PLA32-16 Trip log | Atlantic Odyssey, Ushuaia to Ascension
11.05.2016 by Oceanwide Expeditions Triplog
Ushuaia marks the end of the road in Argentine Tierra del Fuego, but it is also the beginning – the beginning of our once-in-a-lifetime adventure through the Atlantic Ocean. 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.
We were greeted in the warm sunshine by members of our expedition staff who sorted our luggage and sent us on board to meet our Hotel and Restaurant Managers, André and Thijs. We were then shown to our cabins by members of our hard-working hotel crew. Shortly after boarding we convened in the lounge on deck five to meet Expedition Leader Delphine, who welcomed us on board the ship. Andre, our Hotel Manager, then took over the microphone and gave us a general overview of the ship. Soon our Chief Officer led us through the SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea) safety and lifeboat drill, assisted by the crew and staff. On hearing the alarm we reconvened for the mandatory safety briefing and abandon ship drill, donning our huge orange life jackets for the first (and hopefully last!) time.
A short while later we were able to watch as the lines were thrown and Plancius made her way out into the Beagle Channel accompanied by small flocks of Magellan Penguins, kelp gulls and fur seals - our Atlantic Odyssey had begun! Later on we went to the lounge again to meet our Captain, Evgeny, our Expedition Leader Delphine, and the rest of the expedition team to toast our voyage to the Atlantic islands. Meanwhile, a most glorious sunset was settling over the Beagle Channel, lighting up the mountains on both sides. This first evening on board was occupied with more exploration of the ship, adjusting to her movements, and settling into our cabins, for in the early hours of the morning we would be out into the open waters of the far south Atlantic!
Easter Sunday! We all hoped that Easter Bunny would run around the ship hiding eggs for us to find, but it did not happen. Today was a very calm day, with a gentle wind from the north, and a very quiet sea, but with some unexpected, almost invisible, long swells hitting us right on the beam, causing the ship from time to time to roll much more than you would expect looking at the weather and the sea. But generally speaking, the movements were gentle enough, so only very few passengers felt a little seasick.
Today, we started with an easy programme, with no serious lectures, to give everyone the opportunity to settle in, and get used to the ship. The birders on deck were a bit disappointed with the fog, which greatly frustrated bird watching. Still, fair numbers of petrels and albatrosses were seen, the most exciting observation involving the impressive Royal Albatross, coming all the way from New Zealand to show itself to us.
After dinner, the passengers were given the opportunity to introduce themselves in the lounge, and tell their fellow travellers what brought them on this particular voyage, and say a little about their previous experiences, expertise, and interests.
Most of the people on board the ship woke up and did what they always do first thing in the morning. Look outside and check the weather. Dense fog, no birds, a bit disappointing. So instead of a quick breakfast we had the time to take it easy and really enjoy the life at sea.
At 10.00, Simon gave a lecture in the lounge about Seabirds of the Scotia Sea, Drake Passage and Antarctica. The lounge was filled with birders and non-birders, and it was a perfect lecture to start with. Many of the seabirds that we already saw or hoping to see were covered, along with interesting anecdotes. The only thing we need now is a better visibility. Then it was time to find your way to the Boot room. Everybody has to collect his rubber boots, needed during the landings, leaving and boarding the Zodiacs on the beaches of the landing sites.
At 16.30 Albert gave his presentation “Shackleton’s Story”, about the well-known British explorer from the beginning of the last century, and his heroic journey to South Georgia.
Every evening just before dinner the expedition team asks everybody to join them in the lounge for the daily Re-cap. The weather forecast for tomorrow, some stories, what is to be expected tomorrow and what was special today are a few of the topics that are mentioned in the Re-cap. After dinner everybody was invited to come and tell a little bit about him/herself. Not everybody showed up but it was a nice evening with a lot of interesting stories by interesting people who have an enormous range of travel and wildlife experience to contribute.
The day started with the omnipresent fog. Fog oh Fog! All birders were trying to pierce the veil with their tubes, as if possible. Breakfast was followed by some mandatory briefings given by Delphine, on the behaviour ashore and the biosecurity protocols to be followed before and after the landings at South Georgia. Those instructions included vacuuming all seed traps, such as pockets, velcro, etc, so after lunch, guests were called deck by deck, so they would bring their outer gear and comply with these regulations.
In the meantime some birds were defying the fog, some swimming, some flying. Among the first, a few king and macaroni penguins were spotted, as well as some hourglass dolphins and fur seals. Among the flying ones, we had frequent and close sightings of the ridiculously named soft-plumaged petrel, two species of prion or whalebird (antarctic and slender-billed), and some erratic kerguelen petrels. The whalebirds are always a challenge for birders, nevertheless this time the diving-petrels were probably the binocular’s nemesis, with their whirring flight and elusive exposure. The flying star of the day was almost certainly a single sub-antarctic little shearwater, appetizer of the navigation to come after South Georgia. In the afternoon the educational programme continued with Bob’s lecture on the Seals of the far South. Elephants, Weddells, Crabeaters, fur seals and other pinnipeds were introduced, as well as their particular habits, biology and ecology. Meanwhile the fog opened a bit more in the early evening, allowing some rest for the eyes, finally, that was the horizon!
Before dinner the daily recap took place, with the forecast and plans by Delphine, and some curious pictures of king penguins by Simon, including melanistic and leucistic birds. The last vacuuming sessions continued, and the birders had their ticking meeting as Plancius made her way towards the East, approaching South Georgia’s waters.
The day started better than the last few days. No fog! At least no thick fog, sometimes we had a fogbank, but only for a few minutes. It was excellent birdwatching outside on the decks. Before breakfast the birding list was already almost longer than the whole day before. Little groups of Penguins in the ocean, sometimes hard to identify but we saw clearly King, Gentoo and Macaroni Penguins. Great numbers of seabirds around the ship, lots of albatrosses, shearwaters and petrels. Suddenly we saw a big dorsal fin. Killer whales! Three or maybe four males. Unfortunately the whales disappeared in the fog by the time we turned the ship and could not be found again.
Around 09.00 everybody had to come inside for the mandatory briefing about using the Zodiacs. Delphine showed us how to get in and out of the Zodiac, all about the safety on the gangway and during the Zodiac ride; this was followed by Christian’s lecture about Continental drift, plate tectonics and the origin of South Georgia. Then, what everyone had been waiting for: a fog patch gradually parted to reveal the dramatic high peaks of western South Georgia.
During the afternoon we split up the group in two for the first landing on South Georgia. The weather and sea conditions were good for a Zodiac cruise and a landing at Elsehul. Normally this bay is very prone to ocean swell and strong winds, but this afternoon the conditions looked almost perfect. The first group landed in reasonable conditions for a walk uphill and along a small beach. During this landing, the party enjoyed a Zodiac cruise along the coastline to look for Macaroni Penguin, albatrosses and other wildlife. Later the two groups swopped. It was a perfect afternoon with a lot of species, great views and superb weather. Just before dinner we enjoined the daily recap with a lot of smiling faces. The first landing of this trip was a great success with superb wildlife viewing.
This was a fine day for landings and exploration – South Georgia’s fickle weather was being kind to us, generally bright and clear, and it was only in the afternoon when it became slightly overcast and hazy. We spent the morning landing (again, in two different groups to avoid excessive pressure) on Prion Island which lies a few miles offshore from mainland South Georgia. An easy arrival on the very sheltered beach led up to the top of the island via wooden walkway amongst the tussock grass, and numerous ‘sociable’ fur seals. High above the sea, almost the highest point of the island, we were rewarded by stunning views of nesting wandering albatross and southern giant petrels. We watched them hover over the island slopes in the breeze, and sitting on their very substantial turret-shaped nests. Again, we found plenty of South Georgia pipits amongst the tussocks and on the beach. Conditions were also ideal for zodiac cruising, so we took the opportunity to motor amongst the rock outcrops and kelp forests and look at the contorted geology of the island. We had splendid views of Antarctic terns in various states of plumage, as well as South Georgian Shag.
A short crossing during lunch on Plancius took us to another anchoring, this time off Salisbury Plain, a wide open stretch of grassland dotted with numerous fur seals and backed by steep hills and a glacier. We walked eastwards above the shore to the massive king penguin colony that extends up the slopes; one source suggests about 60,000 pairs. But it wasn’t only king penguins – we had fine views of South Georgia pintail in a small pond near the penguin colony, as well as flying over the lower slopes.
Finally, as it was becoming rather cool, we returned to Plancius and a recap session about the day’s sights and scenes – a fitting end to a very satisfying day.
No visit to South Georgia would be complete without seeing the Wandering albatross either from the ship or on the beautiful island of Prion Island in the Bay of Isles. It is the largest seabird in the world with a wingspan of almost 3.5 metres and weighing up to 10kg. The global population of Wandering albatross is around 8,050 breeding pairs with 1,553 of these breeding on South Georgia. Sadly the numbers have been steadily declining at a rate of 4% per year due to incidental mortality in longline fishing. It makes it even more special for us to see these iconic ocean wanderers.
The birds show a huge plumage variation according to their age but generally have a white body and head with darker upper wings which get whiter with age. Juvenile birds are much darker for the first 6 – 7 years.
The birds are long lived and have been recorded still breeding at over 55 years of age. They are generally loyal birds that will mate for life once they find a mate at the age of 10 years.
The female lays a single egg in a grass and mud nest and both adults will share the 78 day incubation period of the egg. After the chick hatches there then follows a brood guard period of 35 – 40 days where one adult will stay with the chick while the other bird goes out to sea to forage for squid, fish and crustaceans. The adults will swap duties after every trip. During the early fledging period the foraging trips are short, only 2 – 3 days but as the chick gets older these trips get longer and the birds can travel over 10,000 miles on a single trip feeding off the coast of Argentina and Uruguay.
It takes around 278 days for a Wandering albatross chick to fledge during which time it will endure a winter on South Georgia with long periods of fasting between feeds. When it does finally leave the next it will weigh more than the adult birds to ensure that it can survive its early days at sea. Once it has left the island it will remain at sea for the next 6 – 7 years before returning to South Georgia to find a mate and begin the breeding process once more.
It may have been April fool’s day, but there was no kidding about the lovely conditions as Plancius inched her way through Cumberland Bay and into the sound at Grytviken for our visit to South Georgia’s main settlement and administration centre. Whilst the usual customs and immigration formalities were completed, Sarah Lurcock representing the South Georgia Heritage Trust gave us a lively and informative talk about the work of the Trust, notably the rat eradication programme, which has now reached the stage of careful confirmation that all rats have been killed. This will allow for the recovery of many bird populations (possibly by as much as 1 million birds) and it has already seen the resurgence of the South Georgia Pipit population.
We went ashore, and immediately visited the graveyard wherein lies Sir Ernest Shackleton. Bob and Albert dispensed whisky, with part of each toast being tipped (by most) into the hero’s grave to keep him happy. This was followed by a walk around the bay and through the old whaling station, many of us opting for a guided tour led by Matthew, Sarah’s assistant. All of us took time to explore the fine little museum, and some wandered up to the beautiful little church, slightly up the hill.
Back on Plancius, we steamed out of Cumberland Bay, meeting the graceful square-rigged barque Europa, on her way in. From there it was a three hour trip round to St Andrews Bay livened by a sighting of a two southern right whales. Despite a freshening breeze coming off the glaciers and icecap, sea conditions in the bay allowed us to visit the enormous king penguin colony although the river was too full and fast to cross closer. We also had a good close look at numbers of elephant seals beached there amongst the usual fur seals, and some felt that the scenery was the most impressive they had seen in South Georgia. However, after a couple of hours the sun finally dipped behind the mountains and it rapidly became quite cold, so the warmth of our ship was very welcome on our return.
King Penguins of South Georgia
There are over 450,000 breeding pairs of King Penguins on South Georgia with the largest colony estimated at 200,000 pairs found on St Andrew’s Bay. King penguins are the second largest of all penguins standing at 95 – 100cm and weighing up to 12kg. They have a smoky, slate grey back and striking orange ‘ear patches’ and an orange neck which fades to yellow down their chest. Their long curved beak has orange plates along each side. They have a unique breeding cycle which lasts over a year which means at any time of year there will be adult penguins and chicks within the colony. A single egg is laid in December and after a 55 day incubation period a small grey chick will hatch. This chick will require constant protection from one of the adults until it is around 5 -6 weeks old at which point it will be left in the ‘creche’ with the other chicks while both adults go to sea to forage for Lantern fish, their favourite food. King penguins can dive to over 350m to feed spending up to 10 minutes under the water. The chicks, known as ‘Oakum Boys’ have long brown down to keep them warm against the cold winds and snow of a South Georgia winter. During the winter months the chick may only receive a feed every few weeks so the autumn months are a critical time for the chick to build up the fat reserves needed to survive the winter. By spring/early summer the chicks are beginning to shed their brown downy feathers and are transformed into recognisable adult King penguins, at which point the adults will stop feeding them and go to sea themselves for a pre-moult feed. The ‘catastrophic’ moult that follows lasts around 3 – 4 weeks during which time all the feathers are replaced by new ones and the penguin will remain on shore fasting. After the moult they return to the sea to feed once more before the whole cycle begins once again.
There was a possibility of a zodiac cruise in Cooper Bay this morning but it was not to be. Although the sea was calm the wind was not! On our starboard side we had the main island and on the port side was the almost conical Cooper Island; a protected area. Our target bird here was Chinstrap Penguin and a number had already been seen in the sea before we got views of birds in two colonies. Three other species were seen as well, including Macaroni’s in a very big colony. It was decided to steam through the very narrow Cooper Sound and into Drygalski Fjord.
The weather got more and more impressive. The wind increased steadily until it was gusting at almost 70 knots, the cloud base was very low and rain was quickly followed by a horrible mixture of driving snow, sleet and hail. The bottom portion of some of the waterfalls was blown away upwards by the ferocious wind. One brave staffer mounted a vigil out on the bow but even he failed to spot the hoped-for Snow Petrel. The wind was now screaming down the fjord and the captain turned the ship just as the glacier at the head of the fjord came into view. After a while the conditions demanded retreat inside, thankfully just at the very time crew were dispensing hot chocolate and rum.
A very welcome lunch followed our transit and we had icebergs to admire as we headed towards the open sea and set course northwards. The further we went, the better was the visibility. Finally we sailed along through a still stormy sea under a clear blue sky. Icebergs continued to be seen throughout the afternoon; as did wildlife. An impressive range of birds included, for example, lots of Wandering Albatross, three kinds of storm-petrel (Wilson’s, Black-bellied and Grey-backed) and many giant and White-chinned Petrels. Despite the rough conditions there were whales to be seen as well – Humpback, Fin (one followed the ship for some minutes), Southern Right and, most surprising of all, a single Sperm Whale. What a way to end our visit to the magical island of South Georgia!
Wind and waves. The ideal ingredients to see Seabirds. Most of the birdwatchers on board went out at first daylight. Today the chances were high, high because of new species. This part of the Southern Ocean was new for many folk, and it is very good for seabirds, so that many achieved some good ‘lifers’ (first-time species sightings). However, around eleven, fog closed in again and visibility went down to less than 100 meters. Time for some coffee, a look at the photos and to warm up. Around this time we were crossing the edge of the Atlantic Convergence, which could explain the fog. Seawater temperature changed from 4 to 6°C in a matter of hours.
Also in the morning, Christian gave a lecture in the restaurant about birding en route to Tristan. He gave us a detailed analysis of identification features for the most likely and sought-after species: a useful aid for all passengers keen on honing their birding skills. After lunch visibility came back and so did the "extreme birders" on outside decks. Deck 4 aft was the place to be this afternoon for the numerous albatrosses and petrels following the ship’s wake; out of the wind and a perfect view on the passing birds, those telephoto lenses were well used. Today we saw in total 24 different bird species, mostly tubenoses, some far away whale blows and a few nameless dolphins.
For the non-birders or the non-active birders there was an episode of the BBC documentary Frozen Planet on the big screen in the lounge. This was followed by Bob’s lecture on “Why Penguins don’t fly”, explaining the evolutionary benefits of abandoning flight. The recap was special tonight. An extra-long one about South Georgia. All Staff members, including the doctor, showed or shared their special pictures, thoughts, experiences and stories in this more than one our during recap about our visit to South Georgia.
Another overcast day at sea, hope all slept well despite the bumps in the night.
The early sightings included an iceberg along with the birds and in the warmth breakfast was served, enjoyed by all with the usual relish, well done Chef and his team. More icebergs again on the port side just as the crew was carrying out a fire drill.
These drills are very important, as fire at sea can be extremely dangerous on a ship something sailors dread, we have lots of water but no safe place to run! If you smell burning or see smoke. Alert the crew or staff immediately. Albert’s lecture on the history of Tristan was well presented, and enjoyed by all who attended it.
Throughout the afternoon, despite the cold, the birders, well wrapped up, were out in force to see if there was a new species of bird from Gough they had not logged. At the same time, we had another episode of the Frozen Planet narrated by Sir David Attenborourgh rather nicely showing features of our polar regions that we are becoming familiar with. The evening followed with a Happy Hour in the lounge, which prepared the way for an Auction held in aid of the South Georgia Heritage Trust and their important work on habitat restoration on the island, most notably the removal of the very destructive rat population. Lubricated by bar provisioning, the bidding was brisk and lively, raising £468 for the work.
A copy of Shackleton at South Georgia, booklet signed by its author Robert Burton
A pack of South Georgia greeting cards by Antony Smith
A First Day Cover of South Georgia Stamps commemorating habitat restoration
An aluminium elephant seal sculpture by artist Steve Massam, with a signed certificate of authentication
A XL south Georgia Heritage trust T shirt
A South Georgia guide Booklet signed by one of its authors Sally Poncet
A set of 4 historic postcards –portraits of heroes of the Endurance
A stunning photo of old whaling ship by J Alexander
A beautiful retro- poster of Shackleton’s expedition
A Moving limited edition of Shackleton’s memorial cross at Grytviken.
Auctioneer Bob, did a great job supported by his beautiful assistants, Albert, Connie, Christian, Ab and Delphine. Thanks to everyone who took part so generously.
Another beautiful bright rolling day at sea. The biggest surprise was that we still had huge icebergs with us, in spite of being more than half way between South Georgia and Gough! We are still following the trail of the so-called iceberg alley, as Albert explained the other day, originating at the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, where all the tabular icebergs from the ice shelves in the Weddell Sea accumulate, because the entire ice mass in the Weddell Sea makes a clockwise movement, which also brought Shackleton and his men back to the sea. The bergs then travel NE, passing the South Orkneys and South Georgia.
The last iceberg we saw today floated around at 46°26’S, at ten o’clock in the morning, just when Connie started his presentation of the old black and white BBC documentary “A step out of time”, about the evacuation of the Tristan people after the volcanic eruption in 1961. It was a dramatic, moving picture about the people leaving everything behind on their beloved island, to be transplanted into a strange and totally new world, with cars, TV, and lots of other things they never saw before in their lives, including crime. So after spending two years in Calshot, an abandoned military camp near Southampton in England, they were all too happy to be able to get back to Tristan.
Later this morning, Christian gave a workshop on advanced birding, showing us the ins and outs of bird recognition. After lunch, a new episode of “Frozen Planet” was shown, and later in the afternoon Bob presented his lecture “The Atlantic Islands, part 1”, giving a complete overview of the volcanic origin of most islands, in relation to tectonic plate movements, followed by a brief description of the faunas and the degree of endemism, how it came about, in all those islands, following the mid-Atlantic Ridge and its associated volcanic hotspots, all the way from South Georgia to Iceland.
There was a nice variety of seabirds around the ship, petrels, storm petrels, shearwaters and albatrosses. The most interesting was the comparatively large numbers of white-headed petrels that were seen. This bird, which nests in Kerguelen in the southern Indian Ocean, is usually quite uncommon here, and we now have seen more than ever before during previous Atlantic Odysseys.
Sunrise and the first birders are already on the decks around the bridge. A new day, a new chance at good species. Birding is hard work, you don’t get the birds inside. You have to be outside, watching the sea and the horizon. A long species list of birds means a lot of time spending outside on the decks. Sometimes even missing a meal!
This morning Albert gave his talk about the history of the “Island Cock”. If there is one man that knows everything about the Moorhen of Tristan da Cunha, then that man is Albert, who regaled us with tales about the scientific shenanigans relating to the mysterious species. After the talk “Connie” showed us a movie about Tristan in the last century. Great to see how people lived on the island in that times.
The storm petrels gave us a bit of a problem, white-bellied or black-bellied or black-bellied that look like a white-bellied. Big discussions and the photos don’t seem to help a lot. Maybe the books are wrong, maybe it is al one species or maybe it is a new species? Bird watching is fun, but listening to the discussions between the birders is sometimes even more fun.
We are underway to a new group of Islands, so it was necessary to do the mandatory biosecurity again. So after lunch the vacuums were available in the lounge and everybody has to clean there outer gear again before the landings on Tristan and the islands around it.
In the afternoon, while the keen birders were still outside looking for new species but the one or two we are waiting for didn’t show up today, Simon was giving a presentation about Seabirds of Tristan da Cunha, St. Helena and Ascension. Most of today’s recap was about Gough Island, everybody is ready and looking forward to it now. We put in an extra evening session for vacuuming gear, so they could stay all day on the outer decks.
The day started very early for the birders, the promise of emblematic species like the spectacled petrel kept them awake all night. Right by the time the wakeup call was being made, the first two showed up! After breakfast the activities were happening mainly outside, with some interruptions because of rain and the eventual rogue wave from the starboard side that soaked more than one guest (and staff). Many shearwaters were following Plancius, including the pretty sub-antarctic little shearwater, a species very sought after by birdwatchers. By mid-morning Gough Island (or Diego Álvarez), was visible in the fog and Captain Evgeny offered a very close ship cruise, as the wind and swell conditions prevented the launch of zodiacs. There was a cordial radio communication with the residents of the weather station, who were extremely happy to see other human beings! All the local marine species were seen, including yellow-nosed and Gough (Tristan) albatross, Rockhopper penguin (endemic race moseleyi), Sooty, great and little shearwaters.
Prions were quite close, both broad-billed and the new undescribed taxon with blue beak; white-bellied storm-petrels were skimming the waters as Tristan Skuas, spectacled petrels and sooty albatrosses, among others, were circling around Plancius.
Soon was time to depart for the next destination, Tristan itself, so lunch was offered and with full bellies birders and non-birders enjoyed a bit of sunshine on deck, while taking photos of the local fauna. The afternoon was quite peaceful despite the constant movement. A video clip on the wildlife of Gough was shown at the lounge and by 6pm everyone gathered again to hear the plans for the next journey. Bob explained what’s needed to be a whale (in evolution terms), with an overview of the cetaceans, while Christian showed the distribution of several seabird species seen by many. Delphine continued with the forecast and the landing plans for Tristan, describing the available activities and options. After a session of Q&A dinner was served. Shortly after the birders had their ticking session (while others had either a beer session or a sleeping one). Plancius continued her way north with a smooth and steady roll.
We had a fine, settled day, lightly overcast but with the sun beaming through finishing in a warm day. Plancius anchored about half a mile offshore, and within an easy zodiac run to the tiny harbour. Once immigration details had been sorted, we landed, timing leaps off the zodiac onto the concrete quay between swells, and by 11.00 all were ashore.
We spent the day variously touring the settlement, heading up to volcanic outcrop which is a bleak souvenir of the destructive 1961 eruption, or going out to the potato patches a few miles from Edinburgh. Although for some mysterious reason the pub was not open, some useful commerce of the beer-drinking variety was achieved in the café, and many took the chance to top up on e-mails etc. Birds were relatively few and far between, but the famous Tristan thrushes, ‘Starchies’ were seen, along with Antarctic terns and Skuas. Some of us saw the painted lady butterfly, whose precise provenance is still debated (introduction or alien?) and others found a small gecko lizard that almost certainly was from a consignment of hay from South Africa about two years ago.
It was both educational and inspirational to wander around the little houses, many still with their old stone gables, though almost all have abandoned the flax thatch in favour of other materials. Perhaps most importantly it was good to chat and joke with the very friendly locals who clearly enjoyed our presence, aside from the chance to do good business. We also had the pleasure of having six guides from Tristan come on board to help with their knowledge of Nightingale and Inaccessible Islands.
The harbour was due to close at 17.00, and we managed this with about ten minutes to spare, returning to Plancius for a lovely dinner and a beautiful view of the starry night.
Tristan da Cunha
The island of Tristan da Cunha is the most isolated inhabited place on earth, right in the middle of the vast emptiness of the Southern Atlantic Ocean. It lies 3000 km west of Cape Town, and 3300 km east of Buenos Aires. The nearest human settlement is on the almost equally isolated island of Saint Helena, almost 2500 km to the north. Tristan and its smaller, uninhabited neighbours Nightingale and Inaccessible Island, were first sighted by the Portuguese sailor Tristão da Cunha in 1506. Uninhabited Gough Island, a nesting site for millions of seabirds, lies 450 km to the southeast. The islands are volcanic, the main island Tristan being the youngest, less than one million years old. Tristan is a classic cone-shaped volcano, circular, with a diameter of 11 km and a central peak with a crater lake, a little over 2000 m high. On all sides, the mountain is flanked by sheer cliffs, rising from the sea, up to 700 m. At the foot of these huge cliffs, there are a few low-lying plateaus.
The largest of these plateaus is just 6 km long and about 600 m wide. This is where the people live, and grow their potatoes in the legendary ‘Potato Patches’. Permanent settlement started in 1815, when a British garrison was posted on Tristan to help guarding Napoleon on distant St Helena. When the garrison left, Corporal William Glass stayed behind with his wife and two little children, together with some bachelor friends. In 1827 five coloured women from St Helena were imported to marry the bachelors. Later settlers, often shipwrecked sailors, chose to stay and marry one of the locally bred beautiful girls. Today there are seven families on the island: Glass, Rogers, Swain, Hagan, Green, Lavarello, and Repetto, of American, British, Dutch, Italian, Irish, South African, and Saint Helenian descent, with a total population of around 250. There is only one village, officially named Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, but usually just called ‘The Settlement’.
In 1961 the entire population was evacuated when the volcano erupted, and a new lava cone arose just next to the village, damaging and burning no more than one house. After spending a year in Britain, where to their great dismay they were turned inside out by legions of scientists and journalists, they returned to their peaceful island, to pick up their simple life of fishing, growing potatoes, raising sheep, and knitting. Their main source of income comes from a rich supply of crayfish around the islands, which is exploited by a South African company, catering for markets in the US and Japan. The second source of income is from the sales of stamps, sought after by collectors all over the world.
Together with Ascension, Tristan is part of the British overseas territory of St Helena and its dependencies, with a governor based in St Helena and an administrator on Tristan. The admin rules together with the island council. Council members and the Chief Islander are elected directly from the entire population for a period of three years. Tristan has a small hospital, with an expat doctor and local nurses. Children go to school till the age of 15. Those who choose further education have to go abroad. Tristan can only be reached by ship, six to eight times per year, five days sailing from Cape Town. Apart from millions of seabirds, the island host a number of unique, endemic land birds: a thrush, a handful of bunting species, a flightless moorhen, and the most exclusive and elusive of all, the diminutive and dainty Inaccessible Island Flightless rail, the tiniest non-flying bird in the world.
This morning at sunrise we were cruising between Tristan and Inaccessible Islands, hoping for a landing. For some of us it will be wonderful just to set foot on the island. But for our birders it would be lifetime opportunity to the Inaccessible flightless rail, or “Holy gRail”, as some called it. Unfortunately the weather was windy and a lot of swell. After we dropped anchor off Inaccessible, we put two zodiacs in the water for scouting the landing site. Two full scout boats went checking the shoreline all staff and the six guides from Tristan were eager to put all passengers on the Island today. Unfortunately we found a big swell and large breaking waves on the beach, not the things that you want to have on a landing site. So there was no other solution but to get back to the ship and try Nightingale.
During the cruise between the Islands, the birdwatchers had a very good time with lots of Atlantic Yellow-nosed, Tristan and Sooty Albatrosses, Spectacled Petrels, Broad-billed of Great Shearwaters in the water.
Arriving at Nightingale Island it didn’t look promising with a big swell and large breaking
waves rushing up the beach and exploding over the rocks. Nevertheless, once again we launched two Zodiacs for a scouting trip. It was a useful, vital test: we could not even reach the shore this time. Big swell, breaking waves and big Kelp fields. We tried both of the recognised landing sites but failed at both. Despite this, during recap we were able to put a smile back on everybody’s face again. Because of our generally good progress, we still have one day more to get on these islands and tomorrow the weather looks almost perfect.
Tonight it was BBQ time! A big BBQ party on deck 3 aft, with a dancefloor, “nice” music, drinks and very good food. Everybody had a great time and the party went on for deep into the night. During the night we were visited by two Broad-billed Prions and a single Great Shearwater; all were successfully released in the morning.
Up early, and by 07.30 our scout boat had landed in the (relatively) sheltered gully of the west landing on Nightingale Island. So more zodiacs launched and everyone made it ashore, to be greeted by a welcome committee of expedition staff, Tristan guides, subantarctic fur seals, and a single lonely, late-moulting, northern Rockhopper.
Behind the landing site hangs a steep muddy cliff, fortunately equipped with ropes for climbing up. Most of us made it up there, past the rather active fur seals, and onto a more level plateau densely covered in tussock grass, full of Nightingale buntings and starchies, and dotted with maturing yellow nosed albatross chicks and numbers of great shearwaters. Further in, towards the peak, the track steepens, and it was getting rather hot and sweaty. However, our labours were handsomely rewarded at the top, around the ‘ponds’ the most beautiful Phylica woodland, covered in elfin-style lichens, and dense patches of Bletchnum ferns. Many of us saw, photographed and videoed the grosbeak buntings taking tree seeds.
Towards late morning swell conditions had freshened slightly and it took some time for everyone to return to the ship, but all was well, lunch ensued as we steamed towards the ultimate goal, Inaccessible Island. Our captain ensured a useful close anchoring spot, and once again a scout zodiac was launched. However, luck wasn’t with us, sadly. The scout party patrolled the entire beach, looked at the crashing waves as closely as they dared, but concluded there was no safe spot to land. Whilst this was obviously a big disappointment, we were able to reflect that in these turbulent seas, two landings was pretty good going. So we turned north, back to Tristan to let off our local guides, and in a beautiful sunset, upped anchor once more, and set course for St Helena!
A spectacular sunrise at 07.00 heralded our first full day at sea after leaving Tristan and there was plenty to occupy us. Not only were there yet more meals to enjoy but of course we also had presentations on a range of topics. Albert was first and as he walked slowly around the restaurant he described the phenomenon known as global circulation. After lunch there was a fascinating documentary to watch and Connie followed with more epic tales from Tristan. During a special Tristan recap we had contributions relating to the islands, their stories and wildlife.
In terms of wildlife (in addition to a shark), we saw the last vestiges of the familiar Tristan birds. Things such as Spectacled, Great-winged, Soft-plumaged and Atlantic petrels all put in an appearance; with Spectacled being by far the most numerous. Also close to the ship were our last albatrosses: a few Yellow-nosed, a few Sooty and a single but spectacularly close Tristan Albatross. Gliding slowly past on long wings, it was almost as if it was bidding us farewell to the seabirds of the southern seas!
Also in view today was another ship – a massive bulk carrier, which was of interest only because we have seen hardly any ships. We reliably confirmed it was on its way from somewhere to somewhere else. Rounding the day off nicely was the Southern Cross, high in the sky and, down below in the water, bio-luminescence. These flashes of green light are caused by the movement of minute planktonic creatures called dino-flagellates.
A quiet and slow waking up this morning, no need to rush up to one of the bridge wings. Even the birders can get a little bit of rest now. These days we are bird wise in the empty part of the Atlantic. So it was time for two or three major chances on the ship. The air conditioning system on the ship was started, so the rooms should be nice and cool in a little while, the deck crew put up a swimming pool on deck 3 aft and everybody can put their winter clothing away and start wearing a summer outfit.
This morning Simon gave a lecture about Albatrosses in the lounge. He talked about almost all the likely species and showed us how they look like and were you can find them. Another lecture this morning was given by Bob, titled Whales of the South Atlantic: a wish list. After this lecture everybody now has a wish list! Hope that we can find them all during the rest of this voyage. However, actual birding on deck was really slow and hard working today, we had two species at the end of the day, Sooty Shearwater and Spectacled Petrel. For those who longed for the cool of the seas, we showed an episode of Blue Planet, life in the deep. Slowly we start to narrow our distance to St. Helena. So we began with information about St. Helena, firstly with a movie: St Helena Island, a Timeless Discovery. Also the recap today was mainly about St Helena, and the subscription forms for the excursions were put on and everybody could make their choice on what they would like to do on the Island. After diner there was a Hollywood movie in the lounge with popcorn for all!
Another sunny day with clear skies, no birds about; however, we were beginning to see flying fish, from occasional lone individuals to small shoals (or flocks?). Noticeably everyone is in shorts and T-shirts. The keen birders are up enjoying the fine weather, scanning the sea with binoculars in hope of sighting a bird or whale anything other than just the sea. Ah the swimming pool is open—may have a paddle.
Christian gave his lecture in the lounge; about birding en-route to St Helena and Ascension. This was gloriously interrupted by a sudden announcement by Simon—he had spotted 3 false killer whales, so there was a mad rush as passengers grabbed their cameras and headed for the deck, the best sighting of the day. Unperturbed, Christian got going again just as soon as the whales had passed out of sight. This was followed by Bob’s presentation, an overview of the Atlantic Islands (second part), their geological origins and general ecology.
The afternoon started with Connie’s book-signing at the reception “Rockhopper Copper”. Part of the proceeds will go towards the Mice eradication on Gough Island. He followed it with a video in the lounge: the “Heart Beat of St Helena”. During this busy afternoon, filling another sun-drenched day at sea, Albert gave a presentation on the Ecology of St Helena, followed staff serving by ice lollies on the top deck for everyone, marking in an icy sort of way, our crossing of the Tropic of Capricorn.
During the evening some members of the expedition team got very silly, and conducted a game called “Call my Bluff” in which Simon, Albert and Bob various told unlikely tales, and folks fuelled by a ‘happy hour’ had to guess which of the unlikely explanations was true. A good taste for the little grey cells – to sounds of much cheering and hilarity!
Another beautiful day at sea between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Equator! Christian woke us up with good news both on the weather state and the progress in nautical miles towards Saint Helena.
The education program this morning was focused on the history of Saint Helena. Albert first detailed the time-lapse from the discovery of the island until the arrival of Napoleon. After a coffee break, Bob continued with the times when Napoleon was held prisoner on the island. As Delphine quoted later at recap, the legendary former Emperor suffered to death from this captivity despite the apparent mild conditions of his detention in tropical climate: ‘It is not the weakness, it is the strength that strangles me, it is life that is killing me’…
After another input of calories at lunch and a proper siesta, our guest Dave put together a trivia quiz in the lounge. A good moment for brain exercise and some good laughs! The programme also announced an afternoon naturist hour at the swimming pool, but no one showed up for some reason… On a more substantial note, a 30 minutes video about Saint Helena showed us all the main features of the island and it was exciting to know we were so close to visit the island ourselves. And that was another good reason to join Charlotte’s bar to get a drink before recap!
The sunset was once again fabulous and a few were still on watch for the Green flash. During recap, Delphine explained the plans for the next day and the team told a few more interesting stories.
Like every morning during the last few days, this one was also a quiet one. No birds were seen until ten o clock. Suddenly they were everywhere, it looked like a door went open and birds flew out. It started with some Brown Booby’s and Masked Booby’s then Red-billed Tropicbird showed up. Brown and Black Noddy’s in great numbers. The first Sooty Terns and the beautiful White Terns. Shortly after, St Helena itself came in view, capped with scattered grey clouds, so greatly enjoyed the view of land again. During the approach to the anchor site a group of Pantropical Spotted Dolphins, possibly hundreds, passed the ship and people with a sharp eye and good binoculars found several Striped Dolphins in the group. As Plancius was settling in her new anchorage, we also had a most unusual sighting of numbers of rough toothed dolphins swimming near the ship – this somewhat shy and inactive species is normally regarded as one of the more difficult species.
Just after we dropped anchor eight immigration officers came on board to clear the ship and allowing us to visit the island of St Helena and whilst the paper work was being cleared we all had time to guzzle a very good lunch of pizza and ice-cream on the top deck. Finally, time to go ashore. Zodiacs were shuttling between the gangway and the pier. The first tour, the guided city walk was starting just after arrival. Most passengers went straight for the bank joining a hot and sweaty queue to get some change. Closing time was 3 pm so that was for the most of us on top of the list for today.
The first new species of land birds for this trip were seen. Despite they are all introduced species and not of interest for the “Extreme” Birders it was nice to see Common Myna, Peaceful Dove, Java sparrow, Madagascar Fody, Common Waxbill, Yellow Canary and Feral Pigeon. After discovering Jamestown most of us spent the time ashore at the terrace of Anne’s Place and various other hostelries before returning for dinner. After this, some of us went back to check out some of the local pubs and dancing places and at the end of the evening, guess what, the usual suspects almost missed the last zodiac back to the ship.
The day started with the sight of whale sharks, very promising indeed! Breakfast was served and right after everybody boarded the zodiac shuttles to go ashore for the morning tour. This time instead of zodiacs, the vehicle of choice was the minibus. During this mostly historical tour everybody got an overview of the green farmed interior of the island, and stops were made to enjoy the highlights. We looked down on the Briars Pavillion, the first place were Napoleon stayed in 1815; some viewpoints, Napoleon's Tomb (empty now, as his remains are in France), Longwood House (his main residence until his death in 1821). Here, guests were received by the local guides and curators, providing in-depth knowledge of the former Emperor's stay and death at the place. Two curious holes carved on the wooden shutter that Bonaparte used to spy outside can still be seen. Just in front of the house, lies the old garrison, and one can just imagine the tensions between Bonaparte and his entourage and his "custodians", especially the Governor Hudson Lowe; or the faces of Napoleon's men when he got them gardening! Picnic followed in many cases and our visit continued. There were a few stops including the Governor's House, where most payed their respects to the oldest resident, Jonathan the Tortoise (now, with improved health and a much younger girlfriend).
During these visits most of the wildlife could be enjoyed, especially at Longwood garden, a very well-kept place, where the waxbills, Madagascar fodys, canaries and mynahs prosper. During the whole tour the white or fairy terns were either on trees or in the skies, sometimes in couples, sometimes even seen carrying fish for the young. From this point, a few guests decided to walk and try and find the famous wirebird or St. Helena Plover, finding it in some numbers by the golf court adjacent to Longwood House.
The shuttle system continued and in the afternoon a Botanical tour was in order. Mostly by bus, but a lot afoot, an exclusive group of guests and staff were guided by botanist Val Joshua, who gave them not only a great overview from the botanical perspective, but showed them a whole different island. Later on Val also was invited to come on board and have dinner. After a very short recap, as the tours had just finished minutes before, Delphine explained the plans and timings for the next day (boat + wirebird tours day), and pretty soon the second BBQ of the trip was announced. Excellent food, music and company, to close a great day and prepare for a perhaps even greater!
Today was mainly Wirebird day. There were two official excursions, both taking an enthusiastic group of birders up to Deadwood Plain, the main habitat for this special St Helena endemic, a plover not unlike Kitlitz’ Plover from Africa, but with longer legs (the wires), and shorter wings (on its way to become flightless in island fashion?). We were very lucky that our guides knew two nests, where we could see them at close range from the car, giving the photographers ample opportunity to train their long lenses at the bird, obtaining wonderful shots. In the afternoon a few Wirebird addicts went on their own back to the same place, with a taxi, to obtain some more shots, like several other people had already done yesterday and Friday afternoon.
But it was not only wirebirds. This morning, the first group went on the Gannet three, to go play with the dolphins. We circled around with hundreds of Pantropical spotted dolphins bow riding and playing with the waves all around us. Getting near Speery Island, the sea got lively, and we were tossed around enduring spray from the bow, so we had to be really careful with our cameras. On the way back, we came quite close to some rocks hosting nests of Brown and Black noddies, amazing stalactite-like structures of yellowish white guano against the black rock, real pieces of art.
The evening ended up with passengers, staff, and ship’s crew all chilling out at Ann’s Place, where a wonderful buffet was served. Meat and chicken were delicious, the curry was fantastic, and the wahoo in coconut milk with a hint of chilly was absolutely gorgeous, as were the stuffed tuna, and the world famous, slightly spicy Saint Helena Fish cakes. We sat on, laughing and drinking in the warm tropical night…
Before breakfast, the first zodiac was leaving the ship to put the early birds on shore. Today we had a full morning to spend on and around St Helena. Some of us played golf, went diving, walking, driving across the island on its winding little roads, do some last shopping or just spent a lovely morning sitting outside and enjoying a coffee.
It was also time for a second group to do the dolphin tour with the Gannet Three. Nine ‘o clock we had to be ready at the gangway. But the crew of the Gannet were clearly on Island time this Monday morning and showed up a little bit later. (“Don’t worry, be happy”). During our three hours we had perfect views of a big group of Pantropical Spotted Dolphins, a few hundred of them riding the bow wave and playing with the ship, clearly visible in the water below us. We continued round South West Point, once again into fresher seas and on to Speery Island, home of large numbers of nesting seabirds. We even had a couple of Brown Noddy’s landing on people’s heads, great views of Black Noddy and White Tern. Masked and Brown Booby flying around the ship and on the way back to the ship a very large Whale Shark close by. Lunch was already halfway by the time we came back to the Plancius and short after our arrival back on the ship the anchor was lifted and we set course from St Helena on our way to our next destination, Ascension Island. During the departure, many of us were outside looking back to St Helena. A great view but a sad feeling. We had a great time on the island and most of us would not mind to spend a few more days on this beautiful island with its gentle people. In the late afternoon we spent a while circling the Bagration sea-mount – an underwater mountain that rises from the abyssal depths of about 4500m to 1341m – in the hope that the associated turbulence and upwellings might attract whales or seabirds, but despite Evgeny’s careful navigations we didn’t strike lucky.
We had another quiet day at sea, with a bit of a swell that prevented our ‘self-emptying pool’ on deck three from being used for a while. Nonetheless there was stuff to be done. We have no more likelihood of wet landings on wave-soaked beaches, so it was a case of returning all boots, and ensuring they were all clean, free of dirt and seeds that might have caused inadvertent introductions into foreign islands.
Simon gave his lecture on whales and dolphins, a reminder that despite the apparent emptiness of the ocean here, there are still real possibilities of good sightings if we are patient. This was followed by Albert’s lecture on the ecology of Ascension Island focussing on the mainly disastrous fate of the island’s endemics, and the efforts by Joseph Hooker and Charles Darwin to introduce a variety of different tree species to the top of the island in order to improve its water supply.
The afternoon was occupied with movies, most notably a French production entitled ‘Monsieur N’ which presented an entirely different and fictional outcome to Napoleon’s stay in St Helena. Whilst it stretched our credibility somewhat, and was definitely not filmed on the island, it was well produced, sensitive, and entertaining.
After dinner we had a pub quiz, prepared by Delphine with the aid of questions concocted by the expedition team based on their lectures and our island visits. With real English beer and cider on offer, a sort of pub atmosphere developed, and it was a ‘neck and neck’ finish, with the two top scoring teams fighting it out through a sudden death question, the winning team carrying off a fine bottle of wine which, we understand, was rapidly opened.
Once again the staff team kept us busy, informed and educated, with another packed programme. In addition to mandatory paperwork for Ascension Island there were various things going on in the lounge. Our Chief Engineer gave a fascinating talk on the engine department and the challenges caused by “hot water” cruising, Albert enthused about waves and tides, Bob interpreted Coleridge’s well-known Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the staff gave a comprehensive recap and briefing and, finally, there was a video about Ascension Island – to whet our appetites.
After yesterday’s virtual lack of wildlife there were things in abundance today! Before breakfast both Madeiran Storm-petrel and Bulwer’s Petrel had been seen. During the rest of the day three other kinds of storm-petrel were added to the list: Leach’s, Wilson’s and White-bellied. In addition, there was a possible Peregrine Falcon, a small turtle and a close Hammerhead Shark. 100 or more high-leaping Spinner Dolphins added to the excitement. Towards the end of the day the ship passed over the Grattan Bank, the top of which was just 70 metres below the surface. Although we didn’t spot any more marine mammals there were birds: Madeiran Storm-petrel, White Tern, ca. 100 Sooty terns and our first, exciting, Ascension Frigatebirds which have a disturbing resemblance to pre-historic pterodactyls!
As soon as there was the slightest twinkle of light at dawn we could see Ascension Island, still some miles away, with a cap of light cloud that soon burnt off as the day warmed. Matters proceeded speedily with efficient customs/immigration clearance and then we embarked on zodiacs into the hopelessly inadequate quay in Georgetown’s harbour where a cluster of minibuses and Landrovers from Ascension Island Conservation Department awaited us.
Then it was off on a tour of the island, amongst the volcanos and semi-desert. Our first call was at the Turtle Ponds, a relic of the days when particularly green turtles formed part of the economy – turtles would be captured after nesting on the beaches, and stored alive in the ponds before being either killed or transferred to ships for storage as live meat for future consumption. From there, via the American/British base and airfield we visited the Wideawake Plains, where the sooty terns that give the place its name, have a large colony. This year, for reasons that are unclear, the colony is much smaller and conservation staff suggested this might be associated with shifts in the distribution of small fish.
From there our convoy wound its way up the tortuous road to the Green Mountain Peak, site of the Hooker/Darwin project mentioned in Albert’s earlier lecture. We spent an hour up there admiring the panoramic views, enjoying the (relative) cool, and learning about the projects for the recovery of a number of the gravely endangered endemic ferns and other species. Following this, matters took an entirely different turn – we descended to Two Boats village (named after two old boats were erected for shade) and to the club, where having only commented the day previously how we’d indulged on ship’s cuisine, we now gorged on a superb lunchtime buffet provided by the club.
We returned to Georgetown via the tragic site of Comfortless Cove and its old cemetery for yellow fever victims, where a number of us got out and indulged in the happier pursuit of paddling and swimming. The rest of us spent a few minutes at a high lookout where old guns point out to sea, relics of the last world war. Some of us speculated why, wherever we go, these old island guns end up pointing at where Plancius is anchored! Thence to the town, where we explored the local museum, the few shops and post office.
The early evening was marked by a beacon lit on a small volcano beside Georgetown to mark Queen Elizabeth’s 90th birthday, and for a while we could watch it from Plancius, flickering brightly in the distance, sending fiery reflections across the dark waters.
This was a very early start, but the reward was enormous. Before we had even risen, Plancius had weighed anchor and was making her way round to Boatswainbird Island (really a massive rock) off the east end of Ascension. At about six most of us were on the top deck admiring the brilliant moon and the dark coast slipping by. Soon the dawn light spread across the horizon and as it did, we became aware of thousands of Ascension Island frigate birds hovering over the ship, some of them hundreds of feet up like dots in the dawn sky, others so close you would wonder if they were trying to land on the radar apparatus. The sight of these primeval looking seabirds, and their quiet, inquisitive stares at us on the deck will remain for a long time. Frigatebirds, though forming the vast majority, were not the only species for the birders: a range of boobies, noddies, tropic birds, Madeiran Storm-petrels, terns also kept us busy… But not so busy that we didn’t notice the extraordinary colours and formations of the volcanic cliffs along the coast.
Then, returning to anchor off Georgetown, we had to get to business. Sadly a large component of us (and now good friends) had to leave the ship for flights back home, so it was a case of sorting documents, luggage, and transfers to the quay and onward arrangements. Transferring luggage was fun – it had to be craned off Plancius into giant nets, gently loaded onto zodiacs which then motored in, floated within reach of the harbour crane for lifting onto the quay. However, the crane was in the wrong spot, had to be moved, and there was a tangle with its cables, all of which took a while to sort, whilst the swell around the harbour increased as had been forecast. However, all was sorted, and after some rather athletic passenger arrivals, we said our fond farewells. For some others, there was a last brief wander around Georgetown, before returning to Plancius. The anchor was weighed once more and we set course for the Cape Verde Islands, the final destination for those of us remaining on ship.
On behalf of Oceanwide Expeditions, and the Captain, and all crew and staff on board Plancius:
it has been a pleasure travelling with you and we hope to see you again soon!
Total distance sailed: Nautical miles: 5.132 - Kilometres: 9.494