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Antarctica, South Georgia & the Falkland Islands: December 19, 2016 January 4, 2017
December 20, 2016: Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina
We converged on the small city of Ushuaia, all of us arriving from distant reaches of the planet for the same reason: to embark on an expedition to experience the wildlife and landscapes of the Falklands, South Georgia and Antarctica. As our respective flights approached Ushuaia, the majestic clouds parted at times to provide us with striking views of the southern Andes. The glaciers, lakes and towering peaks had to be seen to be believed, and the impressive scenery seemed to go on forever.
When we arrived at “El Fin del Mundo” (as Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, is locally known), we found a growing outpost with plenty of restaurants and shops catering to adventurous travelers. We could hardly imagine a more picturesque setting from which to embark on our journey to the White Continent.
With cool temperatures and a sky of mixed sun and clouds overhead, we arrived at the pier, which was lined with a handful of fishing boats and expedition ships. We made our way up the gangway, where we were welcomed by the staff and crew of our ship, ‘Le Boreal’. After settling into our staterooms and getting familiar with the ship a bit, we headed to La Bouselle restaurant to partake in some welcome champagne and snacks. Following a lifeboat drill, we joined our Cruise Director Nadia Eckhardt and our Expedition Leader Matt Drennan in The Theater for an introduction to the ship and her staff. As each member of the Expedition Staff gave us a welcome and some background on themselves, it became clear that their passion for Antarctica, and their desire to share it with us would make this a grand adventure indeed!
Our day drew to a close over dinner and some time on the back deck watching Ushuaia disappear into the distance. Darkness fell over magnificent mountains lining the Beagle Channel on both sides, while small groups of South American terns and blue-eyed shags fished in the productive waters.
We breathed in our last breath of South America and of the green vegetation covering the mountainsides, all the while contemplating the experiences that lie ahead of us. We drifted off to sleep in our new home away from home, eagerly anticipating awakening to the vast, and hopefully calm, Southern Ocean.
December 21, 2016: At Sea, En Route to Falkland Islands
We awoke to glassy seas and fantastic views of Staten Island just to the north of us, the last bit of Tierra del Fuego we would see until we return to Ushuaia several weeks from now. After a long travel day yesterday, many of us took full advantage of the opportunity to have a bit of a lie in before relaxing over a full breakfast.
We had the opportunity to exchange our parkas for better-fitting ones before joining Photo Enrichment Coach Rick Sammon in The Theater for his talk: “Capturing the Beauty of Antarctica, and Telling the Whole Story with Photographs”.
After sipping some hearty soup out on the pool deck with seabirds swirling all around, we joined Ornithologist Rich Pagen for his lecture “Seabirds: Ambassadors of the Southern Ocean”. Rich highlighted some of the species we would see out in the open ocean and told stories of their amazing long distance travel abilities, including the fact that some species regularly circumnavigate the entire globe between nesting seasons!
Following lunch, we took in a good book in the Observation Bar before joining Geologist Daria Nikitina for her lecture, “Geology of Antarctica and the Falkland Islands”. Daria explained how the Falklands is actually most similar geologically to southern Africa, which it was connected to during the existence of the southern super continent, Gondwanaland.
Afterwards, we joined the Expedition Team out on deck to admire the spectacular seabirds careening in the strong winds. Black-browed albatrosses made close passes alongside the ship, and several pods of long-finned pilot whales were spotted breaking the sea surface as we plied the Southern Ocean.
After a good dose of fresh air out on deck, we gathered back in The Theater with Expedition Leader Matt Drennan and naturalist Tony Chater for an introduction and briefing on the Falkland Islands. Matt and Tony talked about the history of this remote archipelago, and its strategic importance for ships rounding Cape Horn. Tony, a former long term resident, then talked about the ins and outs of life on New Island, a small island far from Stanley off the west coast of the Falklands.
We then all donned our Sunday best and met Captain Etienne Garcia and many other members of the ship’s staff in The Theater for the Welcome Aboard Cocktail Party, carefully swaying back and forth with the ship as we mingled over champagne. The Captain told us a bit about himself, and then introduced several core members of his staff. We all had a very enjoyable evening that was rounded off by a superb gala dinner.
December 22, 2016: Stanley, Falkland Islands
With scattered clouds peppering the blue skies overhead, ‘Le Boreal’ sailed past low-lying rocky islets en route to the protected harbor at Stanley. After watching our approach on the outer decks and a hearty breakfast, we made our way down the gangway for a morning of exploration in the Falkland Islands.
There were a multitude of organized tours for us to choose from here in the Falkland Islands. The majority of us headed out to see the rockhopper penguins, for some of us our first encounter ever with penguins! We watched in awe as the penguins went about their business on a bluff overlooking a windy sea below. After warming up with a hot cup of tea inside, we hopped back in the land rovers for the very exciting trip back out across the muddy peatlands.
Some of us headed out on the Long Island farm tour, where we learned about the use of peat as an energy source and had the chance to cut some ourselves. We appreciated the opportunity to get to talk with some of the locals, gaining a better appreciation for what life is really like out in the ‘camp’.
During the afternoon, we had the opportunity to explore the quaint town of Stanley on foot. Occasional rain showers came and went, as did the wind. It was a lovely place to amble around, grab a pint at one of the local watering hole, or sit on a bench on the green while looking over the bay.
After a shuttle ride or leisurely stroll along the shoreline back to the pier, we reboarded the ship and grabbed a cup of tea in The Lounge. Soon ‘Le Boreal’ pulled off from the pier, and made her way east in the direction of South Georgia.
Once evening rolled around, we gathered for our first Recap with the Expedition Team, during which we heard from the Young Explorers about their exploration at the Fire Department, and from Naturalist Tony Chater about life in the Falklands.
After dinner, some of us gathered for a cocktail in the Observation Bar, where stories of the day’s events intertwined with the sounds of laughter and soothing background music provided by the ship’s musicians. It had been a wonderful day of exploration in this far-away corner of the world.
December 23, 2016: At Sea, En Route to South Georgia
Well rested from a good night sleep, we socialized over scrambled eggs before embarking on what was to become a day of learning and wildlife watching. The first lecture of the day, “Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition”, was presented by Historian T.H. Baughman. T.H. told the riveting story of how Shackleton and his men escaped getting stuck in the sea ice, traveled over ice and sea to Elephant Island, sailed 800 miles to South Georgia, and trekked across the island to get help.
We then grabbed a cup of coffee and headed out on deck to see what seabirds were around the ship. Wandering albatross careened in our wake, while Wilson’s storm-petrels flitted almost unnoticed in the wave troughs.
Afterwards, we joined Photo Coach Rick Sammon for his presentation, “Photographing Wildlife Around the World”. Rick told stories of some of his travels focusing on seeing and photographing wildlife, and gave tips for how to best capture nature’s magical moments. Meanwhile, Young Explorers Coordinators Kristin Wornson and Jeff Manker gathered the 18 and under crowd together to learn about squid, including a very fun squid dissection program, with squid donated by the Falkland Islands Fisheries Department.
After lunch, many of us relaxed in The Lounge with a book before attending a film introducing us to South Georgia, followed by a mandatory briefing about conduct while ashore in South Georgia, presented by our Expedition Leader, Matt Drennan. We were glad to find out that guidelines have been set up to conserve and protect these spectacular wild places and the life that their habitats support.
After sipping café lattes in the Grand Salon, we headed back to The Theater for a presentation by Marine Biologist Kim Chater entitled, “Fat & Wet: Introduction to the whales of the Southern Ocean”. From the far-reaching low frequency vocalizations of blue whales to the impressive cooperative bubble net feeding of humpback whales, Kim shared some amazing stories about this incredible and diverse group of mammals.
Over cocktails, we met the Expedition Team in The Theater for a Recap and Briefing, during which Expedition Leader Matt Drennan gave an excellent introduction to the island of South Georgia.
December 24, 2016: At Sea, Shag Rocks
We slept very well last night with the gentle rocking from the Southern Ocean. After chatting over breakfast, we all met Naturalist Paul Hart in The Theater for his fascinating presentation, “Walking in the Spirit of Scott”. Paul told us the story of his expedition across the Antarctic Peninsula to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of Robert Falcon Scott’s journey to the South Pole on the Terra Nova Expedition of 1910-1913. Paul brought to life the challenges of traveling overland in what is most certainly one of the harshest environments on earth!
The next lecture of the day, “Penguins, Prions and Pipits: The Southern Ocean Sanctuary of South Georgia”, was presented by Ornithologist Rich Pagen. He provided an introduction to penguin biology, and went on to describe the fascinating asynchronous breeding cycle of the king penguin. Rich then stressed the importance of South Georgia as a breeding site for a wide variety of albatrosses and petrels, and prepared us to be on the lookout for the South Georgia pintail, only one of two waterfowl that regularly occur there, and the South Georgia pipit, the sole breeding songbird.
During the afternoon, ‘Le Boreal’ adjusted her course to bring us within sight of Shag Rocks. Soon the guano-covered rock pinnacles were in view, as were the more than 2,000 pairs of nesting blue-eyed shags, which give the rocks their name. Several shags flew directly over our heads, apparently looking down at us with curiosity.
To comply with new biosecurity measures on South Georgia Island, we headed to The Lounge to vacuum clothing and backpacks in an effort to remove any plant seeds we may unknowingly be transporting from our travels around Patagonia or the Falklands. We also scrubbed our rubber boots to get rid of any material remaining in the treads, all this to ensure that non-native plants, animals and pathogens aren’t inadvertently brought to South Georgia.
In the late afternoon, we gathered in The Lounge to sing Christmas Carols with the Expedition Staff. The place was packed as voices carried throughout the room. It was a lively and festive occasion, and a perfect way to celebrate the coming of Christmas.
Shortly afterwards, the call came from the bridge that a group of humpback whales had been spotted. We grabbed cameras and binoculars and headed outside for some excellent views of these spectacular creatures.
During Recap and Briefing, Expedition Leader Matt Drennan went over our exciting plans for tomorrow’s arrival in South Georgia. This was followed by a gala dinner, and mingling in the bar afterwards, as ‘Le Boreal’ steamed towards the site of our planned morning landing, Salisbury Plain.
December 25, 2016: Salisbury Plain, Fortuna Bay
After fueling up on a light breakfast, we donned our layers, our parkas and our boots for our first outing in South Georgia, Salisbury Plain in the Bay of Isles. This large glacial outwash plain is fronted by a broad black sand beach, and is home to one of South Georgia’s largest king penguin colonies.
A strong wind was blowing down the steep mountain slopes as we sped ashore by zodiac. Once ashore, our expectations of South Georgia were replaced by its reality, and honestly we had greatly underestimated the grandeur of this place and its wildlife. We walked past snoozing fur seals and loafing king penguins to the edge of the rookery where nearly fully grown penguin chicks, dressed in their finest wooly brown garb, were clustered around one another waiting for the arrival of food from mom or dad.
Along a stream consisting of a thick ooze of silt, guano and shed feathers, we encountered large groups of adult penguins going through their annual catastrophic molt. This generally consists of standing around for 3 to 4 weeks while replacing every single feather on their bodies.
Back onboard ‘Le Boreal’ we kept a close eye out the window over lunch as we steamed along the north coast of South Georgia. Snow-capped peaks rose above plains filled with fur seals and king penguins, both of which also could be seen swimming in large numbers around the ship as we made our way towards our afternoon stop in Fortuna Bay.
After a briefing in The Theater by Expedition Leader Matt Drennan, we bundled up to go ashore in Fortuna Bay, with steep rugged mountains lining both sides of this impressive fjord. We soon found ourselves ashore at the head of the bay, from where we began a one mile hike to a king penguin rookery well up the glacial valley.
We paused to admire elephant seals piled together at the edge of the tussac grass. Further up the glacial outwash plain, groups of king penguins lounged in the stream, partaking in their annual catastrophic molt. The surface of the stream was decorated with thousands of tiny white feathers making their way to the sea.
Soon we arrived at the colony, where we watched everything from adults incubating eggs to whistling chicks begging incessantly for food. Several small waterfalls poured down from the towering glaciated peaks, and fur seals were, well, everywhere. Some of the males were steadfastly defending breeding territories, which entailed keeping females in and other males out. As these territory holders have to fast the whole time they are on the beach, they are usually not in the best of moods, and so we had to give them a wide berth as we made our way to and from the landing.
December 26, 2016: St. Andrews Bay, Grytviken
We awoke to the most glorious line of snow-capped peaks towering above South Georgia’s green tussac grass. After fueling up on fruit and delicious croissants, we layered up for the zodiac ride in to a wide beach, which hosts the largest king penguin colony in the entire world!!
It was truly a once in a lifetime experience to be in the presence of 100,000 pairs of king penguins. Once past a very exciting stream crossing, we hiked along the beach beyond resting fur seals and elephant seals to an overlook where we could take in this truly massive and impressive penguin colony. It was impossible not to notice how incredibly loud it was, as well as how strong the smell was. Chicks let out high pitch whistles as begging calls to their parents, while adults trumpeted in courtship displays with potential mates.
Back at the landing, we spent time with the elephant seals, including a number of recently weaned pups that had come over to sleep in amidst our gear on the beach. They were so fun to watch and to photograph, and we couldn’t help but laugh every time they let out one of their snorty sneezes.
Over lunch, ‘Le Boreal’ made its way into the calm waters of Cumberland Bay, with South Georgia’s highest peaks looming above us in the distance. Grytviken, a place soaked in history from the age of Antarctic exploration and exploitation, could be seen just ahead of the ship, tucked away in a quiet cove with a stunningly beautiful natural harbor.
After a briefing by Expedition Leader Matt Drennan, we joined the South Georgia Heritage Trust’s Sarah Lurcock for a short talk about the recently completed project to eradicate non-native rats from South Georgia, for the benefit of the island’s nesting birds.
We landed on a beach just below the Grytviken cemetery where Sir Ernest Shackleton’s grave is located, along with those of many whalers who lost their lives in the pursuit of whale oil. We wandered past snoring fur seals and fearless penguins en route to the remains of the whaling station. Rusty storage tanks, dilapidated whale catcher boats and old industrial machinery lay in disarray everywhere. The Whaler’s Church, which was built in 1913, has been used for a few marriages and baptisms but mostly funerals, as life at Grytviken was pretty tough.
The Grytviken Museum was a must-see and we made our way through the various rooms with their fantastic natural history displays and the remarkable records of life in a whaling station. The museum shop was also a mandatory stop, offering many South Georgia souvenirs to take home.
The daylight was fading as the last zodiac was lifted back onboard ‘Le Boreal’. It was an incredible day and we headed off to bed early so we would be prepared for more of South Georgia tomorrow.
December 27, 2016: Gold Harbor, Cooper Bay
A light snow fell as the sky brightened over our morning coffee and croissants. The zodiacs were lowered into calm waters, and soon we stepped ashore at Gold Harbor, easily one of South Georgia’s most beautiful beaches. We headed up from the landing, carefully dodging a huge pile of elephant seals, and began our adventure at Gold Harbor.
The air was filled with a symphony of calls, including loud snorts and belches regularly emanating from young male elephant seals sparring with one another on the beach and in the shallows. Further down the beach was the king penguin colony, with groups of brown woolly-coated chicks called “oakum boys” scattered around the colony’s edges. The longer we sat on the edge of the colony, the more of its mysteries were revealed to us.
We wandered over to a small gentoo penguin colony in the tussac grass, where the nests consisted of an adult diligently watching over its two beautiful large chicks. On the beach below were countless elephant seal pups, who were a joy to sit near and watch. A few of them inch-wormed their way right over next to us.
With so much to absorb and few words that could possibly describe, conversation was minimal this morning. Brown skuas soared overhead and rested along the beach, always prepared for an opportunity for a meal. Meanwhile, giant petrels loafed on the sand with their bills tucked carefully under their back feathers. With a backdrop of huge mountains and the tumbling Bertrab glacier behind us, we watched it all unfold around us.
Over lunch, Captain Etienne Garcia took the ship south along the coast to beautiful Cooper Bay, right near the entrance to Drygalski Fjord. We set out on a zodiac tour of the area, maneuvering in and out of the kelp and the finger-like coves.
Snowy sheathbills picked through the algae-covered intertidal zone for invertebrates to feast upon, while the occasional curious South Georgia pipit flew over our heads to get a look at us. The sandy beaches were littered with male fur seals defending their harems, as well as elephant seals piled up together in smelly groups. While light-mantled albatrosses soared overhead in pairs, we admired the macaroni penguin colony with its steep penguin highway leading several hundred feet down to the sea.
Back onboard, we admired huge flocks of Antarctic prions flying alongside the ship as we made our way southwest around Cape Disappointment, the southern tip of the island of South Georgia. After Recap, we told stories over dinner of our experiences in this remarkable and wild part of the world.
December 28, 2016: At Sea, En Route to Antarctica
After three busy days in South Georgia, many of us slept in this morning before drawing back the curtains to a glorious Southern Ocean day. Blue skies reflected off the calm seas, while a group of snow petrels careened in the breeze. After breakfast, we lined the ship’s railings for spectacular looks at some feeding fin whales. These leviathans, the second largest on the planet after the blue whale, lunged through the water, at times showing their white lower jaw on the right side only.
After ‘Le Boreal’ left the whales to their business, we headed to The Theater to join Geologist Daria Nikitina for her presentation, “Glacial Landscapes”. Daria introduced us to the concept that glaciers are actually rivers of ice, flowing (albeit slowly) down in the direction of least resistance. We left the lecture with an eye for recognizing how ice has created the landscape we saw at South Georgia.
After the lecture, we headed out to the pool deck to watch a lone wandering albatross playing in the wind behind the ship, occasionally coming right up the side of the ship, allowing us to truly appreciate the size of these magnificent creatures.
Historian Tim Baughman gave us our last talk of the morning entitled, “The Last Expedition of Edward Wilson and Captain Scott”. An exceptional storyteller, Tim took us through the remarkable tale of the quest for the South Pole. Quite the race it was, and the story ended with Scott and his party arriving at the pole on January 17, 1912 only to find a Norwegian flag already there, left by Roald Amundsen who had reached the pole 5 weeks earlier. On their return journey, Scott and his four comrades all perished because of a combination of exhaustion, hunger and extreme cold.
After a delicious lunch and some time reading in the Observation Lounge, we took our boots and other gear down to The Lounge for round two of biosecurity cleaning, this time in preparation for our landings in Antarctica. Out on deck, we watched cape petrels dancing over the waves, and black-browed albatross glistening in the afternoon sun. Later, another group of fin whales was spotted, this one quite a bit larger, with hundreds of prions dancing over the top of them as they fed!
In the early evening, Mike Stevens gathered us in The Theater for a musical presentation like no other. Mike introduced us to the harmonica, how to play it, and what his approach to music has always been.
After some excellent conversation over dinner and in the bar, we drifted off to sleep in the middle of the Southern Ocean.
December 29, 2016: At Sea, En route to Antarctica
After a restful night sleep, we feasted on omelets and waffles while looking out over an unusually calm Southern Ocean. Soon after, an announcement came over the PA system that a pod of 50 or more long-finned pilot whales had been spotted, and that we were going over for a closer look. These whales are seen more often on the warmer side of the Antarctica Convergence, so this sighting was particularly special.
We then met Ornithologist Rich Pagen for his lecture entitled, “Black, and white, and guano all over: Antarctic penguin colonies and their patrollers”. After having spent so much time watching king penguins in South Georgia, we found it fascinating to learn that the brush-tail penguins actually build nests, lay two eggs, and get the whole breeding cycle completed in a single summer. Rich also introduced us to the opportunistic penguin colony patrollers, which take advantage of the seasonal gatherings of penguins to eke out a living in this challenging environment.
Just after the lecture, Captain Etienne Garcia circumnavigated a gorgeous sculpted iceberg, which had dozens of chinstrap penguins resting on a finger of ice projecting outward into the sea. It was amazing to imagine how the penguins actually got up there, as the slope was steep and, presumably, very slippery.
The Young Explorers gathered for a seabird identification class, and then went out on deck to survey what birds were around the ship. Afterwards, Marine Biologist Kim Chater gathered us back in The Theater for her talk, “Introduction to the seals of Antarctica”. From Weddell seals keeping holes open in the winter sea ice, to leopard seals changing their diet from young crabeater seals and krill to penguins in the autumn, Kim got use very excited to see our first Antarctic seals.
After watching cape petrels fly past the windows at lunch, we met Rick and Susan Sammon in The Theater for their talk, “Turn a snapshot into a great shot”. We brought our favorite picture of the trip so far to share, and Rick and Susan shared tips, tricks and techniques to bring out the best in the photos we’ve taken.
Out on deck, snow flurries came and went as Antarctic fulmars made close passes in front of the ship’s bow. We warmed up back inside at an Ice Cream Social in The Lounge, before meeting Expedition Leader Matt Drennan for a briefing about our planned first day of landings in Antarctica.
December 30, 2016: Halfmoon Island and Deception Island
During the early morning hours, ‘Le Boreal’ entered beautiful Moon Bay, with the spectacular ice-covered mountains of Livingston and Greenwich Islands wrapping nearly completely around the bay. Captain Etienne Garcia dropped anchor off of Half Moon Island, and the zodiacs landed in calm conditions on a cobble beach with several chinstrap penguins in attendance to greet us.
We made our way up the hill to the chinstrap penguin colony, and then headed off to the left to spend time observing a rather busy penguin highway. At the colony itself, the chinstraps were perched upon their well-cared-for stone nests, keeping an eye on the skuas circling overhead, which were looking for any opportunity to drop down and steal the contents of the penguin nests.
The value of small stones to chinstrap penguins became crystal clear when we witnessed them presenting stones to one another, an exchange that was usually followed by a slow bow. Despite the plethora of stones to choose from, the penguins seemed hell-bent on stealing stones from the nests of their neighbors, a trend that rarely went over without altercation.
We left the chinstraps to their own devices and headed back to the ship, where we kept our eyes glued to the amazing scenery outside, beautifully illuminated by the Antarctic sun. The hotel department put together a delicious barbeque out on deck, and we feasted out on deck under the Antarctic sun.
We then headed to an afternoon Recap where Ornithologist Rich Pagen discussed some of the penguin behavior we witnessed this morning, and Geologist Daria Nikitina gave a fascinating introduction to Deception Island, which we would be visiting this afternoon.
Later, we lined the railings to watch the ship’s entrance through Neptune’s Bellows into the center of Deception Island. The sun glistened on the sea surface as the Captain maneuvered ‘Le Boreal’ through the narrow passage.
Deception Island has an extensive history, beginning as its use as a safe harbor for sealers during the 1800’s up to the extensive geological research that goes on there today. We landed in Whaler’s Bay, which is the site of the partially buried remains of the Hektor Whaling Station, and the remnants of a British base, which was destroyed by a mud and debris flow that swept down the mountainside in 1968, burying and destroying most of the human-made structures. We roamed the rusty remains of the station, and then took a hike along the beach to a break in the caldera wall above Whaler’s Bay called Neptune’s Window.
After we returned to ‘Le Boreal’ and the last of our zodiacs were craned back onboard, we shared stories over dinner and then watched an incredible harmonica show put on by Mike Stevens.
December 31, 2016: Errera Channel and Neko Harbor
This morning we awoke to humpback whales on both sides of the ship, some of them resting at the surface like logs. The waters of the Errera Channel were glassy calm, and the towering mountains of the Antarctic continent lay off the port side of the ship. Our eyes were glued to the windows over breakfast, staring at the stunning Antarctic scenery.
We boarded zodiacs and set out to explore the maze of icebergs and bergy bits, some of which were littered with crabeater seals. We made close approaches to get excellent looks at these blonde seals, many of which showed scars from close encounters with leopard seals when they were pups. Several minke whales and humpback whales were spotted, and some of us watched as a massive avalanche poured down a 4,000-foot rock face.
Over lunch, ‘Le Boreal’ pushed through the brash ice and made her way further into stunning Andvord Bay. There we landed at Neko Harbor, where many of us decided to make the hike to the ridgeline above. We ascended a steep snow-covered hill and cut back to a rock outcropping from which we could see Andvord Bay in its entirety. It was a sight to behold! Many of the hikers rested their legs on the way back to the shore by sliding down the snow-covered slope.
Down below, we sat and watched the penguins, and absorbed the scene in its entirety. A massive glacier with cerulean blue crevasses cascaded down to the sea adjacent to the boulder-strewn beach. Gentoo penguins loafed along the shoreline, and made the perfect subjects for photography.
Back on ‘Le Boreal’, we met for Recap, a dance show called “Paris Retro”, and then a special New Year’s Eve dinner. We then mingled over champagne in one of the ship’s bars, awaiting the midnight hour. Out on deck, the sunset when on and on as did the views of the Lemaire Channel. Finally, the countdown began and we all celebrated a New Year’s Eve that none of us will ever forget.
January 1, 2017: Cuverville Island and Wilhelmina Bay
We had a reasonably civilized start time this morning, considering that some of us were still in the pool in the early morning hours celebrating New Year’s Eve. The cool morning air greatly helped the wake up process, and soon we found ourselves speeding ashore in a zodiac bound for Cuverville Island. It is one of the most verdant places in all of Antarctica, its steep slopes covered with mosses and lichen.
The gentoos at Cuverville have received a lot of visitors over the years, so the nearly 6,000 breeding pairs tend to be downright welcoming and quite the opposite of skittish. We watched their behavior closely, noticing how the gentoos constantly add stones to their rock pile nests while attempting to steal stones from the nests of others. While this hilarious show was going on, skuas patrolled overhead in case the skirmishes over stones presented an opportunity for them to snatch an egg or two.
Some of us got a look at a leopard seal resting on an ice floe drifting past in the bay. Its massive head and jawline, as well as its pronounced shoulders (or hunchback) made it quite distinct as it snoozed under the summer sun.
Naturalist Paul Hart led a hike up to a high vantage point to get a view over the iceberg-scattered sea to the mountains and glaciers beyond. It was quite strenuous walking up the steep snow covered slope so, by the time we arrived at the top, most of us had shed our red parkas to cool off.
Once back onboard, ‘Le Boreal’ steamed through the gorgeous Gerlache Strait over lunch. We came across a pod of orcas, and lined the railings as the pod of 20 or more individuals plied the deep blue waters just below us. After leaving the orcas to their business, we arrived in Wilhelmina Bay under perfect conditions.
Much of the bay remained frozen from the winter cold, and we looked out over the fast ice at dozens and dozens of Weddell and crabeater seals lying on the ice. Then an announcement came over the PA system that an emperor penguin had been spotted resting on the ice. We all got amazing looks at this recently fledged bird, noting the similarities and differences between it and the king penguins we saw at South Georgia.
We landed by zodiac on the ice itself, and got off to wander across the snow, while sipping champagne from an impromptu bar set up by Bar Manager Ludovic Janeczek. All the while, groups of humpback whales demonstrated their bubble net feeding techniques, right along the ice edge. Seeing them at eye level was the perfect way to wrap up the first day of the new year.
January 2, 2017: At Sea, En route to Ushuaia
We awoke to uncharacteristically calm seas in the Drake Passage, so windless that very few seabirds were up on the wing. We ate a hearty breakfast and spent some time out on deck before joining T.H. Baughman for his talk “Roald Amundsen: Man of both Poles”. T.H. provided a complete biography of Roald Amundsen, from his youth all the way through his illustrious career as a polar explorer. He was the first person to see both the North and South Poles and, though not a scientist himself, he understood that incorporating science into his expeditions would greatly increase their value to humanity. His meticulous planning abilities and his understanding of the value of using dogs in polar transportation greatly contributed to his success.
Daria Nikitina followed with her presentation, “Is Antarctica melting?”. She took us through everything from ancient climate data based on ice cores in Antarctica to current temperature changes to show how different regions of the Antarctic continent are experiencing different trends in temperature change. She also spoke about the recent collapse of ice shelves, and what all this evidence tells us about climate shifts occurring at the bottom of the globe.
Following lunch, Harmonica Mike introduced a documentary about his humanitarian work with kids in Arctic Canadian communities. The film was called “A Walk in My Dream”, and showed Mike’s commitment to improving the lives of at-risk youth in First Nation communities. Afterwards, we spent some time out on deck scanning for wildlife, or visiting with Rick and Susan Sammon over camera and photography questions. Later, Expedition Leader Matt Drennan hosted a discussion about the ins and outs of the Antarctic Treaty.
In the evening, we met for Captain Etienne Garcia’s Farewell Cocktail Party in The Theater. We mingled over champagne, and were introduced to so many of the ship’s crew that the stage was overflowing. It was wonderful to have the opportunity to see many of the faces that have contributed so much to our enjoyable experience onboard ‘Le Boreal’. Soon the Captain stepped up to the stage to welcome us to the party. He thanked us for sailing onboard ‘Le Boreal’, and summarized some of his highlights of the trip.
A wonderful dinner was then served by the restaurant staff. Afterwards, over a cocktail in one of the ship’s bars, we all celebrated the friends we have made and the experiences we have had on this adventure to the south.
January 3, 2017: At Sea, En route to Ushuaia
Early this morning we pulled back the curtains to a fantastic view of Cape Horn, the southern tip of the South American continent, draped in a dark grey stormy sky. An occasional black-browed albatross made a close pass by the ship, investigating the “unusual large grey object” plying its way northward through the Southern Ocean. After a full breakfast, reading a good book with a cup of coffee was a popular pastime before a morning of lectures.
Marine Biologist Kim Chater kicked off with her presentation, “Songs of the humpback whale”. Kim explained the research that’s gone on to better understand the complex and eerie vocalizations that these whales make on the breeding and calving grounds. It was a fascinating talk, after having so many incredible close encounters with these magnificent creatures in Antarctica.
Ornithologist Rich Pagen followed with his talk, “Albatrosses off the hook: Seabird conservation and fisheries in the Southern Ocean”. Rich discussed the issue of bycatch in fishing, specifically the accidental catch of albatrosses and petrels in the Southern Ocean longline fishery for Patagonian toothfish. He proposed some ideas for how we can become involved and make a difference in saving populations of these remarkable birds.
After lunch, Cruise Director Nadia Eckhart gave us a disembarkation briefing, during which we learned about our travel details once we leave the ship in Ushuaia. This was followed by a showing of the trip DVD, produced by the ‘Le Boreal’ photo team. Many of us then began the task of packing, or put it off a little longer and substituted in a nap or some time out on deck watching the rain fall. Then, at tea time, we laughed our way through a hilarious rendition of Liars’ Club with the Expedition Team.
During late afternoon, we joined Cruise Director Nadia Eckhart, Expedition Leader Matt Drennan and the rest of the Expedition Team for an overview of our trip. We watched a wonderful retrospective slide show of our trip, made up of photos taken by the Expedition Staff and compiled by Photo Coaches Rick and Susan Sammon. The photos were amazing, and our experiences in the Falklands, South Georgia, and Antarctica seemed both years ago and yesterday at the same time.
We participated in a raffle to benefit the Save the Albatross Fund. There was excitement in the room as the winning names were announced, and we were pleased to hear that a total of 2,060 euros was raised for the Save the Albatross Fund. This was followed by an auction for a sea chart with original artwork by Renato Casalme, a member of the Le Boreal deck crew. The auction for the chart raised a whopping 12,000 euros for the Crew Welfare Fund!
As ‘Le Boreal’ pulled up to the pier in Ushuaia, it was quite a shock to see civilization after being away in the wilderness for so long, and to smell the green vegetation again after being down in the ice.
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