OTL25-16 Trip log | Falkland Islands, South Georgia & Antarctic Peninsula
05.01.2016 by Oceanwide Expeditions Triplog
It was a breezy day in Ushuaia with clouds shifting, a bit of drizzle and the occasional moment of sunshine as we walked up the gangway for the first time and boarded Ortelius, our new home for 19 days to come. As soon as we had received our cabin keys and settled in, we began to explore the ship, enjoying the view from the outside decks.
When everybody was aboard, we gathered in the lecture room on deck 3 for the first meeting with the Hotel Team and Expedition Staff. Hotel Manager Michael introduced us to the Ortelius and her features, providing orientation. Whoever had so far felt a bit lost in the hallways and on the staircases now gained confidence
to go explore the ship for him- or herself. Straight afterwards, Third Officer Harko acquainted us with the safety features of the vessel, and with a few rules to keep in mind on board a moving ship. Then it was time for the mandatory safety drill, and equipped with our big orange life jackets we first mustered in the bar, then went out onto the outside deck behind the bridge to have a look at the lifeboats. By then, Ortelius was about to leave the pier, and we watched the houses of Ushuaia disappear in the distance. Upon sailing the Beagle Channel towards the open sea, curiosity took over completely – we were ready to embark on our Antarctic Adventure!
A little bit later we found ourselves in the bar, meeting Captain Tuomo Leskinen for a toast to our voyage. The Expedition Staff members introduced themselves, and from Expedition Leader Delphine Aurès we learned about the plans for tomorrow. Then Hotel Manager Michael called for the first of many delicious dinners on board Ortelius – and hungry we were, at least as much as we were excited!
We slept well after our long journey to Ushuaia and the excitement of settling into our cabins on board Ortelius. The ocean was treating us well and we were having a very smooth crossing to the Falkland Islands. Breakfast was served from 8 to 9 am and afterwards most people put on warm layers and went out on deck to do some bird-watching. JB and Arjen were awaiting us on deck behind the Bridge and were very happy to name various species and talk about their characteristics. Most commonly observed species this morning were the Black-browed Albatross, the Giant Petrel, the Cape Petrel and the tiny Wilson’s Storm Petrel; those people willing to spend more time out on deck spotted a few less common species too – such as the Diving Petrel.
By mid-morning many of us were back indoors, warming up with a coffee or tea. At 11.30 am Victoria kicked off the lecture programme, speaking on The History of the Falkland Islands, but omitting the 1982 Falklands conflict (to follow later). In this talk we heard of the first settlements in the late 18th century, how commercial enterprise gradually developed (especially sheep farming and whaling) and learned about the events leading up to the Falklands War – including the logic behind both Britain’s and Argentina’s sovereignty claim.
All this had made us very hungry, and Hotel Manager Michael and his team did not let us down, providing us with a delicious buffet lunch (especially the profiteroles!). For some of us this was followed by a siesta, the sea (and seasickness drugs!) lulling us to sleep. But we woke up when a staff announcement came over the PA system; Humpback whales had been sighted straight ahead of the ship!
Soon we were all hurrying upstairs and out on deck to whale watch. Our Bridge Officers had spotted the blows first and kindly steered the ship a little nearer. However, the Humpbacks proved elusive (it’s a bit like an iceberg – most of it is under water!). We persisted in our observation and were rewarded after about 20 minutes instead by quite a close sighting of a Southern Right Whale, which even obligingly dived, displaying its huge black fluke quite close to Ortelius to starboard. Patience had been rewarded.
Rubber boot and zodiac life jacket hand-out happened next, deck by deck. By then it was time for tea and a fresh muffin in the bar. And at 4.30 pm we all gathered again in the Lecture Room for Expedition Leader Delphine’s mandatory Zodiac Briefing. She followed this up with an overview of the trip and a detailed briefing on our activities over the next few days in the Falkland Islands. We were all fired with enthusiasm for tomorrow to arrive!
After a short break it was JB’s turn to take the microphone in the bar, with his review of the biodiversity of the Falklands – useful information before we land there.
At 6.30 pm we again gathered in the bar (which was open!) for our first of many (almost) daily sessions together at the end of the day, reviewing what we’ve seen, discussing where we’d be going next and of course, opportunities for questions (about anything!) to be asked and answers given by the Expedition Team.
A fine dinner was served at 7 pm. There was much convivial conversation, some of which was continued in the Bar later. Then we headed for bed, full of anticipation for what tomorrow would bring.
Today we woke up with blue skies and sunshine. Apparently we had the weather gods on our side and the Falkland scenery looked stunning. We found ourselves near Carcass Island and shortly after breakfast we got ready to land. We split up in two groups. The first group landed in Dyke Bay where they were awaited by groups of Magellanic Penguins. They set off for a walk towards the settlement on Carcass Island, where they met the other group, which was dropped off on a jetty near that settlement. Both groups more or less saw the same things. Apart from the sunlit scenery filled with the bright yellow colours of the introduced Gorse bushes, we saw many bird species like the Tussock Bird, the Austral Thrush and the endemic Cobb’s Wren. Overhead, several Turkey Vultures and Striated Caracaras were looking for something to eat. At the end of the walk we all ended at one of the houses where a lovely tea with a great selection of cakes was waiting for us. Well-fed and really happy with our first Falkland experiences we headed back to the ship.
While enjoying our lunch onboard, we transferred to another of the western Falkland Islands, Saunders Island, where the Gentoo and Rockhopper Penguins and the Black-browed Albatrosses were the main attractions. However, the stunning landscape with green hills, white beaches and the turquoise waters surrounding the island was astonishing in itself. Adding to the wonders were charming Rockhoppers bathing on the beach, jumping up and down the cliffs, and the drama unfolding when the Caracaras succeeded in catching chicks from the colony every now and then. In the Albatross colony, both chicks and eggs were present – obviously, we had arrived just in the hatching period, and the Turkey Vultures were circling and watching out for unprotected chicks.
The Albatrosses spend most of their lifetime out at sea, graciously soaring great distances. While on land for breeding, nesting and moulting, they appear to be a bit clumsy with their big feet, but when taking off on their wings that are up to 250 cm wide, they immediately become fantastically graceful flyers.
We saw all five penguin species present in the Falklands: Gentoo, Rockhopper, King, Magellanic, and two Macaronis hiding in the big Rockhopper colony. However, the Macaronis were easily recognized with their spiky yellow-orange hair.
The island is heavily grazed by sheep; not many of the native plant species are easy to see, but on steep slopes where the vegetation remains ungrazed and wind- protected, native plants like Boxwood can grow to an impressive height of 2 m. Along the shoreline, the silvery leaves of the sea cabbage with yellow flowers were seen.
The weather as Ortelius sailed into Stanley was a complete contrast to the superb sunshine of the previous day landings on Carcass and Saunders Islands … wind Force 7 gusting to 8 and rain. A bit of a shock to one passenger, who ignoring advice turned up for the boat trip in light-weight trousers and a casual jacket. Needless to say he arrived at the quayside soaked. Whilst this zodiac transfer was Gore-tex-testing wet and exciting, the welcome by locals at the dock and in town was warm and friendly.
Once processed, the Ortelius “invasion force” quickly spread out and dispersed into the various gift and coffee shops down Main Street.
Many walked to the end of the town to visit the interesting small museum at the historic old quay and were rewarded by a wealth of information on the island community and natural world. Imaginations were stimulated by the displays of shipwreck photographs and first-hand accounts of sea-borne drama. Others sampled the locally produced brew and dried off in little back-street pubs, visited the Cathedral, photographed plants in gardens, roamed the back-streets looking at the time-warp architecture and wrote and posted numerous penguin postcards. As all passengers were fresh from Victoria’s interesting introductory background lecture, the massive broken mast section of the SS Great Britain featured in many photographs.
Bill, looking, seeing and thinking, hired a taxi (at modest expense) and drove out to photograph the rusting hulks tilted on their sides at the end of the bay. Meanwhile, JB with a sensitive eye, collected visual material for his recap contribution. The EL – Delphine – and AEL – Victoria – supervised the whole Ortelius landing operation with military precision.
Arjen, Sandra and JB provided a speedy and exciting zodiac taxi service back to the ship for trinket-laden passengers all afternoon … fortunately this was not so wet, as the trip was downwind and down waves.
The recap in the evening as we sailed south, strongly reinforced that all had enjoyed the Falkland Islands experience and passengers had ticked a great many expedition expectation boxes.
Today, we spent the entire day at sea. The Ortelius went well in a relatively calm sea, at a speed of around 10 knots. The swell was long but not high, allowing everyone to enjoy the navigation.
As the wind was absent, we were surrounded by fog – not the thicker fog one may have imagined, but it was at least keeping us from seeing the horizon. This is a very common phenomenon in the area unless the wind is strong enough to clear the sky.
The guide team gave three lectures: Victoria first listed the merits of Sir Ernest Shackleton, during his (Odyssey of the Endurance. Shackleton came back alive, with all his men, from one of the worst journeys man had been able to live, and survive, in Antarctica …
Arjen talked about the “poor flightless birds of Antarctica”, the penguins. He explained almost everything about the characteristics, behaviour and adaptations of those beautiful, attractive birds, illustrating the talk with his awesome pictures.
All day, both colourful and fun Christmas decorations kept appearing throughout the ship, particularly at reception and in the restaurant – a strong hint towards the nearing end of year. A Christmas Penguin decided to sit on top of the reception counter, watching over the work of Michael and Kati, and there was even a bonsai Christmas tree installed near the tea and coffee station in the bar!
In the late afternoon, following part one of BBC’s “Frozen Planet” documentary, Jean- Baptiste introduced us to the geology of the area in which we were, are, and will be cruising. He talked about the age and formation of the Scotia Arc, of the Falkland Islands and South Georgia. Focusing on this part of the trip, he explained the origin and age of all the different types of rocks we had seen and may see during the landings ashore.
The surprise of the day showed up just before the recap, at 6.30 pm: A huge whale (it turned out to be a Fin Whale, this species weighing in at up to 80 tons) surfaced at a few meters from the ship, first in the front, then on portside. We dashed to the bar windows and to the outside decks to get a good view. An impressive encounter!
Nothing much had changed overnight, with Ortelius still sailing in fog and calm conditions towards South Georgia. The ship was moving gently in long swell. After breakfast, Delphine invited us to the lecture room for a mandatory briefing on South Georgia followed by an outlook on the plans for the next few days. It was very exciting to hear famous locations like St. Andrews Bay, Salisbury Plain and Gold Harbour being mentioned, places providing excellent opportunities to watch thousands of King Penguins. Of course, our plans would always depend on weather and conditions but we very much liked the idea of spending a very full four days on South Georgia.
Just as the briefing was finished, the first iceberg of our voyage had come up on our starboard. Eagle-eyed spotters could even recognize a couple of penguins (most likely Gentoos) on the flattish floe attached to the huge berg! Seabirds were hovering where the swell crashed against the ice. In the course of the day, more and more bergs appeared, most of them flat white shapes on the horizon. Whales were spotted, as were numerous seals, and by noon we did not only get a glimpse of the sun every now and then but also a growing variety of albatrosses, among them Black-browed, Grey-headed, and even a few „big boys“ like Wandering and Royal.
Before lunch, Bill gave his very interesting talk on whaling, casting light on an industry that brought several species of those magnificent marine mammals close to extinction. We can consider ourselves lucky to have been able to see some of them during the past few days!
Our afternoon’s main activity consisted of one giant vacuuming party – in order to follow the biosecurity protocol for South Georgia, we needed to clean all of our outer clothing to make sure not to introduce alien species. So when Victoria called us deck by deck, marching up the stairs we came, clothing and backpacks in hand, to make good use of the vacuuming stations set up in the bar, and also to clean our rubber boots in the boot-washing basin on the outside deck.
Meanwhile, visibility had improved a great deal, and eventually the sun came out. We spotted several whales, a great number of seals quite close to the ship, and a variety of seabirds like albatrosses graciously gliding past. Over the course of the afternoon,
we passed a couple more icebergs, and the icing on the cake was seeing Shag Rocks in the distance – often enough, those craggy triangles sticking out of the sea in the middle of nowhere are covered in fog or darkness. Today, we even got a huge tabular iceberg as perfect background for our photos!
Almost everybody was out on deck, enjoying the warmth and sunshine, and the wildlife encounters of which more were to follow: Late afternoon, some Orcas passed Ortelius in the distance – a very exciting sighting!
During recap, we learned more about the damage the introduced rats had done to South Georgia’s wildlife, and about the Antarctic Convergence that we had crossed today. Expedition Leader Delphine introduced us to the plans for tomorrow – the day we’ll reach South Georgia! After dinner, Arjen gave his presentation on how to achieve better photographs, a much appreciated contribution to our personal preparation for the days to come. A small array of clouds added drama and colour to the sunset on the longest day of the year.
Today started early, with Delphine’s 6.15 am wake-up call. We sprang out of bed and took our first look at South Georgia through the port-hole. Sadly, yesterday’s sun had decided not to show its face and it was overcast, with a drizzle of rain. Still, nothing daunted we headed into breakfast at 6.30, and were soon ready for anything, sustained by egg, bacon, cereal, toast, fruit, tea, coffee – or various combinations of the above.
Zodiacs were lowered whilst we ate and soon there were 10 drivers ready and waiting. But what was happening? Just as passengers were being called for their morning zodiac cruise at Elsehul, the wind speed was rising and the rain was getting heavier. Never mind! It’s an expedition! Having weighed up the odds, Captain and Expedition Leader decided to go ahead, but to keep a wary eye on weather conditions.
The gangway was challenging, to say the least. Eight zodiacs were loaded – slowly and carefully – and set off to sail along the shore line, in search of Macaroni Penguins and other delights. Zodiac nine suffered from wind gusts, making loading very slow. By the time it was making for the shelter of the land Delphine and our Bridge Officers deemed the wind speed too strong to continue operations. Consequently, this morning’s zodiac cruise had to be aborted. The tenth zodiac never set off and the question was: Were the 10 dry passengers still on deck better off or worse off than the others? As each zodiac ploughed back through the waves and swell to disembark passengers at the gangway, everyone got very wet indeed – it’s lucky we had waterproofs and were wearing them all! It was a long time before the last zodiac-load was safely on board, had turned their tags and were getting warm and dry. And it was even longer before all of the drivers and their zodiacs were safely stowed. A big thank you to everyone involved in this adventurous operation, and especially to the ABs helping us in and out of the zodiacs. They are indeed heroes.
The coffee machine was extremely busy for the next hour or so, and the bar buzzed with people eagerly discussing how it was for them, exchanging experiences from our first glimpses of South Georgia. It’s not a place for the faint-hearted! All of us were amazed at how quickly and dramatically conditions could worsen.
Still, we were all back on board and warm and cosy. What a difference it makes, knowing you have a warm ship to return to! At 11.15 am Victoria summoned the historically-minded to the Lecture Room for her History of South Georgia talk. This was essentially a tale of discovery, first landings, sealing, whaling and science; and of course also the story of the development of a British overseas territory in the Falkland Islands dependency.
Hotel Manager Michael and his team served us another delicious lunch buffet at 12.30 pm, and afterwards Delphine announced a meeting in the Lecture Room for all those interested in hearing what could happen this afternoon. By 2 pm we were entering Bay of Isles, where all of us on Ortelius were surprised to find perfectly flat calm conditions. However, before confirming this afternoon’s activity, Delphine and her intrepid team had to go out scouting to see what was possible. This morning our activities had been limited by the wind, but this afternoon they were limited by the numbers of Fur Seals on the beach. There was an incredible number of large males, females and cute pups at Salisbury Plain – so many in fact that between strong surf conditions and aggressive seal conditions, we were forced to find a Plan B; there was no way to approach the King Penguin rookery further inland through the forest of Fur Seals.
So, Plan B came into play. B group passengers were invited to dress warmly and be taken for a one-hour-plus zodiac cruise along the shore at Salisbury Plain, with A group passengers following an hour and a half later. It was a joy to walk down the gangway and step into the zodiacs, so calm were the waters here compared with this morning. We seemed to be on a different planet! Soon, just over 50 passengers where whizzing towards the shoreline, cameras and binoculars poised to take in the amazing sight before our eyes – thousands of seals and penguins spread the length and breadth of the beach. We encountered Fur Seals
playfully swimming around our zodiacs; young Elephant Seals, blubber rippling, effortfully crawling along the beach; Giant Petrels floating watchfully past looking for fresh meat; King Penguins herding towards the ocean, then changing their minds and rushing back on land again. There was not an empty space to be found on the beach – cute black Fur Seal pups (with a few glimpses of blondies) yipped and scampered around whilst the larger males staked their claim for territory, together with all the females that came with it. This is how life is lived on South Georgia …
We had about an hour and a quarter to take in all that the beach scene had to offer us, then we returned to Ortelius to warm up and start the evening! The bar was busy long before recap time, which was at 7 pm. Delphine talked of Fur Seal numbers, and then explained tomorrow’s plans to us and there were a few questions posed and answers given, with Arjen providing some biological insights.
Dinner was served at 7.30 pm, during which a couple of birthdays were celebrated. It was agreed by all that today had been thoroughly memorable and as we dispersed for the night, we kept an open mind about what tomorrow has in store – with King Penguins and a whaling station being Plan A.
This morning we woke up in another stunning bay on South Georgia: Fortuna Bay. And this time we were fortunate enough to not only go into the zodiacs, but also make a landing. The weather was really nice and we had to put on sunscreen to prevent getting burned. On shore we were awaited by our Expedition Staff and a great number of Antarctic Fur Seals.
After we had been briefed about our landing, we made our way through the area packed with wildlife. Apart from the Fur Seals we saw several Elephant Seals, and our first King Penguins were also present. The Antarctic Fur Seals posed a bit of a challenge, as they can be quite aggressive. Even the tiny pups sometimes already had an attitude and came charging towards us. Not much larger than our boots, they didn’t really pose a threat. In the end everybody made it safely to the King Penguin colony. We had great views over it from some little hills at the side. Many of us were amazed by the great number of birds and wondered how parents would be able to find their chicks again after returning from a feeding trip. After a while, we slowly made our way back to the landing site. Many stops were made to enjoy the penguins which sometimes were very curious and approached us. We saw several South Georgia Pintails and even a few of the endemic South Georgia Pipits, the only passerine species of the island.
During lunch the Captain repositioned the ship to King Edward Bay, where we would visit Grytviken. Victoria briefed us about our options ashore in South Georgia’s only active settlement. While we were waiting for the government officer to check and stamp our passports, JB and Arjen told us about the birds of South Georgia, especially the breeding biology of the King Penguins.
When we had been cleared we all checked our clothes for alien seeds, as the biosecurity regulations were quite strict for this place. Ashore Victoria awaited us with some whisky so we could have a toast at the grave of the Boss, Sir Ernest Shackleton, who in 1922 was buried at the local cemetery. Then we had time on our own to explore this old whaling base that had been renovated a few years before. Several old buildings and ships on the beach reminded us of this grim period in South Georgian history. But there was also wildlife to enjoy, many Elephant Seals and a few Fur Seals were lying everywhere along the shore and we could also see a few King Penguins and South Georgia Pintails. But this was of course also our chance to do a little souvenir shopping, send postcards and visit the museum.
Back on the ship Lucy of the South Georgia Heritage Trust gave a short lecture on the Habitat Restoration project they are carrying out, with the main focus on eradicating all rats on the islands. These rats were accidentally introduced by the whalers and have had a great effect on the wildlife, eating many eggs and chicks of birds on the island, from the huge Wandering Albatross to the small South Georgia Pipit. We had witnessed the success of this campaign ourselves as we had seen several pipits in Fortuna Bay, a place where they had only returned recently after the rats were gone.
After this we had a nice BBQ dinner and many of us went to bed shortly afterwards, filled with the experiences of a beautiful day on this sub-antarctic island.
St. Andrews Bay welcomed us with a bit of fog and low visibility, but almost no wind which is very rare in this exposed bay. Usually strong winds and big swell hinder landings at this wonderful place with the largest King Penguin colony in South Georgia. Upon landing, we had a stroll amongst Fur Seals and Elephant Seals on the beach towards the hills close by the rookery. On our way, we crossed two meltwater streams dotted with Kings along the shores. From the hilltops, there was a great view over the colony and the lake in front of the glacier, and for some short moments the fog lifted enough for the impressive front of Cook Glacier to become visible. The vegetation is sparsely distributed in the area due to recent glacier retreatment and heavy reindeer grazing. However, some spots with Greater Burnet and with native grass species can be found on the hills. The third layer of trophic interactions is also present in the ecosystem, mainly represented by Skuas nesting close to the rookery. They are often seen circling to find eggs or small chicks.
After our lunch onboard and about two hours of sailing, we entered Godthul, the “good cove”. It was named by Norwegian whalers who used the cove with its very protected waters as a sheltered place for mobile floating factory ships. There are some rusty metal structures left on the beach, but these were only functioning as depots for the ship-based whaling activities in the area, and the main traces consist of large amounts of bone from whales and Elephant Seals.
The cove is amphitheatre-shaped with steep tussock slopes hiding several territorial fur seals which we had to pass when hiking up to the plateau. A couple of Gentoo Penguin colonies are located up around the lake, as well as Giant Petrel nests. We found reindeer antlers and whole carcasses left from the eradication project which was mainly carried out by Sami reindeer herders from Scandinavia, who gathered the reindeer for meat production to be used on cruise ships and also sold to the Falklands. However, not all animals could be herded; the escapers were shot successively when found and just left in the terrain.
Christmas Day … how “exciting” to hear the anchor rattling into the water at 4.30 am! Most were tempted to roll over and go back to sleep but an hour later, our energized EL called on the speaker-system to officially wake up passengers for an early morning experience of further adventure. Not a normal lazy Christmas Day, no time was to be lost … the plan was for an action-packed programme! Soon, the zodiacs transported all of us to the beach at Gold Harbour, one of the most beautiful King Penguin colonies in South Georgia. We were delighted and amazed at the astonishing quantity of wildlife – Fur Seals, Gentoo Penguins, Elephant Seals, South Georgia Pintails and Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses etc.
After this early-morning adventure we enjoyed breakfast back on the ship as it cruised to Cooper Bay. Here, our team had planned to take us ashore for another magnificent wildlife-crowded landing. But as soon as the staff boarded the scout boat to check out the landing site, we could see from the decks that there was a lot of swell at the gangway – way too much for safe operations.
So instead, we continued around the corner to enter the very scenic Drygalski Fjord for a ship cruise. The towering glacier-covered peaks on either side dwarfed the vessel and gave a sense of the scale of the landscape as Ortelius slid slowly through the milky blue-green waters. This was a photographer’s delight, a truly aesthetic experience in sparkling sunshine. Nikon, Canon, Sony and Panasonic shutters clicked repeatedly in response to the ever-changing geological stimulus. Some of the all-white Snow Petrels were seen close to the ship, aptly nicknamed the Antarctic Angels. By nightfall, we had logged 21 bird species.
Later in the afternoon, as the ship had turned around and sailed out of the Fjord towards our next destination, passengers flocked to the bar for the one and only Ortelius Christmas South Georgia Recap Special. Special it was, for two creatively dressed (Californian) reindeer appeared, towing bird expert Arjen, convincingly white- bearded as an enormous Santa. They were followed by Bill, the bald-headed patriotic Scotsman, who – discarding his normal tartan attire – swept seductively into the bar dressed in Scottish “evening dress” (courtesy of Swedish guide Åsa) complete with tartan flashes adorning his yellow wellies.
The chef and galley crew then ensured that the superb experiences and happy atmosphere continued by serving an excellent Christmas Dinner – the fantastic finale to a totally memorable 2015 Oceanwide Expeditions Antarctic Christmas!
Christmas Day had been successful, but nonetheless exhausting, especially after those awesome long days spent hiking and staring at animals in South Georgia. As a matter of fact, the ship remained quieter than usual this morning: no wake-up call, just the call for breakfast at 8.00 am, and no educational intervention from the team of guides. Nevertheless, everybody enjoyed watching a “Christmas movie”, ’Hook’, in the Ortelius movie theatre aka lecture room.
Just before lunch, the Bridge announced we were approaching a huge tabular iceberg. These icebergs, named after the shape of a square, sturdy table, are the biggest icebergs you can imagine or see in Antarctica … and this particular berg was no exception: 14 nautical miles (nm) long and 7 nm wide, it was quite huge, coming from one of those gigantic floating glaciers named “ice shelves”, which are spread around Antarctica.
What we saw from the ship was basically a big, long island of pure ice. The height of the cliff above sea level was probably around 50 m average. This iceberg had been tracked and monitored by scientists, who had given it a name, ‘A56’. A stands for “zone A” which means that this iceberg (the 56th monitored iceberg in this zone) had calved in the Weddell sea, between 0° and 90° W, as Antarctica is divided into four equal parts (A, B, C, and D) when it comes to icebergs. B would mean “between 90° and 180° W”, C between 90 and 180 East, and D between 0° and 90° East.
After this beautiful encounter, we were given a lecture about penguins by one of our passengers – Mr. Salomon, a passionate penguin lover who has seen all of the 17 penguin species around the world and wanted to share his knowledge and passion with us.
Then we had our daily recap, containing some information about bird biology and the history of Antarctica, and a briefing about tomorrow: a landing at Orcadas, an Argentinian station situated in the remote South Orkney Islands, and the oldest one in Antarctica. What a programme to look back at – and to look forward to!
After another very calm night, we woke up to a stunning sight: On our starboard, jagged peaks made of dark rocks and white glaciers were rising out of the sea – Ortelius had made very good progress, which meant we had already reached the South Orkney Islands! There were many tabular icebergs in front of the islands, which consisted mostly of pointed mountains. A huge flock of Cape Petrels maintained exactly ship speed, gliding low over darkish waters.
It seemed impossible to find a suitable landing spot anywhere in this sawtooth chain rising up from the sea. Penguins were resting on big icebergs to both sides of the ship, Chinstraps as well as Adelies – which meant we spotted our first Adelie Penguins! A handful of Snow Petrels made their appearance, and as Ortelius slowly approached Laurie Island, we could see orange buildings at about the only flat spot available: Orcadas, the Argentine scientific
station! By now, we had crossed 60 degrees south and were sailing in true Antarctic waters. The jagged peaks with their snowy tops and heavily glaciated areas gave us the feeling of truly having reached the remote Terra Australis Incognita, and to celebrate this special moment, we all gathered at the bow for a group photo. Soon, the Captain had Ortelius anchored in Scotia Bay named after the famous Scottish expedition of William S. Bruce in 1903.
Once ashore, we stepped up a small snow staircase chiseled out by the station team. They were welcoming us in their bright yellow parkas, happy to take us on a "tour de base“. In small groups led by one of the scientists and one Staff member each, we set off towards Omond House, the remains of a small hut erected by Bruce’s expedition.
We then proceeded towards the flags, greeted by a couple of curious Adelie Penguins – it was a very funny experience since the little fellows seemed incapable of making their minds up regarding the visitors: coming closer, staying, or running away? In the end, they accompanied us towards the museum, our next stop. Here we were able to get a glimpse of daily expedition life way back when, before we continued to the northern side where on another pebble beach a Fur Seal lay sleeping, and more penguins were resting. Nearby there was the cemetery, and from there we made our way towards the modern living quarters of the 17 men stationed at Orcadas this season. In the main building, we were welcomed with tea and delicious cookies, and immediately took to the cozy atmosphere. It was a tough task to leave but a nice little zodiac ride back to the ship was waiting for us, as were some Chinstrap Penguins on the way to the landing site. It was still magically calm as we sailed within a monochrome painting of sea, ice, rocks, and clouds, dotted by the odd bird.
By the time we were all back on board the ship, it was lunchtime – and hungry we were after our adventures on shore! Afterwards most of us settled for a little nap, or to sort photos. In mid-afternoon, Victoria invited us to the Ortelius movie cinema in the lecture room for a documentary on the rat eradication programme on South Georgia. At the same time, a table with items for auction had been set up in front of reception – there would be pins and first day covers, T-shirts and books up for auction later on, and we made sure we got a good look at the items to figure out which one we’d like to take home as a souvenir.
The auction itself proved to be a huge success, raising more than 1,200 GBP, and actually it was much more than just a charity evening accompanied by a Happy Hour at the bar – it was hilariously funny, thanks to the contributions of everyone, thanks to the presenting fairies JB, Arjen, and Bill, but especially thanks to “Queen Victoria” presiding over the event with unperturbed dignity. Laughter roared and ceased only to reignite again, and in the end even those who had not been successful in placing a winning bid looked quite cheerful (which might as well have been due to the fact that Bill publicly and quite impressively answered the question about what Scotsmen wear under their kilt).
After the auction it was dinner time, and later we discovered to our surprise that the landscape outside looked strangely familiar. Indeed, due to a great amount of ice on our intended route, the Captain had decided rather to take the ship around the South Orkneys. So here we were, sailing in beautifully calm conditions with huge tabular icebergs in soft evening light, and penguins posing on smaller floes – what a finish to this incredible day …
Ortelius was moving a little more than usual when we woke up, and a lot more than usual – pitching rather than rolling – by the time the afternoon came around! It didn’t stop most of us from enjoying our day on board, but the weather front that passed through in the late morning (with horizontal snow!) certainly prevented most of us from being out on deck … a short hour later the sun was out, so definitely a varied day weather- wise. By dinner time, the seas were much calmer.
Otherwise today was passed pleasantly, with lectures and food arriving at regular intervals! Sandra kicked off the lecture programme with Antarctica 101 providing us with a useful overview of Icy Continent facts and figures. JB came next with his Seabird Adaptations to Extreme Conditions. It really is amazing how over many generations, the various species develop the means to thrive in such a hostile climate.
Lunch was NOT a buffet for a change. Because of the ship’s movement, we were served with carrot & ginger soup followed by a delicious home-made pizza; this was much safer than if we had fended for ourselves – balancing plates and walking about the dining room was best left to the expert Hotel Staff.
After a post-prandial snooze many people were out and about on deck enjoying the sunshine, or in the Bar from 3 pm to consult Sandra and Arjen on photographic techniques during their informal Photographic Workshop. They were still hard at it by 4 pm teatime – the bar was buzzing with activity and conversation.
At 4.30 pm Victoria greeted the dedicated and the strong-stomached in the Lecture Room for a session on The Antarctic Treaty System. It is important for us all to know how Antarctica is governed now that we are HERE. By means of clutching on to a pillar for support, she made it through the talk. One truly keen audience member actually sat outside in the corridor to listen, where she felt less affected by movement from the ship!
And now it was time for our daily recap and briefing – an extended session running from 6 to 7 pm. A number of staff spoke: Delphine talked about our plans to be in Antarctic Sound tomorrow and explained the ice conditions we might be facing, aided by JB with information on icebergs and their numbering system. Delphine also gave us a run-down on the seals we have seen and are hoping to see, including the average weight of male Elephant seals, which was truly staggering! Then Bill took the microphone and showed us the famous French painting of the wrecked Meduse’s passengers and crew by Gericault, adrift on the wide ocean on a home-made raft. Many artists since have copied this thought-provoking symbol of mankind’s social interactions under pressure … And finally Åsa treated us to some thoughts and photos of the kind of political statements different Antarctic Treaty countries make whilst running science bases on this remote continent.
Dinner was most welcome, though a few people decided to give it a miss and stayed in their cabins. However, the seas were calming down and it was possible to spend a pleasant evening out on deck watching a quite spectacular sunset followed by darkness descending upon the waves, or sipping a drink and conversing in the Bar. Tomorrow we hope to set foot on the continent itself – a first for many of our passengers.
After yet another lovely breakfast many of us headed to the outer decks or to the bridge to enjoy our first views of the Antarctic Peninsula. First we could see the glacier-covered islands at the northern tip, but soon the first parts of the continent were seen as well. The weather was really nice … again. Somebody on the ship must have done something to please the weather gods as we have kept on being very lucky with the weather on this trip! During the morning several whales were seen, mainly Humpbacks and Fin Whales, but also a few Minke Whales. After a while most of us exchanged these spectacular sights for the much darker lecture room, as Åsa gave her very interesting and informative talk about “Environmental Processes in Antarctica”.
After lunch we entered the Antarctic Sound. Again many of us gathered outside to enjoy the spectacular Antarctic sights. Huge tabular icebergs were floating in the sound, beautifully sunlit under the blue sky. Soon a collection of orange buildings appeared on our starboard- side: the Argentinian base Esperanza, much larger than the one we visited on the South Orkneys. But our destination lay a little further east: Brown Bluff, a small spit landlocked between huge glaciers and surrounded by icebergs. Most of it was populated by thousands of Adelie Penguins which had their rookery there. Many of us spent a lot of time watching these funny birds at the colony or walking around on the beach, hopping in and out of the water. At the colony the adult birds seemed to be busy
all the time as well, running around, fighting with each other, or feeding their chicks. Some of us got a nice look at a few Weddell Seals hauled out near the glacier.
For others, the most important feature of this landing was not the wildlife or the spectacular scenery, but just being there: As Brown Bluff is situated on the continent of Antarctica, this meant for some people that they had set foot on all seven continents; congratulations!
All too soon it was time to go back to the ship where the Hotel Department was waiting for us. After dinner many of us enjoyed watching the huge tabular icebergs floating by, beautifully lit by the low sun. In the bar, quite a few people toasted their seventh continent, or maybe just because they had had another gorgeous day?
A stunningly beautiful morning with calm waters and sunshine welcomed us to Livingston Island and Half Moon Bay. In the Chinstrap colony there was a lot of intense activity; we even witnessed some fighting between individuals. A number of chicks had already hatched, but there were still eggs in many nests. A single Macaroni Penguin hung out amongst the Chinstraps, much to the delight of those who had not yet seen this particular species. Further out on the small peninsula, an Elephant Seal was resting; several shags nested on the cliff.
As we were the visitors in penguin land, of course penguins always had the right of way. This led to many a funny scene near the “penguin highways” when we were stopping and waiting because of penguins heading back and forth to and from the beach – the dirty ones going downhill, the clean and shiny ones uphill.
To the north of the landing site, we could wander along a route leading across flatter terrain with nice views of Skuas and three Weddell Seals, and with an amazing backdrop of mountains and glaciers providing the picture-perfect background for our photos. At one stage, one of the Weddells suddenly woke up and started to eat snow, possibly as a water supply.
After returning on board Ortelius, we made our way to famous Deception Island. Upon approaching, almost everyone was out on deck to witness our spectacular sailing through “Neptune’s Bellows”. This passage is particularly impressive with its magnificent steep cliffs to both sides, suddenly opening up onto the flooded caldera.
In Whalers’ Bay, our landing site, the volcanic origin of the island is very obvious with black lava sand beaches and warm waters with a strong sulphur smell coming up along the beach. Some Chinstraps were standing in the warm- water steam, and along the shoreline we could see krill that most probably had died because of overheating in the water.
Some of us took the opportunity to hike up to a place called “Neptune’s Window” where the caldera shows a significant gap due to erosion. From there, we had a great view over the ocean with its drifting icebergs, and over the caldera and Whalers Bay. Due to the amazingly good visibility, we could even see the Antarctic continent in the distance! And then a zodiac came into sight, slowly cruising below where we were standing – it was our Expedition Leader Delphine, who had taken the volunteers for a ride outside the caldera before landing them at Whalers’ Bay.
Two Weddell Seals were resting on the beach. Above the landing site a group of Brown Skuas and a single South Polar Skua were splashing around in a meltwater pool. We visited the buildings and walked around the remains of the whaling history dispersed on the beach, illustrating tragic stories of the brutal whale slaughter that had gone on in the region. Before heading back to the ship some of us enjoyed taking a Polar Plunge from the landing beach!
Whilst sailing towards our next destination, the conditions continued to be unbelievably good with waters as calm as a mirror, reflecting the bow of Ortelius and making the smallest blow of a whale visible at long distance. Several Humpbacks surrounded us, and in combination with the sunshine, the icebergs and the surroundings it was an(other) unforgettable evening in Antarctica!
The early morning call prompted passengers to prepare for another Adventure onshore. As the sunlight sparkled on a magnificent snow-covered scene, it was announced that there would be two separate landing groups. The site was a low island, the only accessible area in an otherwise marvelously inhospitable-looking shore. The distinguishing feature was a prominent red hut and the enormous mass of a glacier cascading over the rocky mountainside into the equally rocky, obviously difficult to navigate, shallow sea.
Once ashore, passengers, after a briefing, split into small groups and wandered first to the Gentoo Penguin colony then along the pole-marked trail from the Argentinian hut to the far side of the island to see a variety of historic artefacts – the wreck of a beached water boat from the whaling era and a scattering of whale bones. Photographers were delighted to also find Weddell Seals dozing in the snow. Some of us noted that this island must have been a difficult operational base in the old days as the surrounding sea whilst sheltered to some extent, was extremely shallow.
As the wind increased during this landing it was decided to abandon the plan of a zodiac cruise, and after a thorough cleaning of “penguin evidence” from boots everyone returned to Ortelius. Interest continued as the vessel motored slowly past numerous spectacular icebergs into the Bransfield Strait, dotted with whale spouts.
This was the last day of 2015. A special New Year’s Eve dinner was followed by a festive party in the bar. Much to everyone’s delight, our two flamboyant American passengers once again set the happy scene by turning up dressed in flashy penguin outfits!
Of course, there was much clinking of glasses, kisses, hugs and shaking of hands as new friends celebrated the first few minutes of the New Year!
Happy New Year! By the time we woke up this morning it was definitely 2016 for all nationalities on board. Our New Year treat was to have no wake-up call; instead, amazing Austrian waltz music was played through the PA system by Hotel Manager Michael, to make us gently aware that the Dining Room was open. And the Drake Passage was treating us kindly – a great New Year gift.
For those up and about, Episode 2 of the BBC’s wonderful Frozen Planet series was shown in the Ortelius cinema (aka lecture room). By 11 am everyone had put in an appearance and most of us gathered to hear JB’s talk – A Winter in Antarctica. It was fascinating to find out what it’s like to spend a year of your life south of the Antarctic Circle. JB’s account was entertaining as well as educational. He described some of the strange effects of being so completely isolated with a limited number of colleagues in the midst of winter dark and cold. The opportunities his research gave him to spend time with the Emperor penguins (less than a kilometer away from Dumont D’Urville station!) made us all a bit jealous – though on balance, most of us would NOT have truly wished to take his place!
Lunch was served to us as Ortelius was beginning to move just a little – super lasagna in generous portions. Then we were free to enjoy the views from the outer decks, try and spot passing whales and catch up with our journals, photo-editing and Antarctic reading during the early part of the afternoon. At 3.30 pm Victoria finally had the opportunity to deliver her presentation on Shackleton’s Forgotten Men – the grueling tale of what had been happening on the other side of Antarctica during Shackleton’s Endurance expedition (1914 – 1917). Meanwhile, crew were busy with an emergency drill – even on New Year’s Day it’s important to think about on-board safety training.
A recap with a difference was held at 6 pm. After JB had shown us his videos on ‘different ways to catch birds’ (always for scientific study of course!) we moved on to a special Question & Answer session in the bar. Bill had provided a decorated box into which passengers had deposited slips of paper containing questions to be answered by the Expedition Team. Each of the Staff members took responsibility for a couple of the questions, which ranged from serious themes asking for facts and figures about various aspects of Antarctica, to rather more trivial questions about the flavour of penguin! Even Michael contributed with a statistical analysis of weight gain among passengers, and an appeal for volunteers to send in future data for his records …
Then it was time for dinner and a quiet evening in the bar – or even an early night to make up for the exuberance's of New Year’s Eve.
Throughout the night, Ortelius had been moving a bit due to wind and swell, and in the morning we found the ship to be sailing in thick fog. It looked like the sun was not too far away, though, maybe just behind this layer of light grey. Not everybody was feeling cheerful, but the dining room still filled quickly at breakfast time. And so far, the infamous Drake Passage had treated us more gently than we could ever have imagined.
Just after breakfast, we were 40 nautical miles off Cape Horn, and we crossed fingers for some help from the weather gods or goddesses. Those of us who felt that they could cope well with the ship’s movement attended Bill’s lecture on Paintings of the Sea. Afterwards, JB gave his talk on climate change, aptly titled Global Warning: Climate changed, an eye- opener full of interesting if somewhat sobering facts.
Again, the timing was perfect, and the visibility had improved considerably: We had finished our lunch when Delphine announced that we had indeed reached the 12-mile zone of Cape Horn. Thanks to the friendly Chilean station personnel and Delphine’s language and negotiation skills, Ortelius was allowed to approach much closer – up to 3 nautical miles off the Cape! So here we were, sailing in closer, accompanied by myriads of seabirds. Black- browed Albatrosses floated in big flocks, and the sky was filled with the silhouettes of birds gliding by – we could only speculate as to how they avoid collisions.
In the afternoon, two more events strongly hinted towards our voyage coming to an end. The Expedition Team called us deck by deck to hand in our rubber boots (who would have thought before the start of the trip that they would prove to be the perfect footwear?) and zodiac lifejackets. At the same time, Hotel Manager Michael announced another adventure: the settling of our ship’s accounts. Other than that, it was fairly quiet in the hallways – maybe everyone was busy packing?
Shortly before 6 pm, Delphine called for a surprise meeting in the lecture room. When everyone was there, we were treated to a beautiful slide show with photos of our voyage, put together by Sandra – what a lovely way to summarize the trip! The whole Staff Team got a huge round of applause for their tireless efforts, and we do hope they enjoyed the trip as much as we did.
Afterwards we gathered in the bar for a toast to our very successful journey to the Falklands, South Georgia and the Antarctic – and of course, we offered our heartfelt thanks to the Captain who not only had managed to take Ortelius to all the beautiful places we had seen, but obviously also has excellent connections to those responsible for the weather! One of our fellow passengers had even written a poem as a thank-you to the Expedition Staff (who were all very touched by it, to be honest). Since Ortelius was still moving towards the Beagle Channel, it did not feel like the last evening on board at all – so why not postpone the thoughts about tomorrow and truly enjoy our last ship’s dinner?
Sad enough, the last day of our Antarctic adventure had come – it was time to say goodbye to travel mates, new-found friends, and Ortelius and her crew. The night before, we had picked up a nautical pilot and sailed up the Beagle Channel, back to Ushuaia from whence we had set out earlier – it felt like months had actually passed. Well, it was a whole new year by now after all, and certainly we were not the same anymore after all our encounters with the wonders of the sub-antarctic and Antarctica.
After we had enjoyed our final breakfast on board, we waited for customs clearance before we disembarked Ortelius. It took a while to say goodbye and thank you to the ship’s team, a few last photos had to be made, and finally the staff waved from the pier as our buses were leaving. We were about to begin another journey: the one homewards – or, for a lucky few among us, an extension of our Antarctic adventures in other locations …
Total distance sailed on this voyage: 3.452 nautical miles / 6.393 kilometers
On behalf of Oceanwide Expeditions, Captain Tuomo Leskinen and the Officers, all Crew, Expedition Team and Hotel Team, it has been a pleasure travelling with you! Have a safe return to home – we hope to welcome you on board again soon.