South Georgia Island – Part 1

Day 1 – Chris drove me over to Dulles for departure at 11 AM on LAN airlines to San Salvador.  I had never flown on this airlines before and was very surprised when the pleasant check-in lady weighed my carry-ons.  She and her colleague told me that they weighed too much and implied that one would have to be checked.  No way that was going to happen!  One was all my camera equipment and the other my briefcase with binoculars, passport, money, and important papers.   After a short discussion they demurred and off I went to the gate.

We departed on time and about 4.5 hours later landed in San Salvador.  I was surprised to see the amount of  forested land in this small country and the size of the mountains.  The terminal building was modern, attractive and apparently quite new.  It is, of course, not a large airport. 

While sitting awaiting my next flight I got out a Nikon D300s quick start manual to try to figure out how to make videos on my camera.  The regular long manual is confusing.  I had read that several times and tried to figure it out and never did.  The upshot: it is a very simple thing to make video and I made my first one right there in the terminal!

We took off promptly at 3 PM and flew another 4.5 hours to Lima, arriving after dark, of course.  This is a gigantic airport and we had to go through a full security check again, including taking off our shoes.  Then it was a long walk to the departure gate for Montevideo.  The plane departed on time for yet another 4.5 hour flight.

Day 2  The flight landed on schedule at 5:30.  It was just beginning to get light.  I had arranged with my hotel for a taxi to meet me and indeed a guy was there with a sign.  The taxi ride was less than an hour until we arrived at the Cala di Volpe hotel, a small hotel on a wide boulevard, across which is a rather wide green strip and then the very wide La Plata river. 

Fortunately, I was able to check in early and had a small, but nice room.  I will have to confess that I was more interested in horizontal sleep than exploring, so lay down and was out in seconds.  I awoke at about 10 and was able to nab a few victuals at the buffet just as it was shutting down.

I wanted to explore a bit, but was cautious, as my friend Gene Porter had had his i-phone snatched in Montevideo near the same hotel a year ago.  I was so paranoid that I did not take my main camera, the Nikon D300s, from my room, but rather its backup.  I also took a secondary lens, not wanting to take any chance with a thief grabbing my primary SGI lens.  As it turned out, nothing happened. (As it also turns out, the area where Gene’s smartphone was snatched was NOT near the hotel, but rather in a waterfront industrial area miles away.  I had misremembered!)

There were plenty of birds in the greenbelt between the river and the boulevard.  Most were pigeons, but they were species I had never seen before, the Pichzuro and Spot-winged.  Also Southern Lapwings, which I have seen in Ecuador many times.  Although these latter birds were behaving like they had a nest, I never discovered one.  They made many a dive right at my head without actually hitting me!  The best birds I saw were a pair of Guira Cuckoos.  But also spotted a Brazilian Cardinal in its natural habitat (I have seen them in Honolulu!), Vermillion Flycatcher, and Monk Parakeets, also in their native habitat.  A satisfying afternoon.

GuiraCuckoo

Day 3  On Wednesday morning I arose to a pretty sunrise, got my stuff together and arranged for a taxi to take me to the pier where Plancius was tied up.  I asked the desk clerk if the driver would know the right pier and he assured me that he would.  Off I went and was let off in front of a large building with very high ceilings.  Plancius was not in sight. 

Inside I met five other people who were booked on the cruise and together we attempted to find out how to get to the ship.  The lady at the information booth did not understand English and had no idea what we were asking.  The people at a customs area sent us back into the main building and the people at booths along the pier told us to wait until 10, I believe, and then we would be allowed to go through the doors to the pier.  Turns out the building was the ferry terminal for boats going over to Buenos Aires and the wrong place to be. 

Ferry Terminal

Finally, a guy who spoke some English was encountered and he told us to go out the front door and through a gate.  There our ship was.  We were the last six to board! 

A bit about MV Plancius:  She was launched in 1976 as an oceanogrpahic research vessel for the Royal Duth Navy and was named Hr. Ms. Tydeman.  She was purchased by Oceanwide Expeditions in 2004 and refitted in 2007 for 114 passengers plus crew.  Plancius is 267 feet long (less than half the length of my command, USS Fresno) with a maximum draft of 16 feet.  Her top speed is 12+ knots, with cruising speed of 11 knots.  One screw is turned by three diesel engines.  (Fresno was rated at 22. 5 knots top speed and a cruising speed of 15, powered by two screws and six diesel engines)

Plancius Stern

Our bags were helpfully taken from us and put in our rooms and we all came aboard and learned of our room assignments.  I was in room 301 and my roommate was Henk van Brummelen, a Dutchman whose gear was already in the room.  I soon met him and we just plain hit it off.  He spoke excellent English and although I speak not a word of Dutch, communications worked out just fine!

We were delayed in getting underway, as one man’s baggage did not arrive with him.  The ship had been told that it was on the way, however, and even after the gangway had been removed, the baggage arrived and was brought aboard by cargo net.  A German woman was not so lucky, however.  Her luggage did not make it.  It was amazing to see how women aboard the ship rallied around her, loaned her everything she needed.  She seemed unaffected and made every landing on the cruise!

Finally, we got underway at 1315 and two tugs pulled us away from the pier.  The wind was fresh and one could anticipate swells beyond the breakwater.  Across from us as we departed were many ships from the Uruguayan Navy, perhaps their entire fleet.  Then past some huge commercial cranes and past the breakwater.  The swells arrived.  A pilot boat was accompanying us to extract the pilot.  This boat had green water over the bow before grabbing the pilot at 1406 and returning to port.Pilot Boat

We held the required lifeboat drills, complete with our lifejackets on, and were dismayed to be told that there was food and water for only one day on the orange lifeboats.  I suspect that this information was in error. 

We soon saw our first albatross, a Black-browed, and a White-chinned Petrel, both common birds during our transit.  At 1600 we had a boot fitting, for loaner boots from the company.  Mine fit really well and these boots were a godsend.  They kept our feet warm and dry not matter what the conditions on land or when landing through the surf.

Day 4   I awoke at about 2 AM with the ship rolling, pitching and “working.”  We were in some pretty heavy seas.  Went back to sleep and awoke again at  7.   Looked out the porthole and was pleased to see a Cape Petrel flying alongside.  This was going to be a good day!  It was a cloudless day, bright blue skies, but windy.

Tried to photograph birds from the fifth deck (it would have been called the “04 level” in the Navy) , behind the bridge, but it was difficult because the ship was bouncing around so much.  There were lots of seabirds present and I picked up five lifers: the Cape Petrel (there were many), Southern Royal Albatross, Wandering Albatross, Antarctic Prion and Southern Giant Petrel.  One had to hang on for dear life to keep from falling down or having the camera fly out of one’s hands.Wanadering Albatross

Later during a talk on birds on SGI, we learned that the density is 40,000 birds per square mile.  I don’t know whether this figure is for the entire island or just near penguin colonies.  But it is impressive, nonetheless. 

In the afternoon the winds diminished and the swells changed direction

Day 5   Awoke to find that the winds had continued to die down and the swells were abaft the beam, approaching actually following.  The ride improved rather dramatically from yesterday.  It was cloudy early, but then the clouds lifted and it became pleasantly clear.

I learned that different birds had been seen by staff members, birds that would have been new to me, but were not announced.  This really irritated me and I asked a staff member to make announcements over the loudspeaker when he saw something new.  Nothing changed.

I also learned, much to my displeasure, that Macaroni Penguins do not come ashore until the first week of November, so we will miss them.  I was amazed to hear that they are the most numerous bird on the island.  Chinstraps also are unlikely to be ashore when we are on the island.  What a major disappointment!  Wish we had been advised of this ahead of the cruise.

Despite lack of announcements, I did pick up four life birds today: the Southern Fulmar,  the Northern Giant Petrel, the  Atlantic Petrel and the Black-bellied Storm Petrel.  I successfully photographed all these birds.

Northern Giant Petrel

Day 6  I awoke early, at 5:30 and went to the bridge and learned that we had covered 640 miles so far, which is less than half way.  I was surprised to learn this.  It was 50 degrees, seas were mostly flat and skies were cloudy.

I wandered back to the fantail and was dumbfounded to discover a mockingbird standing back there.  Made a few photos before it flew up to an above deck.  Later I learned that this bird had been seen the previous day and was identified as a White-banded  Mockingbird.  When it came aboard was a mystery, but it was not seen again.

Mockingbird

Day 7  Very rough night.  Ship really rolling and pitching, with rolls to 25 degrees.  Temp at 43 degrees at dawn, winds at 16 knots.  Clouded over and misty rain in PM.  Not many birds around and saw nothing new.  Two women fell due to sea conditions.  One hurt pretty badly when she went down a flight of stairs.  At dinner, tableware went all over the place as we rolled, probally at least 22 degrees!

Day 8   Another rough day.  Temp down to 33 degrees F, wind at 30 knots.  Did not attempt to photo at all in the AM, although some in the PM.  One new bird: the Blue Petrel that looks surprisingly like a prion.  Some folks are confined to bed due to sea sickness. 

Day 9  Up at 5:15, first sighting of SGI.  Very mountainous with snow heavy on mountains.  Temp at a brisk 27 degrees.  Wind at 18 knots. 

Entering

Steamed in to King Haakon Bay with mountains on both sides.  Very dramatic scenery.  A few birds flying around, including a couple of South Georgia Pintails and Blue-eyed Shags.  Also, briefly, a gorgeous all white Snow Petrel, although I did not get a photograph of this bird. 

Anchored at about 7.  The Shackleton trek group headed ashore in Zodiacs shortly thereafter.  The rest of us started in a little before 9.  I actually put my feet ashore for the first time at 0917.  The beach was mostly gravel.  We took off life jackets and stored them in a bag.  Wind was such that anything light out of a bag would have been blown away!

Almost everyone in the landing party headed east up the beach to a large group of elephant seals, with their attendant Giant Petrels and Brown Skuas.  There were also a small number of Kelp Gulls on a frozen pondlet and Antarctic Terns foraging just off shore.  Instead, I went to the left, or west, and headed to a bluff where I had seen Imperial Shags, aka Blue-eyed Shags, resting in tussock grass.  I had the place to myself, the way I like it when I am photographing. 

Almost as soon as I reached the bluff I noticed that a pair of shags were in an extended, elaborate mating ritual. I hand held my D300s with a 400mm lens and made many photographs of this fascinating event that culminated in a full scale mating with the male atop the female.

Blue Eyed Shags

While the pair were in their ritual, an adjacent male was displaying, trying to attract an unattached female.  He threw his head back all the way to his back and vocalized.  I either did not hear the vocalization or do not remember what it sounded like, but I did make some portraits of the bachelor.

Blue-eyed Shag Display

After the mating was complete, I returned to the landing site and there made a number of photographs of the terns.  Some of these shots were good.  Then I worked the skuas that had a few little disputes and lunged at each other like they were playing “king of the mountain.”  

While working the terns, suddenly the first King Penguin simply marched out of the hinterlands, all by himself, preened a bit, walked west just off the beach, then did a U turn and marched east along the pebbled beach for a long ways.  He passed the beached zodiacs, glanced at them before continuing his morning stroll, finally wading into the water and swimming away.  This was all rather bizzare, because penguins are usually flock birds, almost always in a colony of hundreds if not thousands of birds.

1stPenguin

Finally, I made a number of images of the elephant seals and their babies.  All too soon the staff began assembling the passengers to return to the ship.  I learned at this point that there was a new birth of an elephant seal pup and another dead one where the scavengers were feeding further up the beach.  I raced up there, but did not find the birth.  I did make a few quick images of the Giant Petrels working over the corpse, but then had to return to the landing site.  It was over all too soon, after being ashore for three hours!

Giant Petrel Tail Display

After lunch, the weather improved such that the sky was nearly cloudless, the wind had died and the seas were quite smooth.  The staff decided to run zodiac sightseeing cruises around the shore, particularly near the Briggs Glacier.  These cruises were very pleasant and lasted an hour or more.  I was enthralled with the beauty of the blue glacier that slid right onto the beach.  Many photos were made.  We passed a bull elephant seal on the beach that was showing a lot of wrinkles in his skin from lost weight.  Staffmember Jim advised that bulls can lose ten kilos of weight a day during mating season due to fights to mainatain their harem.

Glacier

After returning to the ship, Plancius weighed anchor and moved to a location closer to where Shackleton first landed on SGI: Cave Cove at Cape Rosa.  The seas were favorable, so the staff decided to take tours into this narror cove.  I joined those who elected to go and after we landed, we scrambled up a rather steep slope over mud, ice, snow and through tussock grass.  It really challenged my physical fitness and I wished then I had worked out more vigorously before departure.

At the top was a spectacular view of King Haakon Bay and a few Giant Petrels on the nest.  We were not allowed to approach them, so did not get wonderful images, however.   As we returned to the zodiacs, the sun was setting on the mountains across the bay, turning them pink.  Overhead a small group of South Georgia Pintails wheeled and banked, apparently looking for an appropriate place to land. 

CaveCoveSunset

It was hard to believe that Shackleton and his five men had spent five nights and four days in this small cove recovering from their arduous seventeen days sailing north from Elephant Island.  They drank precious fresh water and dined on albatross chicks before heading across the bay for a better place to bivouac. 

New birds today were: King Penguin, Snowy Sheathbill, Gentoo Penguin, Antarctic Tern, South Georgia Pintail, Imperial Shag, Brown Skua and Snow Petrel.  A fine day for life birds!

Day 10  During the night we went up to the west end of the island, through the Stewart Straight and anchored in Elsehul, a small bay very close to the western end.  The temperature was hovering just below freezing, but the winds were over twenty knots.  It looked too rough for a zodiac landing, but in the bay itself, there was shelter and a decision was made to land.   On the fifteen minute ride in,  I took a full blast of sea water in my face and also all over my camera and 400mm lens.  For awhile it did not work, but did dry out with a thorough rub down with paper towels and recover later.

The landing beach was a small beach, with a few seals guarding it from intruders like human visitors.  The larger group divided into two parts, one group — the trekkers – to hike over the island to Undine Harbor and the other — the naturalists — to a small colony of nesting Grey-headed Albatrosses. 

Grey Headed Albatross

The naturalist option was advertised as a half-hour hike, but it was very close to one hour of some very hard climbing, again through tussock grass, snow, mud and ice.  It was the toughest physical challenge I have met since Mt. Kilimanjaro ten years previous.  I used my new monopod to provide balance, but still stumbled a few times and went down.  I was determined, however, to make it up to the colony and did so.

 On the way up we passed a Gentoo Penguin nesting colony and a number of Southern Fur Seals.  What the latter were doing there, way, way above the beach, is beyond my comprehension. 

Gentoo Penguin On Nest

At one point I was looking at my feet, following footsteps in the snow, and not paying attention to what was nearby.  I got far too close to one of the seals who barked and jumped at me!  I jumped back myself and vowed to pay more attention to where I was walking!  I was probably lucky not to have been bitten and these bites from past evidence often get infected.

Fur Seal

At the top was a spectacular view of Undine Harbor, and finally a view across a crevass to a couple of albatross on the nest.  They were in tussock grass which got in the way of really good photographs and the wind was a great hindrance to holding a camera steady even with a monopod.

Finally the weather started to deteriorate and we were told to return to the landing site.  I was exceptionally tired, so was not moving very fast and in fact was the last one down off the ridge!  The zodiac ride back to the ship was rough and very uncomfortable, with spray in the face etc.

During the noon hour the ship moved a few miles east along the north coast of the island to Right Whale Bay where we anchored again.  Here there is a huge King Penguin colony that goes up the side of a hill.  The weather, however, was not very condusive to nice shooting, with fog and some misty rain. 

Almost as soon as I came ashore I encountered a group of King Penguins loafing.  I had never seen a photo of a penguin, standing up, with its bill under its wing as other birds often do when they sleep.  It looked like a headless bird!  I photographed this bird as well as one that was asleep lying down.  For the latter shot I lay on the ground right at eye level with the bird.

King Penguin

Another interesting scene was some dozen all-white Snowy Sheathbills hanging around the penguins on the beach.  I made images of four together on a rock, as well as one in flight.  There was also the usual pile of elephant seals lying on the beach, looking like big brown blobs, maybe gigantic underinflacted balloons!

I came across a Giant Petrel that had been feeding on a carcass somewhere in the pile and was covered in blood on its head.  Not a pretty sight!  Then along came a group of 15 Kings marching along as if in a parade.  Very funny to watch these birds!  Where were they going?  Heaven only knows. 

MarchingCR

Henk and I went around the edge of a small hill that overlooked the colony.  I climbed to the top and found two kings that were apparently mated.  Watched and photographed them for some time.  The most interesting event came when one lay down and began eating snow!  Didn’t know they did this, but it makes sense, since most of their time is spent in salt water.   I made a short video of this event.

After coming off the hill, next, I watched a brown youngster following an adult and begging to be fed.  I don’t think the adult had anything to regurgitate and was apparently annoyed by the persistent young one.  It looked like the adult pecked the youngster a few times.

PeckingCR

The misty rain continued and in fact got heavier, clouding up my lens, so I made my way back to the beach and returned to the ship.  I only had space for eleven more photos on my card when I finished the day and had no spare with me, but by the time I erased a bunch of mediocre shots after dinner, I had space for 77!

Day 11  The day dawned with it snowing and the temperature a balmy 34.   I was really looking forward to this day, as we were scheduled for Prion Island, where Wandering Albatross nest.  There is a boardwalk recently constructed that takes one 200 steps from the beach to the top of a hill where a nest is close by and several in view from the platform.  Also, this is one of the few places where one can easily see the endemic South Georgia Pipit because the island is rat free and the birds can successfully nest.

SGI Pipit

What a disappointment this turned out to be.  As I approached the top of the boardwalk the huge albatross chick stood up in its nest and I thought, this one is going to be easy!  A 16-85mm shot.  It was not to be.  When I got up to the top, the albatross chick had laid back in its nest and was totally invisible behind tussock grass.  There were two other nests visible, with chicks in them, but not easy shots, particularly in the heavy wind.  We had to leave after about 40 minutes because we only had permission to be on the island for a few hours and another group from Plancius was replacing us at the top.

As I started down, the first of nine pipits showed up.  None of them gave me a clear shot, however.  It was very frustrating as they were close by.  A South Geogia Pintail did pose nicely though, right next to the steps.  I was unable to see this bird for several minutes because of such good camouflage.  Jan Baks was on the bird and kept pointing until I finally got him in sight. 

Pintail

At the bottom there was a small Gentoo Penguin colony with seals interspersed.  A few conflicts developed.

After our time on the island, two zodiacs were going to take a sightseeing cruise around.  I picked the wrong boat.  Shortly after we departed a Leopard Seal surfaced and I was looking the wrong way.  It never resurfaced, so I missed this species entirely on our cruise.  We circumnavigated Prion Island and never got a decent shot of any wildlife.  There were some interesting views of Bull Kelp anchored on the rocks, but

Bull Kelp

wavering in the swell.  And a few mildly interesting rocks covered with ice and/or lichens.  But the other boat had close-up looks at a wide open Pipit!

RocksCR

The reembarkation on Plancius was tough as the swells had gotten large. 

In the afternoon, we anchored off Salisbury Plain in the Bay of Isles.  There was another large King Penguin colony here.  I got ashore at 1500.  While most people headed towards the elephant seals and penguins, I noticed three fur seal pups playing vigorously in the open.  I approached them and made many images of their cavorting.  The last shot was the best!

Fur Seal Pups

Moving down the beach I came across a small melt water stream that flowed across the beach and into the sea.  At one point, within maybe 10 yards of the surf, it had become dammed up and formed a two foot deep pool, like a bathtub…at least for the kings.  They crowded around, while a few at a time bathed and preened, the others watching.  It was hilarious to watch. 

While I was photographing this scene, I had laid down my monopod and a plastic bag with my longer lens.  Two Sheathbills took a shine to this and decided it must be something to eat.  They pecked a few times just to make sure and then moved away.

Along the beach a group of kings kept diving into the surf, playing around a few yards out, just beyond the small breakers and then wandering back ashore.  Provided amply opportunities for going and coming shots.  But finally, the mist got to me, fogging up the lens continually, so I succumbed and returned to the ship. 

Just before 2200 we anchored again at Fortuna Bay.