Antarctica, South Georgia & the Falklands Jan 05—26, 2014

Posted by Andrew Whittaker

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Andrew Whittaker

Andrew Whittaker was born in England but considers himself to be Brazilian, having moved to this biodiverse country in 1987 to work for the Smithsonian Institution, banding...

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Our 2014 cruise to our planet’s final frontier, Antarctica, was absolutely outstanding! I was thrilled to return to this magical continent and two spectacular islands (after almost 20 years). Topping this, though, was being able to share this mind-boggling experience with a fantastic group of people.

My trip highlight was our close encounter with one of my most-wanted birds—the stupendous Emperor Penguin. We found one resting, sunbathing, and stretching out on an ice flow in the Weddell Sea: a neat-looking recently fledged juvenile alongside some Adelies (another obligate pack ice inhabitant) which were dwarfed by this magnificent beast.

Wandering Albatross on nest

Wandering Albatross on nest— Photo: Andrew Whittaker

Our exciting trip began (for those who were not on the Buenos Aires Pre-trip) in the snow-capped mountains of one of the southernmost outposts of South America, the fast-growing city of Ushuaia. Leaving our hotel early the next morning, we enjoyed a busy day exploring the area, first the rich Beagle Channel with highlights including Flightless Steamer-Duck with small young, Kelp Geese, our first seabird colonies, South American Terns, Dolphin Gulls, Rock and Imperial shags, Chilean Skua, and our only South American Fur Seal colonies. This was followed by birding in the wonderful Tierra del Fuego National Park, with our day’s highlight located from the bus on our way back, when two of our sharp-eyed ladies screamed, “Woodpecker!” The brakes went on and we all scrambled out and started scanning the trees, but nothing. However, I played four different vocal types of the woodpecker, and after the last one boomed out, I spotted a stunning pair coming in. At last, the magnificent Magellanic Woodpecker—one of the world’s largest and coolest-looking woodpeckers—offered us staggeringly close scope-filling views! Other neat birds included Black-necked Swan, Flying Steamer-Duck, Austral Parakeet, Upland Goose, White-throated Treerunner, Thorn-tailed Rayadito, Fire-eyed Diucon, Austral Negrito, and an amazing feeding concentration of 75+ Red Shovelers. On arrival at the pier, we boarded the Sea Adventurer, our home for this adventure, and soon set sail, birding the Beagle Channel, on our way to the Falkland Islands.

Early the next morning found us birding off the wonderful deck facilities offered by the Sea Adventurer. During the cruise we had daily opportunities for some of the best sea-watching one could ever hope for, with multiple species of albatrosses, petrels, prions, shearwaters, fulmars, skuas, and stormies following us constantly! We enjoyed working on the complex identification of prions or diving-petrels, trying to age the big albatrosses, improving our flying seabird photo techniques, and just marveling at the grace and power of these majestic pelagic giants (Southern Royal and Wandering Albatross reaching an unbelievable 10-foot wingspan) as they effortlessly powered past our ship. Some of the many magical moments on deck included a Wandering Albatross in the sun off South Georgia with a rainbow backdrop; a rarely seen Northern Royal Albatross; Pintado Petrels hovering so close we could have touched them; the ability to see such fine details as salt water drops on the tip of massive beaks of both species of giant petrel; and the graceful storm-petrels as they skimmed along the surface, feeding amongst huge crashing waves!

Visiting the famous Falkland Islands was a superb start for our first of many incredible Zodiac landings at Bleaker Island. Once ashore, despite starting in bad weather (which improved), it was sensory overload, enjoying our first amazing jaw agape visits to both Magellanic and the so cute Rockhopper Penguin colonies with their wet downy chicks, and rounding off in a massive ground nesting colony of thousands of Imperial Shags, in the mist with attendant Brown Skuas. We enjoyed being befriended by a very tame Blackish Cinclodes (feeding at our feet), and had great looks at Falkland Steamer-Ducks, White-eared Grebe, Two-banded Plovers, migrant Baird’s Sandpiper, Magellanic Oystercatcher, Upland and Ruddy-headed geese, and a stunning male White-bridled Finch. We also enjoyed tracking down an excellent pair of South American Snipe and stunning adult Rufous-chested Dotterel. All too soon we were heading back to our ship and sailing on to South Georgia.

Our sea days were filled not just with amazing birding on deck, but also with wonderful cuisine, excellent lectures by many of the most talented folks in their fields from Zegrahm, and films at night. A view of the isolated Shag Rocks west of South Georgia broke up our voyage, and we saw the attendant shags in the mist. Finally, out of the mist, the sun-topped glacier-covered mountains of South Georgia were spotted!

We enjoyed three action-packed days of Zodiac excursions to the “paradise island” of South Georgia where, I must admit, I was always confused as to what to do—photos, binoculars, or just stand there with jaw agape. Grytviken was our first stop; the Petrel’s rusty harpoon was a sad reminder of the slaughter of millions of whales. The museum was enlightening, especially the replica of the James Caird, Shackleton’s craft in which he initiated the amazing rescue of his men. And, of course, visiting the grave of this mighty man was very emotional for us all. We found and had wonderful close studies of the endemic South Georgian Pintail here too.

On Prion Island we were fortunate to sit within meters of the world’s largest flying bird—the immense Wandering Albatross—on nests (this had to be me my highlight). We also saw the endemic South Georgia Pipit (the southernmost breeding passerine). Salisbury Plain was truly awesome, with a rainbow gracing our arrival at this massive King Penguin colony of +100,000 pairs covering the plains and hills, practically crowding out the Antarctic Fur Seals. On our final day, a pre-dawn landing showed us the spectacular sunrise at Gold Harbor, with its stunning amphitheater of hanging glaciers and vertical cliffs. Southern Elephant Seals lined the beaches between Kings and Gentoos, with Fur Seals in amongst the tussocks. Amazing views of nesting pairs of one of the snazziest of the island’s seabirds, the Light-mantled Sooty Albatross, were memorable; not as pleasant was the sad scene of a King Penguin chick being killed by a Giant Petrel.

For me, the “icing on the cake” was the superb wildlife spectacle that is South Georgia. We can all be proud to have helped raise tens of thousands of dollars in the auction for the de-ratting of this island paradise, hopefully to be completed this year—an amazing achievement for Zegrahm (spurred on relentlessly by Peter Harrison’s amazing enthusiasm), having raised around 6 million pound sterling through donations from the UK and ecotourists, etc. to rid the island of these introduced pests.

We continued cruising south and finally, in the haze, we had our first glimpse of the islands of Antarctica, the South Shetlands. Unfortunately, we had a foiled landing to Elephant Island, which was made famous by Sir Ernest Shackleton, as they landed here and overwintered after losing the Endurance in ice in the Weddell Sea. As we sailed farther south into the Gerlache Strait, the White Continent’s name came to bear. Soaring rugged and snow-covered mountains, glaciers, sea ice, and spectacular icebergs surrounded us constantly, and at Brown Bluff we made our first memorable landing. Our landing on Paulet Island rewarded us with amazing Snow Petrels on the nest amongst an Adelie colony with its attendant Leopard Seal.

Over the next few days we visited colonies of Gentoo, Macaroni, and Chinstrap penguins where each of us could relax and enjoy the drama unraveling before our eyes. We all saw the Sheathbills nesting and scavenging, and were heartbroken to witness the pairs of Skuas hunting and finally killing the baby Gentoos right before our eyes (to feed their own chicks). An unforgettable “Polar Plunge” taken by the bravest of us was followed by a superb barbecue on deck in the sun at Paradise Bay. Perhaps the two most stunning scenes from Antarctica, for me, were our sailing into the active crater of a volcano at Deception Isle (then landing and walking up to the old crater), and sailing through the breathtaking Lemaire Channel. This narrow channel and its protective cliffs gleamed in the afternoon sun. Our Zodiac cruise off Pleneau Island was like something from Disneyland: dodging through blue icebergs of all shapes and sizes; observing the killer of the seas, the Leopard Seal, resting on ice; and ending with the peachy glow of an unforgettable sunset.

The Peninsula also brought us incredible cetacean encounters with Orca, Minkies, three dolphin species, and outstanding sightings of Humpback Whales right alongside. Everyone enjoyed excellent looks as the three whales surfaced to bubble feed (very rarely encountered here). We loitered with the leviathans before moving off. Later, from our Zodiacs at Enterprise Island, we had many more amazing close encounters.

Who will ever forget the send away on our last afternoon that Fort Point & Hardy Cove gave us: amazing rock formations; sun and cloudless blue skies; and a wonderful Chinstrap and Gentoo colony to wish us all bon voyage! And let’s not forget the Humpback at Hardy Cove that provided stunning action views off the Zodiacs while feeding on krill so, so close!

We all wished a fond farewell to this magical spot and headed north, homebound, for two days of sailing through the Drake. Fortunately, the Drake experience was a walk in the park, until the last morning, when it was rough and the decks were not opened; after sailing past Cape Horn, it got better and we enjoyed birding again as we entered the Beagle Channel. Later that night we were alongside in Ushuaia, amazing memories and thousands of photos richer.

All told, it was an incredible mind-blowing expedition to the unrivaled seventh continent, made luxurious by the ship’s superb captain, crew, and Zegrahm staff. The executive chef and staff excelled in providing comfort and fine dining, and made all of us appreciate the hardships of the early explorers even more. Special thanks must go to both Peter and Jonathan who so enthusiastically shared their incredible (and unrivaled) in-depth knowledge about the complex breeding biology of penguins and albatrosses.

Thanks to all of you! I look forward to meeting you again and leading you to some wonderful birding location, such as my beloved home, Brazil. I’m already looking forward to my return to this extreme wilderness; long may it be kept this way for our children’s children to be able to enjoy and marvel at it in the same way we have.