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Antarctica, South Georgia & the Falkland Islands, Dec 19, 2019 - Jan 3, 2020
Thursday, December 19, 2019: Ushuaia, 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 Antarctica, South Georgia, and the Falkland Islands. 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. We gathered at the Arakur Hotel, perched high above the town, with sweeping views of the Beagle Channel below. There, we mingled over a delicious lunch, and some of us took a hike through the spectacular southern beech forest cloaking the lower mountain slopes.
With a brisk wind 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 Lyrial.’ After settling into our staterooms and getting familiar with the ship a bit, we headed to the Grand Salon to partake in some welcome champagne and snacks. Following a lifeboat drill, we joined our Cruise Director, Paul Carter, our Expedition Director, Suzana Machado D'Oliveira, and our Expedition Leader, Marco Favero, 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 will make this a grand adventure indeed!
Our day drew to a close over dinner and some time on the observation 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.
Friday, December 20, 2019: At sea, en route to Antarctica
We awoke to the ocean in all directions, with the landmass of South America now well behind us to the north. The wind and swell that are known to define this part of the world were nowhere to be found this morning, so we took full advantage of this detail by heading out on deck with our coffee and binoculars. As many as three wandering albatrosses were following us in our wake, their 11-foot wingspan making them one of the largest flying birds in the world!
Following breakfast, we had the opportunity to exchange our parkas for better-fitting ones before joining Ornithologist, Patricia Silva, for her lecture "Seabirds of the Southern Ocean." Patricia 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!
After taking a break out on deck to watch a constant stream of blue petrels cruise past the ship, we joined Photo Enrichment Coach, Richard Harker, for his talk: "The secret to better Antarctica photos." A talk for beginners and professional photographers alike, Richard covered everything from protecting our camera equipment from unpredictable weather to understanding how to best deal with the challenging lighting situations that are the norm in Antarctica. He empowered us to go out and capture that perfect shot.
Meanwhile, the Young Explorers embarked on a scavenger hunt to familiarize themselves with the ship and later participated in a wildlife watching class followed by deck time scanning for birds and whales.
We ate a delicious lunch and relaxed in one of the lounges before joining Marine Mammalogist, Matt Messina, for his presentation, "Whales of the Southern Ocean and Antarctica." From the far-reaching, low-frequency vocalizations of blue whales to the impressive cooperative bubble-net feeding of humpback whales, Matt shared some amazing stories about this incredible and diverse group of mammals. We left the lecture hall excited for our first encounter with the whales of the Southern Ocean.
A few fin whales were spotted during deck time, as was a minke whale that was racing up ahead of us, putting up a white spray as it went. We then joined Jason Hicks for his presentation, "Antarctic ice: From ice cap to growler." Jason introduced us to the concept that glaciers are actually rivers of ice, flowing (albeit slowly) down in the direction of least resistance. We also learned that Antarctica's massive ice fields are as much as two miles thick in places, towering above sea level by as much as 12,000 ft.
We then all donned our Sunday best and met Captain Christophe Colaris and many other members of the ship's staff 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. It became clear that, just like those of us traveling as passengers, the crew has quite the international flare. We all had a very enjoyable evening that was rounded off by a superb gala dinner.
Saturday, December 21, 2019: At sea, Melchior Islands
During the early morning hours, we began to feel a bit more ship movement as we lay tucked in our beds. The wind and swell were beginning to build and continued to do so throughout the day. We took our morning coffee outside to feel the cold air, which was a clear indication that we had crossed the Antarctic Convergence last night, effectively passing over the ecological boundary of Antarctica! A lively group of cape petrels, very easily identified by their splotchy black-and-white pattern, played in the winds and updrafts around the ship, as heavy snow began to fall.
After a leisurely breakfast, we joined Marine Mammalogist, Matt Messina, in The Theater for his talk, "Leopards of the deep: Ice seals of Antarctica." Matt introduced us to the unique group of seal species that occur around the White Continent, most found nowhere else in the world. Meanwhile, the Young Explorers joined Captain Christophe Colaris for a tour of the ship's bridge, learning about the fin stabilizers that keep the ship from rocking and rolling in big seas, and about the radar used to detect icebergs ahead of us.
Following a good dose of fresh air out on deck scanning for wildlife, we gathered back in The Theater with Expedition Director, Suzana Machado D'Oliveira, and Expedition Leader, Marco Favero, for a mandatory briefing about conduct while ashore in Antarctica. The essential aims of this talk were to ensure that our visits there are conducted safely and that the environment and wildlife are not disturbed by our presence.
After lunch, we cleaned our clothes and backpacks that we are going to take ashore, to meet the biosecurity guidelines for Antarctica. The Young Explorers had an introduction to the whales of the Southern Ocean and learned how scientists used individual markings to identify individuals. We then met Photo Enrichment Coach, Richard Harker, for his presentation, "Yes! You can capture Antarctica with your smartphone!" Richard went through some of the common photography situations we might find ourselves in while in Antarctica and offered ideas on how to best use our smartphones to capture these moments.
Ornithologist, Patricia Silva, followed with her talk, "Birds in tuxedos," a very interesting introduction to those most unique of birds, the penguins. Patricia highlighted some of the species we may encounter on this trip including the Adelies, which march many miles over the sea ice in October to reach the sites of their breeding colonies. It was a very entertaining presentation, and we left eager for our arrival tomorrow at our first Antarctic penguin colony.
During the early evening, ‘Le Lyrial’ came into the shelter of the islands of the Antarctic Peninsula, and the large swells we had felt most of the day began to dissipate. Here we had our first views of the magnificent ice caps covering the surrounding islands, as well as a few humpback whales fluking in the windswept sea. It was also here that Cruise Director, Paul Carter, announced that we had a winner of the "Spot the first iceberg" competition.
Over cocktails, we gathered for our first evening Recap and Briefing, during which Marine Mammalogist, Matt Messina, spoke about ocean currents in the Antarctic, and Naturalist, Rich Pagen, introduced us to the Beaufort wind scale. After a delicious dinner, we gathered in the Observation Lounge to take in the spectacular Antarctic scenery around us.
Sunday, December 22, 2019: Neko Harbor and Paradise Bay
We awoke to the Gerlache Strait at its finest, with towering mountains off the port side of the ship, all of them covered in glaciers that looked like frosting on a cake! The cool morning air, and a light breeze, greatly helped the wake-up process; and soon we found ourselves in zodiacs racing ashore in stunning Anvord Bay.
There we landed at Neko Harbor, where we ascended a steep snow-covered hill to a rock outcropping from which we could see Andvord Bay in its entirety. It was a sight to behold! Many of us decided to hike even further to the ridgeline above and have a slide back down.
Just up from the beach, 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, as did a Weddell seal, and both made perfect subjects for photography.
From the shoreline up to the nesting colonies stretched steep meandering "penguin highways," and we couldn't help but think what it must be like for the very first penguin that arrives there each spring and has to break trail for the group. The Gentoos were in the heart of the egg incubation phase, and we watched patiently for the birds on nests to stand up and reveal their carefully guarded eggs.
Over lunch, the ship passed through the very scenic Aguirre Channel en route to our planned afternoon stop in Paradise Bay. The scenery was stunning, and we spent lots of time out on deck taking it in and scanning for wildlife. We went ashore at Brown Station, an Argentine outpost that is operated during the summer months. Gentoo penguins welcomed us as we walked between the orange buildings, and we made our way up a steep snow slope for an incredible view over the entire bay. Some of us slid down the snowy hill, while others lingered by the station to watch the curious snowy sheathbills.
A zodiac tour in the bay revealed nesting blue-eyed shags with nearly fully grown chicks, which begged for food from their parents with extraordinary enthusiasm. The lush vegetation on the cliffs hosted tufts of Antarctica hair-grass, one of only two flowering plants in the Antarctic. Antarctic terns and cape petrels nest on the ledges.
Back onboard ‘Le Lyrial,’ we all gathered for Recap, during which Naturalist, John Wright, talked about historic Antarctic place names, and Ornithologist, Patricia Silva, spoke about penguins and their stone collecting. Following dinner, we lined the outer deck railings watching humpback whales right next to the ship! As many as a dozen were in the area, and we all cheered each time one raised its tail fluke to go on a deeper dive!
Monday, December 23, 2019: Cierva Cove and Mikkelsen Harbor
This morning, we woke up early to enjoy the spectacular scenery along the spine of the Antarctic Peninsula. We ate a hearty breakfast with one eye out the window, before boarding the zodiacs for a tour of Cierva Cove, a particularly scenic spot choked with ice and flanked by impressive mountain peaks.
We cruised along the shoreline of a rocky island, where Antarctic hair grass and lush moss beds carpeted the ledges, and chinstrap penguins jumping in and out of the water coming to and from their nest sites. An Argentine base called Primavera was perched on a hill overlooking the cove, its orange buildings a stark contrast to the usual whites and blues of the landscape.
The stars of the morning were most certainly the dozens of humpback whales that were enjoying the cove as much as we were. Pretty much everywhere we looked, we saw whales surfacing. Single animals, pairs, and even groups of cooperatively bubble-net feeding whales gave us great looks at they fed in the green, plankton-rich waters. We also spotted groups of gentoo penguins up on massive icebergs, and a lone crabeater seal loafing away the day on a small ice floe that was bobbing up and down so much that we wondered how it could get any sleep!
We headed back to the ship for lunch, and then sat with a journal for a while, recording some of the many highlights we've had on this trip so far. After ‘Le Lyrial’ anchored off of Mikkelsen Harbor, we made our way to the zodiacs for the short ride over to the landing. The early season snow still covered most of the island, and any rock outcroppings were happily occupied by gentoo penguins.
Steady snow fell as we made our way up over the saddle and to the backside of the island, where an orange rescue hut was nearly surrounded by gentoo penguins and their guano. Sleeping seemed to be the penguin activity of the day, which made sense since most nests still had eggs and the attending parent's only task was to sit there keeping the eggs warm. A few Adelié penguins came ashore and sat amongst the gentoos, some of them putting on quite the show as they tobogganed across the snow on their bellies.
An occasional Weddell seal cruised the shallows, rising just enough for us to see its characteristic spotted grey pelage. Weddell seals are true ice seals, which head south in the winter, to feed under the fast ice near breathing holes they keep open with their teeth. Mikkelsen Harbor was the perfect place to spend some time just sitting and taking in the penguins and the gorgeous scenery.
Back on the ship, we readied ourselves for Recap, during which we heard from Naturalist, Helen Ahern, about photo-identification of marine mammals; and from Geologist, Jason Hicks, about the volcanic history of tomorrow's landing at Penguin Island in the South Shetlands.
Tuesday, December 24, 2019: Penguin Island and Turret Point
During the early morning hours, ‘Le Lyrial’ anchored off of Penguin Island, a small volcanic cone rising out of the sea off the southern coast of King George Island. Its name is still just as appropriate today as it was nearly 200 years ago when British Captain Edward Bransfield christened the place Penguin Island. Chinstrap penguins were everywhere, and the whole scene was accented by last night's brilliant snowfall, which covered the entire island from top to bottom!
We swung our legs off the zodiac and carefully made our way up to the top of a boulder beach. As we walked above the high tide line, southern giant-petrels soared overhead, coming and going from their loose nesting colony on a rocky rise above the beach.
Finally, we reached the chinstrap penguin colony, where guano covered everything including all of the chicks. Having hatched in early December, the chicks were now around three weeks old. Having not strayed much at all from their nest since they hatched, the guano had begun to pile up. It was a sloppy affair, and we had to imagine that the chicks must be looking forward to their first swim in a month and a half or so, which would give them a chance (their first!) to wash off the stink.
Some of us hiked up across the flats to the rim of the main volcanic cone on the island, which was last active about 300 years ago. There we were rewarded with views into the crater itself, as well as across to King George Island in the distance. A mix of sun and scattered clouds, while we were on the crater rim, created swirling shadows that danced across the gleaming white crater. It was a sight to behold, as was the fact that, by the time we left the island, the snow melted away and the place went from completely white, to completely brown and red!
After lunch, we went ashore at nearby Turret Point, near the eastern end of King George Island. Above the beach berm was a large flat area very popular among southern elephant seals, particularly those coming ashore for the annual molt of their skin and fur. The sounds coming out of their noses and mouths were unique, to say the least. In attendance were younger males and females, quite a bit smaller than the adult males of the species that, as the largest carnivores on the planet, can reach weights over 8,000 pounds!
Adelié penguins came and went from their colony atop a bluff behind the beach, quite unconcerned with all the humans admiring them from inside the warmth of red parkas. We wandered between rock stacks adorned with colorful lichens, moss, and even the unusual Antarctic hair grass. Around every corner, we encountered more elephant seals, some in tight groups illustrating how much they like to be piled on top of one another.
Back on board the ship, the Christmas spirit took over and we dressed in festive attire to celebrate the evening. Before dinner, we sang Christmas Carols at the piano with the Expedition Team, whose voices can only be described as some of the best we've ever heard (or ….. something).
In the evening, the ship passed along the coast of Elephant Island, the very place where Ernest Shackleton and his crew took refuge in 1916 following the loss of their ship ‘Endurance’ in the ice of the Weddell Sea. With grey skies and strong winds outside, we imagined what an ordeal of survival it must have been for those 28 men. And how lucky are we to be traveling in the very footsteps of the ‘James Caird,’ the open lifeboat that Shackleton and five men sailed 800 miles to South Georgia to get help.
It was a very special Christmas Eve here on ‘Le Lyrial,’ spent with new friends on an adventure that can best be described as 'a trip of a lifetime!'
Wednesday, December 25, 2019: At Sea, en route to South Georgia
The light swell last night rocked us to sleep and we awoke ready for a relaxing and educational day at sea. After a leisurely breakfast, we joined Patricia Silva for the first enrichment lecture of the day, "Penguins #2: Evolution & biology." Patricia began with a discussion of penguin evolution, pointing out that the closest living relatives of the penguins are the petrels and albatrosses. It was a very entertaining talk, which left us eager to spend more time with these fascinating creatures upon our arrival in South Georgia.
Meanwhile, the Young Explorers learned about overwintering in Antarctica from Naturalist, John Wright, and made Holiday cards for family, friends, and the ship's crew.
Historian, Rob Caskie, gathered us back in The Theater for his talk, "The Norwegian who took the prize." Rob provided a complete biography of Roald Amundsen, from his youth through his illustrious career as a polar explorer. His meticulous planning abilities and his understanding of the value of using dogs in polar transportation greatly contributed to his success. Rob's expert storytelling brought Amundsen to life in our minds.
Then an announcement came from the bridge that Santa Claus had been spotted on radar, and that it appeared he would be landing on the ship to come to wish us a merry Christmas. With festive music piping throughout the ship, Santa made his way to the Grand Salon where he shared presents and good cheer with all of us!
After lunch, the Young Explorers delivered their holiday cards around the ship before gathering to make Christmas cookies, in shapes from the traditional to Southern Ocean specialties like albatrosses and penguins!
We then joined Geologist, Jason Hicks, for his presentation, "Gondwana: Breaking plates to form a continent." Jason gave a detailed overview of the geologic processes involved in the movement of Earth's tectonic plates, using the San Andreas Fault in California and the hotspots of Iceland and the Hawaiian Islands as obvious examples of these processes in action. He then focused in on how these processes, small changes taking place over a very long period of time, caused the breakup of the former supercontinent of Gondwanaland, and resulted in the formation of the Antarctica continent in its current location at the bottom of the world.
Following some time out on deck watching prions dance in the wind, we joined Photo Coach, Richard Harker, for his talk, "Beyond automatic: Mastering your digital camera." Richard enlightened us on such topics as ISO, white balance and shutter speed, and helped us understand how to best use these tools and techniques in our photography.
Our evening Recap involved Historian, Rob Caskie, telling the story of Shackleton's right-hand man, Frank Wild; and Naturalist, Rich Pagen, highlighting the divebombing behavior of terns and skuas. It was a full day of learning, and of appreciating our open-ocean transit from Elephant Island to South Georgia.
Thursday, December 26, 2019: At Sea, en route to South Georgia
We awoke this morning to slightly warmer temperatures, and quite the entourage of prions careening back and forth in the ship's wake. As we got closer and closer to South Georgia throughout the day, black-browed and wandering albatrosses began to appear, surely the same harbingers of approaching land that Shackleton and his men on the ‘James Caird’ saw as they made their remarkable navigation across 800 miles of windswept ocean.
After a hearty breakfast, we joined Rob Caskie for his presentation, "Shackleton's incredible journey." The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914–17) was an attempt to make the first land crossing of the Antarctic continent, but instead became known as a tale of amazing human endurance. Rob 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.
Meanwhile, the Young Explorers learned knot-tying skills from Naturalist, Russ Manning. And others of us spent time out on deck scanning the slate-grey sea for wildlife. Then Photo Coach, Richard Harker, gathered us back in The Theater for his talk, "The perfect penguin: why does composition matter." During this talk, Richard talked about some of the challenges of photographing wildlife in Antarctica's ever-changing lighting conditions and offered ideas for how we might deal with these challenges.
After lunch, we gathered for a mandatory briefing about South Georgia and how to conduct ourselves while ashore. Most importantly, we talked about biosecurity and the steps we would take to prevent the accidental introduction of non-native species to the island. We then vacuumed our gear, scrubbed our boots, and signed a declaration that we would follow these steps each day to help protect South Georgia's fragile environment.
Historian, Rob Caskie, gathered the Young Explorers together for a talk about wildlife and history in his native country of South Africa. Marine Mammalogist, Matt Messina, followed with a presentation entitled, "Oceanography of the Southern Ocean." During this talk, Matt spoke about ocean currents in this part of the world, and about the upwelling of nutrients that allows for such a productive ocean ecosystem to thrive here. He also explained how the annual formation and break up of sea ice influences the salinity and density of water, as well as the life cycle of the Southern Ocean's keystone species: krill.
In the evening at Recap, Ornithologist, Patricia Silva, spoke about the krill fishery in this area; and the Young Explorers helped us better understand the relative sizes of some of the wildlife that we may see on this voyage. Following a delicious dinner, we went off to bed early to rest up for our first outings tomorrow in South Georgia.
Friday, December 27, 2019: Cooper Bay and Gold Harbor
The grey sky brightened in beautiful Cooper Bay as we relaxed over our morning coffee and croissants. The zodiacs were lowered into calm waters, and soon 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.
We sipped some surprise champagne while Antarctic terns fished in the shallows, and Northern giant petrels slowly paddled over to see what the 'big black rubber thing' in the water was. It was a glorious morning, with blue sky contrasting with the green tussac grass that covered the low slopes of South Georgia's mountains.
Over lunch, we gazed out the window at the ice-covered peaks running down the spine of the island, while black-browed albatrosses gleamed white in the brilliant sunshine. In the early afternoon, 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 looked on at the edge of the colony, the more of its mysteries were revealed to us, including eggs carefully tucked away on top of feet and against brood patches.
With so much to absorb and few words that could possibly describe, the conversation was minimal this afternoon. 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.
Back on board, we learned about South Georgia's geology from Geologist Jason Hicks, and about the magnificent kelp of the island from Naturalist, Helen Ahern. Afterward, we told stories over dinner of our experiences in this remarkable and wild part of the world.
Saturday, December 28, 2019: Grytviken and Fortuna Bay
Over breakfast, 'Le Lyrial' made her 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. Evidence of the former whaling operation could be seen everywhere!
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. 'The Boss' died in Cumberland Bay aboard his ship the Quest in January 1922, just six years after his heroic rescue of the crew from his ship, Endurance. Interestingly, the ashes of Shackleton’s “right-hand man,” Frank Wild, were interred in this cemetery just a few years ago, and so now Frank Wild’s gravesite lies just to the right of that of Ernest Shackleton.
Some of us hiked up the ridge above the cemetery to get a look at Gull Lake, and for a view over the entire cove. Others wandered past snoring fur seals and sneezing elephant seals along the shoreline 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 sun was shining, so many of us basked on the benches in front of the museum, while others returned to the ship for a lecture by a representative of the South Georgia Heritage Trust.
Over lunch, we admired South Georgia's spectacular peaks and its impressive winds as the ship made its way to Fortuna Bay. Once the anchor was down, we boarded zodiacs and 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 in the tussac grass, their characteristic sneezing and snorting sounds alerting us to their presence behind the tall 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 down to the sea.
Soon we arrived at the colony, where we watched everything, from adults incubating eggs to whistling chicks begging incessantly for food. Skuas patrolled the skies overhead, waiting for any opportunity to drop in and steal an egg or young chick. Several small waterfalls poured down from the towering glaciated peaks above us, and fur seals were, well, everywhere.
Sunday, December 29, 2019: Stromness and Salisbury Plain
This morning, we pulled back the curtain on a glorious scene of blue sky, green tussac grass, and snow-capped peaks. The forecasted strong winds had not yet arrived but were starting to show themselves when we arrived by zodiac just down the beach from the dilapidated Stromness whaling station. Unlike Grytviken, the station hasn't been cleaned up or restored; it is sitting as it was left when it was abandoned not long after whaling ceased here in 1931.
The main draw of the landing was to walk up to the valley at the head of the glacial valley. It was here, at this waterfall, that Shackleton, Frank Worsley, and Tom Crean climbed down from their crossing of South Georgia on foot, following their incredible boat journey from Elephant Island.
We walked past feisty fur seals and scattered king penguins as we headed up the braided stream and its gravel bed. Antarctic terns flew overhead en route to the sea from their nest sites. Gentoo penguins marched up the valley as well to their small nest site in the low hills to the side of the valley. We were struck by how far the Gentoos were nesting from the sea! The waterfall poured down the side of the glacier-carved valley, while the moving shadows from clouds overhead rushed down the grass-covered slope. It was a magical morning ashore in a very historical place!
Back on the ship, Geologist Jason Hicks pointed out a mountainside in the bay with a very distinct pattern in the rock face, the very landmark that told Shackleton and his men that the Stromness whaling station was near. We sipped coffee in the Grand Salon as the ship headed west along the north coast of South Georgia. Strong winds lashed the sea surface, tearing at the beautiful turquoise ocean. We ate a delicious lunch while Expedition Leader, Marco Favero, looked at where conditions would be most suitable for an outing in these powerful, gusty winds.Soon 'Le Lyrial' arrived just off of Salisbury Plain, and the Expedition Team determined that the landing here was a go. We boarded zodiacs in strong winds and carefully made our way ashore. 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.
Once ashore, we found ourselves in the midst of yet another incredible wildlife experience. We walked past snoozing fur seals and molting 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. Sunshine and bouts of strong wind shared the stage as we soaked up the peacefulness of this awesome place.
Back onboard at Recap, Naturalist, John Wright, explained to us the Antarctic Treaty; and Naturalist, Rich Pagen, interviewed a king penguin. We mingled in the bar after dinner, sharing stories of our experiences in South Georgia, including its remarkable history, diverse and abundant wildlife, as well as the very powerful and changeable weather that is the norm here.
Monday, December 30, 2019: At sea, en route to the Falklands
The winds from the west over the past few days had built up a considerable swell by the time we passed South Georgia's western tip and headed out into open water for our trip across the south Atlantic to the Falkland Islands. It was a bit of a rocky night last night, but our busy day of hiking and admiring king penguins yesterday made sleep come easy.
We awoke to find an entourage of black-browed albatrosses ushering us into Shag Rocks, which we circumnavigated during breakfast. This cluster of 6 rocky pinnacles, the tallest reaching 71 meters above the sea, came into view in the misty low clouds directly ahead of us. Soon the guano-covered rocks were close enough that we could see the more than 2,000 pairs of nesting blue-eyed shags that give the rocks their name.
Naturalist, Russ Manning, started off the day's lecture program with his presentation, "A year in Antarctica," during which he shared stories from his experiences as a base commander on Signy Island. From watching the arrival of the Adélie penguins on the same day every year to exploring the insides of glaciers by rappelling down crevasses, Russ gave us an insider's look at life at an Antarctic research station.
We headed out on deck where we watched White-chinned petrels careen past the ship, never flapping their wings but rather using the wind's energy to travel around the Southern Ocean. After deciding what activity to do in the Falklands in several days' time, we joined Geologist, Jason Hicks, for his talk, "Future plate movements." Jason projected forward what our planet will look like if plate movements continue as they are, essentially all continents coming together as a new supercontinent (Pangea II) in 250 million years!
After lunch, we caught up on some reading up in the Observation Lounge, before joining Naturalist, John Wright, for his presentation entitled, "Life on ice." Highlighting his two years spent in Antarctica, John spoke about life as a mountaineer and field guide in the Antarctic, where he assisted with various field projects, and ultimately got stuck for unplanned overwintering in the ice.
During deck time with the Expedition Staff, groups of soft-plumaged petrels maneuvered in the brisk winds, and several humpbacks and a small pod of orcas were spotted. The air was still very cold, a sure sign that we had not yet come back across the Antarctic Convergence.
We then joined Rob Caskie in The Theater for his talk, "Unsung heroes of Antarctica." From Edward Wilson, who collected emperor penguin eggs in mid-winter hoping to prove a link between reptiles and birds, to the Irish animal-lover, Tom Crean, who walked into Stromness with Shackleton after their crossing of both the Scotia Sea and the island of South Georgia, Rob brought to life the lives of some of the lesser-known Antarctic explorers.
The seas calmed down during the late afternoon, and the sun began to break through the clouds. Following a Recap during which Naturalist, Russ Manning, spoke about zodiacs, and Naturalist, Mark Brophy, gave fascinating and hilarious facts about some of the wildlife we've been seeing, we watched a beautiful sunset over an albatross-filled sea.
Tuesday, December 31, 2019: At sea, en route to the Falklands
We awoke to much calmer seas and a few Soft-plumaged petrels darting past the ship, far from their closest breeding colony in the center of the Atlantic at Tristan da Cunha and Gough. We had a nice lie-in and spent some time chatting in the Grand Salon over tea before heading to one of the restaurants for a hearty breakfast.
We joined Expedition Leader, Marco Favero, and Ornithologist, Patricia Silva, for the first enrichment lecture of the day entitled, "Albatrosses off the hook: Seabird conservation and fisheries in the Southern Ocean." Marco and Patri discussed the issue of bycatch in fishing, specifically the accidental catch of albatrosses and petrels in the Southern Ocean longline fishery for Patagonian toothfish. They presented the declining population trends for several seabird species, and then explained some of the techniques that are being used on fishing boats to keep seabirds from drowning on fishing hooks. They also proposed some ideas for how we can become involved and make a difference in saving populations of these remarkable birds.
We stepped outside for some fresh air, where an occasional black-browed albatross was spotted in our wake, and a group of hourglass dolphins made a quick appearance near the ship. We then joined Photo Coach, Richard Harker, for his presentation, "In the footsteps of Ansel Adams: Processing like the masters." Focusing on the importance of following through with the images we have captured with our cameras, Richard gave us many suggestions about the best way to subtly adjust our images now that we've taken them. We left feeling empowered to begin the process of going through the many photos we have taken so far on this trip.
During mid-afternoon, Geologist, Jason Hicks, gathered us back in The Theater for his talk, "The Falklands: Oil, wind & stone runs." From its origins next to what is now South Africa, the Falkland Islands cemented to the South American plate as Gondwanaland broke up, making it a very unique island group indeed! Jason spoke about recent oil development in the Falklands, as well as Charles Darwin's description of a fearless now-extinct large fox, wiped out by sheep farmers by the 1880s.
After a break for a coffee or some time on deck in the brilliant sunshine, we all met in The Theater for "An Introduction to the Falkland Islands," presented by various members of the Expedition Team. This medley of information and highlights was kicked off by Ornithologist, Patricia Silva, who summarized some of the avian highlights we might see along the coast. Marine Mammalogist, Matt Messina, highlighted the South American sea lions that occasionally haul out on the docks in Stanley Harbor, and Falkland Islands native, Pete Clement, gave us some background on the culture and economy of the archipelago.
In the evening, we gathered for a very special New Year's Eve dinner. We then mingled over champagne in one of the ship's bars, awaiting the midnight hour. There was a beautiful piano concert in The Theater, followed by DJ Paul spinning the dance tunes in the Grand Salon. Finally, the countdown began and we all celebrated a New Year's Eve that none of us will ever forget.
Wednesday, January 1, 2020: Stanley, Falkland Islands
With scattered clouds peppering the blue skies overhead, ‘Le Lyrial’ sailed past low-lying rocky islets en route to the protected harbor at Stanley. After watching our approach on the outer decks and enjoying a hearty breakfast, we made our way down the gangway for a morning of exploration in the Falkland Islands.
There was a multitude of organized tours for us to choose from here in the Falkland Islands. Many of us headed out to see the rockhopper penguins, a quintessential bird of the Falklands, and one we had not yet encountered on this voyage. We watched in awe as the penguins went about their business on a bluff overlooking a windy sea below.
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. Perhaps most fascinating was how relaxed the sheep seem to be during the shearing process, during which they just lie back in a completely docile fashion. We appreciated the opportunity to get to talk with some of the locals, gaining a better appreciation for what life is like out in the 'camp.'
During the afternoon, we had the opportunity to explore the quaint town of Stanley on foot. We took in the picturesque houses with their multi-colored tin roofs, the open grassy lawns often inhabited by families of upland geese, and the cornucopia of gift shops and art galleries that are scattered along the waterfront and throughout town. It was a lovely place to amble around, grab a pint at one of the local watering holes, or sit on a bench on the green (carefully avoiding the goose droppings) while looking over the bay. We also visited the Historic Dockside Museum, which gave us all sorts of information about the island's history, culture, and wildlife.
After a shuttle ride or leisurely stroll along the shoreline back to the pier, we reboarded the ship and ‘Le Lyrial’ made her way southeast along the coast of East Falkland en route to Ushuaia. Streams of sooty shearwaters banked in the strong winds, and occasional Gentoo and Magellanic penguins were spotted in the water below us.
In the evening, we met for Captain Christophe Colaris' 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. Soon the Captain stepped up to the stage to welcome us to the party. He thanked us for sailing onboard ‘Le Lyrial’ and summarized some of his highlights of the trip.
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.
Thursday, January 2, 2020: At sea, en route to Ushuaia
A thick fog enshrouded ‘Le Lyrial’ as we made our way west towards the South American continent. We had felt a bit of ship movement during the night as the ship rounded the southern tip of the Falklands, but by morning the seas had settled and we awoke to what was surely going to be a relaxing and educational day at sea.
After breakfast, Rob Caskie gathered us in The Theater for his final talk of the voyage, "Psychology of survivors: Charcot and Mawson." Rob spoke about Jean-Baptiste Charcot, who led the 1904-1907 French Antarctic Expedition aboard the ship ‘Français,’ exploring and mapping much of the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula where we have traveled on this voyage. Rob also took us through the survival story of the Australian Douglas Mawson, whose solo trek back to base camp (over 125 miles!) - despite near-starvation, blizzards, and falling into crevasses - was nothing short of incredible! These stories still resonate with us over a century later, and Rob gave us an appreciation for these remarkable explorers.
Cruise Director, Paul Carter, then gave a disembarkation briefing, during which we learned about our travel details once we leave the ship in Ushuaia. 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 enjoying the cool breezes of the Southern Ocean.
The last lecture of the day was given by Geologist, Jason Hicks, and was entitled, "Climate change: Ancient record, modern reality." Jason took us through the research and models predicting temperature change and sea-level rise globally and explained some of the consequences of these changes. He also spoke about the various steps taken regarding energy production, and how these small steps can make a huge difference for our planet.
Meanwhile, ‘Le Lyrial’ cruised along the north coast of Isla de Los Estados, a long island with a spectacular mountainous spine of bare rock. Southern giant petrels ushered us along as we passed some small low islands with large colonies of blue-eyed shags, Magellanic penguins and even haul outs of South American sea lions!
In the late afternoon, we watched a wonderful retrospective film presentation of our expedition, made up of video and photos taken by the Expedition Staff and compiled by Naturalist, Blackjack Escanilla. It featured our various landings and zodiac cruises, and many people recognized themselves disguised behind red parkas and rubber boots. The presentation was amazing, and our experiences in Antarctica, South Georgia and the Falklands seemed both years ago and yesterday at the same time.
Overnight, ‘Le Lyrial’ entered the sheltered Beagle Channel, named after the ship (captained by Robert Fitzroy) that carried the recently graduated naturalist Charles Darwin around the world on a voyage of discovery from 1831-1836. The following morning, as we 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.
The final days of this expedition have been dominated by reflection and celebration. We have reached the end of our exploration of Antarctica, South Georgia, and the Falklands. The Antarctic is a special place beyond description, extremely powerful and fragile at the same time. With all that we have experienced and learned, we can return home with a newfound knowledge of how special Antarctica is, and how important it is to protect it for future generations.
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