Day 12 Awoke to heavy snowing, with a temp of 37 degrees. Wind nearly calm. There was about two inches of snow topside. Looked like a non-photography day. But was I mistaken about that thought!
At 0900 arrived on the beach at Fortuna Bay and slowly began a 1.5 km walk up to a large King Penguin colony. Along the way were perched Antarctic Terns and a pair of Kelp Gulls, posing nicely on a rock outcropping. I stopped and made photos of both these species. Henk and I took photos of each other alongside a small flock of penguins.
About half way up the beach, the fog and clouds lifted and it became a spectacular South Atlantic day, with blue skies and wonderful views of the new snow covered mountains. Small groups of penguins marched along, some diving into the rather frigid salt water. It is amazing how easy it is to become complacent and blase about King Penguins after one has been among hundreds and alongside many groups. But they remain an incredible work of nature.
At the end of the hike we came across a knoll, perhaps forty feet high, with a snowy path up the backside to the top. At the top an astonishing view of thousands of King Penguins stretched almost as far as the eye could focus, with mountains in the background. It was an extraordinary sight and the balmy weather enhanced the experience. Most people had long since ditched their gloves or mittens and most also stripped down a layer or two. The temp was probably about 40, but it felt almost like summer!
Most of the dozen or so people up there took photos, socialized, rhapsodized, and just enjoyed the panorama. At some point, I became aware that there were Light-mantled Sooty Albatross flying by occasionally, sometimes quite close. Try as I might, I just could not make a decent image, although I had some near misses. Finally, the word came down via one of the naturalists that the fog was dropping back in and we were directed to return to the landing site.
So off we trudged, along the same trail we walked coming out. Along the way, there were many opportunities to aim my 400mm lens at the albatrosses that were flying along the edge of the bluffs, looking, apparently, for an appropriate place for their nest. A few times I was able to capture them in flight.
About two-thirds of the way back, someone was running towards us and it turned out to be the ship’s doctor, Veronique. She confirmed that I was Bob and told me that she had been asked to find me and tell me that a pair of LMS Albatross had been found at a nest site. One of the staff, Victoria, had known I wanted to photograph this bird and sent Veronique out to find me. It was a most thoughtful gesture on both their parts.
When we were nearly to the landing site, I was surprised to see Reindeer browsing near the beach, with a number of folks photographing them. They seemed completely unaffected by the humans staring at them and pointing funny black things at them! I had had the impression that the Reindeer were very skittish and difficult to photograph. But these animals seemed inurred to people. I knew the zodiacs were loading up and returning to Plancius and also knew I wanted to photograph the albatrosses, so only took about five minutes to work the Reindeer. I really needed thirty minutes or more.
Arriving at the landing site, I was told that the albatross nest was 100 yards further down the beach. I could see four or five people down there. But one of the staff told me that there was not enough time for me to go there. I made a quick assessment: If the other folks were down there, they had to walk back. If I could get down there while they were still there, I would not delay the boats a single minute. As soon as the staff guy turned his head, I took off on a run. Well, as close to a run as I could manage! Two people were still present when I arrived and Carole Kirkham pointed out the spot where the nest was located. I could not see the two birds because they were hunkered down in the tussock grass. But after a short wait, they gave me a few photo ops, enough to make one good photo. Then off we went at a trot to get back to the zodiac. We were in the last boat out! It departed at exactly noon, when it was supposed to go!
Shorty Plancius got underway and headed to Stromness, the whaling station where Shackleton emerged with two others after hiking over the spine of the island in May 1916. We anchored at 1500 and staff pointed out the station master’s house where Shackleton knocked on the door and was not recognized. He and his colleagues were, of course, unshaven, filthy dirty, in rags and otherwise not giving the appearance of fine English gentlemen. The exact old house is in dispute, but restoration began and apparently has been put on hold. The whole whaling station is off-limits now because of perceived danger to tourists.
I was ashore by 1530. Part of the shore party elected to hike to a nearby falls, but I decided to hang around the landing area and make images of the nautical debris, Gentoo Penguins that were marching to and from an inland nest site, and a few South Georgia Pintails that were feeding in a small, shallow meltwater pond. Stromness had been a whaling station until 1920 and when that went belly up, turned into a ship repair facility. There are many ship parts, like screws, lying around rusting in the harsh Antarctic environment.
The steady march of Gentoos was particularly appealing and once again, they showed no fear and just slightly adjusted their path if someone got in their way. They certainly demonstrated a sense of purpose!
I was ashore for three hours and amused myself with the Gentoos, some Elephant Seals that had taken up residence amongst the rusted gear and a few Fur Seals. There were also sea mammal bones lying about that merited a photo or two. But one surprise was a very confused King Penguin that arrived from the sea all by himself. He waddled around for awhile, bathing a bit in a fresh water pond. He must have lost his colony and was still hanging around when we departed. It was sad to leave this place right at sunset with another spectacular view of the mountains as the sun departed.
The Shackleton trek group returned to the ship this afternoon and the staff delivered a BarBQ on the fantail for dinner. It was a little nippy at 36 degrees and the wind blowing, but there was enough libation to grease the skids for a festive time! I photographed several people and others asked to be “shot.” At this point I made the decision to put out a coffee table book of the cruise as Guy Gurney had done in 2011.
Day 13 During the night we had sailed southeast down the northern coast of South Georgia. I awoke at 0515 and got up shortly thereafter to a gorgeous bright sunny sky. The temp was 36 and the wind calm. There were icebergs ahead, the first we had seen on the cruise. HUGE icebergs!
There were also numerous sea birds flying around the ship like this Grey-headed Albatross that was sitting on the water as we approached, but took off when we got too close. Albatross and Shearwaters have a difficult time flying when the wind is calm, as it was this morning.
The most peculiar birding scene, however, were the “dolphining” Gentoo Penguins. They were clearly feeding on krill, which are thick in this location, but the penguins leap out of the water to grasp air and then dive right back in. It is hard to see how they could get enough oxygen in their very short time airborne!
Soon we sailed into our destination, Drygalski Fjord. There is no place to land in this fjord, so we merely steamed north and west practically to the end. The scenery was more spectacular than anything we have seen, if that is possible.
As we steamed along, there were whole fields of small pieces of ice and some small icebergs. Fur seals were hauled out on some of these pieces of ice and some sea birds were flying around.
The most sought after were Snow Petrels, but when they were close to the ship, I was looking the other way, so I got no terrific images. I did manage some long distance images.
There were several glaciers ashore, one of which was at eye level as we moved by and one at the end slipped right down to the salt water.
The seas were so calm and the weather so mild that many people assembled on the focsle to view the unfolding scenes.
I was one of them. I was down on the main deck ambling around when my toe caught on a U-shaped extension at the bottom of a bit and I went ass over teakettle down on the deck. I protected the camera as I fell on my back. People came running and the ship’s doctor, who had been on the O-1 level, was down by me in what seemed like seconds. But the crazy thing was that I was not hurt at all! I think all the extra clothing must have cushioned the fall. I had no scratches or bruises the next day either. Fortunate!
On the way out of Drygalski, some folks sighted one of the rarest birds around the island: the Ice Duck, an endemic to South Georgia.
Things were so calm that Delphine decided to send Zodiacs into Larsen Harbor. Thinking (stupidly) that there would be nothing unusual to see on this little sightseeing cruise, I elected to stay aboard. It was really, really dumb, because a small number of Weddel Seals were seen, seals that are normally found only in the Antarctic. In fact, this small population is the northernmost of this species. Fortunately my new friend John Atkins did go on the cruise and has allowed me to use his photo of the seal in my upcoming book.
The plan for the afternoon was to anchor at Cooper Bay and land Zodiacs there at the only spot on the island where it was possible to see Chinstrap and Macaroni Penguins at this time of year. Unfortunately, the swells from the previous day’s strong northerlies were high enough that a safe landing was not possible so we continued north for a possible landing at Gold Harbor. There were many dolphining penguins on this transit, making for interesting photo ops.
Upon closer examination of my photos, I discovered that some of the penguins were Chinstraps, not Gentoos. I had not noticed this when I was photographing!
When we arrived at Gold Harbor and anchored, the swells were still large, so it was decided that we could not land afterall. We would hope for better conditions in the morning. A lecture was being held in the lounge after dinner when I noticed Fio Cattaneo look out the window, jump up and run out of the room. I concluded that the only thing that would cause this was a colorful sunset, so jumped up myself. I grabbed my camera from my stateroom and raced to the fantail. I was not disappointed. The sky was orange after the sun had dropped behind the mountain range. It was a sweet way to end the disappointment of not being able to land in the afternoon.
Day 14 Reveille was early this morning: 0500. I was soon out of bed, dressed and ready to leave the ship. Actually got off at 0530 and headed to the beach on a beautiful sunny day. Swells were way down, permitting an easy ride in.
There was another King Penguin colony here, as well as Southern Fur Seals and the usual Elephant Seals. What was unusual was that there was a pair of big bulls having at each other practically at the landing spot. They would fight for five minutes, pushing and shoving, and biting when they could get a grip. Then they would back off and rest for fifteen minutes or so, but never more than a few feet from each other.
They were easy to photograph and virtually every passenger who came ashore spent some time working them. Their grunts and groans were also amusing to hear, notwithstanding that this was a deadly battle for the rights to mate with a harem of fetching females. Well, maybe not alluring to a human, but to those males, a blob of brown blubber looked very enticing!
Nearby was a non-competitive bull seal who was mostly submerged in a shallow melt water pond and periodically just blew bubbles for the spectators.
Gold Harbor was simply an amazing place. There were photo ops everywhere: scenics, seals, penguins, other birds, people, the whole works. One would have to be brain dead not be inspired at this location. I was exhilerated the entire time I was ashore and thought of pinching myself regularly that I was so lucky to be experiencing this place in perfect weather. To set the context, the penguin colony and seals were on the beach in a valley below some towering, snow covered mountain peaks.
From those mountains, melt water flowed down, forming a shallow stream that was most attractive not only to the Kings, but also to seals. The penguins just stood in the stream and relaxed, sometimes preening and bathing.
Most of the colony was on dry land, however, in numbers such that one could photograph many at a time. After making the standard images, I chose to photograph just heads, for a different look.
But unlike at other colonies, there were young brown Kings right on the edge of the group, birds that came right up to visitors to check them out! This one wanted to present his entire colony to the visitors:
Near the surf line, elephant seals were packed in like sardines. Gentoo Penguins had to tiptoe through the herd to get to wherever they were headed.
Behind the big herd, the young Elephant Seals hung out, like this cute fellow that was probably only two or three weeks old, but growing fast.
Every once in awhile, a Giant Petrel appeared, either looking for its next meal or having just finished working over a cadaver. Usually that was a stillborn Elephant Seal, or one that died shortly after birth. Wildlife seemed to pay no attention to these scavengers as they trotted by. Note the blood on the head of this one.
And looking over this entire menagerie was one large fellow who believed he was the boss of the entire domain. And he let everyone know this regularly!
When our time ashore was coming to an end, I had returned to the landing site and was looking at some seals, when a baby Elephant Seal waddled right up to me. I did not move when suddenly it just came over and laid its head on my lap! I was flabbergasted as one can see in this photo. Before I got up and moved away, it had gummed my legs, thinking, I guess that there must be some milk in there somewhere!
Shortly thereafter we took the Zodiacs back to Plancius and as we ate lunch, the ship weighed anchor and moved north and west towards St Andrews Bay, home of the largest penguin colony on the island. Unfortunately, as is often the case here, the swells were too large for a safe landing, so we continued to steam further up the coast.
As we moved, the weather deteriorated so by the time we got to Ocean Harbor, it was cloudy with a little misty rain. What a contrast to the morning! As we steamed into the harbor, there was a large herd of Reindeer high on a hillside overlooking the water. Ali advised that for whatever reason, they were skittish here and would move out promptly and indeed they did.
At 1600 I landed on the beach. There was not much in the way of wildlife present, only some rusty old equipment, one piece allegedly a steam locomotive.
I made some photographs of this equipment and then walked around the end of the harbor towards the coaling ship Bayard that had run aground almost a century ago in a storm. The route was difficult because there were some rather fast moving melt water streams, as well as slushy snow and mud. One had to detour a ways from the beach to continue. Along the way, on a hillside I found two grave markers that apparently were from whalers many years ago.
There were very old whale bones along the beach as I approached the ship, bones that were again, probably 90 or more years old.
By this time the rain was coming down rather hard, the winds had picked up and it was, simply, very unpleasant. It was almost impossible to make any photographs without the lens immediately being fogged up or covered in rain drops. I made one last photo of some lichen covered rocks along the beach and returned to the landing spot as fast as my legs would go in the terrain presented.
I returned to Plancius soaking wet, at least my outer clothes, and I don’t know when a hot shower felt better!