s right!

Home Away From Home

Apr 092018
 

How can a heart not melt when amongst penguins?

Photo Credit: Alison Taggart Barone

This, my first close encounter, came January 29, 2017 on our voyage’s first foray onto the Antarctic landscape. This chinstrap penguin looking directly into the camera can’t possibly be for real…can it? I know anthropomorpholizing animals is antiquated, but, gosh, it was impossible not to attribute any number of endearing adjectives to these hardy, impressive creatures. Continue reading »

Mar 052018
 

Some of the roughest seas of anywhere in the world belong to Drake Passage, making it one of the most iconic, must-experience journeys for anyone in love with adventure. How did I come to know about Drake Passage? I don’t remember. All I know is it has figured in my imagination seemingly forever.


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Chomolhari: Bhutan’s Goddess Mountain

 Adventure, Generally Write, Travel  Comments Off on Chomolhari: Bhutan’s Goddess Mountain
Jan 312018
 

The Kingdom of Bhutan in the eastern Himalaya is among the world’s few remaining mystical, magical places. Hidden from external influences until just a few years ago, the tiny landlocked nation of mostly Buddhists continues to honor its traditional ways while also trying to enter the mainstream of the 21st century, cell phones, internet, and all.

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Alaska’s Alsek River

 Adventure, Travel  Comments Off on Alaska’s Alsek River
Oct 022017
 

It is said that you cannot step into the same river twice. This is true. In July, 2009, I joined a group of strangers to descend the Alsek River—a remote river at the upper end of Alaska’s southeastern panhandle. In summer, 2017, the opportunity rose up: do it again? Sure thing!

Lowell Glacier 2009

Lowell Glacier 2017 on one of our clearest days!

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Aug 312017
 

The first time I saw Denali up close, it snuck up on me. In 2009, I had done some fancy four-wheel maneuvering with my cousin Mike and a group of new friends to his gold-panning acreage 17 miles or so beyond the pavement. We were way out on Petersville Road, hilly, willow-covered, difficult country off the Parks Highway by the Trapper Creek turnoff. The town of Talkeetna is due east, but the Susitna River slices a dose of no-access-thataway between the two places, so the turn to Talkeetna off the Parks Highway is well to the south. Continue reading »

Aug 102017
 

The vastness of Alaska is practically impossible to grasp, even when it’s right in front of you. One way I like to help describe it is that the drive I’ve done now a couple of times from Anchorage to Anchorage (via Denali, Fairbanks, and Tok) makes a 1,300 mile circle. Yet it looks downright insignificant when superimposed on a map of the entire state. The place is just…immense, no matter where you are: on the rivers, in the mountains, or in the interior. No wonder Alaska holds such a mystical, far-away reputation.

In June and July, I spent another month of my life in that great state, doing a reprise of earlier trips with my cousin, Mike. With a friend, we first drove those 1,300 miles, and then we spent 16 happy (if cold) days on the Alsek River, crossing in and out of Alaska and British Columbia along the way. On several occasions, I got to witness the land slipping by under the wings of an airplane. This blog is dedicated to those varied and artful aerial views. Enjoy.

The first batch of photos is from the flight between Anchorage and Juneau, along the southeastern coast overlooking the mountains, icefields and glacial rivers of the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Glacier Bay National Park.

mudflats & river/lake/ponds

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Peleliu and World War II: Palau (Part 4 of 4)

 Generally Write, Travel  Comments Off on Peleliu and World War II: Palau (Part 4 of 4)
Jun 282017
 

Before our group formally came together in Palau last March, I joined a pre-trip day-long visit to Palau’s southernmost island of Peleliu. My original interest in visiting the tiny Pacific nation was driven in large part by curiosity about my father’s service in WWII. He was a naval aviator in the Pacific theater, flying kingfisher float planes on reconnaissance and artillery spotting missions. Much was written about the war, and in particular Peleliu, in the history books I had been reading to prepare for the trip, but somehow it had escaped me that it was part of Palau. I was excited to see it. Continue reading »

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