Sunday, January 24, 2010

Amazing Antarctica

A Travel Log

Day 1

After 20 hours of sitting in a plane, 40 hours of traveling and two major delays I finally made it to Ushuaia. Ushuaia, also known as Fin del Mundo (The End of the World) is the southernmost city of the world and the closest to the Antarctic Peninsula. One would think not much is going on here, at the end of the world, but far from it, it is bustling with activity, since it is not only the gateway to most Antarctic adventures but also to any trips to Patagonia and the Andes. In winter (our summer) it’s a well known ski area.
TIP: If you click on the images, you can open them in their original size for better viewing.


Ushuaia Street Scene

Ship Wreck

Mural at Ushuaia Port

Beagle Channel View from my Hotel

Day 2 and 3

After another nice stroll through Ushuaia we were getting ready to embark our ship, the Clipper Adventurer, for our Antarctic trip. The route we were about to take is called the “explorers route”, and leads to Antarctica via the Falkland Islands and South Georgia. As we left port, there were tears in my eyes, I have waited so long for this trip and now it was finally going to happen!

Leaving Port

Beagle Channel Impressions


...and Moonrise

View out of my Porthole

Southern Giant Petrel following the ship

Day 4

After two days on sea we finally saw land this morning, the Falkland Islands. The islands are a compact group of more than 740 smaller and bigger islands situated about 400 miles east of Ushuaia. After maneuvering through a beautiful channel we landed in a cove off the coast of Carcass Island. Here I was about to see my first penguins in the wild, a small gathering of Magellanic penguins.

My first Penguin Encounter!

Magellanic Penguins on Carcass Island

But the real highlight came in the afternoon, when we landed at Saunders Island, a bird paradise. The abundance of wildlife is overwhelming!

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Magellanic Penguins coming out of the sea

Flaps down

Black Browed Albatross with Chick

Rockhopper Penguin

Day 5

Today we landed at Port Stanley, the only “city”, with about 2000 inhabitants, on the Falkland Islands. My impression: Very British! During a bus tour to Gypsy Cove we learned that a lot of beaches are still closed due to unexploded land mines from the 1982 Falkland conflict. One wonders, why they haven’t removed them yet. But the Falklanders seem to be in no hurry and for the penguins it actually is a blessing, since there are no tourists invading their space.

Two Magellanic Penguins

Day 6 and 7

At sea, heading towards the penguin Paradise: The South Georgia Islands

Enjoy some views of and from the ship

Day 8

South Georgia

The last two days on sea went by very quickly, but due to the rocking sea, everybody was happy to see the coast of South Georgia this afternoon. South Georgia is an about 100 mile long crescent shaped island located about 900 miles east of the Falkland Islands. Sir Ernest Shackleton and extreme whaling made the island quite famous. Our first stop is Elsehul with great views, penguins and lots of fur seals.

View with Gentoo Penguin

Gentoo Penguin

Fur Seal Pup

Back to the earth

Day 9

This morning we landed at Salisbury Plain, home to about 70.000 breeding pairs of King penguins. A breathtaking experience! The whole plain was covered with penguins, even half of the hill side was occupied. The King penguin has no seasonal breeding cycle, so we were able to see penguins in all different stages, from courting to mating, from a egg in the pouch to being a chick, also molting, swimming and waddling around.

One Penguin

Two Penguins

Four Penguins

A Lot of Penguins

In the afternoon we went to Fortuna Bay, a 4 mile long fjord leading into the rugged interior of the island. Fur Seals and King Penguins rule the beaches here. We were very fortunate to observe and of course photograph a very cute isabelline (blonde) fur seal pup.

Kissing Fur Seal Pups

While photographing the penguins, I suddenly heard a noise much like hoof stamping and surprised outcries of other photographers. Turning around I almost got run over by a small herd of reindeer. Reindeer in the Antarctic? Whalers introduced reindeer from Norway for meat and sport in 1911. There is now a population of about 2000 reindeer in South Georgia, and a few of them just happened to be at Fortuna Bay.

Day 10

Can you imagine half a million King Penguins in one place? That would be St. Andrews Bay. We got very lucky with the weather as the landing side is not easily accessible. We ventured out very early in the morning to avoid the stronger winds. The reward was instantaneous! In addition to the unimaginable number of penguins, St. Andrews Bay is also a hot spot for Elephant Seals. We even saw a Leopard Seal! In the middle of our landing, I just sat down and tried to take all this in, to keep this moment forever in my mind. This was nature at it’s purest.

A Picture...

...and it's making

Leopard Seal

From this happy and lively place, we then went to a grisly and sad place of history: The whaling station Grytviken. Grytviken was once the hub of the South Atlantic Whaling industry for over 60 years. It was founded in 1904 and more than 50.000 whales got slaughtered here during it’s active time. Sir Ernest Shackleton's grave is located at the nearby whalers’ cemetery.


Penguins taking over again

Sometimes even I fall for the typical tourist photo

Sir Ernest Shackleton's grave

Day 11

The morning of our last day in South Georgia we spent at Gold Harbour, which lies on the southeast corner of South Georgia. Gold Harbour is home to about 50.000 King Penguins, and Elephant Seals again dominate the beach. The Bertrab Glacier, hanging over vertical cliffs, forms a stunning background.

King Penguin Rookery

King Penguins

Two Elephant Seals playfighting

Cooper Bay, our afternoon destination, is the only Macaroni Penguin colony that is accessible by boat on the South Georgia Islands. After climbing up a steep tussock grass covered hill, we were rewarded with a close insight into the colony.

A stray Chinstrap Penguin

One way to end a conversation

Day 12 and 13

En-Route to Antarctica

After these absolute amazing landings we were back at sea, this time heading for our final destination: The Antarctic continent. A journey into a different world. It didn't really get dark anymore, whale blows could be seen in the distance and the first icebergs came into view.

The black dots are penguins...

Day 14

South Shetland Islands

Cruising through an alley of wonderfully shaped icebergs we reached Elephant Island this morning. Landing at Point Wild, a hostile site, comprised of a long narrow ridge of boulders under high, vertical cliffs, brings us again close to history: It was at this point were Shackleton's party sought refuge after the Endurance sank. Twenty two men survived here, living under a lifeboat, while Shackleton and two companions sailed to South Georgia for help. The stranded sailors were led by Frank Wild, hence the name Point Wild. After 4 months Shackleton returned to rescue his men. A bronze bust has been placed here to honor the captain of the rescue ship, Luis Pardo Villalon. Standing here, on a sunny Antarctic summer day in all our high tech outdoor gear, and still shivering of cold, makes it almost inconceivable how these men survived for months in the Antarctic winter.

Mariano, our history guide, took this photo at our landing today, showing Shackletons men waving good bye to Shackleton almost hundred years ago, exactly at the site we landed at.

Cape Petrels aka Pintado Petrels

Since we have now long days our second landing today was actually after dinner. From 9 pm to 11 pm we visited Penguin Island, a small volcano island populated by Weddell Seals, Giant Brown Petrels and Chinstrap, Gentoo and Adelie penguins.

Gentoo, Chinstrap and Adelie Penguin

Adelie Penguin

Chinstrap Penguin

Weddell Seal

Day 15

For many of us today was one of the absolute highlights of the trip: at Latitude 63º 31’ S South and Longitude 56 º 52’ W West, at Brown Bluff, we stepped on the Antarctic continent. I believe there was not one among the travelers who was not spellbound by natures stark beauty. The 2225 feet high brown bluff, an exposed section of a glacial volcano, is home to countless petrels, while Adelie and Gentoo penguins populate the beaches. And all that is surrounded by beautifully shaped icebergs of all forms and sizes.

Adelie Penguin with Chick

Penguins hitting the water. They always wait until a certain number of penguins is assembled, before they dive in. Safety in numbers!

Gentoo Penguin with 2 Chicks

After this mind boggling outing, the wind started to pick up. Nevertheless we had one more Zodiac cruise through the wonder world of ice in the Erebus and Terror Gulf, named for HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, two British ships, who explored Antarctic waters in 1842-43, before the katabatic winds, coming down from the glaciers, forced us back to the ship.

Katabatic Winds blowing down from a glacier

This evening we got treated with an outside BBQ, view of icebergs included. Yes, it was freezing cold, but hey, have you ever had a BBQ in the Antarctic?

View from our outdoor BBQ table

Day 16

Fleeing from the wind, we were heading for Gourdin Island which lies very close to the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. We had to approach the island carefully, since due to it’s location the landing site is unprotected from the wild sea. But we were rewarded with close access to a huge Adelie penguin rookery and lots of Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins, AND a breathtaking smell…..If you wonder about the pinkish color of the rocks, yep it’s guano!

Adelie with Chick

Two Adelie Penguins

Colony "in Pink"

Adelie Penguin feeding her chick

Again strong winds made an afternoon landing impossible, so we took course toward the famous Deception Island.

Day 17

“Deception Island (62°57'S, 60°38'W) is one of the most incredible islands on the planet. It is an active volcano in the South Shetland Islands, off the Antarctic Peninsula. Its unique landscape comprises barren volcanic slopes, steaming beaches and ash-layered glaciers. It has a distinctive horse-shoe shape with a large flooded caldera. This opens to the sea through a narrow channel at Neptune's Bellows, forming a natural sheltered harbour. It is one of the only places in the world where vessels can sail directly into the centre of a restless volcano.”

We were looking very much forward to land on the outside of Deception Island, to visit Baily Head on the west side of the island which holds one of the world's largest chinstrap rookeries. Unfortunately our luck with the weather had run out, due to the strong winds we couldn’t even sail into caldera. We did however do a little Zodiac cruise around the outside of Deception Island to see the Chinstrap colonies. Since the swell was quite high, I did not dare to bring my good camera along, but instead took a little movie with my G9. Watch it only if you are not prone to seasickness...;-)

After this rough but exciting outing, we had to say good bye to Antarctica and set course for Ushuaia.

Day 18 and 19

Crossing the Drake Passage was our last Antarctic experience, and for some not a pleasant one. The passage can either be a Drake lake or a Drake shake, we had the shake! With waves in averaging 9 meters (27 feet) we had a blast. Moving around the ship was challenging, at the dining table we had an extraordinary view: either only ocean, or only horizon. Time to put the camera away? No way, the bow splashes were just too much fun. On the afternoon of day 19 we sailed around the infamous Cape Horn and enjoyed a beautiful sunset back in the Beagle Channel.

Amazing Splashes engulf the Bow

Cape Horn

Day 20

At two a clock this morning the pilot for the channel came on board and guided the Clipper Adventurer back to the Ushuaia port. Unfortunately it was now time to say good bye to our home away from home and to all the new friends we made on this incredible journey.

Sailing into the Ushuaia Port

The heaving line has been tossed. That's it, the trip is over...

At this point I want to thank: my family, who held the home front, so that I could enjoy this adventure. My good friend Daisy, who helped making this dream come true. My roomie Kim, who was enormous fun to be around with. Trevor, the never ending source of surprises and great travel companion. The crew and especially the Expedition staff of the Clipper, who did an absolute fantastic job. And last but not least Canon Professional Services for loaning me the camera most of the images you saw here were taken with.