Yesterday morning, Thursday, February 11, 2010, was really the start of our Antarctic expedition with Lindblad Expeditions aboard their vessel, the National Geographic Explorer.
We're in the right line for our flight from Santiago to Ushuaia
Approximately 140 of us set forth from our hotel in Santiago, Chile to catch a LAN Chile charter plane to Ushuaia, Argentina. “Ushuaia” is pronounced “Ush-why-ah”, in case you were curious.
It was a nearly four hour flight, taking us past incredible views of the Andes mountain range for most of the flight. I should add that all of our worries about the 17.6 pound carry-on limit appeared to be completely unfounded, resulting in needless stress and grey hair for me. Since the flight was a charter flight the carry-on weight limit was ignored, but a few bags were checked for size. Overheads were overflowing however.
Glacial lakes seen from our plane - photo by fellow passenger Bob Reichart
Volcano peak in the Andes seen from our plane
Regarding Ushuaia, it is the southern most town in South America, never mind Argentina, and located on an island in the Tierra del Fuego (Lands of Fire – based on early explorers seeing Indian-made fires and smoke on the cliffs) archipelago. The locals refer to Ushuaia as the “Fin del Mundo” or “End of the Earth”. Ushuaia is also one of the key embarkation points for cruises to the Antarctic, which is why we were heading there – to meet up with our ship.
The view from the Ushuaia international airport - beautiful mountain scapes
The town of Ushuaia has a whopping 70,000 inhabitants, many of whom are there to take advantage of extremely high salaries (triple the going rate elsewhere in Argentina) which the Argentinean government subsidizes (along with very favorable tax savings for large employers and manufacturers) to encourage settlement in this remote area. Buenos Aires and Santiago are both about four hours away by plane, and driving to Buenos Aires is a four or five day effort across roads that aren’t always that great.
The region is incredibly mountainous, but at the same time surrounded by ocean, creating some incredible vistas, mostly forested with several different species of native beech trees.
We learned that over the years the government has tried to introduce various species of animals to the area in order to generate both food and revenue sources. Among the introduced species were rabbits, reindeer, and beavers. Rabbits have thrived, while reindeers were eaten by the humans to the point of eradication.
One of several introduced species to the area - a rabbit
The beaver introduction is interesting. Apparently Canadian beavers were introduced in the hopes of creating a thriving beaver fur industry, but not enough research was done on how beaver fur gets lush. It turns out that beaver fur grows best in climates where it gets very cold in the winter and temperate in the summer. But in the Tierra del Fuego archipelago it does not get cold enough to encourage heavy pelt growth, so the beaver pelts they harvested here were of mediocre quality at best, and not particularly sellable. However, by the time they discovered this, the beavers had gotten firmly entrenched and now are responsible for destruction of countless beech trees which cannot survive in the flooded plains the beaver dams create.
Bas and Linda on a footbridge in the national park
Upon our arrival at the Ushuaia airport, we were whisked away in three buses to the Tierra del Fuego National Park. After a scenic, guided ride through the park where the history of Ushuaia and the ecology of the area was explained, we got off for a short walk to board a couple of large motor powered catamarans for lunch and a cruise on the Beagle Channel, named after the Beagle – the ship in which Charles Darwin first visited these waters.
A nature moment in Tierra del Fuego
Krystyana about to board the catamaran for our afternoon water tour
We encounter amazing views, saw the virtual boundary between Chile and Argentina, and even had our first aquatic wildlife sightings along the way, all accompanied by very brisk, cold air (relative to Santiago, anyhow).
An Antarctic Sea Lion with a seagull near Ushuaia
A flock of Antarctic cormorants with some gulls near Ushuaia
Our journey ended in the harbor of Ushuaia, where we came upon our home for the next three weeks – the National Geographic Explorer, owned and operated by Lindblad Expeditions.
Three freighters at dock behind the National Geographic Explorer in Ushuaia
We spot the National Geographic Explorer for the first time - our home for the next three weeks
It should be mentioned that Lars-Eric Lindblad, the founder of Lindblad Expeditions, was the first person to run commercial tourism expeditions to the Antarctic region, around a half century ago (1964), and his son Sven-Olof has continued with such expedition efforts, ever improving the adventure while at the same time working to preserve the ecology of areas visited.
Lindblad Expeditions was also a founding member of IAATO (International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators), whose purpose is to insure safe, responsible, environmentally sensitive tourism in the fragile ecosystem of Antarctica.
Once settled aboard the National Geographic Explorer – we’re in a spacious stateroom at the stern end of the vessel, while the kids are in a regular stateroom located in the middle of the Explorer – we all participated in a mandatory safety drill in the unlikely event of an emergency onboard.
We also all loaded up on seasickness medicine in anticipation of a potentially tumultuous ride through the roughest waters in the world – the Drake Passage. More on that later, though.
After some more orientation and a pleasant dinner, we retired, enjoying the wonderful view from our balcony.
Our wake as seen from our stateroom on the National Geographic Explorer as we head east out of the Beagle Channel
More photos from this day are at my Flickr photo sharing page. A map showing where the photos were taken can be found here.
I will post