PLA32-17 + PLA33-17, trip log, Atlantic Odyssey
17.05.2017 by Oceanwide Expeditions Triplog
So here we are at last in Tierra del Fuego, at the bottom of the world. Well, from Ushuaia we’ll be going a very long way but for today, we ambled about this lovely Patagonian city, savouring the local flavours and enjoying the sights of the city.
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. We were lucky to be able to enjoy some beautiful end of summer weather with warm sunshine and calm conditions.
All passengers were promptly at the gangway at 16:00, ready to board our ship MV Plancius, home for the next few weeks. We were greeted by members of our Expedition staff who had already sorted our luggage and sent us on board to meet Hotel and Restaurant Managers, Zsuzsanna and Katie. We were then checked into our cabins with the assistance of our fabulous Filipino crew.
Once we had found our cabins and were starting to find our way around the ship we gathered in the lounge for the mandatory Safety Briefing with First Officer Jaanus, which went 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 our Muster Station, the lounge to go through the 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 long time. As it is the end of the season down here for Plancius there was the usual loud departure with the ship’s horn echoing around the surrounding hills.
A little while after boarding we convened in the lounge on Deck five to meet once again with Zsuzsanna, our Hotel Manager who gave us a general overview of the ship, our home for the coming weeks.
Prior to dinner we gathered in the lounge once more for champagne and a chance to meet our Captain Alexey Nazarov and the Expedition staff for our voyage. At 7:30 we sampled the first of many delicious meals onboard, prepared by Chefs Ralph, Ivan 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 open waters and heading east towards South Georgia.
In the early hours of the morning, at around 3am we could feel that we had exited the Beagle Channel and were in more open waters but the motion of the ship was still very gentle and certainly nothing to keep us awake as we made our way eastwards.
With first light being around 7am there was no great rush to get up but as soon as it was light the first of the birders were seen out on deck and they had an great start to the day with lots of birds flying around the stern of the ship and following at Bridge deck level. They were in their element and enjoying the winds and up lift next to the ship. We had our first Wandering albatross, the largest of all seabirds with a wingspan of 3.5metres and it gave a wonderful show soaring past the bridge. It was joined by Royal albatross, both northern and southern and with countless Giant petrels it was a lovely sight. From the largest to the smallest; the Storm petrels, which always amaze with their ability to survive in such harsh conditions. For many of the birders each species was a new one on their list and it really was a great start to the trip for them.
At 11am Simon invited everyone to the lounge to give a presentation about the seabirds found in this part of the world. It was really useful to be able to learn more about identification of species and how they survive their lives at sea. Having seen so many birds during the morning it was good to be able to find out more about them.
After lunch we continued to have a following of birds and we were also lucky enough to have a great encounter with our first marine mammals of this trip. We had a small pod of Hourglass dolphins near to the ship and further away there was a pod of Long-finned pilot whales. The dolphins were bow riding and moving at speed whereas the pilot whales were spy hopping – raising themselves vertically in the water to get a better look at this strange blue vessel passing by. It was a really interesting encounter with contrasting behaviour from both species. The birders were still out and enjoying the Cape petrels and Black browed albatross around the ship.
At 3:30 Marijke gave a presentation about identification of whales and dolphins at sea. It is always difficult to identify the species of whale as we see so little of the body of the animal but she explained how to look carefully at the blows and dorsal fins to give us clues. All of this information will prove to be very useful during the voyage if we come across more cetaceans.
At 6:30 we were invited back to the lounge for the daily re-cap with the Expedition Team. Re-cap allows the staff to explain things we have seen during the day and give short presentations about relevant subjects. This evening Seba outlined out voyage itinerary and schedule and Marijke talked about the Pilot whales and Hourglass dolphins we had seen today. Then Ali, with the help of Marijke showed us the wingspans of some of the seabirds, from the smallest Wilson’s storm petrel (40cm) to the largest Wandering albatross (350cm) using a piece of string as a prop. It was quite surprising to see how big some of these ‘small’ birds are!
At 7pm dinner was served and there was easy conversation in the dining room as people began to get to know one another.
The late sunny afternoon from yesterday was replaced by an overcast sky over night but the slight winds continued overnight giving us a yet another comfortable run east through the day. We were soon greeted by patches of sea fog that would endure throughout the day and conditions were noticeably chillier than yesterday as we have started to approach the Antarctic convergence.
We had good numbers of seabirds in the morning, including Southern royal albatross, snowy albatross, white-chinned petrel, grey petrel and various prions. After a few hours of watching some excited voices marked a sighting of approaching dolphins. A small group of patterned dolphins came rushing towards our bow! Soon everyone was outside admiring this small spectacle. The diagnostic hourglass pattern on the flanks of the dolphins made identification easy – they were hourglass dolphins. They were zooming from one side of the bow to the other side and it kept us fit as most of us were swopping sides on the decks as well. The dolphins then slowed down and started to ride the stern wake of the Plancius allowing for some better angles to photograph them.
Ali gave a presentation on penguins and it was good to learn more about these iconic animals as they are awaiting our arrival on South Georgia. Some of the beaches are home to over 250,000 King penguins and there are large colonies of Macaroni penguins as well which we were all hoping to see.
After a tasty lunch, the fog patches became more pronounced and wildlife was almost non-existent through the afternoon and the fog did not aid us in our observations. Sebastian gave us a presentation about Shackleton’s Imperial Trans Antarctic Expedition 1914-1916 which ended with his epic sea voyage from Elephant Island to South Georgia.
At the end of the day we had a recap of the day and a briefing for our plans tomorrow. Seba explained about the Antarctic convergence and the effect that the changes in sea temperature has on the marine species. Adam talked about the Hourglass dolphins we had been lucky to see once again. Ali then talked about the little critters of the ocean, the Antarctic krill which is the basis of all marine life here in the Southern Ocean. After a great dinner we headed off to sleep looking forward to another day at sea. Fingers crossed for good sightings and less fog patches.
It was a busy day both inside and outside the ship, despite the foggy conditions. The wildlife sightings started just as breakfast was opening – in the form of two huge Fin Whales that ended up just in front of and just to the starboard side of Plancius. At the same time a single King Penguin was seen with one of its large flippers up in the air. It was 300 nautical miles (nm) east-southeast of the Falkland Islands and 260 nm west of South Georgia.
Ali Led the way with the day’s lecture programme, with a fine presentation entitled, ‘An Introduction to South Georgia’. Having spent 9 months living on the island back in 1997 and having visited many times since she was in a good position to give us some valuable information about the island itself as well as some personal stories about life on the island.
Shortly afterwards came the comprehensive visitor guidelines documentary for South Georgia, presented by Sebastian. South Georgia Government is very keen to keep the island as pristine as possible by avoiding the introduction of alien species so although there were quite a lot of regulations to in the documentary we all understood the importance of the message.
After lunch there was time for some retail therapy at extensive ship shop, a chance to buy some postcards ready to send off from Grytviken and this was followed by the Bio-security procedures for South Georgia that required us all to vacuum our outer gear and backpacks to make sure we weren’t taking any unwanted seeds etc to the island.
The final presentation of the day was given by Chris who talked about the seals we are likely to see on South Georgia. It is a breeding ground for Southern elephant seals and Antarctic fur seals. The fur seals were almost hunted to extinction by the sealers in the 19th Century but from a small number left on Willis Island the seal population has now grown to around 5 million and is still expanding southwards on the island.
By now it was usual for the birders to be out on deck, even in the thick fog! More stunning Hourglass Dolphins were seen during the course of the day but opportunities for wildlife viewing were hampered by the thick fog.
Of the birds, the most interesting were: Grey Petrel, Wandering Albatross, Soft-plumaged Petrel and Black-bellied Storm-petrel. We all went to bed hoping that the fog would clear overnight for our much-anticipated and eagerly-awaited sighting of Shag Rocks and the associated birds and, hopefully, whales.
Re-cap was given by Ali, who spoke about life on South Georgia back in 1997 when she was living there as the Postmistress.
As day broke, we were a mile offshore from the Shag Rocks. However, in the very heavy fog, it was not possible to see from one end of the ship to the other, let alone these wave-lashed rock pinnacles that jut out from the Southern Ocean. The only sign of their presence were the green marks on the radar screen and the single immature South Georgian Shag that flew around the ship. It was a disappointment for everyone as it can sometimes be a good place to spot whales and of course seabirds and indeed it is just strange to see a series of rocks sticking out above the surface.
We continued on our way towards South Georgia in very pleasant conditions and sailed through heavy fog throughout the morning, with the occasional seabird passing under the bow. Simon gave us a presentation on the birds of South Georgia, which whetted our appetite for the days to come! South Georgia has one of the biggest concentrations of breeding birds on the planet, most of them seabirds benefitting from the rich waters that surround the island. It is however home to a small endemic songbird, the South Georgia pipit and many of us were looking forward to seeing the world’s most southerly passerine.
Following an excellent lunch we had a zodiac safety briefing to ensure we all were able to embark and disembark safely from the Zodiacs in what can sometimes be quite challenging conditions.
Later in the afternoon Ali gave us a talk on the Ice Maidens –the women of Antarctic exploration. She spoke about some of the women behind the men, the wives of Sir Ernest Shackleton and Robert Scott and how much they influenced the lives of these famous polar explorers. She also spoke about some of the women who had lived on South Georgia for many years; Betty Biggs and Falkland Islander who lived there for 18 years with her policeman husband and their children. It was certainly a different look at this region of the world.
As we neared the shallower ground closer to South Georgia the fog cleared enough for us to spot several Fin whale blows. After some deft manoeuvring by the captain, we had multiple Fin whales right beside the ship. They appeared to pushing their prey items towards the ship and using our vessel to trap their food. They came lunging out of the water giving us incredible viewing of their massive size and also their asymmetrical white right jaw and black left jaw. A fabulous experience thanks to the skilled navigating of Captain Alexey.
Following our evening recap where Marijke talked about the Fin whales we had seen and Seba outlined our plans for tomorrow, we enjoyed dinner and went to bed in high anticipation of the days to come on one of the world’s best islands.
We awoke this morning at Salisbury Plain to wind speeds of 35 knots with gusts up to 45 knots. Undeterred by the failure of the winds to abate, we sought a more sheltered destination in the form of Prion Island (which was originally planned to be our afternoon landing). On arrival we found conditions favourable and so immediately embarked on our excursion.
Prion Island lies on the northeast cost of South Georgia. It is a site of high environmental sensitivity. The small island is only about 50m wide by 100m long. The boardwalks are in place to allow us walk over the tussock without causing any erosion or disruption to the burrowing bird species. We saw around 12 nesting wandering albatross which were visible from the top viewing platform and the South Georgia pipit was abundant amongst the extensive vegetation. Giant petrel chicks were also spotted and South Georgia pintails were numerous around the rocks near the landing site. We were startled by a few of the many fur seal pups and mothers on the boardwalk but fascinated by three elephant seal pups lazing on the beach.
Back to the ship for soup and a baguette, whilst the ship returned to Salisbury plain, which lies on the southern shore of the Bay of Isles, 50km (31mi) from the western tip of South Georgia, for another attempted landing. Fortunately, the conditions had improved substantially so we were able to continue. Here we find the second largest king penguin colony on the island with an estimated 60,000 breeding pairs which swells to 250,000 individuals in total during the moult (only 350 breeding pairs were counted at this site in 1912). Most of the adults had almost completed their moult and the chicks were “well-dressed” ready to face the winter ravages on their own.
Despite this being a favoured hunting ground for sealers during the 19th century we saw ample evidence of the subsequent rebound in fur seal numbers.
The more energetic guests and staff took a hike up on to the hillside overlooking the colony before returning to the waiting zodiacs. A hasty retreat was called for once we started to feel the rebuilding of the earlier Katabatic wind and by the time all guests were back on board the wind speed had increased to 50+ kts., which added a little excitement (and water !) to the last few shuttles from shore. We rounded off the day with an update from Seba on his plans for tomorrow and, of course, another sumptuous meal (venison, Dover sole or vegetarian option) cooked by Ralf and his team.
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 weight 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.
At first light Captain Alexey had brought Plancius into position just off St Andrew’s Bay to have a look at the conditions there and see if it would be possible to make a landing. A few miles off shore the wind was blowing a fairly gentle 15 knots but by the time we sailed closer to the bay the wind had increased to over 40 knots and with gust of 60 knots, funnelling down from the high mountains and glaciers and it was obvious that it was going to be impossible to make a landing. Katabatic winds are very common here around South Georgia as the cold air descends at speed from the mountains. So we turned around and sailed along the coast to our next option for the day Godthul.
At 07.00 we sailed into Godthul, which translates as Good Cove and it was like we had entered another world in the space of an hour. The weather was kind to us giving us clear skies and beautiful flat seas in the shelter of the bay. At 07.45 the Staff went ashore to check the landing sites and to prepare for the passengers arrival and their planned activities. There were a couple of options available to suit everyone with a chance for a leg stretch up to the penguins and the lake or boarding a Zodiac for a cruise around the beautiful bay. As the weather was so good in Godthul the Captain took the opportunity to launch the lifeboats.
For those that set out on the Zodiac cruise there were some stunning landscapes to enjoy including caves and small waterfalls. For the wildlife enthusiasts there were Gentoo penguins, Blue eyed shags and Sheathbills. Young fur seals were scattered all along the shore, both on the rocks and in the water and there was even a rare sighting of a blonde fur seal. A very relaxing way to spend the morning.
For those who preferred not to do the zodiac cruise there was a hike to the peak overlooking St Andrews Bay. The start over the walk was over the whale bones on the beach which were left over from the whaling industry that was based here for a few years. The whales were flensed from the small boat called Jollies and the bones discarded in the bay. From here it was a steep walk up through the tussac where everyone realised they had come over dressed for a sunny morning ashore but it was worth the walk as the Gentoo penguins in the colony were great to see as the busily went about practising their nest building.
This was followed by a short walk to the lake and the Gentoo colony ever further up the hill. This whole area is thick with lush vegetation that has flourished since the removal of the reindeer in 2013. New tussac plants are emerging and spreading higher up the slopes. We were treated to a beautiful view of the lakes and after a short break at the penguins those of us who were feeling especially fit carried on up to the peak with Ali leading the way. Adam led a group along the hillside at a lower level where they were able to enjoy the views and watch the Gentoo penguins coming and going along their highway.
The longer hike took the hikers up to the saddle overlooking Godhul and the southern coast of South Georgia beyond as the group walked up the rocky scree the views just got better and better until on reaching the summit there was a view down to the rocky headland and along the coast to St Andrew’s Bay. After plenty of photographs from the top it was time to retrace our steps and head back down the hill to the penguins and beach. It had been an absolutely stunning morning here on South Georgia which didn’t prepare us for the afternoon that was to follow.
As we began to sail out of Godthul we could see a weather front coming in from the north west and as we got towards Cumberland Bay we had winds of 40 knots which increased to almost 50 knots as we headed towards Grytviken. On advice from the Harbour Master and from observing conditions we had no choice but to turn around and head for another location to try and find some shelter for a landing.
Even at Godthul the weather had deteriorated but Ocean Harbour was our destination but when we got there and approached the anchorage position it was obvious to everyone that a landing in Zodicas was going to be impossible.
From the comfort of the ship we could see into the bay to the 3 masted sailing vessel the Bayard which was used as a coal store during the whaling industry. The station closed here in 1920 but the ship was remained here ever since and is a great nesting place for South Georgia shags.
In typical South Georgia fashion as the last boats returned to the ship at 11.45 the winds picked up and the sky started to cloud over, making our next landings at Grytviken and Ocean Harbour impossible.
South Georgia had shown us both sides, in terms of weather in the space of a few hours and it was definitely a day of two halves.
In the evening we had a re-cap with the Expedition team to outline our plans for tomorrow and Plan C was set in place with hope to get ashore in Grytviken in the early hours of the morning.
Dinner was supposed to be a BBQ out on deck but with wind and rain lashing the decks it was changed to an indoor event in the comfort of the dining room!
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 smokey, 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 ‘Oakam 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.
As daylight broke over South Georgia we turned into Cumberland Bay East to head towards our planned destination of Grytviken. The wind had been blowing a steady 40 knots throughout the night as we sailed slowly up and down outside the bay and as we headed further into the bay this increased to nearly 50 knots, even worse than yesterday afternoon.
Seba and the Captain spoke to the Government official on the radio and it was clear that a landing wasn’t going to be possible so, on agreeing to clear the ship electronically, we turned out of the bay once more and started heading south.
This was becoming a familiar stretch of coastline but the weather conditions certainly gave everyone something watch either from a very wet and windy corner of the bridge wings or the comfort and safety of the lounge. The wind was blowing s steady 45 knots and with gusts much higher it certainly made for a spectacular sight. What was incredible was how the seabirds looked so at home in the gales, especially the little Wilson’s storm petrels that were dwarfed by the waves and spray funnelling from the island.
As we passed by St Andrew’s Bay once again we could see smoking white water coming out of the bay but as we sailed further south the conditions did improve and with some sunshine as well the island started to look a bit more friendly!
By lunchtime we were making our approach to Cooper Island and Cooper Bay where we hoped to get into the Zodiacs and see the Macaroni and Chinstrap penguin colonies which are found on either side of the bay. However, it was clear to everyone that Zodiac operations were not going to be possible with 40 knots winds but with binoculars, telescopes and cameras everyone got a view (and smell!) of the penguin colonies and individuals in the water.
As we finished lunch the Captain turned the ship into Drygalski fjord where we hoped to find some calmer weather. Near the entrance it was still very windy but as we made our way up the fjord past steep mountains, glaciers and waterfalls conditions began to improve a little. This part of South Georgia is a remnant of the super continent of Gondwanaland and is very different to the rest of the island. The dark jagged granite peaks create quite an Antarctic environment and with the hail and gales it certainly felt like that!
As we neared the end of the fjord we could see hundreds of birds feeding at the face of the Risting Glacier. There were Cape petrels on the water and Antarctic terns dipping into the surface to feed. There were also some Giant petrels and Black browed albatross in the area. The weather conditions were much better and so, despite some hail and rain, Seba announced that we were going to go out in the Zodiacs for a cruise around the sheltered part of the fjord. 25 hardy souls boarded the Zodiacs and it turned out to be pretty nice trip out. There was a Weddell seal hauled out on a rock at the side of the fjord, which was great to see. This is a true Antarctic species but there is a very small breeding population to be found in Larsen Harbour, an offshoot of Drygalski Fjord and it is the only breeding population outside of Antarctica. It was a male seal and was completely unconcerned by the Zodiacs and we were all able to get a good sight of it and some photos. From here we travelled across the front of the glacier to find Fur seals on ice, birds on the water and some quite nice icebergs that had come from the glacier.
After around 45 minutes it was time to head back to the ship to warm up, a process that was helped by Katie and her warming hot chocolate and kalua combination! Perfect. On leaving Drygalski Fjord we passed by between Cooper Island and Cooper Bay once again and it was a great time of day to be there as all the penguins that had been out foraging at sea all day were heading back to the colonies and we were able to see four species of penguin; King, Gentoo Chinstrap and of course the Macaroni.
Re-cap gave us ice with Seba and Weddell seals with Marijke and as the light faded and the moon rose over South Georgia we sail out course northwards towards Gough Island and our next Atlantic Odyssey adventure.
When we woke up this morning we had already left South Georgia well behind. There was a long slow swell that caused a bit of a gentle roll during breakfast. Some birds had found themselves stranded onboard during the night. A Kerguelen petrel and Diving petrel were released by Simon and Adam from the back deck with both birds in good shape and keen to go. As soon as they spread their wings the wind lifted these little birds with easy and they were seen rushing away. Another small Diving petrel was found by a crew member during a deck wash and was also swiftly released, but only after carefully checking if no hungry Giant petrels were flying nearby the vessel.
Chris gave a presentation on South Georgia whaling but during his second slide a call came through about approaching Humpback whales. The presentation was temporarily paused to enjoy this spectacle. Two Humpback whales literally had parked themselves on the starboard side of the vessel and as soon as the Plancius changed course they would do the same. It soon became evident that these Humpback whales were simply following our vessel. Who was watching who? A group of rather noisy Chinstrap penguins joined the spectacle and that perhaps caused some distraction. The whales soon gave us a final wave with their flukes and the Plancius headed North East once again.
Soon after lunch a Fin whale was seen close on starboard together with a humpback whale at our stern and ……. Blue whales ahead. These whales are the largest of all the whales and it has been estimated that only 3-11% of the original Blue whale population is left following the whaling period. In total we counted nine Blue whales and most of them approached the vessel and lined up alongside – this gave us a perspective of how big they really are! With a Minke whale joining the feast it was obvious that we had found the ancient feeding ground of the large whales to the north of South Georgia.
The sound of the blows were enormous and the colours of blue-grey to yellow/brown staining from diatom algae were rather impressive too. Although we tried to leave this feeding frenzy, the whales kept approaching the bow of the Plancius and so we stopped to watch them all over again. It was a once in a lifetime experience for everyone on board, including seasoned staff so a really special afternoon on board Plancius and Captain Alexey did an incredible job of moving the ship carefully to ensure the whales safety.
After the excitement of the whales it seemed appropriate that Marijke gave a lecture about a whale survey she carried out for the Australian Antarctic Division as part of their Southern Ocean Cetacean Environmental Program (SOCEP) whilst also visiting the Antarctic stations of Mawson and Davis. After the lectures there were two more lue whales spotted and more high spouts were visible on the horizon. In fading day light a speedy group of hourglass dolphins came by.
One other activity of board during the late afternoon was the release of a scientific Argos float by 2nd Officer Matei from the back deck. These floats will give scientific information about our oceans as they spend almost 2 years collecting data at sea. We will be releasing more of them during our voyage.
During recap more information was given about the 5 different sub-populations of blue whales there are and we listened to the low frequency sounds they make when they vocalize. With dimmed lights in the lounge an ancient old rough whaler, Hans entered the room and presented a beautiful but somewhat scary poem.
We were all delighted to start our day once again with the wake-up call from Seba. It is becoming part of our morning ritual!
The weather was a little breezy once again with winds from the north but it wasn’t anything to concern us on board and we were all up and about ready to start the day or birding, deck walking and attending lectures and meals.
After the excitement of the Blue whales yesterday we were all hoping and praying for the same but experiences like that are once in a lifetime in this part of the world so we had to be satisfied with what we got!
At 10am we were invited to the Lounge for the first presentation from Leon, our Tristan guide. He told us about the fishing industry around the island fishing for crayfish. It was fascinating to learn that there are ‘Fishing Days’ on Tristan da Cunha when the weather is fair and sea conditions good and an old gas cylinder is hammered in the centre of the village to call the fishing men to the harbour. They then head out with their fish traps to set them along the shores of the island. The crayfish is all processed on the island’s factory and sent to Asia and, increasingly to Europe. Leon also talked about the beach fishing on the island for Cape mackerel and Five-fingers. If you want fish for dinner on Tristan, you go out and catch it!
Later in the morning we had an additional lecture added to the programme as we approached the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Chris was on hand to explain the significance of the ridge and, indeed the islands we are visiting make up parts of this ridge. He explained about some of the marine species living along the ridge and the rich up-wellings of food that many of these species rely on.
After lunch there was time for a siesta, a walk or more birding before the next presentation of the afternoon. Our Head Chef Ralf invited us to the Dining Room to talk about his work on board with the 6 strong Galley Team and the logistics involved in provisioning a ship for a long voyage such as the one we are on. He is well stocked up and we have enough food on board to last for 6 weeks more than our trip but he will be taking on board Crayfish and potatoes at Tristan da Cunha and tuna and wahoo at St Helena. He told us we’ll have eaten 4,000 eggs by the time we get to Praia…….
The last presentation of the afternoon was the first of a series of documentaries about Tristan da Cunha. The film, entitled ‘A Step Out of Time’ was filmed in 1966 and followed the journey of the islanders after Tristan volcano erupted in 1961. It was a fascinating insight into life before the volcanic eruption and the effect the subsequent evacuation to the UK had on the islanders. Their lives were changed for ever and although most of them returned to Tristan many of them found it hard to settle again after experiencing life in the UK in the Swinging Sixties. With a quiet day at sea there was little to re-cap this evening so Seba just explained our need to be thinking ahead to all our island visits and the tours available to us, which would be outlined in the coming days.
Despite the murky and foggy conditions there were still birds to be seen. The list for the day included Sooty Shearwater, Kerguelan Petrel, Sooty Albatross, Antarctic Prion, Soft-plumaged Petrel, Grey-headed Albatross, Sooty Shearwater, Northern Giant-Petrel, Light-mantled Albatross, White-chinned Petrel, Black-bellied Storm-petrel and Blue Petrel. The birders, in particular, were looking forward to seeing more of the typical Gough/Tristan seabirds as we drew further away from South Georgia. After dinner it was time for movie night &&%%**
Yesterday’s thick fog hag gone but this morning was still grey, murky and gloomy. Never mind – it was still a busy day for us, inside the ship! Breakfast was an early highlight but it was closely followed by what was, for some member of staff the wildlife encounter of the trip so far. Considering the fog was reducing visibility it made it even more amazing to have such an encounter. At 09.47, out of the fog came lots of Long-finned Pilot Whales; 150 were estimated in total. A small group of them came very close to the bow of the ship, giving superb views.
Very soon afterwards an even better species of cetacean was spotted, the very clumsily-named Southern Right Whale Dolphin. These extraordinary animals are not often seen on the Atlantic Odyssey but they have always been with pilot whales in the past. Black above (with no dorsal fin) and creamy-white below, they were very slender with relatively small tails. If they hadn’t been porpoising along on our starboard side it would have been impossible, due to the fog, to see them. How lucky can you get??? There must have been about 100 animals in the pod and they moved with amazing energy and speed coming right out of the water when they were porpoising. Seeing these black and white animals in a grey and white seascape was almost like seeing the world in monochrome and it was a sight that many of us will save in our minds for a long time.
With the wildlife encounter Leon’s talk was put on hold for a short while but once the dolphins had disappeared into the mist once more he was able to begin his presentation about “Disaster management on Tristan da Cunha.” This outlined the plans on the island should such a disaster as the 1961 volcanic eruption happen on the island once again. For a small island it has had its fair share of difficulties from this volcanic eruption to the grounding and subsequent sinking of the cargo ship the Oliva which went aground on Nightingale Island. This ship discharged both heavy marine oil that had was a massive environmental disaster for the penguins and other seabirds and soya bean which effected species such as the crayfish.
Then it was time to eat again and afterwards Marijke enthused about the rarely-seen beaked whales, about which very little is known. These animals are generally found offshore and are slow moving there for much more difficult to see than animals such as the Southern right whale dolphins that we had seen in the morning moving at speed and therefore making a big surface splash along the way. Some beaked whales have only been identified and described through strandings and very poor photographs so they are certainly going to be a challenge to see during this voyage. A late-afternoon documentary entitled ‘No Place Like Home’ revealed what life was like on Tristan in 1989. Introduced by Leon, it was an interesting follow-up to the 1966 film. Although the series of programmes have shown changes in Tristan life over the years it has also been interesting to see that some things really haven’t changed at all. The islanders remain just that, islanders who depend on the sea and their own self-reliance to live on such a remote island such as Tristan.
Those people who spent the day outside saw a very good selection of birds. The most exciting group was the petrels: Soft-plumaged, Atlantic, Grey, Great-winged and, rarest of all, a single White-headed Petrel. Other notable birds included Sooty & Great Shearwaters, White-bellied Storm-petrel, and Sooty Albatross. During the afternoon the fog was very thick until 17.00 but a Light-mantled sooty albatross only just took off in time before being ‘kissed’ by the bow of the ship! At 17.34 the few birders still out on deck were amazed to see a small land bird from South America. Views as it flew around the ship suggested an Eared Dove and the identification was confirmed by Bill, who got some superb photographs of it. It was 555 nm southwest of Gough Island and 1,750 nm east-southeast of Cabo de San Antonio, northern coastal Argentina. Surely the furthest away from land ever for this species?
Recap of course had to be about the Southern Right Whale Dolphins (from Marijke) and then Ali took us to Tristan to explain the meaning of some of the names that can be found on the map of the island such as Hottentot Gulch and Jenny’s Watron. We all wondered about the headland called Place-where-the-minister-landed-his-things……! With recap done it was time for dinner and another great meal from the galley team.
We awoke once again to a foggy, and mildly rocking and rolling morning but that did not deter the keen birders from taking up their stations at first light. After breakfast the sun broke through for most of the morning which afforded an opportunity to see a much greater distance towards the horizon. Several of the usual bird suspects were recorded but marine mammal sightings were few and far between.
Leon started the presentations for the day with an interesting account of the many shipwrecks that have occurred around the rocky outcrops and reefs surrounding Tristan da Cunha. Considering these are remote islands in the middle of the South Atlantic there are a number of ships that have come to grief here with a devastating impact on the islands. The most notable one was the Henry A Paul in 1882 which was deliberately run aground and unfortunately black rats made their way ashore onto Tristan resulting in an environmental disaster for the small bird populations and indeed for the islanders themselves as the rats ate the harvested potatoes and wheat. The islanders had to resort to bartering with passing ships for food and on one occasion 15 of the islands men set out to trade with a ship called the West Riding and were never seen again. A more recent ship wreck was the MV Oliva that ran aground on Nightingale Island with a cargo of soya beans. The beans and marine oils caused an environmental disaster. Thousands of seabirds and penguins were polluted by the oil and the marine life suffered as a result of the beans on the sea bed. The islanders rescued many of the penguins; cleaning them up and feeding them prior to release. Only 12% survived.
This great presentation was followed by Seba’s outline of options available for excursions on Ascension Island. It seems strange to look so far ahead but the restaurant staff need to prepare for our arrival.
After a traditional lunch of German sausages, or eggs and potatoes, there was another opportunity to resume peering through the fog (which had returned with a vengeance) in search of wildlife, or else seizing the moment for an afternoon nap or other R & R, before Simon showed us some impressive photos of toothed whales that he had seen on previous voyages, along with a brief explanation about each of the species we might be fortunate enough to encounter on our voyage.
The evening briefing focussed on the excursions available in St Helena followed by another sumptuous dinner of either Falklands toothfish or vegetarian option, prepared by Chef Ralf and his galley team.
The evening was nicely rounded off in the lounge with most guests and expedition team members voting for the best photographs entered into the photo competition … well done all you budding David Baileys!
The wake-up call was a bit of a surprise this morning with Ali stepping up to the PA system at 0745 rather than Seba. It was a gentle start to the day!! With one more day to go before we reached our next landfall thoughts were certainly beginning to turn towards Gough Island, one of the most remote islands we will visit on this Atlantic Odyssey.
The weather wasn’t kind to us as a thick fog followed us for much of the day but it meant that sea conditions were still quite pleasant and certainly nothing to complain about. We have been fortunate on this trip to have relatively calm seas but the pay back has been the presence of fog. In the brief periods when the fog cleared there was some excitement for the wildlife enthusiasts spotting some Tristan albatross, prions of a number of species and even a short sighting of dolphins.
The first presentation took us straight to Gough with a talk from Adam about the islands itself and the threats to wildlife from introduced species. The island is home to millions of seabirds from the small burrowing petrels to the large Tristan albatross. The accidental introduction of mice to the island in the past has had a massive impact on the bird population killing 600,000 seabird each year including the well documented predation of albatross chicks. It seems almost unbelievable that the chicks and adults just sit and don’t do anything to stop the process but they have evolved on an island where there were no predators and so maybe they just don’t know how to react or respond. Adam then outlined the plans for mouse eradication on the island and the logistics involved on the remote mountainous island are mind boggling. The success of the project would be one of the best conservation outcomes for seabirds after the mitigation methods in longline fisheries.
Shortly after Adam’s talk Ali screened a short documentary about the work of the RSPB on some of the other oversea territories, such as Ascension Island and the Falkland Islands. It seems all these islands have challenges but they all have passionate conservationists who are determined to put right the wrongs.
The afternoon lecture spot was taken by Chris who was on hand to talk about the ocean currents of the world and the effect they have on the seas and their marine inhabitants. He also outlined the tidal impacts and the effects of the prevailing winds.
The final documentary from the Tristan series was made by an American film director who had great plans to films a Hollywood type movie about the islands and visited first to get a snapshot of island life. This film was his extracts form this journey.
Considering the luck we’ve had on previous sea days, today was a fairly quiet day but we knew we were making good progress to our next destination. Just as it was getting dark we were invited to the Lounge for the evening’s re-cap where Adam talked about the new species of Prion that has recently been described on Gough Island; the McGillivray’s Prion which was found to be nesting in the sea caves on Gough island. It is very similar to the Broad billed prion but with a slightly smaller and blue bill. Seba then talked about the history of sealing on some of the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic islands. A colleague of his had found some amazing sealing camps on Livingston Island in the South Shetland Islands which suggested they were well settled here during the sealing season.
It had been a relatively peaceful night on board as we reached the shelter of Gough Island during the early hours of the morning. The wind was still blowing 30 knots but we had found shelter in the lee of the island and had some comfortable hours of sleep.
Many people were up and drinking their first coffee when Seba made the wake-up call at 6:45 and slowly, as the daylight came Gough Island emerged out of the mist, rain and gloom. What and extraordinary place. The white building of the meteorological station was standing out clearly on the cliff top and many of us were wondering what a 1 year posting might be like on this remote windswept island.
During breakfast Captain Alexey and his Chief Officer and Seba and members of the expedition team spent time on the Bridge looking at a number of locations which would give enough shelter for operations at the gangway and for getting safely to shore. The wind was still fluctuating and they needed to ensure that the swell at the gangway wasn’t too high for Zodiac operations. Once a location was selected Seba and Adam launched a Zodiac and went towards the island to see what conditions were like near the shore. They made the return journey safely so optimism was high on board the ship.
After a Staff meeting on the Bridge we were asked to go to the Lounge for a briefing about our plans. It seemed that it was workable so we all donned our boots and lifejackets and headed out to the deck.
In the meantime 4 member of staff were launching the boats, Seba, Simon, Adam and Ali and before too long we were heading to shore in a tropical downpour and wind! It was torrential rain and quite windy even near the shore but it didn’t spoil the spectacle that unfolded in front of us.
We could see the Northern rockhopper penguins in their colonies high up on the tussac covered cliffs and saw plenty of them in the water. The cries of the Sub-Antarctic furs seals echoed around the bay creating an eerie sounds as we entered the shelter of the coves. The next 45 minutes was spent in a different world of rain, steep cliffs, penguins and seals. The Northern rockhopper managed to keep their crests looking spritely even in the rain and the male seals looked very handsome posing on the rocks with their blonde chests puffed out! It was a fantastic experience, despite the rain and all too soon we were being called back to the ship by the Captain as the wind had changed direction during our cruise and things were likely to get difficult at the gangway.
We all got back on board safely thanks to the work of the staff and crew. Well done to everyone!
Once back on board there was plenty of time to dry out and head back out on deck for views of Gough Island as we sailed along its eastern shore before heading onwards to Tristan da Cunha. We were joined by countless Tristan albatross and Giant petrels as well as Spectacled petrels, Sooty albatross and Brown noddys. What a feast for the birders!
After lunch we confirmed our St Helena trips and then there was an additional feature to the programme with a documentary entitled Sonic Seas which looked at the effect of ship noise and sonar tests on whale communications. The seas are very noisy places for whales. Imagine what it must have been like for marine life before the invention of engines……
After the documentary we were invited to the Lounge to complete the Bio security procedures for Tristan, vacuuming our gear just as we had one prior to our arrival on South Georgia. This would ensure that we weren’t the carriers of introduced species to these islands.
We were all just gathering in the Lounge for re-cap when the sun began to sink lower in the sky creating a beautiful sunset of bright orange and yellow. This was accompanied by the biggest rainbow many of us had ever seen with a huge crescent high in the sky. Maybe these were our good omens for the coming days……
At re-cap Seba outlined our plans for our day on Tristan da Cunha, and Chris talked about seals while Simon told the tale of our hitch hiking Cattle egret!
As we were woken this morning the island of Tristan da Cunha was already in view as we sailed around the island to our anchorage position on the northern side of the island. The weather was nice and calm this morning and with the sun shining on Edinburgh of the Seven Seas all was looking rather promising for a landing on Tristan.
A scouting boat went ahead to explore the situation inside the harbour and collect the officials that would clear the ship ready for us to go ashore but as they did so the conditions didn’t look good at all. Severe confused swells made it almost impossible to enter the harbour and both Seba and Leon returned with sad faces as they had been unable to get the locals on board. They suggested that we wait for an hour or so for the tide to rise a bit as, according to Leon this may flatten the seas enough to allow us to land. In the meantime Captain Alexey lifted the anchor and re-positioned Plancius so that we were in a better position to see into the harbour.
From our new position the Captain and Staff were able to look into the harbour entrance and see the pattern of the swells and realized that there were long smooth times which would allow us to land. When the scouting boat departed for the second time, they soon returned with happy faces and also with the customs people onboard. Whilst our passports were stamped the first zodiacs were launched and we soon all went ashore!
It was great to set foot on dry land after five days at sea and we were met by the Tourism Officer, Dawn Repetto as well as the Administrator and his wife who had come down to meet us. From the wharf some of us went straight to the volcano with the guide and had a great walk which gave fantastic views over the settlement and out over the sea. They also had a chance to visit the Thatched House Museum for a look back in time. Many others simply enjoyed a stroll into town to visit the gifts shops and the Tourist Information Centre and Post Office.
A few people set out along the road for the long hike to the potato patches, where the hills were towering high above us. The twitchers were properly twitching somewhere between the bushes and found a moorhen and also the Tristan thrushes were seen! Out at the patches it was lovely to stroll around the fields and get a sense of life on the island where the ability to be self-sufficient, from both the land and sea is an essential part of life.
The weather was turning rather warm and refreshments were found and sampled in the local pub, The Albatross Bar at the Prince Philip Community Centre. The locals, and also some of us, were eating ice creams to celebrate this unusually warm day!
A rather miserable moulting rockhopper penguin was found nearby the harbor and numerous Antarctic terns were seen feeding close to shore or alongside the Plancius.
Various sightings were also made of Lucky the Cattle egret. He had made it back to shore and was last seen standing amongst the cattle, it still had its wings hanging down a bit after its traumatic voyage across the Southern Ocean.
At the very end of the afternoon we all boarded the last zodiacs back to the Plancius where we enjoyed a recap and were introduced to our two Tristan Guides, Trevor and Julian who joined our vessel today. Eager ears were all around when Seba told us about the expeditions scheduled for tomorrow. Fingers and toes crossed all night long – calm weather for tomorrow please!
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.
Before there was even a glimmer of light this morning the good ship Plancius was approaching the formidable Inaccessible Island. Slowly, slowly, the island was revealed to us – mostly sheer cliffs rising vertically from the sea. At the beach called Waterfall there was, indeed, a waterfall that cascaded from the green slopes high above. Surf on the beach encouraged us to move around to the other landing place but that too was awash with even bigger waves. Undaunted, we set off for nearby Nightingale Island and on the way we were accompanied by Sooty, Yellow-nosed & Tristan Albatrosses, White-bellied Storm-petrels, Brown Skuas, Great Shearwaters, Soft-plumaged & Spectacled Petrels and Southern Giant-Petrels.
Conditions at Nightingale looked more encouraging so a scout boat was sent out to check the two possible landing places. Neither was judged to be safe and there was also too much movement at the gangway to allow a zodiac cruise. The decision was taken to sail around Nightingale and head back to Inaccessible, to see how things were there in the early afternoon. On the way a group of Short-beaked Common Dolphins was spotted so the ship slowed down a little. Many of the animals came to the bow and provided outstanding views. There was a female with a large calf and another dolphin had a large scar caused by a Cookie-cutter Shark just behind its blowhole.
During lunch the scout boat went out on a lengthy reconnaissance and reported that although a landing on Inaccessible would not be possible, a zodiac cruise would be. It was in high spirits that we descended the gangway and boarded the boats. Simon had hardly got going when his boat decided that it had already gone far enough so it stopped working. Even the heroic efforts of the chief engineer were to no avail so a high-seas transfer from one boat to another was effected. Powerful surf prevented a close approach to the beaches so it wasn’t possible to see any Holy Rails but numerous Tristan Thrushes and a couple of Inaccessible Finches were noted. There were also numerous seals and Great Shearwaters and a few graceful Sooty Albatrosses soared effortlessly high overhead. The island was very dramatic – very high and steep-sided with most surfaces covered by lush-looking vegetation. There were even a couple of wispy waterfalls cascading down from the heights.
Marijke spotted a monstrous shark next to her boat and from the ship later on Simon announced the presence of a large Salvin’s Albatross. This New Zealand species is, according to the books, a rare visitor to the Atlantic so was probably the bird that was seen just before lunch. The ship headed for Nightingale for a hoped-for landing in the morning. On the way there were hundreds of both Great Shearwaters and Soft-plumaged Petrels. The last thing of note for the day were the local lobsters that were served to us for dinner! Delicious!!
After drifting through the night just off Nightingale Island, the staff went ashore in a scout boat with Captain Alexey to check conditions at the landing site. Conditions were much improved from the previous day and although things were still challenging for drivers and passengers we had the green light for a rare landing at Nightingale Island. Most of us came ashore with much excitement and were greeted upon the slippery rocks by Sub-Antarctic fur seals and inquisitive Tristan thrushes and Nightingale buntings walking around at our feet, a wonderful experience! From here we made our way to the first part of the trail onto the island itself which was a climb and scramble up a steep slope through 10-foot high tussac grasses.
From this point, many of us walked down to the east beach where the islanders have their holiday homes. The rest of the group headed up to the higher parts of the island along a track that was more like a tunnel through the gigantic tussac grasses. Here and there the last of this year’s chick Yellow-nosed albatrosses were blocking the path. We gingerly walked around them while they clacked their bills at us. Greater Shearwaters emerged from their burrows under the tussacs to come flying out right in front of us. Many of us made it to the higher part of the island where there grows a grove of gnarled old Phylica trees. In here were a few rather elusive Wilkin’s Finches. With a world population of 80 pairs, this is of the rarest birds in the world and certainly one that exceedingly few people have ever set eyes on, so we had to count ourselves exceptionally fortunate to be amongst those!
The trail ended at a bog like feature called “The First Pond” where young Yellow-nosed abatross sat out amongst the stunted tree ferns. It was an absolutely magical morning on one of the finest islands in the world, made all the more special in the knowledge that it is so rarely visited.
All too soon it was time to start heading back down the trail in the warm sunshine and back down to the landing site once again. It had been a short but very sweet visit to this rarely visited island, in fact we were the only passengers to land on the island this season and being the last ship of the summer we were the only ones. How privileged we are.
Shortly after returning to the ship the call rang out of whales ahead of the ship. Most of us were in some form of disarray as we were just returning from the landing, but all hands were promptly on deck and soon feasting our eyes on a group of 5 Shepherd’s beaked whale. The sighting was exceptional and documented with many photographs. It is one of the first ever at sea sightings of this exceptionally poorly know whale – incredible!
After lunch we returned to Tristan da Cunha where Trevor and Julian – our local guides – were returned to their homes and we set our course NNE for St Helena, some 1300 miles away. There was a moment when the ship did a 360° turn as Trevor and Julian’s passports were discovered on the bridge but plans were made to get them back to Tristan da Cunha in time for Trevor leaving the islands in June…..
The weather was extremely pleasant and people started appearing on deck in shorts for the first time. A distant breaching whale crashed into the water several times, and a gigantic orange moon rose over the eastern horizon to cap an exceptional day.
Guests were afforded a more leisurely wake-up call than previously and the slightly rocky day started with another choice of breakfast fare. It became clear that many of us were in sunshine and holiday mode with short and sandals the order of the day as we made our way around the ship. The wind conditions were a little stronger than we had hoped for, with 25 knots but it was warm wind so not too many people complained!
Immediately prior to the first presentation of the day, the call went out that there were beaked whales at the 1 o’clock position to the ship. Many of us were diverted to the outer decks en route to the lounge for a glimpse of what were subsequently identified as Strap-toothed beaked whales. Simon then provided a detailed insight into the fauna we have experienced over the past week with the birds of G&T, Gough and Tristan. Sometimes it is nice to review what we have seen rather than look ahead and we could all picture the birds we had seen during our visit to these remarkable islands.
The ensuing period of wildlife viewing was influenced by an increase in wind speed, which kept many inside the ship. Nonetheless there were some great sightings of Spectacled petrels, White-chinned petrels and Great-winged petrels but only one albatross stayed with us for a while … the others preferring to remain in the food rich waters of our previously higher latitudes.
An enjoyable lunch of chicken and chips, or vegetarian option, was followed by a further increase in wind which produced a moderate wave height, making whale spotting difficult. During the afternoon, Ali presented a fascinating account of the Falkland Island history, bio-diversity and oil exploration to us by reliving some of her experiences whilst working as a teacher and also for the Falkland Conservation organisation, during which she specialised on the flora of the islands. She then showed us a documentary that she had worked on with the BBC and Carole Thatcher focussing on conservation of the albatross population both in the Falkland Islands and in Brazil.
After another sumptuous dinner of beef tenderloin, or vegetarian option, the day was rounded off by movie night …… screening of “The Big Year” which was accompanied by popcorn to make sure that movie goers did not go to bed hungry !
Good Morning, Good Morning Everyone! Yep it was that time of day again and it’s hard to ignore the call! The weather at this time was still a little breezy with around 25 knots of wind still coming from the North East and it seems we’ve had this wind speed for most of our sea days on this voyage. At some point we’ll experience some calm tropical weather but it wasn’t going to be today!
There was some time to enjoy the morning sunshine before the first presentation of the day by Chris. He took us on an altogether different adventure to the Southern coast of South Africa to explain about some of the studies that have been done on the behaviour of Great white sharks. These enormous sharks patrol the offshore waters of the cape at Mossel Bay and are seen to predate on seals as well as fish. He also had some footage of his own and it was certainly a fascinating insight into the behaviour of these often feared animals.
It was the usual relaxing morning with time to read a book, edit photos and relax out on deck but with the relatively strong winds it was a bit like sitting on a seaside promenade except the promenade was moving and there was a constant fine drizzle of salty sea spray in the air. Those sitting up on deck found themselves covered in a fine layer of salt by the end of the morning! There were quite a few flying fish seen around the ship and someone described them as fairies dancing on the water which was a very lovely description of them. They seem to soar for huge distances, gaining more speed with a flick of their tail.
After lunch it was quite quiet around the ship once more but there were always the keen birders out on deck to make sure that nothing was missed as we continued our journey north.
There was an opportunity to look south for a while at 3pm as Ian Prickett, who we collected from Tristan da Cunha gave a talk about his work with the British Antarctic Survey down at Halley Base on Antarctica. He was employed to help build the new Halley Base and his talk was absolutely fascinating as he described working in freezing conditions. There was also some ‘down time’ to enjoy the nearby Emperor penguin colony as well as enjoying some kite skiing. The second part of his talk told the tale of his expedition with Sir Ranalph Fiennes to cross the Antarctic continent in winter. They took huge snow cat machines and traversed glaciers and crevasses and were making steady progress when Ranalph Fiennes suffered severe frost bite on one of his hands and had to give up and head home. The expedition continued without him but they were beaten by the weather and ice conditions they encountered. Ian’s final photo was one of him running the marathon in the Falkland Islands and who should be in the photo next to him but Ali. What a small world this is sometimes!! It was a great talk so many thanks to him.
At 5pm Ali invited us to the lounge to watch a documentary about the sardine run off the coast of South Africa. It showed the Gannets and dolphins following the massive shoals of sardines and followed on nicely from the talk Chris gave in the morning.
Re-cap included a great talk by Seba about scurvy, the effect it had on sailors in the past and how the cure was found and then Adam told us all we need to know about flying fish!
After dinner it was time for another quiz, which was a very competitive affair this time but the Bay City Rollers team were the clear winners. Well done to them!
It is becoming the norm now to hear the dulcet tones of Seba waking us in the morning and this morning was no exception! The day started with still quite strong winds from the North East and news that the temperature was already 25°C so it was set up to be a warm day on the ship although the sea breeze would help to take the edge of things.
The first presentation of the morning was from Adam, who managed to drag himself away from the outside deck for long enough to give us a presentation about the Tropical seabirds we are likely to encounter on the next stage of our voyage. We have left the Antarctic and Sub-Antarctic species behind now and, other than a couple of Spectacled petrels still following the ship the skies were pretty quiet at this time. There were still some flying fish to be seen as they escaped the passage of Plancius and after Adam’s re-cap last night we were all looking at these incredible fish with new eyes and a little bit of respect. In the coming days we will see Tropic birds and Noddy’s as well as some of the warm climate petrels.
After the presentation there were plenty of people out on deck enjoying the sunshine and walking the decks to keep a little bit active on these sea days. There was also the indoor walking team that pounded the corridors and stairs – admiration to them in the heat!
After lunch it was very quiet around the ship with maybe just one or two people getting into the warmer climate habit of an after lunch siesta. Definitely not a bad idea!
Later in the afternoon Marijke was on hand in the Lounge to give a presentation about some of the Tropical dolphins we are hoping to encounter on the next stage of the trip. We were lucky with the cold water species such as the Hourglass dolphins we saw on the way to South Georgia and then of course the incredible sighting of the Southern right whale dolphins on a misty morning our way to Gough Island. These warmer seas should bring us some Pantropical spotted dolphins and maybe some Rough-toothed dolphins so with good luck and good eyes we hope for some more exciting sightings.
At 5pm Ali screened a short documentary as an introduction to St Helena. It gave some history of the island and showed us what we are likely to expect when we get there. It certainly got all our thoughts looking ahead to our next destination.
Re-cap in the lounge was the usual briefing from Seba who outlined our tours for St Helena once more and then Ali gave an account of Napoleon’s time on St Helena. He was taken prisoner by the British and sent to the island where he spent the last 6 years of his life living mostly at Longwood House, one of the places we hope to visit on our island tour on the last day.
After dinner we gathered in the lounge once more for the Tristan da Cunha photo competition. There were 17 entries this time and once again there were some lovely images showing a range of views. Well done to Denzil for his Rock Hopping Northern rockhopper!
Well, the day started with the usual wake-up call from Seba but then the next couple of hours brought some news, which was shocking for many of us on board who were expecting to disembark on Ascension Island. It seemed that the runway on Ascension Island has some damage and it is not possible for commercial flights to land at this time and so all flights to and from the island have been suspended.
The alternative route currently highlighted is the Royal Mail Ship to Cape Town. However this vessel is suffering technical problems and by now is already two days delayed so this seems a rather ‘dodgy’ alternative. Staying onboard the Plancius to the Cape Verde Islands was the only option. However, with the Easter holidays now in full swing there is little that we can find out as the Oceanwide travel agent is closed. Once things had settled a little, Chris gave an interesting lecture on global warming and the human impact on environmental changes. He outlined the latest evidence and the forecast of future scenarios. There is much written about this and it always brings up theories and discussion and today was no exception and there were plenty of questions after the presentation.
Our spirits were lifted a bit more when several flying squid were seen leaping out from the water. Flying fish also kept a regular presence and soon there were quite a few big zoom lenses focusing on the water surface near the bow where both squid and flying fish could be seen leaping out in order to escape the vessel. With a slight increase in wind speed in the afternoon, some of the larger flying fish were seen gliding quite impressive distances.
Just before lunch Seba and Ali invited us down to Reception to pay for our St Helena tours so that it would make payment to the guides easier on shore. With debts paid we could all look forward to our chosen activities in the coming days.
During the day we also saw a higher diversity in birds. Species logged included a Red-billed tropicbird followed by Bulwer’s petrel and a flock of Arctic terns. During the afternoon, Madeiran Storm-petrels were seen foraging and it was a delight to see these well-adapted birds at such close quarters. One of the birders was subsequently told by an informed islander that in a paper published earlier this year they had been described as a new species – St. Helena Storm-petrel.
A documentary was screened later in the afternoon about life on St Helena and with English scones and cream served at the start of the film it was a nice way to watch an introduction as to what we can expect tomorrow when we finally reach this remote island.
We ended the day with a Mexican Happy Hour in the lounge with cocktails flowing and nacho chips and salsa available around the lounge. Re-cap was s short briefing from Seba and Ali about our St Helena Island expedition schedules for tomorrow. It was exciting to be getting to our next destination!
The day dawned early, as usual and the few of us who were out and about saw a huge chunk of rock appearing through the murk. Gough? Inaccessible? Tristan? No, it was the eagerly-awaited St. Helena, another great volcanic lump sticking up out of the sea. Curtains of rain swept along the coast, obscuring and then revealing different parts of the island. Sunbeams shot through holes in the clouds and shone on sea and land alike. Closer to the ship there were birds and at least Marijke & Denzil were very happy because they saw their first-ever White Terns. Denzil saw two more lifers during the day: Masked Booby and St. Helena Plover, or Wirebird.
Plancius approached the island from the south so had to go around the western end of it on the way to Jamestown. Sheer cliffs rose from the sea and the higher parts of the island were lost in the clouds. Here and there, deep gullies and ravines came down to the water’s edge and a white, pointed rock was seen just offshore. This was Speery Island, which is a nesting place for large numbers of seabirds. The green upper parts of the island were dotted with tiny-looking things – people’s houses. Soon the ship was approaching town, the anchor was dropped and the engines were shut down. We had to go through all the immigration and customs formalities and the boat bringing the relevant officials to us seemed to have half the island’s population on board. Waiting, waiting, waiting and then we were off in the zodiacs to the ‘ropey’ landing – what fun it was to swing ashore!
Vehicles were waiting for us at the top of the steps – a whole fleet for the ‘Diana’s Peakers’ and three taxis for those wanting to go up to Deadwood Plain in search of the plovers. Well, the peak was up in the clouds and the rain and underfoot it was muddy and slippery. What an experience though – rainforest indeed! The guides for the tour were employed by St Helena National Trust and were extremely well informed and passionate about their work. David studies invertebrates and pointed out the beautifully named Blushing snail as well as moths and weevils while Rebecca was able to tell us about many of the endemic plants found on the peak. The weather was very wet for a while and there was mist covering the summit but as we reached the high point just below the summit the rain stopped, the sun came out and the views opened up giving us a great view of the new airport, green valleys and Diana’s Peak itself. Some people sat and enjoyed their lunch in the sunshine while the rest decided to ‘bag’ the peak at 823m. Just as the last photos had been taken the rain started again and it was a pretty soggy and slippery descent.
The weather on the plain was, at first, warm and sunny with a bit of a breeze. Then came the drenching rain and the fog – Simon was spotted cowering in the middle of nowhere, getting wetter and wetter! Not long afterwards the ‘peakers’ arrived and they too had excellent views of the plovers, including chicks. The next tour was in the afternoon and was a much longer than expected ramble around town with our expert and knowledgeable guide, Basil. Upon entering the church the group was surprised to see Simon; no doubt praying for better weather and dry clothes……………
In addition to the tours there was the option to simply explore for oneself. The 699 steps of Jacob’s Ladder were an attraction for some and even Seba was seen running up them to the top. The ladder climbs 183 metres up the cliff above the town. It was built in 1829 to allow easy access to the area above and used to have tram lines up the side so that items could be transported in carts up to the top of the hill. These trams lines are long gone and the only way up is to climb and what a climb it was. The 11 inch steps were a real challenge but the views en-route are spectacular so numerous stops for photos were compulsory! Of course it was worth it for the views and to simply be able to say that you have done it.
Some people made their way back down to the wharf to cool off with a swim by the steps while the more adventurous went out into the bay to snorkel over the wreck of the Papanui which lies in the middle of the harbour. There were Pipe fish and Parrot fish to see as well as the occasional Barracuda so it was certainly interesting snorkelling.
The ever-popular Anne’s Place was where many of us ate our evening meal; the St Helena fishcakes had been specially made for us. There was even wildlife here, in the form of Java Geckos and how many spotted the Oceanwide flag from 2011 above the bar? Well, the day began with a single Bottlenose Dolphin and the large resident pod of Pantropical Spotted Dolphins and the day ended with dolphins. Ali was on the late, after-dark shuttles and had fun with dolphins swimming along with her boat. They continued swimming around the ship until quite late in the evening – what a way to end the day!
It was strange to wake up and still be in the same place on this voyage after so many miles but here we were anchored off Jamestown and it was Easter Monday and we had another full day ashore on the island. Many of us headed into town early for some further explorations of the town, and further afield while about half of the group was picked up on the gangway by the Gannet III for a boat trip over to Speery Island and back.
We all got settled on board and with our boat driver and guide, who was responsible for keeping a look out for the dolphins we were hoping to see we chugged along and splashes were soon seen in the distance. It was a playful group of Pantropical spotted dolphin. After a quick deviation out to sea the dolphins were all around us – bowriding and leaping – wonderful! Just after leaving them we found a second large group of dolphins, these were Bottlenose dolphins. A highlight was one that leapt right in front of the bow to a height above our heads and then came crashing down, soaking those people standing on the bow! We were all amazed at how big these animals were as we were able to be so close to them in the smaller boat and it was a wonderful experience wherever you were on board.
After lots bouncing and plenty of salt spray as we headed further around the coastline we eventually made it to Speery Island. This rock stacks stands tall above the surface of the water and even from a distance we could see there was a big seabird colony from the presence of all the white guano on the rocks. As the boat approached we were met by many of nesting seabirds – Brown Noddy, Masked Booby, Red-billed Tropicbird and Madeiran Storm Petrel. As we circumnavigated the island, thanks to some great boat handling from our skipper we were able to see the birds up on the rock and on the ledges that they breed on. As we went around the island a second time we we really lucky to see a Green Turtle resting on the surface. The return journey was a lot more comfortable and we sailed closer to the coastline to reach Egg Island where we saw lots of Black Noddies around their stalactite-like nests.
During the morning other member of the group headed on a tour to High Knoll Fort, a well preserved fort that offered a commanding view over the western end of the island and far out to sea. Some passengers and crew went out for a scuba dive to see what they could find underwater and they were rewarded with abundant fish, some brilliant underwater landscapes and of course they enjoyed the 25 centigrade water…
With a wide range of activities available in the morning some of the group had lunch ashore while others enjoyed hot dogs on the front deck, which were great apart from the lettuce leaves blowing in the breeze!
The afternoon offered further chances for exploration of the island and a second boat trip out to Speery Island. The added attraction of the afternoon boat trip was the chance to see the Madeiran Storm Petrels returning to their breeding burrows in the later afternoon but unfortunately there weren’t any dolphins seen during the afternoon.
After a full and enjoyable day ashore, everyone eventually return to the Plancius for a barbecue on the back deck. It was a great way to cap off another terrific day on our Atlantic Odyssey.
We awoke to a cloudy sky which threatened rain but fortunately the land warmed quickly and the sky turned blue for the whole day. Shortly after breakfast we boarded the zodiacs and everyone decided whether they wishes to enjoy some free time, or join in the Island Tour.
We started by climbing the steep hill out of Jamestown where our first stop was at a view point over the Heart Shaped Waterfall. There had been some rain in the last few days so there was a small waterfall flowing over the heart shaped rock cliff. Continuing into the interior we had a chance to see the wide variety of vegetation that covers the island from lush, wooded places of beauty to wide areas of invasive flax that was previously a cash crop to places that were more barren and dry. It is really amazing to be able to see such a large number of different environments in such a relatively small area.
Our Island tour continued to the now empty tomb of Napoleon. His body was repatriated to France in the 1841 but the grave site still exists in a quiet copse of trees which can be seen after a very pleasant hike through the forest from the main road. It had been his first wish to be buried on the banks of the Seine in Paris but he asked that if that was not possible then here in the Sane Valley by a spring was his next chosen final resting place.
Longwood House, our next stop is one of the more famous locations on St. Helena. This is where Napoleon was exiled after his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo. In the early 1800’s it must have almost like being sent exile to the Moon as St. Helena was such a far sailing distance from Europe in those days. He had a great view with nice breezes and cultivated a lovely garden which still exists but likely thought often of his former days of glory. What a fascinating museum though with so many pictures and artefacts and quite creepy to think you were actually in the room where Napoleon died. The walls were covered with paintings and drawings of him on his death bed.
The tour then proceeded past the Diana’s Peak, which was shrouded in mist to Sandy Bay valley where we had an incredible view of Lot and Lot’s Wife and Daughters. These rock pillars are Trachyte intrusions and the youngest rocks in St Helena. They were intruded into younger conduits of the volcano and have been left exposed after erosion removed the softer ash layers.
On the way back to Jamestown we stopped off at Plantation House which is the Governor’s Home. We did not stop to see the Gov but rather Jonathon the famous (and very large), 180 year old tortoise who lives on the grounds. He has an enormous area to roam, has 5 tortoise friends to keep him company and also keeps the grass trimmed as an added benefit. He is the islands oldest resident a great addition to the grounds of Plantation house
Here, the Butcher and his wife who are buried in the grounds have interesting headstones.
A call in to the top of Jacobs 699 step ladder afforded a fine view of the harbour area and our home from home, the beautiful Plancius.
After an hour free for last minute shopping and sending postcards the return to the ship was accompanied by new guests as we heaved anchor and started our way towards Ascension Island during lunch.
The afternoon was spent wildlife searching, watching the David Attenborough documentary on the “Great Feast” in Alaska, or safety inductions and orientation for our new guests.
There wasn’t much in the way of re-cap this evening other than some details about the plans for Ascension Island, although we have plenty of time to think about that with the next couple of days at sea. Fine dining was once again provided by Ralf and his galley team … Lobster tail starter and Duo of Lamb or vegetarian option main course.
After the excitement of the last few days it was almost quite nice to be back on board Plancius and have a day at sea and although some of us could have done without the wake-up call and call for breakfast we all got ourselves up and about at a reasonable time and began the day on board. Even at 8am it was still 26°C so any walking around the decks had to be done before it got even hotter. In some places the decks were beginning to soften and bend a little in the heat. Thank goodness the air conditioning is working well and with the blinds down in the lounge it was pretty cool on indoors.
At around 10am there was a call from Ali on the radio that some blows had been seen ahead of the vessel and with such calm conditions at sea, even from a distance we were able to see straight away that it was a Sperm whale. Sadly it took a dive before we were able to sail very close but where there is one there may be other so we kept a good look out and were rewarded by another blow soon after. It was easily identified once again by its forward, angled spout, motionless state (logging) and characteristic outline. It stayed at the surface long enough for Captain Alexey to sail gently and quietly towards it so we could watch it at the surface for a while before taking one last breath and disappearing below the surface once more. It was the start of a long journey down to the deep ocean to hunt for Giant squid and other deep water creatures and was a lucky spot as most of the time these animals are down at depths of up to 2000 metres and only spend short period of time on the surface.
Slightly delayed due to whales the presentation of the morning was given by Ali and was entitled An Introduction to Ascension Island. She talked about the geology of the island and its discovery in 1501 and then the subsequent struggle for people to settle there, due to the lack of fresh water on the island. Shipwrecked sailor William Dampier finally found a small spring half way up the island called Dampier’s Drip and so began the colonisation of the island. She talked about some of the seabirds found on the island and of course the Green turtles that go there to breed each year.
Just before lunch some more, much smaller blows were seen on the starboard side of the ship and these were identified as False killer whales. These shy, fast moving dolphins were a rare spot and it was great to just catch a glimpse of them as they continued on their way.
After lunch, as temperatures continued to increase it was very quiet around the ship. Seba and Ali invited passengers wanting to stay independently on Ascension Island down to Reception to sort out the necessary paperwork.
The afternoon presentation was given by Marijke who gave a detailed account of the biology of sea turtles. These cold blooded reptiles have incredible adaptation for life in the oceans and the Green turtles of Ascension are one of the largest species of turtles. It is truly amazing how these huge animals swim all the way from their Brazilian feeding grounds to lay their eggs in this island’s golden beaches, nothing for them to eat during the whole voyage, until they return to Brazil, where they gorge on lush sea grass beds. Only the females come ashore, to dig the holes in which they hide their eggs, about a hundred at a time. They may land like five times over a period of several weeks, in the end producing some 500 ping pong balls. The males stay in the water, patrolling the beaches to have fun with the females who all so desperately want to be fertilised.
After the presentation it was time for ice cream on deck and with chocolate or pistachio to choose from it all went down very well in the heat of the afternoon and many people stayed on deck for a while to enjoy the sunshine and slightly cooler conditions.
Ali then screened a short documentary about Ascension Island which focussed on some of the scenery and wildlife to be found on the island.
Re-cap, was girl power again with Marijke explain about the Sperm whale we had seen this morning, which she thought was likely to be an immature male and also about the False killer whales we had caught a glimpse of as well. Ali then explained about the turtles of Ascension Island and the history of their exploitation as a source of fresh meat for the crew on board sailing ships and their exportation to Britain in the 1800’s for the rich and royal.
Thankfully turtle soup was not on the menu this evening and we all enjoyed another great meal courtesy of Ralf and his team.
The morning started once again with a wake-up call from Seba – he missed doing it yesterday and most people made it to breakfast before 9am.
With another day at sea things got into their usual sea day pattern, some people walking the decks, the birders scanning the horizon for a sign of a bird, any bird will do and others relaxing in the cool of the Lounge.
At 10am Ali invited us to the lounge for a presentation about the seabirds of Ascension Island and the conservation methods that have been used on the island to try to reverse the decline of the populations. Ali spent some time working with Ascension Conservation staff in 2006 to assist in the seabird monitoring process, after the eradication of the cats on the island. The cats had decimated the mainland populations and most of the seabirds were confined to off shore island such as Boatswainbird Island. The main island was declared cat free in 2006 and, as a result the birds are returning to the mainland for the first time in over 200 hundred years. The first Frigatebird nested on the mainland in December 2012 and the recent census found over 450 breeding pairs on the mainland near Boatswainbird Island. A real success story!
After the morning talk some people tested out the cool pools on deck 3 aft and other just enjoyed not doing very much at all!
After lunch things were very quiet once again around the ship as temperatures reached over 30°C and many people enjoyed an afternoon siesta. The next days are likely to be very busy with early starts and late finishes so most of us took the opportunity to have a rest and make sure memory cards were clear and ready for the days on Ascension Island.
By 3pm we were ready for the next presentation of the day and Chris cooled us off a little with a talk about the tropical coral reefs of the world. Chris has been diving on many reefs around the world, including The Great Barrier Reef and Ningaloo off Australia but today he focussed on the corals of the Atlantic and explained about the complicated ecosystems of these sensitive marine environments.
As the afternoon drew to a close it was much cooler out on deck so the benches filled on the top deck and we all enjoyed the sea breeze as we continued on our way to Ascension Island.
The briefing in the bar before dinner was just that, quite brief as Seba outlined our plans for the next day. It would be an early start at Boatswainbird Island and a late finish with the turtles on the beach at Georgetown and some exciting adventures sandwiched in the middle so there was lots to look forward to!
A rather early start for all of us when Seba woke us at 6:15 am. We were already approaching Boatswain Bird Island – an impressive nesting site for a variety of seabirds. Arriving on deck the massive Ascension frigatebirds were already towering overhead. More and more gathered over the Plancius and some of us had to try and outmaneuver the onslaught of bird droppings. Next in line were the Masked boobies together with their more elegant cousins – the Red-footed boobies. Brown boobies were also occasionally seen. Fairy terns, Brown and Black noddies were flying in at lower altitude and some tropicbirds were seen nearer the Island. With the moon still out high in the sky it was a beautiful spectacle and most of us were simply speechless. With the sun rising higher and higher we left the island and made our approach to the anchorage off Georgetown. After a quick breakfast we were soon escorted by a small pod of Bottlenose dolphins and the first Green turtles were seen basking at the surface. The gold glowing beaches of Ascension Island looked very attractive to all of us as we eagerly waited for customs to come onboard.
Within a span of half an hour we already got the call that we could board the zodiacs and land in in the harbour of Georgetown. Most of us joined the Island Tour which brought us first to the turtle ponds – these ponds were historically used to temporarily store any caught green turtle before they were shipped to the UK. We then drove passed the airport and onto the colony of Sooty Terns. They were greeting us with their familiar call ‘wide awake’ - ‘wide awake’ and flew close over our heads. Soon the first small chicks were discovered too.
We then drove up the mountain via a steep curvy road. Slowly it became cooler as we passed through the Eucalyptus forest. We visited the shade houses where they grow endemic plants. Some giant land crabs were also spotted whilst going further uphill. Some passengers went with our guide, Andrew to walk to the next ridge on the mountain where the views down over the old water catchment areas and Breakneck Valley were spectacular. He then led the group around the small peak on a trail known as Bishop’s Path where once again the views down to the airport and Wideawake Fairs were fabulous and the last part of the path took us through a cool, shady forest.
Back down the mountain in Two Boats village we enjoyed a splendid lunch of local fish, tuna and whaoo for those that wanted a traditional bite and some much needed cold drinks. After lunch we visited Comfortless Cove, where the water looked very inviting and the Bonetta Cemetery, which was a hot, Godforsaken place where many of the yellow fever victims stayed, died and were buried. The last stop on the tour was on Cross Hill where we had great views over Georgetown and Eddie was able to visit the 5.5 guns that he had been looking forward to since Ushuaia. We ended to tour at the museum and many of us took the opportunity to walk back up to the main part of town and have a cold beer or two!
After a lovely dinner onboard the Plancius, we were getting ready for the next adventure of the day – turtle watching on the beach at night. Back at the harbour, we met the Turtle Conservationists who guided us with torches along the back of the main nesting beach. They already recorded 12,000 turtle nests this year and are expecting an average of 300 to 400 nests per night at this time – and so all was looking promising for our nocturnal adventure.
We set off in small groups and with help of infra-red torches we walked quietly along the back of the beach towards the first nesting turtles. There were several female turtles on the beach and so we all were able to watch the egg laying process. When the egg chambers were full the turtles would gently cover the eggs with sand by using their hind flippers. This process was followed by a full camouflage of the nest by using front flippers and spray sand over a rather large area including some of us that were sitting nearby! The exhausted females then returned to the sea and we returned to the Plancius, similarly exhausted after a full expedition day. Hatchlings were gathering around the boat near the gangway and so were the Bottlenose dolphins – these were feasting on the flying fish which were attracted to the ship’s deck lights. Yet another of Ascension’s wildlife spectacles!
It seemed as if we had hardly fallen asleep when Sebastian woke us up again – just before 05.00! About 30 of us marvelled at the stars as the zodiacs rushed us once more to the landing steps. Our aim was to see any remaining turtles but this time in the cold (actually very warm) light of day. We were successful too – several females on different beaches and a number of hatchlings were spotted. We sat next to a turtle that was just finishing covering up her eggs and as it started to get light we suddenly realised that we were almost surrounded by turtles doing the same thing. We stood to the side of them as they slowly made their way back to the water as the sun came up. They will now spend the next seven to ten days resting just off shore before coming back to the beach to lay their next clutch of eggs.
We saw a few late hatchlings making their way to the sea for the first time and as it got lighter the aerial battalion of Frigatebirds starting to patrol the skies above the beach. Some of them were in luck and were breakfasting on hatchlings before they made their escape to the water where, sadly other predators were waiting for their feats as well.
We, however were much more civilised and made our way back to the ship for breakfast at 08.00 although some people decided to forgo food and enjoy the last of the turtles on the beach.
After breakfast, Zodiac shuttles ashore started running ashore and the morning was ours, to do with as we pleased. Some stayed aboard and some did go ashore and some had even stayed ashore in the eruptingly evocative Obsidian Hotel.
Simon was just about to return to the ship when Bill alerted him to a flock of donkeys, which had wandered into town and were browsing on plants beside the post office. On this Atlantic Odyssey record numbers of donkeys have been seen – 11 on Tristan, 1 on St. Helena and 10 on Ascension – how lucky can you get? Inside the post office were donkey postcards and many of us took advantage of the cool air inside the building to buy and then post other cards in the Edward 7th post box. There was even a couple of fellows who were not content with all the time spent on the water recently – they went out fishing! All aboard and lunch soon followed and then the ship weighed anchor. Only the most observant of us noticed that we were not sailing away from the island, we were sailing along the coast.
Our destination was Boatswainbird Island again and the Captain once more got us close to the birds. A similar experience to the one yesterday morning was then enjoyed, with thousands of birds above the island and flocks of Frigate birds circling the ship before the ship set course for Praia.
No sooner had we turned away from Ascension than the dolphins found us again at last. The Common bottlenose dolphins stayed at the bow for some minutes and gave mostly tantalising glimpses as they played and splashed in the bow wave. As soon as they had gone Adam, who had been for an impromptu swim at the steps earlier on, spotted a single Rough-toothed Dolphin. An announcement was made and those of us who ventured forth were rewarded with splendid views. More animals came in and the pink “lips” could easily be seen. For a while a couple of dolphins swam along quite close to the starboard side of the ship. It was a marvellous way to finish our time at remote Ascension Island.
But it wasn’t over! Shortly before our information meeting was due to start some spouts were spotted ahead of the ship. The captain slowed and turned the ship and we could see that we were in the company of more Sperm Whales. There seemed to be animals all around us but none were as co-operative as our first ones. Despite this, flukes were seen from at least two whales and a few of us saw some humpback whales, one of which was breaching a number of times jumping clear out of the water. This was enhanced by a spectacular sunset and as the light was fading the Captain turned the ship and we resumed our course towards Praia.
Dinner was a bit of a surprise as the fishing crew that had gone out in the morning had been lucky with their lines and brought back some tuna which was added to the starter at dinner. It probably doesn’t come much fresher or more sustainable than that!
Congratulations to Ian and Gemma on the birth of baby Dylan – he can’t wait to get home and see his wife and new baby boy!
Green Turtles of Ascension Island
Green turtles (Celonia mydas) use the sandy beaches of Ascension Island as a breeding ground spending the rest of their time on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean feeding on the sea grass beds just off the coast of Brazil. They are thought to have been breeding on Ascension Island for the last 10,000 years
The female turtles make this long Atlantic migration every 3 – 4 years arriving in December and staying until July. The males are thought to come to Ascension Island more regularly to mate with the females when they arrive.
The females haul themselves up onto the beaches of Ascension during the night and spend time finding a suitable nesting location above the high tide mark. They then begin the laborious task of first digging out a large primary nesting hole which can be over 2 metres across and then carefully excavating a deeper nesting chamber in which the eggs will be laid. The nest is then covered up and she returns to the sea to rest for 10 days or so. In each nest chamber there may be up to 120 eggs and she will lay anything up to 5 clutches during the season.
The heat of the sand incubates the eggs for the next 55 – 60 days and it is this sand temperature which determines the sex of the turtle hatchlings. Above 29°C the eggs will be female, below 29°C they will be male. Sand temperatures are generally above the critical temperature and so 75% of turtle hatchlings on Ascension Island are female. With temperatures increasing this percentage could be set to rise which has implications for turtle populations in the future.
As the hatchlings start to break out of the eggs and burrow their way upwards to the surface the challenges facing these creatures really begin. Predators include Frigate birds, Land crabs and larger fish and it is though that only 1 in 1000 makes it to adulthood.
In the past the Green turtles were captured for a source of fresh meat and as turtle soup became a delicacy they were often shipped overseas, particularly to Britain to end up on the tables of royalty. There are the remains of the turtle ponds beside Georgetown where the turtles were kept until they were needed.
Well, this morning was the first morning where we were officially allowed a lie in with no wake-up call from Seba and no announcement for breakfast from the girls either. After a busy few days on Ascension Island it was nice to be able to relax a little and have a gentle start to the day.
We carried on our course NNW through the day and it was one of our hottest yet. Sea temperatures reached 30 centigrade today and with the metal hull heating up in the sunshine it was hard to find a cool spot other than beside the AC units or in the pool! A pre breakfast sighting of a pod of False Killer Whales was much appreciated by the early birds but these animals are generally moving at speed and were certainly on their own mission this morning and the sighting was fleeting.
After breakfast Marijke, who has spent much of her working life at sea in these waters, gave us a very informative talk on the intricacies of sea turtle identification at sea – at least 5 species could inhabit these waters so we hoped to see some of them on this leg of the voyage. Given that these animals are generally resting quietly on the surface of the water and don’t make large blows or splashes they can be difficult to spot at sea and even more difficult to identify unless they are quite close. We have been lucky to have fantastic views of Green turtles and were all hoping to see a few more. Apart from the occasional flying fish sightings it was really quiet in these hot and nutrient poor waters.
The afternoon started off well with a Sperm Whale or two seen and a handful of boreal migrants that eke out a living during the non-breeding season here in this tropical waters – Cory’s Shearwater, Leach’s Storm-Petrel and Arctic Tern. With such calm, tropical conditions it was relatively easy to see the whale’s blows, unlike the stormy, foggy conditions that we experienced in the Southern Ocean.
As the afternoon drew on a few people enjoyed the sun deck and the pools and indoors Chris gave us a presentation on a sailing trip he did from Scotland to Svalbard. It was nice to see photos of some cooler places as we sweltered in the heat of the tropics!
The last scheduled presentation of the afternoon was a BBC natural history documentary Nature’s Great Events, which took us to the dry plains of Africa for the annual migration of animals. As always there was some incredible footage of the hunters and the hunted.
In the bar before dinner we all enjoyed a sun downer or two and a delightful sunset capped off another day in the tropical waters as we sailed onwards toward the equator.
The day started peacefully enough with a gentle wakeup call from Seba and the usual call to the dining room by the Hotel Manager ready for breakfast. It was another hot day on board Plancius and everyone eased into their usual morning routine but with thoughts looking ahead to the afternoon when we were going to be passing over the equator. We’ve come a long way since South Georgia!
In the morning our marine specialist, Marijke invited us to the Lounge once again for a presentation about flying fish. We have already seen large numbers of these ‘Scaled Fliers’ escaping from the passage of Plancius and many of us have spent long hours on deck trying to capture them in flight. Close inspection of the photos has shown that there are many different species and it was great to be able to learn a little bit more about them.
During lunch we could feel that Plancius was slowing down as we approached the equator. Seba had sent numerous e-mails to Neptune to ask his permission to cross over to the Northern Hemisphere and we were waiting for a reply.
After lunch we came to a stop and both the Captain and Seba assessed the conditions at the gangway to see if it was going to be possible to cross the equator by Zodiac. It seemed that conditions were perfect and so five boats were launched ready to take us over the line. One of the boats was driven by a blue haired mermaid, complete with tail while another was driven by a trainee mermaid, who was doing a fabulous job on behalf of Neptune!
It was hot in the boats but we embarked on what was an unforgettable zodiac ride across the zero degrees latitude line. Plancius sailed ahead of the small flotilla of boats and as the equator was crossed two life rings were thrown from either side of the Bridge and the Zodiac passed through them to the delight of mermaids and humans alike! It was a strange experience to be in a Zodiac so far away from land and with 5,700m of water below us it was a great ‘Oceanic’ experience!
Back on board the hotel department met us at the gangway with some much needed cool drinks and we settled back on board……Unfortunately, our passing of the equator did not go unnoticed by Neptune and caused a stirring from the 4000 metre depths of the ocean and all pollywogs were summoned to pay their respects to the God of the sea and his beautiful mermaid wife. They were charged with:
Disregard of the traditions of the sea
Taking liberties with the piscatorial subjects of His Majesty Neptunus Chris
Unauthorised feeding of piscatorial subjects
Failure to complete the relevant mandatory form for crossing the line into my domain
After kneeling before me and kissing my hand and the mouth of my favourite fish, there was …………Gunk! Gunk! Gunk!! …….
By my proclamation they were transformed from slimy pollywogs to honourary shellbacks with all the status that confers.
There was much laughter and mess as Ralf and his crew assisted in the ceremony with a concoction to chocolate, water, oatmeal and everything left over from lunch but with hoses on hand for a good rinse down it wasn’t so bad. There was a vat of ‘Equatorial Punch’ and everyone seemed to enjoy the process, even Seba!
Later in the day as the sun was setting we were invited to the back deck for a BBQ dinner which was brilliantly prepared by the galley team. With drinks flowing and music playing the party went on well into the night and we were all pleased that the clock were going back by one hour so that we could spend a little longer in bed in the morning.
Well, most of us had remembered to put our clocks back by one hour last night as we went to bed but unfortunately Seba wasn’t one of them and he woke everyone up a little bit too early….. Thankfully we were all able to press the snooze button and go back to sleep for another hour until breakfast was called. Those who decided to get up anyway were rewarded with a beautiful morning as conditions were flat calm and there was hardly any wind to speak of as we continued our way north. We had found ourselves in the doldrums, an area of the tropics which would have becalmed the sailing ships in the past with no wind to fill the sails for weeks at a time. Thankfully on Plancius we have the diesel engines to keep us going and we sailed on through the still waters.
Huge mats of floating Sargassan weed could be seen floating in the water and all around these small fish could be seen. They provide a protective habitat for juvenile fish and other marine species and are almost ecosystems in miniature. The calm conditions also gave the flying fish photographers a perfect opportunity to take photos of the fish and the tail trail they leave behind as they set of soaring. Even the smallest of fish could be seen and it was incredible to see how many are actually out there.
During the morning Marijke managed to tear herself away from scanning the horizon for long enough to screen a documentary about some of the marine debris that finds its way onto the beaches around the world. Where does it come from and how can we trace it to source? It was a fascinating insight into one man’s quest to do just that.
By mid-afternoon conditions of board Plancius were hot and humid, even with the air conditioning systems working to full capacity and the deck were even hotter. At 3pm we were invited to the Lounge by fellow passenger, Gerard who screen a film of our journey so far from Ushuaia to the equator. It was really lovely to look back on our journey and the memories of being cold on deck and in the rain at Salisbury Plain seem very distant! His wife, Elaine had done a great job with the commentary as well so thank you to them both for sharing this with us.
The last presentation of the afternoon was given by our Chief Engineer on board Teun van’t Verlaat, who gave a virtual tour of the engine room and explained some of the mechanical and technical workings of Plancius. The engines are running 24/7 and with the tropical heat and increased seawater temperatures things are pretty hot down there just now at 47°C. He definitely needed a cold beer afterwards and thanks to him and his team for keeping the ‘Little Blue Ship’ going!
At re-cap Marijke talked about the Sargassan weed and the importance of it to the marine species of this area and then outlined a trip that Oceanwide will be doing along the West African coast. Keen birders and cetacean watchers might just be checking the website and making a booking!
After dinner a small group of keen quizzers gathered in the Lounge for the last quiz of the trip, once again conducted by our on board Quiz Mistress Ali. The younger members of the team did a great job and it was a friendly draw between their team The Walkers and Penguin International……..
Well, normal service was resumed once again and Seba was on the Bridge to do the wake-up call at the right time this morning! Thankfully!
The conditions were still very gentle on board although not quite as flat calm as yesterday, just easy rolling as we continued our way north. Temperatures were a little cooler but the sun was still intense even in the early hours of the morning.
The morning lecture was given by Marijke once again as she talked about her work researching the interactions between the fisheries off the coast of Ghana and the resident dolphin populations. Hundreds of dolphins are being caught as incidental bycatch in the nets of the local fishermen and also international Asian fishing boats but also, more worryingly these dolphins are now being specifically targeted as food, ‘Marine Bushmeat’ as fish stocks are depleted. It was a sobering presentation but it is sadly the reality of the world that we live in. On a cheerier note conditions outside were still good for spotting cetaceans and birds so hopefully we’ll see some live species during the course of the day.
The conditions on deck were a little bit cooler than we had experienced yesterday with a bit of a breeze so it was quite pleasant to be out on deck as we continued on our way north. Some people enjoyed a walk while the birders were lucky to see a few Arctic terns making their way north as well. Maybe we’ll see them again in Svalbard…..
After lunch there was time for the mandatory afternoon nap before Chris announced the movie matinee for those wishing to watch ‘The Theory of Everything’, the story of Stephen Hawking’s life.
Just before 5pm Ali announced that due to the difficulty in keeping the water in the pool the Synchronised Swimming Competition would have to be restricted to the Under 15’s….. Excited crowds gathered on the back deck to watch a beautifully choreographed routine by Katie and Louis!! With perfect scores of 10 from all the judges they were awarded their magnet medals with the applause of the crowd ringing in their ears! Well done to them both!
Re-cap was slightly delayed this evening as the sunset was another beautiful one and this time instead of the Expedition Team taking the microphone it was Zsuzsanna who explained the procedures for settling accounts and disembarking from the ship in the coming days.
After dinner we were invited to the Lounge for the final photo competition and with 23 entries it was the best one yet. There was a wide range of subjects and the votes were spread across the entries but it was Bill Simpson’s beautiful Flying fish with perfect reflection that took first place with Sue Peckitt’s atmospheric Atlantic Night the runner up. Third place went to one of our youngest entrants, Katie Gonsalves. A talent in the making! Well done to everyone who took part!
The day started off quietly with everyone enjoying their last full day at sea on board Plancius. The weather conditions were certainly cooler than we had experienced over the last few days with a stronger breeze so being out on deck was very pleasant.
During the morning Chris gave the final presentation of the trip and repeated his Climate Change talk as the last time he did it was when we’d just heard news about the closure of the runway on Ascension Island and many people couldn’t attend as they were starting to look at their alternative flight options for getting home. There were also new passengers to explain the changes to so it was a well attended lecture and certainly gave food for thought.
Out on deck those with sharp eyes were lucky enough to see some Loggerhead turtles and some Hammerhead sharks as we sailed by and in the far distance some Rough toothed dolphins were also seen. The birder were kept happy with shearwaters and Leeches petrels and as we were getting closer to land they were hoping for some of the Cape Verde species as well. We were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a Brydes whale as well – a blow and a back was all we saw but still a whale!
After our last lunch on board many people were busy packing and indeed the deck crew were busy doing their own packing ready for arrival in port tomorrow. The Zodiac swimming pools were emptied and deflated and craned up onto the top de4ck. These little boats have proved to be very useful in lots of ways and we all enjoyed cooling off in them as we sailed through tropical waters.
After lunch there was some house-keeping and paperwork to attend to; settling our accounts for our journey. All those drinks in the bar and MB’s on our phones etc have to be paid for at some point and this was the time. It was more painful for some than others!
Out on deck we were treated to a great show by some Red footed boobies who were using Plancius as their fish scaring device and chasing them as they ‘flew’ to escape the passage of the ship. They showed amazing skill at catching the fish in mid-air as well as plunge diving to catch them just below the surface of the water. It was a great show for everyone. Shortly after we also saw a few dorsal fins of some Risso’s dolphins but it was just a glimpse as they continued on their way.
The last session of the afternoon was a BBC documentary entitled The Life of Mammals which looked at how marine mammals had evolved for life in the sea, from the seal and dolphins to the large Blue whale.
Before it was tiome for the final re-cap of the voyage and a chance to toast our trip with Captain Alexey and the Expedition Team. Ali had put together a movie/slide show with images of our journey and seeing the whole voyage in the space of 20 minutes made us realise what an incredible journey we had been on from the chilly island of South Georgia to the heat of Ascension Island and beyond. The occasional things haven’t quite gone according to plan, some windy weather on South Georgia and, who could have predicted the closure of the airport on Ascension Island but we have been very fortunate to visit some extraordinary places along the way and have some fabulous memories and friendships to take with us.
We wish you all well and send best wishes to Franky Gonsalves for a speedy recovery!
Total distance sailed on this voyage: 6746 nautical miles.
On behalf of Oceanwide Expeditions, Captain Nazarov, Expedition Leader Sebastian Arrebola and all the crew and staff, it has been a pleasure travelling with you.