2008/12/12

Buttercups Banished!

For those of you who are familiar with my blog posts, you’ll be aware we seldom comment on politics or religion. Both subjects are not much to laugh about, but to quote George Bernard Shaw again, “If you’re going to tell people the Truth, make them laugh. Otherwise they’ll kill you.”
And since we still have much work to do on this Ocean-Earth planet, zooming through space, we thought it wise to stay away from those touchy topics.
However, on the political front, we cannot help but feel there may be a fresh breeze on its way. End of a big ‘error’, start of a new era?
Something caught my attention in our local newspaper, although mostly I read the comics. The headline was “DICTIONARY BANISHES BUTTERCUPS AND SAINTS – Academics protest limits on language”. Well, yours truly is far from what is termed an academic, but I agree with their protests.


It’s about the Oxford Junior Dictionary in England. They’ve dropped from their latest edition words such as “aisle”, “bishop”, “chapel”, “empire”, “monarch” and replaced them with words such as “blog”, “broadband”, and “celebrity”.
Dozens of words related to the countryside have also been culled, such as “sycamore”, and that’s where I get my fins (and mane) up, since “buttercup” was one of the words taken out.

This doesn’t do service to children, who need countryside more than ever. I’m sure they’re comfortable with “iPod”, “MP3 player”, “blog”, etc but no need to throw the baby out with the bath water.

But just (well, not just . . . 35 years ago), when I wrote a children’s story titled, “How The Buttercups Came Back”, the Oxford Junior Dictionary has the nerve to banish them! You can find this and other stories on my websit.

2008/12/10

Antarctica, Last Episode: Not Exactly Your Pioneering Explorers' Expedition


Standing at the deck railing, watching this unusual spectacle of passengers dressed in full ballroom attire, being transferred from another ship to our vessel, you couldn’t help thinking how far removed we were from Shackleton, Scott and Amundsen expeditions. We may have been in Antarctica, but were pampered. (Young Presidents Organization = “Young Pampered Omnivores.)
Where is the caviar and champagne?” became the mantra of the new arrivals as they boarded our ship.
In the meantime Diana Krall was playing piano and singing her jazz tunes and seemed tireless. Remember where we were, in the Antarctic.
Food and beverage galore. As for the passengers, partying they did. Colds and flu forgotten. On the stroke of midnight, champagne in hand, the “Happy New Year’s!”, “Happy Millennium”, and “Auld Lang Syne”s rang out. Everyone exchanged good wishes, made resolutions and danced until the early hours.
The ship was of course all decorated for the season, with lights and Christmas trees, with crew and passengers sporting a Santa toque.
Some party-ed as if the new Millennium was turning the world into another ‘spin’.
Next episode – not only had the Zodiac drivers ferried the passengers to the ‘mothership’, now, the morning-after, this all had to be repeated, but in reverse order. Still the ball gowns, high heels and formal black-tie attire in place, albeit the wearers were in a different shape.
But, hold on. There was something else. Some of the passengers from our vessel, “Ocean Explorer I” (OEI) now changed over to one of the two smaller ships, which had a different itinerary. Now, the luggage also had to be transferred, via Zodiac. This was New Year’s Day.
Not to be outdone, those who had changed from their ship to the ‘mothership’ stayed on, and their luggage had to be brought over, again, by Zodiac.
You can imagine everyone giving directions at once to the Zodiac drivers, “Mine is the aluminum one”, “Ours if the one with the orange band around it”,Ours is the set of three Luis Vuitton”. And so it went.
Natasha and I just stood there, once again, wondering ‘Is this really happening?’ Yes, it was. Well, some luggage got lost, or put in the wrong cabin, but nobody’s perfect.
New Year’s Day, some passengers decided to visit the Hot Springs ashore, and once again the Zodiac crew were called upon to fulfill these wishes. And so, January 1, 2000, Millennium Year Day 1, several Homo Sapiens found themselves nice and warm, splashing in the Hot Springs of Deception Island’s caldera. All this was the brainchild of someone in Toronto.
After re-crossing the Drake Passage, again a tumultuous passage, during which we saw transluscent icebergs of all shapes, sizes, and colours from white to cobalt pastel tints, some with penguins as passengers.
The OEI docked at Ushuaia. We remained on the ship for another 3 months, but the YPO passengers were heading home. “Good-bye”, “Au revoir”, “Auf weidersehn”, “Tot ziens”, “Hasta luega”, “Arrivederci”. Hugs and tears as if they’d been together a year instead of a week.
Disembarkation followed, then the re-embarkation of our “old gang” who’d been celebrating the Millennium in Santiago, Chile (see earlier post).

Oh yes, we returned once more to Antarctica, continuing OEI’s around-the-world itinerary, with the regular passengers. Again we crossed the Drake Passage, but did not return to Deception Island. Once again we witnessed the awesome beauty of many icebergs, and of course penguins galore.
Well, we thought we’d share this ‘not your everyday’ New Year celebration, while at the same time we have now a record of it, before the passage of time blurs the recall. Signing off for now, Henri

2008/12/09

Part 4: Celebrating the Millennium in Antarctica

The eco-systems of the Antarctic region consist of a relatively limited number of wildlife species (at least the kind seen with the bare eye). As anywhere, this system relies on inter-dependence with one another.Not only was the “Ocean Explorer I” (OEI) the first-ever ship of that size to have entered the caldera at Deception Island (680 passengers, plus crew, see previous two posts), but at the same time we had a rendez-vous with two other, smaller vessels which were part of this special Millennium “expedition”. Altogether some 1,400 people (crew included) were gathered at one time, in one fragile place.Such an invasion would create big problems if it were a regular event. Looking back, this was far from setting a good eco-example. In general this vast white wilderness had few visitors. Now, 10 years later, tourism to Antarctica is very popular.But what is one to do? There will always be ‘arrivals’ and ‘departures’ on life’s journey. Synchronicity? This week an Argentine passenger ship with 165 people aboard, “Ushuaia”, has grounded on the West Antarctic Peninsula, near Wilhelmina Bay. A naval vessel from Chile is on its way for the rescue operations.While a large variety of wildlife is not to be found, there are of course millions of all kinds of penguins. You also see albatross, petrels, snowy sheathbills, southern gulls, skuas (!), cormorants, terns and leopard seals. Whales are scarce now, none in the caldera. There are however several abandoned wrecks of old whaling stations in Antarctica.Turning to the Millennium festivities, here is the line-up of entertainers and guest speakers for this historic trip: The “Moffats”, for the youngsters and young-at-heart; fiddler Natalie MacMaster; Art Garfunkel; Diana Krall (from Vancouver Island where we reside); The Chieftains; actor Dan Acykroyd, and speakers Robert Kennedy Jr and F.W. deKlerck from South Africa (who won the Nobel Peace Prize with Nelson Mandela).Let us open the curtains to the extraordinary spectacle and planned transport from the two smaller ships to OEI, via Zodiacs.Picture this: we’re in the Antarctic, inside the volcanic caldera of Deception Island, after three days on an ‘unruly moving platform’. Gathered together are one large vessel (OEI), and two smaller ships.All the Young Presidents Organization (YPO) passengers from the two smaller ships had to be transported to what was termed the ‘mothership’ by Zodiac. All of them were decked out in full New Year’s Eve gala attire. Yes, just like the Ritz! The ladies – high-heeled shoes, long ball gowns, wearing glittering jewelry, plus hats, gloves, fur or warm coats.The gents – formal, black tie, and shiny shoes. In the Zodiacs, my friends, in the Antarctic.And wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles, not one mishap, not one accident. How is that for competent and diligent skill by the team of Zodiac drivers?
Of course, credit also goes to the passengers themselves for keeping their balance with their high-heels while riding through the icy waters.Also the children were amazingly cooperative. After tearing about the ship the previous few days in the midst of the ship rolling and pitching its way through the Drake Passage (ignoring the demands by officers and crew to “hold onto the handrail”), they were orderly. It seemed almost as if some unseen hand or presence made all this function smoothly.We, Natasha and me, stood on deck and witnessed this (mad), extraordinary spectacle of transport in amazement. Coming up, fifth and final episode on the Millennium in Antarctica.

2008/12/07

Antarctica, Part 3: First visit to the Chinstraps, Deception Island

Antarctica comes from the Greek, “Ant” (opposite) and Arktos (Bear), referring to the Polar star of the Ursa Minor constellation. Antarctica = “No/or Little Bear”. The ancient Greeks didn’t know it, but there are no polar or any kind of bears in the Antarctic, so the name is all the more fitting.
Like we mentioned in the previous post, entering the portal of Neptune’s Bellows into the caldera of Deception Island required superb navigational skill. Plus, good luck and cooperation of the elements. Our Greek captain, who’d never sailed in Antarctic waters, performed an amazing feat that December 30, 1999, one day before Millennium Eve. The whole experience of entering the caldera remains imprinted in my memory chambers.
In preparation for the Zodiac landings ashore, all the passengers attended mandatory orientations where they learned all the “do’s and don’ts” while ashore. For instance, we were advised in a friendly but firm fashion by our onboard naturalist to keep a minimum distance of 5 metres (15 ft) from the penguins, of which we would be encountering myriads. Most of the ones there are Chinstraps. We were not allowed to approach the rookeries, but we’d witness many penguins as they went to and fro the icy waters in search of food.
The Zodiac crew were skilful and diligent. Many had been specially recruited. Amongst them, they had years of experience working in the Southern Ocean. December being high summer in the Antarctic, the sun just ‘goes’ for a few moments, giving lots of daylight for the dozens and dozens of Zodiac trips.
Shore Landings: because we were such a large number of people, a special system was devised, executed with nautical discipline. You had to be all suited-up and ready to go when your number was called. The Young Presidents Organization (YPO) passengers sported the latest fashion in cold-weather gear. Not to speak of state-of-the-art camera equipment.
“Only your footprints should be left behind”, we were warned by our naturalist guide. “And remember to keep your distance from the penguins!” We were told not to come too close, but nobody seemed to have told the penguins to keep their distance from humans! 

Eagerly we stepped foot on the icy-shore. It was bitterly cold. Again, the guide said, “Don’t get too close, remember, 5 metres”. It’s all very well, but nobody seems to have told the penguins!
Penguins are very curious, but also protective of their young. Some immediately waddled over to us, as if we were family and wanting to say ‘Hi’ (and ‘stay away from my chicks’). The chicks had already lost most of their down. It’s some sight (and smell), to be in such close contact.
Penguins may waddle ashore, but once in the icy waters they “fly”. Those who return with food for the young are shiny and clean, while the ones heading out to sea are dirty, and smelly. So you have two “rows”, one going and one coming, crowded like a boulevard in a big city.
Skuas overhead are the penguins’ menace. They dive-bomb to snatch the chicks, and can also dive-bomb us humans: this I can personally vouch for! Our YPO passengers, who just a few days' ago left their sophisticated lifestyles back home, were now like children, full of awe and wonder while wandering amongst the penguins. When we returned to the Zodiac, a young girl pointed in the distance and shouted “Look, Daddy, a whale!” Our guide replied, “No, that’s the vents from the Hot Springs. Remember we’re inside a volcano.” Fire and ice! Coming soon, final episode of this Antarctic adventure. Signing off, Henri