Antarctica, South Georgia and the Falkland Islands Jan 02—20, 2013
Posted by Brian Gibbons
Although the route we took to the White Continent was certainly the long way, we had many wonderful experiences while getting there. Visiting the still contested Falkland Islands and the superb wildlife spectacle that is South Georgia added great sightings. It also took us right through a low pressure system that produced 40-foot seas with a few waves at 50-feet in the Drake Passage. All told, it was an excellent expedition to the unrivaled seventh continent, made luxurious by the ship’s superb captain, crew, and staff. The executive chef and staff helped exaggerate the comfort and fine dining while aboard and made all of us appreciate the hardships of the early explorers even more.
A couple of folks joined me early in Santiago for a pre-trip to the Farellones Ski area in the Andes above Santiago. After leaving Santiago we were soon winding up the 47 hairpin turns that took us to some beautiful mountain vistas and wonderful birding. Along the way we found 3 canasteros and a Giant Hummingbird, and a few Moustached Turcas (endemic to Chile) sat up for us to see. Beautiful birds, some brightly colored and others camouflaged, greeted us in the stark Andean landscape. We saw White-sided Hillstar, Greater Yellow-Finch, two siskins, six flycatchers, and the stars of the entire day, Andean Condors. We saw more than a dozen of the flying giants patrolling the mountains for carrion. A pair saw fit to fly in tandem right over our heads, filling our binoculars and viewfinders.
Next we were off to Ushuaia and Tierra del Fuego National Park. A whirlwind tour netted many new species including some beauties like Black-necked Swan, Austral Negrito, Upland Goose, Flightless Steamer-Duck, Black-faced Ibis, Chimango and Southern caracaras, Southern Lapwing, a few racing Austral Parakeets, and the handsome Chilean Swallow. With the afternoon progressing we made our way to the dock to board our fine ship, Le Boreal. A quick orientation and safety drill led us to our first meal from the amazing executive chef, Christoph. After the early flight we all headed to bed. The next morning I threw open the blinds to find a few Black-browed Albatrosses streaming past my window. I scrambled to get my things together and was pelagic birding moments later. Southern Royal Albatrosses and a Wandering tagged along for a while; both of these birds are pelagic giants with 10-foot wingspans! White-chinned Petrels, prions, shearwaters, and storm-petrels also passed the ship or cruised our wake for some time. Our sea days were filled with birding, dining, drinking, and excellent lectures by the talented folks at Abercrombie and Kent.
The Falklands were on our radar the following morning. The landing at Sea Lion Island created sensory overload. Before we set foot on land we could see Elephant Seals, Kelp Geese, Falkland Steamer-Ducks, and the waddling antics of both Magellanic and Gentoo penguins. Once ashore we noticed the finer detail critters: White-rumped Sandpipers from the Arctic, Two-banded Plovers, Magellanic and Blackish oystercatchers, and the Tussockbird: Blackish Cinclodes. I was confused as to what to do—photos, binoculars, or just stand there with jaw agape. Wandering the island we saw more geese, Upland and Ruddy-headed, and the sought-after Cobb’s Wren, as well as an excellent South American Snipe. The next landing, Bleaker Island, hosted an excellent Rockhopper Penguin colony full of downy chicks and a lovelorn Macaroni Penguin. Snowy Sheathbills cleaned up the mess from the colony. Nearby, a massive colony of Imperial Cormorants was under constant attack from Brown Skuas and opportunistic Dolphin Gulls.
A couple more sea days provided some excellent seabird observations and perhaps the event of the trip. After seeing the isolated Shag Rocks west of South Georgia, and the attendant shags, we sailed on only to be stopped by the incredible sight of nearly 50 Humpback Whales feeding at a massive krill aggregation. As the captain said, “They’re all around us.” Everyone enjoyed excellent looks as some of the whales surfaced and breathed right alongside; we could easily hear their massive exhalations. We loitered with the leviathans for an hour before moving east. During this crossing a most spectacular tabular iceberg was called to our attention: “Dear passengers, this is your captain speaking…” Eroded by the sea on its months-long journey north, fantastic shapes emerged: columns, caverns, and tunnels in the blue ice.
Finally at South Georgia, our first landing was foiled by fog at Salisbury Plain. We did make an excellent Zodiac cruise in Right Whale Bay; a highlight was watching the Wilson’s Storm-Petrels patter the sea surface in front of us. In the afternoon, Stromness was a sobering reminder of the destruction wrought on this eden for gain, but now seals and penguins had the run of the place. Again the next afternoon at Grytviken, the Petrel’s rusty harpoon was a sad reminder. The museum was enlightening, especially the replica of the James Caird, Shackleton’s craft in which he initiated the amazing rescue of his men five months on. That morning we enjoyed a massive King Penguin colony as 100,000 pairs covered the beaches and hills, practically crowding out the Antarctic Fur Seals and Southern Elephant Seals in Saint Andrews Bay. Our final morning found us in Drygalski Fjord in a gale that we would sail into. Snow Petrels cruised around the ship in the wind and saw us off as we moved on to Antarctica.
The next day was lost for me; 50-knot winds and 40-foot seas kept the doors battened and me bedridden. The Drake Passage got us, but a few days later the next crossing was harmless. Southern Fulmars appeared the following day, and among the ever-present Cape Petrels a wonderful Antarctic Petrel tagged along for an entire morning, the only one of the trip. Finally, in the haze, we saw the islands of Antarctica, the South Shetlands as we moved into the Bransfield Strait. In the afternoon we would land at Penguin Island, home to hundreds of Chinstraps, some Gentoos, and a few Adelie penguins. The Leopard Seal found this to his liking, dispatching 6 penguins in the few hours we were there.
As we sailed farther south into the Gerlache Strait, the White Continent’s name came to bear. Soaring rugged and snow-covered mountains, glaciers, sea ice, and spectacular icebergs surrounded us constantly. A cool, calm morning greeted us at Wilhelmina Bay. We shared this picturesque spot with several Humpbacks and a few Minkes which we watched at our leisure from point-blank distances in the Zodiacs. In the afternoon we had a wonderful landing at Cuverville Island, home to hundreds of Gentoo Penguins and the drama which abundant food brings. I saw a skua pair steal a penguin egg that was nearly ready to hatch. In less than a minute they consumed the embryo and promptly regurgitated it to their own chick.
Perhaps the single most stunning scene from Antarctica was our sailing through the Lemaire Channel at sunset, after 10 PM. This narrow channel and its protective cliffs gleamed in the peachy glow of a clear sunset. The next morning, the oldest British base, dating from 1944 and preserved as a museum, Port Lockroy hosted us and a resident colony of Gentoo Penguins which perfectly matched the painting of the station: black, red, and white, or was it the other way around? Cruising around the base we found Weddell Seals and Antarctic Cormorants. Neko Bay was our continental landing; again Gentoos welcomed us ashore. Some of us had a wonderful hike in near balmy conditions to an exceptional overlook of the bay and took the easy way down by sliding through soft snow on the way back. After this landing we had to head north for the two-day sail past Cape Horn and into the Beagle Channel. After we had paid our dues with the first crossing, the subsequent Drake experience was a walk in the park; unfortunately very few birds followed the ship. Soon we were alongside in Ushuaia, amazing memories and thousands of photos richer.