Detomo's Abroad

Detomos Abroad

Archive for March, 2019

2019 Antarctica – The Southern Continent Part 2

March 2, 2019 6:53 pm

We rose early on Sunday morning, February 24th to view our voyage to t Harbour.  To get there, we will sail back across the Bransfield Strait and return to the Antarctica Peninsula. Along the way, we saw several humpback whales giving us an early morning show of breeching, fin slapping and tail slapping. The whales could be viewed in front of us, and on the side of us, and behind us, giving us an incredible show!  Once we were in Orne Harbour (which is on the Arctowski Peninsula) the Expedition Crew went ashore to mark a trail.  Here, the landing site is very small, and we will then hike directly ~300’ up the steep, snow-covered hill in a zigzag manner. The hill/mountain is covered in snow and ice and we can see the “paths” where other groups have made the hike.  There are some sea lions sunning themselves on the rocks and on the top of the mountain one can see silhouettes of chinstrap penguins looking down at us.  Several birds live in the area, but so far this morning it is very quiet. As we hike up the snow, some of the Expedition Crew cut crude steps into the snow to make it easier to climb. Once we arrive at the top, the view is exquisite. We could see Humpback Whales in the next cove and there was a Chinstrap Penguin colony as high as us in the surrounding rocks!  It is amazing that these ungainly little penguins can make their way up these steep, rugged slopes to colonies so far from their home in the water.  From our viewpoint, we could see the “penguin highway” paths that they travel, which came from the next cove. We could also see that it is truly the tourist season in Antarctica as, in the distance, we could see the National Geographic Explorer ship, and an Expedition Ship we saw in Ushuaia, the Marco Polo.  The season is at the summer’s end and many of the summer bases are already fully closed.  As we’ve gone south, the weather has gotten steadily colder and we are seeing much more ice. The hike down from the ice-covered ridge was a little more treacherous as the top layer of snow was melting and the downhill view was steep and scary.

Map of Track & Stops Antarctica Part 2


Humpback Whale Breaching


View of Orne Harbour


Chinstrap Penguins at Orne Harbour


View Down the Hill in Orne Harbour


The Climb at Orne Harbour


Rocky & Julie at the Mountain Top

Once back on board and during our buffet lunch, we start sailing to Errera Channel. 

Errera Channel is home to a great many leopard seals and the crab-eater seals.  While the second group of kayakers took off for a tour, the rest of us to rides in the zodiacs (polar crikel boats) around the channel to see the wildlife. Because it was so sunny, there were seals on all the small icebergs. The leopard seals are spotted with a long nose and sharp teeth for catching and eating penguins and are ~500 pounds in weight.  They are so mellow when they are sun-bathing and did not pay us much attention.  The crab-eater seals only eat krill and have shorted muzzles and are a beautiful silver in color. 

Leopard Seal in Errera Channel


Crab-Eater Seal in Errera Channel

During a buffet dinner, the Captain moved the ship further down the channel to Danco Island where there is a beach area and a flattish-area for putting up 15 tents for those who have chosen to camp tonight in Antarctica.  The camping rules dictate no food can be taken ashore and there should be no impact to the environment.  Therefore, the campers will camp in tents on snow, and they will go to shore around 8pm and return by 6am.  Once ashore, they will set up their own 2-person tents with only mattress pads, sleeping bags and a bottle of water. That evening, there was a beautifully colorful sunset followed by an evening briefing.

Monday morning, with the campers back on board, we begin a beautiful slow cruise to Paradise Bay, which was named by the whalers because it was so beautiful.  There are 2 bases in the bay.  The first of these is a Chilean Base, “Gonzales”, a summer base only and the 12 staff stationed there left 2 weeks ago.  There is a huge Chilean flag painted on one of the buildings. Their focus has been the study the local penguin colonies. Further along is the Argentinean Base, “Brown Base”, still staffed with its icebreaker ship stationed out front.  They also study penguins in the area by motoring around with a smaller water boat. Next, we turned into the Ferguson Channel, where we are met with some huge icebergs.  All along the way we see Humpback Whales just floating on the surface, barely moving. Lucy, our whale expert guesses that they are already gorged and are taking a brief rest before beginning their migration north out of Antarctic waters. From here we turn right into Gerlache Strait and head northwest to enter the famous and scenic Neumayer Channel. Neumayer Channel is often not passible due to extensive ice, however, recent word from other ships is that we may be able to travel along it.  All along the way, the sky remains overcast with clouds blocking the view of the tops of the mountain peaks.  However, at 10:30am the weather and the view allow us to assemble all the passengers on the bow of Deck 5 for a group picture. The Captain was in the windows of the bridge waving to everyone.  This was an ideal place for the picture since Neumayer Channel is shaped like an ’S’ and is 15 miles long. Belgian explorer Adrian de Gerlache named Neumayer Channel after German explorer and scientist Georg von Neumayer, who sailed it during his Antarctic Expedition of 1897-1899. It is surrounded by high mountains, ice-covered cliffs and steep glaciers. As we head for Damoy Point, we pass Vinca Island which is named for a sailor who was washed overboard on Gerlache’ Expedition while he was cleaning out a ship’s scuppers. 

Entrance to Neumayer Channel


Reflections in Neumayer Channel

We did an early lunch in preparation of our landing at Damoy Point as the two of us will be kayaking today.  We arrived at at Damoy Point ~12:30pm, and in the interim, we changed into our long underwear and 2-pairs of socks, and then head to deck 2 to put on polar fleece jumpsuits and neoprene dry suits. We then added neoprene boots and neoprene mittens that connect directly around the kayak paddles.  Finally, with hats, scarves, neck buffs, lifejackets and cameras, we board the zodiacs for a short ride to a rocky beach on Damoy Point in Dorian Bay where our kayaks are waiting. Damoy Point was originally discovered by the French Antarctica Expedition of 1903-1905 under Jean-Baptiste Charcot.  While we kayak, the rest of the passengers will explore scientific huts and the hill’s viewpoints.  There are Gentoo penguins here and blue-eyed cormorants.  The one hut was built by the British in 1973 and was used for several years as a summer aircraft landing facility.  The landing strip was on thick, blue-ice that has since melted away and was used for planes to bring supplies to Port Lockroy.  Since this area stayed frozen so much of the year due to its southernly latitude, the runway had allowed researchers in Port Lockroy and Rothera Bases to get an early start on their research without having to depend on ships. It was last occupied in 1993 and has been designated as a Historic Site. Today, Rothera Base has its own runway. There is also a hut here built by the Argentinians and kept supplied by the nearby Uruguayan Base. Once we approach the beach in our zodiacs, we unloaded into cold waters of the bay to walk ashore since the area was very rocky. We adjusted our kayak pedals and paddles, climbed in, and then were gently pushed into the frigid waters. There are 14 of us in seven double kayaks and 2 guides in single kayaks. The water, while extremely cold, is very clear and it is very quiet out there. There are penguins in the waters around us and the current quickly moves us out of the bay toward the ship. Once everyone is accustomed to paddling, we explore the area around the bay, stopping for a group photo. After ~3 hours, it was time to return to the beach and return to the ship.

Kayak View of Argentinian Base at Damoy Point

Despite all the clothes our feet and hands were quite chilled, so, after arriving, we head straight to the hot tubs for a warmup and watch the remaining passengers hike back to the zodiacs to return to the ship.

Dinner was an “Arctic & Antarctic” buffet.  The Captain then took us on a slow, leisurely cruise in the Lemaire Channel past “Eunice’ Tits” Peaks and Booth Island.  The channel is 5 miles long and at its maximum, is only 1600 meters wide. It is very much a picturesque moment.  However, tonight the clouds are low, and one cannot see the tops of the peaks.  We sail slowly, dodging the icebergs of varying sizes. In a small bay, we spot a small polar ship but, since there is no base nearby, it is probably doing some sort of research. Eventually, we exit Lemaire Channel and enter into French Passage and are in front of Pleneau Island and Petermann Island that we will visit the next day.  However, there are a large number of moving icebergs here, so the Captain backtracks up the Lemaire Channel to wait until morning, when we will again sail to Petermann Island for a landing. Then, later in the Panorama Lounge, four of the Expedition Staff did a talk show based on the research of Rob with birds, Sam with plankton, Beluga with whales/dolphins, moderated by Monica, who was also a bird researcher.

The next morning is Tuesday, February 26th, and our last day in Antarctica!  The ship was moving early this morning back down Lemarie Channel to Petermann Island.  In order to enjoy the view, we were up early, ready for breakfast, and prepared to be the first passengers ashore for an early landing on Petermann Island (latitude – 65 degrees 10 minutes south).  Petermann Island is small and close enough to the mainland to see Mount Shackleton and Mount Perry. Petermann Island was originally discovered by a German whaler Eduard Dallman and named for German geographer August Petermann.  It is most famous for its 1909 resident, Jean-Baptiste Charcot was forced to winter here in his ship in a tiny cove of Petermann Island which he named Port Circumcision (and which is now our landing location). There is a cairn and plaque from his expedition on a hill near the ship’s old anchorage. Today, there is an Argentinean Refuge hut located here, along with a commemorative cross, and it has also been designated as a historic site. The 1950’s era Refuge hut is also now kept up and regularly visited by Ukrainian staff from the Vernadsky Station, which is a little further south of us. Today, the penguins (Gentoo’s and Adelie’s), the blue-eyed cormorants, the storm petrels and the polar skuas rule this island.  This island is ~1km long, rises 150 meters above sea level, and is mostly ice covered with small, rock-cobbled bays near the shore. We hiked to the southern-most point on the island for a view of the Archipelago and then to a point just north of the landing site for a view of a few Adelie penguins.  Adelie penguins are very shy and are moving further south away from visitors, and to places where there is less habitat competition with Gentoo’s.  In contrast, the gentoo’s are curious and will walk right up to you to see what’s going on.  This island has so many penguins there are penguin highways worn into the ice and snow, and there are large areas that are pink with penguin-poo. When we leave the island, we have potentially set our last step on the continent of Antarctica.

Morning on Lemarie Channel


Landing at Petermann Island


Hiking with Penguins at Petermann Island


Adelie Penguin at Petermann Island


A Curious Gentoo Penguin Inspects Bag


View along Petermann Island Hike


Remnants of penguin Egg


Penguins at Play in Freshwater Ice Pond


Chinstrap, Gentoo & Adelie Penguins at Petermann Island


Julie Conquers Petermann Island Hike


Rocky after Petermann Island Hike

After everyone returns to the ship, the Captain starts a slow cruise south in the Penola Strait looking for wildlife and we see a variety of leopard, crab-eater, and Weddell seals lying about on the ice flows. The crab-eater seals are particularly numerous and are the largest seal population in the area, spending a great deal of their time on the ice.  The leopard seals feed on the local penguins, and the Orcas feed on the seals when they carelessly venture off the ice. As we sail around avoiding the ice, we can see the Vernadsky Station, the Ukrainian base that maintains different Refuge huts in the area.  It can be easily spotted by the several high antennas they have erected.  This base was originally operated by the British and is the site credited with discovering the Antarctic ozone hole. 

Seals Resting on Ice Flow in Penola Straight

We have sailed as far south as we can go due to ice (65 degrees 40 minutes south) and we are less than 100 miles from the Antarctic Circle. but now we turned north into the French Passage and then head west out into the sea. This is a slow and tedious journey due the amount of ice, and every little ice flow seems to have a crab-eater seal on it.  We also come upon a couple of really massive icebergs, one of which was grounded in 120 meters of water with another 40 meters above the water-line.  The next large iceberg was tabular and 840 meters long, 81 meters high, clouded in mist and towering over our ship. Our Safety Officer has been measuring the visible part of the icebergs with his sextant! The Captain has been measuring the underwater part of the iceberg with sonar and this one is 185 meters deep! We have also seen several whales: Humpback, Fin, Minke, and even a couple of Orcas. 

Orca Killer Whale on Hunt for Seals


The Final Day on Antarctica Ship

After exiting the French Passage, we enter the beginning of the Drake Passage. We are still ~650 miles from where we will pick-up the Channel Pilot to enter the Beagle Channel, and we will have 2 full days at sea to get there. Tonight, the waves are building to 3-4 meters, and people are already seeking their cabins.

Wednesday is a sea day, and many people have sleep-in.  The waves have already dropped to less than 3 meters and the air temperature outside is noticeably warmer.  

In the morning, we take a tour of the bridge of the ship.  The Fram has 4 diesel-electric engines and two propellers that can be independently rotated 360 degrees.  Currently we are only running two of the diesels, and the propellers are set to be “pulling” us through the water. The Captain related that as we traversed from South Georgia to Antarctica and the seas were so rough, we needed the electric power of 3 diesels to make acceptable headway. The bridge is totally electronic – there are no paper plots or charts.  The sonar and radar are such that the smallest items on the surface can be seen, and the base of submerged icebergs can be accurately determined. We were running via computer automatic pilot at a speed of 10 -12 knots.  Later that day, we began to prepare to end our trip by returning our muck boots to the Expedition Crew, gathering up our stuff, and spending time in the Panorama Lounge watching the waves and calming seas.  That night we dine on fish & chips and finish the evening with a Late Night “Talent Show” and party hosted by the crew.

Thursday is also a sea day and is spent packing, checking the billings, validating flight information and getting ready to disembark the ship early the next morning. In the afternoon, our Whale Expert from the Orca Foundation, Lucy, gave us a summary of what we have recorded on the trip – 7 species of Cetaceans, 6 other species of marine mammals, and ~1644 individually counted animals.  The count looks like this:

  • Commerson’s dolphins – 38 (black and white with gray babies)
  • Peale’s Dolphins – 16
  • Orca (Killer) Whales – 10 – of the 4 ecotypes, we saw 9 type-C, and 1 type-A

A) Largest, prefer open sea & they hunt Minke’s whales

B) Sub-Antarctica

C) Brown Yellow coloration, largest eye patch, hunt seals

D) Sub-Antarctica

  • Minke whales – 46
  • Sei whales – 38
  • Fin whales – 126 (they appear to look like logs in the water and were the largest whales we have seen
  • Humpback whale – 301 (exhibiting lots of different behaviors, breeching, slapping the fins, slapping the tails, and in an icy area blowing bubbles to clear the ice before surfacing)

We also saw 206 “whale blows” where no whale surfaced, thus there was no identification.  The best whale display was near Shag rock where you had 4-types of whales and hundreds of blows with whales, seals, and birds all coming out of the water.

In the afternoon, we pass Cape Horn, which we visited with a landing on another trip last month. The evening has us take aboard a Channel Pilot and bring us into the Ushuaia Harbour in the early morning daylight, finishing the Antarctica Expedition part of our trip and 3768 nautical miles traveled by ship.  Now, it is off to Buenos Aires for a night of dinner and Tango, before our flights back to Atlanta and New Orleans to begin our next adventure – Mardi Gras 2019!

2019 Antarctica – The Southern Continent Part 1

6:31 pm

We have been sailing from South Georgia Island to Antarctica, and it is now Thursday morning, February 21st. It is a very overcast day, but the conditions are tolerable, and we are excited to awaken to whale blows quite near the ship.  It is quite cold outside, (28 degrees) and still a bit windy (25 mph winds with gusts up to 60 mph), and we are now observing icebergs in every direction one looks. Soon, we can see Elephant Island in the distance covered by mist/clouds. Elephant Island is 25miles long by 7 miles wide and has the crude shape of an elephant’s head with a long, extended trunk. As we approach the island, we get a good view of a series of jagged peaks composed of metamorphic rocks, the tallest of which is 2500 feet. Point Wild is ahead and is where Shackleton left his men while he and a small crew went to the South Georgian Islands looking for help to rescue them.  The area of Point Wild is all mountainous with a very small beach in a tiny protected cove where the men lived for 4 1/2 months.  They lived under what was left of their lifeboat turned upside-down and were led by Frank Wild. There were no penguins here in 1914 only sea lions which is all there was to eat for those many months. Today, the beach is smaller than 1914 and the adjacent glacier has receded some, but there now is a colony of Chinstrap penguins in the area who are the only regular visitors to a single bronze bust of Captain Pardo erected there by the Chilean Government.

Map of Track & Stops Antarctica Part 1


Approaching Point Wild on E;ephant Island


Monument to Piloto Pardo at Point Wild

Our Captain held our ship in the bay for us to take photos for nearly 30-minutes, despite the katabatic wind gusts coming down the glacier.  The ship’s deck-5 observation area developed frozen patches of ice due to the extreme wind chill. The glacier in that bay is massive and its colors are amazing, but it brings with it its own weather conditions.

We continue to sail around the east end of Elephant Island to a place called “Cape Valentine” where Shackleton’s party originally landed on Valentine’s Day but were forced to then move on to Point Wild.  As we sailed west past Cape Valentine, it began to snow heavily, and the wind howled. We continued south west down the Bransfield Strait towards the west-end of Elephant Island to Lookout Point or Cape Lookout, pass Rowett Island which is now all covered in new snow. Cape Lookout was discovered in the 1820’s by Captain George Powell. Today, there are ~10,000 Chinstrap penguins living in the waters between these 2 points. Here we saw many penguins in the waters all around us, as well as a few fur sea lions. Also, along this route we have seen a number of Sei- and Fin- whales.  After Elephant Island, we turn south again and cross open water towards the Antarctic Peninsula.  In a couple of hours, we pass Gibbs Islands – small, barren, ice-covered set of rocks in the middle of nowhere. When we approached Gibbs Island, we come close to a massive tabular ice sheet and are hit with hurricane-force katabatic winds yet again, preventing us from going any closer.  Therefore, the Captain turned the ship and we are head straight towards the Antarctic Sound, which was discovered in 1825 by Captain Wendell.

Fin Whales in Antarctica Sound

The afternoon lecture that day was given by Lucy from the “Orca” Foundation. “Orca” is a British-based non-profit organization that was founded in 2001 for long-term studies of whales and dolphins.  It is now a global organization with 6 full-time employees who encourage everyday “citizen-scientists” to help with the monitoring of the whales and dolphins.  Lucy talked about the scientific order of Cetaceans, how to identify them and their differences. She also reviewed the mammals we have seen on this trip: Commerson’s dolphins, Peale’s dolphins, Minke whales (most common to Antarctica), Humpback whales, Sei Whales, Fin whales, fur seals, elephant seals, crab eater seals, leopard seals, wendell seals and penguins (chinstrap, rockhoppers, king, gentoo, macaroni, and adelie).

That night, after our buffet dinner, it was time for another night in the hot tub.  Although the seas were calmer, the air was extremely cold, and our hair began to freeze. Later that evening, there was a presentation review of our time in the South Georgia Islands. The review reminded us how the weather had driven the ship to sail up and down the northeast coast of South Georgia 4-times in search of safe locations for landings.  One of our expedition staff, Tom, reviewed for us the extent of emergency gear that needs to be taken ashore prior to every time we land.  Emergency gear for 100 people for 24-hours of survival is placed onshore for every landing in case of changes in the winds or weather that prevent us from getting everyone back to the ship.  This gear includes blankets and pads to sit on, tents for shelter, and water & basic food. In the 9-years that the senior Expedition Staff have being doing these trips – the emergency equipment has only been used once! The review then featured Bob, who explained that katabatic winds are a result of cold air from top the mountains and above the glaciers rushing downhill because of its higher density.  These cold winds then ride under the warmer air creating very strong gusts.  Finally, the passengers played another game of “Antarctic Jeopardy” with 2– categories Penguins and Non-penguins.  The guests were divided up into two-teams – Port and Starboard.  We were part of the Starboard Group and we won – yea!  Then, it was off to bed.

The ship sailed all Thursday night and Friday morning through the Antarctic Sound heading toward the Argentinian base “Esperanza”.  Along the way, we are surrounded by icebergs of many sizes and shapes, and the Captain expertly avoids the largest ones.  As we sail into sight of the base, we see many humpback whales and other types of whale blows.  “Esperanza” is a permanent research station open year-round, on Cape Hope. The base’ motto is “Permanence, an act of sacrifice.” Built in 1953, the base houses 55 inhabitants in the winter, including 10 families and 2 school teachers. The base has a civil registry office where births and weddings are recorded.  The first child ever born on the Antarctic Continent was born here in 1978. The base also has some minimal “tourists’ facilities” and hosts about 1,100 tourist a year who stop to visit.  The 43-buildings of the base have a combined space of 3,744 square meters (~40,300 sq. ft covered). The base uses 18,000 liters, (4,800 gallons), of fuel annually by its 4 generators to produce the electricity for the station.  Research Projects include glaciology, seismology, oceanography, coastal ecology, biology, geology and limnology.

Argentinian Esperanza Base on Antarctic Penninsula

The Antarctic Sound lies between the very tip of the Antarctica Peninsula and D’Urville, Joinville, and the Dundee Islands. It was named for the ship “Antarctica” in 1903 when the Swedish South Polar Expedition Captained by Carl Larsen explored the area. This area is known as “Iceberg Alley” due to the astonishing assortment of floating ice, both large and small.  The Sound is 30-miles long and is often difficult to navigate due to the amount of ice. This area has a high concentration of Adelie penguins, (~500,000 nesting pairs).

As we approach the base, all the buildings are painted orange and one of the larger buildings has an Argentina flag painted on its roof.  This color-scheme is the norm for any Argentine Base in the Antarctic.  There is very little snow here, but it is very cold and windy, and the base is built on a cobble beach, surrounded by glacial ice and mountains. Also located at this Base is a historic, large rock-hut that was built by a shipwrecked 1903 Expedition Team for survival through the winter – the first people to successfully winter in Antarctica. We arrived at the “Esperanza” Base at ~9am and Expedition Team goes ashore first.   The Base Commander has offered to receive tours of the Base in groups of 20-25. We learned they have a small gift shop and are encouraged to bring money with us. The Expedition Team has us broken into 8 groups and today our group goes last.

Historic Equipment at Esperanza Base

We loaded into the zodiacs at around noon and, as we pulled away from the ship, are surprised by a huge humpback whale surface right behind us, showing us his backside before diving. We arrived at a little dock but leave the zodiac in the shallow water on a rocky slope. We were greeted by a large contingent of gentoo penguins before the Captain of the Base comes to welcome us and take us on a tour. Not only are the buildings painted orange, but all of the Argentinean Antarctic gear is orange, as well. which makes this base different from everyone else.  As we walked up the hill to the base, there were an old set of railroad tracks, old sleds and vehicles from years ago that were used to move supplies up from the coast.  This equipment is now considered part of the museum.  The indoor part of their museum has fossils with leaves imbedded in them, stuffed penguins, equipment from their first hospital in the 60’s-70’s.  It has pictures of other explorers that have made it to this point in Antarctica, including a picture of the 3 Swedes who built and survived in the rock hut in 1903.  Argentina had founded Esperanza as a Base in 1903 and have just celebrated 115 years at this location. There is a small chapel on the Base that has a donated cap from the current Pope. The Base has its own accredited residential Primary and Secondary school which will begin in March and will have 17 students from the 8 families that will be on base for the winter.  There are 2 teachers – a husband wife team. They will teach the Elementary students and then facilitate the Secondary students with classwork delivered online. They have 3 physical classrooms, a chemistry lab, and an indoor gymnasium.  These students will get the same curriculum as all other Argentinian students.  It is the only school in all of the Antarctic Continent.  We then visited the Cafeteria Building where we were served sweet coffee, signed the guest book, and visited the gift shop, (t-shirts, polo shirts, hats, patches and post cards with the seal of the base).  At the conclusion of the tour, we returned to ship for a late lunch. Then, the Captain took us for a sail around Antarctica Sound, which was loaded with a tremendous amount of ice debris in the water, and numerous icebergs.  We soon came across another massive tabular iceberg, bigger than the ship, which has broken off the Weddell ice shelf.

Gentoo Penguin at Esperanza Base


Gentoo Penguins near the Base’s Cemetary


Julie at Esperanza Base


Gentoo Penguins acting Goofy at Esperanza Base


Tabular Ice from Antarctic Ice Shelf


Ice Flows in Antarctic Sound

Antarctica is the 5th largest continent on Earth, with a total area of 5.5 million square miles. During the winter Antarctica “doubles” in size, due to the large amount of sea ice that forms at its periphery.  Antarctica is more than 95% ice-covered and contains about 90% of the world’s fresh water. Antarctica has no native human population. Even today, its only residents are scientific teams and their support staff that stay no more than one-year at-a-time.  (This is also true at Esperanza.  However, we learned that once someone spends a year on the Base here, they often apply again to return. This is true of the teachers who met here year’s earlier.)  Antarctica is the coldest (record -126.9F in 1960) and the driest continent (less than 2-inches of rain per year in the interior) and is therefore actually considered to be a desert. The Antarctica coast line, however, receives about 15 inches of rain a year. While we were visiting ashore, we saw another cruise ship, the National Geographic Explorer, for the first time since we left Ushuaia.    

That evening, after receiving our “evening briefing”, we went to the panorama lounge to witness the “lottery” for those wishing to camp one night on the ice in Antarctica.  There were 30 spaces in the tents for camping and 50 people wanted to camp, thus a lottery was drawn to see who received the 30 slots. After the lottery the kitchen crew provided us with entertainment in the form of fruit carving, cake decorating, napkin folding and ice carving.  The fruit was carved into fishes with seaweed and flowers by the cold food chef. The sheet cake was decorated in a “Fram” theme with handmade flowers by the crew chef who doubles as a pastry chef. The napkins were folded by our dining room waiter who made swans, peacocks, flowers, ships, hats, and people. The ice carver took a large block of 2ft x 3ft x6in ice and carved a beautiful fish. Each piece of art was created skillfully by beautiful and talented people.

Saturday morning is crisp and clear, and we have traveled west to arrive in the South Shetland Islands at Half Moon Island, which is a small island between Greenwich Island and Livingston Island. Here, there is summer-only Argentinian Research Center with 5 buildings.  Currently, their shutters are down, and they are already closed-up and gone for the winter. This island has many chinstrap penguins, terns and gull nests.  Some areas are closed to us because of their environmental sensitivity and to be sure we don’t disturb the wildlife. Onshore, there is an old shipwreck from the 1900’s which is both historic, and in unsafe condition, and so we stay clear of it.  The water is calm and glassy, and the sun is shining brightly which makes for good kayaking and comfortable adventures onshore. The South Shetland Islands are a string of islands running parallel to the Northwest coast of the Antarctica peninsula with snow & ice covering ~98% of the islands.  There are bases of 12 different nations on these islands – eight of which are permanently manned and 4 of which are manned in the summer only.

Approaching Half Moon Island


Argentinian Base at Half Moon Island Closed for the Winter


Gentoo Penguins at Half Moon Island


Adult Fur Seal at Half Moon Island


A Pair of Chinstrap Penguins


Young Chinstrap Penguins in the Snow


Chinstrap Penguin Colony at Half Moon Island


Chnistrap Penguin Posing for a Picture


Huge Chinstrap Penguin Colony


Curious Chinstrap Penguins at our Landing Site

After our shore excursion and lunch, we sail south to Deception Island which is currently a dormant volcano with part of its ancient caldera wall collapsed, forming an enclosed bay that is now flooded by seawater.  One can only enter the caldera through a narrow gap named “Neptune’s Bellows”. We sailed through the Bellows and into a small internal cove to the right called “Whalers Bay”, which was already occupied by a ~50’ sailing Ketch and a large Chilean navy ship.  All the Chileans came out on deck to welcome us with waving and cheers. Although Deception Island is dormant now, it did last erupt in 1970 and destroyed the Chilean base that was on the island.  The black volcanic sand is still warm and steaming reminding us that the magma is not far beneath the surface. Whaling took place here in Whalers Bay from 1912-1930’s and the remnants of the old whaling station are still here, but not safe to approach too close.


Abandoned Whaling Station at Whaler’s Bay Deception Island


Whaler’s Bay with View of The Window and Neptune’s Bellows


The Hike down from Deception Island Viewpoint

Today, there are two bases still located in Deception Island – Argentinean and Spanish – both located within the caldera around the larger bay, which is named “Port Foster”. There is a small abandoned airport with runways and hangers near the far end of the whaling station which used to be part of an old British Base that is also now abandoned. Since there was an eruption in 1970, there are buildings broken and buried in the lava sands and huge 90-year-old whale bones lying about. We walked from the landing site past the old fuel tanks and tanks used to recover the whale and seal oil, past a huge British “manor” to the abandoned Aircraft Hangar.  After looking over the dilapidated Hanger, we begin to climb Ronald Hill to the “lookout”.  We climbed 350 feet steeply-up, to the top of the hill and the location of a magnificent viewing point.  Here we look over the caldera and take pictures before beginning our climb back down.  Once down, we retrace our steps back towards the landing point and then head the other way walking to viewpoint “cut” in the volcanic crater wall called “the Window”, which gives one a view of the entrance outside of Neptune’s Bellows of the Bransfield Strait approach and all the way across to the Antarctica Peninsula. While we were busy hiking, another Expedition Ship made its way in, sailed round Port Foster, and then left. We then again returned to the landing site, it was time for Rocky to do the “Polar Plunge”.  There was an old piece of iron whale equipment that made a nice “changing room”.  As the temperature was 28 degrees, he ran across the rocky black sand and into the water which is at 32 degrees.  Thankfully, the ship had towels ready and recorded everyone brave enough to take the plunge, (they also had the doctor standing by for safety).  After a quick swim, it was a rush to shore to dry and dress, and to catch a quick trip on the zodiac back to the ship.

Once everyone was back on board, the Captain elected to cruise around Port Foster so that we could see the ice-sheets covered in black ash, as well get a quick view of the Argentinean and Spanish bases, located opposite of Whalers Bay. After a dip to warm up in the hot tub and then dinner, we had our evening briefing describing the plan for the next day, and then a talk show exploring the intricacies of the “de Gerlache’s 1897” Expedition to Antarctic. Gerlache was a Belgium Explorer who took the first team of scientists to explore Antarctica.  However, they unexpectedly got frozen into the ice and drifted for over a year before finally getting free and making it back to safety.  Many of the places that we will pass were named by this Expedition, and it set the precedent for scientific research in Antarctica. 

2019 Antarctica Expedition – The South Georgian Islands

5:12 pm

Having left the Falkland Islands and passed Shag Rocks, we now travel on our Expedition Ship, The M.S. Fram, to The South Georgia Islands.  South Georgia is considered part of the Antarctic environment and waters and air temperatures here are some of the coldest on earth. We prepare for our time there by attending a lecture by one of our Expedition Team’s Zoologist, Rob, who lived in South Georgia on Bird Island (one of the most northeastern islands) for 3-years from 1983-1986.  He worked for FIDS, (Falklands Island Dependency Survey), now called “The British Antarctica Survey”, and he was flown there by the British Royal Navy via helicopter.  While there, his responsibility was to study and count birds, including penguins, skuas, petrels and albatrosses.  Skuas and Giant Petrels (“Northern” petrels have red tips on their beaks, and “Southern” petrels have green tips on their beaks), have done really well in the area.  Also, fur seals on the island have also rebounded from the 19th Century Seal hunters where there were only 10 remaining fur seals counted at the beginning of the 20th Century, and today the local population is over 3 million.  Rob noted that when he was there with a Team, the only time any of them got sick was when visitors arrived.  His Team was consisted of 8 people in the summer and only 3 of them stayed the winter.  Their base subsisted on British Navy Stores, including a good bit of alcohol. Bird island is still the smallest base of British Antarctica Survey, and Rob has never before returned to the South Georgia Islands and is excited to be heading that direction.

Map of South Georgia Island with Key Stops

South Georgia has the most mountains of all southern islands and was populated in the late 1800’s until the 1960’s with an abundance of Whaling Stations, (mostly Norwegians, Irish and Argentinians).  With the collapse of the Whaling Industry, most of these Whaling Stations are now abandoned and deserted. Today, they consist of rusting iron works, grounded and sunken ships, and asbestos contamination.  The only inhabitants of many of these stations are the old fur seals that have taken them over.  Our first stop must be the capitol town of Grytviken, an old whaling station that was not deserted until late 1990’s, and so its buildings are in better shape. Here, there is a small office and research center that manages the islands. We will need to clear a bio-inspection here and the ship inspected before we will be allowed to land anywhere in the islands.

At most of our landings, we will only expect to see penguins and female fur seals and their pups as the males have already departed shore and gone back to sea.  Fur seals can be aggressive and move quickly, and we are instructed to “make ourselves big” if charged by one. Male fur seals can weigh up to 150kg each.  We will also see male elephant seals which will weigh-in at ~3-tons and be around 9-feet long, however, they move relatively slowly and can be easily avoided. In general, all the areas near the shore, including the yards, will be full of seals.  In addition to fur seals, there are Leopard seals which eat penguins, are aggressive, and have nasty teeth.  However, they are usually only around ice sheets, and we will likely not see them until we reach Antarctica.  What we will see are different types of penguins – Rock-hoppers, King, Gentoo, Chinstrap and Macaroni. We will also see a great variety of other birds, including: The Storm Petrel of which over 1.5 million breeding pairs are located here; the Cape Petrel with its pretty, lacy feathers and its making sounds like a chicken; the scavenging and predatory Skua bird (which is often seen in penguins colony trying to eat their chicks); the Sheath-bill petrel which likes to steal food from baby penguins; and the Pivot (only 3 thousand pairs) which is the only songbird in the Antarctic region.

There are no native shrubs or trees on South Georgia, only the windbreaks that were imported earlier by the whalers.  In addition, the Whalers brought reindeer, cows, horses, and, unfortunately, the European brown rat (accidentally introduced over 2-century ago).  The brown rat was particularly a serious problem, since the massive bird population nests on the ground, and the rats devastated the eggs and chicks.  In 2010, a program was instituted to eradicate brown rats from South Georgia, and rat poison was carefully distributed by hand and by helicopter to all the infested areas.  The program continued through 2015 and included rat-sniffing dogs and verification baits.  Since 2018, the islands have been declared completely rat-free and bird colonies are on the increase.  The highly successful program cost only ~$15M USD and over 67 nations contributed to its funding.  In the future, all ships that come to the islands will be inspected by dogs at the Falklands port prior to being able to come to South Georgia.  In addition, all reindeer were eradicated from the islands in 2012.  Today, the sealing industry does not operate here, and seal populations have exploded to the point that they are starting to erode some beaches.

We will also hope to see the declining Wandering Albatross – the largest seabird with a 3-meters wing span and 40 inches in height.  These birds only breed every other year, and care for their young for ~11-months before the chick leaves the nest. They require daily meals of over one kilogram of fish or krill to survive, and their numbers are slowly decreasing, although it is not clear why.

Friday morning, February 15th, we get up early to watch our ship pull into Cumberland Bay in front of Grytviken. When we arrive, the South Georgia bio-team was waiting on shore for us to bring them to our boat to commence bio-checks and immediately come aboard.   The 3 Government observers aboard who come aboard bring a speaker from the South Georgia Heritage Trust, Sarah, who reviews the history of the island and the guidelines to protect the animals. As the ship is being inspected, Sarah gives us a briefing instructing us to leave no evidence of our visit, to keep our voices low on the island.  She also reminds us that the animals have priority/right-of-way, and that we need to move slowly when near them.   She informs us about the invasive species eradication programs and relates that the glacier between the center section and the north section of the island is retreating at about 2-meters a day.  She also recommends a book – “Reclaiming South Georgia “- to those who are interested in learning more.  Currently, Grytviken is hosting whale biologists who are studying Right Whales which breed off the coast of South America, but whose calves are beaching themselves and researchers don’t know why.

Check out the website:

Currently, 2 humpback whales in South Georgia are outfitted with trackers and are at the southern end of the island.  The Trust is also researching Grey-headed albatrosses, which have declined 43% in 11 years and are unsure why, (they suspect illegal long-line fishing by-catch).  The Trust has a program for individuals to help by participating in their “Protect a Hectare” (2.4 acres) Project/Sponsorship – see:


Their goal is to become the nesting site of a hundred million more birds!

After a detailed inspection of every individuals boots and gear with headlamps and magnifying lenses, we are allowed to go ashore.  The “hikers” were taken ashore first followed by the rest of us. They are doing the Maiviken hike starting from Grytviken and climbing to the Shackleton plateau 200 meters up high. The hike is for experienced hikers as it is steeper and longer than any other hikes we have done, and it will take 2-3 hours, which will limit their time in town.  We opted to spend our time in town instead.


View of the Whaling Station of Grytviken from Cumberland Bay

We spend the next 2+ hours exploring the area. We start with the cemetery where Shackleton is buried and where his headstone immortalizes his contribution to the region.  From here, we pick our way among the fur seals and king penguins towards the old whaling village.  All around us, there are numerous baby seals frolicking at the shore line, calling for their moms, and curiously checking us out.  A few large male elephant seals were around lazing in the sun. We were able to walk the area of the old whaling factory, as this site was cleaned-up and all asbestos was removed.  We finally arrive at the old Managers Villa, which is now the Island’s museum. The museum has lots of South Georgia and Whaling artifacts and tells the story of the Whaling Camps and Industry quite well. They even have a Post Office (only open in the summer) where we purchased postcards and mailed them back to the USA.  The town’s name “Grytviken” means “pot” and was based upon the fact that the first settlers found old pots left behind by transient whalers there. The Grytviken Whaling Factory was run from 1904 until 1965, when it was closed for good.  Along the coast, beyond the original camp is the research station at Edward Point, run by the British Antarctica Survey (BAS). Besides the Museum and the Post Office, Grytviken also has a gift shop and huge fuel tanks for petrol to run the village. They obtain their stores regularly from the BAS base.  There is also the original one-room church which the whaling station sponsored to keep the men “in-line” (unsuccessfully).  It was where Shackleton’s funeral was held, and last month there was even a wedding held there. The local Gallery contains South Georgian art and holds a replica of the boat Shackleton took from Elephant Island to South Georgia after his Antarctica ship was crushed by the ice.  We also took a 20-minute guided tour around the camp with an intern stationed there for the summer.  All the fuel containers and whaling equipment for harvesting meat and oil and blubber are still there, as well as some wrecks of the “whale-chaser” ships in the main harbor. We were then back aboard the Fram by about 12:15pm.  Soon thereafter, the ship lifts anchor and we left Grytviken and head back southeast to St. Andrews Bay.  This bay is home to over 200,000 King penguin-pairs, and only 100 people may be ashore at any one time.  This will require us to stagger our visits in order to allow all some time on the island. The weather has been 38-40 degrees, but the lower winds and full sun will hopefully make for a very pleasant visit.

Curious Fur Seals when we Come Asore in Grytviken


Shackleton’s Grave Stone in Grytviken Cemetary


King Penguins and Fur Seals in Grytviken


A Mature King Penguin


A Young Fur Seal


Abandoned Tanks at Grytviken Whaling Station


The Original One-room Church at Grytviken


Abandoned Whale Bones at the Old Whaling Station

We arrive at St. Andrews Bay at about 3:30pm only to be greeted by dark clouds, strong winds and cold temperatures.  The wind and swell were too high to safely launch and land the zodiacs, but we could see king penguins in the distance all over the beach and moraine. We could also see the Heaney Glacier and Cook Glacier coming down into the bay. After maneuvering the ship several times to try to accommodate the swell and block the wind, the Captain cancels the landing and we set sail, instead, for Royal Bay located down the coast.

Massive King Penguin Colony at St. Andrew’s Bay

On the way to Royal Bay, we came across a lone humpback whale blowing, breeching, and slapping the water with its fins, making splashes and putting on a show that all of the previously disappointed passengers thoroughly enjoyed.  The Captain followed the whale for ~40 minutes before continuing our journey to Royal Bay.  In Royal Bay, we saw the huge Ross Glacier and the Hindle Glacier.  On this Bay, in the 1860’s, was once of the first settlements on South Georgia Islands. However, the winds were again too high to do more that cruise the ship into the bay for a look-see, making our way around some icebergs in position to view the glaciers.  We could also see a large king penguin colony on the beach on the left side of the bay. But, because we cannot land, we leave this bay as well, reverse course, and head back northwest towards the opposite end of the island to attempt a landing the next day.

Breaching Humpback Whale on the way to Royal Bay

That night was Italian Dinner Buffet and while we ate dinner, we saw fur seals and small Humboldt penguins swimming in the water next to the ship. We also were informed that the ship received a rare perfect-score of 100% from the Island’s inspectors on our ship’s bio-security checks today!!  Tonight, in the ship’s panoramic lounge, the Captain arrives with 10 others of the crew (sailors and engineers) to hold a knot tying demonstration, with each crew member coming to a guest’s table with ropes, lines, pictures and instructions.  It was a great way to meet crew members that we don’t usually get to see. 

During the night, the ship makes its way to Prion Island in the Bay of Isles, and we awake on Saturday morning to see penguins diving & swimming outside of our window. While checking the view on deck, we see huge Wandering Albatrosses circle overhead.

At 7am, the Exhibition Crew makes ready to go ashore as the weather is perfect for a landing.  Prion Island is a very small island and was named after the Prion Bird that nests under the Tussock grass on the island.  We are not likely to see any Prions during the day, as they emerge and hunt principally at night.  This island is a “Specially Protected Area” by the South Georgian Government and has always been rat free. It was discovered in 1912-13 by Robert Murphy, an American naturalist, and is also the home to breeding Wandering Albatrosses. The Naturalists built a controversial raised boardwalk from the beach to the top of a small hill to ensure that nests could be counted without creating any further damage or impact to the environment.  The boardwalk, with 2 viewing stations, was built in February-March 2008 and it provided a convenient path for us (and the local fur seal population), to see several nests with the albatrosses sitting and guarding their eggs. The island is also a breeding area for the South Georgia pipits and the burrowing petrels. Since Prion Island has this special status, only 50 people are allowed on the island, (including Expedition Crew, guides and safety personnel), at any one time.  Therefore, the ship will spend the whole day here so that everyone gets a good chance to visit.

Gentoo Penguin at Prion Island


Young Fur Seal at Prion Island


Large Male Fur Seal Sunning on the Beach

On arrival we were greeted by seals, gentoo penguins and one lone King penguin. It turns out that there are very many fur seals here, including a great number of seal pups, many moms and even a few dads. As we walked the boardwalk, we found seals in every little nook and cranny of the grasses beside us. We even saw a seal pup suckling from its mom right next to the boardwalk. The higher we climbed, the more birds were found. Two skuas landed right next to us chasing off a third and claiming his area and meal! At the summit viewing station, we saw a number of huge albatross’ nests with Wandering Albatrosses sitting on them and totally ignoring us.  There were several Wandering Albatrosses flying overhead and tending their nest, as well.  And many a seal pup tried to walk with us on the boardwalk. As we returned to the beach to get on the zodiac, a large male fur seal decided to rest in the middle of the beach path, probably weighing in at over 600 pounds!   This was a unique island and one the ship doesn’t get to stop at very often, as many of the exhibition crew had never been here before.  While we were on the island, several people took the double kayaks out for a ride, since the winds were low, and the surf was calm. Since Prion Island is in the Bay of Isles, the protected area there was perfect for kayaking.

After the Prion landings were complete, the ship set sail to Salisbury Plain, which is also in the Bay of Isles. Here we saw a very large king penguin colony – the 2nd largest colony in the South Georgia Islands, after the St. Andrews colony.  The day was getting late so we didn’t have time for a landing here, but, since the waves and wind were calm, we did put the zodiacs in the water and took cruises up and down the beach.  There were king penguins everywhere, with a few seals mixed in. The beach almost had an orange-yellow hue due to their coloring and density there. The penguins also played in the water next to the zodiacs and were climbing and diving off the ship’s bow bulb. Once back on board, there was a Mexican buffet dinner followed by a briefing on the next day’s potential landings – Fortuna Bay and Stromness Bay. By night, it is snowing wet big flakes and we gather in the panorama lounge for an Officer’s Fashion Show, featuring the ship’s Officers and Expedition Crew modeling clothing from the gift shop.  The DJ is Jose, our cabin housekeeper. The officers/crew modeled t-shirts, sweaters, coats, and accessories.  But the best display was a guide dressed up in knickers and a coat from the early 1900’s. The finale stole the show as it included 2-crew dressed in white terry cloth robes wearing 1920’s one-piece striped swimwear!  The lounge was packed with passengers for this event and it was the best attended night-time activity, yet.

King Penguins Greet us at Salisbury Plain


2nd Largest King Penguin Colony at Salisbury Plain


King Penguins Come Out to See the Ship

Afterwards the fashion show, we went into the hot tub outside on deck-7 and watched the snow fall around us.

On Sunday, when we awoke, we were surrounded by the snowy white peaks of Fortuna Bay and we see king penguins and seals playing in the water outside our window – it is 38 degrees outside. We arrived in Fortuna Bay in the middle of the night and stayed here since it was well-protected and calm. Fortuna Bay was named for one of the first whaling ships that operated in the area.  The inaptly named Fortuna ran aground at Hope Point in 1916, as her helmsman was reading a letter from home. This bay is home to both king & gentoo penguins, fur seals, elephant seals and many species of birds, including the albatrosses and the giant petrels.  The king penguins prefer to nest at long open beaches with large swells. The colony of penguins here at Whistle Cove in Fortuna Bay is one of the most easily assessable in South Georgia Islands.

Gentoo Penguin Chick at Fortuna Bay

At 7:30am, the Expedition Crew went ashore and began setting up the landing. Soon, we took the zodiacs to shore and were greeted by many more seals and king penguins.  The king penguins were everywhere and they not shy – they walked right up to us and were curious about the seldom seen humans. We began our walk left down the beach toward the valley, and there were penguins all along the beach.  We finally crossed a small river and then the area we were in was dominated by thousands of fur seals, some of which we needed to hold off from their charges.  We continue our walk until we reach to a hill, and from on top the hill, all one can see is fields full of king and gentoo penguins – over ~10,000 pairs – squawking and tending their nests.  After many pictures, we walk back down to the beach and the penguins begin to follow us. Eventually, we return to the ship, but on the way back, we find a group of penguins again sitting on the bulb at the front of the ship, creating their own little playground. They were using the bulb as a platform, diving into the water and then climbing out and diving again – they were so cute. The penguins have been playing in the waters around the ship the whole time we have been here, (they can swim at 12 mph). The whole excursion was done with sleet and snow falling and a combination of clouds. and then sun, and then clouds again.

Curious Seal Comes to See Us

After the excursion, we eat an early buffet lunch in anticipation of hiking part the Shackleton Trail in the afternoon.  When Shackleton reached the South Georgia Islands with their lifeboat from Elephant Island, he and two others hiked across the islands to Fortuna Bay, and then to the Whaling Station at Stromness Bay. However, we soon learn that due to very low visibility on the mountain pass, the hike was canceled. However, we are still going to sail around to Stromness Bay and go ashore and hike part of the trail to Shackleton’s Waterfall and back.

When sailing into Stromness Bay, on our right is Leith Harbor, the site of one of the largest old whaling stations in the islands.  We can also see the rusting site of the old Husvik whaling station that also used this bay. It was here at the Husvik station that the entire whaling staff volunteered to rescue Shackleton’s 22 men who were still stranded on Elephant Island. However, the men of Husvik would not be able to get through the ice flows surrounding Elephant Island and that first rescue attempt failed. It would take 4 attempts in total, and over 4 more months for Shackleton to finally reach his men and effect their rescue. When we go ashore at Stromness, it is a wet landing on the beach, and we are greeted by many elephant and fur seals. The hike to the back of the valley takes a solid hour, across glacial streams and braided channels of rocks and ice.  Once we arrive at the back of the valley, we get to see Shackleton’s waterfall, the largest waterfall on the island, and the point at which he descended from the mountain pass to get to the Stromness Whaling Station. As we walked to the waterfall, we come across some colonies of Gentoo penguins in a small side valley – they have walked over a mile across the grass and rocks to get here. Stromness Whaling Station is still there, but it is now abandoned, and because the site has not been cleaned-up, we are required to stay 200 meters away from its contaminated, decrepit structures.  Stromness Whaling Station was active from 1907-1961, but no one lives or stays here now.  The weather for the afternoon’s hike has been overcast with a mixture of snow, sleet and intermittent rain, and the katabatic winds, (30-60 mph gusts), from the mountain glaciers come and go.

View of the Valley at Stromness Bay


Successful Hike to Shackleton’s Waterfall

On our return, we divert our route and head over to the back side of the old whaling station where we could hear elephant seals trumpeting in the distance and where we could get a better view of the relics.  The ground here was solid muck with your feet sinking on every step. After a plodding 20-minute walk and a brief sighting and pictures, we reverse our route and head back to the ship. While waiting to board the zodiac, the king penguins and fur seals surrounded us.  There were a huge number of young baby seals here, and they are very curious about us and what we are doing.  As we returned to the ship, a rescue-lifeboat was being lowered into the bay as part of normal seafaring rules and safety checks.  The rescue-lifeboats need to be lowered every 14-days while at sea, and the engines run and checked. That night, after an Asian buffet, we went to spa tubs on deck, and found a small Diving Petrel bird huddled in the corner next to the tub.  We notified the Expedition Crew and they picked it up, kept it warm for the night and released it into the wind in the morning.

It is Monday morning, February 18th, and today will be our last day in the South Georgia Islands.  The weather expected for today is not good, and will include snow, rain, sleet, and high wind and swells.  In the morning, we head to explore Gold Harbor. It is called Gold Harbor because surrounding mountain peaks are so high and angular that, with sun on them, they look yellow and give a “golden glow” to the bay.  When Captain Cook arrived here, he was disappointed to have discovered that it was not the Southern Continent that he had hoped to find.  This area is a breeding ground for king and gentoo penguins as well as light-mantled albatrosses.  As the ship enters the bay, we can see king and gentoo penguins on the beach.  However, one can smell them before you even see them!  Pictures of the glacier that comes into this bay from 2004 clearly shows its rapid retreat of many meters per year. After the ship circles a number of times, the Captain determines that the katabatic winds make it impossible to launch zodiacs or make a landing here. Therefore, we decide to head down the coast to Cooper Bay & Cooper Island.

Cooper Island was discovered by British explore James Cook in 1775, however, the island and facing bay are named for Lieutenant Robert Cooper, an officer aboard the HMS Resolution.  Cooper Bay has large number of sea birds, including snow petrels, Antarctic prions, and over 12,000-pairs of black-brown albatrosses. On the exposed outcrops here, we see chinstrap and macaroni penguins (~20,000).  Both types are in the water around the ship as well as on the shores. It is so windy here that it is difficult to even hold the camera still for a picture.  After holding the ship’s position for ~20-minutes for pictures, we head through the narrow neck of water between the island and the mainland, nimbly passing close to huge rocks on either side.  In front of us, are the South Asian Mountain Range with Ferguson Peak, Douglas Crack, and a number of mountains that are over 2000 feet high.

After passing Cooper Island, we head for the Drygalski Fjord.  It is the largest and truest fjord on the island, with several very large glaciers located at its end. The fjord is named for Erich Dagobert von Drygalski, a professor of geography and geophysicists at the University of Berlin.  Drygalski led the German Polar Expedition in 1901-1903 and helped describe the area. We cruised all the way to the end of the fjord for pictures. Since the mountains are so tall on both sides of the ship, it is very quiet, but also very windy.  We have not seen another ship in these areas and the Captain works hard to keep the ship positioned in the center of the fjord.  Eventually, he pivots the ship expertly, and we leave the fjord slowly.  Once we exit the fjord, in the distance, we can see a massive, tabular shelf iceberg from Antarctica that has broken off the ice-shelf.  As we draw closer, we can estimate that it measures ~1.9 kilometers in length!

Drygalski Fjord with Glacier at the End


View out of Drygalski Fjord Narrow Entrance


Tabular Iceburg off Cooper Island

Since the winds have been uncooperative today, the Captain has announced that we will set sail immediately for Elephant Island and Antarctica to the south, and whatever new adventures await us there. Consequently, it was a quiet afternoon on ship with a Spanish Buffet dinner.  However, by the evening, the waves had grown to nearly 50 ft and seasickness has driven a large number of passengers to their cabins.

Rainbow in Spray Fighting Katabatic Winds on Way to Antartica

Today is Tuesday, February 19th, and we will spend the next 3-days battling winds and swells to arrive in Antarctica. Upon awakening, the waves and swells are less than the brutal conditions of the previous night, and the breakfast buffet is reasonably well-attended. Since the entire day will be at sea, lectures are offered to help everyone pass the time on-board.

The first of these was a lecture by our Russian Expedition Team Member, Katya, titled, “Destination Antarctica: Life and Work in Antarctica”. Katya is a marine biologist with ten-years of experience working in Antarctica. She showed us a beautiful sunlight picture of Paradise Harbor/Bay taken from the Almirante Brown Station where a good percentage of the time it is sunny. Antarctica is the windiest and driest place on earth, however, there are ~70 permanent research station scattered throughout the continent representing 29 countries.  Katya has worked on a Russian base, a German base and a British base.  As a student, she went to King George island in the Southern Shetland Islands. King George Island is a glacier-covered island except for a small peninsula on the southern end. There are 5 different bases and an airport in this area, that allows more reasonable access and cooperation.  Although Katya is Russian, she splits her time between Russia and Washington D.C.  The Soviet Union used to have 12 bases but, after the cold-war ended, closed 5 of them, and now has only 7, 2 are temporary bases that hold weather stations and other electronics, and that are only visited temporarily. Base Bellinghausen is jointly staffed with Russian and Chilean personnel and opened in 1968.  The Russian side of the base can hold 50 personnel but only 10 in the winter, and no women are allowed to stay over the winter.  They have a library, an Orthodox church (wooden – which means they had to get special permission to bring in specially treated wood to construct the church), a hospital, garages, labs, workshops, and housing. The base also has a runway and a helicopter hanger. Some of the research done is the study of Antarctic “hair grass” which is an invasive species.  The researchers map the area covered by the grasses by GPS and have continued to monitor whether it is spreading or dying.  They also study Adelie, Gentoo, and Chinstrap penguins, especially the breeding pairs.  Although these penguins are everywhere across Antarctica, their local population changes are of significant interest to scientists. Penguins are very curious and will readily approach humans.  There studies are finding that Gentoo penguins are on the increase, but the Adelie and Chinstrap penguins have been decreasing over the past 20-years. This long-term research has also noted that the Weddell seals and the south-polar skuas are also declining in this area.  In addition to the wildlife counting, the research personnel also hunt and record fossils. The fossils that are found on this island show evidence of plants, animals, and wood that clarify the geologic history of the island. Also, since the base has a helicopter, they have participated in a variety of rescue operations. Although the Russians share the base with the Chileans, they each have their own area and set of buildings. The Russians have green-colored buildings in the front of the base, and the Chileans have multi-colored buildings at the back of the base. The Chileans personnel are mostly military-based people, who have 2-to-3-year commitments, and therefore they are allowed to have their families with them.  Altogether, the Chilean base has about 100-people of which 25 are children (the first baby born in Antarctica was to a Chilean family at this base). They also have a school, grocery and a bank. They even offer a tourist program – “One Day in Antarctica”. There are flights to the base from Punto Arenas 2-3 times a week.  Also, nearby, is the Chinese base, which has 50 people in the summer, but usually only 10 people in the winter. However, the Chinese have really good laboratories, which they are willing to share.  All of the bases are open to all people on Antarctica at any time. Each base in Antarctica keeps its own time zone – usually tied to their home country.  For example, the Chinese operate their base on a Chinese time zone, where the Chileans operate theirs on Chilean time zone. Although this is convenient for communications to home countries, it does make inter-base communications and visits complicated. All bases are also a minimum of 25-kilometers from the ice edge and, if a ship comes in, it pulls up directly next to the ice-shelf. Katja also worked on an ice breaker ship for nearly 3-months, doing research on the Southern Ocean and Antarctic Krill. They too had a helicopter, which they used to count whales and spot krill gatherings. She also spent time at the German base, Neumayer, which was established in 2009 and is built on innovative hydraulic stilts, as the ice is always moving beneath it.  Katya also worked on the British base, Rothera, which opened in 2008 to study ice rocks and the Antarctic water. The base is unique in that it has hills around the camp, and the personnel located there are able to ski and snowboard. However, since there is no lift system, they use snowmobiles to get to themselves to the top of the hill.

As the day went on the swells/waves got bigger and bigger.  Dinner was minimally attended, and all evening sessions and lectures were canceled due to the waves. The outside decks were roped off, and everything was battened-down for the rough seas. That night, everyone went to bed early, as the waves reached the top deck of the boat 20-30 meters high, and wind was 50-70mph.

Waves Crashing the Bow of the Ship

On Wednesday morning, everyone awoke to much calmer conditions, and it was obvious that people were feeling better since breakfast was well attended.  Today, we will be at sea all day again, and hope to get to Elephant Island sometime tomorrow morning. There was a kayak briefing for those of us who want to try kayaking in Antarctica, which we hope to be able to do, but is very weather dependent. Only 50 people want to try this activity, so excursions will be limited to 12-14 that will go at any one-time.  The appropriate gear is to wear long underwear covered by a polar fleece jumpsuit and with an outer layer of a neoprene dry-suit.  The dry-suit comes with neoprene boots and mittens which hook directly on to the paddle.  If we get the chance, we will use 2-man kayaks.

The sailing today is so much calmer but with lots of clouds. It has snowed or rained off and on nearly all day, and the air temperature is dropping – now reading at just a few degrees above freezing.  In today’s lectures, we learn of the Chilean rescue part of the Shackleton Story from our Chilean Guide, Marco.  After 3 failed attempts to rescue his men from Elephant Island. Shackleton enlisted the aid of the Chilean Navy.  The Chilean culture has a long history of rescues, and the Chilean Navy assigned the task to Captain Piloto Pardo, the Captain of the Yelcho, a coal-fired, single hulled ship stationed in Punto Arenas, where he was responsible for resupplying the Navy bases along the Beagle Channel and Chilean fiords. Captain Pardo accepted the task with determination, and, after stopping to take on a load of coal, took Shackleton and his two mates past Cape Horne and sailed slowly through the fog towards the Antarctic Peninsula.  After 3-days of avoiding icebergs in the fog, they arrived at Elephant Island, sent a rowboat ashore and, within one hour, were able to rescue all 22 men that were stranded there.  They then headed back to Punto Arenas.  Piloto Pardo had had no radio or technological equipment on any kind – just determination, perseverance, and the knowledge on how to carefully and skillfully sail through the fog.  When he arrived home with the rescued men, he was offered 25,000 pounds sterling from the British Government as a reward.  However, he was a humble man and refused the money, stating was only “doing his job”. Today, on Elephant Island the mountain ridge is called Pardo Ridge and a small peninsula is called Cape Yelcho.  Here on Elephant Island at the point of the rescue, there is a bust of Pardo in recognition of his service. Yet in Punto Arenas, and in the British stories of Shackleton, there is little recognition of him.

That night, we had a seated dinner in honor of Shackleton with proper “British” food – lamb, potatoes, brown bread, etc.  That night we spend a lazy evening, take a dip in the hot tub, and prepare for tomorrow. We should then officially be in Antarctica!

2019 Antarctica Expedition – The Falklands Islands

4:30 pm

We are staged in Buenos Aires at the Emperador Hotel where we assemble for a quick coffee at 5:30am before heading to the domestic airport for a 6:30am flight to Ushuaia which will take 3.5 hours.  For this part of the trip, we are under the guidance of the Norwegian Company, Hurtigruten, as we will be on their Expedition Ship, the MS Fram.  The flight is a charter flight on Latham Airline, and it will be carrying only people who are doing the same Antarctica trip as we are. Our luggage was taken by truck at 10pm the previous evening and we will next see it at the Ushuaia airport.

We arrive in Ushuaia at around noon and are greeted by wind and rain. We quickly transfer to buses for a very brief city tour showing us a scenic viewpoint from the old airport and driving us past the port and through downtown. We were then given an hour and a half on our own, and since we had been in Ushuaia before, we went off on our own looking for king crab soup and some gifts.  There was a large Princess Cruise ship in Port, and the restaurants were crowded with tourists, so we finally settled for a crab bowl – a crab fondue served in a bowl made of a crusted bread. We finished our shopping and then headed back to the bus for a short, five-minute drive back to the Port and down the wharf to our ship.

We checked in, received our ID’s which are also a photo ID, a room key and a charge card, turned in our medical clearance forms (which were required for the trip) and picked up our Antarctic waterproof/wind jackets. These jackets, along with our rain pants and provided “muck boots”, are required on every shore landing in these pristine environments.  Our cabin is on deck 6, and consists of 2 single beds, a bathroom, 2 closets, a small desk, a TV and a tray for our muck boots, which we will receive the next day. Our ship has 8 decks:  8 – Observation and sauna, 7- Panoramic Bar lounge, gym, whirlpools and sun decks, 6 – cabins, 5- cabins and observation terraces, 4 – dining room, gift shop, lobby, coffee station, and lecture halls, 3 – cabins, 2 – hospital and landings deck for zodiacs (polar Crikel boats), and 1 – crew quarters. While the boat holds over 250 passengers, at this sailing there are only 193 of us aboard. There are very strict landing rules in the Falklands, and especially in the South Georgian Islands and Antarctica. Ships with more than 200 passengers are not allowed to dock or anchor or offload passengers to the shore in the Antarctic Region.  Due to our boarding, tonight’s dinner is buffet style; soup, salads, entrees and desserts (a comprehensive menu with many healthy choices and numerous vegetarian dishes). There are 3 official passenger languages on this trip: English, German and Chinese. Next was our mandatory briefing on how to put on a survival suit and life jacket then we reported and reviewed our muster stations.  Finally, that evening, there was the Captain’s Welcome with drinks (champagne) and crew introductions.  The expedition team on this trip is very large (17 people) with interpreters, geologist, biologists, marine biologists, historians, PhD students, researchers, and even a representative from ORCA here to observe and count wildlife.   There will be lectures and photography classes and various other science lectures throughout the trip.

Map of the Falkland Islands

The ship left port ~2-hours late due to a late fuel delivery, and the late sun was setting as we sail east out of Ushuaia, through the Beagle Channel, towards the Falkland Islands. And so – the adventure begins.

On Saturday, February 9th, we are up early for a quick trip to the ship’s gym which has a stern and side view of the ocean. We followed this with showers, and with enjoying the breakfast buffet which included pancakes and soft- or hard-boiled eggs.  We are just now exiting the Beagle Channel into the Southern Atlantic Ocean, and the seas soon change from 1-2-meter waves to 2-3-meter waves.  Today, we will be at sea all day as we travel east to the Falkland Islands (The Maldives, as per Argentina).  After breakfast, we head up to the forward observation deck on level-5 to meet with the ship’s naturalists, watch albatrosses and petrels soaring near the ship, and to look for whales.  In a distance, we see a few whales blows, but nothing near to the ship. Later that morning, there is a briefing on what to expect for excursions, and on how to enter and leave the boat and the zodiacs. The passengers have been broken into 8 boat-groups with between 20 and 25 based upon travel groups and language. Following this, we are called by boat group to try-on and pick-up our “muck boots” which are required since all of our landings, which except for two, are “wet” landings.  These boots are waterproof above the upper-calf and need to be inspected and cleaned regularly to insure no contamination of environmentally sensitive areas occurs. Lunch was a buffet with 4 choices of a main course, and in the afternoon, we were entertained by a lecture presentation titled, “An air of extreme desolation – introduction to the Falkland Islands’ natural history”. 

Although there are a few indications that man may have set foot on the Falkland Islands earlier, they were uninhabited when the English explorer, John Davis, first sighted them in 1592, and when the English Sea Captain landed there in 1690 and named them in honor of Viscount Falkland.  There are two principal islands – East and West, and numerous other smaller islands making up the islands, which are principally upraised sedimentary rock formed in the collision of the Scotia plate with the American plate. In the 1690’s, French merchants and sailors from St. Malo names the islands “Islas Malouines”, which evolved in Spanish to Islas Malvinas.  The French created the first settlement at Port Louise on East Falkland in 1764, and the British settled on Saunders Island in North West Falkland Island in 1765.In 1833-1834, Charles Darwin sailed there from Argentina with Captain Fitzroy aboard “The Beagle” and explored the islands and described the geology and the fossil record.  Subsequently, the British removed the French from the East Island, and settled Scottish settlers across the islands.  In 1982, Argentinean troops landed and the British responses with the 3-month Falkland War.  Today, the Islands claim their own sovereignty as a British Protectorate, although the Argentineans still claim them as rightfully theirs.  This is not likely to be resolved as the exploration for oil and gas around the islands has already begun.

After the lecture, we sat in the 7th-floor panoramic lounge, watching the scenery and the growing waves.  By tonight, they will each 16-20 in height, and many are starting to feel their effects.  At 4pm, they ship serves a very proper British Tea, complete with scones and cakes, and with and assortment of teas and coffees.  After dinner, we have a briefing about the following day’s landing.  The plan is to go ashore at New Island Nature Reserve in the morning, and then move to the West Point Island site in the afternoon.  We are reminded not to approach the wildlife too close as they do bite, and they can become stressed.

First sighting of Falklands near New Island

On Sunday morning, we are up early to go to the gym, and as the ship slows its speed, we can see various rock islands around us and some curious dolphins in the water.  We arrive at New Island and, after the Expedition Team prepares the landing site, we begin to ferry ashore on the zodiacs, ~10 passengers at a time.  The Expedition Team has brought ashore anything we might need for being stranded here for up to 24-hours, and has marked our ecologically-acceptable route with cones and flags.  After a cold windy ride to shore it was an easy landing on a cement pier from which we begin our hike.  This site is characterized by a small “museum” which was once the 1813 home of a ship wreaked American sealor, Captain Barnard.  Once he was rescued, he wrote a book titled, “Marooned” and the small museum stands in his honor.  There is a sunken ship, (“The Protector”), in the harbor, but we land a little up-the-coast on the western, leeward-side of the island and walk across to the large rock-hopper penguin rookery on the other side.  Here, we see masses of rock-hopper penguins and many types of birds (including upland geese pairs, black-browed albatross pairs of which there are over 10,000 pairs, and cormorants).  There are also over 2-million breeding pairs of Thin-billed Prions, a small burrowing petrel that is only seen at night.

The Museum at New Island

The rock-hopper penguins are identified by the colorful “eyebrows”, and they hop from rock-to-rock in their shared community with black-brown albatrosses. The young rock-hoppers are still maturing and haven’t yet left the area and are identifiable by their incomplete markings and traits.  The albatrosses build their nest by piling-up mud and debris to form a mound, and their nests are filled with fluffy, young chicks that cannot yet fly.  The rookery stretches over numerous hillsides and the penguin pairs number well into the thousands, many of them now molting.  After observing the rookery for a while, we trek back to the leeward side of the island and climb an observation lookout for a view over the bay.  This post was once an observation location during the Falkland’s War, and a crude stone shelter still stands there.

Rock-hopper Penguin Colony at New Island

New Island is located on the far-western side of the Falklands and is privately-owned by a U.K. trust as a non-profit charity for wildlife conservation and scientific research. The Trust also owns several other small islands, of which most are uninhabited.  This island currently has only 4 residents: an island manger, Gisela, an assistant, Alec, and two researchers. Gisela is in her first 6 months as manger on 2-year assignment here.  Most visitors arrive here by ship. although there is a tiny airstrip at one end of the island which can accommodate a 2-passenger plane. The island also supported sheep and cattle farming in the early 1900’s, but in 1972, the island was sold to a British couple, and since then farming has decreased as research and tourism have grown. The island is rich in natural fresh water springs, and has 41 species of birds, as well as sea lions and Peale’s dolphins. 

A Young Rock-hopper Penguin


A Mature Rock-hopper Penguin


A Cormorant


Brown-black Albotrosses at Nests with Chicks


Rock-hopper Penguin Colonies in front & at Distance

After visiting the museum and talking with Gisela, we prepare to return to the ship by washing our rain pants and boots in the surf before climbing in the zodiacs. Once on board the ship, we use brushes and hoses to again clean our boots to ensure no contamination of soil makes it to our future landings. Finally, we are greeted with hot tea and coffee and then a buffet lunch.

At the Overlook at New Island

While eating lunch, our Expedition ship moves around to the leeward side of West Point Island.

West Point island is a small island with a large bird colony of 2100 pairs of albatrosses and more rock-hopper penguins.  The local family there is expecting us and has prepared a set of cookies and treats for us ashore.  However, we were unable to take the leeward channel into the West Point landing as the wind was too strong, so, instead, the Captain takes us around a large reef and tries to enter the Bay of West Point from another direction.  But the winds are still too high for a landing and we regretfully leave the area. As we leave the area, we saw a flock of terns diving in the water for food, and upon looking more closely, we saw a group of penguins porpoising through the water bringing a meal back to their young.

That night we enjoy a dinner buffet, and later that evening we have a briefing regarding the next day’s program, hopeful that the weather will allow us to be able to return to West Point in the morning.

Monday morning, we were up for buffet breakfast and looking forward to an 8am landing on West Point, the island we attempted to reach the day before.  However, the wind is howling this morning, and so we travel further down the channel to see if we can pull into the windward-side of Saunders Island.  Saunders Island is relatively large – 51 square miles – with a coastline of 66.4 miles.  It consists of 3 peninsulas linked by narrow necks of land. It is owned by a single British gentleman named David.  The first settlement on the island was in 1765 by the British. The sea in this area is full of albatrosses and gulls, with many white caps on the waves as the wind is now gusting at 50-60 knots. If we can land, we plan to do a 5 mile-hike today.  As we approach from the windward side it was so windy that the Captain did not even want to attempt to anchor, so we decided to sail around the island to the leeward-side. However, the landing by the Expedition Team was difficult, so they bring David back to our ship for lunch and hope for better conditions later in the afternoon. By 2pm the Captain has moved the ship even closer to shore and we are finally able to ferry to shore – this time on smaller zodiacs with only 6 passengers at a time.  The reward for our patience to get onto the island was well rewarded. Once ashore, we were greeted by thousands of Gentoo penguins and a few petrels. As we walked to the far end of the beach, we saw even more gentoo penguins and then came across ~ 20 king penguins. On the hill above were a flock of sheep which seem to get along just fine with the penguins.  As we continued to make a loop of the colony, we saw rock-hopper penguins up in the rocks of the hillside. Then we spotted our first Magellanic penguin among a flock of Gentoo’s. It was then we noticed some penguin chicks being protected by dad – a fluffy ball of white feathers. We also witnessed mom regurgitating krill for her young chick to feed. As we headed back to the dinghy, we marveled at the flocks of penguins who were wave-surfing up onto the beach.  Near our exit location, we spotted an entire colony of Magellanic penguins burrowed to in the hillside. Such an awesome day.

Gentoo Penguins at Saunders Island


Part of the Gentoo Colony at Saunders Island


Whale Skeleton at Saunders Island


Gentoo Penguins Squawking


King Penguins Grooming


View back toward Beach Landing Site

We returned to the boat for a Norwegian buffet dinner, and while the food was good, everyone was talking about the amazing beach of penguins. After dinner we had a briefing for the next day: a day in the town of Stanley, the capital of the Falklands. 

Tuesday morning, February 12th, and we are up early to watch us sail into the Port of Stanley, which is protected from the seas through a narrow neck of water which larger ships cannot pass through. Stanley is the Capital of Falklands and was settled by the French in 1764 and later taken over by the British.  The first government house was built in 1845. Today the population of Stanley is ~3,500, and, given that this is the capitol of the Falklands, there is a post office in city hall where one can buy lots of philatelic stamps, as well as a dance hall and a courthouse with courtrooms.  The only jail in the islands is here and it only holds 13 prisoners maximum. Stanley’s site was well chosen for early settlers as there was a steady supply of peat which used to be the popular choice for heating & cooking during the 19th and 20th centuries.  However, less than 19% of the population still use peat, and most residents have switched to propane.  There is an airport with weekly flights to Punta Arenas and twice a week flights to Great Britain.  There are no flights to Argentina since the Falkland’s War, and locals still remember when the Argentinians invaded the island in 1982. The main export for the Falklands is sheep, and most everything else had traditionally arrived by ship.  However, in the last few years huge gardens and green houses have been erected for the islands to have a steady supply of fresh fruit and vegetables grown locally.

Entrance to Stanley Harbour with Large Cruise Ships

We started our day with a long hike out of town around the bay to Tysons Cove and Gypsy Cove, passing the shipwrecks of the Lady Elizabeth and the Plym.  At each of the coves on the outer edge of the island we encountered large Magellanic penguin colonies.  As we continued around the peninsula, we come upon some of the 14 abandoned mounted-gun stations and, in contrast, nesting penguins in burrows in the same hillside. On the way back to the ship, we walked along the bay’s shoreline and collected sea-glass. Once we arrived back at the ship, we filled our thermos with hot chocolate and caught the shuttle to town, where we were dropped at the Historic Dockyard Museum. Along the way we saw several whale skeletons left over from early whaling days!  Once there, we toured the Dockyard Museum and explored the heritage and history of the islanders, learned about the early explorers, the invaders and the liberators, the animals, rocks and plants, and the sea around us, (Charles Darwin spent longer in the Falklands than he did in Galapagos). The Government house was refurbished, and the Jubilee Villas were built in honor of Queen Elizabeth’s 60th anniversary.  We saw the whale-jawbone arch in the center of town and checked out the souvenir shops, the post office, and a local bar.  At the Victory Bar, we had beer and one of the best fish-n-chips we have ever tasted! Of course, we continued walking before sitting at the waterfront drinking hot chocolate and people watching. There were 3 ships in port that day: A Celebrity cruise ship – The Eclipse registered in Malta; a Holland American cruise ship – Prinsendam from Rotterdam; and ourselves on the M.S. Fram, registered in Norway.  There was also a beautiful private white yacht in harbor the “Game Changer” complete with helicopter and pad and a submarine on board. 

Old Shipwrecks at End of Stanley Harbour


Gentoo Penguins at Gypsy Cove


Young Magellanic Chick Penguin in Nest Burrow


Governor’s House in Stanley


Stanley Church with Whale-Jaw Arch

We finally took the shuttle bus back to the ship when it started to drizzle to end a thoroughly enjoyable day! When we arrived at the ship, it was Tea Time with tea, scones, and small sandwiches in a proper British manner, (and the scones are still warm from the oven and are quite lovely).

Dinner that night was served in sit-down manner and with a very French menu of chateaubriand and béarnaise sauce. That night, we are advised by the Captain to batten down our things in the cabin as there will be a bit of rough seas.  And then, we head to the open seas for the next 2 days in route to the South Georgian Islands. We are quite privileged to go there, as the South Georgia Islands only receive ~7000 visitors a year.  In fact, it is remote enough that many of the ship’s crew have not yet been there, and it is out-of-the-way from the more normal Antarctica route.

Wednesday morning, we get up early to go to the gym as this is a to be a full day at sea.  The waves are a bit “rolly” and one must keep both hands on the treadmill, even while walking. Breakfast was poorly attended this morning, likely due to the waves and weather.  At breakfast, two jelly jars slide off the buffet line making a sharp and sticky mess on the dining room floor. The rest of the morning, we sat in the lounge on the 4th deck and did email as a few waves crashed over the ship, covering the windows completely. The Captain announced that we would have waves of 21-25 feet tall with 35 mph wind gusts, and that passengers should be careful walking.

Since it is a sea day, the ship’s crew practice an emergency drill at 10:15 am. At the same time. the Expedition Crew gave us a briefing on the South Georgia Islands and Antarctica.  Passengers will have the opportunity to do several hikes in South Georgia and potentially kayaking and camping in Antarctica.  We then learned about the need for bio-clean outerwear in order to protect the environment in both areas and will spend the afternoon getting our clothing vacuumed and our boots cleaned, inspected and sanitized.  We actually have observers on board from IAATO (International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators) to make sure we comply with the rules and regulations, and we are told that an inspector from South Georgia will come aboard to certify and allow us ashore.  Biosecurity cleaning will be a part of every time we leave and re-board the ship. We also watch a required movie about proper procedures and rules for our excursions and time ashore.

That night dinner is seated, but with minimal items on the table as the boat is still rocky and rolling – no water pitchers, no wine glasses, and minimal items that can slide off or fall over.  Tonight, we start to see a few passengers with arms in slings, and with a few bandages who have obviously injured themselves during the past day. After dinner, the Shackleton Story movie was shown and then we watched a slide-show recap of the Falkland Islands presented by the Expedition Crew.  We even played a small “Jeopardy” game whose categories were “Penguins”, “Petrols and Albatrosses”, and “Ducks and Geese” and the game gave the crowd a good energy boost.  That night, we skipped the outdoor hot tub visit as there was way too much wave-action and sloshing taking place.

Thursday morning, February 14th and it is Valentine’s Day!  Last night there was a time change and, since we have traveled east. we are now the same time as Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, Brazil, although it is apparent that several passengers forgot to change the time on their watches and phones.  Breakfast buffet takes place with a multitude of “Happy Valentine’s Day” wishes.  Today is an “at sea day” again, and the day will be filled with various lectures on whales, birds and the history of the South Georgia Islands.  Today, the wind is from the northwest at only ~20mph (a lot less than the day before) but the temperature has slowly been dropping – today it is a high of 40 degrees and the water is at the same temperature.

After lunch, while relaxing in the panoramic lounge, the Captain announced we would soon be coming along-side of “Shag Rocks” as we continue to sail towards South Georgia Islands.  It is raining and cold, but we go outside to get pictures. The rocks look a bit like the remnants of a caldera, but we expect to see a variety of birds around them.  However, we are pleasantly surprised when the Expedition Crew spots several whale-blows straight ahead of us.  The Captain obliges by moving in that direction, and we are soon beside a huge pod of whales feeding voraciously of the abundant krill in this area.  There are many Sei whales, as well as lots of larger Fin whales and at least four humpback whales.  The whale specialist on board estimated that there were at least 100 whales in this group, and even one male Orca was spotted. At one point, there were whales on both sides of the ship, as well as at front, and we also saw small dolphins and seals and many seabirds participating in the feast. The captain kept them within sight for ~45 minutes or more. Although it is known that whales like to feed around Shag Rock. no one can ever remembers seeing that many different types of whales feeding together at one time. The Sei whales are plentiful around the Falklands and can often be easily spotted by their blows, which are 6-8 meters tall.

Shag Rock Islands on way to South Georgia Islands


Two Sei Whales among Many Blows


Fin Whales and Sei Whales


Diving Humpback Whale Tail


Large Fin Whale ~20 meters long


Numerous Whales in Feeding Frenzy at Surface


Sei Whales and Fin Whales Feeding on Krill


Sei Whale (front) and Fin Whale (back) Cruising with the Pod

That night, we had another seated dinner with a vegetarian theme.  Marco, our guide presented us with a bottle of champagne to mark us having been together for 45 years. After dinner we attend the mandatory briefing discussing the landings tomorrow and the environmental rules, and then it was followed by a “talk show” hosted by two of the expedition guides who discussed Shackleton.