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In the Wake of Shackleton


12th November to 1st December 2017
MS Island Sky

 

Sunday, 12th November 2017 – Embarkation in Puerto Madryn, Argentina

After travelling for some time and having travelled a great distance, today we embarked on our ‘home-from-home’ for a great adventure – “In the Wake of Shackleton”. After a morning tour in the area around Puerto Madryn, we were on the pier in the middle of the afternoon and ready to embark! We were greeted by members of our expedition staff and directed up the gangway to meet Hotel Manager Erik and other members of his team. Waiting for us in the lounge was a sumptuous afternoon tea and afterwards we were free to settle into our cabins.

Soon, though, it was time for the mandatory safety briefing and lifeboat drill. In the lounge we were taken through the emergency procedures, donned our big orange lifejackets and went outside to the lifeboat boarding point. After the drill we returned to the outer decks to watch our departure from Puerto Madryn – the largest habitated place that we will see until our voyage ends in Ushuaia. Prior to dinner we gathered in the lounge once more, with Jane, for a welcome-aboard briefing. We learnt about the voyage plan, were told about life on board and had an introduction from the staff team. Our first dinner aboard was the prelude to our first night aboard and we hoped that it would be calm!

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Monday, 13th November 2017 - At Sea to the Falkland Islands

“On the open, limitless ocean, where time is meaningless and the horizon is always out of reach, there is nothing to mark one’s progress save the occasional and unexpected cry of a bird, splash of a dolphin or spout of a whale.”

Simon Cook

Last night was very calm! We awoke this morning to a flat sea, with just a slight, rolling swell from the south. Breakfast was a relaxed affair and some of us were even bold enough to venture out onto the (heated) lido deck. The reward was fresh air and all the sea views that one could want. There was sea as far as the eye could see and no sign whatsoever of land.

On sea days the focus is often on what is happening inside the ship but during the morning there were other things to draw our attention. A series of exciting events included, just after breakfast, the wellie and jacket handout. Later in the morning and during the afternoon there were three presentations on offer – two from members of our staff and one from one of our special Guest Speakers. Jamie began with the magical ‘Marine Life of the Patagonian Shelf’, Sue followed with the divine ‘Digital Photo Tips to Improve your Photography – part 1’ and Simon concluded with the breezy ‘Birds of the Falkland Islands.’ All three speakers covered their respective subjects in passionate and understandable detail.

Meanwhile, things had been happening on the wildlife front. There were few birds to be seen in the early morning but by mid-morning it became obvious that the ship was in a very rich feeding area. For a couple of hours or so there were birds as far as the eye could see – many, many thousands, in fact. Lots of us ventured outside to witness this phenomenon. Species included black-browed albatross, southern giant-petrel, white-chinned petrel, cape petrel, sooty shearwater, slender-billed prion and, one of the smallest of all the seabirds, Wilson’s storm-petrel. There were hundreds and hundreds of the latter – small, insect-like birds skimming and pattering across the surface. These birds are principally plankton-eaters and feed by ‘walking on the water’ – flapping their wings slowly in a butterfly-like manner and pattering across the water on their webbed feet. More unusual species included Manx shearwater (from the North Atlantic) and southern royal albatross (from New Zealand). However, even more unusual was a landbird – a small eared dove, from Argentina. This bird flew around the ship several times before it continued on its way. (Earlier this year one was seen by one of the staff nearly 2,000 miles east of northern Argentina, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean!)

Wildlife wasn’t just confined to the birds though. There were a few sightings of dolphins and one small group of high-leaping animals in the middle of the morning was identified as Peale’s dolphin. Small numbers of South American fur seals were seen throughout the day but it was the whales that were the most numerous. Unfortunately, the majority were evident solely by their spouts, which could be seen from a long way off. Whales were seen before, during and after the bird extravaganza and some were very close to the ship. They all appeared to be sei whales, which normally have a characteristically high and erect sickle-shaped dorsal fin. They are a whale with baleen plates (used for sifting food such as krill from the water that they engulf with their mouths) and can grow to a length of approximately 60 feet.

Our first full day aboard the ship was rounded off by two events hosted by our captain – his ‘welcome aboard’ cocktail party with an introduction to some of his key personnel and his Gala Dinner down in the restaurant. The day had certainly been full of both excitement and interest and we were lucky that the building seas were helping to push us along a little faster towards the Falkland Islands.

Tuesday, 14th November 2017 - At Sea to the Falkland Islands

Bright sunshine greeted us this morning but, unfortunately, it didn’t last for the rest of the day. During the night the sea had built a little but, as both it and the wind were coming from behind us, we continued to get pushed along at a nice speed. During the morning it was announced by Jane that as we were a little ahead of schedule, there might be a chance, later in the day, for an ‘extra-curricular activity’. Firstly, there was more information to be disseminated to us. During the course of the morning there were two mandatory sessions: IAATO & bio-security and Zodiac and Falklands information. We were also able to examine our clothes and backpacks for seeds and pests, such as rats (none were found!), to vacuum outer-wear and bags and also to disinfect footwear if required. Having picked up a scrubbing brush and after using it vigorously, Chantal later confirmed that she had, at last, found her true calling. Another surprise was to see Simon’s talk on the Falkland birds appearing in the programme for the second day running but it transpired that today he was just a clerical error. After lunch Peter gave his well-received talk, ‘The Royal Navy and the Falklands War, 1982.’

The first land came into sight in the middle of the day and the ship turned around the northwestern-most islets of the Falklands group towards Steeple Jason Island. By now the cloud-base was quite low so the top of the island was hidden from view. However, through either cameras or binoculars the world’s largest colony of black-browed albatrosses could be clearly seen. The sharp-eyed amongst us also saw 2-3 distant sei whales. Later on, a group of four Commerson’s dolphins made a brief but close appearance. With the windspeed increasing steadily from 10 knots the Island Sky turned her nose to the south, towards New Island. By the time we got there the wind was gusting to over 40 knots and the waves were pretty sizeable. Knowing of a seabird colony on the ‘sheltered’ side of the island, Jane and the captain decided to head towards it.

The cliff scenery was spectacular and, as the ship drew closer, many birds flew past us. They were mostly southern giant-petrels, black-browed albatrosses and Imperial or king cormorants. There were also a few diminutive storm-petrels and a few equally difficult-to-see diving-petrels. In some places along the cliffs the wind was so strong that it was blowing clouds of spray up from the surface of the water, which indicated a windspeed of at least 50 knots. Closing in on the colony, it was possible to see large numbers of albatrosses and rockhopper penguins on the slopes; a small group of the latter was spotted close to the vessel. Before long the ship changed course once more and headed away towards tomorrow’s destination.

 

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Wednesday, 15th November 2017 - Carcass & Saunders Islands, West Falkland


What a difference a day makes. Or, to be precise, what a difference a night makes! From winds in excess of 45 knots yesterday to a slight breeze this morning – fabulous! The ship was already at the anchorage at Carcass Island before most of us were up. Nevertheless, the welcoming committee was already in place to greet us enthusiastically – Commerson’s dolphins. These excitable, small, round-finned, black-and-white creatures just couldn’t wait for the Zodiacs to get going so they then treated us to an extraordinary display, right next to and below us.

After breakfast the Zodiacs dropped us off at one end of the island on a glorious, sandy beach, from where our two-mile walk started. Led by Simon, we had hardly left the beach when we stopped to look at nesting Magellanic penguins. Interesting behaviour included one bird going back and forth to its burrow with its beak full of grass, for a cosy nest lining. Nearby were numerous nesting and incubating gentoo penguins and there were upland geese everywhere. Among them was the smaller and much rarer ruddy-headed goose. The route took us around very high tussock grass, alongside a pond and then parallel to the beach towards the homestead. The views were magnificent and there were birds everywhere. The island is rat-free so small, ground-nesting birds are found in unusually high numbers and included species like blackish cinclodes, black-chinned siskin, long-tailed meadowlark (with scarlet-breasted males), grass wren, austral thrush, dark-faced ground-tyrant, black-throated finch and the endemic Cobb’s wren. Several very confiding Magellanic snipe were seen and there were numerous goose families of both species.

We found that Simon was not exactly a fast walker as it took two hours for the “front-runners” to walk the two miles to the farm. That, however, meant that there was plenty of time to find our own pace, to admire the views, to watch the ship sailing by to the other anchorage and to take lots of pictures. Once at the buildings there was a mouth-watering treat waiting for us – a ginormous table groaning under the gargantuan weight of biscuits, pies and cakes. Ready to wash it all down were gallons of coffee and tea. Saunders is, in fact, famous for the quality and quantity of their food. Rob McGill had done us proud and it was a privilege to be invited into his home. We were not the only ones feeding hungrily though as a lot of quite large mullet were trapped by the falling tide and were being devoured by a mob of squabbling, squawking, striated caracaras.

During lunch the ship repositioned to nearby Saunders Island, where this time it was the human locals who were waiting for us. Here there was another walk on offer but it was very different from the earlier one. Striking out from the beach the flagged route took us past hundreds of gentoo penguins. At one of the smaller groups of birds was another species of penguin - our first kings. There were 25 stately black, grey, white and orange adults and three very downy and very large chicks. Further along we came to a noisy and smelly colony of small but tough and pugnacious rockhopper penguins. Red-eyed and wacky-crested, most of them were busy nesting and an occasional egg could be seen when a bird raised itself to have a stretch.

Finally, at the end of the walk, were nesting black-browed albatross. They were in a slight gully and were sitting atop high nests made of scooped-up earth. Often mating for life, a pair will return each spring to the same nest, often carrying out repairs that are necessitated by winter storms. The single egg takes 65 days to hatch and both parents take turns to incubate it and to brood the chick until it is big enough to be at less risk from bad weather and potential predators. In addition to the ones on the ground there were many on the water and yet more were swooping low past us. Whilst watching both the albatrosses and the penguins we were in the right place at the right time to see lots more Commerson’s dolphins. They had found a shoal of fish and were corralling them into a so-called bait ball. When it was near the surface both albatrosses and shags were able to feast as well. We were very lucky to see this behaviour, as well as surfing dolphins, as it is the sort of thing normally only seen in David Attenborough’s documentaries!

Back at the landing beach there was a mobile gift shop in the back of one of the Land Rovers, which a number of us took advantage of. Some of us were tired and some of us had caught the sun today so many were pleased to be back on board. Just as well, really, as something straight out of the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ was approaching fast! It was the Bark Europa, under full sail and she brought the curtain down on a simply extraordinary day.


Thursday, 16th November 2017 - Stanley, East Falkland & At Sea to South Georgia

At 04.30 this morning the sea was calm and the sun was just above the horizon. It wasn’t long before the ship approached Stanley and various things were noteworthy: cloud-caps on the mountains, the black-and-white Cape Pembroke lighthouse, four old naval guns (standing guard, impotently), the gritty geology, sunlight glinting off Stanley’s buildings, gorse flowers glowing in the sunshine and, once through the very narrow ‘Neck’, the hulk of the Lady Elizabeth, the red-brick cathedral and the famous whalebone arch. The bones are from Blue Whales and were presented to Stanley by the whalers of South Georgia.

Shortly after breakfast the buses were ready to whisk us away from the ship for our various activities. There were three options: the battlefield tour, the walking tour in town and the chance to explore on our own. By now the sky was overcast and the breeze was pretty keen but at least it didn’t rain. Peter accompanied the battlefield tour, whilst the walking groups each had their own local guide. Upon the completion of the tours there was time to explore this far-flung outpost of what little is left of our empire. Talking of empire, in the middle of the day we welcomed aboard the Governor of the Falkland Islands, His Excellency Nigel Phillips. During a champagne reception, various speeches were made, a commemorative plaque was presented to the captain and all present then made their way down to luncheon.

Once the governor and his party had disembarked, the Island Sky slipped her lines and we set off past a large cruise ship, bound for South Georgia. Two lectures in the afternoon gave us more opportunities to learn – James with ‘The Battles of Coronel and the Falkland Islands’ and Peter’s ‘In the Wake of Shackleton: a Prelude to the Heroic Age.’ Wildlife was also to be seen and included our first grey-headed albatross. Surprisingly, there were also several whales – both Humpback and Fin (the second largest species) were seen. The wildlife surprise was, hardly surprisingly, a bird. It came in the form of an exceptionally rare visitor from breeding grounds either in the southern Indian Ocean or in New Zealand – a white-headed petrel. In more than 20 years of cruising in these waters, this is the first one that Simon had ever seen here. It was hugely exciting. Just like Jamie’s krill recap…

Friday, 17th November 2017 - At Sea to South Georgia

A day at sea! Time to relax (?) and to recharge one’s batteries after our visit to the Falklands. Nevertheless, there were still things to attend and things to do. Like eat. Well, after breakfast, Pierre presented the first talk of the day, ‘Oceanography of the Southern Ocean.’ It was a fascinating insight into the often-murky world of water. Colin came along next and developed his theme as he went along, with ‘Evolution of Cetaceans: the Tale of the Whale from Land to Sea.’ Bringing up the rear but definitely at the head of the pack was Peter and his subject was ‘The Heroic Age and the Scramble for Furthest South’. Three very different presentations but all equally fascinating, informative and thought-provoking.

Slipped into the morning’s programme was the catchily-titled ‘Mandatory South Georgia Environmental and Bio-security Briefing, followed by a Mandatory Bio-security Check’, phew! Of course, the subject was deadly serious so a video was shown to reinforce this very important message. Afterwards, there was another clothing and boot check, with hoovers and virkon readily available for those who needed them. Who’d have thought that after paying all this money for this trip we’d be busily engaged in scrubbing our boots – not just once but repeatedly? And it was noticed that some “gentlemen” delegated the scrubbing to their wives so where was Chantal when she was needed the most???

Wildlife? There was some but it wasn’t very obvious today. Perhaps the most impressive birds were the two massive wandering albatrosses that spent some time with us this morning. Other species included some spotted for the first time this voyage: slender-billed & Antarctic prion, light-mantled albatross, blue petrel and soft-plumaged petrel. The latter are both mis-named – the first is grey, not blue and the second species is not noticeably softer than any other petrel! A single, superb grey-backed storm-petrel appeared at 10.33. Not often seen out at sea away from their breeding grounds, when they are seen they are often feeding at floating seaweed. This mornings’ bird was doing exactly that and was extremely close to the bow of the ship. Strangely enough, another one was seen in the afternoon, together with single Wilson’s and black-bellied storm-petrels. In the late afternoon (noteworthy for the sunshine and blue sky) two groups of very distinctively-marked (black-and-white) hourglass dolphins paid the ship an all-too-brief visit.

Saturday, 18th November 18th 2017 - Shag Rocks & At Sea to South Georgia

During the night the ship crossed the fabled Antarctic Convergence. This invisible division between the very cold polar water and the slightly warmer water to the north marks the biological boundary of Antarctica. The convergence passes to the north of South Georgia so even though the island is far from the continent, it is still considered an Antarctic island. The upshot is that we were now in Antarctica and the very low air and sea temperatures confirmed this. Especially for those of us who braved breakfast and lunch outside today!

Shag Rocks hove into view at 09.08 this morning. At first, they were visible as just a grey blur on the horizon ahead of us. Their dramatic nature soon became apparent and eventually our Staff Captain took the ship within a mile of them and even went around them. Looking like sharks’ teeth rearing up out of the water, they were certainly impressive. Drawing closer we could see that it was a case of ‘Shag Rocks by name, Shag Rocks by nature’. James’s beloved geology was almost completely hidden under a carpet of birds and a thick layer of guano. Shags were flying to-and-fro, with some coming very close to the ship to check it out. Other species seen on the approach to the rocks included cape and white-chinned petrels, Antarctic tern, dozens of prions, both species of giant-petrel and black-browed, grey-headed, light-mantled, southern royal and wandering albatross. Hoping for some marine mammals, eyes were peeled and they spotted Antarctic fur seals, two humpback whales and a distant but large spout.

During the day there were several more presentations. Simon briefed us with ‘An Introduction to the Birds of South Georgia’, James rocked us with ‘Antarctic Geology’ and Jamie invited us into an ‘Introduction to South Georgia’. During the afternoon the weather changed a little – murkier, windier and the sea was a little rougher. Birds were reduced in numbers but an interesting sighting concerned an unusual, uniformly ash-grey giant-petrel. Only one more whale was seen, very briefly and only once but it was an unusual one – southern bottlenose whale. It is a beaked whale and a reference book says of this group of animals, “The second-largest cetacean family (Ziphiidae) with 21 species but the least familiar, being strictly oceanic. Most sightings are very brief and a matter of luck. Some species have never been identified at sea and most are best known from strandings.”

With everyone looking forward to our arrival in South Georgia tomorrow, Jane briefed us on the plans for the morning and later in the day.

 

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Sunday, 19th November 2017 - Salisbury Plain & Jason Harbour, South Georgia

At a time that none of us knew existed, we were alerted by the p.a. that the ship was anchored, the scouting party was ashore and there was a green light for us to go as well. The drive to the beach was a long and sometimes wet one but everyone made it ashore successfully at Salisbury Plain. All thanks this morning went to our heroic boat drivers and to the dynamic, determined and dogged boat-catchers.

From the ship we could see the huge extent of the king penguin colony, as well as a myriad of cigar-shaped rocks. The rocks were, of course, hundreds of seals of the elephant and fur kind. By the landing spot there was a group of elephants, including a pup that was still suckling. In addition, there were tiny fur seal pups around as well, which looked adorable. The male fur seals were huge and intimidating but were not a problem today. A route parallel to the beach had been flagged for us so it was a simple matter to get to and from the king colony in small groups. The birds were so curious that if we stopped they would often come sidling up towards us, to get a better look. In their black, white, grey and orange plumage the kings looked both regal and resplendent. Some birds had white or yellow ear patches, which indicated that they were younger ones.

Once at the end of the walk there were spectacular views to be had of the whole of the penguin colony, which even extended up the hill at the rear. None of the birds around the edge had eggs but there were many chicks to be seen. Standing close to the colony gave us the chance to use three of our senses - sight, hearing and smell, especially the latter. Directly in front of us was a huge lake of liquid guano! Of the penguins nearest to us, at least two had gashes on their bodies, possibly caused by leopard seals. Predators/scavengers that were in view included kelp gulls, pale-faced sheathbills, brown skuas and the much larger giant-petrels. A few of us saw a South Georgia pipit but more saw three SG pintail flying around. Just in front of us but only visible for a few seconds, there was a female duck with tiny ducklings. A couple of Antarctic terns and a couple of gentoo penguins also put in an appearance.

By now the conditions had deteriorated a little, with the wind blowing at a steady 30 knots or so and visibility noticeably poorer. There was also blowing drizzle, just to add to the atmosphere. But by now breakfast was calling so we popped back into the boats for a splashy ride home. Once the last of the boats had been recovered the ship set off for the next ‘port of call’. Executive Leader Wilson and Celebrity Leader Larsen had pored over the charts and had come up with a hopefully-sheltered option for the afternoon excursion.

Thus it was that during lunch the ship repositioned to Jason Harbour; a nice, sheltered anchorage. It may have been manky on the way but some of us were very pleased when we saw a breaching humpback whale on the starboard side. The Zodiac ride was short and sweet and, more importantly, dry! In the murk and the low cloud, Jason Harbour may not have looked very inspiring but, in fact, the opposite was the case. The pace was much more relaxed than this morning and the walks were short too.

On the beach were some fur seals and some elephant seals; mostly what are called ‘weaners’. One even adopted our gear pile towards the end of the landing. Further along were a few king penguins and there is said to be a very small colony of 30 pairs here but there was no obvious evidence of breeding. James led the way up onto a rise that he described as a terminal moraine. The view was worth the climb. On the way to his vantage point we passed many pools, which were former wallows that were created by elephant seals. The pools are a favourite place of the endemic duck – South Georgia pintail. One large pool was particularly attractive to them. During our time ashore there were up to 25 ducks in view at any one time, either on the water or flying around. They were very easy to see and didn’t mind being close to us at all. It was possible to get close views and the birds provided some great photographic opportunities. Some people heard the other endemic bird, the SG pipit and it was near the old hut. It dates from 1911 and was used to transfer mail to and from the nearby whaling stations such as Stromness. Peter opened the door and we were free to have a look inside it. Most decided that they would stick with their cabins on the ship!

Finally, there was an unexpected bonus – on the way back to the ship there was a short deviation to see light-mantled albatross on a low cliff. There were at least six in total, some of which were airborne. When in their display flight the two birds perform an aerial ballet, following each other’s every twist and turn whilst yodelling excitedly. To see them at such close range was a real high note to end on.

Monday, 20th November 2017 - Stromness & Grytviken whaling stations

Snow, snow, snow – a veritable winter wonderland! There was snow all over the ship, snow on the sea and snow on the land, right down to sea level. It looked more like winter than summertime this morning. The Island Sky had arrived in the bay where the former whaling station of Stromness was located. Stromness was also, of course, where Shackleton and his companions finally reached the end of their epic journey from Elephant Island and all points south. Our epic journey was slightly shorter – just up the valley to the waterfall, which was spectacular.

The walk up the valley to the waterfall was a bit of a struggle, as much of the route was through soft, wet and boggy terrain. However, the snowy scenery was very dramatic and for those of us who made it all the way, the sight of the waterfall was a sight to behold. Returning to the landing place near the whaling station, we were able to begin to grasp the immensity of the whaling operations from the size and extent of the derelict buildings. Shattered and rusty, they made a sharp contrast with the snowy backdrop. That backdrop was melting rapidly though. Snow on the lower slopes disappeared almost before our eyes and there were several avalanches from the heights above us. On the way out of the bay the ship passed very close to another old but larger, whaling station, Leith, latterly used for stores and ship repairs.

Grytviken was our next stop and as soon as the government officer had okayed the paperwork we were free to go ashore. All of us were shuttled over to the cemetary, together with our Hotel Manager and quantities of whisky and apple juice. Historical Peter said a few words and, once The Boss had been toasted, the residue from our glasses was, in time-honoured tradition, poured onto the grave. Many of us then chose to go with local Charlotte on a guided walk of the whaling station, some went up the hill to visit James at his lonely outpost and others of us made our own way from the cemetery. Wildlife came in the form of a few king penguins, a gentoo or two, SG shags & pintail, Antarctic terns and both elephant and fur seals.

The station itself was full of interest, even if most of it had been demolished to make it safe. Numerous information boards put things into context and there were the two former sealing vessels, Albatros and Diaz as well as the beached Petrel to look at. This whale-catcher was still in ‘original’ i.e. derelict condition so plans to restore it appear to have faltered. The whaler’s church was much-visited and a number of people took advantage of the invitation to ring the bells. Nearby was the post office and the Frank Hurley exhibition, the boathouse and James Caird replica and the museum and gift shop. The latter was well patronised and the staff were very pleased to see both us and our credit cards. Sarah Lurcock then came aboard and gave a short talk about the valuable and important work of the South Georgia Heritage Trust, towards which contributions were invited. She and some other guests from ashore were then invited to round off the evening by joining us for dinner in the restaurant.

Tuesday, 21st November 2017 - Steaming around and Gold Harbour

Before navigating Cooper Channel this morning there were fine views of the mountainous landscape on our starboard side. The channel lies between Cooper Bay and Cooper Island and both places are rich in wildlife. The island has always been rat-free, consequently landings are not allowed. The bay also has wildlife aplenty and plenty of birds were seen when we sailed between the two places. In the distance, colonies of both chinstrap and macaroni penguins were noted and there were thousands of prions and hundreds of storm-petrels feeding on planktonic items. Other special birds were seen too – more light-mantled albatrosses and our first snow-white snow petrels. They actually heralded the snow for it was soon whipping past us in 40+ knot winds. Some hardy folks (who probably have barbecues year-round back home) sat out on deck 5 having breakfast with the snow swirling in clouds around them!

It wasn’t possible to get into Drygalski Fjord as planned because the wind and waves had picked up. Consequently, Jamie picked up a microphone and told us about his experiences when working on South Georgia some years ago as a young man. Royal Bay was entered so that we could check out a place called Moltke Harbour but there was no shelter anywhere. However, the massive Ross Glacier was impressive whilst in front of the distant Weddell Glacier there was a very large colony of king penguins. The island was, by now, bathed in sunshine and the distant, jagged and snowy mountains really stood out against the blue sky. Whilst running with the wind and waves some humpback whales were announced by Dave but for some reason he omitted to mention the many beautiful little prions that were in company with them. Also in view was a single, distant iceberg, which we seemed to keep going past all day long as we steamed up and down the coast looking for shelter.

Immediately after lunch Sue gave a thrilling video and slide presentation about her life in the world of photography and film-making and then we arrived at Gold Harbour. By now the sun was out and the snowy mountains and glaciers sparkled in the sunshine. There was still some incoming swell but after waiting a while our gallant leader decided that it would be possible to do a Zodiac cruise, rather than a landing. It was done in two waves and provided us with an entirely different perspective, not just of the landscape but of the King Penguins on the beach too. Cruising along the beach was exhilarating. There was not just the sight of the landscape, which included glaciers and big breaking waves but also all the sounds as well. Surf was crashing on the beach, elephant seals bellowed, king penguins bugled and whistled and, later on, the phenomenally-beautiful light-mantled Albatross uttered its distinctive, wailing cry. There were a few fur seals around, some giant-petrels and a colony of shags out on Gold Head. All too soon the cruising was over so the Zodiacs were soon lifted aboard, the anchor was weighed and we then set off for Antarctica. It was a very successful visit to the island of South Georgia.

Wednesday, 22nd November 2017 - Scotia Sea to Elephant Island, Antarctica

Today the airwaves on the ship were full of words from a performance, a lecture, a talk, a presentation and even a recap. Things kicked off just after breakfast and continued into the early evening – Simon’s ‘Southern Ocean Seabirds’, Colin’s ‘Whales of the Southern Ocean’, Peter’s ‘By Endurance we Conquer: Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, 1914-1916’, Jamie’s ‘The River of Krill: South Georgia and Antarctica’s Marine Ecosystem’ and an early evening information meeting. Things were so busy that the only chance that many of us had for a nap was during the first, very long talk of the day!

Outside the ship there was another highlight, in the form of an impressive tabular iceberg that the captain took the ship close to. With anything between 70 and 90% below the surface (depending on the sea’s salinity and the density of the ice) it was nigh-on impossible to imagine that the berg was anything other than a gigantic piece of floating polystyrene. When the ship drew closer the immense height of the ice wall became evident; probably more than 100 feet. Closer still and we could see lots of birds, with many both in the air and on the water. The majority (both in the hundreds) were cape petrels and Antarctic Prions but there were also dozens of diminutive Wilson’s storm-petrels.

Perhaps the day’s star bird was snow petrel, four of which could be seen flying around the ship in a snowstorm at 08.45. We were over 100 miles from South Georgia and it is relatively unusual to see this species way out to sea. It was noticeable that as we sailed further from land the number of both species and birds dropped appreciably. No new species were added to the wildlife list but there were, for the first time, good numbers of blue petrels. Another exciting bird was light-mantled albatross, of which at least two were seen. Very early on a single wandering albatross appeared behind the ship.

 

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Thursday, 23rd November 2017 - Scotia Sea to Elephant Island, Antarctica

This morning there was plenty of sunshine, plenty of big waves so lots more pitching and, a few miles away, a huge tabular iceberg to gaze in awe at. The bridge team said that it was 1.8 miles long so it was certainly the biggest that we have seen so far. Being a sea day meant another chance to participate in many different events. After breakfast there was a mandatory briefing on Antarctica plus a (clothing) seed check, then James told us about ‘Ice!’, Claire took over after lunch for ‘The other 92%: Antarctica’s Wild and Wonderful Invertebrates’ and Simon rounded off the talks with ‘Penguins’. He had been hoping to win the ‘shortest title for a lecture’ competition but was beaten by our canny Scottish professor, whose prize was a live haggis, a wee dram and dinner with Jane. Simon, on the other hand, had to make do with second prize – cold, leftover haggis, an empty whisky tumbler and two dinners with Jane… Shortly before dinner Claire sang for her supper with a workshop on origami penguins. Paper and simulated guano were provided, gratis.

During the course of the day the birdlife decreased appreciably. For example, early on there were more than 30 Cape Petrels playing with us in the wind but by the early evening (light snow) there were few, if any. At 08.30 there was an excited announcement from the bridge to alert us to the presence of a rarely-seen Antarctic petrel, which was among the capes. It was brown-and-white, as opposed to black-and-white and, once picked out, it was easy to spot. It stayed with us for at least 40 minutes before leaving. There were no other new birds for the trip today but a few whales were seen, albeit briefly. For the second time this voyage there was a sighting of Southern bottlenose whale; two animals in fact. In all they were in view for only 10-15 seconds before diving out of sight. The other whales were similarly unobliging – distant fin whales. Before dinner, Jane gave us a progress report and said that we may well see a lot of ice tomorrow – a very exciting prospect!

Friday, 24th November 2017 - At Sea & Elephant Island, Antarctica

This morning was certainly snowy with visibility much reduced at times and with a little way to go until Elephant Island was reached there was time for an impromptu presentation. Pierre stepped forward and went back to the lounge to talk about ‘40 Years on Ice: The Life and Times of an Intrepid Polar Pioneer’. It was a fascinating presentation and it took us through to the late morning. During the night the ship had had to slow down and deviate because of ice and reduced visibility. The sea and wind first thing this morning had been calm but things quickly picked up. With us all the time had been many, possibly hundreds, of black-and-white cape petrels. The other exciting species was yet-another light-mantled albatross, of which at least two were seen. A distant, tall, columnar, spout preceded whales on the port side, which turned out to be fin whales.

Elephant Island came into sight at midday but at first it was indistinct, as it blended in with the murk so well. More and more of it became apparent as we got closer but it looked pretty daunting – largely snow-covered cliffs that disappeared up into the clouds. Every now and then along the inhospitable coast there was a grounded iceberg. The captain did an excellent job of getting us into the relatively sheltered bay opposite the bust of Captain Pardo. He was in command of the rescue vessel that eventually, with Worsley’s local knowledge, managed to get all of Shackleton’s men off. We could see the bust – so near yet so far!

Then Jane relayed a message via Chantal, who announced that it was going to be possible to do a Zodiac cruise at Point Wild. Nearly all of us went, even though it involved the slightly awkward way of getting into the boats that we were now familiar with. The waves were still big enough to throw spray over us but to be so close to the spot where the men lived for four months made any slight discomfort worthwhile. It was much more sheltered on the eastern side of the point and there we got very good views of a small colony of Chinstrap Penguins. Some boats continued a little further to the east and went into the edge of an area of brash ice, which had come off the nearby glacier. Then it was back to the ship, where a cup of hot chocolate was waiting for us!

We then cruised around Cape Valentine (the eastern end of the island) and passed between it and Cornwallis Island. Off in the distance and in front of Clarence Island was a huge tabular iceberg. On the way to Point Lookout many whale spouts were seen but few actual animals revealed themselves. Those that were close enough to be seen were identified as fin shales. The Captain was able to take the ship very close to the point and then the anchor was dropped. It was quite breezy but while we waited during dinner for the scout boats to report back, the jagged peaks, snowy slopes and a distant glacier were all in view. The news was good – there were both chinstrap and macaroni penguins to be seen so as soon as dinner was eaten, we boarded the boats. There were two small colonies of macaronis and the boats approached as closely as they could. There were rocks to avoid and quite a big swell was running in places too. One macaroni in particular was a lot closer than the others so good views were had of it. Before turning for the ship some of us had a surprise in the form of the first leopard seal of the trip.

Saturday, 25th November 2017 - Antarctic Sound and Brown Bluff

There was no surprise this morning when it was discovered that snow, once again, covered the decks. It was cold too and both the sea and air temperature were the same at -1°. There was no visibility either so no sign whatsoever of anything.

Slowly the weather cleared so that we could see land. Ahead of us to starboard was the northern end of the Antarctic Peninsula and on the other side were some large, ice-covered islands. There was lots of ice in the water too – brash ice, ice floes and icebergs of many shapes and sizes. Continuing southwards, it wasn’t long before an interesting spot was noticed so the ship stopped and the boats were lowered. We were off on a Zodiac cruise amongst the pack ice (big floes from last winter) and huge icebergs.


Not to be in the wind, not to be bouncing around, and not to be in a deluge of spray was quite a novel experience for us! Close to the ship was a penguin on ice but hopes of it being an adelie were dashed when it was identified as a gentoo. However, a short distance away there was a crabeater seal on a floe and it typically ignored us as we approached. Misnamed by the sealers, they actually eat krill. Then another seal was spotted and it turned out to be a much larger leopard seal. Although they eat mostly krill they can also be tempted by fish, other seals and penguins. One or two adelie penguins, likely to be from a nearby colony, were then seen too. A few of us also got to see an iceberg with an arch in it whilst other bergs had a distinct blue tinge. One thing that some of the boats did was to go into brash ice and then cut the engine. The only sound then was the popping of the ice, caused by the release of compressed air as the ice melted. By now some were thinking of lunch and several returning boats found that another leopard seal near the ship was having similar thoughts. It was hungrily eyeing the penguins that had jumped up onto the floe near it!

The ship then headed further south still and eventually went in the direction of Brown Bluff, a favourite landing place. Initial fears that it would be impossible to reach due to all the ice in the water were found to be unfounded. Although the ship had to stop a long way from the beach, the ride there through the ice was an exciting adventure in itself. Jane was waiting for us and so were the gentoos; the adelies were a little further on. Brown Bluff gets its name from the towering brown cliffs and the whole mountain is a remnant of a huge volcano. The scenery was stunning – geology on the one hand and sea and ice on the other. By now the sun had been out for some time, which added to both the ‘warmth’ and the colours all around us. Another very significant thing about Brown Bluff is that is part of the continent itself so we could truly say that we had ‘arrived’. For some it was their seventh continent too.

The adelies were a big attraction, being the first ones that many of us had seen. There was a very clearly-defined edge or end to the colony, which stretched away into the distance. Many birds were incubating the usual two eggs, which could be seen when a bird stood up to stretch. The colony was relatively quiet because all the noise during the courtship stage was long gone. Every now and then birds did display loudly and enthusiastically to each other. Some nest-building was seen (a bit late) and some copulation was seen, also a bit late. These may have been immature birds that were not quite ready to breed – going through the motions, like adolescent humans. Some of us were lucky enough to see a pair changing duties at the nest. Often the sitting birds are very reluctant to hand over to their mate, such is the bond between them and their eggs and, subsequently, their chicks.

We could have stayed much longer but the cold was beginning to have an effect and warmth was just a Zodiac ride away. There was no information meeting this evening so there was time to relax and perhaps have a drink in the bar before dinner. During the meal the ship passed numerous icebergs that were lit by the low evening sun – a nice way to finish off. Finally, the day can be summed up in just one word for, as Peter, our navel historian would say, it was simply marvellous!

 

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Sunday, 26th November 2017 - Mikkelsen Harbour and the Gerlache Strait

Our ‘old friend’ the wind was back again today. Back again with a vengeance! Having said that, there was lots of sunshine so the true beauty of this part of the continent could be savoured. There was lots of ice in the water, most of the land was covered by snow and ice and bare rock was in the minority. On the way to Mikkelsen Harbour the wind increased to just under 30 knots but the ship was able to anchor quite close to the island. Behind Mikkelsen towered ice-covered Trinity Island. The scout team went ashore, decided it was okay and so we disembarked into the Zodiacs. Once again, the drivers did a magnificent job in less than ideal conditions.

Waiting for us on the beach was the usual staff welcoming committee, plus one or two gentoos and Weddell seals too. Visible just above the snow was an old, wooden water boat from the whaling days. Decked-over boats would be filled with either fresh water or snow/ice and then be towed back to a factory ship. The water would then be used aboard in the boilers, other equipment and for the day-to-day needs of the men. Also sticking out of the snow were whale bones, another grim reminder of the past. A path from previous visitors was flagged for us and it led to the northern side of the island, facing the ship.

Here there were many nesting gentoos and some were up against a bright orange shed. It was an Argentinian refuge but it wasn’t open for us to have a look inside. The penguins were busy incubating eggs so, like the adelies yesterday, there wasn’t much going on. That changed for us though when word was passed that we needed to return immediately to the landing place. The wind had increased, ice was coming towards the ship and the anchor was showing signs of dragging. The captain had decided that we would all be better off back on board. Our timing was impeccable – lunch began shortly afterwards!

Once we were under way it was clear that out in open water the conditions were even more challenging – more wind, more ice and bigger waves. A nearby spot was looked at but conditions there were unfavourable too. Pending further news about what might happen later on, Colin did a fabulously-narrated presentation on ‘Seals of the Southern Ocean.’ Conditions throughout the rest of the day in the Gerlache Strait precluded any attempt at another activity. Instead, we were free to watch the stunning, sunlit scenery from the comfort of our staterooms, the bridge, the lounge or perhaps even the bar. Only the hardiest among us ventured out onto deck. The ship passed numerous icebergs and when they were hit by waves great plumes of spray were thrown up into the air. Now, with so much time available to them, the jigsaw puzzlers went into overdrive. There was so much competition to be at the table that shifts were organised. They were similar to the bridge crew, who work four hours on and eight off, except that the puzzlers spent eight hours on and only one hour off.

Monday, 27th November 2017 - Cuverville Island and Paradise Bay

The sparkling, red-and-white Royal Research Ship James Clark Ross led us into and down the Neumayer Channel first thing this morning. Jane and Colin were so excited at the prospect of seeing this fine British vessel that they were hopping excitedly from foot to foot and waving their arms in the air. So ever-thoughtful Cheli put an arm around both their waists and lifted them up together so that they could see out through the bridge windows. What we saw was breathtaking too – more blue skies and sunshine, a little ice in the water, snowy peaks and vast snowfields. Unfortunately, we received a message saying that there was a lot of brash ice ahead of us so we turned around and steamed towards nearby Cuverville Island instead. Our course took us across a mountain-fringed, flat-calm, ice-studded Gerlache Strait.

Waiting for us at Cuverville were more gentoo penguins; the largest colony of them in Antarctica in fact (4,000+ pairs). Some of us went directly to the beach whilst others went cruising in the channel between Cuverville and Ronge islands. Before landing we saw lots of ice, an old boat from the whaling days and a sleepy Weddell seal or two. Once ashore there was a choice of directions to take. Left took us to an overview of the main part of the colony and pointed Spigot Peak to the north. Right took us along the level and up a slight rise for dramatic views of Ronge Island and beyond. At one point there was a large ice-fall from the ice wall opposite us. With hardly a breath of air and near-cloudless skies the landscape was picture-perfect. However, our historian was having a hard time sketching under such challenging conditions so lay down to recompose himself. Or at least, that’s what he said he was doing.

Anyway, there was more to come, in the shape of a barbecue lunch on the lido deck. Our restaurant must surely have had the best views in the world! Our friends in the hotel department had pulled out all the stops and had provided a feast fit for a king. There was even a suckling pig and both musical and vocal accompaniment. The ship then headed out into a still flat-calm Gerlache Strait, en route to Paradise Bay. A ship coming the other way tipped us off about killer whales and, shortly afterwards, they were spotted some way ahead of us. The Captain slowed the ship and soon the whales were not far away. There were several groups of them and an estimate put their number at about 30.

Conditions were perfect for watching them and there were animals of all ages to be seen. Interesting behaviour included fluking when they dived and lifting their tails right up out of the water. Most, if not all, of the whales had a distinctive orange cast to their skin – a minute organism called a diatom. They were certainly not the black-and-white whales that we might have expected. This type of killer whale is relatively small and distinctively marked and may well prove to be a new/different species. They were certainly impressive when they surfaced against the snowy, mountainous backdrop. What an encounter!

Once the whales (they are actually the largest member of the dolphin family) had all gone past us the ship resumed course for Paradise Bay. Somewhere along the way we were called up to deck 6 for a special, Antarctic group photo. Our dropping-off point in the bay was just in front of an Argentine station – Base Brown. It was at this point that we reached our furthest south position on our voyage - 64° 53.2’ S (and 062° 52.8’ W). As with Cuverville, half of us were landed and the rest of us were taken on a Zodiac cruise into nearby Skontorp Cove. There was a fair bit of ice around, a couple of colonies of Antarctic shags, copper in the cliffs, folded geology and a massive glacier to look at. The landing was another one on the continent and this one too had gentoo penguins. From the landing site there was a nice, easy walk across the snow to a little knoll, which provided a superb overview. Far to the north could just be seen another station, the Chilean Gonzalez Videla. The more adventurous among us climbed a little higher still for even better views, until the slope became too steep and too slippery.

The last boat back to the ship was at 19.00 and the Island Sky then moved a short distance for the fabled Polar Plunge. Only four people had plucked up the courage to participate but 25% of them were Chantal. Word had even spread to the bridge about what she was about to do so they were watching avidly and live, on the telly. Well, in she went, around she swam and out she got. Dedicated, diligent and conscientious as ever (and in case anyone from IAATO happened to be watching) she insisted on going through both the virkon foot bath and the scrubbers – what a girl! And what a day!

Tuesday, 28th November 2017 - Deception & Half Moon Islands, South Shetland Islands

Deception Island was our starting point today and it was an early start too. The ship sailed into the flooded caldera of the still-active volcano through the narrow channel called Neptune’s Bellows. The cloud was not far above sea level so our views were somewhat restricted. What we could see was monochromatic – dark, bare ash slopes and snowfields. Towards the northern end of the caldera three things stuck out: a Spanish base, an Argentine base and a French cruise ship. Whalers Bay was entered and on the port side there was a steaming lagoon. The rusted remains of Hektor whaling station could be seen near the shore. The largest building was a later aircraft hangar that was erected by the forerunner of the British Antarctic Survey, the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey. During our stay in the caldera, information was given by Jane, James, Peter and Simon.

Upon leaving the caldera the ship headed for the nearby, massive colony of chinstrap penguins. However, nature had other ideas! Very soon a whale spout was spotted and then there were more and more seen. The whales were ahead of the ship so we were soon closing in on them. An excited announcement was made and many of us rushed out to see what all the excitement was about. We soon found that this encounter was even better than yesterday’s as four different species were involved – Antarctic minke, humpback, fin and killer whales. There were only a few of the first two but there were upwards of 20 fins and about 30 killers. Extremely good views were had of the latter two species and many of the killers (spread out again) were swimming alongside the fins. Fin whales can be up to 80’ in length and several of them were clearly feeding as they swam along. Towards the end of the encounter two male killer whales swam down the port side of the ship and another whale dived underneath us. Remarkable! Colin neatly followed this up with a presentation entitled ‘Orca – King of the Sea’.

On our port side Livingston Island slowly came into view as it emerged from the cloud. Eventually the cloud cleared completely and revealed yet another high, mountainous, snowy and icy realm. Distant spouts were seen in the sunshine and as we approached our turning point for Half Moon Island a plume of cloud and fog emerged from the strait between the islands. It was short-lived and our destination was soon in sight. A remnant of an old volcano, Half Moon had a remnant of Argentina’s territorial claim – another empty, orange base. The beach was a shingly one but the snowy ground behind it was covered in guano of the penguin kind. Once up the slope we were able to get close views of the nesting chinstrap penguins. Other species seen were kelp gull, Antarctic tern, Antarctic shag, pale-faced sheathbill, southern elephant seal and Weddell Seal. The big surprise was a single macaroni penguin. It was seen going down the main penguin highway to the beach and was seen later on climbing back up the hill. Half Moon Island had certainly provided a very interesting and varied last Antarctic excursion.

Jane invited us all into the lounge after lunch for a Drake Passage update, a final staff recap, an award ceremony and a charity auction. There then followed the special auction and Noble Caledonia’s nominated charity and beneficiary is the South Georgia Heritage Trust.

Wednesday 29th November 29th - Mid-Drake Passage

At breakfast this morning, one could have been forgiven for thinking that half the ships company had disembarked at Half Moon Island, for even with binoculars it was difficult to see many people in the restaurant. Maybe they were relaxing? Probably. Anyway, it being another sea day there was a lot to keep us busy. Besides meals and pre-packing preparation and planning there were more presentations. In order, they were Jamie on ‘Climate Change in the Antarctic’, Simon on ‘Albatrosses – Winged Wanderers’, Claire on ‘From Treaties to Marine Protected Areas: The Basics of Antarctic Governance’ and Peter on ‘For Scientific Discovery give me Scott: Terra Nova 1911’. It was a tribute to our lecturers that they still, after all this time, had new tricks up their sleeves.

Big seas had been predicted and that is exactly what we got, with waves up to and sometimes over 20’ in height. The sea was a beautiful blue-green colour and sparkled in the strong sunshine. Some of the bigger waves started to break as they got higher and higher. One benefit was to see the rainbows in the sheets of spray that were constantly being thrown up into the air by the passage of the ship. Throughout the morning the most obvious birds were the numerous Antarctic Prions and Cape Petrels. They kept station with us for hours and on the windy side too. Some of us were lucky enough to see a light-mantled Albatross whizz past. The more numerous grey-headed and black-browed albatrosses did not start to appear until the middle of the afternoon though. Drawing closer to their breeding grounds around Cape Horn, this was to be expected. Very slowly during the day the conditions ameliorated so the ship slowly picked up speed. This was good news as it meant that sheltered waters would be reached much sooner.

Thursday, 30th November 30th - Fuegian Archipelago, Beagle Channel & Ushuaia

At 07.00 this morning there was a huge gas tanker in sight (rounding the horn), a huge southern royal albatross close by and a huge wavy smudge along the distant horizon, which turned out to be Tierra del Fuego. The sea was calm, there was a stiff breeze from the north and the sun was shining. Breakfast was a hurried affair for some of us as we wanted to watch the unfolding seabird spectacular in our wake. Most of the, at times, very close birds were southern giant-petrels but there were also a few black-browed albatrosses. The stars though were the New Zealand royals and certainly up until about 10.00 at least 10 were watched and photographed. Several royals were on the water and at least two were asleep; others took off at our approach. Royal albatrosses are often seen in this area but the numbers today were exceptional.

Once again, during the course of the day, there was a packed programme inside the ship and there were various exciting happenings. Our lecturers continued to educate us: Pierre started the ball rolling with ‘Around the Horn’, Peter kept the ball in play with ‘Great God! This is an awful place: Scott’s Final March, 1912’ and then Sue put the ball deftly between the posts with ‘Filming marine mammals for the BBC series Blue Planet, Planet Earth and others.’ There was also the handing-in of our jackets and boots. The end of voyage slide show, which Jamie had put so much hard work into, was a stunning visual record and a great reminder of all that we had seen and done. In the early evening Captain Andrey Rudenko had the pleasure of inviting us to his farewell cocktail party in the lounge and this was followed by his official farewell dinner.

The ship passed very close to (Chilean) Nueva Island and we saw things that were at first barely recognisable, things that we had not seen for so long – trees! There was also a prominent Chilean station there too. It took several hours to reach Ushuaia and on the way we passed some notable wildlife colonies – sea lions, many colonies of shags, South American terns and a large colony of Magellanic Penguins. On the southern side of the Beagle Channel was Chile (and the southernmost town in the world, Puerto Williams) and on the northern side was Argentina. The landscape here was impressive, with pristine beech forest, high, windswept fells and snowy, craggy, mountain peaks. The haunt of the condor and its main food source, the guanaco, this part of southern South America really is at the end of the earth. Joining us for the final leg of our journey was an Argentinian pilot and he was picked up in the late afternoon. The Island Sky docked in Ushuaia in the late evening.

Friday, 1st December 2017 - Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

After so many extraordinary adventures, this morning was our last on the ship. After saying our goodbyes, we were then set free and left the ship for the last time. However, this all went unnoticed by the jigsaw puzzlers, who were still puzzling over their latest jigsaw… Bon voyage!

 

 

 End of Voyage

For further inspiration, view slideshow of images taken during the voyage

 

 

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