Antarctica, South Georgia & the Falklands Jan 07—28, 2016

Posted by Michael O'Brien

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Michael O'Brien

Michael O'Brien is a freelance artist, author, and environmental consultant living in Cape May, New Jersey. He has a passionate interest in bird vocalizations and field ide...

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Our January 2016 cruise to the end of the earth was an exciting adventure, full of amazing wildlife sightings, some of the most breathtaking scenery in the world, incredibly informative and entertaining lectures by a talented Zegrahm Expeditions staff, and a cheerful bunch of fellow travelers. As can be expected with such an ambitious cruise, there were a few bumps in the road, resulting in an altered itinerary, but the trip was an amazing success by any standard. 

Although many participants had already done some very productive birding on a pre-trip tour around Buenos Aires, our complete group first gathered in Ushuaia at the Arakur Resort, a lovely facility situated on the hillside above town. As we gathered for cocktails in the banquet room that first evening, our grand vista of Ushuaia below us was broken by a stunning Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle sailing by—our first official bird of the tour! The next morning, a short walk around the hotel grounds saw some nice birds, including Austral Thrush, Patagonian Sierra-Finch, and the feisty Thorn-tailed Rayadito. A bus trip to Tierra del Fuego National Park was both beautiful and productive, with such highlights as a cooperative pair of Ashy-headed Geese with chicks, both Flying and Flightless steamer-ducks, two Andean Condors sailing overhead, and both Blackish and Dark-bellied cinclodes. We enjoyed lovely weather for most of that day, but by late afternoon the wind had picked up considerably. Our departure from Ushuaia was scheduled for 6 pm, but due to ever-increasing winds, our ship was not permitted to leave the dock. By morning, winds had reached a peak of 60 mph, with gusts to 90! In the end, we remained at the dock an extra 27 hours, which gave us time to take a (very breezy!) walk around Bahia Encerrada and enjoy a long list of waterfowl, nesting Magellanic Cormorants, Chilean Skuas, three species of gulls, and a pair of Long-tailed Meadowlarks. The Sea Adventurer finally left the dock (or “escaped,” as the captain put it) by 9 pm. Despite such a windy start, sea conditions were excellent that evening, and remarkably good throughout the cruise.

Black-browed Albatross, Saunders Island

Black-browed Albatross, Saunders Island— Photo: Michael O’Brien

 

On our first morning at sea, we were greeted by a seabird bonanza: thousands of Black-browed Albatrosses and Sooty Shearwaters, hundreds of White-chinned Petrels and Southern Giant-Petrels, little “schools” of Magellanic and Southern Rockhopper penguins porpoising by, and a host of other seabirds including Royal and Wandering albatrosses! Welcome to the southern seas! Our crossing from Ushuaia to the Falkland Islands was birdy throughout, and as we headed east, we encountered hundreds and then thousands of Slender-billed Prions, began our never-ending scrutiny of diving-petrels (all Commons on this crossing), and found several Gray-backed Storm-Petrels feeding on mats of floating kelp, among flocks of Wilson’s Storm-Petrels. As we were enjoying spectacular seabirding, we became aware of our next “bump in the road.” One of our ship’s engines was running at only 90%—something the crew had hoped to fix on the fly, but was not able to do. So our cruising speed was slower than planned and remained so throughout the cruise. Our Expedition Leader, Russ Evans (who grew up on the Falklands), did a remarkable job of “choppin and changin” our itinerary, so that we always had optimal opportunities for wildlife sightings. 

Already behind schedule, we arrived at the Falkland Islands with a revised plan of making only one stop, so we made it a good one! A narrow beach and steep grassy hillside covered with nesting birds, “The Neck” at Saunders Island is one of the most productive locations on the Falklands. Windy conditions did not deter us from landing here, where we were excited to have our first up-close views of penguins. Large numbers of Gentoos and Southern Rockhoppers, and smaller numbers of Magellanics and Kings, allowed close approach and had us fully captivated. Patrolling these penguin colonies were our first Brown Skuas, and also Striated Caracaras, one of which was bold enough to try and open one of our backpacks! But vying for our attention was a large colony of Black-browed Albatrosses occupying the slopes below us. As large as these birds look at sea, they are even more impressive when standing just feet away. Adults sat on carefully constructed nests, resembling clay pots, and fluffy six-week-old chicks frequently peered out from under their parents. An incredible sight!

Antarctic Prion off South Georgia

Antarctic Prion off South Georgia— Photo: Michael O’Brien

 

Our transit from the Falklands to South Georgia was one we took to with excitement, because its potential for scarce seabirds is perhaps the highest of the cruise. By this point, we had become accustomed to the almost constant presence of Black-browed and Wandering albatrosses, Southern and Northern giant-petrels, Cape and White-chinned petrels, and Wilson’s and Black-bellied storm-petrels. Prions were a particular focus, as there were several possible species and interesting identification challenges. Slender-billed Prions, which had been abundant around the Falklands, gradually gave way to Antarctic Prions, which were abundant as we approached South Georgia. A few Fairy Prions were nice rewards for our diligent scanning, as were Gray-headed and Light-mantled albatrosses, and Soft-plumaged and Snow petrels. As we neared South Georgia, whale sightings became more frequent, and we were particularly excited to find a group of at least ten Southern Right Whales near Shag Rocks. This was also where we saw our first icebergs.

King Penguins, St Andrews Bay

King Penguins, St Andrews Bay— Photo: Michael O’Brien

 

South Georgia is widely regarded as the crown jewel of the southern seas, with glaciers and rugged snow-capped mountains as the backdrop to staggering numbers of nesting seabirds. Although still behind schedule, we managed to squeeze in a full complement of landings here. We first set foot on South Georgia at Salisbury Plain, where the sheer abundance of Antarctic Fur Seals and King Penguins was simply shocking. Amidst all the noise and chaos (and yes, smells!) of this enormous colony, we were pleased to find several South Georgia Pipits, which have increased sharply in recent years due to a successful rat eradication program. Later that evening, we took a short hike at Prion Island for close views of Wandering Albatross on the nest. Our next action-packed day began with a Zodiac ride at Hercules Bay, where we had our closest looks at Macaroni Penguins. Then, a landing at Grytviken, an old Norwegian whaling station, which was in operation from 1904–1966. It is also the place of Ernest Shackleton’s grave, where we all gathered for a toast to “The Boss.” To further honor Shackleton, we later visited Stromness, another former whaling station (1912–1931), and the end point of Shackleton’s rescue journey to reach the populated north shore of South Georgia. Some members of our group hiked (in reverse) the final four miles of this trek. On our final day in South Georgia, we visited two more massive colonies of King Penguins at St Andrews Bay and Gold Harbor. Weather is ever-changing in this part of the world, but on this day, we had sunny skies, light winds, and mild temperatures, making for some unforgettable experiences! If anything could top the King Penguin spectacle, it was the Humpback Whale show at St Andrews Bay. From shore, we had seen dozens of whale blows on the horizon, and when we cruised out to get closer, we found ourselves surrounded by Humpback Whales, blowing from every direction and distance—perhaps 100 animals! We stayed with these whales for an hour, watching some breech, and many do pectoral slaps.

Ice, Antarctic Sound

Ice, Antarctic Sound— Photo: Michael O’Brien

 

Upon leaving South Georgia, we began our transit of the Scotia Sea en route to the Antarctic Peninsula. Although this stretch can be productive for seabirds, the best area was likely to be that closest to South Georgia, so many of us went out after dinner for some prime deck time that first evening. Highlights included our last Fairy Prion, many diving-petrels, good numbers of Blue and Snow petrels, and most exciting of all, one Kerguelan Petrel, a scarce visitor to these waters. Seabirds predictably thinned out as we headed south, but we always had birds with us, particularly White-chinned Petrels, which kept us entertained as they sailed effortlessly on air currents behind the ship. As we continued south, sightings of whales (mainly Fin Whales) became more regular, and we saw a sharp increase in the number of Cape Petrels, as well as regular sightings of Southern Fulmar. Icebergs became more and more numerous, including massive tabular icebergs that were miles long, likely broken off of the Ross Ice Shelf.

Zodiac landing, Paulet Island

Zodiac landing, Paulet Island— Photo: Michael O’Brien

 

Our first Antarctic event took place in the South Shetland Islands, with an evening Zodiac cruise at Point Wild, Elephant Island. This site was named for Frank Wild, leader of a party of 22 men from Shackleton’s shipwrecked expediton, who miraculously survived the Antarctic winter here in 1916. As we continued south toward the Antarctic Peninsula, we encountered increasing amounts of ice, and along with it, our first Adelie Penguins, a few exciting observations of Antarctic Petrel, and an amazingly cooperative pod of “type A” Killer Whales. Still behind schedule, we had to cut back on our itinerary in Antarctica, but what we did was simply amazing. On our continental landing at Brown Bluff, we were greeted by thousands of Adelie Penguins and smaller numbers of Gentoos, all feverishly caring for their chicks and doing their best to protect them from South Polar Skuas. A short climb up a hillside was rewarded by the sight of a Snow Petrel adult and chick tucked into their rock crevice nest. The following day was spent entirely around Antarctic Sound and the north end of Weddell Sea, where we were treated to spectacularly calm, sunny weather. The ice here was just breathtaking, displaying every color imaginable, and at times it was so dense that our ship had to alter its course. A landing on Paulet Island brought us to another Adelie colony, this one attended by swarms of pesky skuas, including both Brown and South Polar (as well as hybrids), along with numerous Snowy Sheathbills, which waddled pigeon-like up and down the beach in search of leftovers. That afternoon (after enjoying a barbecue lunch on deck!), we cruised through more spectacular icy waters, enjoying hundreds of Adelie Penguins swimming alongside us, and numerous seals, including Leopard, Weddell, and Crabeater, hauled out on the ice. A Zodiac ride through these glorious icy waters, with close views of Minke and Humpback whales, seals, penguins, and Snow Petrels, was perhaps the pinnacle of our Antarctic experience. Watching icebergs turning shades of pink and purple as the sun set was the perfect way to bid farewell to the Antarctic Peninsula. 

As we sailed the Drake Passage back to Ushuaia, we enjoyed more seawatching on deck, enjoyed more wonderful lectures from the staff, and also had time to reflect on our visit to the White Continent. A big thank you goes to our tireless expedition leader, Russ Evans, to our extraordinarily talented group of naturalists and lecturers, to our Zodiac drivers, and to the entire crew of the Sea Adventurer, for keeping us safe, informed, entertained, and well-fed throughout this cruise. Their professionalism and good nature ensured that we got the most out of our trip to this incredible place.