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Antarctica, South Georgia & the Falkland Islands: December 22, 2018 - January 7, 2019
Sunday, December 23: 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 the Falklands, South Georgia, and Antarctica. As our respective flights approached Ushuaia, the majestic clouds parted at times to provide us with striking views of the southern Andes.
When we arrived at “El Fin del Mundo” (as Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, is locally known), we found a growing outpost with plenty of restaurants and shops catering to adventurous travelers. We could hardly imagine a more picturesque setting from which to embark on our journey to the White Continent.
With a steady rain falling in windless conditions, 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 Kara Weller in The Theater for an introduction to the ship and her staff. As each member of the Expedition Staff gave us a welcome and some background on themselves, it became clear that their passion for Antarctica and their desire to share it with us would make this a grand adventure indeed!
Our day drew to a close over dinner and some time on the back deck watching Ushuaia disappear into the distance. Darkness fell over magnificent mountains lining the Beagle Channel on both sides, while small groups of South American terns and blue-eyed shags fished in the productive waters.
We breathed in our last breath of South America and of the green vegetation covering the mountainsides, all the while contemplating the experiences that lie ahead of us. We drifted off to sleep in our new home away from home, eagerly anticipating awakening to the vast, and hopefully calm, Southern Ocean.
Monday, December 24: At Sea, En Route to the Falkland Islands
We awoke to the vast ocean in all directions, with the land mass of South America now well behind us off to the west. The quantity of birds swirling around behind the ship was incredible, their wings completely still and locked open in the strong winds.
After a bit of a lie in, we had the opportunity to exchange our parkas for better-fitting ones before joining Ornithologist Rich Pagen for his talk, "Seabirds: Ambassadors of the Southern Ocean." Rich highlighted some of the species we would see out in the open ocean and told stories of their amazing long-distance travel abilities, including the fact that some species regularly circumnavigate the entire globe between nesting seasons!
After some time out on deck admiring the wandering albatrosses and giant petrels around the ship, we met Photo Enrichment Coach Richard Harker in The Theater for his talk: “Photographing South Georgia and Antarctica: What to expect and how to prepare." 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 South Georgia and Antarctica. He empowered us to go out and capture that perfect shot.
Following lunch, we took in a good book in the Observation Bar before joining Geologist Jason Hicks for his presentation, "Gondwana: Breaking plates to form a continent." Jason gave a detailed overview of how geological processes, small changes taking place over a very long period of time, caused the break up 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.
After visiting with the Expedition Team out on deck, and getting some photography tips from Photo Coach Richard Harker, we gathered 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 Historian Rachel Morgan, who introduced us to the history of the island groups. Naturalist and island native Pete Clement then talked about life on Falklands, while Ornithologist Rich Pagen summarized some of the avian highlights we might see along the coast.
We then all donned our Sunday best and met Captain Rémi Genevaz and many other members of the ship’s staff in The Theater for the Welcome Aboard Cocktail Party, carefully swaying back and forth with the ship as we mingled over champagne. The Captain told us a bit about himself, and then introduced several core members of his staff. 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.
Tuesday, December 25: Port 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 a hearty breakfast, we made our way down the gangway for a morning of exploration in the Falkland Islands.
There were a multitude of organized tours for us to choose from here in the Falkland Islands. The majority of us headed out to see the gentoo penguins, for some of us our first encounter ever with penguins! We watched in awe as the penguins went about their business on flat grassy area 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. We appreciated the opportunity to get to talk with some of the locals, gaining a better appreciation for what life is really like out in the ‘camp’.
Others of us embarked on a nature trek across the low vegetation looking at birds and plants, while others explored the highlights of Stanley with a local guide.
During the afternoon, we had the opportunity to explore the quaint town of Stanley on foot on our own. 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 hole, or sit on a bench on the green (carefully avoiding the goose droppings) while looking over the bay.
After a shuttle ride or leisurely stroll along the shoreline back to the pier, we re-boarded the ship and gathered in the Grand Salon to say hello to Santa Claus, who had landed his sleigh on the upper deck of the ship to come wish us a merry Christmas! Soon ‘Le Lyrial’ pulled off from the pier, and made her way east in the direction of South Georgia.
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). It was a very special Christmas, spent with new friends on an adventure that is best described as 'a trip of a lifetime'!!
Wednesday, December 26: At Sea, en route to South Georgia
We awoke to the glorious Scotia Sea before us, with a gentle swell and an entourage of giant petrels escorting us towards South Georgia. After a full breakfast, we met Photo Coach Richard Harker in the theater for his presentation entitled, “Photographing South Georgia and Antarctica: Mastering your camera”. Richard went into detail on many of the features of today’s digital cameras, including concepts like histograms and exposure compensation, which would help us greatly in capturing South Georgia and Antarctica in photos.
Later in the morning, Captain Rémi Genevaz invited us up to the bridge to learn about the ship's instruments and equipment. This was followed by Sabina Mense's presentation, "An introduction to Pinnipeds: Southern Ocean seals and fur seals". From the ubiquitous fur seals that recovered from nearly being wiped out by sealers a century ago, to leopard seals changing their diet from young crabeater seals and krill to penguins in the autumn, Sabina got us very excited to see the seals of the Southern Ocean.
After lunch, Rachel Morgan discussed the life and career in her presentation, "Shackleton: Everybody's hero?" She focused particularly on Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914–17), which was an attempt to make the first land crossing of the Antarctic continent, but instead became known as a tale of amazing human endurance.
We bundled up after the lecture and joined the Expedition Staff on deck to scan for whales and seabirds. Sei and fin whales were thick under the water, while Antarctic prions were careening en masse above it. Clearly, there was a lot of plankton in the water, and these apex predators were on hand to take advantage of the bounty.
The final lecture of the day, “Penguins, prions, and pipits: The Southern Ocean sanctuary of South Georgia”, was presented by Ornithologist Rich Pagen. He provided an introduction to penguin biology and went on to describe the fascinating asynchronous breeding cycle of the king penguin. Rich then stressed the importance of South Georgia as a breeding site for a wide variety of albatrosses and petrels and prepared us to be on the lookout for the South Georgia pipit, which is recovering nicely after the completion of the effort to remove introduced rats from the island.
Our first evening Recap consisted of a Q&A with Naturalist and Falkland Islands native Pete Clement, and a lesson on the ins and outs of photography on smartphones with Photo Coach Richard Harker. Also, the Young Explorers shared stories and photos of their tide pooling and lighthouse visit while in the Falklands.
Thursday, December 27: At Sea, en route to South Georgia
We pulled back the curtains to a beautiful morning and found the air out on the deck a bit cooler than when we went to bed last night. We had a feeling perhaps, during the night, we had passed over the Antarctic Convergence, that ever-so-important boundary between the warmer sub-Antarctic water and the cold Antarctic water.
Marine Biologist Sabina Mense kicked off the day with her talk, "An introduction to cetaceans: Southern Ocean whales, dolphins, and porpoises." From the far-reaching low frequency vocalizations of blue whales to the impressive cooperative bubble net feeding of humpback whales, Sabina shared some amazing stories about this incredible and diverse group of mammals.
Meanwhile, the Young Explorers learned the art of Japanese fish printing firsthand, using fish donated by the Falklands Fisheries Department to help them create some real works of art.
After a good dose of fresh air out on the deck, we gathered back in the theater with Expedition Director Suzana Machado D’Oliveira and Expedition Leader Kara Weller for a mandatory briefing about conduct while ashore in South Georgia and Antarctica. We also went over the ins and outs of the ship’s zodiacs, which are the transport of choice in this part of the world.
After lunch, 'Le Lyrial' came within sight of Shag Rocks, a cluster of 6 rocky pinnacles, the tallest reaching 71m above the sea. Soon the guano-covered rocks were close enough we could see the more than 2,000 pairs of nesting blue-eyed shags that give the rocks their name. As these waters are incredibly productive for marine life, we carefully scanned the waters around Shag Rocks for signs of other wildlife, spotting several humpbacks, as well as a curious snowy sheathbill and a gorgeous pair of snow petrels. It was very interesting to see the two whitest Antarctic birds together at the same time.
Later, to comply with new biosecurity measures on South Georgia, we headed to deck 3 to vacuum clothing and backpacks to remove any plant seeds, and to scrub our rubber boots to get rid of any material remaining in the treads.
We then met Historian Rachel Morgan in the theater for her very informative talk, "Whaling in the Southern Ocean". It was quite sobering to learn that the fjords and bays of South Georgia used to be home for countless large whales, though today very few are spotted. Rachel took us through the whaling era at South Georgia, which lasted from 1904 through to 1965, when the last whaling station closed its doors.
We spent some time out on deck before recap and dinner, admiring the storm-petrels dancing on the water's surface as they face into the wind. Tomorrow morning, when we wake up, it will be in one of the world's greatest wildlife destinations: South Georgia.
Friday, December 28: Fortuna Bay and Salisbury Plain
We awoke this morning to calm conditions and stunning mountain scenery on either side of Fortuna Bay. The raucous calls of fur seals and king penguins echoed in the distance when we walked out on deck to have a look around. After breakfast, 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 an 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.
Over lunch, we admired the beautiful scenery as 'Le Lyrial' repositioned to the Bay of Isles, where we would be going ashore at Salisbury Plain. The wind was light and swell minimal, so we sped ashore in the zodiacs and the Expedition Staff were ready for us, safely holding the zodiacs in place while we disembarked and headed up the beach.
Once ashore, our expectation of South Georgia was replaced by its reality, and honestly, we had greatly underestimated the grandeur of this place and its wildlife. We walked past snoozing fur seals and 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 wind took their turns as we soaked up the peacefulness of this awesome place.
Some of us came across a group of giant petrels feeding on an adult penguin they had just killed. With groans and loud cries, they spread their tails and held their wings open attempting to show dominance to the others in the group, to gain first dibs on the prize. Skuas waited their turn well outside the main action.
Before dinner, the recap consisted of Geologist Jason Hicks presenting South Georgia's part in the volcanic arc of the Scotia Sea, and Ornithologist Rich Pagen having us practice our adult and chick king penguin calls. It was a glorious first day in South Georgia, and we celebrated the day out on the deck watching the light fade over this magical place.
Saturday, December 29: Grytviken and Stromness
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.
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.
We wandered past snoring fur seals and sneezing elephant seals 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.
After lunch, we went ashore just down the beach from the dilapidated Stromness whaling station. Unlike Grytviken, none of the stations have been cleaned up or restored; so 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.
Back on board at the recap, Historian Rachel Morgan talked about the role South Georgia played in the life of Ernest Shackleton, and Marine Biologist Sabina Mense hosted a game-show-of-sorts about fur seals and elephant seals. The daylight was fading as we sailed east towards Gold Harbour. It was an incredible day and we headed off to bed early so we would be prepared for more of South Georgia tomorrow.
Sunday, December 30: Gold Harbor and Cooper Bay
The grey sky brightened as we relaxed over our morning coffee and croissants. The zodiacs were lowered into calm waters, and soon we stepped ashore at Gold Harbor, easily one of South Georgia’s most beautiful beaches. We headed up from the landing, carefully dodging a huge pile of elephant seals, and began our adventure at Gold Harbor.
The air was filled with a symphony of calls, including loud snorts and belches regularly emanating from young male elephant seals sparring with one another on the beach and in the shallows. Further down the beach was the king penguin colony, with groups of brown woolly-coated chicks called “oakum boys” scattered around the colony’s edges. The longer we sat on the edge of the colony, the more of its mysteries were revealed to us.
With so much to absorb and few words that could possibly describe, the conversation was minimal this morning. Brown skuas soared overhead and rested along the beach, always prepared for an opportunity for a meal. Meanwhile, giant petrels loafed on the sand with their bills tucked carefully under their back feathers. With a backdrop of huge mountains and the tumbling Bertrab glacier behind us, we watched it all unfold around us.
Over lunch, Captain Rémi Genevaz took the ship south along the coast to beautiful Cooper Bay, right near the entrance to Drygalski Fjord. We set out on a zodiac tour of the area, maneuvering in and out of the kelp and the finger-like coves. Snowy sheathbills picked through the algae-covered intertidal zone for invertebrates to feast upon, while the occasional curious South Georgia pipit flew over our heads to get a look at us. The sandy beaches were littered with male fur seals defending their harems, as well as elephant seals piled up together in smelly groups. While light-mantled albatrosses soared overhead in pairs, we admired the macaroni penguin colony with its steep penguin highway leading several hundred feet down to the sea.
Back on board, we admired humpback whales and huge flocks of black-browed albatrosses flying alongside the ship as we made our way southwest around Cape Disappointment, the southern tip of the island of South Georgia. After the recap with Naturalist Dennis Mense reading a poem by Apsley Cherry-Garrard and Ornithologist Rich Pagen interviewing a 'giant king penguin', we told stories over dinner of our experiences in this remarkable and wild part of the world.
Monday, December 31: At sea, en route to Antarctica
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 Sabina Mense in The Theater for her presentation, "The evolution of marine mammals." It was fascinating to learn that whales and dolphins all came from a single hippo-like ancestor, which left the freshwater swamps and river deltas and took to the seas.
During mid-morning, the Captain took the Young Explorers on a tour of the bridge, showing them all the equipment from the radar that alerts them to icebergs miles away, to the stabilizers that make the ship ride so smoothly in a large swell. Those of us that joined the Naturalists on deck were rewarded with amazing views of wandering albatross and an entourage of giant petrels following the ship south.
Before lunch, Geologist Jason Hicks gave a presentation called, "Future plate movements," during which he discussed what the future of the globe is expected to look like based on present tectonic plate movements. Later, Naturalist Russ Manning gave 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 explore the insides of glaciers by rappelling down crevasses, Russ gave us an insider's look at life at an Antarctic research station.
During the afternoon, we watched from the pool deck as cape petrels careened around the ship, taking breaks to go inside to sample the holiday cookies the Young Explorers were making. Historian Rachel Morgan then told the story, "Scott and Amundsen: A race to Antarctica." Comparing the different strategies each employed to reach the pole, Rachel shared what was really a series of heart-breaking tales of human endurance.
We met for a recap, during which Naturalist Helen Ahern spoke about the beautiful kelp we saw at Cooper Bay, and Assistant Expedition Leader J.J. Apestegui talked about the explorers' perceptions of having to eat penguin and seal. After a very special New Year's Eve dinner, we mingled over champagne in one of the ship’s bars, awaiting the midnight hour. Finally, the countdown began and we all celebrated a New Year’s Eve that none of us will ever forget.
Tuesday, January 1: At sea, Elephant Island
We awoke to calm seas all around, and it sure seemed as if the forecast that Expedition Leader Kara Weller showed us last night was coming to pass as predicted. It was absolutely gorgeous out, but yet with the grey skies and frigid air creating a certain ominous tone to the day.
We took it all in with a coffee out on deck, before joining 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 2 miles thick in places, towering above sea level by as much as 12,000 ft.
We then met Ornithologist Rich Pagen for his lecture entitled, “Black, and white, and guano all over: Antarctic penguin colonies and their patrollers.” After having spent so much time watching king penguins in South Georgia, we found it fascinating to learn that the brush-tail penguins actually build nests, lay two eggs, and get the whole breeding cycle completed in a single summer. Rich also introduced us to the opportunistic penguin colony patrollers, which take advantage of the seasonal gatherings of penguins to eke out a living in this challenging environment.
After the lecture, we stepped outside to join the Expedition Staff in their efforts scanning for seabirds and whales. Following a delicious lunch, Richard Harker then gathered us into the theater for his talk, "The perfect penguin: Using composition to turn snapshots into art." During this talk, Richard discussed 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.
During the afternoon, ‘Ly Lyrial’ approached the infamous Point Wild on Elephant Island. It was named for Frank Wild, leader of the party from Shackleton's shipwrecked expedition that camped and miraculously managed to survive on the point for four months until rescued in August 1916. We were in awe at how small an area it was, backed by steep mountains and snow slopes, and now completely overrun by nesting chinstrap penguins.
From there, we headed over to a massive tabular iceberg that was wedged between nearby Clarence Island and Cornwallis Island. This bit of broken-off ice shelf stretched from horizon to horizon, and we could not even begin to appreciate the size of this flat-topped chunk of ice, which broke off one of Antarctica's ice shelves in 1987.
After Marine Biologist Sabina Mense finished her presentation, "These are a few of my favorite whales: Beaked whales and killer whales," we spent time on deck admiring the impressive mountainous islands of the far northeast South Shetland Islands, our first look at Antarctica.
Wednesday, January 2: Halfmoon Island and Deception Island
During the early morning hours, ‘Le Lyrial’ entered beautiful Moon Bay, with the spectacular ice-covered mountains of Livingston and Greenwich Islands wrapping nearly completely around the bay. Captain Rémi Genevaz dropped anchor off of Half Moon Island, and the zodiacs landed in calm conditions on a cobble beach with several chinstrap penguins in attendance to greet us.
We made our way up the hill to the chinstrap penguin colony and then headed off to the left to get a look at the nesting kelp gulls with their fuzzy tan chicks. Antarctic terns cruised the shallows hunting for small fish and made a point of harassing any skuas that came anywhere near their nesting area, attempting to drive them away. We then headed down the beach the other direction, where a bunch of Weddell seals were loafing on the cobble rocks.
At the colony itself, the chinstraps were perched upon their well-cared-for stone nests, most of them keeping careful watch over their two beautiful grey chicks. The majority of the chicks were about a week old, splitting their time between begging for regurgitated krill and tucking their heads into their parent's brood patch for a cat nap. We witnessed the excited display calls of the adults when their partner returned from the sea for a turn watching over the chicks; we also heard the high pitch whistles of the tiny chicks.
We left the chinstraps to their own devices and headed back to the ship, where we kept our eyes glued to the amazing scenery outside. After lunch, we lined the railings to watch the ship’s entrance through Neptune’s Bellows into the center of Deception Island. The sun glistened on the sea surface as the Captain maneuvered ‘Le Lyrial’ through the narrow passage.
Deception Island has an extensive history, beginning as its use as a safe harbor for sealers during the 1800s up to the extensive geological research that goes on there today. We landed in Telefon Bay and hiked inland for a look at an impressive parasitic volcanic crater. The impressive glacier at the back was covered in ash from last century's volcanic eruptions. The views from the top across Port Foster were incredible.
After we returned to ‘Le Lyrial’ and the last of our zodiacs were craned back on board, we gathered for a recap where we learned about Halfmoon Island's massive blue whale jawbone from Marine Biologist Sabina Mense, and yesterday's massive tabular iceberg from Assistant Expedition Leader J.J. Apestegui. The mountainous spine of the Antarctic Peninsula glowed yellow off the port side of the ship as we headed off to bed.
Thursday, January 3: Cuverville Island and Paradise Bay
We awoke to glorious scenery in the Gerlache Strait, with snow-capped peaks illuminated in the morning sun. The cool morning air greatly helped the wake-up process, and soon we found ourselves speeding ashore in a zodiac bound for Cuverville Island. It is one of the most verdant places in all of Antarctica, its steep slopes covered with mosses and lichen.
The gentoos at Cuverville have received a lot of visitors over the years, so the nearly 6,000 breeding pairs tend to be downright welcoming and quite the opposite of skittish. We watched their behavior closely, noticing how the gentoos constantly add stones to their rock pile nests while attempting to steal stones from the nests of others. While this hilarious show was going on, skuas patrolled overhead in case the skirmishes over stones presented an opportunity for them to snatch an egg or two.
Naturalist Russ Manning led a hike up to a high vantage point to get a view over the iceberg-scattered sea to the mountains and glaciers beyond. It was quite strenuous walking up the steep snow-covered slope, but the cool temperatures kept us reasonably cool. On the way back down, many of us took a slide down the snow slope rather than walk. It was so much fun that some of us walked all the way back up just to do it again.
Over lunch, the ship passed through the very scenic Errera Channel en route to our 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, at the moment, was unstaffed. 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.
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. We also explored the grounded icebergs near the station and stopped at a surprise bar boat for a champagne toast to celebrate the day's landing on the Antarctic continent.
At recap, we heard highlights from the poem Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner from Naturalist Dennis Mense, and stories of gentoo rock stealing from Ornithologist Rich Pagen. Over dinner, we admired the incredible scenery as the Captain took the ship closer to the renowned Lemaire Channel. Later, out on the deck with a drink in hand, we watched with anticipation as bridge team maneuvered 'Le Lyrial' all the way through the channel, through the ice, to its southern end.
Friday, January 4: Bransfield Strait and King George Island
Today we headed north to the South Shetland Islands. We lingered at breakfast looking out on the surreal Antarctica scenery, until gathering for the first enrichment lecture of the day.
After some deck time with the giant petrels and a bit of origami penguin making in the Grand Salon, we met Historian Rachel Morgan in the theater for her presentation, "21 years in the Antarctic." Rachel told us all about her personal experiences living and working in very remote situations, and how the Antarctic continent holds such a special place in her heart. We left recognizing that there is so much more to see and experience on the White Continent.
We relaxed with a book after lunch before joining 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 captured by the camera, 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’ve taken on this trip.
During recap, Naturalist Russ Manning introduced us to the history of the zodiac boat, and Photo Coach Richard Harker and Cruise Director Paul Carter each talked about the pros and cons of 'Photoshopping.' After dinner, we sped ashore on King George Island in a blizzard to wander through the Chilean Frei Station and the Russian Bellingshausen Station up to the only permanently staffed Orthodox Church in the world. The truly Antarctic weather was very atmospheric, and the landscape was very much like being on the moon.
With daylight becoming scarce and the wind letting up a bit, we arrived back on 'Le Lyrial' by zodiac, gathering in the Grand Salon over a cocktail to celebrate our final day in Antarctica.
Saturday, January 5: At sea, en route to Ushuaia
We awoke this morning to the Southern Ocean at its best (or its worst, depending on your perspective). From the Observation Bar, we could watch the occasional huge wave crash over the ship's bow, and spray up onto the deck and windows in front of us. The forecast was for the seas to subside later today, but for now, we'd just have to enjoy the rough and tumble conditions the ship was experiencing.
The first 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.
Following lunch, a nap was definitely in order. So we were well rested for Marine Biologist Sabina Mense's presentation, "Antarctic benthic community: Life below the surface of Antarctic waters." Joined by special guests Jacqueline Fogel and Bowen Brock from the Young Explorers, Sabina took us through the fascinating and diverse community of invertebrates that make their home in the clear and calm waters beneath the sea ice. From the flattened crustaceans known as isopods, which grow very large in these frigid waters, to the brittle stars that reach their arms up into the water column in a quest for bits of organic material drifting past, it was fascinating to learn a bit about this diverse world out of sight beneath the Southern Ocean.
In the evening, we met for Captain Rémi Geneva's Farewell Cocktail Party in The Theater. With much calmer seas around us, we mingled over champagne and were introduced to so many of the ship’s crew that the stage was overflowing. It was wonderful to have the opportunity to see many of the faces that have contributed so much to our enjoyable experience onboard 'Le Lyrial'.
A wonderful dinner was then served by the restaurant staff. Afterward, over a cocktail in one of the ship’s bars, we all celebrated the friends we have made and the experiences we have had on this adventure to the south.
Sunday, January 6: At sea, en route to Ushuaia
Over the course of the morning, we happily started to notice that the lumpy seas we'd been experiencing were dissipating even more, as Cape Horn and the land mass of southern Tierra del Fuego finally started giving us some shelter from the strong winds and large swell. Out on the back deck, the Young Explorers and other wildlife watchers were rewarded with spectacular views of a group of hourglass dolphins jumping beside the ship.
After breakfast, Geologist Jason Hicks gathered us in the theater for his lecture, "Meteorites in Antarctica." Because Antarctica has such a great expanse of ice, searching for the blackened remains of objects that have fallen from the sky is a particularly productive exercise in this part of the world. Jason told us about some of the remarkable finds from the bottom of the world.
Cruise Director Paul Carter then gave a disembarkation briefing, during which we learned about our travel details once we leave the ship in Ushuaia. This was followed by a showing of the trip DVD, produced by the 'Le Lyrial' photo team. Many of us then began the task of packing, or put it off a little longer and substituted in a nap or some time out on the deck watching our passage into the entrance to the Beagle Channel.
Over lunch, we admired the spectacular mountain scenery of Tierra del Fuego all around us before joining the Expedition Team for an overview of our trip. We watched a wonderful retrospective slide show of our trip, made up of photos taken by the Expedition Staff and compiled by Naturalist Blackjack Escanilla. It featured photos of our various landings, and many people recognized themselves disguised behind red parkas and rubber boots. The photos were amazing, and our experiences in Antarctica seemed both years ago and yesterday at the same time.
As 'Le Lyrial' 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 the Falklands, South Georgia and Antarctica. This 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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