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PLA27-18, trip log, Falkland Islands, South Georgia and Antarctic Peninsula

by Oceanwide Expeditions

Logbook

Day 1: Embarkation – Ushuaia, Argentina

Embarkation – Ushuaia, Argentina
Date: 19.01.2018
Position: 042°45’S / 065°01’W

So here we are at last in Tierra del Fuego, at the bottom of the world. Well, from Ushuaia we’ll be going south of south...a long way south. But for today, we ambled about this lovely Patagonian city, savouring the local flavours and enjoying the sights.

Ushuaia marks the end of the road in Argentine Tierra del Fuego, but also the beginning – the beginning of a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. During the summer this rapidly growing frontier town of 55,000 bustles with adventurous travellers. The duty-free port flourishes with tourism but also thrives on a sizeable crab fishery and a burgeoning electronics industry. Ushuaia (lit. “bay that penetrates to the west” in the indigenous Yaghan tongue) clearly benefits from its magnificent, yet remote setting. The rugged spine of the South American Andes ends here, where two oceans meet. As could be expected from such an exposed setting, the weather has the habit of changing on a whim. However, temperatures during the long days of the austral summer are relatively mild, providing a final blanket of warmth before heading off on our adventures.

For many of us this is the start of a lifelong dream. The excitement comes in different forms for each unique person, but even the most experienced of us feels genuine excitement to depart on a journey to the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and Antarctica. Most passengers were promptly at the gangway at 16:00, ready to board our ship MV Plancius, home for the next 19 days.

We were greeted at the gangway by members of our Expedition staff who were enjoying the warm sunshine having just returned from Antarctica that morning. Our luggage was already on board so after a short wait on the wharf we made our way up the gangway and onto the good ship Plancius. We were met at Reception by Sebastian and Bobbi , our Hotel and Restaurant Managers. We were then checked into our cabins with the assistance of our fabulous Filipino crew.
A little while after boarding we convened in the lounge on deck five to meet First Officer Jaanus, who led us through the details of the required SOLAS (Safety Of Life At Sea) Safety and Lifeboat Drill, assisted by the crew and staff. On hearing the alarm we reconvened at the ‘muster station’, the lounge, for the mandatory safety briefing and abandon ship drill donning our huge orange life jackets that will keep us safe should the need arise. After this lifeboat drill we returned to the outer decks to watch our departure from the jetty of Ushuaia and the last of city life for a while. We entered the Beagle Channel with an escort of Black browed albatross. Once we were on our way into the channel we were invited once again to the lounge to meet our Expedition Leader, Andrew Bishop and Hotel Manager Sebastian who gave us an overview of the ship, a floating hotel which will be our home for the next few weeks. We then met the rest of the Expedition Team, an international bunch who will guide during our voyage, driving us ashore, giving lectures and ensuring we get the best possible experience during our trip.

This was also a chance to meet our Captain, Alexey Nazarov and toast our voyage with a glass of Prosecco. At 19:30 we sampled the first of many delicious meals on board, prepared by Chef Heinz and Sean and their galley staff. This first evening on board was occupied with more exploration of the ship, adjusting to her movements, and settling into our cabins. In the early hours of the morning we would be out into the open waters of the Drake Passage and heading north eastwards towards the Falkland Islands.

Day 2: At Sea Sailing to the Falkland Islands

At Sea Sailing to the Falkland Islands
Date: 20.01.2018
Position: 054°15’ S / 064°17’ W
Wind: W 4/5
Weather: Clear
Air Temperature: +9

This morning was our first wake-up call of the voyage and Andrew woke us up with news of wind and weather. There was around 15 knots of wind blowing but there was clear blue sky and sunshine. For some of us the smell of food was a perfect start to the day but for others it was all a bit too much for the seasick body and escaping back to the cabin was the best option.

After breakfast some of us headed out on deck for some fresh air, enjoy the sunshine and enjoy the birds that were flying around the ship and gathering in large numbers behind the ship as we sailed towards the Falkland Islands. The most common species was the Giant petrel, both Southern and Northern but there were also Black browed albatross, Storm petrels and even some Royal albatross. Birds habitually follow ships at sea looking for food brought up to the surface by the wake but also to enjoy the uplift created by our passing. Traditionally they would follow fishing vessels for discarded food but that is not on offer from Plancius of course! We saw a fishing boat during the morning and it was surrounded by hundreds of birds as it hauled its net.

At 9.30 we were invited to the lounge for the mandatory Zodiac briefing from Andrew, which gave an overview of our Zodiac operations and how we should embark and disembark the small rubber boats both at the ship and shore. At 3pm we were invited to the boot room deck by deck to collect our Rubber Boots ready for the wet landings on shore. The staff were on hand to ensure that the system ran with the utmost efficiency with boots of all sizes being passed along the line to ensure everyone got the correct size ready to go ashore in the morning.

Lunch was served at 12.30 and there were a few more takers in the Restaurant than there had been for breakfast and but by this time the wind had increased and there was still some rolling as we headed for lunch. With continued sunshine however many of us enjoyed some more time out on deck trying to photograph the Giant petrels that were flying just a head height on the top deck.

At 3pm we were invited down to the Restaurant where Ali was ready to give the first part of her two part presentation about the Falklands Islands where she lived for 15 years. This first part looked at the history and economy of the islands and gave an insight into island life on this isolated archipelago. It was a great introduction for many of us who knew only a little about the islands and we all looked forward to hearing the second part in the afternoon.

By the time afternoon tea had been consumed in the lounge it was time to go back downstairs to the Restaurant for the second instalment of Ali’s presentation about the Falklands. This time she talked about the tourism in the islands and showed some photographs of some of the wildlife we hope to see during our visit. She also told us about what took her to the islands in the first place and some of her ‘character building’ experiences as a travelling teacher on the remote farms of the Falkland Islands.

By this was early evening and some of us took a pre-dinner drink at the bar while others enjoyed the warm sunshine on deck. Those of us out on deck got a great view of some Fin whales and Hourglass dolphins that came quite close to the bow of the ship. These whales are the second largest of all the whales and the dolphins often like to bow ride these huge animals as well as the ship so it was great to see the interaction between them both.

At 6.30 we were invited to the lounge for the daily briefing where Andrew explained our plans for tomorrow, at Carcass Island and Saunders Island and Ali used a piece of string to demonstrate the wing spans of the birds we had been seeing during the day. We headed down to dinner with excitement about our first landing in the Falklands in the morning.

Day 3: Carcass and Saunders Islands, Falkland Islands

Carcass and Saunders Islands, Falkland Islands
Date: 21.01.2018
Position: 051°18’ S / 060°33’ W
Wind: NNW 6/7
Weather: Part Cloud
Air Temperature: +11

Many were up bright and early to witness the captain’s navigation of Woolly Gut, a narrow passage through the small islands en-route to our morning’s destination. It was a gorgeous sunny day, but with a very fresh and squally breeze, that particularly gathered strength around the island headlands. The first Gentoo penguins were sighted in a small rookery as we cruised by a low peninsula and then a few Commerson’s dolphins made a brief appearance as well—what a nice welcome to the Falklands! But more was waiting for us onshore at Carcass Island.

Plancius anchored off the western end of the bay and almost immediately an expeditionary zodiac went ashore to assess the situation; however it soon became clear that landing at the far end would be hazardous in those waves, so the much more sheltered jetty near the settlement was selected. It didn’t take long before we were all ashore, many opting for a longer walk along the side of the bay – this produced lots of good sightings for the birders amongst us: everywhere we saw tussock birds and the endemic Cobb’s wrens, particularly feeding on the small insect larvae to be found in the stranded kelps on the upper beach. We were also greeted by the spectacle of nesting Night herons near the jetty, as well as nesting Blackish oystercatchers further along.

Other species included the famous Striated caracaras who seemed to be fearless of everything, Flightless steamer ducks, Upland and Kelp geese, Magellanic oystercatchers, Black chinned siskins, Falklands thrushes, and Turkey vultures winging their way over the landscape. Despite the fresh conditions offshore, it was almost tropical feeling in the sun around the settlement, so the teas and cakes offered by island owners, Rob and Lorraine McGill and their fabulous Chilean team were especially welcome, and what a spread they put on! It was difficult to decide what to choose so most of us sampled a number of different sweet treats!

We returned to Plancius, upped the anchor, and headed out for our next destination – Saunders Island, whilst lunch ensued. Before we had gone very far, a number of Sei whales made their appearance, giving us remarkably good views, and one producing the classic ring of bubbles as part of its feeding behaviour, trapping prey.

Our landing on Saunders Island was in much gentler conditions, landing on a broad sandy beach dotted with Gentoo penguins, and one of the island residents, Biffo further up with Landrover to to greet and advise us. The beach is in fact part of an enormous sandbar joining two sections of the island, with a beach on the other side receiving the oceanic swell. We guessed at some four thousand pairs of Gentoo penguins nesting overall. However, there were many more things to see. We worked our way across the sandbar, and fine views of a small number of King penguins, several of which were incubating eggs and sheltering chicks. From there we worked our way up the slope (avoiding the numerous Magellanic penguin burrows) and towards the cliffs where no less than three seabird colonies could be appreciated. The first of these was a dense colony of Rockhopper penguins – impressive to realise that this site, about 30m or more above the sea, had to be reached by the penguins hopping from boulder to boulder up the steep slope. All the more reason to recognise the rule: “Penguins have right of way”.

Next along the cliffs was a colony of nesting black browed albatross, tucked into a shallow cleft sloping down to the sea. Almost all the mid ‘pot’ nests had a well developed chick awaiting, or enjoying, attendance by one of its parents. In the warm summer sunshine all the chicks could be seen panting in an attempt to cool down.

Finally, the last colony along the cliff to be visited was an impressive accumulation of densely packed Black browed albatross, Imperial shag, Southern Rockhopper penguins, and Dolphin gull nests, the whole accumulation seeming to live in relative harmony (apart from the odd neighbourly disputes). We spent some time just sitting and watching the domestic lives of these birds with their young, and the somewhat ungainly arrivals of the albatrosses who were forced to endure tumble-landings downwind onto the slope.

Finally, we had to draw ourselves away and return to the zodiacs and thence to Plancius, where after dispensing with our field gear, we had a half hour’s briefing and recap of the day’s events. Bob had brought a couple of Kelp holdfasts to explain about the importance of kelp in the marine ecosystem and Andrea explained about the Sea Cabbage plant and the distinctive protruding crop of the Striated caracara. After that, only one other item on the schedule – a good dinner as Plancius got under way for arrival in Port Stanley tomorrow. After dinner many of us went out onto the upper decks of the ship to watch the sun set behind the mountains of the northern islands of the Falkland Islands. What a wonderful place and a wonderful day. Ali was right…….!!

Day 4: Stanley, Falkland Islands

Stanley, Falkland Islands
Date: 22.01.2018
Position: 051°41’ S / 057°51’ W
Wind: Var 1
Weather: Clear
Air Temperature: +14

As Andrew made the wake-up call this morning we found ourselves entering the outer harbour of Port William on our way towards Stanley. We could see the black and white lighthouse on the end of Cape Pembroke to our port side and the long white sandy beaches of Yorke Bay, beaches that were sadly turned into mine fields by the Argentinean military during the Falklands war in 1982. Before too long we found ourselves approaching The Narrows, the narrow entrance to the inner harbour and we could see the brightly coloured roofs of Stanley, the capital of the Falkland Islands ahead of us.

Shortly after breakfast, the Zodiacs were lowered and we were soon heading ashore to land on the floating pontoons at the Jetty Centre and to explore the town. The ride was easy on the windless sunny morning!
Many of us headed to the museum to take a look back in time at life in the Falkland Islands while the attraction of tea, cake and Wi-Fi was irresistible for some. Whatever the choice it was lovely to be on shore and to have the time to take a walk around the main part of town as well as some of the back roads amongst the older part of the town. Gift shops were visited and penguin souvenirs purchased, postcards and greetings cards were sent around the world. Before too long it was time to make our way back to the jetty for the ride back to Plancius and get ready to set sail on the next part of our voyage towards South Georgia.

At 4pm, Bob gave his talk about the life of birds. Giving us an insight in the difficulties that they have to deal with. Apparently birds take it slow and grow relatively old. This is because they need time to get experienced being able to navigate precisely to the right places for food and breeding. He also explained to us that there is a trade-off between being able to glide the wind without much effort (like Albatross) or being able to swim very well (penguins). You cannot have it both ways.

As is now the usual routine, the expedition staff invited us for a briefing in the lounge to look back on our Falkland days and look ahead to plans for tomorrow. Marion picked up on the Kelp-story of Bob the other day and showed that Kelp forests are just as productive as rainforests. Ali had good news on the work of Falkland Conservation initiating measures to avoid Albatross being caught in long line fisheries. As a result regional numbers of Albatross are already increasing.

So two days around the Falkland Islands had been fantastic with lots of sun and only a bit windy at times, but the wildlife was there in huge numbers and we all have some wonderful memories of penguins, albatross, Carcass Island hospitality, dry and wet zodiac rides! Next stop, South Georgia!

Day 5: At Sea Sailing to South Georgia

At Sea Sailing to South Georgia
Date: 23.01.2018
Position: 052°23’S / 051°50’W
Wind: E 5
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +9

After such busy days around the Falkland Islands it was almost nice to have a day at sea to recover, download the many photographs and recharge our own batteries, never mind the camera batteries in preparation for the coming days on South Georgia. When Andrew made the wake-up call there weren’t too many people already up and about and the dining room was very slow to fill up for breakfast.

Shortly after breakfast we were invited to the back deck of deck 3 where an ARGO float was prepared be the ship’s crew ready to be deployed on a preselected spot at sea. Over the last few years Plancius has carried a number of these floats to drop in some remote parts of the ocean to record data and tell scientists more about the sea around the world. At the deployment location the water depth was at least 2000m which allow the devices to work at their maximum capacity and record as much data as possible throughout the water column. The ARGO floats record water temperature and salinity profiles of the oceans and send the data via a satellite connection to a datacentre on land. There are thousands of these around the globe all continually sending data and thus mapping the oceans in a way that was never possible before. Matei, the 2nd officer with help from Dima, one of the ships sailors charged the device ready for sea and sent it on it’s way.
At 10:00 Hans gave a lecture about the Whales and Dolphins of the Southern Ocean. In this talk he focussed the question why many of the whale species are so rare or why there is a poor understanding of the status of many of the whale species. In the second part of the lecture the most likely whale and dolphin species that we can encounter on this journey were introduced. We all hope to be able to see many whales on this trip, particularly around Antarctica where they spend the summer months feeding on the vast quantities of krill that swarm there during the austral summer.

Out on deck many of the birders were having a wonderful time with their binoculars and cameras. Plancius was followed all day by several Southern Royal Albatrosses and Wandering Albatrosses. That provided the photographers on-board great opportunities to photograph these majestic birds. After having enjoyed the lunch in the restaurant there was time to relax in the observation lounge or on one of the outer decks.

By 15:00 Bob started his lecture about Seals of the Antarctic region. He spoke about the different species of seals, their behaviour and breeding biology. We hadn’t seen too many seals yet but South Georgia is the main breeding area for Antarctic fur seals and we hope to see Elephant seals there too so it was a great introduction to the days ahead.

At 16:30, Ali invited us to the restaurant for a presentation about South Georgia. As well as spending 15 years living in the Falkland Islands she also overwintered on South Georgia 20 years ago. She took us on a historic journey from the discovery of the island by Captain Cook in 1775 to the evolution of Grytviken as a whaling station, to the current fisheries industry. She also prepared us for the wildlife spectacle that we would experience during our time on the island. We are now ready to enjoy and understand the beauty of the island. We were looking forward even more to the days ahead!

During the evening the wind picked up as Plancius crossed the Antarctic Convergence. Both the sea temperature and the air is getting lower! We are moving nearer to Antarctica. In the night the ships time got adjusted with +1 hour to be on the same time zone as South Georgia.

Day 6: At Sea Sailing to South Georgia

At Sea Sailing to South Georgia
Date: 24.01.2018
Position: 053°13’ S / 044°38’ W
Wind: SW 4
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +5

It had been blowing at around 35 knots when we all went to bed last night, after changing our clocks forward one hour to move to South Georgia time but by the time Andrew made the wake-up call the winds had dropped and the sea was calm once again. The sun was shining in a hazy blue sky and it looked like it was going to be a good day at sea.

From the early hours of the morning there had been a number of seabirds following the ship and the Wandering albatross were definitely the stars of the show today. A number of individuals flew circuits around the ship flying right over the heads of passengers on the top of the Bridge deck almost as if they were having a look at us as much as we were looking at them. Very beautiful indeed. There were increasing numbers of White-chinned petrels and of course Black browed albatross that we had been seeing every day since leaving Ushuaia. Also interesting were the few Grey-headed albatross, with their lovely-coloured yellow beaks and notably darker-shaded heads.

The morning of scheduled activities began in earnest with learning about how to be a responsible visitor to South Georgia and Antarctica. The non-profit group IAATO (International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators) developed the briefing so that everyone wanting to experience this special place will understand how to do their part to keep it as special and pristine as we can—including how to behave around the animals we will see, and that we should follow the old maxim: “take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints”… and even those we should fill in if our boot prints end up being too deep in the snow so that penguins don’t get trapped in the hole by accident! Then the real fun began—the vacuum party. We need to make sure we do not unwittingly transfer non-native material between places we visit, as new introductions could lead to invasive plants changing the native ecosystem-- or even spreading a virus between animal colonies. The first step was to go through all of our outer clothing and vacuum the velcro, cuffs, backpacks—any areas that could trap seeds. Everyone was very diligent in their cleaning activities and most people had completed the task by lunch time!

By mid-afternoon some tiny pinnacles of land were seen sticking up out of the sea ahead of us. These were Shag Rocks and they rise straight up from the sea bed looking very strange in the vast expanse of blue ocean. These areas with steep, underwater mountain slopes are often good for marine mammals as there are upwelling of water and nutrients so all the staff were out on deck to see what could be spotted. Sea conditions were still very calm and visibility was great so we all kept our fingers crossed for something. On our approach to the rocks a Southern right whale was seen ahead of the ship so we slowed down to see if we could catch another glimpse of it when it came to the surface. The first time it came back up it was behind the ship but then we had another nice view with Shag Rocks in the background as it surfaced, took some deep breaths and dived down once again, showing its tail fluke. Groups of South Georgia shags kept flying past the vessel in aerial formation and an individual Snow petrel was seen flying around the ship which was a real bonus, especially for the keen bird watchers.

Everyone was out on deck to watch as we sailed past and Captain Alexey did a great job of taking us so close to the rocks. We could see the fringe of Kelp around each little island and the white of the cormorant guano stained the 70metre high rocks white. Occasional big swells created huge waves on the rocks which everyone tried hard to capture with their cameras. After a few turns beside the rocks we then resumed our course towards South Georgia where we hoped to make our first landing in the morning.

At 5pm we were invited to the Dining room by Marion, who gave a very informative presentation about penguins. We have already seen four species of penguins in the Falklands and we certainly hope to see many more on South Georgia so it was really useful to get some additional information about these birds and how they have adapted to life in Antarctica and the sub Antarctic islands.

Before re-cap a Happy Hour was announced in the bar and during re-cap we learned of our plans for tomorrow. The final part of the briefing was a video produced by South Georgia Government advising us of the do’s and don’ts of visiting the island.

Day 7: Salisbury Plain and Prion Island, South Georgia

Salisbury Plain and Prion Island, South Georgia
Date: 25.01.2018
Position: 054°03’ S / 037°19’ W
Wind: Calm
Weather: Part Cloud
Air Temperature: +4

We awoke to the fine sight of the western end of South Georgia, in a gentle sea with light cloud, and Plancius nosing her way into the Bay of Isles. Ahead was one of the key sites on the island, Salisbury Plain, a low-lying band of land covered with tussock and other grasses, and dominated by an enormous King penguin colony and thousands of fur seals. We had finally arrived!

We landed in fairly gentle surf on the western side of a small point to avoid any swell, and as far as possible stay clear of the area’s rather inquisitive inhabitants. With excellent visibility we could see along the entire shore and had wonderful views of the impressive mountains backing the plain. At the landing site we were met by a typical January South Georgia Welcome Party with King penguins strolling along the beach and Fur seal pups playing in the shallow surf and lazing on the beach.

From the landing area Ali had flagged a good route along the back of the beach and we had a penguin paced walk along the shingle ridge, scattered with increasing quantities of seals and penguins, through to the main King penguin colony. It is estimated that around 80-90,000 pairs breed here and this figure doesn’t even include the large number of plump young in their brown overwintering plumage. Everywhere there were fur seals, including a very large proportion of young individuals, just a few weeks old, and much given to mock chases and curiosity as we wandered along. In addition to these spectacles, we also had good sightings of South Georgia pipit and the rather dainty South Georgia pintail; both species have benefited enormously from the rat eradication programme on the island.

At the edge of the colony it was wonderful to just sit and take it all in as it was a view that many of us had dreamed of for a very long time. The centre of the crowd of penguins was made up of adults incubating their single egg while at the perimeters there were parading courting adults and some partially fledged chicks. It made for a very impressive scene and amongst the sound of the penguins was the constant click and beep of cameras!

After some three hours ashore in this impressive place, we returned to Plancius for lunch and during this interval Plancius was moved the short distance across to the rocky and tussocky Prion Island. For this operation we split into three groups because regulations limit access to the island to 50 people at a time. This arrangement not only helps the wildlife, it also meant that as we walked up the boardwalks through the tussock grasses to the viewing platforms we obtained very good views of the wildlife and there was space on all of the platforms. Not least amongst these were the inevitable fur seals who find the boardwalk most convenient for reaching upper parts of the island!

Most notable were the nesting Wandering albatross dotted between the grass clumps and on a shallow depression opposite the viewing platform, about ten apparent nests were counted. Occasionally one of these magnificent birds would stand up from its nest and stretch those enormous wings – to yet another a chorus of clicking cameras…

For many, just the pleasure of sitting on the beach looking at the wildlife was a pleasure in itself; the squabbling Southern giant petrels feeding on a dead seal pup, the Gentoo penguins and beyond a small group of King penguins. Also amongst these was a single Chinstrap penguin, hopefully the first of many as we work our way further south. And everywhere, the friendly little South Georgia pipits picking up small invertebrates from the beached seaweeds, some times so close they could peck at our boots.

In addition to the landings on Prion, we had a series of delightful zodiac cruises around the island and its smaller neighbour Skua island. It is hard to imaging better conditions for this; brilliant sunshine, little wind, and a deep blue sparkling sea, with a swell running in to the swirling bands of kelp weeds fringing the rocky shores. In many places there were deep clefts with caves to explore, and we were able to nose in with the zodiacs, finding imperial shags, fur seals diving around the boats, and Gentoo penguins in small groups stationed on the rocks above. In this way we worked our way around the two islands, finally turning around the western end of Prion Island to find Plancius nicely anchored about half a mile away.

All too soon it was time for us all to make our way back to the ship where there was a short re-cap to prepare us for the next adventure on South Georgia.

Day 8: Shackleton Walk, Stromness and Grytviken, South Georgia

Shackleton Walk, Stromness and Grytviken, South Georgia
Date: 26.01.2018
Position: 054°05’ S / 036°43’ W
Wind: SSW 4/5
Weather: Part Cloud
Air Temperature: +6

All the brave people who had signed up for the Shackleton walk responded to the early wake up call at 06:15. After a quick breakfast at the lounge they were landed in Fortuna Bay to follow in the footsteps of Shackleton and two of his men who made it to Stromness after their heroic trip with the James Caird from Elephant Island to South Georgia. The rest could sleep in till 07:15 approaching Stromness from the sea on the ship.

The walk took the hikers first up through the tussac grass above the beach and from there it was onto typical South Georgia scree. The thin-plated fragments have been sorted into beautiful patterns by innumerable freeze-thaw cycles over thousands of years and the sun was showing off the variety of colors in the rocks, much of it a rusty red color for the iron oxides becoming exposed. We finally got up and over the highest bit, and were greeted by an expansive view down into Stromness Bay where we could see the Plancius arriving—a perfect greeting from our perch on high.

At this final viewpoint stories were told of dramatic highlight of Shackleton’s crossing, explaining that the men had waited to hear the noon whistle to confirm they were in the right valley and then they finally viewed the station, the minute figures walking back and forth, inspiring them to share a congratulatory handshake that they had found their way back to humanity. One last descent remained for them and us with a steep walk down a rocky slope bringing us to the bottom of the waterfall… pretty easy for us; Shackleton’s group actually had to descend with ice axes!

For those that had not done the long hike we went ashore in Stromness. The weather was again super and the huge oil tanks from the Stromness whaling station could already been seen from a distance. We landed at the beach and people could choose to stay on the beach near Stromness, which is closed because of danger of asbestos or to go to the Shackleton waterfall to meet with the other passengers who were enjoying their wonderful trip over the mountain.
The valley to the waterfall was wide and flat, cut in numerous places by the braided stream, and as we found further along there were terns nesting who kept reminding us to stay far to the outside of the gravel outwash plain far away from their chicks, which are hard to distinguish on the gravel. Along the stream the South Georgia Pipit was also seen. The waterfall itself made for a nice destination, flanked by lush carpets of moss and lichens. Down on the beach many people were happy just to sit on the beach watching the Fur seal pups playing in the surf and practising their swimming skills that will be vital in the years ahead. Once everybody returned to the beach with the fur seals howling and their puppies weening we headed back for the ship to be on time for our appointment for Grytviken.

As we sailed into Cumberland Bay East we could see the highest peak of Mount Paget in the distance and the pyramid peak of Sugartop Mountain to the right. As we turned towards the inner harbour the wind began to increase a little so the Captain made the decision to stay a little further out. Ahead of us we could see the whaling station of Grytviken with the church towards the hills at the back and the rusting whale oil tanks nearer the shore. Closer to our position we could see the more modern buildings of the British Antarctic Survey along the low lying beach. Ali went ashore to collect the Government Officer and some members of staff from the museum. They came on board to give a presentation the conservation efforts to eradicate rats from the island. The project had been ongoing for a number of years and with the baiting part finished it was now time to monitor the success of the project. If the island is found to be rat free there could be 100 million more birds breeding on South Georgia.

It was a bit of a long Zodiac ride ashore but thankfully the wind that had been blowing on our arrival had decreased and we found ourselves going to land in calm sunny conditions.
On shore we were met by Ali who directed us up to the cemetery past piles of snorting and belching Elephant seals. Up at the cemetery we were given a tot of whiskey ready to pay our respects to Sir Earnest Shackleton who died here on board The Quest in 1922. His wife Emily requested that he was buried with the whalers and sailors here on South Georgia. Andrea told us about his heroic journey finishing her speech with the words of Sir Raymond Priestly, Antarctic Explorer and Geologist:

“For scientific discovery give me Scott; for speed and efficiency of travel give me Amundsen; but when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”

After these words we either drank the whisky that we got at the entrance of the graveyard of poured a dram onto Shackleton’s grave. Having fulfilled this traditional act we made our way back past the Elephant seals and Fur seals to our guided tour through Grytviken. From here, some of us took a station tour with Charlotte, some explored the ruins themselves including the beautiful church, while other enjoyed some relaxing time photographing the Fur seals and Elephant seals between the cemetery and the museum. The weather crated a very mellow mood on shore with people sitting in the sunshine just watching and listening to the seals in the bay. Everyone paid a visit to the museum, shop and Post Office and by early evening as the sun had dropped behind Mount Hodges at the back of the station, with souvenirs bought and postcards mailed it was time to go back to the ship.

We had plenty time to take in the full atmosphere of this remarkable place: beautiful, awful, interesting and all. When we came on board a wonderful barbecue was set up on the back deck for everyone including our guests from Grytviken. After the BBQ music and dancing followed in the evening. What a wonderful day again here on South Georgia.

Day 9: Godthul and St Andrew’s Bay, South Georgia

Godthul and St Andrew’s Bay, South Georgia
Date: 27.01.2018
Position: 054°17’ S / 036°17’ W
Wind: N 6
Weather: Rain Showers
Air Temperature: +8

During the early hours of the morning the anchor had been lifted and we made our way out of Cumberland Bay East to navigate to our destination for the morning; Godthul. As we sailed down the coast the wind was blowing at over 25 knots but as we turned to starboard we entered a sheltered little bay and things were looking much more promising for a landing.

Godthul means ‘good cove’ in Norwegian and it was going to prove to be just that for everyone this morning. Our options for the morning were varied with a long hike, a medium hike and a Zodiac cruise. As we finished breakfast and prepared to go ashore the summit that was the target for the long hikers was shrouded in cloud that was blowing up the side of the hill. It wasn’t looking promising but landing conditions were good so we soon headed ashore in the Zodiacs.
At the beach we were met once again by Fur seal pups and Gentoo penguins. In the tussac grass behind the beach we could hear, and smell Elephant seals that we laying out in the mud for their annual moult. Ali and Regis had flagged a relatively easy route up through the long tussac grass and we climbed our way up to the open ground above. Our first stop along the way was with the Gentoo penguin colony where, in one of the colonies two ‘white’ Gentoo penguin chicks were seen by both walking groups. This condition is known as leucistic and is caused by a missing gene which results in almost no pigment for the animal, like the blonde Fur seals. Further up the hill there was a Giant petrel nest with a single fluffy chick waiting for the adults to return to feed it.

Both the long hikers and medium hikers continued upwards heading to the lake, known as Lake Aviemore and then up the hill to the saddle of the mountains. The grassy vegetation was beautiful and a result of the eradication of the large reindeer herds that used to roam this area. The long hiking group could see by this time that the summit was clear of clouds so Ali led the way onwards heading for the 300m summit passing by more Gentoo colonies along the way. The conditions were a little windy they made it up the steep scree slopes to the top where they found perfectly calm conditions due to the wind blowing up the cliffs and over the top of them. The views down the coast of South Georgia were fabulous.

The medium hikers made their way from the lake to the higher colonies of Gentoo penguins that had made the long trek from the sea to almost 200m above sea level. Why they do it is anybody’s guess but we all marveled at their efforts! From here the group walked out to a lower viewpoint before making their way back along the grasslands to the lower slopes once more. Meanwhile out in the bay some of us did a zodiac cruise along the shore where Antarctic terns were seen flying just over our heads. The zodiac glided through the sea kelp where Kelp Gulls were foraging and penguins were seen porpoising close by. Andrew took his group around the corner to Cobbler’s Cove but conditions out at sea were very bouncy. One group were lucky enough to see a Leopard Seal swimming near one of the Zodiacs.

So by the end of the morning all the groups had enjoyed a wonderful few hours in the shelter of Godthul whether it was at sea level or high up on a hill. After a beautiful morning Plancius had set a course for St Andrews Bay while all on-board enjoyed lunch. As soon as we left the shelter of the bay the winds increased and the sea conditions became a little uncomfortable again.

Upon arriving at St Andrews Bay the wind had picked up and had reached epic speeds with over 40 knots and it became clear that no landing at St Andrews Bay would be possible this afternoon. It was disappointing but very obvious to everyone that it was just too windy; the whole bay at St Andrew’s was smoking with the surface of the sea being lifted up and spun in what are known as ‘williwaws’.

The weather in itself became an event during the course of the afternoon and everyone enjoyed either bracing themselves against it on deck or watching from the comfort of the lounge.
Captain Alexey directed Plancius further south with Plan B in mind. We made our way into Royal Bay heading towards Moltke Harbour where it was hoped there would be some shelter. Royal Bay is often described as the windiest place on South Georgia and it was exactly that as we sailed in with wind speeds increasing even more. Thankfully at the back of the bay near Moltke Harbour things were a little less windy but still borderline for operations. Andrew decided to take a scout boat ashore but as soon as he was on the water it was clear that it was too windy and the Captain was finding it hard to hold Plancius in a safe position so we cancelled the operation and headed out of the bay. Next destination, Plan C Drygalski Fjord.

We sailed through the narrow channel between Cooper Island and the mainland and made our way into the long fjord. It was still raining and windy and the visibility wasn’t great but it was certainly atmospheric. Hundreds of Wilson’s storm petrels could be seen along with Snow petrels.

Plancius sailed until the end of the fjord passing glaciers and steep cliffs and we finished at the Reisling Glacier at the head of the bay. On the way we passed jagged black peaks, remnants of the super continent Gondwanaland, hanging glaciers and small icebergs that had calved from the glacier. This fjord ship cruise lasted until the end of the evening. As the ship moved quite into the night, and most of us chose to have an early night it was early quite on board as a very early start the next day had been planned.

Day 10: Gold Harbour and Cooper Bay, South Georgia

Gold Harbour and Cooper Bay, South Georgia
Date: 28.01.2018
Position: 054°43’ S / 035°44’ W
Wind: N 6
Weather: Part Cloud
Air Temperature: +6

After the winds of yesterday many of us had been awake through the night feeling for the motion of the ship to see if we were going to be able to go ahead with the early morning landing at Gold Harbour. We had been navigating up and down outside the bay area throughout the night ready to try for a 4am start in the morning.

At 3.20am Andrew made the wake-up call to let us know that a scout boat was going ashore and that the staff were pretty hopeful that conditions would allow us to land. It was only just beginning to get light as Ali drove the staff ashore but the team found a safe, relatively surf free area on the beach and the Doctor at the gangway was given the green light to start loading passengers into the Zodiacs.

As we went ashore we could smell the penguin colony and see the dramatic back drop of the Bertrab Glacier falling down over the steep cliffs. The sun was beginning to cast a pink and orange glow over the horizon. It looked like it was going to be a beautiful day.

Once ashore we were met by hundreds of King penguins and a number of young male elephant seals that were sparring and play fighting in small groups towards the back of the beach. It was just an overwhelming sight of wildlife and as the light improved we could see the colony along the beach and more penguins and seals. Ali had flagged a route along the beach avoiding as many of the groups of King penguins as possible to minimise our disturbance and further along the beach we had to take detour around a Giant petrel chick that was sitting on its nest. We all walked at penguin pace and took in the spectacle that was all around us. As the sun started to come up the mountain peaks of the Salvesen Range were touched with pink and the views of this King penguin colony of around 30,000 breeding pairs emerged even more. At last the sun rose over the horizon basking Plancius in golden light and illuminating the penguins all along the beach. It was a photographer’s paradise!

Along the tussac fringe at the back of the beach there were moulting Elephant seals and sleeping fur seals with Gentoo penguins busily walking to and from the colony high up at the back of the beach. The end point of the walk took us to the main penguin colony where thousands of King penguins stood incubating their eggs only moving to peck any other penguins passing through the colony on their way to relieve their mate on the egg. There were a few moulting chicks in various stages of brown down fluff and adult plumage and they were very curious about the early morning visitors to the colony.

Everyone had plenty of time to take photos and just stand and watch the wonderful scene that is Gold Harbour in the early morning light. All too soon it was time to head back along to the landing site and back to Plancius for breakfast, which we were all more than ready for.

Once back on board we made our way back along the coast heading for Cooper Bay where we hoped to go on a Zodiac cruise to see the Macaroni penguins that breed on the cliffs in the bay. As we approached the wind was blowing over 30 knots but the Captain was hopeful that we could find some shelter closer in the bay. It certainly looked better but the wind was still strong and increasing as we dropped the anchor. Ali went to get into a Zodiac to see if the conditions there and at the gangway were going to be suitable but the Zodiac was swinging dangerously on the crane and the Captain and Andrew decided it wasn’t going to be safe for either passengers or crew. Sadly the cruise was cancelled and we hauled the anchor and made our way out of the bay. This was not the end of things though and we were told we would be going back towards Drygalski Fjord for a cruise in a side fjord known as Larsen Harbour.

As we headed back out into open water the winds increased once again and we had over 30 knots of wind blowing with katabatic winds coming over the mountains but as we entered Drygalski Fjord once again we found calm waters and sunshine. What a transformation!

The Captain dropped the anchor in the only relatively shallow place in the fjord and before too long the Zodiacs were lowered and Group 2 were off into the tranquil waters of Larsen Harbour. At the entrance to the inlet some boats got a fleeting glimpse of a Macaroni penguin in the water but it was just a glimpse. Further up the fjord we were surrounded by steep mountain sides which ensured sheltered water and glassy calm reflections. The staff turned off their engines for a short while so we could enjoy the peace and quiet with only the sounds of Kelp gulls a meltwater in the background. Magical!

On the way back down the inlet Ali made a call on the radio to say that she had seen a Weddell seal on the shore and after seeing this individual seal we then saw a group of four lying on the beach. They were very well camouflaged on the rocks but we could see their individual colours and markings. This is the only breeding colony outside of Antarctica with around 25 to 30 pups born each year. They are really seals of the ice with males defending territories and breathing holes in the ice and the pups being born straight onto the ice on October.

From here we made our way back to the ship where the second group of cruisers went out to experience the magic of Larsen Harbour.

Back on board it was time for lunch although after such an early start to the day it almost felt like dinner time. The early start meant that most of us decided to take a nap or at least rest a little after lunch before we were invited to the dining room to hear South Georgia stories from Howard Platt, one of our fellow passengers who had overwintered on South Georgia in the 1970’s. He entered the dining room in his old winter clothes issued by the British Antarctic Survey and then told us many humorous stories of his time on the island including adventures in the snow and wind in pyramid tents and the Mid-Winter celebrations. He was a natural story teller and we all enjoyed hearing of life on the island over 40 years ago.

At re-cap Andrew outlined plans for tomorrow and Ali told her stories from when she overwintered at King Edward Point in 1997. There were some similarities with Howard’s experiences on the island and it was interesting to hear how life was for her. Bob then told us about the choices faced by female penguins when finding a mate in the colony. A challenge for any species!!
Dinner was served and most people had an early night to make the most of the extra hour in bed with the clocks going back once again!

Day 11: At Sea to the South Orkney Islands.

At Sea to the South Orkney Islands.
Date: 29.01.2018
Position: 057°57’ S / 040°07’ W
Wind: ESE 6
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +4

We had a leisurely start today because we dropped our clocks back one hour from South Georgia time to return to Argentina time. However, as with every new arrival in Antarctica, vacuuming and/or re-vacuuming was essential, but happily this was cleared through in the morning with the minimum of fuss. With so much grass seed in South Georgia at this time of year it was essential to double check everything as tussac grass and other sub Antarctic species could quite easily find a niche in these islands.

We had a good day for whales. After relatively brief sightings of Southern bottlenose whales, the middle of the day had us out on deck looking at a series of excellent encounters with Fin whales, many of them shallow diving and lunge feeding. Captain Alexey slowed Plancius right down to a crawl, and with the whales preoccupied with food, they came very close to the ship, allowing everyone to see the long, low profiles with swept back, sharp dorsal fins, and even occasionally the asymmetric colouring of the jaw. In all, at this time some 10 – 14 individuals were seen, but since not all of them were at the surface at the same time it’s difficult to be precise. Later on, another group were seen, but at a greater distance. These oceanic whales are heading south at this time of year to make the most of the feeding bonanza that summer brings in the form of Krill.

The afternoon was also a busy affair. Andrew gave a detailed lecture on the fascinating geological history of South Georgia, from its origins in Gondwana, through to today’s scenery and the distinctive rock formations of the Drygalski Fjord, and the folded sedimentary rocks of much of the rest of the island.

Less erudite, but equally interesting, was the subsequent ‘Happy Hour’ in the bar and whilst we were all in the usual good form following this, Ali held an auction of South Georgia souvenirs to support the South Georgia Heritage Trust; whilst their main project of rat eradication has finished, hopefully successfully, much work (including the monitoring of results) has to be done.

There were many interesting items available from Penguin hats to a watercolour painting that Bob, one of our guides had done. There was even bottle of home brew beer, Rattus Nomoricus made on South Georgia by member of the rat monitoring team was donated by Ali. In all we raised €1,100 for this important charity, so well done to all concerned, especially the bidders!

Day 12: Orcadas Station, South Orkney Islands.

Orcadas Station, South Orkney Islands.
Date: 30.01.2018
Position: 060°44’ S / 044°43’ W
Wind: N 6
Weather: Slight
Air Temperature: +2

Already before the morning wake-up call at 7am there were people outside to see what the South Orkneys look like: dark mountains with snow and ice with their tops in the clouds. Also there were many big ice bergs stranded in the shallow waters around the islands. What an impressive introduction to these remote islands. During breakfast the Orcadas Station came into view, orange buildings in the distance. Unfortunately the wind started to pick up and the anchor could barely hold us and with heavy rain it wasn’t ideal conditions for a Zodiac cruise along the shore where hundreds of Fur seals were waiting for us. We were still going to be able to go ashore at the base though.
We split into two groups in order not to crowd station too much. The first group could visit the station and the other group started with the movie about Shackleton’s adventures with the Endurance.

After a bumpy ride with the Zodiac we set food on the shore of Laurie Island where we were welcomed by the members of our staff from the base, some of whom had been here for nearly 14 months. The male Fur seals were watching us but they did not respond to our presence at all. They were resting after their long journey from South Georgia at the end of the breeding season there in December. It was quite different from our encounters with the pups and juvenile seals on the beaches of South Georgia. We were told by the people form the station that the seals had just arrived last week and that they usually stay for a month resting on the beach. In between the Fur seals there were some Chinstrap penguins and some young Adelie penguins.

The crew from the station kindly showed us the historical sites including the small museum, the remains of the first building and the graveyard. On the other side of the station there was also a beach with a lot of ice, some fur seals and a one crab eater. The base was already founded in 1904 by William Spiers Bruce who was hear with the Scottish Antarctic Expedition and has been permanently occupied since then studying weather, climate and tectonic processes. In summer some other specialists live on the station such as the biologist that worked on penguins last year. Hence the green marking on the belly of one of the Adelie penguin on the beach.

After the tour we were welcome in the main building where the crew of the station lives. They had tea and coffee ready as well as matte, a traditional herb brew from Argentina that you have to take sips from. It was also possible to have our passport stamped and/or to send postcards. One of the other locations on our tour was the small museum where there was history of the base through the years and an interesting display of stuffed penguins……
After about 2 hours the groups swapped over with the group that had been on board coming ashore to enjoy the hospitality of the base personnel while the other watched the first part of the Shackleton movie on board.
As soon as we had said our farewells to our friendly hosts the weather improved remarkably and we could enjoy the view on the icebergs on our way to the south. One of the icebergs had a huge arch in it and Captain Alexey circumnavigated it so we could photograph it from every possible angle. On our way a number of Fin whales were spotted too along with huge groups of Fur seals continuing their voyage to the summer feeding grounds of Antarctica.

In the afternoon Andrea presented her talk on the Antarctic treaty, what it entails and how geopolitics are involved and Dan gave us tips on photography. We have all taken hundreds of photos during this voyage but it was useful to find out how we might improve our techniques, especially when taking photos in sunshine and snow in the days ahead.

The programme of the day ended as usually with the daily briefing where Andrew explained the plans for the following day (sailing to the Antarctic Peninsula), Bob told us about the remarkable life cycle of ice algae and Ali gave us her view on the behaviour of the Fur seals that we had seen today.

Day 13: At Sea to Antarctica

At Sea to Antarctica
Date: 31.01.2018
Position: 061°56’ S / 051°23’ W
Wind: SSE 6
Weather: Fog
Air Temperature: 0

We had another full day at sea ahead of us and the day started as any other day with Andrew’s morning call before breakfast. Many of us hit the snooze button for a while before getting up for a leisurely breakfast followed by an extra coffee. It was set to be a quiet day at sea with a lecture programme in place, as always.

As we made our way from the dining room in the morning we could all see and feel that the winds had increased since yesterday and it was certainly making deck time for the keen birders and sea watchers a little cold and uncomfortable. The 30 knots winds were set to remain throughout the day and indeed increase slightly. This was a result of being on the edge of a huge storm system that was a long way to the north of us around the Falkland Islands. They were experiencing hurricane force winds and a number of cruise ships were sheltering in the outer harbour of Stanley waiting for the storm to pass. Very different to the conditions we had enjoyed a few weeks ago.

In the morning Marion gave a lecture on plankton and its role in the marine ecosystem a food web. We all travel to these polar regions to enjoy the wildlife, such as penguins, seals and whales but it is the small zooplankton and phytoplankton that sustains life throughout the food chain. Without it the oceans would be empty.

Around noon the winds continued to increase and most of the outside decks were closed off for our safety but it didn’t matter too much as we had a movie afternoon planned with the second part of the Shackleton film being screened in the lounge. When we reached the part where Shackleton was travelling from Elephant Island to South Georgia in the James Caird we found ourselves in very rough seas and passing through the first fields with floating ice pieces. With stormy seas on the screens and waves crashing on the windows outside it created a wonderful atmosphere in the lounge! On these ice fields several seals and penguins were resting and a number of Fin whales and the first Humpback whales were seen. It was beginning to feel properly Antarctic with the wind peaking at 40 knots….

Later in the afternoon Bob gave a presentation about the benthic life in the world’s oceans, the deep water species found at the bottom of our oceans. It is a world that is only just beginning to be explored and there are likely to be many species that are yet to be discovered. Bob will need to update his presentation in the coming years…..!

At re-cap this evening Andrew explained our plans for tomorrow when we would arrive on the Antarctic Peninsula at last. He explained about the geological formation of Brown Bluff, a volcanic feature where we hope to land in the afternoon. Ali then gave a short presentation about Krill, the small pink critters that are the diet of all Antarctic species during the summer month but are increasingly fished for human consumption.

After dinner Plancius was nearing the Antarctic Peninsula and icebergs could be seen all along the horizon. With a spectacular sun down Antarctica smiled at Plancius and its passengers. The light on the clouds was fantastic and people stayed out on deck and on the Bridge to watch the colours fade. Everyone was excited about the coming days in Antarctica!

Day 14: Antarctic Sound and Brown Bluff, Antarctica

Antarctic Sound and Brown Bluff, Antarctica
Date: 01.02.2018
Position: 063°36’ S / 056°28’ W
Wind: SW 7
Weather: Snow
Air Temperature: +1

Many people had been up and on deck at 3am hoping for a spectacular Antarctic sunrise but on making their way outside they were only met by wind, low cloud and poor visibility. A bit of a contrast the beautiful sunset we had experienced the night before. Some went back to bed to wait for Andrew’s wake-up call while others just soaked up the atmosphere of the early morning.

The wake-up call came at 7am and by that time conditions were slowly beginning to improve although the strong wind was still blowing across Antarctic Sound. The Captain tried to navigate through Fridtjoff Sound between Andersson and Johannsen Islands but at the bottom end of the sound he was met by sea ice and icebergs that there was no way through or around. We sailed back northwards to go around the islands and see what we could find on the other side. As we did so we saw the blows and tall dorsal fins of some Orca, Killer whales but they were travelling quite quickly and in the windy conditions it was difficult to see them in the waves and spray.
On the way we sailed past spectacular icebergs and on many of the bergs and sea ice there were Adelie penguins. We were all entertained by the way they ran and slid on their bellies to escape the big blue ship sailing past. Some seals were also seen hauled out on the ice. Most of them were Weddell seals but we saw a Leopard seal lazing on the ice as well.

During the course of the morning we all braved the cold and windy conditions at some point before diving back indoors to warm up ready to go out again. The Captain did a great job of navigating close to some large ice floes and a smaller tabular iceberg. He was hoping to ‘park’ the Plancius next to it but the wind was too strong to hold the ship in position. As we continued on our way the sun began to break through the clouds and we found ourselves in a sparkling wonderland of ice and snow and sea.

Off in the distance was a huge tabular iceberg that measured around 14km along its edge. We could see clouds of snow blowing off the top of it creating a snowy edge as we approached. Being such huge pieces of ice these large icebergs often make their own weather and it did seem as if there were clouds along the surface of the berg. To the side of this iceberg and spreading all across Antarctic Sound at the top end of the Weddell Sea there was a fairly solid line of sea ice with icebergs held fast within it. This was the end of our southern exploration.

From here it was an easy run northwards once again to our afternoon’s destination of Brown Bluff. Thankfully the winds we had been enduring all morning seemed to ease and as we neared the anchorage position the continent of Antarctica created enough protection from the wind and it seemed that we were going to be able to go ashore.

Conditions were a bit bumpy at the gangway and it was a splashy ride ashore but as we made our way past the grounded icebergs we could see the staff waiting for us along with a welcome committee of Adelie and Gentoo penguins.
The impressive brown bluff, remnants of an underwater volcano, towered over the landing site and there were a number of huge, wind sculptured rocks near the shore which. Stepping ashore we arrived on the seventh, and icy continent and the penguins on the beach set the scene perfectly! We gathered by the large volcanic rocks and from that point on the Adélies simply charmed us, walking in waves down the beach, constantly assessing where it might be safe to jump in the water. We were able to take a walk along the beach towards the colony but it was a slow walk with lots of stops to stand and sit and watch the penguins busily making their way along the shore. They clearly had their preferred swimming beach and were very adamant about where they were going to attempt to brave the water! They gathered in large groups at the water’s edge and after lots of calling there was a rush to the water and they launched themselves off into the surf.

At the breeding colony at the end of the beach, which we could smell before we could see, we could stand and watch the penguins as they went about the busy process of feeding their hungry chicks. Many of the chicks were just lying in the sunshine waiting for their parents to come back from sea with food but those that were with their parents created a wonderful show as the chicks chased them around the colony and down to the beach, desperate for some food before they went away again. It was wonderful to watch. At the water’s edge there was a constant stream of penguin traffic as they made their way backwards and forwards along the beach. It was a photographers paradise, albeit it a rather smelly one.

Those who had a bit more wanderlust in their feet returned to the landing site and continued around the corner of the beach before braving the slippery snow slope in order to see the head of the glacier and other interesting geologic features. It was a little windy up on the glacier compared to the peaceful, sunny beach but it only added to that sense of being properly in Antarctica and the views of the bay were stunning, with large icebergs appearing to dwarf Plancius in her position at anchor. Back at the beach two more Weddell seals had hauled themselves up onto the snow and were happy to lie peacefully and have their photos taken. Back at the landing site there was still plenty of time to walk along the cobbles, find a decent rock and just sit and enjoy the penguin parade along the shore line. What a wonderful afternoon.

Back on board there was time for re-cap where Bob told us exactly why the penguin chicks chase their parents and Andrew explained the physics of penguin poop……. Hmm scientific research?
After dinner we found ourselves sailing into fog and Antarctica was hidden in the mist once more. We had been lucky to see so much today.

Day 15: Mikkelsen Harbour and Portal Point, Antarctica

Mikkelsen Harbour and Portal Point, Antarctica
Date: 02.02.2018
Position: 063°54’ S / 060°46’ W
Wind: NE 5/6
Weather: Snow
Air Temperature: +1

We awoke to a very snowy scene, Plancius decks well covered and slippery as an ice-rink. Further out, there was a grey sea, topped by dark grey clouds and continuing snow swirling around the ship and disappearing into the water without a trace.

Our Zodiacs were in similar state, and looked rather pretty under snow, but it soon melted off the engines as we got going for our first landing, D’ Hainaut Island in the middle of Mikkelsen Harbour at the south end of Trinity Island. The staff had gone ashore on the rocks near an old Argentine refuge hut and both the shore staff and drivers did a great job of ensuring we all managed to scramble ashore for the landing. At the landing we were met by a colony of Gentoo penguins all of whom were trying to shelter from the wind and the driving snow. Many of the chicks were trying to hide underneath their parents to try and keep warm but they were getting a little big for complete shelter. Those that were waiting for their parents to return from sea were huddled with their back against the wind and their beak under their wings. Even some of the adult penguins could be seen shivering; it was a truly Antarctic morning.

This is a small island, and we easily established two routes across an around the island with our marker poles, steering clear of the small colonies of Gentoo penguins and some Weddell seals. On the far side from our rocky landing place, there was a wrecked water boat, a covered craft that shipped water (from snow) out to whaling ships. It’s bleached wooden ribs stood up in ironic context with a small forest of parched whale bones, predator and prey meeting the same end. Despite the snow and mist, perhaps even because of it, the surrounding scenery of steep glaciers and high outcrops disappearing into the mist looked very dramatic. During the morning the visibility began to improve as the snow stopped and in the distance the mountains of the Antarctic Peninsula began to emerge from the clouds. It was what we had all hoped for.

From here Plancius had about four hour’s cruise to our next destination; Portal Point, another mainland destination in Charlotte Bay. On the way we were lucky enough to come across groups if feeding Humpback whales, some of whom were quite close to the ship as we sailed by. Staff on deck promised us more whales in the coming hours and they were to be proved correct as the day continued.

Portal Point is a small landing area but again it is set in a panorama of high cliffs and snow fields, whilst offshore there was a veritable parking lot of grounded icebergs, many of fantastic shapes due to their various phases of melting and erosion. The Expedition team had arranged a split landing and cruise with half of the passengers going ashore first and the other group going out into the bay for a Zodiac cruise. On the cruise we sailed around the majestic arches and caves (but staying clear!) whilst on a large ice floe there was a group of Crabeater seals relaxing, and seemingly oblivious to our approach. Better was yet to come: the Captain on the bridge had reported feeding humpback whales at some distance off the ship, so off we went, and were treated to some truly remarkable sightings of these magnificent creatures as they shallow lunge-fed, or dived deeper, flukes rising high above the water. At times with the Zodiacs switched off, we were surrounded by them – a true case of the whales approaching us, rather than the other way round.

Back at Portal Point, everyone had enjoyed a walk around the summit of the dome with the views out over Charlotte Bay improving as the low cloud and snow showers disappeared. It was lovely just to stand and take in the beauty of the surroundings. At the end of the landing some hardy souls had opted to go for an Antarctic swim, and the rocks down by the water were full of these shivering folk kitted out in a diverse array of swimming gear. Not one “chickened out”- all plunged in to whoops of laughter and encouragement from the spectators, doing a few strokes and then springing out to the comfort of towels provided by Plancius. Well done to all who took part! Back on board Bobbi was there at the gangway to welcome us back with steaming hot chocolate which had been much improved by a tot of rum! A perfect warmer for us all!

Back on board we continued on our way further south and the rest of the evening was spent in doing a ship cruise around Wilhelmina Bay. The snow was long past, and the visibility was excellent. In the calm conditions it was classic whale spotting, and every few moments there was a sighting, some in the clear far distance, some remarkably close to the ship. Indeed there were so many that, with some on the surface, others below, at any one time it was difficult to say how many Humpbacks whales we had actually seen. Certainly enough to keep everyone happy, and bring a fine end to an exciting day! By 9pm we found ourselves sailing through a patch of snow covered brash ice which was a magical experience topped off coming across two Humpback whales ‘logging’ or sleeping in the icy water. What a lovely end to the day.

Day 16: Cuverville Island and Paradise Harbour, Antarctica

Cuverville Island and Paradise Harbour, Antarctica
Date: 03.02.2018
Position: 064°40’ S / 062°37’ W
Wind: Var 1
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +1

After the feeding display of Humpback whales the evening before, some of us already got up at 5:30 hoping to see more whale action as we slowly sailed in an area of the Gerlache Strait. At around wake-up call a group of Humpback whales was spotted feeding, ‘bubble netting’ by blowing bubbles whilst swimming to the surface in a circular pattern which chases the krill into a tight swarm ready to eat in one whale sized gulp. These whales were approached quietly and then for a show they seemed to synchronise their swimming showing their flukes, their tails many times.

It was a little cloudy and windy but every now and then there were glimpses of the mountains behind the clouds giving some lovely views of the distant peaks. Not quite the clear blue sky and sunshine we had been hoping for but definitely Antarctic. When we arrived at Cuverville Island during breakfast time the wind dropped and we prepared for our visit the largest Gentoo penguin colony on the Antarctic Peninsula with around 4,000 breeding pairs.
The Zodiac ride ashore took us through a maze of icebergs that were grounded in the shallow water and with glaciers in the background it was an impressive arrival. At the beach we were met by staff, penguins and Fur seals and as usual the staff had prepared a walk through a penguin free zone to reach the other end of the beach.

One there we were able to observe different types of behaviour and chicks of different sizes. Some pairs were still busy building their nest with small stones, probably inexperienced young penguins because they were much too late to raise young this season. Some tiny chicks sometimes peeked from under their parents and bigger but still downy chicks stood patiently waiting for some food. Most of the chicks were extremely dirty and only the adults that just arrived on the beach had white bellies ready for photographing. Dotted all around the beach and on the rocks were many scruffy looking penguins, adults in the process of their annual moult. Each year after they have finished breeding penguins need to replace their feathers which get worn over time. They do this in what is known as a catastrophic moult, a process which can last around three weeks and during this time the birds cannot go into the water to feed. We made sure we gave them plenty of space so that they could conserve as much energy as possible. Skuas once in a while caused the penguins to panic, with the adults screaming and the chicks fleeing in all directions. In the distance Ali had a glimpse of two Leopard seals patrolling in the water clearly watching and waiting for some penguins to dive in and head off on their foraging feed. They were out of luck this morning.

There was also an option to take a walk up to a higher viewpoint which gave us lovely views out over the icebergs and the mountains beyond where the clouds were slowly beginning to clear. There were a number of Skua nests dotted around the rocky slope and the young fluffy chicks could be seen sheltering amongst the rocks waiting for their parents to return with food. We also marvelled at the rock climbing skills of the Gentoo penguins that were making the long climb up to the highest colonies. They had real determination and focus with feeding their chicks the goal of their climb.

Back on the ship we enjoyed the spectacular view during our passage of the Errera Channel, passing close by icebergs as we made our way to our afternoon’s destination in Paradise harbour. On the way we passed the Chilean station Gonzalez Videla where a military vessel was anchored, obviously on an official visit and possibly re-supplying the station for the summer season. A little while later we found ourselves in calm water in Paradise Harbour and before too long we were going ashore at the Argentinian station Almirante Brown.

Like yesterday, the group was split in two and the first group landed near the station while the others went for a Zodiac cruise into Skontorp Cove and vice versa. The small station of Almirante Brown is made up of a couple of red buildings, a small Maria sanctuary and a sign that tells you how far away you are from other places in the world including the North Pole. Behind the station the staff had flagged the safe route up the snow covered slope, it was a steep 50 metre climb to the top. The snow conditions were a little soft but it was well worth the effort as the views from the top were spectacular, looking down into the bay and across the water to glaciers and mountains. While sitting enjoying the views sounds like thunder came from behind where large parts of the glacier fall into the sea. After one had enjoyed the view above the preferred way of going down was definitely to slide, in fact many people climbed back up for another slide.

During the Zodiac cruise in Skontorp Cove there was no wind at all and the dramatic surroundings were reflected in the water. At the back of the cove is a huge glacier known as Avalanche Glacier and everyone had some fantastic views of the jagged blue ice at the front of the glacier. Out in the bay there was icebergs of all shapes and sizes and on some of the lower lying ice floes Crabeater seals were seen and some groups were lucky enough to see a Leopard seal as well. On the cliffs near the station nesting Antarctic cormorants could be seen high up on their guano and seaweed nests and Cape petrels were seen, and heard on the cliffs as well. It was a wonderful afternoon both on land and on the water.

At the re-cap Andrew announced two more landings for the following day, Deception Island early in the morning and Half Moon Island in the afternoon. With glacier ice in our drinks we all toasted yet another fine day in Antarctic but there was a sense of sadness too, with only one day left in this beautiful part of the world.

Day 17: Whaler’s Bay and Halfmoon Island, Antarctica

Whaler’s Bay and Halfmoon Island, Antarctica
Date: 04.02.2018
Position: 062°59’ S / 060°33’ W
Wind: Calm
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +4

During the night we had sailed up the Gerlache Strait and across the Bransfield Strait towards the South Shetland Islands where we were planning to spend our last Antarctic day. At 05:45 Andrew woke us all up as Plancius was ready to sail into Deception Island through the infamous ‘Neptune’s Bellows’. On the cliffs surrounding ‘Neptune’s Bellows’ the Cape Petrels can be seen breeding. The whole of Deception Island is classed as an active volcano and the entrance was where the rim of the volcano collapsed and allowed the water to flood in creating Port Foster. As we passed through the bellows we then turned into the shelter of Whaler’s Bay where we planned to go ashore. We could see the buildings of the old whaling station appearing out of the gloom; giant rusting barrels and tanks used to store whale oil and old derelict buildings and there is a feel of gloom hanging heavy in the air. After the whales had been almost hunted to extinction the whaling station then became a British Research Station but after the famous volcanic eruption in 1970 all stations in the bay had to be abandoned. Apart from the whale oil tanks, ovens and other buildings also an aircraft hanger remain as the first ever flight to Antarctica took off from here and the British Antarctic Survey used to fly from here to the Antarctic Peninsula for many years.

Once on shore at the old dry dock there was an option to walk along the beach to Neptune’s Window. It is said that from this viewpoint the Antarctic Peninsula was seen for the first time by any human, Nathaniel B Palmer and American explorer. It was an easy walk along the shore past the old waterboats that were used to take water out to the whaling ships in the bay and past the old water and whale oil barrels where the Fur seals and Antarctic terns had found shelter and a new home. There were a number of young male Fur seals along the shore play fighting in preparation for the future when they would be fighting to defend their breeding territories and females on the beaches of South Georgia.
A Neptune’s Window we had great views down to the sea but we could re-enact the first viewing of the Antarctic continent as the visibility was a little limited. There was a lone Gentoo penguin high up near the window, hiding in the rocks for its annual moult.

Back down at the whaling station many people took a walk around the buildings and visited the old cemetery where Norwegian whalers were buried. It was a slightly eerie atmosphere with low cloud and an abstract black and white scene broken only by the rusting brown buildings. Just as the time ashore was coming to an end the wind suddenly started to blow and within minutes the water in the way was white with choppy waves and the anchored Zodiacs had to be rescued as they drifted towards Plancius. It was a splashy ride back to the ship for those that took the last boats home.

After this visit in the early morning at 10:00 Plancius departed from Deception Island to set sail up the Bransfield Strait to the last landing site of this trip before setting sail to Ushuaia. In the few hours it took to go from Deception Island to Half Moon Island, next to Livingston Island in the South Shetlands, the wind had picked up. As the anchor was dropped in the bay there was wind, freezing rain and hailstones making driving conditions very cold and wet for the staff and crew drivers taking us ashore. This landing at the Chinstrap Penguin colony on Half Moon Island was the last landing of the trip and it seemed that Antarctica showed its wintery face one more time.

Like Ali said whatever the weather the wildlife will still be there and sure enough as we landed on the cobble beach we were met by Chinstrap penguins and Fur seals. From the landing site we walked up to a small Chinstrap colony at the top of the hill with interesting towering rock formations all around it. The chicks that had spent all their lives in the colony were covered in mud and guano with only the adults coming up from the beach looking ready for a photograph.
Further along the island we came to the penguin traffic lights at the highway, the penguin’s daily route up and down the hill from the sea to the colony. We all commented on how clean the penguins were coming up the hill but how dirty they were coming back down. We also admired their determination and focus on their task of collecting food for their chicks. From here we walked down through the valley towards the other side of the island where penguins were on the beach preening before making their way up to their chicks, some peace and quiet maybe before the demanding children!

The last stop was at the far colony where we could get good views of the chicks and adults in the colony and inhale the smell of penguin for the last time. The weather conditions didn’t really improve much during the afternoon but we had all enjoyed the opportunity to visit a Chinstrap colony and experience some of the challenging weather conditions these tough little birds endure throughout the summer, never mind the winter. Leaving Half Moon Bay at the end of the afternoon also meant a departure from Antarctica for Plancius.

The Captain took us through the English Strait away from the South Shetlands where we had glimpses of the rocky islands and experienced the tides and currents that run through the narrow channels between the islands. From here we were into the Drake Passage. ‘The Drake’ is famous for its rough weather and today Plancius was met by several metres high swell. Was this a taste of things to come? With all measures taken for a good crossing back to Ushuaia Plancius continued north into the night.

Day 18: At Sea in the Drake Passage

At Sea in the Drake Passage
Date: 05.02.2018
Position: 060°08’S / 061°53’W
Wind: W 5
Weather: Part Cloud
Air Temperature: +4

For this day at least, the much discussed Drake Passage was being reasonably kind to us! We awoke to a gentle sparkling sea (by Drake standards) and blue skies although some people commented that they hadn’t managed to get much sleep during the night due to the rolling of the seas. This rolling was also proving too much for passengers who were susceptible to seasickness and there were a few spare seats at the breakfast buffet this morning. Thankfully this was very much a leisure day for us, out in mid ocean, and landfall in Ushuaia some way off yet.

To start the programme of presentations for the day Ali gave us a talk entitled Ice Maidens, looking at the history of women folk in the Antarctic, their belated arrival due to a variety of spurious prejudices, and tracing events from the times when they were strong supports in the background for men like Scott and Shackleton, through to the modern days where their contributions, within Antarctica are advancing exploration and science.

After the presentation many people got wrapped up and headed out onto the outer decks for some fresh air and sunshine. There were a few comments about how they wished the sunshine had been there for us in the preceding days in Antarctica but there isn’t much we can do about the weather systems…… there weren’t too many birds around the ship during the morning, an occasional Black browed albatross and a few Prions were seen drifting by but for the most part the skies and seas were very quiet.

In the afternoon Andrea gave us a talk on the human History of Antarctica, the key phases of exploration, its triumphs and tragedies, acknowledging that sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. She went on to look at further aspects of women in Antarctica, speculating on the reasons why it took so long for women to be accepted there. This proved to be a good follow up to the presentation that Ali had given in the morning.

Finally Howard continued the day’s theme, in a more conversational manner, looking at his time spent in Antarctica 45 years ago, and the changes in technology, regulations, buildings and many other aspects. These included fascinating videos from the old cine, of huskies which were being used as key means of transport, now replaced by motorised sledges etc. For Howard this whole trip has been a walk back down memory lane and all the members of the expedition team have really appreciated his input through his public talks and chats in the bar. We all hope that the trip has lived up to expectations and we all wish him well for the future.

The day concluded with a suitable introduction to the daily recap – a ‘Happy Hour’ in the bar, which of course brought on even more cheer to the spirits of happy expeditioners! Re-cap was the usual plans for tomorrow including paying bills and with an interesting talk from Bob about how to become a whale. The final part was a short video from Hans showing his trip to the Neumayer Station down on the Antarctic continent.
With warnings of winds and high seas in the night we all had an early night to try and sleep before the ship started to roll again.

Day 19: At Sea in the Drake Passage

At Sea in the Drake Passage
Date: 06.02.2018
Position: 056°07’S / 065°32’W
Wind: N 6
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +8

Well the forecast winds hadn’t really arrived during the night as the Captain had managed to find a course that took between two areas of wind meaning we had found some relatively calm weather. This meant we were all able to get a good night of sleep and not be rolled out our bunks.

With no wake-up call again this morning the first call of the day was to breakfast where once again we were amazed that there was still fresh fruit available after nearly 3 weeks at sea.

There was still some wind from the north and occasional rolls but generally life on board was gentle and not the stormy Drake Passage that secretly some of us had hoped for.

The first presentation of the day was given by Bob who explained in his usual enthusiastic fashion why penguins don’t fly. These birds have been the highlight of our journey in many ways, from the Rockhopper penguins high on the cliffs at Saunders Island to the first unforgettable views of the King penguin colony at Salisbury Plain. The Adelie penguins at Brown Bluff entertained us all and we left with memories and smells that will last for a very long time to come.
After lunch there was time in the programme for a nap or to pack, easier to pack going home as it all has to go in the bag. The smell of Antarctic penguins will be packed as well to remind us of our penguin days when we get home!
We also had a visitor to the ship after lunch in the form of a Peregrine falcon that landed on the back deck. These birds often feed on Prions at sea so it was obviously having a rest on its way back from a foraging trip. It posed nicely for photos before taking off and flying home.

Soon we were called to return our rubber boots to the boot room. These sturdy ‘Muck Boots’ had kept our feet warm and dry during the voyage and we were grateful to have had them, especially in the cold of Antarctica where penguin poop was on every rock and boulder.

During the afternoon a film entitled Around Cape Horn was screened in the lounge. This documentary was filmed by Captain Iving Jonstone in the 1920’s, and is about his first time rounding The Horn on the Peeking, one of the famous ‘Flying P-Liners’. It was entertaining and fascinatimg in equal measures!

The rest of the afternoon was at leisure with some people taking a walk around the decks, watching the Dusky dolphins that occasionally came to the bow and stern of Plancius for a closer look. Others relaxed in the lounge enjoying the views of the Beagle Channel as we made our way towards Ushuaia.

At 6pm we were invited to the lounge for Captain’s Cocktails where we met with Captain Alexey once again to toast the wonderful voyage. He did some amazing navigation with Plancius, taking us close to whales and icebergs and into narrow channels for unforgettable experiences. Ruedi, from Polar News had put together a short movie of our trip and the staff had contributed photos for a slide show that Dan had put together for us. It was lovely to look back over the last 20 days on board Plancius and remember the places we had visited and the wonderful things we had seen.
Cheers everyone!

Day 20: Disembarkation Ushuaia

Disembarkation Ushuaia
Date: 07.02.2018

We were woken by the last wake-up call from our Expedition Leader Andrew and got ready to disembark for the final time. We didn’t have to turn our tags, there was no zodiac ride ashore and it was a dry landing. The last three weeks have taken us on a remarkable journey from the Falkland Islands, to South Georgia and to Antarctica and allowed us a glimpse of life in these remote and sometimes inhospitable places. We will all have different memories of our trip but whatever the memories, whether it was the King penguins in the sunshine at Salisbury Plain or the sight of the icebergs in Antarctic Sound they are memories that will stay with us for the rest of our lives.

Total distance sailed on our voyage:
Nautical miles: 3526 nm
Kilometres: 6530km

On behalf of everyone on board we thank you for travelling with us and wish you a safe journey home.

Details

Tripcode: PLA27-18
Dates: 19 Jan – 7 Feb, 2018
Duration: 19 nights
Ship: m/v Plancius
Embark: Ushuaia
Disembark: Ushuaia

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The ice-strengthened vessel Plancius is an ideal vessel for polar expedition cruises in the Arctic and Antarctic.

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