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Writer Paulette Lash Ritchie shares her oceanic journey to remote spots of beauty

SOUTHERN OCEAN/ ATLANTIC OCEAN

I'm sitting out here in the middle of the ocean, with Bessie Brooksville and Pine Grove Penny.

The little stuffed critters hitched a ride on an adventure that took us from Ushuaia, Argentina (the world's southernmost community), to islands across the Southern Ocean, up the mid-Atlantic ridge, ending in Dakar, Senegal.

Sharing the trip — and the photos and stories we collected along the way — I hoped would help students at Brooksville and Pine Grove elementary schools increase their appreciation of geography.

So, come along as we visit some of the most remote and beautiful places on the planet, each of which now has a memory of a visit from cuddly ambassadors from Hernando County schools.

We boarded the National Geographic ship Explorer in Ushuaia, and our first stop was the Falkland Islands in the Southern Ocean. (All the Southern Ocean and mid-Atlantic islands we visited were British territories.) We found a rockhopper penguin colony shared with black-browed albatrosses on Westport Island in the Falklands.

Later, on Carcass Island, we saw magellanic penguins, upland geese and some very bold striated caracaras, called Johnny rooks. We also had tea at the home of the island's owner.

On Stanley, the capital of the Falkland Islands, Bessie and Penny saw the 1982 liberation monument memorializing the Falklands War, a conflict between Argentina and Great Britain over sovereignty of the islands.

After a couple of days at sea, we arrived at South Georgia, an Antarctic island where we saw glaciers, prions (small seabirds) and huge wandering albatrosses, which can have wingspans up to 10 feet. Most astonishing to us, though, was the king penguin rookery — an estimated 200,000 birds.

We visited Grytviken, an abandoned whaling station, which was the place famed Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton sought, crossing the island with five of his men seeking to rescue the ones trapped on Elephant Island 800 miles to the southwest. Shackleton is at rest here.

The next day's visit to Fortuna Bay was one of our most magical. We sat on a rocky beach and were soon surrounded by king penguins, one of which was curious enough to approach and peck at my boot. We were also inspected by fearless fur seal pups. I am hard-pressed to think of any baby creature cuter.

Leaving the Southern Ocean and entering the south Atlantic, our first stop was the Tristan da Cunha Island group, which included Nightingale and Inaccessible islands.

Tristan da Cunha is the most remote inhabited island in the world. It has a population of about 300 in the town of Edinburgh of the Seven Seas. People here live more than 1,000 miles from anywhere. The island has a sizable fishing industry, which includes crayfish and, with adequate deliveries of necessities, the people thrive.

Nearby Nightingale Island was both sad and wonderful. A few days before we arrived, a cargo ship had crashed into the island and broke, releasing oil. We immediately saw oil-covered rockhopper penguins and fur seal pups. We learned later that a South Africa ship had collected 700 of the birds for an attempt to clean them.

Five days later we arrived at St. Helena Island. Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled here for the final time. It didn't appear to us to be a terrible prison. He had a nice home with a beautiful garden. I suppose it was the garrison of troops to which he objected.

Who's buried in Napoleon's tomb? Nobody! We visited his burial place, a gorgeous garden, but his body had been returned to France long before we arrived.

In the main settlement, Jamestown, there is a fort atop a high hill. There are 699 steps and the challenge was whether to climb them. Our bus dropped off anyone who wished to go down the steps. I opted to go. I am glad I did it, but hobbled on rubber legs for an hour afterward.

Our next stop was Boatswain Bird and Ascension islands. Boatswain Bird is essentially a giant rock, covered with nesting seabirds, including tropic birds.

Ascension has no indigenous population but has about 1,000 inhabitants employed as military and civilian contractors. The U.S. Air Force and Royal Air Force each have a presence there, as does the British Broadcasting Corp.

The treat at Ascension was the nesting green sea turtles. We made a night landing and guides led us to a turtle using only red light so as not to disturb her.

Back at sea, we crossed the equator and headed for Africa. We made two Senegal stops, Ile aux Oiseaux, a delta island near the mouth of the Gambia River, and Dakar. On the island we found royal terns and pink-backed pelicans.

The capital, Dakar, was a big city, something we had not seen for a month, and full of color. Our first stop was the Ile de Goree, which has a history as a former slave-trading center. We paid a somber visit to the horrible Maison des Esclaves (House of Slaves).

The afternoon was spent in the city. I was impressed with the gorgeous, flowing clothes many of the locals wore.

And then it was done. Our adventure had taken us from the Antarctic to the tropics, a transverse of 70 degrees of latitude. It was time for Bessie, Penny and me to fly home.

Writer Paulette Lash Ritchie shares her oceanic journey to remote spots of beauty 04/20/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 20, 2011 9:15pm]

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