Sunday 23 January 2011

The last cruise

Well sitting here at home now makes the last six weeks seem like a distant memory!  Hard to believe that my four Antarctic Peninsula trips are now over, but the final cruise was an absolute stunner.  Not only was the weather again fantastic, but the wildlife sightings continued to impress, and we had no less than four different sightings of killer whales, with two of them being of multiple animals for a prolonged period…  Some great people onboard to, as with all the cruises, and that always makes things a lot more fun.

As we left Ushuaia in bright sunshine with flocks of kelp gulls combing the disturbed water for food, the usual drills and briefings were carried out.  But after a hurried dinner it was back up onto the bridge with sunshine still providing an awesome cruise through the Beagle.  We had some great birds along the way with the usual suspects for seabirds (skuas, Magellanic penguins, Imperial shags, giant petrels and black-browed albatross, etc) but the stars were four black-faced ibis that flew right over the bridge calling (with two of them in a nicely spaced photographable formation) and I managed to call a humpback well within the pilot station.  Beautiful light and clouds allowed some great photos.

Scenery along the Beagle Channel


Lovely light on the Beagle

Black-faced ibis flying over the ship

A beaut sunset on the Beagle

And again

The crossing of the Drake was a little bumpy on the first day, with a few birds around, but day two proved to be a lot calmer and as we approached the South Shetlands we had at least 10 light-mantled sooty albatrosses around the ship at once, and shortly after our first iceberg appeared (in fact the same berg from the previous trip) and again some stunning lighting and cloud formations.  Nice wave action along it again, but no penguins sitting up on it this time, nor were there any accompanying humpbacks, even though we were searching thoroughly.  However, as we headed through the Nelson Strait we got several humpbacks and then just as we had started dinner a call on the radio from the bridge alerted us to ‘killer whales, killer whales’.  Running to the bridge we realised there was a good sized pod right by the ship and everyone was dragged out of the dining room for absolutely fantastic views of at least 15-20+ killer whales (type B) including more babies.  At one stage I looked down off the bow and there was six animals right there almost touching distance just beneath me…wow!  Got some incredible photos and the they stuck around for a good 25 minutes, really checking out the ship, and at one point one was right under the stern with just its tail visible, obviously checking out the propeller!  Everyone was just blown away it it was surely the best start you could have for a cruise!  After dinner we headed into our anchorage at Aitcho Island and had 5+ humpbacks feeding, breaching, and blowing all around the area.

Wandering on the Drake

Light-mantled sooty albatross and our first iceberg of the cruise in the background

Awesome wave action against the berg

The berg

A light-mantled sooty albatross for scale

Baby killer whale breaching!

Right beside the bow of the ship!

At the anchorage

Next day was a really early one – 0430 we were in the zodiacs and heading ashore.  The sun was shining and the weather was again outstanding, and we even had a couple of humpbacks right by the ship as we loaded passengers.  Ashore we again found the penguins were doing well, with the chicks having grown well since our last visit, and still a lot of twins, so food was still plentiful.  I wanted to get down to see the skua chicks and the dead crabeater seal to get some shots of teeth, so did that, rather than concentrating too much on the penguins as I had with the previous visit.  I also popped over and got some more shots of the elephant seals as there were a good bunch of them present also – as usual being their photogenic selves.  The skua chicks didn’t cooperate greatly but I did get some shots, and got a great sequence of flying skuas as well.  Luckily the dead crabeater also sat nice and still for some macro photography!  Back onboard we then headed through to Halfmoon Island for an extra landing, with the gorgeous sunny weather and no breeze it was an almost tropical experience, except for the penguins, snow, and of course penguin poop (which some people took to rolling in).  The macaroni penguin was present again and we had nice views of him sitting amongst the chin-straps which by now mostly had chicks that were about 2-3 weeks old (still lots of twins also).  For some of it at least I was standing by the colony pointing the macaroni out to people in just a light shirt…it was a stunning day.  Then that afternoon we had our stop at Deception Island which was also stunning but gradually clouded over and the wind picked up.  Some nice kelp gull chicks sunning themselves up on some of the old ruins and the Antarctic terns also put on a good show chasing the gulls.  Then of course it was swimming time, but with not a lot of warm water and the wind picking up there were less than usual.  However, some braved the elements and I again did my swim from the zodiac – again managing to coerce another impressionable soul.  We actually swam quite a way, probably almost 100m and from the video taken were in the water for a minute.  I did a full medley, starting with freestyle (or my interpretation of it), before moving to breast-stroke, a brief backstroke, and then final flourish with the butterfly.  My fingers and toes hurt just thinking about it!  Anyway, a hot chocolate back onboard sorted that out…or was it the rum that made up 60% of the cup??

An early morning start at Aitcho

Biblical light

Gentoo chick practicing karate

Crabeater seal that didn't move much

Moulting elephant seals

A nice skua capture

There are no villains, even the skuas have families

Chinstrap calling

Halfmoon Island

The chart

The demise of steel

Antarctic terns

Kelp gull chicks

That evening we cruised southwards towards the Peninsula with stunning humpbacks lounge feeding at 0200 right beside the ship, and then a completely blue sky morning at Neko Harbour.  What a glorious morning and for the first time I made the hike up to the top of the hill.  The view was simply one of the best I’ve seen for a long time and the resulting photos I think captured it well, but of course nothing can fully capture the atmosphere, feeling, and beauty of a place as much as being there.

Skua against the, blue, blue

Gentoo at the nest

Gentoo calling

A STUNNING day at Neko Harbour

A small calving and a big glacier

Zodiac back to the ship

MV Polar Star

Gentoo underwater

The ship then headed towards Port Lockroy, heading through the southern Gerlache and into the Neumayer Channel.  Simply stunning scenery and again almost no wind and clear blue skies as we pulled up to our Anchorage in front of Goudier Island.  I headed across and picked up Hen from Port Lockroy and she came across to the ship to give the pre-visit briefing etc.  I spent a bit of time clearing ice away from the landing site with Danny and then we set up the landing sites and then it was time for the landings.  I spent most of the afternoon driving and shuttling people around, but had a little time ashore to check out the now rather large Antarctic shag chicks and get some photos.  I did also manage to take a rather large chunk out of my pro – sorry bosun! – when reversing and trying to get out of the way of some photography.  Dam it!

Bobby on the bridge

The southern Gerlache

Old school pinup girls on the walls at Port Lockroy

...and beside the bed

After the landings we had a fantastic BBQ dinner on the back deck of the ship with no wind, awesome blue skies and just awesome light for photography as the evening developed.  We had groups of gentoo penguins coming back to the colonies and in the flat conditions they made for stunning photos as they porpoised in with gorgeous reflections in the mirror calm conditions…pretty happy with at least a couple of the 1000+ images I took over the course of about half an hour.  The scenery was equally stunning as the sun went down and glowed along the horizons.  Sad to say good-bye to the Port Lockroy gang – was great getting to know them all over the last four visits!

Port Lockroy

Gentoo penguins porpoising

Breaking the surface


Beautiful light and stunning conditions

After midnight!

Next morning we awoke to the Lemaire Channel with enough ice to stop other ships going through, but lovely sunny conditions again.  Several minke whales at the southern end of the Lemaire and a bunch of crabeater seals and our first Adelie penguins.  We anchored up at Vernadsky and then did zodiac cruising and time ashore at the station, finding some great icebergs and a lot of crabeater seals – a lot more than on previous trips.  Also a couple of leopard seals and even a Weddell seal – so all three in the morning was nice.  An archway I looked at longingly and photographed had collapsed by the time we reboarded the ship, again sending a message that such things are dangerous…  An interesting spectacle as we left the anchorage was a large berg that had floated in towards the ship and was literally touching distance off the stern.  We then headed back northwards and after lunch did a stop at Peterman Island where we found mixed colonies of Adelie and gentoo penguins, both with reasonable numbers of chicks.  However, Mick and I had only just reached the colony after a short walk when I spotted a commotion in the water and realised there was a leopard seal hunting penguins just below the rocks.  So within probably 20 minutes we had almost the whole ship perched on the rocks watching the spectacle.  It looked like a rugby match with people lined up in the grandstand, and although at times the action was slow (although faster than a 5-day cricket test) we saw the leopard seal make at least 3-4 mad dash attempts at penguins.  It was pretty exciting to watch, and of course you didn’t know whether to be cheering for the penguins or the seal!  Watching the penguins leaping from the water erratically and the massive bow wave following behind is something that has to be witnessed to be believed.  In the end the seal disappeared for a while and we don’t think it was successful in capturing a penguin, but the birds lined up on the shore ready to leap in were not taking any chances and did so in groups.  I did manage to capture one above water lunge by the leopard seal, but the distance and light make the image a bit of a record shot only.  A massive iceberg calving across the bay had an large impact on the shoreline just before we left, with the water suddenly receding and then coming back in in successive waves for about 10 minutes, pounding the shore in true tsunami style.  So all in all a pretty exciting afternoon.  After dinner we had an awesome zodiac cruise around the iceberg graveyard at Pleneau Island and found some great bergs and a few crabeaters and leopard seals.  It really is impossible to describe the atmosphere, colours, and feelings as you are surrounded by these massive bergs in beautiful light at 10pm at night.  Just awesome.

Into the Lemaire

The Lemaire with a little ice...too much for some, but not for us!

Beautiful Lemaire

Icy arch near Vernadsky

Crabeater (left) and leopard seal on the same berg

A crabie yawns
Gentoo and chicks

Skuas at 'the club'

Leopard seal plunges after a gentoo


Back onboard we bumped our way – literally – back through the Lemaire channel as we headed northwards towards our next days activities.  The morning was a bit overcast, but again almost no wind as we headed up through to Cierva Cove.  With flat calm conditions we had an awesome zodiac cruise through some fantastic icebergs in Cierva Cove, managing to find a number of crabeater seals and several leopard seals up on ice.  A nice cruise through thick brash ice that was constantly calving from the large glacier was a highlight, with some spectacular bergs with fresh snow, masses of icicles, and great archways and shapes.  All in all an nice last cruise, before heading northwards to Mikkelson Harbour to do a landing.  Just after lunch we had a sighting of several killer whales and a couple of humpbacks, but turning the ship we failed to see the killer whales again.  However, as we arrived near to our anchorage the call went up for ‘killer whales’ and everyone scampered to get jackets, cameras etc.  Again we had a pod of at least 25+ animals almost on the bow, and we were able to follow slowly as they moved in towards our anchorage.  We yet again had stunning views of these guys, with several large males and small babies in amongst the pod.  With them in view for about 15 minutes this was another awesome encounter with these animals.  We headed into the anchorage keeping a watch out just in case they reappeared, before getting ready for the last landing.  I was on driving duty, but as we started to load passengers to head ashore a leopard seal arrived and started to check out the stern of the ship.  It was extremely curious with the stern and kept diving down under the ship and disappearing for several minutes, before reappearing and spending time on the surface.  People headed ashore to spend time looking around the gentoo penguin colony there, and there were some nice Weddell seals onshore as usual.  After getting everyone ashore I headed off and explored the coastline a little on my own to see what I could find, but didn’t find too much so headed back to the ship to see if the lep seal was still there...he was and so was another.  So I tried photographing the two of them, with not a great deal of success, but got a couple of keepers.  They then headed off and towards the penguin colonies, so I headed in and kept an eye out, but although I saw at least one of them just off shore from the main penguin highway, I didn’t see any real action.  Before too long people were heading back to the ship, so it was back to work.

Icicles galour

New snow on berg

Bring that zodiac closer...a leopard seal yawns

In the brash

Feeding humpback

More killer whales

A male

Leopard seal taking a breath

Leopard seal

We finished up around 1630 with everyone having had an great final landing, and then headed northwards as we began our voyage back to Ushuaia.  Sad to be leaving the Antarctic for another season it ws time to try and catch up on some photo editing.  However, on the way towards the South Shetlands we had another killer whale sighting, with a small pod of 2-3 animals.  So FOUR killer whale sightings during the cruise – with two of them being 15 minute plus observations of 25+ animals...pretty awesome!

The next two days in the Drake Passage were fairly calm, although the first 12 hours or so sent a few people to their beds.  A few birds were seen with some more light-mantled sooty albatrosses, as well as wandering, grey-headed and black-browed.  I gave a lecture on seabird adaptations on day one, after which my laptop screen died and I had to back everything up and get images for the slideshow together using an external monitor.  What a pain in the butt!  Good ol’ Dell laptops aye!

Back in Ushuaia said good bye to the last group of passengers, the ship, and then again caught up with my good mates Chris Srigley and Rich Pagen, who had had enough of Ushuaia by then.  Headed to the airport just after lunch and everything went pretty smoothly, and despite landing at the wrong airport in Buenos Aires, managed to get across to the International without a hitch and then caught the 0230 flight to Auckland.  Even managed to get on a flight two hours earlier from Auckland to Napier, so literally walked from the International terminal to the Domestic and got on the plane to Napier...sweet!  Except for the heat and humidity in Napier it was great to be home!

No comments:

Post a Comment