Thursday 10/19/11, and Days 2 and 3, Friday and Saturday:
We left Buenos Aires late in the day and steamed southeast downriver overnight. It took hours for us to reach the mouth of the Rio de la Plata. This is the world’s widest rivermouth, more than 100 miles across. I woke numerous times during the darkness to see ship lights and lit shores. But eventually I could feel the slight rocking of Atlantic swells.
The continental shelf off Argentina is remarkably shallow. We are a 350-foot-plus ship cruising 40 miles offshore in water as shallow as 60 feet. If the ship did a head-stand on the bottom, it would loom 30 stories above the waterline. A skyscraper at sea. Like an oil rig. And it must be admitted that we burn enough fuel to provide some employment to the petrol industry.
That’s my awkward segue to petrels—the seabirds. A morning of white chop on our stern held few birds. But over time, as brown river-and-sea water yielded to green seawater of the wide shelf, various seabirds began putting in appearances. A smattering of terns, probably South American Terns, and a few Kelp Gulls. And the truly open-ocean birds began appearing. A few Black-browed Albatrosses. White-chinned Petrels, which are much smaller but still large for petrels. We saw one skua-type bird, probably a Parasitic Jaeger from the north, here for winter. And also from the north, several Manx Shearwaters. And birds we see in the north when it’s winter here, are here now to breed, including Greater Shearwaters. Later, a Yellow-nosed Albatross or two appeared, gliding on bowed wings. And a few Magellanic Penguins, like floating black footballs with striped heads.
I also saw several Great Grebes, birds I had never seen before and whose existence on Earth I was totally unaware of. It’s probably fair to say that, though some are aware of gulls and penguins, and a lesser percentage have heard the word albatross, probably 99 percent of all the people in the world have no idea that they share a planet with any of the species we’ll see. Not only is their life poorer for the lack of companionship, but, were these creatures they to go extinct, their loss would create not a ripple across most human minds. If people care to protect only what they love, what hope is there for the vast majority of animals whose human constituency is vanishingly small? That, I suppose, is why we’re here—to create a little hope.
Day 3, Saturday. All day at sea. New birds: Southern Giant Petrels and a couple of Cape or Pintado Petrels crisscrossing our wake. By mid-morning we were into some pretty thick seabird aggregations. The first Royal Albatrosses that I’ve seen on this trip showed up in the morning. The first couple of fur seals in the afternoon. For perhaps a ten- to fifteen-mile stretch, we passed half a dozen large fishing ships, trawl-netters it seemed, each attended by hundreds of seabirds waiting for the voluminous discards of our wasteful ways. But this is a dangerous game that the birds sometimes lose by striking a wing on the net cables. This has been a serious conservation concern, and methods have been developed to avoid bird-strikes—which some boats use.