Posted on Monday, 20 January 2014
First Stop, Puerto Madryn
Chris had been invited as a Special Interest Guest speaker on board Crystal Cruises Symphony, that would be cruising down to Antarctica this past December. Before we boarded the eighteen day cruise we were lucky enough to spend a week with our good friend who works with the famous beach stranding Orcas at Punta Norte in Peninsula Valdez, Argentina. December is not the season for the Orcas to hunt South American sea lions but our aim was to spend time on his boat in the Gulfo Nuevo looking for the Orcas that may be in the Bay this time of the year. Although the Orcas had occasionally been observed hunting dolphins here there was only a very small chance of us actually seeing them in five days.
The dolphins that are most commonly seen here this time of the year are the very playful and interactive Dusky dolphins. We had amazing weather on all days we were at sea and each time found the dolphins in pretty much the same area. The schools we found were between five and thirty individual animals and as we spent a number of hours with them each day, we watched them go through different moods of behaviour.
There was a lot of mating behaviour taking place which would be a lot of intense chasing of the female followed by jubilant playing which included incredibly spectacular multiple summersaulting dolphins, of course which resulted in us screaming in delight! This would be followed by resting and slow cruising next to the boat. Each day brought such amazing encounters with the dolphins and I have to say that dusky Dolphins are now my favourite dolphin. Sorry Commons!
The Gulfo Nuevo has spectacular white cliffs (kind of like the white Cliffs of Dover) that ring around the Bay which is a little bigger than 1000km2. In many coves there are small Sea lion, Elephant seal and Megelanic penguin colonies which we really enjoyed spending time at, especially in the smooth calm conditions.
So, although we did not find Orcas we still had an amazing time with the local wildlife here and a big thank you to Juan Copello for sharing this with us.
Our next stop was to board The Crystal Symphony and head for The Falkland Islands and then onto Antarctica…
The Falkland Islands
This trip was to be a little different to our Antarctica trip last year in terms of it was a cruise only (meaning no ice time) but it was still a great opportunity to get back down to The End of The World. One of the many highlights of the trip is to bird watch from the ship on the sea traveling days. Many species of Pelagic sea birds that we do not see too often in Cape Town will follow the boats and it’s a great opportunity to admire them whilst they beautifully soar behind the back of the ship.
We had great numbers of Giant petrels as well as three of the Great albatross species (Wandering, Northern and Southern Royal). These albatross have the largest wing-span of any flying bird (3.4m wide) and it is just a privilege to watch them as they majestically soar effortlessly from swell to swell. They use the updraft from the swells to fly without any effort and in fact one bird has been recorded circumnavigating the globe in 27 days, amazing!
So, with an armada of pelagic birds we shortly reached The Falkland Islands where our main aim was to see a Commerson’s dolphin, a particularly beautiful small black and white dolphin.
We were in luck and just as we entered the dock in Port Stanley I spotted a tiny dorsal fin just behind the kelp. After a closer look Chris and I saw three Commerson’s and we watched them for about twenty minutes as they patrolled the kelp beds not more than 50m away from us. We missed them on our last visit so we were thrilled to have this sighting.
As we entered the Gerlache Straights and the NeuMeyer Channel we experienced clear blue skies, bright sunshine and not a ripple on the surface of the ocean… Were we really in Antarctica?
The Antarctic Peninsula
After a relatively gentle crossing of the infamous Drake Passage we arrived at Elephant Island, and in very windy and snowy conditions we caught sight of Point Wilde which was the camp site of Frank Wilde and his men whilst they awaited rescue by Sir Ernest Shackleton. I really enjoyed seeing it in these miserable conditions as it gives one some kind of appreciation of what struggles those men went through.
Just before we approached the actual Peninsula the conditions improved dramatically and we had a close view of Deception Island and the hugely spectacular Chinstrap penguin colony at Baily Head which is roughly 50 000 pairs strong. The colony stretches a few hundred meters up an amazing amphitheatre of hills, leaving us in amazed wonder of how these little fellows have the energy to climb up to the high nesting sites after each feeding sortie.
Sadly it has been confirmed that this particular colony has decreased by 50% in the last twenty years, mostly due to increasing temperatures and thus the decline in sea ice. Chinstraps rely on sea ice as a key habitat. While the Chinstraps aren’t as reliant on the seasonal pack ice, which is also shrinking in duration and extent, food sources such as krill graze on the algae that grow under the ice. Other factors may also be in play.
We continued deeper into to the Antarctic Peninsula where the weather continued to get better and better. As we entered the Gerlache Straights and the NeuMeyer Channel we experienced clear blue skies, bright sunshine and not a ripple on the surface of the ocean… Were we really in Antarctica?
We were surrounded by icebergs and bergy bits of various shapes and sizes and flanked on the shore by huge and ever extending glaciers with marshmallow like textures and deep blue colours in the ice. It is a very difficult kind of beauty to describe as you have to be there to experience it. The size of everything is so immense and without any reference to normality you really need to think about how abnormally huge everything around you really is.
The spectacular scenery aside, the absolute highlight of the trip was a grounded iceberg and the little ecosystem it subsequently created. Because the iceberg had grounded itself it meant that the water flowed around it creating eddies and currents which in turn caused upwelling’s and nutrient rich waters. This attracted thousands of Aldelie and Gentoo penguins who began feeding in huge rafts around the iceberg. Others were resting on other icebergs close by giving us the classic “penguin on an iceberg” moment. Dozens of Humpback whales also arrived and a number of Antarctic minke whales were also present. It was an unreal sight as we took in the perfect conditions with the vast amount of wildlife feeding around a perfect scene. Wow, what an experience and even without Chris’s images the scene is engraved in my memory for ever.
The Chilean Fjords
Once we departed Antarctica for Cape Horn and the coast of Chile I felt as if the trip was over, but cruising the Chilean fjords was another amazing highlight.
As we sailed up the Beagle Channel and entered the fjords the vegetation became a beautiful green Magellanic rain forest. This scenery would have been amazing on its own but shortly we came across a number of Glaciers that have pushed themselves through the forests and down to the ocean where they eventually carve out. It definitely felt like Jurassic Park and if a Pterodactyl had come swooping down it certainly would not have been out of place.
As you can tell the bug of the Deep South has well and truly bitten and we are already working on a plan to get back down there at the end of the year!