Antarctica, South Georgia and the Falkland Islands Cruise Jan 02—21, 2010

Posted by Bob Sundstrom

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Bob Sundstrom

Bob Sundstrom has led VENT tours since 1989 to many destinations throughout North America, as well as Hawaii, Mexico, Belize, Trinidad & Tobago, Japan, Turkey, Iceland,...

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VENT's January 2010 cruise to Antarctica, South Georgia, and the Falkland Islands was one of the most memorable Antarctic cruises we have taken part in. On January 3, the ten tour participants and leader, Bob Sundstrom, met for dinner at the Albatross Hotel in Ushuaia. We shared some good Argentine red wine, went over the details for embarkation the following afternoon, and talked about next morning’s visit to Tierra del Fuego National Park.

With half of January 4 to tour Tierra del Fuego National Park, some 10 km. west of Ushuaia proper, we made a series of stops along lakefronts, inlets, and viewpoints, and walked a few forest trails. At our very first stop near a lake, a pair of Andean Condors soared high over a nearby ridge, and along the shoreline we scoped Great Grebes, Chiloe Wigeons, and a beautiful pair of Ashy-headed Geese. Along a forest trail we quickly came upon our first White-throated Treerunners, Thorn-tailed Rayaditos, and Patagonian Sierra-Finches. Along a second forest trail, and with great excitement, we soon found the bird that was on everyone's mind—a Magellanic Woodpecker, one of the world's largest woodpeckers. The huge female, nearly all black with a recurved crest, called and drummed atop a tall snag. Shortly after a nice lunch at a restaurant near the park we boarded the M/V Minerva. After orientation and getting underway, we birded from the deck as we traveled east along the Beagle Channel, and anticipated the excitement of the full cruise to come.

By the next morning we had already entered the southern Atlantic Ocean, with a full day of sailing toward the Falklands in store. Both of the "great albatrosses," Wandering and Royal, arced through the wake, as well as numbers of Black-browed Albatrosses. At times there were Slender-billed Prions by the thousands, and Cape Petrels were ever-present. Both Southern and Northern giant-petrels glided around the Minerva, and we saw our first White-chinned Petrels and Gray-backed Storm-Petrels of the trip.

Arriving in the Falkland Islands early the morning of January 6, we had a full day to explore out of Stanley. A small bus picked us up at the ship and drove us to the edge of Gypsy Bay, where we walked for several hours. Our local guide pointed out the local flora, and birds were ever-present too, from Correndera Pipits to Magellanic Oystercatchers to our first penguins of the tour. The hike took us close to the burrows of Magellanic Penguins, which watched us shyly from a short distance. Along an inlet and beach overlook, Imperial Cormorants sat atop nests and Double-banded Plovers trotted across the beach. Part of the group hiked into the tundra countryside, finding handsome Rufous-chested Dotterels.

Back aboard ship, it would require two days of sailing to make the crossing from the Falklands to South Georgia, giving ample opportunity to bird on deck, take in lectures or films on the ship, and simply enjoy the Southern Ocean. A variety of albatrosses crossed our wake, as did boldly patterned Cape Petrels. Like most days of the trip, each mile of ocean held out the possibility of new seabirds. This day's new birds included lovely Gray-headed Albatrosses and Black-bellied Storm-Petrels. On the morning of the second day of the crossing to South Georgia at 8 a.m., we crossed the Antarctic Convergence, the circumpolar movement of water that is a primary driver of the Southern Ocean's oceanic ecosystem. The day was unseasonably warm, mid-40s and sunny. Antarctic Prions flew by the thousands, and up to six Wandering Albatrosses converged—a sign that we were approaching their nesting grounds in the South Georgia archipelago.

Arriving at South Georgia on January 9, we got in our first Zodiac ride—a cruise along the shoreline of Elsehul Bay—and a very exciting ride it was. Large colonies of Macaroni Penguins, with golden yellow crests, packed sections of very steep hillsides. More Macaronis stood along the shoreline or porpoised through the wave tops. Hundreds of Gray-headed and Black-browed albatrosses sat atop nests on the steep slopes, others flew overhead. Two lovely Light-mantled Albatrosses flew close by the ship. By late afternoon the ship had anchored off Fortuna Bay, where we enjoyed epic scenery: steep mountains, rising up from the shoreline beyond a plain perhaps a half-mile deep. Zodiacs took us ashore for a walk among a huge King Penguin colony—thousands of birds in all stages, from adults to chicks, to nearly year-old "oakum boys" in fuzzy brown feathers. Brown Skuas patrolled ceaselessly. Adult pairs of King Penguins performed paired trumpetings, heads pointed to the sky; Antarctic fur seals snuffled and roared; and immense southern elephant seals lazed, doing as little as possible while molting.

The following day we made Zodiac landings near two whaling stations of past years, Stromness and Grytviken, with optional longer hikes at each. One highlight of the Grytviken landing was a visit to Sir Ernest Shackleton's gravesite, to offer a toast to "The Boss." We toured the remains of the whaling station and the adjacent whaler's museum. The next day, January 11, brought high winds, too much weather for Zodiac landings. The Minerva entered Drygalski Fjord, protected from the easterly winds, where a Zodiac cruise gave us good views of endemic South Georgia Pipits flitting among seaweed-covered boulders. By mid-afternoon, as we now cruised for the Antarctic itself, we began to see diminutive Blue Petrels flying among the prions. As the group assembled to get a good view of Blue Petrels, a Snow Petrel appeared, flying close over the stern, again and again—a sight truly emblematic of the Antarctic.

The next day we cruised the Scotia Sea, southwest toward the South Shetlands and the Antarctic Peninsula. The new bird that marked the day was Kerguelen Petrel, which we began seeing mid-morning. Today was a banner day for marine mammal sightings too, with fin whales and humpback whales and, the most intriguing of all, a group of at least three southern bottlenose whales, which surfaced right in front of the ship—close enough to see the whales' bulbous heads and tan bodies.

By January 13, the second day of sailing south, icebergs became a regular sight—from small bits to large bergs to immense monoliths. The fauna were clearly Antarctic now too, such as Southern Fulmars, silvery-gray petrels of the ice. Mid-afternoon took us by Elephant Island, where Shackleton's crew spent many long months. The morning of January 14 included a landing on Devil Island, and close encounters with some of its thousands of nesting Adelie Penguins—our first close views of them other than as passengers on passing ice floes. That afternoon the first Antarctic Petrels of the voyage turned up, as two of these much anticipated birds made several long circuits around the ship. This species is known to stray into the west edge of the Weddell Sea, but is not predictable this far from its main nesting colonies on the Antarctic continent.

On January 15, we walked onto Half Moon Island near nesting colonies of Chinstrap Penguins, occupying rocky sites upslope from the beach. Noisy and very busy, the penguins walked up and down snowy slopes between the beach and the colonies, often walking right by a huge Weddell seal that lay snoozing on a snowfield well above the tideline. And on January 16, we stepped onto the Antarctic continent proper, at Paradise Bay. Here were groups of Gentoo Penguins. Later that day, we passed through some of the most stunning fields of icebergs yet: tall, oddly shaped bergs, many with strips of blue or a blue glow, as well as huge tabular icebergs, with sheer sides and flat tops, veritable islands of ice that had broken off the edge of the continent to wander with the currents and winds. We stopped to admire groups of humpback whales bubble-feeding, sometimes right next to the ship, and passed by a half-dozen predatory leopard seals riding ice floes.

After January 17's stunning navigation of narrow, scenic Lemaire Channel, the weather forecast helped the captain decide at this point to begin the return trip north, to make our crossing of the Drake Passage before a potential storm made the sailing more difficult. As it turned out, the crossing was a mild one. By the second day heading north we reached Cape Horn on a tame ocean and with the sun shining. As the ship approached the Cape and its rugged landforms came clearly into view, we found ourselves amid thousands of Sooty Shearwaters, and hundreds of Black-browed Albatrosses and South American Terns. By early afternoon we had entered the Beagle Channel, back among Chilean Skuas and Magellanic Penguins, and docked early enough to take an early evening stroll along the Ushuaia waterfront.

The VENT group disembarked the Minerva for good the morning of January 20, and spent the morning touring a variety of birding spots near Ushuaia. We saw our first White-throated Caracaras—among three caracara species—and enjoyed scope views of Flying Steamerducks and Red Shovelers. After a relaxed lunch in downtown Ushuaia, we left for the airport and, by mid-afternoon, were flying toward Buenos Aires and homeward, with many wonderful memories of the southern latitudes.