Saturday 8 January 2011

Happy New Year - cruise three!

Well, it is now 2011...and we are currently rocking and rolling our way to Ushuaia on a less than calm Drake Passage.  Seems the Drake needed to let off a bit of steam early in the year so it is doing that now!

Another great cruise to the Antarctic, with some excellent wildlife and on the whole good weather.  We didn’t see a lot of sun, but didn’t have any landing rearranged or cancelled due to the weather, so all in all pretty good.

The Drake on the crossing south was not particularly nasty, with a slightly bouncy trip and not an awful lot of birds, but we did have a lovely light-mantled sooty albatross on dusk behind the ship after the first day in the Drake.  As we approached the South Shetlands we had a brief sighting of several fin whales, before then seeing our first iceberg and accompanying humpbacks.  The iceberg of course had a chinstrap perched right up high – never ceases to amaze me why on earth these little guys think they need to climb right to the top.  I guess they are taking a leaf from Sir Ed’s book.  Heading onwards we had a late evening landing at Arctowski Station, a small Polish Station on King George Island.  Although we couldn’t visit the large Adelie penguin colony there (as they conduct research there) wandering along the beach we had FOUR species of penguin – chinstrap, gentoo, Adelie....and a single king penguin standing above the high water mark looking lonely.  Elephant seals were also scattered around the place so it was a really nice landing.  We then headed back to the ship (with some of the guys from the Station) for a New Years toast just on midnight, and then of course a few beverages until the wee hours.

The Drake showing a little of its true colours

Light-mantled sooty albatross on sunset

Light-mantled sooty albatross silhouette

Wandering albatross against the sunset

The first berg...

From a different angle

And with breaking waves

Elephant seal at Arctowski

Whale bones at Arctowski

The last sunset of 2010 at Arctowski

Next day we had a morning landing at Aitcho Island and were greeted by lots and lots of chicks.  Both the gentoo and the chinstrap penguins had lots of small fluffy chicks, most pairs having twins.  This was suggesting there is pretty good feeding conditions around the colony this year, as none of the chicks appeared to be undernourished or doing poorly, and there was lots of feeding action going on with adults coming in all the time and feeding chicks etc.  I spent quite a bit of time taking photos of the feeding action and ended up with some nice stuff so pretty happy.  Plus I really focussed on my ‘poop’ shot collection, trying to catch as many chicks as possible in action.  That afternoon we headed to Deception Island and spent the afternoon in Whaler’s Bay.  I did beach watch, making sure all the swimmers were ‘happy’ and did another swim from zodiac back to the shore.  Sure is invigorating swimming in water that cold and my skin still tingled slightly several hours later.  There was a bit of steam on the beach, so at least a little warm near the shore.

Gentoo chicks are cute!

Even when they poop!

Chinstrap feeding chick

Chinstrap and chick - that's moss in the background

Chinstrap choir

Snowy sheathbill in flight

Muscle penguin!

Next morning we were up early with a wake up call from Hannah just before 0600 to say there were killer whales approaching the ship as we left the southern Gerlache heading in towards Paradise Bay.  There was a really large pod of whales, probably at least 30 animals with mainly females and large calves, although one male snuck by out wider.  They came right in to the ship and passed underneath it giving fantastic views as they dived and then came up right beside the stern.  These were Antarctic Type B killer whales, and the first time I have seen this species in the Antarctic – crazy with this being my sixth trip down here.  Normally the odds are every second trip you’ll see them, but it seemed my jinx had finally been broken in rather superb style.  They were much greyer than I expected and most were very heavily stained with diatoms, and many seemed to be heavily scarred with tooth rake marks from interactions with other whales.  Shortly after they passed another group of ten or more came towards us, but then veered off, but this was a pretty big number to be seen in this area.  We also had a nice iceberg nearby with a bunch of mainly gentoo, and scattering of chinstrap penguins, and they caused great amusement as many of them ran around and then suddenly took to the water.

Antarctic type B killer whale

Killer whale dive

Two females on the surface

Have the killer whales gone yet?

Crabeaters on the ice at Paradise Bay

Antarctic tern on the ice at Paradise

Heading into Paradise Bay we had overcast conditions with snow falling, and it was very wetting snow with big soft flakes.  We did a continental landing on shore and had zodiac cruises around the area.  There were some great icebergs in the bay and we searched out some crabeater seals which jumped up onto the bergs to loaf around, and checked on the Antarctic shag colony which had rather large chicks.  The glacier in Skonthorp Cove was not particularly active but we managed to get some great echoes off the face and some Antarctic terns posed nicely on bits of ice for us.  During lunch we headed to Port Lockroy (this time it wasn’t blowing 40 knots!) and went ashore at both the Base and Jougla Point.  The penguins here still didn’t have much in the way of chicks and seem to not be having a great year in contrast to what we had seen at Aitcho Island.  However, I continued my ‘poop’ theme photos  managing to catch a stunning adult gentoo sequence which I am particularly happy with.  I spent most of the time driving and towards the end of the trip a leopard seal was found hauled out on a piece of ice, so we were able to get a good look at it.  Also in the water around the ice were large black Pteropods which looked like snails with bat-like wings swimming through the water column.  Ver y cool and not something I have seen before down here.  We then had a BBQ dinner whilst anchored off Port Lockroy, with the guys from the Base joining us, and then having a few challenges with the limbo and stick contortion tricks.  It’s amazing what you can do when there is a little peer pressure involved!

Antarctic shag coming in to land

Caught in action....

....the moneyshot!

Leopard yawn


Next morning we passed through the Lemaire Channel around 0600 (I decided beauty sleep was more important) before doing a landing at Vernadsky Station and Wordie House.  There was still a bit of ice around the base and through the small channels to Wordie, but fairly open at the anchorage.  Again I was driving and so not a lot of wildlife seen, but did have a nice crabeater up on a piece of ice.  We then repositioned over lunch to the Yalours did a landing there amongst the Adelie penguins.  They also had a few more chicks, with many almost at crèche stage, but also quite a few small ones – so a bit asynchronous.  The light wasn’t perfect, but managed to get some nice shots anyway, and it was a good time ashore.  Then a zodiac cruise amongst some absolutely spectacular bergs with some really intense coloured ice and highlight of the trip for me was an Arctic tern on ice right beside an Antarctic tern – very cool!  The drizzle tried to dampen our spirits, but think it failed with a really nice afternoon.  That evening after dinner we had a landing and zodiac cruise at Plennau Island with some awesome bergs there in the iceberg graveyard.  The wind had gotten up a little but pretty sweet cruise, and an absolutely stunning sunset (or at least low sun) on the mountains around the Lemaire as we passed through on the way north late that night.

Adelie penguins running at me...attack attack!

Ice ice ice

Dirty ice!

Ice and Adelies

More ice

Arctic tern (rear) and Antarctic tern (front)

Next morning up early again with humpback whales breaching nearby as we came into Cierva Cove.  Very still morning with glassy conditions and an awesome extended zodiac cruise through the ice and landing briefly on the continent again.  Lots of leopard seals around and had 3-4 in sight at one point.  So spent a lot of time with them and a couple of crabeaters, plus had a Weddell seal on the beach.  Towards the end of the cruise had a fantastic phallic iceberg which got a few comments!  Back onboard we headed northwards and had another landing at Mikkelson Harbour where there still weren’t any chicks.  Pretty surprised not to find any.  Lots of nice Weddell seals on the snow though so that kept us busy with the cameras.

Plennau icebergs

Lemaire channel at night

In the Lemaire channel

Leopard seal stretching


The same berg

Weddell seal

Humpbacks beside the ship

Back onboard it was time to head northwards again across the Drake.  It was a pretty low swell first day on the Drake and we had a few humpback and fin whale sightings, but not much in the way of birds.  Evening of the first day things started to get pretty lively and during the night we had a pretty good swell, with 6m swell or so by the morning, so things were really moving around.  So day two was pretty quiet onboard, but the odd wandering albatross along the way.  So now back in Ushiaia, uploading photos to my facebook account and finishing off this blog.

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