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Antarctica, South Georgia & the Falkland Islands Trip Log January 16 - February 1, 2019
Thursday, January 17: Ushuaia, Argentina
We arrived from all corners of the world to the little port of Ushuaia, Argentina. Known as Ciudad del Fin de Mundo (the City at the End of the World), Ushuaia, the name means 'inner harbor to the westward' in the native Yahgan tongue, has grown rapidly in recent years, but still maintains its frontier-town feel, with streets of small houses and every kind of architecture. On the hillside behind the old town, clusters of higgledy-piggledy new houses are appearing in clearings of the native forest. Our flights were dramatic for the views over the Andes Mountains and panoramas of glaciers, lakes, and snow-covered peaks.
By late afternoon, we boarded 'Le Lyrial' and were welcomed by the crew and staff, and were shown to our cabins, where we found our complimentary parkas, backpacks and water bottles. After settling in, it was time for celebratory champagne in La Comète, one of two restaurants on board, to toast the start of our expedition. After time spent exploring the ship, we gathered for a mandatory emergency drill at our muster station where we learned how to don life vests and make our way to the lifeboats. It was all reassuringly simple and efficient.
Next, we met in the lecture theater where Brazilian Cruise Leader Suzana Machado D’Oliveira welcomed us on board 'Le Lyrial' and Briton Cruise Director outlined the facilities available on our luxury ship and routine of daily life at sea. He was followed by Argentine Expedition Leader Marco Favero, who explained how changing conditions in this part of the world — which include wind, weather, and ice — require his team to work closely with our Captain to create flexible back-up plans.
By this time 'Le Lyrial' was heading eastwards down the Beagle Channel which separates Tierra del Fuego from the rest of South America. It is named for HMS Beagle which carried Charles Darwin on the voyage that helped him shape his theory of evolution by natural selection.
After dinner, it was an early night as we retired to our cabins. The weather forecast is good. What adventures will we have? Read on!
Friday, January 18: Sailing to Stanley, Falkland Islands
By early morning we had passed Staten Island to the north and were in the open sea. It was comforting to realize that 'Le Lyrial' was steaming on an even keel and a peek through the window revealed that there was very little swell. The program for our first day at sea started with the parka exchange. We were issued red parkas so we will be highly visible when ashore, but also to ensure that everyone, especially those who come from warmer climes, are properly clad against the Antarctic chill. And they make nice souvenirs when we go home! If needed, guests can request insulated rubber boots and rain pants for protection against the elements and stability on uneven ground.
We gathered to hear the first of the enrichment lectures, which will be a feature of sea days when there are no landings. Given by Ornithologist Patricia (Patri) Silva, this was on “Seabirds of the Southern Ocean”. She introduced us to the albatrosses and petrels that will accompany 'Le Lyrial' throughout the cruise. They form the large group of Procellariiformes, the tube-nosed birds, and one of the most incredible groups of seabirds. Their particular characteristic is that their nostrils are placed in tubes in the upper half of the beak, but they are better known for their effortless flight in the winds that sweep over the vast open spaces of the world's oceans. The group includes the giant albatrosses and many smaller species such the black and white chequered cape petrel, the grey prions and diminutive storm petrels. Patri gave us information about the life history of these birds, with special attention to the most common species we might see in the Southern Ocean.
Next, up, our photo coach Richard Harker, explained, “Photographing South Georgia and Antarctica: What to Expect and How to Prepare.” Richard’s introductory lecture told us what we might see on the expedition and gave hints on how to prepare for photography in the region’s unpredictable weather.
After lunch, Geologist Wayne Ranney presented his talk, “The Wandering Falkland Islands” He showed how the sequence of rock layers found in the Falklands mimic those found today on the eastern seaboard of South Africa. Amazingly, this is shown to be true only when the Falkland Islands are rotated 180º from their present-day orientation. A unique layer of glacial deposits 300 million years old is one of the clues and it reveals that as the supercontinent, Gondwana broke up about 200 million years ago, the Falklands block remained attached to South America but rotated as Africa pulled away. Who knew that such large scale events helped to shape these lovely little islands.
After afternoon tea, we returned to the lecture theater for a briefing by Expedition Director Suzana Machado D’Oliveira on our visit to Stanley, the one and only town in the Falkland Islands. The “Falkland Islands Medley” started with Bob Burton giving a quick overview of the chaotic history of the islands, followed by naturalist Pete Clement, a Falkland Islander by birth, talking about life on the islands. At one time, sheep farming was the major source of income but the licensing of fishing vessels has now transformed life on the islands and extraction of oil from the seabed is poised to start when the economic climate is favorable.
Then it was time to dress for Captain Mickael Debien’s welcome aboard cocktail party. During this ‘icebreaker’ social gathering, Captain Debien introduced the senior officers who would be running the ship. From the buzz of conversation, it was clear that the ice had been broken and we were already becoming acquainted with our fellow guests. After which we made our ways to Le Céleste and La Comète restaurants for the welcome dinner, an exquisite meal befitting a French ship.
Saturday, January 19: Stanley, Falkland Islands
The morning saw 'Le Lyrial' heading up the channel of Port William and turning 90 degrees to pass through The Narrows and into the spacious harbor of Port Stanley. Because of the stiff northerly wind, it was impossible to moor alongside the dock and the ship anchored in the middle of the harbor. When the ship had been cleared by Customs and Immigration, we could go ashore by tender for the morning’s excursions.
We landed at the Public Jetty of the small waterside town of Stanley where there was a brief formality of showing our cabin ID cards to the security officers. Buses soon arrived to take us on a variety of tours, including one to some battlefields of the 1982 war, another to a sheep farm and several visits to see colonies of penguins and other wildlife. The most popular tour was to see a colony rockhopper penguins. This was the only chance to see this attractive species and the journey to their colony was easy – first by bus, then by Land Rover along a rough track.
Stanley is home to 85 percent of the 3,000 inhabitants of the Falkland Islands. 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 shops and stores were open for purchases of souvenirs and last-minute necessities, and there were opportunities to have a drink or meal in one of the pubs, cafes or restaurants. Sightseeing included visits to the excellent museum, Christ Church Cathedral and other places of interest.
An unexpected bonus for many was the sight of a small group of black-and-white Commerson’s dolphins and, to our great delight, there was a mother with a small calf swimming ‘at heel’. This species lives around many islands in the South Atlantic and is famous for swimming around boats. ‘Our’ Commerson’s spent the whole day following the tenders to and from the jetty.
Sunday, January 20: En route to South Georgia
Our luck is holding and the sea has remained calm. 'Le Lyrial’s' role is barely perceptible. Among the wildlife spotted by the A&K naturalists, there has been a wandering albatross, the most magnificent of ocean birds, following in our wake and there was a sighting of a distant sei whale. At set times of the day, the naturalists gather on the pool deck at the stern to point out birds and whales to interested guests and help them with identifying species. Our two photo coaches, Richard Harker, and David Salmanowitz are also present to help and advise with photography, whether with an SLR camera with a 300mm lens or a smartphone. During the morning we were allowed on the bridge, by kind permission of the Captain, Mickael Debien.
Meanwhile, inside the ship, enrichment lectures were taking place in the theatre. Sea mammal Specialist Larry Hobbs' presentation on the seals which we will encounter on the cruise was titled: ‘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 hind flippers. Fur seals are eared seals with small external ears that swim with their foreflippers and tuck their hind flippers under their bodies to run rapidly on land. The true seals do not have external ears, swim by 'sculling' with their hind flippers and move relatively slowly on land. Larry gave some interesting and often graphic details of the feeding and breeding habits of the various species.
Next, it was time for another geology lecture from Wayne Ranney, this one called, “Almost Antarctica: The Geology of South Georgia and the Scotia Arc”. According to geologic studies in the area, we are sailing, the island of South Georgia is only a small part of a larger block of continental rock called the South Georgia micro-continent. It was originally located next to and attached to Tierra del Fuego. But beginning around 34 million years, eastward flowing mantle rock beneath the crust moved it to the east as the Drake Passage began to open. A highlight from Wayne’s lecture was a video showing all of the southern continents in motion over the last 200 million years.
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 took 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’ but was perhaps not so good as an organizer. He is sometimes said to be a failure because he did not attain any of his objectives but he was undoubtedly heroic for bravery and endurance.
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 South Georgia and Antarctica: Mastering your camera’. He dipped into the best camera settings to capture wildlife and scenery. Geared for both ‘point and shoot’ and digital SLR audiences, Richard explained how certain settings can vastly improve our Antarctic photographs.
Monday, January 21: Shag Rocks, en route to South Georgia
An overcast day with a gray pall of high cloud with still little wind or swell. 'Le Lyrial' drew near to Shag Rocks after breakfast. Six rock pinnacles, like shark’s teeth protruding from the sea, lie 150 miles west of South Georgia. They are stained white with the guano of 2,000 nesting blue-eyed shags and are geologically more closely related to the South Orkney Islands than South Georgia. As we slowly circled the rocks numerous birds, not only shags from the rocks but wandering and black-browed albatrosses, giant and white-chinned petrels, many prions and other species, flew around us. We also had good views of humpback whales feeding close to the rocks. Altogether 10 humpbacks and two fin whales were spotted by the naturalists. As well as the shags nesting on the rocks, the neighborhood attracts all this wildlife because of the upwelling of water from an ocean trench nearby. This brings nutrients to the surface which promote the growth of phytoplankton on which krill feed. The ship’s echosounder showed swarms of krill near the surface which were the reason for the gathering of whales.
In mid-morning, everyone gathered in the theatre to learn from Expedition Director Suzana how Zodiac inflatable boats will be used to make the landings that will take us to see the wildlife of South Georgia and Antarctica. These boats are extremely reliable and the naturalists who drive them have many years of experience of working in Antarctica. Suzana's briefing gave us simple instructions on how to embark and disembark Zodiacs in complete safety and JJ demonstrated how to dress correctly for landings, including the use of life jackets (vests). If we follow the simple procedures these landings will be made easily and safely. Expedition Leader Marco followed this briefing with the mandatory guidelines required by the Government of South Georgia and the International Association of Antarctica Operators (IAATO) for biosecurity and avoidance of disturbing wildlife. The guidelines are simple, effective and mainly obvious – no littering or trampling of vegetation – or common sense. For instance, we may not approach within 15ft (5 meters) of penguins – although they may approach us! They ensure that visits by cruise ships have a negligible effect on the fragile environment.
As soon as the briefing finished it was announced that there was another incredible wildlife spectacle to be witnessed from the deck. Everyone was strongly encouraged to grab parkas, binoculars, and cameras and go outside. 'Le Lyrial' was coasting slowly in circles and everywhere around the ship and out to the horizon, there were blows from humpback whales. ‘Humpback soup’ as someone called it. Larry, our whale expert, though there might have been as many as 200 whales with 100 as a conservative figure. It was impossible to make an accurate count of animals that show themselves only briefly as they come up to breathe. As well as the whales underwater, the neighborhood was swarming with albatrosses, mainly black-browed, and other seabirds. They were wheeling around and landing in masses to feed where the whales and the ship’s propeller were bringing krill to the surface. The expedition staff, who have many years’ experience of sailing Antarctic waters, had never experienced such a sight.
After lunch Ornithologist, Patri briefed us on ‘Birds in Tuxedos: Why do they look so different?’, in other words penguins! This was an essential introduction to the penguins which will dominate our attention whenever we go ashore. Patri began with the very accurate comment that of all the over 8,800 species of birds in the world, the penguins are like no others. She then highlighted some of the species we may encounter on this trip including the Adélie penguins, which march many miles over the sea ice in October to reach their breeding colonies. She also spoke of the macaroni penguins, which lay two different-sized eggs, only one of which usually makes it fledge as an independent youngster. Then there are the two largest: the emperor and king penguins. Kings live to the north – for instance, the Falkland Islands and South Georgia – and emperors in the far south where they lay their eggs on the sea ice in the depths of the winter. It was a very entertaining presentation and we managed to pick up a smattering of Spanish as well as the biology of penguins!
In mid-afternoon, preparation for the landings continued with the boot scrubbing and vacuum cleaning of parkas, backpacks and camera bags to comply with the Government of South Georgia's regulations for preventing the importation of alien plants and animals. Seeds, for instance, can be stuck on Velcro fastenings. The Island of South Georgia has already been colonized by a number of plants and insects, some of which have become a serious problem to the native ecosystem. So 'biosecurity' is taken very seriously. Cleaning of clothes and boots will be carried out at every landing on South Georgia to prevent the possible spread of alien species from one part of the island to another.
The afternoon's lecture was by historian Bob Burton on "The island of South Georgia: The jewel in the crown". The title alludes to the position of the island with its wonderful scenery and amazing wildlife spectacles in the territories administered by the United Kingdom. South Georgia is a small island packed with interest. The first landing on the island was by Captain James Cook in 1775. 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 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 was eventually foiled by the development of pelagic factory ships which were able to operate outside territorial waters. Since the 1970s South Georgia waters have been fished for krill, Antarctic cod, mackerel ice fish, and Patagonian tooth fish. After early over-fishing, the Government of South Georgia has successfully brought this under control to prevent over-fishing. It is now possible to buy tooth fish (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 long line hooks.
Tuesday, January 22: Salisbury Plain and Fortuna Bay, South Georgia
There was a sheet of low cloud that sometimes descended to envelop the scenery in fog. The early hours saw 'Le Lyrial' anchored in the Bay of Isles on the north coast of South Georgia. We were lying off Salisbury Plain, a large expanse of flat ground between sea and mountains named for a place in southern England. This is the site of a huge colony of some 60,000 pairs of magnificent, colorful king penguins, the birds that some guests had booked on the cruise specifically to visit.
Conditions were not so good for our first Zodiac landing of the cruise. Although the sea appeared calm, there was a low swell breaking on the beach. So it was reassuring to see the competence and strength of the Expedition Staff and Shore Crew as they brought the zodiacs safely into land in a well-rehearsed operation.
Once ashore, we had to walk through a colony of fur seals to reach the penguins and were able to enjoy the sight of their small black pups bounding around. It was a marvelous experience to walk among this incredible assembly of wildlife that showed so little concern for our presence. A short walk along the back of the beach past scores of resting king penguins led us to their breeding colony and what a spectacle it was! The penguins were massed in their thousands, brown, woolly chicks mingling with resplendent adults stretching far up the hillside. And the air was filled with the whistles of hungry chicks searching for their parents and the kazoo-like braying of adults indulging in a little courtship. This is a species of bird that is on the increase.
A lucky few saw some South Georgia pipits. These little sparrow-like songbirds are found only on South Georgia and until a year or two ago were rarely seen because they were preyed on by the rats that were accidentally introduced by sealers and whalers many years ago. In a huge project lasting several years, the South Georgia Heritage Trust has successfully eradicated the rats and now the pipits are quickly recolonizing the island.
All this wildlife activity was against a backdrop of rugged mountain and glacier scenery. At the back of the plain, the hills were divided by two great glaciers: the Lucas and Grace Glaciers. The latter is named for the wife of Robert Cushman Murphy, an American seabird specialist who worked here in the summer of 1912-13. 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.
During lunch, 'Le Lyrial' steamed along the coast eastwards to Fortuna Bay. This is a deep fjord, 3 miles long and 1 mile wide with the Kőnig Glacier lying behind a broad plain at the back. It is named for the first whale catcher boat to work at South Georgia. Fortuna Bay is famous for lying on the route of Ernest Shackleton’s epic crossing of South Georgia in 1916. It is surrounded by mountains and much more sheltered than the Bay of Isles. However, the wind had risen and there were outbreaks of rain. Luckily there was only a short run by Zodiac to reach the beach where the landing was easier than at Salisbury Plain. The king penguin colony was about 1.5 miles away and, because a dense fog had come down, a visit was abandoned for safety reasons. Yet there was much to see along the shore. There was even some shelter to be found in a cave once occupied by sealers two centuries ago. Elephant seals were lying in small groups and fur seal pups frolicked around us. Most heartening for the Expedition Staff was the sight of large flocks of South Georgia pintails. These little ducks had also become uncommon through the depredations of the rats. They used to be seen in very small numbers so to see such large flocks only a few years after the removal of the rats shows the resilience of the species.
Wednesday, January 23: Stromness Bay and Grytviken, South Georgia
'Le Lyrial' spent the night at anchor in Husvik Bay and repositioned to Stromness Bay in the early morning. The clouds were breaking up, there was a rainbow up the Shackleton Valley and the omens were good for the day’s activities. The first excursion was a hike up the Shackleton Valley to see the waterfall that Shackleton, Frank Worsley, and Tom Crean descended on their epic crossing of South Georgia in 1916. So our return walk followed their route to the Stromness whaling station where they were met by the manager, Thoralf Sørlle, with welcoming words: “Who the hell are you?”
The clouds were now clearing to reveal distant mountain tops and the colors of the vegetation that grows around the shores and up the valleys. Our path took us past sleeping fur seals and their bleating pups, little groups of molting king penguins and occasionally a pipit or pintail.
After a short, lunchtime cruise from Stromness Bay, 'Le Lyrial' entered King Edward Cove also known as Grytviken (Pot Cove) early in the afternoon. Grytviken is the site of an abandoned whaling station and is the 'capital' of South Georgia where the British maintain a small research base and a team of government officials.
The Government Officer, Emma Jones, came on board to clear us into this entry port for the U.K. Overseas Territory of ‘South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands’ and also to check our biosecurity. This comprised checking our parkas, rain pants, backpacks, walking sticks and camera tripods to ensure that no seeds or animals of alien species come ashore. South Georgia has already been colonized by a number of plants and insects, as well as the rats and reindeer which have been eliminated. The government is, rightly, very keen that no more species are introduced.
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 told us about Shackleton’s death and burial.
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. This is in the whaling manager's house and it is amazing to find such an excellent museum in such a remote place. 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. Postcards and South Georgia stamps, which are something of a collector's item, could be bought at the post office and despatched from South Georgia – though delivery times from this remote island are slow.
The whaling station has been cleared of asbestos and other dangerous material but much of the machinery that was used for processing the carcasses of whales into whale oil has been left. For anyone interested, Sarah Lurcock, the Museum Director, gave a guided tour of the whaling station. Another good place to visit was the pretty Whalers' Church, a typical Norwegian over 20 years ago. For those who have long fancied the idea, there was the opportunity to ring the church bells.
Thursday, January 24: Crossing the Scotia Sea
Today we learned the full meaning of ‘expedition cruising’. We have been told that the program may have to be changed because of the weather or other factors and that we must remain flexible. The original plan had been to make a very early landing at Gold Harbor, a beautiful place with a colony of king penguins and large numbers of elephant seals. However, a scout boat found that there were a heavy swell and gusts of very strong wind that would make landing hazardous. So we would proceed to our second event – a cruise up the spectacular Drygalski Fjord. As 'Le Lyrial' proceeded along the coast it soon became apparent that the guests had turned in a steady Force 10 gale (50 knots plus) and the seas were rising. Waves were breaking over the side of the ship and spray was flying past. A visit to Drygalski Fjord was now out of the question and the Captain set course for Antarctica. We soon learned and appreciated, the sailing qualities of 'Le Lyrial'. Considering the size of the waves, she was remarkably steady and shipboard life was little affected.
The wind slowly abated over the course of the day but the ‘waveshape’ remained very dramatic as the sun came out and we had perfect conditions for watching the incredible aerial skills of the seabirds. For a long time, a magnificent wandering albatross followed the ship. With a wingspan of 10-11 feet, its pure white plumage picking up the bright light, it rose and fell over the waves for minutes on end with barely a wingbeat. Somehow it was plucking energy from the winds to keep it aloft and convey it over hundreds of miles with barely any effort.
As we sailed away from South Georgia the winner of the ‘Spot the first iceberg’ was announced. The berg has to be at least as large as 'Le Lyrial' and there was no doubt about this one. It was a tabular iceberg several miles long! The winner was Alex Holzman who receives a bottle of very expensive champagne from Captain Debien. Large tabular icebergs are not uncommon around South Georgia. The break off huge ice shelves around the coasts of the Weddell Sea and drift northwards over the course of several years. Sometimes they ground in shallow water around the island; otherwise, they continue northwards and slowly melt in the warmer water.
To fill in for the missing events at South Georgia, the lecture program recommenced with historian Bob recounting ‘My favorite heroes: The Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration’. He examined the heroic age of Antarctic exploration; the time of Amundsen, Scott and Shackleton that lasted from 1895 to Shackleton’s death in 1922. He shared stories that included two from Scott’s Last Expedition: the Winter Journey in which three men trudged through a bitter Antarctic night to collect emperor penguin eggs and the Northern Party of six men who overwintered in a snow hole. Finally, Bob recounted Australian Douglas Mawson’s incredible solo trek back to base after his two companions had died, a triumph of mental strength over physical adversity.
Later, marine biologist, Larry gave us “Marine Mammals of the Southern Ocean: Where Blubber and Bad Hair Days are Not a Problem.” After an overview of the evolution of whales, Larry identified the two main types of whales: toothed, which include dolphins and porpoises, and baleen, which sieve their food of krill and fish. We have already thrilled to the sight of humpback whales feeding and there is the possibility of seeing a blue whale and even the killer whale or orca, one of Antarctica’s top predators.
Friday, January 25: Crossing the Scotia Sea
‘Le Lyrial’ proceeded across the Scotia Sea in a more sedate fashion than yesterday. The swell died down and the ship rolled gently. Occasionally the clouds parted to show a weak sun which added some brightness to the surrounding sea.
The program was another day of lectures interspersed with watches on deck for wildlife. The first lecture was by Geologist Wayne Ranney and his talk entitled “Rocks and Ice: Through Time in Antarctica.” Wayne continued with his story of the Gondwana supercontinent but also included information about glaciers, icebergs, and sea ice. The sea ice begins to form around Antarctica in April and by September doubles the size of the continent, already the size of the United States and Mexico combined. We also heard about past climates in Antarctica including large coalfields and petrified forests from formerly warmer times.
Wayne was followed by historian Bob on ‘The Antarctic Treaty’. The governance of the continent of Antarctica, one-sixth of the world's landmass, is an important subject for all visitors. It is amazing there has never been any serious conflict during an age in which the rest of the world has been beset with wars. Bob showed how territorial claims were made even when it was found that Antarctica 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. Bob then showed how the Antarctic Treaty System works to regulate activities in Antarctica, including tourism, and, unlikely as it may seem, 53 nations are able to achieve consensus.
Sea mammal specialist Larry spoke to us in the afternoon about the history of whaling from the earliest records of aboriginal whaling through the glory days of commercial whaling into the stark days of industrial whaling. In each case, he pointed out the characteristics of the relationship between whalers and whales, from a spiritual connection to a connection around dominance and adventure to the rather heartless but efficient relationship of the industry. He then spoke of the challenges facing whales’ survival in our oceans, concluding that in the end whaling, per se, although very important, is not as much of a threat as over-fishing and pollutants such as DDT and PCBs. Larry concluded with the opinion that for humans to learn to manage our resources sustainably, we need to incorporate the sensibilities of each of the whaling eras--interconnection, creativity and the need for limits—into our relationship with the other species on the planet.
The last afternoon talk had Naturalist Russ (of the Antarctic) Manning giving the talk ‘A year in Antarctica’ about his nearly 25 years of living and working in the continent. During the 1990s Russ worked at three British research stations and was Base Commander of two before he started work on cruise ships. He gave a vivid account of life in these isolated communities, with the perils and pitfalls as well as the highlights and sheer pleasure of working in such a wonderful environment.
Saturday, January 26: Passing Elephant Island and Penguin Island, South Shetlands
The swells were unexpectedly high during the night, which had not been forecast, but they settled during the day. Once again ‘Le Lyrial’ showed her stability and rode the waves easily. After breakfast ‘Le Lyrial’ passed what is sometimes known as the Sea Elephant Islands, a group of islands at the eastern end of the South Shetland Islands that comprise Clarence, Cornwallis and Elephant Islands. All three are dramatic mountainous, glacier-clad islands that look spectacular but inhospitable in the extreme. Shackleton brought the complement of Endurance this way in 1916 and eventually made landfall on Elephant Island, named for a large number of these seals seen on its shores. His three boats miraculously landed at Cape Valentine at the eastern end. This was no place for a camp so the men moved to Point Wild on the northern coast and camped there for four months until Shackleton came to the rescue in the Chilean vessel Yelcho. We could see Cape Valentine as we sailed past on the southern side of the island.
Later in the morning, Ornithologist Patri gave her lecture “'Penguin II: Evolution and Biology”. This presentation would help us understand what the penguins are doing when we meet them ashore and explain why they are doing it. Patri introduced the many species of penguins around the world and gave information on their distribution, populations, and life-histories, as well as the different characteristics of each species. More information was given on the species that we are going to see during our trip, including characteristics of their lifestyle, such as diving capabilities, breeding biology, molt and feeding habits.
Still, in the morning photo coach Richard gave us the practical and timely subject ‘The Perfect Penguin: Using Composition to Turn Snapshots into Art’. 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.
The sole event in the afternoon, historian Bob took a novel look at Antarctic history in "Rescued by Penguins: The unsung story of penguins in the Heroic Age.” Starting with the observation that whenever anything went wrong, the first step was to kill large numbers of penguins. He showed they also had provided fresh meat as a valuable dietary supplement ever since European mariners started to visit South America. They were part of the diet of Heroic Age expeditions and helped keep the men healthy. In some cases eating penguins and using their blubber as fuel saved the lives of parties, like Shackleton's men on Elephant Island that had been stranded with little food.
By late afternoon we were approaching Penguin Island, an unimaginatively-named island for this part of the world. The island lies at the eastern end of King George Island, the largest of the South Shetlands. Because we had left South Georgia early and the adverse weather had not slowed us significantly, we were able to fit in an extra landing on what should have been a total sea-day. We were the beneficiaries because we had the opportunity for the extra landing in our program. Penguin Island is host to a small colony of chinstrap penguins, a new species for us, and is an extinct volcano. There was a hike over volcanic cinders up an easy slope to get to the top of the 560 ft (170 m) summit and look down into the crater.
Sunday, January 27: Half Moon Island and Deception Island, South Shetlands
‘Le Lyrial’ was cruising along the east coast of Livingston Island and into Moon Bay where the crescent-shaped Half Moon Island lies. We could not see either island at first because of fog but this had slowly lifted by the time came for landing. From the ship, we could see the Argentine ‘Camara’ research station, which was not occupied, and hear the cacophony of nesting penguins. 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. We then 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 and also two Weddell seals, one lying on a patch of snow the other on the shore. These are the most attractive seals with friendly, ‘teddy bear’ faces and they are generally totally unfazed by our presence. The only reaction would be a raised head to look curiously at by passers.
We repositioned over lunch to Deception Island which lies apart from the other islands of the South Shetland chain. It is called Deception Island because it is deceptive. It looks like an ordinary, solid island until you can see through an opening called Neptune’s Bellows. It is then apparent that the island is a ring, in fact, a volcanic caldera like Santorini or the Ngorongoro Crater. This is the most historic place in Antarctica. It was discovered in 1819 and was the site first for 19th-century sealers and then 20th-century whalers and national research stations of Argentina, Chile and the UK. As we passed through the Bellows we could see Whalers Bay where there are the ruins of the Norwegian whaling station and the British station which were engulfed by a flood of ash during an eruption in 1969. Steam was rising along the shoreline which showed that the Deception Island volcano is not extinct but only slumbering.
Our destination was Telefon Bay at the other end of the caldera. It is named for a Norwegian whaling ship which was beached there in 1909 after hitting a rock, then repaired and sailed up to Punta Arenas, Chile. The landing offered the chance for an easy hike over a surface of volcanic cinders (scoria to geologists) to the top of a ridge that turned out to be the rim of a volcanic crater from which there were good views across the caldera.
Monday, January 28: Cuverville Island and Neko Harbour
Unfortunately, this was another gray day but the clouds were high enough to reveal the mountainous, glaciated nature of the Antarctic Peninsula. Our first landing was at Cuverville Island, one of the most beautiful places in the Antarctic Peninsula region. The visitor is confronted with a panorama of icy mountains surrounding the bay and the island itself consists of a steep-sided hill which is notable for the profusion of green vegetation made up of extensive banks of mosses.
The fitter and more adventurous went ashore first for a hike with outdoor expert Russ Manning. The ascent of the hillside over ice and snow was another first for our Antarctic adventure. The reward was a wonderful view of the surrounding berg-covered sea and distant icy mountains.
The rest of us spent the time watching gentoo penguins going about their business. Now that we are more familiar with them, it was easier to appreciate the different aspects of their behavior. Their chicks were becoming too large for their parents to brood them and marauding brown skuas were waiting to carry off any chicks that were not closely defended.
The zodiac trip back to 'Le Lyrial' was a delight because the bay was choked with small icebergs and large ice floes. The shapes and colors of the ice are impossible to describe in words but plenty of photographs were taken.
When we were all back on board, 'Le Lyrial' weighed anchor and set off through the Errera Channel, another beauty spot, for Neko Harbor, named for a whale factory ship that anchored there in the 1920s. The time had now come for us to finally set foot on the Antarctic continent. The glacier at the head of the cove where we landed is famous for calving off icebergs. Occasionally, there would be a roar and a crash as an ice-fall tumbled down the cliffs or splashed into the water.
Gentoo penguins nested above the landing site. The sky was overcast and there was a chill in the wind but it was warm work for those that went with Russ for a hike on the glacier above the landing beach. What a breathtaking view there was to be had of endless glaciers glittering white above the deep blue ocean.
Those that did not do the hike were able to walk beside the gentoo colony and the landing beach was an excellent place to watch penguins coming and going from the water. We could see them porpoising in from the distance and 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 soiled with guano and hungry.
We had noted several humpback whales feeding around the ship while we were at Cuverville Island and there were humpbacks, as well as a few minke whales, all along the Errera Channel and at Neko Harbour. This cruise has been notable for the number of humpbacks spotted and they no longer have the impact they did when we found so many near Shag Rocks. The main interest now is to spot them showing their tail flukes when they dive. Photographs showing the undersides of the flukes are sent to the Happy Whale website. The pattern of markings on a fluke are as unique to a humpback as fingerprints are to a human. With the time and place recorded for each photograph, it has been possible to track the movements of individual humpback whales.
The final event for this action-packed day was an attempt to steam through the Lemaire Channel which, in the days of film cameras, was nicknamed Kodak Alley. The Chan¬nel, 7-miles long, 1-mile wide passage between Booth Island and mainland Antarctica 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, it is often choked with ice and on this occasion, the ship was only able to penetrate one mile before being forced to turn back. However, we saw enough to appreciate the beauty of the place.
Tuesday, January 29: Port Charcot and Saltpetriere Bay
In the early morning, we were approaching the landing site in Port Charcot. This is a small bay named for his father by the French explorer Jean-Baptiste Charcot who wintered his ship Français here in 1904. The weather was still cloudy with a chilly wind but that did not deter those who wanted a brisk walk to see more penguins and hike up a small hill to a cairn that commemorated Charcot’s expedition.
From the landing place, there was a short climb over some smooth rocks and up a path through the snow to a long ridge. The Expedition Staff had laid old towels to give a firm footing over icy stretches. A track led in one direction to a penguin colony with the ‘grand slam’ of brushtail penguins: gentoos, chinstraps and Adélies, and in the other direction a longer walk to the cairn. From the top of the ridge, there was a view across the sea to a myriad of stranded icebergs, which required the immediate deployment of cameras. This place is sometimes called an ‘iceberg graveyard’ because so many bergs are carried there on the prevailing current and left stranded. The wind soon dropped to a flat calm and the view was enhanced by the reflections of the bergs in a glassy sea.
‘Le Lyrial’ remained at anchor while we enjoyed a barbecue lunch and then went for a Zodiac cruise among the icebergs of Saltpetriere Bay. Close-up, the bergs are seen to be even more spectacular in shapes and colors. There were also crabeater and leopard seals resting on ice floes where they could be approached quietly to watch and photograph. And surprise! Glasses of champagne appeared in the zodiacs and were handed around to drink a toast to a very successful expedition.
So ended our exploration of Antarctica. Captain Debien turned the bows northwards and we made our way in the company of many humpbacks up the Gerlache Strait, through Dallman Bay and into the open sea of the Drake Passage.
Wednesday, January 30: Crossing the Drake Passage
By morning we were well into the open waters of the Drake Passage and our luck was holding. The sea was calm; a Force 3 breeze only gently stirring up the waves. The Drake Passage is notorious for its gales and rough seas. These are due to the westerly winds that sweep unchecked around the world and funneled between South America and the Antarctic Peninsula. The Passage is named for the English privateer Sir Francis Drake whose ship, The Golden Hind, was swept south as he attempted to sail into the Pacific Ocean.
This was a day for enrichment lectures and the start of packing up and preparing for our homegoing. The first lecture was Historian Bob talking about ‘Scurvy: The Scourge of Exploration’. Bob told us that scurvy has been known since the days of the Pharaohs and became a scourge of seafarers and explorers who spent long periods on poor diets. We know now that scurvy is caused by a lack of vitamin C and can be prevented and cured by including fresh food in the diet, but this was discovered only a century ago. Before then the disease was ascribed to poor air, bad digestion, lack of exercise or tainted meat. However, some seafarers were already aware that fresh fruit and vegetables kept their crews healthy. This knowledge came too late for some men in the Heroic Age of polar exploration.
Just before lunch husband and wife team of Marco (Expedition Leader) and Patri (Ornithology Lecturer) took a look at the disastrous effect of longline fishing in "Seabird Conservation in Fisheries". Longlining claims the deaths of thousands of albatrosses and smaller seabirds every year and some species will become extinct if the deaths are not checked. The birds seize the baited hooks and are drowned as the lines are dropped over the side of fishing vessels. There are ways of preventing this slaughter and the save the albatross programme is working to have them implemented.
The afternoon started with Larry Hobbs leading a lively and well-informed discussion on the issue of the day “The Underpinnings of Climate Change: Discovering Sustainability through a Life of Work in the Wilds”. 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 a low tolerance to changes in temperature and will suffer. The declines seen 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 a comparison of 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.
The last lecture of the day was Richard Harker’s “In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams: Processing like Masters”. 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 if Adams alive today, he would be a supporter of processing images.
Finally, we had the grand finale of the cruise, Captain Mickael Debien’s farewell cocktail party and dinner. Now meeting as friends rather than strangers, the party a more sociable occasion than the welcome party at the beginning of the cruise. The captain introduced many of the crew who were greeted with applause for their friendly and efficient roles in running our wonderful, trouble-free cruise.
Wednesday, January 31: Crossing the Drake Passage and Arrival at Ushuaia
Before breakfast, we looked out of the windows to see Nueva Island which marks the entrance to the Beagle Channel. Beyond, on the horizon, loomed more land. The swell that had caused gentle movement of the ship overnight dies away to a glassy sea. Our expedition was nearing its conclusion.
As we approached Tierra del Fuego, Geologist Wayne gave a talk entitled “Earth’s Southernmost People: The Naked Indians of Tierra del Fuego and How People Came to the Americas.” Wayne provided pictures of the Yahgan Indians that were obtained in 1883 by a French photographer on an expedition down south. The pictures were vivid, showing a group that had made a successful living in such a harsh environment. Yahgan women would dive for up to three minutes in the frigid waters of the Beagle Channel to hunt for king crabs. They apparently had no physiological changes to their bodies to do this but were habituated rather to this lifestyle. Wayne also talked about the Bering Land Bridge hypothesis and the Coastal Route theory for the peopling of the Americas.
The final talk of the enrichment lecture series was Bob reminiscing about 'When I was a lad: Two Years in Antarctica'. He had spent two winters in Antarctica in the early 1960s and pointed out that this was closer to the Heroic Age than the present day. Bob had worked at the British Antarctic Survey research station on Signy Island in the South Orkneys (the same station that Naturalist Russ Manning commanded in the 1990s). Unlike other nations, Britain sent men to Antarctica for two years' overwintering. This not only gave scientists time to collect good sets of data but overlapping personnel ensured a nucleus of experienced men on the station. Bob told stories of how life was lived in a small and very isolated community of young men and included the adventures of Ginge the cat.
Some of us joined the Expedition Naturalists on the pool deck to do some birding. There was more to see from the deck than when we were farther south in the Drake Passage because we had entered the albatross zone. Black-browed albatrosses and sooty shearwaters were cruising around the ship as we proceeded up the Beagle Channel in a display of effortless gliding, while black and white checked cape petrels were gliding alongside the ship flying, and diminutive Wilson’s storm petrels flitted to and fro. And there were our last penguins – Magellanic penguins.
After a special afternoon tea that featured a variety of crepes prepared on the spot by the chefs in the grand salon, we gathered in the lecture theatre for the last formal get-together “On Expedition!” in which the Expedition Staff, who has 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 made landings on the Falkland Islands, South Georgia, South Shetland Islands, and the Antarctic Peninsula. We have had shipboard experiences of whales, albatrosses and icy landscapes. So much has happened in a short time that it took many slides to do the experience justice.
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 and eventually ‘Le Lyrial’ came alongside the jetty. There was time to wander into the little town or sit for a quiet drink with new-found friends in anticipation of an early start in the morning. It has been an incredible expedition and although it is sad that it is over, we take away memories, stories, photos and a new understanding of the last great wilderness on earth known as the ‘White Continent’.
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