Ultimate Antarctica 2013 Logbook
By Joe Van Os on Dec 13, 2013
Ultimate Antarctica 2013
Aboard the USHUAIA
November 4–28, 2013
NOTE: You can download a PDF version of this logbook by clicking on the image to the right. A PDF containing maps of the cruise route and landing sites is found at the end of this blog article.
“A first walk in any new country is one of the things which makes life on this planet worth being grateful for.”
—Charles W. Beebe, American naturalist 1887–1962
Ultimate Antarctica trip participants coming from nine different nations assembled in Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, in preparation for our departure down the Beagle Channel to our first stop in the Falkland Islands. Our airline-checked baggage was placed in a huge pile in the hotel lobby and delivered to our ship by early afternoon. It was estimated the huge heap weighed in excess of three tons—without photo gear! The day started gray and drizzly but promised improvement as the majority of our participants headed out for an excursion to Tierra del Fuego National Park. Following lunch and the collection of our photo gear from the Albatros Hotel, we boarded several busses and were escorted through the security check on the dock to the ship’s gangway. Because there is so much traffic on the dock, passengers are normally forbidden to walk on or off unless they are in a bus or taxi.
By 1800 we set sail and slowly watched Ushuaia disappear into the distance. Following our safety/lifeboat drill, a number of soon-to-be-familiar birds started following the ship, including black-browed albatrosses, kelp gulls and an occasional southern giant petrel. We settled in for dinner as the sky faded to a dark silver gray. The sailing was calm as we traveled with the wind to the mouth of the channel.
Prior to our departure Joe Van Os and Monika Schillat talked with the leaders from several other ships who had just returned from the Antarctic Peninsula. They characterized it as a “Shackleton Year” when there is lots of ice and snow at some of the more popular landing sites—and blocking the scenic Lemaire Channel.
November 5—At Sea toward the Falklands
We awoke to reasonably nice weather and a relatively calm sea. We had made good time as the wind to our back propelled us quickly toward our first planned landing at New Island tomorrow morning.
Many seabirds were following the ship and there was a relatively big “firing squad” of photographers on the back decks shooting black-browed albatrosses, Cape (pintado) petrels and a few gulls. But the cooperative stars of the show were the squadron of southern giant petrels that came in close to the ship. Their large size makes them easy flight targets and provides good practice for the smaller birds that will become more numerous as we head farther south.
Anna Sutcliffe gave a lecture on “Identifying Seabirds”—helpful for labeling those images, and Mary Ann McDonald provided a number of helpful tips on photo composition.
Overall it was an easy day adjusting to the rhythm of the ship and getting to know the common birds.
November 6—Falkland Islands: New Island & Carcass Island
At 0530 a wake-up call summoned us for breakfast at 0600 followed by an early landing on New Island in the West Falkland Islands. The day started out foggy and dull but brightened into a blue-sky day with swiftly moving clouds.
Our landing was on a small sandy beach. We then walked up a steep slope to a track that led us past Magellanic penguins and their burrows, grazing upland geese, and several small birds feeding on the ground. Dark-faced ground tyrants posed briefly on old fence posts, Falkland thrushes bustled in the grasses and ferns. Turkey vultures and striated caracaras flew over our heads, inspecting our presence for any potential food our walking might stir up.
The black-browed albatross colony could be first smelled and then heard long before the many hundreds of birds were seen. The albatrosses were preening and incubating their one white egg. Intermixed were rockhopper penguins warming their two eggs and a smattering of imperial shags—all variously exhibiting the behavior of birds at the beginning of their breeding season. No chicks had hatched, but there was plenty of bonding behavior, and defense of nest territories from neighbors and aerial predators like caracaras, skuas and gulls. Some were still actively mating, while others turned eggs as shags with beaks full of nest material flew into the colony.
The nesting cliffs, hundreds of feet above the sea, are both steep and impressive angular shelves with birds nesting on the top levels. Rockhoppers climb these cliffs on a daily basis—they surf in on the swells and then climb to the safety of the upper levels in amongst the other seabirds. Up the hill from this noisy, smelly mix of birds there was a busy gentoo penguin colony, again with birds on eggs, their attendant predators, and each pile of stone nest site defended just outside pecking distance from the neighbors.
We returned to the beach where Monika, fortunately, had been busy repositioning some of our bags as the tide rose. Last Zodiac was at 1200 and during lunch we sailed for three hours through the “Woolly Gut” between West Point Island and West Falkland to Carcass Island.
Carcass Island is named after a ship, HMS Carcass, which surveyed the island in 1766. Our landing was on a shallow sandy beach among rocky reefs with a large mix of birds to photograph. So much to see and shoot—so hard to choose what to look at next! Sitting still and waiting for wildlife to come to you was rewarded by tussock birds (blackish cinclodes) inspecting our boots, and the squadron of striated caracaras flying past and positioning themselves strategically for a quick grab at anything and everything interesting! Kelp geese, two types of oystercatchers, the rather beautiful Patagonian crested ducks, and the ubiquitous upland geese rewarded us with a multitude of memorable images.
Many were tempted by the sumptuous array of cakes along with coffee and tea offered by our hosts, Rob and Lorraine McGill. We were invited inside their home to talk with them about the bucolic (and isolated) life they lead on this remote outpost.
November 7—Falkland Islands: Saunders Island
The morning dawned overcast but the wind was modest and the landing looked to be favorable at The Neck on Saunders Island which lies only about 10 miles northeast of Carcass Island. It is one of the most northwestern islands of the Falkland Island archipelago. The island is owned by David Pole-Evans and his family who farm it with the local Corriedale-cross sheep, a Merino type famed for its good fleece and ability to cope with the poor grazing afforded by the Falkland grasses. The Neck is a narrow stretch of coast, technically a tombolo, composed of two opposing beaches of white sand joining the upland areas of Saunders Island. There is a small hut above the beach, fabricated out of a shipping container with extensions, which is popular for holiday “lets” (that’s rentals in Americanese).
Anna and Mary Ann gave a rousing wake-up call (they became more bizarre by the day) at 0630 and breakfast was at 0700. The opportunity was given to fix a packed lunch in anticipation of spending the day on the beach. However, during breakfast, the weather changed for the worse and, by the time the first Zodiacs were landing on the southwest beach of The Neck, the rain was making things quite unpleasant. David was there with his trusty Land Rover to meet everyone as they came onto the beach. The beach itself was littered with kelp and other marine life, but also unfortunately with abundant evidence of discarded fishing equipment and plastics.
Kelp geese picked around the beach area, upland geese strutted above the beach with a brood of goslings, and occasional gentoo penguins halted either en route to or from the various colonies which could be seen on the crest of knolls on the skyline. The inclement weather showed no sign of abating, although the forecast promised a brightening later in the day but with an increase in the wind strength. It did not bode well. Instructions to avoid walking through the gentoo penguin colonies to prevent disturbance and possible predation by the many skuas were dispensed, and most participants headed over the rise to the broad sandy beach where thundering waves could be heard in the distance. Needless to say, the few king penguins and the five brown woolly chicks proved a hit with some photographers. The more energetic headed up the slope to the black-browed albatross/imperial shag/rockhopper penguin colonies, while others concentrated on the beach areas.
Everyone was getting soaked in the rain and started drifting back to the landing site. Eventually the decision to abort the landing was made and we returned to the ship for lunch. With little evidence of a change in the conditions, the ship hauled anchor and we headed westward in a wide arc to avoid reefs and then eastward bound for South Georgia. A warning was given to stow gear where it couldn’t fall or roll if turbulent conditions were encountered, but we were favored with a following sea which provided only a gentle roll and this persisted through the night.
November 8—At Sea
Today was our first full at-sea day as we made the crossing to South Georgia—and what a beauty. We woke up to a rolling 10-foot sea, about normal, with partly sunny skies and a helpful tail wind. With white caps as background a lot of us had a great day “shooting” Cape (pintado) petrels, black-browed albatross and giant petrels off the back deck. (All that “practice” with Nintendo “Duck Hunt” was paying off—what a blast.) Catch them with blue sky, with cumulus clouds, with others in the frame or with a breaking wave—just make sure they’re sharp and you probably have a good image. With patience we could spot a wandering albatross, a new seabird for the trip, as they approached with their stiff wings and huge 12-foot wingspan. They glided effortlessly as they worked the waves taking advantage of the updrafts. It is unusual to catch them flapping—they expend the least energy possible to enable their thousand-plus mile foraging forays.
With the crossing came great onboard lectures. Jeff Vanuga reviewed photography exposure skills in a thoughtful and beautiful presentation. He had everyone thinking about experimenting a little to enhance their images. Anna gave her signature lecture on seabirds. She is the only person who can pull off those varied bird calls. But perhaps the most important presentation of the day was a briefing on the Code of Conduct in the Southern Ocean for wildlife viewing.
The International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) was formed to address the issue of tourism’s affect on the wildlife of Antarctica. There are just over a hundred members and they include shipowners, travel agents, and anyone interested in preserving this special place for everyone. The goal is to ensure that the wildlife is protected and the tourist’s experience is protected as well. Early in the season—at this time of the year—there can be 15 ships between Ushuaia, South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula. At prime time—for instance, the Christmas holidays—there can be closer to 50. They work hard to keep the boats separated by landing spots and so they schedule the prime beaches and islands in advance. There are approximately 35,000 people visiting Antarctica in a season.
IAATO has implemented rules that regulate human behavior on the continent regarding wildlife—specifically people are required to stay five meters away from wildlife and, most importantly, nesting birds. South Georgia follows similar guidelines. In some cases if you sit still the birds will approach you—which is allowed. Some areas are entirely restricted to protect sensitive species of special concern. Additional precautions are taken to make sure that ships are rat-free.
With climate change, the risk of introducing species from the more temperate Falklands and South America is a threat. So this afternoon, in order to protect the native habitats from more unwanted exotics, everyone on the trip was required to have all landing gear—dry bags, camera bags, pants and jackets—inspected to ensure that we carry no foreign seeds ashore. Particularly scrutinized were velcro and seams, where seeds and soil tend to accumulate. This inspection, with a signed affidavit by each person, is required by the Governor of South Georgia to ensure compliance. Without the signature, people are not allowed ashore. And, of course, we will continue to walk through the three bootbaths of disinfectant both when we leave the ship and upon our return to combat the spread of seeds and disease from landing to landing.
With all of this behind us, we finished our very busy day with passage through a snowstorm at dinner. Not quite yet to the Southern Ocean, the South Atlantic bade us a chilly farewell.
November 9—At Sea
The morning provided unlimited visibility with the temperature a mild 32°F. A 20-knot tail wind pushed the ship towards South Georgia at 13 knots on a bearing of 106 degrees. The seas were relatively calm with 2-meter swells throughout the day. Our position at 0900 was 345 nautical miles from South Georgia and we were expected to reach land by 1200 on November 10th.
Today the saying, “If you don’t like the weather, wait 10 minutes,” was heard continually as it snowed, was foggy, was sunny, was sleeting or misting throughout the afternoon.
We crossed the Antarctic convergence (the Polar Front), the official boundary of the Southern Ocean. The Atlantic convergence marks the area where the rich oxygenated waters from the south meet the warmer temperatures of the northern waters; the zone extends around 50 degrees latitude and is circumpolar. A marked difference in water temperature marks the boundary where the colder temperatures from the south at 2 degrees collide with the warmer temperatures of the northern currents at around 8 degrees.
The day’s lectures were “The Beauty and Biology of Penguins” by Wayne Lynch and “Understanding [photo] Exposure” by Joe McDonald.
The stern of the ship offered opportunities to photograph prions, giant petrels, gray-headed albatrosses, wandering albatrosses, royal albatrosses and Cape (pintado) petrels.
November 10—Right Whale Bay
Significant snow squalls made the weather interesting and our first glimpses of the mountains of South Georgia were of tantalizing jagged gray shapes far in the distance. Snow continued, off and on, throughout the morning almost until the time we finally made our first landing—at Right Whale Bay.
The seas were relatively calm as we landed on the sheltered, half-moon bay surrounded by steep hillsides now freshly blanketed by a light snow. Southern elephant eals and southern fur seals lay scattered on the tide line, but apparently the breeding season had barely started as their numbers were still relatively few, and they were not particularly aggressive. Joe Van Os was following Anna, who carried a long wooden oar as a deterrent, when one seal did charge across the beach at him—which he stopped by sticking his tripod‘s legs near the seal’s face and quickly backpeddling. They are feisty devils—the seals, that is!
Along the shoreline, just past the breakers, hundreds of Cape (pintado) petrels were bobbing about, feeding on arrow worms and copepods—thin, gelatinous invertebrates that, when held in the hand, resemble mucus more than anything else. The pintado flock was truly impressive, often rising in large waves of flashing black and white wings before settling again, making short hopscotch jumps in the process. Some of these flights were generated by fur seals swimming close and perhaps hoping to snag a bird. Later, just before we left the beach, a rare leopard seal appeared, its reptilian shape curving occasionally above the waves.
King penguins waddled ashore in small numbers, some so full of fish that their bellies bulged and their gait was labored. One was so fat that it tried belly surfing across the sand and pebble beach, laboriously pushing with its front flippers and shoving with its feet, a movement so inefficient it was first thought that the penguin was simply sick. Fat, brown-feathered juveniles clustered together at the far end of the beach and, on the distant hills, we could see several small colonies.
Although the height of the elephant seal breeding season had almost passed, the aftermath was still visible as a few bulls were lying about clearly showing the wounds from earlier fights. One male snored and snorted through a snout now ripped clearly in two, with most of the right half missing. Another dripped a drool of blood in several grotesque long streams, which attracted a skua that cautiously moved in to snatch a mouthful. The seal was clearly annoyed and would rise periodically, bellowing its gurgling roar in annoyance.
By 1800 the light had dropped and nearly horizontal tiny hard icy pellets of windswept rain or hail periodically lashed our cheeks. The last hour was cold, although another elephant seal with a tiny, quite young pup nearby, finally awoke and periodically rose, yawned and photogenically roared.
Sometimes the proverbial best laid plans do not work at all. Our schedule today was to land at Prion Island in the morning to photograph the wandering albatrosses that nest there, then spend the entire afternoon on Salisbury Plain with the king penguins. It was a great plan—but then the one major factor we could not control—the weather—took charge.
As we were getting dressed to land at Prion, both the wind and the swell continued to grow in strength. By the time the first passengers had assembled on deck the conditions were bad. The swells were very high and blustery wind whipped spray from the wave tops. One Zodiac had already been dropped down and, despite the best efforts of the crew member driving, it bucked about wildly. The clinching moment was when a wave broke over the deck railing where we were standing. No, we were not going to make any landing in those conditions! It would be unsafe, and all too easy to flip a Zodiac. So on to Plan B—we needed a sheltered harbor, out of the wind and waves. Stromness was the answer.
Stromness Harbor is situated in the central arm of Stromness Bay; Leith Harbor and Husvik are the other two arms. Whaling stations were located at all three, but Stromness is best known for another event. It was at the Stromness station where Ernest Shackleton finished his epic journey from Elephant Island to South Georgia. As a whaling station, Stromness operated from 1907 until 1931, and then continued as a ship repair yard until 1961. The derelict station is now off limits to visitors, due to dangers from both blowing sheet metal debris and asbestos.
In the protection of the harbor, the seas were calm and gave us the opportunity to cruise along the abandoned station by Zodiac. This was the first time for any Photo Safaris trip to have this opportunity. Many seals, both fur and elephant, now occupy both the old buildings and the beach immediately in front of the station.
After lunch we returned to Stromness, but this time we landed north of the station, near the collection of whale catcher propellers. These were just outside the boundary markers for the visitation exclusion zone and circled the entire station site. We were allowed to explore the entire valley floor, which is quite flat with a patchwork of wet, swampy spots. As expected, seals were plentiful along the beach, but just inland we found groups of king penguins. Skuas and giant petrels were plentiful in all areas, while a few South Georgia pintail ducks flew from spot to spot.
One highlight was a female elephant seal giving birth. At first we thought this was an obstructed birth as the pup did not entirely emerge. But, to our amazement, after more than an hour the pup was not only fully out but alive and moving about. Shortly afterward, just as the first Zodiacs returned to the ship, a male elephant seal charged—if indeed that word can be used to describe the movement of a big bull elephant seal—across a small stream directly toward the photography group remaining on shore. But his attention was not directed at our group. The seal caught and mated with a female seal, roughly 50 feet (15 meters) from our group. As had been noted many times during this trip, if you believe in reincarnation, you really don’t want to come back as a female southern elephant seal!
November 12—Ocean Harbor & Jason Harbor
Today was to be another day at Salisbury Plains, but the wind gusting at over 30 knots out of the north precluded the original plan. Big swells crashed on the beach and the rolling sea would make Zodiac embarkation alongside the ship particularly dangerous. Instead we headed south to harbors that were protected from the northerly winds. After breakfast we landed at Ocean Harbor, which had been previously called New Fortuna Bay. Ocean Harbor is the site of the oldest grave on South Georgia (1820) and the wreck of the ship the Bayard.
It was a cool and rainy morning when we landed on the beach. Due to the inclement conditions, which would have been hard on exposed photo gear, Wayne took many of the passengers on a nature walk where they talked about the seals, grasses, birds, reindeer and many other subjects. Others braved the rain and photographed the Bayard from different angles (with whale bones or lichen-covered rock, for example) while others photographed the old railroad engine and other abandoned parts of the whaling station. The group also saw a large number of reindeer—close to 160 animals as two groups mixed and parted throughout the morning. As we boarded the ship at the end of the morning, the weather cleared and it turned quite lovely.
After lunch we ventured around the corner to Jason Harbor, the site of a hut that was built in 1911 and used for depositing mail. On the way the seas were rough, but the birds were flying behind the ship and several people braved the conditions to photograph. The afternoon was great with sun and light winds. The beach was full of elephant seals—we counted at least five big groups along the expanse of sand. We captured great wildlife behaviors, including mating, mothers and calves nuzzling and nursing, bulls challenging each other, and several bulls swimming along the edge. Fur seals and weaner elephant seals were up among the tussock grass. A few king and gentoo penguins showed up on the beach. Some of the participants also walked over to a small lagoon behind the main beach. It was a great day.
November 13—Grytviken & Godthul
For those who are superstitious, November 13 is a day to dread, but for us aboard the Ushuaia, it was a day to savor and remember. Our 0700 wake-up call started with the welcome news that it was a blue-sky day with an outside temperature of about 42°F (6°C). During breakfast we motored from our overnight anchorage in Jason Harbor to King Edward Cove. At 0830 we disembarked at the old whaling station of Grytviken (Norwegian for “pot cove”). The location was named after sealers’ trypots found on the site. Grytviken was a landing with many attractions. It’s the historic seat of government for South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, the location of the famous South Georgia Museum, a research station for the British Antarctic Survey, and the gravesite of the legendary polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton. We had three sunny hours to explore and photograph the area before the group met at Shackleton’s grave where we joined Chris Edwards. He toasted “the boss” with a shot of rum, gave some historical background, and added a memorable quote about Shackleton by Sir Raymond Priestley of the Nimrod expedition, “Incomparable in adversity, he was the miracle worker who could save your life against all the odds and long after your number was up. The greatest leader that ever came on God’s earth, bar none.”
Back on board we enjoyed a lunchtime barbecue while at anchor in King Edward Cove surrounded by the snowy peaks of the Allardyce Range, including Mount Paget (9,625 feet/2,934 meters), the tallest peak on South Georgia. At the same time, we also enjoyed an informal talk by Sarah Lurcock, the director of the South Georgia Heritage Trust who discussed the rat eradication program on the island. The Norwegian rat was accidentally introduced by the early sealers and whalers and subsequently decimated many of the small ground nesting birds, including the endemic South Georgia pipit and pintail duck, as well as many small seabirds such as the storm petrels, diving petrel and prions. Sarah estimated that the eventual eradication of the rats would allow 100 million more birds to nest on South Georgia.
After lunch we cruised south to our afternoon landing at Godthul (Norwegian for “good harbor”). The site is noteworthy for the abundance of whale bones littering the beach, the scenically-situated gentoo colonies on the upper slopes, and the herds of reindeer that graze the lush grasses. After two hours ashore we returned to the ship just after the sun dipped below the surrounding peaks.
November 14—St. Andrews Bay
At 0300, Monika and Joe Van Os had scoped out the early morning weather situation. The sky was filled with broken clouds, a photogenic sunrise looked possible, the wind was favorable for a landing, and wave swell was moderate. Our landing was a “go.” By 0400 we commenced the landing on the legendary beach at St. Andrews Bay. Just prior to our departure, “bio-secure” breakfast sandwiches and snacks were available in the ship’s lounge to eat on board or to take ashore.
By 0430 the 50 participants who opted for the early morning landing were ashore and experiencing the spectacle of St. Andrews—the largest king penguin colony on South Georgia and the island’s largest and most populated elephant seal beach. Safety instructions were given as well as rules for the engagement of wildlife on this sweeping 1.8-mile (3 km) long beach. Clouds forming on the low horizon precluded a dramatic sunrise. People fanned out in all directions, some heading to the far distance to visit the king penguins, others working the shoreline where penguins were heading out to sea for their morning foraging expeditions, while several photographers concentrated on fighting and mating elephant seals. Still others headed into the interior to shoot introduced reindeer before their expected removal from the island, sometime in 2014.
By 0600 the wind had picked up strongly with hints of katabatic gusts blowing bursts of dry sand across the beach. This barely dampened the spirits of our photographers and most kept on shooting—unfazed.
The ice-clad summits of the southern end of the Allardyce Range, the more than 6,500-foot (2,000-meter) summits of Mount Roots, Mount Kling, Nordensjkold Peak and Mount Brooker appeared and disappeared under an ever-changing swirling cloud cover. They presented a dramatic snowcapped backdrop to our landscapes and blue skies as good light persisted.
By 0700 the beach and the bay were experiencing a full-blown gale. Strong westerly winds and 60-70 mph katabatic gusts created blasting sandstorms across the beach and our safety became more of a concern as Joe Van Os, on shore, and Monika, aboard the Ushuaia, monitored the situation. The 0800 landing for our remaining passengers who had stayed onboard for breakfast was postponed due to the hazard of mounting sea swell on the ship’s gangway and the possibility of drenching waves during the Zodiac operation. Despite the blowing sand, photography on shore continued and unique images of South Georgia wildlife emerging from a fog of blowing sand were undoubtedly created. It is a testament to the quality of today’s camera equipment, that little damage to cameras and lenses by the blowing sand was reported.
By 0900 it was obvious that, despite inviting blue skies and sunshine, the persistent strongly gusting wind presented a safety issue and the entire shore party was collected and gathered together for an orderly departure from the beach. With a potential threat of a Zodiac flipping by the off-shore wind, several staff or seamen remained in the Zodiac as human ballast for the return trip from ship to shore after passengers were offloaded. By 1000 all passengers and staff were back on board Ushuaia.
Our ship waited in place through lunch to see if the wind would diminish for our return to the beach—but it didn’t. With the possibility of creating mountain landscapes from the ship we cruised westward, close to the coast, back in the direction of the Bay of Isles, to Salisbury Plain and Prion Island to make landings there the following day.
A Few Notes about St. Andrews Bay:
The current population of king penguins at St. Andrews Bay tops 300,000 birds. This is in strong contrast to the 1925 census population of 1,100 birds. The dramatic increase is a result of the end of “harvesting” penguins for oil as they were boiled in fat-rendering trypots.
Reindeer were introduced to South Georgia between 1911 and 1925. From 20 animals the herd grew to more than 3,000. St. Andrews Bay is almost totally devoid of tussock grass due to overgrazing by reindeer. When reindeer and rats are removed the tussock should regenerate from the blown seeds of plants growing in areas on the higher slopes, inaccessible. Many smaller burrowing seabirds birds should recolonize the new tussock in time.
The three glaciers bordering St. Andrews Bay are all receding.
Parts of the BBC TV series Life in the Freezer and Blue Planet were filmed at St. Andrews Bay.
November 15—Salisbury Plain & Prion Island
Overnight we repositioned approximately 100 miles northwards of South Georgia to the Bay of Isles. A weather window, plus newly attained (re)permission to land allowed us a second chance on Prion Island and half of that day was on Salisbury Plain. We made it just under the wire to Prion Island as it was closed to visitation for the season on November 18.
Our Salisbury Plain landing began at 0700 onto a steep and stony beach with lots of male fur seals—each bull defending their chosen position in grumpy readiness for the arrival of the cows in about two weeks’ time. Over 35 groups of elephant seal families could be seen along the foreshore in groups of 2 to 35 cows, each with a variety of fat black-coated pups and one dominant alpha male bull. Scattered around each elephant seal group were other males who were ostensibly asleep but also waiting for an opportunity to mate. Weaving paths among this mix were king penguins in the many thousands—surf in, walk back and forth, dive in, wash, and provide tasteful beauty to an otherwise drab gray and green landscape. The weather was never the same from one moment to the next. So many seasons and conditions were experienced in so few hours that we lost count—dry, sun, rain, rainbows, sleet, snow, hail, freezing, cold, warm, wind and more wind! The light, at times, was spectacular and we found many shots that summed up a truly memorable and spectacular site with its 100,000 pairs of breeding king penguins.
All were back on board at 1200 hours and the ship moved to Prion Island but, as the wind shifted, that anchorage had to be changed and the timetable adjusted. The first group landed on the island at 1430. The landing site is on a small beach sheltered by picturesque rocky reefs and rock stacks. This beach had a little bit of everything going on—gentoos arriving and walking to their rookeries at the top of the hills, fur seals, very loud elephant seal cows, and an insistent, but rather inept, bull. Scattered among this mix were South Georgia pipits (the world’s most southerly songbird), feeding on the beach and singing in the tussock from the bottom of the hill to the top, and South Georgia pintail ducks waddling in the muddy channels among the tussock. Overhead white-chinned petrels and giant petrels flew past and, further up the hill, adult wandering albatrosses circled and landed to feed chicks. A boardwalk had been built above an eroded stone path with tussock on either side. A few fur seals growled as we passed but the expedition today was to see and capture images of the increasingly rare wandering albatrosses, one of the world’s largest seabirds.
At least ten, 9 to 10-month-old near fledging chicks were seen on their nests from the boardwalk and platforms. Most of the time they just sat, but occasionally they stretched those massive jointed wings to tone up the flight muscles. The images of the wandering albatrosses over land really does bring home how large these birds are, and even with the wind blowing persistently from the northwest, we could hear the “swoosh” as they soared over our heads. Giant petrels with large flappy feet were also in the air and dropping into their nests in the tussock. They looked small in comparison to the wanderers.
By 1900 we were all back on board to warm up.
November 16—Cooper Bay
Joe Van Os was first on the PA system this morning to advise that there were three southern right whales visible in the distance. The duo of Mary Ann and Anna provided a wealth of information (which may have been a little difficult to assimilate first thing early in the morning). The weather was gorgeous, the visibility excellent and the sea conditions mild for our planned expedition to view the macaroni penguins in Cooper Bay. The Special Protected Area of Cooper Island lay to the east. After breakfast, the first group was away shortly before 0900 (we worked in two groups to allow more room in the Zodiacs to photograph). The macaroni penguins are normally abundant on the rocks adjacent to the colony, but for some reason—probably due to the low tide—the numbers were sparse. However, everyone had the opportunity to view them, along with a selection of pintail ducks, sheathbills and overflying light-mantled sooty albatrosses, in the wonderful morning light. The rotation of groups allowed everyone the opportunity to view the sights and a few also saw wintering arctic terns from the northern hemisphere.
During lunch the ship repositioned to Drygalski Fjord, a long narrow cleft penetrating some seven miles into South Georgia with the Risting Glacier at its head. The weather had deteriorated in the fjord making visibility poor, the lofty summits of the surrounding peaks were lost in the cloud, and the wind increased to about 40 knots. As we made our way to the spectacular snout of the glacier, Chris provided a few choice facts on the geography and history of the area and snow petrels were visible wheeling in the strong breeze.
A celebration of the completion of the South Georgia leg of the voyage—and a honeymoon—was held in an open bar event before dinner. Immediately after dinner Ushuaia departed the calm waters of Drygalski Fjord for the open sea and the Southern Ocean en route to the Antarctic Peninsula.
November 17—At Sea
Overnight, as we rounded the south end of South Georgia, the ship’s motion was rough—pitching and rolling more than normal—and we got precious little sleep. But toward morning the sea settled down to about a six-foot swell and we were on a more predictable roll again. Chris finished his lecture on Shackleton and then reviewed all of the adventurers up to the present day who have explored the Antarctic Peninsula. The continent has a rich history of exploration. In the interest of brevity, he kept the discussion limited to those who ventured to the peninsula itself—otherwise we would have been there well into the night! The first explorers were sealers and then whalers, followed by expeditions sponsored by countries anxious to understand the geography and geology.
Monika gave a presentation on the history of whaling in the Southern Ocean. It is easy to pass modern-day judgment on those early years, but it is important to keep in mind that during the Industrial Revolution we became dependent on the oil products of these beautiful creatures as a lubricant and it drove the market to demand more and more. The baleen that most today associate with corsets was, in fact, the plastic of the day and filled that role in many of the products of the period. Later, from 1904 to 1978, close to a million and a half whales were harvested in the waters of Antarctica. It can be assumed that all of our great-grandparents in some way benefited from this lucrative industry.
Whereas we can trace the harvest of the great whales, it gets more difficult to trace the harvest of the elephant seals and antarctic fur seals which took place concurrently. Most of their pelts were traded to China in the 1900s and the records of those transactions are forever lost.
Our lack of sleep last night due to the heavy seas was helped overnight as we gained back the hour that we lost en route to South Georgia. Ship’s time is now Eastern daylight time +2. Everyone took advantage of that extra hour of sleep!
November 18—At Sea
Due to moving the clocks back an hour and the rougher seas of the day before, many passengers enjoyed waking up late to calm seas. Several seasoned veterans of many Antarctic voyages commented that they had never seen the sea so calm—no white caps or swells of any kind could be seen in any direction. The temperature was a mild 33°F (1°C) and the wind speed was 10 knots. The bow was open to passengers and staff which indicated clear sailing and safe conditions for viewing.
At 0730 we were approximately 340 nautical miles from our destination of Elephant Island which we were expected to reach in 28 hours based on current speed and direction. Elephant Island is widely known in history as the place where Sir Ernest Shackleton and his crew sought refuge following the sinking of their ship Endurance after it became trapped in the Antarctic ice. It was from Elephant Island that Shackleton and a few of his men set sail in a 22-foot boat named the James Caird on an epic 800-mile journey to South Georgia to summon help to rescue the remaining crew.
By midafternoon we enjoyed stunning sunny skies and many people photographed the seabirds trailing the ship. We were followed by hundreds of Cape (pintado) petrels, prions and blue petrels, along with several sightings of white-chinned and giant petrels taking advantage of the increasing winds throughout the day. The lectures today were “Lightroom 201″ presented by John Shaw and “Ice is Nice” by Monika. Prior to dinner the ship hosted an auction fundraiser to benefit the South Georgia Rat Eradication Program—and raised a total of $2,400. The money will assist badly needed funding to eradicate the rodent population on the island and every $145 raised rehabilitates 1 hectare of land area. Combined with prior cash donations by passengers and staff we raised enough to treat more than 40 hectares of rat-infested land.
November 19—At Sea
Early morning greeted us with beautiful, almost impossibly thick snowflakes that fluttered in the wind and reduced visibility to near zero. By 0900 or so we reached Point Wilde on Elephant Island where Shackleton’s men overwintered, from April to November, while Shackleton with a small crew nearly dead-reckoned their lifeboat, the James Caird, the 800 miles to South Georgia. In the mist, intermittent snows, and the heavy clouds that masked the tops of mountain ridges rising nearly straight from the sea, the point was a miserable, formidable place and everyone looking on had a new appreciation, if not awe, of what that crew accomplished to survive on this bleak strip of stony beach while they waited.
The bust of the Chilean captain who finally retrieved Shackleton’s men was barely visible, a lone dark structure against the snow engulfed by thousands of chinstrap penguins standing on the beach and surrounding snowfields. One loose iceberg bobbed nearby, dotted with more penguins.
We spent the majority of the morning sailing along the coast of Elephant Island, everyone surprised by its immensity and rugged beauty. The skies cleared as we motored along, giving us great light for views of Cape Disappointment and Cape Lookout, with blue skies and cloud-topped mountains. Southern fulmars joined the pintados swooping around the ship.
Three sei whales, the third largest of the great or baleen whales, were spotted while we were in comparatively calm seas, and the whales cooperated as much as these whales generally will. Seis are fast swimming whales that rarely sound, thus not revealing their tail flukes as they dive, so our sightings were limited to blows, the rare snout unexpectedly poking above the surface, and excellent views of the distinctive large, hook-like dorsal fin visible seconds before a whale dipped beneath the sea.
The seas were varied, sometimes surprisingly calm, while at other stretches of the day west winds generated powerful swells. One swell tilted the ship, tossing some passengers about their cabins and spilling others from their seats in the main lounge. After leaving Elephant Island we passed by the small island of Cornwallis, whose multiple sheer peaks poked into the clouds. Set against an otherwise cloud-free horizon, the snow-covered island was dramatic and generated plenty of photos. The Captain offered a cruise along the pack ice in the Weddell Sea side of the peninsula—allowing for great ice shots and a cruise through the normally ice-choked territory around Devil Island.
Anna gave a lecture on antarctic seals, and Chris continued to astound us with his depth of knowledge, this time presenting an incredible lecture on plate tectonics and the shaping of the continents.
November 20—Brown Bluff, an Antarctic Continental Landing
Overnight the ship had sailed north from the our exploration of Erebus and Terror Gulf and the pack ice around Devil Island. When we woke, we were anchored off Brown Bluff, easily recognized by its namesake bluff, a 2,444-foot (745-meter) high promontory rising above the sea. Brown Bluff lies in Antarctic Sound in the northeastern part of the Antarctic Peninsula and, fittingly, would be our first landing on the antarctic continent.
After being on board for several days, we were all happy to make an early morning landing which, thanks to mild conditions, was relatively easy. Just above the cobble beach, thousands of gentoo and Adélie penguins were nesting. Many snow petrels could be seen flying about the higher slopes, although whether they actually nest at Brown Bluff is not confirmed. Kelp gulls patrolled the skies over the penguin colonies, searching for exposed eggs to steal, while Cape (pintado) petrels floated just off the beach. We were all extremely happy to find there were no fur seals anywhere—we had sailed beyond “seal land.”
The penguins were the stars of the landing. Groups of both species were busy coming and going—heading to the sea, generally with bodies streaked with penguin poop, or returning from the ocean, now washed clean. We noticed that some of the more isolated of the gentoos were clustered about rocks, while a few had actually built nests on top of fairly large boulders. But, in all the colonies, pebble stealing was the name of the game.
Several icebergs with penguins were just offshore so, shortly after our initial landing, Zodiac cruising commenced. Several of the boats were rewarded with photos of penguins leaping into the water from the icebergs or the reverse, penguins rocketing from the sea onto a berg.
As the tide was going out, more and more rocks were exposed in the shallows along the shore. We had to move our take-out location about 330 feet (100 meters), to find a spot where the Zodiacs could operate. By shortly after 1200 hours, we were all back on board, ready for a hearty lunch.
While the weather held for our visit, by midafternoon it began to worsen. Grayer skies and more wind restricted what we could do, so we slowly pushed southwest toward Gerlache Strait.
November 21—Ererra Channel & Points South
The day started out gray and cold. Due to yesterday’s southerly excursion into the Weddell Sea, this morning we motored to our next landing site at Cuverville Island. After breakfast passengers began to “man the bridge” to watch for whales. It was a successful venture. We had a sleeping humpback whale, as well as several dwarf minke whales beside the ship. Joe Van Os decided to head closer to shore so we would have better scenic shooting opportunities of the continental mountains. Along the way we came across a fantastic grounded iceberg that truly looked like a castle with many spires at the top and tunnels carved into the base from wave action. The interesting fact about this particular iceberg was that Monika and the Ushuaia had first run across it two years ago (so this was the third year photographing the iceberg). It was first found much farther to the south, and it had migrated north over the course of the last few years and dwindled in size. We circled the iceberg, photographing from every angle. After a sudden snow squall set in we continued our journey south.
The weather conditions quickly deteriorated with winds up to 25 knots (Force 6 on the Beaufort scale), limited visibility due to fog, and a squall that coated the ship with several inches of snow. We slowed our pace so that the Captain could maneuver around ice that was hidden from view until it was seen only a few hundred meters from the boat (thank goodness for radar). The storm did not abate and, by the time we reached Cuverville Island after 1500, the decision had already been made to abort the landing. Cuverville is the largest gentoo penguin colony on the peninsula with over 5,000 nesting pairs.
At 1545 Joe McDonald presented a talk on Adobe Bridge with some digital workflow tips. By the time we emerged from the lecture room, the weather was beginning to clear. Captain suggested going into the scenic Errera Channel from the south, not only to get out of the gale but also for some photo opportunities. (Leo Errera was a professor at the University of Brussels and a sponsor of the Belgica Expedition of 1897–1899 when the channel was discovered and named for him.) It proved to be an incredible trip with beautiful mountain scenics and icebergs along the way. As we exited at the northern end of the channel, we got our look at the gentoo colony before turning the bow southward. After dinner photograper Ralph Arwood gave a talk on Florida panther research and conservation measures. It was a nice end to another good day in Antarctica—and something warmer to think about!
November 22—Paradise Harbor & Neko Harbor
This morning’s wake-up call from Anna and Mary Ann was delivered with an Irish lilt, as well as their usual enthusiasm. At our anchorage in Paradise Harbor (a.k.a. Paradise Bay) the air temperature was just a degree above freezing and the water temperature was even colder, so the feminine duo cheerily recommended cancelling all “our” swimming plans for the day. The scheduled landing for the morning was to be at Almirante Brown Station, a small abandoned Argentine scientific base located on a spit of land with steep seacliffs at least 300 feet high on one side and the precipitous face of a sizeable tidewater glacier on the other. Deep snow covered the landing site and prevented us from making landfall so instead we had a 1½-hour Zodiac cruise in the picturesque waters of the surrounding bay. As we cruised along the shoreline we saw several dozen gentoo penguins nesting around the deserted buildings while a few snowy sheathbills paraded about searching for scraps of spilled food. Farther along the shoreline a small colony of antarctic shags was nesting on the lichen-splattered cliffs. As we watched, the shags were busy flying in with nesting material, courting and mating. Aside from the birdlife, the definite photo highlight of the morning’s outing was the myriad icebergs floating in the protected bay. With a polarizer in place, the dark blue-green depths of many of the bergs could be photographed and fully appreciated. A final highlight of the morning was the sighting of a pair of Weddell seals resting on a shelf of shorefast ice near the station. Weddell seals are the largest of the antarctic seals (excluding the occasional southern elephant seal) and hefty females weigh up to 1,300 pounds (600 kg). The photogenic seals with their attractive round faces and patterned, brownish coats are the deep-diving specialists of the peninsula, sometimes reaching depths of almost 2,500 feet (750 meters) and staying submerged for over an hour.
Over the lunch hour the ship moved north to Andvord Bay where we hoped to make a landing at Neko Harbor, a location named for a whaling ship which operated along the peninsula from 1911 to 1912. Once again a barrier of ice and deep snow foiled our plans for a landing, but the substitution of a second Zodiac cruise for the day proved highly successful as the muted gray skies parted and glorious sunshine washed across the surrounding glaciers and snowcapped mountaintops. The scene was a landscape photographer’s dream and many marvellous panoramas were taken. The afternoon was the most scenically stunning we had enjoyed so far in our exploration of the peninsula.
November 23—Lemaire Channel & Petermann Island
Last evening by 2100 the Ushuaia was positioned at the south end of Wiencke Island in hopes of getting a spectacular sunrise on the snow-covered east facing mountain peaks that jut abruptly from Gerlache Strait. The plan was for those wanting to get up to meet in the lounge at 0300 to be in place for the 0320 sunrise.
Joe Van Os was up at 0200 to check on weather conditions only to find it snowing heavily with almost zero visibility. A 0245 check yielded the same results. So Joe taped several “Go back to bed” signs at significant locations in the hallway and those who did get up and read the signs retraced their actions and returned to their berths.
By 0700 we were just outside of the iconic Lemaire Channel. The snow had ended and we were fortunate to be able to see the channel after visibility had cleared. Though it was not sunny, the clear bright white sky and the towering black and white snow-covered rocks allowed amazing monochrome images to be captured with our cameras. Lemaire Channel is seven miles long and a mile wide. Until our arrival no other ship was able to get through due to thick ice conditions this season. (After our visit it was reportedly ice-choked again and other ships in the area did not get through—we were lucky!)
We landed just south of the channel on Petermann Island near the historic 1909 overwintering anchorage of Jean-Baptiste Charcot named Port Circumcision. Yes, the sailors of the last century held strange notions of what constituted entertainment on long winter nights back in those days!
Our Petermann landing rewarded us with many shots of gentoo penguins coming from and going to the sea. We also saw a small colony of antarctic shags and Adélie penguins. We stayed until the light faded. You can always tell when we had an especially good day by the volume of noise in the dining room. Tonight we could barely hear the person sitting across from us!
November 24—Port Lockroy
This morning the few passengers on deck were greeted with perfect light and the calmest silky waters we had seen on the entire trip. Ushuaia repositioned through the southern end of the Neumayer Channel and arrived at Port Lockroy at 0715. Resident Helen Annan gave us a quick introductory talk about Base A on Goudier Island and we landed by 0900. The light started to deteriorate due to a snowstorm but the photogenic gentoo penguins and sheathbills continued to entertain. Meanwhile, anyone suffering from shopping withdrawal was sated by the well-stocked gift shop operated by the British Antarctic Heritage Trust on Goudier Island. A brief visit by a leopard seal was an exciting sighting for those photographing along the shore.
Our barbecue lunch was brightened by a visit from the five staff members from the base. We departed at 1330 in beautiful sunshine all the way to the north end of the Neumayer Channel but straight into another snowstorm. By the time we reached Ronge Island and the Orne Islands the skies had cleared. Our last landing in Antarctica was made perfect by the braying chinstrap penguins surrounded by the pristine snow on these small islands.
Because this would be our last “totally flat calm” evening we celebrated Wayne Lynch’s “retirement” with a party in the lounge prior to dinner.
November 25—Deception Island, Whaler’s Bay toward the South Shetlands
Mary Ann and Anna continued to baffle us with various languages to wake everyone up in the morning. Today it was equally unintelligible to most of us until 0630, when the mention of Deception Island’s Baily Head and Neptune’s Bellows and a glimpse of sunshine was mentioned, it encouraged a move to the outside. Chris gave an account of Baily Head and the Sewing Machine Needles, a series of rock stacks, and continued to offer tidbits of information as we entered Neptune‘s Bellows in blustery conditions with a strong southwest wind cutting across the entrance—Neptune was living up to his reputation. As we rounded into Whalers Bay and Port Foster it was a surprise to see a significant amount of sea ice both in the bay and reaching out further into the large flooded caldera of Deception Island. The remains of the whaling station could be seen at the head of Whalers Bay, but conditions were not conducive to allowing a landing. The likely possibility of the sea ice moving in the wind and potentially blocking our exit and the difficulty in returning everyone to the ship in short order should the situation change rapidly precluded a landing.
Later in the morning as we departed Deception Island, we were called to a special meeting to discuss a large impending storm packing hurricane-force winds in the Drake Passage. The projected weather map showed a large red area smack in the middle of our path back to Tierra del Fuego. Red on a weather map is never a good sign.
It was only recently, following the installation of more southerly-watching weather satellites, that accurate weather forecasts for large storms in the Drake Passage were available. Years ago, we just set out and took what came no matter how bad. Captain, Monika and Joe Van Os discussed our options. It was decided that if we left about 10 hours earlier than scheduled we could beat the worst of the storm and avoid being tossed around in the Drake. That plan was adopted.
As we left, Chris gave a short account of the 1967 volcanic eruption of Deception Island. During our transit northward to the South Shetland Islands, Wayne presented a sobering account of the world‘s climate, how and why it is changing, and some of the things that everyone could do to help mitigate the change.
Before lunch we arrived in McFarlane Strait between Livingston and Greenwich Islands for a proposed landing at Half Moon Island, but even there the wind proved to be too strong to allow a sensible Zodiac operation. Rather than commit everyone to a bouncy meal out in the Drake Passage, Captain and Joe Van Os agreed that lunch would be taken before we encountered the turbulent conditions which usually prevail in the Drake Passage. Leaving the confines of the McFarlane Strait we were able to look both east and west for some distance along the northern coastline of the South Shetland Islands, something that Captain was surprised to see as it is more often than not very murky with poor visibility. The magnificent rock stack that marked the entry into the Drake Passage and 30-40 knot winds in sunshine were the order of the day. The motion of the ship was not too uncomfortable and during the afternoon the wind moderated and the sea calmed somewhat, but with the inevitable roll. Dinner was well attended and everyone retired early before the expected “hurricane” which had been forecast but which we were attempting to outrun. The watery sunset to the west showed an increasingly cloud-filled sky.
November 26—At Sea
The Drake Passage was easygoing this morning with medium seas and a blue sky so, for those of us who still did not get enough, there was outside deck time and seabird photography. Alternatively, there was the lively lounge atmosphere for enjoying the view. And with the manageable seas we were able to fit in a couple of presentations. One of the favorites was Chris’ “Dogs of Antarctica” talk and it was much appreciated, as always. Ellie Van Os presented some of the far-reaching sounds of Antarctic marine mammals, sharing a library of sounds, how they are produced and perceived, and their meaning.
Following lunch we began to notice the effects of the storm building to the west. Everyone made sure their gear was stowed and then settled in for camaraderie in the lounge. Almost without exception, virtually everyone retired to their cabins after dinner to get some rest as the seas built.
November 27—Drake Passage
Overnight the Ushuaia encountered choppy seas with waves reaching 25 feet and winds a Beaufort number of 8. The Beaufort number is an empirical measure that relates wind speed to the observed conditions at sea—8 is a “fresh” gale. For this rating we encountered 34 to 40 knot winds with high waves and breaking crests with some spindrift. By leaving Antarctica a little earlier than scheduled we avoided the 45-foot-high waves that could be encountered if we had not watched the weather and planned accordingly.
Overnight, with “pedal to the metal,” we had made excellent time and, by breakfast, the seas had calmed and we were now three hours from the Beagle Channel—the strait in the chain of the archipelago of Tierra del Fuego. It is one of the three navigable channels that connects the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans without sailing around Cape Horn. The Beagle Channel led us to the port of Ushuaia where we would disembark. The day was filled with the buzz and excitement of our group packing and preparing for the journey home. Many of us were reflecting back on our best highlights of the trip. The energy was mounting!
The day’s presentations included critiques hosted by John and Wayne of images captured during our trip. The critiques focused on the strengths and weaknesses of each image and was helpful to all who attended regardless of participation. Our other presentation was by Mary Ann who put together a great narrative of images taken of our Photo Safaris clients and leaders during our one month adventure. It drew many laughs—humor was, of course, the main aim.
During the late afternoon and evening we waited in the Beagle Channel to be boarded by the Channel Pilot who would accompany us, overnight, to the dock.
Several other ships had joined us at the channel anchorage, including the National Geographic Explorer which had cut a day and a half from their trip due to the storm—their passengers spent a full day in Ushuaia, later sleeping on the ship while it was tied to the dock. Another vessel, Ocean Nova, was not as lucky—their late start and slow speed allowed the storm to catch them on their last day in the Drake.
November 28—Arrival at Ushiaia
We were on the dock by 0600 hours and, following breakfast, off-loaded our luggage and were escorted from the dock by bus. From there everyone was taken to the airport for flights homeward or to continue their travels.
Logbook written by: Wayne Lynch, John Shaw, Anna Sutcliffe, Jeff Vanuga, Joe & Mary Ann McDonald, Joe Van Os, Chris Edwards, Monika Schillat and Ellie Van Os.
Related Tags: antarctica, falkland, georgia, islands, south, ushuaia