PLA27-17, trip log, Falkland Islands – South Georgia – Antarctic Peninsula
09.02.2017 by Oceanwide Expeditions Triplog
After lengthy flights for some and a hop/skip/jump for others we landed at the base of the spine of the Andes in the small city of Ushuaia, clinging to the sides of the snow-capped mountains surrounding the curve in the middle of the Beagle Channel. Indeed we could see the Channel from our airplane seats. But it got even more exciting as we descended over the sparkling waters surrounding the pier where our ship would be waiting for us.
After half a day of exploring and a leisurely lunch we jumped in line, pausing briefly on the pier to take photos of the seemingly massive hull of the ship. We waited patiently in line to be welcomed aboard by our staff, were shown to our cabins - home for the next 18 days - and soon moved about the ship taking in the layout and finding the coffee machine and lounge. We would become intimately familiar with both in the coming days. In short order the ABs (able bodied seamen) let loose the lines and we began our sail eastward down the Beagle Channel. Almost immediately afterward we were summoned to our muster station to learn what to do in case of a ship emergency, “when we are no longer able to guarantee your safety,” according to our safety officer. We joined the others, donning thick, bright orange life vests and practiced the emergency scenario. Let us hope this is the last time we wear these!
A short while later we were invited to the Lounge to meet our Captain, whose cheery stories warmed our hearts. We couldn’t ask for a more experienced and level headed Captain…we felt we’d be in safe hands. After a few snacks and a toast to our good voyage we moved on to our first dinner, a delightful meal served by delightful and cheery wait staff.
Off to bed for a well-deserved rest, then spending the night getting accustomed to sleeping in a bunk and allowing the rocking of the ship to calm our nerves. In the early hours of the morning we would be out into the open waters of the Drake Passage and heading East toward the Falkland Islands.
Today was the first day at sea. The South Atlantic Ocean welcomed us with clear blue skies, and a sparkling, gently moving sea.
The early birds, most of them passionate birders, woke up at 5 am, aiming for the perfect bird spotting. Some of them succeeded, others were still in search of the black-bellied storm petrel until 3 pm, when it finally appeared, fluttered by and left some of the guests mesmerized and impressed. However, the position of the grey-backed storm petrel remained a mystery for today, may we hope for better days to come. For now we continue to play hide and seek with the kings of the ocean.
Andrew eventually opened even the late birder’s eyes with an awakening introduction to our lovely, super-fast, black rubber boats, triggering some excitement among the guests for our first landing.
After lunch, Fritz and Rudi gave a talk about seabirds and shared their knowledge regarding birds with fellow passengers.
Throughout the day over one hundred black browed albatrosses, three royal albatrosses, a flock of white-chinned petrels, numerous grey shearwaters, sooty shearwaters, Wilson’s storm petrels, southern giant petrels and several prions were spotted.
After the briefing concerning the plans for the next day Andrew talked about the geology of the Falkland Islands, followed by an introduction to the history of the Falkland Islands by Kasper.
Antarctica has its own rules: the fatter the better. As Andrew said, onboard it’s all about the food. You fly in and you roll out and there is no need to feel bad about it. This trip is a voyage to the end of the world and shall be enjoyed to the maximum.
A stunning sunset and keen birders who continued to watch out for their feathered friends after dark rounded off the evening.
The day ended with a daily briefing where Andrew told us about the plans for tomorrow and some of the guides told us about penguins and other things we will encounter during this voyages. A great dinner was served and then we went to bed getting ready for tomorrows adventures in the Falkland Islands.
May tomorrow be as wonderful as today!
The early morning saw Plancius cruising through a glittering, wind ruffled sea toward West Point Island, the most north-westerly point of the West Falkland Island mainland. We were greeted by Commerson’s dolphins and a group of sei whales as we entered the Woolly Gut passage.
The Zodiacs sped towards the settlement on Black Bog Hill & our walkers donned backpacks, slung cameras & then unslung them all again as we started to walk in the very warm day toward our appointment with the black-browed albatross and rockhopper penguins of the Devil’s Nose. They did not disappoint! Nor did the superb spread provided for us at the settlement.
It was a fanciful and abundant high tea, and in the morning no less! There were cakes and cookies of all kinds, including the superb scone, clotted cream and jam combo.
Invigorated and recharged by lunch aboard ship, we anchored at Saunders Island in the early afternoon. Despite a freshening wind, we made our way up the Tombola beach at ‘The Neck’, past the waiting Landcruiser trucks of our hosts, and alongside the serried ranks of gentoo penguins at the top of the ridge. We were then presented with the regal shapes of three king penguins as we carefully walked past Magellenic penguin burrows and an immature blue whale skeleton. Here some made for the beach and the rockhopper penguins at the end of it, whilst others ventured further to view the black-browed albatross. Tired but elated, we returned to Plancius happy and exhilarated at the end of our first great day in the Falklands.
Despite the soaking rain, the delights of Stanley were too tempting to miss this morning. Upon arrival at the jetty we dispersed swiftly in all directions, and the whir of coffee machines in the town’s various coffee shops rang loud and clear as we first took shelter from the continuing downpour.
Many took the opportunity to enjoy the museum and gain a better understanding of Falkland Island life, including both its natural and human history. Others shopped for penguin paraphernalia and souvenirs, and chatted to the friendly locals. Once the rain cleared, we strolled the streets to take in the colourful cottages and their greenhouses – supplying precious fresh vegetables in an otherwise cold and windy climate. Along the shoreline, steamer ducks and kelp geese paddled about the rusting, broken hulls of various shipwrecks.
Stanley bid us farewell us with sunshine (at last, after a long rainy morning) and rugged rocky scenery as we passed back though “The Narrows”. As we set course for South Georgia, we filled our bellies once again with another delicious and filling lunch. The afternoon at sea allowed us to enjoy more seabird action around the ship, to catch up on our diaries and review our photographs from our short but full and varied visit to the Falkland Islands. Cecilia attracted a full-house for her presentation as she regaled us with personal stories of life behind the scenes of filmmaking in and around the Arctic ice.
Later in the daily recap, Fritz walked us through a list of some of the feathered friends we met in the Falkland Islands. He even gave a wonderful demonstration of how the endemic flightless steamer duck propels itself along with its short wings … cute and hilarious.
As the day slowly came to a close, a pod of energetic Peale’s dolphins joined our wake and a long and lingering orange-pink sunset decorated the skies. With calm and rolling seas we were gently rocked into the arms of Morpheus. Another perfect day.
It can be hard to know what to expect from a day far, far out to sea on a transit to South Georgia. Is the traveling simply a means of getting to the destination or does our journey itself become crammed with experiences we will want to log in our diaries? As it turned out the events of the day would give us plenty of the latter.
As per the IAATO guidelines we began our morning with a briefing on code of conduct in Antarctica and South Georgia, followed by a rigorous vacuuming exercise in which all aboard were required to participate. Not a close clean of the ship carpets, mind you, but of our outer clothing, backpacks and camera bags in order to remove all plant seeds we may be inadvertently carrying from previous land visits. This requirement is part of the continuous effort to avoid the introduction of invasive and non-native plant species to the pristine environment and finely-tuned ecosystem of South Georgia.
But no sooner had we brought out the vacuum cleaners than three fin whales interrupted us in the most pleasant way. The 2nd largest whale species in the world, these majestic creatures came as close as 50m within Plancius, making the powerful venting of their lungs at the surface audible to us. Whether it was the same whales who returned later in the day is hard to know, but fin whales were certainly in our vicinity three times at least. They even managed to momentarily tear us away from the exhilarating BBC documentary ‘Operation Iceberg’, that our expedition guide Martin McGrath was part of making. With Martin as the dive safety expert and coordinator, he and prominent glacial researchers examined the flowrates of Greenlandic icebergs and glaciers. This was no easy feat and entailed highly risky operations such as placing movement sensors on precariously balanced ice towers ready to collapse, at the edge of the glacier by flying in on a helicopter.
At midday, we found ourselves included in an international research project, when crew set out to launch a so-called Argos buoy - part of an international research effort to monitor the seven seas. This solar-powered buoy, to become no. 3740 of the total number of buoys in circulation around the world today, will float in the surface and transmit data via satellite on sea surface temperature and water salinity to scientists who monitor the health of the world oceans.
This action-packed day also included a wonderful visit by beautiful black and white hourglass dolphins bow-riding and jumping waves on our starboard side. Their prettily patterned bodies were clearly visible in indigo blue waters lit up by bright sunshine. Whether it was the windy conditions or not that brought them to us, we also had the pleasure of the company of wandering albatross, soft-plumaged, white-chinned and black-bellied storm petrels, prions and grey-headed albatrosses at different times throughout this memorable day.
How many oceans have you crossed in your life? If we include those we have crossed by airplane it’s probably many. But when we talk about ocean crossings by ship, then it’s suddenly very different, for many of us.
This voyage that we have started takes us across oceans and today we really feel the distance, the second day of going full speed towards South Georgia. More than 1000km of distance, covered with the same speed of a bicycle trip through town. Even if we didn’t leave the ship at all today, the program has been packed!
The South Georgia government introduction video showed the more official picture of the island that we are about to visit and after that, Martin had a lecture also introducing us to this mystical place, South Georgia.
After lunch we heard a wonderful lecture by Louise about Sir Ernest Shackleton and his life as an explorer and to top it all off, Rudi and Fritz each held a lecture about penguins in German and English. Other than learning new things and getting better prepared to meet South Georgia, the day has been spent outside on the decks, watching the amazing birdlife of the Southern Ocean, Wandering, Royal, Grey-headed, Grey mantled-sooty and Black-browed Albatrosses, Prions, Petrels and Shags everywhere.
The morning was especially great for the birders. During the afternoon fog came and disrupted the visibility. We reached Shag Rocks, the first pieces of land belonging to South Georgia in the early afternoon, but unfortunately, the sight was a bit grey due to fog.
In the evening, Andrew had yet another briefing, telling all about the next days and Fritz told more about which techniques albatrosses use to be able to keep flying for such immense distances. Even though it was a sea day we’ve found ourselves settled into the rhythms and pace of a small vacation village, but this one’s afloat on the ocean!
Salisbury Plain - An audience with the kings! In a wide and vast expanse of valley surrounded on three sides by steep slopes covered with tussock grass we intrepid and eager walkers hopped off the ship in strong swells headed for a huge colony of king penguins.
With thousands of kings in a far colony resting quietly, or sometimes not so quietly, we were enticed across the broad plain to view the thousands of penguins spread out over the valley and far up into the hills. We enjoyed the long walk and leg stretch over the sandy and pebbly shoreline, passing thousands of fur seal females and pups, the females crying plaintively for their pups when emerging from the sea to the shore. Endless rain and fog drenched us to the bone but at least the sustained wind was manageable. Zodiac drivers came and went with skill and expertise but we had to hustle into the boats between swells… the gangway was wild but also manageable.
Watching the tussock grasses bending to the wind was like watching waves on the ocean. Mesmerizing and rhythmically flowing. Drenched with soaking wet clothing we relished this chance to get off the ship and see more of the wildlife.
Prion Island - The rain continued with fog and low clouds but we were undaunted… beach visiting, hill climbing and a Zodiac cruise gave us the full feeling of this remote and isolated place where life continues as it has for eons, without mans’ interventions.
The wildlife on South Georgia is amazing and plentiful. In the course of our landing we would see not only wandering albatrosses up close but also numerous South Georgia pipits, even flushing out four at once…on such a windy day their appearance was tantalizingly brief…a quick hop into the air then down into the tussock grass… again and again. On the ascent we flushed out four South Georgia pipits… it’s truly amazing how this small endemic bird has returned in numbers once the rats and reindeer had been eliminated. Their numbers will surely continue to improve.
A pleasant climb up a steep stairway to first a lower platform, waiting our turn, then climbing again to the top platform to view a very close by wandering albatross, then turning and observing at least a dozen on their nests, keeping a single egg warm. This wait of two to three months of incubation would test anyone’s patience but they all seemed quite content. They shared the hilltop aerie with a handful of giant petrels, doing the same.
Our gazes wandered to the scene outside the island with numerous small mountains and spires of rocks on all sides. With the fog and low hanging clouds it created an otherworldly scene. Wandering albatrosses on the wing around the end of the island were a study of wind dynamics. Below, the small beach was crowded with hundreds of fur seals and even more pups. Just over a small rise a large wallow of bellowing, belching and altogether noisy elephant seals were attempting to rest. Nearby the thick kelp undulating with the swells as the waves bashed up and over the low rocks, some swells exploding in great sprays completed the scene of wild ruggedness.
We awoke to Stromness Harbour in our sights but due to bad weather (heavy katabatic winds) we were obliged to continue sailing in search of a potential landing site. To fill the gap and while watching Martin’s video (of which he was the on-site dive master) Operation Iceberg 2 the Plancius sailed toward Cumberland Bay East and along the front of Nordenskjöld glacier. After the late risers awoke to the sound of the wind it was clear that it had picked up and the passengers did not take their job in terms of organizing the weather seriously! Andrew was busily devising other plans for us so after several ideas came up with new plans he finally decided to carry out plan E. This involved us landing in Grytviken and only in Grytviken but it was worth it!
When we finally made it to land, several birds and seals along the shoreline greeted us upon arrival. The stunning landscape in conjunction with the historical aspect of the area mesmerized some of our guests. Staff distributed glasses of whisky in preparation for the upcoming graveside toast.
We commenced our landing with a walk up to the cemetery for a toast to Sir Ernest Shackleton with a moving speech given by Louise in honor of the inspirational hero. This was followed by a whaling tour as well as a Shackleton Tour through Grytviken. Afterwards, we had time to freely roam about the area, to go shopping and to send some postcards home to our loved ones. We also visited the museum and the replica of the ‘James Caird’.
We were especially impressed by the exhibition in the Post Office displaying Frank Hurley’s original glass plates and large prints on canvas of the photos. The definition was unbelievably clear. It was amazing to realize these historic and iconic images were saved in the final days before the Endurance sank beneath the waves.
Zodiac loading at the end was perhaps the easiest one on SG as it didn’t involve huge heavy swells and we could find our way leisurely back to the ship without getting wet.
Just at that moment the sky cleared and we enjoyed a lovely BBQ on the back deck which rounded out the evening. Many of us danced as if there was no tomorrow. Meanwhile, Andrew was busy working on plans for the next day. At the same time, the ship joined in the dance and nobody was really sure whether the lack of balance was a result of the waves or too much mulled wine. One way or another, this beautiful day will be remembered by guests and staff alike.
We were again blessed this morning as we awoke to good weather in Godthul (meaning “good cove” in Norwegian). Snowflakes drifted gently as we anchored in the gentle breeze. The expedition staff went ashore early to clear a path through the minefield of aggressive Fur seals along the beach and in the nearby tussock grass. A weak sun shone on the detritus of an old whaling supply depot. There were a few ridiculously cute and tiny fur seal pups on the beach near the landing site, and several South Georgia pipits were observed foraging on the beach and in the tussock grass. A gentoo penguin rookery was located on the ridge above the beach. The walkers had a chance to explore the alpine meadows around a lake. Several wildflowers and ferns were spotted as well as nesting giant petrels. The long-walkers hiked up to the top of a rocky hill and were rewarded with spectacular views of the bay and the rugged coastline.
South Georgia really delivered today for the zodiac cruising group! With calm seas, sunny skies and barely a breeze we zodiac cruisers set out on an anti-clockwise circumnavigation of the sheltered bay. Surrounding the bay were steep cliffs with some lesser slopes covered with tussock grasses. All around were the distant and plaintive cries of the fur seal mums calling out for their ‘long lost’ children… or so it seemed.
Standing in clumps were sorry looking king penguins, patiently waiting out their molt…some of them standing in gorgeous little streamlets cascading down from the icy peaks on high…glacial melt….the cool water must have felt soothing during this stressful molting phase. We almost melted away ourselves, it was so warm.
In the Zodiac for the duration of the landing we cruised slowly weaving our way carefully amongst the islands of floating kelp, going mostly along the shoreline staring up at the tall cliffs or into the many caves.
We delighted in sitting quietly amongst dozens of groups of fur seals cavorting, writhing, sinuously weaving around each other in a curious display, and occasionally popping their heads up for a look at the strange apparition floating before them. At times large groups of them appeared to be playing amongst the kelp. The splashing they caused always caught our attention.
After a walk on the whale bone littered beach we were back in the zodiac to complete our tour. When we rounded the last point we slowly and carefully approached a group of about fifty southern giant petrels, resting on the water, some of them sleeping with bills tucked under wings. One small group was surrounded by an equally sized group of Wilson’s storm petrels, having an intense feeding frenzy. It was delightful to watch as they alternately pattered then hopped on the water with their tiny webbed feet on very long, spindly legs. We were mesmerized watching them in their little ritual finished by a quick nip into the water with the beak to retrieve some little tidbit. They continually fluttered like butterflies around our Zodiac, our heads and the water as we watched for a good twenty minutes. What a gorgeous morning in South Georgia…how will we ever top this one?
The afternoon brought us to St Andrews Bay. We landed amongst dumping surf with help from a couple of the Expedition staff in waders. The sun broke through the cloud to reveal testosterone-fueled juvenile elephant seals jousting amongst the thousands of penguins.
The entire mass of passenger humanity slowly worked its way through the crowded throngs of penguins, elephant seals and fur seals moving upwards on rocky steep terrain which turned into reindeer pathways to the top of a small peak. Coming around the bend of a small knoll we were stunned to see the full population spread out before us of some 250,000 pairs of king penguins, the largest rookery in the world. Add to those numbers the several hundred thousand brown, fat and wooly chicks and you have an unimaginably huge gathering of these striking birds. Fortunately several were nearby so we could record their various behaviors, including one bonding pair sitting atop the knoll with a background of immense mountains covered in glaciers against an impossibly blue sky. This made the couple of the Kings of the Hill for no other penguins were higher in elevation than these two elegantly quiet birds.
Some were so taken by the spectacle they simply sat and gazed. We were in no hurry and as there was room for all we could spend an inordinate amount of gazing upon the scene.
This crowded bay rang with the click of shutters as the guests and staff alike sought to record this amazing wildlife extravaganza!
Like a rip in a seam, the dark grey sky split open at the horizon to reveal the intense orange-pink light of sunrise. Gradually, the monochromatic scene in front of the ship filled with colour like a watercolour painting – starting with the jagged snowy peaks towering above Gold Harbour, then slowly moving down the icy contours of the hanging glacier to the tussock hills behind the beach. The cacophonic calls of penguins en masse could be heard across the waters, and the colony’s accompanying olfactory delights soon followed on the wind.
By 0530 we were bumping across the swell towards the beach, where our “lads in waders” aptly wrangled the boats (and us!) ashore. Our human numbers paled into insignificance compared to the animal life that was crowded on the black sandy beach, flipper-to-flipper and whisker-to-whisker. Belching, sparring, snoring and sleeping elephant seals lounged about in giant piles of blubber; fur seals romped about sniffing, barking, rolling and chasing; and giant petrels sat poised, patient and hungry, waiting for a stray chick or injured penguin to stumble by. Resplendent with their orange and yellow throat and chest feathers glistening in the early morning light, the king penguins lay quietly, stood about in groups, or waddled by in procession and with purpose. Brown, downy chicks joined in the march to the sea, forgetting their lack of waterproof adult feathers until being soaked back into reality at the water’s edge and running away looking bedraggled and forlorn.
The entire fleet of Zodiacs quickly dispersed across the expanse of Cooper Bay for our mid-morning cruise. Small, kelp-fringed coves bubbled with a veritable “seal soup”, while the rocky shores provided perfect vantage points to cormorants, gulls, sheathbills and terns, as well as groups of chinstrap penguins moving to and from the water. Light-mantled sooty albatross pairs glided above – their synchronous manoeuvres a gravity-defying ballet of the skies. The resident macaroni penguins also proved to be popular personalities. Their characteristic yellow crested plumes swept back high above their heads – slicked neatly down with water as they returned to the colony from their morning feed; soon waving and flapping in the breeze as they dried.
A ship cruise down the impressive Drygalski Fjord capped off our day of South Georgian splendours. Solid walls of rock rose steeply on each side of the fjord’s narrow waters, interjected occasionally with powerful rivers of ice tumbling to the sea. At the head of the fjord, we paused to take in the mighty Risting glacier and the huge numbers of cape petrels that flitted and fed at its front. We paused too to reflect on our days on this very special isle of South Georgia before turning our ship and setting sail for more adventures in the icy south.
Yesterday, leaving the dramatic landscapes and incredible masses of South Georgian wildlife behind, we ventured out to sea once more. This time for our transit to the South Orkney Islands. We woke up to a full day at sea and immediately threw ourselves into the obligatory hoovering of outer clothes, camera bags and back packs to clean off any plant seeds we may potentially be carrying.
Soon after Kasper gave the first of two talks of the day: an exciting overview of the Early Antarctic Age of Heroic Exploration, the tough and dangerous expeditions that have taken place in this region and the brave men behind them. Namely in and around Antarctica for scientific discovery and for the race to the South Pole. Later, in the afternoon, Rudi filled us in on the evolutionary development of whales and how these magnificent creatures, who like us must breathe air and nurse their young with milk, have adapted to living in the world’s seas.
During happy hour drinks, Andrew and Liz dressed up as auctioneer rats, in support of the South Georgia Heritage Trust rat eradication program. The trust had donated unique items for this evening’s auction to raise further funds for their programs. During the auction, we had several intense moments. One guest doubled her bid to GBP 252 in order to secure a lovely graphic print of penguins made by an artist from the Falkland Islands and two gentlemen ended up in an outright bidding war over the expedition flag currently flying on the bow of Plancius. The competition really got rolling when Andrew threw in Kasper as an additional prize, with the final bid eventually reaching 1000 GBP. This took the auction subtotal to an impressive GBP 1912 and as the looser of the final bidding war was not a sour one, he donated 88 GBP to the auction making the final total a beautiful round GBP 2000. The South Georgia Heritage Trust sends warm thanks to the auction participants.
Leaving South Georgia and heading south, takes quite a bit of time, so after having spent a full day at sea yesterday, we were looking forward to getting off the ship at the South Orkney Islands. The landscape looked majestic, a tall mountain with a glacier “hat” in the background towering over all. Andrew held his pre-landing briefing, and divided the ship into two groups, since the station personnel require small visitation groups. The first half went ashore and the other half went on a Zodiac cruise in the surrounding bay. The cruisers spent time with quite a few chinstrap penguins, even some that were parading on an iceberg for us, but also seals on the beach, elephant and fur seals were most abundant, some were even lucky enough to see an Adele penguin. The rest of the cruise was all about the glaciers and the stunning scenery that was all around us, once again!
Coming ashore we watched, fascinated, as large groups of Cape petrels bobbed and spun in search of plankton floating just below the surface of the water. Judging by their quick movements it appeared they were having a major feast.
At the station, we were greeted by the station personnel, whom had just finished the first week of the one year long contract they have with the Argentinian navy. They showed us around the station, had cakes and coffee ready for us and gave us a sense of what kind of a life they must live, here at the remote station in the Antarctic.
After lunch we were once again at sea and spent the afternoon watching a fascinating documentary about Frank Hurley, the photographer of the Endurance expedition (in English) or a documentary about the Endurance expedition in general (in German). At 5:00 o’clock, Liz was on the schedule to do a talk with the title “an Introduction to Antarctica”, but was rudely interrupted by a pair of feeding fin whales! So we spent a lot of time with the whales and got pretty cold enjoying these enormous animals and watching them going on about their business without even noticing us. So instead of a talk, we listened to an extended recap, where Andrew told about the plans further, Louise about krill, the ‘simple yet elegant food chain’ of Antarctica and Liz talked about whale biology. Doctor Lise told us a bit more about the mysterious disease scurvy. Yet another good day in the far south!
We started the day gently with no wake-up call but by now have been trained to visit the restaurant for a leisurely one-hour breakfast starting at 8:00am on sea days.
Liz gave us a full introduction to Antarctica. Starting with the political and geographical parameters as well as going through the ‘four elements’ of earth, wind, water and fire as it applies to the most isolated continent on the planet. She covered the Antarctic convergence, ice and the critters we were about to see, the geology and geography as well as an explanation of the Southern Ocean and its currents.
After lunch and a cuppa tea we heard from Andrew in the Bridge that because the fog had lifted and the sun was out we could easily see Clarence Island on our starboard side. This is not so far from Elephant Island where Shackleton’s twenty two men waited for three and a half months for their rescue. We learned in the Shackleton talk that the early whaling ships traversed these waters on the south side of the island, but with the men camped out on the north shore there was no way they could ever hope for a passing ship to rescue them. What a desolate and isolated place!
Mid-afternoon we came into view of beautiful Clarence Island. The fog lifted and revealed bright sunshine making the glaciers dazzling in the blindingly bright light. This island literally rises up to great heights straight out of the ocean. It pulled us out onto the decks for viewing with cameras in hand, of course. It’s amazing to realize these are the same peaks as the Andes Mountains. So far from everywhere else on earth, the farthest reaches of the famous Scotia Arc.
In the afternoon Louise gave a talk about the Early Whaling Industry, from the unique perspective of the working man. Her great grandfather was the first to bring a whaling factory ship, two whale catchers and seventy men to begin what would become the sixty year harvest of whales in Antarctica. Many of the passages in her talk were taken from his original diaries. It’s stunning and quite sad to realize this ‘humble’ start would bring an end to over 95% of the entire whale population of the world over a sixty year period.
Today was a lovely, sunny day on the South Shetland Islands. We woke up to Half Moon Island, where we landed shortly after breakfast. Besides all the natural beauty of this place, a lonely penguin on the shoreline caught our attention. We were not sure whether it was a juvenile king or an emperor penguin. In the morning, with half open eyes we were fairly sure that we were really looking at an Emperor penguin, keeping in mind that the final classification for a juvenile bird is particularly hard to make. Our birder Fritz from the team was among the most excited guests on board. Finally he brought his scope to shore in order to place it in safe distance from our unexpected feathery guest, allowing all guests to gain a better look at the penguin. However, all the time that Fritz spent eye to eye and tooth to tooth with the penguin, resulted in Fritz realizing that the emperor penguin was instead a juvenile king penguin. Nevertheless, never underestimate an audience with a King. On shore we walked along the rocky beach where we encountered a large chinstrap penguin colony, several fur seals, including a white one and some gentoo penguins in between.
During the afternoon we landed in Whalers Bay on Deception Island. After Liz and Andrew gave us an introduction to this live and active volcano, we could fully appreciate our visit on the caldera. We strolled along the black beaches within the steam vents, called fumaroles, rising from the sea at low tide and waters’ edge, giving this place a mysterious atmosphere. Some of us hiked to the top of a hilltop to enjoy the view, others looked through Neptune’s Window to a distant view of Antarctica, while others simply walked between the ruins of the old whaling station, studying the history trail left behind by humans and their activity.
The landing ended with some of us swimming in the not-so-warm waters, while some guests preferred to wait for the ‘real polar plunge’ proposed for the next day. Back on the ship, we enjoyed hot drinks and biscuits, followed by another lovely meal, which was interrupted by a school of humpback whales swimming by.
The beautiful sunset got us excited about the 4am wake ups to come as we’d been told to expect gorgeous scenery at that hour.
A beautiful day has an early start; the early birds did not get woken by the now familiar voice of their Expedition Leader. But at 4am they were out on the deck to witness the dawn of their first day on the Antarctic Peninsula. A little cloud veiled the sunrise, but at about 6.30am the calm waters were shattered by a breaching humpback whale beside the ship as we were sailing through Errera Channel.
Neko Harbour glittered in the early morning sunshine, as we Zodiac cruised into the landing point, the gentoo penguins hurtled through the water on either side of us. Our explorers climbed the snowdome and from the top we watched an iceberg break apart and roll over. For a large part of the morning, most eyes were fixed on a big overhang looming on the glacier toe. One or two rumblings were heard as an avalanche and a small calving tumbled and anticipation grew. Gentoos fed their chicks under our eager eyes, others trundled to the sea following their penguin highway. They were joined by giant white penguins with multi-coloured markings, who didn’t seem too at home in the waters: congratulations to our brave Polar Plungers!
Plancius traversed the mirror like sea of Paradise Harbour, flowing into the stunning Lemaire Channel where Plancius’ daring navigation between massive icebergs thrilled all aboard (we may need to repaint the hull). We cruised onwards towards Yalour Islands and the Zodiacs gave us the opportunity to close this fantastic day in a late afternoon cruise.
Adelie penguins awaited us on the shores, icebergs of all shapes and sizes regarded us as we cruised amongst the channels of the islands. The sun crept closer to the horizon and painted the sky in soft pink hues. After a warming dinner we brought the day to a close in the bar with a drink livened up by ancient Antarctic glacier ice.
The final hurrah for our Antarctic adventures took place in the sheltered waters of Port Lockroy. An early rise from bed was rewarded with an unexpected visit to the tiny Goudier Island and the restored British “Base A” – now commonly referred to as Port Lockroy.
Home to four smiling staff, museum, post office, shop and enigmatic Gentoo penguins, we all took full advantage of our time there. Bags of souvenirs walked out the door like a Boxing Day sale, and postcards were scribbled quickly before being posted through the characteristic red letter box of the United Kingdom’s Royal Mail service.
Around the main building, Gentoo penguins and their chicks carried on with their penguin lives – sleeping, preening, and feeding. Snowy sheathbills trotted about amongst the mass of rock, melting snow and guano mix, while one new fluffy brown chick remained hidden from the activity under the safety of the building’s wooden verandah.
Brilliant sunshine, glistening glaciers and towering mountains were a feast for our eyes as we sailed through the Neumayer Channel and the Melchior Islands. A few humpback whales graced us with their leviathan presence, and our final hours in this icy wonderland were savoured and celebrated by all.
As we set sail for Ushuaia, Liz’s presentation about marine mammal adaptations segued nicely into happy hour and a pub quiz in the bar. Quiz Master Kasper challenged our new-found knowledge of Antarctica, with fame and glory (and two bottles of red wine) bestowed upon the deserving winning team.
It was another day in open sea for us as we continued our journey home from this exciting Southern hemisphere adventure and time to catch up on personal travel diaries, notes on species seen and the route sailed. These activities were, of course, interspersed with visits out on deck for fresh air and for some guests, a rare sighting of the lovely blue petrel in the morning. During the rest of the day we saw fly by visits of grey-headed albatrosses, white-chinned petrels, southern giant petrels, Wilson’s storm petrels and the always impressive wandering albatross.
Louise took us back to the times of true exploration through her talk on legendary Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen – the man behind some of the most extraordinary exploration records in history. Not only was he the first to the north and the south pole, but also the first to lead a successful sailing expedition through the icy and treacherous Northwest Passage above the North American continent in 1903 to 1906 – a feat man has attempted to do since the early 1600s. He truly deserved to take the South Pole as he’d worked tirelessly most of his adult life to prepare himself for safe and efficient polar travel.
In the afternoon, we joined Fritz for his talk on a fascinating journey to the vast and extremely remote Dronning Maud Land in Eastern Antarctica. Here all travel is done by small charter planes (more often than not with mounted skis) to inspect the international research stations there as part of a program to ensure that all nations represented in Antarctica adhere to the treaty regulations agreed upon. His interest in conservation was apparent as a powerful motivator for his interest in inspections.
While yesterday perhaps marked our last sightings of the southern fulmars we were once again, as on our journey south, accompanied by the beautiful bow riding hourglass dolphins in the afternoon. Four to five of them playfully jumped the waves to reveal their stunning black and white patterning again and again very close to our starboard side – a fitting farewell salute to the Antarctic continent.
The convergence was passed during the evening and we could feel the ship begin to feel the ship heating up as we worked our way northward. It was a pleasure standing on deck in the fresh air, searching for the Southern Cross constellation.
Our second full day at sea started with a mixture of excitement and tension. We’d slipped into our comfortable pace aboard the ship and we were now thinking forward to leaving the ship and on to our future travel plans. But the staff and the ship were not finished with us yet! Kasper gave an exciting talk about modern day expeditions to remote polar regions, breaking barriers for speed, efficiency and testing the limits of human endurance in totally new ways.
Immediately after (gasp!) we actually came alongside of and within three miles to the infamous Cape Horn! It was exciting to be in the same waters that has claimed so many lives, especially in the age of sail. Hotel staff, Johnny and Heidi, also surprised us with hot chocolate, rum and whipped cream on the upper deck behind the bridge. The Cape Horn monument with its albatross cut-out was visible with high powered cameras and binoculars. This was a particularly kind gift from our Captain Evgeny and Expedition Leader Andrew as it hadn’t been on the itinerary. After lunch we returned our trusty and waterproof rubber boots then sat in on a lecture by Rosalie about climate change and the implications for all our futures and the precarious fragility of our planet.
Sailing nearer to land all day since leaving Antarctica we continually marvelled at all the sea life around the ship…hundreds of black browed albatrosses, and the occasional fur seals and penguins in the water as well as a visit from the ever energetic dolphins.
In the early evening, after having settled our accounts, we shared a toast to our charming and capable Captain, clinking our champagne glasses with cheerful good will. Each little event that took place this day would be the ‘last of’ for our trip…the last photos, the last time to dinner, etc.
This trip has exceeded our expectations. The delightful staff and crew have made this once-in-a-lifetime trip more impressive and memorable than we ever could’ve imagined. The continent itself, as well as the sub-Antarctic islands, have infused us with wonder and appreciation. Armed with new knowledge, we can now go forth to become ambassadors for the protection of this fragile environment.
Today is disembarkation day in Ushuaia. The small city clinging to the foothills of the Andes glittered in the early morning light, welcoming us back to civilization, but bringing about mixed feelings. We would like to have spent far more time in the frozen south but having packed our bags we’re now eager for the next chapter and for the months ahead of sorting our thousands of photographs.
Coming alongside the pier, the ship was boarded by Argentine officials who cleared our vessel and allowed us to disembark. On the pier we bade farewell to the many ‘friends and neighbours’ we have come to know over these past 18 days, and had one last look at the Plancius, the ship that was our home and that took us safely on such an incredible voyage from Ushuaia, across the Southern Ocean, the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the South Orkneys to Antarctica and then the infamous Drake Passage, which treated us kindly.
It was an incredible gift to be able to make it so very far south and to view the Adelie penguins in the Yalour Islands. The weather has blessed us for this expedition! We have enjoyed the wildlife and scenery of this very special continent and are privileged that we were able to do so. This trip will last us a lifetime – in our memories, our imaginations, and in our dreams.
Thank you all for such a wonderful voyage, for your company, good humour and enthusiasm. We hope to see you again in the future, wherever that might be!
Total distance sailed on our voyage: Nautical miles: 3461 nm | Kilometres: 6409 km
On behalf of Oceanwide Expeditions, Captain Evgeny Levakov, Expedition Leader Andrew Bishop and all the crew and staff, it has been a pleasure travelling with you.