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Blue ice hole



Antarctica, South Georgia, The Falkland Islands & Argentina

29 January – 21 February 2003

A Personal Diary by Richard Coomber


Wednesday, 29 January

‘The north wind doth blow and we shall hath snow’. Well the north wind was blowing hard on a bright January afternoon when the annual Ornitholidays’ party to Antarctica assembled at Heathrow for the flight to Buenos Aires via Paris. We would have to wait a few days for the snow! More or less on time, our Air France A320 thundered down the runway on the first leg of our adventure.

Time was tight for our connection on arrival in Paris, so it was a help to find an Air France representative waiting to escort us across to our gate in one of the other terminals, where other passengers were already boarding our flight. We were not the last late arrivals and consequently our Air France 777 left at midnight, 35 minutes late.

Thursday, 30 January

Our flight through the night went smoothly and we made up lost time en route arriving in Buenos Aires on schedule. We were soon through the formalities and reunited with our luggage, much to everyone’s relief, although it was a cliff-hanger as most of our bags were amongst the last off the aircraft – last on, first off does not apply to Air France!

We were met by our guide, German, and taken to our city centre hotel where we had time to refresh and relax before lunch. After a siesta, he returned with the bus to take us to Costenera Sur, the ecological reserve in the city that has fascinated many Ornitholidays parties before us. The reserve is a superb wetland where broad tree and bush-lined embankments separate large lagoons. It varies from year to year for when I was last there with a group, 14 months ago, the two main lagoons were dry and overgrown, now they are full of water and their surface dotted with swans!

On leaving the bus we began walking towards the entrance, but as so often happens here we made little progress, being waylaid by views of grebes, wildfowl, coots and so on. Even something as straightforward as a coot ceases to be so in this part of South America. We began with White-winged Coot, before discovering Red-gartered Coot, which turned out to be the most numerous of the species we were to see there and during the latter part of the afternoon we found the third species – Red-fronted. Along the way we had watched a host of new birds – bewildering in some ways, as a new continent often is, but familiar at the same time as many of the new species belonged to familiar bird families. Just over 60 species in about three hours was pretty good considering the heat and the fact that we were not running at 100% after the long flight from Europe.

We had excellent views of many species through both binocs and the telescopes. White-tufted was the most numerous grebe, often there were chicks with their parents. Next came Pied-billed, the most widespread New World grebe and finally we saw the elegant Great Grebe. Both Black-necked and Coscoroba Swans were common on the lagoons, particularly the former with some 250+ being seen. Wildfowl were scattered across the lagoons and around the margins and recalled the South American pen at a Wildfowl and Wetlands centre – with Silver Teal, Rosy-billed Pochard and Lake Duck being the commonest ducks. Not everything had webbed feet or swam – soon after arriving we found Rufous Hornero, Argentina’s industrious national bird, and scarlet-headed Yellow-billed Cardinals. The Gray-breasted Martins seen at the airport were replaced by Brown-breasted Martins and out over the lagoons hawked White-rumped Swallows. As we worked our way amongst the bushes and trees that lined the embankment we saw Green Kingfisher, Green-barred (Golden-breasted race) Woodpecker and our first hummingbird – Glittering-bellied Emerald. Great Kiskadees called against the background sound of traffic reminding us that we were near the heart of a vibrant city, but what a wonderful wildlife area. Given time and space one could mention so much more, but it wasn’t all birds for Coypu swam across the lagoons and Hilary’s Side-necked Turtles were hauled out on fallen tree-trunks. Colourful butterflies such as West Indian Buckeye flitted from one scented blossom to another and being near water there were of course dragonflies and damselflies.

The afternoon flew by and rather than retrace our steps German called the bus driver to meet us at another entrance to return us to our hotel to freshen up before dinner.

Friday, 31 January

Hot and sunny with northerly breeze. 35ºC

We had breakfast at 6am and a 6.40am departure was not as bad as it seemed for our body clocks were still on European time. We headed out of Buenos Aires on the Pan-American Highway before turning off along a road that would have eventually led us to Uruguay, but instead we visited the superb wetland reserve of Otamendi. It was largely reedbeds over which floated Long-winged Harriers and Chimango Caracaras. Snail Kites beat slowly along unseen channels dropping to grasp an apple snail, which they would take to a favoured feeding perch. We also saw Southern Caracara, a recent split from the Crested Caracara of North and Central America and a White-tailed Kite.

As we arrived we saw our first Cattle Tyrants, Saffron Yellow-Finch and Great Pampa-Finch, but it was two local specialities that German was keen to show us. Of the two species of reedhaunter - Straight-billed is the hardest to see and as luck would have it, that was the first one we saw. It frequents the tallest reeds and on hearing German’s playback one came right in and climbed a reed only a few yards away to perch in full view. The Curve-billed Reedhaunter inhabits the shorter reeds, but tends to respond from cover, although once located we watched it through the scope.

Birds were appearing or flying over all the time and surprisingly there was relatively little overlap from yesterday. One of the commonest species was Monk Parakeet with noisy parties flying over or feeding in bushes out in the marsh. It was often a case of where did one look next - upwards for a party of Bare-faced Ibis (no feet extending beyond tail) or White-faced Ibis (feet extending well beyond the tail), or looking into a small bush for a female Checkered Woodpecker, or searching the canopy of a roadside tree for an elusive Diademed Tanager. All the time it was getting hotter and by 10.15am the bird activity was beginning to tail off, so we returned to the main road and continued towards Ceibas, where we were due to have our picnic lunch. After crossing two large suspension bridges we reached ranching country, where in wet fields and marshes we saw our first Maguari Storks, a species that bears a striking resemblance to the White Stork of Europe. However Southern Screamer has no European counterpart, for the family is confined to South America. They are large heavily built birds, the size and shape of a large goose, but with a short neck. They don’t have webbed feet and their beaks would suggest a chicken somewhere in their ancestry, yet they are in fact aberrant wildfowl - very aberrant!

Being too early for lunch we drove a few kilometres further, where in wet fields screamers numbered in their hundreds, our first Roseate Spoonbills glowed rose-pink and Maguari Storks searched for food. Parties of Wattled Jacanas lifted from pools with a flash of their primrose-coloured wings as one of the many Snail Kites hovered overhead, searching for a snail not a jacana, and although there were signs of the apple snails, there were no Limpkins, another species that feeds on the snail. In the distance four Greater Rheas grazed in a drier area, in fact if they had been much further away they would probably have been in Uruguay!

In fact it was not far to the estancia where we enjoyed an excellent picnic lunch in the shade of tall trees not far from the main house, which Stan chose as a subject to paint. In the cool we did the checklist, but it was not without interruptions – first for Spot-winged Pigeons, then a waddling White-tipped Dove, White-fronted Woodpecker and then a Narrow-billed Woodcreeper – at least these distractions appeared in systematic order! Before we set off birding again in the bus we watched a wintering Swainson’s Hawk drift across overhead and then in an area of rough pasture beyond some outbuildings James and Mik found an immaculate White Monjita perched chat-like on a bush. It might look like a chat, but it is yet another tyrant-flycatcher.

We took to the road beyond the estancia and on a small pool discovered a small party of Ringed Teal – three males and two females. It was a new species for all of us, being one of the two remaining South American waterfowl that have eluded me. Now for Brazilian Merganser…………. The area produced a number of interesting birds – smart Field Flickers are the large woodpeckers of open ranching country in this part of the world. In bushes along the track we found Chotoy Spinetail and Little Thornbird as well as a relatively huge Savannah Hawk perched further away near a pond that held a pair of Brazilian Duck. At 4 p.m. we headed back towards Buenos Aires, stopping en route for two Giant Wood-Rails near the road before we left the wetlands behind us.

It was just over two hours driving time to get back to the hotel, where a refreshing shower was most welcome before dinner and an early night. Tomorrow another chapter in our adventure would begin.

Saturday, 01 February

The weather was mixed today. Torrential rain and almost continuous thunder and lightning in Buenos Aires. Sunny and breezy at Bariloche and El Calafate, whilst at Ushuaia it was much cooler and overcast.

German and George arrived on time to take us from the hotel to the domestic airport, only 10-15 minutes drive away. With a thunderstorm raging and torrential rain the city’s normally bustling streets were quiet. The rain seemed just as heavy when we came to take off at 10.00am, some 25 minutes late. Our flight to Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego was rather a circuitous one. Instead of being two sides of a triangle, it was three sides of an oblong with stops at Bariloche and El Calafate en route.

Just over two hours later we landed at Bariloche in the Andean foothills close to the Chilean border and almost due west of Buenos Aires. While we were on the ground James saw Chimango Caracaras displaying. We left again at 12.45pm heading south to El Calafate, another town near the Andes on the shores of milky-blue Lago Argentino, whose sediment-laden waters are fed by several glaciers including the beautiful Merino Glacier.

On landing eventually at Ushuaia, we were reunited with our luggage and met Marcelo, our guide for our time in the area before joining the World Discoverer tomorrow. On checking-in at Hotel Tolkeyen, situated on the shores of the Beagle Channel, only James and Mik joined Marcelo to explore the valley below the Martial Glacier, finding White-throated Caracara (4), Bar-winged Cinclodes, Dark-faced Ground-Tyrant and Yellow-bridled Finch.

The rest of us enjoyed walking near the hotel with Kelp and Upland Geese along the shore and loafing Flightless Steamer-Ducks sharing a gravel bar with Crested Ducks, a pair of Yellow-billed Pintails, and Dolphin and Kelp Gulls. Out in the Beagle Channel Black-browed Albatrosses and Sooty Shearwaters streamed by over the choppy waters. Inland we saw Austral Thrushes and White-crested Elaenias in the trees behind the hotel as well as several Chilean and a Blue-and-white Swallow hawking insects in the shelter of a belt of conifers along the side of a stream. A group of unsuccessful local fishermen tried to get us to sample the blue berries of the Calafate bush. Judging by the bitter taste, these locals weren’t very good at picking berries either! When we looped around to the shore, Patricia found our first Austral Negrito. The weather brightened during the evening, providing us with a good sunset as the kitchen provided a family of Southern Caracaras with their supper too.

Sunday, 02 February

A dull start, but soon becoming sunny and glorious for our exploration of Tierra del Fuego National Park. 14ºC

Those out before breakfast saw many of the species seen yesterday, but with calmer conditions out in the Beagle Channel there were fewer albatrosses and shearwaters.

After breakfast Marcelo arrived and soon we were aboard the bus and heading towards the Tierra Fuego National Park, but barely 200 yards from the hotel we stopped to look at Rufous-chested Dotterel feeding on the shore with a Baird’s Sandpiper. Marcelo also took delight in pointing out Flying Steamer-Ducks, amongst the more numerous Flightless ones.

On entering Tierra Fuego National Park we soon started seeing birds for Marcelo had learned a trick or two since I first birded with him in 1993. Playing the call of Austral Pygmy-Owl was one and soon, not only were we seeing the passerines attracted by the call, but the small owl itself perched on a bare branch at the top of a dead tree. We hadn’t gone much further before the sun appeared and in a broad open area with a craggy mountainous skyline, we saw a magnificent Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle and soon after our first Andean Condors appeared high above. They turned out to be the first of eight or nine recorded during the day.

As we drove along the river that flowed into Lago Roca, we stopped to check the wildfowl along the opposite bank and found a resting Spectacled Duck, one of the less common South American wildfowl sought by birders. The riverside Nothofagas woodland was most productive for soon we found another of the day’s target birds - the superb Magellanic Woodpecker. The first was a scarlet-headed male, seen very well as it hammered away in a tree just above us. Some 10-15 minutes later we found the female nearby, perhaps even more confiding and showing her curly black crest well. The woods produced Austral Parakeets, grey-headed Patagonian Sierra-finches and Thorn-tailed Rayadito, a tiny Furnarid that combines the agility of both Treecreeper and Nuthatch. On reaching the lake we found a number of attractive Yellow Orchids growing amongst Calafate bushes and nearby watched a hunting fox. It was a beautiful grey and chestnut-orange animal, which I thought at the time was an Argentinean Grey Fox, but on checking the books on my return home I realised it was the larger and more colourful Copleo Fox.

Back-tracking a few kilometres we turned towards Lapataia, but stopped on the banks of the river for lunch, where we attracted inquisitive Rufous-collared Sparrows as we had a sumptuous picnic in the warm sunshine. On the river was a pair of Great Grebes and as we set off on a walk across to a nearby bay, we found a Fire-eyed Diucon, another of the myriad of tyrant-flycatchers. After walking by an inlet we climbed a rocky knoll overlooking the next bay in one direction and looking into a substantial stand of Nothofagas woodland in another. Marcelo imitated the call of Magellanic Horned Owl and suddenly there it was, or minutes later there they were, for it was the classic two-bird scenario, with some of the group looking at one and the rest looking at the second. For a while everyone thought they were looking at the same bird!

The bay at Lapataia is beautiful and on a sunny and almost windless day like today was perfect. As we walked towards the shore a Tufted Tit-Spinetail searched the twigs and branches of a stunted bush for insects, whilst on the high ridge above Marcelo spotted a resting Guanaco, the larger of the two wild species of South American camelids. More surprising was the Black-browed Albatross watched by James and Mik as it sailed along the ridge apparently heading inland, but at 2,000 feet or higher, it could probably see the next bay along the coast! Along the shore were several families of Flightless Steamer-Ducks, but one pair in particular attracted Marcelo’s attention – the female looked just like a female Falklands Steamer-Duck! Well if she was, she had swum a long way. Ideally we should have tried to get closer and taken notes for it might be a new record for Argentina (that is assuming that the Union Jack will always fly over Stanley!), but time was against us and we had a ship to join. We left Lapataia at 2.50pm and drove straight to the hotel where we collected our luggage and then went down to the town to join the World Discoverer. We were aboard by 4.10 p.m., well ahead of the bulk of the passengers who didn’t arrive until 5.30pm.

All the group were on the Observation deck at 7pm when we cast-off, but it was several minutes before we slipped out into the Beagle Channel with a deafening blast of the ship’s horn. There was no chance to watch Ushuaia disappear into the distance for the mandatory safety briefing required compulsory attendance. Dinner followed with a calm passage through the Beagle Channel on our first night at sea.

Monday, 03 February

Overcast with a northerly breeze f3-4. The temperature at 9am was 9ºC with a sea temperature of 8ºC. By noon the air temperature had risen to 10ºC and sea had dropped to 7ºC.

The morning began with an expedition briefing and then one on zodiac landings. In the afternoon there was an English lecture on the Falklands by Jeremy Smith, whose enthusiasm for his subject was highly infectious.

Wandering Albatross

Wandering Albatross

For the birders there were new birds of course. We had just one Wandering Albatross all day, but several Royals of both the Northern and Southern subspecies. Black-browed Albatrosses were quite numerous and we might well have seen more than the 60 noted - equally there might have been less with repeat appearances! Southern Giant-Petrels were the commonest large tubenoses with at least 100 noted and with them we found at least two Northerns with their red and not green tipped bills. Shearwaters were scarce with just a single Great and about 20 Sooties, but prions on the other hand ran into hundreds – mainly Slender-billed, but Mik and I also saw about ten Fairy Prions during a brief spell. During the day we saw our first two Cape Petrels or Pintados and some ten White-chinned Petrels, whose white chins seem virtually impossible to see! Wilson’s Storm-Petrels were abundant and frequently one could see half a dozen or more scattered back along the wake. Early in the morning we saw a single Magellanic Diving-Petrel and later three single Common Diving-Petrels were seen, skimming the waves like re-located auklets. No birds other than tubenoses were seen today.

Apart from a lone South American Sea-Lion, the only mammals recorded were a pod of Orcas during the afternoon. The tall dorsal fin of the bull showed well and tucked in amongst the group was a quite a small youngster. They entertained us for some time, giving excellent views as Captain Kruess matched the World Discoverer’s speed to theirs. Highlights were numerous displays of breeching.

We soon became accustomed to life at sea with its round of lectures during days at sea and the evening recap sessions in the Discoverer Lodge, which this evening was followed a little later by the Captain’s Welcome Cocktail Party and Welcome Dinner at which Stan and Pauline, and Nigel and Kay, were on the Captain’s table!

The sea was still being kind to us and tomorrow we should be arriving in the Falklands at daybreak.

Tuesday, 04 February

Glorious morning after early low clouds cleared for our visit to West Point Island, but became overcast as we headed for Carcass Island and remained so for the rest of the day. 13ºC

As we approached the island of West Point Sooty Shearwaters and Black-browed Albatrosses were still passing and as we neared the shore, both Rock and King Cormorants were seen. South American Terns beat up and down and a party of five Brown-hooded Gulls flew overhead. South American Sea Lions rested on a wave-cut platform exposed beneath low cliffs topped by tussac. In the sea and on the slopes above we saw our first Magellanic Penguins. Rand was also up early and found two Grey-backed Storm-Petrels on the Observation Deck, two more were found in the swimming pool and later three more were discovered huddled in a corner on one of the other decks. It was a new fondle tick and the opportunity to see these small tubenoses at close range. In the hand they seemed larger than expected, but when released they soon ‘shrank’ to their normal size - tiny!

By the time we went ashore soon after 8am the sun was out, the sky was blue and it was really warm - the Falklands don’t get any better than this. By the time we hiked up over the hill to Devil’s Nose, it was like a personal sauna inside our red parkas. We walked over grassy fields between diddle-dee topped hills to reach the head of a shallow valley that led towards tussac-lined cliffs. With relative ease we found a family of Grass Wrens that inquisitively climbed the grass stems to investigate pishing and thus showed very well. The small stream was lined with Wild Celery and Patricia reported that Native Strawberry (Rubus geoides) tasted better than Calafate berries - not surprising really. As we neared the cliffs, and therefore the sea, Black-browed Albatrosses wheeled in the blue sky above the colonies they shared with Rockhopper Penguins. Both species had well-grown, but still down-covered young, so there were superb views of interaction between parents and offspring - a photographer’s dream.

Afterwards we made our way back to the settlement for tea and cookies, whilst some, included John and Patricia, climbed Mt. Ararat and saw Correndera Pipit. Tea in the Napier’s farmhouse was excellent. Outside Dark-faced Ground-tyrants flitted around just beyond the garden, which was filled with the heady scent of the prolific honeysuckle bushes and in the bay below Peale’s Dolphins cavorted around the zodiacs as they ferried satisfied passengers back to the World Discoverer.

Afterwards we set sail for nearby Carcass Island, one of the islands visited annually during Ornitholidays’ tour to the Falklands. There were two landing parties - the walkers at Leopard Bay and the less energetic on the beach below the settlement at Port Pattison. On the sandy beach at Leopard Bay were our first Gentoo Penguins, but it was distressing to see that the nearby colony, thriving last November, was empty and their copses lined the tideline of Port Pattison. Toxins from a red-tide algae bloom are thought to have caused the high mortality rate. We left the beach and crossed to Port Pattison passing breeding Brown Skuas and grazing parties of both Ruddy-headed and Upland Geese. Nearby, in the dunes, was a female Black-throated Finch and a couple of extremely confiding Paraguayan Snipe. On the beach across the neck we came on Cobb’s Wrens, searching for food, mouse-like, amongst the seaweed, stones and yellow-flowered Sea Cabbage (Senecio candicans). We then walked towards the settlement above the cliffs, passing the deserted Gentoo colony, and further on a now empty Striated Caracara’s nest. Nearby the parents and their three offspring stood around near the clifftop waiting for the cameras. On the shore were Blackish and Magellanic Oystercatchers, families of Kelp Geese, whose goslings were just beginning to moult their down and in the bay was another small pod of Peale’s Dolphins.

The other landing party went straight into Port Pattison after the World Discoverer had sailed around a headland to reposition in the bay. They found more Tussacbirds, wrens, Long-tailed Meadowlarks, Austral Thrushes and some delightful Black-chinned Siskins – such are the benefits of a rat and cat free island! At the farmhouse Rob McGill and Auntie Agnes had laid out a sumptuous tea - the scones topped with cream and jam were very more-ish!

On returning to the World Discoverer, we set sail for Stanley, the islands’ capital on East Falkland. We passed between Sedge and Saunder’s Island, where we saw dozens and dozens of Black-browed Albatrosses from the extensive colonies along the latter’s north coast, before heading to the north of Pebble Island. Wandering Albatrosses and both races of Royal were also seen. Sooty Shearwaters were common and there were good numbers of Slender-billed Prions, Wilson’s Storm-Petrels and a few White-chinned Petrels.

Birds were still around as darkness fell, but the only one known to come aboard was a single Grey-rumped Storm-Petrel seen by Mik before midnight.

Wednesday, 05 February

A mild and wet start with northerly f3 blowing, veering westerly and increasing to f7 during the morning as the weather brightened to give a beautiful afternoon and sunset. 13ºC.

We were woken at 5.30am as we entered Stanley Harbour, but it was raining and the clouds were right down on the hills. Carefully the World Discoverer made her way through the narrows and edged her way to the FIPASS jetty, where we tied up alongside and the gangplank lowered.

The first bus took a ‘city’ tour that included Stanley Airport and various other local sights that included Kay’s Cottage and its multitude of gnomes. By the time the rest disembarked the rain had ceased and the sun was beginning to break through the clouds as the wind swung round to the west and rose to about f7 in the space of about 30 minutes. Tied up at the jetty the World Discoverer was fine, but a huge 1,000+ passenger cruise ship, the Wyndham, had to recall her passengers and sail away as she was reported to be (or was in danger of) dragging her anchor. Imagine the chaos in town as their cruise staff and helpers rounded up 1,000 passengers hell bent on retail therapy. Imagine too the disappointment of the shopkeepers when they succeeded. By the time the round-up was completed, the weather began to improve! By then, however, it was too late to reverse the procedure. C’est la vie!

For us there were plenty of shops to visit, stamps to buy and postcards to write and send - 40p for a stamp to the UK was much better value than the $1.50 charged by the ship to stick on a stamp and mail it. Needless to say the shops did a roaring trade in T-shirts, sweat-shirts and soft toy penguins.

Some of the group opted for an excellent buffet lunch in the Upland Goose, others returned to base. In the afternoon as the sun shone, Mik, James, Patricia and John took up the optional climb of Mt. Tumbledown from Moody Brook - names familiar from the 1982 Conflict. They had a great walk with wonderful views as Klemens and Jeremy added interest with explanations at various sites. Birds recorded included Southern Caracara, Rufous-chested Dotterel, Correndera Pipits (20) and Black-throated Finches.

Near the ship South American Sealions were hauled out near the dock complex and I saw three Commerson’s Dolphins from the linkspan, but in spite of rushing back aboard to fetch Stan and Pauline, and later Nigel, Kay and Tim when they returned from town, we failed to relocate them. Along the shore Kelp Geese fed, Falkland Steamer-Ducks dabbled, and Dark-fronted Ground-Tyrant and Long-tailed Meadowlark were also noted.

By 5pm everyone was back on board and we sailed for South Georgia at 5.10pm. As we headed out of the narrow entrance to Port William, we started to see Magellanic Penguins on the sandy beaches and towards the ocean; a lone Brown-hooded Gull crossed the bow to the delight of those who missed the previous sightings. Black-browed Albatrosses, Southern Giant Petrels and Wilson’s Storm-Petrels began to appear in increasing numbers, conversely Kelp Gulls and South American Terns soon tailed off. Wandering Albatross and both Northern and Southern races of Royal Albatross joined the smaller Black-browed Albatrosses and Southern Giant-Petrels at the wake. Towards sunset we saw a dark albatross. From the uniform colouring across the wings and back we decided it was an immature Antipodean Albatross. Head-on its white face and pink bill contrasted with the overall brown plumage in the evening light. We were also seeing numbers of Sooty Shearwaters and a few Great Shearwaters. This evening we had a glorious sunset over the sea as the last hills of East Falkland disappeared on the horizon. If the weather holds tomorrow should be a good day for the sea-watchers.

Thursday, 06 February

Fine in the morning, but foggy throughout the afternoon and evening caused by a warm nor’-westerly over the cool sea. At noon the air temperature was 8ºC and sea was 6ºC.

When Mik, the first of the party outside this morning, arrived there were a few albatrosses and petrels around. Apart from a break for breakfast and stopping when the fog became too thick for birding at lunchtime, we had the stern covered all morning. Those watching for cetaceans at the bow added little to our tally summaries below.

























Magellanic Penguin



Wandering Albatross








Southern Royal Albatross






Black-browed Albatross








Northern Giant-Petrel






Southern Giant-Petrel







Giant-Petrel sp



Atlantic Petrel




Soft-plumaged Petrel






White-chinned Petrel








Great Shearwater








Sooty Shearwater





Wilson’s Storm-Petrel








Black-bellied Storm-Petrel







White-bellied Storm-Petrel





Diving-Petrel sp.



Brown Skua







Table 1: Seabirds recorded during the morning of 6 February

13:00 hrs Position - S52º28'24'' W50º37'13''. 271 nautical miles from Stanley. The visibility was so poor between 1pm and 3pm that nothing was seen other than the ethereal shapes of the occasional Wanderer or giant-petrel.

15:00 hrs Position - S52º33'31'' W49º50'30'' 300 nautical miles from Stanley. Visibility still very poor - barely half a mile at best. We saw another Magellanic Penguin a long way from home and also recorded Wandering Albatross (1), Soft-plumaged Petrel (1) and Black-bellied Storm-Petrel during the period.

16:20 hrs Position - S52º37'03'' W49º19'56'' 321 nautical miles from Stanley. Visibility was variable, but still generally poor, but there were birds about. In a flurry of activity, either a Kerguelen Petrel or a dark-morph Soft-plumaged Petrel passed close alongside with a Soft-plumaged Petrel. The visibility was so poor that John and I just saw it as a dark Pteradroma disappearing rapidly into the fog. Others in the party had taken a brief tea-break, but on the other hand they saw the first Blue Petrel and soon after the first Antarctic Prions. Other birds seen during the period included:- Soft-plumaged Petrel (5), Southern Royal (1) and Wandering (1) Albatross, White-chinned Petrel (1) and Northern Giant-Petrel (1). Captain Kruess reported another Atlantic Petrel from the bridge.

17:15 hrs Position - S52º38'58'', W 48º57'51''. Visibility still poor. With barely any swell it came as a surprise when the ship hit something with a judder, seconds later there was a second juddering from the stern and to the horror of those birding at the stem, the wake turned red with blood. The dreadful reality was that we had hit a whale. Mik and I saw a large carcass (more than 25 feet long) on the surface before I ran to inform the bridge. We turned and back tracked finding only a large piece of skin (with dorsal fin) and blubber, about 8-10 feet long, on the surface. The bulk of the animal appeared to have sunk. The crew and staff surmised that a whale was surfacing just as we passed over. Perhaps it was stunned by the bow and could not have avoided the propeller. In all Captain Kruess’ years at sea, with many voyages into whale-frequented waters, this was the first time he had had anything like this happen. We watched the first tubenoses arrive - two Wanderers, two Soft-plumaged Petrels and a White-chinned Petrel, before resuming our journey. Perhaps if it was not so foggy more birds would have been following the ship and we would have seen more activity.

The event put a dampener on the end of the day, but tomorrow might bring a change in the wind and perhaps no fog. There should be more birds as we come closer to South Georgia, the jewel in the southern ocean. By midnight we were 412 nautical miles from Stanley as the albatross flies (that is if it flew in a straight line!). Our position was S53º17'01'' W 43º24'35''.

Friday, 07 February

Foggy. Air temperature 5ºC. The sea temperature 4ºC at 9am had dropped to 3ºC by noon. The sea by normal standards in this part of the world was still relatively calm. No ocean motion yet!

Mik was first out recording the usual species - Wandering Albatross (2), Southern Giant-Petrel (1), White-chinned Petrel (2), Blue Petrel (1), Antarctic Prion (6), Wilson’s (1) and Black-bellied (4) Storm-Petrels.

09:00 hrs Position - S53º17'49'' W43º16'53''. We had covered 125 nautical miles overnight. Shortly after 9am the fog lifted for about five minutes enabling us to see all of those species seen by Mik, bar the Blue Petrel. Later two King Penguins and a Northern Giant-Petrel were seen.

10:00 hrs Position - S53º20'38'' W 42º52'33''. Visibility 200 yards and nothing in sight.

11.00 hrs Position - S53º23'27'' W42º33'12''. Visibility barely 200 yards and only two Southern Giant-Petrels around the stern.

A disappointing day for birds really, but ‘cheered’ up during the afternoon, when I won the bottle of champagne offered by the captain for spotting the first iceberg. Last year Simon Boyes won the bottle offered on his cruise, when for when he awoke at 5.30am and looked out from his cabin – there it was! This year we were in fog at the time with visibility barely a quarter of a mile. I had noticed ice stretching across our path ahead of the ship and from the bridge one could clearly see it was just a broad band of brash ice, so when another passenger arrived to claim it as the first iceberg he was politely corrected by the captain. It was still a spectacular sight, so I decided to take a photograph from the bridge wing as we passed, but just before pressing the shutter I looked ahead and thought the fog showed an unusual bluish tinge. A look through the binocs showed an enormous iceberg still veiled in fog, which gave me the vital nanoseconds advantage to step back inside the bridge and claim the bottle of bubbly on behalf of Ornitholidays! The iceberg was huge and was part of the vast Larson ice-shelf that broke off a couple of years ago. The edge along which we sailed was over still 5 miles long and being nearly 100 feet high there was no way our radar could determine its full extent. The bridge had, of course, picked it up on the radar thank goodness – perhaps there is still an unclaimed bottle on the Titanic!

Around the iceberg the air was cooler, so therefore there was little or no fog. For the first time for well over 24 hours visibility extended for over a mile, enabling us to see a number of other ’bergs in the immediate area that had calved from our ‘megaberg’. For the first time in days film rolled through cameras and bytes were saved.

As we left the iceberg behind, the fog gradually closed in once more, although perhaps not quite as bad as before. The end of recap was interrupted when a Southern Right Whale was spotted off the bow and for some time gave excellent views. After dinner the Ornitholidays party gathered in the Explorer Lounge to enjoy that extra nightcap on the strength of the iceberg. It was amazing how far one bottle went with the help of a generous barmaid!

Saturday, 08 February

Foggy first thing, then the sun broke through to give a wonderful day. 7ºC with a sea temperature of 4ºC.

We were approaching Salisbury Plain first thing, but unlike its namesake, this plain lies at the feet of snowy-capped mountains and is home to vast numbers of King Penguins. Offshore birds were coming and going from beaches we could barely see, although the sun was becoming evident as we went ashore on the first Zodiacs.

Along the beach, parties of colourful King Penguins waited – about to leave for the sea and or having returned they often preened before waddling off into the depths of the colony that stretched high on the slopes of at least one mountain. The fog was gradually lifting to reveal more and more penguins, their calls and murmurings once muffled by the mist, became clearer. We could see the elegant adults, brown down-covered chicks and others that were moulting from their down into their first grey and white coats. Once clear of the landing beach and the inquisitive Antarctic Fur-Seals, we wandered along the edge of the colony, not venturing closer than the mandatory five metres. Thankfully penguins, seals and other species of Antarctic wildlife do not have to abide by the IAATO guidelines, so out of curiosity (or in the case of the fur-seals, cussedness) they come closer to us and our binoculars and cameras. Once the fascination of a first visit to a large colony sinks in, one takes the time to watch as they preen, turn their eggs, squabble and display to one another. Even in the four and a half hours possible between the first and last Zodiacs was not long enough, as within an hour or so of landing blue sky appeared, the tops of the mountains poked through the fog and soon after the whole of Salisbury Plain was bathed in sunshine. Everything was sharp and crisp in the crystal clear air. Wendy was burning film through her camera, Nigel and Kay were clicking away on their Fuji digitals and Stan attracted attention of the other passengers as he painted away – how he could decide on a particular subject out of so many, I cannot imagine.

It was not just penguins, for we watched patrolling Brown Skuas and Kelp Gulls over the colony, a pair of endemic South Georgia Pintails flew by and a confiding South Georgia Pipit stood on the edge of the colony for all to see. As we wandered further afield, we came across several moulting sub-adult Southern Elephant Seals hauled out several hundred yards from the sea. A pair of Brown Skuas was breeding nearby, but their large downy chick preferred to hide in the vegetation than stay to be photographed.

All too soon our morning had gone and it was time to return to the ship, which had been repositioned before lunch prior to our landing on nearby Prion Island. On such a perfect day it was too good to eat inside, so a number of passengers sat out on the Observation Deck to enjoy the feast of food and scenery. We could see the Wandering Albatrosses on theirs nests on Prion Island, but more were breeding on adjacent Albatross Island, where Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses soared against the cliffs. South Georgia Shags, a split from Imperial along with Antarctic Shag, flew by low over the blue waters.

First off this morning, meant last off this afternoon, which was a pity as I am sure we would all have liked more time on Prion Island with its breath-taking views from the top across to the mountainous mainland of South Georgia and breeding Wanderers in the foreground. It was, however, quite a steep climb up through the muddy gully between the tussac grass, where every so often an Antarctic Fur-Seal would look up to watch our passing with those large doleful eyes – thankfully they kept their distance, but were probably amused at our antics as we ascended to the top of the island. There were several pairs of Southern Giant-Petrels and Wandering Albatrosses in the area we were allowed to explore, for to limit disturbance we were divided into smaller groups. They were magnificent birds and often one could take a break from watching one on a nest to admire an adult or perhaps a fledged youngster wheeling effortlessly overhead on those narrow 12 foot long wings. Again we saw Brown Skuas, South Georgia Pintails and South Georgia Pipits in the area.

Days in this part of the world come no better than today, but it was not over for during the tranquil evening we sailed into Stromness Bay to view the old derelict whaling stations of Leith and Stromness itself. As we sailed slowly along the inlet, the first introduced Reindeer were seen on the grassy and rocky slopes above us. The old stations were now rusting ruins close to the shore at the heads of their respective bays, where the huge oil tanks stood as silent memorials to the terrible destruction of wildlife that took place in these waters during the last century and earlier. Antarctic Fur-Seals and Southern Elephant-Seals lay on the once busy beaches and Reindeer grazed on the broad valley bottom beyond.

Sunday, 09 February

Rain at dawn, becoming brighter by mid-morning and then warm sunshine for the remainder of the day. 6ºC first thing rising to 11ºC by midday. The sea temperature on the other hand dropped from 5ºC at Godthul to 4ºC at Grytviken.

It was raining with low clouds as we arrived at Godthul at first light, where we went ashore and climbed up from the landing beach and the remains of the small whaling station that had last operated in 1929. We passed both fur- and elephant-seals around the landing beach and on the slopes above were several small Gentoo colonies, their offspring now moulting into their first coat of feathers. The largest colony was by a lake that lay at the foot of the mountains that dominated the bay, but with the low clouds it was not possible until the sun broke through to appreciate this. There was a colony of Antarctic Terns on the slopes above the bay and near the Gentoos by the lake; Brown Skuas had bred successfully for their chicks were already in their juvenile plumage of dark chocolate brown. Their parents and perhaps those of other pairs were cleaning up the carcasses of dead penguins near the colony. As we explored further on we saw distant Reindeer and later, as Mik and I walked back towards the ship, a small herd started to run towards us. We cast off our red parkas and crouched down. The Reindeer were unaware we were there, stopping directly between us and the World Discoverer, when they realised Red Penguins were using the valley ahead as a thoroughfare. They turned and trotted back, passing us with their heads held high, before rounding the lake and with 50+, more crossed the hillside beyond.  Further round the bay Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses were circling the cliffs and hillsides.

During the latter part of the morning we sailed back north-west to Grytviken, the capital of South Georgia, inhabited by just four or five people. Again we were treated to perfect conditions; in fact it was the same when I was here five years ago! Unlike my previous visit, when we moored at the old whaling station’s jetty, we moored at the British Antarctic Survey’s jetty. At the head of the bay were the rusting buildings and storage tanks of the old station, which in its heyday was a major industrial complex judging by the remains of the machinery, pipes and the other debris of the whaling industry. The station ran under the control of the Norwegians from 1909 to 1962 and then for a further three years under Japanese control, but by that time whales were so rare in the area that it became no longer viable. According to the Lonely Planet book Antarctica a total of 175,250 whales were caught around South Georgia and processed at one of the seven shore stations in South Georgia. The catch included 41,515 Blues, 87,555 Fins, 26,754 Humpbacks, 15,128 Sei and 3,716 Sperm Whales!

To the dear memory of




15th February 1874

Entered Life Eternal

15th January 1922

The zodiac landing site after lunch was on the beach by the small graveyard across the bay, where amongst the graves are protected from the seals by a white fence.  Here stood a tall granite stone simply inscribed. We gathered around the grave and following an appreciation by Oliver Kruess, we toasted his memory as bemused fur-seals watched – no doubt they had seen it all before.

Around the head of the bay stood the rusting remains of the whaling station, no longer a safe place to enter, so we had a choice either to hike up over a hill to a small reservoir and then down to the church, or around the back of the ruins to the church. The church was simple and in good condition for it had been restored by the Norwegians just over five years ago. From there it was just a few yards to the museum and post office, where many people wrote their cards in the warmth of the afternoon sunshine. A new landing was set up on the beach in front of the museum to ferry the less energetic back to the ship. Alternatively, one could walk around the coast to the BAS base and walk aboard the companionway. This was an excellent option for the light was perfect and we had superb views of a very confiding pair of South Georgia Pintails and a South Georgia Shag. Coupled with several Antarctic Terns and some reasonably well-mannered Antarctic Fur-Seals, there was plenty to watch and photograph on a perfect afternoon.

That evening a special Shackleton dinner was arranged with Todd Pusser playing the part of “The Boss” and Jeremy Smith and Bettina Platten (one of the German lecturers) reading passages about Shackleton between the courses.

Monday, 10 February

Dull almost all day with rain at times, mainly in the morning. Brighter in early evening. 7ºC

After sailing through the night, a brief, but colourful sunrise turned Gold Harbour to gold beneath the arc of a weak rainbow. It did not last and by the time we landed it was raining. Along the grey shore were hundreds of King Penguins and ‘our furry friends’, the Antarctic Fur-Seals. Some are friendlier than others, but their idea of friendship is not ours!

Once ashore on the dark sand beach we walked amongst King Penguins, fur-seals and a few Southern Elephant-Seals, but because of the high density of breeding Kings we not able to penetrate far inland. A stream, coming from the direction of the black cliffs above which hung glaciers, bisected the narrow coastal plain - the perfect place for moulting Kings to cool off! On a fine morning the scenery here is superb, but sadly not today.

A walk was offered from the landing beach to a headland to see Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses breeding on the cliffs. The going was quite steep up a gully from the beach, but on reaching the top, walking became easier as we strode across moorland-type grasses and mosses towards the headland where tussac grew. It was not as dense as we would be encountering in the afternoon, so from the cliffs we could see a Cape Petrel incubating on its ledge. The albatrosses were flying by spasmodically, but to see them better Klemens led us further along the coast and there we saw one on its nest on a grassy ledge. It found shelter from the prevailing wind by facing the cliffs, so its head was hidden from view. The tussocks of tussac were riddled with burrows and from their size, I suspect they belonged to White-chinned Petrels, some of which were seen flying around, but not in the immediate vicinity of our section of cliff-top.

Once back on the World Discoverer we had a sumptuous brunch in the Marco Polo restaurant - the best of breakfast and lunch combined if one could do justice to the choice available!

Following our departure from Gold Harbour we repositioned to the south at Cooper Bay, where our first landing site was the aptly named Fur-Seal Beach, There we had a good hike, with those led by Todd being treated to a delightful ‘blonde’ fur-seal pup. Those following Jeremy climbed to the snowbanks beneath the ridge that crowned the skyline. On returning to the landing we caught another Zodiac across to Macaroni Beach where we walked up a track, skirting our furry friends, towards a colony of Macaroni Penguins nesting in the tussac. They were splendid little fellows, especially one pair engaged in allo-preening their gorgeous golden head plumes. However some of the best views were as we returned in the Zodiacs to the World Discoverer via the penguin’s beach. John Brydson saw the day’s only South Georgia Pipit. The area held the usual Brown Skuas, Snowy Sheathbill and a few pairs of South Georgia Pintails and along the coast South Georgia Shags flew by.

On return to the ship, we set sail for the Drygalski Fjord, a few miles to the south-west. On the way ever-watchful Mik recorded our first Snow Petrels as well as thousands of prions, mainly Antarctic, and dozens of diving-petrels. Most diving-petrels were noticeably dusky on the underwing, but a pair we saw as we turned to enter the fjord were markedly paler on the underwings and the side of the head and were considered to be the local Georgian Diving-Petrel. There is considerable variation and overlap in the appearance of these two species with the Common Diving-Petrel being by far the more plentiful. We also passed some amazing icebergs that gleamed white as if they had just been painted with pure white Dulux gloss.

The captain skilfully sailed to the head of the fjord that ended with a two mile wide wall of ice - the snout of the Drygalski Glacier. The colours in the ice were wonderful with some sections being entirely blue. Along the edge were dozens of Antarctic Terns, Cape Petrels as well as a flock of South Georgia Shags and a handful of Gentoos. The icing on top were the beautiful Snow Petrels that glided by, dipping occasionally to feed on some morsel or another. Those birding from the deck had seen a few before we entered the fjord, but those views were nothing compared with these.

On our return to the open sea, some ocean motion became apparent for the first time when we cleared the shelter afforded by the southern tip of South Georgia, but even then it was relatively mild mannered for our present latitude - the Furious Fifties. And by this time we had our sea legs so no-one was sea-sick.

Tuesday, 11 February

Overcast and cooler, fresh and brightening for a while during the afternoon. 2ºC

06:20 Position - S56º27'32'' W38º35'13'' Not much about first thing - a few icebergs and following the ship was a lone Southern Giant-Petrel. Earlier Mik had seen two White-chinned Petrels and a single Black-browed Albatross.

07:00 Position - S56º34'29'' W38º36'02'' Things started to pick up - Grey-headed Albatross, Cape Petrel, Antarctic Prion (15), Black-bellied Storm-Petrel (1), Common Diving-Petrel (1), White-chinned Petrel (6)

08:00 Position - S56º40'56'' W39º02'21'' Further increase in bird numbers - Wandering Albatross (4), Black-browed Albatross (5), Grey-headed Albatross (1), Northern Giant-Petrel (2), Southern Giant-Petrel (8), Antarctic Prion (5), White-Chinned Petrel (5).

The highlight however was a Common Diving-Petrel found by Stan outside his cabin. Two things struck us - the sky blue legs and the sheer bulk of the bird - they look so small as they hurtle over the waves. Conversely, the waves are probably much larger than we appreciate!

10:00 Position S56º59'19'' W39º31'19 The usual birds were around including additional Grey-headed Albatrosses and Black-bellied Storm-Petrels. However, just as Jeremy was getting into his lecture on Falklands Conservation two Fin Whales appeared off the bow, which disrupted things for 20 minutes or so. The views were fantastic and from the height of the bridge wings or the Observation Deck, we could watch them gliding through the water just beneath the surface. For much of the time they were swimming along our port side, so that their right side, which has the white side to the lower jaw, was facing us. This made it easier for us to see them as they came to the surface. When feeding they use the striking white colouring to bunch their prey of fish etc. and then they approach for the catch using the dark side as camouflage. Todd Pusser pointed out that the olive-grey colouration of their backs came from diatoms. They tired of us before we tired of them, so we resumed our course across the lonely grey wastes of the Southern Ocean with just a handful of giant-petrels for company.

During the remainder of the morning regular visitors to the wake were both giant-petrels, a Wandering Albatross or two and a few Black-browed Albatrosses. Further out White-chinned Petrels and several Grey-headed Albatrosses passed us without deviation. Prions passed in small parties, with those coming close enough to be identified being Antarctic. On the whole birding quietened down, with the odd whale seen blowing in the distance from time to time.

By lunchtime, the weather was brightening and during the afternoon, the sun broke through for three hours or so, until a thin veil of cloud produced a distinct halo that suggested a change coming. Out of the wind conditions were positively balmy, but just around the corner one felt the cutting edge. In the distance we saw some vast platforms of ice, presumably broken from ice-shelves in the Weddell Sea, and then we began to pass numerous smaller, but more spectacular bergs that had calved from the ice-sheet bergs. Their beauty came from the way they had been sculptured by the sea once their centre of gravity had been displaced and from the depths of the blue in the heart of the ice. They looked like galleons from some long lost armada frozen in time. Later the clouds thicken as the wind picked up significantly. Birds increased in numbers, but not variety with 10-15 Cape Petrels following the ship with a similar number of giant-petrels at dusk. There were a few Wilson’s Storm-Petrels about, and with the exception of a Black-browed now and then, the albatrosses had also left us.

There was some swell in the evening, but this World Discoverer is a very stable vessel and we were rocked gently to sleep, in spite of the fact that we were unable to use the stabilising fins because of the ice. During the night fog returned.

Wednesday, 12 February

Grey and foggy at dawn. 2ºC, but the sea was 0ºC Wind n.w. f2-3. During the night we passed many large icebergs, which could be detected by radar, but the smaller ‘growlers’ could not. The handicap of fog and navigating through the growlers by spotlight from the bridge reduced our progress to only five knots, so we lost three hours. We had also crossed Latitude 60º South, so now we are politically in Antarctica. That degree of latitude is the northern limit of the area covered by the 1959 Antarctic Treaty.

The clocks were changed back one hour last night, but the chance of an extra hour’s early morning sea-watching for Mik and myself came to nought as the blanket of fog reduced visibility to 100 yards. Birdwise there were just a few Cape Petrels and Southern Giant-Petrels wheeling over the wake. Devotion to duty rewarded Mik with the first Southern Fulmar of the trip - a paler bird than our species.
chinstrap penguin

Chinstrap Penguins

As we had lost more time overnight the afternoon’s lectures were rescheduled for the morning. The sea was slighter and nearing the South Orkneys, those sea-watching saw increasing numbers of Chinstrap Penguins (or Chinnies as they are affectionately known) - sometimes in fishing flocks of up to 200-300 birds. Porpoising birds frequently speed away from our path. Klemens fascinating lecture on penguin research was well attended. When it finished and the window blinds were raised we were arriving off Coronation Island. Outside was a staggering world of icebergs and penguins. The penguins were all Chinstraps - they were everywhere - porpoising to and from the vast colonies on Coronation and Monroe Islands, which we would be visiting during the afternoon. Many penguins, and a few Antarctic Fur-Seals, rested on the icebergs we passed, which were of all shapes and sizes and every shade of blue. Cape Petrels, Southern Fulmars and Wilson’s Storm-Petrels were common and both giant-petrels were about including the beautiful and uncommon white phase of Southern.

Our landing group was second ashore after lunch, the zodiacs taking us initially to walk on Monroe Island before the transfer across to Coronation Island. On the way we had a close encounter with a Leopard Seal, one of several that found rich pickings in the area, as some of the group were to see during the course of the afternoon. On Monroe we met a reception committee of hundreds of Chinstrap Penguins - the clean ones coming in from the sea and the pink-breasted ones, discoloured by penguin droppings, heading to the water to feed and freshen up. A path traversed the face of a snow bank from the landing beach to a broad plateau crossed by penguins and used as a resting area by fur-seals. Beyond lay a cove surrounded on three sides by steep cliffs on which Southern Fulmars and a few Cape Petrels bred. The going was stony and wet, for by now the weather, that had partially lifted as we arrived, had closed in again as heavy drizzle fell as we made our way back to the beach after enjoying the comings and goings of the fulmars and penguins.

On the transfer across to Coronation Island, John and Patricia saw a Leopard Seal battering a Chinstrap to death in the sea. They had a similar experience (or another Chinny had a similar untimely end) on the way back. In fact, several of the group saw Leopard Seals dealing with prey. The rest of us had to make do with the resulting gatherings of giant- and storm-petrels clearing up the debris.

Coronation Island was a bustling wildlife island with even more Chinstraps and many more fur-seals. On the landing beach the Chinnies pushed their way through accumulated brash ice along the water’s edge. We made our way along to the next beach eventually reaching a point where the density of Antarctic Fur-Seals made it impossible to continue. From there we climbed towards the base of the towering cliffs where hundreds, if not thousands of pairs of Southern Fulmars were breeding. There were photographic opportunities a plenty with penguins doing everything from feeding their well-grown youngsters to sliding down smooth marble rocks, while preening Snowy Sheathbills on black rocks were an exposure challenge.
The last zodiacs returned us to the World Discoverer at about 4pm, some stopping for a penguin on a blue ice face and a very obliging Leopard Seal resting on a small ice floe. Another Leopard Seal showed an unhealthy interest in boarding the zodiac, until the driver turned up the power on the outboard! Once everyone was aboard we headed back to sea for Elephant Island, but had gone no distance at all before we were delayed by a pod of Antarctic Minke Whales amongst the icebergs on which yet more penguins rested.
At sea again and unfortunately back into the fog, which again hampered the sea-watching, and again our progress was slowed overnight.

Thursday, 13 February

Overcast and foggy. 2ºC, but the sea was 0ºC Wind n.w. f2-3.

At 9am, fog still reduced visibility to 150 yards and of course, there was ice around - growlers that slowed our passage and although we were only 96 nautical miles from Elephant Island, the Captain would not commit himself to an arrival time.

During the morning ornithology lecturer Charlie Wurster gave a talk on the problems facing albatrosses from longline fishing in the world’s oceans. It is a depressing and unsatisfactory situation with the implementation of simple preventative measures currently being mainly dependent on the voluntary cooperation of the fishermen. Outside the fog and icy conditions prevailed. A few giant-petrels, Southern Fulmars, Cape Petrels and Wilson’s Storm-Petrels were seen at intervals throughout the day, with us, but the ship’s doctor, Rand, saw a Grey Petrel from the bridge early in the morning – it must have been the only bird Mik missed! Needless to say the conditions slowed us so much that we did not reach Elephant Island the evening. Few birds appeared during the afternoon, with just a lonely Wandering Albatross being the only noteworthy species during the period.

Recap and dinner were brought forward, for arrival off Elephant Island was expected to be at about 7.30pm. It was still foggy as we approached the island. Icebergs became larger and bluer - stranded ones were sculptured by gales and tide and stained by Chinstrap Penguins. Penguin smell wafted across from the colonies before we could see the shore beneath towering cliffs that began to emerge, ghost-like, from their foggy shroud. Today Point Wild would have been a quiet place were it not for the noise of the penguins, but it had a presence that made it stand out from the other places we visited. God-forsaken it might seem, but God did not forsake those of Shackleton’s crew who waited here for 131 days when Shackleton and five others, set sail on 21st April 1916 for South Georgia in the James Caird, where they arrived in King Hakkanon Bay on 10th May. Those who remained at Point Wild had no news, only hope and a belief in their leader, until 30th August, when the Yelcho, a Chilean vessel arrived from Punta Arenas with Shackleton on board. They returned to a world still torn apart by war, so it seems most unfair that some of those, who had endured so much discomfort and hardship with such courage in one of the remotest parts of the world, should die a few months later on the battlefields of Europe. No monument stands to their ordeal, but the captain of the Yelcho is commemorated by one erected by Chile. Today the mist made that memorial virtually impossible to see.

In addition to the Chinstraps we also saw Cape Petrels and Brown Skua before the fog closed in again as we manoeuvred slowly between the icebergs to resumed our journey south-west towards Deception Island in the South Shetland group.

Friday, 14 February

Overcast with the sea still calm(ish). The fog lifted during the night, only to be replaced by heavy snow! Winds light 1ºC.

We arrived off Deception just after lunch accompanied by smart brown and white Cape Petrels and once between the towering cliffs of Neptune’s Bellow, we entered the caldera of a dormant volcano. We swung starboard towards Whaler’s Bay, where we anchored off the ruins of the old whaling station and after the scout boat reported that all was well, zodiac landings began. It was a black and white world. Fresh snow lay on top of the black volcanic sand on the broad area beneath the jagged ridge that formed the skyline above the disused station. In places thermal activity had warmed the surface sufficiently to prevent the snow from settling. A shallow lagoon offered Brown and South Polar Skuas bathing facilities and nearby was a small Gentoo colony. Along the beach rested fur-seals and later a Weddell Seal came ashore to lie on a bank of snow. Most of the group walked along to a saddle in the crags, from which we could look out to sea and also look across to a Cape Petrel on its nest. It was a stark and beautiful place ranging from the pied panoramas within the caldera down to the shaggy lichens that clad the sheltered side of the cliffs and rocks.
Weddell Seal

Weddell Seal yawns!

After we returned to the ship we repositioned in Pendulum Cove, where the hardy were invited to go ashore for a swim in an area where hot water was escaping from vents in shallow water. There it was possible to have one foot in very cold water and scald the other! James and Tim were our representatives and an image of a smiling Tim made it onto the commemorative CD sold at the end of the cruise.

With our afternoon of fun and exploration over, we set sail once more, heading back through the narrow entrance into the open sea and on to further discoveries.

Saturday, 15 February

Overcast throughout with varying amounts of snow at time. Temperature at best was 1ºC with a variable wind increasing to f5 or more towards evening.

An early call from Klemens told us that we were entering Paradise Bay, and even on a grey and gloomy morning the views were superb - ice and more ice, glaciers and mountains. Our first landing was at the disused Argentinean station of Almirante Brown, a rather untidy and desolate place, but with magnificent views. Under the terms of the Antarctic Treaty all stations are considered as temporary and this one should have been removed and the site restored to its former state, but as the station closed as a result of the deteriorating financial crisis in Argentina, the chances of further funds being made available to clear the site are unlikely. Nevertheless, the Gentoos were breeding with attendant Sheathbills, South Polar Skuas and Kelp Gulls. The scenic views were great for the landscape photographer, especially during the zodiac cruise to the snout of a glacier that followed our time ashore. The images were wonderful - panoramas, reflections, stranded blue icebergs, hanging glaciers and birds, the highlight being a breeding colony of Antarctic Shags. On the rocks beneath the cliff a group of fledged youngsters were completely unafraid and viewed us with curiosity.

The World Discoverer then repositioned for an afternoon landing at the occupied British station of Port Lockroy on the west coast of Wiencke Island. Breeding Gentoo Penguins as well as a few breeding Snowy Sheathbills and Antarctic Shags surrounded the black and red huts. The Union Jack fluttered on the chilly breeze outside the station and inside, in the warm, we could buy stamps and a limited amount of souvenirs. I was amazed to find that the postcards I sent from there arrived in the UK three weeks later! Part of the building had been left as a museum preserving the way it would have been in the 1950s.

We sailed on in the late afternoon and as the wind freshened entered the Lemaire Channel – sometimes called Kodak Alley, but not today, for it was bleak and inhospitable with the grey sea littered with icebergs, growlers and brash ice through which we carefully picked our way. Snow clad mountains with black cliffs rose from the water to disappear into the low clouds and ahead of us, we were amazed to see a lone yacht in the more open water beyond. We were gaining on it until we saw whales ahead – Orcas and Humpbacks. This could be interesting. It was, but nothing gruesome happened! The Orcas appeared to be hunting and amongst the group of five or six Humpbacks was a very small calf. The two groups were heading straight towards one another and as the Orcas appeared to dive deep, the Humpbacks started to thrash the surface with their tails and flippers keeping the youngster in the middle of the group. Gradually they calmed down and we saw the Orcas some way ahead back in ‘normal’ hunting mode once more – the Humpbacks had done sufficient to deter an attack.

We proceeded south, passing the Argentine Islands and towards the Antarctic Circle as the evening closed in.

Sunday, 16 February

Overcast until late afternoon, when became fine. Fresh f6 n.e. during the morning with our first rough sea with 3-4 metre swell coming in from Drake Passage. 2ºC.

We crossed the Antarctic Circle at 4.30am and followed the edge of pack ice south to S66º51.1’ W 67º33.9’ in Crystal Sound - the furthest south the World Discoverer had reached this season. It was an amazing white and blue world on a grey morning, but not far short of Adelaide Island a wall of icebergs blocked our way forward and with the wind freshening, we turned and cruised north again. It was 6.45am. Ice stretched as far as the eye could see creating its own blue luminosity in the low cloud. Captured icebergs were held fast in the ice, which was ruckled in places by small pressure ridges. Dotted on the ice were Crabeater Seals and small groups of Adelie Penguins. Along the edge of the ice Snow Petrels, Wilson’s Storm-Petrels and Antarctic Terns dipped daintily for food as Humpback Whales surfaced and dived with less finesse. Those who had been out first light recorded many whales – Mik saw 21+. Snow was on the wind, the decks were white with earlier snowfalls as eventually we steered away from the pack ice and headed for an afternoon landing at Prospect Point.

We became exposed to a north-easterly and to the swell coming in from Drake Passage - our first real dose of ‘ocean motion’, which after 14 days cruising these southern latitudes must be some kind of a record! Birds were at a premium, but persistence paid when Mik saw the trip’s only Antarctic Petrel - also seen by the Captain on the bridge. Mid-February is getting late for this sought-after species. During the morning we had blizzard conditions at times and while many stayed in the warmth and comfort of their cabins or the Lido Lounge, tenacious Mik was out there in the thick of it noting:- Black-browed Albatross (1), Southern Giant-Petrel, Wilson’s Storm-Petrel and South Polar Skua.

In the afternoon, we reached Prospect Point for our second landing on the Antarctic Peninsular, where on disembarkation we had the opportunity to watch and photograph our last species of penguin - Adelie. It belongs to the same genus as Gentoo and Chinstrap, but looks much more of a cartoon character. Whilst ashore we also visited an old British Antarctic Survey hut, with everything intact, should anyone become stranded there. I should imagine the bedding was a bit damp by now as water from snow melting on the roof dripped through the ceiling.

Our explorations ashore over, we set off on an ice cruise in the zodiacs, which was absolutely superb for as the clouds rolled away the sun broke through. Again we marvelled at the deep blue of the old ice and were lucky to discover a confiding Crabeater Seal hauled out for the cameras. Spirits were further lifted by a visit to the Last Penguin Bar (aka the ship’s lifeboat), where Ben (the ship’s hotel manager) dispensed cups of mulled wine.

Once everyone was back on board we sailed north again with the peaks of the Antarctic Peninsular lining the skyline to starboard. The sea was dotted with large icebergs and as the sun dipped towards the west, both ‘bergs and mountains glowed with a soft rose pink. Tomorrow we would be back up near the Lemaire Channel. So far I have only ever seen it in a gale - would the weather hold?

Monday, 17 February

A glorious morning with the wind freshening from lunchtime, giving a mainly overcast afternoon. 3ºC

At sunrise we approached the Argentine Islands to the south of the Lemaire Channel. It was a beautiful area, continuing the scenery we enjoyed yesterday evening. Normally we might have visited Vernadsky Station operated by the Ukraine but they had a changeover of personnel two days ago, so there were more important things for them to do. Britain used to run the station, (then known as Faraday Station) which operated the   machine that first detected the hole in the ozone layer. Rather than go to the expense of clearing the site after the station’s closure we sold it to Ukrainians for £50 with the proviso that research was continued for at least another ten years.

Our morning was spent zodiac cruising amongst the islands and icebergs that were sometimes stranded in the shallows. The views and the colours were amazing and although I have been lucky to visit the Peninsular area on two previous occasions, never have the ’bergs been so beautiful as those we have seen this year. Some were sculptured by the sea like some art-deco memorial, whilst others had arches cut through them by the waves. Birdwise there was little on offer – just Kelp Gull, skuas and Wilson’s Storm-Petrel.

With the sun shining we sailed towards the Lemaire Channel and this time it really was Kodak Alley (or what ever film or compact flash card one uses). It was absolutely stunning! During the afternoon we gradually left the Antarctic Peninsular to our starboard as we began our journey north towards a rendezvous with Cape Horn. We saw numerous Humpbacks again, but the bridge would not be distracted. Birds began to follow the wake – our first Wandering Albatross for a few days as well as the more frequent Black-browed. The giant-petrels were all Southern, the only petrel was Snow and Wilson’s Storm-Petrels were joined by Black-bellied.

As we headed across Drake Passage, we hoped for better things tomorrow.

Tuesday, 18 February

Overcast and foggy during the morning, becoming brighter with sunshine during the afternoon. 5ºC

We made good progress northwards overnight with just a steady swell. Mik was out by 5.30am and saw two Wandering and two Black-browed Albatrosses as well as Wilson’s and Black-bellied Storm-Petrels early on. Unfortunately by about 7 a.m. we entered a low fog bank, yet looking upwards we could see clouds. It was enough to hamper the birding, but with the sun trying to break through there were grounds for optimism by breakfast time. Throughout the morning the weather teased us - trying to clear and then closing in again. During one of the better spells in the afternoon we saw Black-browed, Grey-headed and Wandering Albatross over the wake. A Magellanic Diving-Petrel flew alongside for some time and for a while we passed through and area with good numbers of Sooty Shearwaters and White-chinned Petrels. Also seen during the day were Chinstrap Penguin, Slender-billed Prion, Great Shearwater (2), Wilson’s, Gray-backed (2) and Black-bellied Storm-Petrels.

Wednesday, 19 February

A superb day - warm and sunny all day with a calm sea and just a breeze. How many days a year is it like this off Cape Horn? 8ºC

Our crossing of Drake Passage was so smooth we had time in hand, which the captain used to good advantage. We woke to a beautiful sunrise in the east and a setting moon in the west as we approached Diego Ramirez, a small archipelago belonging to Chile some 60 nautical miles south-west of Cape Horn. Dozens of albatrosses and giant-petrels followed our wake and many more were streaming by to the islands’ vast breeding colonies. We were still five miles away, when the first Tussacbird joined the ship from the open sea to the south-east. Closer to the islands many more came aboard with a dozen or more being present at any one time. We were also joined at least five immature Striated Caracaras, that set about examining the ship in minute detail - one appeared to be trying to burst the rubber hulls of the zodiacs. Albatrosses galore, mainly Black-browed, but also good numbers of Grey-headed - birds everywhere, in the air and in colonies scattered throughout the steep tussac-clad slopes of the islands above beaches where Macaroni Penguins were coming ashore.

On leaving the islands we headed for Cape Horn, taking several Striated Caracaras and at least one Tussacbird with us. Some caracaras left early, but two remained until we were ‘round the Horn’ before leaving for terra firma. I don’t think the Tussacbird made it, for when I examined my photos of the caracara I noticed traces of red on the bill of one, and I don’t think there was any fresh paint about!

We reached Cape Horn at noon and on the way across we were followed by several Southern Giant-Petrels, two Wanderers and a few Black-browed Albatrosses – really disappointing – perhaps it was just too calm! Cape Horn should not be like this and probably is only as relatively tranquil on a handful of days a year. Continuing east we entered the Beagle Channel during the afternoon and birds started to increase. Sooty Shearwaters appeared, we were able to point out Magellanic Diving-Petrels to several of the other birders aboard and for the first time since the Falklands we saw Magellanic Penguins.

In quiet waters we had the disembarkation briefing, the Farewell Cocktail Party and the Farewell Dinner. It was sad – one minute we were looking at albatrosses and penguins and the next we were making preparations to leave our floating home for Good Ol’ Blighty!

Thursday, 20 February

Overcast and mild after overnight rain 11ºC

On D-Day (Disembarkation Day) Klemens woke us at 6am. Our bags were put out before breakfast, then followed by a quick tour of the ship to say goodbye to everyone from Captain Kruess downwards. We were the first group ashore and at the end of the quay Marcelo and his bus waited to take us to the airport, where the formalities went smoothly. Mik and James did some birding while we waited to board adding American Kestrel to the list. At 10.10am (25 minutes late) we were airborne and heading non-stop for Buenos Aires.

On arrival at the city’s domestic airport we were met and taken to the international airport some 40 kilometres away by bus, which was persuaded to detour through the heart of the old part of the city along a broad boulevard that passed the opera house, before linking up with the Pan-American and thus to the airport, where after check-in we had a very late lunch.

The Air France Boeing 777 came in from Chile on time and before long we were aboard, airborne and heading into the night.

Friday, 21 February

We arrived on a cold and frosty morning in Charles de Gaulle airport, Paris and once in the terminal we headed across to our departure gate with not quite the rush we had on the way out. Our departure was a little late, so on missing our slot at Heathrow we were stacked over the North Downs until one became available and we landed. With the bags through on the carrousel and farewells said, we headed for our homes, touched by the magic cast by Antarctica!

Richard Coomber
29 Straight Mile
SO51 9BB
Tel: 01794 519445
April 2003

Our next cruise to Antarctica aboard the World Discoverer will be from the 29 January to 21 February 2004 led by Tony Pym.  Prices start from £6,899.00.  Our 2005 cruise will be led by Simon Boyes and is also from the 29 January to 21 February.  Prices start from £6,799.00.


Itinerary and Weather

29 January                          

Depart London Heathrow for Buenos Aires via Paris

30 January

Arrive Buenos Aires, afternoon birding at Costenera Sur Ecological Reserve.
Hot and sunny. 33ºC

31 January

Day excursion northeast of Buenos Aires with birding at Otamendi and Ceibas.
Hot and sunny with northerly breeze. 35ºC

01 February

Morning flight from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia via Bariloche and El Calafate. Local birding during latter part of afternoon.
Thunder and torrential rain in Buenos Aires, cool and overcast in Ushuaia. 9ºC

02 February

Birding in Tierra Fuego National Park until mid-afternoon, when we returned to Ushuaia and boarded World Discoverer. Sailed at 7pm for the Falklands.
Glorious during day, overcast in late afternoon and evening. 14ºC

03 February

At sea.
Overcast with a northerly breeze f3-4. The temperature at 9am was 9ºC with a sea temperature of 8ºC. By noon the air temperature had risen to 10ºC and sea had dropped to 7ºC.

04 February

Arrived West Point Island for morning’s exploration ashore before relocating to Carcass Is. for afternoon landing.
Glorious morning after early low clouds cleared, becoming overcast for the afternoon. 13ºC

05 February      

Morning arrival at Stanley. Optional ‘City’ tour and exploration and shopping in Stanley. Optional climb of Mt. Tumbledown in afternoon. Early evening departure for South Georgia. A mild and wet start with northerly f3 blowing, veering westerly and increasing to f7 during the morning as the weather brightened to give a beautiful afternoon and sunset. 13ºC.

06 February

At sea.
Fine in the morning, but foggy throughout the afternoon and evening caused by a warm nor’-westerly blowing over the cooler sea. At noon the air temperature was 8ºC and sea was 6ºC.

07 February

At sea. First icebergs.
Foggy. Air temperature 5ºC. The sea temperature 4ºC at 9am had dropped to 3ºC by noon. No ocean motion yet!

08 February

Early morning arrival at Salisbury Plain with morning ashore. Afternoon on Prion Island. Evening cruising off Stromness.
Foggy first thing, then the sun broke through to give a wonderful day. 7ºC with a sea temperature of 4ºC.

09 February

Early morning landing at Godthul before relocating to Grytviken for remainder of the day. Rain at dawn, becoming brighter by mid-morning and then glorious with warm sunshine for the rest of the day. 6ºC first thing rising to 11ºC by midday. The sea temperature 5ºC at Godthul to dropped to 4ºC at Grytviken.

10 February

Arrived at Gold Harbour at sunrise. Ashore for beach landing and optional walk to headland. Afternoon landing at Cooper Bay and Zodiac cruise. In early evening to Drygalski Fjord and Glacier.
Dull almost all day with rain at times, mainly in the morning. Brighter in early evening. 7ºC

11 February

At sea.
Overcast and cooler, fresh and brightening for a while during the afternoon. 2ºC

12 February

At sea.
Overcast with fog for much of the day with rain at times. Afternoon landings on Monroe and Coronation Islands, South Orkney. 2ºC, but the sea was 0ºC Wind n.w. f2-3.

13 February

At sea for most over the day. Arrived off Elephant Island in evening.
Overcast and foggy. 2ºC, but the sea was 0ºC Wind n.w. f2-3.

14 February

Arrived Deception Island at lunchtime – afternoon landing.
Overcast. The fog lifted during the night, only to be replaced by heavy snow! Winds light 1ºC.

15 February

Morning landing at Paradise Bay followed by ice cruise in zodiac. Afternoon visit to BAS station at Port Lockroy. Evening cruise through Lemaire Channel.
Overcast throughout with snow at times. Temperature at best was 1ºC with a variable wind increasing to f5 or more towards evening.

16 February

Crossed Antarctic Circle at 4.30am and reached furthest south at 6.45am in Crystal Sound -S66º51.1’ W 67º33.9’. Returned north with afternoon landing at Prospect Point. Evening cruising along Antarctic Peninsular.
Fresh f6 n.e. during the morning with our first rough sea with 3-4 metre swell coming in from Drake Passage.

17 February

Morning ice-cruise amongst Argentine Islands before cruising back through Lemaire Channel. During afternoon of Antarctic Peninsular, until we headed north to begin crossing of Drake Passage.
A glorious morning with the wind freshening from lunchtime, giving a mainly overcast afternoon. 3ºC

18 February

At sea crossing Drake Passage.
Overcast and foggy during the morning, becoming brighter with sunshine during the afternoon. 5ºC

19 February

Early morning arrival off Diego Ramirez archipelago (Chile). Rounded Cape Horn at midday and cruised along Beagle Channel in afternoon to arrive at Ushuaia at 10pm.
Warm and sunny all day with a calm sea with slight breeze. 8ºC

20 February

Disembarked World Discoverer 8am. Transfer to airport and morning direct flight to Buenos Aires. Transfer to international airport for early evening flight to Paris.
Overcast Ushuaia. Hot Buenos Aires.

21 February

Morning arrival in Paris and connecting flight to London Heathrow.

© Ornitholidays  

Full trip list and commentary (pdf)


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