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 there… 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!

Anchorage

I had a few hours this morning before I needed to head off to the airport, so I decided to rent a bike and take in the Anchorage Coastal Trail. I was hoping to have time to ride the whole thing, but by the time we’d had breakfast and dropped my bags off at the airport, time was running out. Since I was expecting to be riding on a fairly rough surface I rented a hybrid. If I’d realised that despite the title of ‘trail’ the surface would be tarmac all the way, I’d have taken a road bike. Nevermind. Being used to riding in the lowlands of Holland, the uphills on the route posed a bit of a challenge, but there were a couple really great downhill sections on the way back!

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The first part of the trail was quite open, with a view out onto the water, the second part through a forest. Despite all the warnings of bear and moose, the biggest mammal I set eyes on (aside from the odd human) was a dachsund. A relief and a letdown all in one!

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Exercise for the day completed, it was time to call a taxi and get myself to the airport. Fortunately all the formalities were completed fairly quickly, and I had time to get a bite to eat before boarding the plane. A shame that I ended up with a seat over the wing, it was quite clear coming down the B.C. coast, and the views were spectacular, with islands and snowcapped mountains. The final approach into Vancouver Airport took us right past downtown, with views onto Stanley Park and the ever present pile of sulphur, then down to Coquitlam before turning back and flying over New Westminster and the Alex Fraser bridge. Or at least, I think that’s what we did. I love looking out for familiar landmarks, put together they tell the story of my visits to Vancouver starting in childhood.

By the time I left the airport it was around 8:30pm and I was amazed at how dark it was. I’ve got used to the longer Alaskan days. Coming from 10C or so in Anchorage, the temperature was rather surprising too, still in the twenties.

Kodiak to Anchorage

I started out the day taking a few last photos of fishing boats at the harbour, a little hampered by the flashing light on my camera telling me that the battery might conk out at any moment.

After that it was time for a quick breakfast (if only I’d discovered the hidden waffles earlier in the stay, they were about the only tasty thing on the breakfast menu), and then off to Kodiak’s little one room (shed) airport.  Thank heavens for the free wifi, because there isn’t much else to do, and our flight was a little delayed.

An hour later we arrived in rainy Anchorage, hired ourselves a car, and set off down the Kenai peninsula, to see what we could see.  The weather conditions did rather obscure the scenery, but that which emerged from behind the mist was stunning, with (snow-topped) mountains and glaciers rising out of the water.  We made a couple short photo stops, and of course, the obligatory stop for a well-timed freight train.

 

Last day in Kodiak

Our last day in Kodiak dawned grey and dreary, and it didn’t take long for the rain to start. There were two remaining roads marked on the map, one to Anton Larson Cove, and the other, amrked with dots, to Saltery Cove. We’d heard that the latter was a very beautiful spot, but upon further investigation it turned out that the road was only passable on an ATV, not with a car.

We headed off on Anton Larson road, home to the US coastguard and a golf course. Having passed the latter, the tarmac road ended and we travelled the rest of the way on a potholed gravel road. For most of the drive between the mountains there were no signs of life, aside from some works vehicles, but once we reach the mouth of the cove we spied some life – just what we’d ordered for today, bald eagles.

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We saw quite a few eagles, some in the far distance, a few more wheeling overhead, and then rounding a corner, there were 3 on the road. Two flew off, but the third stayed on the ground, eating whatever leftovers it had found. We were able to get in quite close before he finally flew off with the remains of his dinner.

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Not too much further and we came across about 20 parked cars at a boat launch, and then 1000ft further, we very unceremoniously reached the end of the road.

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Judging by the state of most of the road signs, they’re most important use here is as target practice.

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Having turned around and driven back to the main road, we decided to continue to the restaurant we’d visited on our first road trip. By the time we arrived, the wind had picked up and it was raining heavily with minimal visibility, so after eating we returned to the hotel for a lazy afternoon.

Back in Kodiak

Back in Kodiak yesterday, and we weren’t too sure what to do with ourselves. Despite plans for an easy day, I ended up getting up at 6:30 and going out to photograph the harbour with Mum and Kumar. In the event, it was grey and drizzly, and I didn’t take a single picture. We spent the rest of the day taking things slowly, a long coffee in the local coffee shop, a visit to the sporting goods store and finishing up with a final group dinner before everyone else started trickling away out of Kodiak. There’s always a let down feeling at the end of these trips, especially when you come back into town in bad weather.

Today turned out to be Labor Day. I’m still not exactly sure what the point of it is, aside from not actually doing any labour. We had a hard time getting going, having failed to organize either boat trip or ATV tour as we’d planned. We tried to hire a car, and were told there were none available. After a fortifying trip to the coffee shop whilst we tried to figure out what we were going to do over the next few days, we headed off to the airport, where contrary to earlier information, we succeeded in hiring a car. Whilst we were at it, I decided to investigate the possibility of changing my return flight to Anchorage so that I could fly a day earlier with Mum and Dad, and see something of the Anchorage area. My original plans had me sitting in Anchorage airport for 6 hours between flights, not an appealing plan.

Finally with car keys in hand, we set off down the road, in the opposite direction to our first trip. The resulting ride was scenic, but not particularly long. Before we knew it, we’d very unceremoniously hit the end of the road.

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Having already stopped to photograph some fishermen, we then headed back to town for a late lunch and then turned around again and came back, this time to visit Fort Abercrombie, an old military installation, with some nice views, and a museum, which we skipped.

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After some to-ing and fro-ing trying to find the right road, we finished our tour of the day by a drive up to the top of Pillar Mountain, home to the wind turbines visible from the town, and with great views down to the airport and city.

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Katmai Peninsula – Kuliak Bay Revisited

Sitting with a camera watching the bears feels like a very timeless activity, and being out of contact with the world, we had no reason to care what day it was. As a result, it seemed to come as a bit of a shock that our time with the bears was almost over, and that today’s trip to shore would be our last.

Life in Alaska is far more driven by the weather and practicalities than we’re accustomed, and our final choice of bay was therefore more a decision based on the requirements of the flights (out, for us, and in for the BBC) than anything else. That said, we’d had a good time at Kuliak on our first visit, so we weren’t unhappy.

Our last morning dawned bright and sunny, and after a quick breakfast we donned our waders for the last time, and headed to shore. As the first group out, we set up position at the waterfall, with our guide Steve. We had a long wait. There were few salmon to be seen, and no bears. We waited an hour or so, and with no sign of action we were just picking up our cameras and beginning to move to a new spot when we were ushered back quickly.

I sat down just in time to see a bear approaching and began to shoot. It wasn’t long before we realised that this was the same mother bear we’d seen earlier in the week. Apparently she sometimes caches her cubs in a safe place and comes down to fish alone. She didn’t stay all that long before wandering back, but as another bear had turned up in the meantime, we hung around.

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Our patience was soon rewarded, as the mother returned with her two cubs, which bounded past us, one getting a little skittish and coming within about a metre of my feet! Obviously there was no way we were going to move positions now, we just sat tight and enjoyed our final show.

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Eventually the group moved on, vanishing beyond the top of the waterfall, and so we moved spot to the other side of the river giving the other group a turn at the waterfall. I lay down on the grass, hoping for some shots from a low vantage point. Unfortunately, things went quiet again, so all that really happened was that I got damp and cold, especially as the sun wasn’t shining on our little spot.

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Finally, around the time we needed to think about heading back to the boat, things started to heat up, so we took a back route along some bear paths, and finally across the river, to watch a bear fishing in front of us. The bear put on quite a show, but unfortunately, we were facing straight into the sun, so the resulting photographs aren’t much too look at.

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And then, that was that. Time to rush back to the boat, grab a bite to eat. Time to throw our clothes, camera gear and laptops into our cases. Time to take the skiff out to the float plane. Time to leave.

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As the first group out at the start of the week, we were also first to leave. I must admit that I’d been entertaining hopes of bad weather in Kodiak grounding the planes again, but no such luck.

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The weather was clearer than our first ride out so we had great views from the plane. It was pretty tough though to be leaving such a magical place behind us and return to the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Arriving back in Kodiak and setting ourselves up in the stuffy hotel room, filled with the artificial scent of cleaning fluid, I found myself longing for the fresh air and hint of dead fish aroma of Katmai.

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Katmai Peninsula – Kinak Bay

We landed at Kinak Bay with high expectations, having heard that it’s usually one of the best places for bear sightings. Alas, we were to be disappointed with one of the least active days of photography yet.

After a short stop to photograph a juvenile bald eagle that was sitting and waiting for us when we landed, we had a longer walk than normal for our first stop.

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We arrived in low tide, which meant clambering over a lot of slippery rocks to get into a position looking down on the river.

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There were a couple bears there, but the photography wasn’t great due to the poor light, the distance from the bears, and the fact that we were looking down on them from quite a height.

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Eventually we decided to move further upstream. It turned out to be quite a long walk, especially carrying 300mm lens and tripod and with a long break to photograph a resting eagle.

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We finally settled ourselves down by the river, with two bears in view, both of which were snoozing. One of them rolled over every so often, but that was about it. It was a cold and grey day, and in very little time my toes were beginning to feel like blocks of ice. All the sitting around on cold ground didn’t do very much to improve the situation. We sat, and waited, and waited, and waited a little more.

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Eventually, one of the bears began to stir, and mercifully came in our direction.

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Like yesterday’s bears this one ended up coming quite close to us at times, and whilst she was in front of us, I saw that she’d somehow wounded her hind foot. It didn’t seem to be causing her any trouble though.

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For a little while we had some activity in front of us, and were able to forget how cold we were getting. Then, alas, the show was over, as the bear wandered further upstream. In the hope of a good long photography day, the crew put together some sandwiches for us, and sent them out, but most of us were so cold, we decided to head back to the boat. In the meantime, the area had been transformed, as the tide had come in. The skiff was able to collect us from our spot (where we’d been inching slowly uphill to escape the rising water), and we were saved the long walk back.

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Having lunched and warmed ourselves up, we headed out again. Our original plan was to go back to the same area, but in the end we went to a much smaller bay, home to an old male bear who has killed a couple females in the past year or two. This little trek ended up being the most adventure we’ve had so far, although the bear never made his presence known. Due to his history, we had to take extra precautions – walking in a tighter huddle, always keeping behind our guide, and calling out to make sure that the bear knew we were there. This little river was very enclosed, unlike the open bays where we’ve been spending most of our time, and rich with vegetation. It would have been very easy to miss seeing the bear in those conditions.

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Because of the narrowness of the route, we kept having to cross the fast flowing river, forming a chain to avoid being knocked over and swept away. Having reached a small gravelly beach, half of the group continued into the river to view the waterfall around the corner, whilst the rest of us stayed on dry ground. After all the warnings we’d had about the bear, we were somewhat disconcerted to see the guide vanish around the corner, flares and pepper spray in hand, whilst we were empty handed.

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We walked slowly back to the mouth of the river, stopping en-route to look at the bones of one of the female bears that had been killed here. In the end we had quite a long wait as the batteries of the radio were flat and we couldn’t make contact with the ship.