26 Feb 2016

Antarctica - at last !

At around 02:00 I stuck my nose to the porthole and could see a clear pink light over the millpond-like waters of the Gerlache Strait.  We were still heading south, with Anvers and Brabant Islands (of the Palmer Archipelago) to our right, and the Antarctic Peninsula to our left. Naturally, we dragged on every item of clothing we could find, and went on deck.

Anvers Island

Anvers Island
Antarctic Peninsula

Brabant Island

Brabant Island

Brabant Island

Now THAT'S what I call scenery !

Brabant Island

Our "Continental Landing" was set for Portal Point, and we were nearly there.  (I can sense the patient blog reader asking "Are we there yet ?".  - Well, yes we are.)

Portal Point   In 1956 a hut stood on the dome of land, marking the position of a route to deeper into the Peninsula.

Portal Point, continent of Antarctica

Portal Point, continent of Antarctica

There were no penguins to see, but an all-round view of crisp, white Antarctic scenery. Later in the morning we went to view a large colony of Gentoo Penguins at Cuverville Island.

Brown Skuas patrolled the penguin rookeries, watchful for a chance to make off with unguarded eggs.

Brown Skua
Brown Skua

Brown Skua, Cuverville Island

Gentoo Penguins at Cuverville Island

Gentoo Penguins at Cuverville Island

Gentoo Penguins at Cuverville Island

And in the evening, a barbecue on the rear deck....I took this shot just as they catering people were setting up...  

Cuverville Island, Antarctica

Humpback Whales surfaced and blew in the bay while we ate -

Humpback Whale

That was about as good as it got. All too soon we were heading back to South America....

21 Feb 2016

South Shetland Islands, Antarctica

Chinstrap Penguin, Half Moon Island

The South Shetland Islands form a chain north west of the Antarctic Peninsula

Approaching from the north, first-timers like us gradually got that “Antarctica" feeling, with icy snowclad mountains and and - where ice has receded - just bare rocks. There were many icebergs in the sea.

Half Moon Island

Our first landing was at Half Moon Island, site of a seasonally-closed Argentine Research Station and a colony of Chinstrap Penguins.

Half Moon Island

Half Moon Island

Half Moon Island

There had been penguins in the Falklands and South Georgia, of course, but this was our first experience of “Penguins on snow” and a sense that we were in their domain. 

Chinstrap Penguins, Half Moon Island

Chinstrap Penguin, Half Moon Island

The penguins scrambled from he shore to their nest mounds along “Penguin highways” - really just ruts in the snow painted with pink penguin pooh.  The penguins had right-of-way, of course.

Chinstrap Penguins, Half Moon Island

On the afternoon of the same day (Dec 13th) we arrived at Deception Island with all on deck to view our passage of the narrow entrance (colourfully known as  “Neptune's Bellows”) to Port Foster.

Entering "Neptune's Bellows"

Once inside, we found a calm patch of water encircled by a volcanic caldera.   Deception Island is one of only two active volcanoes in all of Antarctica. (The other is Mt. Erebus, closer to New Zealand.)

Hektor Whaling Station  was active from 1906 to 1931 and various buildings and ironwork still dot the shoreline.  

Hektor Whaling Station ruins, Deception Island

Hektor Whaling Station ruins, Deception Island

Sheltered water and a large flat beach have supported other human activity over the years, too.  The Royal Navy placed a ship on station here in 1944 as part of Operation Tabarin, and pioneer aviators flew from the beach in the 1950s.

There have been research stations on Deception Island, but these were abandoned after volcanic eruptions in 1967 and 1969.

The thermally-heated water was just warm enough for a few hardy souls to splash around in.  The Chinstraps and a few Skuas were making the most of conditions, too.

Chinstrap Penguin, Deception Island

Brown Skuas

Chinstrap Penguins, Deception Island

We saw a few Wilson's Storm-Petrel in the cold waters around Deception Island, "the world's commonest seabird" is breeding there

Wilson's Storm-petrel

Leaving Deception we sailed south through iceberg-filled waters with the prospect of our first continental landing the following morning, - “Depending on the weather..” said the Expedition Team. 

Apart from some mist in the early evening, though, the weather stayed fine.

17 Feb 2016

South Georgia - Part II

Light-mantled Albatross - Phoebatria palpebrata

Grytviken is the largest settlement on British-Administered South Georgia. It was founded as a whaling station at the turn of the 20th century, with the first buildings put up by Norwegian workers in the final months of 1904.

Between 1904 and 1966 South Georgia Whaling Stations “processed” over 175,000 whales.  At the beginning it was a highly profitable, if physically unpleasant business. And not much fun for the whales, either !

Whaling operations only ceased when the seas had been hunted almost empty.  After the whalers left, the island was populated by scientific researchers, and a handful of British Officials.

Wrecks of whaling ships, foreshore of Grytviken

On the foreshore, Grytviken

Another "old boat and attendant seal photo"

I was surprised - even disappointed - at how tidy the remaining relics are.  Crumbling buildings have been shedding asbestos, and as a health hazard, priority has been given to stabilising these.  Much money and effort has also been spent renovating the church.

The church, Grytviken

Once the visitor has dodged various Sea Lions and Fur Seals lounging about the place, ( Really ! They act like they own the place - Wait ! They Do.) there is an efficient Post Office and a decent museum.  http://sgmuseum.gs/index.php/South_Georgia_Museum

The museum is sited in the former station managers’ house and has a recreation of what the whalers quarters were like, various whaling implements, everyday odds and ends and artefacts from sixty years of human occupation of the site.  

There is even a copy of a rather peevish note from a British Magistrate to the leader of the invading Argentine Forces in 1982, telling him what a bounder he was ( I am paraphrasing ).

Whale blubber boilers, Grytviken

Don't trip over the Fur Seal

Grytviken was the starting and finishing point for Ernest Shackleton’s most famous expedition, his unsuccessful 1914-17 attempt to cross Antarctica.  The heroism and leadership involved in getting all his team members back alive is still inspiring even today.   I confess that before our trip, the 2002 Kenneth Branagh biopic “Shackleton” was about all I knew of him. There’s quite a lot of stuff on You Tube, for example https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nZuydFcnGzs.  “The Boss" died on South Georgia in 1922 (while preparing for another polar expedition) and is buried at Grytviken.

The Antarctic circumpolar current is the largest in the world ( Hands up if you didn’t already know that ! ) It circles the globe at about 55 degrees south, and where it meets the waters of the other oceans this area of nutrient-rich seas is called the Antarctic Convergence.  It is a good area for cetaceans and sea birds.  We crossed the convergence between the Falklands and South Georgia.  While at South Georgia, one of the passengers fell and broke her hip, so the Plancius had to go back to the Falklands where the nearest hospital was, rather than heading southwest toward the Antarctic Peninsula.

Grey-headed Albatross

I didn’t envy the Expedition Leader’s job in telling the assembled punters that we were having to make a sizable diversion from our planned route.  But tell us he did, and back to the Falklands we went. We birders saw the Antarctic Convergence birds again, sooner than we thought we were going to.

This is an immature Wandering Albatross type.  Better sea-birders than I had posited this as a Tristan (Island of Tristan da Cunha) Albatross, after all, - we were in the right ocean to see one - but I find these things bewilderingly alike, even with the bird books open and an image on the computer screen.

Wandering Albatross - Diomedea sp.

Wandering Albatross - Diomedea sp.
We also saw the odd Blue Petrel, outnumbered hundreds-to-one by Antarctic Prions, but distinguishable by their dark cap and white spot on the tail.

Blue Petrel - Halobaena caerulea

Blue Petrel - Halobaena caerulea
Blue Petrel - Halobaena caerulea

Easier to ID, the Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses we saw were instant crowd-pleasers, bold, distinctive, and with the rakishness of Frigatebirds.

Light-mantled Albatross - Phoebatria palpebrata

Light-mantled Albatross - Phoebatria palpebrata
The scientific name means "Eye-lidded Prophetess"* - very enigmatic-sounding for one of our top species of the whole trip.

* Helm dictionary of Scientific Bird Names, by James Jobling