South!

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It’s been a long time coming, but I finally got the chance to fulfil my dream of visiting Antarctica. In the next few weeks I will blog about the journey and the things I have seen.

The journey took me from Ushuaia to the Falkland Islands, then on to South Georgia, before getting to the Antarctic Peninsula. It was all spectacular and a wonderful experience.

And not as cold as I expected it to be, but as you can see, cold enough when out on the deck in the wind!

And a thank you to my friend Kate who cleverly photographed the photographer.

More to come soon!

 

Pantanal Redux

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Almost a year to the day that I went to the Pantanal for the first time, I am back. This time I travel with friends who are equally, if not more, passionate about photography. A second visit is always different; you can’t recreate the thrill of seeing a jaguar for the first time, but it is still as exciting to see them. And this time there was an anaconda, something I had not seen last year, plus some very daring (and increasingly problematic) giant otter.

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We left Sao Paulo on a Wednesday night and caught a 10pm flight to Cuiaba. We arrived close to midnight in the hotel. Fortunately the air conditioning was excellent as outside it was boiling hot. That feature remained for most of our trip. Early the next morning, Ailton Lara, owner of Pantanal Nature, came to greet us and introduce us to our driver, Francisco, who would drive us all the way to Porto Jofre. We set off at 7am and after a quick stop at a bank, we were on our way to reach the Transpantaneira Highway. The plan was to get to the Pantanal Jaguar Camp by lunch time and then head out on the river in the afternoon.

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The drive was long and what was really evident was how dry the country is, even here. The spots were last year had been abundant water and wildlife were dry, and we saw plenty of vultures, but not a lot of other creatures. Given that the heat was around 47C, they could be forgiven for seeking shade over sun…

When we arrived at the camp I was warmly greeted by Jose, who last year had managed the boat, but was now managing the camp. Jo, our guide, arrived as well. We had a quick lunch followed by a brief rest and then it was time to head out onto the river.

The Pantanal Jaguar Camp lies in the bush and so it takes about 10 minutes to walk to the river to board the boats. Did I mention it was hot? Apart from the three of us, there was an Indian gentleman and his son and together with Jo we got onto the boat and soon we had a breeze in our faces, which was very welcome. The river and the wildlife around it was very still; all creatures finding it probably too hot to move. Eventually we saw one jaguar hiding in the shade and some birds and capybara, but there weren’t any great shots to be had.

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Back in the camp and after an early dinner, we were all too exhausted to stay up for long and retired to our air conditioned rooms for a good sleep. The next morning we left a bit late for the morning boat ride, which meant that all the other boats were out there already. The Indian father and son had already been before they left for Cuiaba and told us there wasn’t much to see at the early hour either. Our boat ride didn’t yield too much either, but still some delightful birds to photograph, if they were willing to stay put and not fly away rapidly at our approach.

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For our afternoon boat ride things improved significantly. While still hot, the fish were jumping, we saw some cayman swimming in one particular channel and then the call came in that a jaguar had been spotted. Our boat driver (Shuday sp?) did a U-turn and then put the boat in full speed to commence a James Bond style pursuit to get to the location, which turned out to be quite a way away. We overtook one boat, then two, three and finally a fourth boat. The ride was exhilarating and eventually we got to the location, cut the engine and drifted into the pack of boats already assembled there. The jaguar was clearly visible and soon started moving along the river bank, disappearing for a short while before stepping out from the long grass surveying the river and the spectacle of all our boats before him. To the right of him was a capybara, but either he wasn’t hungry or he hadn’t smelled it, but he ignored it and stepped into the water instead. There he looked around again and indecisive, turned around, crossed a tiny channel and climbed up on the other river bank. He walked one way, walked back and then laid down observing the boats in front of us. I swear he was thinking about which one of us would be good to eat! One by one boats started to peel away, as the dusk was gradually falling and eventually we too had to move off. By the time we got to the main river things were distinctly dark and I was amazed at Shuday’s navigational skills. He got us back safely, but then we still had to walk the path back to the camp in the dark.

The next morning we were on our way early. We had been warned that it looked likely for some rain to come and to bring our rain coats. That was a correct prediction, as later that morning it started to rain. But the rain was refreshing and lifted the exhausting heat that had been lying over the land. After lunchtime it really set in and in the afternoon I was all done up in rain gear, even the camera had its own rain jacket on. We had jaguar sightings in the morning and in the afternoon. Certainly with the weather not so hot, the animals were more active. We also saw plenty of birds and managed to get some neat shots of yellow rumped cacique and capped heron.

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But the best sighting of jaguar was reserved for our last morning. We left in the 5am darkness for our boat ride and at about 6am, just as the sun was rising, we came upon jaguars in the grass near a sandy beach. It turned out to be a mother with 2-3 cubs, not tiny, but slightly older cubs. We were the only boat there and cut our engine and floated quietly along the beach, almost holding our breath until the mother came out of the long grass with one cub in tow. The cub was beautifully curious, walking up to the water edge to have a good look at us before returning to her mother, playfully rubbing against her and letting her tail curl around her mother’s neck. We watched them for what seemed an eternity until other boats appeared and eventually they both disappeared into the grass again.

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For me it was the highlight of the trip and a great sighting to finish with, even if the photographic results were just OK, due to the minimal light we had to work with. After we returned to the Jaguar Camp we had a quick breakfast before piling into the van that was taking us back to Cuiaba for our multiple flights back to Sao Paulo.

I suspect this was my last trip to the Pantanal. Apart from not having sufficient holidays to go another time, I again felt very much part of the problem and thought that the animals were skittish at the presence of so many boats and so many tourists. A permit system will need to be put in place soon, or they run the risk of the place losing its key attraction. Fourteen boats at one sighting is not a good thing, not for the animals and not for the tourists. A better solution needs to be found so that this type of tourism can be preserved as an income source for the local community, but while sustaining the presence of wildlife in a responsible way.

Brash ice

Kayaking in Fuglefjorden

“Good morning, good morning, ladies and gentlemen” intones the voice of expedition leader John in his wake up call at 7.00am on this second day at sea. This morning we head out for a zodiac landing on the site of Smeerenburg, a historical site which was the most important whaling station for the Dutch in the 17th century. Here they processed whale blubber, which explains why it is also known as “Blubber Town”. The stories about the place are legendary, but the reality was a bit starker, with maybe a few hundred people that would have lived here at any one time and horrendous tales of scurvy. The only remains of the town are stone rings on the beaches where the blubber was cooked. Despite the majestic glaciers surrounding the site, it is a fairly bleak place and it doesn’t take much to imagine what life would have been like here.

Zodiac landing at Smeerenburg

We head around the island for a longer walk, accompanied by two of our guides, Yvonne and Emily, both equipped with flare guns and rifles in case the odd polar bear gets a bit too interested in our group. We look at remains and I am horrified at the amount of plastic that is everywhere. Prevailing ocean currents bring much of the world’s plastic to Svalbard. A clean up program has been set up and I’m told it has been very effective, as apparently it originally was far worse than what we are witnessing this day. Yet, it does make you think about your own waste stream. How much of what I do and use is impacting an environment a long way away from me?

At the end of our walk we come to four walrus lying on the beach. We approach slowly and cautiously as walrus can be a bit temperamental. In single file we approach, quietly, cameras at the ready until we are all close enough to get good photos. They lie on the sand, wallowing and occasionally scratching themselves with big flippers, in close contact with one another. When we finally have had our fill, it is time to head back to the ship in the zodiacs.

Walrus on the beach

After lunch kayaking guide Valerie informs us that it is finally time for our first kayaking outing. After we put on our dry suits, neoprene skirts, life vests and booties we look like Navy SEALs ready for a secret op. We head off in the first zodiac, driven by Cam, with the kayaks trailing behind, like mother Duck and her ducklings. Amar and I are paired up for kayaking and we slide into double kayak “Blue” for our first paddle in the midst of brash ice, which is now my new favourite thing. The sound of air bubbles releasing from the ice is like music; the thud of ice against the hull of the kayak; the grinding when we hit a bigger piece of ice on which we almost beach. I never realised ice was so heavy until you feel it around you. You can play bumper cars with the bigger piece, although anything higher than one metre we have to keep at a respectful distance.

It is good to leave the noise of zodiacs behind and just be in the peace and quiet of our small group, paddling along the ice and floating around the most wonderful nature-made ice sculptures. The colours of the ice range from pure transparent to opaque, to blues and greens. One piece stands out in particular and has a brown part that contained sand from the moraine, then turned this incredible colour in between green and blue, deeply intense, and then a light blue, at times transparent. Simply beautiful.

Colours in the brash ice

The glacier was rumbling and thundering and at times released huge calvings into the sea. We paddled relatively close, but not so close that we could be hit by a wave. I don’t even know how much time we spent on the water; time seemed to stretch out and we just floated in the moment. Eventually we got the signal to paddle back towards the ship, gradually being collected by Cam in the zodiac, and we head back to the ship for a hot shower, wrap up briefing and dinner.

During the briefing John advises that a big storm is brewing, which may impact our itinerary. It means we will either have to leave Svalbard earlier and spend more time in Greenland or leave Svalbard later and have less time in Greenland. I have hunch it is going to be the former. As I return to the cabin later that evening, the weather has worsened and the ship lurches from side to side, which makes getting down the two sets of stairs to the cabin quite a challenge. Once I’m back in the cabin I feel very queasy, so I pop a Phenergan in the hope of holding it together.