SOUTHERN OCEAN EXPEDITION: Falklands, South Georgia, and the Antarctic Peninsula


10 December 2014 --- 10 January 2015



by

Lynn & John Salmon <>{

SOUTHERN OCEAN: Trip in Photos

PART 2: SOUTH GEORGIA

PART 1: The Falklands // PART 3: Antarctic Peninsula

RIGHT WHALE BAY, SOUTH GEORGIA (Monday, 22 December 2014)

The weather is excellent. We spend most of the day at sea, see our first iceberg, and sight land at the Willis Islands, named for Captain Cook's midshipman Thomas Willis, who first sighted them. It sounds like Mr. Willis was a bit of a small, wild man, definitely a future role for Peter Dinklage.

We were supposed to reach Salisbury Plain in the evening, but we've been traveling against the wind, and are running behind schedule. Our trip leader opts for a landing at Right Whale Bay instead, from around 6-9pm.

Right Whale Bay is amazing! There are an unbelievable number of fur seals, king penguins and elephant seals on the beach at our landing spot. The noise is unbelievable. Fur seal pups are everywhere, and male fur seals are constantly defending their territories by charging at anyone who steps over their invisible lines in the sand.

The staff has set up a "corridor" for for us to make our way from the surf to higher up the beach where the fur seal density is a little lower. We're encouraged to keep moving! Don't stop to "sort your socks" on the beach. There's a constant mixture of deep bellowing and high-pitched squeals. This is definitely the densest concentration of large wild animals we have ever seen. We didn't know places like this still exist in the world. It is exciting!

Before landing we had been briefed about the male fur seals being very territorial. We are warned not to run, or we will be chased. We are meant to stand our ground and "gently" touch the whiskers with a stick if a fur seal approaches too closely. Imagine doing that if a 400 lb animal with lots of teeth charges you. The staff are standing with wooden staffs like Gandalf in a "You shall not pass" posture. Lynn is nervous, and carrying a hiking pole. The first time one bellows at me, I jump and take about two steps before stopping. On subsequent charges, I manage to stop myself after one step. Lynn has excellent results kicking sand. That seems to come as a complete shock to the seal, who stops dead in his tracks. The thing to watch for is to not back into anothers territory when retreating from the first one.

We make it through the fur seal gauntlet and enjoy an all too brief visit at the king penguin colony. Some southern giant petrels duke it out with some northern giant petrels over the carcass of a king penguin. The Northern giant petrels are the ones with red-tipped bills, while southern ones have green tips. Both are some large angry birds!

More of our Right Whale Bay photos



SALISBURY PLAIN, SOUTH GEORGIA (Tuesday, 23 December 2014)

We make an early morning (4:30am!) landing at the magnificent Salisbury Plain King Penguin colony. Mt. Ashley and the Grace Glacier serve as a spectacular backdrop for half a million king penguins. The beaches are also covered with fur seals and elephant seals.

American ornithologist Robert Cushman Murphy made the first detailed study of the birds in the area in 1912-13 and named the nearby glacier after his wife, Grace. The King penguins Aptenodytes patagonicus are the second largest penguin species in the world after the Emperor penguin that inhabits the frozen south.

Weather delays prevented us from landing at Salisbury Plain yesterday evening. Thus, we negotiated with another tour group to take it VERY early before their planned arrival at 9:00am. So we're up at 4:00, begin landing on the beach at 4:30 and everyone is off the beach by 8:30. A place with 500,000 king penguins is well worth a little lost sleep.

The penguins seem to go on forever, stretching up the hillside in black and white and brown bands. It's overwhelming. John takes a header trying to negotiate the slippery Tussock grass, but there's no damage to him or the camera. While up on one tiny overlook, he gets our first look at the South Georgia Pintails.

We walk along the beach, away from the main colony. There are still hundreds (maybe thousands) of penguins. A lot of them are completely covered in brown feathers and look like large fuzz-balls. Many others are at various stages of moult and transitioning between freakish looking creatures to the elegant tuxedo clad adult plumage. There are also a number of elephant seals lying about in the sand along with more fur seals and nesting giant petrels.

When we get back to the ship, we're really tired. After breakfast, we have a really nice sleep as the ship heads toward Fortuna Bay and our planned afternoon Shackleton hike.

More of our Salisbury Plain photos



SHACKLETON HIKE (Tuesday, 23 December 2014)

It feels like a whole new day when we awaken for the second time. We are given sack lunches and dropped off at Worsley Beach a little before noon. We will follow in the footsteps of Shackleton, Crean and Worsley on the last 5.5km (3.3 miles) of their epic self-rescue after the sinking of the HMS Endurance. The terrain is steep and traverses loose scree rock slopes in places. It includes approximately 1000 feet of vertical ascent and descent. At the start, we are informed that the ship will depart from Stromness and we must finish the hike! Not to worry, it's a beautiful sunny afternoon, and we are much more well supplied than the original trio.

Elephant seals line the beach, and more fur seals await us at this landing, but we've become old hats at dealing with them by now. Tim Carr leads our progression of 40 or so hikers up and over and we spread-out and walk at our own pace.

We begin our up hill climb from Fortuna Bay along an unmarked trail that ascends steeply up to a 300m high pass. It is followed by a much steeper downhill descent into Shackleton Valley. Lynn's finds this portion tough going over the loose, slippery scree rock slope, but manages to get down unaided. We finish up at the beach in Stromness Harbor near the whaling station. Here we encounter another gauntlet of fur seals to negotiate before reaching the zodiacs that will whisk us back to the ship and an early dinner.

More of our Shackleton Hike photos



HERCULES BAY, SOUTH GEORGIA (Wednesday, 24 December 2014)

  • S 54 7.5 W 36 40
  • Sunrise: 3:58am - Sunset: 9:02pm
  • bird list

Hercules Bay is a miniature fjord enclosed by 300m high cliffs. The largest Macaroni penguin colony in the area is located about a mile outside of Hercules Bay and is only accessible by Zodiac cruise. The Macaronis nest on steep rocky shorelines, and two smaller Macaroni colonies are located within Hercules Bay.

There are a lot of Snowy sheathbills and some South Georgia shags on the rocks. There's a dead seal floating in the water with a swarm of Giant Petrels and Cape Petrels feeding. There are both Northern (red noses, like Rudolph) and Southern (green noses) giant petrels feeding together. Our bird expert, Joe, mentions that this is fairly rare - usually you don't find two such similar species in the same location - eventually one out-competes the other and dominates.

More of our Hercules Bay photos




GRYTVIKEN, SOUTH GEORGIA (Wednesday, 24 December 2014)

  • S 54 17.14 W 36 30.5
  • Sunrise: 3:58am - Sunset: 9:02pm
  • bird list

After lunch we make our second landing of the day at Grytviken. First we must clear customs and we can learn about the rat eradication project from a representative from the South Georgia Heritage Trust.

The rusting remains of the Grytviken whaling station are spread out around a picturesque cove backed by steep hills and mountains. The rusting hulks of whaling equipment make a nice contrast against the blue water and sky. The site is now home to the South Georgia Museum. There is a small store and post office as well as a tiny cemetery where Sir Ernest Shackleton's grave is located.

We have glorious weather in Grytviken. This is pretty rare. The sun is bright and the sky is blue. After landing, we and all the other passengers gather at the cemetery to make a "toast to the Boss". Pauline Carr makes the toast at Shackleton's grave - preceded by a brief account of his last day at Grytviken. The toast is the classic: "For exploration, take Amundsen, for science, take Scott, but if everything goes wrong, and hope is almost lost, then get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton".

A relaxing afternoon is spent exploring the whaling station, small museum and the whaler's church. There is a small library at the back of the church containing books in English and Norwegian. Perhaps we'll read Cork in the Doghouse when we get home. We buy stamps and mail postcards and Christmas cards to friends back home. It is Christmas Eve, but the cards will likely not get to the recipients before February.

A couple of geocaches are located at Grytviken, and our afternoon of exploring allowed ample opportunity to find both of them. One, appropriately named Shackleton's Rest, was located just up the hill from the cemetery. After finding the box, we found our route back down blocked by some fur seals sunning themselves along the path, and we had to find an alternate route down. The other cache, Under Nebb, was located among the rusting machinery ruins. It, too, was guarded by fur seals, but a fellow geocacher from our ship (there seemed to only be the two of us among the passengers) went first and cleared the way.

The weather remains fantastic and we find a Christmas Eve BBQ awaiting us on deck when we return to the ship.

We note the British ship HMS Dragon anchored nearby in the harbor and take a photo thinking of our friend Naomi who authored the Temeraire series. There really are dragons in the British Navy!

More of our Grytviken photos



GODTHUL (Thursday, 25 December 2014)

  • S 54 17.6 W 36 17.7
  • Sunrise: 4:00am - Sunset: 9:00pm
  • bird list

Morning winds of 50-70 knots prevented our scheduled landing at Royal Bay and we diverted to a more protected harbor at Godthul. Lynn has a close encounter with a fur seal that decides to take a nap at her feet.

John hikes up to a Gentoo penguin colony and takes pictures of penguins nesting among reindeer antlers. Where's Rudolf? It is Christmas Day, after all.

More of our Godthul photos





ST ANDREWS BAY (Thursday, 25 December 2014)

  • S 54 26 W 36 11
  • Sunrise: 4:00am - Sunset: 9:00pm
  • bird list

The largest colony of King Penguins in the world is found on the alluvial plain below the Cook, Buxton, and Heaney Glaciers at St. Andrews Bay. The island's largest concentration of elephant seals can also be found along the beach.

After making our afternoon landing on the beach, we find ourselves separated from the main penguin colony by a raging torrent of melt water from one of the three glaciers. King penguins really like glacial melt-water and they can be found lining the banks of the river stretching up toward the glaciers.

A few of the staff wearing chest-waders find a way across the river along with a couple of adventurous travelers. Tim Carr leads a hike up to the glacier and then crosses it with another handful of bold adventurers. They end up having to cross back through the raging torrent.

We opt for a safer and drier hike a kilometer or so along the river. We get dive-bombed by terns at one point, even though we're trying to stay away from their nests. There are half a million penguins nearby, but the main grouping is just out of sight. We can see them filling the plain to the horizon. Later in the evening we zodiac cruise by the main penguin horde on the way back to the ship and get a full whiff of the aroma.

More of our St. Andrews Bay photos


GOLD HARBOUR (Friday, 26 December 2014)

  • S 54 37 W 35 56
  • Sunrise: 4:02am - Sunset: 8:58pm
  • bird list

Gold Harbour is one of the most beautiful visitor sites on South Georgia and supports a diversity of wildlife beyond what we have experienced thus far. The abundance of wildlife is packed into a small area surrounded by snowy peaks and the ice fall of the Bertrab Glacier.

We have the whole day to explore what Gold Harbour has to offer with an option to stay ashore for the full 11 hours or return to the ship for lunch mid-day.

The morning was spent with elephant seals and King Penguins on the beach. In the afternoon, John walked up the hill to the right of the landing site and (with help from Tim and Joe) found a spot to watch nesting Light-mantled albatross. The way was steep, mostly tussock grass going up and down, with a couple of short scree traverses.

The route through the tussock grass has lots of opportunities for "ambush" by fur seal. You come around a clump and there's a seal sitting right where you were going to step. Most of them are young, which means they're not terribly dangerous, but the young ones might decide to pick a fight, just for fun. In the end we have no real trouble with them.

A few times a light-mantled albatross would fly up the valley, so we were hoping to witness an egg-exchange, but no luck. Nevertheless, it was a great day of birding. A bit of exercise to get to a lovely spot with soft ground, a terrific view and a couple of very pretty birds maybe 30 yards away.

After the birds John took a nice video of elephant seals snorting, grunting, adjusting themselves and sumo-wrestling with one another back on the beach. One of our more successful videos.

There are dozens, perhaps 100, elephant seals on this beach. It's amazing how quickly you become accustomed to them. It's surprising that more people don't trip over them. They are big blobs in the sand that occasionally bellow or grunt, but mostly ignore the passing pedestrians. There's only 3 foot path between our pile of gear on the beach and three very large lazing elephant seals. It wouldn't' be hard to accidentally step on a tail. I wonder what kind of reaction you'd get.

The elephant seals have enormous eyes - perhaps for seeing at depth. When they dive, they go very deep (1000-2000m). There's not much light at 2000m.

More of our Gold Harbour photos



HEAVY WEATHER IN THE SCOTIA SEA (27-30 December 2014)

After breakfast we hope for calm conditions to allow for one last South Georgia landing at Cooper Bay. The weather did not cooperate. The captain closes the outside decks to passengers shortly after breakfast. Fortunately, the bridge remains open to passengers, and we spend many hours up there over the next few days.

We have 70 knot sustained winds at Cooper Bay and gusts of 90 knots later as we near the entrance to Drygalski Fjord. We encounter the Polar Explorer just outside Drygalski Fjord, and it looks like they are going to try to cruise the fjord. They are a bit smaller than us (52 passengers), so they might make it, but our staff doesn't give them much chance.

There's a low pressure system sitting pretty much right where we want to go. We're in for high winds and high seas. It looks like our next planned stop at Elephant Island is unlikely, and we are heading for the South Orkneys instead. We have 65 knot winds 30-45 degrees off the starboard bow the whole way. For most of the day we're only making 3.5 knots. We don't get very far.

Enormous sprays occasionally crash over the bow. Every once in a while we take water through the holes for the anchor chain and it sloshes around on the bow for a while. In the afternoon, from our room on Deck 5, from time to time the horizon is blocked by waves. It's looking pretty much like a Class "A" storm. But by going only 3.5 knots, we reduce the rocking and rolling. This safety measure may keep someone from breaking a leg or a neck in a stairwell or shower.

The ship makes a fairly load "BANG" on many of the forward pitches, as it belly flops into the next wave. On many of them a secondary shuddering vibration runs through the ship,

Nevertheless, the crew's body language is very relaxed. We watch the captain for a few minutes on the bridge - hands in pockets, feet shoulder-width apart, excellent posture, bending only at the angles 20-degrees forward - 20 degrees back ... After a minute or two, he reaches forward and touches the rail for support.

Pauline seems to think the ship is handling well in these seas. She says "It's nice to experience this kind of weather from behind glass". I ask if they would normally seek a safe harbor in these conditions. She says "If one's available". They sailed Curlew through something like this only once.

The daily briefing we receive on our second day of rough seas begins: "The force 11 gale that we are experiencing today with wind gusts up to 90 kts, should subside tomorrow ...." John and I are actually enjoying the roller-coaster ride from the bridge and I have to avoid loud exclamations of "WHEEEEEEEE!" as the ship goes up and down and waves crash over the front of the bridge. That could get us evicted from the bridge, but we are having a great time and not experiencing any sea-sickness. Walking, on the other hand, can be a challenge and we try to hold onto a railing when possible or make short lunges from point A to B in those places where no railing exists.

More lectures are scheduled to fill time each day. We advance to using watercolors in Marybee's drawing class. Passenger's busily edit their photos to be submitted for a group slide-show, and a second round of bio-security in preparation for our landings in Antarctica is completed.



Over the next 7 days we make 11 landings in the Antarctic Peninsula. Stay tuned for more excitement!

TO BE CONTINUED


Lynn Salmon <>{