Antarctica, South Georgia, and The Falkland Islands Cruise Jan 05—26, 2009

Posted by Victor Emanuel


Victor Emanuel

Victor Emanuel started birding in Texas 70 years ago at the age of eight. His travels have taken him to all the continents, with his areas of concentration being Texas, Ari...

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Our January 2009 cruise to Antarctica, South Georgia, and the Falkland Islands was one of the best Antarctic cruises we have ever operated. Those who joined us for the Buenos Aires Pre-trip enjoyed outstanding birding in and around that great city. Highlights from our time there included Black-necked Swans, a Plumbeous Rail, a Many-colored Rush-Tyrant, stunning Scarlet-headed Blackbirds, and a host of other species.

By the evening of January 6th, our entire group had assembled in Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world. The next day we birded nearby Tierra del Fuego National Park, and later the area around the waterfront. In the park we were treated to superb views of a pair of Magellanic Woodpeckers, Great Grebes, Ashy-headed and Upland geese, Thorn-tailed Rayaditos, and a White-throated Treerunner along with other birds of the Nothofagus forests. On our way to lunch, a flock of Austral Parakeets flew over our bus and perched nearby affording us wonderful looks. After an authentic Argentine barbecue, we watched a wonderful gaucho dance troop perform. On the way to the ship we stopped at a pond just back from the harbor where we had good looks at Crested Ducks, Red Shovelers, Speckled Teal, Yellow-billed Pintail, and Chiloe Wigeon.

Anticipation was high when we boarded the Clipper Adventurer and started down the Beagle Channel, headed for the Falkland Islands. En route to the islands, we spent a day at sea where we had our first taste of the marvelous seabirding that this cruise offers. White-chinned and Southern giant-petrels were around the ship almost all the time. We saw our first albatrosses, including Black-Browed and Royal, as well as numbers of other pelagic species.

Our first day in the Falklands was truly amazing. We spent a morning on Saunders Island, where an incredible variety of wildlife flourishes, including colonies of Rockhopper and Magellanic penguins, a Black-browed Albatross colony, numerous Striated Caracaras, King Penguins, Gentoo Penguins, and Magellanic Oystercatchers. There were so many wonderful creatures to look at and the weather was perfect—mild and sunny with almost no wind. This landing provided a perfect beginning to our trip.

In the afternoon we landed on Carcass Island, where we saw many other birds including the Blackish Cinclodes; Black-throated Finch; Ruddy-headed, Upland, and Kelp geese; Blackish Oystercatchers; and Dark-faced Ground-Tyrants. The highlight of the next morning was a pair of Rufous-throated Dotterels near the Stanley airport.

We had two full days at sea traveling from the Falklands to South Georgia. During that crossing we enjoyed some of the best seabirding of the trip. We also heard some fascinating lectures from the expedition staff including several on the history of the region.

Although everyone has heard of Antarctica, many people have never heard of South Georgia, the huge subantarctic island in the far South Atlantic that was discovered in 1775 by Captain Cook. Even people who have heard about South Georgia are not aware how marvelous it is. South Georgia has some of the greatest scenery in the world, with snow-capped rugged peaks running the length of the island. And it teems with an astonishing display of wildlife.

Our four days on South Georgia couldn't have been better. We visited two huge King Penguin colonies, landed on Prion Island to see the Wandering Albatrosses on their nests, had great looks at the South Georgia Pipit, saw thousands of Antarctic fur seals, walked up to a Macaroni Penguin colony, and visited the old whaling station at Grytviken. We spent a marvelous morning at Gold Harbor, a site many people who have been to Antarctica and South Georgia pick as their favorite place, and for good reason. We gazed in awe upon thousands and thousands of King Penguins. The orange on their necks was glowing in the brilliant morning sun. Light-mantled Albatrosses flew along the grassy ridges, and some people even climbed up one hill to view a nest of this most elegant of the albatrosses. We ended our time at South Georgia with a cruise to the head of Drygalski Fjord where we watched a glacier calve and saw a huge gathering of Cape and Snow petrels, two of the most strikingly beautiful seabirds in the world.

We had two days at sea en route to the Antarctic Peninsula, during which time we enjoyed more great sea-watching for birds and mammals. Highlights included our first Southern Fulmars—lovely silvery-gray seabirds, and a remarkable number of whales including fin, southern right, and humpback. An Emperor Penguin was spotted ahead of the ship, and though many saw it, the looks were distant and short. 

Our time in Antarctica was spent in the Wedell Sea area and the South Shetland Islands. We visited several big Adelie Penguin colonies and several fascinating historical sites where early explorers had overwintered in stone huts that remain today. One of these huts was at the site of the Argentine research station, Esperanza, at Hope Bay. One of the many highlights during our time in Antarctica was the opportunity to see several groups of orcas, including one that stayed around the bow of the ship for over a half-hour.

One of the most beautiful and striking Antarctic birds is the Antarctic Petrel. Since it nests further south than expedition ships typically go, we have missed it on some of our previous trips. If we are lucky, we see a few of this species. It likes to be in areas where there is a lot of ice. As we cruised in the Weddell Sea, we saw lots of ice including city-block-sized huge tabular bergs that had broken off from the continental ice shelves, tank-sized bergs that had calved from glaciers, and smaller, mostly flat chunks of sea ice. During two dinners, FLOCKS of Antarctic Petrels appeared seemingly out of nowhere and circled repeatedly around the ship. Some of us couldn't get enough of these gorgeous birds.

One evening we headed farther south in the Weddell Sea toward Snow Hill Island, hoping for more Emperor Penguins. There was even more ice in that region including lots of sea ice, so our hopes were high. We were not to be disappointed. During dinner one Emperor Penguin was spotted on a chunk of sea ice right next to the ship, and farther on two more were spotted. Encountering four Emperors on one trip was truly amazing. We felt blessed, and we were.

After our time in Antarctica, we headed back to Argentina, crossing the Drake Passage in two days, with more seabirding and more lectures en route. We arrived in Ushuaia and were greeted by a gorgeous morning with cloudless skies, mild temperatures, and no wind. Many joined us for a most delightful walk around the harbor where we had long studies of many waterbirds and where we even found a small flock of Baird's Sandpipers.

Our post-trip in the Andes above Santiago, Chile yielded a fine variety of montane species and more great scenery. Highlights included two Austral Pygmy-Owls, Scale-throated Earthcreepers, Rufous-banded Miners, Moustached Turcas, and several species of sierra-finches. Just as we were ready to return to Santiago, four magnificent Andean Condors flew over our group to provide a fitting ending to a most wonderful and successful trip.