Monday, 23 January 2012

Cooper Bay - 21/1/2012

Cooper Bay 21/1/2012 – morning landing
There were flakes of snow on deck this morning, and our passage along South Georgia’s coast was characterised by sightings of increasingly large ice-cubes in the water, bergs bobbing on the horizon and immense glaciers that forced the mountainous terrain to part and swept like giant pistes towards the coast, before concluding in luminous-blue cliff faces that crumbled, almost chalk-like, into the crashing surf below.

The M/S Expedition cruises past luminous Antarctic glaciers

Our morning landing was made at Cooper Bay, to the far Eastern tip of South Georgia. This was macaroni territory, but these dumpy little penguins – who closely resemble the rockhoppers – offer far less accessible viewing, in comparison to the Kings. We scrambled up a rocky slope, dodging fur seals and blubber slugs, clinging to thick tufts of tussock grass as we heaved ourselves over the hummocks so that we could peer down onto the Macaroni colony.

I can see you! - Macaroni penguins hide in the tussock grass

Sleepy fur seal at Cooper Bay

Macaroni penguins at Cooper Bay

Macaroni's live on the cliff top at Cooper Bay
After a spectacular viewing and safe descent, we boarded the M/S Expedition again and travelled up some of South Georgia’s the narrow fjords to gaze in awe at steep-sided gorges and gigantic glaciers, But before embarking on our two day voyage across the Scotia Sea to the South Shetlands and Elephant Island, my companion Sally and I decided to mark our departure of South Georgia with a polar plunge. We stripped to our swimming costumes and leapt into the near-frozen waters, which petrified our vocal chords and turned our toes glacier-blue. Luckily, the M/S Expedition has a sauna, which we had made certain was turned right up before we made the splash.

The M/S Expedition journeys up narrow fjords to find immense glaciers

My first polar plunge!

Still alive after the Antarctic freeze!

This blog-post forms part of a series of adventures experienced on-board the M/S Expedition in January 2012, whilst on an Antarctic Cruise - The Spirit of Shackleton - courtesy of Gadventures

St Andrews, Molke Harbour and Gold Harbour 20/1/2012

Molke Harbour - 20/1/2012: morning landing (2nd attempt!)
We awoke just offshore from South Georgia’s biggest King Penguin rookery and elephant seal breeding ground but, alas, after a glimpse of the beach from the deck of the M/S Expedition, we had to abandon our proposed landing, due to rough sea conditions. Our prolonged spell of sunny days and calm seas had passed, and we were now given a true taste of the Antarctic weather. We moved onto a more sheltered landing at Moltke Harbour and, as we rode the Zodiacs to shore, the 30 knot winds scratched at our cheeks as if filled with tiny shards of glass and we received a drenching of salt water as we soared over the waves and smashed into the troughs.

Snoozy blubber slugs at Molke Harbour
Headed for a view of Moltke’s cascading waterfalls, interlocking spurs and impressive gorges, we battled against the now 40 knot gusts as we picked our way past teeth-barring fur seals, held our noses as we skirted blubber slug wallows, kept as respectful distance from malting penguins and crossed fast flowing rivers, where the water sloshed dangerously close to the top of our wellies.

Young male elephant seal awakes at Molke harbour

 Hats were blown off in the wind, wellie-boots were sucked off in the mud, noses were numbed and socks were soaked  but Molke Harbour rewarded us with one of the most impressive displays of elephant seal sparring seen so far on the trip: every 15 minutes or so, one of the adolescent blubber slugs at the far end of the sandy beach would rouse themselves from their slumber with a resonating belch, curve their immense trunk-like torsos in the air, widen their goggley eyes and bare their teeth at one of their playmates. A few minutes of body slaps and sparring would ensue, punctuated with reverberating gurgles, burps and toilet noises that echoed deep within their cavities.
Sparring elephant seals at Molke Harbour

Blubber slug in hiding

Gold Harbour 20/1/2012 –afternoon landing
Our missed opportunity at St Andrews Bay was remedied with a fantastic afternoon at Gold Harbour. This long stretch of sandy beach is home to an immense rookery of King Penguins, who position themselves conveniently on an elevated beach platform, allowing easy viewing of the incubating eggs which rest on their feet.

Penguin power at Gold Harbour
Emperor Penguin adults - by Sally Wiltshire

Emperor penguin chicks at Gold Harbour
Greeted ashore by our usual welcoming committee of diving fur seals, waddling penguins and nonchalant blubber slugs, three hours of wildlife watching passed in minutes as we became welcome guests of hundreds of thousands of accommodating King penguins. We watched male and female Kings make egg exchanges; saw nesting parents peck and squawk as passers-by; witnessed mums and dads regurgitate meals of krill down the necks of their demanding offspring; filmed squabbling penguins as they slapped each other with their flippers; allowed curious yearlings to peck at our bags and, on occasion, jump on our backs; tensed as the skuas soared above the rookery; saw snowy sheathbills bounce around on the bow of a Zodiac; purred back at sea pups and growled at the larger fur seals that bounded towards us.
Elephant seals and Emperors - everyone's malting at Gold Harbour 

Getting friendly at Gold Harbour - by Sally Wiltshire
This blog-post forms part of a series of adventures experienced on-board the M/S Expedition in January 2012, whilst on an Antarctic Cruise - The Spirit of Shackleton - courtesy of Gadventures

Grytviken 19/1/2012 – afternoon landing

With much of its dangerous and toxic materials now removed, South Georgia’s first and longest-running whaling station, Grytviken, (1904-1965) is the only station that can still be visited today. Established by C.A. Larsen, every species of Antarctic whale were hunted, landed and processed for their oil in Grytviken – It’s estimated that more than 30,000 whales were processed here.
Former Grytviken whaling ship, complete with harpoon

Whale bones remind of Grytviken's past

At Grytviken, a whale could be stripped of its blubber and separated into bones and meat in just 20 minutes, before the three components were taken to their respective ‘cookeries’ for oil extraction. Walking around these rusting buildings in the hot sun, it’s hard to imagine that just 50 or so years ago, the ground would have been awash with blood and slippery with blubber, the air thick with the stench of whale flesh and the intoxicating smoke that would bellow from the blubber cookery.

The blubber cookery

Grytviken also diversified into seal slaughter, and today, the station’s ruins are inhabited by agitated fur seals and idle elephant seals which lollop amongst the redundant cookeries that once boiled-up their ancestors.
Elephant seals now enjoy happier days at Gryviken

Despite their long working hours and cramped, communal living conditions, there is evidence here that the whalers at Grytviken also enjoyed some leisure time; there was once a library, a cinema and a football grounds, as well as a ski-jump and a church, which was used more for meetings and events than prayer.

Grytviken church

A fascinating museum lies in the centre of the bay, in what was once the station manager’s house. The South Georgia Museum tells the story of Grytviken’s life as a station, displaying tools and charts once used by the whalers, as well as a reconstruction of their living quarters.  The museum also houses a stunning stuffed albatross, with a 7 metre wing-span and a penguin coat and fur seal hide for visitors to stroke and feel.

Shackleton's grave at Grytviken

At the far ends of the bay are reminders of the Antarctic’s most respected explorer; Shackleton’s grave and imposing granite headstone lie in the cemetery, next to Frank Wilde’s ashes, which were only recently brought here. To the other end of the bay lie memorial crosses, to commemorate the revered leader, and in the centre of the bay, next to the museum, a reconstruction of The James Caird – the reinforced life-boat that carried Shackleton and his men from Elephant Island to South Georgia – can be found.

Shackleton's grave at Grytviken  
Frank Wild's grave - just recently established in 2011

This blog-post forms part of a series of adventures experienced on-board the M/S Expedition in January 2012, whilst on an Antarctic Cruise - The Spirit of Shackleton - courtesy of Gadventures

Friday, 20 January 2012

Back to bay of Islets:19/1/2012 morning landing

Retracing our passage yesterday evening, we made an early start today and were woken at 5:30am by the soft Argentinian tones of our expedition leader, Julio. We had reached Prion Island – an off-shore outcrop and breeding ground for albatross’ in the Bay of Isles.

Prion Island has been made visitor-proof, by installing a wooden boardwalk that climbs the hillside to offer a view of these immense birds as they lie in their nests with an astounding view of the white mountains on the horizon, green islands and broken rock in the bay below and, as usual, the sparring fur-seals, curious pups and occasional blubber slugs on the shore below.

Stunning early-morning view from Prion Island
Clear views and calm seas at Prion Island

Nesting albatross hides in the tussock grass at Prion Island

Nesting albatross at Prion Island

Fur seals awake at Prion Island

Female elephant seals, or 'blubber slugs' at Prion Island
This blog-post forms part of a series of adventures experienced on-board the M/S Expedition in January 2012, whilst on an Antarctic Cruise - The Spirit of Shackleton - courtesy of Gadventures

Stromness 18/1/2012 afternoon landing

We stepped over blubber slugs in the tussock grass at Fortuna Bay
Overwhelmed by the morning’s activities, we let off steam that afternoon with a historic, two-hour hike to Stromness whaling station, following the path that Shackleton took almost 100 years earlier to conclude his epic self-rescue from his ice-crushed ship in the Weddell Sea to South Georgia. Landing at Fortuna Bay, we stepped over fur seals, and held our noses as we passed colossal elephant seals, or ‘blubber slugs’ as they’re affectionately referred to down here.
The glaciated peaks that Shackleton contended with
The day was hot and the cloudless sky gave clear views of the glaciated peaks, immense ice-fields and tooth-like ranges that Shackleton would have contended with. After sipping water and sunbathing by motionless tarns at the top of the saddle, we descended the waterfall, through which Shackleton’s party lowered themselves; sadly this feature was the also the site of a fatality earlier this year, where a tourist slipped and died on January 3rd - with the near-vertical cliffs and loose scree here, a moment’s lapse in concentration could easily incite a fall.
Steep gorges and plummeting waterfalls on Shackleton's walk to Stromness
Descending the waterfall, as Stromness came into focus, we tried to imagine the elation that Shackleton would have felt as he neared his first taste of civilisation in over a year and a half of living on the ice. Stromness was closed in 1961 and, today, the rusting machinery and danger of asbestos mean that the whaling station is out of bounds; except to the hundreds of fur seals and reindeer that patrol the rusting buildings.

Blubber slugs at the rusting remains of Stromness

This blog-post forms part of a series of adventures experienced on-board the M/S Expedition in January 2012, whilst on an Antarctic Cruise - The Spirit of Shackleton - courtesy of Gadventures

At Sea: 15-17/1/2012

…which it didn’t. But luckily, I had found my sea-legs and could start to enter into the true spirit of Shackleton, experiencing the reality of an Antarctic expedition as the ship pitched and swayed across the Scotia Sea; feeling my mattress slide off my bed and back; seeing my books rush off the shelves and crash on the floor; clinging to the taps as I skidded in the shower; hearing the glasses behind the bar tinkle and crash; wincing as unfortunate passengers slipped on the deck; and watching the waiters counter-balance their trays of crockery as the floor of the dining room listed to port, then starboard, then port and back again.
Gadventure lectures in the Discovery Lounge
Days at sea on-board the M/S Expedition follow a full program of lectures, meals, socialising and whale watching: if weren’t riding out the swell in the lounge area, we were attending penguin, seal, whale, environmental and history lectures, delivered by Gadventures team of specialists; watching albatrosses and petrels hover above the surf at our stern; gorging ourselves in the dining room; spotting dolphins and seals as they lurched above the choppy waters around the ship; or looking out for the blow of fin whales and humpbacks: one morning, the blows went up right beside my breakfast table, as I was busy buttering my second piece of toast. Breeching followed the blows and we identified a pod of fin whales as they lurched out of the water to the ship’s bow. The show concluded with a spectacular dive as one whale displayed its magnificent tails as it made a slow, controlled descent to the ocean depths.

Whale watching from the stern
In preparation for South Georgia, we attended a rigorous environmental briefing, which included rucksack and Velcro vacuuming, as well as boot scrubbing and disinfecting: with strict environmental procedures in place, every effort is made to avoid introducing new species to the island, and so traces of plants and seeds had to be sucked off our clothes and bags, and soils and animal traces were washed away.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Sunny Stanley - Sunday 15th Jan

A few days into our Antarctic cruise, it seemed odd to see classic English phone-booths and red letter boxes as we walked ashore at Stanley this morning. Before exploring the town, we rambled to Gypsy Cove and clambered over the dunes – avoiding the land mines – to find a group of pink-faced magellanic penguins and a lone king penguin waddling around in the silicon-like sand and surfing the shore break. The king had apparently come ashore to malt – a rather uncomfortable time for a penguin, when its sheds its worn-out coat for an entire new plumage on an annual basis.

White sands and megellanic penguins at Gypsy Cove
Stanley itself is a peaceful town of colourful, corrugated iron houses and welcoming inhabitants - known as ‘kelpers’ - who are keen to chat about the history and daily life of their island. Stanley has roads but no traffic lights and no native trees. The gardens here are dressed in colourful flowers and organic vegetable patches burst with green leaves; “we grow these out of necessity – we need to eat,” one elderly resident informed me; “gardening in Stanley is not just for fun!”. After we'd hiked across the island, perused the gift shops and sunk a few beers in The Globe, the Gadventures team shuttled us back to the ship to continue our Antarctic cruise.

Stanley's colourful houses

Beers at the Globe in Stanley
Now back onboard the M/S Expedition, we enter the next chapter of our Spirit of Shackleton adventure and face two days at sea, on our voyage southwards to South Georgia. Sea-sickness tablets in our stomachs and sick-buckets on standby, we’re all hoping that the Antarctic weather will stay calm for the crossing…

This blog-post forms part of a series of adventures experienced on-board the M/S Expedition in January 2012, whilst on an Antarctic Cruise - The Spirit of Shackleton - courtesy of Gadventures

West Point Island

West Point Island, to the north of New Island, was the Spirit of Shackleton's afternoon anchorage. Disembarking the M/S Expedition, we walked under a hot sun across sheep-nibbled fields and clambered through jungle-like tussock grasses to Devil’s Nose, to spy on nesting albatrosses and rockhopper penguins, which lay centimetres from the concealed pathway.
Nesting albatross' at West Point Island
After staying long enough to observe them without disturbing their daily nesting and feeding schedule, we made for the home of West Point’s owners - Lilly and Roddy Napier - where we swung open the white picket gate, wandered through their sweet smelling cottage garden and were welcomed into their home where we were greeted by a table piled high with coffee cake, Victoria sponge, ginger loaf, raspberry macaroons, lemon tarts, cheese scones, jam puffs, chocolate brownies, vanilla biscuits, cinnamon cookies, huge urns of hot tea and a jumble of bone-china tea cups and saucers. We each indulged in platefuls of cake and biscuits whilst we lounged in their beautiful garden and soaked up the Antarctic rays.

Feeding time on West Point Island

Lupins in the Napier's 'English cottage garden'

New Island - Sat 14th

New Island
Penguins! Our first landing was on New Island; one of the Falkland’s smaller chunks of quartzite rock. The archipelago’s most westerly inhabited island, New Island lies to the far east of West Falkland and is home to unique wildlife and an astounding rookery of rockhopper Penguins, black-browed albatrosses and Antarctic Shags.
Rockhoppers at New Island: First landing on Spiritr of Shackleton  Antarctic cruise

Stepping off the M/S Expedition for the first time, we travelled to the shore via Zodiac, and made a wet landing alongside a rusting wreck, guarded by rooks. We ambled across to the windward side of New Island, stopping where the cliffs gave way to a rocky amphitheatre, populated by hundreds of rockhoppers. The squat little penguins glowered as we approached, fixing us with their fierce red eyes – if it wasn’t for their ridiculous, yellow spikey hair-dos and hilarious two-footed hops up and down the rock-face, they would have seemed almost menacing. The rockhoppers’ fluffy grey chicks squawked loudly in their pebbly nests and, at just 5 weeks old, they were close in height to their parents but their fuzzy coats and downy wings bore little resemblance to the white torsos and black wings that characterise the mature rockhoppers.

Chilled-out Chick: New Island 

Sharing the same cliff-face were one the Antarctic’s biggest birds; the black-browed albatross have a wingspan of around 2.5 metres, which they enjoyed displaying as they made a big show of flying over our heads and crash-landing by their nests. Alongside the rockhoppers and albatrosses were a few hundred shags, characterised by their electric-blue eyeliner and golden-yellow face markings. But as we watched the shags nibble their young in conical nests, the penguins hop and squabble along the cliff face and the albatrosses swoop and soar above them, a menacing and uninvited guest lurked on the fringe of the rookery; bloody-faced and beady-eyes, the skua is a keen enemy of nesting birds. Active predators of eggs and chicks, these dirty-golden slayers have frequently capture penguin chicks, despite weighing in around 5 times less.

Albatross' nest alongside rockhoppers and shags at New Island
This blog-post forms part of a series of adventures experienced on-board the M/S Expedition in January 2012, whilst on an Antarctic Cruise - The Spirit of Shackleton - courtesy of Gadventures

Friday, 13 January 2012

A bumpy ride

The M/S Expedition disembarked Ushuaia at 6pm yesterday (Thursday 12th), with just over 100 passengers and 50-odd staff members. Destined for The Falkland Islands, we’ve skirted the eastern end of the Drake Passage and are now headed north-east. Scheduled to arrive in the Falkland Islands tomorrow morning (Friday 13th), we’ve been briefed on Falkland history and birdlife, as well as how to dress ourselves in the mud-room and board our boat-to-shore vessels, or ‘Zodiacs'.

M/S Expedition departs Ushuaia for the Spirit of Shackleton  Antarctic cruise

Followed by albatross at our stern, dolphins were spotted this morning and the bird-watchers amongst us have been on-board for much of the day, peering through binoculars and extra-long zoom lenses. But for many, - myself included - the rough seas have been too much today and several hours have been spent watching the horizon soar and plummet through the port-holes of our cabins. Anti-nausea tablets are slowly taking a hold of the situation now and we’re beginning to find our sea legs but we’re all welcoming reconnecting with terra-firma tomorrow…

Safety onboard the M/S Expedition

This blog-post forms part of a series of adventures experienced on-board the M/S Expedition in January 2012, whilst on an Antarctic Cruise - The Spirit of Shackleton - courtesy of Gadventures

Arrival in Ushuaia

Day one of the Spirit of Shackleton Antarctic cruise with Gadventures: Landing in Ushuaia was remarkable. Three and a half hours after leaving Buenos Aires, we descended over the lakes and bogs of the Tierra del Fuego National Park: a wilderness reserve backed by immense mountains that look as if they’ve been hacked and torn at with a pair of scissors. Here, plateaued glaciers lick towards the valley floors and snow-filled basins contrast the rough-edged silhouette of the Andes mountains as they conclude their epic journey along South America’s western coastline and dissolve into the Beagle Channel.

The jagged silhouette of the Andes form the backdrop to Ushuaia
On arrival at tiny Ushuaia airport, customs consisted of a quick rifle through my rucksack and then it was a thirty peso, ten minute taxi ride to the centre of Ushuaia. With the airport to the west and the prison building of this former penal colony to the east, the most southerly city in the world sprawls along the Beagle Channel. As part and parcel of the  Spirit of Shackleton Antarctic cruiseGadventures had booked me into the Cilene Del Faro spa hotel and my suite had an uninterrupted view of the harbour through room-length windows; I watched the ice-breakers and cruise-ships depart for - and return from - their Antarctic voyages, and waited in anticipation to catch my first glimpse of the M/S Expedition: my home for the next 3 weeks. It was early evening by the time I made it out onto St Martin - Ushuaia's main street-  for dinner at an Argentinian restaurant, and the evening was well under-way by the time I made it down the harbour to join the groups of tourists who amassed around the harbour, but by the time I made my way to bed, the sun was still hovering above the horizon.

First glimpse of Gadventures Antarctic cruise ship: The M/S Expedition

Lifetime imprisonment
On my first night at the end of the world, the sun finally set at 11pm and my plans to lie-in the following morning were interrupted by a 5:30 sunrise. No problem though, the early start gave me plenty of time to peruse the shops and cafes of St Martin high-street before visiting the prison - turned - museum and art gallery; this unique attraction houses masses of artefacts, with separate galleries dedicated to a history of Ushuaia, Antarctic exploration, the prison itself, contemporary artworks and penguin exhibits, with elements of each showcased in the original cells. One wing of the prison has been left in its original form, where you can shut yourself in a cell and imagine the days spent here by some of Argentina’s most notorious criminals and political prisoners – chilling stuff!

Former cell-life at Ushuaia museum
This blog-post forms part of a series of adventures experienced on-board the M/S Expedition in January 2012, whilst on an Antarctic Cruise - The Spirit of Shackleton - courtesy of Gadventures