Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Magic of Macquarie

Greetings All,
We were up early this morning in anticipation of our landing on Macquarie Island. The seas were calm enough to safely disembark in the Zodiacs. The Zodiacs are lowered from the top deck to the water where we board them from the back of the Orion. They bob up and down so you have to time your entry when the Zodiac is level with the ship.

A quick ride and we were at the Isthmus, a thin strip of land at the north end of the island and also the site of the Australian Antarctic Program Expedition station. We were greeted by massive Southern Elephant Seals lounging in the tussock grass. Other than breeding, the only reason adult elephant seals come ashore is to molt. Over a 3 week period they shed both their old fir and skin. During this time they are particularly cranky and we had to walk gingerly past them.

We climbed up to a viewpoint overlooking the isthmus and the station. The wind was howling and the skies gray but at least it wasn't raining.

We climbed back down and explored the other side of the Isthmus. There were two massive bull elephant seals in our path. You can see from the next photo how they got their name. The bulls have a proboscis resembling an elephant's trunk.

Small groups of Gentoo Penguins were on the beach. Like the elephant seals they were in the process of molting. Once their new feathers come in they'll head out to the ocean for the winter. We've seen these penguins on the peninsula in 2008 but here their bills are more orange than red.

There were also small groups of King Penguins about. They waddled along the beach trying to avoid the huge mounds of kelp that had washed up during a recent storm. One poor fellow got ensnared in a strand of kelp and struggled to get free.

We returned to Macquarie after lunch, this time landing at Sandy Bay. We had to make our way past mounds of elephant seals and throngs of Royal Penguins to reach a boardwalk. It was a thrill to be so close to such a rare and beautiful bird.

Macquarie is the only place in the world they breed. As I approached the colony, the smell of ammonia almost overwhelmed me.

 There were already 2 people on the viewing platform but I still got a prime spot. The Royal Penguin is the largest of the crested penguins. They have bright yellow feathers sticking out of their head and a red eye and thick red bill.

The colony contained adults and chicks of various ages. Some of the chicks had yet to molt all their fluffy brown down.

There was a lot of squabbling and pecking going on. If a chick strayed from it's parent, he would get pecked by the other adults. There was a lot of head waving going on. I'm not sure what it means. Other birds were preening themselves or a mate

while others fed their chick by regurgitating into the chick hungry bill. We watched and photographed the colony for about an hour. We returned to the beach and through the Royal Penguin Gauntlet to other end of the beach where there was a large King Penguin colony.

It was great seeing them again after visiting them 5 years on South Georgia Island. They are such curios birds, approaching closely and checking out the green rope on the ground, the boundary we could not pass. There were brown woollies or chicks in the colony. Alas, it was time to go.  It has been an incredible day experiencing the magic of Macquarie.
We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc

Monday, January 28, 2013

Our Antarctic Expedition Begins

Ahoy Matees,
We arrived at Macquarie Wharf early to drop off our bags and to get our first look at our home for the next 3 weeks, the Orion.

The Orion was built in Germany in 2003 and can accommodate 106 guests.  Fortunately, she has an ice class hull and is stabilized for comfort.  Docked just in front of the Orion was a large Japanese vessel.  Although, the ship claims to be a Tokyo University of  Marine Science and Technology vessel, we all know that she is part of the Japanese Whaling fleet. The fleet plans to hunt up to 935 Antarctic minke whales and up to 50 fin whales through March.

I was hoping to get to see one of the Sea Shepard's ships but they left Hobart about a week ago.  The Sea Shepard's are a radical environmental group that harass the Japanese whaling fleet in an attempt to get them to stop whaling.  They have been successful in interrupting the Japanese hunt for whales.

Finally, it was time to board the Orion and we were greeted by our young French captain Vincent Talliard.

We left Hobart and Storm Bay under sunny skies and calm seas.

We settled into our cozy cabin on Deck 3 and familiarized ourselves with the ship.

The Orion is a floating hotel complete with a restaurant, 2 lounges, a gift shop, library, theater and exercise room. After a mandatory lifeboat drill it was time for dinner. I made it through the first two courses and started to feel green. I abruptly left our table and headed back to our cabin. It wasn't that rough, what a whimp I am! Marc gave me one of his scoplamine patches which worked wonders. The next morning I felt fine.

For two days we've been heading south toward the Sub-Antarctic island,  Macquarie.  Here is a map which depicts our route:

The green circles show the places we hope to visit.  Along the way there was nothing but gray ocean and a few seabirds such as this White-capped Albatross to keep us company.

We're now just off Macquarie Island and are anxious to visit this unique place but high winds and waves are making it impossible to land in the Zodiacs.  It is the only Sub-Antarctic island composed of ocean crust thrust up when the Australian and Pacific plates collided.   It's also home to hundred of thousands of penguins, including the endemic Royal Penguin and seals. They have made a dramatic recovery after being nearly wiped out by sealers in the late 19th century. Native plants such as Macquarie cabbage have been depleted by introduced animal such as rabbits, rats and mice. Fortunately, most of these invasive species have been eradicated and the natural vegetation is recovering. Before we could visit the island our clothing and equipment had to be inspected and vacuumed by the expedition team to make sure we weren't bringing any foreign seeds ashore.

The weather is forecasted to improve tomorrow so we are hopeful that we will be able to land on the island and experience the amazing wildlife.

We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Devils on the Brink & a Bonus Peak

Greetings All,
We visited the Devils@Cradle sanctuary to get a better understanding of the plight of the Tasmanian Devil. The species has been reduced by about 85% due to Devil Facial Tumor Disease (DFTD). The disease first showed up back in 1996, the first time were were in Tasmania. At that time, the Devils were common, abundant and secure. The eastern population has been hit hard by the disease which is an 100% fatal contagious cancer. One Devil can infect another and because the population is so inbred there is no immunity between individuals. Currently there is no treatment or vaccination for DFTD. The good news is that the disease has not spread to a large extent to the western population. Devils @Cradle is a conservation facility focusing on Tasmania's 3 carnivorous marsupials, the Tasmanian Devil, Eastern Quoll and Spotted-tail Quoll. Tasmanian Devils free of DFTD are bred here to create an "Insurance population". The sanctuary also does field monitoring studies and takes care of orphaned Devils. We got the opportunity to pet a Devil, take some great photos and watch the Devils being fed. We hope the sanctuary is successful in insuring the long-term survival of this truly unique animal.  Some of our favorite photos from the sanctuary follow.

 Keeper with resident Tasmanian devil
 Eastern Quoll (we did see once in the Park on a night drive)
Devils are fed shot Wallabies, not roadkill to prevent the spread of DFTD
Baby Spotted-tail Quoll

Tasmanian Devil

We were fortunate to get another great weather day and decided to hike up Hansons Peak. We started at the Dove Lake parking lot where the views of Cradle Mountain and Hansons Peak (the knob on the left) were spectacular.

The hike was straightforeward until you got near the top.  There was a steep rocky section to climb but the Park provided a chain to hang onto if needed.

We had the summit to oursevles to savor the views of Dove Lake and Lake Lilla beyond.

An unusual perspective of Cradle Mountain enhanced by blooming alpine vegetation is seen from the summit of Hansons Peak.

We returned to the car park by way of the Twisted Lakes and Lake Hanson.  Our second visit (the first being back in 1996) to Cradle Mountain was a real treat.  The weather cooperated and we were able to get in some amazing hikes.  This is truely an unique part of the World where the plants and animals have evolved in isolation for the last 10,000 years.  Some animals like the Tasmanian Devil and Eastern Quoll are only found on the island of Tasmania.  We were fortunate to get some great photos of some of Australia's unique animals.

  Bennett's Wallaby
Common Wombat
 Tasmanian Pandmelon with Joey
Baby Short-beaked Echidna
Brushtail Possum
If you're ever in Tasmania, drive slowly beween dawn and dusk.  Remember the life you save could be that of a Wallaby or a Wombat!
We hope all is well back home,
Peggy and Marc

Monday, January 21, 2013

Where Ferns are Trees and Rock the Cradle‏

Greetings All,
We have spent the last 3 days exploring Tasmania. We flew from Sydney to Hobart the capital of Tasmania. As we flew in we could see the devastation caused by the recent bushfires. Many homes were destroyed. Our sympathies go out to those effected by these devastating fires. We picked up our rental car and drove about 2 hours to Mt. Field National Park. We did a circuit hike around Russell Falls, Horseshoe falls, the Tall Trees and Lady Baron Falls. Russell Falls are a major scenic attraction and were once featured on an Australian postage stamp. At this time of year the falls were not that impressive but a pretty place nonetheless.
 The trail was lined with vibrantly green tree ferns
and towering Swamp Gum Trees. The Swamp Gum (Eucalyptus regnans) is the tallest flowering plant in the world. The tallest recorded in Tasmania was 98 meters or 322 feet tall. It's difficult to capture how tall these trees are. You'll have to use me for scale.
We returned to the Park after dark to check out some glowworms near Russell Falls. Like fireflies they emit light but not enough to capture in a photo. The nocturnal marsupials, Tasmanian Pandemelon or Rufus Wallaby and Brushtail Possums were about. A mom possum and her baby posed for a nice photo.
The next day we drove up to Lake Dobson to visit the alpine region of the Park. We hiked past Pandani and Snow Gum trees
to a stunning viewpoint of Lake Seal below.
Here is a map of the hiking trails in the Lake Dobson area:
Our next stop in Tasmania was Cradle Mountain National Park. We visited this park 16 years ago and tried to climb Cradle Mountain. We had to turn back due to bad weather. We drove to the park from Strahan arriving around 10:30. The weather this time around was glorious. Even though the hike is 7-8 hours we had to go for the summit on a day like this. Our objective loomed over Dove Lake beckoning us to climb it.
The first part of the hike was easy on good trails up to Marions lookout then crossing a plateau towards the summit.
The final climb to the summit involved some scrambling up some large boulders. After a few ups and downs we finally arrived at the summit, success after 16 years!
It was actually easier coming down as we could skooch down on our butts.
It was a steep climb back down to Dove Lake but the park was kind enough to provide a chain to hang onto.
We arrived back at the car at 7:30 to catch the last rays of sunshine on the peak.
It was the perfect end to a perfect hike!
Below is a map of our route.  We did the Cradle Mountain Summit hike shown in red.
We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc

Friday, January 18, 2013

G'day From Down Under‏

Greetings All,
We have arrived in Sydney, Australia, the start of our next adventure. We left home at noon on Wednesday, skirted Winter Storm Helen to get to Washington D.C. and bumped our way over the jet stream to arrive in L.A. We left L.A. at 10:15 PM west coast time and a mere thirteen and a half hours later arrived in Sydney. It's hot here. It was 72 degrees when we landed at 7:30 AM and has now reached 114 degrees, a new record high for Sydney! We're staying in the quaint Russell Hotel in downtown, not far from the Harbor Bridge and Sydney Opera House.

  Russell Hotel is on the left with the turret, Harbour Bridge is behind 

We walked across the Harbour Bridge and climbed up to the top of Pylon Viewpoint. We had great views of the Harbour, Opera House and the surrounding city of Sydney.

We saw some people in blue and gray jumpsuits climbing the bridge.

At first I thought they were workers but turns out you can pay to climb the bridge. We thought about it but, it was just to darn hot. The Sydney Harbour Bridge is the largest (not longest) steel arch bridge in the world. It took 6 years to build and opened in 1932.

We decided to visit the Opera House instead.

We took a tour which took us inside the large concert hall which seats almost 2700 people. Unfortunately, we couldn't take pictures. The building is an architectural and engineering marvel. It took 17 years to build at a cost of 102 million $AU! A bit over the original budget leading to the dismissal of Danish architect Jorn Utzon. He never did get to see the finished project but he did become involved about 5 years before his death with the upkeep of the Opera House. 

Tomorrow morning we are off to Hobart, Tasmania. We will explore this tiny island off the southeast coast of Australia before heading to Antarctica in about a week.
We hope all is well back home. Keep warm.

Peggy and Marc