Thursday, January 31, 2013

[Travelogue] Antarctica, part 4

After a day of communing with penguins and Santa Claus, we raised anchor and headed over to the old whaling station at Grytviken.  Today this is the only human habitation on South Georgia, and it's just a few dozen people who man the museum, research station, and government offices which maintain the British claim to the place.

A hundred years ago Grytviken was an active whaling station.  Today its main claim to fame is that this is where Ernest Shackleton found rescue for his stranded crew after a failed attempt to reach the south pole.  If you aren't familiar with Shackleton's story you really should go read it.  It is one of the most amazing tales of courage and heroism (and, frankly, stupidity) in human history.

There is, needless to say, not a whole lot to do in Grytviken nowadays.  We visited Shackleton's grave and drank the traditional Irish whiskey toast, then climbed up the hill for the panoramic view:

The sun was setting, and a deck of clouds was starting to roll in, and since it was Christmas eve of course we all had to go to church:

That's Nancy in the middle, flanked by Richard Dawkins and his wife Lalla Ward, and yes, we are all on our way to that church in the background for Christmas eve services delivered by one of our fellow passengers, a retired minister named Arthur Hammons.  He did an absolutely terrific job considering he had one of the toughest possible audiences, including everything from devout Mormons to even more devout atheists and everything in between.  Ironically, we non-theists were the only ones who stood up to sing the hymns.

(Richard told us the next day that some British newspaper had published a short piece on the fact that he had been spotted in a church, but now I can't find it.)

But by far the best part of Grytviken was the wildlife.  Now that the humans have (mostly) gone, the seals have moved back in, and they are everywhere.  The fur seal pups are the very definition of ridiculously cute, and they are more than eager to pose for the camera:

You wouldn't guess it from this photo, but they are also vicious.  Seals are a patriarchal species, and only the alpha males get to mate.  This results in strong evolutionary pressures towards aggression and territoriality, and if you get too close to them even the pups will attack and bite you.  The adults can run faster than humans, and they weigh several hundred pounds so if they catch you they can inflict serious damage.  Happily, they won't attack unless provoked, so you are safe as long as you keep your distance.  But on one occasion I inadvertently got a little too close to one and got a first-hand demonstration of just how fast they can move.

Oh well, I figure if you haven't been blown off a beach in hurricane-force winds and attacked by a fur seal, you haven't really been to Antarctica.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

[Travelogue] Antarctica, part 3

After getting nearly blown off the beach on Salisbury Plain I was feeling a little leery about the weather, but I needn't have worried.  The weather in Antarctica turns on a dime in both directions, and the next day was as different from the first as it could possibly be.

Clear blue skies.  No wind.  Spectacular.

The place was called St. Andrew's Bay.  Because we had gone second the day before we got to land first this time. The water was glassy, making the zodiac ride downright pleasant.  We landed on the beach and got the second of what would become a familiar ritual: Larry, our expedition leader, would give us a briefing (go here, don't go there) and then off we'd go.  In this case, Larry said there was a king penguin colony down the beach on the other side of a small rise that we didn't want to miss.  But the landing spot was already chock-full-o-critters, and we spent quite a while just hanging out right there checking out penguins...

And fur seals (closely related to sea lions, but not the same species)...

And elephant seals...

After twenty minutes or so we finally said, well, this is cool, but I guess we really ought to go check out this penguin colony.  So we trudged along the beach and over the rise, and this was the sight that greeted us:

Penguins as far as the eye could see.  A wall-to-wall carpet of penguins.

Those are all king penguins.  The brown ones are chicks.  At this stage in their development they are bigger than their parents, and they are absolutely fearless.  On more than one occasion we couldn't proceed because we were surrounded by them, and wildlife has the right of way.

Oh, and did I mention it was Christmas eve?  So of course when we got back to the boat, Santa was there:

And that was just the first half of the day :-)

[Travelogue] Antarctica, part 2

I've been slow in posting Antarctica travelogues because I've been busy editing a highlight reel from the two-hour-long DVD they made for us on the ship.  I don't want to post it publicly because it's a little sketchy in terms of copyright, but if you're interested in seeing it drop me a line and we'll work something out.

Anyway, when last we visited our intrepid travelers (which is to say me and Nancy) we were dodging land mines in the Falkland Islands.  We left Port Stanley in the evening and headed out for two days at sea en route to South Georgia island.  There's not much to do on a small boat at sea, so we dealt with the tedium in the traditional manner: we went drinking.

Happily, the observation lounge was just outside our cabin and it was equipped with a bar, so we went to watch the world go by and drown our sorrows (such as they were) in Pisco sours.  There was a woman at the bar we had met earlier, a charming British artist named Lalla Ward, and next to her was a man who bore a striking resemblance to... Richard Dawkins!

Holy shit!  I was stuck on a boat for two weeks with Richard Dawkins!

To jump ahead a bit, we got acquainted and over the course of the trip spent quite a bit of time together.  But that's a whole 'nuther story.  This post is supposed to be about Antarctica, and South Georgia Island in particular.

After a day and a half at sea we got our first glimpse of... well, it's a bit of a misnomer to call it "land".  Shag Rock is aptly named.  It's a rock (actually four of them) sticking up out of the water in the middle of nowhere.

They are covered by shags, (a kind of sea bird for those of you who, like me, think "carpet" more than "ornithology" when they hear the word "shag") hence the name.  Quite possibly the most inhospitable place I've ever seen, but after two days at sea we were ready to take what we could get.

The next morning, after what was ultimately an uneventful crossing, we arrived at South Georgia and anchored at a place called Salisbury Plain, home to one of the largest king penguin colonies in the world.  The wind was blowing pretty hard but that is not at all unusual for that part of the world.

Antarctica is one of the last unspoiled wildernesses left on earth, and the operators that run cruises to this part of the world adhere to a pretty strict set of regulations designed to protect the wildlife.  Our boat had 200 passengers, which made it one of the larger ones to do this kind of trip, and it meant we had to go ashore in two shifts.  When we boarded we had colored stickers attached to our key cards that separated us into the red dot group and the green dot group.  Each day we would alternate, with one color getting the early morning wake up call at 6 AM and the other group getting to sleep in until around 8:30 or so.  We were in the second group to go ashore, and by the time we got there, the wind had whipped up into a pretty serious gale.  It was genuinely difficult to stand upright, and nearly impossible to take pictures.  Even the penguins were getting blown over on occasion.

Now, I have to digress and tell you a little bit about penguins.  Penguins are incredibly cool critters.  They are technically birds, but they are well along on the evolutionary path towards becoming fish.  Their forelimbs look more like flippers than wings, and the feathers on the leading edges have evolved to look almost indistinguishable from scales.  (Take that, creationists!)  They have virtually no fear of humans, as you can see from the photo.

They also have no sense of propriety when it comes to defecating.  When it's time to poop, they just let loose wherever they happen to be.  The result, over the course of a breeding season, is a whole lot of fertilizer, and it smells every bit as bad as you might imagine.

So there we are, struggling to walk, trying to take pictures of penguins, trying to take it all in, trying not to get sick from the smell, and I'm thinking to myself: hm, I wonder how bad this has to get before it starts to actually be a problem.

You see, there is no dock here.  The ship is anchored out in the bay, and we get to shore in little rubber zodiacs, which of course means that the only way back to the boat is in those same little rubber zodiacs.  The water is right around freezing, and there are no medical facilities.  I learned later that one person actually fell into the water during the landing and had to be evacuated back to the boat.

We soon found out.  We had only been on shore for about 10 or 15 minutes when we got the word that the landing had been cut short and we were evacuating.  We made it back to the ship without incident, where we learned that the winds had topped out at 70 MPH, very nearly a category 1 hurricane.

We also learned that they have extensive contingency plans, including the option to camp overnight on shore if necessary.  The weather can turn on a dime, and it is entirely possible to get stranded ashore.  And there ain't no four seasons to retreat to.  Antarctica is serious shit in more ways than one.

To be continued...

Monday, January 28, 2013

Boy Scouts may end ban on gays

The dam seems like it's ready to break.  NBC News is reporting that the Boy Scouts are close to ending ban on gays.

Not that any delay was ever acceptable, but I have to say that things are moving forward with breathtaking speed.  It has been ten years since I first started writing about gay rights, and back then I never imagined that I would see things actually change so much.  It gives me hope for the world.

It is interesting in retrospect how the debate has evolved.  Here's an excerpt from that first essay:
A related argument is that homosexual couples should not be given societal support because they do not produce children. This argument is also so untenable I'm amazed that anyone can advance it with a straight face. First off, it simply isn't true. Homosexuals are perfectly capable of reproducing, and many do. But even if it were true, if one were to take reproduction as the gold standard of what does and does not deserve societal sanction then infertile people, or people who do not wish to have children, should be prohibited from marrying on those grounds. The argument is just so ridiculous it feels like a waste of time to even bring it up. 

There are no tenable grounds for denying equal rights to homosexuals, just as there are no (and never were any) tenable grounds for denying equal rights to blacks. This one is a complete no-brainer. Why does it have to take so long for society to figure these things out?
Hm, I wonder how much the Internet was a causal factor in speeding up the pace of change.  Certainly seems like a plausible theory.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Gay marriage opponents get desperate

You can't make this stuff up.  Opponents of gay marriage are now arguing that marriage should be limited to unions of a man and a woman because they alone can "produce unplanned and unintended offspring."

This sounds like good news to me because it makes it clear that gay marriage opponents have completely run out of even remotely plausible sounding arguments and are starting to get desperate.

Here are a few more choice quotes from the article:
Conservative attorneys did not argue that gays or lesbians engaged in "immoral" behavior or lifestyles. Instead they emphasized what they called the "very real threat" to society posed by opposite-sex couples when they are not bound by the strictures of marriage.
The traditional marriage laws "reflect a unique social difficulty with opposite-sex couples that is not present with same-sex couples — namely, the undeniable and distinct tendency of opposite-sex relationships to produce unplanned and unintended pregnancies," wrote [Paul D.] Clement, a solicitor general under President George W. Bush. "Unintended children produced by opposite-sex relationships and raised out-of-wedlock would pose a burden on society."
"It is plainly reasonable for California to maintain a unique institution [referring to marriage] to address the unique challenges posed by the unique procreative potential of sexual relationships between men and women," argued Washington attorney Charles J. Cooper, representing the defenders of Proposition 8. Same-sex couples need not be included in the definition of marriage, he said, because they "don't present a threat of irresponsible procreation." 
Like I said, you can't make this shit up.

I feel as if I'd be insulting your intelligence by pointing out what is wrong with this argument, but just in case it's not obvious, this argument runs afoul of the same logical flaw that affect all arguments against gay marriage based on procreation, namely, that any such argument necessarily applies equally well to sterile heterosexual couples.  If I've had a vasectomy then I too, even as a heterosexual male, cannot produce an unplanned pregnancy.  Does that mean that I should not be allowed to get married?

If marriage has anything to do with procreation at all, it is not about making children, it's about raising them.  That's the part that requires a long-term commitment (duh!), and gay couples are every bit as capable of raising a child as straight ones (and based on my personal experience, maybe more so).

I just hope that the Justices see this argument for the farce that it is.  I am not optimistic.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Travelogue: Antarctica part 1

Three weeks ago Nancy and I visited Antarctica.  It's not easy to get there.  It is completely inaccessible in winter, and even in summer it is quite a shlep.  We had tried once before, years ago, to fly there, but bad weather kept us on the ground in Punta Arenas, Chile.  This time we took a boat from Ushuaia, Argentina, which is more reliable, but takes a lot longer.

Just getting to Ushuaia was quite an odyssey.  Our road to Argentina went by way of Los Angeles, Lima, and Santiago, where we spent a day before continuing to Ushuaia.  Santiago is a nice city (vastly nicer than Lima), but having to disembark in Chile was annoying because the country has a admission charge of $160 for U.S. citizens.  It's called a "reciprocity fee" but to me it seemed indistinguishable from institutionalized bribery.  Worse, to pay the bribe, er, fee, you had to wait in an interminably long line.  Then, after paying, you then had to go wait in another interminably long line to actually clear immigration.  All this while dealing with five time zones and twelve flight hours worth of jet lag.  I kept having to remind myself that this was a nice problem to have.

We finally got out of the airport and were met by a representative of our tour company, ushered on to a bus to our hotel and got checked in amidst the usual chaos that ensues when a busload of people all show up at the front desk at the same time.  In the confusion, the local rep neglected to give us the little package of mostly useless "Welcome to Chile" documents.  How do I know that the documents that we didn't get were mostly useless?  It's because somehow at 4:30 AM local time the following morning -- after we had spent the day on a pleasant but uneventful tour of the city --  the hotel concierge suddenly realized that we had not received our package, and took it on themselves to call us right then and there to tell us that there was some "important information" waiting for us at the front desk, and that we should come down right away.  So I groggily put on some clothes and went down to the lobby where I was handed this very elegantly produced bundle of ads for local merchants, together with the schedule for the previous day.  I was not amused.

I'll spare you the gory details of the next 24 hours.  Suffice it to say we made it to Ushuaia unscathed, and at 4 PM boarded our new home for the next 18 days, MV Le Boreal:

We headed out the Beagle Channel towards the Falkland Islands en route to South Georgia island and thence to the Antarctic peninsula.  The waters we were crossing are notoriously rough.  Down in that part of the world there is very little land to stop the wind, and so it can whip up something fierce.  Particularly to be feared were the last two days of the cruise, where we had to cross the dreaded Drake passage to get back to Ushuaia.  But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Happily for us, the one-day crossing to the Falklands was uneventful, and we landed in Port Stanley on what passes for a fine summer day down there.

We had a nice walk, took in the sights, which included several groups of Magellanic penguins.  And this beautiful scene with an incomparably incongruous sign:

In case you can't read it, the sign says, "WARNING - Although this area is believed to be clear of mines, it is possible that a mine may be washed ashore from a nearby minefield.  Please be careful.  Do not touch any suspicious object, but place a marker nearby and report it to the JSEODOC, Stanley."  Those mines, of course, are left over from the 1982 war with Argentina.  Now those old tensions are flaring up again.  Argentina seems to be rattling its sabers once again, and we were told that we were the last ship out of Ushuaia that was going to be allowed to dock at Port Stanley for the rest of the season.

It was sobering.  We dodged a bullet figuratively.  But the Falkland Islanders may be doing it literally before long.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Happy new year!

Yeah, I know, I'm a little late.  The reason I'm late, and the reason I haven't been blogging in the last three weeks is that I've been on a boat in Antarctica.  There was an internet connection, but it was unbelievably slow, like 2400 baud kind of slow.  Just loading the Blogger editing page took about ten minutes, when it was working at all.  Once we got below about 60 degrees south we couldn't see the satellite, and then we were completely cut off from the rest of the world for about five days.

I'm still a little jet lagged so I'm not going to try to catch up right now, but for the time being here's a picture of a Gentoo penguin who posed for me.  We saw gobs of Gentoos, and we were told that they were doing relatively well compared to other penguin species under climate change because of their more diverse diet.  But Wikipedia says their numbers are declining along with pretty much all the rest of the wildlife down there, so I have no idea what the real story is.  All I know is that they are damn cute.