Antarctica, South Georgia & the Falkland Islands

2013 Antarctica, South Georgia & the Falkland Islands Field Report

Sonia Surguy|February 28, 2013|Field Report

Thursday, January 3, 2013 - Buenos Aires, Argentina: After arriving in Buenos Aires earlier this morning, we enjoyed a most welcome buffet at our lovely hotel, the Emperador. We then had the afternoon to either relax or sight-see in this colorful Argentinean capital. In the evening we attended a reception, dinner, and short briefing to prepare us for our adventures to come. Most of us retired early to catch up on as much sleep as possible before our frightfully early check-out the next morning.

Friday, January 4 - Buenos Aires / Ushuaia / Embark Sea Adventurer: Wake up call: 2AM. 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 the domestic airport to catch our morning flight. 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. We then chose from several tour options: birding, Ushuaia highlights, or a walking tour in nearby Tierra del Fuego National Park. All groups (except the intrepid birders) reunited for lunch at the beautifully situated Las Cotorras Restaurant for a lamb barbeqeue, along with the pleasant accompaniment of a singing guitarist.

In the afternoon we boarded our floating home for the next 18 days, the Sea Adventurer. 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. After a lovely dinner many of us headed to bed for some well-deserved sleep after a very long day.

Saturday, January 5 - At Sea: Our first day at sea was a chance to get used to the ship's “ocean motion” as we made our way toward the Falkland Islands. After a leisurely breakfast, we joined Conrad Field in the lounge to learn about the whales and dolphins that we hope to spot on our travels through the Southern Ocean. Next on deck was Stanford's David Kennedy who gave us insight on the history behind the Falklands conflict in the 1980s.

During our after-lunch snooze, an announcement over the PA informed us that a black-browed albatross had landed on deck giving our ornithologist, Peter Harrison, the opportunity to show us some of this beautiful bird's special characteristics. After sending this majestic creature on its merry way, we then joined Peter in the lounge for a preview of the birds we hoped to find the next day.

Sunday, January 6 - Carcass Island, Falkland Islands / Saunders Island: This morning we found ourselves in much calmer waters, surrounded by the windswept Western Falkland Islands. Our first “wet landing” of the voyage, we donned our gear and boarded the Zodiacs for a rather splashy ride. Whether joining the hill walk, shore walk, or short walk, everyone had great sightings of Magellenic penguins, striated caracaras, Falkland steamer ducks, and upland and kelp geese. All walks ended at the settlement where a wonderful spread of cookies, cakes, and hot beverages were a delicious excuse to come inside for a bit and have a chat with this island's sole inhabitants. Then it was off to the ship for lunch while we repositioned to nearby Saunders Island.

As Conrad predicted, Peale's and Commerson's dolphins greeted our arrival at Saunders, with several groups lucky enough to be accompanied to the landing site by a special escort of cetaceans playing around the Zodiacs. Ashore we saw a number of gentoo colonies gathered on the beach, many tending to their fluffy chicks. A walk up along the hill brought us to a bustling rockhopper colony, interspersed with nesting imperial shags. A bit further beyond we found a colony of black-browed albatross, where we observed parents sitting on nests, greeting mates, feeding adorable chicks, and soaring gracefully overhead (as well as a few clumsy landings). After a truly wonderful visit with so many interesting, and photogenic, creatures, we returned to the ship and got gussied up for the captain's welcome cocktails and dinner.

Monday & Tuesday, January 7 & 8 - Cruising the South Scotia Sea: Our next two days at sea were quite pleasant, with calm seas and blue skies. Many of us joined our naturalists outside for sightings of seabirds and marine mammals. Inside, we enjoyed attending the plethora of lectures in the lounge. Carmen Field helped us to tell the difference between pit bulls and blubber slugs, then Peter gave an in-depth presentation on his favorite subject: the albatross. We then attended a mandatory IAATO briefing, followed by Tom Sharpe on the geology of the Scotia Sea.

The next day we heard Rick's explanation of why marine mammals don't get the bends, had an overview of the birds of South Georgia with Peter, and learned about the world of whaling and scrimshaw with Conrad. After dinner we enjoyed crepes Suzette in the lounge while Mart played guitar and sang popular tunes.

Wednesday, January 9 - Shag Rocks: Our day started with a wonderful encounter with fin whales (and possibly sei whales) who came by to inspect the ship and hung around for quite a while, giving everyone great up-close views. Soon thereafter, Russ announced that we were approaching Shag Rocks, a unique geological formation of jagged schist thrusting up from the ocean floor. We had spectacular views of these craggy pinnacles which serve as a breeding ground for seabirds, most notably the South Georgia shag. Then, during Rick's lecture on life beneath our feet, we learned that there was a pod of humpback whales feeding near the ship. We grabbed our jackets and cameras for an amazing spectacle of at least 20 whales blowing, breaching, and showing flukes all around the ship.

We then joined Carmen to hear the heroic story of Sir Earnest Shackleton's Endurance expedition, after which we enjoyed another wonderful lunch. Our progress south was marked by the first iceberg sighting in the early afternoon, with several more evident in the distance. The rest of the day was rounded out with Mike Moore's photography tips and Tom teaching us about ice.

Thursday, January 10 - Right Whale Bay, South Georgia / Prion Island / Salisbury Plain: Keeping the true spirit of adventure and flexibility, we started at 5AM to set off for Right Whale Bay at the northern tip of South Georgia. We bundled ourselves up in our signature yellow jackets, boarded our Zodiacs and soon landed on the pebbly beach. Though there were a few feisty fur seals to contend with, our hearts soon melted at the sight of scores of adorable, fluffy pups. We took a leisurely stroll along the shore to the main king penguin colony, stopping along the way to photograph the fur and elephant seals, as well as king and gentoo penguins on the beaches.

Our next stop was Prion Island which 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 and exceptional conservational value. Climbing via the mandatory boardwalk to the top of this grassy island resulted in the windblown view of albatross nesting in the tussock, practicing their "gamming" (courtship behavior), and demonstrating badly aborted takeoff flights. Along the way, many of us spotted the only meat-eating duck in the world (when times are tough that is), the South Georgia pintail. An additional bonus, 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.

Our last stop of the day was Salisbury Plain. Flanked by the Grace and Lucas glaciers and with an estimated 60,000 breeding pairs, this is the second largest rookery of king penguins on South Georgia. With an 18-month breeding cycle, we not only saw but also heard the kings in their various stages of development: courtship behavior, birds on eggs, chicks on feet, yearling chicks known as “oakum boys” still being fed, and of course molting birds everywhere. Those looking for a good leg stretch joined Peter on a walk into the tussocked hills overlooking the colony for magnificent views.

Friday, January 11 - Grytviken / Cobbler's Cove / St. Andrews Bay: Prior to our next landing at Grytviken, we attended 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 and made a toast to “the Boss.” From there, we wandered along the coast, encountering seabirds, penguins, and marine mammals, and continued between the whaling station’s dilapidated structures, ancient equipment, and beached vessels. 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. As we cruised out of Grytviken's protected bay, our ship was suddenly surrounded by a fleet of magnificent icebergs, glittering in bright sunshine. Our next stop was a Zegrahm first: Cobbler's Cove. The long walkers hiked up a steep grade, appreciating gorgeous views of the cove as well as icebergs as far as the eye could see. The ultimate destination was a lively macaroni penguin rookery. Those wishing a more civilized viewing visited the macaronis on a Zodiac cruise that also brought them into close proximity to the towering bergs.

Our grand finale for the day was a visit to the largest king penguin rookery on South Georgia, St. Andrews Bay. 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. What a wonderful day indeed!

Saturday - Monday, January 12 - 14 - South Scotia Sea: Alas, the calm did indeed proceed the storm, and our last (2AM!) landing at Royal Bay was canceled due to 60+ knot winds. As we departed South Georgia, the wind and wave action increased considerably making for a very bumpy ride. Though this inclement weather did not stop our trusty lecture team! We learned about early Antarctic explorers from David, re-joined Rick's lecture about life beneath our feet and heard more about his life working in the Antarctic, attended Peter's Penguins 101, gleaned more about the geology of Antarctica with Tom, discovered a host of spineless wonders with Conrad, decoded why Antarctica is cold with Kevin, and heard Carmen tell the story of the ill-fated Swedish Antarctic expedition of 1901-03. We were also quizzed to see who was paying attention during the lectures and enjoyed a rollicking game of “how well do you know your expedition staff.” Another biosecurity session prepared us and our gear for our time in the fragile Antarctic ecosystem.

Tuesday, January 15 - Elephant Island: With considerably smoother seas, we enjoyed a relaxing morning which included Peter’s lecture, Penguins 201. Many of us spent time on deck observing seabird, icebergs, and eventually, Elephant Island materializing in the distance.

Our afternoon was dedicated to a Zodiac cruise to one of Antarctica’s most sacred historical places, Point Wild on the northern coast of Elephant Island. Luckily, we were graced with such extraordinary weather and calm seas 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. We were able to get great photos of the bust of Luis Pardo, the captain of the Chilean rescue vessel Yelcho, erected onsite by the Chilean government, surrounded by a chinstrap penguin rookery.

Wednesday, January 16 - Penguin Island / Arctowski Base, King George Island: Dense pack ice thwarted our intended landing at Brown Bluff this morning, but fortunately Russ and the captain had planned a wonderful excursion for us at Penguin Island. After landing on a rocky beach, we proceeded along the shoreline, observing a resting Weddell seal en route to the chinstrap penguin colony. 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 volcanic cone of Deacon's Peak for spectacular panoramic views and a walk around the now dormant crater.

Back on board, the hotel department had put together a sumptuous barbeqeue lunch on the back deck. The weather was beautiful, with blue skies, warm sun, and the amazing scenery of Admiralty Bay surrounding us. In addition to gorgeous glaciers, we also had the opportunity to see several species of seals as the ship nosed into the pack ice.

We then learned that we had been invited to visit the research site of the Polish-run Arctowski Base. There we were able to do a bit of shopping for souvenirs, observe the Adelie penguin colony, visit the base itself, and meet some of the research team. We were also lucky enough to see a replica of the James Caird, which is planning to retrace Shackleton’s epic journey from Elephant Island to South Georgia.

Thursday, January 17 - Bailey Head, Deception Island / Whalers Bay / Spert Island: Our early wake-up call was well-rewarded with the amazing spectacle that greeted us at Bailey Head on Deception Island. The site of the world's largest chinstrap colony, the beach was covered with penguins “commuting” from the sea to their nests to feed hungry chicks and those heading out for a day of foraging. Many seemed surprised to notice a colony of yellow interlopers parting the stream of rush hour traffic. There was plenty to see on and near the beach, however many of us climbed higher into the surrounding hills for fabulous views, both of the penguin and scenery variety.

Our next stop was the island's unique flooded volcanic caldera and many of us were on deck to watch the ship maneuver through a gap called Neptune’s Bellows. We made landfall at Whalers Bay, the site of a Norwegian whaling station from 1904-31. Beginning in 1944, the British conducted scientific work here until eruptions from 1967-70 made these shores uninhabitable. Many of us walked among the ruins and ambled along the beach toward Neptune’s Window for views along the outer rim of the caldera. Then the brave (or foolish) among us took a plunge into waters only slightly “warmed” by volcanic geothermal activity.

In the afternoon we joined Shirley in the lounge to hear the tale of her journey to the South Pole. This story of endurance and extremes was made even more moving when we learned that this very day marked the 24th anniversary of Shirley reaching her goal. After dinner we set out in Zodiacs to cruise around seldom-visited Spert Island off the southwestern coast of Trinity Island. We were wowed by the starkly beautiful geological features of soaring cliffs and wave-eroded caves, with grounded icebergs of various shapes and sizes, many sculpted in to fantastic shapes by wind and water. A particular highlight was finding a magnificent leopard seal on a piece of ice who offered perfect poses for our snapping cameras.

Friday, January 18 - Neko Harbor, Antarctic Peninsula / Paradise Bay / Lemaire Channel / Pleneau Island: We were happy for a more civilized wake-up call this morning and enjoyed the lovely scenery of Neko Harbor during breakfast. Zodiacs then whisked us to shore where many of us celebrated our first official landing on the Antarctic continent! Impressively massive, crevassed glaciers came down to the sea all around us, and the cannon-like sounds of glacial calving and ice falling into the water were thrilling highlights for many of us. A gentoo colony hundreds strong was diffusely distributed from a few yards above the tide line and up the hill. A Zodiac ride gave us great views of the glacier from the water and a crabeater seal on an ice floe was a nice additional bonus. Kayakers enjoyed splendid scenery as well as humpback whales at close range!

Back on board, the ship meandered its way to Paradise Bay, another picturesque spot on the Antarctic Peninsula. Here we had a thrilling encounter with a pod of about 20 orca whales who seemed to be interested in our ship. We continued southward passing through the Lemaire Channel. Seven miles long and averaging one mile in width, the channel separates Booth Island from the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. The towering peaks were obscured by clouds, making our transit seem like an exploratory journey through mysterious lands.

The rather chilly Zodiac cruise around Pleneau Island suddenly became electrifying as several feeding humpback whales were sighted among the icebergs. Many of the Zodiacs were able to appreciate these gentle giants breaching, blowing, and showing flukes from an extraordinarily close range. As if the day couldn't get any better, our return to the ship was greeted with hot apple cider spiked with brandy and another exquisite barbeqeue dinner on the back deck.

Saturday, January 19 - Port Lockroy / Cuverville Island: Today we experienced some true Antarctic weather en route to our stop at Port Lockroy. Fortunately, we were able to shelter from the driving snow by visiting the Bransfield House Museum and the well-stocked gift shop, which includes the most southerly post office on the peninsula. Operated as a British station from 1944-62, it is currently being maintained by the Antarctic Heritage Trust, which is almost entirely supported by proceeds from the 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. Others strolled along the pebbly beach to continue their penguin studies.

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. A number of unique items were offered up for auction, including a rare South Georgia Museum flag, limited edition apparel and books, as well as beautiful original artwork from the talented expedition staff.

Sunday & Monday, January 20 & 21 - Drake Passage: After somewhat “lumpy” seas, our time in the Drake was well-spent with our lecture team keeping us entertained and educated, while the hotel department continued to impress us with tempting treats. Peter shared A Rare Event, David spoke on The American Presidency, and Rick delighted us with Travels of a Wildlife Cameraman.

The next day we experienced seas likened to the “Drake Lake” and enjoyed Peter's inspiring Seven Years & Seven Continents followed by Tom who commemorated Captain Scott. After an extended final recap, we attended Captain Oleg Klaptenko's cocktail party and toasted our many adventures and achievements over the last few weeks. A splendid dinner was made memorable as the crew paraded through the dining room with a special dessert of baked Alaska. Then it was off to view the end of trip slideshow, where we relived the memories of our fabulous voyage through a wonderful pictorial montage.

Tuesday, January 22 - Ushuaia, Argentina / Disembark / Buenos Aires: As we disembarked the Sea 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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