Brown Bluff, Antarctic Peninsula

2017 Antarctica, South Georgia & the Falkland Islands Field Report

Tom Sharpe|March 14, 2017|Field Report

Friday & Saturday, January 6 & 7, 2017 - Ushuaia, Argentina / Beagle Channel / Embark Ocean Diamond

Ushuaia, ‘Fin del Mundo,’ at the southernmost tip of Argentina was where we gathered for the start of our Antarctic adventure, and after a night’s rest, we set out on various excursions to explore the neighborhood of the end of the world.

The keen birders were the first away, on their mission to the Tierra del Fuego National Park in search of the Magellanic woodpecker. They were rewarded with sightings of both male and female woodpeckers, Andean condors, flocks of Austral parakeets, and a wonderful view of an Austral pygmy owl, as well as a wide variety of other birds to check off their lists.

The majority of our group went off on a catamaran tour of the Beagle Channel, where we saw South American sea lions on offshore islands before sailing on to the national park for a walk along the shore and an enjoyable Argentinian BBQ lunch. Others chose to hike in the deciduous beech forests of Reserva Natural Cerro Alarkén around the Arakur Resort & Spa. After only a few minutes of hiking, we saw an Andean condor soar above us and watched as a stunning red and black Magellanic woodpecker flew towards us and perched on the trunk of a nearby tree. We also saw chimango caracara, thorn-tailed rayadito, and Patagonian sierra-finch, amongst others. The flora was equally impressive—yellow and dog orchids grew beneath a canopy of tall, spindly lenga whose trunks and branches were festooned with thick growths of a hairy lichen, indicative of clear, unpolluted air. Clearings offered wonderful views of hanging glaciers in the mountains behind Ushuaia and of the wide glaciated valley of the Beagle Channel.

In the late afternoon, we embarked the Ocean Diamond, our home for the next 17 days. With a blast on the ship’s horn, we eased away from the pier and out into the Beagle Channel. Our Antarctic adventure was underway!

 

Sunday & Monday, January 8 & 9 - At Sea / Saunders Island, Falkland Islands / West Point Island

We awoke to a bright day in the Southern Ocean, with black-browed albatross, prions, giant petrels, and others surrounding us. Distant blows indicated the presence of whales and these were the subject of our first lecture this morning, by Conrad Field. Later, Jim Wilson excited not only the birders, but all of us, with his descriptions of the birds of the Falkland Islands, including the endemics which are found only there. Following lunch, we stepped out on deck to look for the variety of local wildlife, before an afternoon of mandatory safety briefings on Zodiac and kayak operations. Later, Rob Dunbar from Stanford gave his presentation, Introduction to the Southern Ocean: The Crazy Different Seas that Surround Antarctica, before it was time for the captain’s welcome reception and dinner.

An early start saw us make our first Zodiac landing on the white-sand beaches of Saunders Island where dolphin gulls, striated caracara, and Falkland flightless steamer ducks—as well as the local islanders—were waiting to welcome us. A hike up and along the hillside took us to a rookery of comical rockhopper penguins, and on for a wonderful view of black-browed albatross sitting on their chimney-pot nests with their down-covered chicks. Back on the beach, Magellanic penguins left their peaty burrows and wandered across the sand to the sea, and king penguins stood on the beach or in a cluster amongst scattered rookeries of gentoo penguins. We returned to the ship pleased to have not one but four penguin species under our belts.

After brunch, Tom Sharpe described the geological origins of the Falkland Island rocks, and how they had once been part of South Africa, before we went ashore on West Point Island. A walk up a long gentle slope took us to the opposite side of the island where the slopes of a small headland called Devil’s Nose were home to colonies of rockhopper penguins and black-browed albatross. Jim had marked out a wonderful trail through the maze of tall tufts of tussock grass to give us the best-ever views of these birds, especially the albatross, who sat unphased as we passed nearby. Some of us walked and others took a ride in a local Land Rover back to the settlement near the landing site, where the island’s residents had prepared tea for us and a remarkable spread of homemade cakes and biscuits.

 

Tuesday, January 10 - Stanley

By breakfast time, we were moored alongside at Stanley where buses shuttled us to the Jetty Visitor Centre in town. From there we set off to birdwatch, headed out on a sightseeing walk, or to explore and shop on our own. A highlight—in addition to the opportunities for some retail therapy—was the wonderful museum with its informative exhibits on the history of the Falkland Islands, including the 1982 Argentine invasion, as well as displays on island life and maritime and natural history. A gallery devoted to Antarctica gave us a fantastic introduction to our upcoming visit to the Peninsula.

On the outskirts of town, our birders were successful in their quest to see the rare ruffous-chested dotterel, as well as the Falkland pipit and long-tailed meadowlark, while along the waterfront, they had great views of the Falkland flightless steamer duck.

Once back on board for lunch, we sailed out of Stanley Harbor into freshening winds. The birders took up position on deck to view the petrels, penguins, and albatross around us in the water or in the air, and had exceptional views of gray-backed storm petrels.

Our kayakers had the first of their briefings this afternoon to prepare them for polar kayaking, after which historian T. H. Baughman held us spellbound with the incredible story of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition: a great story, well told.

After recap and dinner we put our watches and clocks forward one hour to move us onto Grytviken time.

 

Wednesday - Friday, January 11 - 13 - At Sea / Grytviken, South Georgia / Fortuna Bay / Stromness

Our two days at sea were packed with lecture presentations from our expedition team and important briefings to make sure that we leave behind as little trace as possible of our visits to South Georgia and Antarctica. From Rob, Tom, Conrad, and Jim, we learned about the geology, seals, and bird life of South Georgia and the Scotia Sea, and from T.H. about Shackleton’s finest hour, the Nimrod expedition. Later, we disinfected all of our outdoor gear to minimize the risk of introducing seeds of alien plants into the pristine wilderness of South Georgia. On our second day at sea, we spooted the jagged rock pinnacles of Shag Rocks, home to a thousand pairs of imperial (blue-eyed) shags. We also saw black-browed and wandering albatross soaring around us, as well as humpback, fin, and minke whales.

Blue skies and bright sunshine greeted us as we arrived off King Edward Point, and cruised via Zodiac to the old whaling station of Grytviken. The story of this industry in South Georgia is told in the wonderful little museum, run by the South Georgia Heritage Trust. We also heard about the trust’s recent rat-eradication program; it was so successful, the numbers of the endemic South Georgia pipit have boosted and are now often seen in many more places than before!

We made a pilgrimage to the grave of Sir Ernest Shackleton who lies in the whaler’s cemetery at Grytviken, and toasted his memory with Irish whisky. As we sailed out from Grytviken, we had stunningly clear views of the high snowy mountains of the Allardyce Range; but by the time we had sailed around to Fortuna Bay, the sky was overcast and the clouds were descending upon the mountains. Some of us landed at the head of the bay and hiked across the outwash plain of the Konig Glacier to a colony of king penguins and their chicks, the woolly oakum boys, and enjoyed great views of the endemic South Georgia pipit. Others hiked up and over a high pass and down near a waterfall into a broad valley, ending at the old whaling station of Stromness. These were the last few miles of the route taken by Shackleton, Crean, and Worsley as they crossed the mountainous interior of South Georgia in 1916 to seek help from the Stromness whalers for the rescue of the men marooned on Elephant Island. Dressed in our high-tech clothing and boots, we were in awe of the courage, fortitude, and tenacity of Shackleton and his companions who made this journey a hundred years ago.

 

Saturday, January 14 - Gold Harbour / Drygalski Fjord

With winds rising and the weather changing, we headed down to the south end of the island for an early morning landing at Gold Harbour, an amphitheater of high mountains and hanging glaciers. The beach was packed with wildlife—huge elephant seals lazed in heaps on the sands, while fur seals and their pups frolicked in the surf right at our landing site; penguins, both gentoo and king, strolled back and forth between their colonies and the sea; and skuas and giant petrels patrolled the shore in search of the weak, dying, and dead.

A short walk soon brought us to the spectacle of tens of thousands of king penguins and their brown woolly chicks packed densely on the beach, and we wondered how the adults ever managed to find their own chicks in this raucous melée.

The weather continued to worsen, and rain gave way to sleet as the temperature dropped. It was time to head back on board to the comfort of our ship. Seeking shelter, we found it in deep, narrow Drygalski Fjord on the southern tip of the island. Our captain navigated us carefully to the head of the fjord where the Risting Glacier descended from the Salvesen Range to the shore. Around us, brash ice and growlers, broken from the glacier, sizzled and crackled in the water as ancient air trapped in the ice escaped. Amongst the birds around us—snowy sheathbills and cape petrels—we were delighted to see that distinctive bird of the ice, the beautiful snow petrel.

Late in the afternoon we thought we might manage a Zodiac cruise at Cooper Bay in the hope of seeing macaroni penguins, but the high sea swell defeated us; we were content with some views of the penguins in the water near our ship.

 

Sunday, January 15 - South Georgia

As a storm was approaching from the south, we remained in the lee of the island today, sailing along the north coast and sheltering in the Bay of Isles. Conrad entertained and informed us with his talk on spineless wonders, the invertebrates which are often overlooked but which are such an important part of the marine ecosystem. When we could, we went out on deck where Antarctic prions, white-chinned petrels, and light-mantled sooty albatross were flying effortlessly around us into gale-force winds, and Antarctic fur seals popped up around the ship to see what we were up to.

Still the wind blew and we all developed a distinct list to starboard; it became clear that a hoped-for Zodiac cruise would be impossible in these conditions. So it was back into the lounge where naturalist Peter Wilson told us about the gruesome history of whaling in South Georgia and the Southern Ocean. After dinner, we left the shelter of South Georgia and launched out into the Scotia Sea, our destination—Elephant Island!

 

Monday - Wednesday, January 16 - 18 - At Sea / Elephant Island

Our two days at sea gave us the opportunity to sort and label our South Georgia pictures, do laundry, and prepare for the next stage of our trip. We were informed and entertained by our expedition staff, learning about the last expedition of Edward Wilson and Captain Scott from T.H., Antarctic ice from Tom and Rob, penguins from Jim, and maritime navigation from Rich Jacoby. Meanwhile, through the lounge windows we watched showers of horizontal snow swirling past. When conditions permitted, the hardy among us ventured outside and were fortunate to catch a sighting of the Kerguelen petrel, rarely seen in this area, many soft-plummaged petrels, and even our first sighting of long-finned pilot whales.

On our third morning we awoke with the Ocean Diamond sitting off Point Wild, the bleak headland on the spectacular north coast of Elephant Island where Shackleton’s men were marooned for over four months through the winter of 1916. Out on deck, we wrapped up well to keep out the katabatic winds that hurtled down off the Furness Glacier, with windchill taking the temperature down to 16ºF (-12ºC)—and this was summer! Our captain positioned our ship within the mouth of West Bay to give us a good view of this wild and exposed point before taking us along the coast to see more of the stunning scenery of this remote island. We enjoyed views of chinstrap penguins hitching a ride on lovely icebergs, as well as observations of fin and sei whales. Most memorable was a close view of a pod of orca against the backdrop of the rugged coastline of Elephant Island.

Continuing on our way towards the Antarctic Peninsula, Expedition Leader Dan Olsen described his research into different groups of killer whales, and later, Tom gave us an outline of the geology of the Peninsula.

 

Thursday, January 19 - Deception Island / Livingston Island

We were up on deck early this morning as we sailed through Neptune’s Bellows, the narrow entrance channel to Deception Island’s natural harbor, Port Foster. In the cold, clear early morning air, the hot springs created an eerie mist along the black sand shores of Whalers’ Bay. Ashore, we had the opportunity to explore the old British base and the remains from the whaling days, as well as hiking up to Neptune’s Window, a gap in the cliffs which gave us a view across the Bransfield Strait to the icy mountains of the Peninsula. Some kayaked through the Bellows to see the cliffs from below.

Over lunch we sailed over to Livingston Island for a landing at Hannah Point where giant petrels nest amongst a colony of chinstrap and gentoo penguins and smelly heaps of elephant seals; some of us even saw a macaroni penguin! Afterwards we cruised via Zodiac across to the fresh air of Walker Bay where petrified wood and fern plant fossils testify to a once-warmer and forested Antarctic Peninsula. Modern plants were present too—scattered small green clusters of the only two species of flowering plants found in Antarctica today, Antarctic hairgrass and Antarctic pearlwort.

 

Friday, January 20 - Portal Point, Antarctic Peninsula / Wilhelmina Bay

A perfect day for our continental landing—deep blue skies and bright sunshine welcomed us to Portal Point on the Antarctic Peninsula. Landing on pink granite rocks, many of us stood, for the first time, on our seventh continent. We hiked up a snowy slope onto a small headland with stunning views across beautiful iceberg-packed Charlotte Bay to the high plateau of the Peninsula beyond, its dark rocks cut by massive glaciers. Zodiac cruising and kayaking amongst the icebergs in these conditions was truly memorable.

How rapidly conditions change here in Antarctica! For our afternoon Zodiac cruise in nearby Wilhelmina Bay, low, thick clouds obscured the sun and a cold wind blew through the bay. This was soon forgotten in the thrill of stepping out of our Zodiacs onto last winter’s fast ice, still attached to the glaciers and shore of Pelseneer Island, and sharing the ice with Weddell and crabeater seals.

 

Saturday, January 21 - Port Lockroy / Cuverville Island

We arrived this morning at Port Lockroy where a member of the team at the old British base, now run as a museum by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust, came on board to tell us about the history of the site and their work here. But our visit was not to be; winds strengthened and snow blew horizontally and it was clear that a Zodiac ride to shore would be out of the question.

So we sailed north through the Neumayer Channel and across a bumpy Gerlache Strait to Errera Channel, where we found some shelter in the lee of the Arçtowski Peninsula for a landing at Cuverville Island. This was our first large gentoo penguin colony and it was both fun and wonderful to watch them clamber up and down steep snow and rock slopes to reach nests high on the slopes above the beach. We were also treated to good views of a leopard seal and close encounters with humpback whales feeding in the waters of the bay.

Taking advantage of the long hours of daylight, Dan organized an after-dinner Zodiac cruise amongst the icebergs and spectacular glacier scenery at Neko Harbour in Andvord Bay.

 

Sunday, January 22 - Lemaire Channel / Paradise Harbour

By breakfast we were at the north end of the Lemaire Channel with the mountains of Humphries Heights on the Peninsula and Booth Island rising steeply on both sides into the clouds. Ahead, the narrow channel was choked with large icebergs blown in by the northerly winds. To enter would have risked being trapped should the ice shift, so we admired from afar and turned north from this, our southernmost point, 65º 04’S.

As we sailed out through Butler Passage, our (appropriately) eagle-eyed ornithologist Jim spotted a group of humpback whales which passed very close to our ship and gave us a wonderful view as each of them in turn raised their tail flukes and dove. After passing through Ferguson Channel into the beautifully quiet waters of Paradise Harbour, it was the turn of some 31 hardy souls among us to make the polar plunge into the icy 33ºF waters.

After lunch, under blue skies and sunshine, we hiked at the Argentinian Brown Station and kayaked and cruised via Zodiac amongst the stunning glacier and mountain scenery of Paradise Harbour. We celebrated our spectacular last day in our Antarctic paradise with a BBQ dinner—complete with humpback whales blowing not too far off!—and prepared to say goodbye to this unique continent as we set out into the infamous Drake Passage.

 

Monday & Tuesday, January 23 & 24 - Drake Passage

The Drake gave us a little bit of rock and roll overnight, but otherwise the seas for our crossing were almost disappointingly undramatic. Indoors, we were informed and entertained by our expedition staff: Conrad described the Southern Ocean whaling industry and the art of scrimshaw of which he is a fine exponent; T.H. told us of the adventurous life of Roald Amundsen, man of both poles; and Rob spoke of Palm Trees and Ice: What’s Up with Global Warming? Dan, along with Nate Christensen, helped us plot our voyage onto our maps, and we enjoyed an entertaining auction to raise funds for the South Georgia Heritage Trust Habitat Restoration Project. Outside, we were treated to great views of almost countless black-browed albatross and a group of Peale’s dolphins riding our bow-wave, particularly around Cape Horn to which, by special permission of the Chilean authorities, we were able to approach within three nautical miles.

With this busy program, our crossing of the Drake passed quickly and it was soon time to get into our smart clothes for the captain’s farewell reception and dinner; it seemed like no time at all since the welcome reception! After dinner, we gathered in the lounge to watch Jim’s wonderful slideshow review of our Antarctic adventure.

 

Wednesday, January 25 - Ushuaia, Argentina / Disembark / Buenos Aires / USA

Overnight we sailed the length of the Beagle Channel and by this bright and sunny morning had arrived back in Ushuaia, having sailed over 3,550 nautical miles. Sadly, now it was time to bid farewell to our fellow travelers—our new friends—as we dispersed to our homes, all now ambassadors for the white continent.

 

 

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