Thursday, November 08, 2007

My father and brother are off to Antarctica

Photo of Ushuaia

I'm not sure what inspired them to do this, but they are off to the Antarctic. Intrepid family. Here is a missive from my father just before they head off from the tip of Argentina.

I know I am supposed to be in Antarctica, but that's tomorrow. Today I am in the southernmost hotel in Argentina and it has free internet. So instead of catching up on my sleep as Tony is doing over there, I'll pop this note into the virtual bottle and float it out on the digital ocean for you guys to find.

I've never been in Alaska but it has to be like this, with long deep fjords winding past snow- capped mountains. Ushuaia, where we are, was probably a little fishing town 30 years ago. Now it's booming, from the tourist trade, with outfitters and souvenir shops and fancy cafes, block after block, with hotels and pensions up every side street. The main street is full of cars, though it's easily 100 miles by dirt road to Patagonia and civilization.. It looks somewhat like Aspen and somewhat like Anchorage. There are 11 flights a day from Buenos Aires, bringing kayakers and trout fishermen and hikers, plus planeloads of people coming to meet their Antarctic cruise ships. And other cruise ships, doing the round South America thing, drop anchor every day. Steak and wine are cheap - $15 for a big porterhouse - but most prices are similar to New York.

We are on the north side of the Beagle Channel, first mapped by the ship that took Charles Darwin to the Galapagos. South of us, the snowy peaks are in Chile, which wraps around the southern tip of Tierra del Fuego. We will leave by sailing east, not south, until we clear the channel.

Speaking of suddenly growing towns, there is not a stop sign, let alone a signal, anywhere in Ushuaia. As a result there are no accidents, since everyone is scared to death. This reminded Tony of the Mr Barnes who founded the amazing Barnes Museum of modern art in Philadelphia, said to be on money he got from stealing patents. "How do you think he died?" asked Tony. Bad chemicals? Outraged fellow chemist? "Nope. He ran a red light." And? "And, served him right. He never stopped for red lights in his whole life. He grew up without them and he objected when they started putting them up, so he ran them all to express his disapproval. He got away with it until he was well into his sixties."

Today, us early arrivers - 10 in all - hired a van to take us out to Harberton Ranch, the first ranch ever established in Tierra del Fuego. It is a piece of about 5,000 acres given to a missionary by the Argentine government in honor of his service with the surviving Indians (the tribe of near-naked savages who went around with snow melting on them, and from which Darwin abducted or borrowed the man they named Jeremy Buttons, who went back to England and was a sensation until he caught a cold or something and died.

[ed note: there is a great book called To the Edge of The World, a wonderful historical novel all about Darwin's visits to Tierra Del Fuego, including Jeremy Buttons and the Fuegian Indians. Highly recommended.]

It is still in the family, but the present owner, a goofy-looking but nice guy named Tom Goodall, had the good luck to marry Natalie, a girl from Ohio who came down to study Fuegian plants. Which she did, but she also liked to pick up whale bones and skulls along the beaches. One day a marine mammal guy from the Smithsonian came by, and she invited him to look at what she had. Oh, OK, I guess -- but when he saw them he nearly dropped dead. Among the 60 or 70 skulls were several that were known by only one other specimen, and there was one that was new to science. Long story short, she switched to marine mammals, started beach combing in earnest, got money from Total oil company to build a museum, and now has a collection of whale, porpoise and dolphin material -- in this little private museum sitting at the end of a dirt road 35 miles from Ushuaia -- that is considered the second most important in the world.

If you look at a world map you can see why. Tierra del Fuego sticks down into the Circumantarctic Current like a fish-hook, and everything that dies or is sick in the whole Southern Ocean washes up on its eastern shore. Tom's brother has a ranch up there, and she and her students go up and look for stranded dead whales, and whale bones. She is now stout and white-haired with bad knees and breast cancer, but we got a three hour tour thanks to Darrel, who organized our trip and who had been to Antarctica 40 times as an expedition leader (Enid and I met him on an Indian Ocean cruise, however). For instance, she has skulls of five differerent species of beaked whales, and nobody else has more than 2 or 3. It was totally amazing. With Ushuaia booming, they now get busloads of tourists every day and are building a new restaurant on the hill above the museum. They also run boats out to an island they own, where gentoo and magellanian penguins make nests in burrows among the grass.

We went out there, and walked carefully along paths marked out between the penguin nests. It was just like the Galapagos - they just looked at us, bored. Not frightened at all. But I about had a heart attack when a huge skua gull leaped into the air and hovered in front of my face with her sharp beak gaping in threat -- I had come just a little too close to her egg on the ground.

What a great start for what looks like a great trip! I will keep collecting notes, but this may be the last from us for a while.

Love to all

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