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Ultimate Antarctica 2011
Field Report, November 18, 2011
by Joe Van Os

November 21st, 2011

More than a week has passed since my last blog entry and we are now on our way to the Antarctic Peninsula from South Georgia. Our two-and-a-half-day-long crossing from the Falkland Islands to South Georgia found us in calm seas and in off and on sunshine. Many of us enjoyed photographing the ship-following birds and listening to varied lectures about the nature of the region and, of course, about photography.

Friday, November 18, 2011 St. Andrews Bay, South Georgia

The limited accuracy of the weather forecasts for the Southern Ocean makes for similarly inaccurate predictions of landing conditions for the various beaches we planned to visit during our six days on South Georgia. After assessing several weather broadcasts from satellite and from other weather predictors, we gauged Friday would be our best chance for a landing on the spectacular broad alluvial beach at St. Andrews Bay.

In my opinion, the beach at St. Andrews Bay is the most spectacular location on an island known for a wealth of incredible settings for wildlife and landscape photography. The site probably most familiar to nature shooters is Salisbury Plain—and it is a fantastic place to shoot. The scene at St. Andrews Bay, however, is larger, more diverse and has a snowcapped-mountain background that adds so much to the images created there.

One major difference between Salisbury Plain and St. Andrews Bay is the beach landing at the latter is much more difficult for Zodiacs to accomplish. St. Andrews Bay is completely unsheltered from the large ocean swell that is a routine feature of any landing there. In addition, the very steep beach that drops off into deep water very close to shore makes it hard to stand as we wrestle Zodiacs in place for safe beach landing operations. Few ships attempt landings here!

Our best weather conditions were predicted for this past Friday. When Friday dawned we had our most intrepid photographers assembled in the ship’s lounge for a light breakfast of coffee, cakes and sandwiches prior to our planned 6 AM landing on St. Andrews. The sun had risen and, from the ship, we could see thousands of king penguins on the beach doing their morning ablutions and engaging in various social activities before heading out to sea to forage for their large, voracious and demanding chicks.

As we prepared to dress for the landing, a howling cold katabatic wind rushed down from the mountaintop glacier above our landing site. With a velocity of 50 mph with higher gusts—certainly enough to swamp a Zodiac close to shore—we had to postpone our early landing and wait to see if the predicted low wind forecast would come to fruition. By 8 AM the wind had dropped and by 8:30 AM we were landing on the beach for what turned out to be a full day (11 hours for some) at glorious St. Andrews Bay.

Our landing site was strewn with giant Southern elephant seal beach master bulls with harems of 10 or more females. Seemingly as big as school busses, the giant males bellowed and belched clouds of steaming breath as interloping smaller males moved in on the harems to partake in this extraordinary beach orgy. The deep vibrato of their vocalizations resounded up and down the beach—allowing potential rivals a way to assess the size and stamina of those big males holding the best female-catching beach real estate. Aggressive males plowed through newborn and “weaner” pups, scattering throngs of king penguins by forcing them to run in all directions to avoid being flattened by these two-ton “raging bulls.”

Down the beach we could see the colony of hundreds of thousands of king penguins, but first we had to shoot our way through a menagerie of other species, including introduced reindeer, gulls, skuas, giant petrels and the occasional Antarctic tern.

The king penguin colony at St. Andrews Bay is among the most photogenic penguin settings on earth. Meandering streams of glacial melt water artistically bisect it and the streams make the colony photogenic from almost any angle. Tens of thousands of images were produced that day. (Now, back on the ship, I’ve seen incredible images from the day being converted on people’s laptops!) We shot chick feedings, courtship displays, ecstatic displays, squadron of birds coming and going from the sea, squabbles and slap fights, chick crèches, molting adults—the list goes on and on.

I knew the day was a special one when one of our younger “gung-ho” photographers, as he was leaving the beach, remarked that the day was so photographically intense he had “run out of creativity” and had to have a bit of recovery quiet time on the ship. All I can say, after a day like today, is that I’m “pooped” and happy. Now time for a hot shower and a glass of wine!



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