Sunday, March 11, 2012

Ringside Seats

Early Friday morning I was en route from Oakland to Anchorage, over the Gulf of Alaska.

As luck would have it, that gave the two of us what were the best seats in the house for the aurora that followed last week's solar eruption.

Over the hour and a half or so before the descent into Anchorage we approached, then flew directly under, the most active area within probably 600 miles. It was such an alien sight that mere words, or at least any I am capable of writing, cannot possibly suffice.

From a distance, initially 500 miles, it looked like a curtain with a particularly bright fringe at the bottom. As we got closer, it became more like a a green waterfall going the wrong direction, with lots of waves and pulses. Ultimately, we flew right under it, where it seemed what being inside a flame must look like.

Without any sense of scale, distance is devilishly difficult to estimate. But, given a look angle of about 60 degrees, and the opposite side of the triangle being about 50 miles (disregarding our altitude of 6 miles), then the base of our personal aurora was roughly 20-30 miles away. The apparent motion against the background stars seemed consistent with that guesstimate.

It sure looked nearer, though.  At our closest approach, we could see field line details that, frustatingly, a camera couldn't possibly capture, and two thirds of the atmosphere couldn't get in the way of.    When I leaned over until my head hit the side window, I could see the streaks, torrents, and waves vaulting over the plane out into space.

And it was a show put on just for the two of us.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Once in a Lifetime

The reason for my trip to a Land Waaaaay Down Under is my mom: she has a bucket list, which includes Antarctica, and she wanted a go-along.

When this idea surfaced a couple years ago, I went right into soliloquy. "Self, if she is going to be shoveling large chunks of my inheritance into a big pile and setting fire to it, then I may as well be there to see it happen." Truth be told, there was no soliloquy. Changing pronouns appropriately, that is pretty much a direct quote of what she told me.

The trip started in Buenos Aires with a plenty long enough flight from Miami (made much less painful, though, by having an endless number of Simpsons episodes on tap) and two days hanging around there, then a day in Ushuaia, Argentina before embarking. Our tour was comprised of 100 people, 97 of whom could well have been doing contingency estate planning in case the Democrats get their way with death taxes. The tour was divided into four groups, each with a tour leader, and there were also five expedition leaders (each of which had some sort of suitable professional or academic background) who were in charge on shore.

Once on the ship, which, because it could hold only 170 people, looked like an itty-bitty cruise liner, it was two days of Victory at Sea conditions crossing the Drake Passage to the Antarctic Peninsula, five days of stopping at various spots and using Zodiac boats to get ashore, then two more days of pitching and heaving to get back.

Here are some pictures and videos.

Following are some observations, no matter how little their merit, have not benefitted in the least from more than a month's procrastination.

Buenos Aires

On meeting our group leader, starting with about the fourth word out of her mouth, we received a lengthy lecture on pickpockets and various other thieves, all of which boiled down to: anything you carry beyond the clothes on your backs and the shoes on your feet is subject to disappearance. Must have heard that same lecture about 15 times over two days. One of the people in our group was targeted, unsuccessfully.

Argentinians are an amalgam of, primarily, every ethnic background from Russia to Spain, with some Chinese and Japanese thrown in. This works extravagantly to the women's benefit, a fact of which they are perfectly aware, and about which they they are apparently obligated to ceaselessly and flamboyantly impress upon the other half of the race. I can't, off hand, recall a city where the women put their girls, never mind the rest of the festival of compound curves, on such prominent display. Viewed from my side of this power divide, it would have been possible, had I not been so distracted, to feel taunted, oppressed and in need of compensatory legislation.


Of the 100 people on the trip, 97 were retired and Antarctica-bent on redistributing at least some of their wealth from their children and the government to Greek shipowners, Philippine crew, polyglot guides and an American tour company: the cheapest fare was $10,000.

At a very spry 78, my mom was the oldest. At 56, I had expected to be the youngest, but was more than pipped at the post by a woman in her late 20s to early 30s working in IT who was taking along her late 40s aunt, and who was to all appearances completely unconcerned by the self-admitted prospect of looking forward to five years of paying for it all. That is some seriously advanced planning, sending up in smoke an inheritance that doesn't yet exist for children that haven't been born.

En route

The voyage started with a smooth evening transit of the narrowish Beagle Channel before turning south for two day crossing of the Drake Passage to the Antarctic Peninsula.

In some respects, my job is not unlike that of a ship's Captain. Standing watch while crossing oceans is, for the properly inclined, frequently meditative, and encourages siphoning off decent fractions of income with which to stuff e-readers. That, combined with my love of the sea (or at least the part of it I surfed on growing up in Southern California) had led me to think that a boat, 40-ish feet long with sails, would be quite the thing.

Not anymore. It was two days of 45 mph winds whipping up a cross sea that put our quarter-pint cruise ship into a combination of pitching and rolling that was not helped in the least by the persistent wind induced five degree port list. Adding to the fun, every random and not particularly infrequent once in awhile, the timing of the waves would be such that the ship would be coming down from a particularly vivid skyward leap, only to be met head on by an unusually pumped up wave. Whereupon the ship would promptly loose a third of its speed with an accompanying reverberating shudder that made me ponder how much faith I put in the belief that hardly any of the people who had designed and built this thing were alcoholics or had been unable to hack it in Legos.

For nearly everyone, though, it was a great weight loss plan. Either immediately, due to gastro-revolution, or more slowly through the now wholly unwelcome prospect of tucking into a meal, no matter how skillfully prepared.

So, while being an airline pilot and a ship's Capt have some superficial similarities, they are in at least two respects wildly different.

In an airliner, the slightest joggle and people are strapped to their seats, no matter how much they might wish to use the facilities. On a ship, we were left to careen all over the place. Some people used the thoughtfully provided bedbelts. For one person, that was a wise choice. Although, on second thought, perhaps not, since ending up pinned between mattress and hull seems rather less envious than simply being rolled onto the floor and leaving the rest of the bed behind.

And then there is speed. In an airplane, nothing lasts for very long.


The woman child's preferred term. Her charge to me was to get lots of baby pengie pics. At the risk of having NOW enforcers show up at my door bearing pastel truncheons to aid sensitivity training, it seems that doctrinaire feminism is up against rather more than male obstinacy. Based upon the reactions from my daughter's college suite mates that I overheard when I Skyped the first pengie pics her direction, young women haven't been noticeably separated from their maternal instincts.

Penguins are the starlings of the Antarctic. They are everywhere, in such conspicuous abundance as to be well outside the reach the warmenist parade of horribles.

The second thing you notice about them is their gathering into huge colonies, often, puzzlingly, much further from water than their comical gait would suggest.

The first thing is the smell. Even a nose of scarcely middling sensitivity will wrinkle at the whiff of penguin from a good 10 miles downwind. Whatever evolutionary reasons, no doubt good ones, underly their gathering in large, crowded groups, sanitation is not among them.

Actually, that is not quite fair. They excrete projectilely, with a lethal range of a good dozen feet, and are each quite assiduous about aiming away from their nest. Unfortunately, unless the nest is way out in pengie suburbia, widespread careful aiming ensures every bird is equally befouled. Sort of like carbon dating, it is fairly straightforward to judge how long a penguin has been sitting on a nest by counting the ordure streaks.

Capt Grumpy

On cruise ships, in addition to being god, the Captain has something of a PR role to play. Perhaps our Captain was preternaturally wary of pulling a Concordia (which should forever more by the term for running onto the rocks, either literally or metaphorically, while distracted by the extravagantly curved), and decided to keep a leash on it. Regardless of the reason, while he apparently gave the cruise line good value for their mariner dollar, by emitting piss-off rays he was rather letting down the side when it came to his public duties.

The crew complement was 70. The Capt was Danish, the First Mate appeared to be from northern European locale. All the rest were Philippine.

Things going bump in the night

Since our landings weren't too far apart, the ship often reached the next morning's destination by midnight, dropping the hook to hold position, since there were no docks to be had. The third night in, there happened to be quite few icebergs around.

At about 0200, there was a jarring clang. (It must be said that at that time of the morning, on a ship, putting "jarring" in front of clang verges on the repetitious.) Justifiably curious, I peered out the stateroom porthole just in time to see a berg slowly dragging by, scarcely three feet from my face.

A couple minutes later, the engines started, and the ship started to move. I'll bet Capt Grumpy was letting someone have it.

Stupid Pengies

Our last stop was Deception Island, the caldera of a volcano with just enough of a gap on one side to let ships in.

While we were being gawking tourists wandering a beach inside the crater, four penguins came walking by. Mystifyingly, they will waddle fair distances along the beach rather than resort to the water, where they are astonishingly graceful and fast. It is sort of like going to the store and deciding to take the pogo stick rather than a bicycle.

I happened upon a leopard seal, one of the penguins' primary predators, laying at the water's edge. Just a couple feet away there was a skua, a bird that is quite fond of dispatching with baby pengies, just sitting there. Neither was the least put off by a human wandering up. Nor were the strolling penguins, who stopped when they got to the seal and skua, then waddled right up to them.

Among the few creatures less mobile on land than a penguin is a leopard seal, and these birds were well beyond the max takeoff gross weight of a skua, so these pengies weren't in any peril. Clearly this was a case which, for both comic and revenge reasons, absolutely demanded these birds turn tail in unison, aim carefully, and let fly.

Especially since I had my camera ready. It would have been YouTube gold.

Stoopid pengies.

The Parade of Horribles

Since there was a great deal of killable time, particularly during the two days of getting pitched about crossing the Drake Passage, the expedition leaders would give lectures, typically three or four a day, until the bar opened at 4 pm, against which they couldn't possibly compete.

They were, in general, quite well done, and covered the relevant Antarctic topics quite well.

However, there was one exception. On the way back to the world as we know it, we were subjected to a lecture that we were assured was about catastrophic climate disruption. However, the lecture itself hadn't gotten the memo, as it was rife with references to global warming.

Regardless, it amounted to an hour long parade of the horribles, so rife with post hoc reasoning (receding glaciers), facially ridiculous evidence (extreme weather events), and heads-I-win-tails-you-lose arguments (advancing glaciers) as to make me wonder whether this particular expedition leader was, in fact, putting on a parody so convincing as to qualify as a gleicking.

On second thought, though, not. The religious among us are rarely blessed with self awareness when it comes to putting their beliefs on parade. By the end of it, my blood pressure had gone up a few points by being held captive as the parade went by. Thankfully, or perhaps providentially, though, I was in the midst of a day long attack of laryngitis, which prevented me from becoming One of Those People.

Make Work, Not Sense

The entire trip went exactly to plan; in particular, we were blessed with excellent weather by Antarctica standards. Except, perhaps, for a couple days of snow and rapidly forming sea ice. In high summer.

I would have been less puzzled if I had known that this oddity, for which global warming was perhaps not the best explanation, was actually yet another instance, since he was visiting the area about the same time we were there, of the Gore Effect.

Consequently, we got to the entrance of the Beagle channel at about 6 pm on the 10th, with four hours of sailing yet to go before reaching the dock at Ushuaia.

And then we dropped anchor. And waited.

And waited. And waited yet another 10 hours until a harbor pilot showed up to guide us the rest of the way.

Surprisingly, we mere passengers were allowed on the bridge. Being professionally interested in how ships do it, I had spent a fair amount of time up there, including our outbound passage, where I had seen, and wondered about, the pilot.

The Beagle Passage is confined, but not terribly so. And it isn't a straight shot, but it's far from convoluted. In fact, I rather got the impression that if the Captain was willing to take the bet that I could drive this thing from one end to the other, I'd take the money. For pete's sake, the thing is only going ten miles an hour, not much faster than a pogo stick.

On top of that, the ship had GPS—you might have heard about it—and a plotted course from point A to B. Pong would be a Mensa level challenge in comparison.

Why we needed a pilot for this when the Captain, grumpy though he may have been, had spent the previous week navigating much more treacherous channels was a mystery. Idling a ship for hours on end, as much time as it takes to get across the Pacific in an airplane, while waiting for said pilot to show up only added to the imponderosity.

I'm betting government is involved, somehow.

Penguins are endlessly entertaining. And the scenery, spared the erosive forces of rain and plants, is sufficiently alien to make it a little too easy to imagine having ended up, by sheer cosmic-level accident, on Titan. That feeling is only amplified by reflecting on how dead it all is: the entire continent with, penguins included, has less biological diversity than an acre of the Mojave Desert.

Having seen a pile of my inheritance go up in smoke, was it worth it?

Depends. If it was my money to spend, at my stage in life, absolutely not. However, for those who have been sufficiently [prudent | skillful | lucky] in life, at some point money becomes nothing more than numbers that will all too soon become completely worthless.

The other SWIPIAW occasionally reminds our kids that her fondest goal in life is to have the last check she writes bounce; that is the goal my mom should be pursuing.

I'm glad I got to help make it happen.