Monday, December 5, 2022

Antarctica: Incident B

The Drake Passage between South America and Antarctica is one of the most dangerous stretches of ocean in the world. Circumpolar winds and currents are unimpeded by land masses as they whorl around the bottom of the planet. The latitudes south of 50⁰ are known as the Furious Fifties. At the Drake Passage, all that force is squeezed through it's narrowest ocean channel. 

Our ship, the Viking Polaris, is brand new, 665 feet long (over two football fields) and has a class 6 icebreaking hull plus every modern safety feature. We sailed northward to deliver our broken leg patient to land and Usuaia, Argentina. As we went, the sea became very rough and the ship was rolling, pitching and rocking. By dinnertime, walking was difficult for regular people and nearly impossible for unsteady Dad. Occasionally a loud reverberating deep WHACK shook the whole ship as a larger wave pounded into the hull on the windward side.

We wobbled our way to our stateroom. I was happy that I wasn't feeling sick, like I'd been on the passage out. Still, it was so rough I put a barf bag by my bed and climbed in early, hoping to wake in smoother waters. The rolling was almost a spiral at times, making me light, then heavy in my bed and threatening to toss me out. Sailor's hammocks began to make sense. I widened my sleeping stance for stability and tried to doze. 

About half an hour later, 10:40, there was a huge juddering impact, the biggest WHACK of all whacks, and the whole ship jumped sideways. Our heavy little coffee table tipped over sideways with a crack. Our drinking glasses fell over on the desk. Loose things fell to the floor. Floor things shifted. My mattress skewed on the box spring. Things maybe cracked elsewhere in the ship. 

I sprang up and secured anything I could find. Put drinking glasses and vase in the trash can with a pillow. Shoved loose things into drawers. Righted the heavy table and moved it where it wouldn't crash through the floor-to-ceiling window. The ship slowed or stopped, but still rocked in wind and waves. About then there was an announcement on the intercom. "This is not a drill. Code Delta on deck two." 

Shit. I got dressed, ready to be ready, no idea what a Code Delta meant. Dad watched me bustle and dress, asked me about it, but didn't join in. Just too much effort, I guess. And for what? We didn't know. Were we going back to sleep, or about to abandon ship, into tiny boats in the raging waters? I got back in bed to rest up for whatever was ahead. 

Another announcement. Code Alpha. Waiting. Then announcements trickled in. Remain in place. The ship had been hit by a rogue wave. Stateroom windows had broken. The ship was still safe. Then a door to door roll call. Then onward, maybe slower, and later learned we had turned off-weather. 

I slept fitfully and when I roused it was morning and we were in the calmer waters of the Beagle Channel, an ocean fjord protected from the winds of the Furious Fifties. The sun was up. The day progressed. 

Details emerged. The general swell at the time was 20-22 feet, a man with sailing experience told me, and not a steady, even swell from a single direction, but a chaotic multi-direction swell he called "potato water". The wind was blowing at strong gale force, with gusts of hurricane strength. The rogue wave that hit the ship was estimated at 45-50 feet. The wave caved in at least six floor-to-ceiling windows on Deck 2. Interior walls shredded and torn out. Rooms, floors and carpets flooded. Some injuries. But no one washed away. 

Krista and Gary were asleep in bed on the windward side of Deck 2 when the wave exploded into their stateroom. Water, glass, deafening noise and grey darkness. The force of the water pushed their world into chaos. They were left soaking, cold and barely clothed amid  broken furnishings and the wreckage of the walls, the dark water and wind roaring outside. Gary could see into the next stateroom in one direction and into at least two more in the other. The door was blocked with debris. They shouted to each other, realizing they might be about to die.

Fairly quickly crewmembers were at the door, getting the debris cleared enough that they could wriggle out. Nothing but minor scrapes. But all their belongings were "gone". No one's quite sure what washed away and what was merely inaccessible, as crew sealed the damaged zone and no one was going in, for safety reasons and until an investigation is complete. Oddly, Glenn's phone--in a waterproof case--was found floating in the hallway.

Jeff and Susan were in bed. She was asleep and he was watching TV when the water pounded in. Their bed swept upward. Walls tilted sideways. Everything shifted. In the gloom and roar, everything settled in a wet, unruly heap. Jeff was still on the bed, and had to pull out a broken shaft to use as a prop to keep more debris from falling on them. The bed continued to shift and it took long moments to realize it was a man pushing from below, still on his own bed, which had somehow slid beneath theirs from an adjoining stateroom. 

Again, crewmembers arrived fairly quickly and were able to extract all three of them. Jeff remembers telling a crewmember not to pull out the prop, lest it all collapse on them. Susan remembered nothing until she awakened in the medical center. Later, he had a forehead gash stitched up and several impressive lumps on his balding head. She wore a gauze wrap around her forehead and over her grey hair for the rest of the trip.

Naked people were dried and given clothes. Alternate accommodations were found. One couple were given shoes, but others only socks. Fellow passengers shared sweaters and sundries with those affected. A Scottish couple were handed a bag of salvageable items from their room, a mostly empty grocery size bag, which they later said contained nothing important. They were also promised shoes that night, but still had none later the next day. So the Viking response was somewhat scattered. 

Passports, wallets, papers, cameras, phones and computers were missing of course, these important touchpoints of travel; whether salvageable or not remains unknown. There hasn't been a report of how many people were affected. Some were not in their rooms but still lost possessions. Others were out of the immediate zone, but were affected by water damage. 

The ship limped to port in Ushuaia. Those in need of medical help were removed from the ship, including the woman whose broken leg had caused our early return. It was announced that the ship was too damaged to be able to carry out our alternate fjord cruise. Two mornings later the captain announced that a passenger had died as a result of the wave incident. We held a minute of silence. 

For the rest, just details. I can only imagine the logistics of official inquiries, company inquiries, insurance, national and international issues, maritime reports, plus the challenge of getting nearly 400 passengers and much of the crew returned at sudden notice from Ushuaia, which is still a relatively remote area. And all our hotels changed. Buses arranged, etcetera. Egad.

Most of us are keeping our original flights home. Viking has been keeping us housed and entertained in the meantime. I'll write about all that later, I guess. 

For now, know that the Antarctica trip my dad and I had hoped for did not go as planned. But you may have already heard that on the news.

Antarctica: Incident A

I accepted Dad's invite for this adventure in what I like to think is the True Spirit of Adventure: Ya never know how things will turn out. 

Antarctica is not to be trifled* with. It is the world's most remote continent, separated from the rest by unforgiving waters. It's also the coldest, windiest, most icy and driest, least vegetated, and least populated continent. It does not welcome. It radiates a frozen and benign inhospitability. If something goes wrong, help is not on the way. 

Nevertheless, one can sign up for a luxury Expedition Cruise to Antarctica. (Or, one's father, willing to expend a healthy portion of his life's labor to check another box on his bucket list, might invite one to accompany him on this cruise.) This cruise will coddle one's refined (or even unrefined) sensibilities with leather, wood and stone in elegant Scandinavian style. This cruise will appease any palate with an overwhelming array of extraordinary food. This cruise will spoil with friendly and obsequious staff members at every turn and for the slightest of needs. And maybe, almost incidentally, it will offer a chance to see and explore the waters, snow, ice and wildlife of Antarctica.

There was no telling if we'd even MAKE it to the ship, much less Antarctica, what with Dad's delicacy, pandemics, falling off bikes, etc. But we did make it. By air to Ushuaia, Argentina and onto the ship. Across the ragged waves of the Drake Passage (I barfed). Then into a Zodiac to motor to a landing. Then the ice, snow and penguins of Antarctica! And safely back to the ship, as the weather changed, the wind and swell picked up. An amazing experience! We were primed for more of the same over the coming days. 

But while we were standing on the ice, nearby events were re-shaping our future.

Tom, a trim and raptorish runner and triathlete we'd met earlier, was on a zodiak on the other side of Damoy Point, heading out to board the waiting submarine for an underwater tour and scientific survey. They arrived, but were told the submarine crew needed ten more minutes to prepare, so the zodiak pilot started taking them for a close pass of the penguin colony while they waited. 

As they were motoring along, there was an explosion from the right front of the boat. Not a firey explosion, but some kind of explosion. The woman sitting closest was launched four feet into the air and came down hard in the boat. Meanwhile, a man toward the back was knocked backward and fell over the side into the Antarctic waters. He managed to hang onto the rope. Tom jumped to hang onto him until the pilot got the boat stopped and they both got him pulled back in. The man somehow managed to hang onto his camera, too. 

With that immediate excitement over, and with safety boats swarming toward them, their attention turned to the woman, who was saying her leg was hurt and she was in pain. Help arrived and found her leg was broken, either from the explosion itself, or the hard fall. Despite no visible damage to her clothing or visible bleeding, medical assessment later found she'd suffered a compound fracture with bleeding, at least one broken lower leg bone and a shattered ankle. 

While she was still being evacuated to the ship, we were enjoying our relatively blissful side of Damoy Point. But the calm weather was changing quickly. The wind was picking up and snow was starting to fall. Our landing crew hurried us back toward the waters edge before our alloted time. We loaded up and pilot Laurie gave us a slow spin past the penguins, then motored us across the now wind blown chop, cold salt water dousing our faces and our expedition coats, pants and boots. We arrived wet and safe, crawling out of the zodiak and back into the warm ship.

That evening there was a meeting for everyone in the Aula, the ampitheatre at the back of the ship. The captain announced that we had started the two day crossing back across the ragged waters of The Drake Passage. The ship did not have the resources to care for the woman. We were over 700 miles from the nearest continent with a hospital, and alternate evacuation plans were either laughably impractical or frighteningly risky to the patient and the whole ship. We were headed back to Ushuaia. Our Antarctic adventure was over. 

There was much grousing among the crowd. We were all disappointed. Those who hadn't made a landing were understandably extra disappointed. But so were those who had expected their money to shield them from these kinds of inconveniences. Later, there was an announcement that our money would be returned, which cooled the overall steam in the ship.

We were still sailing back northward over increasingly rough waters, when it was announced that we would spend the balance of our time touring the fjords of Southern Chile. This was a spectacular alternative, and most of us settled into our revised itinerary, willing to make the best of unusual circumstances. None of us knew that further unusual circumstances would once again reshape our future.

Stay tuned.


Sunday, March 10, 2019

Counting Down

This is not a Western Screech Owl.

As we count down anxiously to DerOwl Hannah's scheduled (ha!) 2019 ETA, which should be around March 18 or 19, it actually looks like we may not have owls this year. We know they're both still in their non-nesting boxes, Boyle one block south and DH one block west - we saw both of them a few nights ago - but they haven't been checking in at the box regularly like they did last year. 

The last time they had a nest box-proximate conversation was January 4. One of them sat in the box calling for 2 1/2 minutes, then left and alit in the nearby trees where both of them hooted back and forth for a few more minutes:

One owl briefly checked in on January 15, and then in early February a flicker moved in. It occupied the box for most of the month, removing pine shavings every day and sleeping in it every night. 

There were no owl check-ins caught on video during those weeks. It's possible they did check in, but the camera missed it, or they may have observed that the flicker was there and stayed away.  The flicker left on Feb 24, and then one of the owls entered the box for the first time in 8-ish weeks on Feb 27. Eight weeks! That's not normal. By then, most of the 1800 thread count pine shavings had been removed, which the owl certainly seemed to notice:

And they haven't been back since.

Last March, they were checking in at the box every night up until the night DH moved in and laid her first egg.

The official word from the Audubon folks is that if a pair has a successful brood in a nest box, they are very likely to reuse it the following year. They've now had success in this box for two years running. Have they not checked in because using this box for nesting is a foregone conclusion and they therefore don't need to have any discussions about it?
Did the flicker scare them away? Is a flicker big/aggressive enough to displace a WSO? There is video evidence, from someone else's nest box cam, suggesting that a WSO can readily fend off a flicker/woodpecker:

Back to our box: the flicker left, yes, but was it too late? Were the owls already put off? Did they decide on another box while the flicker was in this one? I do plan to replace the pine shavings, but since the flicker left, a starling has been in the box, and it too is hell-bent on getting every last lovely pine shaving out-out-out, so I'm waiting until closer to DH's scheduled arrival date to replace them, which will give the starling less time to spit them all out yet again.

I've mentioned before that there have been infrequent sightings of a Great Horned Owl in the neighborhood. It has become frequent. The GHO has been making a very regular appearance, even sitting in the trees right above the nest box here and right above the box that DH sleeps in one block away. That, too, could be a deterrent. There are so many questions at this point, and all we can do is wait and hope.

Evening Owl Prowl

DerOwl Hannah

Our evening routine changes once the owlets aren't in a contained space. To find them each evening we have to go prowling, tip-toe-ing around the neighborhood at dusk, listening (through all the shockingly loud urban sounds we normally don't notice quite so much) for the hoots of the parents and the raspy chirps of the owlets. Initially, the family stays within a block of the nest box for hunting lessons. Utility lines are especially useful perches as they run the lengths of the alleys, providing a view down into the back yards where the good bug stashes are. Many evenings that is where we find all seven owls lined up, diving one at a time into a yard and swooping back up to the line with a morsel. At this point, the parents are both feeding the owlets and teaching them to hunt for themselves. They gradually venture further and further from home base and it becomes harder to find and follow them. 

During these three weeks, our most important nightly quest is to find them in order to see if all of them are still alive. Every night poses countless threats, especially since they do most of their hunting on the ground, nabbing bugs from lawns and gardens, where their chances of being killed by a domestic cat are enormous. Amazingly, last year's entire brood survived until their departure date, which is when the parents determine that the owlets are ready to be on their own and take them away to go find their own territory. This year, by the end of that crucial three weeks, one owlet had been killed, and the parents took only four owlets away to start their own lives. Only one owlet lost, though, can be counted as a success!

About ten days after the whole family suddenly departs,* we'll notice that one of the adults has returned alone, and then ten days or so after that, we'll hear the two of them reuniting, doing the fast-paced mating call once they've located each other. They also make one final return visit to the nest box and have a conversation in it before vacating the nest box for the season and moving into their summer-fall-winter homes, Boyle in a box one block south of here and DerOwl Hannah in a box one block west of here. They don't sleep in the same box, but they do find each other every evening and head out together to hunt. 

Thus endeth the 2018 owl saga, and we can now fill in some of the blanks in their schedule:


pre Nest cam
with Nest cam
DH moves into nestbox
BY Mar 19
Mar 18
lays egg #1
Mar 19
lays egg #2
Mar 22
lays egg #3
Mar 24
lays egg #4
Mar 27

DH starts incubating
Mar 29
lays egg #5
DH gets restless
Apr 17
audible chirping from inside eggs
Apr 23
hatch #1
Apr 24
2 by early am
2 more by 8pm
Apr 26
DH moves out of nest
May 15

owlet appears in hole
May 12
not noted
May 24
May 25
oldest 4
May 25
May 26
parents depart with owlets
June 14
June 16 
one parent & 3 owlets

June 18
one parent and last owlet
Boyle returns (one owl in box)
June 24
June 30
DH returns (both owls in box)
July 13
July 11


*In 2017, the whole family departed on the same night. This year, one parent departed with 3 owlets on June 16 and one parent stayed behind an extra day with a straggler who must not have been ready to leave yet.