Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Penguin Parties at the Tennessee Aquarium

 Ever bump flippers with a penguin? This little guy above got a big kick out of giving our gentoo penguin character a high five to start the day. Families are having a ball at the Tennessee Aquarium during our daily "Party with the Penguins" events. Now through January 8th, you can meet one of our costumed characters, learn more about gentoo and macaroni penguins and then tap your toes at the IMAX 3D Theater when "Happy Feet Two" hits the giant six-story screen.
 Shivers, the Aquarium's youngest gentoo shown above, seems to think the giant penguin looks like her.
 Kids can make flipper bands to match "Shivers," or their favorite penguin, and make some penguin feet to wear around the Aquarium.

Inside the penguin gallery, keepers have some special enrichment activities planned for the birds that our guests will enjoy seeing. When senior aviculturist Amy Graves asked visitors, "What is enrichment?" A little girl answered quickly, "Toys!" Amy explained that while that's correct, enrichment activities are not just toys for the animals. Enrichment includes visual, tactile (touch) or tasty activities. "We try to offer the penguins a variety of fun things that help stimulate the penguins mentally and physically," said Graves. "This could be offering them the choice to play with extra ice brought into the exhibit, which Nipper loves. Today he was trying to build a nest out of ice cubes. Or, it could be blowing bubbles."
 Blowing bubbles? You bet! In the image above, Amanda Pippen keeps a steady stream of bubbles floating through the exhibit while Graves explains the activity to visitors. "Pepper is all about the bubbles today," Graves said. "She loves hopping around and popping bubbles with her beak. And she even went straight to Amanda to pop the first bubbles to appear." Graves explained that anything breaking up the day for the birds is fun and exciting. "Even if they don't chase the bubbles like Pepper, many of the birds seem to enjoy watching them."
 Shivers, seen above, was one of the penguins that seemed to enjoy watching the bubbles. Graves said like puppy dogs, not all penguins choose to play "fetch." While Pepper was more active and engaged, Shivers chose to watch and enjoy.
While bubbles might not be a big hit with all of the penguins, there is one enrichment activity they ALL love - chasing smelt. "Smelt is their all-time favorite food, so we broadcast or toss the fish into the water," said Graves. "The birds dive in and swim fast for their favorite fish, simulating how they would feast in the wild. It's a great opportunity for guests to see how the penguins use their flippers and feet to quickly change directions to chase down a tasty treat."

See how macaws and otters enjoy special holiday enrichment items:

Enjoy all of the Penguin Party fun at the Aquarium offered each day at 10 am through January 8th, then head next door to see Happy Feet Two at IMAX.

You'll have plenty of time to enjoy both Aquarium buildings and the movie with your combo tickets.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Setting foot on the Antarctic Continent

Friday, December 16th, 2011
We awoke this morning to another rainy day. Expedition leader Larry Hobbs, who has been coming to Antarctica for more than 25 years, has never seen two consecutive days of rainy weather in Antarctica before. “It’s another sign of how rapidly things are changing in this part of the world,” Hobbs said.

In spite of the light showers, we had a wonderful time at our first stop in Neko Harbor. When you are dressed properly, the weather is taken out of the equation. We were welcomed ashore as we set foot on the Antarctic Continent for the first time. (All of our other landings were on islands to this point.) For some passengers, this was the milestone “Seventh Continent.” Others were able to say they had gotten the most difficult journey out of the way first, hoping to eventually travel to the remaining continents on their life lists.

Another gentoo rookery is located at this landing site and we enjoyed the antics of these birds from several different vantage points. Some birds were incubating eggs and aggressively defending their nests from rock-stealing neighbors while others were busy keeping an eye out for marauding skuas. It was especially fun to watch the penguins at this location bathing in the clear waters near the shoreline. They would clean their feathers and splash around before zooming away underwater for their morning meal of krill.

Several huge, blue blocks of ice across the harbor appeared as if they break loose at any time. Our guides asked us to stay away from the beachfront in case that happened. If it would have, a sizable tidal wave would have been generated that could have had bad consequences. So when a large cracking sound was heard, virtually everyone looked across the harbor. Higher up, a pretty big piece of snow and ice was cascading down the jagged mountain face. From a distance it didn’t look like much, but I’m almost certain that tons of snow and ice were involved in that small avalanche. I got video of that crash and one that followed about a half hour later.
Off in the distance some porpoising gentoos caught my eye. They were zigzagging in an attempt to escape a leopard seal. The action was moving a bit to rapidly to capture on camera, but it was interesting to watch. It’s a little too early for leopard seals to be hunting penguins. They have better luck a bit later in the breeding season when juvenile penguins are learning to swim.

Later in the morning we set sail for Paradise Bay, a short cut the captain was hoping to use was blocked by a huge tabular ice berg and the entrance to the passage appeared to be choked with ice. So we took “the scenic route.” Whenever the sun would break through the clouds, you were treated to truly unimaginable sights. (You begin to run out of superlatives for Antarctica pretty quickly.)
We spent more than one hour slowly easing up on tabular ice bergs, getting close to sea birds and slipping through the so called “grease ice” that was forming in the bay. Even though we didn’t get to shore one last time, this excursion felt like we were traveling inside a giant snow globe that had just been shaken vigorously and set down to be admired.
Every evening we enjoy an expedition recap, learning more about what we had experienced and what the next day would bring. During this evening’s recap, the captain took the stage to give us a weather briefing. He was able to make us all laugh about the challenges we were about to face as we re-enter the Drake Passage. The weather system that had been responsible for our wet and snowy conditions today was passing by us to the North. We were going to experience some rough seas as we ventured out into open water.
After the briefing adjourned, everyone headed to their rooms to lash things down before taking the captain’s advice and eating a quick meal. Shortly after dinner the winds started raging, peaking at 74 knots – the lower threshold for hurricane force winds. The seas were pretty choppy as we watched the waves breaking over the bow. Occasionally the spray would cover the windows of our perch inside the observation lounge on the 6th deck.
We had two days of “Lake Drake” on the way to Antarctica, now we got a few hours of what it’s normally like in the Southern Ocean. And a couple of the boat’s crew members said this storm paled in comparison to what they have seen before. I spent some time videotaping the action without experiencing seasickness, so I suppose I have officially earned my sea legs.
Tomorrow’s weather is expected to be more calm. We have a few more adventures on board before packing our bags for port and the lengthy flights back home.

Gentoo-Fest in Antarctica!

Sometimes Internet connectivity is touch and go when you are trying to send something from the southern most continent on Earth.  These are blogs from Wednesday and Thursday of last week.  More to come soon!
Wednesday, December 14th, 2011
We are greeted early each morning by the voice of expedition leader Larry Hobbs over the ship’s public address system saying, “Good morning everyone, it’s another beautiful day in Antarctica!” Not only was the day beautiful, we marked the 100th Anniversary of the Roald Amundsen Party reaching the South Pole today.
 Our group geared up early for a Zodiac tour of the bay around Enterprise Island. According to the expedition notes, the island got its name to commemorate the “enterprising success” of whalers operating in the area. This location was a major center of the industry from 1916 to 1930. One of the vessels operating in the waters around Enterprise Island was the whaling ship, “Gouvernoren” that caught fire and sunk around 1915. Today that ship is great habitat for nesting Antarctic terns. We were afforded many great birding opportunities including a few Chinstrap penguins.
Enterprise Island Gouvernoren wreck

Antarctic Tern

Chinstrap penguins
After a chance to recharge our batteries, both literally and figuratively, we headed out again at Cuverville Island – home to thousands of breeding pairs of gentoo penguins. These guys are every bit as entertaining to observe as the gentoos at the Tennessee Aquarium. Two noticeable differences: Many of the gentoos on Cuverville are covered in filth. The nesting sites are pretty muddy, but the birds seem quite content when they are not defending their nests from egg-stealing skuas. Several were seen flying off with stolen eggs to a raucous cacophony  of calling by upset gentoos. Rocks were being carried around by many of the penguins and I even saw a few carrying small sticks, bits of moss and a few small blades of grass.
Gentoo Rookery- Cuverville Island

Gentoo penguins!
The snow was slushy as we hiked up the rugged hillside above the main rookery. We had fun sliding down the hill, but apparently the penguins prefer walking downhill rather than tobogganing down the slopes on their bellies.
Thursday, December 15th, 2011
Visiting Palmer Long Term Ecological Research Station
There was a patter of raindrops on my cabin window this morning. Through the light showers, I could see the Palmer Long Term Ecological Research Station across Arthur Harbor from Le Boreal. Rain in Antarctica – yet another face of the “White Continent” we are seeing at the bottom of the Earth. Rainfall is becoming more and more common in this part of the Antarctic Peninsula. And it is one of the many things scientists are studying at Palmer Station.
We began our day with a Zodiac tour of the harbor, cruising through “brash ice” before spotting southern elephant seals, one of the six species of seals that live in the southern ocean. These guys are giants, sometimes reaching five tons in weight. Most of the elephant seals we saw this morning were juveniles, lacking the trunk-like noses of the mature males. These elephant seals were molting, or replacing their fur. They are amazing animals to observe, even though they don’t move much once on land.  In spite of their size, most elephant seals are rather shy and docile.
Elephant Seals
Did you know that a 10,000 pound elephant seal is not the largest Antarctic animal? If not, what is?
Senior educator Julia Gregory and the kids who are part of The Tennessee Aquarium’s Bug Club: will be interested to know the answer.
It’s a trick question, because the answer is an insect called the wingless midge, which grows to a whopping three millimeters in length. This insect lives its entire life cycle on land, so it can be considered Antarctica’s largest animal. Entomologists have been coming to Palmer Research Station to study these amazingly hearty larvae for quite awhile now. They want to better understand how these creatures can survive being frozen, almost completely dehydrated and how they can be deprived of oxygen for long periods of time without perishing.
We also saw an Adelie penguin colony along with a few chinstraps and some gentoos. Researchers at Palmer Station have been tracking a rather rapid decline in the Adelie populations in the past several years. This is caused partially by the rainy weather that occurs as eggs are being incubated or when the chicks begin to emerge. Ideally the eggs and young would experience cold and mainly dry weather, but warmer and wetter conditions have been happening with more frequency. Gentoos are also moving farther south into the Antarctic Peninsula.
Everyone aboard this Abercrombie & Kent expedition had a portion of their cruise cost set aside to purchase a piece of scientific equipment for the researchers at Palmer. This year’s gift was handed over to them aboard Le Boreal.
It was an international affair, as Dr. McClintock invited one passenger from each of the twelve nations aboard this cruise, to join him on stage to present this new tool to the scientists.
Tour of Palmer Research Station
We toured the research station, including their Aquarium. Unfortunately, the researchers that will be collecting and studying sea creatures will not arrive until sometime in January so we were not able to get up close and personal to ice fish or sea stars. The staff met us for brownies and coffee at the end of the tour and answered all of our questions before we returned to our floating home away from home.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Our weather luck runs out – Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Last night a lenticular cloud was spotted from the stern of our ship. Lenticulars are special types of clouds produced as a standing wave as strong winds aloft move over mountain areas. Usually some bad weather can be expected within 24 hours.

So before bed, I enjoyed another Midnight sunset and caught another pack of Adelies heading off on their own private little iceberg.

Both landings were cancelled today. Apparently, our weather luck ran out on December 13th. The winds were tropical storm force, sustained between 38 and 54 miles per hour. Occasionally it would snow, so technically we were in a full-blown Antarctic blizzard. By the time we reached Neptune’s Bellows at Deception Island, it was too dicey to attempt taking Le Boreal through the narrow (and shallow) entrance into the caldera of this volcanic island. As a result, we weren’t able to make our polar plunge. (A swim had been planned at Deception for those willing to brave the water.)

During the evening we had a pleasant conversation with the Captain of Le Boreal. Marty Tuck, who is part of the Aquarium group, told us about his Grandmother who survived the sinking of the Titanic. She was eight years old at the time and remembered her experience very vividly. On the date that oceanographer Bob Ballard found the wreckage, he called all of the survivors before making the announcement to the media. Marty said his grandmother never spoke much about the experience, except for a few radio shows on a Detroit radio station that would invite Ballard on the air at the same time. (As a side note, Ballard will be at the Tennessee Aquarium in February as part of our NOAA supported Blue Planet speaker series. )
The Captain shared his story of dealing with pirates off the coast of Somalia in 2008. He was able to keep his cool with machine gun toting men who at times argued amongst themselves. His bravery stalled any violence to his crew and kept the pirates from escaping before they were rescued by the French Navy.
We saw the many weather faces of Antarctica today, from storm-tossed seas to a tranquil Midnight sunset. We’re wondering what tomorrow will bring on the 100th anniversary of the South Pole being reached.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

12/12/11- A very rare opportunity – Emperor Penguins!

We had another incredible day today. Yesterday another ship had reported an opening in the pack ice in the Weddell Sea southeast of Le Boreal’s position, so the crew decided to take advantage of the opportunity and drop “plan A” in favor of the rare opportunity to explore the edge of the pack ice.
When we awoke, we were surrounded by a breathtaking scene. Pure white snow and blue-green ice spread out in all directions beneath a cobalt-blue sky. Even from the ship, we could see rather tall looking figures on the ice. They were Emperor penguins!
Expedition party on the edge of the pack ice

Many people know of Emperors from watching “March of the Penguins,” and understand the harsh conditions they endure during the winter night. We were fortunate to have Dr. Patricia Silva in our Zodiac as we approached the edge of the ice. She explained that there are about 200,000 breeding pairs distributed throughout nearly one dozen far-flung sites in Antarctica. All but two of these locations are located on the fast ice. Dr. Silva says these birds are in the process of fattening up, which is a bit hard to believe since the Emperors we saw were huge, but some can even larger reaching nearly 100 pounds. This feeding mode lasts until the breeding cycle begins in late March or early April, which is the beginning of winter around here.
Emporer penguin on pack ice

Emporer penguin with Adelie penguin in background

These fellows are massive birds standing more than three feet tall, making them the largest members of all 17 penguin species alive today.  Some can tip the scales at around 100 pounds. Their stature combined with colorful plumage makes watching them a fun and exciting experience. I don’t think anyone thought we’d have a chance to see these beautiful animals.
While Emperors are the largest species of penguins on Earth today, there have been even bigger penguins in the past. 
When paleontologist Dr. Julia Clarke was in Chattanooga a few years ago to help us launch “Dinosaurs Alive 3D” at the Tennessee Aquarium IMAX 3D Theater, she told me about her discoveries in South America.
Inkayacu paracasensis, was a species of penguin that grew to enormous proportions. Fossil records show that these birds were twice the size of Emperor penguins, reaching nearly six feet in height. Imagine seeing a colony of human-sized penguins! Aside from their shape and giant beaks, you might not have recognized these guys. They weren’t black and white. If you want to know more, here are three interesting links to explore:
New York Times: “Extinct Penguin Wore Earth Tones, Fossil Shows”: “Penguin ancestors didn’t wear black and white”
And an interview with Dr. Julia Clarke:
Landing party on Paulet Island
From the Weddell Sea’s pack ice, we journeyed back northward toward Paulet Island. This extinct volcano is the home to more than 100,000 breeding pairs of Adelie penguins. As you might imagine, a colony that large produces a rather strong aroma and we could smell the island from across the channel aboard Le Boreal. It was a truly amazing experience to be surrounded by so many penguins. Many already had chicks while others were incubating their eggs and keeping petrels and skuas away from their nests. Like the Aquarium’s gentoos and macaronis, the Adelies of Paulet Island use rocks for nesting material. So it was very fun to watch them carrying rocks around the island. It was especially fun to watch these penguins popping in and out of the water. The sounds of courtship calls, squabbles and gentle honks was thrilling.
Adelie penguins on pack ice
There is also the remains of an old hut on the island which is the historic site of Dr. Otto Nordenskjold’s 1901-1904 Swedish Antarctic Expedition.  This party added to the knowledge of Antarctica by collecting fossils while overwintering on nearby Snow Hill Island. Their story of survival and rescue on Paulet Island is simply amazing. Bob Burton, the Antarctic historian on board re-told this story on camera for me. I’ll try to post it online at a later date after returning home.
Today the Adelies have taken over the hut and I was able to capture some nice footage of one Adelie feeding a chick.
This morning, Tuesday December 13th, the weather turned a bit fowl. We had planned to hike up to a chinstrap penguin rookery on Half Moon Island, but with 30 knot sustained winds and 40 to 50 knot gusts at the landing site, this landing was cancelled. (Maybe the date has something to do with our weather luck running out.) The A&K crew braved the elements to investigate the site, getting thoroughly soaked in the process going both directions. So we are now heading to Deception Island, another volcano that has been active in the relatively recent past. If the weather is not too rough, Le Boreal will navigate “Neptune’s Bellows,” the narrow entrance to the flooded caldera of the original volcano where winds blow in and out.

Crabeater seal napping on pack ice

Whales, Wows and Wonders

The expedition got off to a big start when the captain of Le Boreal announced sighting humpback whales off the port side of the bow. We all grabbed our camera gear and headed forward. This was the first of several humpback whale pods we saw before finally leaving the Drake Passage.

Someone spotted some Adelie penguins porpoising near a small iceberg fragment. When I pointed my camera towards the blue piece of ice, it became obvious that the birds were fleeing an awesome predator – the leopard seal. It might be hard to estimate this particular animal’s total size based on this image, but these seals can reach 11 feet in length and weigh more than 1,100 pounds according to A&K marine biologist Charley Wheatley.

More whales brought us back to the ship’s bow later in the morning. I have never seen so many whales in one place. At one point there were three humpbacks swimming along side by side. Later a pair appeared right below us on the starboard side of the bow.
Right after breakfast, the first iceberg of the trip was sighted by an eight year old boy from Birmingham, Alabama. We were heading into what is known as “iceberg alley.” This shot illustrates how monstrously huge these blocks of ice truly are. (Especially when you consider two thirds of the iceberg is below the waterline.) These flat-topped icebergs are called tabular icebergs. These form when uniform layers of ice are laid down over long periods of time, and are unleashed when ice sheets break up. Fractures on ice sheets and glaciers are being watched by climate scientists very closely.

NASA’s Operation IceBridge recently discovered a major crack in the Pine Island Glacier which is located in western Antarctica. This crack is nearly 20 miles long and more than 150 feet deep. NASA researchers say the last time the Pine Island Glacier cut loose a significant iceberg was in 2001. View the “Watching the birth of an iceberg” video on the NASA Operation IceBridge website here:
After lunch, we enjoyed a nice presentation about all 17 species of penguins. The A&K staff produces “enrichment” programs for the passengers of Le Boreal covering all aspects of Antarctic exploration; wildlife, geology, history and climate science. All directly relate to what we are going to be seeing in the next 24 hours.
Immediately after exiting the on board theater, naturalist and Zodiac driver Russ Manning was greeting people at the top of the stairs to direct people outside for our first amazing glimpses of Antarctica. The brightly lit frozen landscape was simply stunning. Until this very moment we had been traveling. Now the expedition could begin.

Tomorrow we will explore the edge of the pack ice in an area that the crew very rarely has a chance to see. We don’t know what we’ll find, or how many landings we will be able to make. But rest assured, it will be an adventure.
We stayed up late hoping to capture some “Alpine-Glow” shots of the majestic mountains and icebergs. Cloud cover prevented that, so we took penguin cocktail party pictures instead.

Every low-topped chunk of ice passing by the ship was examined for penguins. If any were hitching a ride, we would head out into the cold to capture shots of these guys floating along. All were Adelie penguins who had chosen the safety of relatively large pieces of ice to rest comfortably without fear of being eaten by leopard seals or orcas. In their “little tuxedos,” it appeared like they had simply gathered for a cocktail party aboard a ship.

Monday, December 12, 2011

A weekend of birding in the Drake Passage!

Friday morning began early as we flew from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia adding roughly 1,000 miles to our southward progress. From the air, Tierra Del Fuego looks rugged and untamed with snow-capped mountains and a remarkable view of South America tapering to a point.
We were given a tour of Ushuaia and the southernmost end of Patagonia. On one side of the Beagle Channel you have views of jagged Argentine mountains and the city. The equally impressive mountains of Chile are directly opposite.

One of the highlights of the day was touring the Ushuaia Jail and Military Prison. Think of a cross between “Papillion” and “Alcatraz” and you get the picture. This prison was built by the prisoners who were brought to Ushuaia as “colonists.” There were also wings dedicated to Antarctic Exploration, Tierra Del Fuego’s maritime history and some exhibits related to penguins and other Antarctic critters.
I should mention that the weather was unreal for Ushuaia. Our naturalist said that temperatures near 70 with almost a full day of sun are very rare. We enjoyed these conditions along with the residents who were preparing to spend their holiday weekend outdoors with family hiking, fishing and camping. Our naturalist added, “They will also be participating in the national sport of bar-b-que.”
After boarding our ship, Le Boreal, the cruise got underway by late afternoon. The Abercrombie & Kent (A&K) introduced themselves at a special presentation in the ship’s theater. We are in great hands with a staff that collectively has more than 180 years of Antarctic experience. These experts, from fields ranging from ornithology to geology, will make sure we get the most out of our visit. Our first good tip was to watch for Megellanic penguins on a couple of islands in the Beagle Channel. These birds were spotted from a distance, standing on shore with one or two gentoos.
The boat became quiet rather quickly after watching the full moon rising over the Channel. Almost everyone was pretty exhausted after the first few lengthy, but fun days.
This morning there’s no land in sight and so far the famous Drake Passage is treating us well. We’re heading southeast at 14 knots in light seas. The sky is mostly cloudy and it’s now down to 45 degrees with a 10 mph wind. The t-shirts will be covered with several layers as we continue cruising toward Antarctica.
Saturday, December 10th - Everyone has said that the sea conditions in the Drake Passage are either tranquil or a tempest with no middle ground. When it’s calm, sailors call the Passage “Drake Lake.”
The day began with some early morning bird watching on the stern of Le Boreal. Numerous pelagic birds could be seen soaring above the Le Boreal’s wake. I have been captivated by the amazing life cycle of the wandering albatross ever since reading Carl Safina’s book, “Eye of the Albatross.”

Wandering Albatross
A&K staff member Dr. Patricia Silva gave a fascinating presentation on the birds we are seeing, many that have the largest wingspans of any bird on earth. These pictures don’t do the albatross and petrel justice. Dr. Silva said radio telemetry devices have shown that these birds can travel more than 10,000 miles in a single outing that may last months or years. They are perfectly suited for maximizing the low level air currents above cresting waves. Albatrosses are simply stunning birds that are being threatened today by plastics in the ocean and longline fishing.
Another animal that scientists are learning about through the use of satellite tracking tags are orcas. Shortly before lunch the captain announced a pod of orcas was spotted behind the boat. He was giving everyone a chance to grab photo equipment while he brought the vessel back around for a closer look. Charley Wheatley, the on-board marine mammal expert, gave everyone an impromptu orca lesson while at least ten “killer whales” went about their business. This was said to be a very unusual sighting. Normally orcas are not seen this far north or this early in the season. Perhaps they were returning from a spa treatment.
According to a recent press release from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, some Antarctic orcas have been tracked with satellite tags making rapid migrations to tropical waters. It’s believed this helps regenerate skin tissue. According to NOAA, one tagged orca took a vacation to southern Brazil, more than 5,000 miles away only to return directly to Antarctic waters a short time later. You can read more here:
It’s now about 12:41 am and time for bed. Twilight outside the cabins of Le Boreal with a current reading of 38 degrees. Position: 60 degrees 15.93’ S, 61 degrees 23.83 W. By morning we’ll be seeing ice in the water. Bigger icebergs and islands later in the morning.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Planes, trains and automobiles...Greetings from Buenos Aires, Argentina

The past twenty-four hours have been a whirlwind. When I left Chattanooga, the temperature was 40 degrees, but local mountains were getting white with snow. Sure enough, the reading at Palmer Station was 41. “We’re colder than Antarctica again?” I thought to myself.

Once in Atlanta, I miscued on the train between terminals. But while backtracking from Concourse D to Concorse E, I was surprised to see a photo gallery of Antarctic images lining the hallway. Then, after boarding the flight from Atlanta to Buenos Aires, Argentina, I noticed that one of the in-flight movie choices was “Mr. Popper’s Penguins.” I spent the first part of the ten-hour flight chuckling to the antics of gentoo penguins and thinking about Nipper, Shivers and the rest of the crew at Penguins’ Rock.

The flight was smooth and by sunrise, we were a little more than one hour from landing in Argentina right at 5,118 miles from Atlanta. The weather was sunny and warm with highs in the 80s. Our group toured the so-called “Paris of South America” for much of the afternoon.

December 8th is “Virgin Day,” a big Catholic holiday in Buenos Aires. Many of the city’s three million residents head out for a long weekend, along with a large portion of the 12 million or so residents living in the surrounding area. We were told that if you are not going on holiday, this is traditionally the day to put up the Christmas tree. We saw several public trees going up, along with scaffolding near the presidential offices. A big city event is planned for Saturday, when the Argentine President takes her oath of office.

The city is amazingly large and feels very European. On our tour of the city we saw countless historical figures cast in bronze along with a stunning amount of public art.

Even though the town felt rather empty to those in our group who arrived one day earlier and saw the typical hectic pace of this big city on a work day, many people could be seen enjoying green spaces throughout the city. Because of the warmth, one of the large city pools was already quite full on this early spring day. And everywhere we went we saw soccer being played, practiced or simply soccer balls being kicked around in this “football”-crazed country.

Our tour of the city wrapped up with an unusual, yet fascinating tour of the Recoleta Cemetery where Evita Peron and many others are laid to rest. The mausoleums are intricate tributes to family members that are built nearly on top of one another and laid out in a vast mini-city. It was quite a history lesson for everyone.

Tomorrow we’ll all meet in the hotel lobby at 4:00 am for a “grab-n-go” breakfast. We’ll head back to the Buenos Aires airport for the flight to Ushuaia – “The Southernmost City in the World.” We’ll have a short tour near the Fuegian Andes before boarding the ship bound for Antarctica.