Antarctica, South Georgia & the Falkland Islands

2016 Antarctica, South Georgia & the Falkland Islands Field Report

Ingrid Nixon|March 23, 2016|Field Report

Friday - Sunday, January 8 - 10, 2016 - Ushuaia, Argentina / Embark Sea Adventurer / Beagle Channel

“Life is short and we never have enough time for gladdening the hearts of those who travel with us. Oh, be swift to love! Make haste to be kind.” ~ Henry Frederic Amiel

Coming from various points on the planet, we all began to assemble at the end of the world—Ushuaia, Argentina—to begin our expedition to the Falkland Islands, South Georgia, and the Antarctic Peninsula. The Arakur Ushuaia Resort and Spa, perched on the hillside above the sprawling city, offered fabulous views and many creature comforts. We enjoyed welcome cocktails, dinner, and brief announcements before turning in for the night after a long day of travels for many.

The next morning we headed off to experience the end of the world or el fin del mundo. Birders went in search of South American species. Many of us went to Tierra del Fuego National Park for views and short walks before boarding a catamaran to enjoy the sea lions and birds of the Beagle Channel. We all eventually converged on the Sea Adventurer in the late afternoon, joined by those who had been on the pre-extension to Torres del Paine. Though it was calm in the morning, winds built steadily throughout the day to the point that authorities closed the port for vessels arriving and, more importantly for us, departing. We remained dockside with hopes of sailing at 0600 the next day.

We awoke to discover we were still alongside in Ushuaia, as the high winds had not abated and the port was still closed. The bridge recorded steady winds of 50-60 knots with occasional gusts over 80. Expedition Leader, Russ Evans, and our captain watched the forecast and determined that winds would likely drop in the afternoon. Thus, we had free time to explore town or beyond on our own. While still alongside, Captain Mykola Tililyuk hosted a welcome cocktail party at which he made a brief appearance. He was on standby waiting for the winds to drop, so we could depart. Port authorities eventually agreed to open the port only for our departure. During dinner, we slipped our lines, put the engines astern and “escaped from Ushuaia” (to quote the captain) into the Beagle Channel. Falkland Islands, ho!

Monday, January 11 - At Sea

“There is nothing more enticing, disenchanting, and enslaving than the life at sea.” ~ Joseph Conrad

With winds to our stern, the rolling seas proved kind, pushing us along to the Falkland Islands. Black-browed albatross, white-chinned petrels, and other sea birds soared seemingly effortlessly about the ship. We gained our sea legs as we drifted between the dining room, the forward lounge for lectures, and the open decks.

Tuesday, January 12 - Saunders Island, Falkland Islands

“An undulating land with a desolate and wretched aspect.” ~ Charles Darwin describing the Falkland Islands, 1834.

We spotted land mid-morning and wound our way through the islands on the west side of the Falklands, toward our afternoon stop at Saunders Island. We caught glimpses of Commerson’s dolphins, and Peale’s dolphins played in the bow wake for some time; those on the foredeck were courtside for the action. Strong winds did not deter us from our first landing, where there was a bit of everything to see, including breeding black-browed albatross; Falklands imperial cormorants; and Magellanic and gentoo penguins. But the species to savor was the punked-out, rockhopper penguins with their yellow head feathers, which we saw nowhere else on the trip.

Wednesday & Thursday, January 13 & 14 - Cruising the South Scotia Sea

“I now belong to a higher cult of mortals, for I have seen the Albatross.” ~ Robert Cushman Murphy, Logbook for Grace

With wind and current pushing us along, we made our way toward South Georgia. The thing to do between lectures (and naps) was to layer up and spend time on deck to see what passed by. There were plenty of whale blows, though they all proved fleeting.

When watching seabirds soar and dip, soar and dip, one is tempted to wonder what they are doing so far from home out here in the ocean. However, as our ornithologist Jim Wilson emphasized: The birds could very well ask us that question, as they are most at home in the ocean. We’ve had great sightings of both wandering and royal albatross, which can look quite similar, but the former nests in South Georgia and the latter in New Zealand.

Friday, January 15 - Shag Rocks, Scotia Sea

Over the course of the day we watched sea temperature drop from 7°C to 4°C, which meant we crossed the Antarctic 

Convergence putting us biologically in the Antarctic. Near sunset we cruised past Shag Rocks, a scattering of lumps and pinnacles in the middle of the heaving seas. These rocks are what we can see of the otherwise submerged South Georgia Ridge. They create an upwelling of ocean water that brings food closer to the surface for birds and other animals. The rocks were white with guano from the millions of seabirds that have roosted or nested there since time immemorial. We had good looks at several southern right whales that swam right past the ship. Though we usually don’t encounter ice of such size so far north, several very large icebergs flanked the rocks. In the evening light, they shone a soft blue as they offered a taste of ice vistas to come.

Saturday, January 16 - Salisbury Plain, South Georgia / Prion Island

“South Georgia is for those who grew up dreaming of a garden of Eden where you would walk unharmed among abundant and fearless wildlife in a beautiful wilderness—an oasis of serenity in a world increasingly out of step with nature.” ~ Tim and Pauline Carr, Antarctic Oasis, Under the Spell of South Georgia

We awoke to see South Georgia on the horizon and spent the morning sailing down its rugged northern shore. Gray-headed albatross joined the usual suspects circling the ship; large numbers of them nest in the northern part of the island. Leaping fur seals and whale blows appeared about the ship. In the afternoon we went ashore at Salisbury Plain. After running the fur seal gauntlet at the beach, we wandered inland to the edge of the penguin colony to see king penguins demonstrating a range of behaviors: molting, courting, brooding eggs on feet; and last year’s chicks molting into adult plumage. South Georgia pipits, the southernmost songbird in the world, flitted in the tussock. Loading Zodiacs we realized that a fur seal near the landing site birthed a pup while we were ashore! This allowed us to watch the first hour of the pup’s life in what must have been a strange, new world. After dinner, we went ashore to see nesting wandering albatross on Prion Island in the Bay of Isles. These enormous birds only come ashore to breed. Once hatched, their chicks will sit on the nest through the sub-Antarctic winter with their parents returning occasionally to feed them.

Sunday, January 17 - Hercules Bay / Grytviken / Stromness / Fortuna Bay

“For sudden the worst turns the best to the brave.” ~ From Prospice, a poem by Robert Browning often quoted by Ernest Shackleton

We began the day with a Zodiac cruise at Hercules Bay to oogle macaroni penguins. They nested here and there in the tussock-grass on the steep slopes of the bay. We could place the boats right where the birds were entering/exiting the water as they traveled to/from the colonies. Kayakers got their first opportunity to get onto the water. Mid-day we went ashore at Grytviken, an abandoned Norwegian whaling station that thrived from 1904 to the mid-1960s. After toasting at the graves of Sir Ernest Shackleton and Frank Wild in the small graveyard, we wandered through the station grounds, visited the small museum, post office, and church. In sunshine, we enjoyed a barbecue lunch on deck as we sailed for Stromness, another abandoned whaling station notable as the site where Shackleton and his team finished their hike up over South Georgia following their 800-mile open boat journey from Elephant Island. Most of us walked up the valley to see the waterfall that was the final hurdle in their cross-island odyssey. Many of us continued to hike up over the pass and down into Fortuna Bay to retrace (albeit in reverse direction) the final five miles of his epic journey.

Monday, January 18 - St. Andrews Bay / Gold Harbour

“I must confess the disappointment I now met with did not affect me much; for, to judge of the bulk by the sample, it would not be worth the discovery.” ~ Captain Cook offers thoughts on South Georgia.

It was king penguins galore at St. Andrews Bay, site of the largest king penguin colony in the world with an estimated 120,000 breeding pairs and a total of 300,000 birds. The low-angle early morning light brought out the rich oranges and yellows of the adult birds and created halos on the feathered edges of the immature kings, aptly nicknamed “oakum boys” by sailors because they resembled the boys who caulked ship’s hulls with oakum and tar, who inevitably got covered with the stuff. While ashore we could look out on the horizon and see frequent blows from whales; after the landing we sailed out for a look-see. There must have been at least 50 animals (virtually all humpbacks) displaying a variety of behaviors—from dives to pec fin slaps to tail throws to breaching. We eventually left the whales behind for our afternoon stop in Gold Harbour, where we shared the landing site with molting elephant seals. Though we landed in a snowstorm, skies cleared while we were ashore. We sailed in the late afternoon brilliant sunshine headed for Elephant Island.

Tuesday & Wednesday, January 19 & 20 - At Sea

“There is nothing so desperately monotonous as the sea, and I no longer wonder at the cruelty of pirates.” ~ James Russell Lowell, Fireside Travels, 1864

After an action packed time at South Georgia, today afforded the opportunity to make our own schedules. Throughout the day we passed enormous icebergs and spotted the tall columnar blows of fin whales among the tossing waves. We crossed the same waters that Sir Ernest Shackleton, Tom Crean, and Frank Worsely sailed through in the 20-foot James Caird.

Dapper black penguins made the perfect accent for the splendid icebergs we enjoyed en route. To date we have experienced king, gentoo, rockhopper, Magellanic, and macaroni penguins. What we have seen on the bergs are largely Adelie penguins, a sure sign we are getting south to The Ice. Classically black and white with pink feet, Adelies must have been the species that reminded explorers of little men in evening jackets.

Thursday, January 21 - Elephant Island

“We tried to cheer, but excitement gripped our vocal cords.” ~ Leonard Hussey wrote, upon sighting the Yelcho from shore.

After dinner, Elephant Island emerged from the fog. We pushed in close to shore to get a deck level view of Point Wild, the site where Shackleton left a total of 22 men under the command of Frank Wild when he sailed to South Georgia for rescue. Chinstrap penguins still call the place home during the summer months. Compared to historic photos and written accounts, the narrow
peninsula where the men lived four and a half months appears to have diminished and the glacier nearby has receded considerably through the years. Amidst the penguins, we could make out the bust erected by the Chileans of Luis Pardo, captain of the Yelcho during Shackleton’s rescue (his fourth such attempt). It is one thing to read the Shackleton story and think, “That was tough.” It is another to see places like Point Wild in all its stark, uncomforting glory. One can’t help but wonder: “How did they do it?”

Friday, January 22 - Trinity Peninsula, Antarctica / Brown Bluff

“… It must be remembered that the men whose desires lead them to the untrodden paths of the world have generally marked individuality.” ~ Sir Ernest Shackleton

As we neared the continent in the mid-afternoon, we began to sail past enormous tabular icebergs. Soon the Trinity Peninsula, the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, came into view. The crew on the Bridge sighted a pod of orcas as we turned east into the Antarctic Sound. At first it seemed like the orcas would simply pass by the ship. However, the animals (upwards of 15) looped back and dove around the vessel offering all on deck a splendid viewing. We continued sailing toward the place where we would set foot on the Continent—Brown Bluff. The wind whipped up to over 40 knots over the course of the evening, but we got ashore to visit nesting Adelie penguins and snow petrels. To celebrate our steps on this hard-to-reach place, cruise director Kelsey Simmons provided hot chocolate (and a nudge) for our Zodiac ride back to the ship.

Saturday, January 23 - Antarctic Sound / Paulet Island

“It was impossible to manoeuvre the ship in the ice owing to the strong wind, which kept the floes in movement and caused lanes to open and close with dangerous rapidity.” ~ Sir Ernest Shackleton, December, 1914

Given the thickness of the pack ice, the Bridge deemed it prudent to wait until daylight to begin to navigate the ice-choked waters toward Paulet Island. Even in broad daylight, it looked like our way was hopelessly blocked by massive ice. However, slowly we threaded our way to this island noteworthy of its massive Adelie penguin colony. It’s also notable for the ruins of the hut where Captain Larsen of the Swedish Antarctic (or Nordenskjöld) Expedition, overwintered with his men (and the ship’s cat) after his vessel, Antarctic, was crushed in the ice of the Weddell Sea. Kayakers took to the water for a fabulous paddle through ice. We lunched on the back deck, while enjoying a rare sunny, calm day in the Antarctic. Heading back through Antarctic Sound, Russ called for the Zodiacs to be put on the water for a two-hour cruise through fabulous ice. En route we encountered humpback and minke whales, as well as Weddell, crabeater, and leopard seals. After dinner, we cruised past massive tabular icebergs, which transitioned from white to buttery to pale blue in the fading evening light.

Per the Bridge, today we reached our farthest south: 63° 34.5” S.

Sunday, January 24 - Fort Point, South Shetland Islands / Hardy Cove

“The mariner should exercise great caution when navigating in these waters.” ~ The Antarctic Pilot

Our final morning on the peninsula, we planned a split landing between the massive ice at Hardy Cove and the chinstrap penguins at Fort Point. Nature, however, had other ideas. No sooner did we get kayakers paddling and others to shore, then the wind picked up and the waves began to build. Russ called off the landing in order to get us back the ship while conditions allowed. By the time we were all safely back onboard it had begun to snow. We gathered in the lounge for cocktails as we sailed away from the South Shetland Islands and headed into the Drake Passage.

Monday & Tuesday, January 25 & 26 - Drake Passage

“How inappropriate to call this planet, Earth, when clearly it is ocean.” ~ Arthur C. Clarke

The dreaded Drake Passage proved merciful, as we enjoyed relatively calm seas. Sharp eyes on deck spotted a few whale blows. Wandering albatross once again looped around the ship. In the evening we held an auction to raise funds for the South Georgia Heritage Trust. Our Scottish geologist Tom Sharpe proved a quick-witted and quick-tongued auctioneer. Among the auction items was a nautical chart of our trip, featuring the route and illustrations by Conrad Field and Kevin Clement. Between the auction and the hectares people sponsored in Grytviken, we raised $10,685 to help with rat eradication monitoring—the most raised by any ship so far this season.

The seas continued to be kind on our last full day on the ship. Midday we had a brief visitation by hourglass dolphins that rode the bow of the ship for a few precious moments. Then, we started to see land. By late afternoon we were turning into the fabled Beagle Channel. Mild, calm conditions made it ideal to be out on deck for final views of whale blows, sooty shearwaters, and Magellanic penguins. Before dinner we enjoyed the captain’s farewell cocktails. After dinner we enjoyed a chocolate extravaganza created by our talented kitchen crew, as well as live music.

Wednesday, January 27 - Ushuaia, Argentina / Disembark / Buenos Aires / USA

“Once you had been to the white unknown you could never escape the call of the little voices.” ~ Frank Wild

We came alongside the pier in the wee hours of the morning. Over the course of the day we would disembark and scatter to the winds via buses and taxis and planes. It is clear we had left the Antarctic. But it is unlikely the Antarctic will ever leave us.

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