Antarctica, South Georgia & The Falkland Islands
Published on Friday, March 18, 2011
Thursday, January 27, 2011- Buenos Aires, Argentina: Passport: check! Parka: check! Sense of adventure: check! Coming from myriad points on the planet, we arrived in Buenos Aires to meet our Antarctic traveling companions. Once ensconced in the Intercontinental Hotel, many spent the afternoon seeing the sights of this colorful Argentinean city. Welcome cocktails, dinner, and brief announcements only whet the appetite for adventures to come. Early to bed, as we had a terrifically early departure the next morning for our flight to Ushuaia.
Friday, January 28 - Buenos Aires / Ushuaia / Embark Sea Spirit: The alarm went off in the middle of the night, though not by mistake. It was time to rise and head to the airport for our 3.5 hour flight to Ushuaia. Two things made this an unusual day in this southernmost city on the planet: brilliant sun and lack of wind. We had time in town before a barbecue lunch at Las Cotorras. En route, we stopped to take in the view, and also caught a glimpse of a red fox. Following lunch, we visited Tierra del Fuego National Park where many of us saw the scarlet-headed Magellanic woodpecker, a rare sighting. We returned to the port to be welcomed aboard the M/V Sea Spirit, ready to take us south. The Buenos Aires group was joined by 22 passengers who had flown down some days earlier to explore Patagonia on a pre-extension trip. We slipped our lines and sailed into the Beagle Channel. The day came to a close with a splendid sunset.
Saturday, January 29 - At Sea / Beauchene Island, Falkland Islands: Our first day at sea was a chance to get used to the ship and the motion of the ocean. We started with introductions to the expedition staff followed by a full slate of opportunities for learning about the Falklands and beyond.
Peter Harrison did an introduction to birds of the Falklands, prepping us for the myriad ducks, geese, and penguins we will likely see. Stanford lecturer Dr. Rob Dunbar did an introduction to the southern ocean, a.k.a. the wildest seas on earth. Geologist Tom Sharpe talked of the rocks, ancient and transient, that make up the Falkland Islands. Expedition Leader Russ Evans gathered us all together in the afternoon for a Zodiac safety briefing, an opportunity to get familiar with these black inflatable boats that would help us reach amazing places on this trip.
Dinner was delayed for something special: Our ship was making such good time we realized we would reach remote Beauchene Island during daylight hours, home to 300,000 nesting pairs of black-browed albatross. Unlike most of the other Falkland Islands, Beauchene was never grazed and is covered by tussock grass, except where we could see the thousands of bird nests. We could make out hundreds of rockhopper penguins along the shore. Numerous albatross, along with rock and king cormorants filled the air and rested on the water around the ship. Arriving just before sunset, the angle of the light cast a golden glow on the birds and the landscape.
Sunday, January 30 - Bleaker Island / Stanley: In the dim dawn light, we boarded the Zodiacs from the stern of the ship and headed ashore to Bleaker Island. Our goal was to walk just over a mile to visit a small Magellanic penguin colony, a good-sized king cormorant colony, and to see rockhopper penguins on their cliffside home. Not to be ignored, blackish cinclodes, a Falklands endemic, flitted around the landing site. Morning clouds and sprinkles gave way to clearing and blue sky by the time the landing was over.
Once back onboard, we upped anchor and headed to Stanley. As we traveled, Rick Price offered an introduction to marine mammals, foreshadowing some of the whales and seals we were likely to see on this trip.
Stanley is the capital of the Falkland Islands, with a population of about 2,500 people. We explored the town by bus and foot, with most visiting the excellent, small museum. In the early evening we shuttled back to the ship by boat in time for the captain's cocktail party on Deck 5 aft outside. This also allowed us to take in the golden hues of another brilliant sunset. Captain Peter Gluschke welcomed us individually as we entered the dining room for his welcome dinner.
Monday, January 31 - At Sea: Calmer seas greeted us and we all seemed well on our way to gaining our sea legs. We had two sea days before reaching South Georgia, which offered excellent opportunities for rest, reading, and learning about where we were headed.
Picking up on Rick's marine mammal theme from yesterday, Conrad Field covered breeding strategies of various seals. Peter then waxed eloquent about albatross, the ocean's nomads. We all gathered in the afternoon for a mandatory briefing about visitor conduct on South Georgia and Antarctica and Rob rounded out the afternoon's lectures with an introduction to the glaciers and ice sheets of the south.
Tuesday, February 1 - At Sea / Shag Rocks: Kind seas continued to be with us; we were making great time. Still, it was one more day at sea to reach South Georgia. If it were easy, anyone could do it! As terrestrial creatures we tend to focus on things on the water’s surface or above. Rick's talk about the life beneath our feet offered a glimpse of ocean life and featured some intriguing photos he had taken when diving in the Antarctic. Ingrid Nixon told the story of Ernest Shackleton's expedition when his ship Endurance was crushed in the ice, one of the world's best adventure/survival stories. Midday we learned that we were making great time and would reach Shag Rocks before dinner; Peter's introduction of Birds of South Georgia was moved up in the schedule. At Russ's urging we bundled up and headed out on deck as we approached the rocks.
This small cluster of "arthritic" metamorphic rocks rising up in the middle of the Scotia Sea is a breeding sanctuary for thousands of blue-eyed shags. The largest rock is about 240 feet high. As we approached, we spotted numerous whale blows from humpbacks and southern right whales. Birds—wandering and black-browed albatrosses, giant and white-chinned petrels, myriad prions—circled the ship. We circumnavigated the rocks, getting up close for the sights, sounds and, indeed, smells.
Wednesday, February 2 - Elsehul, South Georgia / Salisbury Plains / Prion Island: Many were up at 6 a.m. when we arrived at Elsehul at the northern tip of South Georgia. We bundled up for a Zodiac cruise in this sheltered cove. The experience proved a wonderful introduction to the politics of beach life. Dominant male fur seals ran off other approaching males. Fur seal pups bleated for mom. King penguins and gentoos wandered through. Elephant seals snoozed in piles. Giant petrels and snowy sheathbills cleaned up. High on the cliffs we had nesting grey-headed, light-mantled sooty, and black-browed albatross. Macaroni penguins traveling to/from their colony high on the cliff entered and exited the water with varying degrees of grace. Great looks at blue-eyed shags, kelp gulls, and the South Georgia pipit rounded out the morning. Sunshine, too! On one beach, three rusted tripots were grim reminders that this cove was heavily used by sealers from around 1790 to 1820, at which point South Georgia was virtually devoid of fur seals and elephant seals.
We grabbed lunch as the ship relocated to the Bay of Isles. We stepped ashore on Salisbury Plain, home to 60,000 breeding pairs of king penguins and innumerable fur seals. As the king has an 18-month breeding cycle, there is always a little of everything going on at a colony at this time of year: courtship behavior, birds on eggs, chicks on feet, yearling chicks known as "oakum boys" still being fed, and molting birds.
We then relocated a short distance to go ashore at Prion Island to see nesting wandering albatross. Climbing to the top of this grassy island, we were rewarded with intimate views of birds on nests and "gamming" (courtship behavior). There was something sacred in communing with these long-lived birds in the quiet of evening as the setting sun streamed through the clouds, illuminating the glaciers behind Salisbury Plain. Like Robert Cushman Murphy, we, too, now belonged to a higher cult of mortals.
Thursday, February 3 - Fortuna Bay / Stromness / Grytviken / St. Andrews Bay: We dropped anchor at dawn in Fortuna Bay, with some people going ashore to see king penguins and others headed off on the Shackleton hike. The roughly four-mile walk to Stromness retraces the final part of the route used by Ernest Shackleton, Tom Crean, and Frank Worsley in their 36-hour traverse of the island after their 800-mile open boat journey from Elephant Island. We passed "Crean Lake" where Tom Crean fell through the ice up to his chest, and we gingerly worked our way down the scree slope next to the waterfall the three men had to lower themselves down before, ragged and filthy, they walked into Stromness whaling station. Reindeer, introduced to the island by the Norwegian whalers, ran up the valley as we worked our way toward the beach, where the ship had relocated to pick us up.
By mid-morning we were in Grytviken, a ghost town of a whaling station begun by Norwegian C.A. Larsen that operated from 1904 to 1965. In 1922, Shackleton died of a massive heart attack in Grytviken Harbor onboard his vessel, Quest. Sensing his spirit would be restless confined to the neat rows of a British cemetery, his wife requested that he be buried in Grytviken. We toasted “The Boss” at the cemetery before exploring the station, museum, church, and post office. We came, we saw, we did a little shopping.
Just before dinner we landed at St. Andrews Bay for many more king penguins—250,000 breeding pairs, plus chicks. Reindeer, elephant seals, and fur seals with the backdrop of mountains and glaciers completed the scene.
Friday, February 4 - Gold Harbour / Cooper Bay: Wind picked up in the night and morning dawned ominous, with large gray waves and spitting skies. But landing at Gold Harbour was doable, so we bundled up and headed ashore. Throughout the landing the skies lifted, and we explored this beach teeming with life surrounded by glacier-capped cliffs and jagged peaks. Most explored the full length of the beach for birds, seals, and vistas. This group found two unusual king penguins with pigment issues. Each had large areas of its body that were white versus the usual colors, with pink-flecked feet and, in the case of one bird, an orange forehead rather than the usual black. The brave ran the fur seal gauntlet to climb up to a very visible light-mantled sooty albatross nest. Large-eyed elephant seals burped from both ends, occasionally scratching, rolling and, for the more energetic, sparring.
Over lunch we relocated to Cooper Bay, our last opportunity to see macaroni penguins before heading south. Half the group went ashore, while the rest did a Zodiac cruise, allowing us to see these feisty, yellow-crested birds on land and from the water. We also saw a few chinstrap penguins from a nearby colony. Wind picked up during the landing making our return to the ship exciting.
Three days and nine landings at South Georgia yielded experiences with more than a million penguins, albatross, pipit, blubber slugs, and a few fur seals; jagged peaks, massive glaciers, and exquisite light; some rain and wind; all helped to cultivate our sense of adventure. Southward!
Saturday, February 5 - At Sea: Though windy, the sea continued to be kind and we enjoyed sunshine for most of the day. We had a full slate of presentations starting with Tom, who explored the jigsaw-puzzle-like geological qualities of South Georgia and the Scotia Sea. Having visited Grytviken, and as we traveled through heavily whaled territory, Conrad spoke to the growth and decline of the whaling industry in Antarctica. He also talked about scrimshaw, a true Yankee art form created by sailors carving on ivory, often sperm whale teeth, which they would trade in their travels. Peter capped the day with an introduction to penguins, from the small fairy penguins near the equator to the magnificent emperor, who breeds in the depths of the Antarctic winter.
In the late afternoon Russ came over the PA to announce whale blows around the ship. We bundled up and headed out on deck. We saw a few more blows, but the whales quickly moved off. Perhaps sei or fin whales, who don't typically stick around.
Sunday, February 6 - South Orkney Islands: We rose early to a gray, damp, misty day: typical South Orkney weather. We tucked into a channel between Monroe and Coronation Islands. Tremendous glaciers poured down from the mountainsides, though the peaks remained hidden in the clouds. The glacier ice and snowfields were green and pink from snow algae. The pink was not to be confused with the pink spread out on the rocks below that was guano and indicated a huge chinstrap colony that covered just about every available surface at the lower elevations of both islands. We could smell them from the ship.
We had time ashore to visit the penguins, who had good-sized chicks, many of whom were already in small groups as their parents were out feeding. Southern fulmars and pintado petrels nested on the cliffs above. Curious leopard seals followed the Zodiacs, with one biting the tubes of two different boats, and two others biting on to the end of the boats and “surfing” along behind.
Back onboard we warmed up and settled into an afternoon of cruising. Rick shared stories of his five winters in the South Orkneys working for the British Antarctic Survey doing research on myriad things. Sounded like hard work, tempered by good fun, including a thin ice race. Rick's words of advice: Alcohol and elephant seal weaners don't mix. Spruce Schoenemann shared his experiences gathering ice cores in Antarctica and other climate change science projects on which he has worked.
Monday, February 7 - Elephant Island: Before breakfast we cruised past Cape Valentine along the north coast of Elephant Island, the first landfall Shackleton's men made after being trapped over 16 months in the ice of the Weddell Sea. Though we tried to Zodiac cruise at Point Wild, the swell and the wind made it impossible, but the captain brought the ship in close so we could see the narrow spit of land where 22 men led by Frank Wild waited four months for rescue. Nothing remains of the two overturned boats—The Snuggery—that the men lived in. But there is a bust of Luis Pardo, captain of the Chilean rescue vessel Yelcho onsite, erected by the Chilean government.
Elephant Island is ice and rock with little shoreline to work with. However, we did find enough land to go ashore at Cape Lookout, on the island's southern coast. Fur, elephant, and Weddell seals; chinstrap and gentoo penguins; snowy sheathbills with chicks; and shags. Plus amazing glacier ice and fabulously jagged peaks.
Tuesday, February 8 - Paulet and Devil Islands: We entered Erebus and Terror Gulf, land of big ice on the edge of the Weddell Sea. We landed on Paulet Island to get personal with Adelie
penguins (our sixth penguin species) and nesting Antarctic shags. The colony was well along with chicks molting into adult plumage and guano galore. The island had the ruins of a stone hut built by the crew of C.A. Larsen's ship, Antarctic, when their ship was caught and crushed in the ice in 1903. They had been en route to Snow Hill Island to pick up the Nordenskjöld expedition, but sea ice blocked their way. What followed was a series of events and coincidences that culminated in all rescued and recovered, except the one unfortunate sailor who died overwintering on Paulet.
Ashore, Rick rescued “Teddy,” a stuffed bear who the ship’s staff recalled had been abducted by a skua during the previous visitor season. After a lengthy visit to the laundry he became the mascot of Rick, Conrad, and Tom, the three staff inhabiting the shipboard Snuggery.
The Weddell Sea is home to big ice, as it is fed by the Larsen, Ronne, and Filchner ice shelves. We wove through fabulous tabular bergs, enormous irregular bergs, and sea ice over lunch on our way south to Devil Island. Named for its twin horn-like peaks, Devil offered more Adelie penguins and a chance to climb one of the horns for a great view. We cruised through the ice on the way back to the ship. All on board, we sailed for Snow Hill Island.
Dinner was delayed when we came across two humpback whales. We approached slowly and were rewarded when they proceeded to swim back and forth under the bow. Those on the foredeck could smell the fishy whale breath as the two exhaled before submerging. Rarely does one get so close to such enormous, graceful giants.
Though another ship had sailed to Snow Hill the day before, ice conditions had changed and after dinner we found ourselves picking our way through a thick ice pack. It would have taken too long to reach Snow Hill and we ran the risk that winds could then push the ice to block our way entirely, so we turned for Antarctic Sound.
Wednesday, February 9 - Joinville Island / Brown Bluff, Continent Landing: Morning dawned with thick fog. The radar on the bridge was speckled with ice. From the windows, we could occasionally see ghostly walls of ice slip by. Due to thick fog, our plans for a Zodiac cruise in the ice would need to change. After consulting the charts, we headed north for a morning excursion to Kinnes Cove on the shores of Joinville Island. We had an opportunity to go ashore for Adelie penguins and go for a Zodiac cruise. Throughout the morning the light and clouds shifted constantly, revealing rugged peaks, highlighting glacier faces miles in length, tremendous distant bergs and islands domed with glacier ice.
Over lunch the skies cleared and by the time we arrived at Brown Bluff, we were bathed in brilliant sun and the wind had dropped to nothing. This was our opportunity to set foot on the Antarctic continent. We scattered down the beach to enjoy what caught our fancy: Adelies and gentoos, fur seals, snow petrel chicks, the ice spectacle offshore, and fabulous rock of volcanic origin. Returning to the ship we were intercepted by Russ, Julie Christensen, and Emily Casperson who offered libations in celebration of our continent landing. For many it was their seventh continent.
Thursday, February 10 - Whalers Bay / Telefon Bay / Deception Island: It's not every day one gets to sail into a volcano, but that is exactly what we did at Deception Island. Just before breakfast we sailed through "Neptune's Bellows" into the center of this flooded caldera. Our first stop at Whalers Bay was to explore the environs and the ruins of an old whaling station (abandoned in 1931) turned British Antarctic Survey Station, and abandoned after the 1967 earthquake.
This was also the site of the "polar plunge." Geothermal activity can produce pockets of warm water along the shore. At times one can see wisps of steam rising up from the ground. Not today! But that did not stop 29 intrepid souls from stripping down to bathing suits and plunging in. The rest of us cheered, took photos, held the dry towels and shivered empathetically.
We relocated after lunch to Telefon Bay for a hike to the edge of a cinder cone created in the 1967 eruption. The wind was howling, but it was a nice leg stretch to a dramatic vista from the edge of the cone of glacier ice, and rich, dark volcanic soil.
Though a windy day, Deception Island offered great protection. We sailed through the Bellows into the Bransfield Strait and started to rock and roll.
Friday, February 11 - Neko Harbor / Paradise Bay / Lemaire Channel & Pleneau Island: It was a bit socked in for the Errera Channel at 6 a.m., but many were out on deck as we slipped through this narrow channel en route to Neko Harbor. We landed at a small gentoo colony just around the corner from an active glacier that calved and avalanched numerous times during our visit. Many hiked up above the colony for great views. Another opportunity to stand on the Antarctic continent.
When the last two Zodiacs left shore, a minke whale appeared on the scene. It buzzed around the boats, and those on deck got a bird's eye view of the entire animal diving beneath and around Zodiacs, as well as rolling over occasionally.
After a barbeque lunch, we cruised through Paradise Bay and Lemaire Channel before a Zodiac cruise among big icebergs around Pleneau Island. Though there were low clouds and spitting rain/snow, many turned out to get close to the big ice. Crabeater seals accented many floes, but tucked back among the icebergs and islets, Rick discovered about 60 crabeater seals and a few leopard seals hauled out on fast ice. Word spread to the other boats. Originally thinking the cruise would last about an hour, many were out for almost two taking it all in. The hot mulled wine delivered by Russ, Julie, and Emily did much to warm the bones.
Our farthest south: 65° 08.8' S 64° 05' W
Saturday, February 12 - Palmer Station, Anvers Island: If you want to get a sense of the science being done in the Antarctic, then Palmer Station is an ideal stop. Rob used his Antarctic connections to help land us one of their few openings for visiting ships. Our tour of the station offered an overview of the science and how base support is coordinated, a pop into the gift shop, and a chance to talk with scientists and base personnel over brownies. We rotated through the station like the gears on a finely tuned watch. Thick brash ice choked the harbor making navigation to/from shore and our Zodiac cruises exciting.
We cruised north up the Neumayer Channel, a narrow passage with glaciers cascading down on both sides. The ceiling lifted, yielding fabulous views. It was an afternoon to be on deck whale watching as we made our way past the Melchior Islands, into Dallmann Bay and eventually the Drake Passage. The clouds continued to lift. The peaks and icebergs around us became bathed in muted sunset light. We gathered on deck aft for a Farewell to Antarctica Party as the scene fell farther and farther to stern.
Sunday, February 13 - Drake Passage: Though the captain described this as a "boring Drake" there was a lot of rocking and rolling going on through most of the day. A perfect day to lay low. We were once again visited by a host of seabirds, including a variety of albatross.
Ingrid told the story of the Amundsen/Scott Race to the South Pole. Conrad offered a glimpse at the “spineless wonders,” invertebrate life of the Antarctic. In the afternoon, a certain few turned out to watch the original footage from Scott’s last expedition shot by Herbert Ponting. Later, Peter shared his story of Zegrahm's first trip to see emperor penguins, a.k.a. the “impossible penguin.”
Monday, February 14 - Drake Passage / Beagle Channel / Ushuaia, Argentina: The ocean motion reached a crescendo in the early morning hours, while many of us were still in bed. Things began to calm down by the time Rob took the microphone after breakfast to share climate change research data. Peter later shared his personal story of the seven years spent creating his first seabird book.
By afternoon, we had tucked up to the east of Cape Horn, entered the Beagle Channel, and things had calmed considerably. After the ice cream social and afternoon tea, we gathered for final recap and You Are the Stars—a slideshow of images assembled throughout the voyage by Spruce, with many photographers contributing. Then, time to dress for the captain’s farewell cocktail party and dinner. We came alongside in Ushuaia just at dinner time and many slipped out afterwards for a walk around town.
Tuesday, February 15 - Ushuaia / Buenos Aires and beyond: All adventures must come to an end to make way for new ones. And so it was we departed the M/V Sea Spirit in the morning, with most headed through Buenos Aires to points beyond. Our luggage slightly scented with guano. Our cameras and hard drives full of photos. Our minds teeming with memories and stories we shall be sharing for the rest of our lives. Onward.
Once you have been to the white unknown, you can never escape the call of the little voices. ~ Frank Wild