Antarctica Tour: Shags, Whales, Prions and Fur Seals

By Jim Danzenbaker and Ann Nightingale

January 7  

Jim’s view: I felt almost free today since I had no lectures to present or any talks on shore. It would be a busy day, though. The obvious highlight was a close circling of Shag Rocks, which are the southernmost peaks of the Andes.  This geologic formation emerges from 2000 meter deep water and projects to a height of about 1000 feet above the sea. and hosts a promised abundance of wildlife. I counted 16 Humpback Whales before reaching the rocks. 

shag-rocks

The appropriately named "Shag Rocks" are home to thousands of South Georgia Shags, close relatives of the Imperial Shag and North American cormorants. (Photo by Ann Nightingale)

Tens of thousands of diminutive Antartic Prions flew over the water, sometimes appearing to coat the surface. Three flavors of Albatross are common here, and White-chinned Petrels were everywhere. Antarctic Fur Seals, reminders of the challenges of any landing on South Georgia, became more numerous. I marveled at their acrobatic swimming skills but knew they’d be a force to contend with in the days to come. South Georgia Shags flew over en masse, and photographic opportunities were in no short supply. 

Scanning the horizon, I spotted a shape that brought great excitement—our first iceberg! As we drew nearer others on deck spotted a group of Gentoo Penguins perched upon it. Black-bellied Storm-petrels and Antarctic Prions increased as did many albatrosses of all ages. It was encouraging to see so many of these magnificent ocean wanderers, as they are still severely threatened by longline fishing. Official estimates show disturbing annual reductions in the numbers of breeding birds. 

A whale, briefly seen off the bow, was identified as a Southern Right Whale due to its smooth-edged and evenly pattered fluke. We wished we had seen it earlier. It was wonderful to see the Willis Islands emerge out of the overcast skies—a welcome relief to those suffering from mal de mer. In addition to attraction of getting off the boat, there was the promise of incredible avian spectacles. We ship-cruised through Elsahul Bay on the northwest coast of South Georgia and marveled at the richness of life visible from the ship—nesting Wandering Albatrosses, great numbers of nesting Black-browed and Gray-headed Albatrosses, Macaroni Penguins and a small, but distinctive colony of King Penguins. A group of eight Fur Seals swam out to greet us. I was surprised to see one blonde seal in this group. “Blondies” are regular, but always a treat to see. I fell asleep comforted by the thought of the vast and varied wildlife we would see tomorrow.

Ann’s view: The morning broke with news that land was in sight. Shag Rocks, sharp pinnacles that protrude from the southern ocean northwest of South Georgia Island were in view! Despite my pleading for a landing on solid ground, the best the ship would do was circle the rocks. Spectacular views were enjoyed and photographed by all, the shifting light and perspective making each image different from the last. The rocks are home, not surprisingly, to thousands of South Georgia shags Shags, the best looking cormorants I have ever seen.  

first-iceberg

The first iceberg, spotted by Jim Danzenbaker, was a behemoth that trailed several "bergy bits" and provided a landing place for Gentoo Penguins. (Photo by Ann Nightingale)

Jim gets the prize for spotting the first iceberg of the trip, and it was a doozie! Another hour had passed before we crossed paths with it. Icebergs are among the things that I am looking forward to spending time with on this trip. The contours and colors were amazing, and a flock of penguins on the tail end of the berg were the icing on the cake.  

It was dinnertime before the island of South Georgia came into view. An evening cruise close to shore gave us a hint of things to come. It was impossible to know which way to look. Whales were blowing in one direction while hundreds of Fur Seals cavorted close to the ship. A blonde seal stood out among its chocolate brown playmates. Macaroni and our first King Penguins swam and porpoised close to the ship. Wandering, Gray-headed and Black-browed Albatross heads stood out among the grassy hillsides on shore, and in the distance, we could see a small colony of King Penguins on the beach. Behind us, a bare spot on a cliff turned out not to be bare at all, but to be a large colony of Macaroni Penguins. It was possible to hear them calling even over the drone of the ship’s engine. Tomorrow morning is our first landing on the island, at the famed Salisbury Plain. The keeners among us plan to be on the Zodiacs at 5:30 am, weather permitting. 

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Hey Molly! so lovely to read all the exnicitg news and see the amazing pics on your brilliant blog darling. Glad you’re all having such a great adventure, big kisses to you all, lots of love katie, archie, zack and especially milli (who mentions you almost every day!!) xxx

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