King Penguins, South Georgia

Antarctica, South Georgia & the Falkland Islands

Text by: Ingrid Nixon | Main Photographer: Madalena Patacho|March 30, 2020|Field Report

Sunday, January 5, 2020
Ushuaia, Argentina
We migrated in from places near and far to gather in Ushuaia at the start of our Antarctic adventure. Perched on the hill above the city in our magnificent hotel, Arakur Ushuaia, we gathered for dinner to meet the expedition team and our fellow travelers. We have all made a thousand individual decisions that have gotten us all to this point. Tomorrow we sail toward adventure united. Onward.

 Monday, January 6
Ushuaia / Embark the Island Sky 
Morning touring took us out onto the Beagle Channel by catamaran for wildlife viewing en route to Tierra del Fuego National Park. Here we lunched and strolled paths, enjoying the beech forest environs. Late in the afternoon we boarded the Island Sky, our floating home for the next few weeks. Cruise Director Kelsey Simmons provided an orientation and Expedition Leader Dan Olsen introduced the Expedition Team, which between them have about 300 trips to the Antarctic spanning several decades. After the mandatory lifeboat drill we slipped our lines and sailed out into the Beagle Channel bound for the Falkland Islands.

Tuesday, January 7
At Sea
About 5 a.m. we passed out of the shelter of the Beagle Channel and the seas became quite lumpy, testing the sea legs of all. But it was a good day to lay low, and attend lectures and Zodiac briefings. There was plenty of fresh air to be had on deck as black-browed albatross, giant petrels, and a host of smaller birds soared around the ship. Keen eyes caught quick sightings of dolphins and whale blows. This evening, with Captain Jörgen Cardestig and his officers, we enjoyed pre-dinner cocktails and toasted to a safe voyage.

Wednesday, January 8
Steeple Jason, Falkland Islands / Saunders Island
After pushing through the head-high tussock grass, we saw 100,000+ nesting pairs of black-browed albatross stretching out along the coast as far as the eye could see. Rockhopper penguin adults and chicks stood between the albatross nests, adding to the kerfuffle. Gentoo and Magellanic penguins, striated caracaras, Magellanic oystercatchers, rock cormorants, and more rounded out the sights of Steeple Jason, which is both a highly desired stop in the Falklands and a landing rarely made due to high winds and rough seas. We enjoyed a spectacular morning ashore before heading to Saunders Island, for a little bit of everything wildlife-wise that wrapped up with a beach barbecue put on by the family of expedition team member, Russ Evans. The day's capper came at sunset when we passed a pod of no fewer than six sei whales very close to the ship. Clearly, the highlights of this trip were not going to fit into a neat 9 to 5 schedule.

Thursday, January 9
First thing in the morning the ship came alongside in Stanley, the only town in the Falklands. We took off to see the sights and enjoy the wildlife of this remote capital city. Upland geese and flightless steamer ducks cruised along the picturesque waterfront that was strewn with the hulks of decaying sailing ships from an era gone by. Spectacular columns of pink, purple, and yellow lupine adorned local gardens. A smattering of rain and hail punctuated the morning. We sailed mid-day with sooty shearwaters, gray-backed storm-petrels, and grand wandering albatross escorting us as we sailed out into open water bound for South Georgia.

Friday & Saturday, January 10 & 11
At Sea
Seas proved kind after leaving the Falklands, plus we were used to ship motions, so it was wonderful to get more time on deck enjoying the seabirds and fresh air. Monitoring the water temperature, we passed through a zone where within 24 hours the temperature dropped from 47°F to 40°F, a sign that we have passed the Antarctic Convergence or "Polar Front" thus, were now biologically in the Antarctic. The two days at sea gave us time to learn about South Georgia and its government's dislike of hitchhikers in the form of introduced plants and critters. South Georgia just went through a multi-year and multi-million dollar rat eradication project, which has saved millions of birds. They are now taking on invasive plants. We all turned out for what would be the first of several biosecurity checks, complete with Hoovering our Velcro and scrubbing our boots. In the lecture program, T.H. Baughman shared the story of Sir Ernest Shackleton, for whom South Georgia would prove to be a significant place, both for his expeditions and in his death. We’d hear more about this charismatic and complicated man in the days to come.

Sunday, January 12
Elsehul, South Georgia / Salisbury Plain / Prince Olav Harbour
Early morning light streaming through the clouds greeted us at Elsehul, near the northwest tip of South Georgia. Before breakfast we had our Zodiacs in the water to cruise this small bay teeming with life. A raft of gray-headed and black-browed albatross floated near the ship, allowing us terrific views of these two species. Nearby, we found light-mantled sooty albatross on the nest. We could watch macaroni penguins with their flamboyant yellow head feathers—our fifth penguin species of the trip!—enter/exit the water on a steep rocky outcropping. Elsewhere in the cove, fur seals roiled on the beaches along with elephant seals, and king and gentoo penguins. We returned from the cruise for breakfast as the ship relocated to Salisbury Plain, a colony of over 100,000 nesting pairs of king penguins. We finished out the day with a Zodiac cruise exploring Prince Olav Harbour, site of an old whaling station. As we cruised the coves of this little-visited part of the island, flocks of South Georgia pintails took flight ashore. Their presence in such numbers, along with frequent sightings of the South Georgia pipit, prove the success of the rat eradication program. Just a few short years ago, these two species were never seen in great numbers.

Monday, January 13
Fortuna Bay / Shackleton Hike / Stromness / Grytviken
While some visited a small king penguin colony in Fortuna Bay, others headed up into the mountains to cross over to the old whaling station of Stromness. This mountain trek followed the last 4-5 miles made by Sir Ernest Shackleton, Frank Worsley, and Tom Crean, who were forced to cross the island in May 1916 after making the 800-mile boat journey in the James Caird from Elephant Island. One always hopes for good weather in South Georgia, but this day was sunny and virtually windless. The ship relocated from Fortuna to Stromness to pick up the hikers before proceeding to Grytviken for the afternoon. Shackleton is buried in the old whalers’ cemetery there, so we paid him a visit to "toast the Boss" before exploring the former whaling station and museum.

Tuesday, January 14
Gold Harbour / St. Andrews Bay / Drygalski Fjord
When the first rays of the sun illuminated the king penguins at Gold Harbour, arising for the 3:30 a.m. wake up was so worth it. Awash with that warm buttery light, the golden feathers of their upper chests and heads glowed. We had gone ashore in Zodiacs in the semi darkness to land on the beach amid the trumpeting, whistling, bleating, belching, and burping of thousands of penguins, and fur and elephant seals. We spent the morning in this splendor, relocating after lunch for St. Andrews Bay, the largest king penguin colony in the world with well over 150,000 nesting pairs. We watched each other's backs to stave off fur seal ambushes. These seals were hunted to near extinction in the 17th century, but their numbers have more than recovered; in fact, today their numbers prevent landing on many beaches that were fur seal-free as recently as 30 years ago. We finished off the day (and our time at South Georgia) cruising into the icy realm of Drygalski Fjord, near the southern tip of the island, with a few snow petrels—birds of the ice—to escort us.

Wednesday & Thursday, January 15 & 16
At Sea
We angled toward the South Orkneys before turning west to the chunk of ice and rock that is Elephant Island. Though the seas proved gentle, each modest roll provided some perspective on what Shackleton and team must have gone through in the James Caird sailing in the opposite direction and, luckily, unlike Shackleton, we did not encounter a 100-foot wave. Following our very full days on South Georgia, we enjoyed a more relaxed daily schedule. Bridge tours, lectures, deck walking, tea time, movies, and personal pursuits filled the days, as well as another biosecurity check to prevent us bringing seeds to the Antarctic. Southern fulmars joined the birds we had been seeing with regularity around the ship. After dinner we held an auction to raise funds for the South Georgia Heritage Trust. Geologist Tom Sharpe turned auctioneer in this fun evening of cutthroat bidding for items from key chains to books to artwork provided by the South Georgia folks. Together we raised over $11,000 that will go to habitat restoration efforts on the island, one of the biodiversity gems of this planet.

Friday, January 17
Elephant Island, South Shetland Islands
In the dim morning light we approached Point Wild on Elephant Island. That this forbidding place provided sanctuary to Shackleton's men after their Weddell Sea ordeal speaks to their desperation. We Zodiac-cruised around Point Wild trying to imagine what it must have been like for the 22 men left behind when Shackleton and five others sailed for South Georgia. From mid-April through August they waited, sleeping in overturned boats, subsisting on meager food resources, having little to comfort them but the hope that the Boss would return to rescue them. August 30, 1916, having accomplished the impossible, Shackleton did return on the Chilean vessel, Yelcho. As the Boss approached the shore in a small boat he was counting each man ashore as he came into view. When he reached 22 he knew all were alive. He called to Frank Wild, "Are you all well?" Wild replied, "All safe. All well." 

Saturday, January 18
Paulet Island / Brown Bluff, Antarctica (Continental Landing)
It was a "pinch me" kind of day that started with a rare sighting at this time in this region: an emperor penguin on an ice floe. The juvenile stood head and shoulders above the Adelies around it and weighed perhaps four times as much. After oogling for some time, we proceeded to Paulet Island for Adelies and their guano in abundance. We caught all manner of behaviors: feeding chases, crèches, courtship, and rock theft for nest building. A number of penguins had taken over the ruins of the stone hut built by Anton Larsen and his men forced to overwintered on Paulet in 1903-04 when ice crushed their vessel Antarctic. (Rescue of the Nordenskjöld Expedition would have to wait another season.)  Afterwards, a cruise through Erebus and Terror Gulf brought us to Brown Bluff, where, in Zodiacs, we picked our way through the bergie bits to land on the Continent! Later, as the sun dipped low in the sky, four humpback whales took interest in the ship. The bridge team stopped the ship and the whales began to slowly swim back and forth under the hull. From above, we could see their bodies entirely in the crystal clear water. Each time they surfaced to take a breath it seemed to take ours away. Such grace.

Sunday, January 19
Half Moon Island / King George Island / Bellingshausen Station
Raucous calls of chinstrap penguins greeted us at dawn on Half Moon Island. All that noise has a purpose. Chinstraps need the sound and proximity to one another to stimulate their breeding behavior, which is highly synchronized from egg-laying to chick fledging. In addition to chinnies, kelp gulls, Antarctic terns, Wilson's storm-petrels, and likely skuas breed on the island, making it a happenin’ place with lots to see, hear, and smell. Mid-day we sailed north to King George Island. Officials at the Russian base next door, Bellingshausen, allowed us to go ashore for a hike across the island and to visit the Holy Trinity Church, a small but impressive Russian Orthodox perched on the hill above the base. A new statue of base namesake, Thaddeus von Bellingshausen, commemorated this: the 200th year of the first sighting of the Antarctic Continent. And—surprise!—the base gift shop was open, offering the chance to pick up patches, hats, maps, and to send postcards from the Antarctic. All activities went of without a hitch. By dusk we were sailing for parts South.

Monday, January 20
Deception Island / Hughes Bay / Spritely Islands / Portal Point
At 4:30 a.m. we rolled out of bed for what would be a Deception Island sail by. We slipped through the narrow entrance of Neptune's Bellows into this flooded (active) volcanic caldera to catch sight of Whalers Bay. This now quiet beach with big fuel tanks and sagging buildings was once a center of whaling activity in the early 20th century, then a British Antarctic Survey base before volcanic eruptions in the late 1960s put an end to that. We would not land as we wanted to get farther south on the Peninsula. In brilliant sunshine we enjoyed a lunch barbecue on deck with the crystal-clear mountains and glaciers of the Antarctic Peninsula on our portside. Whale activity picked up as we neared our afternoon destination, which boded well for our Zodiac cruise. Numerous humpbacks seemed to be feeding along a fairly distinct current line, so by placing our boats just so and waiting, the leviathans came along—boy, did they! The day culminated with one more opportunity set foot on the Antarctic Continent. Pinks and oranges of sunset light colored the evening clouds and surrounding peaks.

Tuesday, January 21
Lemaire Channel / Pleneau Island (Farthest South)
It is astonishing how noticing one small thing can lead to a world of marvels, such as a small cluster of tall dorsal fins spotted at a distance in the early morning hours. To know killer whales (or “orca”) were about would have been a highlight unto itself. But with time and patience that distant sighting evolved into a rare experience with these “wolves of the sea” traveling right up to and around the ship for some time. And all of this before breakfast! When the killer whales moved off, ice conditions permitted us to slip through the scenically off-the-charts Lemaire, an nearly 7-mile-long channel between the Antarctic mainland and Booth Island; it is only 5,200 feet at its narrowest point. The penguin-eating killer whales (small type B) stayed in the region, so we encountered them again when we sailed north after our final Zodiac cruise among leopard seals and icebergs near Pleneau Island, our farthest point south. A few humpbacks joined the killer whales when we did the polar plunge from the ship’s rear platform. (Had they been seal-eater type of killer whales we might have reconsidered.) Sailing north through the Neumayer Channel before heading into the Drake that evening, we encountered more killer whales, humpbacks, and minke whales. With the stunning backdrop of mountains and ice, these sightings offered one last opportunity to gorge on the wonder of this place. With it came a message quiet, yet clear, as though whispered from the Continent itself: “Never forget.”

Wednesday & Thursday, January 22 & 23
Drake Passage / Beagle Channel
The southern tip of South America and the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula constrict the Southern Ocean as it swirls around the planet. Typically, the Southern Ocean doesn’t like this, so, the Drake Passage is infamous for rough water. However, we were lucky. We managed to travel north between weather systems, enjoying only moderately rolling seas. But as we had been working for over two weeks on our sea legs, we took it in stride. These two days at sea were a chance to look at photos, attend lectures, turn in gear, exchange addresses, and enjoy last glimpses of the seabirds like the magnificent wandering albatross, giant petrels, prions, petrels, and the barn owl—wait, what?! On day two of our passage, a barn owl flapping its wings for all it was worth joined the birds soaring seemingly effortlessly above our wake. What ship it caught a ride on and how it was going to get to land remained unknown, but this was likely a first sighting of a barn owl in the Drake Passage. Dusky dolphins joined our vessel as we neared the Beagle Channel and we were alongside in Ushuaia before dinner ended. The evening capper was a slide show assembled by naturalist Madalena Patacho, which captured the magic of our shared experience.

Friday, January 24
Ushuaia / Disembark
It seemed like a few short days ago we were boarding the Island Sky, finding our way around, and getting to know one another. Now, we had over two weeks of astounding experiences to look back on. We are part of the privileged few who have ventured to the great white continent and we go forth as ambassadors for that fierce, yet fragile region. It was Shackleton’s right hand man, Frank Wild, who wrote, “Once you have been to the white unknown, you can never escape the call of the little voices.” May those little voices spur you on to more adventures, filled with inquiry, wonder, awe, and hope.

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