Antarctica, South Georgia and the Falkland Islands
January / February 2009
For Bird list click here
For Mammal list click here
I was a wildlife lecturer member of the Expedition Team on two ‘back to back’ cruises to the above destinations on the MV Spirit of Adventure. During the cruises, there were many landings by Zodiacs and some cruises by Zodiac. The following is a brief outline of the main observations and destinations. Please check out the list of birds and mammals seen on the trip.
Buenos Aires – The Falkland Islands – Antarctic Peninsula – Ushuaia – Antarctic Peninsula – South Georgia – The Falkland Islands – Ushuaia – Buenos Aires
Thursday 8th January 2009
Arrive Buenos Aires, Argentina 10:15 local time, via Sao Paolo, Brazil. British Airways flight from Heathrow (departing 21:30 local time, 7th, January 2009). Join Spirit of Adventure at Buenos Aires.
Beautiful day, hot sunny and warm. Depart Buenos Aires at 18:00 local time.
Managed to see some land birds before embarking, including plenty of Picazuro Pigeons in the port. A couple of Cocoi Herons were also present as we set sail.
Friday 9th. January 2009
At sea to the Falkland Islands. Lovely day, sunny and hot. Northerly breeze, calm sea.
In addition to the expected birds, a single Grassland Sparrow was found on deck – a hitchhiker from the mainland around Buenos Aires. Also, a single yellow butterfly was also briefly seen on board.
Large numbers of Great Shearwaters were seen as well as good numbers of Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatrosses. They outnumbered the more familiar Black-browed Albatrosses.
Saturday 10th. January 2009
At sea to the Falkland Islands. Relatively calm sea, 15-23 degrees Celsius. Wish I’d packed more hot weather clothing – especially a sun hat.
Our first Wilson’s Storm Petrels and Black-bellied Storm Petrels of the trip were present today. A few Atlantic Petrels were also seen and a couple of Southern Royal Albatrosses.
Sunday 11th. January 2009
At sea to the Falkland Islands. Mainly clear and sunny and warm with a calm sea.
A single Magellanic Penguin was seen as we approach the Falklands. Approximately 20 Wandering Albatrosses were following the ship much of the day and a single Slender-billed Prion was seen.
Monday 12th. January 2009
West Point Island. Today we arrived at the Falkland Islands and had two landings. The first of these was at West Point Island. In wonderful weather I visited the Black-browed Albatross colony. The birds were nesting in among the Tussock Grass and most of the birds had chicks. In among the Albatrosses were many Rockhopper Penguins. These birds nest in close proximity to the much larger Albatrosses. It is believed that the Penguins gain some form of protection in doing this from the ever-present threat from Skuas and Giant Petrels. After a delightful morning including a walk over the island to and from the colony from the beach landing, it was on to the second landing of the day.
Grave Cove. The second landing was to Grave Cove. After another walk over the island on gentle terrain in excellent weather, the Gentoo Penguin rookery was reached. There were several thousand pairs scattered around the area with many creching chicks. In among them Striated Caracaras were to be found – a serious predator on the islands. Indeed a group of Caracaras were feasting on a dead adult Gentoo Penguin. It was a little incongruous to see sheep walking among the penguins – a rare combination indeed. New birds seen today included Turkey Vulture, Rock Shag, Upland and Kelp Geese. Smaller birds were represented by Correndera Pipit (the Falkland Islands race of the South American species), Austral Thrush (the ‘Falkland Islands thrush’) and Long-tailed Meadowlark (or Military Starling as it is known locally). A pod of Commerson’s Dolphins rode the bow wave of the Zodiac as we returned to the ship.
Tuesday 13th. January 2009
Carcass Island. Today the weather changed from the sunny days we had thus far had. It was grey with low cloud and drizzly. However, we landed by Zodiac on the beach and then had a couple of miles walk along the coast to be collected later in the day. The main attraction of this landing was the Magellanic Penguin rookery and they were very much in evidence. This species nests underground here and it is important not to approach the burrows too closely as it is possible to collapse them. A Peregrine flew over, and a couple of South American Snipe wandered through the Tussock Grass, making a curious noise, like a cross between a whistle and a warble. Both species of Oystercatcher in this part of the world were present – Magellanic and Blackish. In addition, several Tussac Birds (or Blackish Cinclodes) were present on the beach. They were completely unperturbed by the presence of so many people and were happily running through the jetsam and flotsam on the beach in the manner of a large mouse. These birds are now almost all found on the offshore islands which are still rat free – the rats on the mainland have taken their toll on ground nesting birds such as the Tussac Birds. The Tussock Grass is a haven for many species on the Falklands and South Georgia, and is used as a nesting habitat, shelter and source of insect food by many species. Sadly, most of the Tussock Grass has been removed from the mainland and is only present in any quantity on the offshore islands – another reason why you have to visit some of these place to see all the birds.
As we arrived in the morning, a single South American Sea Lion male slumped off the beach into the sea.
A planned later landing at Saunders Island was cancelled due to the worsening weather – higher winds and poor visibility.
Wednesday 14th. January 2009
Stanley. We arrived at Stanley at 07:00 in lovely weather. I spent the morning at York Bay and Gypsy Cove where there is a Magellanic Penguin rookery. It is three miles from the ship’s berth to the rookery so I got a taxi there and walked back.
There were a few Black-crowned Night Herons nesting with some Rock Shags on some rocks near the Penguins. The beach here is very inviting with its pure white sand but sadly you cannot walk on it as it is still mined from the conflict.
Numerous Falklands Flightless Steamer Ducks were on the shore and allowed close approach – they were totally confiding. As were groups of White-rumped Sandpipers I came across. Sadly, I didn’t manage to find the Rufous-chested Plover, which I was hoping for. Dolphin Gulls were hanging around the jetty in town for any scraps dropped by passengers. We left Stanley for the Antarctic Peninsula at 18:00.
About an hour and a half after leaving Stanley, I spotted the tell-tale dorsal fin of a male Killer Whale about 300 metres from the ship.
Thursday 15th. January 2009
Drakes Passage. Today we continued our journey south to the Antarctic over the Drakes Passage, notorious as the roughest sea in the world. Our luck was in however, as it was quite a calm sea. In addition to the usual seabirds expected at this latitude, I saw a pod of Peale’s Dolphins but they were too distant for a good photograph.
Friday 16th. January 2009
Drakes Passage. Slight swell to start the day, then wind increased and sea rougher. I saw 30 Chinstrap Penguins from the ship today and 1 white morph of the Southern Giant Petrel. The two species of Giant Petrel (the Northern and Southern) I find very difficult to separate because I am colour blind. Luckily, the Southern is the only one of the two species with an almost pure white form. Southern Fulmar and Cape Petrel were both birds, which indicated we were quite far south now. I saw a total of 5 Humpback Whales today.
Saturday 17th. January 2009
Waterboat Point / Paradise Bay. This is one of my favourite places in the world to visit and it never disappoints. Today was an exceptionally nice day – superb clear blue skies and totally calm. This led to some simply stunning scenes. Ice clad mountains coming straight down to the sea. I know of no place lovelier. We got ashore early and visited the Gentoo Penguin rookery at the Gonzalez Videla research station. As well as the Gentoos, there were numerous South Polar and Brown Skuas waiting for a chance to take a Penguin chick as well as the refuse collectors of this part of the world, the Snowy Sheathbills. On the mammal front, a Leopard Seal was lounging on a nearby ice floe, and a Weddell Seal was lying on the beach in the Gentoo Rookery. All too soon it was time to move on. This afternoon we went on a Zodiac cruise around the Paradise Bay. This was beautiful in the light and we came across a few Minke Whales feeding in the bay.
Sunday 18th January 2009
Port Lockroy / Jougla Point. Today we visited the British base at Port Lockroy – site of another Gentoo rookery. In addition to visiting the rookery, I took time to have a good look at the base and chat to the British research workers who are here for four months during the brief Antarctic summer. I also made sure to visit the small museum dedicated to the base’s former use in the years around and after the Second World War. In the second part of the day I went to the nearby Jougla Point where there were several whalebones on the beach – relicts of former times. Today the weather was worse with blowing horizontal snow much of the day.
Monday 19th. January 2009
Paulet Island. This year, as the ice conditions were favourable, we pushed on through the Antarctic Sound, where we were treated to the sight of many large tabular icebergs, which had calved off the Larsen Ice Shelf, as we had a chance to visit the remote Paulet Island. This island is an Adelie Penguin rookery. We had a simply wonderful time in lovely calm weather. Over 400,000 Adelie Penguins were distributed in the immediate area of our landing. The sight and sound (and, it has to be said, smell!), was overpowering. There were many reasonably large chicks and all seemed to be chasing any adult bird making its way up the beach from the sea with food for its chick. The adults have to run the gauntlet of this barrage but only deliver food to their own offspring. The parents are able to identify their own chicks by call.
Paulet is also an important historical site – survivors of the wrecked ship Antarctic spent the winter here in a hut built from the remarkable stones on the beach.
I saw another Killer Whale just offshore on the way back to the ship.
Tuesday 20th. January 2009
Due to deteriorating weather conditions we were unable to make our planned landings on Penguin Island or Turret Point. We therefore made our way to an alternative landing at Deception Island. Unfortunately, the weather was also too poor to attempt a passage through the narrow ‘Neptune’s Bellows’ to allow us to enter this extinct volcanic caldera. Reluctantly, we made our way north across the Drakes Passage.
Wednesday 21st. January 2009
Drakes Passage. A rough sea in 40-knot winds. 5-9 metre swell, but typical weather for the Drake. I saw a couple of Blue Petrels today.
Thursday 22nd. January 2009
Drakes Passage. We arrived in Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world at mid afternoon. Earlier, we passed Cape Horn in daylight – a first for me. A clear and sunny day but very windy (typical for here).
Friday 23rd. January 2009
Ushuaia. I took a trip to the nearby Tierra del Fuego National Park. A bus dropped us off at the café in the park. One of the birds I desperately wanted to see here was the Magellanic Woodpecker. I had missed it on my two previous visits. As soon as I got out of the bus, I saw a woodpecker on a nearby tree. Then another couple appeared and eventually no less than five birds were present. I then took a walk along the lake here, which is surrounded by spectacular scenery. In the Southern Beech forests, I found, White-crested Elaenia, White-throated Treerunner, Thorn-tailed Rayadito and Grey-hooded Sierra Finch. Larger birds on the water included Crested Duck, Yellow-billed Pintail and a pair of nesting Great Grebes.
Later in the day, I had a look around Ushuaia – it really is a lovely place to wander around and has the definite feel of a frontier town. In the early evening, I returned to the Spirit of Adventure as she prepared to leave for the second cruise, this time to include South Georgia.
Saturday 24th. January 2009
Today we continued our journey south over the Drake Passage and luckily again the conditions were good. A Magellanic Diving Petrel was found in the dining room of the ship today – it is not uncommon for disorientated seabirds to end up on ships as the lights on the superstructure attract them. I released it overboard, after first making sure there were no marauding Giant Petrels or Skuas in view.
Otherwise it was a quiet day.
Sunday 25th. January 2009
We arrived at Deception Island this morning. This is a collapsed volcanic caldera, which has since flooded with seawater, through a narrow break in the wall of the crater. It is a challenge to navigate the small gap, known as Neptune’s Bellows, into the crater, and the weather prevented this on the last cruise. This time, however, conditions were better, though visibility was not perfect.
Once inside, we anchored off Whaler’s Bay, which as its name suggests, is where the whalers operated their business from in the last century. I spent the day walking around the site, including walking up to Neptune’s Window, a gap in the cliff face of the caldera, about 300 feet above the raging surf outside. It was a sheer drop, and the ground was very crumbly so it was important to stay well back from the edge.
There were some Cape Petrels nesting on the cliffs and good views of them on the nest could be had from the window. Further down, on the beach, Antarctic Terns were nesting, and several Brown Skuas were resting on the waterline. There was a single Chinstrap Penguin near the old British Antarctic Survey base. A couple of Southern Giant Petrels were also present.
Wandering around the old buildings, it was easy to get an idea of the activities, which took place here in the past. Returning to the ship, we made our way back out of the caldera and continued on our journey south.
Monday 26th. January 2009
Today found us back at Waterboat Point. The weather was much more cloudy than when were here 9 days ago with some sleet at times. I had another good day marshalling the passengers around the Gentoo Penguin rookery, including showing them the almost albino individuals. I saw a few attacks by the Skuas on some Gentoo chicks.
In the afternoon we were able to cruise the Lemaire Strait. This narrow stretch of water is surrounded on both sides by mountains, which rise sheer from the sea to over 4,000 feet. At the end of the Strait I guided the discussed this part of Antarctica as we cruised past some of the large icebergs, in a series of Zodiac cruises.
Tuesday 27th. January 2009
Today we were at Port Lockroy and Jougla Point again. A gloriously sunny morning set off the base against the surrounding mountains. However, a wind blew up by mid morning, which got progressively stronger making conditions more unpleasant. A newly fledged Adelie Penguin in amongst the Gentoos was a surprise. I was lucky enough to get a sequence of photos of a South Polar Skua raiding the Gentoos and making off with an egg. I also got some acceptable shots of some Antarctic Shags, including some flight shots.
Wednesday 28th. January 2009
After cruising through Antarctic Sound, we eventually were able to land at Brown Bluff. Initially, the surf was too great to allow a landing, but gradually conditions eased and a successful. What a spectacular sight it was. Thousands of Adelie Penguins in a rookery, with many Gentoos as well, all under the simply awesome cliffs of this volcanic island, with Snow Petrels floating over the higher ridges. Hundreds of Adelies were busily making their way to and fro along the water’s edge, either going out on fishing missions for their chicks, or returning to the rookery with food. Each one had to run the risk of attack from at least one Leopard Seal which was patrolling the beach just offshore and more than one adult Adelie was seen to become a victim during our time their. In addition, several Southern Giant Petrels attacked a young Adelie, which had fledged, in the sea, and they proceeded to take pieces out of the penguin while it was still alive. Surprisingly, though, they left it alone after a while, and did not kill it.
Ice was a bit of a problem here, and the zodiacs had to zig zag their way through the smaller pieces on their way to the ship and the beach.
Thursday 29th. January 2009
Today, we cruised to Elephant Island, made famous by Shackleton, who sailed there with his men in three small open boats after their ship, the Endurance, became encased in ice and was crushed and sank. Later, a group of them crossed over 700 miles of open sea and landed at South Georgia where they organised a rescue of the men remaining on Elephant Island.
There is thus much historic importance attached to Elephant Island. However, it is a very difficult place to land on safely, and very few people have done so since Shackleton’s time.
We contented ourselves with a series of cruises in the zodiacs along the coast, and had good views of Macaroni Penguins, which were nesting on the slopes of the island here. Around a corner in a bay were a group of Southern Elephant Seals, which were in moult. They were lying next to the foot of one of the many glaciers, which crept inexorably from the mountains to the sea. Then we made our way northeastwards towards South Georgia.
Friday 30th. January 2009
We made our way today towards South Georgia and looked forward to seeing the dramatic landscape and wildlife of these remote islands, visited by only 6,000 people per year. We arrived in the early afternoon, and cruised past the Willis Islands. Here I managed to see some Wandering Albatrosses on the top of a ridge. These magnificent seabirds breed here, and I saw several individuals with wings outstretched in courtship display.
Around the same area, on the sea were literally thousands of South Georgia Diving Petrels. These birds, which are no larger than the European Little Auk, are endemic to South Georgia.
Later, we cruised around the northwestern coast of South Georgia to the relative shelter of the north coast. Here we anchored off St. Andrews Bay, which we hope to visit tomorrow.
Saturday 31st. January 2009
Today we landed in the morning at St. Andrews Bay. This is the site of a King Penguin colony. For many people, Kings Penguins are the most dramatic, especially as the only penguin larger, the Emperor, cannot be found at these latitudes.
At St. Andrews Bay, there are over 400,000 birds, in a small area. Since this species has a prolonged breeding cycle, which means they only breed at best twice every 3 years, and since they do not breed synchronously, the rookery and beach area consisted of King Penguins of all ages and stage of breeding. Adults in moult, young birds born last year, younger chicks and birds on eggs as well as courting pairs were everywhere. After negotiating many Kings along the beach (as well as numerous adventurous Antarctic Fur Seals), a walk of half a mile brought you to a rise in the ground. Reaching the top of this one got a spectacular view over the major part of the rookery. Penguins were everywhere. The sight and sound was simply indescribable. It was like being in a David Attenborough programme. This was, for me (as indeed it was for many of the passengers), the highlight of the trip. It was wonderful to spend so much time on the shore to take in this scene.
All too soon we were back on board, heading to Hercules Bay. Here, we planned to spend the afternoon on Zodiac cruises along the bay. All started well, but shortly the weather and particularly the swell, deteriorated and made carrying on with this too dangerous. However, I had by then seen some Macaroni Penguins and was able to get some photos from the first of the Zodiac trips I led.
Monday 2nd. February 2009
Today we started at Stromness. I was due to leave the ship on the first landing, to spend the day there. However, there had been a number of seabirds (mainly South Georgia Diving Petrels and Antarctic Prions) found on the ship’s deck overnight and I had spent a couple of hours in the night rescuing the birds. They had been attracted to the ship by the lights, which were on onboard. This phenomenon is common on ships on oceans throughout the world, and I have had birds on deck in the Arctic, Amazon and Antarctic. What made last night particularly busy was the simply awful weather – persistent heavy rain and low cloud – perfect conditions for disorientating the birds.
Having put the rescued birds in cardboard boxes for their own safety, I spent the early part of the morning releasing them overboard.
Later, I made my way ashore by Zodiac and walked to Shackleton’s Waterfall. It was here that Shackleton reached after crossing South Georgia with two others, and where they heard the signal calling the workers at the Stromness whaling station to work. Shackleton and his men made their way down the frozen waterfall and walked the mile or so into Stromness, from where he was able, eventually, to organise the rescue of the remainder of his men on Elephant Island.
Today, there is a 200m exclusion zone around the old whaling station – there is a danger of tin sheeting and other objects being blown by the wind. There were numerous Antarctic Fur Seals on the beach, but they did not present too formidable a barrier to the walk. A group of 50 or so King Penguins stood adjacent to a nearby pool.
It was a nice walk on slightly rough ground towards the waterfall, but the weather could have been better.
Later, after rejoining the ship, we made our way from Stromness, past Leith Bay and its old whaling station, to Grytviken. On the way, I had excellent views of that most sought after of Antarctic birds, the Snow Petrel, half a dozen or so of which were close to the ship.
Grytviken is another old whaling station and the ship anchored offshore. We went in by Zodiac, and I landed first at the cemetery. I visited the grave of Sir Ernest Shackelton, and then walked around the bay to the former whaling station and the church, sidestepping the Southern Elephant Seals and Antarctic Fur Seals as I did so.
I had a most enjoyable afternoon, wandering around and tried to visualise the place in the early years of the 20th. Century, when the bay here ran red with the blood of so many slaughtered whales.
I saw a few pairs of Antarctic Terns, which were nesting in the bay, as well as a couple of pairs of the beautiful Light-mantled Albatross. Singles were calling from the rocky crags to their mates as they drifted on the breeze above.
Finally, before returning to the ship, I spent some time at the small museum near the shore. It was superb – seemingly all brand new and beautifully maintained.
Tuesday 3rd. February 2009
We should have landed at another King Penguin rookery at Salisbury Plain today, but with increasing wind, the captain decided against it and instead we made our way back to the Falkland Islands with the intention of having an extra landing there instead.
However, the sea grew rougher with the increasing wind until it reached storm force. Then, the ship was hit by a rogue giant wave, from the side. This broke some windows on the lower decks, and caused us to change plans. The repairs which would be required meant that we would now spend two days in Stanley.
From my perspective, it was a new experience to deliver a lecture (on Wildlife Photography for Everyone) in a force 12. I couldn’t stand to give the lecture as it was impossible to do so, so I sat and hung on to my laptop instead.
Wednesday 4th. February 2009
At sea to the Falkland Islands. At least it was a calmer sea than yesterday, only force 6-7.
Thursday 5th. February 2009
Arrive Stanley at 1pm. It was a lovely day in Stanley, and in the afternoon, I took a taxi again to Gypsy Cove and walked back along the coast to the ship. In addition to the birds I had seen here on the last trip, I was delighted to find a couple of Grass Wrens, birds which should not be on the main islands due to the presence of rats.
Friday 6th. February 2009
I decided to go for a walk out of Stanley today, as two huge cruise ships were in and their passengers, with ours, had more than doubled the population of the Falklands. I managed to find peace and quiet to the east of the town, and walked to the top of Cookhouse Rocks. There were wonderful views in all directions, in the lovely weather. I also managed to find some Rufous-chested Plovers, a new species for me.
Later in the afternoon, we set sail for Ushuaia.
Saturday 7th. February 2009
A lovely day and flat calm sea. No surprises on the bird front.
Sunday 8th February 2009
Ushuaia. We arrived at Ushuaia at about 7 in the morning. I disembarked at 10 am to make my way back home, flying from Ushuaia to Buenos Aires, then Madrid and finally Heathrow. It had been an excellent trip with lots of photos and many happy memories.