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By Jim Danzenbaker and Ann Nightingale
20 January 2012
Jim’s View: The Ortelius had raised her anchor early and headed north to our next destination – Port Lockroy, home to a British Research Station (and gift shop), a Gentoo Penguin colony, and a small group of nesting Antarctic Shags. After a short briefing by base personnel, we headed ashore.
I headed to the shag colony as I knew people would want to photograph them since this was a nesting species that we hadn’t yet visited. I found them at the edge of the Gentoo colony – all appeared to be quite healthy with most nests sporting two large downy chicks. It was amazing to watch the feeding sessions since the chick’s entire head and neck are in the adult’s mouth anxiously grabbing at food. If that’s the way it’s done, I’m glad I’m not a Shag!
Close by, whale bones were on display – a sign of a tumultuous past. A Jacques Cousteau team had aligned bones from different whales to form the backbone, ribs, and skeleton of a whale. I was on Zodiac duty the remainder of the morning – shuttling folks to and from the two landing sites and back to the ship. For some reason, this landing is always one of the muddiest and guano encrusted sites that we visit and this year was no different. I needed 15 minutes to clean off my waders before getting into the Zodiac and others needed the same. It was difficult to leave no trace. I think we all arrived back on the Ortelius with very clean boots and more tales to tell.
After a rushed lunch, we headed to the bow or to the bridge, dependent on our tolerance for the cold, to enjoy more awe inspiring scenery. We encountered two different passenger cruise ships – the only ones we saw near the peninsula this year. We poked our way through some glorious scenery and eventually headed north along the Gerlache. Our goal was Useful Island and its colony of Chinstrap Penguins. We had never landed there before so this was truly an expedition schedule.
As we neared the island, a pod of Orcas was spotted three miles ahead of the ship. Word was spread and for the next hour or so, we enjoyed an incredible Orca show, the likes of which I had never seen before. Estimates ran from 50-100 individuals which included huge males, many females and immature whales and several calves. Many times, the Orcas came right alongside the ship and photographers were hanging over the edge to capture these once in a lifetime images. It was amazing to be completely surrounded by these graceful creatures that occupy the top of the Antarctic food chain. A large flock of Wilson’s Storm Petrel nearby may have been an indication that these Orcas had made an earlier kill. We slowly pulled away from the Orcas and continued our way to Useful Island and our intended landing.
What followed was 45 minutes of the staff attempting to find a relatively comfortable route to the top of the island and the colony of Chinstraps. Unfortunately, it would not come to be – a rather perilous landing site, deep snow, and icy terrain prevented us from reaching the top – I fell through the snow up to my thigh and was temporarily stuck – I used my tripod as a makeshift shovel to dig my foot out! The only thing we had going for us was the weather and that eventually even that turned against us. A breeze kicked up which caused the cool weather to turn cold. The decision to suspend the landing attempt was met with overall agreement. Instead, Zodiac cruising around the island and its icebergs were available for folks who chose to do so. Dinner was especially good tonight since I had expended a lot of energy and was pretty tired. Tonight, we journeyed north along the Gerlache.
Ann's View: Civilization was on the agenda today. We awoke later than usual, anchored off Port Lockroy, a British base which now houses a museum, gift shop and post office. The need for retail therapy was obvious among many of the passengers, who would soon be jostling for positions to be first on the Zodiacs. Two representatives of the base came aboard to give us a briefing on the site, which was built in 1904 and used for military purposes during World War II. It is now home to a Gentoo colony and a few people who maintain the historic site for Britain.
Only 50 people are allowed to visit at one time, so our group was split between Lockroy and nearby Jougla Point. I will admit that I wanted to be among the first to the gift shop. A cruise ship had cleared out most of the goods at the shop at Grytviken, and I wanted to make sure that I had some goodies to bring home with me, for myself and for others. I had been advised by several people that a stop at Port Lockroy was necessary, if only for the delicious chocolate that was sold there. Imagine my surprise to find that not only did they not have chocolate in stock, they told me they never had sold it. I sure wish I could remember who gave me that particular bit of advice!
The prices were steep, but as the only game in town, we paid them and took lots of additional items back to the ship with us. The money raised helps support the station, so it’s all good. One of the neat features of the museum is a ship-to-ship mail service. People can leave mail posted to a bulletin board, to be picked up when another ship is later in port. I saw an envelope addressed to Rod and Marlene Planck, so brought it back with me. A naturalist from an Aurora cruise that had been there several weeks ago had left a card for them. They were both surprised and delighted to get their first letter from Port Lockroy. Some of the passengers on board were very prepared with address lists and some even with preprinted labels so that they could send postcards to their friends. Sorry, everyone—I was not that organized.
Halfway through the morning, the groups switched locations, and I headed to Jougla Point, where Antarctic Shags nest, and there is a reconstructed Blue Whale skeleton. The shags had chicks of various ages, some newly hatched and some ready to fledge. It was strange to see such a range of ages in this small colony.
A highlight for me was a Weddell Seal resting on some snow. As I got close to the snow, I started hearing strange sounds—first a descending high-pitched whistle, then a low rumbling (like I often get in my stomach). I heard it several times before realizing it was coming from the seal. It turns out the Weddell Seal is also known as the singing seal. Although the song is usually heard from the water, I had the good fortune to hear it on land.
Good fortune continued as we headed through several channels on an afternoon of ship cruising. As we approached an unscheduled landing location, Jim spotted a pod of Orcas, and what turned out to be one of the most memorable events of the journey. For about forty-five minutes we were mesmerized by a pod of about fifty whales playing at the surface. We were surrounded by them, including a few that were clearly interested in the ship. The captain maneuvered the ship carefully between the groups of whales, but some came right up to the ship and even passed under it several times. Spouts, backs, flukes, and splashes were happening in all directions. No one minded the delay of the landing. Thousands of pictures were taken, and I suspect some of them will be excellent.
The landing at Useful Island was to be an attempt to get us to a Chinstrap Penguin colony. The staff had to check it out first, as the Cheesemans have never landed there before. I took advantage of the delay to have a short nap. Somehow life and sleep became intertwined and I dreamt that the 5 p.m. landing had been cancelled due to high winds, so I decided to sleep a little more. When I woke up at 6 and looked out my porthole, the seas appeared reasonable, but I had missed the boats! I grabbed my gear and headed to the gangway just in case I could still get ashore, but met several staff coming the opposite way. The wind at the shore had indeed come up, and the landing had been called off. Four Zodiacs were out for a cruise, but it turns out I only half-missed this one.
By Jim Danzenbaker and Ann Nightingale
20 January 2012
Jim's View: The Ortelius had spent the night where she had anchored yesterday evening until 2 a.m. when she had to change positions due to moving icebergs. This morning’s 6 a.m. Zodiac cruises were delayed due to small ice floes parking themselves at the foot of the gangway. Zodiacs were enlisted to push them out of the way – sort of like rounding up Antarctic cows!
I did eventually push off with nine Zodiac cruisers for a two and a half hour trip amid some of nature’s most indescribably beauty – presented in water carved ice in hues of blue and white with occasional streaks of brown and black. No two bergs are alike and each beckoned us forward. The blue ice ranged from aquamarine swimming pools to deep navy blue which spoke of the density of the ice – nature’s calling card from water trapped in glaciers many years ago.
After the ice, I concentrated on seals and we soon joined several other Zodiacs watching a Leopard Seal basking on a floe. These three-meter long seals have an appetite for penguins, fish, krill, and Crabeater Seal pups but so many times their eyes imply that they’d like to try some Zodiac or human fingers. Their mouth seems to arc into a perennial smile while their eyes always seem to be watching, regardless of where we were in relation to it. I wouldn’t like to be a penguin in these waters.
We cruised further into the bay and found thicker ice and an ever growing number of Crabeater Seals. Thought to number between 40 and 70 million, these are the most abundant pinnipeds in the world. We got a sense of how common they are when we started to count up to 50 in view at any given time. The krill must be thick here since Crabeaters eat krill, not crabs as their name would imply. Many of the seals allowed close approach although we were careful to keep the appropriate minimum distance. Their dense brown fur wrinkled beautifully when they stretched or twisted which indicated the amount of fat necessary for these animals to survive when they dive deep into the Antarctic water.
At 10 a.m., we headed back to the ship to continue our journey south. We navigated through Paradise Bay where we had Zodiac cruised on previous trips and then to the Gerlache and the entrance to the LeMaire Channel. This stretch of water is known for its narrow passage and awe-inspiring natural beauty. We weren’t disappointed. We looked ahead and saw loose pack ice but we knew it was navigable. We entered into what would be sheer paradise for the next hour and a half. The ice thickened and we soon saw many loafing Crabeater Seals and the occasional Leopard Seal. The sound of the ship’s hull breaking through the ice was haunting, but certainly matched the mood of the moment.
At the southern end of the passage the ice became much thicker and leads were few. It was readily apparent that we couldn’t do our scheduled landing at Petermann Island. We saw the landing site and saw the penguins waiting for us but the only way we could get there was by walking – no, out of the question – that would have been two steps forward and then into the icy water. Ted and Hugh hatched an alternate plan, which turned into one of the most memorable evening landings in my years of visiting the great white south. We headed north back through the LeMaire Channel (a bonus – two LeMaire passages in brilliant weather) and then slightly west and south to the southwest side of Booth Island. We had visited here twice before but had always accessed the island from the east.
I scrambled ashore and headed to the penguin colony – my task was to find the best photo ops for nesting Chinstraps and Adelies amid the multitude of Gentoos. Booth Island is one of very few locations where all three brushtail penguins – Adelie, Gentoo, and Chinstrap, breed. It was fairly easy to locate the right spot, but the walk through the two-foot deep snow was difficult. I shouldn’t have eaten dessert before the landing! The lighting was phenomenal. Everyone who eventually arrived at the spot had nothing but huge smiles – we knew that we were witnesses to some of the best weather that the Antarctic could deliver. We stayed as long as we could – the sun slowly setting and painting an even more vivid picture with oranges and reds cascading across the evening sky. We finally had to return to the ship at 11 p.m. – the end of a very long and glorious Antarctic day.
Ann's View: There was a whirlwind of activity for the passengers today, starting with a landing before breakfast. We were off into the Zodiacs before 6 a.m. to get close and personal with icebergs, and possibly some of the wildlife. While those who hadn’t yet set foot on the Antarctic continent, landing was a priority; for the rest of us, blue ice was the draw. We cruised around Neko Harbour for about two and a half hours, weighing down our cameras with the pixels of thousands of photographs.
The Zodiac that I was in didn’t see much in the way of wildlife, but others reported up to three Leopard Seals and dozens of Crabeater Seals. The excitement of some of the passengers’ seventh continental landing proved a bit much for one person on board who managed to hit his head on a doorframe while rushing into a hallway. Dropped flat on his back as his feet kept going while his head stopped, he became the subject of a few photos and breakfast conversation. It’s a good thing the Ortelius has a doctor on staff! (The passenger is fine, if a little embarrassed and sore.)
During breakfast, the Ortelius got underway to our southernmost location, Peterman Island. The route would take us through the Lemaire Channel, a narrow passage of intensely beautiful scenery, both above and below the ship. Sea ice had only recently broken up, so we were surrounded by floes of all different shapes and sizes. The sun came out and provided stunning views of the surrounding mountains, still deep in snow.
As we continued south, it became clear that a landing at Peterman wasn’t going to be possible. We would have needed Zodiacs with skis to traverse the distance between the ship and the shore. The sea ice was thick, although broken up, but there was barely enough room for a penguin to swim, let alone push ten boats ashore. So we did the logical thing—turned around and went through the Lemaire Channel again, heading north to Booth Island and the only landing site where all of the bristletail penguins share a colony.
The afternoon’s entertainment included watching several of the Russian crew go for a little swim off the gangway. The water is -2 C, so a little swim is actually a bit of an exaggeration. It was really just a plunge into the ocean, and then an assisted return to the gangway and back to the warmth of the ship. Hats off to the crew who made this brave, if somewhat foolish, dip in the southern ocean! Brrrrr!
The landing at Booth Island took place after dinner, so we were off the ship in the early morning and again until after sunset. The sun sets around 11 p.m., but it doesn’t get dark at all through the night. The climb to the colony was our first on snow, and the warning of the day was to not leave “postholes”—deep divots where we sunk into the snow—as these could potentially trap a penguin. As promised, we were able see Gentoo, Adelie, and Chinstrap penguins on nests, and my first Chinstrap chicks. The sun was going down towards the end of this landing, and the colors on the snow and the sky were fantastic. Many more pixels were heavy-laden by the time we returned to the ship.
By Jim Danzenbaker and Ann Nightingale
18 January 2012
Jim’s View: Cierva Cove is one of those places that I equate to the quintessential Antarctic experience – icebergs everywhere, penguins in the water, glaciers feeding the sea, seals on ice, and snow-capped mountains in almost every direction. Zodiac cruising through this can be an awesome experience. However, cruising can only happen when conditions are right. This morning, unfortunately, there was a swell and wind chop so loading Zodiacs and comfortable cruising were not possible. Although a disappointment, I knew that we would have another opportunity to cruise here so it was onwards and southwards to hopefully calmer seas.
The scenery in this part of the world is stunning and words and photographs really can’t portray the sheer beauty. A smooth Gerlache with a backdrop of glaciers, snow capped mountains and beautiful alternating dark gray and light clouds made lighting change from one minute to the next. Occasional snow showers added another dimension to this wonderland of ice. Joan Boothe, author of The Storied Ice – a history of this part of the world, was on the bridge and she shared her knowledge of the different locations that we were passing with names like Spigot Point, Port Circumcision, Icarus Point, and Useful Island. Unfortunately, the Gerlache, which we had affectionately called “Whale Alley” for the large number of Minke and Humpback Whales that we usually encounter on this stretch, didn’t produce this year.
We spotted just a few Humpbacks – were they all in the Weddell Sea this year? One breaching Humpback near our destination, Cuverville Island, seemed to be welcoming us back after our two year absence. Cuverville Island, home to a flourishing Gentoo Penguin colony, skua club (sub-adult non-breeding South Polar Skuas), Antarctic Shags, and ice was on schedule for the afternoon. These Gentoos had very young chicks – maybe a week old – the youngest chicks that we would see. Very cute – old enough to beg for food but nowhere near big enough to be away from parental warmth.
Zodiac cruising in the area led to a snoozing Leopard Seal on ice and several Weddell and Crabeater Seals. Calling Kelp Gulls and Antarctic Terns against a backdrop of stark dark cliffs provided a surreal sensation that I had truly arrived in a land that few folks had previously visited. What a joy! Afterwards, we continued south to Neko Harbor, my favorite place on the entire Antarctic Peninsula. Neko is surrounded by glaciers and hosts a small pebbly landing beach frequented by a colony of Gentoo Penguins.
Once we landed, we were warned of occasional glacier calving and the very real possibility of tsunamis. Much to my surprise, I saw a large chunk of ice fall from a glacier at the toe of the harbor which created a meter-high wave that radiated outward along the shoreline. The penguins immediately knew to head for higher ground. We stood there and started video and point and shoot cameras to capture the moment. One minute later, the drama was over and a tranquil Neko returned.
A stroll down the beach led to two beautifully marked Weddell Seals – very fat after meals of Antarctic cod but an endearingly cute face. The Weddell Seal is one of my favorite Antarctic mammals. Many clients marked their arrival on shore with portrait photos and spontaneous celebrations. Neko is a continental landing and many from the Ortelius were checking off their seventh and final continent. What do you do for an encore? The landing came to an end soon since it was already 10 p.m. and the day had started early.
Ann's View: We passed two planned landing sites today due to rough weather. I am both grateful and surprised that I have not suffered during this latest round of high seas. Perhaps the drugs the doctor gave me are finally kicking in! So we continued south, putting us a day or so ahead of schedule, with plans to pick up the missed locations on the way north again in a couple of days.
Our first stop today finally materialized after lunch at Cuverville Island. We had an option to land first or Zodiac cruise, and I chose to do the latter. The seas were still too rough for comfortable iceberg photography, but we made the best of it. We were only a few minutes offshore when water started pouring out of the iceberg we were watching. Someone onboard realized what that meant—the iceberg was about to flip over! We hurried out of the way and warned the next Zodiac which was approaching, giving us an incredible and close view of the berg doing a flip.
The sea was filled with Gentoo and Chinstrap Penguins porpoising gracefully through the water, cutting paths between the bergs, but our minds were on another target—a Leopard Seal. Soon, one of the Zodiac drivers had located one and we all converged on the floe to take pictures of this huge predator. Its mouth forms a kind of creepy smile that would work very well in a horror flick. On shore, others were waiting impatiently for their turns in the Zodiacs, so we had to return. The seas had calmed considerably by then, so they probably got the nicer ride. But they didn’t get to see an iceberg flip!
The Gentoo colonies on the island were doing well, with many nests containing two chicks. There were also an awful lot of dead penguins at this site. Every site has had its share, but they were much more numerous here. It wasn’t clear why, but it’s possible that a weather event may have been a factor. Those who had visited this colony on earlier trips noticed that the chicks were younger than the last time they had been here at the same time of year, so a late spring or too much snow may have played a role.
Not content to do just one landing today, we continued southward during the afternoon and early evening. After dinner, we went ashore at Neko Harbour, a beautiful ice-filled bay. A glacier reaches the ocean here, and shortly after we set foot on shore—our only continental landing—a large ice chunk fell into the sea from the glacier face. It was big enough to cause a small tsunami, causing us—and the penguins at the water’s edge—to head for higher ground. By the time it reached us, it was probably only about a two-foot surge, but that was impressive enough. The water here is clear enough that you can watch the penguins swimming along the shoreline. This Gentoo colony also had young chicks in the nests. Two Weddell Seals rounded out the entertainment for the evening. Tomorrow, we’ll start the day here with some Zodiac cruising.
By Jim Danzenbaker and Ann Nightingale
17 January 2012
Jim’s View: A look out the porthole window this morning gave the impression of a potentially good morning of Zodiac cruising. However, I knew that conditions can and do quickly and drastically deteriorate in the Antarctic. I was to drive a Zodiac for cruising between the icebergs today – a very popular activity on these trips.
Cruising usually delivers excellent blue ice and “penguins on ice” photo opportunities. Unfortunately, nature’s fury would win today and, although I delivered folks from ship to shore, conditions were becoming more challenging. I picked up Ann and three others from shore and started towards a few close ice floes.
Very few Adelies were on the ice, which was disappointing but there wasn’t anything that I could have done to improve it. Forty-five minutes into the cruise, we were all pretty wet and tired of battling the blowing ice and wind. The landing site was changed and, as fate would have it, we had to round a corner of the island to get out of the wind and offload in safer conditions. That was an interesting passage – the swells and chop had built in less than an hour. There’s nothing like Zodiac surfing – not recommended though!
We photographed throngs of Adelies walking along the shore – all very businesslike. These penguins had seemingly pre-chosen their surf entry spots and bottlenecks often occurred as they anxiously awaited the proper moment. They never know where Leopard Seals might be lurking – Adelie is a favorite meal for these three-meter-long seals, so choosing a time and location wisely is key.
Eventually, the call came for all Zodiacs to return to the ship due to large swells and wind so I complied. Going up “the hook” aka, the process of bringing the Zodiac back on board can be interesting. After offloading passengers at the gangway, I line up the Zodiac with a dangling hook that has a bow line attached. Engine in neutral, I place the center loop with attached floor straps on the hook and clip the bow line to the front of the Zodiac. Then, the motor is turned off and raised. The Zodiac is then raised onto the ship via a complex crane which maneuvers in an incredibly narrow space. It sounds easy – except on blustery days and days with a swell.
After leaving Paulette, nature’s fury was in full display with penguins porpoising through and over a white frothy sea. Clouds were being whipped above and around snow-capped mountains and iceberg edges were being pummeled by an angry sea. We journeyed through the Antarctic Sound and turned westward into the Bransfield Strait to points further south on the west side of the peninsula. Swells made more room in the dining hall for dinner…
Ann's View: This morning’s schedule consisted of a two-part visit to Paulet Island and surrounding waters. For two hours, we could choose a landing and for the other two, we could Zodiac-cruise among the icebergs for photo ops with penguins on ice. For those seeking a more physical adventure, a hike to the top of the island was planned. The landing was a bit more treacherous today, with rounded volcanic rocks interspersed with ice, resulting in a very artistic shoreline at the landing site. We all got off the Zodiacs at this location to sort out who was going where.
Having landed last evening, I opted to start the day with a Zodiac cruise. It turned out to be more of a white-water trip. The winds and the rains came up and instead of enjoying a leisurely tour of the icebergs, we were hanging on tightly as we and our camera gear were splashed with saltwater. Still, the icebergs were beautiful, and the antics of the Adelie Penguins were entertaining. Yesterday, a penguin had landed in one of the Zodiacs right at a spot where a group of the birds porpoised through the water. We were hoping for a repeat today, but they all managed to figure out the difference between the boats and the icebergs. I had hoped to get some photos of porpoising penguins, but that wasn’t going to happen today. We all just had to be satisfied with mental images this morning.
The penguins weren’t the only things in the water, though. Strings of gelatinous salps were common on the surface. These colonial animals drift around the oceans eating plankton and in turn being eaten by other creatures. When I first saw them, I have to admit that I thought they were feces of some aquatic creature. We were surprised to see tropical fruits and salad greens floating in our path, apparently tossed from another visiting ship. Despite the precautions visitors must take—we’re not even allowed to eat on shore—it is still legal to dump certain kinds of waste a prescribed distance from the shore. One of our team played a game of “Fruit Ninja”, Antarctic style, and managed to pluck a grapefruit and orange from the agitated waters. Due to the increasing winds, the landing site on the island had to be relocated, and ultimately, the landing was called off mid-morning.
A fact of life on these expeditions is that the plans can be changed on a moment’s notice, depending on the weather and other circumstances beyond our control. We came dangerously close to the latter today when one of the staff barely escaped serious injury when his Zodiac was caught by the wind as it was being winched to the fifth deck. The boat went vertical, with the motor above his head, leaving him dangling from the harness while everything loose in the boat fell to the sea below. Fortunately, his grip held until the boat was horizontal again, and another Zodiac in the water below was able to collect almost everything that fell, including the driver’s dry bag containing some very valuable camera equipment.
By Jim Danzenbaker and Ann Nightingale
16 January 2012
Jim’s View: There’s nothing like looking out the porthole window and seeing icebergs floating by. We had arrived in the Weddell Sea, which borders the east coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. This was the Antarctica that I had been looking forward to—large tabular icebergs, crystal clear blue water, and relatively cold (-2°C) temperature. Towering bergs of all shapes and sizes passed by, stirring my imagination for proper descriptions.
While at breakfast, Rod Planck came in and made the announcement “Humpback Whales at 12 o’clock”. The dining room cleared immediately and the bridge and bow filled just as quickly. I witnessed Humpback Whales viewing at its finest for the next hour. Up to a dozen Humpbacks proceeded to interact with each other and at times, with the ship. Spyhopping, pectoral flipper slapping, fluking, and plenty of dorsal fins and blows kept our collective attention. It was an extreme pixel moment with camera shutters activated everywhere. I chose to simply watch in awe as these creatures gave a view into how nature should be, unafraid, majestic, and truly wild. The deep bellowing sounds that these whales make when blowing is incredibly primal. Surprisingly, we found many more Humpback Whales this morning—up to five in a group, usually including a cow and a calf, that allowed for this close interaction.
Soon a group of Orcas was spotted and all got views of a regal diatom-covered male with females and young in the pod. Our next task was a daunting one—find the Holy Grail of Antarctic birds: the Emperor Penguin. Three years ago, we endured a 40-hour watch until we found one; on the last trip, it only took three minutes. We didn’t know how long it would take this year. I was incredibly relieved to spot a larger penguin loafing on an ice floe 100 meters in front of the bow. Could it be? It was our quarry and all had the opportunity to see this immature male Emperor as it slowly tobogganed across the ice with an Adelie. The captain maneuvered the ship with incredible skill so that photographers on the bow could get excellent photos. It eventually leapt in the cold waters of the Weddell Sea, possible to never be seen by a human again.
We journeyed along the edge of the pack ice with a slight change of schedule—and evening landing at Paulet Island and its multitude of Adelie Penguins. En route, we encountered more Humpback Whales and a large pod of Orcas. At least ten to twelve of these magnificent creatures plowed through the water. I had a feeling that they were on a kill—a baby Humpback, perhaps?
After a quick staff meeting, we headed to shore. The sight of about 800 thousand pairs of Adelie Penguins was amazing. These quintessential black and white penguins covered the beach and nearby hillsides. A penguin highway to the left of the landing site was teeming with Adelies. I had colony duty, so I walked over guano and mud covered rocks and stones to a position near the back of the colony. I was able to study Adelie family life including chick feeding, nest pebble stealing, territorial disputes, courting rituals, and mating. Life in this colony is so every bit as loud and busy as it is smelly. I would not be able to eliminate the aroma of “eau de Paulet”. Many folks enjoyed Adelie life on the beach. It is so wonderful to visit a penguin colony whether it is big or small—the sheer biomass is truly spectacular.
Ann’s view: Today made up for the last few, with one incredible event after another. It had been small consolation to me that our expedition leader revealed that our crossing to this spot had been one of the roughest they had experienced. We are well into the ice, and the bergs are truly impressive! There are hundreds of them, and we’ve made a game of trying to figure out the shapes—kind of like cloud-watching upside-down.
The first real highlight came this morning, when the Ortelius was surrounded by Humpback Whales that put on a show right by the ship. They were feeding, spyhopping, tail slapping, and fluke displaying in all directions. It was a challenge to keep up with them visually, let alone get a camera on them. They were so close to the ship that we could watch them swim underwater. This display went on for more than an hour. Over the course of the day, several more were seen a little farther away, but still an awesome day for whales.
As if the Humpback show wasn’t enough, we were also treated to two pods of Orcas as we made our way through the ice. Arriving in the ice makes the watch for Emperor Penguin, a priority for the naturalists on board. Right before noon, Jim spotted one on an ice floe with an Adelie Penguin. The call went out and the captain maneuvered the ship right next to the floe so that everyone could have a good look. I started this trip with no penguins on my life list; I now have seven, all that we could hope to see.
We arrived in time for a short landing at Paulet Island, home to a billion Adelie Penguins. Okay, not a billion, but enough that the island seems to literally crawl with them. The first impression of one slope of the island is that it is seething, almost like squirming maggots, but these wigglers weren’t fly larvae, these were adult penguins making their way up the rock and snow to get to their nests. The chicks here are already quite large, but not quite to the stage of being independent.
Adelies love the ice, and seem to take advantage of every small chunk of it near the shore. They hop onto the ice, gracefully most of the time, and slide off as if it’s a game to them. I had heard the term “smelly Adelies” before I got here; I now know why. While we were still at least a mile away, the aroma of Paulet Island reached the ship. Today’s best advice: “Don’t put anything on the ground. You’ll never get the smell off of it.” After supper, we headed south for a ship cruise, as the wind was too strong for Zodiac cruising. The icebergs were stunning, and the sunset brilliant. I’ve almost forgotten about the seasickness already.
By Jim Danzenbaker and Ann Nightingale
15 January 2012
Jim’s view: My hopes for icebergs today were realized when I arrived on the bridge and saw several huge bergs on the horizon. They were a welcome sight, as I had seen nothing but blue-gray salt water and whitecaps since leaving South Georgia. Behind the icebergs, the snowclad peaks of the South Orkneys were now in view. The previous day, expedition leader Ted Cheeseman consulted with the staff about altering our planned landing in the South Orkneys. We decided to forego this landing in favor of continuing south into the Weddell Sea to maximize our chances along the pack ice for whales and Emperor Penguins. This was a disappointment, especially for those eager to set foot on dry land.
Although the many swells were slowly decreasing, (not fast enough for many), it was still a bit uncomfortable. Icebergs and flocks of Chinstrap Penguins were becoming more numerous, a true touch of the great white south. Splashy plumaged Pintado Petrels and their close cousins, Southern Fulmars became more numerous. I often saw flocks of these flying circles around the Ortelius, alternately catching the updraft on the windward side and gliding down the leeward face of each swell. These quickly became a crowd favorite. Evening turned to night, and our whale count for the day ended at a somewhat paltry seven, a disappointment given yesterday’s success.
Ann’s view: Although I was feeling better today, the constant rocking of the ship kept me returning to the comfort of the horizontal position to “reboot” between activities. It was of no consolation whatever that Ted Cheeseman, the expedition leader, said that this had been the roughest crossing they had ever had. I made it to the bridge several times today, and saw my first Southern Fulmars, but no whale spouts. The mammal activity had dropped from hundreds of blows yesterday to a mere handful today, none while I was in a position to see them.
The big news of the day is that we’re skipping the South Orkneys—two more days at sea before we reach the ice which, I’m told, will calm the waters. I’m counting on that! The number of Pintado Petrels has increased. They are beautiful birds to watch from above as they glide along the ship. We’re keeping an eye out for an Antarctic Petrel, which is rumored to sometimes hang out with its close relative, the Pintado.
This evening, we had the second passenger slide show of the trip. Each of us may submit five photos for the show, which are then set to music and shown for about three second each. I must say that there are some very impressive photographers on board, but even the amateurs have taken some amazing photos. We’ll be the source of endless shows for our friends when we get home.
In the course of editing thousands of photos for the BirdFellow.com online Social Field Guide, I occasionally come across images that make my head hurt. No matter how many times I look at them or how many references I consult, sometimes I'm still not sure if I have the bird properly identified to species, sex, or age. Instances like this are simultaneously humbling–I don't know everything–and invigorating–there is still so much to explore and learn, thus birding will never become boring.
Part of the fun of this learning process is the social activity that occurs in the reaching out to and hearing back from others who have more firsthand experience than I do with certain species. One of the cornerstones of what we are trying to do with our Social Field Guide is engage folks in discussions that teach us things that we can't find in our printed bird guides. With that in mind, we offer this oriole photo.
We invite you to share your opinions about the bird in the photo above. This image was captured by Bill Holsten at Rancho Santa Fe, San Diego County, California on 11 July 2011. Bill is an avid and very talented bird photographer, who is a comparative newcomer to birding. He sent this photo to me labeled as a female Hooded Oriole, which it very well may be since Hooded is one of the default summer season orioles in Southern California.
When I look at this image, I see a couple things that don't seem to fit Hooded Oriole. First and foremost, the underparts strike me as being too lemony yellow or even greenish yellow for a Hooded. Secondly, the bill seems too straight and perhaps a bit too short and thin for a Hooded, although I could be convinced that there is enough curvature towards the tip for a Hooded. Finally, when I enlarge the image and look closely at the head I notice some apparent black feathering on the lower auriculars and the crown seems a bit dusky.
My question is this, can we be sure that this is not an Orchard Oriole? I have the misfortune of living in a place where encounters with Hooded and Orchard Orioles are few and far between, so I look forward to hearing the opinions of those who enjoy them more frequently. I've asked Bill Holsten if he has other photos of this bird. If he does, I will add them to this journal post.
Please post your thoughts on this bird as comment to this journal piece.
By Jim Danzenbaker and Ann Nightingale
14 January 2012
Jim’s view: The ship was swaying from side to side throughout the night and I awoke early to head to the bridge. Others were already there and their news of distant whale spouts was a sign of good things to come. Soon spouts were erupting in all directions. The whale count was 35 and growing. I had to leave the bridge and deliver my final lecture, “Seabirds—The Far Southern Realm”. It was well-attended and fun with lots of discussion among the many folks present.
Once done, I quickly returned to the bridge for a continuation of my naturalist on watch duties. The whale count had mushroomed in my absence and several striking Hourglass Dolphins had been seen as well. In addition to the whales, folks were gathering on the bridge in order watch and avoid the increasing swell and salt spray that were regularly showering the bow. Rating the spray on a scale of 1 to 10 was great fun. The source of our joy was a curse to many others, who were suffering mal de mer. I consider myself lucky not to experience this uncomfortable condition.
I was glad to be joined on the bridge by more observers than I’ve ever had on any previous trip. The additional eyes and great conversation helped during the long afternoon hours. The day ended with a new one-day high count of whales for a Cheeseman’s Ecology Safaris: 143 in total, 84 of which were Fin Whales. Unfortunately, none came close for crippling views, but we knew that more whales lie ahead, hopefully in calmer waters.
Ann’s view: There are 35 tiles in the ceiling of my cabin. That was my view for much of today. I longed to be on the bridge counting whales and birds with the others, but every attempt to stay vertical was thwarted by an undeniable urge to be horizontal after only a few minutes. I attended the beginnings of several lectures, but only was able to make it to the end of one. I managed to get to breakfast and was late enough to lunch that not much was left.
For the second consecutive evening, I was confined to my cabin and survived on prisoners’ rations of bread and water. I guess that’s one way to relate to the Antarctic explorers of old. Despite the seasickness, it’s been a fantastic trip, and the experience of a lifetime. I’m sure once we are on dry land again, I’ll forget all about this feeling. At least, I hope I will.
By Jim Danzenbaker and Ann Nightingale
13 January 2012
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.
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.
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.
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.
By Jim Danzenbaker and Ann Nightingale
12 January 2012
Jim’s view: The weather wasn’t on our side this morning, so our intended 5 a.m. landing was postponed several times. It was a chance to get partially caught up on my sleep, update my journal, and attend several lectures. I took photos of the glaciers that plunged into a hidden lake behind a King Penguin-filled beach that was visible from the ship.
After lunch, the winds subsided and we were able to start the landing. I manned the King Penguin colony for several hours since many people wanted to study them in further detail. Although I couldn’t find any egg exchanges, it was a good opportunity to discuss King Penguin life with those present. Afterwards, I marveled at the “sausage people” aka Southern Elephant Seals. Their irregular snorts, innocent wide eyes, and massive girth make them one of the most memorable creatures on the shore.
I stole a moment to climb up to several nesting Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses. The hike was an adventure unto itself because the ascension winds through tussock grass laden with growling Fur Seals of all sizes. Cute as pups, yes, cute as sub-adults and adults, not so much. On the hike back to the landing, I saw a spectacular ice fall from the glacier that hung over the southern end of Gold Harbour. On each trip, I hear many glacial cracks and groans but rarely do I see ice falls or calving. I was glad to see it—raw nature is a beautiful thing. On the Zodiac ride back to the ship we stopped several times to photograph the ever-changing light on the backdrop of snow-capped peaks. Gold Harbour is still one of my most favored places on Earth.
Ann’s view: I awoke in the middle of the night to the extreme rocking of the ship. We had apparently been blown off our anchorage in St. Andrew’s Bay and were en route to our next destination, Gold Harbour, ahead of schedule. The harbor turned out to be a great place to shelter, but strong winds still kept us on board, despite plans for an early morning landing.
The scenery was spectacular, with several glaciers and a beach full of penguins and elephant seals visible from the decks and bridge. We waited out the winds with a couple of unscheduled lectures on whaling and bird migration, and were ready to head to shore right after lunch. Two of the Zodiacs were punctured by something sharp on the gangway as the ship moved up and down with the swells. Good thing they brought along some spares!
The landing put us on shore for our briefing, with the instruction to avoid being caught between an elephant seal and the water. Certainly, that was easier said than done, as the beach was littered with them. Fortunately, most of the elephant seals were content just wallowing in the puddles or giving themselves sand showers. Many were stacked side by side, making for giant carpets of seals. These animals are huge!
Gold Harbour is also home to a colony of about 7,000 pairs of King Penguins, so those who hadn’t seen an egg exchange yesterday were quickly set on a pair with high exchange potential. Several hours later, there had been numerous false starts, but no successful exchange. Skuas were numerous and not content with pestering the penguins. Several passengers had their gear and even their boots inspected by these scavengers. Another scavenger, the Sheathbill, was more numerous here than any of our earlier landings. We’d been warned to keep our eyes on them as they are known to peck at the eyes of snoozing humans.
Gentoo Penguins also have a small colony on this beach, and a couple of Chinstrap Penguins put in appearances. The unexpected sighting of the day, though, turned out to be an Adele Penguin, the first seen on this trip, and well north of their usual range. My favorite warning for the day had to be “watch out for seals in the tussocks.” I’d learned that seals in the tussocks was pretty much a given, and was faced with a daunting climb up a steep bank to see Light-mantled Sooty Albatross nests. After running the seal gauntlet at the bottom of the bank, the tussock-covered hillside seemed quiet, until all of a sudden I’d hear a growl or snort from just behind a clump of the grass. It was a little intimidating, but eventually I made it to the top. I contemplated whether there would be a market for seal bells, akin to the bear bells hikers wear while hiking in the Pacific Northwest.
A short trek across a boggy field brought me to the edge of a cliff where I could see three albatrosses sitting on their nests. One of the three had a small chick that was seen by a few of the visitors. The hike back down the tussocks was easier, and brought its own surprise. A low rumbling in the distance took my eye to the glacier where I witnessed a small avalanche. That was cool enough, but within a few minutes a huge chunk of the glacier broke away and rained down the cliff. It took several seconds for the sound to catch up with the sight of the slide. South Georgia is an amazing place full of many different kinds of spectacles. It’s easy to lose track of the days and locations where events have taken place. Thank heavens for pixels. I’ve already taken more than 5000 pictures, and the trip is only half done!
By Jim Danzenbaker and Ann Nightingale
11 January 2012
Jim’s view: St. Andrew’s Bay should be on a list of the top ten natural wonders of the world. It is home to no less than 300,000 King Penguins. Rough math calculates to 300 billion feathers molted at this single location each year as the carpet of small feathers on the ground demonstrates. The view from a ridge that overlooks the main colony is overpowering. A river of glacial water bisects the center of the colony, giving it an even wilder look. On both sides, King Penguins by the tens of thousands courted, mated, incubated, walked, or trumpteted, making the scene both visually and vocally stunning.
My goal today was to not only find some egg exchanges, but to show them to 96 other people. I was partially successful. The first exchange was seen by one gentleman who happened to look through my scope at the exact moment of exchange. The second was similar to the first. Finally, third exchange happened on the near side of the colony with no other penguins blocking the view. After 45 minutes of watching the pair go through ritualistic behavior that includes bowing, beaking, caressing, and egg exposure, they finally exchanged in full view of about 30 video cameras, long lenses and binoculars. There were satisfied smiles all around. Yip! Several more exchanges happened, but not to the fanfare of the last.
Afterwards Ann and I wandered back to the landing site for lunch. While we ate, and intermittently photographed penguins passing by, the gentle breeze grew to a sustained 25 knot wind. I perked up immediately, as did others who had experience with catabatic winds. They are a force to be reckoned with on any South Georgia landing. These winds can quickly ramp up from nothing to 100 mph sustained and this happens fairly frequently at St. Andrew’s Bay. Thankfully, winds peaked at about 35 knots on this day. Our communications to all on shore were precautionary rather than a call to return to the Zodiacs. Thankfully, most people had already started back as they felt the increased wind.
The remainder of the day was spent photographing King Penguins, Antarctic Fur Seals and Southern Elephant Seals. I left St. Andrew’s rich with wonderful memories shared on board over a fine meal. As always, everyone had visited different places and seen different things and it was interesting to hear varied perspectives and questions on sightings of the day.
Ann’s view: Blue skies and smooth water suggested an easy landing at St. Andrew’s Bay today, but the first Zodiacs to the beach found a strong surf hitting the shore, potentially increasing the wetness of our wet landing. However, before long, we were all ashore and about to witness a true spectacle. Fur Seals were not as abundant here as they have been at the other recent landings, but there were good numbers of Elephant Seals. And King Penguins!
St. Andrew’s Bay is home to the largest colony in the world, some 300,000 strong. Today’s mission was to witness an egg exchange, so we headed to a ridge overlooking this massive colony and watched intently for signs of an imminent transfer of parental duties. Jim had advised us in his lecture that we should try to find two penguins standing closer together than the norm, with a thin dirty one and a clean fat one together. Soon we had a pair in our sights. The ritual of egg exchange can take several hours before the egg holder agrees to transfer it to the other parent. However, our first pair got the deed done in about 20 minutes, and of course, while all but one of us was looking elsewhere. Jim quickly found another pair, who teased and taunted us for about an hour, changing alignment several times before the returning adult gently rolled the egg out from under its mate and onto its own feet. Loud bugling followed, the pair apparently quite happy that the transfer was successful.
St. Andrew’s Bay is a beautiful site, with glaciers reaching down from the mountains, sharp peaks, lakes and an unbelievable mass of wildlife. I tried to imagine what it must have been like to be the first person who came across this amazing place with hundreds of thousands of penguins. Relaxing in the sun on the beach, I was able watch King Penguins enter and return from the sea, frolic in the surf and loaf on the sand and grassy plain.
The area is also known for its unpredictable winds, and we got a small taste of that this afternoon. Catabatic winds blow down from the glaciers and can build without warning. Fortunately, the winds that hit us today were not particularly fierce and didn’t last too long, so were more of an inconvenience than a danger. Some of the visitors were especially delighted to be at St. Andrew’s Bay as the landing hasn’t been possible on several other trips due to these winds.
Earlier today, BirdFellow member Steve Mauvais sent me an e-mail with an embedded You Tube video, in which a juvenile songbird lands on the guitar of bluegrass musician Josh Williams, as he performs at the Doyle Lawson Bluegrass Festival in Denton, North Carolina on 5 May 2011.
The small bird is clearly fresh out of the nest, as a large pale gape flange is evident. The youngster sits on Williams' guitar as he and his band mates play on and even allows Williams to stroke its head. Try as I might, I couldn't identify this bird.
We encourage you to test your skills on this bird after checking out the full video by clicking on the underlined text below. The bird appears about 1:30 into the song. Feathered bluegrass fan
By Jim Danzenbaker and Ann Nightingale
10 January 2012
Jim’s view: It was a beautiful morning for a landing and Hercules Bay was today's destination. Although logistically challenging with two landing sites and Zodiac cruising involved if the weather held, the scenery and the birds are stunning. The first landing is on a small beach showcased by a waterfall and a small flock of King Penguins with the usual Fur Seals and Elephant Seals.
The highlight of Hercules, however, is the colony of Macaroni Penguins. Macaronis are larger than the Rockhoppers seen in the Falkland Islands, but like the Rockhoppers, these crested penguins also had a perilous uphill climb to their nests among the tussocks. We watched as they scampered down the slopes onto the beach before their eventual return to the sea. Like all the wildlife we had seen, they were both the observed and the observers. Driven by curiosity, they approached quite close to me.
The outer landing site offers a shoreline sprinkled with loafing Macaronis and a few King Penguins, Gentoo Penguins, and my first Chinstrap Penguin of the trip. Overhead, at least three Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses flew over repeatedly. Further exploration revealed several nesting birds on the mossy ledges overlooking the bay. The raw physical beauty of this location is matched by the wall of sound emanating from penguins, fur seals and albatrosses.
In stark contrast to the beauty of the morning, the afternoon was marked by a grim visit to a beast of South Georgia’s past. Tucked away in Cumberland Bay, Grytviken was the center of the lucrative whaling industry in South Georgia. Thousands of whales were processed here. Relics of this morbid time still stand as a harsh reminder of man’s wanton lack of regard for nature’s gifts. Huge oil drums, processing equipment, and the last harpooning ship stand as they were left when whaling ceased in the 1960s.
In need of something more upbeat, we reminded ourselves of the glorious days of Antarctic exploration with a visit to the whalers’ cemetery, where we spent some time with “the boss”, Sir Ernest Shackleton. In the local tradition and in grand style we toasted him and poured liquor on his grave—the most preserved explorer on the planet. Shackleton’s right hand man and second in command of the Endurance exploration, Frank Wild, was buried there in November, 2011, reunited once again. Grytviken has a museum, gift shop, and post office, so many of the passengers took advantage of the opportunity to purchase postcards and send them home. One of our group, a trained opera singer, entertained in the old whalers’ church, which was built in 1913. The day ended with an outdoor barbecue—South Georgia style—with salad, shrimp, ribs and sausage, shared on deck in 35° F temperature. Rather cool, but befitting our Antarctic adventure.
Ann’s view: Another calm and sunny morning greeted us today as we motored into Hercules Bay. The water of this bay, like many of the others, is an amazing pale turquoise blue, looking more tropical than Antarctic. However, this color is actually caused by the glacial “flour” or fine silt washed into the bays by the grinding of the many glaciers which can be found on South Georgia. Macaroni Penguins were the order of the day, and before we could even get into the Zodiacs, we were watching groups of them porpoising around the bay.
Macaroni Penguins look and act a lot like Rockhopper Penguins, but they are larger and the yellow tufts on the sides of their head are joined together with a yellow strip over their beaks. The nest sites are located high in the tussocks. A few people made the trek to the one accessible colony, but most of us were content just watching the birds ambling up and down their penguin highways, which reached from the colonies to the sea. Fur and Elephant seals were plentiful at this site, as were molting King Penguins and a lone Chinstrap Penguin. The morning’s adventure was capped by a bit of Zodiac cruising which provided great photo opportunities and revealed thousands of ctenophores and small jellyfish among the kelp forests lining the shores.
After lunch back on the ship, we travelled past several glaciers and their “offspring”—fields of small icebergs—before reaching Grytviken. This particular stop is mandatory so that we may clear customs and provides another historical experience. A speaker from the South Georgia Heritage Trust (SGHT) came aboard and provided a brief presentation on their work. The landing began at the graveyard where explorer Ernest Shackleton is buried. Sir Ernest has been joined by his first mate, Frank Wild. Wild’s ashes were interred in South Africa and were only recent discovered and moved to South Georgia according to his final wishes. The visit to Shackleton’s grave is accompanied by a toast to “the boss”, where half a shot of rum is consumed and the other half shared with Shackleton. I didn’t notice if anyone thought to share a bit with Wild.
A tour of the former whale station was provided by the SGHT. The trust operates a museum and gift shop at Grytviken, and many souvenirs were purchased by the Ortelius passengers. The funds raised by SGHT are going towards a monumental program to try to rid the island of invasive, imported Brown Norway Rats. The rats came to the island from ships visiting the whaling station or by coming ashore after shipwrecks (which appear to be plentiful around South Georgia). They have been wreaking havoc on the eggs and young of ground-nesting birds such as the South Georgia Pipit and Common Diving Petrel. Using the glaciers as natural barriers, the island has been divided up for the e”rat”ication efforts. Grytviken appears to be rat-free now, and next year, plans include most of the north shoreline of South Georgia. It is believed that if the rat program is successful, it’s probably only a matter of time until the pipits return to their historical breeding areas.
The day ended with a barbecue out on the Ortelius deck. Stoic travelers faced the light drizzle and cooler temperatures this evening to enjoy an outdoor meal with their fellow passengers. Note to self: Corn on the cob and whole prawns cannot be safely eaten with winter gloves on.
By Jim Danzenbaker and Ann Nightingale
9 January 2012
Jim’s view: There’s nothing like looking out the porthole and seeing sunshine and high mountain peaks. After paying our 'dues' yesterday, I was looking forward to improved conditions. Fortuna Bay is a grand area with glaciers and mountain peaks that lead to a wildlife-rich plain. The shore of the bay is loaded with Fur Seals—small, medium, and large—all playful, but a force to be reckoned with. Small ponds near the shore held many “furries”, innocently swimming and enjoying this time of plenty in the sub-Antarctic summer. The pups are incredibly cute, though they have a menacing growl. Their antics always put a smile on my face.
I had King Penguin colony duty, so I set up at the colony and then waited for the clients to arrive. Standing about three-feet tall, King Penguins are beautiful birds with a very confiding manner. With 7,000 pairs, this colony is a mere fraction of the size of the one at Salisbury Plain, but much more manageable. A key behavior that I hoped to see was an egg exchange—the bird with the egg balanced on its feet transferring it to its partner. There’s an elaborate ritual around this event, but alas, I did not witness it today.
Highlights of the morning included Light-mantled Sooty Albatross nests and reindeer. The reindeer were introduced by Norwegian whalers as a supply of fresh meat and to remind them of home. The population has dramatically increased to the detriment of nesting seabirds. My afternoon was spent on the Shackleton hike, a three and a half mile walk from Fortuna Bay to the Stromness whaling station—Sir Ernest Shackleton’s final leg of his epic Antarctic voyage of discovery. This hike was much easier than Shackleton's. I had the latest in comfortable chest waders, a lightweight backpack, 74 hiking companions and chocolate. He had a rope, deteriorating shoes, and two comrades who must have been hanging on by a physical and emotional thread. The countryside is stark. Rocky outcroppings and scree slopes replace the moss-covered lower terrain. Unlike previous years, there was no snow, so no glissading. We ended our hike at the defunct Stromness whaling station. The stations is a morbid reminder of the demise of the great whales. It now hosts thousands of Fur Seals and a small colony of Gentoo Penguins. It was good to return to the ship for a shower, hot dinner and a good night’s sleep.
Ann’s view: “Don’t stampede the reindeer through the penguin colony” is one of the most bizarre instructions I’ve ever received, but was important for our stop at Fortuna Bay—yet another picturesque beach and another beautiful day on South Georgia. The reindeer herd was situated between the beach and the penguin colony, and as directed, we took care not to cause them to stampede. Brought to the island as game for the sealers, whalers and visitors, in the early years of the last century, the feral herds are scheduled to be eliminated next year to protect native species.
The King Penguin colony lay to the left of our landing site, but a stroll to the right provided great opportunities for photos of even more Fur Seals, including several male “beach masters” and their harems. The seal pups continued to put on shows for us, frolicking in small puddles, tussling with each other in the tussocks, bleating for their moms and practicing their growls. I witnessed several mother and child reunions. The mom would often start calling for her baby before she even landed on the beach. The baby would call back. It was like the “furry” version of Marco Polo. Even my inexperienced ears started being able to pick out the pairs, which allowed me to anticipate the reunion. It was fascinating to witness the two call back and forth eventually working their ways through hundreds of other seals to get to each other.
This King Penguin colony is smaller than the one at Salisbury Plain, which gave us a chance to have a closer look at individual birds. Being in the right place at the right time meant that several of us saw copulation and egg manipulation, but we didn’t actually witness an egg exchange—yet. I’m told that our best chance could be in a couple of days at St. Andrew’s.
Nearby, at a waterfall, we saw two Light-mantled Sooty Albatross nests. The hike up the hill was worthwhile just for the view, but good looks at a skua chick and a South Georgia Pintail—an innocent looking carnivorous duck—were unexpected bonuses. We ate lunch on the beach as groups of King Penguins strolled by, then we took a short Zodiac trip across the bay to the start of our historical retracing of Shackleton’s walk to Stromness. The hike ascends 1200 feet in about a mile and a half. Footing was moderately challenging, as the route up consisted of scree— broken fragments of sedimentary rock, pried apart and shattered by repeated freezing and thawing. I stepped carefully, having heard rumors that a woman had fallen to her death here last week.
Along the way, we saw two Giant Petrels on nests and numerous holes that were probably the entrances to Diving Petrel burrows. At the summit, we could see the remains of the Stromness whaling station on the shore below. The descent was much trickier than the climb, but ended in the boggy edges of an alluvial river basin. Gentoo Penguins held their ground on a few of the hillocks, and King Penguins mixed with Fur and Elephant Seals on the Stromness beach. Several of the pups lounged in the abandoned equipment. While seventy-five of us hiked, the remainder of the crew and passengers came to Stromness with the ship, which was waiting to pick us up.
By Jim Danzenbaker and Ann Nightingale
8 January 2012
Jim’s view: The alarm clock rang early today, but our morning landing was thwarted by overcast skies and rain, which postponed it by an hour and a half. Regardless, Salisbury Plain is a special place and an opportunity to observe a huge colony of King Penguins and my first encounter of the trip with a seemingly endless supply of Fur Seals. I had colony duty, so after landing I was off to the edge of the incredible throng of life. Stately adult King Penguins were everywhere, some with an egg on their feet, concealed by a fold of skin, others courting, mating, or molting. "Oakum boys," the young of last year’s second cycle, stood in irregular lines of brown which skirted the colony. Oakums (last year’s first cycle young) readying for their first plunge into the sea busied themselves by whistling, flapping and intermittently running along the edge of the colony. It's always humorous watching them catch raindrops, nature’s gift to this penguin colony.
It was sensory overload—so much life to see in one place and I consider myself lucky to see it. Although the experience is like no other, the rain kept coming and I had no difficulty in sweeping folks to the landing site for a wet Zodiac ride back to the ship. A heated cabin never felt so good. The rain stopped shortly after our return to the ship, but that was okay since I was drenched from head to foot. After lunch, I suited up yet again for a much anticipated visit to Prion Island to hold court with the magnificent Wandering Albatrosses.
As we made preparations for the landing, the wind continued to intensify. The initial 15 mph breeze grew to a sustained 30 knots. Continued strengthening seemed a real possibility. However, we had our prize in mind, and after repositioning the ship at a more favorable anchorage, we loaded Zodiacs and we were on our way.
It wasn’t surprising to be met at the small beach by hundreds of Fur Seals. It was a relief that it didn’t take long to coax them into opening a pathway for us to get to the boardwalk and access to higher ground. Prion Island is a grand place. One of the many islets in the Bay of Isles, it contains a healthy population of nesting seabirds. This is due in large part to the lack of Norway rats, which have populated the main islands since whaling days.
In addition to the albatrosses, the island’s other claim to fame is the endemic South Georgia Pipit, the only passerine on South Georgia. Ground-nesting pipits are highly susceptible to rat predation, thus this species has essentially been eliminated as a breeder on the main island. I was immediately encouraged after seeing several pipits land on the boardwalk ahead of me as I walked along to my appointment with the great albatrosses.
Upon reaching the top of the island, the wind grew fierce, but that was okay since that was albatross weather. I was elated to see several Wanderers close to the boardwalk, as it made the wet Zodiac ride to the island worthwhile. One female sat near a bend at the end of the boardwalk, her elegance revealed in her pristine black and white plumage, pink bill and dark eyes. She perched serenely on her mound of tussock grass and mud and stared ahead. A male was nearby, which gave me hope being able show our clients their mating behavior.
I escorted groups of twelve people up the boardwalk. Cameras clicking at everything in sight made me feel like a tour guide in a zoo, which was an odd thought given the grandeur of the area. The wind, which nearly overpowered us at the end of the boardwalk, is nature’s gift to the albatrosses, whose massive wingspan make them utterly dependent on wind shear as they glide about. Several times, these immense birds courted before me, bill clicking, wing raising and grunt calling—spectacular moments. I returned to the ship after detouring around the Fur Seals and penguins on the beach—an end to a brilliant day.
Ann’s view: A 4:30 a.m. breakfast and 5:30 am departure to the Salisbury Plain were the first items on today’s agenda, but Ted Cheeseman came to the dining room with the news that the Zodiacs wouldn’t be leaving until 7 a.m. due to poor weather conditions. Many of the passengers headed straight back to bed, but those of us with extra adrenalin or caffeine pumping through our systems found other things to occupy us until we could launch.
Despite a light drizzle, the landing on the beach of the Salisbury Plain will be one of those moments I will never forget. The plain was packed with Fur Seals, Elephant Seals and too many King Penguins to count. One of the people on the Zodiac commented on the welcoming party of penguins and seals, and that is exactly what it looked like. A small crowd of about a dozen King Penguins stood right on the water’s edge, as if waiting for us to come ashore. Seals bounded all around the Zodiac like they were greeting long lost friends. The sight honestly brought tears to my eyes.
Once ashore, the panorama was overwhelming. All around the landing site were thousands of King Penguins, young and old, molting and courting, loafing and swimming. A few hundred yards away was the breeding colony, extending high up the hillside. It looked like a living river of penguins flowing out to the sea. To get to the colony, we had to walk a gauntlet of Fur Seals. The pups, females and older males watched us and occasionally snorted, but the young males saw us as potential playmates and frequently ran towards us. We all carried walking sticks which we were instructed to keep between us and the rambunctious males. They looked so disappointed as we put an end to their games merely by pointing the sticks in their direction.
Elephant seals mostly just lay about the beach and plains, although some of the males were definitely in an amorous mood. The females didn’t seem particularly interested. Giant Petrels squabbled over the rotting remains of dead seals, oblivious to our presence. I even spotted the trip’s first Chinstrap Penguin near the landing site.
It would have been a perfect morning, except for one thing. The rain kept coming and got heavier as time progressed. Binoculars and scopes were pretty much useless but unharmed by the wet conditions. The same can’t be said for the cameras. It was beyond tempting to pull out a camera as unforgettable scenes popped up at every turn. So, despite knowing better, many of us tried to get at least a few shots. Within two hours, my camera refused to focus. Later in the Ortelius bar, people were comparing notes on their “patients”—cameras at various stages of drying out, with the owners praying that they would return to a functional state. I’m happy to say that mine made a reasonably quick recovery!
After lunch, we were divided into two groups for trips to Prion Island to see nesting Wandering Albatrosses. This is the only place that these endangered birds can be seen on their nests. The rain had stopped, but in its place was a fierce wind. The ship had to be moved to a second anchorage for us to even attempt the landing. Expedition staff were called into duty as ballast, meaning they had to make the crossing several times. I was in the first Zodiac of passengers to make the run for the island. The ride was an adventure in itself! Every bounce of the Zodiac brought a wave of seawater over the heads of everyone on board. It was the Antarctic version of waterboarding! We held the perimeter rope with one hand and held our hats and hoods over our heads with the other. Keeping our heads down, we relied on the skill of the driver to get us safely to shore. After an incident with kelp getting tangled in the motor, and a bang against some hidden rocks, we were finally on the beach, which was squirming with Fur Seals.
We were quickly directed up a boardwalk that had been specifically constructed to allow viewing of the albatrosses with minimal disruption to them. The steep climb did not disappoint. Several nests were within a few feet of the boardwalk, giving us an up close and personal look at the birds. At this distance, we could truly appreciate their size. The Wandering Albatross’s wingspan is almost double the Black-browed we’d been looking at on earlier stops. Our time was short at this small colony, as only 50 people are allowed on the island at a time. Each group had to return to the ship so that another Zodiac load could come ashore. On the descent, I got a fleeting view and heard the song of the only passerine species on the island, the South Georgian Pipit. There were a few moments before launching to snap some quick shots of the Fur Seals. The pups are especially precious. On my return to the ship, I concluded that this was probably the best natural history day of my life!
By Jim Danzenbaker and Ann Nightingale
Jim’s view: I felt almost free today since I had no lectures to present or any talks on shore. It would be a busy day, though. The obvious highlight was a close circling of Shag Rocks, which are the southernmost peaks of the Andes. This geologic formation emerges from 2000 meter deep water and projects to a height of about 1000 feet above the sea. and hosts a promised abundance of wildlife. I counted 16 Humpback Whales before reaching the rocks.
Tens of thousands of diminutive Antartic Prions flew over the water, sometimes appearing to coat the surface. Three flavors of Albatross are common here, and White-chinned Petrels were everywhere. Antarctic Fur Seals, reminders of the challenges of any landing on South Georgia, became more numerous. I marveled at their acrobatic swimming skills but knew they’d be a force to contend with in the days to come. South Georgia Shags flew over en masse, and photographic opportunities were in no short supply.
Scanning the horizon, I spotted a shape that brought great excitement—our first iceberg! As we drew nearer others on deck spotted a group of Gentoo Penguins perched upon it. Black-bellied Storm-petrels and Antarctic Prions increased as did many albatrosses of all ages. It was encouraging to see so many of these magnificent ocean wanderers, as they are still severely threatened by longline fishing. Official estimates show disturbing annual reductions in the numbers of breeding birds.
A whale, briefly seen off the bow, was identified as a Southern Right Whale due to its smooth-edged and evenly pattered fluke. We wished we had seen it earlier. It was wonderful to see the Willis Islands emerge out of the overcast skies—a welcome relief to those suffering from mal de mer. In addition to attraction of getting off the boat, there was the promise of incredible avian spectacles. We ship-cruised through Elsahul Bay on the northwest coast of South Georgia and marveled at the richness of life visible from the ship—nesting Wandering Albatrosses, great numbers of nesting Black-browed and Gray-headed Albatrosses, Macaroni Penguins and a small, but distinctive colony of King Penguins. A group of eight Fur Seals swam out to greet us. I was surprised to see one blonde seal in this group. “Blondies” are regular, but always a treat to see. I fell asleep comforted by the thought of the vast and varied wildlife we would see tomorrow.
Ann’s view: The morning broke with news that land was in sight. Shag Rocks, sharp pinnacles that protrude from the southern ocean northwest of South Georgia Island were in view! Despite my pleading for a landing on solid ground, the best the ship would do was circle the rocks. Spectacular views were enjoyed and photographed by all, the shifting light and perspective making each image different from the last. The rocks are home, not surprisingly, to thousands of South Georgia shags Shags, the best looking cormorants I have ever seen.
Jim gets the prize for spotting the first iceberg of the trip, and it was a doozie! Another hour had passed before we crossed paths with it. Icebergs are among the things that I am looking forward to spending time with on this trip. The contours and colors were amazing, and a flock of penguins on the tail end of the berg were the icing on the cake.
It was dinnertime before the island of South Georgia came into view. An evening cruise close to shore gave us a hint of things to come. It was impossible to know which way to look. Whales were blowing in one direction while hundreds of Fur Seals cavorted close to the ship. A blonde seal stood out among its chocolate brown playmates. Macaroni and our first King Penguins swam and porpoised close to the ship. Wandering, Gray-headed and Black-browed Albatross heads stood out among the grassy hillsides on shore, and in the distance, we could see a small colony of King Penguins on the beach. Behind us, a bare spot on a cliff turned out not to be bare at all, but to be a large colony of Macaroni Penguins. It was possible to hear them calling even over the drone of the ship’s engine. Tomorrow morning is our first landing on the island, at the famed Salisbury Plain. The keeners among us plan to be on the Zodiacs at 5:30 am, weather permitting.
6 January 2012
Jim’s view: Dawn brought hopes of new seabirds and we weren't disappointed. An early pair of elegant Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses synchronously flew around the ship for about twenty minutes. I was very glad they did, since I had mentioned in my lecture the day before that this species finds its mate from the previous season out at sea before returning to their nesting sites. An early Gray-headed Albatross joined the few Black-browed Albatrosses gathered around the Ortelius. Soft-plumaged Petrels carved arcs over the relatively smooth water while Southern Royal and Wandering Albatrosses dynamically flew by. What beautiful birds. I'm thrilled that we will be visiting their nest sites on South Georgia.
At 11 a.m., we started to cross the polar front (Antarctic Convergence) and the sea water dropped from 8° C to 3° C, in a matter of hours. The air temperature also dropped from 10° C to a cool 2° C. Other than a staff meeting, lunch and answering a multitude of seabird questions, I prepped for my talk on “King Penguins—Royalty of South Georgia.” My hope was to whet the appetite of all aboard to not only see, but to study these remarkable birds. Once again, the dining room had empty chairs at each meal.
Ann’s view: I awoke refreshed and ready for another day at sea. Or so I thought. I decided to take the doctor up on her prescribed drug regimen that was to take throughout the reminder of the trip. I began my treatment just after breakfast. Here’s hoping! Following breakfast, there was time on deck, a drawing class and biosecurity.
As our next stop is South Georgia, extra precautions must be taken to ensure that no foreign plants are introduced onto the island. Every piece of clothing or gear we intend to take ashore must be cleaned, vacuumed and inspected for wayward seeds and plant material. It’s surprising how many grass and weed seeds can be found in the seams of a backpack or the Velcro on a camera bag. Each of us scoured our belongings and passed them to an inspector for final approval. It’s amazing how many remaining stowaways the inspectors were able to find.
I managed to be in the right place at the right time for once, and saw a small group of Minke whales close to the ship. Unfortunately, I missed seeing a Soft-plumaged Petrel before we crossed the Antarctic Convergence, so that’s not likely to be a check for my list on this trip. At lunch, I noticed that at least a few of the passengers were looking the same as, or worse than I was feeling. One of my tablemates commented that this was his first meal in four. He said that it wasn’t unexpected. He’d been ill on his first trip to Antarctica as well. Yet, the draw of the region was enough to overcome the discomfort of getting here. Almost a third of the passengers on board have been to the Antarctic before, a very impressive statistic in my mind.
I spent much of the rest of the day in my cabin and wisely skipped dinner. There were a couple of presentations I wouldn’t miss, though. Jim’s King Penguin lecture had the passengers all bugling and waddling around the lecture room, preparing the newbies like me for things to come. The evening ended with a sampling of the passenger photos set to music for a slide show. It was well worth a little queasiness.
By Jim Danzenbaker and Ann Nightingale
5 January 2012
Jim’s view: The first of three days of crossing from the Falklands to South Georgia found me on the bridge at 6 a.m. and studying Southern Royal Albatrosses, Sooty and Great Shearwaters, Southern Giant Petrels and Wilson’s Storm-petrels. It was a study of different sizes, and we could easily see how larger birds use dynamic soaring to cover what seemed like endless distances. I searched for marine mammals, but came up short. Our team did, however, manage to find a few Minke whales. I presented my second seabird identification lecture, “To the Antarctic Convergence and Beyond.” Overnight the seas had become rougher and the stomachs of some on the boat were starting to churn, thus I was amazed at the number of people who showed up for my talk. There was plenty of room at the dinner table this evening as it was a wee bit rocky at times. That’s life on the open ocean.
Ann’s view: I had a sense of foreboding when I opened the cabin door and saw that the hallway railings were festooned with seasickness bags. We would be at sea for the next three days, and while the weather has been great, the ocean had taken on a sloppier tone. There was a definite swell, and for some of us, it would only be a matter of time before we’d have good use for those bags.
The day was filled with lectures on everything from geology to photography and natural history. I found myself in the familiar position of wanting to be two places at once. The bridge was the place to be to stay warm and dry to search for birds and marine mammals. One of the passengers spotted the blow of a sperm whale, but I missed it. Jim was patiently explaining the differences between the albatrosses.
Wandering, Southern Royal, and Black-browed were taking advantage of the “cliff” that our ship placed in the ocean, creating updrafts where normally there would be none. I got a good look at a first phase young albatross with its all dark body and white face. At that age, it’s tricky to differentiate between the species.
This expedition is a physical adventure. The hikes in the Falklands, though not exceptionally long, sometimes required sure footing and at least a bit of stamina. Aboard the ship, it’s not much different. The pitching and rolling of the ship make every step a possible mis-step and the location of the various points of interest provide at least a little exercise. My cabin is on deck three and the bridge is above deck six. To get to the bow, you have to go up to deck six and then down a level. The dining room is thankfully only one level up on deck four.
As the day went on, the supply of sickness bags began to dwindle, and not all of the passengers made it to dinner. Regrettably, I was one left suffering in the cabins while the heartier of us socialized over supper. The scene from the movie “The Big Year” where Kenny Bostick is inducing Stu Pressler to sickness by repeating “pitching and rolling, pitching and rolling” was continuously replaying in my mind. The ship’s doctor gave me something a little stronger than the motion-sickness pills I had been taking, and I managed to get a good night’s sleep.
By Jim Danzenbaker and Ann Nightingale
4 January 2012
Jim’s view: Steeple Jason—one of the crown jewels of the Falkland Islands—didn’t disappoint today. It's hard to top waking up and seeing an island salted and peppered by thousands of Black-browed Albatrosses. Superlatives can’t capture the landscapes or the sheer amount of life on this island. After a bouncy Zodiac ride and a rocky landing, I had arrived. A fellow staffer and I headed toward the colony, marking a trail with flags as we went.
Once the trail had been set, I plunged into the twelve-foot high tussock grass and stole a moment to view the extensive colony. Wow, what an incredible sight! Many albatrosses with a single chick on their pedestal nests, others in ritualistic display and still others serenely sleeping, egg or young completely concealed. Rockhopper Penguins with young populated the corridors between the pedestals. Albatrosses plied the sky—high, low, and everywhere in between. A 113,000 pairs of breeding Black-footed Albatrosses with at least another 75,000 non-breeders call this island home—600 kilometers of albatross, if you lined them up wingtip to wingtip.
Back at our proposed base camp for gear, two pairs of Johnny Rooks were investigating me, so I chose a new location. They are not only very curious, they are also very territorial and they will vigorously defend their nesting areas. I had been warned! Others in our party arrived and shared in this visual bounty. I gave two talks on the Black-browed Albatrosses, both well attended. I managed the landing without getting hit by any Johnny Rooks, something that I've endured in other years. At least five others weren't so lucky. A Johnny Rook grabbed a hat right off one person's head and then dropped it into the tussock grass, never to be seen again. I took the opportunity to lie on the ground and let the albatrosses fly several feet in front of my face as they lit in a loafing spot, apparently reserved for non-breeding birds–an indescribable experience!
On the walk back to the landing site a pair of skuas with chicks stole some valuable remaining time. All good things must come to an end. The last Zodiac headed back to the Ortelius at 4 p.m. A full nine hours on shore and every minute worthwhile. We enjoyed a full entourage of birds during our sail along the northern coast of the Falklands on our way to South Georgia. Penguins, Fur Seals, Albatrosses and snow-capped peaks ahead.
Ann’s view: This morning’s landings came with warnings of sharp slippery rocks and rough loading and unloading of the Zodiacs, but it wasn’t nearly as difficult as suggested. The weather was forecast to be rainy, but aside from a few showers, we had another sunny day. Our destination was Steeple Jason Island, home to the largest Black-browed Albatross colony I’m likely to ever see. Three miles of beach hold somewhere around 300,000 birds, not even counting the chicks! The winds were strong enough to keep the sky filled with these “small” albatrosses. They only have a six-foot wingspan.
Several disparate thoughts crossed my mind today. I wondered if scenes like this greeted the Europeans when they arrived in North America. It’s easy to understand how such abundance could make people complacent about conserving a species. I felt akin to bees and butterflies as I broke my way through the tussock grass to get close to the colony. When I emerged, I was covered from head to foot with orange pollen. Perhaps I have helped the fertilization process for thousands of new tussock plants. And I noticed that the stark beauty of the island may be due, in part, because there were no trees or bushes in sight.
The Falklands are shaped by the wind in many ways, and the lack of tall vegetation is one of them. Plants grow close to the ground or in thick “groves” like the tussocks. Just like the birds, they cluster together, providing protection from the elements. The birds. What can you say about tens of thousands of nesting albatrosses that barely raise a black brow when dozens of people in colorful outdoor gear and snapping cameras are standing just a stone’s throw away? They come and go, feed their young, bicker, court and carry on as if we weren’t even there.
Three species of penguins pose for hours on end, the young chicks panting in the heat of a Falkland summer day. The Johnny Rooks (Striated Caracaras) entertained us by creeping up to us as we sat on the ground, even nipping at those who were brave (and foolish) enough to let them have a taste of human flesh. Several in our group felt the harsh reality of a raptor’s talons on the back of their heads when they approached too close to a nesting area. One even lost her hat to an attacking Johnny Rook. I found two Brown Skua nests. The first parents were gracious enough to let me take pictures of their chicks without a fuss. The second parents flew out of a burrow in the hillside shrieking their displeasure that I had was on their island. Albatrosses as far as you can see, penguins waddling in and out of the ocean, predators prepared to take full advantage of our presence—wow! To use the words of a friend, it was a spectacle!
By Jim Danzenbaker and Ann Nightingale
3 January 2012
Jim’s view: My first Zodiac launching and driving from the Ortelius went well and I quickly ironed out the kinks and got the feel of the Zodiac again. It was a bit windy this morning, but we took the associated chop and swell in stride and landed successfully. Westpoint features another Rockhopper and Black-browed Albatross colony. I gladly took advantage of the Land Rover to ferry me across the island to the colony. I gave my albatross talk with a backdrop of Black-browed Albatrosses and sheer cliffs towering above the sea. Watching several Rockhoppers bathe and drink in a small pool was a highlight of this visit. Nothing like a clean penguin!
The problem with a three and a half hour landing is that it goes all too quickly. Before we knew it, we were loading up and bidding farewell to Westpoint and the numerous Kelp Geese and Johnny Rooks that call this place home, but, bigger and better things awaited. Unlike the morning, our afternoon landing was on the white sandy beaches of Carcass Island, a stark contrast to what one would expect on an Antarctic island. Magellanic and Gentoo Penguins greeted me on the beach and Tussock Birds and Black-chinned Siskins worked the tussock grass and dunes.
This is one of my favorite landing sites because of the proximity of diverse wildlife to the landing location. Shortly after going ashore we were watching adult and downy young South American Snipe trying to hide in snipe-high vegetation. Our group captured many excellent photographs. Other highlights included Ruddy-headed Goose families, Black-throated Finches, including young ones, Grass Wrens and the endemic Cobb’s Wren. Magellanic and Blackish Oystercatchers were common on the beach on the other side of the island including a nesting pair and one adult with two fledged young. Confiding Tussock Birds worked vegetation mere inches from where I stood.
Visiting Carcass Island is a true treasure! Along the far shore, a pair of Falkland Steamer Ducks shepherded their six fluffy ducklings into the water. When they emerged they formed an cute ball of beached ducklings. They seemed utterly unalarmed by our presence. A beach cleanup filled at least ten heavy duty trash bags with miscellaneous plastic, fishing lines and nets, and rusting barrels. Even in this pristine environment, trash happens and it was a gentle reminder that discharged garbage at sea ends up somewhere. The Cheeseman’s have done a beach cleanup here for the last six tours and have never had the problem of too few volunteers. The end result spoke for itself and it was nice to feel as though we could offset some of the carbon footprint of our expedition.
Ann’s view: Today was a double treat—Westpoint Island in the morning and Carcass Island in the afternoon. We started the day with one of our few “dry” landings at a boat ramp on Westpoint Island. Rolling hills and a walk across the island took us to a smallish colony of Black-browed Albatross and Rockhopper Penguins. Whose those who focus on listing might wonder why we keep going to see the same species at different locations, a big part of this tour is immersing oneself in the experience and learning as much as possible about the various species. Each site offers spectacularly different scenery as well as new opportunities to view and photograph behaviors.
A highlight for me today was watching Rockhopper Penguins climb up a freshwater creek to drink and bathe. A steady stream of penguins visited the moss-lined creek, then popped onto the bank to peer at us. It was almost as if they were observing their own “Antarctic code” and kept their distance to about 10 feet from us to watch our strange behaviors. A sketching class within a few feet of nesting albatrosses gave us time to really study the birds—their shapes, the relative size of different body parts, and angles between head and body. Edward Rooks, the instructor, is very patient and helpful to the would-be artists among us!
The afternoon on Carcass Island was an exercise in contrasts. Magellanic penguins were resting on or struggling through deep white sands that in photos could just as easily have been snow. The aquamarine waters gave the impression more of the tropics than the southern ocean. Magellanic penguins nest in burrows, and Carcass Island is covered with them. We had to step carefully to maintain our distance from hidden penguins. The chicks could be heard calling from the burrows, a reminder that there is abundant life underground here.
Black-throated Finches and Tussock Birds approached so closely that it was difficult to photograph them. Families of Magellanic Oystercatchers, Ruddy-headed Geese, Falkland Steamer Ducks and Crested Ducks strolled the beaches and meadows. A Common Snipe and her chick entertained us by wandering and feeding a few feet in front of us for about ten minutes. They were so close that I almost stepped on them before realizing that they were there. Johnny Rooks, the ever-present predator, had a nest with two chicks in a tussock berm at perfect scoping height and distance.
We spent about an hour of the afternoon clearing plastic from one of the beaches. It’s amazing and a little depressing that so much garbage is washing ashore on these otherwise pristine beaches. A lot of it appeared to be from fishing vessels—nets, ropes, lures, and buckets, but other smaller pieces such as drinking box straws could have originated anywhere. We’re bringing a Zodiac load of garbage back with us aboard the ship. Sadly, given time and space, we probably could have brought three.
By Jim Danzenbaker and Ann Nightingale
2 January 2012
Jim's view: There’s nothing like looking out the porthole window and seeing fairly calm seas and a slight overcast sky for the first landing site. Today would be a long day with an eleven-hour landing. I looked forward to reconnecting with the Rockhopper Penguins and the Black-browed Albatrosses. After a 20-minute hike from the landing I reached the colony and was welcomed by the characteristic wailing sounds of albatrosses and raucous calls of the Rockhoppers. How I love this combo! I prepped for a brief talk about the colony and about the life and times of the Black-browed Albatrosses. It's like talking about old friends. Clients arrived and the pixels started flying. Although the participants wanted to learn about the Black-browed Albatrosses, I was clearly second fiddle. The distraction of the colony proved to be more captivating than listening to me talk. No problem, we came to see the birds, they could get the facts later.
Correndera Pipits, Falkland Thrushes, Long-tailed Meadowlarks and Black-faced Ground-tyrants cavorted throughout the area and families of Upland Geese were everywhere. I never got a chance to visit the distant Gentoo Penguins, but I could see their penthouse colony on top of a far ridge. Welcome back! A four-and-a-half mile hike took up most of the afternoon. The terrain was somewhat uneven, but I managed perfectly in my Tevas. Tevas—is this an Antarctic trip? It was a beautiful walk, with Ruddy-headed Geese and Falkland Steamer Ducks on the shore and the dreaded Johnny Rooks eyeing me eerily as I walked by. What piece of my gear were they contemplating stealing? Had they ever seen Tevas? No mishaps this time. "Heart attack hill" seemed calmer this time. Was it because Ann was there? I don’t know, but it was good to get to the settlement.
Ann’s view: Brilliant sunshine, white sandy beaches and t-shirt weather isn’t what I was expecting here in the southern ocean, but I’ll take it. Overwhelming looks at breeding colonies were promised and delivered. Today, we visited New Island in the Falklands (or Las Malvinas, if you prefer.) The island is home to a couple of human families and tens of thousands of seabirds, including four species of penguins and the Black-browed Albatross. Magellanic Penguins breed in burrows, Gentoos raise their young on the grassy slopes and Rockhopper Penguins, not surprisingly, nest on the rocks. We didn’t visit a King Penguin colony, but two were sunbathing on one of the beaches. A brief, but needed rest was refreshing before we headed off in search of Two-banded Plovers. In addition to success with the plovers, we also had a Dolphin Gull chick, and a perfect multi-species defense against a Skua attack. The settlement colony of Rockhopper Penguins and Black-browed Albatrosses looked healthy and I found my perch was next to a Brown Skua with band number A4. Much research happens at this colony and it's not limited to Rockhopper Penguins and Black-browed Albatrosses. Imperial Shag photographic opportunities were exceptional. The day ended with a relaxed dinner and many stories to tell.
There is a special technique one must learn in order to great photographs of birds on New Island: close your eyes, point the camera, and shoot! The birds are so plentiful that it’s nearly impossible to get anything other than good pictures. At the colonies we sat and watched as penguins, Imperial Shags, and Black-browed Albatrosses came and went from their nests. Their arrivals were often punctuated with raucous greetings for their mates and offspring. Sitting quietly gave us uninterrupted views of courtship, pair bonding, chick feeding, nest building, and lots of squabbling! Brown Skuas and Striated Caracaras (Johnny Rooks) patrolled the colonies looking for any opportunity to snatch unattended chicks. In most cases, they were loudly chased away by the parents. The birds seemed oblivious to us at best and curious about us at worst. Sitting a minimum of fifteen feet (as is required) from the wildlife was no imposition. Within minutes, birds would often wander right by us within a foot or two.
We were on the island for eleven hours, which passed with surprising quickness. The day included a four-plus mile hike and a bird walk, giving us a chance to see some of the island’s specialties: Two-banded Plover, Ruddy-headed Geese, Tussock Bird, Dark-faced Ground-tyrant, and Falkland Pipit were just a few of the birds we enjoyed. A trip down a steep gully gave a penguin’s eye view of a Rockhopper highway from the ocean to the tussock grass covered cliffs above. The penguins were more agile and much quicker traversing the route than anyone in our group! I’m not sure we could have had a more intimate view of wildlife than we had today. It was truly a privilege.
By Jim Danzenbaker and Ann Nightingale
1 January 2012
Jim’s view: Thanks to calm seas overnight, I awoke relatively refreshed. It was a thrill to look out the porthole window and see two Southern Giant Petrels and a Black-browed Albatross sailing by. At the bow, Wilson’s Storm-petrels and Thin-billed Prions vied for attention with Sooty and Greater Shearwaters, White-chinned Petrels, seemingly ubiquitous Southern Giant Petrels, and Black-browed Albatrosses. Two Pintado Petrels emerged and flew slow circles over the bow. They were so low that I felt I could reach out and touch them. It was as if they were welcoming me back to the southern ocean. I reveled in being able to finally yell “Big Guy” when the first Southern Royal Albatross effortlessly glided closer and closer to the bow of the ship. Such an incredible species. My appetite was whetted for more.
After breakfast there were several morning lectures and Zodiac safety review. I skipped lunch to prepare for my one-hour talk on seabird identification, which I thankfully survived. It must have gone okay since people were very appreciative. With that stress relieved, I returned to the bow. Even though we saw no marine mammals, it was relaxing just to look. Dinner and a long staff meeting followed, and I fell asleep knowing that a long, tiring and very enjoyable day awaited.
Ann’s view: Today was our first full day at sea. As usual, I headed to bed late, and got up early. It’s still light here at 10 pm and the day breaks at around 4 am. Before breakfast, we headed to the bow of the boat to watch Pintado Petrels, Wilson’s storm-petrels, Black-browed Albatrosses, Thin-billed Prions and Southern Royal Albatrosses wheel around the ship. The Black-browed look small compared to the Royal Albatrosses with their eleven and a half-foot wingspan. It was a great day to learn how difficult it is to get good pictures of moving birds when you are rocking and rolling on the deck at the same time! A couple of small groups of Magellanic Penguins swam by, my first penguins in the wild. What a great life bird to get on New Year’s Day!
Thus far the weather has been beautiful. Seasickness hasn’t been an issue—yet, but I’m not getting too cocky about it. Between meals and shifts on deck, there were lectures about Zodiac etiquette (which we’ll be using tomorrow), seabird identification, photography, natural history of the Falkland Islands, and there was even a drawing workshop. I’ve signed up. I’ll let you know if there is anything worth sharing at the end of the trip! After dinner, we watched a documentary on the Striated Caracara, also known as the "Johnny Rook"—the nemesis of young birds on the Falkland Islands. We make our first landing in the morning, and plan to visit colonies of Black-browed Albatrosses and Gentoo Penguins then hike about five miles to a Rockhopper Penguin colony. We should also see seals and several other bird species, including the nefarious Johnny Rook. We’ll be spending three days in the Falklands, checking out seabirds and most of the last passerines we’ll see on this journey.
By Jim Danzenbaker and Ann Nightingale
Editor's note: Due to some initial hang-ups getting e-mails from the ship, we are a few days behind with blog entries from Jim and Ann. We will release our backlog of posts one per day, rather than putting them all out at once. Unfortunately, Jim and Ann have no way of sending us images that are being taken during this trip, so in order to properly illustrate their daily accounts we are using images captured during Jim's prior tours.
31 December 2011
Jim’s view: The day that I have been eagerly anticipating for 675 days finally arrived—the beginning of another exploration of the great white south. Many things were on this morning's schedule including name badges to be handed out to clients and luggage tags to be attached to all bags going to the ship before boarding our buses and heading to Tierra del Fuego National Park.
The overwhelming highlight for me at the park were prolonged views of three beautiful and cooperative Magellanic Woodpeckers. Nothing like getting the pressure off early in the morning. We luck out; sometimes it can take up to three days to find this elusive woodpecker. I also enjoyed spectacular views of five Black-necked Swans against a background of snow-capped mountains and blue sky. A single Black-chested Buzzard Eagle soared majestically overhead. Other birds included Grass Wren, an extremely cooperative Fire-eyed Diucon and numerous Chilean Swallows. A few folks spotted the first of several Red Foxes, which are always a delight to find.
Unfortunately, our visit coincided with the perfect tourist storm. The weather was beautiful, it was Saturday, and a large cruise ship docked in Ushuaia the previous night. We had to share the park with hordes of other people, who, like us, arrived in large tour buses. Thankfully, they slowly cleared out so that we could enjoy the grandeur without feeling like we were in Grand Central Station.
A stop at the end of the road yielded two secretive Plumbeous Rails that stepped out of character by emerging for decent views. After a few stops to look for orchids, we headed to that mecca of ornithology, otherwise known as the Ushuaia dump. As our time was limited, we lucked out with the White-throated Caracara, which was spotted almost immediately. We decided that if we were late, we could blame it on the 47-point turn of the bus at the end of the dump road. In a bit of unexpected duty, my last few minutes in Ushuaia were spent assisting with the transfer of wine to the ship. I finally boarded the Ortelius, and with help made my way to our cabin—home for the next 26 days. The Ortelius will take some getting used to. I'm hopeful of navigating from the cabin on Deck 3 to the dining hall on Deck 4 within 10 minutes. A busy evening included a welcome toast, safety demonstration, lifeboat drill, dinner, and a staff meeting. Where did the time go?
Ann's view: Today we visited Tierra del Fuego National Park for the second time in three days. One of the first differences we noticed was that despite traveling to the “fin del mond” (the end of the world), we were definitely not alone. The southernmost traffic jam on the planet was at the entrance to the park, where we were at the back of a line of at least six buses. Three of them were from our tour group, but a much larger cruise ship was also in town. The paths of the various tour groups crossed several times during the morning.
The birding highlight for most of us had to be great looks at a male and two female Magellanic Woodpeckers, who were passing time in a busy campground. For about 15 minutes, two of the birds rested high in a tree, wings spread and bodies pressed against the branch, enjoying the morning sun. Competing for the spotlight were two Plumbeous Rails, coaxed from a marsh created by beavers. Yes, Canadian beavers are an invasive pest in Tierra del Fuego. Deliberately introduced for their fur, they have essentially run amok, altering the landscape in both the Argentine and Chilean portions of the island. Attempts are being made to control them, but even if successful, it’s estimated that it will take more than a hundred years to reverse the damage.
After leaving the park, we headed to every birders’ paradise, the city dump. Dozens of raptors including the White-throated, Chimango and Southern Caracaras and the Black-chested Buzzard Eagle were doing their part to reduce the organic matter at the dump. Hector, our bus driver, had to turn the bus around on what was essentially a one-lane road—no small feat! One of the other passengers commented that it was the best 47-point turn he had ever seen. Next, the moment we had all been waiting for. We boarded our ship, the Ortelius. Within a couple of hours we were underway and heading out of the Beagle Channel.
The sea was calm and the weather mild as we listened to instructions about seasickness and safety procedures. One of my personal highlights was the lifeboat drill. We all donned our finest bright orange life jackets and squeezed into the opening of a 75 seat enclosed lifeboat. There were laughs aplenty as we filled the benches in the lifeboat. Although the drill was fun, we are all hoping that was the only time we have to do it! Dinner ran late and before long we were toasting to the new year. We celebrated at midnight Greenwich Mean Time so we could all get to bed for a good night’s rest. Well, in theory, in any case.
Several of us headed to the bow of the boat to search for Magellanic Diving-Petrel. Despite staying out until dark (around 11 pm), we missed the diving-petrels, but saw hundreds of Imperial Shags and even got to enjoy dolphins riding the bow wave of the ship. We will be at the mouth of the Beagle Channel and out into open water by daylight—which in this part of the world happens around 4 am. The weather forecast is “variable”, meaning we won’t know until we get there. Tomorrow promises new birds and maybe even some whales!