Beagle Channel

As promised, the winds picked up again yesterday evening and we spent the night slithering up and down our beds as the ship swung from side to side. Awaking from a not particularly restful sleep, we found our view unchanged, ocean to every side.

As we slowly inched forwards towards the southernmost tip of Argentina, the amount of birds flying alongside the ship increased, and as we were finally given leave to go back out on deck, with great caution as the seas were still rough, all the photographers took the opportunity to grab some fresh air, and aim our cameras at the passing petrels and albatross. None of us lasted outside long, the winds were fierce and our hands suffered. After a number of attempts we were driven back inside by a hailstorm.

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Finally, 48 hours or so after leaving Charlotte Bay, just as we were sitting down to lunch, we spotted land in the distance. By this point, plans had changed again, and instead of taking a detour to Cape Horn as planned, the weather had caused the captain to alter course, and take a direct route into Ushuaia.

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The final stretch up through the Beagle Channel was a slow one, allowing us to enjoy the scenery. We had our final session in the Discovery Lounge, to toast the Captain and his crew, and as we settled down to dinner, with a prime seat at the bow, we watched the ship dock in Ushuaia. We’re don’t disembark until tomorrow morning, so it’s a strange night on board, in a stationary ship. Well, it’ll be nice to sleep in a calm bed!

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Drake Passage

We’re about halfway back across the Drake Passage, after a rather rough night in which my cabin-mate and I were awoken by a sheath of papers flying off the bedside table. Things are a little calmer now, although we’re due to hit more storms later this evening. The dining room is notably emptier than it has been! I had a lovely hot shower after our last zodiac cruise yesterday, but now that we’ve entered rough waters, niceties like showering have a tendency to go out the window. Trying to shower when the ship’s lurching from side to side, with the water sloshing back and forth across the bathroom is too much hassle.

Keeping yourself occupied on at sea days is always a challenge. On the way south, there’s the advantage of anticipation, but on the return leg things feel somewhat flat. The expedition staff do a good job of providing distraction in the form of lectures, and this morning we heard about the process of setting up the Penguin Experience in San Diego, and what was involved in creating a penguin breeding program, as well as a factual presentation about the Antarctic Treaty. I find the lectures provide a good opportunity to get some knitting done, and in the gaps between I try and work on processing my photos, with mixed success. Funnily enough my OU study has not received the attention it deserves.

We’ll be taking a small detour on the way back to Ushuaia, to see Cape Horn, which should be interesting, although I’m not sure how much there really is to see. Hopefully we’ll sail through the Beagle Channel during daylight hours so that we can enjoy the last of the scenery, and perhaps spot a Magellanic penguin or two.

Charlotte Bay

Alas, the weather is not in our favour, and we’ve had to start heading back northwards a day earlier than planned. We moved overnight to Charlotte’s Bay, where we went out on our last zodiac cruise, taking in the reflections of the mountains and a group of crabeater seals hauled out on the ice. Unfortunately the fog is closing in on us again, so our final views of the snow and ice are vanishing into the mist.

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Jougla Point and Booth Island

Today we hit the southern most point of our journey, alas, that means that from now on we’ll be heading slowly but surely homewards.

We set off from our anchorage at Cuverville in the middle of the night, and in the morning approached Port Lockroy, a sight of historic interest, and home to what I believe is the only post office in Antarctica. I must apologise to all those who might have been expecting a postcard, as in the end I never landed at Post Lockroy. Because of the limitation on how many people can land at any one time, we’ve done a number of split landings and this was one of them. Half of our group landed at Jougla Point, and the other half at Port Lockroy, with the possibility to switch part way through in the morning. In the end, I stayed on Jougla Point, photographing the gentoos, since I’d visited Port Lockroy on my last trip. The spot was quite picturesque, and I took some wide angle shots, but unfortunately my CF card got corrupted. Fingers crossed I can restore them once I get back to terra firma, and can download some recovery software.

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After lunch we passed through the well known Lemaire Channel. It’s an impressive route with jagged mountains on either side, but rather difficult to do justice on film, or indeed pixel. I stayed out on the deck through the passage, but eventually had to take refuge back inside as my face was freezing solid. It’s incredible the difference that the wind direction makes when you’re out on deck. A warm afternoon can turn frigid in seconds.

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The popularity of the area was highlighted by the presence of other cruise ships passing close by, disturbing our solitude. Unfortunately that led us to changing our afternoon plans, and instead of visiting Petermann Island, we turned about and returned north to a small spot called Booth Island. Changes in plan are par for the course on this kind of trip, but I was particularly disappointed in this instance as Petermann was to be our only chance to see an Adelie colony. The Adelie penguins are dependent on the presence of pack ice, and the warming of recent years is driving them further southwards, opening up more colonies to Gentoos which seem to be rather ubiquitous.

For the first time we had the chance to see penguins in snow, although the snow in question was particularly grubby looking due to the presence of algae. It’s fair to see that penguin colonies are rather more photogenic earlier in the season, such as on my last visit, when there is plenty of clear, fresh snow. Still, coming later in the summer gives the opportunity to see chicks, something I missed the last time.

The penguins wear down highways through the snow, and I spent some time trying to capture the patterns they made. Although we were in a gentoo colony, there were a few interlopers. On landing I saw a couple of chinstraps, but more excitingly, after sitting for an hour or so in the snow, I spotted a lone Adelie, who stopped and posed for me.

Before returning to the ship, I took the opportunity to go for a zodiac cruise through the ice, and as luck would have it, I managed to miss the crowd, finding myself with only two others on the zodiac, perfect for photography as usually you have to jostle with 10 people or so for space.

We saw some fine icebergs, but the main focus of our little tour was leopard seals. On my last trip I didn’t see any leopard seals, so I was really excited when this afternoon we happened upon not just one, but five of them, hauled out on icebergs. Unfortunately they weren’t particularly active, although a couple of them did briefly check us out. Our colleagues in the zodiac before us had a far more exciting time, mind you, as their zodiac was attacked and chased by a leopard seal, acquiring three punctures in the process!

Waterboat Point and Cuverville Island

What a magical day.

I thought yesterday that my cabin-mate and I had set the record for the swiftest wake up ever, but at 6:15 this morning, when we were told that there were orcas off the bow, we were even faster. In freezing temperatures, with all my warm gear downstairs in the mudroom, I raced outside in my jeans and pyjama top and stood out on the bow for an hour, watching for the whales. Most of the action was rather far from the ship, until the final show, right next to the bow. Excitement over, we all went down for a necessary cup of tea to restore circulation, and the ship returned to its original course, to Neko Harbour, the planned morning landing.

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Not only was this morning’s wake up special because of the whales, but also because we woke up to find ourselves surrounded by ice, with snow covered mountains on both sides of the channel. Having passed through the South Shetlands, for the first time the landscape really looked like our preconceptions of Antarctica.

No sooner had we left the whales, when the fog descended again, and our progress was slowed. Not too long after we were called to the Discovery Lounge for a briefing, and were told that plans had been changed due to the fog and whale induced delay, and that instead of heading to Neko, we were going to visit Waterboat Point on Paradise Bay, home to a Chilean base. For me that was great news, since I’d visited Neko on my previous visit, whereas the Chilean base would be a new landing for me. Most important for everyone, this would be our first landing on the Antarctic continent itself, as our previous landing were all on islands.

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The Chilean base was in a beautiful spot, with mountains behind it. The fog that we’d been sailing through had miraculously cleared, leaving blue skies and blinding sunlight. For the first time, sunglasses were a must.

In addition to Chilean forces personnel and researchers, the base was also home to a Gentoo penguin colony. After a brief tourist stop in the museum, where I got my passport stamped, I tried to find a spot to photograph incoming penguins, but having little success, decided to focus on landscapes, chicks instead. A bonus here was the sighting of a leucistic penguin – in layman’s terms, a blonde Gentoo.

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After the landing we took a zodiac cruise through around the bay, stopping to photograph icebergs along the way. After stretching our time to the maximum, we had to return to the ship at full throttle – great fun, but very chilling. Despite retreating into my parka as far as possible, my face was frozen by the time we returned.

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Once everyone was back on board (a process which takes a while, especially when landing on muddy sights, which necessity a long session of boot cleaning on return), we headed off in the direction of Cuverville Island, where we were planning to land this afternoon.

Luckily, the weather stayed on our side, and we were able to enjoy the stunning scenery in dazzling sunlight. We’d hardly made any progress when more whales were spotted, this time humpbacks. We all rushed on deck again, as the captain did his best to steer the ship according to the direction of the whales, taking us back in the opposite direction. After a few good shows, the whales dived back down into the deep and we continued back on our original course.

Frozen through again, we all retreated back inside to warm up, but no sooner had I taken my first sips of tea, then someone spotted some more orcas. Back outside we rushed, and this time I was able to secure myself a spot of prime real estate, right on the bow of the ship.

What a show. A female humpback and her calf were right in front of the ship, and surrounding them (and us) were a pod of orcas. We watched as the orcas closed in on the humpbacks, wondering if we were about to witness an attack. As we waited we drew in on both the humpbacks and a couple of the orcas, only to see two of the orcas surface right in front of us. In the end, the humpbacks dove and the orcas retreated a little. The action being over, and being far behind schedule, we turned around again and continued to Cuverville.

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Cuverville Island is another of the spots I visited on my last trip, and I spent an enjoyable few hours on that visit photographing penguins hopping from rock to rock. This time, I wanted to focus my efforts on penguins porpoising, so I set myself up close to the waterline and watched, and waited. Well, whilst it’s true to say that my later efforts surpassed my earlier ones, I didn’t really end up achieving what I was hoping for, although I was get more near misses mixed in with my shots of empty sea and splashes! After whale photography, that was more or less the theme of the day.

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All in all, today was the most perfect day I could possibly wish for, and all the more special for being my 37th birthday. As well as opening the cards that I’d brought with me, I was feted by the ship’s hotel crew, my photography group and my cabin-mate, and toasted with champagne. It’s going to be a hard job to top this birthday!

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Deception Island – Bailey Head and Whalers Bay

Never have you seen two people leap out of bed so quickly as my cabin mate and I, when the expedition leader announced two minutes after the wake up call that there were minke whales off the bow. Niceties such as showering went out the window, as I quickly threw on my clothes and headed outside. The temperature has dropped a little, and with the cool wind, my ungloved hands were practically frozen to the camera. The whales were quite a way off, but eventually they came close enough for a couple recognisable photos, although nothing spectacular.

The plan for the morning was to make a landing at Baily Head, on the outside of the ring shaped Deception Island. There was some question to whether the landing would be possible, as it’s a notoriously difficult one, with high waves coming into a steep beach. After sending a pilot boat out, we had the news that the landing was to go ahead.

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Baily Head is a long beach, with hills behind, hosting a huge chinstrap penguin colony, with penguins nesting all the way back into the mountains. Despite the description of the size of the colony, I was totally unprepared for the extent of it, and the drama of the surrounding landscape.

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Because of all the warnings we had about the difficulties of the landing, I pared down my camera bag to just the fisheye (that I’ve hired for the trip), and the 70-200mm lens, one on each body. It turned out to be the perfect choice, and I made the most of the opportunity to get some wide-angle landscape shots. There were a few fur seals hauled out, but I gave those a wide berth.

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Although I concentrated on landscape, I did take a few close up shots, mostly trying to capture a bit of movement in the penguin’s antics, but also, more somberly, of Southern Giant Petrels fending off each other and the skuas from a penguin kill.

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Deception Island is the caldera of an active volcano, and lunchtime saw us passing through the so-called Neptune’s Bellows to the inside of the ring.

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Our second destination was Whalers Bay, a place I’d visited on my previous trip, renowned for its geothermal activity and old whaling station. As far as wildlife is concerned, it’s not the most interesting places, so I decided to travel light, taking only a standard lens with me.

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I took the option of the hike up to Neptune’s Window and back, stopping along the way for my first leopard seal sighting (it was sleeping on the beach), and also to photograph some kind of starfish.

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Barrientos Island, South Shetlands

We woke up this morning to find ourselves enveloped in fog. Out on deck, the fog horn sounded every few minutes, adding to the eerie feeling. Despite having to slow a little, we were still able to continue our good progress, and just after lunch we arrived at our first destination, the South Shetland Islands. I suspect I’m one of few people in the world who can say that they’ve been to both the Shetlands and the South Shetlands within less than two months.

Although the fog didn’t lift before we arrived, the signs that we were approaching our goal were thereā€¦ the first Cape Petrel sighting, and most exciting of all, countless penguins porpoising alongside our ship.

Full of anticipation we streamed downstairs to the mud room, to get ready. Ski pants, thermals, fleece, parka, waterproof trousers and wellies. Within minutes we were all beginning to sweat in the hot mud room, as we waited in the zodiac queue as patiently as we could manage. Finally we were shunted into a zodiac and were zooming towards land.

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With the fog, we could only see the land as we drew quite close, but the sounds and smell of the penguin colonies had already been brought to us on the wind. My previous trip was in November, spring time, and the difference was immediately obvious. Instead of pristine snow, and penguins building nests and courting, we were greeted by rocks, mud, penguin poo, and fuzzy chicks.

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I headed over to the other side of the island, where I thought it might be a bit quieter, and quickly rediscovered one of my favourite pastimes from the previous trip – photographing jumping penguins. Barrientos Island is home to two species of penguin, Chinstraps and Gentoos.

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In addition to the penguins, there was also a large group of Southern Giant Petrels and some Skuas, arguing over penguin carcasses. Unfortunately, the fog made it a little difficult for photography, but I had so much fun just watching the penguins, and listening to all the different vocalisations they make.

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One of the most entertaining things to watch was the chicks racing after the adults, calling out for food, whether it was their own parent or not. They’re certainly greedy little fellows. The adults returning from the sea were beautifully clean, but some of the chicks were spectacularly filthy. Some were still soft and downy, and others were already partway through their moult, and development of adult feathers.

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Heading back towards the zodiacs to return to the ship, I had one final treat in store. As I sat photographing a pair of chicks snuggled up together, a small downy Gentoo chick came to check me out. It nibbled my finger, allowing me to get a bird’s eye view of the inside of its bill. What a magical way to end our first landing in Antarctica.

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Ushuaia and the Drake Passage

With the wonders of modern technology, I’m writing, and hopefully sending, this blog post from the MS Expedition, located just past 59 degrees south, halfway across the Drake Passage en route to our first point of call in Antarctica, the South Shetland Islands. We expect to make our first landing tomorrow afternoon, but it’s not yet clear exactly where.

The journey here was long, 20 hours door to door, to my hotel in Buenos Aires, followed by an early start the next morning to fly to Ushuaia, in Tierra del Fuego, at the southern most tip of Argentina.

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After a day in Ushuaia, in which we more or less exhausted its tourist possibilities, we boarded the ship yesterday afternoon and set sail through the Beagle Channel, reaching the Drake Passage in the early hours of the morning.

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The crossing thus far has been remarkably gentle, although there are a few people laid up with sea sickness nonetheless. I’m one of the lucky ones, despite being one of the few onboard not dosed up to the eyeballs, I’m just fine.

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Today has been an at sea day, with little to see – no land on the horizon, and only the occasional black browed albatross in the distance. Standing out on deck and feeling the light rain on your face is always a pleasure though, and a good chance to get to know new people. Both passengers and crew are very international, although with the expedition company being based in Toronto, there are a disproportionate amount of Canadians, one of whom is my cabin mate who hails from Saskatchewan.

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To keep us occupied, there have been a number of lectures, on the birds, seals and geography of the Antarctic, and the story of Scott and Amundsen’s race to the pole. This latter story will be revisited in a few minutes, in the form of a film. We’ve also had the mandatory vacuum session, to try and remove all traces of seeds and contaminants from our gear, so that we don’t accidentally introduce new species to the area.

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Our photography group numbers eight, plus Chris our leader. Two of the faces are familiar from previous trips, the rest all new to me. After the initial shock of being introduced to six new names and faces at 4:30am the day after I arrived, I finally have everyone’s names down, and we’re all getting to know each other.

One small disappointment, we’ve discovered that there was the possibility to camp out on Antarctica for a night. Unfortunately, it’s something you had to sign up for in advance. If only we’d known, I’d have taken that option for sure. Guess that’s another reason I’ll just have to come back in the future!

Antarctica Photos – Sneak Preview

So, I’ve got a long way to go before I make a proper selection of the best photos of the trip.  But, since a number of people wanted to see something, I’ve made a very quick, very rough selection and put them up on my website.  They’re not necessarily either my favourites or the best photos from the trip, but I thought I’d share them now anyway, just to give a better idea of the different things we saw.

http://www.heron-photography.co.uk/gallery/antarctica-preview/index.html

Taking the plunge

Probably the craziest thing I’ve done in a long while was taking the plunge, and going for a dip in the ocean at Deception Island, on the Antarctica Pensinsula.  There is actually a precedent for this, as parts of the beach are heated by volcanic activity.  That said, it only really works if a) the tide is right, or b) you dig a pit in the sand where it’s hot.  Seeing as we met neither of these conditions, it was absolutely freezing.

6 of us dared to take the plunge in the end.  We undressed on a patch of snow (to keep our clothes clean… in retrospect, I wonder why we bothered), and then ran done the beach and into the water, where we stayed just long enough to prove the point, before hobbling out again on our poor frozen feet.