Departure Friday February 8th 2008


We overshoot LAX twice on freeway, but do arrive hour and a half early.  Pity as the flight to O’Hare is delayed.  Flights in and out of O’Hare are always delayed in winter; sometimes as this past Tuesday the O’Hare airport is closed down completely.  Why then did I book my flight to Buenos Aires via Chicago?  Now, I remember—it was cheap.


I try to rebook via Miami or Dallas—which requires a second trip through security—take off shoes, belt, remove computer from case, empty drinking water—only to learn that as my baggage is already stored and inaccessible.  Oh, well at least I opted for a four-hour layover in Chicago rather than the minimum.


Make that a three-hour layover due to late arrival.  No, the flight for Buenos Aires is also delayed; make that a five-ho, no six, no seven, eight!!!  And we leave at 01:30 in the morning.   Eyeshades on, earplugs in, what’s that I smell??  The schedule calls for dinner on this flight, so at 0230, the stews serve dinner.  (It also calls for breakfast, which they will serve at 1200.)  I sleep occasionally and poorly.


Reach my downtown hotel Lossuites Esmeralda at around 4pm, very fatigued.  Cabbie plays country western, “you’ve got to know when to hold them, and when to walk away.”  A walk though central city’s greenery lined parks reveals both the elegant and the homeless.  The first restaurant I’ve selected from last year’s Fodor’s is boarded up and covered with graffiti.  The second, like many of the local restaurants, won’t open for dinner till 8 pm.


Dine on beer, bread (for which they charged 50 cents US), an oyster casserole, and ice cream at a restaurant catering to Chilean refugees.




Arrive at airport at 0800 as requested.  Change in restroom into Gentleman Host uniform of blue blazer, cream-colored slacks, dress shirt and tie.  Shuttle is delayed—of course—for two hours and 350 of us are in a waiting room without toilets.  Fortunately, the second and third passes through security on return from men’s room are perfunctory (the third reduced to a mere wave from a guard).


We walk out along tarmac, then climb a long, steep stairway into our plane.  A fellow passenger has elected to come on cruise despite recent injury to her hip.  She climbs stairway a step at a time backwards on her bottom.


Our destination is Ushaia in Southern Argentina, Patagonia.  Ushaia closely resembles an Alaskan port with similar mountains in background.  Here the Discovery staff takes over and a shuttle bus delivers us to the mv Discovery, our home for the next two weeks.  The Russian icebreaker you may have seen on the Discovery channel is parked next to us.


Our own ship holds just 650 passengers and, as Antarctic regulations limit us to just 585, the three dance hosts each get a single room!!



Monday 11 February 2008


We travel through the turbulent (though not as turbulent as the Gulf of St. Lawrence) waters of the Drake Passage engulfed in fog.  Not a lot for the dance hosts to do during the day (though I faithfully report to the Cruise Director who is never in her office).


Average age of females on this voyage is 72.   So far no woman has danced with any of the three of us.  Maybe this evening at 10:00 after we are introduced.


Have been told whales may be visible as well as albatross, but fog lingers.  Water remained calm today in contrast to reputation of the Drake Passage through which we’ve been cruising.  May or may not be able to get online on Tuesday as satellite link to internet depends on weather.  The daily ship’s bulletin (delivered the night before) reports:


“Due to the incident of the ‘Nordkapp’ being damaged whilst navigating the entrance of Deception Island and at present as the exact cause of the accident has not been disclosed, in the interest of safety mv Discovery will not be entering the caldera [Tuesday].”



Tuesday 12 February 2008


At last, dancing and conversation.  But be careful Cinderella, for, as all our fresh water must be generated on board for the next two weeks, they turn off the water at midnight.  Just got my body wet last night before the flow to the shower ceased.  Luckily, I hadn’t started with the soap or I’d have had to use up the water bottles I’d hoarded for drinking to rinse.

We dropped off an injured passenger in Maxwell Bay today and learned at morning briefing that this being the Antarctic, our schedule would be constantly subject to similar revisions engendered by weather and drifting ice.   For example, despite what is printed in the daily bulletin,  this evening will NOT be a formal night.

Every passenger has a half hour tour of Maxwell Bay by zodiac.  Ours drifted close to colony of Gentu penguins; saw one or two water entries, and the sudden spurt of several dozen penguins running together down a slope.   Land surrounding Bay resembles land near the mouth of the St. Lawrence.  Occasional snowdrift, rock, the two types of green plants (low ground cover) that grow in the Antarctic, plus penguins.  Snow white petrels and albatross in ones and twos hover over the Bay.


Lucky me, I sat in back of zodiac next to driver; those in front got soaked by the high (cold) waves.  Nobody but me notices as engine dies, driver restarts it just as we are about to founder on rocks.

Note: Penguins groom but as individuals, not pairs.

Returned from boat trip to do a shift helping people on and off with their life jackets.  Parties are always more fun when the host asks you to help out.


Some nine persons from Huntington Harbor are aboard and I was invited to sit with them during one of the dance sessions—there are five 45-minute sessions each evening.  I let the group buy me a 7up and we discussed our children (who had all attended Marina High School in the ‘90’s) and the Friday night dance at the Roger’s Senior Center.  We played trivial pursuit together.  But when the dancing resumed at 2300, I was completely out of gas, went to bed and left it to the other two dance hosts to carry on.  (I’m cold; I’m homesick; I want to go home.)



Wednesday: On board the Marie Celeste:


I must still have been exhausted from the flight, for although I’d set my alarm for 6:55 as I had the early shift at 7:30 helping passengers on with their life jackets, I did not wake till 7:40.  All was still.  I dressed quickly.  (I’m late, I’m late for my shift; what will become of me?) 


My cabin is at the far end of the lowest deck that houses passengers.  The hallway was empty; the medical center was closed; the formal dining room was lit but empty and the doorway which led out to the zodiac boarding area (and which ought to have been crowded with exiting passengers) was closed.  The ship was deserted.


I took the lift (elevator) to the cafeteria/pool deck and found it alive, every seat filled with passengers in their red Antarctic parkas eating breakfast.  Too much, too soon.  I poured a cup of coffee and wandered though the din hoping I might find a seat or a familiar face.


Outside, though the windows, I could see chunks of ice floating on the water and, several hundred yards away, the snow-covered mesas of the Antarctic Peninsula.  The zodiac excursions had been canceled due to the high winds.


From the day’s schedule:

14:30.  Dance class with your Dance Hosts (not me, lacking seniority, I’ll merely be one of the extra men).


17:30 dinner dance.  Formal.  First chance to wear tuxedo.


All About Ice


The Antarctic iceberg is quite different from the Arctic iceberg because Antarctic ice is formed differently.   It does not rain in the Antarctic, rather the ice forms directly by condensation from the air, say a centimeter every year.  A million years later and the multi-layered ice is 30 meters thick.  Wedges that break off the ice shelf are quite flat initially, like the mesas viewed as a train goes across Arizona or New Mexico (except 9/10th of the ice is below sea level).  The ice below the water level melts irregularly.  Chunks of the flat iceberg break away.   The iceberg may actually flip over so that the ice that was below the surface is now above.  The results in both cases will appear similar to the Arctic icebergs that are calved by the glaciers.   Except the icebergs in the first instance will have sharp contours and the second smooth ones.


Snow petrels (resident in the Antarctic, unlike the albatross) swoop and dive around the icebergs whose nutrient-rich melted waters are home to krill.  Remember the flying fish off Florida?  Saw a similar sight here, as five or six penguins in a group break the waves as they swim by the ship.  Other passengers (though not me) report seeing seals in pursuit of the penguins.  Orcas have been sighted, though not by me


As a Gentleman host, am shaving every 1.5 days, wake up and use mouth wash, constantly brush teeth, change clothes, wash underwear in sink and send out dress shirts to be washed.


Our dance lesson went well.  Other hosts taught it.   “Phil:  do you have anything to add?”

“This is really fun.” was my brief, upbeat reply—I’m learning to fade into the background—the dance host is all too vulnerable.


Formal night.  I looked good—no, I looked great, though I had to have one of the entertainers help me with my tie.





I still miss Dorothy terribly but I seem to have worked through my homesickness.   Perhaps, it’s because the 75 mph winds of yesterday have died down and the sun is brilliant on the ice. 


I had early duty again today (in addition to setting my alarm, I arranged for a wake up call and woke a half earlier than either.  As we’d changed time zones, this meant I woke at 6am. )   I went ashore in the first Zodiac to land amid the penguins.


My task was to help the passengers that followed as they walked up a narrow gangway (my group of workers merely clambered over the volcanic rocks).


Windless, in a full sun, I soon unzipped my undervest, unbuttoned my shirt and unzipped my parka.  (Not much I could do about my long johns or the outer, waterproof pants I wore over my regular pants.)


Paradise Harbor consists of a number of narrow channels, islands, grounded icebergs, and the Antarctic mainland.  The island is about 300 meters high, the channel about 400 meters deep, though we can see the few feet down to the bottom (free of fish, mollusks, or grasses) just off where we landed.  Too deep to anchor, the mv Discovery engines must remain running constantly if it is to stay in place.


A cement walk runs through the penguin colony, though the penguins seem to favor the walk as well.  First task of the Philippine workers was to wash down the walk adjacent to the landing.  (Their last task was to scrub the boots of all visitors before they went back on the zodiacs.)


We see a mixture of adults, goslings, and adults who are doing their once-a-year molt.  Looking out to the water, we can see penguins breaking the surface and then diving down again.  Wait!  The fleet (of penguins) is returning!   Cries break out all over the colony as adults and goslings seek to find one another.


When a chick finds its parent, it reaches up its beak.  The parent crooks its neck and regurgitates into the chick’s mouth.  If the chick is still hungry, it rubs its beak on the parent’s throat and again it is fed.  Satiated, the chick takes a step back.  Wait, a second chick wants nourishment.  The other chick’s parent runs away and the second chick follows.  It is hungry.


We help 15 boats unload and 7 load, and then after two hours our shift is up and it’s back to the ship.  (Incidentally, the wind came up a bit and I had to zip up again.)


View Film


Friday:  High wind and ice everywhere and we’re now on Plan C.  Have seen whales breaching and a seal on an ice floe.  Had to turn back, change channels when way blocked by ice. 


Oops, as waves increase in height, the ship switches to plan D.   I lie on a ledge beneath my portholes, pillow under my head and look out as 10’ to 15’ waves break over portholes.  Like looking into a washing machine.  Now, they’re 20’ waves—run, tell everyone to bring their surfboards!.


Knock on door announces men come at orders from bridge to lock down portholes.  Immediate claustrophobia.  Have a bit of a lie down as English would say and then go off upstairs (via elevator which is safer than stairs) for first dance session of day.   Not one dance and only one couple on dance floor.  Wimps.  I eat upstairs in dining room that is normally reservations only—offers view of raging sea.  Deserted as many including our tall, black dance host are mal de mer victims confined to cabins.


Down to sleep at 10:20, wake next morning at 9:00.  At last, have caught up on my sleep.


Saturday:  We spend day at sea making our way North from Antarctic to west Chile side of South America.  I give a well-attended spontaneous morning lesson on West Coast Swing.  


Week II


Today will be our third day in a row at sea, though today, again, we can see land, not the Antarctic but South America.  Starting last night, almost everyone emerged from their cabins including our third dance host.  Seems that rough day at sea two days ago saw over 30 people report to the ship’s doctor with minor injuries incurred in falls on the icy outer decks.


Yesterday, I held an impromptu West Coast Swing lesson.  Despite its impromptu nature, they crowded the floor and at night – some four dance sessions, beginning just before the early setting and ending (for me) at 11:00—found myself dancing with four women who hadn’t wanted to dance before.  Whenever I find someone who can keep the beat, I’m thrilled.


Am impressed by how much work the regular crew does.  Up each day at or before six and down at midnight.  At lunch, seeing that they wanted to clear the tables, I waved away the coffee cups and said I would drink coffee upstairs. Got a big smile in return.


Well, I’m off upstairs to breakfast to view the dawn.


We’re heading West by North into a Chilean fjord (first time in a week, I’ve known in which direction we were headed).  The mountains rise on other side as we progress.  A bare sprinkling of snow can be seen on the south side of the lower peaks. A sizeable city can be seen on the south side of the fjord, the city at World’s end.  And the passengers walk about on deck, cameras in hand, in the red parkas mv Discovery has thoughtfully provided (mostly so they can be readily spotted on shore excursions).



I’ve since been informed that the city at World’s end I saw yesterday was actually in Argentina, just below the border of Chile, and that it was Ushaia, the city where our shuttle landed a week ago where we first boarded the ship.


This cruise will not help me to decide whether I want to be a Gentleman Host.  Everything about it is unusual (and not just the fact that I have am a single in a room the same size as the one the pair of us normally occupy).  The passengers on this cruise are not your usual lot; they are well traveled and well read.  I don’t suffer fools gladly and there hasn’t been a fool among them.


Acted as tour escort (head counter) today, as we motored across the Chilean steppe to Estancia Fitz Roy.  As with the Anza Borrego desert, one’s first reaction is boredom, only gradually does one pick out the features of interest in the land.  Of course, the ocean may be viewed at every turn.


We stopped to watch Rhea, members of the Ostrich family, half the size of an Ostrich, and seldom as tall, neck and all, as the sheep they roam next to. A family grouping consists of the father (who also sat on the eggs) and the chicks.   We also stopped to watch the Andean condors, those of the huge wing spread, circling overhead, waiting for someone to die.  Hawks and two species of small geese were also common.


A ferry transported our bus across a small river (or was it an ocean sound?) and then we were at the Estancia, which has been decorated with old farm machinery.  We were given coffee and beignets upon arrival.  Then came the tour of an object-strewn barn (the overall effect was of being in our garage), a sheep shearing, a cow milking, a tour of a hand-hewn chapel, and a 4-year-old puma.


Then on to Pisco Sours by the outdoor fire where the sheep for lunch were being barbequed—I had perhaps one too many.   But as we had wine with our lunch and une tasse de Amaretto afterwards, who counts?


After lunch came the horseback ride.  As the course was a mere lawn length and return, I elected to ride (my first on a horse).  Soon, I had one foot in the stirrup and was up in the saddle.  A kindly hostler suggested I put the other foot in the stirrup, also.  Then with a light slap on the rump, the horse and I were off.


Suggestions came from everywhere.  “Hold the reins in one hand….both reins.”  “Pull left.”  “Pull right.”  “DON’T let him eat!”  This last suggestion was particularly loud.  We had made several circles about the stump when the horse bent down to eat a second time.  Without preceding further, the horse and I having not elected any particular direction, I returned to the stump, dismounted, and then set out to find if someone had taken a photograph to prove my success.  But apparently I hadn’t been on the horse long enough for anyone to snap a photo.




Three days ago, while we were still in the Antarctic, a patch of rough weather sent susceptible passengers scurrying to their cabins, and barf bags were made available throughout the ship.  Thirty passengers were injured in all.  But the majority were not injured on the stairways during the storm as I first assumed, but during the preceding period of sunny calm, when they slipped on the ice that had formed on the deck.


Today, we waited till exactly 07:30 to pass through a narrow channel.  The time was chosen to coincide with the slack period at high tide when currents are minimal and the water is at its deepest.  We look out now on the Chilean fjords, algae-covered narrow beaches, conifer-covered hillsides that rise one behind the other, the highest barren of trees and snow covered.  We see waterfalls plunging hundreds of feet and there are flocks of small white birds everywhere.  I’ve been told one can see seals, but have yet to see one.  





This is our third of sailing slowly through the fjords, our fourth without landing.  With the scenery so close at hand, the resemblance to train travel is immediate.  We are making only 12 knots through these narrow channels.  (Exception: last night at dancing time, the Captain took us out on the open water adding many additional steps to our dances and, later, rocking us to sleep as in a more swiftly moving train.


Formal tonight; I shall try to have someone take a photo. “Bond; James Bond.”


Passed salmon farms this morning, plus two seals moving swiftly in and out of the water having decided, clearly, they would have salmon that morning for breakfast.


Alas, the fog is heavy this morning, and only sometimes can we view the shore, thus I am down in my cabin viewing Joyce’s Ulysses (all my audio books, downloaded from the library before I left, having just expired).


Sacramento Bee for April 2006 has two articles on the Antarctic and the mv Discovery along with many photos.


More and more couples are coming out on the dance floor each evening—married couples as well as those singles we’re taught the rumba and the foxtrot.





Land at last!  Puerto Montt, which our guide tells us is a town of 200,000 that somehow survives on salmon farming and tourism.   My wake up call for a 7:30 tour departure comes at 6:30, but of course we don’t leave due to a delay in docking until 8:00. 


Puerto Montt proves to be only a gateway to other towns with actual tourist attractions though it does have a brown RC church with a copper dome built in a mixture of a half dozen architectural styles as well as a painted plaster of paris statue of two giant figures embracing on a park bench as they look out on the sea.


Our bus is in desperate need of shocks and I survive an hour with eyes closed till we have our first rest stop looking out across Lake Llanquihue at a dormant volcano with a strong resemblance to a snow-capped Mt. Fuji.  Here I change seats to sit next to a second widow to report a cheating husband.  This one discovered hers while they were married when he ran off with her secretary.  The other only found out after her husband’s death that he’d been in another relationship for more than a dozen years.  Me, I took marriage vows.


We board a large Catalina-size Catamaran to tour a small lake in a Chile national park. We are offered great views of the volcano and a few lake-side homes on a otherwise verdant hillside that were grand-fathered out when the area became a park.  It would be fun to rent a double kayak here.


Then on to a waterfall, this one a long narrow channel where the rushing river is in the process of carving what some thousand years from now may be a grand canyon.  Next comes a restaurant with a stop for lunch, another pisco sour and more wine.  Note that at every stop like a good Australian blue, I’m responsible for rounding up strays and doing a head count.


Our final stop is the town of Puerto Varas on Lake Llanquihue.  Here vacationers from the big Chilean cities come to swim (though the water is at the temperature of a summer in Halifax or the English channel), kayak, sail, and gamble in the casino.


Someone has money in this country, but very, very few.  Beware the multinationals.


Everywhere along the Pan American Highway there are bush fires and no attempt is being made to put them out.  This being a normally rainy area, dry now for two years, the central government is both unprepared and indifferent.


What’s this in my suitcase made of the wool of an Alpaca?


Evening:  we’ve left port and looking back and to starboard, the ocean is lined by the towering peeks of the Andes.  (And, I would so much rather be on deck watching them with you.)


Saturday and Sunday


Saturday was pretty much a nothing day devoted to eating and packing, and a few final dance and smoozing sessions.  Most of the day I was panicking about how I would get from the port of Valparaiso to Santiago Airport and eventually mapped out a plan involving two taxis and a bus before at 5 pm the phone rang—messengers from the queen are all too seldom seen—and was told I could board the bus to the airport with the furloughed members of the crew at 1700 hrs tomorrow.


Just as well, for I went into culture shock on first going on deck today and seeing the Port of Valparaiso, a dock filled with sound, dozens of tourists boats swirling through the harbor, and hillsides on which row after row of colorful houses and apartment blocks rise as far as the eye can see.  Far to the left, a set of high rises line the beach as if were Waikiki.  Behind us are the five or six gray vessels that constitute the Chilean navy.  Was I disoriented?   Consider that we have seen only penguins and small oceanside settlements for weeks now.


Still, I remain apprehensive.  Will my luggage still be waiting pier side?  (Yes, though my two suitcases stood alone against the wall.) Will I look up to find my laptop has walked away?  (Again, no.)


I leave the DVD’s I’ve watched behind.  The crew, doing six to nine month stretches at a time, are grateful for any new amusements introduced into their closed society, though they would much prefer I had brought recent releases with me.


Our van to the Santiago airport has six passengers: the ship’s doctor, the ice-captain (who was in command of the Discovery whenever there was ice around), three from the group of much-appreciated Kiwi Antarctic lecturers, and me.


A flea market extends for many blocks down the center of the boulevard through which we take our leave from the docks.


As we rise up into the hills, conifers are everywhere.  .  During the last ice age, the ice never reached this far north, so that the few deciduous trees, e.g., the Eucalyptus are all recent (early 20th century) introductions.  (Unwanted ones at that as they so readily catch fire.)


To reach Santiago, we must pass through two long tunnels.  Our passage through the first leads from the comfier and fern lined highway to a mirror of the barren brown summertime hills of Central California.


The Airport lies well before Santiago so I will never see this smoggy crime-ridden city.