Antarctica Tour: Changing Weather

By Jim Danzenbaker and Ann Nightingale

13 January 2012


Cloudly skies and beams of sunlight accentuate the dramatic vistas along Drygalski Fjord (Photo by Ann Nightingale)

Jim's View: A brisk wind greeted me as I stepped out on deck. We were entering the Drygalski Fjord on the southern tip of South Georgia. We have no landing planned, just a ship cruise up the fjord to the Risting Glacier, which tumbles down at the end of the fjord. I was almost blown over as I rounded the corner of the ship to get to the bow. Nature’s intensity was on display today. Drygalski Fjord’s claim to fame is that the west side is part of a South American geological formation and the east side is the South Georgian rock complex. Hugh Rose, one of the staff naturalists, explained it all, but I was glad I'd written it down since I don’t have a good memory when it comes to geology. 

The trip’s first Snow Petrels flew around the ship, a new bird for most and a sign that we were approaching the great white south. Continuing strong winds added to the challenges of navigating the channel to our proposed landing site, so we took a longer route and cruised around Cooper Island. Along the way the water was dotted with flocks of feeding prions, Black-browed Albatrosses and Macaroni Penguins, while Antarctic Terns and South Georgia Shags flew overhead. A juvenile Antarctic Tern with fresh brown scaled plumage on the back and wings was a nice surprise. Two nearly identical Arctic Terns also flew around the ship for a nice comparison. Arctic Terns are high Arctic breeders that winter in the Southern Hemisphere, while Antarctic Terns spend their entire life cycle in the southern oceans. 

The weather improved dramatically as the Ortelius rounded the east end of Cooper Island. Prospects for a landing went from a 20% possibility to a 95% probability. For one last time, I put my four layers of South Georgia landing gear on and walked to the gangway for a Zodiac ride. I had Macaroni Penguin colony duty that included a talk, so I felt like I was under the gun to establish the trail to the colony. With Tom Murphy’s help, we found the best spot for photography. Our three-hour landing was successful with many folks scaling the Fur Seal-filled tussock-strewn hillside. 


Macaroni Penguin parents tend to their chick. (Photo by Ann Nightingale)

I watch the Macaronis with chicks perform ecstatic display behavior or just bask in the beautiful sunshine. While elegant Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses soared overhead, this morning was dedicated to the Macaronis and I was lucky to have completed the landing and enjoyed such stellar weather. All good things must come to an end, and I eventually returned to the ship. We left South Georgia waters and headed southwest to our long-anticipated visit to the Antarctic continent. As expected, we saw many seabirds—albatrosses, prions, diving petrels, White-chinned and Blue Petrels, and the ubiquitous Giant Petrels. The water of southwest South Georgia teems with life and the birds know it. I enjoyed all of this until I heeded the call for dinner and the end of our day. The swells continued to grow. 

Ann’s view: The Drygalski Fjord was our first destination of the day, with beautiful stone cliffs and glaciers greeting us in somewhat heavy seas. This fjord was formed by the collision of two plates and the rocks on one side bear no resemblance to those on the other. The scenery was spectacular, as is becoming the norm, and we added a new bird—the Snow Petrel—to those seen on the trip. 

One of the highlights of the fjord is a waterfall that appears to go uphill due to the strong winds blowing the water back up the rock face.  The seas were rough enough that we had been warned that the Cooper Bay landing might have to be missed. We were all feeling very lucky to have made every other landing on South Georgia according to the schedule, so were prepared to miss this one. However, as we rounded Cooper Island, the wind in the bay was calmer, and we were able to go ashore. 


While many of us chose to climb the tussocks, others opted for Zodiac cruising. Those in the boats were the first to see a Chinstrap Penguin colony. (Photo by Ann Nightingale)

We were given two options: a steep hike through the tussock to visit a Macaroni Penguin colony or Zodiac cruising. As I hiked up the tussock, I thought about friends with delicate knees and how some of these climbs might not be suitable for them. However, there always is a Plan B, and as I looked down on the Zodiacs following the shore, I was a little jealous of those who had chosen the less strenuous option. Eventually, I reached the Macaroni colony, which was filled with the boisterous penguins, including many parents with chicks. Yet another popular place for photography! A couple hundred frames later, I made my way back the beach to be greeted by two Chinstrap Penguins who approached to within about three feet of me.  


Getting up close and personal with a Gray-headed Albatross (above) is one of the potential rewards for being on the bow as the ship sails towards the South Orkneys, but you might take a wave or two in the teeth. Jim and others braved the deck as waves crashed against the ship on this trip. (Top photo by Jim Danzenbaker, bottom photo by Ann Nightingale)


After lunch we headed back out into the open water, towards our next destination, the South Orkneys. The swell was large and several intrepid travelers braved the deck while the saner among us watched from the bridge. After several waves broke over the bow and soaked them, Jim and the others on the deck also opted to watch from inside. As the swell got stronger, the crowd on the bridge gave each new wave a score. Unfortunately, I was not able to participate in this particular event as a horizontal position was calling my name.

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