Posted on Thursday, 6 December 2012
Chris and I are fortunate to meet many well-travelled wildlife enthusiasts, photographers and film makers that join us on our shark expeditions. Without fail, when we ask them what has been the highlight of their adventures almost all will name South Georgia Island. As such, for many years we have dreamed of having the opportunity to visit this famed wildlife destination.
In November/December this year we were privileged to accompany a group of wildlife enthusiasts from Rockjumper Birding Tour’s aboard the ship “The Akademic Vavilov” with One Ocean Expeditions. This special expedition cruise would leave from Ushuaia in Argentine, the most southern city in the world, and would make stops at The Falklands, South Georgia, The South Orkneys and finally the Antarctic Peninsula before travelling back through the notorious Drake Passage, past Cape Horn and ending back in Ushuaia. This was the dream trip as all these destinations were on the programme. Most trips to Antarctica only visit the Peninsula, as the Falklands and South Georgia are really out of the way. On this expedition we also had scheduled zodiac landings twice per day, aside from sea days, so this meant maximum exposure to the penguin and seal colonies in a very up close and intimate way. Even though this time period is at the start of summer we still had to prepare for zero and sub-zero temperatures. This meant hauling out our Himalayan mountain gear that we would need to keep us extra warm. Oh, and also a good supply of sea sickness tablets for me!
As we set sail from Ushuaia we cruised through the Beagle Channel and the next morning we woke up in the Scotia Sea en route to the Falklands. With a huge swell running we excitedly dressed as warmly as possible and headed out to the stern of the ship. Behind us dozens of sea birds were already soaring behind the ship. In the open ocean sea birds will be attracted to traveling vessels, mostly in the hope of scavenging food etc and they very easily make use of the updrafts created by prevailing winds blowing up against the ship to effortlessly soar around us. These open ocean birds all form part of the group called “tubenoses” and the group is made up of various species of albatross, petrels and shearwaters, Storm petrels and Diving petrels. The Latin name for the tubenose group is Procellariiformes. This name is highly appropriate as the translation is “violent wind or storm”, the perfect description to the habitat they must survive in.
Since we were traveling such great distances to the various Islands we had eight sea traveling days in total. Many of these days with the huge variety of sea birds were one of the highlights of the trip for me. There was nothing quite like standing (or some days bracing yourself) at the stern or bow of the ship and becoming totally engrossed while watching the birds as they effortlessly soared around us with the icy cold wind blowing in our faces, and at the same time totally feeling the might of the Southern Ocean that we were traveling through. We also spotted a number of cetaceans which included Humpback and Sperm whales, Peals and Hourglass dolphins and also a very brief look at a group of five orcas.
Our first stop was Port Stanley in the Falklands. The weather conditions did not allow us to visit the Rock Hopper penguin colony and nesting Black Browed albatross areas, but we were able to take in some of the fascinating history and we also got to see a Megallanic penguin or two. Two more days at sea really created a massive build up to our imminent arrival to South Georgia, home to forty million sea birds, Antarctic fur seals and Southern Elephant seals.
Our first landing at 05.30am was Salisbury Plain, probably the most famous landing site at South Georgia and home to 250,000 King penguins, yes, 250,000! I was so excited the night before I hardly slept and when we received our wakeup call at 4.30am I was rearing to go. Outside it was 1 degree Celsius and snowing but we felt this would add to the atmosphere and provide interesting photographic conditions. In fact we were to experience snow, hail and bright sunshine over the next four hours and this changeable weather made the scene that much more spectacular with different backdrops.
Our arrival on the beach was chaotic. There was a little bit of a swell which pushed our zodiac up the beach and as we leapt out we had to be very careful to avoid a large number of very aggressive male Antarctic fur seals. These bulls had already created well defined territories and our invasion of the beach was causing chaos. So, we had to run up the beach, dodging bull seals and then we were immediately overcome by the shear overwhelming immenseness of the King penguin colony. There were 250,000 penguins jam packed together on a large plain and then stretched even further up the mountain side. The noise was cachconic and best described as extremely loud F1 race cars revving their engines before the start of a race. And all this with medium thick snow falling around us. It was something of a fairytale and the next four hours passed in a blur.
The penguins are not afraid of people at all and if I sat very still many times both the adults and the chicks would approach within a meter of me. It was an intense wildlife experience, complete sensory over load and one of my most memorable sights ever. That afternoon we visited another King penguin colony of 2,000 birds set up against dramatic snow-capped mountain peaks, just off a beach dotted with large male Southern elephant seals. We also had many small groups of King penguins returning from being out at sea and it was really fun to sit along the shoreline and watch them race up the beach on the waves.
The following two days were spent at various other King penguin colonies with small numbers of Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins too. We also got to see our first Weddell seal that was resting on a snowy beach as we cruised up the Drygalski Fjord. The Drygalski Fjord also provided us with our first Glacier experience. As we approached the head of the fjord the front and two sides were spectacular glaciers. One was a hanging glacier, leaving us wondering how on earth the whole thing had not come toppling down yet, and the other two were tide glaciers, meaning they end into the sea. We could clearly see the ice thickly packed behind the face of the glaciers and I could imagine the immense pressure pushing forward. The colour was also dramatic and took on a blue shine. Simply beautiful.
We also spent an afternoon at Grytviken. This was an old whaling station where it was said 40,000 whales were processed between 1904 and 1960. The buildings had hardly deteriorated due to the climatic conditions and it was somewhat grim thinking about all that took place here. On a less subdued note we were able to pay homage to Sir Ernest Shackleton and Frank Wild while we visited their graves here. In fact One Ocean held a short but moving service celebrating all these men had done for South Polar exploration and I really enjoyed how One Ocean showed such great respect for them. We all had rum with a few drops reserved for sprinkling on the graves.
Rather than take in the depressing sight of the whaling station Chris and I chose the rather strenuous hiking activity that took us up to a mountain peak that had a number of nesting Light-Mantled Sooty albatross. These albatross were another highlight of the trip for me. They have the most beautiful light black colour and quite strangely look like comic characters. They have a bold white ring around their eyes that gives them this comic appearance. They also do an intricate mating dance whilst in flight which we were lucky enough to see on a few occasions. It was really spectacular. On this mountain peak we found a number of nests positioned very precariously on the edges, all with the albatross battened down in heavy snow incubating their egg. Although we could not get very close it was still an amazing sight to see.
We were surrounded by spectacular glaciers on three sides which provided the most mind blowing scenery with which to sit and enjoy a very unique barbeque.
All too soon our stay at South Georgia came to an end which meant another three days cruising at sea and watching sea birds from the stern of the boat. One of the most interesting and frustrating things we saw en route were two Humpback whales surrounded by six orcas. I say frustrating because it appeared that the orcas were hunting the humpbacks. As we were cruising it was not possible to stop and determine exactly what was happening; for sure it was something very interesting.
We also learned en route that the pack ice was the thickest it has been in the last ten years and this meant that we would not be able to reach the South Orkney Islands. There was no way through. Our plan was to make a direction change and take in Elephant Island. On the evening before our arrival we had the tremendous experience of seeing the pack ice. We could see it from a long way off and our Captain changed course slightly to allow a great close up view. It stretched for as far as the eye could see and was truly fascinating. There were a number of small icebergs just on the sea side of the pack ice and one of these was a haul out spot for about two hundred Adelie penguins. We had the very unique situation of eating ice cream sundaes (dessert) and at the same time admiring the pack ice and an iceberg home to Adelie penguins. It certainly was in vast contrast to the conditions endured by Sir Ernest Shackleton and his men in the battle to survive after their ship become stuck in the ice. If anyone enjoys survival stories I urge you to read “Endurance” by Alfred Lansing . This has to be the most remarkable survival story of all time and both Chris and I found it unique to be reading the story as we visited this harshest of harsh place.
The following morning we approached Elephant Island where Frank Wild spent four months waiting with twenty two men hoping that Shackleton had reached South Georgia, and thus make rescue a possibility. The weather conditions were good so we were able to get a very good view of where their camp was. Gosh, that certainly was nothing to write home about and I can only imagine how quickly elation of reaching land turned into anxiety after realising they would now need to survive in this unforgivable place. It’s a remarkable story, you must read it!
Departing Elephant Island, we now headed for the Antarctic Peninsula. Before actually being able to put foot on Antarctica we sailed through the Gerlache Strait and landed at a number of Islands in order to visit various Adelie, Gentoo and Chinstrap penguin colonies. Sailing into the Gerlache Strait was again a highlight and for five hours we were entranced by the “iceberg” show that we sailed through. Now I really felt as if I was in Antarctica! You can’t imagine what it is like to see this kind of multitude of icebergs of various shapes and colours, littered across the ocean in front of you. Each one is different and it kind of feels like they are each alive and have their own characters. Sometimes we would pass so close to one that you can hear the snap, crackle, pop as the ice compresses. The various blue shades are also amazing. The darker blue reflects the amount of compression that has taken place and thus the more blue the iceberg (or glacier) the older the ice is. Unbelievably, some of the ice in Antarctica is said to be millions of years old. That’s hard to think about!
From this moment on until the end of our trip we had the most glorious weather with flat calm seas and beautiful bright sunshine. In fact we were told how rare it was to have such a long run of good weather. This amazing weather allowed us to appreciate even more how spectacular this place is. The sun does not really set at this time of the year down in the Peninsula and for a few hours there will be a brief kind of twilight, that’s as dark as it gets. One evening a landing was planned at Mikkelsen Harbour from 8pm to 11pm. This was a great opportunity as we would get to view and photograph the Gentoo penguin colony here in soft evening light. Other groups had not landed here for a while so when we began walking around it was hilarious to take a step forward and then land almost thigh deep in the snow as the ground fell away beneath us. For South Africans, experiencing snow is somewhat of a novelty!
Spending time at the penguin colonies now meant that the initial overwhelming feeling had subsided somewhat and I could take in all the little things that were happening. There is so much interaction going on between Gentoo mating pairs as the males try to impress the females. It seemed as if imparting gifts such as small stones was a big hit and making pretty piles of stones was just as important. The Chinstrap penguin pairs would do a dramatic welcome as they would throw their flippers back, lift their heads to the sky and bray really loudly in unison. It was fascinating watching the Gentoo penguins depart and return from sea. They would never seem too keen to jump off the rocks into the sea and there were many false alarms and looks of intention before enough pressure in terms of numbers built up behind the lead penguin, eventually forcing it to dive in. Then the rest of the group would follow with intense speed.
Getting back up onto land from the sea was also a feat. They would need to use so much speed to propel themselves from the water that they looked like spring loaded jumping jacks as they popped out of the water and back onto land. The Adlelie penguins were also very comical as they waddled around seemingly aimlessly. They really were very cute and were full of character with their mongoose shaped heads. Honestly, we were entertained for hours at each place and each stop felt as if we did not have enough time there.
On our second last evening in Antarctica we experienced the most glorious weather you could ever imagine. The ship lay stationary near a place called Orne Harbour and after exploring a Chinstrap penguin colony that afternoon we were surprised by the One Ocean team and were given an outside barbeque on the stern of the ship. We were surrounded by spectacular glaciers on three sides which provided the most mind blowing scenery with which to sit and enjoy a very unique barbeque. The weather was outstanding which made the evening that much more memorable. It was still zero degrees Celsius but warm gluwein was served and we were all dressed in our down jackets, making it very comfortable indeed. The sun did not set that evening so it was difficult to drag ourselves to bed after midnight, especially since the sunset lasted for hours!
Just when we thought the scenery could not get better our last day in Antarctica produced the final highlight of the trip. We sailed into Fornier Bay on a flatter than flat sea. The water colour was purple and the water visibility was crystal clear which allowed us a different view of the hundreds of icebergs that floated around us. As the water was so clear we could see both the reflection of the iceberg and also the base of the iceberg, which makes up 90% of its mass. We launched the zodiacs for a cruise around the icebergs and the great conditions meant we could get within touching distance of them. We really got to have a great look at the many bridges and holes that make up intricate parts of the icebergs, and the different hues of blue colour as always fascinated me. We also used this zodiac cruise to search for seals on the ice floes. Up to this point we had not seen a Leopard seal. This was one of the animals I most wanted to see so I was really hoping that we would get lucky on our final excursion.
The first seal we spotted was a Crabeater seal and again in the great conditions the zodiac could rest right against the piece of ice he was resting on, which gave us a great view. We then spotted the next seal about a hundred meters away, a large Weddell seal, and then as we left the Weddell seal we came across an Antarctic Minke whale that was cruising through the ice. It was very relaxed so we were able to get really close to it. It was beautiful to watch as it cruised amongst the ice on a perfect flat and quite sea, and at the same time we could listen to the sound of its exhalation echoing around us each time it came to the surface to breathe.
Luckily, we had one last highlight left for the trip. Just after we left the Antarctic minke whale we spotted a third seal in the distance. A Leopard seal! As you can imagine, we were super excited and again the great conditions meant we could get right up to it on the ice floe for a spectacular view. It really is a strange looking seal and I felt it looked very similar to an anaconda! I know that sounds strange but the head of the leopard seal is very serpentine and angular and the way it moves is fairly slippery as it snakes in and out of the water. Anyway, I was thrilled to get such a great view of this tremendous predator on the very last day.
We could not have ended our trip on a higher note but sadly it was now time to start cruising back to Ushuaia. We departed the great Ice Desert on another perfect evening with an endless sunset and headed for the notorious Drake Passage on our way homeward bound.
And so our journey to The End of The World was over... What an amazingly special place and what a privilege I felt to have had the opportunity of spending time here. Appreciating its beauty and sharing time with its spectacular wildlife.