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Report from the Field: Antarctica, South Georgia & the Falkland Islands
Published on Sunday, January 24, 2010
Buenos Aires, Argentina
From nine countries around the globe and 19 states within the United States, 169 participants and 22 staff converged on the InterContinental Hotel in central Buenos Aires. Participants were greeted by friendly Zegrahm staff and settled in for an afternoon city tour of this vibrant metropolis, or just relaxed after the long trip to Argentina. At dinner, Zegrahm cofounder and renowned ornithologist, Peter Harrison, gave a hilarious but earnest address that reminded us just why we were here. Expedition Leader and native Falklander, Russ Evans, explained trip logistics and introduced us to the staff.
Buenos Aires / Ushuaia Embark / Le Diamant
We were awakened very early in the morning to prepare for our flights to Ushuaia. Arriving before noon, we traveled out of town into the beautiful Andean foothills to the Villa las Cotorras restaurant for lamb barbeque, with a side of tango dancing. After a guided trip into Tierra del Fuego National Park and an opportunity to browse shops in downtown Ushuaia, we felt that the first leg of our trip was completed as we boarded Le Diamant and settled into our cabins. After a mandatory safety drill, we assembled in Le Grand Salon, where each staff member officially introduced himself or herself to all aboard. While dinner was in progress, our ship almost imperceptibly departed from its docking and headed east out of the Beagle Channel. We enjoyed the dusky scene from the decks outside as occasional black-browed albatross glided amongst the wavelets. Our great adventure was about to begin.
New Island, Falkland Islands
We had a day of excellent conditions, sunny to partly cloudy, minimal wind, and as smooth a sea as one is likely ever to get in the South Atlantic Ocean. Many of us explored the outside decks of the ship while Peter and ornithologist and ecologist, Jim Wilson, helped us sort out the myriad seabirds including albatross, petrels, prions, storm petrels, and diving petrels. Inside the ship, we heard Jim lecture on the birds of the Falkland Islands, marine biologist and wildlife photographer, Rick Price, spoke on identification of the marine mammals of the far south, and Russ talked about life in the Falkland Islands.
Owing to the favorable conditions and the speed of our ship, we reached the Falklands at about dinnertime. Never before had a Zegrahm expedition been able to make the Ushuaia–Falklands transit rapidly enough to stage a Zodiac landing on the same day, but that is exactly what we did. The ship put in to Coffin’s Harbour, New Island South Wildlife Preserve. Upland and kelp geese, Magellanic oystercatchers, crested ducks, dolphin gulls, and striated caracaras (one of the world’s rarest raptors) greeted us on the beach. We walked a short distance to the spectacular Settlement Rookery, a cliff-side mixed colony of rockhopper penguins, black-browed albatross, and imperial (king) shags. We remained until the vanishing light forced us back to the ship.
Carcass & Saunders Islands
Today was a day of outstanding experiences under warm, sunny skies and no rain. We anchored off Carcass Island, and by 7:00 a.m. our trusty Zodiac drivers were ferrying us ashore at Dyke Bay. We had a 2.5 mile walk to the Carcass Settlement, and whether one took the high road (500-foot Jason Hill), the low road (the coast through the tussocks), or the short hike, all were rewarded with great views and abundant birdlife. The proprietors at the settlement greeted us with snacks, and all was well as we returned to the ship.
We repositioned during lunch to the south beach at the Saunders Island isthmus. Here we were greeted ashore by members of the Pole-Evans family who own the island and operate the sheep farming business there; Russ is a member of the extended Evans family. We were in for extraordinary wildlife. The isthmus itself was covered with discrete gentoo penguin colonies, the attractive chicks well advanced. At the northeast corner of the isthmus was a small colony of breeding king penguins, one of very few in the Falklands. At the east end of the north beach we observed the spunky little rockhopper penguins braving the surf and clamoring ashore before preening and oiling their plumage, and then hop-hopping their way up to the breeding colony. The nearby grassy hillsides were dotted with Magellanic penguins and their burrows. With a brief but somewhat steep hike, we could closely observe the rockhoppers and chicks on their nests; and then, five minutes farther along, perhaps the greatest thrill: a colony of black-browed albatross.
For those interested in birds, this was a highly productive day. We saw 33 species that breed in the Falklands, including four penguins and the two endemics, the Falkland flightless steamer duck and Cobb’s wren. Our list also included endemic subspecies that someday may be elevated to species status. (Attention, all twitchers!) In addition, Commerson’s dolphins were easy to observe from the hillside approach to the rockhopper colony.
The day ended with the captain’s welcome cocktails and dinner. Our affable Captain Étienne Garcia introduced himself and key members of his staff, and a fine dinner was served as we began our voyage toward South Georgia.
Today, wind and dense fog kept most of us inside, but the day was busy with lectures to occupy the time. Peter gave an impassioned talk on albatross of the world, focusing on the wandering albatross, the greatest of all seabirds. Scottish geologist, Tom Sharpe, described tectonic plates, continental drift, and particularly the Scotia Sea and Scotia Arc. Professional photographer, Jim Zuckerman, showed us how to get the most out of our cameras, from point-and-shoots to the more complex. Antarctic bibliographer and historian, Michael Rosove, spoke on Sir Ernest Shackleton’s life and expeditions, focusing in particular on the enthralling story of the Endurance expedition.
Our second day at sea was as foggy as the first, again with calm seas. It was a day of relaxation and another set of outstanding lectures. Stanford marine biologist, Barbara Block, addressed us on her tagging research that has provided new knowledge about the migration paths and biology of large marine mammals of the Pacific Ocean. Harvard oceanographer and climatologist, Jim McCarthy, revealed to us the significance of global warming and changing climate in the polar regions.
We crossed the Antarctic Convergence early in the afternoon, signaling that we were now officially in the biological realm of Antarctica.
Elsehul / Salisbury Plain, South Georgia
The ship anchored at Elsehul this morning and our contingent of red-headed penguins assembled in turn at the Zodiac loading dock and wondered whether we might be a new species. Rain turned to heavy snow, and the first group out got a good taste of one extreme of South Georgia weather conditions. Fur seals covered the beaches and porpoised all around the ship. We viewed the bird colonies on shore and on the steep rocky slopes. King and macaroni penguins, gray-headed and black-browed albatross, and South Georgia shags were abundant. Back on board, Jim Wilson familiarized us in his lecture with the avifauna of South Georgia as the ship moved toward the Salisbury Plain, where it was quite windy, with variable rain, snow, and hail.
Salisbury Plain fulfilled its promise of many thousands of king penguins and chicks (brown, fuzzy-feathery “okum boys”) in various stages of development and molt. As would be expected, skuas and giant petrels were on constant patrol for any penguin or seal, or carcass, they could take advantage of and turn into a good meal. The surf at the hoped-for Zodiac landing site at the foot of the king colony was too rough, so another site was selected a few hundred feet west. This was a providential choice: the landing place was full of fur seals—not too many to prohibit a safe or easy landing, but plenty to make for a great deal of interest. We were appropriately cautious around aggressive adult and juvenile bulls. Darling, recently-born seal pups were everywhere.
Back on board, Russ laid out the plans for tomorrow that included an exciting, optional trek from Fortuna Bay to the defunct Stromness whaling station, in the footsteps of Sir Ernest Shackleton.
Fortuna Bay / Stromness / Grytviken
Fortuna Bay was our morning stop, a magnificent setting of icy mountains on three sides, excellent beaches, a long inland stretch to the glacier and king penguin colony, and abundant wildlife including fur seals, Antarctic terns, South Georgian pintails, and more. Another beach on the east side was our starting point to duplicate the last 4.5 mile leg of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s journey across South Georgia from King Haakon Bay to the now-defunct Stromness whaling station. Ninety-one people did the thrilling Shackleton hike that took us up a steep grassy hillside through the menacing fur seals in and among the tussocks, to the nearly barren, ice-and-scree landscape above. We passed Crean Lake, named for one of Sir Ernest’s two companions on the traverse, peaked at about 1,075 feet, then descended over rock and slippery low-lying vegetation, passed the same, famous waterfall Shackleton’s party had to negotiate, and arrived at the whaling station.
We then sailed for Grytviken and first assembled at the whalers’ cemetery where Sir Ernest is buried. Peter gave an impassioned toast to “the Boss” as we tilted back our drams of whisky. Our options then included a Zodiac trip out to King Edward Point and a short walk to the Duse Fell headland where the Shackleton cairn and cross still stand just as his companions on the Quest in 1922 placed them long ago. We then viewed the remarkable museum and post office, the replica of the James Caird that Shackleton’s party of six navigated across 850 miles of ocean from Elephant Island to South Georgia, the church originally built in 1913, and the ruins of the whaling station from safe vantage points outside the dilapidated buildings.
Gold Harbour / Cooper Bay
By all accounts, our visit this morning to Gold Harbour was excellent. Skies were sunny, the surrounding glaciated mountains were magnificent, and the green tussocks on the hills were a colorful contrast to the drab colors of our previously overcast days. No words are quite adequate to describe the spectacle ashore: thousands and thousands of king penguins from whistling chicks to trumpeting adults, many in various stages of molting that turned the creek into a stream of floating feathers. A few chinstrap and gentoo penguins were about as well. Numerous giant petrels, skuas, and sheathbills patrolled the colony taking advantage of the kings when they could—and they frequently did. Musky-smelling fur seals and belching, snorting elephant seals were seemingly everywhere. The elephants lay on the beach side by side in large groups; the huge creatures repeatedly flicking themselves with sand to keep cool. Light-mantled sooty albatross soared in the air, and we were able to glimpse one nesting in a nearby tussock-covered hill. With regret we had to leave this heavenly spot to return to ship.
During lunchtime we continued our passage in the southeast direction along the north coast of South Georgia. Captain Garcia positioned the vessel at Cooper Bay, another beautifully scenic place. This portion of the island has a colder climate than our previous stops, and thus the “colder” penguins, chinstraps, and macaronis nest here. This area is also relatively rat free and is therefore one of the few strongholds of the endemic South Georgia pipit, the only resident passerine in the archipelago. We had some good laughs over the quest to see this bitty brown bird. A Zodiac cruise along the shore got us close to some awesome geologic formations—and pipits! A steep, muddy and rocky hike up into the tussocks from our landing beach brought us to numerous macaronis with their outrageous yolk-colored plumes and honking vocalizations.
Our day ended in the ship’s salon with lecturers providing a recap of our adventures just as we cruised by Cape Disappointment, the southeast extremity of South Georgia. We now open a new chapter on our adventure and head southwest for the South Orkney Islands. Hats off to the Zegrahm and Le Diamant staffs for pulling off an extraordinary set of experiences at South Georgia, one of the most beautiful and inspiring places on earth!
This was a relaxing day at sea, with no early wake-up call. Skies were overcast, the waves running up to 13 feet; seabirds were relatively infrequent today—a perfect day for four excellent lectures. Rick spoke on marine vertebrates and invertebrates of the Antarctic. Marine ecologist and conservationist, Ann Muscat, spoke on the ecology of Antarctica. New Zealand-born surveyor, Peter Otway, gave a narrated slide show of his seasons at Scott Base and, by dog sledge, surveying the Transantarctic Mountains including the Beardmore Glacier (pioneered by Shackleton and Scott) and the Axel Heiberg Glacier (discovered by Amundsen). Peter Harrison waxed with all his heart with Penguins of the World. A lively recap was followed by a special chef’s dinner.
Monroe & Coronation Islands, South Orkney Islands
We donned all our cold weather gear and set out on Zodiac tours in the vicinity of Monroe Island and Coronation Island, at the western extremity of the South Orkney group. We had the whites, grays, and deep browns of the glaciated mountains, interrupted only occasionally by anything colorful, ice stained red by algae and rocks veneered in green. Chinstrap penguins were present in staggering thousands—in the water, on the rocky shores, and up the icy hillsides. Aroma of penguin wafted in the air. Southern giant petrels and Wilson’s storm petrels were also abundant. Nearly everyone got a look at the leopard seals surrounding our Zodiacs, and also saw Weddell seals hauled out on the icy shores.
As we headed for Elephant Island, we had larger swells, some up to 16 feet. Tom gave us a rock solid lecture on the geology of the Antarctic Peninsula, and Barbara addressed us on the physiology of being warm- versus cold-blooded, and how the warm-blooded mammals and birds of the Antarctic and elsewhere adapt. During recap, deep-sea commercial diver, Mike Murphy, projected some remarkable footage of leopard seal encounters as well as still images of beautiful marine invertebrates. Rick shared with us selected experiences of his five seasons doing research and living on Signy Island in the South Orkney Islands.
The ship anchored off Point Wild, Elephant Island this morning, and what a scene! It should have been enough that we were in such close proximity to one of Antarctica’s most sacred historical sites, where Shackleton’s 22 men were castaways, trusting they would be relieved after Shackleton and five men sailed for South Georgia. But we were also graced with extraordinary weather and visibility. We could see the tops of the lofty mountains and nearby glacier that provided a stark but beautiful backdrop to the rocky spit. We watched cape petrels fluttering about their nesting sites up high on the rocky outcrops. By Zodiac we got close to the spit of land that is Point Wild as well as the nearby glacier front and icebergs.
We then did a partial circumnavigation of Elephant Island to arrive at Cape Lookout, but strong winds onshore and a rising tide prevented a disembarkation that might have landed us on the terra firma of Elephant Island. The scenery was breathtaking.
This afternoon, in anticipation of our plan tomorrow on Paulet Island, Michael spoke on the remarkable Swedish Antarctic Expedition of 1901- 4 under Otto Nordenskjöld. Several humpback whales were our first marine megafauna of the trip, and they naturally diverted everyone’s attention. Jim McCarthy lectured on what we do and do not know about global warming and climate change. At recap, Shirley Metz movingly told how Zegrahm brought Alexander Macklin’s widow, just before she herself passed away, to Point Wild so she could touch the rock where her physician husband and close Shackleton confidant had been one of the castaways.
Erebus & Terror Gulf / Devil Island
The day was simply spectacular with nearly clear skies and perfectly calm conditions. We moved slowly southwest through Erebus and Terror Gulf in the direction of Devil Island. Peter had already announced a handsome prize for the individual spotting the first emperor penguin, and many of us were on deck checking the ice floes for an e.p. A suitable position was selected, the Zodiacs were lowered into the water, and we cruised amid the ice up to several miles from the mother ship. Some of us even landed on sturdy ice floes for a walk. And indeed, an e.p. was spotted, an almost fully molted chick. Several more were later seen. Adlie penguins, cape petrels, skuas, Antarctic terns, crabeater seals, and a leopard seal were about as well. But ice was the chief protagonist this morning: the sea ice and bergs were enrapturing with their infinite variety of shapes and gradations of white and blue. Even if we could describe how bergs came into their current state, their sheer beauty trumped the need to explain. At midday, in glorious conditions, the hotel staff staged a memorable and delicious barbecue lunch outdoors on the pool deck. From the deck we could also observe several pods of orcas frolicking about the ship.
We arrived at Devil Island in the mid-afternoon in pleasant conditions and somewhat overcast skies. Our Zodiacs weaved between the ice floes from ship to shore. The island rose to perhaps 500 feet and the bold headland of Cape Well-Met on Vega Island, of significance in the Nordenskjld story, was a clear landmark just to our west. Here on the shore and the rises from the beach were more than enough Adlie penguins to satisfy usthey numbered in the thousands. There was plenty to entertain us as they paraded along the shore, were noisy at their nests, swayed and brayed to their mates, fed their chicks, stole each others stones, and defended their territories. The odor of pink krill-rich guano was everywhere and the place stunk like heck, but did we care? All in all, observing these little tuxedoed birds provided us a great deal of pleasure this afternoon.
Brown Bluff, Antarctic Sound, Gourdin Island
Brown Bluff, in Antarctic Sound on the northernmost extremity of the Trinity Peninsula, was our morning stop. Here we stepped ashore on the true Antarctic continent, and for many of us this was our seventh and last continent to tread upon. The striking escarpment of Brown Bluff, the remnant of a violent volcanic eruption that occurred one million years ago under a 1,300 foot thick ice sheet, was a colorful backdrop for some remarkable wildlife. Adélies and gentoos came and went on the beach. The short foothills supported several thousand nesting Adélie pairs with thriving chicks, and the steeper hills were home to smaller numbers of nesting gentoos at about the coldest extremity of their range. Fog and wind made this stop an especially chilly experience if unprepared. We departed the bluff and cruised southwest through the sound, which was packed with tabular icebergs and bergy bits.
We spent the afternoon at Gourdin Island at the western extremity of Antarctic Sound. The island is more temperate than the Weddell Sea side, so nesting chinstraps and gentoos were abundant, along with plenty of Adélies. All the usual predators and scavengers were on the alert—skuas, sheathbills, giant petrels, and kelp gulls. Weddell seals were hauled out on fixed ice, and there was also an occasional fur seal. In all, Gourdin Island was a most attractive site with its interesting topography, tidal fluctuations, and wildlife.
Whaler’s Bay / Baily Head, Deception Island
We arrived at Deception Island this morning, and the ship maneuvered through Neptune’s Bellows into the flooded caldera known as Port Foster. We dropped anchor at Whaler’s Bay, the site of a Norwegian whaling station from 1904 – 31. Beginning in 1944, the British conducted scientific work here until volcanic eruptions from 1967 – 70 made these shores uninhabitable. The eruptions damaged or destroyed many of the structures; those that survived have been further altered by 40 years of rain, snow, and wind. Clean-ups from 1990 – 92 have rendered Whaler’s Bay safer and more attractive, and it is now Historic Site and Monument No. 71 under the Antarctic Treaty.
It was here that we stepped ashore on a black volcanic sand beach. We walked among the ruins, and we ambled along the beach toward Neptune’s Window for views along the outer rim of the caldera. Then there was the coup de grace: a polar plunge for the brave among us into waters warmed by geothermal activity. But you had to be lucky to strike a warm spot. Otherwise the water was about 38° F! Thirty-five daring human penguins were fine entertainment for the rest. Dry towels, a tot of J&B, and a Zodiac back to the ship were compensation—or was that consolation?
Our ship passed out through Neptune’s Bellows and anchored off Baily Head. One of the world’s largest chinstrap penguin colonies, Baily Head treated us to uncountable tens upon tens upon tens of thousands of penguins exiting and entering the surf, going to and from the colonies, and nesting high up in a broad ampitheater. If you love chinstrap penguins (who doesn’t?), this was an afternoon to savor and remember. Back on ship during dinner we had several whale sightings. With repeated announcements over the public address system from the bridge, our enthusiast captain made sure we were all aware!
Paradise Bay / Lemaire Channel / Pleneau Island
This morning we cruised slowly through Paradise Bay under very calm conditions and overcast skies. The scene was a study in grays with blackish waters, sea ice and bergy bits, glaciated cliffs, and occasional birdlife. We cruised by the Argentinean Almirante Brown Research Station; many years ago it was burned down by a resident desperate to be evacuated. The base was refurbished, and over the past several years has been intermittently in operation again. We observed Antarctic shags coming and going from a colony there. We then moved to the Chilean base Gonzalez Videla where we went ashore. The resident gentoos had converted all footing to mud and guano. The station is located at Waterboat Point where two young men, Thomas Bagshawe and Maxime Lester, wintered in 1921 at great personal discomfort and risk to make observations of the penguins, tides, and weather. We were greeted by the station’s resident staff and visited the museum, observation deck, and gentoo colony.
We then proceeded south, and by mid-afternoon approached and passed through the splendid and beautiful Lemaire Channel, with its sentinel Cape Renard, and the Antarctic continent on the port and Booth Island on the starboard. With cloud cover down to 2,000 feet, we could not see the tops of Una Peaks (originally known as Una’s Tits), but without fog and a high ceiling of visibility, our views of the magnificent glaciated features on both sides of the channel were excellent.
The captain anchored the ship off Pleneau Island, and we went on Zodiac tours amid numerous grounded icebergs. The bergs and cliffs of adjacent Booth Island were beautiful, and everyone spotted leopard and crabeater seals. Sometimes Zodiac tours can be splashy wet, rainy, windy, and very cold, as they were today—but someone has to do it! There wasn’t a dry parka when we returned to the warmth of the ship. Our anchor position just off Pleneau Island, 65° 07’ S, 64° 01’ W, was our farthest point south of the voyage.
Neko Harbour / Cuverville Island
Our day began especially early with a 4:15 a.m. wake-up call. We were positioned in Neko Harbour under gray skies and little wind. Impressively massive, crevassed glaciers came down to the sea all around us, and the cannon-like sounds of moving ice and ice falls were regular occurrences. A gentoo colony hundreds strong was diffusely distributed from a few yards above the tide line on up the hill. A hut erected by the Argentineans had just recently been destroyed by the elements, and the debris-covered site is being reclaimed by its rightful owners (the gentoos). Many of us took the walk 250 feet up the ice slope for the views, and a few joy riders took the steep, fast way down sliding on their derrieres.
For an afternoon excursion, and our last landing in Antarctica, we visited Cuverville Island. Our landing place was a broad, long beach of large pebbles, dotted with whale bone remnants, and several thousand gentoo penguins nesting in colonies both to our left and right as well as up the hill behind the beach. This stop was bittersweet as it would provide our last penguins and magnificent scenery of Antarctica.
As we headed north in the Bransfield Strait, Shirley gave a moving address on her remarkable Antarctic expedition in 1988-89 during which she became the first woman to ski to the South Pole. To start off our recap, Russ introduced the crew responsible for the Zodiacs and our many successful landings, and we applauded them resoundingly with a standing ovation.
We continued north in the Drake Passage this morning over rough waters. To pass the time, four staff members gave talks today. Professional diver, Jack Baldelli, addressed us on the technique and logistics of both scientific and commercial diving in Antarctica. Jim McCarthy spoke on climate change, the impending consequences, the responsibility of large nations that emit the largest share of manmade greenhouse gases, and on alternative energy solutions. Rick told us about four-season work and day-to-day life when he was stationed as a researcher on Signy Island in the South Orkney Islands. He had beautiful photographs to illustrate his story. And Barbara described the physiology of diving in marine vertebrates. In the evening, Peter showed us a video of his and Zegrahm’s most daring Zodiac landing ever, at the wave-pounded, rocky island of Moratiri in the South Pacific Ocean.
By our second morning, the seas had moderated as we completed the last part of the infamous Drake Passage and headed into the Beagle Channel. Michael spoke on what it took for humans to reach the South Pole for the first time, focusing on the advances in ship design, clothing, nutrition, and transport that made it all possible. Peter told us about the ultimate Antarctican, the emperor penguin, and described to us the challenges and logistics involved in Zegrahm’s first expedition, in 1992, to bring a handful of people to a remote emperor colony.
At a final recap, each staff member had the opportunity to address us formally for the last time. We are all indebted to Russ Evans for his fine leadership, Lisa Wurzrainer for her attention to every detail, Peter Harrison, Shirley Metz, the lecture staff, Captain Garcia and the entire ship’s officers and crew, the kitchen staff, and to all of us for having made this the incredible adventure it was. Pages of writing would not be able to express adequately our gratitude. We enjoyed a captain’s farewell cocktails and dinner. A large chart comprising the areas we have visited, with our tracks, and decorated with Peter’s beautifully hand-painted images of birds of the region, was auctioned off and set a new record hammer price. Peter’s daily bird paintings with a list of the avian and mammalian species seen that day were snapped up by passengers for the wonderful works of art they are. All sale proceeds benefit the Saving Birds of Henderson Island Project of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Mike Murphy created a half-hour slide show recapitulating our voyage in chronological sequence, with contributions from members of our group. His show was met with thunderous approval.
We all said good-byes to our newly made friends—but only for now, let us hope—and prepared to disembark Le Diamant and begin our flights home.
After viewing eight species of penguin, retracing Shackleton’s footsteps, heroically plunging into polar waters, and much more, we are now all ambassadors of this great white continent and look forward to sharing our insights and images with others for many years to come.