Trip Report – Falkland Islands, South Georgia and Antarctica
Antarctica? Why go there?
This was a question I found myself answering frequently before we left on our trip. At that time, answering was easy: to see wildlife and scenery that was interesting and different from what we had seen elsewhere. But having been there and come back, the real answer is so much more than simply checking off something new on a list of things we have seen. Antarctica and the sub-Antarctic Islands astounded me with their profusion of life in the face of extremely inhospitable conditions. Seeing the harsh climate, the ice, mountains, glaciers and the frigid waters is a great spectacle, but seeing how life adapts and thrives in that kind of adversity is the kind of experience that teaches you a whole new respect for nature. To go to Antarctica is to see nature and wildlife at its absolute finest, and to see and experience things that change the way you think about the natural world.
For anyone interested in seeing our pictures from the trip, go to http://www.pbase.com/cwillis/antarctica. The galleries are organized by location, and I even have a smaller “best of” gallery for those who want to see a smaller number of shots. The photography was a joint effort between my wife and me.
II. Trip Operator, Ship and Travel Agency
Our trip was one offered by Quark Expeditions on the Lyubov Orlova, a 112-passenger ship. Since luxury and comfort are secondary considerations for me while traveling, I won’t spend much time on those subjects. I will say that the Orlova was reasonably comfortable and made a perfectly good base of operations for our trip. Some aspects of it were less luxurious, like having our cabin be cold most of the trip and being unable to control the temperature. Others were well beyond my expectations, like the grandiose multi-course meals and desserts served every day on board.
What was much more important to me was the quality of the travel experience, and the expertise and competence of the expedition staff. In that regard, I wasn’t disappointed. Our expedition leader, Jill Baxter, not only displayed diligence and skill in planning our landings and managing the logistics of those landings, but also showed incredible human relations skills by gracefully dealing with the diverse expectations of 112 passengers. She made sure that the trip offered something to appeal to everyone’s interests, and looking at the trip as a whole, the diversity of things we saw and did is a real testament to the care she used in planning our activities. And all of this with a charming and delightful personality. Our assistant expedition leader, Jamie Watts, was consistently knowledgeable, helpful and fun to spend time with. And the remaining expedition staff (marine biologist, ornithologist, geologist, historian, pro photographer and several other naturalists) were all adept at assisting passengers to and from the landings and at providing in-depth information about the places we visited and animals we saw. They all did an excellent job and ended up delivering a fantastic trip experience for us.
I also want to thank our travel agency for this trip, Polar Cruises, and in particular Chuck Cross and Sharon Keating. Both of them provided excellent advice to assist in planning our trip, and continued to follow up with important information as it was changing (such as one of our Aerolineas Argentinas flights changing departure airports the day before we left).
III. Pre-Trip Preparation
Before the trip, I did a lot of reading about Antarctica, looked at a lot of pictures taken by others there, and did lots of research to assist us in buying the right clothes and other things. In terms of clothing, I followed the extremely helpful advice of Erin’s comprehensive trip report on Fodor’s (http://www.fodors.com/community/cruises/antarctica---small-ship-expedition.cfm). Indeed, her report is so thorough and so accurate that I will not even try to supplement it; I would simply recommend that anyone going to Antarctica read it and follow her packing advice.
IV. Photography Equipment
My wife and I both take photography on our trips seriously, so making sure we took the right gear was important. As usual, I ended up taking more than I needed. But since I found relatively little guidance on the internet about photography gear for Antarctica, I thought I would provide a little detail about what we ended up using, and what we didn’t.
For shore landings, we used our two DSLR bodies (Canon 1D Mark III and Canon 40D) almost exclusively. On every shore landing except two, I used a Canon 100-400 lens, while my wife used a Canon 24-105 predominantly, occasionally also using a 70-200/2.8IS. She concentrated on getting landscape shots and pictures of groups of animals, while I tried for animal portraits or pictures of smaller wildlife. This division worked well, allowing us to capture each place we visited in complimentary ways.
I also took a 300/2.8IS, which I used on two shore landings where I anticipated shooting mostly birds in flight, and which I used for hours on end photographing birds from the rear deck of the ship at sea, either by itself or with 1.4x or 2x teleconverters.
Based on my experience, a big prime lens like a 300/2.8 is not a good choice for most shore landings on a trip of this nature, for two reasons. First, the shore landings require portability, both in terms of getting in and out of the zodiac and in terms of walking over uneven terrain and having the ability to put the camera away if rain starts suddenly (which it did several times on this trip). Second, the subject distances vary tremendously from birds and animals being very close to you to being far away and in places you cannot walk because doing so would disturb nesting penguins or the like. For these reasons, the 100-400 was my most-used lens of the trip, and I would recommend it over a 70-200 because 200mm simply isn’t long enough for a lot of the situations I encountered. Another photographer on our trip told me he found his 70-200 too short at time on shore landings, which reinforces my view on this point. In short, the shore landings are a situation where versatility is the key, and the 100-400 is the king of versatility. Moreover, the light, even though usually overcast, was always sufficient for the 100-400 to work with no problems, so I felt no need for a faster lens except once when we made a landing at 9pm.
Of course, I had the luxury of having someone else covering the wide angle for me – my wife had the 24-105 on her camera almost all the time. In retrospect, if I had been doing all the photography work on this trip alone, I probably would have still used the 100-400 and then taken a small point & shoot like a Canon G10 to cover our wide angle needs.
Image storage was a big priority in trip planning, since I knew we would shoot lots of pictures (the final count was 26,300 between the two of us) and need a lot of storage space (final tally was 300GB – we shoot exclusively in RAW). We don’t like to travel with a computer, so we use Hyperdrive storage devices and they worked perfectly throughout this trip. I ended up backing up our cards on two different Hyperdrive units “just in case,” but the primary copy worked with no problems, so I have not even looked at the backup copy. We have used Hyperdrives now for three years and they always do the job, and in a compact, easy-to-carry package.
I also took a sensor cleaning brush (Visible Dust Arctic Butterfly) and wet-cleaning supplies, and I was glad I did. I had to clean both of our sensors several times over the course of the trip, including one wet-cleaning of my camera sensor. I also was able to assist one of our newly-made friends on the trip, whose 5D needed a wet-cleaning as well.
How about the stuff that ended up being less useful? For one thing, I thought I was being very clever to take a small point & shoot (Canon A720IS) with a waterproof housing, on the theory that we would use it when it was raining and we didn’t want to risk the nicer cameras. The problem with this theory was that when it starts raining, the light levels are low and the point & shoot suffers in its performance. So that camera got used very little on the trip. In retrospect, I would still take it as a backup, but I would forget the waterproof housing.
Another item that I used very little was my monopod. I usually use it with my 300/2.8, because handholding that lens can get a little tiring. But since I almost never took the 300/2.8 on shore, I was using the smaller and lighter 100-400, so no monopod was needed (or wanted). And of course a monopod is useless on a moving ship, and I can’t track birds in flight using one anyway, so that particular piece of equipment is one I would definitely leave at home if I took this trip again.
Finally, I rented a super-wide-angle EFS10-22 lens for this trip, but we took at most a dozen shots with it. I think the main reason for this was the mostly overcast skies we had for the majority of the trip – using a super-wide in that situation means getting a narrow strip of scenery and a huge dose of gray sky, so we didn’t use it very much. Maybe if we had experienced more blue skies it would have seen more use, but even then it would have been used only for scenery shots from the ship, because it lacks the flexibility needed on shore landings.
One thing to consider when packing photo gear for an Antarctic trip is the conditions your camera will be exposed to. We got rained on (always light rain, but still) several times on shore landings, and both cameras got a bit wet on several occasions. On the ship, there was salt spray, and on land, high winds blew dust around, especially on the sub-Antarctic islands. The cameras faced cold temperatures outside, followed by the warm interior of the ship. All of this is to say, be sure you know what you are going to do to protect your gear when these conditions occur. We did some limited shooting in light rain, but never for more than a few minutes, and our cameras performed flawlessly for the entire trip.
Another aside – before the trip, I was worried that our batteries would have less power output in cold weather, but this ended up not being the case. My 1D Mark III battery delivered 2500-3000 shots per battery throughout the trip, which is the same thing it does in warm weather, and my wife’s 40D with battery grip delivered a similar performance, again no different from how it performs in warm weather.
V. Ushuaia and Tierra del Fuego National Park
Almost all Antarctic cruises depart from Ushuaia, a medium-sized town in the far southern part of Argentina. Getting there involved flying through Buenos Aires (where we didn’t spend any time) and then taking an Aerolineas Argentinas flight to Ushuaia. Although I was worried about the very restrictive weight limits for the Aerolineas flight, we experienced no problems despite having checked luggage that was well over the limit and carry-on bags that weighed more than triple the “allowed” weight of 11lbs. No excess baggage charges and no problems carrying on our camera bags. The flights were on time and we had no difficulties at all with them.
Ushuaia itself (which, by the way, is pronounced “oo-swy-ah” without any “sh” sound) is touristy but quaint, nestled between the southern end of the Andes mountains and the Beagle Channel. We stayed at the Hotel Albatros, which is nice and conveniently located within walking distance of whatever you want to see in town. We ate at several different restaurants over the 24 hours or so we spent in Ushuaia, our favorite being an Irish Pub because it was one of the few places where we experienced actual service from the waiters. Seriously, our first day there we tried to eat dinner at three other restaurants and couldn’t get anyone to wait on us, despite the fact that there were waiters standing around socializing with one another.
We had a pre-cruise orientation meeting at the hotel the night before the cruise sailed, which was helpful and informative, and at which we got our first introduction to our fellow passengers. The demographics were about what I expected – the passenger group was dominated by retirees and there were only a handful of guests our age (35 & 37). About half were Americans, with sizable numbers of Canadians, Australians, a group of about 12 from New Zealand, and a few from England and other European countries. As in any group of people, many of the passengers were friendly and made great company and a few distinguished themselves with rudeness. But on the whole, it was a well-traveled, adventurous group of people who were not reluctant at all to undertake the sometimes difficult physical efforts involved in the voyage.
An optional half-day tour of Tierra del Fuego National Park was offered for the following morning, and we took it. The park has some great scenery and a few interesting birds, and so was well worth the visit. We did some light hiking and got our passport stamped at the “Post Office at the End of the World.”
Then it was back to Ushuaia for lunch and a few more opportunities for photos before we boarded the ship at 4pm. We sailed from Ushuaia at 7pm, with a brilliant rainbow over the city and heads full of excitement for the journey ahead of us.
VI. Rough Riding – At Sea to the Falkland Islands
In our first orientation meeting after getting on board, Jill warned us to expect rough seas as soon as we left the Beagle Channel, and then all the way to the Falkland Islands. She wasn’t joking. Immediately after we exited the protected waters of the Channel at about midnight, the ship started rolling A LOT. The seas were about 20-25 feet and the ship was moving a great deal, resulting in lots of cases of seasickness (not us, fortunately) and a great many falls, bumps, bruises, and sprains as people attempted to walk around the ship. The ship’s doctor was busy non-stop attending to all of these problems, and by the time we reached the Falklands, he looked extremely tired. I shot a short video from the bridge while we were at sea, and you can get some idea of the ship’s movement from it: http://www.vimeo.com/3181376.
Although we had birds around the ship throughout the trip out to the Falklands, I didn’t try to take any pictures, as the ship was moving so much that I felt going outside was just asking to get catapulted off into the water. Even though we were at sea, there were plenty of activities between meals, briefings, lectures and nature documentaries. We attended some of the lectures and spent some time getting to know some of our cohorts among the passengers, so the time went by quickly and before we knew it, we had arrived in the Falkland Islands.
VII. Falkland Islands
We were only in the Falklands for about 36 hours, but what a great 36 hours! We started off with a landing at West Point Island, a privately-owned nature reserve that features a colony of Black-browed Albatrosses and Rockhopper Penguins, living together in a scenic, rocky shoreline covered with tussock grass. Hundreds of albatrosses wheeled around just overhead, taking off and landing only a few feet from where we stood. The nests had lots of good-sized chicks, and the adults tended to them and displayed to one another, often noisily. The Rockhoppers were all among the albatross nests and walking around us as well, and there were small crèches of rockhopper chicks, most of whom were very muddy!
Black-browed Albatrosses are “small” with wingspans “only” up to about 7 feet, but the sight and sounds of so many of them in the air and on the ground all around us were spectacular. And although Rockhopper Penguins are quite small, they are big on personality. After a couple of hours at the colony, we crossed to the other side of the island to the residence of the owners of the island (who, sadly, weren’t there), where most of the passengers had tea with a group of Turkey Vultures and Striated Caracaras in attendance.
That afternoon, we had another really great landing at Saunders Island. This was a white sand beach, probably about a mile long, with some hills on all sides. The sun was out and the sky was blue, and we had the freedom to wander an enormous area, with colonies of Rockhopper, Magellanic, Gentoo and King Penguins all on the same island. I concentrated on the Rockhoppers and Magellanics, knowing that we would see lots more Gentoo and King Penguins later in the trip. I found a good spot where I could photograph the penguins entering and exiting the water and bathing in a small pool, and learned that if you sit down, the penguins will not only continue their activities only a few feet away, but will actually come up to investigate you. I had lots of penguins too close for my camera, so I was able to just enjoy seeing them up close. And, near the end of our time there, I had a whole family of Falklands Flightless Steamer Ducks sneak up behind me. Saunders Island was a real treat.
When we woke up the next morning, we were in port at Stanley, the capital of the Falkland Islands. With a population of around 2,100 people, it is very British in appearance, with the British flag proudly displayed, Land Rovers on the streets everywhere, and lots of other reminders of the residents’ British heritage. We took a couple of hours to visit Gypsy Cove, a scenic wildlife refuge only a few miles from Stanley, where we saw lots of Magellanic Penguins and their chicks in burrows among the tussock grass. We also saw some small Rock Shag colonies. We returned to Stanley to wander around and for lunch at the “Falklands Brasserie,” which was very nice, then boarded the Orlova for our trip to South Georgia.
VIII. Across the Convergence: At Sea To South Georgia
For the next two and a half days, we were at sea making the journey to South Georgia. The weather was mostly overcast, but the winds and seas were moderate. While most of the passengers were attending the lectures and documentaries in the ships’ auditorium, I spent hours on end on the stern of the ship watching and photographing the birds that accompanied us. We generally had three species of albatrosses in evidence around the ship (Wandering, Royal and Black-browed), plus Giant and White-chinned Petrels, various prions and Wilson’s Storm Petrels.
It seems like a very simple thing, but I just loved watching the albatrosses and giant petrels fly. These are birds that stay at sea for days or weeks at a time, and fly very large distances, so they must get around using the least amount of energy possible. Albatrosses don’t have strong flight muscles, so they must of necessity glide without much wing-flapping. All of them used a technique of flying down into a trough between two waves and using the air pushed ahead of the wave to launch themselves about 30-40 feet in the air, then gliding in the direction they wanted to go, and then repeating that process over and over again. Using that technique, they could catch up to the ship, even into a headwind, remarkably quickly – all without a single flap of the wings. It was like watching a group of kites flying themselves – serene and quiet, but powerful and purposeful.
This was my first chance to get an up-close look at Wandering Albatrosses, because they would fly right over my head on the stern of the ship. Wow. With a wingspan of 11-12 feet, the Wandering Albatross is the world’s largest flying bird, and having one fly near you is like being buzzed by a small airplane. They dwarfed the Black-browed Albatrosses and giant petrels, each of which have 7-foot wingspans, and I had a good opportunity to see the different coloring on the older and younger birds. Wandering albatrosses start off mostly dark in color, then as they get older the head and body turn white, followed by the tops of the wings. The whitest ones are the oldest males, while the mottled brown and white ones are only a few years old. I was both awestruck by the ease with which they flew and saddened by the fact that they are critically in danger of going extinct. To learn more about the human activities that are killing Wandering Albatrosses and to find out how you can help, go to www.savetheablbatross.net.
I was so busy photographing the albatrosses that, at the time, I thought they were all wanderers, but when I got home and was looking at my pictures, I had the pleasant surprise of discovering pictures of a Northern Royal Albatross mixed in. What a treat, especially since those birds breed only on islands near Australia and New Zealand, and here was one all the way on the opposite side of the globe! They look very similar to wanderers, but they have a black edge to their upper bill and lack the peach-colored ear spot of the Wandering Albatross.
Anyway, as is probably obvious from this discussion, I was in heaven, with a never-ending procession of birds lining up to take passes near the stern of the ship within easy reach of a telephoto lens (and many times too close for me to get the whole bird in the frame!).
During these two days, we also crossed the Antarctic Convergence – the area in the ocean where cold water from Antarctic meets the relatively warmer water of the South Atlantic. It is an important boundary, both because the mixing of the two masses of water causes nutrients to well up that support a great concentration of life, and because the convergence marks a boundary that many species of birds and sea animals do not cross. From a biological/ecosystem perspective, the Convergence marks the boundary of Antarctica, because south of the Convergence, the very cold sea water (it was 0-2 degrees Celsius constantly from this point on) influences the climate and the lives of the birds and animals that are hardy enough to live there.
IX. South Georgia Island
The excitement among the expedition staff leading up to our arrival at South Georgia foreshadowed what an incredible place it is. The expedition staff go to Antarctica multiple times per year, but they get far fewer chances to visit South Georgia – the Orlova, for example, was only going there once this season, on our trip. Compared to the Antarctic Peninsula, which is visited (in one way or another) by perhaps 35-40,000 tourists a year, South Georgia receives only about 8,700 visitors. As we approached South Georgia, the expedition leaders and staff were getting noticeably wound-up anticipating our visit.
We spent the next four days at South Georgia, navigating the eastern side of the island from north to south. The western side is pounded by merciless westerly winds and waves, and so it is impossible to conduct activities there, but the “sheltered” eastern side of the island boasts an abundance of wildlife and the island’s important historical sites.
The island itself is impressive from the moment you first see it. Snow-covered peaks rising up to almost 10,000 feet tower over smaller hills covered with bright green tussock grass. Immense glaciers descend in the valleys into numerous bays and fjords. The exposed smaller peaks show evidence of the geological uplifting and folding of rock that created the island. South Georgia is part of the Scotia Arc, which is a line of islands and submarine ridges that are an extension of the Andes Mountains, created at the same time by the same clash of tectonic plates.
All this impressive scenery creates some ferocious weather, especially wind. Over four days, we never experienced anything like calm winds, and usually the wind was blowing 20-40 knots. We had two days where the wind exceeded 50 knots the entire day, gusting up to 85 knots, and causing us to cancel a couple of shore landings on our last day there (the zodiacs cannot be operated in winds greater than 50 knots because they can be flipped over by winds that high).
Despite the winds, we made five landings on and around South Georgia, encompassing both incredible natural sights and South Georgia’s major historical landmarks. Our first landing was at Salisbury Plain, well-known for the immense colony of King Penguins that lives there – more than 200,000 adults and chicks, stretching as far as the eye can see. We spent half a day wandering among this throng of penguins and dealing with the Plain’s other most notable inhabitant: thousands of Antarctic Fur Seals.
These seals, which superficially look very similar to sea lions, were nearly wiped out by sealers in the 18th and 19th centuries, and were believed to have been hunted to extinction. A lone colony of seals on Willis Island (near South Georgia) survived because it was not discovered, and its members propagated in huge numbers, so that today there are 2-4 million of them breeding on South Georgia. Perhaps they remember their ancestors’ run-ins with humans, or perhaps they are just naturally ornery, but they love to threaten and charge human visitors to their home. When the pups do this, it is very cute, since the pups only weigh about 15 pounds and can’t follow through on their threats. But when an adult male comes after you, it is more intimidating – they weigh up to 450 pounds and can move very quickly across the beach toward you. Imagine a 400-pound German Shepherd growling, snorting and baring its teeth at you, then running at you as fast as it can, and you’ll get the idea.
Anyway, there is only one way to deal with cantankerous fur seals: you must face them down. You can’t run away – apparently that just encourages them to chase and bite you. So we all got a great deal of practice growling, clapping our hands and lunging at threatening fur seals. After a while, it was second nature and everyone navigated the seal-infested landing sites without incident.
Our second landing was Prion Island, which is distinctive because it is a nesting site for Wandering Albatrosses. The South Georgia government has completed a boardwalk that takes visitors up to two observation platforms, but only a few people are allowed up at a time, and only for a few minutes. So, this was a short landing, but the sight of wanderers coming to and from their nests right overhead was spectacular, as were the displays and dances they did with one another on land.
The next day the weather interfered with our landing plans, as the wind was blowing very hard in the morning. We had planned to land at Fortuna Bay and drop off a group of passengers who wanted to do the “Shackleton Walk” over to Stromness, but the wind was too strong. The Orlova spent the morning moving back and forth along the coast, trying to find a spot with lesser winds, but the wind was present everywhere we explored. After lunch, we returned to Fortuna Bay to try an alternate landing site on the northwestern side of the bay, and we got lucky – the wind was slightly less there, and we were able to make a landing. By this time, the sun was out again and the skies were blue, and we enjoyed a very long landing – about 5 hours. In addition to King Penguins and Fur Seals, we saw several Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses and Kelp Gulls who had nests at the site, as well as a group of South Georgia Pintails. South Georgia’s most famous introduced species (reindeer) also made an appearance, and future visitors might miss seeing them, because plans are in place to eradicate them in the near future. The scenery of the landing site was wonderful, with a glacier tongue at the northern end of the beach, tussock grass and exposed rocks further south, and snow-capped mountains in the distance. Even though our morning activity had been canceled, after 5 hours on shore at Fortuna, I wasn’t complaining.
We tried again the next day to land the walkers in Fortuna Bay for the Shackleton Walk, but again the wind interfered, so we headed over to Stromness on the Orlova and made a landing there. Stromness is, of course, the whaling station where Shackleton sought a rescue for his crew stranded on Elephant Island in Antarctica, but today it is a series of decaying buildings and machines that are off limits to visitors because of asbestos and the danger of structural collapses. The site of the abandoned whaling station is a large, broad plain with some small streams flowing down it, again overrun by King Penguins and Fur Seals. There was also a lone Elephant Seal hauled out on the beach – at least until one of the other passengers scared it away by approaching too closely while I was photographing it. The wind on this landing was constant and very strong, almost knocking me over several times during the landing.
That afternoon, we visited Grytviken in Cumberland Bay, which was a highlight of the trip for a number of reasons. First of all, the scenery sailing into Cumberland Bay was incredible, and the blue skies had triumphantly returned to replace the overcast we had experienced at Stromness. Photographing the scenery from the ship, though, was made difficult by the very strong, cold winds. Nevertheless, we pressed on and landed at Grytviken, which was an extremely meaningful event for the group of devoted Shackleton admirers among the passengers – his grave is in the cemetery in Grytviken. We had several hours to explore the museum, buy a few things at the gift shop, and look around at the rusted machinery that was the ending point for so many thousands of great whales over the approximately 35 years that Grytviken was in operation. At the end of our landing, we gathered for a toast to Shackleton at his gravesite, with the toast occasionally interrupted by the off-color noises being emitted by a couple of dozen Elephant Seals hauled out around the cemetery.
There were two landings planned for our final day in South Georgia, but both were canceled because the fierce winds never went below 50 knots. We ended our visit to South Georgia by taking a ship cruise through the magnificent Drygalski Fjord, a narrow waterway lined with towering mountains and huge glaciers. We also began to see significant numbers of icebergs, now that we were at the southern end of South Georgia. Exiting the fjord, we put South Georgia behind us and set sail for the South Orkney Islands. The trip there took almost two days, and sea conditions were moderate and pleasant.
X. South Orkney Islands
After two days at sea, the South Orkney Islands appeared before us, and we navigated on the southern side of Laurie Island toward Coronation Island and our landing site at Shingle Cove. The approach was marked with spectacular scenery and even more spectacular icebergs, and now we were south of the 60 degree boundary that marked our official entry into Antarctica. We enjoyed taking pictures of the scenery as we sailed through these seldom-visited islands, and now the compliment of birds following the ship included a number of Cape Petrels – which accompanied us throughout our time in Antarctica proper.
We made our landing at Shingle Cove in the early evening. There was still light, but it was cloudy and photography was much more difficult than at our previous landings. Coronation Island is visited by almost no one – the statistics show that only 102 visitors landed there in the entire 2007-08 season. The Cove features steep, rocky cliffs inhabited primarily by Adelie Penguins – our first (and only) opportunity to see this species. We spent about three hours at Shingle Cove and then heaved anchor for the South Shetland Islands.
XI. South Shetland Islands
It took a little less than 24 hours to get to the South Shetlands. Our plan was to make a single landing there and then head down toward the Antarctic Peninsula, a plan with which the passengers seemed to universally agree. Our chosen spot was Penguin Island, a volcanic island barely a mile across and lying just south of King George Island. Penguin Island is notable not only for the large colony of Chinstrap Penguins living there, but also because it is a nesting site for a large number of Southern Giant Petrels, which wheeled overhead at low altitude throughout our visit. The island also has a very red volcanic cone that many of the passengers climbed (the volcano is believed to have erupted last about 300 years ago).
This landing was, to me, the most physically difficult because the beach was composed of large, rounded rocks and numerous pieces of ice that made walking up from the zodiac landing spot very difficult. The expedition staff helped everyone through the difficult spots, and by the time the landing was over several hours later, they had completely cleared a path to the zodiac landing spot to make the going a lot easier.
One of the real treats of this landing for me was seeing and photographing white-morph Southern Giant Petrels against a partially-clearing blue sky. The giant petrels are large and impressive birds, but the white ones are especially so. I found a spot on the beach where they would fly by with a background of white clouds and blue sky and got some pictures I am very proud of.
We also ran into a group of researchers from the nearby Polish Arctowski Research Station who were arriving and setting up camp on the island. Imagine sleeping in a tent on a rocky beach in 30 degree weather with 30mph winds! That is exactly what these hardy researchers were getting ready to do.
XII. The Peninsula
By the next morning, we were navigating the Gerlache Strait on our way to the sites we would visit on the Antarctic Peninsula. The scenery and icebergs as we entered the Errera Channel were spectacular, and sightings of penguins and whales in the water around the ship were numerous. We made a morning landing at Danco Island, at the southern end of the Errera Channel, where we visited a Gentoo Penguin colony and hiked up the island’s slopes to get excellent views of the surrounding mountains, glaciers and icebergs. Returning to the ship for lunch, we watched even more amazing scenery pass by as the ship moved “around the corner” into Andvord Bay for our afternoon landing at Neko Harbor. The ship was positioned right next to the face of an immense glacier, much thicker than the ship’s height, and we landed on shore to visit the local Gentoo Penguins and to hike up a snow-covered hill for a view of the top of the glacier. Every once in a while, the glacier would crackle or boom, and a few small pieces of ice fell off into the water from time to time. Two of our shipmates also got engaged to be married on top of that hill!
We then did a zodiac cruise around Andvord Bay, seeing several Humpback Whales at very close range and a couple of Leopard Seals. Interestingly, one of the Humpback Whales was being accompanied by a group of about 20 Gentoo Penguins, who seemed to follow the whale wherever it went. The whale surfaced repeatedly within 50-100 feet of our zodiac, always announcing its presence with a loud breath.
That evening, the ship stayed anchored at Neko Harbor while we enjoyed a wonderful outdoor barbeque with the glacier and the surrounding mountains all around us. The weather was calm and the scenery unforgettable, so this was a very special and memorable event for everyone on board.
The next day was our last in Antarctica, so it was planned as a marathon. We started off with a 5:30am zodiac cruise through Paradise Bay, cruising up close to numerous glaciers and icebergs in the early morning mist. The ship then moved back into the Errera Channel for a late-morning landing at Cuverville Island. At first I wasn’t thrilled about Cuverville, figuring it would be pretty much the same as Danco Island (right next door). I was wrong. Cuverville had a much larger Gentoo colony (maybe 20,000 penguins), and consequently had a large resident population of skuas. I had a great time photographing the penguins against the backdrops of glaciers and icebergs, but had a couple of lucky opportunities to get some skua pictures that I had been wanting – including a shot of a pair of skuas that Jamie believed were a mixed Brown Skua/South Polar Skua couple. The two species are known to hybridize, so seeing a mixed pair was a real treat. But most of all, I was happy to get several decent shots of skuas in flight and on the ground making their characteristic threat display. They really are the street fighters of the Antarctic world, with an attitude that would make Tony Soprano proud. My wife went to a different part of the island and got a great photo opportunity with a Weddell Seal, an animal we had not seen many examples of. So, Cuverville ended up being a real highlight among our landings.
During lunch, the ship moved north to the Melchior Islands, the site of our final activity for the day. We took a zodiac cruise through the narrow channels and among the rocks and ice of these islands, watching large waves from the Drake Passage crash explosively against the islands. We saw another Weddell Seal and some nesting Antarctic Terns and Kelp Gulls, as well as a couple of bull Fur Seals. The scenery was unique, in that the wave action kept the lower part of the rocks exposed, while snow and ice remained up higher. Totally different from what we had seen along the Antarctic Peninsula.
The day was exhausting, but rewarding. Back on the ship, we put Antarctica to our stern and headed north to Ushuaia. I wished the trip could go on longer.
XIII. The Journey Home
The next two days were at sea in the Drake Passage, with moderate wind and waves. I was back on the stern of the ship photographing birds. At first, we only had a squadron of Cape Petrels escorting us, but as we moved further north, we acquired a number of Wandering and Black-browed Albatrosses. As we neared South America, we had a bit of extra time, so the ship was diverted for a view of Cape Horn, and later that evening we entered the Beagle Channel. The expedition staff hosted a farewell cocktail party and displayed a slide show of the best pictures submitted by the staff and passengers during the trip. It was a fitting end to a wonderful trip.
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Antarctica, the Falkland Islands and South Georgia Trip Report and Pictures
Trip Report – Falkland Islands, South Georgia and Antarctica