June 16, 2020


Jan 2020

Ever saw the earth with the South Pole in center?  Barring Antarctica, it is almost water all around.  Antarctica is fully surrounded by Southern Ocean, which has borders (yes, really) with oceans up North.

[Our planet, from a South Pole perspective]

Antarctica is about 4.2 times the size of India and its size doubles in winter with expanding ice shelf (Yes, all ports become inland towns during winter!).  98% of the land is covered by ice that is 2 to 3 km thick.  If the ice melts, sea level everywhere would rise 60 meters.  

Antarctica holds 70% of all fresh water in the planet; yet is technically a desert (No rains . No vegetation.  Extreme temperatures).  Temperature at the coast is 0 deg C in summer and -40 in winter.  As you go interior, it is -30 deg C colder. There are no vertebrates in Antarctica.  Just whales, seals, and a dozen species of birds.  (Yes, penguins.  Oh yes, Emperor penguins). 

Slices of Antarctica are claimed by various countries but all claims are held in abeyance and anyone can go anywhere.  All have agreed on rules to protect environment and wild life.  All time zones converge in Antarctica; each country’s base uses its homeland’s time zone.  

Antarctica attracts over 44,000 tourists each year.  About half of them are form US or China.  

Our cruise was fun.  

Quark Expedition’s “Ocean Adventurer” was comfortable; can house 100 passengers and 50 staff.  Quark call it an expedition; not a cruise.  A certain level of uncertainty is part of the deal.  Expeditions come in three formats:  a landing, a zodiac cruise, ar standing on the deck and watching the ice scape.  

[Our ship "Ocean Adventurer" in Antarctica]

[Ocean Adventurer, a closer look]

We joined the cruise ship at King George Island in South Shetland Islands in Antarctica.  The ten days cruise goes along the Peninsula’s coastal islands, crosses the circle, all the way to Prospect Point in mainland Antarctica and back.  Each day you do at least two expeditions: either a cruise on the Zodiac, or a landing through the Zodiac.  

Going on a zodiac cruise is half the fun.  No seats.  No seat belts.  You just hold on to a rope.  You could get doused by a generous and ice cold salt water spray.  Or have tiny icicles pierce the skin on your face like a hundred needles.  Or fingers going numb.  Photographs?  Only mad folks would try!  I did. 

[Zodiac cruises are fun]

Returning to home base after the zodiac cruise is fun too.  At times  the swell can bob up and down by 5 feet.  You need to wait patiently and hop in at the best opportune moment.  After a few trips, you understand why a sailor's grip is the most important thing to learn when you are transferring from one vessel to another and a miss could send you to sub zero degrees

[Returning to the cruise ship is equally adventurous]

No, we did not go to South Pole.  Most people do not.  That requires skiing for 3,000 km and the only thing you see is a red market identifying it as South Pole.  

Our first cruise was around Graham Passage where the sea is covered with brash ice and the rocks are covered with thick ice blocks. The ice is probably a million years old. Slowly flowing out into the sea and breaking into ice bergs. Some ice bergs are bigger than Ramanujan IT City Complex! Ice has “cravasses” when pressures differ. The cravasses can develop into bigger cracks and the glacier could then calve (break away and fall into sea). You would not want to be in the neighbourhood at that time. Check out the YouTube video showing an ice berg the size of Manhattan calving out and collapsing into the ocean!

[Ice block with crevasses in Graham Passage]

We cruised to Danco Island, a picturesque spot in the Peninsula, and home for about 3,000 Gentoo penguins.

[Danco Island]

[Danco Island]

And landed in the beach.  The beach is “violent surf meeting big ticket rocks covered by ice, sleet, and snow”.  One has to be a mountaineer to climb up the beach to get to snow territory. And then plough one's way through deep, very deep, and powdery snow. Once you reach a dignified height, the view is spectacular.
We got to see a lot of Gentoo penguins playing on the shore. Penguins have right of way in Antarctica. When you see them going up or coming down, you step aside and stay at least 50 m away. Penguins do not comply with the 50 m rule and come quite close to inspect you and your camera. So, you can get some lovely shots without violating law.

[Danco Island: Gentoo Penguin]

A pod of Orca whales (about six in all) got curious and swam along the ship for an hour.  Going all around the ship, bobbing up and down, revealing more than just the tail.  Orcas rule  the Antarctic; are at the top of the food chain; can eat anything in the ocean (including babies of humpback whales) but prefer Weddel seals (for their blubber).  Orcas are ultra smart.   When Orcas spot seals sunbathing on ice, they swim fast toward the ice, create a wave that can topple the ice, dislodge the seal, and dive under the ice in the very last minute to emerge on the other side in time to catch the seal!

[Orca Whales]

[Orca Whales]

In Melchior islands area, we could see rival base stations set up by Argentina and Chile to lay claim to the land.  These stations are often unpopulated and unused for decades.

[Melchior Islands:  Argentina base]

Crossing the narrow Lemaire Channel (11 km long, 1 km wide) with spectacular/tall mountains on either side is a rite of passage for any cruise in Antarctica. It was very early in the morning, quite cold with high speed wind, and lots of swell in the water (and therefore noticeable shake). But the upper decks were fully packed. Wife and I went quite early to catch the Kate Winslet spot and braved the weather. And enjoyed an awesome experience. 

[Lemaire Channel]

[Lemaire Channel]

Our next stop, Yalour islands, is home for more than 16,000 Adelie penguins.

[Yalour Islands]

[Yalour Islands:  Do you see the penguins on top of the rock?]

[Yalour Islands]

[Yalour islands:  Antarctic fur seal checks us out]

Our next stop was Petermann island.

[Our ship at Petermann island]

Ninety eight of the hundred passengers preferred to land in Petermann island and look at a penguin rookery. Wife and I chose to do a zodiac cruise instead and spotted some crabeater seals.

[Wife on a zodiac]

[Crabeater seals sunbathing on an ice sheet]

Erin, our zodiac pilot, was talking about life in the wilderness of Canada. And then she froze. She spotted five humpback whales heading toward our zodiac. She moved aside to give them way. They ignored us, and went past us chasing a seal. We kept following the whales at a safe distance. It was a spectacular sight to see them (bigger than several elephants) rising up to the surface, breathing out and in, and diving down to keep their chase. 

[Humpback whales near Petermann island]

Crossing the Antarctic Circle (with just a GPS on the deck to tell us we did so) was another important rite of passage in the cruise.  Very few cruises cross the Antarctic circle to get into the six months day and six months night polar zone.  We were thrilled.
Hanusse Bay is south of the Antarctic Circle.  The sea is carpeted by brash ice and the zodiacs had to be skilfully piloted through.  

[Hanusse Bay, South of Antarctic Circle.  Zodiacs are out navigating through sea ice]

[Crabeater seal at Hanusse Bay]

South of Antarctic circle, at Hanusse Bay, the floating ice sheets were thick enough to land and stand.  We did.

[Landed and stood on floating sea ice sheet]

Our zodiac was braving through brash ice. Ice as far as eyes could see.  Erin, our pilot, spotted the prized photo catch a km away: an Emperor Penguin.  They are normally not seen in Western Antarctica (mostly found in eastern Antarctica, south of Australia).  The Emperor was thrice as tall as Gentoo penguins or Adelie penguins and sported a golden yellow neck.  

[Emperor Penguin, 1 km away on ice sheet]

We continued southward to reach Detaille Island, an area full of spectacular ice bergs.

[Icebergs around Detaille Island]

[Icebergs around Detaille Island]

[Icebergs around Detaille Island]

And then southward to Fish island, home for about 8,000 Adelie penguins and some Imperial Shags (Cormorants).  The area is quite picturesque.

[Fish Island]

[Fish Island]

[Fish Island]

[Fish Island:  Imperial Shag (Cormorant)]

At last we landed on the seventh continent. At Prospect point. And join the rolls honoured by Shackleton, Amundsen, Scott and other heroes. Except our path was well mapped, our journey in warm comfort, and our food assured.

[Mainland Antarctica: Prospect Point]

[Mainland Antarctica: Prospect Point]

[Mainland Antarctica: Prospect Point]

Our next stop, Pleneau bay, is nicknamed "the graveyard of ice bergs".   Wilson’s glacier, that moves almost 1 km a year, is located in the bay.  Such a rapid movements of glaciers cause frequent calving and birth of fresh ice bergs in the bay.  Additionally,  many icebergs are blown into the bay by wind.  And there is no escape out of bay.  Hence the name.  We saw several large icebergs.

[Pleneau Bay Icebergs:  I called this “Sydney Opera House”]

[Pleneau Bay Icebergs]

[Pleneau Bay Icebergs]

We were cruising in Pleneau Bay.  Nix Soussos (our zodiac pilot from South Africa) radioed the Captain: "Bridge, do you have visibility to Hotel Bravo?". Bridge said Two O’ Clock four miles. She took the boat to North East of Ship and we saw a Hotel Bravo (yes, the code name for a Humpback Whale). We spent an hour within hearing distance of the whale.

[Pleneau Bay Humpback Whale]

Orcas and Humpbacks are natural adversaries. (Orcas eat babies of Humpbacks. Adult humpbacks are too huge for an Orca's size). HBs have an instinctive behaviour of preventing an Orca from hunting anything, even a seal. HBs protect the victim and scare/chase the Orcas away!

Our journey northward took  us to Neko harbour, a picturesque area.

[Neko harbour: Do you spot our cruise ship?]

[Neko harbour: Fellow travellers in their Zodiac]

[Neko harbour]

[Neko harbour: Sunlight peeps through]

[Neko harbour]

Our next stop was Elephant Island.  Could not see much (except a shipwreck of a Whaling boat from last century) thanks to severe snow fall.  

[Elephant Island Shipwreck]

And then to Whalers Bay, and later to Half-moon island.  Half-moon island is home to 6,600 Chinstrap penguins. 

[A brave sailor enjoying solitude]

The entire trip was enjoyable thanks to high quality service from the crew led by Abbey Weisbrot, a Canadian lady with a "never say no" attitude and her proficient and helpful team which included a glaciologist, a marine biologist, an ornithologist, a polar historian, an ace Photographer, and a medical doctor for our own safety.  My favourites?  Erin Dunglinson (from Canada), for her luck.  We saw many stuff when she piloted our zodiac.  And Nix Souness (from South Africa), the photographer.  She knew where to position the Zodiac for the best shots!

Eventually it was time to return.  The ship dropped us ashore at King George Island.   Alexei from Kamchatka, whose Russian base spared him and a 4WD to drive some of us to the makeshift runway uphill, told us three aircrafts are about to land in five minutes.  After all the peace and quiet, that sounded like O’Hare!  When asked why, he said “Window”. Aircrafts wait at the southern tip of South America for the brief weather window.  

When asked what would have happened to us if the window had not occurred at the time of our return, he said: “We have spare rooms with spartan facilities and Russian food.  But you are lucky!”.  We were happy to get into the small aircraft and wing our way to Punta Arenas.  For once the lonely Chilean town sounded like New York.  Was good to see an electric light on land after two weeks!

The best journey we ever undertook in our life.  Only a trip to the moon can be better than this.  

As Charcot, the French explorer said: “Pourquoi pas!”.  Why not indeed!

June 8, 2020

Masai Mara, Kenya

Aug 2018

Masai Mara is a very large wildlife park in Kenya that is contiguous with the Serengeti Park in Tanzania.  The game reserve has a wide variety of wildlife including all the big five (lions, leopards, elephants, buffaloes, and rhinoceros).  It is also the theater for annual river crossing under the spectacular Great Migration.

Masai Mara is 1,500 square km in size.  The park is primarily open grassland cut through by three rivers including the Mara river.  Masai Mara receives over 300,000 tourists a year.  We went on a 8 days photography tour organized by India’s maestro photographer Sudhir Shivaram.    

Here is our diary:

The Sun rises over African Savannah and ushers in another day of excitement in finding food; and not being food!

Sunrise at Masai Mara

As the dawn breaks, silhouettes emerge.  A giraffe starts grazing. Giraffes are not the first choice of predators since Giraffes can kill with a kick.  Giraffes are vulnerable only when they bend down to drink water and expose their neck to attacks.  Lions go after giraffes, especially young calves, if and only if other prey are not within reach.

Silhouettes emerge at sunrise.  A lone giraffe.

More silhouettes emerge.  This time, Topis.  Topis are the fastest amongst antelopes; can run at 80 km per hour.  Male topis “defend” their territory and have 5 to 6 females in their territory.

Silhouettes emerge at sunrise.  Topis.

Elephants emerge to bask in the early morning Sun.  Females too have tusks in Africa.  Male African elephants are the largest land animals in the world and can be as heavy as 7,500 kg.  An elephant’s trunk Is gentle enough to caress a calf and strong enough to kill a lion!  

African elephant

African elephant

A buffalo stays with the gang (or obstinacy) in early morning Sun.  A friend, the Oxpecker, is riding on its back.  The little bird has a symbiotic relationship with the host.  An African buffalo is one of the big five (lions, elephants, rhinos, and leopards being the other four); quite dangerous to hunt.


Wildebeest, also known as Gnus, join in.  The Wildebeest are antelopes (with horns like a buffalo and legs like a horse).  The locals refer to Wildebeest in Swahili as “Sifuri Ubongo” (Zero brains).  However, consider:  One, they have eight months of sex parties ; proliferate in a three weeks window; and 85% of the young ones survive.  Two, no man has ever ridden a wildebeest.  Does not seem stupid to me!


Early morning wakes up beautiful birds too.  A Lilac breasted Roller perched on a dead branch brightens up the day!  A Lilac breasted Roller is a riot of colours!  (Did you know that Zulus would tie together young couples who want to marry using a rope made of the feathers of a Lilac Breasted Roller.  If the couple could stay together without breaking the rope, they are a good match. If not, they are not!)

Lilac breasted Roller

A Starling comes quite close to us to check us out and to check out the ground for some food.


The deadly Shrike bird has found food.  The shrike is a surprisingly lethal predator.  It is known as “butcher bird” for the ferocity with which it kills a prey as large as its own self using barbed wire fences and sharp branches!


A herd of Thomson Gazelles are looking to graze while being watchful for predators.  Tommies are relatively at the lower end of food chain.  Their specie survives thanks to three advantages:  a larger population, an ability to run for a sustained period of time, and an ability to run in a zig zag manner.  An early start and a good distance at start are important for Tommies to survive a predator (which can run fast but only for a shorter period of time).  Therefore the intense alertness.

When a hungry cat is chasing them, how do babies remember to sense danger, start when the gap is good, start early, and run in a zig zag manner, at a speed that is sustainable?  They don’t.  They just follow the adults.  By staying focused on the distinctly and brightly patterned hind quarter signature of the adults!

These Tommies keep looking at different directions to sense predators and warn the group.  

Thomson gazelles

A lone Grant gazelle and a lone waterbuck look at us with caution.  The Grant gazelle is gregarious, territorial, and migratory.  Waterbucks are antelopes that stay close to water (they need to drink water every day and prefer the fresh grass near water).  

Grant Gazelle


A dazzle of zebras are enjoying mid morning Sun.  Predators find zebras delicious.  Zebras, therefore, need to be twice alert and twice cautious.  Zebras do not run as fast as horses; however they can run for a longer time and run with a zigzag gait.  Zebras have not been domesticated.  


A Giraffe surveys the land for tall trees with fresh leaves.


Two ostriches out in the wild.  The flightless Ostrich is the largest bird in the world with eyes to match.  An Ostrich can kill a lion with a forward kick.  Ostriches can run fast; at 70 km per hour.


Baboons are the largest monkeys in the world.  Baboons stay on the ground much of the time though they do sleep, eat or keep watch in trees.  Baboon troops have a social hierarchy.  Baboons communicate with each other through vocalisations; and may have thirty different sounds to express different thoughts.


A new day does not mean peace.  You need to find food.  You should not end up being food.  The Savannah goes by one principle: survival of the fittest.  A Mongoose on full alert.


Savannah at breakfast time.  A variety of prey that has to graze at the vast open plains.  

The hunter has to stay downwind (so that it is not detected by the prey) and inch its way forward to get as much proximity to the prey as possible.  If the distance at start is low, its overwhelming speed (that can be sustained only for a very short while) could get it lunch.  If not, starvation.

The prey has to stay alert, start running as early as possible, and while the hunter is far away enough to not make up the gap!  Running zig zag would help since hunters cannot run with a zig zag gait.  The babies and the sick are the most vulnerable.

The scavenger has to eat but cannot hunt.  It has to follow the hunter and either settle for left overs or steal the hunt using its numbers to its advantage.  Forty hyenas versus five lions and one moment of distraction!

Savannah at breakfast time

If you are a buffalo, topi, gazelle, or wildebeest in the Savannah this is the sight you do not want to see at such close quarters!

Not the one you want to see at close quarters

Job done.  The predator feasts on the hunt.  Growling to keep the hyenas and vultures away.  The predators start on the prey from behind and work through to head.  They leave the stomach untouched.  A puncture of the stomach would spread the smell far and wide attracting scavengers.

Lioness, with her hunt, a Topi

Waiting scavenger: Vulture

Waiting scavenger:  Jackal

Savannah is not just about hunting alone.  Savannah is all also about romance.  A lioness and a lion separate from the pride to have a good time.  (Lions mate multiple times a day).

Lion, the groom

Lioness, the bride

Lion cub, at its most vulnerable age

Not every hunt results in a kill.   Often times the herd escape.  And the hunters regroup to plan the next hunt to find another mark for the day.

Cheetahs waiting after a failed hunt

Cheetah walking after a failed hunt

The leopard is a loner.  Owns a wider territory than lions and a smaller territory than Cheetahs.  Leopards run fast; up to 58 km per hour and can leap forward 6 m or upward 3 m.  It has an "ambush and pounce" style hunt.  Leopards are the smallest among the wild cat category; but are quite strong in relation to their weight.  They can haul their prey up tree branches beyond the reach of hyenas and lions.  Leopards are very elusive and difficult to spot in the wild.  The lady is scouting for food.


And she got it. A Thomson gazelle, for lunch.  Carries it across the narrow opening to its cubs on the other side of the mud track road; giving us an ephemeral, evanescent moment to capture the shy and private hunter.

Leopard with her kill, a Thomson gazelle

The Great migration that happens in Africa is a year long circular movement.  More than 2 million animals (Mostly wildebeest, gazelles, and zebras) move in a circular path northwards and southwards in search of fresh pasture and water.  It is a 800 km circular route that keeps going on and on.  No, it is not as old as Africa.  It is just a recent thing that started in 1960s.

In the course of the migration, the animals need to cross rivers.  Crossing the Mara river in Masai Mara, as part of this annual cycle,  is a big ticket event.  In a typical crossing, 10% would lose their lives to predators waiting at the banks and 90% would survive to get good food.  Leaders of animal packs have to decide on the odds of loss of life and the odds of fresh food at every crossing.  

We saw a large dazzle of zebras head to the bank, see some crocodiles, and decide to not cross the river that day.  Sometimes it takes three or four assemblies and evaluation before the leader plunges into the river.  Once the leader plunges, everyone else follows.  

A dazzle of Zebras at river crossing.  Leader is having a Macbeth moment.

And spots a crocodile, waiting patiently by the river

Not now.  Better to cross later.  And the Topis agree

Reassembly with the entire dazzle intact
Not everyone at the river is tense.  Some have fun and frolic since they are not at the lower end of the food chain and prefer vegetarian food (though an occasional go at meat is not unusual).

Hippo having fun in the river

Hippo having fun at the river

Not all predators are four legged.  Some re two legged.  Perched above a high tree, with wings powerful enough to give it a high speed dive, the Tawny eagle looks around for prey.
  And a scavenger keeps an eye on the hunter.

Tawny Eagle

Lappet faced vulture
The Secretary bird is a left over of the "terror birds" of pre historic era that tells us how terrifying birds were int eh past.  Secretary birds stamp on, stun, and swallow the prey!  Though our guide gave several interesting stories about the reason for their name, research shows that it comes from the Arabic word “Saqr-et-tair” meaning “hunter bird”.  

Secretary bird

Topis run quite fast at 80 km per hour (one of the fastest among antelopes).  We saw a pair run right next to our jeep at very high speed and overtake our fast jeep with ease.  Female Topis are on heat for just one day in a year; and competition to get a male is quite intense; an animal version of “The Bachelor”.  


A good way to size up the Masai Mara is on a hot air balloon ride early morning.

Hot air balloon ride

Masai Mara is a grassland cut through by three rivers, with trees and bushes dotting along the banks of the rivers.  The grass feeds the lower end of the food chain.  The trees give a place to hide the hunters.  The water helps the trees and grass grow.

Masai Mara Landscape
, from hot air balloon

Two eagles are enjoying a vista from above; scouting for food from commanding heights.

Two eagles with a commanding view, from a hot air balloon

In good style we bade good bye to Masai Mara with our last stop to watch a herd of elephants.

A herd of elephants

The place we stayed at was adventurous too.  We stayed at Governor’s private camp within the Park right next to the river.  A tent with zipper doors.  Floors that shake up/down when you walk.  We had visitors during night time.  One evening there were hippos (of course, we had armed guards in the camp area!).  One night, giraffes were seen loitering just outside our tent.  One afternoon, the entire camp was occupied by a herd of elephants and our jeeps had to patiently wait outside the gate until they all went away.

Cottage #7 in Governor’s Private Camp within the Park

In Masai Mara, animals have the right of way.  All the time.