Antarctica, South Georgia & the Falkland Islands

2012 Antarctica, South Georgia & the Falkland Islands Field Report

Patrick Kirby|March 15, 2012|Field Report

Saturday, January 14, 2012 - Buenos Aires, Argentina: Don't cry for me, it is with great regret we only had time to quickly meet and pass through your captivating capital of Buenos Aires. Our small group of excited adventurers momentarily added to this autonomous city’s population of about 3 million inhabitants, and just as briefly we had enough time to enjoy its renowned food, wine, and tangos. Though most of us arrived early this morning after long red-eye flights, others in our group arrived much earlier to adjust to local time. From our centrally-located hotel, we had the afternoon to either relax or sightsee in this colorful Argentinean city. A reception, dinner, and short briefing back at our hotel prepared us for our adventures to come, and reminded us to get to bed early and catch-up on as much sleep as possible before our frightfully early check-out the next morning.

Sunday, January 15 - Buenos Aires / Ushuaia / Embark Clipper Adventurer: Wake up call: 2AM. Ring, ring, seemed like we had gone to sleep only 4-5 hours ago. We did our very best to rise and shine, and made our way to Buenos Aires’s domestic airport to catch our morning flight in time. Nearly four hours later, with a little napping along the way, we found ourselves at el Fin del Mundo (the End of the World) in Ushuaia. After boarding coaches for guided driving and walking tours in nearby Tierra del Fuego National Park, including lucky glimpses of a red fox and Magellanic woodpecker, we traveled out of town into the beautiful Andean foothills to Las Cotorras Restaurant for a lamb barbeque, along with the pleasant accompaniment of a singing guitarist.

Another brief nap on the bus brought us back to Ushuaia for an opportunity to wander around before we boarded the Clipper Adventurer, our floating home for the next several weeks. After settling into our cabins and exploring the ship, we had our welcome aboard orientation and staff introductions, followed by our mandatory security, safety, and lifeboat drill. With dinner in progress, our ship departed and headed east through the Beagle Channel. There was still plenty of light after dessert for us to go out on deck and enjoy a dusky cruise escorted by birds, including black-browed albatross, imperial shags, and flocks of South American terns.

Monday, January 16 - At Sea: Our first day at sea, we became acquainted with the Clipper Adventurer as we made our way to the Falkland Islands. Our activities ranged from meeting our fellow passengers to joining our wildlife experts to sort out the myriad seabirds including albatross, petrels, and prions. We also attended a series of lectures, beginning with our ornithologist, Jim Wilson, discussing The Birds of the Falkland Islands. Rick Price, our marine biologist, gave a presentation entitled The Identification of Marine Animals.

After lunch, our expedition leader, Cheli Larsen, provided us with an overview of Zodiac operations and safety guidelines as well as a briefing of our day in the Falklands yet to come. Last but not least, Kevin Clement, our ecologist, presented us with Why is Antarctica Cold? ... And Other Mysteries Explained. The evening found us attending Captain Kenth Grankvistnar’s welcome cocktails and dinner, as we cruised closely by the remote island of Beauchene. On this small island, we could make out thousands of nesting pairs of black-browed albatross and hundreds of rockhopper penguins along the shore.

Tuesday, January 17 - Bleaker Island / Stanley, Falkland Islands: After a 5AM wake-up call and brief breakfast, we headed ashore to Bleaker Island. In small groups led by our naturalist staff, we walked just over a mile to observe a small Magellanic rookery, a cliffside rockhopper penguin rookery, and a rather large-sized imperial shag colony, all with chicks about. We also saw the Falkland steamer duck, endemic only to these islands, as told to us by Jim in his lecture yesterday.

Back on board, we headed to Stanley while enjoying a more leisurely-paced breakfast. Later in the morning Warren Zapol, our Harvard Museum of Natural History lecturer, presented us with Antarctic Seals—How They Dive. After lunch, we arrived and anchored off Stanley, the capital of the Falkland Islands with a population of 2,500 people. Zodiacs took us ashore and some of us toured the town, with most visiting its small, but excellent museum. Others participated in what ended up being a guided “survival of the fittest hike” around the harbor to Port Williams, observing the flora and fauna along the way, and the Magellanic penguins. In the early evening we shuttled back to the ship by Zodiac in time for dinner and to meet our nautical naturalist, Mike Moore.

Wednesday & Thursday, January 18 & 19 - Cruising the South Scotia Sea: Our next two days at sea had overcast skies and 10-foot swells, which gave us plenty of time to rest, read, and learn about where we were headed. Many of us joined our naturalists outside for sightings of seabirds and marine mammals. Inside, we attended a plethora of lectures. Our Antarctic historian, Lou Sanson, enthralled us with South Georgia—The Land of the Kings and Shackleton’s Trans- Antarctic Expedition, 1914-1916; Kevin entertained us with his ballad of The Strange Life of Jemmy Button; Brent Stephenson, our birding photographer specialist, gave us further picture-taking insights with The World through a Lens; Rick provided another lecture entitled Life Beneath Our Feet; Jim introduced yet more avifauna with The Birds of South Georgia; and our biologist naturalist, Conrad Field, educated us in The Chronology of Whaling & Scrimshaw.

Friday, January 20 - Elsehul Bay / Salisbury Plain / Prion Island, South Georgia: We set off early for Elsehul Bay at the northwestern tip of South Georgia. We bundled up, boarded our Zodiacs, and cruised about the sheltered cove, occasionally escorted by porpoising fur seals. We were able to closely experience, and photograph, fur and elephant seals, as well as king and gentoo penguins. Macaroni and chinstrap penguins sat on their rocks, while grey-headed and black-browed albatross and South Georgia shags were comfortable on their cliffs.

Flanked by two glaciers, Salisbury Plain is home to the second largest rookery of king penguins on South Georgia. We saw kings in their various stages of development: courtship behavior, birds on eggs, chicks on feet, and oakum boys still being fed. Fur seals were also in abundance, with incredibly cute and cuddly seal pups.

Our last stop today was at Prion Island; the small island is almost entirely covered in tussock grass and rat-free, one of only a few around South Georgia, making it a special site of high environmental sensitivity. Climbing to the top of this grassy island resulted with several albatross nesting in the tussock, practicing their “gamming” (courtship behavior), and demonstrating badly aborted takeoff flights. The additional cherry on top, and another reason to be thankful that the island is rat-free, is that many of us caught sight of the endemic South Georgia pipit.

Saturday, January 21 - Stromness / Grytviken / Godthul: The Stromness whaling station is where Sir Ernest Shackleton and his party of two finally arrived safe and sound after their harrowingly renowned journey of survival from Antarctica in 1916. From the restrictive boundary around the station, we could see the ghostly remnants of collapsed buildings and rusted machinery, used to slaughter tens of thousands of whales for their oil and meat. We walked up the valley to see several gentoo penguin rookeries and, at a distance, view the reindeer introduced to the island by Norwegian whalers. Along the way, we were given the opportunity to tick off the second endemic avian species on the island and the only meat-eating duck in the world (when times are tough that is): the South Georgia pintail. Many of us continued up the valley and worked our way up the scree slope next to a waterfall at its end.

Prior to our next landing at Grytviken, we were given a presentation by Sarah Lurcock from the local South Georgia Museum on the South Georgia Habitat Restoration Project and its goal to make the rest of South Georgia rat-free. We then cruised ashore via Zodiac and assembled at the whalers’ cemetery where Shackleton is buried. From there, we strolled along the coast, encountering seabirds, penguins, and marine mammals, and continued between the whaling station’s dilapidated structures, ancient equipment, and beached vessels, minding the rule not to enter or touch anything. We ended up at the remarkable South Georgia Museum with its various displays of the island’s history, the church originally built in 1913, and the post office including a replica of the James Caird lifeboat that Shackleton used to cross from Elephant Island to South Georgia.

By mid-afternoon we visited Godthul, the site of a small whaling depot that supported operations in 1908-1917 and again in 1922-1929. Rusting barrels, rotting wooden sheds, and disintegrating boats are all that is left there from the whaling era. A short climb up the inlet’s hilly terrain was interrupted by reindeer running in the distance and curious Antarctic terns flying above us, but finally we encountered the reason for our climb: gentoo penguin rookeries under towering glacier-carved cliffs.

Sunday, January 22 - St. Andrews Bay / Gold Harbour / Cooper Bay: It is with delight to be awakened early for yet another exciting day at South Georgia; this time we landed at St. Andrews Bay. It is here where once again we are greeted by one of the more remarkable sights—and sounds—on Earth: the cacophony of the largest king penguin rookery on South Georgia. In addition to the estimated 250,000 breeding pairs of penguins plus chicks, this bay is also the largest concentration of elephant seals on the island. Reindeer and fur seals with a backdrop of mountains and glaciers completed the scene.

Our next stop found us at Gold Harbour at the foot of the Salvesen Range. Often referred to as the “jewel in the island’s crown” it is one of the most scenic spots on the island. A natural amphitheater of hanging glaciers, vertical cliffs, and towering peaks create an unforgettable backdrop to an exceptional abundance of yet more seabirds and seals. After landing on the beach and again dealing with the mock charges of fur seals, the next to greet us were belching, snorting elephant seals, laying on the beach side by side in large groups; the huge creatures sparring or flicking themselves with sand to keep cool. Constant streams of floating feathers drifted like snow across the beach, coming from the thousands and thousands of king penguins in various stages of molting. A few chinstrap and gentoo penguins were around as well. Numerous giant petrels, skuas, and sheathbills patrolled the colony taking advantage of the kings when they could—and they frequently did.

Continuing our progress down the north coast of South Georgia, and passing a southern right whale to port, we ended up at another beautifully scenic place and our final stop at South Georgia—Cooper Bay. A combination of Zodiac cruises and landings provided us with the last opportunity to see macaroni penguins. We surveyed them from below at sea on the rocks and above in the tussocks on their nests. The Zodiac cruises along the shore brought us close to some awesome geologic formations as well as penguins. 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. A smattering of chinstrap, gentoo, and king penguins were also spotted here. Because this area is also relatively rat-free, some of us were lucky enough to spot the South Georgia pipit again.

Monday, January 23 - South Scotia Sea: We had a well-deserved relaxing day at sea with the chance to recoup lost energy from the days before. It was a good day to not only view the seabirds, but also catch glimpses of minke, fin, and sei whales. We also enjoyed excellent lectures—Jim spoke about Penguins of the Antarctic, Warren followed up with his thought-provoking talk on Rapid Climate Change, and Lou presented us with Terra Australis Incognita–The Discovery and Exploration of the Antarctic Continent. These lectures introduced us to the history, geology, and wildlife of the Antarctic Peninsula and its surrounding islands. For some interactive entertainment, Brent inspired us to each submit a few of our recent expedition photos to him this morning. They were then reviewed by all in the evening during his Photo Critique Session and People’s Choice Competition. All photos displayed were worthy of being enlarged, framed, and mounted in noteworthy galleries, but only one person won the coveted prize of a bottle of champagne by near-unanimous audience accord.

Tuesday, January 24 - Coronation & Monroe Islands, South Orkney Islands: When we arose this morning we witnessed icebergs gliding by our ship. Once on deck, we gazed through lightly falling snow at the icebergs of various sizes (from colossal to “bergy bits”), the larger ones having penguins on them. Keeping to the subject of the moment, we came back inside to enjoy Kevin’s presentation on A Field Guide to Ice, quizzing us on all the different types from icebergs to glaciers. This was followed by Cheli’s Mandatory Antarctic Biosecurity Briefing as set forth by the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO).

At the western extremity of the South Orkney island group, once known as “The Inaccessible Islands,” our shipboard lunch was followed by setting out on Zodiac landings at Coronation Island and cruises in the vicinity of Monroe Island. The whites, grays, and deep browns of the glaciated mountains were interrupted occasionally by colorful spots of ice stained red by algae and rocks veneered in green. Chinstrap penguins were present in staggering thousands, and southern giant and Wilson’s storm petrels were also abundant. We saw Weddell and crabeater seals on the rocky shores, and some of us were fortunate enough to spot leopard seals. That evening, after a special Chocolate Madness Dessert, we joined our leaders for a test of the knowledge we had gained since embarking the Clipper Adventurer.

Wednesday, January 25 - Elephant Island: This morning we joined Jim for his talk on the Seabirds of the South Atlantic and the Scotia Sea. We then followed up with Warren’s presentation entitled Is Antarctica a Country? This was a thought-provoking time as Warren set the stage with the history of Antarctica’s initial parceling by exploring nations and culminating with the United States’ legal decision that Antarctica is a foreign country.

Our afternoon was a scheduled Zodiac cruise to one of Antarctica’s most sacred historical places, Point Wild on the northern coast of Elephant Island. Once again we were graced with such extraordinary weather and calm that our Zodiac cruising turned into a landing—a feat marveled as one in a million according to the amazement of our experienced Antarctic staff! Crossing from the boats onto the rocks, we touched down on the narrow spit of land where 22 men led by Frank Wild waited four months for rescue. A blue carpet of towels brought us up close to the bust of Luis Pardo, the captain of the Chilean rescue vessel Yelcho, erected onsite by the Chilean government and currently surrounded by a worshipping chinstrap penguin rookery. Some surprise calving off a nearby glacier added excitement on this stark, but beautiful, rocky spit of land.

Thursday, January 26 - Brown Bluff / Devil Island, Antarctica: After ritually donning our warm clothing like eight-layer cakes, we came ashore and stepped onto our world’s seventh continent at Brown Bluff. We had finally made it to Antarctica! Adelie penguins (our sixth penguin species) were all along the beach, either waddling to and fro along the surf or nesting with chicks further up. Some 20,000 pairs of Adelies make their home here, along with hundreds of gentoos. Besides strolling along the beach, we also had the option to trek up the scree slope to get a closer look at Brown Bluff, rising 2,450 feet above us. Skuas and cape petrels nested near the top of the cliff. Some of us also took the opportunity to walk out onto our first Antarctic glacier.

Sailing through Fridtjof Sound with its breathtaking scenery and passing icebergs, brought us to Devil Island in the early afternoon. This island, just one-mile long and located in the Erebus and Terror Gulf, was named for its twin horn-like peaks. Our Zodiacs weaved between the ice floes from ship to shore, where more Adelie penguins greeted us along the rocky beach. Short hikes along the shore and on the rise above it gave us different perspectives from below and above of the thousands of Adelies in their rookeries. There was plenty to entertain us as they paraded along the shore, were noisy in their nests, swayed and brayed to their mates, fed their chicks, stole each other’s stones, and defended their territories. Many of us also took the opportunity to climb the estimated 500 feet to the top of the island for spectacular panoramic views all around. Our day ended on another high note: Our evening’s recap was delayed so we could go out on deck and observe a small pod of orcas frolicking about the ship.

Friday, January 27 - Spert Island / Mikkleson Harbor / Wilhelmina Bay: Feeling a little more rested, we set out in Zodiacs to cruise around the seldom-visited Spert Island off the southwestern coast of Trinity Island. We were quickly and pleasantly surprised to find a different setting for us to explore. Because it is so exposed to the elements of Antarctica’s violent climate, the island is virtually barren of flora and fauna. Instead, we were served up stunning geological features and grounded icebergs of various shapes and sizes. We had a grand-old time today, cruising by Zodiac through timeless wave-eroded caves, seeing dancing krill up close, wishing we could stick our tongues on ancient icebergs, and wondering if that leopard seal napping on the ice was dreaming of penguin snacks.

Back on board we sailed to the south side of Trinity Island and anchored at Mikkleson Harbor. Discovered by the Swedish Antarctic Expedition of 1901-4, this small bay would later become the home of a floating whale factory. Coming ashore, we found whale bones scattered along the beach and the ribbed remains of two water boats that had supplied the factory. In a reversal of roles, gentoo penguins nesting higher up were given the opportunity to look down and observe us walking around in the soft snow, some of us creating snow angels. Leaving behind remnant history and flightless birds, the Clipper Adventurer next cruised through Wilhelmina Bay on its way to our next destination. Searching for whales along the way proved fruitful as we were rewarded by several humpback whales breaching and fluking around the ship.

Saturday, January 28 - Neko Harbour / Paradise Bay / Lemaire Channel: After enjoying TWO breakfasts, we girded our girths for Neko Harbour. Impressively massive, crevassed glaciers came down to the sea all around us, and the cannon-like sounds of glacial calving and ice falling in the unseen distance were regular occurrences. A gentoo colony hundreds strong was diffusely distributed from a few yards above the tide line up the hill. 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 back down sliding on our derrieres.

The continuing sun and no wind combined with a barbecue lunch on deck made for the most delightful time—and the cold beer didn’t hinder the delight either! As the Clipper Adventurer slowly cruised out of Neko Harbour and the Little River Band sang that it was “Time for a cool change,” we grew closer together on the back deck as a like-minded group sharing an extraordinary journey so far.

The ship eventually meandered its way to Paradise Bay, another picturesque spot on the Antarctic Peninsula. Two research stations from the 1950s are located in this bay, the Argentinean Almirante Brown Base and the Chilean Gonzalez Videla Base. We landed on the rocks below the Argentinean base, which was burned down many years ago by a resident doctor desperate to be evacuated. Regardless, our primary goal was to climb the hill behind the base, pass by gentle gentoo penguins, and view the stunning surroundings of the bay. A second option of the day was to go Zodiac cruising in the bay. We observed Antarctic shags and cape petrels along the shore and crabeater seals lounging on ice floes.

The ship then continued southward and after dinner we were invited back out on deck to enjoy some hot chocolate and Baileys as we passed through the splendid and beautiful Lemaire Channel. Seven miles long and averaging one mile in width, the channel separates Booth Island from the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. With the amazing visibility provided on this day, our views of the magnificent glaciated features on both sides of the channel were excellent. At this point, we had finally reached the southernmost position of our expedition: 65° 04.93' S, 63° 57.34' W

Sunday, January 29 - Port Lockroy & Jougla Point / Cuverville Island: To recover from yesterday’s festivities, we had another easy go of it today. We had an atypical stop this time at Port Lockroy and Jougla Point. Half of us landed at the port to visit the Bransfield House Museum, well-stocked gift shop, and the most southerly post office on the peninsula; whereas the other half went to the point to observe gentoo penguins, Antarctic shags, and a fully laid-out mixture of whale bones to help us understand the size and makeup of a characteristic cetacean. Our separated groups then swapped and our actions were repeated at each site located on the west side of Wiencke Island. Port Lockroy was discovered by Charcot’s French Antarctic Expedition of 1903-05 and is currently being maintained by the British-sponsored Antarctic Heritage Trust, for which our US dollars, British pounds, and credit cards were most welcomed to support via its gift shop and post office.

For our afternoon excursion, we visited Cuverville Island. The island, situated on the northern end of the Errera Channel, was heavily used as a whale flensing area in the 1920s. As a result, the broad, long beach of large pebbles where we landed was dotted with whale bone remnants. Beyond the beach, several thousand gentoo penguins nested in colonies both to our left and right as well as up the hill beyond. Some hardy hikers went up past the hill to a ridgeline that continued to the top for a better view of the horseshoe-shaped island. Others strolled along the pebbly beach to continue their penguin studies. A Zodiac detour back to the ship brought us up close to study the grounded electric-blue icebergs in the bay.

A cocktail party in the evening was skillfully planned to enhance our generous spirit and help donate to the Friends of South Georgia Island Rat Eradication Program. To increase our total contributions made to this worthy program thus far, up for auction were several “special” staff services, Kevin's ripped-in-action rain-pants, and finally two large charts, comprising the areas we had visited with our expedition’s route and artfully decorated by Kevin and Conrad.

Monday, January 30 - Deception Island / Hannah Point, South Shetland Islands: Back to the early wake-up call, we began our final explorations of Antarctica. It's not every day one gets to sail into a volcano, but that is exactly what we did at Deception Island. Our ship arrived there in the morning, maneuvered through a gap called Neptune’s Bellows, and dropped anchor in the flooded caldera of Port Foster. With the longest series of four landings in one day we started with Baily Head. One of the world’s largest chinstrap penguin colonies, we were treated to uncountable 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 amphitheater.

Next came Whalers 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 Whalers 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 ambled along the beach toward Neptune’s Window for views along the outer rim of the caldera.

Then the ship repositioned quickly for a brief stop at Pendulum Cove, and a polar plunge for the bravest among us into waters only slightly warmed by volcanic geothermal activity. Almost half the group was daring enough to be human penguins for the fine entertainment of the rest.

Hannah Point at the southwestern end of Livingston Island was the coup de grace and our last landing in Antarctica. Chinstrap and Gentoo penguins were all around, with one macaroni pretending to be the center of penguin attention. While kelp gulls, skuas, imperial cormorants, and southern giant petrels nested or flew above, noisy elephant seals wallowing about completed the animal ambience, and culminated our finest expedition moment.

Tuesday & Wednesday, January 31 & February 1 - Cruising the Drake Passage: Reflecting back and sharing together our journey through memories and photographs, we began our first day on the Drake with fingers crossed for fair weather. The day and the following one were pretty passive with only a bit of rock and roll occurring the second early morning. The majority of our two-day passage continued with climatic good fortune and we were able to enjoy many fine lectures in the Main Lounge planned for us by our expedition team. We joined Mike for Finding Our Way Across the Oceans—Ship’s Navigation, Warren introduced us to Science in Antarctica, and Rick’s Living and Working in the Antarctic described what it was like when he was stationed as a researcher on Signy Island in the South Orkney Islands. Lou presented us with his Antarctic Conservation—the Big Issues, giving us much future food for thought on the preservation of Antarctica, and Kevin provided us with an interesting perspective on his Voices from the Ice: A Look at Ice through the Eyes of Explorers, Writers and Poets. We also enjoyed one last chance to prove how picture-perfect we had become by attending Brent’s second and last Photo Critique Session. A prize of “questionable” value was given to the winner whose photo was best liked by the audience.

At our final recap on the first evening of the Drake, each staff member had the opportunity to share with us their expedition experiences for the last time. Especially drawn to our attention was the fact that our journey had nailed a record 27 successful landings in all. After dinner, a “Get to Know Your Expedition Staff Trivia Quiz” provided us with hilarious fact-finding entertainment, resulting in another grand prize of “questionable” value from Cheli. On our second day, after we had completed the last part of the infamous Drake Passage and passed through the Beagle Channel, we enjoyed the captain’s farewell cocktails and dinner. Captain Grankvistnar was not able to join us since he was a required on the bridge for the maneuvering through the channel. Despite his absence we all toasted our indebtedness to the captain and his entire crew, from the officers to the kitchen staff, for having given us the most incredible adventure ever. After the captain’s dinner, a half-hour slide show recapitulated our voyage in chronological sequence, and was well-met with tears of joy and thunderous approval.

Thursday, February 2 - Ushuaia, Argentina / Disembark / Buenos Aires: As we disembarked the Clipper Adventurer for the last time, we gave our good-byes to newly-made friends and promised to meet again in the future. After viewing so many species of penguin, retracing Shackleton’s footsteps backwards, heroically plunging into polar waters, and much, much more, we set forth homeward as ambassadors of this great white continent, looking forward to sharing our insights and images with others for many years to come.

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