OTL25-17, trip log, Falkland Islands - South Georgia - Antarctic Peninsula
04.01.2017 by Oceanwide Expeditions Triplog
On a pleasant afternoon in Ushuaia, from the end of the world (“Fin del Mundo”) we were about to embark on a special journey. At the pier of America’s southernmost city, our new home was waiting: Ortelius, the blue-and-white ship that would take us on our big voyage to the Falkland Island, South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula – 19 days filled with nature’s wonders, awe, and adventure. For the first time we made our way up the gangway and at reception were welcomed by the hotel team who showed us to our cabins. There we found our luggage and soon we settled in and started to explore our new surroundings.
As soon as everybody was on board, our Expedition Leader Cheryl called us to the lecture room on deck 3 for both the mandatory safety briefing by Third Officer Warren and the introduction to the ship by Hotel Manager Michael. The latter explained about decks and amenities, providing vital orientation whereas Warren acquainted us with the safety features of the vessel and with the essential do’s and don’ts on board. Soon afterwards it was time for the safety drill and we gathered in the bar, donned our big orange lifejackets and went through the roll call to make sure everybody was there. Then we had a look at the lifeboats while Ortelius was leaving the pier.
With the landscape of the Beagle Channel gliding by, we made our way out towards the open sea. Birdwatching had already begun with Black-browed albatrosses sailing past, and there were even a few Magellanic penguins porpoising! At 19:15 we gathered in the bar again – it was time to meet Captain Ernesto Barría and the expedition team for a toast to our voyage. Afterwards we enjoyed the first of many delicious meals on board. The ship’s movements were very gentle, and the subtle rocking combined with the information and sensory overload we had received today made some of us soon feel quite sleeeeeeeeeeepy …
We awoke to a wonderful Southern Ocean morning. Sunshine was streaming onto the upper decks, birds were circling and a moderate sea gently rolling the Ortelius along her way to the west side of the Falkland Islands. A little before 08.00 Michael our Hotel Manager called us for the breakfast buffet and for the majority of us who made it we enjoyed the fine selection of food choices wonderfully laid out for us. A short time back out on deck for more pictures of the Petrels and Albatrosses following the ship before we were all called deck by deck to pick up our rubber boots and lifejackets. Fair to say many of us were not feeling all that well with the sea conditions as they were … However, we did our best and the staff supplied us with our gear as quickly as possible.
The lecture series was opened later on in the morning by Mick who gave us a wonderful introduction to the Falkland Islands and their ecology. He stunned us with some incredible pictures he had taken over the many years he has visited and guided on the Falkland Islands. During his 45-minute presentation we gained a fabulous insight into many of the wonderful sites and animals we could expect to see during our time on and around the archipelago.
More time on deck for some and an opportunity to lay down and close one’s eyes for others (not feeling so well) took us through to lunchtime. A fabulous buffet had been laid out by our dedicated hotel staff many of whom had spent much of the morning cooking and baking, slicing and chopping down below whilst we relaxed in the sunshine above. Not long after lunch we encountered a number of mammal sightings that included both Humpback and Fin whale. The light had been superb for taking pictures for most of the day and by mid-afternoon many of us who had already taken hundreds of images decided to go and pay close attention to what Sandra had to teach us about taking better pictures during our voyage. Sandra was just superb and gave us loads of top-tips and handy hints, her emphasis on different shooting angles and composition were particularly useful. Only a short time back out on deck to try out some of her ideas before we were called in once more for the mandatory zodiac briefing led by Cheryl. This was a must-do session that focussed on keeping us safe during zodiac operations.
Recap starting at 18.30 allowed us all to meet in the bar and relax before dinner and enjoy Cheryl’s very thorough presentation of tomorrow’s activities covering both morning and afternoon landings. Directly after recap dinner was called by our hotel manager and we able to enjoy an amazing meal in the restaurant before once more dashing out on deck to see if we could get a glimpse of the southern Right whale passing only 50 meters from the starboard side of the ship. The evening sunshine highlighted the well-developed callosities raised upon the head of this magnificent and rarely sighted creature. The Southern right was a great experience for those lucky few happening upon the ‘right’ place at the ‘right’ time. Time now for a quick drink to end a very exciting day packed with wildlife and get a good night’s sleep setting us up for our next adventure!
There was relief for many of us as we sailed into the relative shelter of Carcass Island’s Port Pattison. A wake-up call at 06.45, breakfast at 07.00 and by 09.00 the zodiac fleet was taking us ashore to our landing at Dyke Bay. Magellanic penguins, Oystercatchers, Turkey vultures, and Tussockbirds were abundant around the beach as we came ashore. Warm sunshine and a stiff breeze made for a good start on our hike across the island. We crossed through the sand dunes over to Leopard beach and spent some time there with the Magellanic and Gentoo penguins. Gulls, ducks and geese were spread out across the beautiful fine-grained white sand. Some folks opted to stay in the beach and dune area and the rest of us hiked across to the settlement.
Throughout the hike we encountered a delightful array of birds which nest in the Poa grass and Marram grass habitat. The breeze was strong and steady but we reached the farmhouse by 11.00. As promised, a superb range of homemade cakes awaited us along with tea, coffee, and a warm welcome from the proprietor and his staff. There was time to enjoy the surrounding area and its wildlife before returning to the ship for lunch.
We quickly crossed over to Saunders Island for our afternoon landing. The wind speed increased and shortly after launching the first two zodiacs the operation was suspended as the wind speed increased even further. However, a bit later we got started again and soon enough we all set out on a bumpy ride to the beach landing.
A walk across the narrow neck of the island took us past nesting King, Magellanic and Gentoo penguins. Up and onward to yet another wildlife spectacle: nesting Rockhopper penguins, King cormorants and Black-browed albatrosses. A strong breeze combined with heavy surf created a truly wild atmosphere and the animals too were extremely active given that it is the peak of their breeding season. Turkey vultures, Striated caracaras and gulls patrolled overhead on the lookout for feeding opportunities. Rockhopper penguins delighted us with their ability to surf and survive the crashing seas, leap onto the rocks and climb up high to their nest locations. There was time to see it all, take too many pictures and then return to the zodiacs and the mothership. We sailed away in the warm evening sunlight past many more islands on our way to our next port of call, Port Stanley.
Stanley, Capital of the Falkland Islands! A uniquely British settlement here in the Falkland Islands, more British than the Brits themselves some may say … The town was established in 1849 as a site chosen by Governor Moody to replace the original capital at Port Jackson. Stanley was preferred as capital given its excellent shelter in the bay as well as having deeper waters in its port. Of course not everyone was happy with the move, notably one JW Whitington is quoted saying that “of all the miserable bog holes, I believe that Mr Moody has selected one of the worst for the site of his town”. Today Stanley happily inhabits around 2000 people living mostly on tourism, fisheries licensing and oil exploration.
This morning we had government officers come on board to officially stamp us into the Falkland Islands and clear us for our landing. About half of us caught the first few zodiacs to take a bus to just outside of town, to Gypsy Cove where they saw tantalizing white sandy beaches that they couldn’t walk on, sad remnants of land-mine laying during the Falkland Islands war, especially on this sunniest of summer days. Around however was a variety of birds including Black-crowned night-heron, Rock shag and Magellanic penguin in addition to the stunning views! After returning from Gypsy Cove, they joined the other half of the group wandering around the eclectic assortment of buildings and shops that comprise ‘Stanley downtown’. Some of the highlights were the historical museum and post office, as well as a souvenir shop or two along the way.
Back on board for lunch (or second lunch for some of us) we set sail, passing through “The Narrows”, the beginnings of our crossing to the fabled island of South Georgia! The afternoon spent on the bow deck in glorious sunshine, warm breeze, seabirds and an occasional dolphin. The perfect afternoon to top off the perfect visit to the Falkland Islands, followed by a “Happy Hour” in the bar, and a Falklands-specific recap!
After two days of landings in the Falkland Islands and a night of much-needed sleep, the sea day started with wonderfully calm conditions. A great place to be was the bridge, warmer than outside but with the same fantastic views. The members of our enthusiastic birding group woke up early this morning to look for some of the most beautiful seabirds of the Southern Ocean, and they were presented with the unique opportunity to spot Fin, Humpback and Right whales in the wee hours of the day. What a start!
During the morning, our specialist Lydie gave her lecture about Oceanography of the Southern Ocean. She introduced us to the main oceanographic characteristics of this ocean, the creation of ice, the main currents and parameters that may affect the forming of ice. Afterwards, everybody joined Cheryl in the lecture room for the mandatory IAATO briefing (IAATO as in “International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators”). We learned about the importance of following all procedures and guidelines when going ashore in order to minimize our impact and protect the beautiful and stunning ecosystem of South Georgia and its wildlife. In addition, in the afternoon we were called by decks to come to the bar with our outer gear. The staff team had installed vacuuming stations where we could clean jackets and pants, hats and gloves, backpacks and the such in order not to introduce foreign species to the pristine South Georgia ecosystem. It was a big vacuuming party indeed!
During lunchtime, Mick had made a very interesting and important observation: He had watched a Humpback whale fluking and obtained a picture of the fluke. Our Brazilian whale specialist Daniela got really excited when she compared this picture with the Brazilian whale catalog and got a match! The results of her comparison were presented during our daily recap: She found that this particular whale, having been numbered #2273AB, was seen in Brazilian waters in 2006 – a full decade ago. Unfortunately, this was the only record of this whale to be found but Mick still had the honour to baptize the whale. He chose to name the Humpback “Imaqqa”, meaning “maybe” in Greenlandic, the word being a symbol of wisdom and a philosophical way to describe our (expedition) life.
Gentle waves were waking us up this morning on our way to South Georgia. The wind was quite present and the birds played at the back of the ship for the birders’ pleasure. We had passed the convergence in the night, and the water temperature had dropped from 9 °C down to 4 °C. Now we were in the middle of the kingdom of petrels and prions, and we started seeing Antarctic prions, Thin-billed prions, and Cape petrels.
Kicking off today’s lecture program, Kurtis magically managed to wrap up 400 million years of geology in his talk which introduced us to the formation of the Scotia Arc from the supercontinent Gondwana to the opening of the Drake Passage. From the mineral life we proceeded to the wildlife of South Georgia with Mick telling us everything about the encounters to come (hopefully, that is). A few minutes later, our first iceberg of the cruise appeared in front of us. Everyone dashed outside to enjoy the view – and possibly also get a photo – of the albatrosses playing in the swell with an iceberg in the background. Some Humpback whales decided to participate to the show and started playing around us. Suddenly we had a running game going with people rushing from one side of the ship to the other chasing the moment. To conclude on our whale sighting, Daniela offered her talk on the whaling history.
In the late afternoon we arrived at Shag Rocks – land in sight! This small array of pointed peaks appeared out of nowhere in the middle of the ocean, much like the Loch Ness monster emerging. It was named after the shags (cormorants) nesting there, and sure enough the namesake birds were around, adding a different flight pattern to our birding of today. Wildlife was showing off indeed, and with Cheryl’s briefing about the upcoming excursions we got even more excited about our journey!
The early morning found us approaching South Georgia, during breakfast coming into the Bay of Isles. At least that’s what the nautical chart said and the radar reinforced – there was nothing to be seen outside Ortelius due to heavy fog. Upon drawing closer towards Salisbury Plain however, we could make out the coastline and some of the islands, and with binoculars or a tele lens we could even see tiny white dots along the shoreline and into the hills: some of the 250.000 King penguins in their colony! In addition, the shoreline was littered with brownish-blackish Fur seals and fringed with the treacherous white lace of big swell coming in from the Southern Ocean.
Our plan was to go ashore at Salisbury Plain so after breakfast, we donned our warm and waterproof clothing and eagerly lined up near the gangway. The zodiacs were launched, and off the first one went carrying the staff team ashore. Some more followed with guests but we soon found ourselves facing the unpredictable, wild conditions of South Georgia proper: The swell let the boats dance at the gangway, spray washed over us on our way to shore, and the landing proved to be too dangerous to continue with the heavy surf. Captain Barría put the operations on hold, and as the conditions did not improve, the landing unfortunately had to be cancelled. It was adventurous (and wet) enough for those already out to make their way back to the ship, including a very thoroughly soaked, washed and tumbled staff team …
After this exciting start into the day Ortelius snuck around the corner into Rosita Harbour, the team hoping to find a bit of shelter there. But it was still very windy, and we ship’s cruised the bay. At Camp Bay a bit further south we finally found a sheltered enough spot to anchor, and after lunch had been brought forward by half an hour, we soon hopped into the zodiacs and set out to explore. There was so much to see: shags nesting on rocky cliffs, Giant petrels resting or cleaning themselves or fighting over a good meal, a Light-mantled sooty albatross flying overhead, Wilson’s storm-petrels dancing on the water surface almost like butterflies, the odd King penguin statue in the middle of mayhem, and then the Fur seals – big males and tiny pups, even a blondie as the rare pale variety is called. Fur seals chasing each other, sparring, showing off, dozing, posing, even sliding down what passengers in one zodiac dubbed the “St. Moritz of the Southern Ocean ski slope”. It was highly entertaining to watch and listen and sniff and enjoy and take it all in! After 90 minutes we were happy to return to the ship though – where magically enough, the hotel team was waiting with hot chocolate and rum!
While we were slowly warming up, Ortelius made her way back towards Salisbury Plain. The staff set out again to assess conditions at the gangway and on shore. The wind had come down but the big swell was still present at the landing site, and there was no way to ensure safe operations. After carefully double checking the options, the final decision was made to abandon activities for today but stay in the Bay of Islands overnight – maybe the conditions would improve enough for an early-morning zodiac cruise tomorrow?
It was an early start to the morning with the staff on the bridge a little after 04.00 assessing if the conditions outside were suitable to venture off the ship. Unfortunately, even after the third time of asking, the conditions at Salisbury Plain simply would not allow us to get off the ship. With rain, low visibility and winds approaching 40 kn our Expedition Leader once more had to call off the landing for safety reasons. After the decision had been made many of us decided to share a coffee and pastry in the bar that Michael our Hotel Manager had kindly prepared for us. A number of us then decided to grab a couple of hours sleep before breakfast would be called at 08.00. Sure enough regular as clockwork Michael called us for our wonderful breakfast that set us up for our morning excursion in Stromness Harbour.
Stromness Harbour provided us with some much needed shelter, and before long the guides and crew were shuttling us to shore in the zodiacs as fast as possible to enjoy what had turned into a fabulous day. Fur seals greeted us at the landing site where the expedition staff had established a beach head some 300 m from the old whaling station. Once we had removed our lifejackets we were able to follow the red marker poles the staff had placed in an effort to keep us in the best position to make our way through the colonies minimising disturbance and respecting the animals’ space.
We had been advised to buddy up during our visit and keep a 360-degree watchful eye out for the regular charges made by the Fur seals. Most of us did a great job looking out for one another and making ourselves big and clicking stones together when required to do so in order to prevent the possibility of what could be a very nasty bite. The Elephant seals on the far side of the landing site were all together more docile and appeared to be extremely happy lying in the sunshine on top of each other producing a range of quite spectacular noises and rather a pungent smell at times! A little before 12.00 we saw the hikers returning from their excursion that retraced the last leg of the Shackleton walk from the waterfall to the landing site. This is the walk over the mountains of South Georgia from the SW to NE coast that Ernest Shackleton and some of his men completed after their epic voyage from Elephant Island in their tiny boat (the James Caird). The hikers had a great time and reported sightings of both South Georgia pintail and South Georgia pipit! Just a bit of time to take some last-minute pictures of the King penguins on the way back to the beach before donning lifejackets once more and returning to Ortelius.
Shortly after lunch a Government Officer came on board to clear the ship for us all to land at Grytviken. Accompanying him were a number of personnel working on the Island including Sarah Lurcock who had come on board to tell us about the highly successful (thus far) rat eradication project. We said cheerio to Sarah and after a short delay (to allow the wind to lower slightly) we were once more being transferred to shore and the prospect of an afternoon visit to Grytviken. A number of us took the opportunity of making our way up to the church in order to hear some of the crew sing some Christmas carols and a traditional song from the Philippines.
There was much to see and do that included the museum and post office as well as looking around the old whaling station infrastructure and machinery that has long since fallen onto disrepair (but had been preserved). In amongst the machines and sheets of iron were Fur and Elephant seals protecting themselves from the elements. These two species were particularly targeted by the sealers shortly after South Georgia was discovered. Large restored pots outside the museum bear witness to how many thousands of these wonderful animals would have been processed prior to their valuable oil being ship-ped back to the likes of the UK and other sealing nations at that time.
No landing at Grytviken would ever be fully complete without making the short walk out to the white picket fence surrounding the graveyard in order to pay one’s respects to ‘The Boss’ – a moment of reflection for all of us back to a ‘Heroic age’ down in the Southern Ocean where many ‘endured’ but many also perished. 18.30 was last zodiac back to the ship, clear tagboard, mulled wine, fabulous BBQ dinner, after-dinner drink, bed, sleep, dream, what a day …
Overnight Ortelius had sailed quietly from Grytviken to St. Andrews Bay. There the weather looked good and the gangway started at 09.00. Snow was falling fresh on the hills and it being Christmas Eve it looked very ‘seasonal’. We landed on the surf shore amid yet another great wildlife spectacle: many thousands of penguins, seals, Giant petrels and chicks and pups. This beach holds the largest colony of King penguins on South Georgia with over 150.000 pairs. Many of the birds were moulting and a whole variety of different age group birds were to be seen throughout the colony.
One group set out on a zodiac cruise. Cruising beneath the cliffs we saw our first Leopard seal which was patrolling the shoreline and making the King penguins very nervous. Young Elephant seals (only a few weeks old) played around in the rock pools and Fur seals grunted and squealed as they too seemed to be enjoying being away from the main colony. Then the call came from the bridge: ‘wind speed increasing’, all guests please prepare to return to the ship. The wind was gusting at 50 knots. This is often the way it goes here in South Georgia. The wind took the tops off the waves, which is known as spindrift, and though it looks good and spectacular it means it is time to get back on board the ship. This presents no such problems for the animals and we marvelled at their ability to carry on swimming, traveling and generally playing around regardless of the change in conditions. The beach operation was slow due to the breaking surf and it took a lot of strong arms to position and load the zodiacs on the sand. But in time, we returned safely to Ortelius and back on board with a warm drink and a story to tell all was well.
Repositioning to Ocean Harbour after lunch we stood by and kept watch on the wind speed. Following the now familiar briefing, we assembled dressed and ready to go but once again the strong wind prevented any operation. After watching the steady gusts continue for some time, it was decided to relocate and sail onward to Royal Bay. Once again we were prevented by strong winds gusting at over 40 knots. Disappointing yes, but the light was good, the land and seascapes were spectacular, so we spent the time, some folks on deck, others inboard, in awe of South Georgia where nature governs our every move.
Christmas Day – and what a wonderful Christmas it was! Like a bunch of giddy children, we woke early to see what weather was delivered for us in the night. To our jubilation it was a dusting of snow on the peaks, sunshine and very gentle wind! An absolutely idyllic South Georgia morning to be heading out before breakfast to visit arguably the prettiest King penguin colony on the entire island with its stunning backdrop; the Bertrab Glacier hanging off the cliffs above.
A short zodiac ride took us to the beach where we met many very curious Elephant seal pups who were intent on blending in with our pile of gear. The patient among us had them sniffing at their feet and looking up at us with their beautiful eyes. Not far away the older ellies, with the serious part of the breeding season being over, were wallowing, practicing their fighting, and moulting. Not long after we arrived, Mick rounded up some of the keen birders to walk up into the hills behind the beach looking for Light-mantled sooty albatross nests which they found along with many South Georgia pipits. Back down on the beach, we walked a short way along the top of the crowded beach to the edge of the King penguin colony where the chicks were congregating in crèches waiting for their parents to return with food. In the creek behind, many of the adult penguins rested as they replaced their plumage getting ready for another season at sea. The odd Gentoo penguin wandered by on the way to their nests in the tussac grass beyond the beach.
On the ride back to the ship, smiling faces abound – South Georgia’s Christmas present to us will be unforgettable.
Ortelius heaved up anchor and we set sail for the southern tip of the island towards Cooper Bay where we hoped to see Macaroni penguin colonies from the zodiacs. The menacing wall of clouds on the horizon made us question what conditions we might find there. Lo and behold the wind was blowing but the sun was still shining above a wall of clouds bearing down on us. Obvious that a zodiac cruise was out of the question, we started looking for whales, as this area is traditionally a good place to find them, and we were soon rewarded with blows in the distance, then Humpbacks nearer the ship, and before we knew it the ship was slowed right down, the Captain’s instincts kicking in – all of a sudden we found a Southern Right whale less than a hundred meters off the starboard side of the ship! Very gently the captain steered the ship and just beneath us only meters from the ship, the curious whale surfaced giving amazing and unforgettable views of the callosities and bow-shaped mouth of this rare whale.
Obviously the weather was continuing to pick up, the cloud bank further bearing down on us. The Captain agreed to press on around the tip of the island, leaving Cooper Bay and steering the ship into the entrance of Drygalski Fjord where the full force of the storm was felt, strong wind and driving snow gave dramatic views of the fjord with Snow petrels coming close to the ship. As the fjord began to narrow, we turned the ship around and set our course south-west in the direction of the South Orkney Islands, our next destination 480 nautical miles away. A Christmas that we all will remember!
Merry Boxing Day! After four days of intense South Georgia landings (and after Christmas), today there was time to rest, sort out photos, read and relax. In addition, the expedition team had put together a lecture program for the day. Mick started off with his funny talk about penguins, full of fun and facts. He focused on the species that we may encounter on our visit to Antarctica. How do the Adélies climb up to 300 meters above sea level? How do Penguin highways work? Why do Chinstrap and Adélie collect stones (and steal them from each other)? What does a penguin egg look like on a closer look? How do the little chicks get fed by their parents? And how they do fall prey to other animals like skuas, Leopard seals and Orcas, and the Storm petrel which takes advantage of the Leopard hunting remains.
In the afternoon we had our second “vacuum party” to make sure all our outer gear that we plan to take on shore in Antarctica is as clean as possible, free of seeds, organic material, and dirt – by now we were experienced vacuumers!
Afterwards Lydie gave her lecture about Antarctic Glaciology where she explained the most important features of ice and the glaciology vocabulary. She touched on many interesting topics such as how to calculate the weight of Antarctic ice, and which are the consequences of global warming for the Antarctic Peninsula (and the future of the planet for that matter)? As Antarctic Ambassadors, we found it really important to have such an informative lecture on what threatens this beautiful, pristine and peaceful environment.
Thanks to the time change back to Ushuaia time, we gained one more hour of sleep at night – or one more hour in the bar …
The wind gods had been clement with us last night, and they continued to be extraordinarily friendly during the morning as we were approaching the Argentinian Base Orcadas in the South Orkney Islands, on Laurie Island. Usually, this place is rather challenging with regards to wind and ice conditions but we experienced the exposed archipelago in a calm, monochrome beauty.
The scientific station, established more than a century ago, is enclosed on a neck between two mountains with impressive glaciers flowing towards the coast. The first group landed just before 9:00 and was warmly welcomed by the Argentinians. We got to discover their home, shared with them their everyday life and alfajores and tea or coffee. The second group followed as well as a few Adelie penguins landing on the beach (where their Chinstrap relatives were already present, much to the delight of the photographers).
After lunch, Sandra offered us an introduction to Antarctica improving our understanding of the southernmost, coldest and windiest continent as we were approaching our destination.
Later in the afternoon, a special event took place in the bar. We gathered for our South Georgia Heritage Trust charity auction! In total, 12 lots were on offer ranging from postcards, a South Georgia calendar and a book, a mug, t-shirts with colourful drawings by Mick, Sandra’s photography book, a bronze Elephant seal weaner … Soon Pete was incredibly busy auctioning off unique souvenirs with Lydie presenting the items, the crowd cheering, applauding, and bursting with laughter. There was some fierce bidding going on! The Ortelius flag signed by the crew was thrown in as an extra, and thanks to the passengers’ generosity (and to Pete’s and Lydie’s talents), a total amount of 1.137 US-Dollars for the SGHT was raised – the icing on the cake of a big fun time!
We hadn’t noticed how time had been flying, and at the end of the auction there were just a couple of minutes left for a quick outlook towards tomorrow with Cheryl. Most of us went to see the second part of the BBC “Planet Earth II” movie in the lecture room after dinner – after all, a sea day ahead means sleeping in!
After yesterday’s exciting events a long night of sleep with little movement of the ship was most welcome. In the morning Ortelius had made considerable progress towards the Antarctic Peninsula. However, with the prevailing southerly winds the ice had moved further north, and we passed by bigger and smaller floes, bergs, and bergy bits of various shapes. Some resembled a crown, others looked like a miniature version of Nessie, like a dinosaur, a swan or a castle.
Shortly after breakfast Lydie started today’s lecture session with her talk about sea ice – with all the ice around, the timing could not have been any better! While staff kept a lookout on the bridge, Daniela then introduced us to the wanderings of whales – why they migrate, and why they do it the way they do. Equipped with a whole lot of new knowledge we made our way back to the outer decks or to the bridge to maybe spot a blow or two – the more eyes the better. We got rewarded with a great sighting of Fin whales and some Minke whales passing the ship, and the ice itself in flat calm conditions was quite a treat as well. Clarence Island and later also Elephant Island could be seen in the distance.
After lunch (and after a little nap or some basking in the sun), Pete told the fascinating story of Nordenskjöld’s expedition – a journey back in time to a world prior to Gore-Tex and 24-hour coffee stations on board expedition cruise ships. At 17:00 we had to face a difficult decision: going inside for Sandra’s Lightroom talk (and photography Q&A) or staying out enjoying the gorgeous sunshine and vista? In any case, we all gathered again in the bar for our daily recap with Cheryl laying out the plans for tomorrow. The idea was to head through Antarctic Sound and towards Paulet Island for the morning activity; however, timings were still to be confirmed as we did not yet know how much ice would await us in Antarctic Sound. In any case, the spectacular clouds and flat calm seas looked promising for some great photos later tonight – we wondered if some of our fellow passengers would get any sleep at all?
Many of us were awoken from our Antarctic dreams by the gentle tones of Cheryl announcing the morning weather and warning us of the rapidly approaching breakfast buffet. Outside on decks the birders had started their morning vigil many hours earlier. As we cruised deeper into the Weddell Sea the weather and light appeared to be changing almost by the minute. The scenery was truly amazing, thick sea ice as far as the eye could see and the volcanic cone of Paulet Island (our intended landing for the morning) not yet in sight. The officers and crew were all hard at work on the bridge navigating the heavy ice, our progress being slowed somewhat by the conditions. As a result, we all enjoyed an incredible ship’s cruise out on deck amidst clear blue skies, penguins and seals on ice with occasional snow showers that disappeared as fast as they arrived.
Ortelius pushed her way as close to Paulet island as the Captain felt appropriate for the conditions and once we realised that reaching the landing site was impossible, we launched zodiacs and enjoyed a zodiac cruise amongst the fast moving ice of the Weddell sea. We all had a fantastic time and really appreciated how quickly the ice could close in and trap a fast and nimble zodiac let alone an old wooden sailing ship of the 17th century.
We were all back on the ship just in time for lunch and Ortelius was soon underway, destination Brown Bluff and our evening landing. The weather and changing light en-route was once again astounding as we enjoyed another stunning ship’s cruise into position.
The hotel team had kindly put dinner forward to allow us all to spend the full evening at the landing area enjoying the amazing landscape, geology, penguins and Snow petrel. The short zodiac ride to the landing site was thankfully free of ice and only took a matter of minutes. Once on shore some of us were able to celebrate the number 7 as this was the first and only continental landing of our expedition that completed the set for those that stood previously on 6 others. The walk along the beach to reach the Adélie and Gentoo penguins was fun, seeing them arriving and departing the beach often in less than elegant style. At the rookeries, it was possible to see the chicks of both species actively feeding from parent birds, all the time remaining watchful for opportunist attacks from Antarctic skua. A short walk up the hill allowed us to view a Snow petrel nesting deep within a crack between two boulders; it was difficult to view the chick but seeing the parent bird on the nest was great. The final excitement of the landing came when a leucistic Adélie penguin arrived in the rookery – a rare sighting even for the guides. A fun and unexpected end to a truly wonderful day in Antarctica.
Our overnight passage from Brown Bluff to Mikkelsen Harbour was slowed down by ice en route but overall the weather remained good, calm that is! It was foggy at times, it cleared away and by late morning we were back in the sunshine and spectacular Antarctic scenery. Mick gave a presentation entitled ’Birds of a Feather’. It looked at the evolution and development of feathers from dinosaurs to our present-day avifauna, at the wide variety of feathers, and how birds and people use them for many purposes.
After lunch it was time to set off for a landing and zodiac cruise to Mikkelsen Harbour, a small island in shallow water but the site of former whaling activities and an Argentinian refuge hut. Nesting Gentoo penguins, whalebones, the remains of a water boat and several Weddell seals lying on the snow awaited us. There was also time for leisurely walks on the beach and relaxation in the warm sunshine! With glaciers on one side and the Antarctic continent on the other the experience was like a dream, almost unreal, enchanting.
An early dinner at 18.30 and then it was time once again for another adventure. This time the adventure was way beyond any we had expected. We set off to cruise in Cierva Cove but en route we encountered feeding Humpback whales. For the next two hours we were among these magnificent animals as they bubble netted, lunged, dived, flippered and fed all around us in the zodiacs and beside the ship. The sight, sound and smell was truly awesome. The 50 ton whales were unconcerned with our presence and the experience was thrilling, beyond words really. Some of them fed beside and underneath Ortelius. All of this took place in bright sunlight and no wind.
Perfect conditions for photography and, more importantly, the sheer enjoyment of the privilege of being with such mighty and beautiful creatures. Back on board, experiences were recounted, thoughts and feelings were exchanged, especially in the bar, and we went to bed very tired but very happy to have been so fortunate.
Last day of the year – and yes, we did say good-bye to 2016 in style! After breakfast our guides launched the zodiacs to land inside of an active volcano: Deception Island. After having passed through Neptune’s Bellows, a beautiful opening in the caldera rum, we found ourselves surrounded by an impressive landscape: dark mountains covered by volcanic ashes and ice surrounding us. We landed in Whalers Bay, close to the remains of a Norwegian whaling station which operated from 1911 to 1931. Wandering in between the buildings we thought of this era of commercial exploitation which almost crashed the majority of the whales’ populations. On the beach we could see the pressure boilers which were used to cook bones, meat and entrails to extract as much oil as possible. After this, the remaining bones were crushed down for fertilizer. A bit further away from the landing site we could see the hangar used by Sir Hubert Wilkins, an Australian making history in Deception by becoming the first person to fly an aeroplane in Antarctica in 1928.
Other buildings in the area are the remains of the British Antarctic Survey “Base B”, a scientific base established in 1943 as part of Operation Tabarin, conducting scientific research and reinforcing British territorial claims in Antarctica. This base operated between 1944 and 1969, and was destroyed by the 1969 eruption of the Deception volcano. The collapsed roofs of the construction were an impressive reminder of the forces of nature.
Once on shore, we could walk along the beach and up to Neptune’s Window offering magnificent views. This big gap in the rock wall of the Deception caldera is a perfect lookout over the Southern Ocean and towards Antarctica, but the views of the island itself were stunning as well. A group led by Mick made its way towards Ronald Hill, a longer and partly steep uphill hike to a 103 m high cliff west of Whalers Bay. The effort earned us absolutely stunning views over most of the caldera – we could not quite decide whether our being breathless resulted from the effort or the panorama (or both)!
Walking along the beach, we could see a few pairs of Chinstrap penguins and the old water boats from the whaling era. In the old boilers there were Kelp gulls with their fluffy chicks, and the birders were delighted by the presence of quite a number of skuas.
After our walks and exploration, we gathered on the beach to participate in one of the most eagerly awaited activity on Deception Island: swimming in the Antarctic waters also known as “Polar Plunge”! A few brave people were preparing for this once-in-a-life-time experience, and our ice swimmers from Germany were the first to enter the water – and what a sight they were in their old-fashioned swimsuits with stripes of red and white!
After lunch, the staff on the bridge announced the presence of some Humpback whales near Livingston Island. Various groups could be observed and some calves as well, playing and having some fun near the mother. In two of these groups there were Fin whales together with the Humpbacks!
Leaving the South Shetland Islands, we were ready to fight the infamous Drake Passage. But magically, the last day of the year was a special gift to us – the flat-calm ocean appeared like a mirror, with stunning light and colours all the way through to sunset. What a wonderful way to say farewell to 2016! Near midnight, we got together on the top deck where champagne served in special Ortelius flutes was waiting for us. The countdown was cheerful, and the ship’s horn announced the arrival of 2017. A perfect sunset with various shades of pink, purple and orange reflected by a glassy Drake was a very special moment indeed, one to remember for a long time. Happy New Year everyone!
Happy New Year! After an incredible new year’s eve sunset and toast on the top deck, we woke to the dulcet tones of Cheryl and Michael and found ourselves in slightly windier seas now well into our crossing from Antarctica back to South America.
The Drake Passage is, named after Sir Francis Drake who, blown off course in a storm in the 16th century after coming through the Straits of Magellan, concluded that a connection between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans must exist. The first passage through the strait was made by Dutch Captain Willem Schouten onboard the Eendracht in the early 17th century, naming Cape Horn during this voyage for his hometown of Hoorn.
For us in the 21st century, the passage remains one of the most notorious stretches of oceans anywhere in the world, with the lack of any significant land mass around the Southern Ocean at this latitude meaning that storms have an infinite fetch to gather strength. Fortunately for us the worst storms happen in winter time and our crossing so far had been only a taste of what it can sometimes be like. A gentle rocking accompanied us all day as we reflected on the experiences we had had, sifted through our hundreds (or rather, thousands) of pictures, caught a talk or two in the lecture room from Daniela about Humpback whales, Kurtis about Global Change or Mick with some history of time and navigation but otherwise watched the waves drift past as the ship as we digested the sights and experiences we had had throughout this fabulous voyage.
The drake gods had quite clearly forgotten about our presence since we had left Antarctica. Gentle wind and waves following us were making our crossing a quiet one. We enjoyed a lazy morning and everyone took some time to pack suitcases and share photos and contacts.
In addition, we were preparing for our next polar destination: Mick gave a complete talk about Greenland’s landscape and culture and answered everyone’s questions about the future of the population.
As we made our way to the Beagle Channel we enjoyed a nice afternoon under the Patagonian sun, and tee-shirts, shorts and sunglasses appeared on the bridge. Some dolphins came closer to check us out while Shags and Cormorants made their way in the channel.
In the late afternoon the bar got crowded again as everyone made their way to enjoy Sandra’s final slideshow. More than 200 pictures summing up our trip, we returned to some of the great moments we had! The feelings were strong and we were all a bit nostalgic thinking about our last day. But the smiles came back on the faces thanks to Captain Ernesto Barría as he offered us the Captain’s Farewell and thanked his crew and the passengers. Time to say goodbye – but before that, there was another delicious dinner in the restaurant to be had during which we all got to know the galley team!
The last morning! – Returning from our almost three weeks of Antarctic adventure with time flying by, we had arrived back to the pier in Ushuaia around midnight. After our final breakfast on board Ortelius, in glorious sunshine we bid farewell to the ship and her crew, to the expedition team and the hotel team and, of course, also to our newly-found friends. We stepped down the gangway one last time and took the last photo – and then another one, and yet one more, adding to our individual treasure vaults of moments to be cherished. The wonders of the Subantarctic and Antarctica had gotten hold on us, and by the time we were disembarking, quite a few of us had already made plans to return to this magnificent place …
Total distance sailed on this voyage: 3.418 nautical miles / 6.330 kilometers
On behalf of Oceanwide Expeditions, Captain Ernesto Barría 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.