PLA35-18, trip log, Atlantic Odyssey 2018

by Oceanwide Expeditions


Day 1: Embarkation – Ushuaia, Argentina

Embarkation – Ushuaia, Argentina
Date: 28.03.2018
Position: 54° 48’ S / 068° 17’ W
Wind: W
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +10

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, savoring 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 our 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 the Expedition Leader Sebastian and his Expedition staff who had already sorted our luggage. They sent us on board to meet Hotel and Restaurant Managers, Zsuzsanna and Michael. 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 Arthur, 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.

Prior to dinner we gathered in the lounge once more for bubbly and a chance to meet our Captain Evgeny Levakov. At 7:30 we sampled the first of many delicious meals onboard, prepared by Chefs Ralph, Sean and their galley staff. This first evening on board was occupied with more exploration of the ship, adjusting to her movements, and settling into our cabins. In the early hours of the morning we would be out into open waters and heading east towards South Georgia.

Day 2: At Sea to South Georgia

At Sea to South Georgia
Date: 29.03.2018
Position: 54° 57’ S / 062° 06’ W
Wind: NW F4
Weather: Clear
Air Temperature: +10

During the night we left the Beagle Channel and sailed into open waters. When Sebastian made the wake up call, many of us were already on the outside decks admiring the views of Staten Island, and above all the birdlife around the ship. Many Southern Royal, Wandering and Black-browed Albatrosses were seen, together with several Cape Petrels, Soft-plumaged Petrels and Great Shearwaters. The weather was good, with good visibility and with only moderate wave action, conditions made it very pleasant to stand outside watching this wildlife spectacle.

For those who wanted to come inside, Christophe gave the first part of his lecture about seabird ecology. It was interesting to hear more about the birds that we were seeing around the ship all the time. After a splendid lunch, most of us went back outside to enjoy more wild- and birdlife. Later Marijke gave a talk about how to identify the whales that we could expect during the trip. This came in useful right away with several small groups of Hourglass Dolphins and a Fin Whale closing with the ship during the rest of the day. During the afternoon several identification discussions started, especially about the different species of prion and about that of a Royal Albatross.

During recap, Seba explained us the general outline for our trip and Bob showed us, with a very high-tech string, the wingspans of the different birds we had seen. After dinner most of us gathered again in the lounge, for a drink, to fill in their species lists or to look at the many pictures taken during the day, after which we headed to bed for a good night of sleep after an exciting day at sea.

Day 3: At sea to South Georgia

At sea to South Georgia
Date: 30.03.2018
Position: 54° 39’ S / 055° 05’ W
Wind: N F6/7
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +7

We awoke to a grey morning, 20 knots of wind from the north, with a disturbed, restless sea sending Plancius into an uneasy rolling motion. But the birds kept coming! Throughout the morning, we were constantly visited by wandering albatross, southern giant and white chinned petrels. The birders, keeping a constant vigil in various parts of the ship also achieved excellent sightings of Kerguelen, soft plumaged and grey petrels, whilst a stream of prions kept the debates about the various species throughout the day.

A highlight of the morning was a lecture by Arjen on how to improve one’s wildlife and scenic photography, and just about everyone came away with some good ideas about how they could get the best from their camera.

As the day wore on, weather conditions deteriorated. The wind piped up to about 35-40 knots, still from the north, and the sea assumed a more sinister aspect. This didn’t stop the sightings coming in. During the afternoon we had several meetings with hourglass dolphins, their striking black and white patterns seen even through the turbulent waves, and occasionally we were treated to the sight of one breaking the surface at speed, showing the distinctive ‘hourglass’. Much to everyone’s surprise and delight we also had a brief encounter with a spectacled porpoise; although only a few were lucky enough to see it, the encounter is certainly one for the record books.

During the afternoon Martin gave a talk on South Georgia’s internationally important wildlife, highlighting the conservation issues due to introduced species, and giving us a foretaste of the bird life we’ll be expecting. About this time, weather and sea conditions were such that it was necessary to close the outer decks (except for the bridge wing) and set up safety ropes in the observation lounge to help people move about.

After a delicious dinner, many of us re-assembled to work through and check off our species lists – a fine way of recalling the many special sightings of the day!

Day 4: At Sea to South Georgia

At Sea to South Georgia
Date: 31.03.2018
Position: 52° 46’ S / 048° 20’ W
Wind: WNW F4
Weather: Clear
Air Temperature: +7

07:00 the first light reached Plancius as the first expedition members step out on deck to see if birds were following the ship. We are sailing at an average speed of 12 knots towards South Georgia. On this day though we would not reach land yet.
After the morning wake-up call by Sebastian the expedition members enjoyed the breakfast and a quiet start of the day. But there was work to be done!! This would be a day where all expedition members would prepare for the first landings and therefore all biosecurity protocols needed to be followed.

It started with an briefing on the IAATO visitors guidelines that Oceanwide Expeditions follows for all it’s activities in the Antarctic region. The moment Sebastian was about to start with his presentation a group of Hourglass Dolphins appeared near the ship. For 20 minutes the dolphins were wave riding along side the ship and all aboard were able to enjoy this fantastic creatures and even Seba agreed it was a nice diversion, before getting down to business.

The second step of preparation was the handout of the rubber boots to all expedition members. These boots are not only waterproof and warm, they are also cleaned and disinfected after every landing to prevent any spreading of seeds.
At noon it was time to enjoy the served lunch in the ships restaurant.

In the afternoon the third step of preparation started the ‘Vacuum Party’ in the lounge. Every person on-board that wanted to go on land is required to vacuum clean all his or her personal clothing and other equipment that would go with on land. In the mean time Plancius was sailing over the North Scotia Ridge. This area is known for beaked whales but the weather conditions didn’t make sighting them easier. A beaked whale was seen this afternoon near the ship but the determination of the species remains unsure.
After a day full of preparation activities many on-board watched the first episode of the BBC documentary Frozen Planet in the Lounge, followed by the daily recap and dinner in the restaurant.

Martin drew up the species list in the evening and discussed some of the bird identification challenges for this day. As the expedition members went into the night they knew Plancius would reach Shag Rocks the next morning.

Day 5: Shag Rocks, at Sea to South Georgia

Shag Rocks, at Sea to South Georgia
Date: 01.04.2018
Position: 53° 32’ S / 041° 54’ W
Wind: W F6
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +4

On a nice clear day, with winds from the west at 20 knots we awoke early to the first sightings of Shag Rocks. An underwater mountain with its peaks protruding above sea level seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Shag Rocks, home to a colony of South Georgia blue eyed Shags was a welcome sight for those who were missing the sight of land after four days at sea. Equally exciting for the marine enthusiasts, the Shag Rocks are known for the high probability of spotting marine mammals like dolphins and whales.

Unfortunately at Shag Rocks there were only birds to be spotted. But there were lots; the South Georgia shags and wandering albatrosses frequently soared over and alongside the ship searching the waters for food. After a change of course in which there was some uncomfortable pitching and rolling, the Plancius continued on toward South Georgia.

At 8.00am passengers and staff took the opportunity to have breakfast. At 10.30 am the expedition staff held a mandatory zodiac meeting which explained how to safely enter and leave the zodiacs during landings and returning on board.

After lunch the sun had started to shine a little making it easier to spot birds and mammals that might be curious about the ship, also visible in the distance at about 16 miles away was a massive iceberg probably floating in from the Weddell Sea.

Later that afternoon there was a rush of activity in the way of wildlife sightings, among which were whales, Antarctic fur seals and king penguins, after which Christophe presented the second half of his lecture about sea birds.

At 5.00 pm the next installment of frozen planet Autumn was shown for the guests, before a recap in the lounge to discuss todays events and tomorrows plans.

Day 6: Salisbury Plain and Prion Island, South Georgia

Salisbury Plain and Prion Island, South Georgia
Date: 02.04.2018
Position: 54° 03’ S / 037° 19’ W
Wind: NW F5
Weather: Rain
Air Temperature: +4

We awoke this morning at South Georgia! The rising sun was creating pink low clouds which gave a special glow on Salisbury Plain on the northeast coast. We soon embarked on our excursion. Salisbury Plain has 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, although there were still a few more ‘grumpy’ looking moulting adults in small groups. The chicks were ‘well-dressed’ and seemed 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. There were indeed many rather cute looking small babies around. The more energetic guests and staff took a short climb up on to the hillside overlooking the colony before returning to the waiting zodiacs.
We were back to the ship for lunch, whilst the ship headed for Prion Island. 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 through the tussock grasses without causing any erosion or disruption to the burrowing bird species. We saw some rather small albatross chicks which were visible from the top viewing platform and the South Georgia pipit was abundant amongst the extensive vegetation. South Georgia pintails were also seen during the zodiac cruises near the rocks and kelp not far from the landing site. We were startled by a few of the many fur seal pups and mothers on the boardwalk but fascinated also by the elephant seals lazing on the beach. With the wind now increasing this added a little excitement (and water!) to the last zodiac cruise in the late afternoon. We rounded off the day with an update from Seba on his plans for tomorrow and, of course, another sumptuous meal cooked by Ralf and his team.

Wandering Albatross

No visit to South Georgia would be complete without seeing the Wandering albatross either from the ship or on the beautiful Prion Island in the Bay of Isles. It is the largest seabird in the world with a wingspan of almost 3.5 metres and weighing up to 10kg. The global population of Wandering albatross is around 8,050 breeding pairs with 1,553 of these breeding on South Georgia. Sadly the numbers have been steadily declining at a rate of 4% per year due to incidental mortality in longline fishing. It makes it even more special for us to see these iconic ocean wanderers.

The birds show a huge plumage variation according to their age but generally have a white body and head with darker upper wings which get whiter with age. Juvenile birds are much darker for the first 6 – 7 years.
The birds are long lived and have been recorded still breeding at over 55 years of age. They are generally loyal birds that will mate for life once they find a mate at the age of 10 years.

The female lays a single egg in a grass and mud nest and both adults will share the 78 day incubation period of the egg. After the chick hatches there then follows a brood guard period of 35 – 40 days where one adult will stay with the chick while the other bird goes out to sea to forage for squid, fish and crustaceans. The adults will swap duties after every trip. During the early fledging period the foraging trips are short, only 2 – 3 days but as the chick gets older these trips get longer and the birds can travel over 10,000 miles on a single trip feeding off the coast of Argentina and Uruguay.

It takes around 278 days for a Wandering albatross chick to fledge during which time it will endure a winter on South Georgia with long periods of fasting between feeds. When it does finally leave the next it will weigh more than the adult birds to ensure that it can survive its early days at sea. Once it has left the island it will remain at sea for the next 6 – 7 years before returning to South Georgia to find a mate and begin the breeding process once more.

Day 7: St Andrew’s Bay and Grytviken, South Georgia

St Andrew’s Bay and Grytviken, South Georgia
Date: 03.04.2018
Position: 54° 26’ S / 036° 10’ W
Wind: Light
Weather: Clear
Air Temperature: +3

At first light Officer Arthur brought Plancius into position just off St Andrew’s Bay to have a look at the conditions. The morning was clear with blue sky and a bright sun painting the snow-covered mountains orange and pink. At 08.00 the staff went ashore to check the landing and to prepare for the passengers’ arrival. Landing went smoothly and soon every one of us were strolling around on the sandy beach together with thousands of King Penguins, Antarctic Fur Seals and the occasional Southern Elephant Seals. We also had the option to cross a river and climb a hill to overlook the entire King Penguin colony of 120,000 or so pairs.

At 11.00 we had to make our way back to the landing site and return to the ship in order to head for our next destination, Grytviken. Along our 3-hour northward journey the sky started to turn grey and by the time we reached Grytviken the rain was pouring down. After a toast at Shackleton’s grave in the nice little cemetery just outside the settlement, everyone was free to walk around as they pleased among the rusty old buildings. Grytviken is perhaps one of the most fascinating places on South Georgia and it was with mixed feelings we made our way around the buildings. Since we were the last ship this season and the tourist season already finished in Grytviken, the museum guides had already left the island. Luckily a few outstanding Government Officers re-opened the museum as well as the Gift Shop only for us. As the light faded away into a dusk we went back to the ship to dry our clothes and charge camera batteries. The final event for the evening was a barbeque on deck. Although slightly chilly, most of us enjoyed the fresh air, good food and a nice atmosphere among friends on this remote and beautiful island.

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.

Day 8: Drygalski Fjord and Cooper Bay, South Georgia

Drygalski Fjord and Cooper Bay, South Georgia
Date: 04.04.2018
Position: 54° 49’ S / 035° 55’ W
Wind: W F9
Weather: Clear
Air Temperature: +4

When Seba woke us this morning, the wind in Cooper Bay was well over 40 knots, far too much to lower the zodiacs and go for a zodiac cruise. So the captain steered the ship into the next fjord, Drygalski, for a ship’s cruise. This fjord is surrounded by towering mountains on both sides and stunning glaciers at the end. These glaciers caused strong katabatic winds that kept most of us trying to find some lee behind the ship while looking outside. Several Weddell Seals were seen hauling out on the beaches on both sides and a line of many hundreds of Cape Petrels was seen on starboard side of the ship. At the end of the fjord we were in the lee of the glacier itself and it was more pleasant to be outside. Drygalski Fjord is often called South Georgian’s most Antarctic fjord and here we could clearly see why.

After we left Drygalski, we headed back to Cooper Bay, only to see the wind was still too strong to do activities. When, just before lunch, conditions still hadn’t changed, Seba was about to start a briefing about our plan D (or was it E already?), when captain came down from the bridge. There was too much swell coming from the north for this plan, but it looked like the wind was calming down. So he turned the ship around and we headed to Cooper Bay once again. And indeed, after lunch the wind died down and, though there was a little swell, ten zodiacs were lowered and all of us went out to explore this scenic bay. Even though the little swell made driving close to the shore sometimes difficult, we all got nice looks on four species of penguin: the Kings and Gentoos that we had seen before, but also Chinstraps and, above all, a good colony of Macaroni Penguins! Even though this is the most abundant species of penguin on the islands, it’s difficult to find as it breeds in the more inhospitable southern side of the island in between large fields of tussock grass. Apart from the penguins South Georgian Shags were seen and of course many Antarctic Fur and Elephant Seals hauling out on the beach. The other highlight of the cruise came towards the end when Bob’s zodiac found a large Leopard Seal in between a field of kelp. Soon all ten zodiacs were together and were trying to find this animal. It didn’t really want to show off well and was a bit camera shy, but in the end everybody had nice looks in this southern top predator.

Now it was time to get back to Plancius and leave South Georgia behind and turn the ship towards Gough Islands, five days sailing away. But South Georgia had more in store for us! While sailing away, many diving and other petrels were seen near a small iceberg. And a little bit later the very characteristic V-shaped blow of a Southern Right Whale was found! At least two individuals gave a great show, right next to Plancius, waving their flukes at us as a sort of farewell from South Georgia.
The evening was filled with a recap about Southern Right Whales and King Penguins, another delicious dinner and discussions about which species had been seen in what numbers, or about anything else for that matter and then we all went to bed, happy with what we had seen in our three days South Georgia.

Day 9: At Sea to Gough Island

At Sea to Gough Island
Date: 05.04.2018
Position: 53° 08’ S / 032° 12’ W
Wind: NE F5/6
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +2

Today greeted us with a northerly wind, choppy grey seas and heavily overcast weather with occasional showers. Plancius however was driving ahead through the swell, and as ever a sharp look-out for birds was maintained. This brought it’s own rewards through the day, despite the gloomy conditions: a number of sooty and light mantled albatross were sighted along with Kerguelen and white headed petrels, and even king and macaroni penguins, obviously hunting far from their colonies. Sightings of mammals were not so abundant with just a few views of Antarctic fur seals and of hourglass dolphins.

Inside, Seba gave an inspiring lecture on Ernest Shackleton and his heroic expeditions. Perhaps, given the seas we were crossing, the truly marvellous achievement of sailing to South Georgia in the tiny James Caird will have been recognised!
During the afternoon the weather deteriorated somewhat, the seas worsened and the visibility closed in. By nightfall, most outer decks were closed for safety reasons.

Leon gave us a lecture on the history and life of Tristan da Cunha, and the ways of its community. This prompted a lot of very interested and perceptive questions about the governance and infrastructure of the island and its main settlement, Edinburgh of the Seven Seas. This was followed by a showing of ‘Blue Planet II – the Deep’.

We finally concluded with a recap session with Marijke speaking about the different seal species we have encountered, and Hans on the over-exploitation of the great whales.

Day 10: At Sea to Gough Island

At Sea to Gough Island
Date: 06.04.2018
Position: 49° 48’ S / 027° 37’ W
Wind: NW F8
Weather: Fog
Air Temperature: +7

“49º south”, the GPS told us this morning when the first birders look over the Southern Ocean from the bridge wing of Plancius. This meant that the expedition, after having passed over the Antarctic Convergence now had entered the Roaring Forties!! And we did so in style… due to the strong winds and high waves outside the lower outer decks had to be closed. The fog from the day before had also not lifted yet what made it not an easy task to look for wildlife.

After breakfast two Killer Whales were shortly seen not to far from the ship. Trailing these whales were roughly 50 seabirds of different species looking for a meal.

In the morning Bob gave the first part of two talks about the natural history of the Atlantic Islands.

After lunch the lecture program continued with a talk from Christophe on endangered bird species and the threats they face. This was followed by the video presented by Leon ‘A Step Out of Time’. A documentary filmed in 1966 about the island of Tristan da Cunha.
During the afternoon several new (for the trip) seabird species were seen including the rare Spectacled Petrel. These and also other species seen today like Atlantic Petrel, Sooty Albatross and White-bellied Storm Petrel all originate from the Tristan Archipelago. As Plancius sails from the Southern Ocean into the Southern Atlantic Ocean towards Gough Island all aboard look forward to seeing more of these magnificent birds.

Day 11: At Sea to Gough Island

At Sea to Gough Island
Date: 07.04.2018
Position: 47° 00’ S / 021° 33’ W
Wind: WSW F5
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +10

7th of April at Sea en route to Gough Island. The weather was again kind to us, coming from behind from the beginning of the day. The visibility was great and the early bird watchers were already seeing sooty albatrosses and black browed albatrosses. The staff continued their lectures with Leon doing his talk on fishing and farming on Tristan da Cunha and Head Chef Ralf talking about how he supplies and prepares the excellent food for this long trip.

In the afternoon there was a whale sighting, but it was a bit too far behind us and moving away to get a positive identification. The evening brought us to quiz time! the staff put together a series of questions about our trip so far from Ushuaia to South Georgia, the guests split into teams to compete. The evening went well! The staff are now planning ahead for the Gough Island visit.

Day 12: At Sea to Gough Island

At Sea to Gough Island
Date: 08.04.2018
Position: 44° 06’ S / 015° 52’ W
Wind: ESE F4
Weather: Cloudy
Air Temperature: +8

We found ourselves yet another day at sea, but today with the calmest conditions so far and with the bonus of having clear skies and good visibility. After breakfast more people gathered on deck to enjoy being outside, stretching the legs but also keen to explore the wildlife around the vessel.

At first it was unusually quiet on the wildlife front. It was not until just before lunch time when some commotion on deck was initiated when a ‘strange’ albatross made a close pass – a new species for this trip: a juvenile Shy Albatross. These are a bit more common in Southern Africa but are rare to encounter in this part of the Atlantic. A lovely surprise.

Leon then gave us a lecture on shipwreck’s off Tristan Da Cunha and what the impact this has had on the islands.

After lunch we were soon alerted by a group of small whales which were spotted by our Captain Evgeny. He immediately changed course and an announcement was made so we could all gather on the front decks of the Plancius. It took a little while when the whales made another appearance. This time we could confirm that they were rarely-seen beaked whales. These whales are known to be deep divers that favour deep canyons where they can hold their breaths for 1 or even 2 hours at a time whilst they hunt for squid. So little is known about these whales that we don’t even know how many species exist. Some have never been seen in the wild. So the next challenge was to take as many photographs as possible with the ultimate aim of photographing the rather long beaks.

The whales made several more approaches and despite their small size (5 or 6 m in length) we could see them really well. But then they arched their backs and disappeared for a long dive. Captain Evgeny resumed our course for Gough Island where we should arrive tomorrow.

Soon after the whales had disappeared a White-headed Petrel followed the Plancius for a little while. Strengthened after the delicious lunch, we soon started the vacuum session in the lounge. Vacuuming? Yes! We were again called deck by deck, and we had to bring our outer gear and bags. Our friends the vacuum-cleaners were waiting for us, to clean pockets and Velcro. We have to make sure, that no foreign plant material will be brought on land in the Triston Archipelago.

In the late afternoon, Bob Flood, an expert on seabirds and who is sailing with us, gave a lecture on Black-bellied and White-bellied Storm-petrels and the complications of identifying these small birds in the wild. Good tips and tricks were pointed out to us, so hopefully we can better identify these species during the next coming days.

Aside from the rare treats (Shy Albatross, White-headed Petrel and yet to be identified beaked whales), we also saw Wandering Albatross, Black-browed Albatross, Little Shearwaters, Kerguelen and Grey Petrels. Also more and more prions were seen feeding in the late afternoon, including several Broad-billed Prions.

We rounded off the day with an update from Seba about the plans for tomorrow when we arrive at Gough. Fingers crossed the weather will settle. Marijke gave a recap on the beaked whale encounter, pointing out how rare and special it was to see these whales and why it remains uncertain whether these whales were Strap-toothed or Gray’s Beaked Whales. We hope to collect enough images from all photographers and forward the photos to Dr Robert Pitman, who currently holds the photo library of all beaked whales in the Southern Ocean.

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 Roger van Hoof and Douwe de Boer!

Day 13: Arrival to Gough Island

Arrival to Gough Island
Date: 09.04.2018
Position: 41° 23’ S / 011° 28’ W
Wind: NE F6
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +14

After a somewhat rolling night with a strong wind from the northwest we woke up on a grey sea wrapped in low clouds and rain. After breakfast, most of us went out on deck to enjoy the Tristan and sooty albatrosses together with hundreds of great shearwaters, prions and storm petrels.

During the morning, Arjen gave an interesting talk about whales and dolphins and after lunch Marijke continued with a lecture about whale vocalization. Excitement started to build during the afternoon as we soon were about visit one of the remotest islands in the world, Gough Island, with its legendary wildlife. At around 4 o’clock the steep cliffs of Gough Island finally emerged from the mist on the horizon. The number of seabirds was also increasing and during the late afternoon we saw thousands of seabirds around the ship.

As we got closer to the island the mist and rain begun to fade and the sun came through to cast a beautiful light on the cliffs and the forests on Gough Island, an absolutely astonishing sight! Cruising with the ship as close to the island as we could, we managed to see large colonies of the engendered northern rockhopper penguin on the rocky shoreline as well as a few subantarctic fur seals in the water. As the sun dipped below the horizon thousands of prions were gathering on the water below the cliffs ready to take off over the island to visit their burrows higher up in the forest covered slopes.

As the wind increased to 63 knots in the gusts we headed out at sea for the night hoping to return early in morning in an attempt for a zodiac cruise, fingers crossed for tomorrow!

Day 14: Gough Island

Gough Island
Date: 10.04.2018
Position: 40° 23’ S / 009° 55’ W
Wind: NW F7
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +17

Today we woke up full of anticipation: what would the day bring? Had the wind died down enough to do a zodiac cruise around Gough?

During breakfast it didn’t look that way, the wind was a bit lower than the evening before, but 30 knots and swell still wasn’t what we hoped for. But when the captain brought the ship closer to the island he and Seba found a spot with a little lee, just calm enough to lower the zodiacs. After a short briefing, most of us decided to join the cruise and soon we had all people in the zodiacs and went for a closer look to the island. Many Subantarctic Fur Seals were found on the beaches and the higher slopes.

They were easily separated from the Antarctic Fur Seals we had seen on South Georgia by their two-tone colouring. Besides those seals several colonies of Northern Rockhopper Penguins were found as well. They looked extremely funny with their long yellow crests. The biggest quest, however, was for the Gough finch and the Gough moorhen. Soon enough the call came over the radio: “I see a finch!!” Quickly all boats were diverted that way and most boats managed to find some before they disappeared into the tussock again. A little later even better views were made when some came out and were seen sitting on the rocks. One of the endemics was in the pocket! The lee-side of the island was, unfortunately, not too good for the moorhen. Most of the coast line was fairly steep, not easily accessible for a bird which isn’t a very good flyer… After an hour we had to give up our search and had to head back to the ship. Even though we didn’t land on Gough (which never is allowed), we all had a great closer look on this beautiful island and its wildlife.

Back on the ship, the captain nicely manoeuvred the ship around the island before turning towards Tristan da Cunha. We passed the small base on Gough, with several of its inhabitants out on the porch waving at us - it must have been nice for them to see some other people, even though at it was at a distance.

On our way to Tristan, we saw many birds again: Tristan albatross, spectacled petrels, white-bellied storm-petrels (or were they black-bellied with a white belly?). During the afternoon, Martin invited us to the Lounge for his talk about penguins. It was great to hear more about the biology of this fascinating group of birds that we had seen several times now.

A little later, Leon showed another movie about his home island Tristan da Cunha. We were all very excited for our next destination and we all hoped conditions would allow us to go ashore, after not touching land for seven days…

Day 15: Tristan da Cunha

Tristan da Cunha
Date: 11.04.2018
Position: 37° 26’ S / 011° 56’ W
Wind: WSW F7
Weather: Cloudy
Air Temperature: +17

At Around 11.00 am we had the first sightings of the distinctive volcanic cone of Tristan da Cunha and its surrounding Islands, Nightingale and Inaccessible. Though the excitement was high the weather refused to cooperate. With around 30 knot winds from the west south west and 4m swell from the north west we arrived at the settlement to find the small harbour closed due to bad weather and the heavy swell that sweeps in, right up to the harbour wall.

We then navigated along the south east side of Tristan da Cunha and after waiting some more for the weather to calm, the authorities gave the clearance to do a zodiac cruise close to the shore. The first attempt at a cruise was cancelled as conditions were bad at the gangway. A second attempt was made an hour later and the successful hour long cruise took place from Rookery Point to Halfway Beach, where we had good views of the nesting Atlantic yellow nosed albatrosses, a subantarctic fur seal basking on the boulders, and one single lonely rockhopper sitting high on the shore.

We are all hopeful of a landing at Tristan tomorrow. Fingers crossed for a change in the weather!

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, about 200,000 years old. Tristan is a classic cone-shaped volcano, circular, with a diameter of 11km 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 700m. 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 administration 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 islands 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.

Day 16: Tristan da Cunha

Tristan da Cunha
Date: 12.04.2018
Position: 37° 03’ S / 012° 18’ W
Wind: NW F3
Weather: Clear
Air Temperature: +18

After a night of standing offshore, finding the best sheltered waters, we anchored Plancius a short way to the west of Edinburg of the Seven Seas, the Settlement. Conditions were noticeably more sheltered, but there was still something of a swell rolling our ship.

We had note from the Harbour that conditions were suitable, so Seba set out with a scouting zodiac to check conditions there, and to familiarize the team with it’s configuration. Shortly after we started the landing process, quite lively with the swell running up to the harbour wall, but everyone received a warm greeting from the harbour and local tourist office staff at the top of the steps.

Then everyone went their various ways: some folk opted for a walk up to the volcanic cone that caused so much damage and heartache in 1961; others hiked or taxied to the potato patches; many remained within the Settlement, visiting the local craft shops and other facilities – enjoying the company of the community. Those of a birding disposition found good views of the Tristan thrush (or ‘starchy’ ) and the reintroduced Tristan moorhen which we had seen from a distance the previous day. Equally interesting experiences were achieved by some in the Albatross pub!

Eventually the day drew to a close, and reluctantly we had to take leave of this friendly, characterful island. With hopes of visiting Nightingale and Inaccessible the next day, this time we were accompanied by local Tristan guides and Leon’s father, Connie Glass. The wonderful day was rounded off by a glorious sunset, which concluded to many folks delight, with a glimpse of the famous, even legendary, green flash that sometimes accompanies the final disappearance of the sun.

Day 17: Nightingale & Inaccessible Islands

Nightingale & Inaccessible Islands
Date: 13.04.2018
Position: 37° 26’ S / 012° 28’ W
Wind: NW F5
Weather: Partly cloudy
Air Temperature: +18

"Early birds" at first light saw the first sightings of Nightingale with its distinctive profile at close range. After an early breakfast the expedition staff along with the local guides from Tristan da Cunha assessed the possible landing conditions for Nightingale Island. Even at a distance conditions did not look good for landings at any of the two landing sites.

But to get a closer look, a scout boat was launched, and unfortunately the gangway conditions were deemed too dangerous even for the staff so the attempt was called off. Instead a ship cruise was done around Nightingale, giving us excellent views of the dramatic coast of the island, and its dense growths of tussock grass and Phyllica trees. We were lucky to have on-board from Tristan da Cunha, Conrad Glass, who has worked previously on Plancius as an expedition guide sharing some local stories and pointing out various landmarks around Nightingale.

Afterward we headed to Inaccessible Island, even though we expected conditions to be bad at the various landing sites since we still had time for a ships cruise around the island, looking at the exposed beaches, reefs and steep cliffs which give the island its name. Finally, we were heading back towards Tristan da Cunha to drop off local guides. The winds were increasing but the guides were safely disembarked and landed in the little harbour. So, as the steep profile of Tristan gradually receded into the distance, we headed towards St Helena. But this wasn’t the end of the story: the waters around Tristan had a small gift for us as a group of common dolphins approached the ship as close as 20m., and then, just before dusk, fine views of a young blue whale right beside us - presumably to see us off!

Day 18: At Sea to St Helena

At Sea to St Helena
Date: 14.04.2018
Position: 33° 49’ S / 012° 01’ W
Wind: N F4
Weather: Partly cloudy
Air Temperature: +20

Having left Tristan da Cunha behind us the water and air temperature is slowly increasing further. In this zone between the sub-Antarctic and the tropics the number of seabirds near the ship is low. Only a few Spectacled Petrel, Great-winged Petrels, Soft plumage Petrels and one Sooty Albatross are seen today.

In the morning Bob presented ‘Why penguins don’t fly’. Although they are birds, there was a strong evolutionary drive to abandon flight. After lunch Hans explained different scientific counting methods to record wildlife at sea. He showed how to count not only marine mammals and seabirds but also large fish and turtles from the air or from ships.

At the end of the afternoon the first part of the BBC documentary “Napoleon” was shown. It tells the history of how a lowly Corsican Army officer could become the Emperor of France.

The day was ended with the second Pub Quiz of this journey. This time it was named “The remotest Pub quiz” as the questions were about our sea days towards Tristan and our visit to the Tristan archipelago.

Day 19: At Sea to St Helena

At Sea to St Helena
Date: 15.04.2018
Position: 29° 23’ S / 010° 21’ W
Wind: NW F4
Weather: Clear
Air Temperature: +24

The weather today was still a bit breezy with around 20 knots of wind still coming from the North West and it seems we’ve had this wind direction for most of our sea days on this voyage. We are all sure that at some point we’ll experience some calm tropical weather. Indeed, 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.

There was some time to enjoy the morning sunshine and some distant humpback whales were spotted before breakfast. Also there were a few seabirds seen, including an unidentified Tern, Cory’s Shearwater and some faithful Spectacled Petrels.

The first lecture of the day was presented by Seba and was about whaling in the Southern Ocean. He told us about this important part of history and why some whale populations have still not recovered at present.

It was the usual relaxing morning with time to read a book, edit photos and relax out on deck but with a stiff breeze which 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 was great excitement when a group of flying squid and also quite a few flying fish were seen. They seem to soar for huge distances, gaining more speed with a flick of their tail. These continued at various times during the day. After lunch it was a bit quiet around the ship once more but there were always keen wildlife watchers out on deck to make sure that nothing was missed as we continued our journey north.

There was an opportunity to learn more about Atlantic Islands as Bob gave his second lecture about the islands of the mid Atlantic. Around 5pm Arjen invited us to the lounge to watch the second part of the Napoleon documentary.

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 a short briefing from Seba about the expedition schedules for St Helena followed about a talk by Marijke on the blue whale and common dolphin encounters off Tristan Da Cunha and Martin showed us interesting facts about petrels by night.

The day was finally rounded off by movie night … screening of “In the heart of the sea” which was accompanied by popcorn to make sure that movie goers did not go to bed hungry !

Day 20: At Sea to St Helena

At Sea to St Helena
Date: 16.04.2018
Position: 24° 50’ S / 008° 31’ W
Wind: N F3
Weather: Clear
Air Temperature: +24

It is becoming the norm now to hear the friendly tones of Seba waking us up in the morning, and this morning was no exception! The day started with a still sea and a clear blue sky. The temperature was already 25°C before breakfast and it was quite pleasant to sit on the outer decks to enjoy the sunshine and light breeze from the northwest as the ship made its way north towards St Helena.

The first presentation of the morning was from Marijke, who told us about the fascinating and beautiful flying fish and flying squid we were seeing around the ship already. After the presentation, there were plenty of people out on deck enjoying the sunshine and trying to photograph the flying fish, now with new eyes and with a little bit more respect of these fascinating animals than before. We already left the last birds breeding on the Tristan Island Group behind and today only a few Bulwer’s Petrels and Red-billed Tropicbirds were seen. For those of us interested in marine mammals the highlight of the day was probably a beaked whale spotted not far away from the ship. After studying the photos, we learned that we had seen an old male Blainville’s Beaked Whale with prominent teeth and scars on the body.

Later during the afternoon Bob gave an interesting presentation about phenomena at sea. The presentation was, however, interrupted by both Dwarf Sperm Whales and a small pod of Strap-toothed Beaked Whales. At 5pm the last one of three episodes about Napoleon and his final time on Santa Helena was screened in the Observation Lounge. It certainly got all our thoughts looking ahead to our next destination.

Re-cap in the lounge was the usual briefing from Seba and then Bob gave an account of the discovery St Helena, and the various navigational challenges it had presented. After dinner, we gathered in the lounge once more for the Tristan da Cunha photo competition. There were 43 entries this time and once again there were some lovely images showing a range of views. Well done to Laurens for his stunning photo of a flying fish!

Day 21: At Sea to St Helena

At Sea to St Helena
Date: 17.04.2018
Position: 20° 19’ S / 007° 03’ W
Wind: E F2
Weather: Cloudy
Air Temperature: +24

Today was yet another day at sea. We were definitely getting closer to St Helena, which we could notice by the number of birds that were seen outside. It was not a very busy day yet, but there was an increase in number of birds seen. Several terns, frigate- and tropicbirds were seen, just as several storm-petrels. And those were not the only flying things we saw, next to the ship several species of flying fish and flying squid were seen. The highlight of the day however, was the encounter of a pod of short-finned pilot whales. The captain stopped the ship and managed to stay with the group for quite a while, giving all of us a chance of getting a good look at these animals.

The indoor program for today involved, apart from delicious meals prepared by our chefs, the first part of a lecture by Christophe about bird migration and another one in the afternoon by Marijke about the identification of tropical dolphins. Later in the afternoon Leon showed another movie, this time about the daily life on St Helena.

The day ended in the bar of course, with several drinks and a look at the species list. We were all ready for tomorrow, the day where we could finally set foot ashore again!

Day 22: St Helena

St Helena
Date: 18.04.2018
Position: 15° 55’ S / 005° 46’ W
Wind: E F3
Weather: Partly cloudy
Air Temperature: +21

A rather grey morning, with slight chop to the sea, greeted us as Plancius closed with our next major target – the beautiful and intriguing island of St Helena, named after Helen of Constantine, mother of the famous Emperor. By about 8.00 we had anchored a short way off Jamestown, and were awaiting the arrival of port authorities to clear the ship. Eventually they came across aboard their launch ‘Wideawake’ and eventually all was set to go ashore.

We ran a schedule of zodiac shuttles through the day, and everyone got familiar with the swell at Jamestown’s pier, and pulling on the ropes to get on to dry land. Whilst many enjoyed chilling out ashore after some days at sea, and wandering around the shops and bars of the little community, others embarked on various tours. These included a drive across the island to look at some of the sites where St Helena’s endemic plover the wirebird (named after it’s thin legs) could be found. Others took a guided tour around the town looking at the various places of cultural and historic interest, whilst others after walk, hopped on a shuttle back to Plancius, in order to connect with the local boat Gannet III for a boat-birding tour to Speery Island and its seabird colony.

Everyone enjoyed Jamestown – it’s relaxed atmosphere, Georgian architecture, the botanic gardens, and even within the town, the beautiful and inquisitive fairy terns, many nesting on branches forking at various heights in the trees. More strenuous activity could be achieved by striding up Jacob’s Ladder, all 699 steps, with various boastings about speedy ascents. Others took a more leisurely approach and could be spotted propping up the bar in Anne’s just behind the garden.

Our very enjoyable day continued well into the evening with shuttles running out to the brightly Plancius, gently rising and falling in the dark night swell.

Day 23: St Helena

St Helena
Date: 19.04.2018
Position: 15° 55’ S / 005° 43’ W
Wind: E F3
Weather: Cloudy
Air Temperature: +24

Our second day at St Helena! A day with lots of activities, and almost too much to join in! The morning boat tour to the seabird colonies left at 09:00 from Plancius with the Gannet III and set course to Speery Island. Soon a large group of Pantropical Spotted Dolphins was found and the skipper steered the boat towards them. It was a spectacular sight as the dolphins were bow riding and leaping around us. As the boat approached Speery Island we were met by many of the nesting seabirds – brown noddies, masked boobies, red-billed tropicbirds and band-rumped storm-petrels. Unfortunately it started raining and it was difficult to get good views and photo’s and this continued during the way back as we passed along several noddy colonies on the cliffs of St Helena.

At the same time the on land excursions were going on. The Napoleon tour took expedition members along all the sites on the island where not only Napoleon stayed, particularly Longwood House, but also where initially he was buried (before being moved to Paris). For those who wanted to have a look inside Plantation House, the Governor’s residence, there was a separate excursion, including the many fine rooms of the house, and also of course including payment of respects to Jonathon the 186 year old tortoise. For the birders who wanted to see the St Helena Plover (wirebird) they could join the excursion or go on their own with a taxi to one of the breeding sites of this endemic species.

As the snorkelling trip was preparing to head off from Plancius a very large surprise approached the ship… a whale shark swam right up to the gangway! It was an impressive sight to see this gigantic animal right next to Plancius and its zodiacs. The shark swam for over an hour right next to and under Plancius. At the end of the afternoon a diving tour set out with some passengers and crew. With nearly crystal-clear waters, they were rewarded with abundant fish, some brilliant underwater landscapes and of course they enjoyed the 25°C temperatures.

Other folks opted for a tour of the High Knoll Fort, a well preserved fort that offered a commanding view over the western end of the island and far out to sea. This was a relic of the turbulent times during Napoleon’s exile when Governor Hudson Lowe was so concerned about possible escape attempts.

In the evening some expedition members spent their time in town to enjoy dinner in one of the local restaurants. On board the chef had prepared a BBQ for those that stayed aboard and for a few St Helenian guests. By 23:00 hour the last shuttle zodiac came back to Plancius. The next day we would enjoy yet another day at St Helena.

Day 24: St Helena

St Helena
Date: 20.04.2018
Position: 15° 55’ S / 005° 43’ W
Wind: SE F3
Weather: Clear
Air Temperature: +24

This was our last day in St Helena, and happily much drier than yesterday. Various tours continued, to Napoleon’s exile home, Longwood House, and once again the Gannet III was called into action for a visit to Speery Island, looking at the seabird colony but also having the pleasure of spotting several rough-toothed dolphins. Another boat tour was lined up for the keen divers to explore the marine life off the island. Staff and guests had a little more time ashore in the morning to do some last minute sightseeing and shopping as well as visiting the very fine little museum with its many relics of the island’s complex history. Also in the late morning our friend the whale shark was once again briefly spotted around the ship.

At 2.30pm we set sail for Ascension Island, and there were sightings of pantropical spotted dolphins and a humpback whale as we left St Helena far behind us, and course set for Ascension Island over two days’ sail away.

Day 25: At Sea to Ascension Island

At Sea to Ascension Island
Date: 21.04.2018
Position: 13° 22’ S / 008° 31’ W
Wind: SE F4
Weather: Cloudy
Air Temperature: +26

After the excitement of the last few days it was almost quite nice to be back on board the Plancius and have a day at sea. Some of us could have done without the wake-up call and call for breakfast but in the end we all got ourselves up and about at a reasonable time and began the day on board.

Thank goodness the air conditioning is working well and with the blinds down in the lounge it was pretty cool on indoors.

Already before breakfast some blows were spotted and we were able to see straight away that they were distant Sperm whales. Sadly they took a dive before we were able to change course but where there is one there may be others…..However, a pod of short-finned pilot whales made an unexpected visit and crossed our bow. Soon after breakfast more whales were seen ahead of us and they were False Killer Whales. These are very fast whales and are closely related to both pilot and killer whales. They spent quite some time underwater and were tricky to spot – but some brief views confirmed there were at least 7 animals around.

Marijke then invited us to a lecture on turtle biology. She gave us an overview about nesting behaviour and how well adapted sea turtles are to living in the sea. 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.

As soon as her lecture was over, a call was made of more blows ahead of the . The whales were easily identified once again by their forward, angled spouts and characteristic outline. The whales were staying quite long at the surface, making some shallow dives but soon popping up again and long enough for Captain Evgeny to sail gently and quietly towards them so we could watch them at the surface for a while before taking another breath and disappearing below the surface. There were at least eight female sperm whales around with one whale having quite some pale skin colouration around the dorsal fin. These whales dive very deep to hunt for giant squid and we were lucky to see them as most of the time these animals are down at depths of up to 2000m. and only spend short period of time on the surface.

After lunch, as temperatures continued to increase to peak at around 33 degrees Celsius, it was very quiet around the ship. Seba and Arjen invited passengers to return their muck boots as it will definitely be too hot on Ascension so open sandals and flip flops are much more appropriate footwear! Hans made an announcement that we now also have a swimming pool onboard on deck 3, where one of the zodiacs has been filled up with seawater and where one can sit in the shade and enjoy a breeze of fresh air too.
The afternoon presentation was given by Bob who told us all about the things that we were not told about Napoleon at St Helena. This rather entertaining lecture was followed by a movie about Ascension.

Amongst these afternoon activities a large pod of distant dolphins passed the Plancius. It was a pity that they clearly ignored us as they porpoised in an opposite direction and soon were lost out of sight. The photographs later confirmed that they were Clymene dolphins – a type of spinner dolphin that often frequent in the deep tropical seas.

Today was also a good day for seabirds, although usually distant, records including Cory’s Shearwaters, Bulwer’s Petrels, various Storm-petrels and both South Polar and Long-tailed Skuas.
Our Re-cap was about Ascension and our plans during our stay there. Marijke finished the day explaining about the sperm whales we had seen this morning, which she thought were all females which range in tropical and sub-tropical waters and that the male sperm whales venture into polar seas.

Day 26: At Sea to Ascension Island

At Sea to Ascension Island
Date: 22.04.2018
Position: 10° 19’ S / 011° 45’ W
Wind: SE F3
Weather: Clear
Air Temperature: +27

The morning started once again with a wake-up call from Seba. 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 Bob invited us to the lounge for a presentation about plankton. A very interesting lecture about organisms easily forgotten, but of huge importance for the ecosystem and, in fact, the global climate.

After the morning talk some people tested out the cool pool 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, but since we passed a sea mount and quite a few birds were around we decided to delay the lecture an hour, just in case we would find whales. At 4pm Marijke finally gave a lecture about how to identify sea turtles at sea, which apparently is quite difficult to do.

Very useful information however! During her lecture the sperm whales finally showed themselves and at least two were seen logging on the sea surface some 400 meters from the ship. 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 as Seba outlined our plans for the next day and Arjen showing a short movie about St Helena plovers (also called Wirebird) and a re-cap about superstitions at sea. It will be an early start at Boatswain Bird Island and hopefully 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!

Day 27: Ascension Island

Ascension Island
Date: 23.04.2018
Position: 07° 56’ S / 014° 18’ W
Wind: E F3
Weather: Clear
Air Temperature: +29

When Seba made an early wake up call, it was still nearly dark. However, many of us were outside already. We were approaching Boatswain Bird Island and Ascension Island. Soon everybody was outside, looking at this bird-covered rock in the first light. Several thousands of Ascension frigatebirds, brown, masked and red-footed boobies were seen, together with many white and sooty terns, tropicbirds, most of them white-tailed. For over an hour we kept sailing up and down this small rock. The large numbers of birds breeding on this island are caused by the lack of introduced predators. On the main island, rats and cats were brought to the island by visitors to the island. But fortunately these never made it to Boatswain Bird Island.

After little over an hour it was bright daylight and time for us to leave the island behind and head to Georgetown. Here we had to be cleared by customs again, but fortunately this didn’t take long. Soon we found ourselves in the zodiacs and were heading to shore! The landing looked a little like the one at Jamestown on St Helena, with the same system of ropes to help us getting ashore. The difference, however, was the swell. This little pier was far less sheltered as the one on St Helena and there was quite a bit of swell making it a lot harder to disembark the zodiac. Fortunately Super Leon was standing on the pier, grabbing the zodiac and working as a solid anchor. Then for each of us it was time to grab the hand of one of the expedition staff in the boat and climb, with the zodiac sometimes at a 45º angle, and step on shore.

When we had everybody on land, many cars were waiting for us to take us on a tour through the island. After a short introduction, we headed to a very large sooty tern colony at Mars Bay. Thousands and thousands of birds were flying around us and many more were still sitting on the ground together with their young. It was a really special sight to see this many terns together, seemingly not bothered by our presence at all. Now we headed up the, aptly named Green Mountain. The contrast was striking, between the very dry and arid lower parts of the island and the higher parts of this mountain. Only a few hundreds of meters higher, we suddenly found ourselves in very lush and green forests. First we got a tour through a conservation centre, where they are growing several of the endangered endemic plant and fern species to reintroduce them to the island. After this, we went for a little walk around the mountain, which gave great views over the whole island. Another good thing of this place was that, because of the wind and the higher altitude it wasn’t as hot as on the lower parts of the island.

Back to the cars, we headed to the Two Boats Club to have lunch and a swim in the pool, after which we finished our tour at the cannons overlooking the island which were used in earlier times to keep the island safe. After this we had some time to visit the museum and have a look in town. Soon everybody was back on the ship to have another delicious dinner. But there was no time to visit the bar or anything, because we had to go ashore one more time.

The conditions this time were slightly more challenging than in the morning, especially as it was dark, but the reward was there. People from the Ascension conservation department took us to a beach were green turtles were laying their eggs. First we got a short introduction into the species and how to behave near the beach and then we were split up in small groups and headed towards the beach. Unfortunately the surf on the beach made it difficult for the turtles to come ashore and many decided to stay in the sea. But in the end all of us got to see a turtle, some of us even saw it deposit her eggs. After some time at the beach we were brought back to the ship where everybody went straight to bed. Happy and tired from our long day on Ascension, and knowing the wake up call would be only a few hours away…

Day 28: Ascension Island

Ascension Island
Date: 24.04.2018
Position: 07° 55’ S / 014° 25’ W
Wind: Light
Weather: Clear
Air Temperature: +27

Up early means just that on Ascension, and by 5.00 am the zodiacs were shuttling back and forth from Plancius to the pier steps in the dark, with the swell there just as lively as ever. It was certainly worth it – a walk along the sandy track behind the turtle beach took us to places where the young hatchlings were making their way to the sea. It was intimidating surf for any young creature, made even more hazardous by the forays of frigatebirds swooping down and catching unfortunate individuals.

Then it was breakfast back on Plancius, more shuttles, and a fairly relaxed time for many, either aboard Plancius or in the slightly minimalist facilities of Georgetown. However, some hardy folk elected to have a further visit to the Mars Bay sooty tern colony once more, particularly to get a view of the young, whilst enduring the shimmering heat of that volcanic valley.

Eventually all were back on Plancius, and whilst we were enjoying lunch, the rattle of our anchor chain told us that we were under way once more. A further treat was in store however – the opportunity for a second visit to Boatswain Bird Island was too good to be missed, and so once more were were cruising up and down past that guano-covered stack, looking at the frigatebirds and all the other species we’d seen the previous day with the very welcome addition of a lively group of bottlenose dolphins which accompanied the ship for a while.

Then, perhaps a little sadly, it was time to turn northwards, for our passage to the Cape Verde Islands.

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 2m 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 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 global 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. 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.

Day 29: At Sea to Cape Verde

At Sea to Cape Verde
Date: 25.04.2018
Position: 05° 31’ S / 015° 22’ W
Wind: E F3
Weather: Clear
Air Temperature: +30

Plancius is sailing on towards the equator. On this day we are traveling over deep tropical waters. Although these waters are not renowned for their abundant wildlife, the day starts early with the first pod of pilot whales and many feeding sooty terns at sea.

While the ship approaches the pilot whale pod a reminder of where we have come from flies above Plancius, a south polar skua heading north just like us.

During the morning the Chief Engineer Sebastian presented the work that’s being done in the engine room 24 hours per day. With these tropical temperatures the work just continues ‘as usual’ although the temperatures there exceed 40 degrees Celsius.

During the whole day feeding groups of sooty terns are seen. Also migrating skua’s and Leach’s storm petrels are seen throughout the day. A group of pantropical spotted dolphins and an other pod of short-finned pilot whales is seen close to the ship.

In the afternoon Bob presented ‘Life in the depths’ about the life in the deep seas that we are sailing through. After dinner the day and species listing, Martin lead a discussion evening in the dining room on seabird identification of photos taken during this cruise.

This was our last full day on the Southern Hemisphere, the next morning we would cross the equator.

Day 30: At Sea to Cape Verde - Crossing the Equator

At Sea to Cape Verde - Crossing the Equator
Date: 26.04.2018
Position: 00° 16’ S / 017° 03’ W
Wind: SE F3
Weather: Clear
Air Temperature: +28

The day started very warm as we approached the equator, but we had limited sightings of birds. We actually crossed the equator at approx. 9.15am and proceeded to head towards a sea mount with the hopes of seeing more marine mammals. Sea mount or not, the whole day proceeded with some good cetacean sightings: a record number of sperm whales including a spy-hopping juvenile, a melon-headed whale and numbers of pantropical spotted dolphins.

At 1500 an unexpected visitor appeared on the ship, King Neptune! He demanded tribute to be paid for crossing into his Northern Domain by all those for whom this was a first equator crossing. After the appropriate mess and humiliations the ship took on something of a party atmosphere. At 18.00 dinner and drinks were served on the aft deck to celebrate the visit of Neptune and his cronies, and dancing ensued, with passengers, crew and expedition team executing some neat moves to the disco, as lightening crackled on the far distant horizon.

Day 31: At Sea to Cape Verde

At Sea to Cape Verde
Date: 27.04.2018
Position: 04° 13’ N / 018° 51’ W
Wind: N F4
Weather: Rain
Air Temperature: +24

A drizzly start of the day accompanied by quite a bit of wind making the sea a little choppy at times. A red-footed booby entertained us during the rain showers as it was searching for flying fish – in the end it was rewarded for its hard work when he caught a rather large one. Christophe gave a lecture on bird migration, which was the second part of two. The outside decks slowly dried as the rain had finally stopped and during lunch the spotting conditions improved significantly. Several pods of rather distant spinner dolphins were sighted along with a slightly closer group of pan-tropical spotted dolphins. But it was the Risso’s dolphins that made a close approach and some younger dolphins were breaching alongside the Plancius. Sperm whales were also briefly seen but these glimpses were nothing compared to what happened next…

A huge and active pod of at least 400 spinner dolphins were seen foraging and whilst the Plancius slowly approached some members of the pod decided to come and check out the bow-wave of our vessel. It soon became clear that more members of the pod were checking us out and before soon Plancius was surrounded by active ‘spinning’ dolphins. These tropical slender dolphins are able to spin up to 7 times and at times we were seeing several dolphins doing this involving up to three animals at the same time. This spinning behaviour is part of their communication, hunting strategies but undoubtedly also used when socialising or at times to get rid of itchy parasites. Whatever the main reasons it was a dramatic spectacle to watch. Mother and small calves also made a close approach and from the bow some of the high pitch whistles could be heard. We stayed with the spinner dolphins for almost one hour before we had to change course and head for Praia.

Hans simply had to postpone his lecture to tomorrow due to all the dolphin activities and next in line was a lecture given by Bob Flood about how one can age the smaller albatrosses (mollymawks) by looking at the moulting cycles, particularly relating to the primary feathers and bill features.

The day was finalised during recap by Marijke on the spinner dolphins and Bob gave us an insight into Sargassum algae, which we hope to see tomorrow (depending on winds and currents). Hans explained why the Dutch passengers had been wearing orange because the Dutch celebrate the King’s birthday. The evening was nicely rounded off in the lounge with most guests eagerly competing during the quizzzzzz…

Day 32: At Sea to Cape Verde

At Sea to Cape Verde
Date: 28.04.2018
Position: 07° 53’ N / 020° 34’ W
Wind: NE F3
Weather: Clear
Air Temperature: +28

The morning took an early start as a pod of Clymene dolphins were seen not far from the ship at around seven o’clock. Half an hour later some lucky passengers also got to see a few rough-toothed dolphins close to the bow. The conditions were still very gentle on board and although temperatures were a little cooler then yesterday, the sun was still intense even in the early hours of the morning. The morning lecture was given by Hans who talked about his expeditions mapping offshore wildlife off West Africa. The talk was, however, divided into two parts as two orcas suddenly was spotted breaching in the distance.

After the lecture, some people enjoyed a walk in the sun while the birders were lucky to see a few Arctic terns, red-footed bobby, and Bulwer´s petrels. After lunch, a movie about plastic ocean was shown, a truly terrifying subject! Just before 5pm a tall blow was seen a kilometre from the ship, which turned out to be another blue whale! Unfortunately, it was already behind us and travelling too fast for us to stand a chance of keeping up.

Re-cap started with Seba going through some details regarding Cape Verde and passport procedures, followed by Arjen who showed his beautiful movie about the turtles on Ascension Island. It was also time for Zsuzsanna to explain 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, this time with 39 entries. There was a wide range of subjects and the votes were spread across the entries but it was Rafa´s stunning black-and-white crab that took first place. Well done Rafa!

Day 33: At Sea to Cape Verde

At Sea to Cape Verde
Date: 29.04.2018
Position: 11° 52’ SN/ 022° 16’ W
Wind: NE F4
Weather: Clear
Air Temperature: +26

Our last day at sea but wasn’t like that. Everyone started this day in a normal routine. Some of us were reading a book in the lounge or at the top deck, others were screwed to their binoculars hoping to spot more wildlife and so we did ! Shortly after breakfast a pod of short-finned pilot-whales was spotted as well as few bottlenose dolphins that were jumping now and then near the ship. Even a loggerhead turtle joined the feast! At 10 am Arjen lectured about global warming impact on Polar regions. Although far away from most of us, the poles are heavily impacted by the changing climate. The rest of the morning was really quiet and we resumed our activities after another nice lunch.

At 2:30 pm Marijke shared part of her own research about marine by-catch along the coast of West Africa. Conflicts between fisheries and the dolphins that feed in the same fishing grounds sadly lead to by-catch that unfortunately threatens many species. Later in the afternoon we were called to pay our bills to Zsuzsanna and Michael…not the funniest part of the trip as we got used to NOT paying anything for a month! This being done we all gathered to the lounge for our last Recap with our expedition team. Arjen had prepared a fantastic slideshow with all the highlights of our journey since we left Ushuaia. This was followed by Captain’s Cocktails. We raised a glass with Captain Levakov to celebrate the end of a very successful voyage. Cheers!

Day 34: Praia, Cape Verde

Praia, Cape Verde
Date: 30.04.2018
Position: 14° 55’ SN/ 023° 30’ W

It was now time to say farewell to our great adventure, goodbye to our safe floating home and to our lovely new friends! Some of us, with Bob, went for a city tour whereas others joined Martin for a trip to see more birds! A bus took us to town so that we could do a bit of visit, shopping and mailing, before heading to the airport… our heads full of great memories of a wonderful, truly exceptional cruise, - our SD cards full of pictures!

Total distance sailed on this voyage: 6,790 nautical miles or 12,575 km.

On behalf of Oceanwide Expeditions, Captain Levakov, Expedition Leader Sebastian Arrebola and all the crew and staff, it has been a pleasure travelling with you.