Monday, 20 December 2010

The first trip...

Well an excellent first cruise down to the Antarctic Peninsula.  As you will have guessed from the lack of Tweets and updates, I don’t have internet access onboard the ship, so you’ll just have to wait 10 days between trips to get updates!  How will you cope??

We had a nice departure through the Beagle Channel as we left Ushuaia, with lovely light and the odd rainbow over the shore.  Magellanic penguins kicked off the penguin list with small groups in the water and then a bunch on one of the points.  The Drake was relatively kind to us on the southward trip, with a little bouncy weather on day one, and then calmer on day two.  The Polar Star is probably the best ship I have been on with regards to the bridge and outdoor areas for getting around the ship, and this means that birding from the outer decks is superb.  Towards the end of day one we had up to 8 light-mantled sooty albatross around the ship – absolutely awesome.  I have never seen this before having usually just the one or sometimes two, and never this close.  They were all around us on day two, sometimes just off the side of the ship or bridge wing, literally at touching distance.  Almost full-frame head shots of light-mantled sooty albatross in fantastic light, served on a plate!  We also had a few Antarctic petrels around the ship doing their characteristic acrobatics and fast sweeps over the bow and around the bridge – very cool!  Also some nice close grey-headed albatross, but what was interesting was the almost total lack of wandering albatross (single bird seen), and very low numbers of black-browed albatross.  We did get both Royal albatrosses though, both thin-billed and Antarctic prions, Antarctic fulmar, quite a few blue petrel, both Wilson’s and black-bellied stormies, both giant petrels, and of course lots of Cape petrels.

Beagle Channel in nice light

Antarctic petrel

OH yeah! Light-mantled sooty albatross

Grey-headed albatross coming alongside the ship

Light-mantled at arms length!

The Drake Lake

Our first humpback experience

Later on that day we could see the South Shetlands and our first iceberg was spotted, with humpbacks nearby.  So we had our first whales (that stayed visible, after a brief sighting of a minke and a beaked whale previously) and our first iceberg.  And what an absolute beauty it was – crabeater seal, chinstrap penguins, and stunning shape!  The clouds and light were also pretty spectacular and everyone was on deck for this one.  As we cruised through the islands the light was beautiful and looked good for the morning.  But next morning dawned (well not quite dawned I guess) and we were up at 0300 to do a 0400 landing at Aitcho Island...only problem was it was snowing/raining and 20-40 knots of wind.  Sitting in a zodiac waiting for the command at this hour of the morning and in these conditions and the novelty was wearing off!  In the end we cancelled the landing, and waited for another chance after breakfast, but then headed to Deception as the weather continued throwing its toys.

The first berg

Brown skua and South Polar skua

Polar Star in Deception Island

Things were a little different at Deception Island, and we entered through Neptune’s Bellows to calm conditions and decreasing cloud.  The landing at Whaler’s Bay was superb with almost no wind at Neptune’s Window, lots of steam on the beach and quite a few people swimming and really nice light for photography.  More humpbacks as we departed and some stunning shots of flukes against the mountains and dusky horizon.
Next morning was clear blue skies and almost no wind at Neko Harbour – what a spectacular place!  A great landing for everyone amongst the gentoos and climbing the hill, and I managed to find some snow petrels amongst the brash ice, and even feeding Wilson’s stormies.  Very nice, so my first good shots of snow petrel.  We did some short zodiac cruises after the landing and found some nice looking icebergs.  Then it was on to Port Lockroy for a landing there and at Jougla Point opposite – still beaut clear skies and almost no wind, so another great landing.  The gentoo penguins had recently had some chicks hatch, and as usual there were lots of sheathbills around running through the colony causing trouble.  Antarctic terns and kelp gulls were also pretty common, and the Antarctic shags were also on nests.  A small number of chinstrap penguins were also scattered around the place, and a couple of Weddell seals hauled out.  We then had a BBQ dinner on the stern of the ship and the guys from Port Lockroy came across to dine with us.

Snow petrel...beaut!

Neko Harbour on a nice day

Neko Harbour landing

Neumayer Channel

Jougla Point in Port Lockroy

Look Ma I can fly!

Gentoo penguin

Next day early morning cruising through the Lemaire Channel with blue skies, amazing light, calm conditions and lots of ice – just gorgeous!  Breathtaking views of the mountains and great photo opportunities.  We then had a great morning anchored just off the Argentine Islands and took people ashore to Vernadsky Station (a small Ukranian Station that gets few visitors even during the summer cruise season), and took them on zodiac cruises through the ice.  We managed to find some nice flat sea ice chunks and were able to park the zodiacs up on these to get people out and standing on the ice for photos etc.  With blue skies and calm conditions the photos were pretty nice.  Found a few interesting icebergs with holes and icicles, and even a confiding Antarctic shag roosting on a rock.

Icicles at Port Lockroy

Lemaire Channel in beautiful conditions

Lemaire Channel cruising

Lemaire Channel

Stranded on ice!

Then it was lunch and cruising back northwards (we had reached our southern most point) towards the Yalour Islands where we did a great landing at an Adelie penguin colony.  My first real experience at an Adelie colony so I was keen to be ashore and spend as much time there as possible.  The sun came and went as it gradually clouded over from midday, but we had some excellent photographic opportunities with several chicks having very recently hatched, some birds still building nests, and courting and mating going on.  Of course the skuas were out and about and we watched on several occasions as birds tried to take on the penguins for eggs or chicks, and in the end of course one was successful at taking a tiny chick – managed a few photos of the legs disappearing down the birds gullet!  Despite the cloud the light was actually really nice, so very happy with some of my photos.  Towards the end of the landing a Wilson’s storm-petrel came in over some rocks near to where I was standing, and doing a couple of circuits the bird then disappeared into a crack.  Luckily the crack was easily accessible being close to a snowfield, and looking in to it I could see the bird sitting on its nest – very very cool, and despite the several hours taking photos of the penguins during the afternoon was probably the highlight of the landing for me.  A short zodiac cruise finding another awesome iceberg with icicles and a hole, and we were then back on the ship to head back up through the Lemaire.
Next day dawned icy and cold, with snow on the decks and portholes, but as we tucked into Cierva Cove the wind seemed to drop, the skies brightened somewhat and we launched the zodiacs.  Several groups of humpback whales were feeding nearby and we were able to get great views of these guys from the zodiacs as they did shallow dives obviously in earnest feeding mode.  There were also lots more lovely icebergs around to see, and feeding humpbacks with such a back-drop was surely something for people to remember.  A leopard seal on a piece of ice was also found.

Adelie penguins on ice

Adelie penguin

Adelie feeding chicks

Icebergs and icicles

Through the bar porthole on an icy morning

Back onboard we then decided that due to the weather we would head for Ushuaia.  The possibility of another landing was on the cards but with more snow falling and increasing winds it wasn’t going to beat what we had just experienced with the we headed northwards.  The Drake was very civil to us over the next two days and we headed back towards the Beagle Channel.  A little roll at times, but low winds and small swells made for a pretty comfortable trip.  Again we had light-mantled sooty albatrosses, and the other usual suspects.  The rarity (which I missed) was a mottled petrel...only 5000 nautical miles off course from where it should have been in New Zealand!  Perhaps it was looking for me?  I gave a lecture on seabird life history and adaptations and spent time on the bridge and whittling the photo collection down.

Humpbacks in Cierva Cove

Now in Ushuaia uploading this – I will post as many photos as I can to my Facebook account also – before heading out this evening on the next cruise...


  1. You are very lucky, I would love to go down that way sometime.
    How did you get to go?
    I would love to go to the sub antarctic islands but thats a dream right now.
    Lucky! Love all the photos!

  2. Cheers Tim...yeah it's not a bad gig! Been working on ships now for six years (can't believe it is that long!). Always love getting down this way, and have two more tips left this season.