Antarctica, South Georgia & the Falkland Islands

2014 Antarctica, South Georgia & the Falkland Islands Field Report

T.H. Baughman|March 3, 2014|Field Report

Monday, January 6, 2014 - Buenos Aires, Argentina / Ushuaia: Most of us arrived in Buenos Aries and continued on to Ushuaia to join our fellow explorers at the Las Hoyas Hotel. We unpacked and enjoyed a welcome dinner where our Expedition Leader, Russ Evans, and Zegrahm cofounder Peter Harrison greeted us and welcomed us to the trip of a lifetime. After our long day’s traveling, most of us headed for an early bedtime.

Tuesday, January 7 - Ushuaia / Embark Sea Adventurer: Today we divided into three groups—one went to the National Park, one had a cruise along the Beagle Channel, and the third took a city tour, riding a chair lift up into the mountains behind Ushuaia, as well as visiting a dog racing kennel.

In the late afternoon we boarded the Sea Adventurer, our home for the next eighteen days. We had the usual excitement and chaos of being shown our cabins before we were called to the mandatory safety-at-sea lifeboat briefing.

Russ gathered us in the lounge for introductions to the expedition staff, and Cruise Director Lisa Wurzrainer gave us an introduction to the ship and its procedures. We had time to be on deck as Ushuaia disappeared behind us and the Beagle Channel beckoned us to the South Atlantic. Dinner followed giving us a chance to interact with our fellow passengers.

Wednesday, January 8 - At Sea: A day at sea, we were ready for our lecture series to begin. Conrad Field described the seals we would be encountering on our voyage; Jonathan Rossouw introduced us to the wildlife of the Falkland Islands, our first stop tomorrow; and Tom Sharpe, our geologist, tried to persuade us that birds are only interesting if they are sitting on rocks.

Those of us who intend to kayak on the cruise received a briefing on procedures and then, as our day was winding down, Russ gave an overview of tomorrow’s landing in the Falklands.

Thursday, January 9 - Bleaker Island, Falklands: What we have heard from friends about the windy, cold, and rainy Falkland Islands did not prepare us for the bright sun and gentle breeze! Those conditions, plus the sandy beach we landed on, made some us wonder if Russ was taking us north or south. During our visit we had great observations of Magellanic penguins, including a rare sighting of a chick. Some us saw two emerge from their underground home and look around like they had never been out before. We also saw a vast number of cormorants, but for many, the high point was the rockhoppers. They nest high above the water and make a steep trip up to feed their chicks.

In the afternoon, Rick Price discussed Cetaceans of the Southern Ocean; Rick has traveled to Antarctica many times, first as a scientist and photographer, subsequently as a base commander, then more recently on expedition cruise ships. Russ finished out our day, describing Life in the Falklands.

Our last activity of the day was the captain’s welcome reception and dinner.

Friday & Saturday, January 10 & 11 - Cruising the South Scotia Sea: We enjoyed two days of brilliant lectures on calm seas. Peter began with a masterful presentation on the albatross, its life patterns and magnificence. T.H. Baughman followed with the story of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. We had our mandatory IOTTA briefing about conduct in the Antarctic, before our kilted lad, Tom, helped us to understand the importance of the geology of this region, and the role that the Scotia Sea area in particular plays in plate tectonics. Jonathan and Tom led our first recap of the voyage, describing field work and the larger geological calendar as related through a single hour on the clock.

The next day, Jonathan took us through a description of the wildlife of South Georgia and we came away with a greater appreciation of the variety of species and the unique environment in which they thrive. Peter followed with the first of two lectures on penguins, describing the twenty species (up from seventeen a few decades ago). Russ introduced us to the biosecurity measures we must follow on South Georgia, to preserve this rare and treasured isle.

Later we passed Shag Rocks, a vista that was punctuated by the exciting presence of a pod of orcas! Russ briefed us on the next day’s plans; you know you’re on a Zegrahm cruise when wildlife excursions take precedence over meals. Peter talked about the rat eradication program which has been very successful.

Dinner followed, another pleasant opportunity to share our experiences with our fellow passengers. For some, a late night film was worked in, but others took to bed anxious for the events of tomorrow.

Sunday, January 12 - Grytviken, South Georgia / Hercules Bay / Fortuna Bay: The morning was glorious and most of us were up early and on deck, lured by the splendid sun and calm seas. On our way to Grytviken, Conrad gave an eloquent, and at times emotional, retelling of the history of whaling from the Basques to South Georgia, with sympathy for both man and beast.

Upon arrival at Grytviken, the Director on South Georgia came aboard and discussed the South Georgia Habitat Restoration Project. We went ashore where Peter gave a rousing speech and toast to “the boss,” before we went our separate ways through the whaling station remains, to the church, and to the informative museum. Meanwhile, our kayakers enjoyed themselves paddling away, surrounded by views of South Georgia at its best.

In the afternoon we were treated to a fine Zodiac cruise around Hercules Bay, where we observed the behavior of macaroni penguins, the world’s most numerous, a good percentage of which breed on this island.

After dinner we made a splendid landing at Fortuna Bay to see the king penguin colony, and to learn more about fur seals. Fading light eventually drove us back to the shore and from there, Russ’s team of drivers brought us safely home to our cabins.

Monday, January 13 - Prion Island / Salisbury Plain: For many of us, today was the rarest of days—one in which, to some degree, our lives took a change of direction. Russ took us ashore at Prion Island to commune with the wandering albatross. All the reading about its size could not prepare us for this meeting; this encounter brought us up close and personal to the magnificent creature! We thought of this trip primarily as a means to see Antarctica but coming across these birds was an exciting treat.

If the morning experience was about a single bird, the afternoon was about the aggregate—more than a hundred thousand pairs of king penguins spread out in front of us like an endless blanket on Salisbury Plain. As far as you could see, penguins covered the ground. Our expedition staff explained the behaviors and life cycles of these fascinating birds.

Tuesday, January 14 - Gold Harbour / Cooper Bay: A very early morning was planned today to watch the sunrise over Gold Harbour, one of South Georgia’s most scenic areas. It was most entertaining to watch the elephant seals as they lumbered across the sand or stopped to have a casual practice joust with another youngster. Although we were glad to be bundled up, these creatures were overheating and would use their flippers to throw cooling sand on their plump bodies. Occasionally, one pushed his head into the sand with a rhythm—stopping, exhaling, and blowing sand like a whale sending a plume of steam into the air. Meanwhile our kayakers luxuriated in the great weather and calm seas.

For many of us, nothing on the beach will rival the memory we gained from climbing the hill to see nesting light-mantle sooty albatross. Perhaps there is a more beautiful bird, but you would have trouble convincing those of us who saw these birds on their nests with a chick.

Later in the day, we landed in Cooper Bay. Despite the weather smorgasbord, the steep hike up the hill was worth it to see some of the world’s eight million macaroni penguins. Seeing how and where they nest made it clear to us why ornithologists can’t get an accurate survey of their population. We left this landing with a sense of sadness knowing it was our last stop in South Georgia, an island we learned so much about, and are now ambassadors for its preservation and restoration of habitat.

Recap was a tour de force for the Zegrahm staff, as each remarkable story was followed by another, ending with Peter’s story of his first trip to South Georgia and the king penguin encounters that transpired.

Wednesday, January 15 - At Sea: After breakfast we began our lecture series of the day with T. H. retelling the story of Strange Reunions of Otto Nordenskjold, followed by Tom’s description of what awaited us in the Antarctic Peninsula with On Gondwana’s Edge: The Geology of the Antarctic Peninsula.

After lunch we all made our way to the lounge where staff greeted us with vacuum cleaners and advice on how to prepare our equipment to safely enjoy the great white continent. Later, Conrad described the invertebrates of Antarctica, some of which have fantastic properties that might unlock the cure to human diseases.

Recap preceded dinner and another opportunity to interact with our fellow passengers. Afterwards, Dan Olsen had a special treat for us—sea shanties! Our group included a good number of people who can carry a tune; a bit raucous but great fun, the sea shanties were a huge hit.

Thursday, January 16 - At Sea: We continued toward Elephant Island today, punctuated by a series of programs and activities that provided us with great information and fine entertainment. Rick opened our lecture series with an account of the underwater life of Antarctica, drawing on his many years of diving in the South Orkneys. Dan continued with an informative talk regarding how and why whales and seals communicate, and what they need to convey to one another.

Lunch was followed by Giovanna Fasanelli offering photography tips, before an ice cream social and The Great Antarctic Liars Club Game, in which a panel of the lecture staff attempted to convince the audience that they alone were telling the truth. A rollicking good time was had by all and credibility took a heavy blow.

Dinner followed with a late night film in the lounge before retiring, anticipating a possible landfall in legendary Elephant Island.

Friday, January 17 - Elephant Island: We awoke with great anticipation of seeing Point Wild, an important site in the harrowing Shackleton saga. Though weather conditions prevented us from a Zodiac tour, we had a fine view from the ship.

Mid-morning, Shirley Metz gave an extremely emotional description of her trip 25 years ago when she became the first American woman to ski to the South Pole. The poignancy of the 25th anniversary overwhelmed both her and Peter, when he took the microphone to propose a toast. Many of us in the audience were utterly caught up in the moment and shed tears at the celebration of Shirley’s achievement.

We repositioned and the weather cooperated for what was a grand landing after lunch at Cape Lookout, further along the coast of Elephant Island. Our naturalists interpreted the behavior at chinstrap and gentoo rookeries, and we noticed that only the emperor’s chick can beat that of the gentoo for hopelessly cute! We had time on shore and a Zodiac cruise that brought us close to macaronis and, for some, our first view of a leopard seal.

In the evening Russ briefed us on our upcoming plans, before we tested ourselves with a quiz based on what we have learned on this trip. Dinner and a not-too-late evening followed, as we were scheduled to make a landing before breakfast tomorrow.

Saturday, January 18 - Brown Bluff, Antarctic Peninsula / Paulet Island: The ideal conditions, calm and still, enhanced what was for many of us our first landing on the Antarctic continent. We were awash with Adelie penguins whose chicks were far along and generally looking healthy, and we also saw gentoos, with chicks less developed than those we had seen yesterday on Elephant Island.

After a wonderful brunch, we headed for our next destination, Paulet Island. The pack ice had formed a barrier our ship couldn’t penetrate, but instead of giving up, Russ sent us out on a phenomenal Zodiac cruise through and among the pack ice. The entire experience was both exciting and breathtakingly beautiful and for many of us, an unexpected bonus—a juvenile emperor penguin chick.

We came back to the ship for tea and a cocktail party hosted by Zegrahm to thank us all for sailing with them. Dinner closed out what was an incredible day.

Sunday, January 19 - Deception Island: We were up and ready at 5AM but Baily Head did not cooperate; the swell was too great for safe Zodiac operations, so we went inside the caldera of Deception Island and Tom took us on a splendid walk, over the mountain and down into Telefon Bay. As we neared the shore, we had close looks at both crabeater and Weddell seals, lying in the sun close to one another.

After an early lunch, we made our way to Hannah Point, one of the gems of the peninsula. We were treated to great birds, such as giant petrels and snowy sheathbills, and gentoos were in vast abundance—most had two chicks that looked plump and healthy.

Kayakers took advantage of the weather to take a spin, as always joining Kevin Clement and Dan who watched over the operation.

Some of us followed Tom on another walk, past the stench of elephant seal wallows, and arriving at a veritable geological museum. Fossils and a variety of geological items have been collected over the years by geologists and left as a professional courtesy for those that followed.

Back at the ship we had a recap and a briefing about tomorrow’s activities. Most of us trundled off to dinner, followed by a stroll on deck or to bed for a well-deserved rest.

Monday, January 20 - Neko Harbour / Paradise Bay / Pleneau Island: Our morning began with a landing at Neko Harbour to see the gentoos and to take advantage of the breathtaking landscape, especially appreciated by those who followed Tom up and up to a great vantage point. Meanwhile, kayaks skimmed the water and some of us enjoyed a Zodiac cruise through the thousand different shapes of floating ice.

Back to the ship for a barbeqeue lunch and a much anticipated polar plunge! Twelve passengers made the dip, joined by four staff members. The temperature of the sea water was zero degrees Fahrenheit!

In the late afternoon we made it through the Lemaire Channel, which had been blocked in recent days. Later in our briefing, Russ told us what was on tap for tomorrow, before a delightful dinner and later, a Zodiac cruise by Pleneau Island, often an elephant graveyard of icebergs. In addition to several seal species—Weddell, leopard, and crabeater—we were treated to a spectacular ice show. We returned to the ship chilled but thrilled and made our way to our cabins late in the evening.

Tuesday, January 21 - Cuverville Island / Enterprise Island: Our day started well with continued beautiful weather and calm seas. Our kayakers were out early and had another splendid landing, this time at Cuverville Island, replete with gentoos. This island was the location for an extensive study of the impact of humans on penguin reproductive efforts and scientists found conclusively that we have no negative impact, as long as we keep our distance. Peter, Jonathan, and Conrad all provided intense and exciting interpretations of the birds and vegetation.

Upon arrival at Enterprise Island, we took to our Zodiacs for a great cruise to a whaling shipwreck with nesting petrels.

Wednesday, January 22 - South Shetland Islands: The day broke early for us as we went out at 5:30AM to visit Half Moon Island where we were greeted by a colony of chinstrap penguins. Returning to the ship, we had breakfast and a few minutes to catch our breath before going out again for a second landing at Yankee Harbor, once a hotbed of 19th-century sealing. Our landing gave naturalists an opportunity to describe the penguins and seals and the process of sealing when it was undertaken here. We had especially good views of penguins and skua, and the kayakers enjoyed a great time on their eighth outing of this trip.

Lunch intervened in our activities briefly, and Russ took us to a dual landing of Fort Point and Hardy Cove. Our morning landings had been overcast, common in the south Polar regions, but by the time we left for the third landing of the day, the sun was out in all its glory. The glacier glistened in the sunlight, and the birds and seals were exquisitely lit. Many of the staff had never been here before and were as dazzled as the rest of us. Dragging ourselves away was one of the hardest things we had to do on this journey, but who could have imagined a greater close to our Antarctic voyage?

After we returned to the ship, we had an auction for the SGA restoration project with Peter holding forth as auctioneer; the fund received a substantial contribution to its work of eradicating the rats of South Georgia Island. Dinner followed late, and was closed out with a chocolate bonanza.

Thursday & Friday, January 23 - 24 - Drake Passage: We left Antarctica behind and traveled overnight into the dreaded Drake Passage, but we awoke to find the seas calm and our vessel making good time to the north. We had a full plate of lectures and events over the next two days; T.H. began with his retelling of the story, Roald Amundsen; Man of Both Poles, Rick’s account of life at Signy Island, a British base in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

 After lunch, Tom gave a fascinating description of the how and why of ice and later, Dan entertained us with A Song and Other Shenanigans in the main lounge.

The next morning, Tom took a departure from his normal topics to tell us about an exhibition that he had produced in Wales for the Robert Falcon Scott’s centenary, and Peter recalled the seven-year adventure that resulted in the publication of Seabirds. Jonathan discussed Biodiversity and The Bucket List, before our last recap where each member of the lecture team spoke about an incident or event in our voyage. The sum of their comments focused on how utterly spectacular our voyage had been, even in the context of the several hundred total Antarctic voyages this team has made.

In the evening, we joined our captain for farewell cocktails and dinner, before Giovanna’s photographic review of our voyage, one that likely will never be equaled in our lifetimes.

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