Temple birdwatcher and her daughter take exhilarating educational cruise to Antarctica
DAVID STONE | OUR TOWN TEMPLE
While the North Pole garners a great deal of attention this time of the year, a Temple birdwatcher turned her attention to the opposite end of the world earlier this month and journeyed to Antarctica.
Deidre Dawson and her daughter, Emma Wenkert of Austin, spent several days exploring the Antarctic Peninsula and miles of frozen coastline.
“I was very impressed,” said Dawson, vice president of the Bell County-based Twin Lakes Audubon Society, a local bird-watching organization that takes monthly excursions throughout Central Texas.
“Antarctica was amazing,” she said. “We saw incredible wildlife, had great photo opportunities and learned so much. We saw three kinds of seals and four varieties of whales, and many species of birds that we don’t see in Texas.”
Deidre, a former professor at Michigan State University and Georgetown who specialized in French language and literature, said she wasn’t overly excited when her daughter mentioned the cruise back in 2019. That changed, however, when she learned the trip was much more than a typical vacation cruise.
“The ship was large, but nothing like most cruise ships,” she said. “The Ocean Endeavor holds 200 people including staff. The trip had a focus on wildlife and ecology — there was an ornithologist (bird expert) on board, and activities included scientific and historic lectures.”
Those on the trip could actually take part in scientific experiments such as seabird surveys, cloud observations and Phytoplankton collections and studies.
Deidre and Emma booked their trip in 2019 expecting to visit Earth’s southernmost continent in 2020. Vacation plans came to a screeching halt that year, compliments of COVID-19, and the trip was postponed. Earlier this month, however, the dream trip sailed south from Ushuaia, Argentina, the world’s southernmost city. The Central Texas travelers had a long journey before the cruise even began.
After a drive to Austin, Emma joined Deidre for the short flight to Houston. Then, the pair boarded a plane for Buenos Aires, Argentina.
“The trip was very long,” Deidre said. “It was 10 hours to Buenos Aires, then we had to go to a different airport for the four-hour trip to Ushuaia.”
After a day of taking in the beauty of the Martial Mountains, a range on the southern tip of the Andes, they joined cruise mates on the Ocean Endeavor.
“The ship was incredible,” Deidre said. “The food was great, we heard informative lectures and there was a daily briefing about the next day’s programs.”
“It took two days to get to Antarctica,” she said. “We went through the Drake Passage, known for its extremely rough seas. Back in the days of tall ships, many vessels were lost there. Our ship was definitely rocking.”
The Drake Passage is where the Pacific, Atlantic and Southern oceans converge. There’s also no landmass to create resistance, and winds can be extreme. Those three elements combine to create dangerous waters.
“On our third day out, we were able to go on land,” Deidre said. “We were on the Antarctic Peninsula, and the vastness and the beauty of the icy landscape was awe-inspiring and surreal.”
“The ship’s crew loaded us onto motorized Zodiac rafts to make the trip ashore.”
Zodiacs are inflatable but highly rigid craft frequently used by the military and on research expeditions.
“We went to the peninsula twice by Zodiac,” she said. “The crew was very safety conscious. They gave us special boots for walking on land and we were told to stay on our feet. They disinfected the boots before we got back in the Zodiac.”
Requirements for visiting Antarctica include the use of the special boots and decontamination measures to minimize the risk of transferring non-native species to or from the frozen continent.
“We got very close to the penguins and they got close to us — they weren’t afraid of people at all,” Deidre said. “They seemed almost human in their curiosity and sociability. We felt like we were in a David Attenborough documentary.”
“We also saw seals, and all kinds of seabirds such as albatrosses.”
In addition to the trips to the peninsula, travelers also took Zodiac cruises along the Antarctic coast.
“We didn’t get out of the boats on these trips,” Deidre said. “We sat up on the edge of the Zodiacs and held onto ropes.”
During their Antarctic vacation, Emma and Deidre saw a great variety of birds, including — Gentoo, Chinstrap and Adélie penguins; Black-browed and Light-mantled albatrosses; five varieties of petrels; Antarctic and Southern terns, Fairy Prions and others. They also viewed Fur, Leopard and Weddell seals, and Minke, Humpback, Fin and Orca whales.
Excursions included a Zodiac cruise to Neko Harbor on the Antarctic mainland, and a trip to Foyn Harbor to see a shipwreck.
“An afternoon landing on the mainland on Nov. 18 was cancelled because of a storm surge,” she said. “We had to leave a day early so we wouldn’t get stuck in the storm. But, to make up for the early departure, the ship took us into the harbor of Deception Island, which is actually the crater of an active volcano. Some of the hardy travelers took a polar plunge.”
The storm made for a dramatic voyage back through the Drake Passage.
“The passage was rough, but the doctor on board was able to effectively treat several passengers who suffered from sea-sickness,” Deidre said. “Plates, glasses and cutlery slid off the tables during meals, but the experienced restaurant staff kept everyone safe, and the lectures and excellent meals kept everyone happy.”
More than a dozen lecture opportunities were available on the ship, including topics such as Antarctic exploration, penguins, whales, regional volcanos, seals and dangers associated with plastic containers in oceans.
Back in Ushuaia, Deidre and Emma enjoyed an afternoon of shopping and viewing the mountains that surround the city before heading north.
Back in Bell County, Deidre’s bird watching will again focus on vireos, cardinals and the rare golden-cheeked warbler. But, memories of the birds and wildlife of Antarctica will be forever etched into her mind.
“I would love to return to Antarctica one day to see other areas. The Emperor and King penguins are calling.”
In addition to birdwatching, Deidre also serves on the Friends of the Temple Public Library board of directors and as a volunteer tutor for the Temple Literacy Council.
Was delighted to read of Deidre’s adventures. We are high school chums in Louusville, KY. And she is a very celebrated , beloved alum. Your community is very lucky to have her; we miss her and want her back! Great article.