AFSG1901 Field Report

2019 Antarctica, South Georgia & the Falkland Islands Field Report

Tom Sharpe|March 29, 2019|Field Report

Saturday, January 26, 2019
Ushuaia, Argentina / Embark Island Sky

Having arrived at the Arakur Hotel & Resort in Ushuaia the day before, and caught up on at least some sleep overnight, we set out this morning to explore Tierra del Fuego National Park. Guided by our ornithologist, Jim Wilson, our birders were first out, keen to find their target species, the Magellanic woodpecker. In this they were more than successful, spotting five, both males and females. Meanwhile, the rest of us boarded a catamaran and sailed the Beagle Channel towards the national park. En route we visited several small rocky islands, home to South American sea lions, imperial and rock cormorants (or shags), and South American terns.

Disembarking in the national park at Lapataia Bay, we enjoyed lunch and walking trails through the southern beech forest with views of the Beagle Channel and Lago Roca before heading back to Ushuaia by bus. Awaiting us there was our home for the next few weeks, the Island Sky. Once settled in our cabins, we went out on deck to watch the lines being cast off and we sailed out into the Beagle Channel. Our Antarctic adventure had begun!

Sunday, January 27
At Sea

Our day at sea began with Jim introducing us to the birds of the Falkland Islands, and preparing us for our upcoming wildlife encounters. In fact, some of these birds, like the black-browed albatross, had already been seen off the stern of our ship this morning. Continuing our lecture program, Stanford faculty member Liz Hadly gave us some geological background to Antarctica as a bridge to the southern continents, a result of it having been the keystone of the ancient supercontinent of Gondwana. After lunch, our Expedition Leader Dan Olsen briefed us on our Zodiac operations and how we safely get ashore in the remote places we will be visiting. Our afternoon closed with marine biologist Madalena Patacho and her presentation on the whales of the Southern Ocean, which we hope to see.

Soon it was time to bring out our gladrags and dress for the captain’s welcome reception and dinner, hosted by Captain Ulf-Peter Lindstrom.

Monday, January 28
West Point Island, Falkland Islands / Grave Cove

This morning we awoke with the hilly islands of the Falklands around us and soon we were anchored off West Point Island. We were welcomed by Allan and Jackie who live here and then set off for the bird colony on the other side of the island. Some took lifts in Allan’s Land Rover, while many of us walked, some taking a longer route via the summit of Mount Ararat, an 800-foot hill on the west side of the island. We were treated to wonderfully close views of black-browed albatross and rockhopper penguins, both species with large chicks, nesting within the tall mounds of tussock grass.

After lunch back on board and a short repositioning of the Island Sky, we disembarked this afternoon at Grave Cove, a small white sand bay on the far northwest tip of West Falkland, one of the two main islands of the archipelago. This part of West Falkland is a farm the size of Paris, with 4,500 sheep and a human population of just two. We were met by the owners who accompanied us on a short walk across an isthmus to the site of a large colony of gentoo penguins. The beach was a busy place, with much penguiny coming and going, the clear sea giving us great views of the agility of the penguins under water. Dolphin gulls and striated caracaras harassed the returning gentoo adults as they tried to feed their chicks, hoping for a spilled meal of regurgitated krill.

Our first expedition day had been a great success; not only with some wonderful wildlife viewing but also the warm, sunny weather which had many (but not all!) of us reaching for the sunblock.

Tuesday, January 29      

The good weather continued today as we sailed into Stanley Harbor in the morning and set out early on our various walks and tours. First to leave were our nature trekkers who, with our naturalists and local guides, hiked a trail on the east side of the harbor around Engineer Point to Gypsy Cove. We saw a number of the local birds, including Magellanic oystercatcher, snipe, and penguin, as well as crested duck, turkey vulture, and two-banded plover in addition to some of the local flora such as diddle-dee, sea cabbage, and the endemic Falklands woolly daisy. We finished at the beautiful curving white-sand beach at Yorke Bay, sadly out of bounds due to Argentine landmines, a legacy of the 1982 invasion.

Meanwhile, some of us toured the highlights of Stanley, taking in the cathedral, the memorial to the 1982 conflict, and Government House before visiting the excellent museum. We returned to the Island Sky and set sail over lunch for our two-day passage to South Georgia. In the afternoon, we spent time on deck scanning for wildlife with our naturalists.

Our afternoon was brought to a close by a presentation from our historian, Caroline Barrie-Smith, recounting the background to, and the events of, the 1982 Falkland conflict between Britain and Argentina.

Wednesday, January 30
At Sea

Now well out into the Scotia Sea this morning en route to South Georgia, we enjoyed some fine views of some of the great seabirds of the Southern Ocean as giant and other petrels and wandering albatross soared above the waves in the wake of our ship. Our program of talks began with Mike Stewart’s fascinating explanation of the navigational techniques of the early polar explorers, some still in use today. Next up was our geologist Tom Sharpe who introduced us to the formation of the Scotia Sea and the geology of South Georgia. The start of Tom’s talk was delayed by a great sighting of a southern right whale and its distinctive V-shaped blow.

Following lunch, Dan explained the regulations and guidelines agreed by the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators for our visit to the white continent, after which we checked out and cleaned our backpacks and clothing ahead of our landings in South Georgia. The afternoon ended with Madalena’s presentation on seals and sea lions and their adaptations to the cold.

Thursday, January 31
At Sea

Continuing towards South Georgia, overnight we had crossed the major oceanographic boundary of the Southern Ocean, the Antarctic Convergence, where cold Antarctic waters meet the warmer waters of the Atlantic, so today the air was noticeably cooler. Off our stern were petrels, wandering albatross, and southern royal albatross, and we also had sightings of humpback whales.

Our lecture program began today with Liz’s presentation, Life on the Coldest Continent, where she described the severe constraints on the organisms which live in this region. Later this morning, Jim spoke to us on the lives of the birds we are likely to see on South Georgia, highlighting the nesting wandering albatross and the large numbers of king penguins, as well as the endemic South Georgia pintail and pipit, the most southerly songbird in the world.

Our first sighting of land came at lunchtime when Shag Rocks, a group of jagged islands, came into view. Stained white with the guano of the shags which nest on the rocks, these pinnacles are part of a large submerged block of continental rocks along the North Scotia Ridge. As we circled Shag Rocks, numerous whale blows caught our attention and so we went to take look. We were excited, not only to have wonderful views of fin whales, but also of two blue whales, perhaps a mother and calf, the largest animals on the planet.

This afternoon, Dan took us through the stringent biosecurity measures required by the South Georgia Government for us to be allowed to land. Great efforts are being made to eliminate the risk of further invasive plant species reaching South Georgia, so we vacuumed and washed all of our gear in preparation for our first landing tomorrow morning.

Friday, February 1
Elsehul, South Georgia / Prion Island / Salisbury Plain

Arriving at South Georgia early this morning, we climbed into our Zodiacs for a cruise in the sheltered bay of Elsehul. Amongst the tussock grass on the steep slopes here is a colony of macaroni penguins. From our boats we were amused to see them clamber up and down the rocks to and from the sea. Also around the bay are nesting black-browed, gray-headed, and light-mantled sooty albatross.

Sailing farther down the coast of South Georgia, we made a landing on little Prion Island where we ascended a boardwalk trail to a viewing platform where we could appreciate the huge size of the nesting wandering albatross, which we had previously seen only from the stern of the ship.

Across from Prion, we went ashore at Salisbury Plain, a wide flat outwash plain in front of several glaciers, to visit a large colony of at least 80,000 pairs of king penguins, a remarkable increase from the 350 pairs recorded here by the American ornithologist Robert Cushman Murphy a hundred years ago.

Saturday, February 2
Fortuna Bay / Stromness / Grytviken

Having anchored overnight in the shelter of Fortuna Bay, we awoke to a fine day with the morning sun catching the icy mountains around us. We set out early for an easy walk on the grassy outwash plain of the Konig Glacier at the head of Fortuna Bay. Here we viewed a large colony of king penguins and were simultaneously both amused and disgusted by the belching and snorting of around 60 elephant seals wriggling in their wallow of fetid mud.

In May 1916, Shackleton, Crean, and Worsley descended to this plain on their way across the island to seek rescue for their stranded companions on Elephant Island. Their route continued eastwards across a high pass towards the whaling station of Stromness. This was the route that a group of 20 of us were to follow today. Dropped by Zodiac on Worsley Beach, we clambered steeply up through fur-seal-infested tussock grass and onto a long ridge of broken rock rising to a thousand feet, with spectacular views of the rugged glaciated peaks of the island’s interior. Broaching the summit of the pass, we shared Shackleton’s view down a beautiful valley to the now-abandoned and ruined whaling station where lay rescue for the Endurance men, a century ago, and where a comfortable ship, repositioned from Fortuna Bay, awaited us. A steep descent on loose scree brought us to the head of the valley and to the foot of a waterfall through which Shackleton, Crean, and Worsley had lowered themselves on ropes.

Over lunch we sailed the short distance along the coast to the sheltered harbor of Grytviken. Our first stop was the small cemetery, which is the final resting place of Sir Ernest Shackleton who died on board his ship, the Quest, in this bay in January 1922. We gathered around his grave and toasted the memory of this great explorer before strolling round the bay to the old whaling station and its excellent museum.

Sunday, February 3
Gold Harbour / St. Andrews Bay / Drygalski Fjord

Gently falling snow gave a light dusting of white powder to the mountains around us as we made our dawn landing at Gold Harbour. Large elephant seals lay scattered around the beach, occasionally rousing themselves to lurch forward a few feet or to begin a joust with a neighbor before flopping back down to snooze. All along the beach, thousands of king penguins were waking up, stretching and calling, while brown skuas strutted amongst them looking for anything that might be breakfast. At the far end of the beach a steep cliff face held the hanging Bertrab Glacier, which just 30 years ago had reached to the shore.

Over brunch, the Island Sky repositioned north along the coast to St. Andrews Bay. A short walk across glacial moraines took us to a viewpoint overlooking the largest king penguin colony in South Georgia and the second largest in the world. Three glaciers—Heaney, Buxton, and Crook—descend from the high mountains here, but no longer meet the coast.

Our final call on South Georgia lay at the southeastern tip of the island, so we turned in that direction and sailed into the stunning glaciated mountain scenery of Drygalski Fjord. The bare rock sides of the fjord rose straight out of the water, which was speckled by blocks of brash ice and growlers, several carrying reptile-like leopard seals. Leaving the fjord, we spotted a huge tabular iceberg to the southeast. Over three miles across, it is one of the last fragments of iceberg B15 which broke off the Ross Ice Shelf on the far side of Antarctica 19 years ago. 

Monday & Tuesday, February 4 & 5      
At Sea

Two days’ sail took us from South Georgia to Elephant Island across the Southern Ocean, effectively following the route of Shackleton’s James Caird in reverse. These sea days gave us the opportunity to gather our thoughts on what we’d seen so far, and sort and label our many photographs, deal with laundry, and prepare ourselves for the next stage of our expedition—the white continent itself. Presentations from our expedition staff allowed us to arrive knowledgeable and ready to make the most of our visit to Antarctica. First up was Tom, who introduced us to Antarctica and its ice sheets, followed by Jim, who told us all about penguins. Caroline completed today’s talks with the tale of two small boats, the James Caird and the Alexandra Shackleton, the latter a reproduction of the former and used on a recent recreation of Shackleton’s epic voyage.

The next day rolling seas with 16-foot-swells made for a bumpy crossing, and the roughest we had yet experienced as we sailed southwest into the prevailing winds and current of the Southern Ocean. Our lecture program continued with a presentation by Stanford faculty lecturer Tony Barnosky on Antarctica in the Anthropocene, highlighting the continent’s important contribution to our knowledge of how global climate is currently changing. We enjoyed a movie afternoon with a showing of Shackleton’s Voyage of the Endurance, an award-winning documentary written and produced by one of our fellow-travelers on board, Sarah Holt, and finished the day with a talk by Madalena on marine life of the Southern Ocean.

Wednesday, February 6 
Point Wild, Elephant Island

By breakfast time this morning, we had Elephant Island off our port side, low cloud hanging on its dark, icy cliffs. A thin veil of cloud lay along the shore as we sailed the north coast from Cape Valentine to Point Wild, as the Endurance crew had done in 1916. Arriving at Point Wild, our ship sheltered in the lee of Cape Belsham with views of the active front of the Furness Glacier calving icebergs at the back of West Bay. We took to the Zodiacs for a close-up view of Point Wild, now inhabited by fur seals and chinstrap penguins. Nothing remains of the Snuggery, the overturned boats where 22 of Shackleton’s men spent four-and-a-half months through the winter of 1916, but our expedition staff pointed out where the camp had been situated.

Back on board, we sailed east along the north coast of Elephant Island and rounded Cape Valentine, the site of the Endurance crew’s first landfall, and continued southwest towards the Antarctic Peninsula.

In the afternoon, Tom outlined the geological history of the Peninsula and prepared us for the kinds of rocks and scenery we would see there. Later, Jim told us about a forgotten Antarctic explorer, Edward Bransfield, an Irishman in the British Royal Navy, who was the first to see the Peninsula in 1820.

Thursday, February 7
Hughes Bay, Antarctica / Portal Point / Wilhelmina Bay

Overnight, we sailed the length of the Bransfield Strait which separates the South Shetland Islands from the Antarctic Peninsula, so we awoke this morning at about 64°S, off Trinity Island. Our planned Zodiac cruise was postponed by too much swell, so we went in search of a more sheltered site, spotting numerous humpback whales on the way. Our expedition leader found us an ideal cruising location around Sprightly Island in Hughes Bay, a location new to our whole expedition team. Here we enjoyed sailing around large grounded icebergs with a backdrop of ice-covered mountains rising around the wide Cayley Glacier with the plateau of the Peninsula visible in the background.

Continuing down the Gerlache Strait, we headed for our first landing on the white continent. We went ashore at Portal Point, a site which provided access to the Peninsula Plateau for explorers in the 1950s, and hiked around the snow-covered headland with 360° views of beautiful Charlotte Bay and its mountains and glaciers under blue skies and brilliant sunshine. Below us, icebergs carried crabeater seals while a humpback whale drifted slowly past.

After dinner, we took advantage of our long hours of daylight and set out in our Zodiacs in search of whales in Wilhelmina Bay. We were rewarded with numerous humpbacks lunge feeding with a background of a glorious Antarctic sunset. A perfect end to a perfect Antarctic day! 

Friday, February 8
Neko Harbour / Paradise Harbour

This morning, we sailed into the spectacular Andvord Bay for a landing at Neko Harbour. We went ashore at a gentoo penguin colony and climbed up for wonderful views of the gentoos with icy mountains and glaciers behind. In the distance, Mount Francais rose to 9,000 feet on nearby Anvers Island. Cruising by Zodiac gave us close-up encounters with a minke whale which swam directly beneath one of our boats.

Over lunch, we slowly navigated our way through the ice of Andvord Bay, past the Chilean base of Gonzalez Videla, and into adjacent Paradise Harbour for a stop at the Argentine Brown Base. Landing here, we were greeted by station personnel before we set off for either a short walk or a longer, steeper hike up a slope to a rocky peak with stunning views of this beautiful place.

While we had dinner, the Island Sky navigated her way out of Paradise Harbour across the Gerlache Strait and south through the Neumayer Channel to spend the night in the shelter of Port Lockroy, our first stop tomorrow.

Saturday, February 9
Port Lockroy / Torgersen Island

The historic site of Bransfield House at Port Lockroy was this morning’s highlight. The oldest British building on the Peninsula, it was the first of a number of bases established in a secret operation during the Second World War. Surrounded by high mountains and set on a small island within a gentoo penguin colony, Bransfield House has been restored by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust to how it looked when it was an active research base in the 1950s. The Trust also runs a small gift shop and post office, so we took the opportunity for some retail therapy and to send postcards home. We were also able to spend some time at another gentoo colony a short Zodiac ride away at Jougla Point.

Once back on board, some three dozen hardy souls then went overboard, taking the Polar Plunge to discover that Antarctic waters are indeed just as cold as the expedition team said they were. Taking advantage of the fine weather and stunning scenery around us, the ship’s hotel department arranged a BBQ on the lido deck during which we were visited by the Island Sky’s sister ship, Hebridean Sky, which sailed alongside us briefly. Then, with the sounding of horns, the sisters parted company and we set out into the Bismarck Strait for our next stop.

Torgersen Island is one of a number of small islands scattered around Arthur Harbour close to the US Antarctic Program’s Palmer Station at the southern tip of Anvers Island. Our hope here was to see another species of penguin, the Adélie, a true Antarctic penguin, and it was fulfilled. The Adélie colonies on Torgersen have been studied by Palmer scientists for many years and part of the island has restricted access because of this. Nevertheless, we had good views of the penguins and their chicks and their comings and goings. From Torgersen’s highest point—only 55 feet above sea level—we had clear views south along the Antarctic Peninsula to Renaud Island, some 60 miles away.

Leaving Torgersen, we headed back towards the Peninsula and turned south to the famous Lemaire Channel, a narrow passage between Booth Island and the Peninsula. Precipitous peaks rose above us at the northern end of the channel, which we could see was blocked by icebergs. This was our farthest south, 65° 01’ S, and to celebrate the setting sun gave us a long, lingering and colorful performance before we finally turned north.

Sunday, February 10
Cuverville Island

Overnight we returned northeast along the Peninsula coast for an early-morning landing on Cuverville Island. We had our final fix of all that makes Antarctica special—mountains, glaciers, icebergs, the cold, and, of course, penguins, with the occasional snow flurry to add extra seasoning. We watched the gentoos and their chicks on their rocky nests and adults waddling up and down their highways worn deep into the snow as they wandered from colony to sea and back. Groups of penguins hesitated on the shore before popping into the water, clearly conscious of the earlier presence of a leopard seal patrolling just offshore. Meanwhile, Zodiacs returning to the Island Sky were delayed by a playful humpback whale swimming, rolling, and slapping its pectoral fin on the sea surface close to the hull of our ship.

Our visit to Cuverville put us in a perfect position for our departure from Antarctica, our captain’s strategy being to take us out into the Drake Passage to get ahead of a looming weather system. So we set course across the Gerlache Strait and into the Schollaert Channel between Brabant Island and Anvers Island, passing through the wonderful scenery we had come to expect of Antarctica. The sun shone, the icy mountains sparkled, and we enjoyed the shelter of Anvers Island while we took our last looks at the white continent. As we sailed out past the Melchior Islands into wide Dallmann Bay, we became more exposed to the westerly winds and the ship began to rock and roll in 20-foot seas and winds of Beaufort force 8. We were in the infamous Drake Passage.

Monday & Tuesday, February 11 & 12
Drake Passage

Overnight the seas had decreased a little, and we were able to move around the ship with slightly less chance of falling. Our day began with Tom presenting an overview of Antarctic exploration and science from the time of Captain Cook’s crossing of the Antarctic Circle to Scott’s last expedition. Later in the day, Liz continued her talk on Antarctica in the Anthropocene with a presentation on how much humans are impacting what appears to be a pristine environment in Antarctica, giving us much food for thought.

Apart from these, today was largely a rest day, a time to catch up on sleep and laundry, writing our journals, sorting our photographs, thinking about packing, and reflecting on our journey. Before dinner we were entertained by our expedition team’s performance in a round of Liars Club, making use of Antarctic terminology. Some of the team were such good liars we began to doubt some of the things they had told us during voyage.

After a bumpy night approaching Cape Horn where winds were gusting to over 50 knots at midnight, we awoke this morning in the lee of Tierra del Fuego and in calmer waters at the entrance to the Beagle Channel. Dan kept us entertained this morning with a presentation about his research entitled Mom Knows Best: Killer Whale Culture. After lunch, our expedition staff presented a light-hearted final recap of the trip and this was followed by Jim’s fun slideshow of our Antarctic expedition, reminding us of all the wonderful times we had together on our voyage and bringing our expedition to a fitting conclusion.

During the day, the westerly wind had strengthened, making docking in Ushuaia a challenge for our bridge team, but they were successful at the second attempt and brought us alongside. This allowed us to pack at leisure and to enjoy some time ashore in the bright lights of Ushuaia.

Wednesday, February 13      
Ushuaia, Argentina / Disembark

This morning it was time to say goodbye to our ship, the Island Sky, and to our many new friends with which we had shared this memorable trip and to begin our long journeys home. We had experienced the wildness, remoteness, and splendor of the unique white continent of Antarctica; we have our photographs and our memories and the lingering odor of penguin poo on our parkas.

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