published Monday, December 12th, 2011

Journey to Antarctica: Good morning from the Drake Passage

Thom Benson
Usuaia and Beagle Channel
Usuaia and Beagle Channel
Thom Benson
Follow live updates as the Tennessee Aquarium's Thom Benson travels to Antarctica from Chattanooga

Friday morning began early as we flew from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia adding roughly 1,000 miles to our southward progress. From the air, Tierra Del Fuego looks rugged and untamed with snow-capped mountains and a remarkable view of South America tapering to a point.

We were given a tour of Ushuaia and the southernmost end of Patagonia. On one side of the Beagle Channel you have views of jagged Argentine mountains and the city. The equally impressive mountains of Chile are directly opposite. In some ways Ushuaia reminds me of Valdez, Alaska as the city is wedged between the steep mountain slopes and a saltwater bay leading to the open ocean. As it turns out, you could follow the Trans-American Highway northward from Ushuaia and end up in Alaska some 11,000 miles later. If someone wanted to do that, they could start now and experience summer in both hemispheres.

One of the highlights of the day was touring the Ushuaia Jail and Military Prison. Think of a cross between “Papillion” and “Alcatraz” and you get the picture. This prison was built by the prisoners who were brought to Ushuaia as “colonists.” There were also wings dedicated to Antarctic Exploration, Tierra Del Fuego’s maritime history and some exhibits related to penguins and other Antarctic critters.

I should mention that the weather was unreal for Ushuaia. Our naturalist said that temperatures near 70 with almost a full day of sun are very rare. We enjoyed these conditions along with the residents who were preparing to spend their holiday weekend outdoors with family hiking, fishing and camping. Our naturalist added, “They will also be participating in the national sport of bar-b-que.”

  • photo
    Megallanic penguins in the Beagle Channel
    Photo by Thom Benson

After boarding our ship, Le Boreal, the cruise got underway by late afternoon. The Abercrombie & Kent (A&K) introduced themselves at a special presentation in the ship’s theater. We are in great hands with a staff that collectively has more than 180 years of Antarctic experience. These experts, from fields ranging from ornithology to geology, will make sure we get the most out of our visit. Our first good tip was to watch for Megellanic penguins on a couple of islands in the Beagle Channel. These birds were spotted from a distance, standing on shore with one or two gentoos.

The boat became quiet rather quickly after watching the full moon rising over the Channel. Almost everyone was pretty exhausted after the first few lengthy, but fun days.

This morning there’s no land in sight and so far the famous Drake Passage is treating us well. We’re heading southeast at 14 knots in light seas. The sky is mostly cloudy and it’s now down to 45 degrees with a 10 mph wind. The t-shirts will be covered with several layers as we continue cruising toward Antarctica.

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bill238 said...

Who is paying for this expensive trip?

December 12, 2011 at 9:01 a.m.
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