Hurricanes, penguins and icebergs

Like metal to magnets is serendipity to happiness. During my happy state, my artist friend Bonny Roberts tells me about an artist-in-residence opportunity on Holland America Cruises and my application is accepted. Two days later my husband and I are booked to travel to Buenos Aires where we begin a working cruise around South America and to the Antarctica.

Mirja Vahala aboard the cruise ship.

Like metal to magnets is serendipity to happiness. During my happy state, my artist friend Bonny Roberts tells me about an artist-in-residence opportunity on Holland America Cruises and my application is accepted. Two days later my husband and I are booked to travel to Buenos Aires where we begin a working cruise around South America and to the Antarctica.

Several weeks later in December we arrive in balmy Buenos Aires. After a few days of sightseeing in this city of over 13 million, we pack up and taxi to the cruise terminal.

After participating in ship indoctrination courses, I settle in for the 29-day stint of painting, teaching and providing artist talks and demonstrations, which are televised on the ship’s network.

“Artist-in-residence” has new meaning when the residence is a ship swaying and lurching during high winds. The first winds we encounter are between our port day to Montevideo, Uruguay and traveling towards the Falkland Islands. There we plan to see our first penguin colonies.

Artist Meets Penguins

The people in Port Stanley are very friendly, which makes up for the rugged terrain. There are few trees and the average temperature range is 7°C. Hectares of tussac grass are interspersed by outcroppings of rock. Sheep dot the landscape. It is perpetually windy. Roadsides and fencelines are posted with warning signs regarding landmines from the 1980’s war. Also, the cost of living is high: a dozen eggs are $12 and a cucumber is $4. With a population of 2800, Port Stanley is quaint and very English.

After touring Port Stanley I serendipitously meet up with a penguin guide named Lachie and another cruiseship passenger. Lachie has permission to take his Jeep Landrover through private farmlands to the seaside area containing Gentoo penguin colonies. During our 40-minute 4×4 trek through bumpy fields, the weather constantly changes.

Arriving at a knoll of grass and rock surrounded by endless rolling grasslands and edged by sea, we exit our jeep and walk next to the nesting Gentoo penguins – and a lone King who has lost his way. Going about their business, the penguins seem oblivious to us. Two colonies of 50 or so nests lie atop grassy knolls. Chicks of various stages of maturity bury their heads under their parent or face the 40 mph, bitter-cold wind. Older gray, fuzzy chicks toddle or lean on their mothers. Parents gather stones to re-build their nests while other penguins steal the rocks for their own. Prone penguins look like black torpedoes. The lone king penguin waddles about and occasionally stretches full length, pointing his beak to the sky to yodel.

I cannot wait to create paintings of these amazing creatures.

Another port day, we visit Otway Bay in Punta Arenas, where Magellanic penguins dig holes in the ocean-side fields where they nest. When a penguin leaves a nest, it pops out like as if spring loaded. They walk about 400m from their nest, along trails they have worn into the undulating fields, until they reach the ocean. They dive into the waves, frolic, feed and then return to the beach to preen, afterwards waddling back to the nest along the worn penguin trails. With pleasure we watch them along their trek as they appear and disappear into folds of earth. The penguins will often stop and check out the humans on the roped boardwalk, seemingly curious and without fear.

Artist in a Hurricane

We learn why Cape Horn is famous for shipwrecks. Between traveling from the Falklands to Ushuaia we travel through a 1.5 force hurricane, the worst storm our ship captain has seen in 23 years of sailing, and a record-breaker for the cruiseline. The storm rages for about 30 hours.

It is awesome to say the least, both in sound and in display. Dishes, trays and food are swept to the floor. 60 to 98 foot waves crash over the ship. The propellers are often airborne, causing the hull to shudder dramatically. To avoid walking inclines or declines of a 6 degree list, we are sent to our rooms. I decide not paint for a few days(!) The crew handles everything with poise and good piloting. We are in good hands. Perhaps some day I can face painting this experience.

Artist Encounters Icebergs

After traveling to Valparaiso, Porta Arenas, Chacabuca, the Chilean Fjords and Ushuaia, we head south around Cape Horn and through the Drake Passage towards Antarctica. The seas are almost calm and a welcome relief after 12 days of rough water.

The captain sets a new record for Holland America for reaching the most southerly area in the Antarctica (around the 66th parallel) and for navigating territory such as the Lemaire Channel. The channel seems narrow and shallow for an ocean liner and is filled with ice chunks and bergs. Snowy and rocky mountains tower 1000s of feet above. Sighting areas of dirty snow at the water’s edge and on one of the islands, we see Gentou penguin colonies. The penguins choose nesting areas 100s of feet up snowy, steep slopes. Brown trails are drawn with their repeated treks up and down from the sea.

Watching the water as we slide between ice chunks, we see penguins flying in and out of the water. On land they waddle awkwardly, in the sea they move at over 25 mph. They fly out of the water and land on ice sheets. They play on the sloped ice by walking up to peaks and sliding downward. Two penguins land on ice to see a leopard seal there as well. We see the occasional fluke of a humpback whale sliding into the depths.

The next day we are in more open water. The icebergs are a myriad of sizes and shapes resting in dark gray-blue water. Some are small and sculptured, ringed by bright turquoise. Others are the size of large buildings. During parts of the day, there is fog with visibility of about two miles. The misty shapes of distant icebergs and towering mountain scapes make for a surreal mood.

While sailing past a British Antarctica research site, 100s of Adelie penguins speed past us and the icebergs like leaping torpedoes. The smell from the shore, created by the guano of over 100,000 penguins, is powerful. Filthy snow is dotted by the multitude of penguins. Otherwise the view was breathtaking (just breathe through your mouth!).

In an attempt to describe the Antarctica one comes up with words such as awesome, raw, overwhelming and humbling: all inadequate. One feels insignificant within this place that holds records for being the highest, coldest, windiest, driest, darkest and remotest place on the planet. If one can’t be in the now while merged with such intensity, one never will be. For myself, I am incredibly thankful to visit this continent and I leave somehow changed as a person and artist.

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