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January 20: Paradise Bay, Neko Harbor – Humpback Whales!
After several fairly gray days we were relieved to see that the cloud ceiling was higher and that there were slivers of blue sky this morning. The crew had dropped anchor in Paradise Bay overnight after our late passage through the Lemaire Channel. Paradise Bay is mesmerizing in its beauty. It features a panorama of picturesque icebergs, snow-capped mountains, and glaciers. The early hours were spent cruising from Paradise Bay to Neko Harbor, where we would remain anchored for the rest of the day. En route, we encountered several Humpback and Minke Whales.
Our docking at Neko Harbor was delayed because of another ship that had been ported there the previous night. Apparently, one of its passengers had sustained a serious glissading (a controlled sliding descent down a icy/snow-covered slope) injury, which held up their departure. After setting anchor, our entire group, 110 of us in all, crowded onto the bow for a group photo.
After the photo shoot, it was zodiac cruising time. I piloted a zodiac out closer to the mouth of the harbor in order to join up with three other zodiac groups that were already watching two sleeping Humpback Whales. Thankfully, the whales were undisturbed by our presence as they continued to float on the surface. After about 15 minutes they did wake up and started to dive. Following the first dive, the other three zodiacs headed out, leaving my group in solitude to enjoy the two Humpbacks for nearly an hour. They were making fairly deep dives, which allowed us to get spectacular views of their incredible flukes from only 30 yards away. Two passengers on the zodiac had made a point of challenging me to find some whales that we could view at close range. Challenge met! As a leader, it is always a thrill to deliver the goods.
After spending the morning with the Humpbacks, we returned to the Polar Star for lunch and to share tales of the morning’s experiences. We learned that Doug Cheeseman’s zodiac had enjoyed an up close and personal experience with a Minke Whale to swam to within five feet of their boat!
With eight previous trips to Antarctica under my belt, one might think that this leader had seen and done it all, but as this tour (perhaps my last) was winding down, I still had one piece of unfinished business. I had made it known among the entire group that I was still waiting to see a good calving glacier. As the morning cruise concluded, I clung to fading hopes that this trip might still provide me with this thrill.
After lunch we were back in the zodiacs for another 3.5 hours of cruising. Initially, we weren't finding any whales and few seals, which was disheartening after the success of the morning run. We found sufficient distraction in photographing more icebergs and the huge split columns of ice that formed the foot of a glacier. On occasion, Gentoo penguins porpoised by our zodiac as they made their way back to their colony.
I decided to cross the mouth of the bay and see what was on the other side. When I finally caught sight of one whale dorsal fin, I was hopeful that our luck was about to change. It did! Over the next hour plus, we were surrounded by feeding whales. Huge Humpback Whales came within 20 feet of us and a group of Minke Whales soon joined the feeding frenzy. We had crippling views of gaping whale mouths overflowing with krill, extended throat pleats, blowholes, stovepipes, and dorsal fins. The krill must not have been very deep as the Humpbacks never fluked.
The highlight of this cruise came when a group of 4 Minke Whales came swimming along. I aligned the zodiac so we could parallel them, but they changed heading and we soon realized that we were on a collision course. They generated an impressive power wave as they headed straight towards our boat! At the last instant before crashing into the zodiac, they submerged and swam right underneath us. There were audible exhalations all around as they resurfaced on the other side and continued on. We were ecstatic!
Five minutes later, people were once again pointing out whales and I noticed that everyone was looking in a different direction. Two-way radio have this annoying habit of going completely dead at the least convenient moment, so we had no way of making contact any other zodiacs to share our good fortune. Eventually, fellow naturalists and zodiac drivers, Hugh Rose and Rod Planck showed up so that we were able to share the whales. My only disappointment of the afternoon was that I was unable to show one of the women in my craft a Weddell Seal. We had simply run out of time. We arrived back at the Polar Star and I offloaded the passengers.
While waiting to take the zodiac up on the hook, an amazing thing happened – I heard a loud "crack" and looked around just in time to see a huge mass of ice and snow falling from the highest point above one of the glaciers. I watched transfixed as I realized at long last I was watching a calving, but not from a glacier. The snow and ice crashed to the ground with an incredible cracking roar, sending a huge cloud of snow dust some 75 yards out over the water – truly spectacular! I suddenly realized that I was hearing the cheers of passengers and leaders who had gathered on the stern of the ship. They were celebrating that I had finally seen a calving - woohoo!!!! I couldn’t contain my excitement and everybody knew it! To see a veteran guide enjoying his own "lifer" moment must have been exciting for passengers who had spent the better part of four weeks being provided with such events on daily basis. Their is no joy, like shared joy.
After the spectacular calving, I had the sobering realization that we had just finished our last zodiac cruise of the trip. I turned the motor off and connected the zodiac to the hook for one last time. On the way out of Neko Harbor, we found three more Minke Whales and several Humpbacks. Bearing north into the Gerlache Strait, we were hoping for more whales.
By dinner time, we had tallied eight Humpbacks from the bridge. I finished dinner early and headed back up to the bridge to relieve Gail Cheeseman of “on-watch” duties. She had seen about five additional whales, bring our evening count to thirteen. Soon after returning to the bridge, I looked out and started seeing whales everywhere! Thankfully, Ted Cheeseman had been offering updated counts during dinner, so my p.a. announcement, while not surprising, further reinforced that the place to be was on deck. Doug also announced that whales were in the area. Doug, Gail, Ted and I chose one group that looked particularly promising for prolonged viewing of their behavior. We chose wisely.
During the next 2 hours, the Polar Star was surrounded by feeding whales! A group of five even lined up and did what appeared to be a group bubble feed. Instead of a bubble ring, they appeared to have made a bubble wall which concentrated the krill even more so that all five animals could lunge through the densely packed krill and feed. We were treated to fantastic views of fully engorged pleats, yawning mouths, and flukes too numerous to count. The Gerlache had delivered! One group of whales included a rambunctious calf that breached several times and then remained on the surface for an extended period and repeatedly slapped its long white pectoral flippers on the water. We counted 17 consecutive slaps! The whale viewing climaxed with passengers looking straight down off the bow at the whales – WOW! After a long day and some celebratory refreshments in the bar, we would sleep hard.
All photos by Jim Danzenbaker
January 19: Port Lockroy, Lemaire Channel, Petermann Island, Booth Island
Many of us woke early to view the scenic snow-capped peaks and glaciers that feed into the Neumayer Channel, which is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful passages on the Antarctic Peninsula. Unfortunately, the cloud deck was low so it obscured most of the scenery. However, one could get a taste of what it looked like.
We passed two northbound ships during the 90-minute southbound cruise through the channel as we made our way to the next landing site, Port Lockroy. This British base is among the most visited sites on the Antarctic peninsula. A representative came aboard and spoke to us about the history of the base and what it was like to live there. In addition to an easily accessible Gentoo Penguin colony, this area also is home to a massive reconstructed whale skeleton displayed on a beach at the far side of the colony. The sheer size of this skeleton is impressive – especially the skull and jawbones.
Two landings were on this morning's schedule. The first was at Jougla Point, home of the Gentoos and whale skeleton, and the second featured a small museum and gift shop. The fickle finger of the weather once again turned unpleasant and the winds picked up as if to remind us of where we were. After all, nobody comes Antarctica to be warm or to get out of the wind! Back on board, a hot bowl of soup was the perfect lunch on this day. We continued south.
Rivaling the Neumayer Channel, the Lemaire Channel is equally striking in its beauty, thus our anticipation was high as we entered a stretch that many consider to be the most scenic on the peninsula. It was a relief to see streaks of blue overhead and buoyed our hopes that such conditions would accompany us over the next several days. The clouds rose and cleared enough for us to fully enjoy most of what the Lemaire had to offer. This seven-mile passage is only one mile wide and is bordered on both sides by dramatic sheer mountain faces and glaciers which regularly calve icebergs into the channel. These ice floes held several resting Crabeater Seals and one Leopard Seal. We also glimpsed one Minke Whale en route.
Once through the Lemaire Channel, we continued south for another five miles before reaching Petermann Island. This would be our southernmost destination on this trip and home to a beautiful Adelie and Gentoo penguin colony. After landing, I quickly visited one of the outer neighborhoods of the colony to search for nesting Antarctic Shags. Though this species nests in very low numbers here, a small colony of breeders continues to reliably occupy one particular corner of the island. I was not surprised to find about 10 pairs of Shags, but the size of the young was surprising. One nest had two youngsters, which were nearly ready to fledge, indicating that the Shags had probably started their breeding season even earlier than average. Such shifts offer even more evidence of the now constant weather changes in this part of the world.
It was interesting to compare the different feeding styles between penguins and shags. The penguins regurgitate the food to their young after forcing the food up the throat and out of the bill into the waiting bill of the chick. Conversely, the shags are not able to bring the food up the throat as far so the chicks have jam their heads down the throat of the adult to get fed. Since the shag’s neck is long, it almost looks like the adult is swallowing the chick since it has to reach in so far to get the food.
Alongside the Shags, Adelies and Gentoos tended to nest duties and the raising of their own healthy chicks. The Adelie chicks were already old enough to be left alone whereas the Gentoo chicks were still being brooded. I left the colony with Gail Cheeseman and about 10 passengers who wanted to photograph colony life. I was charmed as I watched penguins tobogganing downslope from their lofty neighborhood nests to their eventual launch into the sea.
A quick walk to the far side of the island was serene. Penguins were traversing well-worn highways, while non-breeding skuas enjoyed a quick dip in an ice melt pond. Snow and ice aplenty contrasted subtly with the cold gray granite outcroppings. The view from the far side of the island was stunning as grounded tabular icebergs dotted the landscape. A hasty retreat to the landing ended our visit to Petermann, which is one of my most favored sites.
Following a quick repositioning of the ship and dinner, we were off to our third destination of the day. Booth Island forms the western bank of the Lemaire Channel. A visit to the eastern edge of Booth Island is one of the highlights of this tour. The island is one of few locations on the peninsula where all three brush tail penguins—Gentoo, Adelie and Chinstrap—breed. We only saw two Chinstrap Penguins and perhaps 15 pairs of Adelies mixed in with the hundreds of breeding Gentoos pairs. On the other side of the island, grounded ice floes were peppered with resting Leopard Seals and a few Weddell Seals.
The highlight of the evening came when we learned that staff historian Craig Poore had proposed to his girlfriend Lauren amid the grandeur of the berg-filled landscape and the charm of rocks covered in guano. How could Lauren refuse? Congratulations to both of you! In the wake of experiencing some of the finest nature has to offer, glowing recollections of the day's activities diverted our attentions from the chill in the air as we made the the six-mile zodiac ride back to the ship.
January 18: Cierva Cove, Gerlache, Cuverville Island
Although shrouded in low clouds and light rain, the idyllic grandeur of Ciera Cove greeted us this morning. Icebergs of all shapes and sizes were strewn about like a child’s toys and tall snow-capped mountains jutted upwards from the edge of the cove. Gaping cracks in centuries-old glaciers shown various hues of blue, violet, and turquoise.
The early part of the day was dedicated to zodiac cruising among the icebergs and the study of loafing seals and feeding whales. With eight hearty passengers aboard I launched my zodiac just after breakfast. We marveled at the beautiful lines and textures in icebergs and all their various forms.
We also encountered a lone Leopard Seal swimming around the base of one large berg. Though this seal wasn't on the hunt, and we didn't represent a potential meal, its menacing appearance was still a bit intimidating. We could only imagine what it must feel like to be a penguin in the presence of this marine predator.
Gentoo Penguins occasionally rocketed by our zodiac. While clumsy and plodding on land, their speed and agility in the water amazed us. South Polar Skuas, Antarctic Terns, and Kelp Gulls flew overhead. After several hours of cruising, the prospect of warmth and a hot cup of coffee was cause enough to make a rest stop back at the ship.
Our second round of cruising was a bit more productive than the first. We headed directly for a loafing Crabeater Seal that had been sighted from the bow of the Polar Star. This eight-foot long pinniped lay carefree on its icy bed as we snapped photos. It yawned several times revealing its multi-cusped lower teeth which are used for straining krill, its main food. Continuing on, we located four more photogenic Crabeaters on a floe and then moved on to a Leopard Seal that was spotted on yet another floe.
At 12 feet in length, the Leopard Seals reside near the top of Antarctic food chain, yielding only to Orcas. This Leopard Seal was wide awake and kept a close eye on us as we maneuvered into position for optimal photos. The 15-foot rule was strictly enforced as we didn’t want to disturb the scene for other cruisers.
After this encounter we headed out to more open water and joined three other zodiacs in a search for two Humpback Whales, which had been spotted about 45 minutes earlier. Luck was again on our side as the two whales started to feed within minutes of our arrival. We crept forward at a pace that allowed us to keep up with them. I opted to take an outside track in an effort to avoid any disturbance and to position our zodiac near where I hoped the whales would reemerge. Dumb luck or not, they surfaced a mere 10 meters away from our craft and we were rewarded with astonishing views of blowholes, dorsal fins and tail flukes. Hearing the sound their blow at point-blank range in this pristine landscape will resonate in my memory forever. Yet again, the appointed hour for our return to the Polar Star came too quickly. During our return drive, two Minke Whales paralleled our zodiac – a fleeting glimpse, but perhaps a sign of things to come.
After lunch, we entered the Gerlache Strait, which is affectionately called "Whale Alley" because we routinely see many feeding Humpback Whales during this six-hour stretch. We were not disappointed. Whales gradually started appearing in all directions. By the end of the passage, we had counted 50, including many flukes and one that breached. One by one, Antarctica was revealing its gems!
Our final stop of this marathon day was at Cuverville Island, home to a Gentoo Penguin colony, South Polar Skua club, and grounded icebergs. I was again piloting one of the zodiacs, allowing me further opportunity to take in beautiful landscapes featuring finely sculpted icebergs. Cracked glaciers, which always seemed as though they might calve at any moment, held our attention. We were also treated to somewhat surreal views of the Polar Star framed by icebergs against a dramatic gray sky. As we circumnavigated Cuverville Island, we marveled at Gentoo Penguins nesting on what appeared to be inaccessible terrain. Our ears were filled by the haunting sounds of Kelp Gulls, Antarctic Terns, and Skuas. This day of superlatives soon came to an end, leaving us to anticipate what adventures adventures tomorrow might deliver.
All photos by Jim Danzenbaker
January 17: Bailey Head and Deception Island
After crossing the Bransfield Strait overnight, we anchored off Bailey Head on Deception Island in the South Shetland Islands, which lie to the north of the Antarctic peninsula. We anticipated that this would be our most challenging landing due to the swell that crashes against the sloping black volcanic sand beach. However, the lure 100,000+ pairs of Chinstrap Penguins motivated us and we rose to the challenge. Thankfully, good fortune was on our side and, despite spitting rain, we conquered the beach and got everyone ashore without incident.
The beach was crawling with Chinstrap Penguins and at times it appeared to ooze. Hundreds of birds came and went. The urgency of their pace in and out of the sea was accelerated by a Leopard Seal that was patrolling some ten meters off the beach in hopes of picking off a penguin or two. Many "Chinnies" were beaching themselves right at our feet and one deposited itself in one of the zodiacs that we had pulled out of the reach of the crashing swells.
Just behind the beach, a nesting pair of Pale-faced Sheathbills cared for two downy young. The nestlings, which had yet to acquire the characteristic warty face and heavy bill of an adult, were infinitely cuter than their parents. Above the beach, Pintado (Cape) Petrels nested on cliff ledges, while Southern Giant Petrels fed on several decapitated penguins -- the calling card of a Leopard Seal -- that were floating on the water’s surface.
What started as spitting rain had intensified and was now pelting us. Though slight, the Antarctic breeze was beginning to penetrate our sodden layers of clothing, so we started ferrying our passengers back to the ship a little earlier than anticipated. Launching zodiacs from Bailey Head is even dicier than landing there, but with precision teamwork and quick and alert passengers, nearly everyone made it back to the Polar Star with dry gear and with yet another set of once-in-a-lifetime experiences to share back home. About 20 folks headed out on a hike across the island to Whaler’s Bay and Pendulum Cove.
The Polar Star was repositioned to inside the caldera where we would spend the afternoon. We passed Neptune’s Window, a large square “window” carved out of rock on the side of the caldera, and Neptune’s Bellows. This entrance to the caldera is aptly named for the sounds that occur when strong winds that pass through it.
Fickle weather would alter our afternoon plans. A fairly strong low pressure system was parked over the island. Sustained winds were cranking at about 30 knots. This made the proposition of landing folks who wanted to swim in the meager hot springs at Pendulum Cove problematic. However, one thing can be said for Cheesemans and its clients – never say never. After the hikers returned and after lunch, two zodiac loads of swimmers headed out to the cove for a brief but memorable dip in the cold/hot waters of the caldera.
I succumbed to my saner side and remained on board the Polar Star, instead using this time to catch up on a few things that had fallen through the cracks. Once all the invigorated swimmers were back on the boat, we re-threaded the needle of Neptune’s Bellows and headed out into open waters. We then backtracked across the Bransfield Strait to the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula and Cierva Cove, leaving the winds of Deception Island behind.
All photos by Jim Danzenbaker
January 16: Devil Island and Brown Bluff
Today we awoke to brilliant Antarctic sunshine. Add in a panorama filled with snow-capped mountains, and pristine icebergs and most of us were thinking "paradise found." Our morning landing targeted Devil Island, located in a small bay on the north end of Vega Island, which lies just inside the hook at the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula at the northwest corner of the Weddell Sea. Devil Island has a colony of 20,000 pairs of Adelie Penguins – modest compared to Paulet Island, but easier for me to wrap my brain around.
Shortly after breakfast we made landfall, marking the first time a Cheeseman tour had explored this site. Last year were cruised around the island in zodiacs, but didn't land. We were greeted by a boisterous colony of Adelies, which had been split into two “neighborhoods” by a runoff corridor. We used this divide to make our way upslope and reach a vantage point where we could look down on the colony. This perch allowed us to study the Adelies and learn much about the daily lives without interfering with their activities. We were able to observe pairs incubating eggs, many chicks, territorial displays, mating, aggressive territorial behaviors, advertising males, and regurgitation.
Several of us continued uphill, hiking to the highest point on the island. We scrambled up scree slopes and traversed dirty snow fields as we made the 650-foot climb. I stopped 25 feet shy of the top, opting not to join those who climbed a steep solid rock pinnacle in order to reach the summit. What a grand view! Antarctica in all its grandeur lay at our feet. Time flies when you're having fun, thus we found it was time to descend to the landing long before any of us was ready to leave. A falling tide had exposed many rocks, making our zodiac ride back to the ship a bit precarious. The last zodiac off the island had to be walked out 100 yards into deeper water before we could climb aboard.
During the afternoon, we cruised north and east toward Antarctic Sound. Our first steps onto the Antarctic continent would be taken at Brown Bluff. Up to now, our Antarctic landings had been limited to offshore islands. Along the way we were surprised to find yet another Emperor Penguin (and possibly a second) swimming in the placid water. This sighting combined with the two we had seen earlier (I forgot to mention one seen yesterday) and we had a Cheesemans’ record of three or four Emperor Penguins for the trip surpassing the previous trip high of two. We also saw another ship, the "Hanseatic," passing south to Devil Island.
The large backdrop of brown volcanic brown cliffs that lay behind the landing site left no cause to wonder why this place is called Brown Bluff. When compared to many of our other landings, this one is rather quaint. It hosts a nice-sized Adelie Penguin colony and some Gentoo Penguins as well. Unlike the Gentoos that we had previously seen on South Georgia and the Falklands, the chicks at this colony were no more than a week old and they were still being brooded. During previous visits the chicks here had always been about three to four weeks old and chick chases had been common. None of that here this afternoon.
Apparently, the above-average snowfall and related runoff had delayed these Gentoos from starting their nesting on schedule. However, we did find that the Gentoo Penguins, which were nesting on higher ground, above the Adelie Penguin colony, seemed to have three-week old chicks. A size comparison of the chicks in the two locations was startling. Even with the delayed breeding cycle, I think that all of the chicks will survive to successfully fledge, assuming healthy adults and a good supply of nearby food. The Adelies in this colony appeared to be thriving, as most pairs had two healthy-looking chicks.
We did eventually observe a few chick chases. I've always found it comical to watch as adults decide which chick is theirs, and then exercise and test the strength and general health of their offspring. Parades of Adelies were coming and going along the shoreline, invariably holding their flippers out as they retraced their routes to waiting mates and chicks. When adults return to the nest, raucous rolling calls announce the reunion. It hard to describe how noisy an Adelie colony can be as this scene plays out among thousands of pairs throughout the colony.
By the afternoon, the good fortune of this morning’s sunny weather had eroded to overcast skies.
The cloud ceiling continued to drop as we beat a retreat to the Polar Star, concluding yet another wonderful day of this Antarctic safari.
All photos by Jim Danzenbaker
January 15: The Adelies of Paulet Island
There was collective relief among staffers and passengers alike when we looked out over serenely calm surroundings this morning. No wind, no swell, no whitecaps! No worries. The scenery was fantastic with snow-capped mountains, sculpted icebergs, and penguins in the water. Our anticipation of a fine day was palpable.
After breakfast, we landed on Paulet Island, home to some 125,000 pairs of Adelie Penguins. The view from the beach brought tears to my eyes. Hundreds of Adelie Penguins came and went
returning to waiting mates and hungry chicks or just loafing after a feeding run. Adelies are the quintessential penguin. Their black and white tuxedoed plumage, extended flippers, and
gregarious nature combine to make them utterly endearing.
After the initial euphoria of being in the company of thousands of these charming creatures, it became apparent that something about the colony wasn't quite right. Many nests had neither young nor
eggs. At first I feared that some unknown event had caused widespread reproductive failure among these lovely penguins this season. However, further exploration of the colony revealed that the lack of chicks or eggs was pervasive in some sections of the colony while pairs in other parts of this massive rookery were tending to normal numbers of offspring.
We could only speculate about what might have led to the nest failures we found in some sections of the colony. Perhaps strong winds or a freezing rain event, or some combination of the two was the cause. Neither of these weather factors is necessarily disastrous to a colony under most circumstances. However, if severe weather hits when eggs are hatching or when young are newly-hatched and at their most vulnerable stage, the outcome can be devastating.
It was interesting to see so many mated penguins going through the motions of incubating an egg when there was no egg in the nest. The drive to reproduce and raise young is strong!
In addition to the empty nests in the Adelie colony, reproductive failure within the colony Antarctic Shags was nearly 100 percent! We found only two active nests on the promontory rock and none on the slope, which typically hosts over 100 breeding pairs.
Following our explorations of the penguin and shag colonies, I laid down a flagged trail along the beach and up to the remains of the Nordenskold hut, where I would give a bird behavior talk a bit later. Other lectures included Craig Poore’s history talk and a drawing class led by Edward Rooke. In the afternoon I took folks zodiac cruising. Fantastic icicles, blue icebergs, and Adelies on ice floes in beautiful light thrilled my passengers.
After our last zodiac run, the Polar Star departed for a leisurely evening cruise north to visit another Adelie colony on Joinville Island. We were transfixed as we sailed through some of the most memorable scenery on the planet.
All photos by Jim Danzenbaker
January 14: Into the Sea Ice
Bump….crunch…. I awoke to these wonderful sounds at 4:30 in the morning as the Polar Star plowed through sea ice with embedded icebergs. Somehow I managed to steal another hour of sleep before getting up and going to the bridge for on-watch duties. The austere frozen land and seascape that stretched out in all directions fit the mental image one has when they envision Antarctica – wide expanses of ice floating amid cold blue water. Sometimes its difficult to understand how any creature could survive such harsh conditions, but this morning our passengers would start to understand that life abounds here.
Less than a half hour after ascending to the bridge, we saw a lone penguin on an ice floe about 50 meters from the ship. I looked at it and immediately recognized that it was a sub-adult Emperor Penguin, a species that took us 45 hours to find on last year’s voyage. We sounded an alert and within minutes everyone piled out of cabins and stumbled onto outside decks to view this prize.
Emperor Penguin is the species made famous by “The March of the Penguins” movie. They can be surprisingly difficult to find during the non-breeding season. Most breeding sites can only be visited by helicopter or arduous foot travel as the colonies are far removed from the water's edge. Sub-adult Emperors are the age class most commonly encountered during cruises since they have the highest tendency to wander far from the colonies. Most adult Emperors travel south to the edge of the polar pack ice to feed.
In addition to the Emperor Penguin, we were excited to see multiple Antarctic Petrels flying around and very near the ship. I had feared that yesterday’s sighting would be the only one of the trip. Today’s incredible tally of 24 was not only record day count for a Cheeseman tour, but it surpassed all previous trip totals! This species nests inland far south of our location and is usually only encountered in pack ice. We have only seen Antarctic Petrels on four previous Antarctic expeditions, thus today's encounters were a special surprise.
Snow Petrels were very common during the morning hours, including one flock of 15 of this elegant tubenose. Many Crabeater Seals were lounging on ice floes, a few of which were close enough for decent photos. Eventually, we left the ice and continued sailing north and west to the Bransfield Strait and Antarctic Sound, our passage to today's destination – Paulet Island. En route, we encountered more Crabeater Seals, a few Leopard Seals, Humpback Whales and a few Black-browed Albatross. The weather deteriorated to steady snow and fairly windy conditions. We hoped we would escape the weather during the night and that fine weather would be delivered to us by morning.
All photos by Jim Danzenbaker
January 13: Coronation Island and icebergs up close and personal
After being ship-bound for two days we were chomping at the bit for our landing at Shingle Cove on Coronation Island in the South Orkneys. However, strengthening winds were turning enthusiastic faces to anxious ones. Though the winds were gusty, thankfully the swell was not sufficient to prevent us from landing. Once ashore, I marked a route across the beach, which was covered with Adelie Penguins, to the rocky ledges where Pintado (Cape) Petrels were nesting.
It was apparently colder than normal as I was seeing icicles here for the first time, perhaps explaining the reduced number of petrel nests I would find. Ordinarily, we can count on about 10-12 active nests at this site with much gurgling and cackling as mated birds exchange nest duties. Today, I found only three nests and no calling birds. Even the sky over the beachhead, which is normally filled with birds, had just a few. A nest that is occupied by a Snow Petrel most years, was empty this trip.
After being underwhelmed by the level of activity in the petrel nesting area, the bustling Adelie Penguin colony was a welcome diversion. There was a steady parade of adult birds going back and forth between the water and the colony, which is upslope from the beach. Departing birds amassed on the shoreline and then, as if on cue, they collectively splashed into the water.
Farther upslope, there was unfolding drama. A classic chick chase was occurring as Adelie chicks were chasing an adult all over all over the slope face hoping for a quick meal. For some reason, they abandoned their pursuit of the one adult and started after another. During a brief pause in the action, an opportunistic skua swooped in and attacked one of the unprotected chicks. When the chick tried to run, a second skua joined the fray. With two adult skuas in hot pursuit of a single defenseless penguin chick, the outcome was predictable and a bit gruesome. Eventually, a Southern Giant Petrel came in and wrenched what was left of the penguin carcass away from the skuas. This was not an family-friendly episode.
Our return trip to the ship was one wet and wild zodiac ride. An advancing low pressure system combined with katabatic winds off the Sunshine Glacier produced some interesting swells and chop. We spent much of the afternoon marveling at icebergs as we continued on a southwesterly heading towards Paulet Island and the Antarctic Peninsula. Along the way we saw a few Humpback and Minke Whales. An encounter with an Antarctic Petrel, just the 8th one I'd ever seen, was the highlight of my day.
All photos by Jim Danzenbaker
January 12: Whale extravaganza
We were pleasantly surprised this morning when we awoke to find that the bounding main had a little less bound. Unexpectedly mellow seas combined with our westward course, which put the light at our backs, created ideal whale watching conditions. We couldn't have envisioned the magical day we were about to experience. By lunch time we had already seen 32 Fin Whales, just before dinner our tally hit 61, and by day's end we had encountered 97 of these leviathans! In all, with the addition of three Cuvier’s (pronounced "coo-vee-ays") Beaked Whales, two Southern Right Whales, and five Humpback Whales, we saw 112 whales on the day.
Perhaps even more amazing was the show put on by Kerguelan Petrels. Our previous high for this two-day passage had been seven, but today we saw no fewer than 58! I suspect that the more modest numbers of Kerguelans seen during previous trips were en route to traditional feeding grounds further south. However, this year's massive krill blooms were farther north and right in our path. It was apparent that the extraordinary numbers of Fin Whales and Kerguelan Petrels were taking advantage of this bounty.
Since we were unaccustomed to seeing feeding Kerguelans, some of the behaviors we were witnessing were new to veteran staffers. We were surprised to see many of the petrels flying high. Neither the
Plancks (Rod and Marlene) nor I had witnessed such behavior previously. Additionally, this was my first experience with a Kerguelan actually sitting on the water and actively feeding. Lots of Blue Petrels and Antarctic Prions were also in the area. I observed one prion land, then dive and return to the surface with beak full of krill.
Since we would be making landings the next day, bio-security procedures were once again part of our daily regimen. Duplicating our routine in South Georgia, we took every precaution in order to safeguard against introducing alien species to the Antarctic Peninsula and the South Orkneys. Staffers once again gathered for a briefing to ensure that we were prepared for landings and zodiac cruising around Shingle Cove in the South Orkneys. A beautiful sunset illuminated distant icebergs and reminded us that the next day's activities would be enhanced by an Antarctic backdrop.
All photos by Jim Danzenbaker
January 11: Macaronis for breakfast and a South Georgia farewell
The weather forecast was not the greatest, but being hopelessly optimistic we anticipated a landing this morning at Cooper Bay. There is a fairly large Macaroni Penguin colony here that’s hidden in the tussock grass near the south end of South Georgia. Initially, we had planned a landing at the nearby
Chinstrap Penguin colony, but after assessing the difficult combination of a steep sloped beach and healthy swell, we opted for the Macaronis.
Once ashore at 6am, I worked my way upslope to find a pathway through the ever-present fur seals and the tussock to the Macaroni colony. A light snow, which had fallen overnight, blanketed the
bent-over tussock grass making for some slick footing. I was encouraged to see that the colony, which now extends farther up the hill, appears to have grown since last year's visit. However, that meant that a walk across to the other side of the colony would be nearly impossible due to the terrain and the limited amount of time.
The thick tussock allowed the Macaronis to hide well. Our first glimpses of them were often limited to the sight of a slicked-back yellow crest weaving through curved green vegetation that was heavily accented with white. Throughout our visit, the Macaronis were belting out their vociferous calls, defending territories, renewing pair bonds, or advertising for mates. Many birds were on eggs and a few had very young chicks. Macaronis are fast becoming one of my favorite penguins. I am captivated by the way they hop up hillsides, their bright plumage and their strong personalities. They are quite pugnacious, always ready to defend their turf against interlopers.
Sadly, this would be our last landing on South Georgia. Seemingly everywhere we had turned in recent days we faced less than ideal weather and potential landing spots that were being battered by unrelenting swells. Since safety is paramount on these tours, we reluctantly made the wise decision to sail on, departing Cooper Bay and leaving South Georgia. I bade a fond farewell with hopes that I'll return here someday soon. South Georgia is such a magical place and the Cheesemans execute this tour magnificently. I continue to hope that more and more people get the opportunity to experience South Georgia’s abundant wildlife and fantastic scenery.
As has been the case on previous trips, seabirds increased in abundance during the first several hours after South Georgia disappeared behind the horizon. Common Diving-Petrels in the thousands, a small number of South Georgia Diving-Petrels, loads of Antarctic Prions, ever-present Southern Giant and White-chinned petrels and Wilson’s and Black-bellied storm-petrels were everywhere. Blue
Petrels increased and the occasional Light-mantled Sooty and Wandering albatrosses remained with us. The sighting of two Minke Whales, our first whales of the day, was a sign of things to come.
The exceptional quantity of marine life that we encountered in this area matched up with the krill abundance map that the researcher had shown us in Gritvyken several nights before, reinforcing that there is a strong correlation between krill abundance and the abundance of seabirds and marine mammals. The seas, which had been turbulent when we left South Georgia, became gradually calmer, thus whale-viewing conditions improved steadily throughout the day. By day's end we had tallied an amazing number of whales, including 2 Minkes and 37 Fin whales, some of which came close enough to the ship that we could see their white lower right jaws. Additionally, seven Kerguelan Petrels (a visitor to these waters from 4000 miles to the east) were seen – more than the combined average for the two-day crossing to the Orkneys from previous trips.
Lectures were also on the schedule since we would spend all day at sea. The presentations included photo workshops on Antarctica and the Natural History of Antarctica. I applauded Rod Planck and Doug Cheeseman for their excellent presentations. I gave my third in a series of seabird identification talks. Happily, it was well received as well. In the aftermath of the usual full dinner, sleep came rather easily.
All photos by Jim Danzenbaker
January 10: Godthul and schedule flexibility
We had traveled south during the night with intentions of making an early morning landing at the immense King Penguin colony at St. Andrew’s Bay. Unfortunately, the weather was still uncooperative and the swell on the beach would have been too overpowering for a safe landing.
Moving on to Plan B, we sailed into the safe harbor at Godthul, which offered a protected cove with a Gentoo Penguin colony and some King Penguins on the landing beach. We held out hope that we would also be able to visit a Macaroni Penguin colony, which lies across the bay.
Weather is always the big question mark in this corner of the world, thus even the best laid plans can fall apart. Ours were in serious jeopardy. It quickly became apparent that the Macaroni Penguin visit would have to be scrapped. None of us was anxious to make a James Caird-like bouncing zodiac ride over to the far side of the bay, followed up by a difficult ascent through an Antarctic Tern colony. Reluctantly, we opted for the landing of least resistance.
The first landing party had already established a trail through the Fur Seal infested tussock grass to a ridge where a Gentoo colony was located. We found it a bit befuddling that it took us considerable effort to get to the colony while simultaneously watching Gentoos, whose legs are considerably shorter than ours, traverse the same terrain with comparative ease. Passengers found particular joy in watching Gentoo Penguins bath in a hilltop pond before descending to the sea. We also watched seal pups playing games along the shoreline, which was littered with a multitude of bones. Snow kept flying even as the last minutes of our visit ticked away. Lunch never tasted better.
Back aboard the Polar Star, the afternoon was spent traveling south along the east coast of the island to its southern tip and Drygalski Fjord. This narrow fjord separates the island of South Georgia from a section of sea floor crust that was thrown upward many millions of years ago. Impressive
geologic formations were interpreted by Hugh Rose on the intercom. At the end ofthe fjord, the Risting Glacier dumps brash ice, bergy bits, and larger chunks into the pure glacial water. We glimpsed a Leopard Seal on one floe but it slithered away before more than a handful of us were able to find it. We spotted our first Snow Petrels of the trip, a beautiful species of seabird never found
far from the ice. Our evening ended with a delicious dinner and, unfortunately, scrubbed plans for zodiac cruising in Larsen Harbor. Once again, mounting ocean swells were not dove-tailing with our itinerary.
All photos by Jim Danzenbaker
In two earlier offerings in this journal ("Runtism Revisited" December 2009, and "The Midget Frigate..." July 2009) Steve Mlodinow discussed "runts" in bird populations, so we felt that in the interest of equal time we should take a closer look at a bird that appeared to be oversized. On 20 December 2009, while taking part in the Coos Bay, Oregon Christmas Bird Count, Shawneen Finnegan and I found a very large winter-plumaged adult California Gull at a public boat ramp in Empire, Coos County, Oregon. This individual appeared to be significantly larger than all of the other California Gulls gathered at this site. We made observations and took photos for about twenty minutes before moving on. To our eyes, this bird looked longer-legged, larger-headed, longer and thicker-billed, and bulkier overall than any of the dozen or so California Gulls hanging around the boat ramp parking area.
Aside from having a bit more dark feathering on the hindcrown and nape, the plumage of the larger bird appeared to match that of the other similar-aged California Gulls. In a few of the many images that I captured the mantle color on the larger bird appears slightly paler than the mantles of the smaller birds. However, we did not notice any consistent difference in mantle color in the field, thus we have concluded that these slight variances (seen only in photos) can be attributed to slight changes in light angle. Comparing the relative darkness or lightness of mantle colors on gulls is problematic at best and often misleading due to the way slight light angle changes affect our perceptions of gray tones.
After consulting The Birds of North America Online, it is hard to say whether this bird exceeds or falls within the normal range of size variation for California Gull. Male California Gulls average larger (mass in grams), are longer-legged, longer and thicker-billed, and longer-winged than their female counterparts (Winkler 1996). Further, it is important to point out that there are two subspecies of California Gull, both of which are known to occur along the Pacific Coast during the non-breeding season.
According to Howell and Dunn (2007), the interior L. c. albertaensis, which breeds primarily in Prairie Provinces and farther north in central Canada, averages approximately 5-12% larger than the more westerly L. c. californicus, which breeds in the Great Basin and a few isolated colonies in California. In the measurement ranges presented by Winkler (1996), size differences between the smallest female californicus and the largest male albertaensis were much more significant. In addition to averaging larger, L. c. albertaensis is typically described as paler above. However, depending on lighting conditions, differences in mantle tone between the two subspecies may or may not be perceptible (Howell and Dunn 2007).
Howell and Dunn state that the wintering ranges of these two subspecies are poorly known. Generally speaking, the majority of California Gulls that occur along the Oregon coast are presumed to be L. c. californicus, though most observers do not make any effort to identify individual birds to subspecies. It should be noted that there is enough overlap in overall size, bill length and depth, tarsus length, and wing length (Winkler 1996) that many individuals cannot be safely identified to subspecies in the field. When observing this bird in the field, we did not perceive it to be lighter-mantled. However, the bill length and thickness, and obvious larger size would suggest that it is a male and likely a male L. c. albertaensis. Even if this bird represents the larger subspecies, visually it seemed to approach outlier proportions.
Howell, Steve N.G. and Jon Dunn. A Reference Guide to Gulls of the Americas. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2007.
Winkler, David W. 1996. California Gull (Larus californicus), The Birds of North America Online(A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online:http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/259
All photo by Dave Irons
January 9: Salisbury Plain and a King Penguin extravaganza!
Could this be the calm before the storm? In this part of the world, flat calm seas and no wind are the exception not the rule, so some of the veteran staffers were understandably edgy upon awakening to such conditions this morning. Many of us had seen this kind of weather before only to see it change in an instant. The placid conditions made for an easy landing on the wide beach and the low density of Fur Seals did not complicate matters.
After receiving the usual cautionary instructions of “walk at a penguin’s pace” and “keep the proper distance from the wildlife,” passengers began making their way to see the vast colony of 100,000 pairs of King Penguins which makes Salisbury Plain famous. The colony extends from just beyond the beach some 75 yards up a hillside and is surrounded by tussock grass. The din one experiences from the edge of the colony is incredible and it is easy to get completely mesmerized. Lines of oakum boys were woven like golden strands among the stately orange-eared black and white adults.
Eventually, more passengers appeared and we began searching for potential egg exchanges. After about 20 minutes, we found one! Unfortunately, only three of us saw it. Of course, with 100,000 pairs, one would hope that there would soon be another. While we waited, we identified several pairs that looked to be ready for an exchange. An hour and a half later we were still waiting.
We did see a skua make a low pass over the penguins. One penguin reacted, instinctively striking upwards and in the process it lost its egg. The egg rolled out onto the open ground and within seconds it fell prey to the skua’s sharp beak. The skua returned several times to enjoy its yolk breakfast. Such is life in a penguin colony. At 10am, I gave a King Penguin biology talk next to the colony. I’m always glad to answer the questions that people ask as it helps me to learn even more.
Though our attentions had been focused on the activities of the penguins, all of us had noticed that the winds were growing progressively stronger and the snow was falling more heavily. One look at the Polar Star told us that conditions at the gangway were deteriorating. Eventually, safety concerns outweighed our desire to keep watching the penguins. The ship’s horn was sounded and we hastily made our way back to the landing site. In the end, this landing was only cut short by about 20 minutes, so folks got a quality experience with the penguins and, for some, an enjoyable somewhat wet and bouncy ride to the Polar Star (not to mention the zodiac to gangway transfer).
This afternoon we had planned a landing on Prion Island, where we would see the majestic Wandering Albatrosses on their nests. Unfortunately, South Georgia was in the throes of less than optimal weather conditions and it took a while to find an anchorage that was both safe and fairly close to Prion Island. Though disappointing, we had no choice but to postpone the landing until after the eight-foot swells subsided. A few lectures were scheduled and a biographical video of Earnest Shackleton was presented.
It wasn't until after dinner that we were finally able to land on Prion Island. In guided groups of ten, we walked up the boardwalk to enjoy our moments visiting the great albatrosses. It was like a pilgrimage to visit a life-form that is even higher than ourselves and more than a few tears were shed. One bird had a nest no more than 6 feet from the viewing platform, allowing us an up-close experience that surpassed any that we had enjoyed during previous visits. We returned to the Polar Star with many tales to tell of the day’s audio and visual treats.
All photos by Jim Danzenbaker
January 8: Hercules Bay and Grytviken
Hercules Bay was kind to us today. Unlike last year’s heavy swell and rain, today brought relatively calm seas and occasional snow showers. We were able to secure both landing sites which allowed folks to spread out a bit since neither site is particularly large. This was a Macaroni Penguin morning with breeders occupying the upland tussocks, and loafers and ocean-bound birds gathering along the rocky coastline. The first landing site was enhanced by a beautiful waterfall that cascaded down to a beach where there was a small group of King Penguins. Single Chinstrap and Gentoo penguins were among the Kings.
Along the water’s edge, groups of Macaroni Penguins walked along. We examined one another with mutual curiosity. Several harems of "furries" (Fur Seals) dotted the beach as well – a landing wouldn’t be complete without them. Also, many Elephant Seals, including quite a few weaners (this year’s young), lay like plump sausages on the beach. One decided to explore our group and came ever closer to our pile of life jackets, backpacks and dry bags. I had to rescue the gear before the seal lumbered onto them. While weaving a pathway through the Fur Seals, one belligerent young male bit the end of the broom stick that I was carrying for protection and yanked it right out of my hand – amazingly strong creatures!
Upon landing, we realized that we needed another zodiac for cruising, so Doug Cheeseman ferried me back to the ship, where we dropped another boat into the water. I ended up getting to pilot that zodiac for several hours. At one point, we idled up next to a large group of Macaroni Penguins that were entering and exiting the waters. Watching the Macaronis, we were reminded of the Rockhoppers that we had seen in the Falklands. These two species are in the same genus and they share the habit of hopping up rocky ledge-lined cliff faces to their nests in the tussocks.
Much to our surprise, Rod Planck found a penguin that didn’t look quite right. The white chin, larger bill, and stocky build led some of us to conclude that it was a Royal Penguin – a life bird for those of us who had not been to islands off Australia. The jury is still out on whether it was a hybrid or a full Royal. Either way it was an exciting find.
Noon came much too quickly. Once the last zodiac went up on the hook, the Polar Star was headed south to our second landing of the day. Grytviken, located in Cumberland Bay, is located half way down South Georgia and is a mandatory customs stop for every ship visiting the island. While we were being processed through customs, officials from the museum gave a presentation on South Georgia. After clearing customs, most of the passengers headed off the ship for a dry landing. However, my group loaded into a zodiac and crossed the little harbor to visit the old whaler’s cemetery. We quickly located the grave of Sir Earnest Shackleton, then cups were handed out and two bottles of Jack Daniels were divvied up so that we could offer up toast to “The Boss.” Adhering to the local custom, we drank half and poured the remainder on the grave. No one is preserved better than Shackleton! Craig Poore did a fantastic job delivering the toast.
After taking some photos, we headed off to the abandoned Stromness whaling station (a standing testimony to a darker age in man’s and South Georgia’s history), and the museum. I most wanted to see a new exhibit that includes a life-size replica of the "James Caird," the lifeboat that Shackleton and five others used to travel from Elephant Island to South Georgia. Their route crosses some of the stormiest seas in the world. I purchased a t-shirt for the staff to sign and for Edward Rooks, the trip’s artist, to draw on. At the end of our voyage it will be donated to our auction that raises money for albatross conservation.
Afterwards, 20 of us made the 1.5-mile hike to Maiviken Pass, which offers extraordinary vistas looking both north and south, including stunning views of 8800-foot summit of Mt. Paget, which lies south of the pass. Strong winds prevented us from lingering, so it wasn't long before we were headed down slope and back to the Polar Star for a barbeque. Following dinner, we enjoyed a fascinating presentation from a scientist who is studying the importance of krill in the diets of Fur Seals, Macaroni and Gentoo Penguins. His ongoing research will help set limits on seasonal catch taken by the krill harvesting industry. His work appears to show connections between reductions in krill and negative effects on the local populations of South Georgia’s higher predators (fur seals and penguins). Afterwards, sleep never came quicker!
All photos by Jim Danzenbaker
January 7: Fortuna Bay and the Shackleton hike.
Light rain was already falling as we woke for our 6am landing in Fortuna Bay. This beautiful site is has much to offer. It is ideal for a first glimpse of South Georgia wildlife – just enough Fur Seals to felt it necessary to arm ourselves with protective poles, a fairly small colony (17,000 pairs) of King Penguins, Southern Elephant Seals, several nesting Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses, Brown Skuas, Antarctic Terns, and Reindeer.
Upon landing, my first job was to find a nesting Light-mantled Sooty Albatross, so I ascended a close gully to scan the moss-lined cliff ledges where they typically nest. Thankfully, this year’s search was quick – a lone bird sitting on a nest on a ledge. While it provided a nice view for the entire group, but the photographers wanting. In addition to being 115 feet way on a grassy hill, steady rain made it near impossible to capture a good image.
The view from the hill provided a window into life on the beach below. Many energetic fur seals played while the more serious King Penguins waddled by. It would seem that the fur seals could whack a penguin at any time, launching it into the air like a bowling pin, but the one close encounter that I saw ended with the penguin as the victor. It continually its long sharp bill at the fur seal until the seal eventually lost interest and moved on to brawl with another fur seal...South Georgia charm!
I eventually moved down to the King Penguin colony and enjoyed my time with them. Many Kings stood around patiently, each with an egg balanced on its feet, exposing the egg occasionally when preening breast and belly feathers. It’s amazing to watch a King Penguin scratch the top of its head with a flipper while keeping the egg on its precarious perch on the feet.
Oakum boys (10-14 month old King Penguin chicks) were everywhere around the outer edge of the colony. I couldn’t help smiling and laughing at their serious nature but strange brown plumage. Old chicks, with most of the brown down already shed, walked around with mohawk hairdos, brown hairy chests, and brown neck ruffs. These curious oakum boys pecked at my gloves (with hands inside) and tripod trying desperately to feed on something since the parents had largely stopped feeding them and started their next breeding cycle.
Polysyllabic trumpeting from courting birds, the slapping of flapping flippers of rival courters for the same female, the weak whistling from ochum boys, and the weird short bugle sound from older oakum boys whose voices seemingly just cracked formed a cacophony of sound that carried across the entire colony. Relatively new to the landscape are the growing herds of reindeer, which on previous visits stayed at least 75 yards away – a fear of man stemming from years of being hunted. They are no longer hunted, thus the hard-wired wariness about humans seems to have faded away. Nowadays, reindeer sometimes come within 25 yards of camera lenses. I wondered if the reindeer had anything to do with the relatively few Antarctic Terns that were in the area. The terns nest on the ground and I saw reindeer repeatedly stampede through the nesting habitat, potentially destroying tern nests and chicks.
I decided to return to the ship for lunch as I was getting a bit chilled from the increasing wind and the rain that had turned to occasional snow squalls. A hearty bowl of soup went down well!
The afternoon was, as always, filled. Today, I joined 20 other hikers on the Shackleton walk, linking Fortuna Bay to Stromness and retracing the final steps of Sir Earnest Shackleton’s epic voyage of in the mid 1910s. Shackleton first defied the odds by even finding South Georgia in the "James Caird," the last functioning lifeboat of the "Endurance." Then, he and two others hiked across South Georgia making their way to Fortuna Bay, just one bay off from where they had wanted to end up. They then headed south over a pass to Stromness, the nearest whaling station. This last 3.3-mile walk is what we hiked. Occasional snow squalls and ice pellets just added to the ambiance of the walk and our appreciation of what Shackleton must have endured. It was exhilarating to think that we were walking in his footsteps. The walk included a 300-foot long glissading slide, which certainly cut off a few minutes off of our travel time down from the lofty pass.
I was relieved to finally reach the glacial plane that comprises the final half-mile stretch before Stromness, where zodiacs awaited. Even Gentoo Penguins, Fur Seals and Antarctic Terns couldn’t deter me from reaching the landing beach. While loading passengers into the zodiacs, I noticed a Chinstrap Penguin on the beach. There’s something about Chinnies having their own journeys of discovery – one often appears at a colony of King Penguins, Gentoos, or Macaronis. It was good to get back to the ship for a nice hot meal and pleasant conversation.
January 6: Welcome to South Georgia!
Yet another 5:30am wake up call started my day. Foggy conditions greeted us after crossing the Antarctic Convergence during the night. Fog prevented us from seeing Shag Rocks, an outcropping of pinnacle-shaped rocks that juts several hundred feet upout of the sea. The waters around Shag Rocks are typically good for whales and seabirds due to nutrient-rich upwellings, but low visibility hampered our efforts to fully enjoy this area. Sea temperature had dropped to about 1°C, but the air temperature still hovered around 5°C. It was a day of a seabird transitions. Slender-billed Prions were completely replaced by Antarctic Prions, while Blue Petrels took the place of Soft-plumaged Petrels. Gray-headed Albatrosses started to appear and the first of thousands of Antarctic Fur Seals frolicked in the water. My schedule for the day was free of lectures and bio-security detail, so I was able to catch up on a few things that hadn’t been done for the last several days – wildlife sightings list, journaling, and laundry (fun).
At about 4pm, we finally caught sight of the northwestern islands of South Georgia. A short time later the first snow-capped mountains came into view and wildlife sightings increased dramatically. We were surrounded by hundreds of Fur Seals and many albtrosses, mostly Black-browed and Gray-headed along with several Wanderings. Flocks of White-chinned Petrels, thousands of Antarctic Prions and tens of Blue Petrels filled the air. Southern Giant Petrels and South Georgia Shags rode favorable air currents on the windward side of the ship bringing them so close that it felt like we could reach out and touch them. Macaroni Penguins porpoised on all sides of the Polar Star. We had reached yet another avian paradise!
Our goal this evening was a landing in Elsehul Bay, but that would be contingent on the number of fur seals that lined the small beach. Folks who had been aboard the Cheesemans’ late October-November cruise to South Georgia told us that Fur Seal numbers had been way down, so our hopes were high that we would be able to land. These were quickly dashed when a quick visual inspection of the beach revealed that the fur seals had returned en masse. The beach was covered with them. Since Joker’s Cove, our intended landed site, is fairly small, landing 95 people plus staff would be next to impossible. The South Georgian government has a strict rules governing such landings, mandating that they cannot displace nesting or breeding wildlife. Our staff and crew recognized that this landing could not be accomplished without causing potential harm to the harems of fur seals that covered the beach.
While the Cheesemans’ staff prides itself in their ability to deliver the best wildlife viewing experiences of any trip to the sub-Antarctic and Antarctic realm, we are equally committed to the welfare of wildlife that sustains these endeavors. Therefore, my hoped for hike to see the Gray-headed Albatrosses would not happen. Instead, we had to be content with viewing the albatross nests that dotted the tussock-filled hillsides from the ship, marveling at the number of nesting albatrosses and photographing occasional groups loafing on the water. Plans were altered and we continued south to Right Whale Bay, a much larger landing site where we hoped that we could find a less intrusive foothold on the beach.
Right Whale Bay is ringed by a large beach, where we had landed during previous trips. We are well-accustomed to the challenges of finding a good landing site and this attempt was no different. Our zodiac staff spent 20 minutes cruising up and down the beach looking for the least intrusive site to beach the zodiacs. We finally decided on a spot that had no fur seal harems, but did have plenty of non-breeding Southern Giant Petrels loafing about.
Once all the zodiacs were ashore, our priority was to slowly weave a pathway through the wildlife on the beach to the less densely packed glacial river delta behind the beach. We were pleased that we to do this without upsetting the “Geeps” (Giant Petrels). The giant petrels casually moved aside to let us through. As is usually the case, some sub-adult fur seals were a bit ornery, but they too yielded enough space without causing a domino effect in the harems. We were through! Patrick Endres and I were again responsible for flagging a route that would allow us to move along while giving the wildlife plenty of room to maneuver.
On land, the scene was incredible. The beach was blanketed by thousands of calling fur seals. The swarm of beached pinnipeds included large bulls, many females, sub-adult males that were feeling their oats, and hundreds, if not thousands, of pups. The number of Southern Giant Petrels we encountered far surpassed tallies from previous landings here. There had to have been at least 100 and perhaps double that. Many were feeding on the dead fur seal carcasses that littered the area.
Considering the number of seals and the extreme energy that it takes for a bull fur seal to set up territory and defend his harem, death is to be expected in large colonies. Cuts to flippers and gashes to the flanks that are inflicted during turf wars between bulls often lead to infection and death. Abundant life is invariably accompanied by signs of death – nature’s balance.
In addition to the seals and giant petrels, hundreds of regal King Penguins were everywhere, although there was insufficient time to visit their colony during the short time available for this bonus unscheduled landing. In several spots, huge Right Whale vertebrae and jaw bones dotted the landscape – a sign of a troubled past. The lighting was beautiful. Snowy mountain peaks and the fur seal-covered beach were gorgeously highlighted by a soft palette of evening colors. Our landing finally ended at 9:30pm – a very full day! It will be wise to conserve as much physical energy as we are just starting our seven-day South Georgia marathon.
All photos by Jim Danzenbaker
Jan 5: Across the Polar Front (Antarctic Convergence)
Today started much like yesterday with me peering out my cabin window to find a scene full of seabirds. Since glare on the bow was extreme, we spent the morning birding from the stern of the ship. Clouds of Slender-billed and Antarctic Prions (80%-20%) followed the Polar Star. We found that photographs were very helpful in keying out the identification of each species. Joining the prions were White-chinned Petrels, Greater and Sooty Shearwaters and the first Northern Giant Petrel of the trip. Diminutive Black-bellied Storm-Petrels joined Wilson’s stormies coursing across the wake. The adult Northern Giant Petrel eventually passed so close to the ship that our passengers could clearly see all of its field marks.
Lectures were again the order of the day, with the only interruption being the completion of the bio-security project. I'm glad to be done with that until after we leave South Georgia! Two Sperm Whales were sighted while I was vacuuming bags – oh well, it happens.
This afternoon, I gave my talk about King Penguin breeding biology and egg exchange. It was well-attended, which was good to see. Anything having to do with King Penguins usually draws a crowd. Following my program, attendees enthusiastically asked lots of questions, which is always appreciated by any lecturer. I'm now done with speaking engagement until we leave South Georgia, freeing me up to concentrate on landings and showing people egg exchanges. Today's talk was cut short by two minutes when whales were sighted from the bow. No worries, even the speaker would rather look at whales than listen to the sound of his own voice. As the group scrambled up on deck, a pod of about 15 Fin Whales passed within 100 feet of the ship. We were disappointed that they didn’t stick around long enough for optimal viewing. By day’s end, we had seen about 20 whales.
Tonight we gathered to view a selection of photos taken by staff and participants during our days at Tierra del Fuego National Park and in the Falklands. These collective images served to remind us of all great experiences we've already shared. And to think, we're a mere seven days into a 26-day tour.
I have been extremely pleased with my cabin on this trip. Cabin 504 (note to self for future Antarctic expeditions!) is ideally positioned so that I'm less than a 20-second walk away from those parts of the ship that I visit most often. The design of the Polar Star gives it the appearance of having two "towers," a forward tower and an aft tower. My cabin is on the 5th level of the forward tower. From here it is just a short walk to observation lounge on the 5th level of the aft tower. This lounge serves as the unofficial social gathering place on the ship, where all lectures, briefings, and afternoon snacks are held. It is lined with large windows so that outside of lecture times (shades are drawn during lectures), we can relax in comfy chairs as we watch for seabirds or just enjoy the scenery going by. To the rear of the lounge is an outside observation deck where crowds gather to watch for wildlife during good weather conditions. It is also a convenient escape from the relative warmth of the observation lounge. This deck is a favorite hangout for photographers, particularly on those mornings when we are sailing eastward.
Two flights up from my cabin is the bridge. As one of the naturalists on board, I spend lots of time up there or on the wings that extend out on each side the bridge. These wings offer a commanding view ahead and to the sides of the ship, thus they are superb vantage points for spotting birds and whales. The Polar Star has an “open bridge” policy, allowing us access to an area that would be off limits to passengers on most vessels. As long as we’re not too loud and stay out of the way of the captain and other official types, they welcome our presence. There are occasions, especially when anchoring or traveling through more difficult areas, when we have to give them a bit more space.
Also in close proximity to my cabin is the library, which has two computers for passenger use (e-mails). Immediately below the library is the Polar Bar where staff meetings are held (yes, all work, nothing else!). One level down from the bar is the dining room where people have their fill of delicious fare three times daily. Adjacent to the dining room there is the bulletin board where sign-up sheets, wildlife sightings summaries, and newspaper headlines are posted. Several days ago, we posted the sign-up sheet for the first iceberg “pool” – you guess the date and time for the spotting of the first iceberg and, if you are closest to the actual date and time, you win a bottle of wine.
Beyond the bulletin board is the reception area and the ship’s office where essentials such as a copier, the lost and found, and the ship’s store are located. Deck three also houses the mud room where more than 100 pairs of boots and our life jackets are stored. This is the last room we pass through before loading into the zodiacs on landing days.
All photos by Jim Danzenbaker
January 4: A day at sea
Thoughts of sleeping in after the three very long days on the Falklands were quickly abandoned when I looked out the window and saw many seabirds flying around the ship. Southern Giant Petrels rode air currents off the stern, providing yet another great opportunity for photography. As they hung in the air, the sound of shutters snapping meant that the photographers were happy. Black-browed Albatrosses were evident too, but it was difficult to get excited about them after yesterday’s Steeple Jason treat. Greater and Sooty Shearwaters, Wilson’s Storm-Petrels, Slender-billed Prions, and White-chinned Petrels were our companions throughout the day.
As on past trips, Soft-plumaged Petrel, a visitor from Tristan de Cunha Island some 5,000 kms
to the north, was the sought-after species during this leg of our journey. We saw 48 today – less than
average but enough that everyone saw them well. Their arcing bat-like flight and brown and white plumage made for easy identification, although photography was impossible. Several “Big A’s” – Wandering Albatrosses and Southern Royal Albatrosses - flew near the ship, but always just a bit too far out for a great photograph.
Lectures filled much of the remainder of the day's schedule and I delivered my second in a series on seabird identification. More people attended this one than the first – an encouraging sign that folks are becoming more curious about the birds that have been following the Polar Star. A second half-hour bird study on the stern was not as successful as the first. Fog had moved in and the birds had become scarce. Pre-landing bio-security preparations also started. It would be necessary to thoroughly clean all gear that we would use during our numerous landings on South Georgia.
South Georgia is rightfully concerned about the introduction of non-native species to the island, so the
cleaning of all gear and removal of all seeds caught in velcro, shoelaces, nooks and crannies in dry bags, pockets, and camera bags is imperative. As a staff member, I not only had to clean my own gear, but I was also assigned to inspect passengers’ bags. A one-hour stint stuck indoors with humming vacuum cleaners and brushes scrubbing may not have been the most exciting hour of my life, but it was essential and a small price to pay in the effort to keep South Georgia free from unwanted plant introductions.
Breakfast, lunch, and dinner made me yearn for more time on shore!
January 3: Steeple Jason – Albatross Heaven
A 5:30 wake-up call seemed early, but complaints were few as this day's itinerary featured a visit to one of the true avian spectacles on the planet. The Black-browed Albatross colony on Steeple Jason, the northwestern-most island of the Falklands, is conservatively estimated at 113,000 pairs and extends for three miles along the northern side of the island.
Unfortunately, as we neared Steeple Jason the ocean swells built quickly to seven feet so launching zodiacs at our planned landing site was deemed too dangerous. The ship had to be repositioned to a more sheltered harbor, costing us roughly an hour of time we had planned to spend on the island. However, this afforded us views of the albatross colony that we don’t often enjoy in this morning light. Although the landing process took longer than most due to the rocky shoreline and the challenges of transporting people and baggage across jagged rocks, we eventually got everyone ashore.
Patrick Endres and I headed to the colony to lay down a trail and to flag off closed areas. I stole a quick view of the colony. WOW, what a sight! I stared in near disbelief as I tried to wrap my brain around the idea of this many albatrosses in one location. The carpet of albatrosses before me extended to and beyond a far ridge, creating the illusion that it went on forever. Steeple Jason is the island nearest to the nutrient rich Argentine shelf and it is swept by strong winds, which creates an ideal environment for albatrosses. Our passengers soon arrived. After a briefing, they too got their first views of the expansive colony. Their mind-blown reactions were much the same as mine.
We then settled in and enjoyed the varied daily activities of the albatrosses. These spanned the gamut from stretching, courting, mutual preening, and displaying to chick feeding. By this point in the mating season most eggs had hatched, although there were a few which still had not, either due to infertility or possibly being behind in the developmental process. Periodically, columns of albatrosses would rise up from the colony and surrounding ocean and ride unseen thermals.
Throughout the area, Brown Skuas and “Johnny Rooks” patrolled looking for a quick meal. The Rockhopper Penguins that shared the colony raucously called and defended their chicks against these marauding predators. Other birds in the area included a singing Grass Wren, numerous Black-throated Finches and almost omnipresent Tussock-birds, which were seemingly under foot everywhere I went. The weather remained amazing. The combination of partly cloudy skies and next to no wind made it seem downright tropical.
Near the landing site, a Gentoo Penguin colony temporarily diverted our attentions from the albatrosses. Patrolling Johnny Rooks, one of which dispatched a baby Gentoo before horrified onlookers, were a constant at both colonies. Thankfully, only one person was hit by a Johnny Rook today – an improvement after three such attacks last year! Are Johnny Rooks mellowing with age? Probably not…
We returned to the Polar Star at 4:30pm – early by Cheeseman's standards. However, we needed to get a jump-start on the long journey to South Georgia. Our eight-hour exploration of Steeple Jason was fantastic, whetting our appetites for even greater adventures that lay ahead. This evening several Commerson’s Dolphins plied the waters around the ship. Unfortunately, these “puffin’ pigs” didn’t stay long.
All photos by Jim Danzenbaker
January 2: Westpoint and Carcass Islands -- A Study in Contrasts
This morning’s breezes brought light rain to Westpoint Island and our appointment with a third colony of Black-browed Albatrosses and Rockhopper Penguins. A mile-long walk for some and a car ride for others (me) brought us to this intimate colony nestled between sandstone and tussock grass. After routes were flagged and bird activity was noted, we were ready for our participants. All enjoyed the bustling community of avian activity, which included a Rockhopper highway that threaded through the tussocks and opened onto a grassy promenade. I gave a brief talk on the life and times of Black-browed Albatrosses and I was amazed at how many people attended.
With time growing short, we returned to the landing site with some in the group making a small detour for tea and cakes that won high praise. When we reached the dock, we found it inundated by the incoming tide. Fortunately we had a contingency plan. A second dock not far from the first was used, thus we were able to continue with one of only two dry landings on the trip. Of course, when rain is added, dry landing becomes a relative concept.
Despite being consumed rather hastily, lunch was amazingly tasty. I ate mine in about five minutes as we were quickly approaching our afternoon landing site at Carcass Island. Unlike this morning’s dry landing on a dock in the rain, we disembarked our zodiacs into the shallow waters off a sandy beach under a mostly sunny sky.
The sandstone cliffs of Westpoint Island were replaced by Carcass Island's gentle sand dunes, which buffer a green area filled with Magellanic and Gentoo Penguins, Upland Geese, Tussock-birds, Long-tailed Meadowlarks, and Brown Skuas. The purposeful, raucous rock-hopping penguins that inhabited the morning stop were replaced by mild Magellanic Penguins who wouldn’t go anywhere near a jaggedly rocky shoreline. Leopard Beach was alive with loafing penguins and parading geese, while just offshore hefty Falklands Steamer-Ducks cruised past the surf line. Screaming Magellanic Oystercatchers were seemingly everywhere and one couldn’t escape their calls. A slice of heaven had truly been delivered to me.
Dave Shaw and I led a bird walk and our group of 20 found five new species that I had targeted for this particular trip: Cobb’s Wren, Black-throated Finch, Fuegan Snipe, Ruddy-headed Goose, and Blackish Oystercatcher.
Part of the pleasure of doing this job is the challenge (at whatever level of difficulty or simplicity) of finding various wildlife species and then feeling the satisfaction of a job well done when truly appreciative participants express their gratitude.
Cheeseman’s Ecology Safaris attract such people. As an example of this culture, when Ted Cheeseman organized a local beach clean-up many folks participated. It is both amazing and thought-provoking when one first comes to realize just how much plastic can wash ashore on a single stretch of beach!
The day came to its inevitable end with yet another fine dinner aboard the ship. The evening’s entertainment was the film “Devil Birds,” a documentary on the antics of the locally famous Johnny Rooks that we would encounter on our next day’s adventure.
All photos by Jim Danzenbaker
January 1: The Rockhoppers and Black-browed Albatrosses of New Island
After a buffet breakfast, we landed on New Island with beautiful weather and lots of wildlife to observe. We were met by Tony and Kim Chater and a sampling of the island’s bird life. This included our first encounter with "Johnny Rooks" (Striated Caracaras), which breed in the remains of the Protector III. After the logistics of landing 95 people were complete, we broke out into smaller groups – many heading directly to the Black-browed Albatross/Rockhopper Penguin/Blue-eyed Shag colony.
My group of about 20 people enjoyed a very successful bird walk. I was somewhat surprised to come across a group of about 15 Two-banded Plovers that included two downy young. This fairly small shorebird has two distinct breast bands and a chestnut infused brown nape. This was the first time in five years that we'd found this species on this island – we usually get them on most trips, but we never seem to know which island they will be on. Other birds included beautiful Long-tailed Meadowlarks, nesting Magellanic Oystercatchers, a loafing pair of Falkland Steamer-Ducks, Rock Shags, Crested Ducks, Black-chinned Siskins, Dark-faced Ground-Tyrants, and Falklands Thrushes. Magellanic Penguins brayed from beside their burrows on a far-off hillside while a pair of Southern Sea Lions took time to try to make more sea lions. A beautiful start to this partly cloudy and fairly warm day!
Eventually, we headed to the albatross/penguin/shag colony on the other end of the island but not before viewing a family of five Ruddy-headed Geese that were feeding along the trail. Once at the colony, I headed down the gully to an area that is best for viewing loafing Rockhopper Penguins and others returning from the sea. Although tussock-lined and slippery in spots, the descent into this gully was well worth the effort. The gully is a major thoroughfare for Rockhoppers as they plod their way up towards waiting mates and young after successful foraging runs at sea. To me, it's a slice of heaven – the sights and sounds combine to show nature in the raw.
It is truly memorable to stand at the bottom of this gully and look up at the jagged, ridged sandstone walls that are lined with nesting albatrosses while simultaneously listening to the pitter-patter of tiny Rockhopper Penguin feet as they hop along towards the colony or head out to the sea. At the mouth of the gully, hundreds of loafing penguins take time to rest do some much needed preening after returning with full stomachs. It’s fascinating to watch these penguins enter and exit the frothy sea along this rocky coast – gathering up in ever larger groups until an unknown signal (or critical mass) pushes one, then two, then a hoard of penguins into the surf.
Their rule is safety in numbers, since they never know if there is a lurking sea lion or Orca waiting to dine on a wayward penguin. Getting back and forth to the penguin colony looked challenging to me but these little guys take it step by step over this treacherous terrain and conquer seemingly “in-hoppable” distances between rocks with relative ease – sometimes needing extended flippers to balance lest they fall over. What a fantastic bird!
In addition to the seabirds, inquisitive Tussock-Birds trilled from sandstone walls and chased each other about. Sometimes they would land mere feet from me, adding yet another dimension to this mecca for bird activity. Once out of the gully, I watched Imperial Shags fly in with bills overflowing with mud and grass that they use to spruce up nest sites. The raucous calls of the Rockhoppers and the wailing of the albatrosses were everywhere. Brown Skuas patrolled from above, ever hopeful of snatching a chick or an egg from a distracted penguin, albatross, or shag. Several Turkey Vultures soared overhead, assuming the same role they do in our part of the world. In an active breeding colony with so much life, death is present too.
Our visit at this colony came to an end all too quickly. We headed back to the landing site where we had a picnic lunch, rearranged gear, and shared tales of our observations with the others. After lunch, many of us started the 4.5 mile walk to the another seabird colony. Another group traveled by zodiac to the second landing site while some opted to return to the Polar Star for a sit-down lunch. I was grateful for the walk since my exercise aboard the ship is limited to going up and down steps (yes, there’s a gym on board, but not used by me).
On the afternoon walk, many Johnny Rooks, Magellanic Oystercatchers, Upland Geese, Correndera Pipits, and Long-tailed Meadowlarks. Prion wings littered the trail in several spots, providing evidence that the numerous Johnny Rooks and skuas in the area aren't going hungry. Since I only see Peregrine Falcons here every three years or so, a brief interaction between a Brown Skua and a Peregrine was unexpected.
When we reached the second colony, it was equally lively as the one we visited in the morning. However, it lacks a gully, so it is not as multi-dimensional. We listened to a rather raucous vocal exchange between two adult Rockhopper parents while their squeaking single chick looked on. This noisy domestic scene captivated our attention. We continued on to a Gentoo Penguin colony, which was very mellow compared to the one visited the previous day’s. A lone King penguin added a bit more color to the scene. I later learned that this penguin had a sterile egg and no mate.
Our return to the second landing site concluded a very successful day ashore. I got in some needed practice piloting a zodiac as we shuttled people back to the ship. It was good to get reacquainted with the feel of this craft under fair conditions. It's not likely that the seas around South Georgia and Antarctica will be so calm. A fine lamb dinner with pleasant conversation was a fitting finish to this day of superlatives.
All photos by Jim Danzenbaker
December 31: Our first day at sea
Sunrise came early today. Although my body fully desired six more hours of sleep, the many Sooty Shearwaters glimpsed out my cabin window was sufficient incentive to get up, go through the morning ritual, and climb two decks up the bridge and observation wings. I was encouraged to see that I was not the first to arrive.
Several shipmates were already binning the birds. We quickly saw Sooty Shearwaters, Southern Giant-Petrels, Black-browed Albatrosses, and Wilson's Storm-Petrels, all very common species over the Argentine Shelf, which extends from Tierra del Fuego to the Falkland Islands. These common tubenoses were joined by Greater Shearwaters, White-chinned Petrels, Slender-billed Prions, and the occasional Chilean Skua. The unusually calm, windless conditions allowed for optimal marine mammal viewing. Early on one uncooperative Peale's Dolphin, seen only briefly, left us hopeful that more marine mammals would follow.
After a hearty breakfast, at least three Cape (Pintado) Petrels made passes by the waiting lenses of a line of photographers stationed near the ship's stern. The ever-popular "Pintados" were once again a crowd favorite as they cooperatively followed the boat for the remainder of the day.
A full schedule of lectures then began. Presentations included Doug Cheesman's National History of the Falkland Islands, Tom Murphy's photographic composition workshop, Patrick Endres's introduction to Lightroom and the photographic workflow, my seabird identifcation lecture, and Edward Rook's first in a series of drawing classes. Our mandatory environmental protocol briefing was also given. Several mandatory meetings occur within 24 hours of our embarkation, including a lifeboat drill. Passenger attendance for this exercise is never a problem after the "Explorer's" well-known demise in Antarctic water several years ago. Lectures were only interrupted by timeouts for lunch and dinner and the sighting of a pod of Fin Whales. Though more cooperative than the earlier Peale's Dolphin, they left us yearning for more.
Later in the day, a Wandering Albatross, a Gray-backed Storm-Petrel, and Common Diving-Petrels increased the variety of the day's seabirds. Rod Planck gave his customary incredible presentation on Photo Tips and Ethics and Natural History of the Falklands. Shoe-horned between all these activities there was time for passengers to try on different types of boots for the many wet landings that will follow. After dinner, Craig Poore presented his rendition of the zodiac follies (amazing amount of material to cover) and the singing of "Auld Lang Syne" concluded this day at sea. We are primed for our first landing tomorrow.
All photos by Jim Danzenbaker