Gold Harbour

Antarctica, South Georgia & the Falkland Islands

Mark Brazil|February 28, 2018|Field Report

Friday, January 5, 2018
Ushuaia, Argentina
We gathered, from around the world, at the Arakur Resort & Spa, for a welcome reception and dinner in the company of our Zegrahm Expeditions expedition leader Dan Olsen, cruise director Kelsey Simmons, and our enthusiastic team of expedition staff. The reception room was soon buzzing with conversation and anticipation of our exciting voyage—South!

Saturday, January 6
Ushuaia, Argentina / Embark Island Sky
We woke this morning to beautiful, partly sunny skies and panoramic views out across the Beagle Channel from our lofty resort. Most of us spent the morning on board a local boat, taking a scenic wildlife-watching excursion along the Beagle Channel, followed by walks beside delightful lakes and rivers of stunning Tierra del Fuego National Park. Our boat journey was enhanced by sightings of southern sea lions hauled out on several rock outcroppings; the huge males with their massive heads stood out significantly among the more common females and large pups of the year.
Meanwhile, those keen on birds made an early start for a land excursion through the national park and came back thrilled with numerous avian sightings, but most especially of the magnificent Magellanic woodpecker, the sometimes-elusive spectacled duck, and the magnificent Andean condor.

Our various excursions and adventures ended at Ushuaia port and soon we were settling in on board the lovely Island Sky, becoming accustomed to our vessel, meeting her crew, and enjoying the spectacular scenery as we sailed away down the Beagle Channel bound for the Falkland Islands.

Sunday & Monday, January 7 & 8
At Sea / New Island, Falkland Islands / Saunders Island
A busy first day at sea began with an introduction to our flagship “University at Sea” program, which included lectures from ornithologist Jim Wilson, Birds of the Falkland Islands, Susan Solomon of MIT, Climate and Climate Change Impacts in Antarctica, and naturalist Rich Pagen, Poised to Profit from Pelagic Productivity: Cetaceans of the Southern Oceans. Meanwhile, out on deck naturalists were spotting albatross, shearwaters, petrels, and penguins, along with a flurry of cetaceans including hourglass and Peale’s dolphins and several sei and fin whales. Our fin whale sighting was fantastically memorable as with 15 to 20 animals in view we were treated to sightings of lots of blows, saw several of them lunge funding, and were close enough at times to hear them exhaling as they surfaced! This evening Captain Andrey Rudenko welcomed us formally to his vessel, with a reception and welcome dinner.

A calm transit overnight allowed us to arrive early at the Falkland Islands, meaning we were able to make two landings! In between, we continued our lecture series with ornithologist Mark Brazil’s workshop Getting More from your Smartphone Camera.

As we made our first Zodiac journey to land on New Island, we were welcomed ashore by smartly plumaged kelp geese and loudly piping Magellanic oystercatchers. A short hike over the short-cropped turf of the island and up towards the cliffs at the far side took us to a fabulous mixed colony of black-browed albatross, southern rockhopper penguin, and imperial shag. We observed their varied and fascinating breeding behaviors, while amongst the rockhoppers we found a single macaroni penguin.

Later, on Saunders Island, we were greeted by several cheeky striated caracara at the landing site, strolled past nesting gentoo penguins, walked on uphill passing burrowing Magellanic penguins, and reached our destination—an overlook commanding spectacular views of the island with an albatross and rockhopper penguin colony in the foreground.

Following our excursions, we met the expedition team for our first (of many) cocktail hour recap of the voyage, during which team members talked about aspects of the voyage that had struck them so far and answered questions before Dan gave us a briefing about the day ahead.

Tuesday, January 9
Overnight we repositioned from the small islands of the western part of the Falkland archipelago to Stanley, the islands’ capital, which is situated near the extreme eastern tip of East Falkland Island. On a warm sunny day we chose optional excursions and explored the town of Stanley, with its quaint, rural English atmosphere, strolled the waterfront to the museum, or joined nature treks into the surrounding countryside, admiring the scenery, the spring flowers, and the local birdlife.

After our morning excursions we relaxed on board as we sailed for our next destination—South Georgia. In the late afternoon our historian T.H. Baughman entertained us with his stirring tale of Shackleton’s epic adventure in The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.

Wednesday & Thursday, January 10 & 11
At Sea
On the first of our two days at sea while cruising to South Georgia, we continued our lecture series with Mark talking about What it Means to be a Seabird, Tom Sharpe, our geologist, talking about Rolling Back the Scotia Sea, and Rich Pagen talking on the topic of Fur, Blubber, and General Lounging Around: Seals of the South. Then, after an early dinner, we embarked on the first part of the two-part movie epic Shackleton.

Our voyage bound for South Georgia continued overnight, and all day, in wonderfully fine weather and surprisingly calm seas. Not wishing to waste an opportunity to hear from our learned expedition team, we began the day with a lecture by Susan about her research Ozone Depletion: An Antarctic Science and Policy Success Story. That was followed by Jim Wilson, on The Birds of South Georgia. In the afternoon, Dan introduced us to the importance of biosecurity when traveling to and between remote islands, which was the lead-in to our afternoon’s activity which involved vacuuming out our packs and pockets, cleaning seeds from our Velcro fasteners, and cleaning our shore boots with disinfectant to ensure that we were not agents of dispersal of unwanted alien species to South Georgia. We were rewarded for our efforts with a brief view of Shag Rock, which loomed out of the fog long enough for us to make a circumnavigation and to see the jagged guano-covered peaks speckled with imperial shags. This was followed by watching the second part of Shackleton.

Friday, January 12
Elsehul, South Georgia / Prion Island / Salisbury Plain
A foggy dawn, along with heavy swell, greeted us on our first day in South Georgia. Undeterred, our expedition team nosed their Zodiacs up to the marina deck and at 05:00 we scrambled aboard for a memorable cruise around Elsehul. This small bay entertained us with macaroni penguins coming and going from their steep hillside colony, black-browed and gray-headed albatross gliding circuits as they approached and left their nests partly hidden in the tussock grasses on the slopes above us, and light-mantled albatross cruising overhead.

Later, we found ourselves at Prion Island enjoying fine weather. Our late-morning excursion was a combination of a Zodiac cruise and a walk ashore on Prion Island, dodging feisty Antarctic fur seals to hike to see the wandering albatross nesting in the tussock on the top of the island. The views from there were spectacular—across to the mainland of South George with its rugged peaks and glaciers—while right before us were several serene-looking, albatross incubating on their nests. It is so difficult to judge the size of these birds when watching them from the deck of the ship, but here, ashore on Prion Island, we had a true sense of scale as we watched them through Mark’s telescope, or as they cruised above us on outstretched wings.

The day just kept on getting better and better—in the afternoon, at Salisbury Plain we were treated to another fantastic landing in superb weather conditions. We marveled at the enormous king penguin colony, and watched swaths of birds standing in the streams cooling off as they molted their feather coats. Some of us opted for a longer hike and headed inland with geologist Tom Sharpe to view the glaciated features of the landscape at closer range and to learn how ice has shaped the land here.

Saturday, January 13
Fortuna Bay / Stromness / Grytviken
As we landed at Fortuna Bay on another sunny morning, we were greeted by what appeared to be a very localized flurry of snow. It turned out to be windswept penguin feathers from the innumerable birds inland that were molting their feather coats. Many of us wandered the beach and diverted inland to a delightful king penguin colony, while some opted for a more serious hike. With Tom in the lead, a group of hardy hikers were dropped off across the bay and set off in the footsteps of Shackleton to complete the final part of his famous hike. While the intrepid hikers headed uphill to pass over a rugged ridge, the rest of us re-boarded ship and repositioned round to the old whaling station at Stromness. Arriving there, we could see the hikers making their way down the valley towards us. Zodiacs were sent off and our hikers were soon picked up after their calorie-burning hike. Once all were back on board we set sail again, this time for Grytviken. Meanwhile, we were treated to an excellent presentation by the South Georgia Heritage Trust about their work, and especially their long-term habitat restoration project, which has involved ridding the entire island of reindeer and rats.

Ashore at the remains of the Grytviken whaling station, Tom and T.H. led us in a wonderfully moving toast to Shackleton’s courage and resolve in rescuing all of his men from Elephant Island after their disastrous expedition on board the Endurance, and his epic journey in the James Caird to find help on South Georgia. There was time for us to wander in Grytviken, to dodge the huffing fur seals and spluttering young elephant seals, to spot the endemic South Georgia pintail, and to enjoy the museum, the church, the shop, and the visitor center.

Our action-packed and exciting day was rounded off with a BBQ on the Lido Deck with the scenery of South Georgia as our stunning backdrop.

Sunday, January 14 
Gold Harbour / St. Andrews Bay 
Dan Olsen’s wake-up announcement was quite early again this morning, but eagerly we went ashore by Zodiac to glorious Gold Harbour where we were greeted by a beautiful sunrise, the gorgeous golden morning light illuminating the glacial scenery and hordes of king penguins, fur seals, and elephant seals. A bright rainbow shone out across the stunning scene, and for a while it was even doubled, making this incredible place even more magical. 

During our breakfast on board, we repositioned to extraordinary St. Andrews Bay. In groups we walked up into the low hills to a point looking out across the immensity of the king penguin colony. Measured in hundreds of thousands, there are few sights on Earth as impressive as that which greeted us at the colony. The wonderful crooning, kazoo-like calls of the breeding adult penguins, their antics as they tended their eggs and preened, and the fluffy down-feathered oakum boys were so entertaining it was hard to tear ourselves away. As wind and clouds began building, molted penguin feathers swirled like snow across the beach and the calls of the penguins, the sound of the wind, the huffing of the fur seals, and snorting sounds of the elephant seals made for an amazing soundscape.

Worsening conditions, heavy seas, and winds blasting spray and fog at us meant that we had to abandon plans to ship cruise in Drygalski Fiord. Instead we attended Jim’s lecture The Penguin, and we enjoyed a further recap about South Georgia as we began our journey towards Elephant Island.

Monday & Tuesday, January 15 & 16
At Sea
Heavy seas kept many of us in our cabins throughout the day today, but to entertain those who were up and about, mariner Mike Stewart gave a talk entitled Where the [bleep] are we and What [bleeping] Course should I Steer? Crossing Open Oceans and Polar Icecaps, and T.H. told his tale of The Last Expedition of Edward Wilson and Captain Scott.

Continuing on our journey towards Elephant Island, we listened to more lectures today. First, Mark gave his talk entitled On a Wing and a Prayer: Birds are Marvels of the Air, then Tom talked about Ice: An Introduction to Antarctica. Later, Dan introduced us to Antarctic Biosecurity and once again we went through the process of cleaning our gear and disinfecting our boots in preparation for landings ahead. Susan concluded the more serious aspect of the day with her lecture on Polar Exploration and the Weather.

After dinner, a hilarious time was had by all when geologist Tom donned a very different cap, this time as a jocular and tipsy auctioneer, selling objects ranging from a modest Zodiac-shaped key ring to an excellent bottle of Shackleton Whisky and a splendid, personalized Bruce Pearson print of wildlife on a chart of the region—all of the many items were sold in the excellent cause of raising further funds for the South Georgia Heritage Trust’s habitat restoration project.

Wednesday, January 17
Point Wild, Elephant Island, Antarctica
Through heavy seas and thick fog, we continued our way southwest towards Elephant Island. In the morning, Tom gave his lecture On the Edge of Gondwana: Geology of the Antarctic Peninsula. Then in the late afternoon, the weather cleared and treated us to fantastic views of the strangely named Elephant Island. Some say it is named for elephant seals that were found there in the hey-day of sealing, others say that its name is taken from its shape on the chart resembling an elephant’s head; either way, it is a rugged and inhospitable island and it is amazing that Shackleton’s team of men survived their incarceration there. As we sailed closer we could make out the point (once called Cape Wild) with the Furness Glacier beyond, and from our anchorage in a bay filled with brash ice we could make out the beach where that team had camped, now backed by a monument to Captain Luis Pardo Villalón of the Chilean Navy cutter Yelcho, who effected the rescue of Shackleton’s 22-strong team back on August 30, 1916.

For a brief window conditions seemed suitable for both a Zodiac cruise and a landing. While some made it ashore through rough and worsening conditions, no doubt many wondered how they might return. It was certainly a challenge only made possible by the team working hard in the Zodiacs alongside those ashore working in the rising surf. Others made a Zodiac cruise offshore, and all were entertained by the colony of chinstrap penguins, and by thoughts of, how on earth did Shackleton’s men make it ashore in wooden life boats?

Back on board we were treated to a Filipino Dinner and afterwards a splendid, and delightfully entertaining crew show, during which our bar men, waiters, room stewards, receptionists, and even our safety officer, revealed their hidden talents!

Thursday, January 18
Antarctic Sound
We sailed into the Antarctica Sound on a gorgeously sunny morning. The sound was packed with ice, making our cruise a spectacular one as we admired tabular bergs that dwarfed our vessel, dodged bergs of all shapes and sizes, and marveled at the blueness of the ice deep in the cracks. We were also treated to sightings of our first Adélie penguins. Bringing home the historic nature of the region, we learned that the penguins were named for Adèle Dumont D’Urville, the wife of French explorer Jules Dumont D’Urville. We saw these penguins (first discovered in 1840) just a short distance to the south of the island that now bears D’Urville’s name! We were also fortunate to witness several orca hunting amongst the ice.

Later we boarded our Zodiacs once more and cruised amongst the ice, a very different perspective, and were able to hear how it pops and fizzes as the air bubbles in the ice are released as it melts. Atop various floes we encountered seals and had great luck in approaching both Weddell and leopard seals for photography.

Friday, January 19
Bellingshausen Station, King George Island, South Shetland Islands
From the Antarctic Sound we sailed northwestwards overnight so that a foggy dawn saw us anchored off the Russian Bellingshausen station on King George Island. We spent a fog-shrouded morning ashore at the research base, receiving a warm welcome from the base commander and his staff who gave us an overview of the station and its activities before we set off on various walks. Some hiked across the island to the far side to look for elephant seals, some wandered around the base, visiting the small gathering of gentoo and chinstrap penguins that had gathered on the beach, and many wandered up the hill overlooking the station to visit the tiny Russian Orthodox church situated there. Despite an ongoing service, we were welcomed inside in small respectful groups to breathe in the incense and to admire the beautifully painted screen that divides the congregation from the clergy, but which entertains the eye with lavishly decorated iconography. Down slope from the charming church we encountered our first Antarctic moss and found a nesting colony of incubating Antarctic terns.

Leaving King George Island behind us we set sail into improving weather, heading further southwest down the South Shetland archipelago. On the way Mike explained sailing navigation in his lecture The Ships and how We Maneuvered them During the Age of Sail and Exploration.

Saturday, January 20
Cierva Cove / Portal Point / Wilhelmina Bay
Our day began with a lecture on a historical topic, Edward Bransfield: A Forgotten Antarctic Explorer. After this we were ready for our first activity of the day, a Zodiac cruise in Cierva Cove. There we were entranced by the endless array of icebergs in myriad shapes and shades of blue and white. We were also treated to more views of very confiding leopard seals. Later, at Portal Point, we made a shore landing onto rocks, but hiked up onto a snowy headland overlooking the superb and dramatic scenery of the Antarctic Peninsula. It was the kind of ice-filled view that made a sharp pinch necessary to realize I am here! Down below, we watched icebergs crash and roll, and distant whales blow.

During a late afternoon interlude of a voyage on which we had many whale sightings, Mark gave a thought-provoking lecture on a very different aspect of history, entitled Whaling: The First Global Enterprise.

Never wanting to waste a moment, Dan had his team ready again after dinner and once more we set off in our little fleet of Zodiacs. This time, though the scenery and the ice were again awesome, our focus was on whales! Groups of humpback whales were scattered about Wilhelmina Bay and we were able to follow them discreetly as they went about their business of foraging. We watched entranced as again and again they blew at the surface, raised their tail flukes as they dove, then lunged back to the surface with their great throats bulging as they filtered out their prey.

Sunday, January 21
Paradise Bay, Antarctica
A beautifully sunny morning saw us cruising into the aptly named and spectacular Paradise Bay. Our always-eager expedition team was ready as ever to show off this magnificent location, and soon we were out in our Zodiacs. We sighted whales even before we left the ship, and it seemed that the local humpbacks here were vying to give even better views than we had had in Wilhelmina Bay last night! We cruised past extraordinary icebergs, walls and towers of ice, a colony of imperial shag, cliffs stained with copper, and even made a landing at the Argentinian Almirante Brown Station. There we took a walk, admired the antics of the breeding colony of gentoo penguins, which seemed bent on taking over the station, and some of us hiked up to the viewpoint above, which commanded such gorgeous views across the bay that words are insufficient to describe them.

Re-positioning after our morning’s excursion allowed the hardiest amongst us to take the polar plunge, then it was time for us to set sail for the long journey back north. Rich entertained us in the late afternoon with his lecture Marine Mammals Local and Global: A Look at Conservation Issues and Solutions, while we sailed around the south end of Anvers Island with views of the famous Una Peaks (formerly Cape Renard Towers) and the northern part of the Lemaire Channel before we headed out into the Drake Passage.

Monday & Tuesday, January 22 & 23
Drake Passage
Though the worst of the weather was driving ahead of us, a heavy swell hitting us on the port beam made for a somewhat rough ride northwards through the notorious Drake Passage. Despite the weather, we continued our lecture program with Mark providing a light-hearted interlude with Birding Lite: The Antidote to Birding. In the afternoon, our film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was followed by Dan talking about Mom Knows Best: Killer Whale Culture; then in the evening we returned to light-hearted fun, when Rich “Pagano” hosted a session of Liar’s Club.

Yesterday’s heavy seas calmed considerably today, allowing us to make good time towards Tierra del Fuego. In the morning T.H. concluded our voyage’s lecture series with his talk Roald Amundsen: Man of Both Poles. In the afternoon, after returning borrowed boots and poles, we had a final recap of the trip during which our expedition team referenced their trip highlights and combined them with humorous video clips. Our bonus sighting for the day was of Cape Horn itself, and with special permission we sailed close enough to enjoy the landscape of this remote outpost of land. Flocks of black-browed albatross were on the water and around the ship, and whales were spouting as we headed in through wonderful scenery towards Ushuaia. As we continued on our way Captain Andrey Rudenko hosted a reception with cocktails and then a final dinner, after which Rich entertained us with a splendid slideshow of our voyage.

Wednesday, January 24
Disembark / Ushuaia, Argentina
We woke in Ushuaia Harbor, and on a calm, sunny morning we said fond farewells to the crew and officers of the Island Sky and to our expedition team as we set off for our flights home, armed with memories and photographs galore to remind us of our fabulous voyage to the Falkland Islands, South Georgia, and the Antarctic Peninsula.

Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson

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