Antarctica, South Georgia & the Falkland Islands: January 18, 2017 – February 2, 2017
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By various means, and mostly by charter flight from Buenos Aires, we arrived in Ushuaia. Following the spine of the Andes throughout the morning, our flight crossed countless volcanic peaks and, as we ap-proached Tierra del Fuego, glaciers grew in frequency and size. The scenery had to be seen to be believed as we passed over glaciers, glacial lakes and towering volcanic peaks covered in snow. The growing out¬post of Ushuaia, a small city of 45,000 which calls itself El Fin del Mundo (The End of the World), is the southernmost city on the planet. Although growing rapidly, the city maintains some of its frontier-town atmosphere with streets of small, higgledy-piggledy houses.
Situated on the Beagle Channel and surrounded by mountainous peaks, the city is known as a duty-free port catering to travel ad¬venturers and is the stepping-off point for Antarctic cruises. Dense grey clouds lifted slightly to expose the snow-flecked flanks of the cordillera that provides the stunning back-drop to Ushuaia, which means ‘inner harbor to the westward’ in the native Yahgan tongue.
At about 4:30 p.m. we boarded our home-away-from-home, ‘Le Lyrial’, where we were warmly welcomed aboard by her staff and crew. We had to check-in in the Grand Salon (the main area for socializing) before being shown to our cabins where our complimentary parkas and backpacks and any walking poles and rubber boots loaned for the expedition were waiting. Refreshments (which included a welcoming and welcome glass of champagne) were available and we could explore the ship until the captain, Olivier Maren, addressed us over the PA system about the mandatory General Emergency Drill. Then we grabbed our life jackets and parkas and made our way to the Lecture Theatre where we were addressed on safety procedures for fire and abandoning ship, in accordance with Maritime Law, and then led to the lifeboats, a short walk that we hoped would never have to be made in earnest.
Shortly after 6:00 p.m., the lines were cast off, ‘Le Lyrial’ moved away from the dock and set off down the Beagle Channel to the open sea of the Drake Passage. There was one more formality before the Sail-away dinner. We met again in the Lecture Theatre for an Introduction to the ship and the Abercrombie & Kent Expedition Team.
South African Cruise Director Jannie Cloete introduced the Captain Olivier Marien who welcomed us on board and in a few words described his experience as an Antarctic mariner and his delight in taking us to share his enthusiasm for the White Continent. Jannie gave a quick verbal tour of the ship, explaining the restaurants, reception desk, medical, photographic and other facilities. He was followed by our Expedition Leader Suzana Machado d’Oliveira, a Brazilian who has a vast amount of Antarctic experience from working on cruise ships for 20 years. She has a key role, being responsible, with the Captain, for planning our itinerary to make the most of the opportunities for landing. We were told that in this part of the world conditions can make planning very difficult and that the Captain together with the Expedition Leader develop a plan with back-ups that permit changes depending on how conditions evolve. Suzana’s overview of the expedition’s itinerary has to be very flexible and our itinerary is dependent on wind and weather – and perhaps also on the ice in Antarctica. Plans may have to be modified as we go along but there is no doubt that we are going to have a great experience. The members of the Expedition Team now gave brief introductions to themselves. They are the men and women (from the USA, UK, NZ, Canada, Argentina, South Africa, the Philippines and Costa Rica) who will give lectures and conduct the all-important landings on the shores of South Georgia and Antarctica. Each one said a few words about their role, which left no doubt that they have the knowledge and enthusiasm to deliver a very memorable cruise. Many have several decades’ experience of working in Antarctica (five decades in one instance!).
After dinner it was an early night for those who had flown in from distant parts of the world. We could hope for a speedy and comfortable crossings to our landing places – but would our hopes be realised? Read on!
The first day at sea started with the ritual of the Parka Exchange at the respectable hour of 9.00. We are issued with red parkas so that we are not only highly visible but to ensure that everyone, especially those who come from warm climes, are properly clad against the Antarctic chill. And they make nice souvenirs when we go home! The Exchange is to give everyone a chance to make sure they have a parka that fits comfortably. It is also possible to hire insulated rubber boots (‘Wellingtons’), rain pants and walking poles to complete the protection against the elements and stability on uneven ground.
After the Parka Exchange had been completed, the first of the series of Enrichment Lectures, which will be a feature of sea-days when we do not land, was given by our Photo Coach Richard Harker on ‘Photographing Antarctica: What to expect and how to prepare’. Richard’s introductory lecture explained what we might see on the expedition, especially those subjects which we might want to capture for our records. He also gave some hints on how to prepare for photography in Antarctica’s unpredictable weather.
Geologist Ralph Eshelman presented his talk ‘Tectonic Fragments: Bits of Africa and South America make Continental Islands’. This was about the geology of the Falkland Islands and South Georgia. Geology is not such a static subject as we may think. He explained how, surprisingly, the Falkland Islands were originally located on the south-eastern edge of South Africa. They broke off and spun through 180 degrees before moving to the south-east edge of the South American continental shelf. South Georgia also made an interesting trip from the tip of South America to the east of the Falklands and to its present position in the mid-South Atlantic.
Lunch and time for a nap or a spot of birdwatching intervened before we gathered again for Ornithologist Rob Tymstra to tell us about ‘Seabirds of the Southern Ocean’. The first thing we think of in association with the planet’s Deep South is penguins. But there are lots of other interesting birds flying and swimming around the seas fringing the continent.
We are already seeing some of the several species of magnificent albatrosses that circle the continent in quest of food and breed on sub Antarctic islands. They are members of the group known as ‘tubenoses’ from the twin tubular nostrils on the top of their beaks. The range includes the relatively tiny storm-petrels, larger prions, diving-petrels, cape petrels and the two species of giant petrels. When we go ashore we will see marauding skuas (members of the gull family) and giant petrels patrol the edges of penguin colonies, hoping to steal an egg or a hapless chick from watchful parents. Running around the colonies there will be the pure white, pigeon-sized sheathbills which are always on the lookout for ways to steal food. They are usually trying to steal krill that parent penguins are passing to their chicks but they even intercept a mother seal’s milk before it reaches her pup. In rocky places we may see blue-eyed shags busy courting as they try to find fresh mates for the year – very different from the albatrosses that mostly stick faithfully to their chosen ones for life. Then there are the visitors, like the long-distance nomads: the Arctic terns that fly 20,000 kilometres from their nesting grounds in the far north to spend their winters around the Antarctic pack-ice. There’s a lot more going on in the Antarctic than waddling penguins!
At 5:00 p.m., after Afternoon Tea, there was a return to the Lecture Theatre for a briefing on our visit to Stanley (once known as Port Stanley) in the Falkland Islands. The ‘Falkland Islands Medley’ started with Bob Burton giving a quick overview of the confused history of the islands, followed by Naturalist Pete Clement, a Falkland Islander by birth, talking about life on the islands and the changes he has seen. Jen Clement told us about the Falkland plants and Richard Harker showed photos of the amazing range of birds that can be photographed along the shores of the harbour.
Then it was time to dress up for the Welcome Aboard Cocktail Party during which Captain Olivier Marien welcomed us and introduced the senior officers who will be running the ship and making our cruise memorable. From the buzz of conversation, it was clear that ‘the ice had been broken’ and we were already becoming acquainted with our fellow guests. From the Lecture Theatre we filed down to Le Céleste Restaurant for the Welcome Dinner. As was fitting for a French ship, the meal was memorable.
After a calm, restful night aboard ‘Le Lyrial’, the green coastline of the Falkland Islands was in sight by 6:00 a.m. The skies were blue with some high cloud and the wind not very strong – the omens for a good visit to Stanley. In fact, the wind got up during the day but this is typical of Stanley and it died away during the afternoon.
From the open sea, ‘Le Lyrial’ sailed into Port William and executed a ‘sharp left’ through The Narrows into Port Stanley. She docked at FIPASS (Falklands Intermediate Port and Storage System), a floating dock where buses soon arrived to take us on a variety of tours, including one to some battlefields of the 1982 conflict when the British retook the Islands from Argentina, another to a traditional farm to watch sheep-shearing and peat-cutting, and several visits to see colonies of penguins and other wildlife. The afternoon was free to take the shuttle bus and wander in the small town of Stanley where we could visit Christ Church, the excellent Dockside Museum and other places of interest, have a fish-and-chips lunch, and do some important souvenir shopping (mainly involving products featuring penguins!). Photo coach Richard Harker led ‘photograph walks’ along the shore between FIPASS and the town to look for some of the local birdlife – geese, ducks, giant petrels, oystercatchers among others – which are tame enough for good photos.
Stanley is the only town in the Falkland Islands and is home to 2,115 residents out of the Islands’ total of 2,955 (2006 census). It has expanded rapidly in the last 20 years and the old town of mainly corrugated iron buildings is now surrounded by modern houses. The only domestic fuel used to be peat and every householder had a peat bank where hours of labour were needed to supply the home’s annual requirements. Nowadays, nearly half the town’s power comes from windfarms and it is rare to get a whiff of fragrant peat smoke.
One of the features of Falkland Islands water is ‘forests’ of giant kelp Macrocystis pyrifera. It grows in nutrient rich waters along the coast of California, Peru, Chile, the southern end of Argentina, the Falklands and South Georgia. This species can grow 2-3 feet per day and is found in waters as deep as 80 feet and as shallow as just below the low tide line. Kelp provides shelter and food for a whole host of marine invertebrates and fish. Due to the abundance of kelp in the Falklands the local residents call themselves Kelpers.
It was back on board for a 6:00 p.m. departure. Our course for South Georgia continued approximately eastwards, so we had the westerly wind behind us and were being pushed forward with little movement of the ship.
A lovely day at sea and surprising calm for the infamous Drake Passage. The sea glittered in sun and the slight movement of the ship sent the wake hissing down the sides. It would be another day of lectures but there was also time to be on deck to watch passing whales, albatrosses and other seabirds.
The lectures started with Ornithologist Rob Tymstra’s ‘A Perfectly Peculiar Parade of Penguins’ which introduced that most popular group of animals. He started by showing how these ‘little gentlemen in tuxedos’ pervade our culture. The Norwegians have even knighted a king penguin that lives in Edinburgh Zoo – Sir Olav. Who doesn’t love penguins?! They are probably the reason why some of us have come to Antarctica – and no one will be disappointed. The success of the award-winning ‘March of the Penguins’ and the animated ‘Happy Feet’ reflects the popularity of these engaging birds. Perhaps we love them for their similarity to us: upright walkers and social creatures.
But few people get to know the real penguins and we are all very fortunate to be travelling straight to their homes in the Antarctic where we will stand among them and get to know them intimately. So Rob presented some of the physical and behavioural adaptations to a cold climate and living in one of the harshest environments on Earth, as well as the many threats to their survival. We may well discover that their aura of ‘goodness’ is just a myth and learn that there’s a dark side to their personalities that is little known and probably best forgotten.
To help novices who wanted to get the most out of this unique opportunity for watching seabirds, Rob gathered them on the Pool Deck after his lecture for a workshop on binoculars. This was a real ‘in-depth’ instruction of everything you need to know about these versatile tools. Rob covered the history of their development, how they work, how to take care of them, how to set them up for the best performance and (a bit late!) what to look for when purchasing them.
The second lecture of the full day’s program was Sea Mammal Specialist Larry Hobbs’ presentation on the seals which we will encounter on the cruise: ‘Elephants, Lions and Leopards: The Seals of the Southern Ocean’. At South Georgia we would see fur seals and elephant seals but in Antarctica, we should also see three species of ‘ice seals’ These are true seals- the Weddell, crabeater and leopard seals, that swim with their hindflippers. Fur seals are eared seals with small external ears that swim with their foreflippers and tuck their hindflippers under their bodies to run rapidly. The true seals do not have external ears, swim by ‘sculling’ with their hindflippers and move relatively slowly on land. Larry gave some interesting and often graphic details of the feeding and breeding habits of the various species.
After lunch, Historian Bob Burton presented ‘Shackleton: Heroic Failure’. Sir Ernest Shackleton, the Irish-born explorer, is famously connected with South Georgia. For many guests, the island and the explorer are the main reasons for joining this cruise. Although famous for rescuing the crew of Endurance from the ice of the Weddell Sea, Shackleton had taken part in four expeditions to Antarctica, starting with Captain Scott’s first expedition and then leading three of his own, including one that nearly reached the South Pole. On his final expedition he died at South Georgia and is buried there. Shackleton is now a hero to many for the qualities of leadership he showed when rescuing his men from the Weddell Sea. Bob showed how he was a very charismatic and forceful personality who won the loyalty of his men by ‘leading from the front’ and was perhaps not so good as an organiser.
Photo Coach Richard Harker came in from the deck, where he is usually to be found taking photos and giving 1-on-1 advice, for his second presentation ‘Photographing Antarctica: Mastering your camera’. He dipped into the best camera settings to capture the wildlife and scenery of Antarctica. Geared for both ‘point and shoot’ and digital SLR audiences, Richard explained how certain settings can vastly improve our Antarctic photographs.
After lunch the sun suddenly disappeared as ‘Le Lyrial’ ploughed into a dense bank of fog which continued for the rest of the day. This made the experts think that we were approaching the Antarctic Convergence – where northern warmer water meets colder southern water. The moisture-laden warm air meets the colder water, cools and the water vapour condenses into mists and fogs.
We awoke to ‘Le Lyrial’ moving more than previously and the wind was whistling though the balcony doors. The wind was rising and a swell was beginning to sweep across our course but, considering the reputation of these latitudes it was nothing remarkable! Le Lyrial is a marvellously stable vessel.
Observations confirmed that during the night we had crossed the Antarctic Convergence, the circumpolar region, conveniently drawn as a line undulating between 50 and 60 degrees south, and well-defined by thermometer readings, where the warm, more saline surface currents coming south from the tropics meet the cold, denser and mainly non-saline waters moving north from the Antarctic. These conflicting currents clash, converge and the denser waters sink. The mixing waters provide the environment for the abundance of plankton, so the Convergence nourishes huge numbers of seabirds and sea mammals.
In the space of four hours the water temperature had dropped 3 degrees Centigrade. So we are now in Antarctic waters biologically. We won’t cross the 60th parallel into Antarctica politically (the boundary of the area covered by the Antarctic Treaty) until we have left South Georgia. It certainly felt much colder when we stepped out on deck!
So it was another day of lectures and important briefings, while a watch was kept for items of interest outside. For the first lecture, Larry Hobbs talked about ‘The History of Whaling: What have we Done and What can we Learn’. Larry is an expert on the habits of whales and their conservation. He outlined the history of whaling that started in prehistoric times and was a huge provider of resources to coastal communities. Humans cannot exist without exploiting natural resources and this includes whaling. He pointed out how difficult it has been to regulate whaling and surprisingly argued that the current moratorium on whaling is not necessarily a good thing. Without any whaling we would have no idea of how populations are progressing; limited would allow this without damaging the populations.
Mid-morning Expedition Leader Suzana gave a mandatory briefing on the guidelines that the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) has laid down for our conduct ashore. These are simple, and usually, obvious rules covering such subjects as not disturbing wildlife. This was followed by a presentation on the safe use of Zodiac inflatable boats for landings. These are very safe craft and the team of naturalists has many years’ experience of landing passengers in all weathers.
In the afternoon everyone had to vacuum their backpacks, camera bags and pockets and wash their boots to ensure that we are not unwitting carriers of seeds, insects and other forms of life from the Falkland Islands. For instance earwigs have recently become a pest in the houses in Stanley so there is great concern that they could get to South Georgia.
Then it was time to call at Shag Rocks, six pinnacles of rock that emerge from the sea 155 miles northwest of South Georgia. These lonely outliers are, as the name suggests, home to a large colony of blue-eyed shags. From the ship we could continuous streams of shags flying in small flocks to and fro and many more could be seen on the white, guan-stained sides of the rocks. The sea is relatively shallow here and the upwelling of the water makes it productive, So as well as the nesting shags, there were plenty of albatrosses and other seabirds gathering to feed and we were delighted to get good views of fin whales and some very approachable humpback whales.
Historian Bob finished the day with ‘South Georgia: The Jewel in the Crown’. South Georgia, our next destination is a small island packed with interest. The first landing on the island was by Captain James Cook in 1775. He had been searching for the presumed southern continent of Antarctica. He thought South Georgia could be the continent until it proved to be no more than a long thin island. His visit precipitated the arrival of American and British sealers who destroyed the populations of fur seals and elephant seals. From 1904 to 1965, shore-based whaling stations were located on the island and 175,250 whales were brought ashore and processed mainly for their oil. The oil was converted into a solid fat used in the manufacture of soap and margarine. The whalers were mainly Norwegians, who exploited the large whalebone whales that gather to feed on the abundant krill. The British administration tried to regulate whaling but were eventually foiled by the development of pelagic factory ships which were able to operate outside territorial waters. Since the 1980s South Georgia waters have been fished for krill, Antarctic cod, mackerel icefish and Patagonian toothfish. After early overfishing, the Government of South Georgia has successfully brought this under control to prevent overfishing. It is now possible to buy toothfish (often marketed as Chilean sea bass) which are recorded as coming from South Georgia’s sustainable fishery, which also employs measures to prevent albatrosses from being caught on longline hooks. Bob finished with a brief description of the government of this UK Overseas Territory and its focus on eradicating alien animals (rats and reindeer) and plants which have severely affected the native wildlife.
There was some apprehension that the weather might interrupt our program when we reached South Georgia and, although it was fairly windy when we started to get ready for an early landing on Salisbury Plain, the sea was surprisingly calm with very little sign of waves breaking on the broad open beach. It is always a good thing to have calm water for the first landing when so many guests are unaccustomed to entering and leaving the Zodiac boats.
‘Le Lyrial’ nosed into the Bay of Isles at about 5.00am and Salisbury Plain lay at the back of the bay. This is the home of some 50,000 pairs of magnificent, colourful king penguins. We had to walk through a colony of fur seals – mainly mothers and pups –to reach the penguins and were able to enjoy the sight of their small black pups bounding around. Luckily for our peace of mind, the breeding season was well-advanced and the large territory-holding and aggressive bulls had departed to the sea to feed after the rigors of the mating season. It was a marvellous experience to walk among this incredible assembly of wildlife that showed so little concern for our presence. And all against a backdrop of rugged mountain and glacier scenery. It was noticeable that people returning to the zodiacs were sporting smiling faces, exulting in the close encounters we had with the inhabitants of this wonderful place.
As the morning progressed, the weather improved and the sun broke through the clouds. By the time we were back on board the clouds had rolled back and we had a wonderful views of South Georgia’s mountains and glaciers as ‘Le Lyrial’ repositioned to Fortuna Bay.
Fortuna Bay has a colony of king penguins and is also famous for lying on the route of Ernest Shackleton’s epic crossing of South Georgia. It is a bay surrounded by mountains and is much more sheltered than the Bay of Isles. There was also a short run to reach the beach but a walk of about 1.5 miles to the king penguin colony. Along the way there was much to see. Elephant seals lay in a muddy fetid wallow and fur seal pups frolicked in a pool formed where a freshwater stream had been dammed. Fortuitously, a pair of light-mantled albatrosses were courting on the cliff at the back of the beach. This is one of the great sights of South Georgia. The pair glides to and fro along the cliff with hardly a wingbeat, wheeling and turning in synchrony. Sometimes the male settles at a possible nest site on a cliff ledge and displays to his passing partner with a shrill cry that sounds around the cliffs. A lucky few of us saw another ornithological wonder: a South Georgia pipit, the only songbird on the island. This species was almost wiped out on the north coast by rats and only survived on rat-free islands. Now that rats have been eradicated from South Georgia, the pipits have been making a dramatic comeback.
Our first day at South Georgia has been a great success. The weather could have been better but it did not dampen our enjoyment and we have had a magnificent experience of two landings with unbelievable colonies of king penguins set in incomparable surroundings. The elephant seals, fur seals and varied birdlife were a bonus.
Stromness is the site of the whaling station where Shackleton and his two companions, Frank Worsley and Tom Crean, arrived after crossing the island in 1916 to get help from their comrades stranded on Elephant Island. Our objective was to hike up the valley to the waterfall which the three men slid down on their way to safety. It was easy to pass through the throng of charming little fur seal pups on the beach and weave past the groups of molting king penguins. A walk of about one mile up the level floor of the valley took us to the waterfall – a scenic walk despite the rain. The wisps of mist hanging off the steep sides of the valley added to the drama of the place. On the short Zodiac trip back to the ship, it was possible to make out the manager’s ‘Villa’ in the whaling station where Shackleton had finished his epic journey,
After a short, lunchtime cruise from Stromness Bay, ‘Le Lyrial’ entered King Edward Cove also known as Grytviken (Pot Cove) early in the afternoon and the Government Officer, Simon Browning, came on board to clear us into this entry port for the U.K. Overseas Territory of ‘South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands’”. While these formalities were proceeding, Sarah Lurcock, the Director of the South Georgia Museum gave a short talk about the successful program to eradicate rats from South Georgia. The island is the largest area ever attempted to be cleared of rats and in a huge operation, poison bait was spread by helicopter. The results are already to be seen in the pipits and pintail ducks that we have seen in places where they previously had not been able to survive predation by rats. A monitoring program is now being devised which will use trained ‘sniffer dogs’ and other means to confirm that there are no rats left.
We were now free to go ashore and the first stop was the small whalers’ cemetery where the explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton is buried. He had arrived in Grytviken in 1922 on board his expedition ship Quest and had died of heart failure that night. His grave is marked with a large granite headstone and we gathered there to hear Historian Bob Burton give a brief commentary on Shackleton’s leadership skills and propose a toast to The Boss, appropriately in Irish whisky.
For the energetic there was a hike up a steep slope to Gull Lake, which is a reservoir for a hydro-electric plant. Originally built by the whalers one century ago, a new plant has been installed to make the Government fisheries laboratory at King Edward Point and museum at Grytviken independent of fossil fuels. The rest of us headed straight for the little museum in the whaling station. The exhibits which display the history and natural history of South Georgia are excellent and the gift shop is very well-stocked with souvenir books, clothing and ornaments. Some of us were able to do some late Christmas shopping! The timber church built by the whalers in 1913 was also worth a visit. It has been extensively restored and some guests took the opportunity to ring the bells.
Back on board we had a special meeting in which staff from King Edward Point, where the British Antarctic Survey runs the small scientific station gave accounts of the fish research and monitoring of fur seal and penguin populations that are used for setting quotas for the fishing industry, and entertained us with descriptions of life on the station.
There was now a change of program. Thanks to modern satellite technology, the ship receives regular weather and sea-state forecasts that forewarn of approaching bad weather. It was clear to Captain Marien that strong winds would prevent any landings tomorrow so, after discussion with Expedition Leader Suzana, the decision was made to leave South Georgia and head for Elephant Island where the weather would be better. It is disappointing not to experience more of South Georgia now that we have seen for ourselves what a marvellous place it is, but we would have a frustrating, wasted day at the island if we stayed and it is the strength of Expedition Cruising that there is the flexibility to change the itinerary to make the best of circumstances.
Captain Marien was right about the wind. It got up during the night so it was the right decision to leave South Georgia and head for calmer water to the west. The swells were several metres high but it is a testimony to the stability of ‘Le Lyrial’ that few faces were missing from meals and lectures. It was, in fact, a pleasure to watch the tumultuous waters from a safe and stable position.
Lectures started with historian Bob Burton’s telling the stories of his ‘Favourite Heroes of Antarctic Exploration’. This was a discussion of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration: the time of Scott, Amundsen and Shackleton and it lasted from 1895 to Shackleton’s death in 1922. Bob made the point that exploration was heroic because expeditions were trying to explore the most inhospitable part of the world with inadequate equipment and provisions, but with indomitable strength of character. He demonstrated this with some stories of unbelievable hardship and endeavour: The Winter Journey on Scott’s Last Expedition in which three men (Wilson, Bowers and Cherry-Garrard) trudged through the Antarctic night to collect emperor penguin eggs, Douglas Mawson’s incredible solo trek after his two companions died; and the six men of the Northern Party of Scott’s Last Expedition who spent the winter in a snow hole.
Rob Tymstra followed with ‘Albatross: Life, Death and Love on the High Seas’. The magnificent albatrosses are the world’s largest flying birds, with wingspans ranging from the black-browed albatross’s 2 metres all the way up to the 3.7 metres of the wandering albatross. These long wings enable the albatrosses to accomplish long flights with hardly a wingbeat. They glide endlessly and effortlessly using the wind as their engine in a method known as ‘dynamic soaring.’
No birds are more faithful to each other than the albatrosses. Their pair bonds can last for a lifetime of 70 years or more. So choosing a mate is serious business. Courtship is a slow and protracted affair that extends over a year or two before a commitment is made, and then the bond is constantly renewed throughout the pair’s lifetime with intricate ‘dances’. A single chick is given diligent care for 9 months: parents fly off on ‘meal runs’ that may extend 5000 kilometres or more in a week. While off hunting for food, albatrosses face many dangers on the high seas including long-line fishing practices that result in many deaths as the birds are caught on hooks and the slower demise caused by swallowing fragments of plastic floating in the ocean. Seventeen out of the world’s 22 species of albatrosses are threatened to some degree. One bird that has managed to avoid the dangers, is ‘Wisdom,’ a female Laysan Albatross who, as the world’s oldest known living wild bird, is still producing chicks at the age of 66!
The afternoon session kicked off with Larry Hobbs’ ‘Where Blubber is not a bad thing: the Whales of the Southern Ocean’. He began with a fascinating overview of the evolution of whales from land-living ancestors. The two main types are the toothed whales (which include the dolphins and porpoises) and the baleen whales that sieve their food of krill and fish from the water with baleen or whalebone plates. He related the amazing life-histories and habits of some of these giant animals, including the blue whale whose enormous size is hard to appreciate, the humpback whale which is the one we are most likely to see at close quarters, and the orca (killer whale) which is one of Antarctica’s true top predators and has a fascinating and sophisticated social life. Species like the blue and humpback are beginning to make a very welcome comeback after the ravages of whaling. The most dramatic parts of Larry’s presentation were video clips of a blue whale feeding – its huge mouth engulfing tons of krill – and killer whales creating waves to wash seals off ice floes.
Ralph Eshelman ended the session with ‘Heat makes the crust go round: Subduction leads to Orogeny’. He discussed the concept of plate tectonics: the movement of large segments of the Earth’s crust on the surface of the planet. Mountain ranges have been raised where plates have crashed together and volcanoes occur where one place slides under its neighbour. Antarctica used to be attached to other continents which explains why fossils of the leaves of the southern beech and the teeth and bones of extinct marsupials have been found there.
Captain Marien was right again! As predicted, the wind had dropped by morning and the swell subsided so that life on ‘Le Lyrial’ was more comfortable and relaxed.
Since nothing is more symbolic of Antarctica than the penguin, Richard Harker presented “Perfect Penguins, Perfect Ice: Tips for the Very Best Antarctic Photography.” He explained the challenges of capturing the iconic, comedic penguin, but also touched on how best to capture whales and other wildlife as well as the beautiful scenery.
Geologist Ralph Eshelman gave his presentation on “Rocks, Fire and Ice: Geography, Geology and Glaciology of the Great White Continent.” Ralph compared the geography of the Arctic and Antarctic, one an ocean surrounded by continents and the other a continent surrounded by oceans. Then, he concentrated on the geology of Antarctica and the evolution of the continent, including the glaciology of huge sheets of ice that move slowly and inexorably over the rocks. Ralph addressed an intriguing question, which is often asked: why does ice look blue? Essentially, blue light is transmitted through the ice while other colors are absorbed.
In the afternoon, historian Bob Burton reminisced about his time at the British Antarctic Survey’s Signy Island station in “Two Years in Antarctica: My Life and Times at Signy Island in the 1960s.” This was 50 years ago — almost living history! Bob had signed on as a meteorological assistant to make daily weather observations but had plenty of time to work with the birds and seals. However, he concentrated on giving an amusing account of life in a community of 11 young men who were isolated from the rest of the world for eight months of the year.
As ‘Le Lyrial’ proceeded at a good speed across the Scotia Sea, it looked increasingly likely that we would be able to visit Elephant Island, the same place where Shackleton’s men were stranded in 1916 while he went to get help in a small boat, the ‘James Caird.’ It was a small part of one of the world’s greatest adventure stories; a visit to this site would make for an unexpected and amazing addition to our already-spectacular voyage.
Today is the bonus day. Early morning saw ‘Le Lyrial’ passing Clarence Island, the smaller neighbor of Elephant Island. It has been a gloomy, misty day with a pall of low cloud for much of the time but this increased the atmosphere of the place that the crew of Endurance called ‘Helluv’n Island’. The important point was the swell was low enough to launch the Zodiacs for a cruise around Point Wild, the narrow spit of land where Shackleton’s men spent four months awaiting rescue.
As Frank Worsley, captain of Endurance, wrote as they approached the island in three small boats after seven horrific days battling the elements: ‘Elephant Island was but a short distance and it was a joyful sight to gladden our eyes. Its ice-covered peak looked like the Garden of Eden to us.’
Conditions were nothing like so challenging for us but we still needed our warmest clothes for the hour-long Zodiac cruise. We were taken around Point Wild and shown the spit where 22 of Shackleton’s men lived under two upturned boats. Much of the spit has been eroded away by the sea but it can never have been a comfortable place to spend so much time. At least we did not experience the awful weather that had been the norm in the winter of 1916. For many of us who had read or seen movies of the adventures of the crew of Endurance this was a special moment. The spot is now marked with a plinth surmounted by a bust of Piloto Pardo who had commanded Yelcho, the small ship that rescued Shackleton’s men.
Taking advantage of the good weather and sea state, ‘Le Lyrial’ now sailed around the eastern end of Elephant Island to reach Cape Lookout. The objective was another zodiac cruise. It was atmospheric and scenic. An unexpected ‘extra’ was the sighting of a colony of macaroni penguins which are distinguished by a flamboyant plume of feathers on their heads. We had missed this species which is abundant on South Georgia but occurs in only small numbers farther south.
Much has been made of the conditions endured by the Endurance crew at Point Wild. They helped time pass and maintained morale with sing-songs. They sang popular songs of the day, sea shanties and also made up their own songs. This evening, the Expedition Staff gave a spirited and fairly tuneful rendition of a song composed by Reginald James, Shackleton’s physicist, called ‘Our home on Elephant Isle’ and sung to the jig ‘Solomon Levi’. It describes life in their dwelling of ‘walls without a single brick and roof without a tile’.
Overnight ‘Le Lyrial’ headed in a westerly direction. Elephant Island is an outlier of the South Shetland Islands and our next destinations were in the main chain of the island group. It looked as it would be another gray day as we approached Livingston Island, one of the large islands in the group. Nestling in a large bay was our first destination, Half Moon Island.
The name of Half Moon Island describes its shape perfectly. ‘Le Lyrial’ would moor within the arms but we had to wait for an Argentine naval ship to depart before we could move into the preferred anchorage near the shore. The ship had been visiting the Camara research station which is occupied only during the summer.
The main interest of Half Moon Island is a colony of pugnacious, feisty chinstrap penguins (once known as ringed penguins, both names referring to the black line under the throat). Their colony was perched on a knoll of jumbled rocks which made the adults and well-grown chicks easy to photograph. It was amusing to watch as adults wandered unconcernedly among us as they walked to the sea and back bringing food for their chicks. They would emerge suddenly from the sea then trudge up the steep snow-covered slope. Then we could stand at a respectful distance from the colony, but well within camera range, to watch the chicks being fed and the various social interactions between adults. The surface of the colony was rather messy and the penguins’ plumage consequently dirty. To get photos of pristine penguins, it was necessary to reposition to the top of the slope where adults were returning, freshly washed, from their fishing trips.
A gentle walk down to another beach took us to the other attraction. There were a few young male fur seals, a species that had become very familiar during our stay at South Georgia but there were also two Weddell seals lying on a patch of snow. These are the most attractive seals with friendly, ‘teddy bear’ faces and they are generally totally unfazed by our presence.
While ‘Le Lyrial’ positioned to Deception Island for the afternoon landing, Bob Burton gave us a lecture on ‘The Antarctic Treaty: Success and Co-operation’. The governance of the continent of Antarctica, one-sixth of the world’s landmass, is an important subject for all visitors. It is amazing that there has never been any serious conflict during an age in which the rest of the world has been beset with serious conflicts. Bob showed how territorial claims were made even when it was found that it was a frigid landmass. From overlapping claims by Argentina, Britain and Chile came the need for a solution to the governance of the continent. Then, during the International Geophysical Year of 1957-8, 12 nations established research stations in Antarctica. From their good co-operation emerged the Antarctic Treaty of 1961 and the continent is now ‘a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science’. Bob showed how the Treaty system works to regulate activities in Antarctica, from fishing, through mineral extraction (which is banned) to tourism, and, unlikely as it may seem, so many nations are able to achieve consensus.
Deception Island is a flooded volcanic crater, shaped like a donut with a small bite out of it. It is called Deception because many early mariners sailed past without seeing the entrance to the centre. Technically, this is a caldera, which is the enormous crater formed when a volcano collapses. The ‘bite’ called Neptune’s Bellows forms the entrance to the caldera which made a safe anchorage for early sealers and in the early 20th century was a centre for the whaling industry.
From 1906 Whalers Bay was an anchorage for factory ships which processed whale carcasses into oil. A whaling factory was built on shore in 1911. Seven or more floating factories were anchored at times in Whalers Bay. Whaling anchorages needed to be sheltered and have fresh water for the ships’ boilers. Water was collected from streams or runoff from glaciers into water boats – wooden boats with decks and square ‘boxed’ hatches, which can be seen on the beach at Deception.
Whaling was abandoned at Deception in 1931 when the old floating factory ships were replaced by pelagic (= open water) factories, equipped with slipways in the stern so whales could be hauled onto the deck. They could operate on the open seas, away from the shelter of bays. They were also out of reach of the British authorities who limited the number of factories and catchers in operation and taxed the oil. If this control had continued, it is possible that the whale populations would not have been so devastated.
We landed at Whalers Bay, near the ruins of the whaling station, later occupied during and after World War II by the British as a meteorological station and also flew Beaver and Otter aircraft which were wintered in the hangar. The station was abandoned after eruptions in 1967 and 1969. The latter resulted in a huge flow of volcanic ash which inundated the whaling station.
As well as wandering around the ruins and up to the old hangar, there was the opportunity for a brisk hike to Neptune’s Window, a broad gap in the caldera wall for a spectacular view back over caldera and out over the surrounding seas.
The wind and rain did not add to the attraction of Deception Island but spirits did not seem to be dampened as most of us took the full hikes and returned to the ship invigorated.
As ‘Le Lyrial’ approached Cuverville Island, our first landing place, along the Gerlache Strait, we came across six humpback whales feeding on krill close to the ship with more in the distance. It was a good start to the day because the whales continued feeding while the ship passed close by.
Over breakfast we arrived at Cuverville. This is a small island that is little more than a steep hill with a fringe of flat ground where we land on a rocky beach. At the end of the beach and on the slopes behind there were small colonies of gentoo penguins (distinguished by their orange beaks and the white patches over their ears.) These birds had large chicks of about three weeks old. It was delightful to watch the chicks begging and receiving meals from their parents – something often seen on television which cannot convey the true charm of the scene.
Cuverville Island was the site of a small base where researchers studied the effects of visitors on penguins and other forms of wildlife. They had an ‘electronic’ eggs which they put under nesting penguins so they could monitor their heartbeat without disturbing them. The results showed that, if people approach slowly and stand quietly not too close, the penguins are not significantly disturbed.
While some of us were content to watch the penguins, many climbed the steep hill to get a view over the iceberg-scattered sea to the mountains and glaciers beyond. It was a trudge through the snow but this avoided the dense swards of moss and lichen which make Cuverville Island one of the most verdant spots in Antarctica.
On the way back to the ship, the zodiacs took us on a tour of the icebergs stranded in the bay and two large icefloes where some crabeater seals were basking. These seals can be identified by their silvery coats and small heads with narrow snouts. Some of them bore huge scars on their bodies. These were made when they were attacked by leopard seals when they were young. The exception was a leopard seal. It has a reputation for ferocity and frequently eats young seals and penguins but, like crabeater seal, it eats large quantities of the shrimp-like krill.
On the beach at Cuverville Island we could see igneous rocks that had cooled slowly so the crystal sizes are very large. Also mixed with these igneous rocks were metamorphic rocks. You could pick these out by the strong banding within the rock. It was also a good place for looking at the lichens that add a little colour to the Antarctic scene.
When all were back on board, Captain Marien took ‘Le Lyrial’ through the narrow and scenic Errera Channel to Neko Harbour for a continental landing – the Seventh Continent for some. Neko Harbour was named for a whale factory ship that anchored there in the 1920s. Antarctica contains about two thirds of the Earth’s fresh water and looking around we could see vast amounts of it locked up in the ice. The weather continued gray but sufficient sunlight penetrated the pall of clouds to light the stunning scenery of glaciers, icebergs and icefloes. One side of Neko Harbour is a hanging glacier criss-crossed with many deep crevasses so that chunks are constantly threatening to break off and fall into the sea.
Gentoo penguins nested above the landing site, a Weddell seal lay on the shore and several crabeater seals slept on a nearby ice floes. The landing beach was an excellent place to watch the penguins coming and going. We could see them porpoising in from the distance and then launching themselves out of the water to land on the beach. Then came their long trek up to the colony along the ‘penguin highways’ carved into the snow by the passage of many feet. Those penguins going up the hill looked clean and fat with krill, those coming down were guano-soiled and hungry.
An intrepid few took advantage of a steep snow slope to relive their youth by sliding from top to bottom. Another excitement was the appearance of a leopard seal near the shore which inquisitively followed a Zodiac back to the ship. There it entertained a gathering crowd at the stern as it circled the boats displaying its large head and the spotted coat from which it gets its name. Even luckier were the passengers in a Zodiac who had a humpback whale surfacing beside their boat!
Finally, at the end of an exciting day, ‘Le Lyrial’ proceeded down the Gerlache Strait to the Lemaire Chan¬nel, a 7-mile long, 1-mile wide, spectacular passage between Booth Island and mainland Antarctica. It is nicknamed ‘Kodak Alley’ and is a ‘must’ for any visit to the Antarctic Peninsula. The Channel is flanked by glaciated mountains and peaks that soar to over 2000 feet on the island and 3000 feet on the mainland. Unfortunately visibility was poor but it was still dramatic. We arrived after dinner and before bedtime but we could proceed only halfway along because the southern exit was blocked by icebergs. As we proceeded slowly northward between the cliffs, geologist Ralph Eshelman described the many rock features and also pointed out the penguin colonies clinging to the steep sides, patches of green and red snow algae and other features of interest.
‘Le Lyrial’spent the night circling near the entrance of the Le Maire Channel and was at our landing site in Port Charcot by 5.30 am. This is a small bay named for his father by the French explorer Jean-Baptiste Charcot who wintered his ship Français there in 1904. The weather was still cloudy but with barely a breath of wind. So, there was occasional light rain or snow, it was not uncomfortable to be out and about. During the afternoon the clouds lifted and thinned so that the outlook became much brighter.
From the landing place in Port Charcot there was a short climb up a path carved in the snow with spade and pick by the industrious Expedition Staff who had used old towels to give a firm footing over icy stretches. As people reached the top of the ridge and saw the myriad of stranded icebergs, cameras were immediately deployed. This place is sometimes called an ‘iceberg graveyard’ because so many bergs are carried there on the prevailing current and left stranded. A track led in one direction to a penguin colony with the ‘grand slam’ of gentoos, chinstraps and Adélies, and in the other direction to a Gentoo colony and a good view of crabeater and leopard seals lying on icefloes.
In the afternoon there was a Zodiac cruise among the same icebergs that we had looked down on in the morning. Close-up, the bergs are seen to be even more spectacular in shapes and colors. There were also seals and penguins to watch in close-up. And surprise! Glasses of champagne appeared in the Zodiacs and were handed around to drink a Toast to a very successful expedition. Who has drunk champagne in such splendid surroundings?
And so ended our exploration of Antarctica. Captain Marien turned the bows northwards and we made our way back up the Gerlache Strait, through Dallman Bay and into the open sea of the Drake Passage.
At sea in a delightfully calm Drake Passage. In these circumstances it is sometimes called the Drake Lake. There were the last three Enrichment Lectures to attend between packing and spending time on deck to watch the albatrosses and other seabirds following in our wake.
Historian Bob Burton gave his presentation ‘Penguins to the Rescue: the unsung role of penguins in Antarctic Exploration’. Bob showed how from the first voyages to the South Seas and through the Heroic Age, penguins have been a source of food for mariners and explorers. They were a welcome supplement to salted or canned meat rations but were invaluable for preventing death by starvation when expeditions were stranded. Examples were given of several expeditions which had been saved by penguins.
Later in the morning, Larry Hobbs led a lively and well-informed discussion on the issue of the day ‘Climate Change, Sustainability and a Life of Work in the Wilds: Facts, Stories and Dubious Moments’. It was fascinating to learn of Larry’s past life studying a diversity of marine mammals, from whales to sea lions. Larry was one of the pioneers of fitting these animals with recording devices. However, he became interested in what we are doing to the Earth and what sort of future awaits humanity. The human population is growing at an unprecedented rate. We reached 2 billion in 1922, 3 in 1959, 4 in 1974, 5 in 1987, 6 in 1999, and are now at 6.7 billion. Increasing numbers cause problems. Global warming effects on Antarctica are worrying. For example, Antarctic fish have low tolerance to changes in temperature. Declines in the numbers of charismatic large animals, such as whales, narwhals, walruses and polar bears, are of global concern.
Larry believes that sustainability over the long term must be questioned. In comparison with 53 animal species with body sizes similar to humans, it is shown that human consumption from the marine environment is 1,000 times greater than the mean, our CO2 production is 100,000 times the mean, and our population size is 10,000 times the mean. And yet our numbers still grow unchecked!
In the afternoon, after teatime, the last presentation of the lecture series was on the practical and timely subject of ‘Turning Good Photos into Great Photos: the Basics of Digital Workflow’ by Photo Coach Richard Harker. When we get home we will be able to transform our hundreds of digital photos into excellent shots that will really impress families and friends. Richard discussed the value of ‘processing’ digital images with software such as Photoshop. He compared the work done in the wet darkroom by Ansel Adams (famous for his pictures of Yosemite National Park) with the computer work done today by digital photographers. The conclusion was that were Adams alive today, he would be a supporter of processing images!
The evening was given over to the limited formality of Captain Olivier Marien’s Farewell Cocktail Party. Cruise Director Jannie Cloete took the opportunity to introduce and publicly thank some of the many members of the crew who have worked to make the cruise such a success and the Captain added his thanks and wound up the cruise. The Party was followed by the Captain’s Farewell Dinner, which turned out to be a lively affair, although tinged with the knowledge that the adventure is coming to an end.
It became windier overnight and the sea became rougher, so we were glad ‘Le Lyrial’ has efficient stabilisers and we could watch the swells heaving and breaking in comfort. By afternoon, we had entered the shelter of the Beagle Channel. Meanwhile, it will be another day of Enrichment Lectures that will complement our experience of the Seventh Continent.
There was more to see from the deck than when we were farther south because we had entered the albatross zone. Some of us joined the Expedition Naturalists on the Pool Deck to do some birding. There was plenty of wind for the albatrosses to put on a superb display of effortless gliding, criss-crossing the wake, while a flock of black and white checked cape petrels were gliding alongside the ship in an exhibition of synchronized flying, and diminutive Wilson’s storm petrels flitted to and fro.
Back inside, we attended the last of the Enrichment Lectures as Ralph Eshelman told us about “Cape Horn: Gateway to the South”. This was about what Ralph called the South-west Passage – the seaway through the Straits of Magellan or around Cape Horn. Neither was easy for sailing ships as the numbers of wrecks attests. This was the route of the early navigators such as Ferdinand Magellan and Francis Drake and it became increasingly important as trade developed up the west coast of the Americas. It was the preferred route for the California gold rush and for the clipper ships plying between Europe and Australia. Its importance dwindled when the Panama Canal was opened in 1914.
After a special Afternoon Tea that featured a variety of crepes prepared on the spot by the chefs in the Grand Salon, we had to gather in the lecture theatre to hear Cruise Director Jannie Cloete deliver the important, if unwelcome, briefing about the arrangements and procedures that will enable a smooth disembarkation and onward travel after our arrival at Ushuaia. It is a considerable logistic exercise to get everyone and their luggage onto the right flights, but A&K have this down to a fine art. All we have to do is to obey instructions and be at the right place at the right time. It’s effortless traveling! More entertaining was the preview earlier of the DVD that has been made of the expedition and would be available for sale.
The last formal get-together was “On Expedition!” in which the Expedition Staff, who have done so much to make this expedition cruise memorable, presented a ‘look back’ to remind us of what we had experienced. The highlight was a ‘slide show’ of their photos and video clips that traced the entire voyage from boarding ‘Le Lyrial’ in Ushuaia. We had made landings on the Falkland Islands, South Georgia, South Shetland Islands and the Antarctic Peninsula, and we have had shipboard experiences of whales, albatrosses and icy landscapes. So much has happened in a short space of time that it took many slides to do the experience justice! This final meeting also held the raffle for the crew fund. This is a welfare fund which provides not only items for the crew’s entertainment but also gives assistance in time of trouble or hardship. The magnificent sum of 3180 euros was raised.
By this time the pilot had come aboard and we were sailing between tree-clad hillsides. By late evening the little city of Ushuaia had come into sight.
We had re-joined the real world. We have photos, videos, journals and most importantly vivid memories of a land almost too magical and captivating to describe. Now that we have experienced ‘The Ice’, we will never forget it. Shackleton wrote: ‘Indeed the stark polar lands grip the hearts of the men who have lived on them in a manner that can hardly be understood by the people who have never got outside the pale of civilisation’.