Snow Petrel - Antarctic Ocean 2016

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Saturday, 31 December 2016

Antarctic Voyage Part 7 - The Drake Passage/Cape Horn

We still had several hours of watching after leaving the South Shetlands, but the bird activity was low with probably the highlight being several Chinstrap Penguins leaping out of the water. Certainly our last Antarctic Petrel of the trip was seen, again mixed in with several Cape Petrels.

My intentions for my last full day in the open ocean was to be spent up on the bridge. The famous Drake Passage had thankfully not lived up to its name and we got through the full day without a fuss with blue skies and relatively calm seas allowing a pleasant day. Our closest Grey-headed Albatross of the trip looked superb in the terrific light conditions. Also, we were now starting to see the Great Albatrosses again, all looking huge after seeing only Black-broweds for the previous few days.

On our last full day, I was up early, mainly because during the night I spent most of my time rolling from one side of my bed to another. The swell was crazy and sleep was almost impossible. Thankfully the swell had calmed down by the morning and we were treated to sublime views of Southern Royal Albatrosses that were flying right underneath the bow. Also one of very few Diving-Petrels seen during the day turned out to be a very well marked Magellanic. This meant only one thing, South America was right in front of us. Land meant Penguins, and Tom spotted two Penguins sat on the water that looked initially like Thick-billed Murres, but were in fact Rockhopper Penguins.

Due to such an early arrival to near the entrance of the Beagle Channel, it was arranged for us to sail west and get within three nautical miles of Cape Horn. We sailed extremely slowly but this worked out very well. Tom having been on pelagics off New Zealand, expertly picked out a surprise Westland Petrel. Although the sea remained calm for the day, a good range of species were seen. Peale's Dolphins finished off our voyage by performing for Simon and myself off the bow doing some exceptional displays. The evening was spent saying fair well to an excellent crew and all the people we had got to know over the 19 days. After dinner a final flurry of Dolphin activity and a spectacular sunset whilst thinking back to an overwhelming couple of weeks was very fitting. I hope one day I get to return to the southern oceans in the way I did here, but if not, I'm so pleased the opportunity arose and I will never forget what I experienced.

Highlights for the last few days are as follows:

Gentoo Penguin
Chinstrap Penguin
Rockhopper Penguin
Magellanic Penguin
Wandering Albatross
Southern Royal Albatross
Northern Royal Albatross
Grey-headed Albatross
Black-browed Albatross - huge numbers
Northern Giant Petrel
Antarctic Petrel
Blue Petrel
Slender-billed Prion
Magellanic Diving-Petrel
Westland Petrel - 1
Manx Shearwater
Great Shearwater - 1 and only bird of the trip
Chilean Skua

South American Sealion
Peale's Dolphin
Dusky Dolphin
Fin Whale
Humpback Whale

That is it now for my epic 5 week trip. I hope at least someone has enjoyed it and also now strongly considers the option of going down to Antarctica, and if you do.......go to South Georgia while you're there.

 an adult Grey-headed Albatross
 leaving the South Shetlands Cape Petrels were in good numbers
 our second and last Antarctic Petrel
 a heavily cropped Magellanic Diving-Petrel - showing the white collar patch and clean white underwing
 Southern Royal Albatross - amazing views of this gentle giant
 Northern Giant Petrel
 Peale's Dolphins
 Chilean Skua
 yet another close encounter of an Albatross - this time a Black-browed Albatross

 Cape Horn - the southern tip of South America

 Peale's Dolphins having a great time
our final sunset on board the MV Plancius.




Antarctic Voyage Part 6 - Antarctica

Day 14
This morning I was straight out on deck as straight ahead and to the side of us was the continent of Antarctica. The sea was flat calm and the temperature was not too bad considering where we was. Small groups of Adelie Penguins were on the numerous icebergs, and didn't take a liking to the ship and quickly ran off into the freezing sea. A couple of Crabeater and Weddell Seals were seen lounging around. The setting was just superb though. Everyone was completely quiet, no doubt taking in the peace and tranquillity of the area. With the sea being so calm there was almost a mirror image of the sky, and added with some cool looking icebergs, there isn't too much else to be said. After breakfast, a steep brown hillside in the distance was to be our destination, the aptly named Brown Bluff. This was our first and only landing on the continent but it was a brilliant one. Getting up close and personal with some busy Adelie Penguins going about their business, and then walking up a glacier to then just chilling by the waters edge and taking in a very unique experience. The three hours on land went too quickly and before long we were back on the Plancius, but as the weather was perfect, the captain decided to slowly head south down the Weddell Sea through the ice. Again, another lucky excursion that led to a few Whale sightings, and getting within ca. 28 miles of an Emperor Penguin colony, and although it was exciting knowing this, it was hard to take when we turned around and headed back north. Ploughing through icebergs was very good to witness, but not quite as good as the Humpback Whales that performed admirably just as the wind was starting to get up. It had been an unforgettable day, that was all too soon sadly over.






Adelie Penguins doing their thing
 setting foot on Antarctica



a tame Weddell Seal taken from the zodiac
a common sight in the Weddell Sea
a close Humpback Whale
Day 15
Overnight we had sailed down the western side of the peninsular down the Bransfield Strait. I was feeling slightly under the weather so decided to lay in for a bit longer, and this inevitably resulted in me missing something. That something was in fact a Leopard Seal........gutted!! Plan C came into force for the morning and we landed on D'hainaut Island at Mikkelson Harbour. This island was relatively small and held a small Gentoo Penguin colony, some Weddell Seals and at long last a very good look at a pair of Antarctic Shags. The island was mainly just snow, but this did give us a chance to take a look at the Penguin behaviour as they meandered down their 'Penguin paths', and then swimming around in the shallows.
The wind had unfortunately got worse and put a halt to any more landings around the peninsular, so drastic action was taken by the captain to sail at full speed north to the South Shetland Islands. It was a tad shame to leave Antarctica so abruptly, but its something that has to be accepted down here. Humpback Whales were the main focal point heading north with numerous encounters.
Our target island was Deception Island that just so happened to be an active volcano. It erupts roughly every forty years, and this year was its 44th year without erupting.
The entrance to the island was spectacular with sheer cliffs either side which then opened out to a large bay that was thankfully sheltered enabling a landing here. The area was extremely desolate, with old buildings that had been taken out by previous volcanic activity. The highlight was a Wilson's Storm-Petrel that flew around us obviously under a bit of distress. It was soon apparent it had a nest around a destroyed out-building, so we left it be, though it was great to see one so close and on land and watching it walk into its 'cave'. A paler South Polar Skua was also hanging out on the beach allowing close approach.
The day ended with myself and four others going for a very quick swim in the bay. The temperature of the water was roughly 2 celcius, so the swim lasted roughly 10 seconds. We sailed north after ready for our last landings tomorrow.


Gentoo Penguins
Antarctic Shags

Day 16
Our expedition leader managed to allow us a landing on Half Moon Island before breakfast. This was brilliant news as this held a large Chinstrap Penguin colony. These guys were so funny to watch a they went about their business. This Penguin is known as the toughest Penguin, able to climb up slopes that humans need ropes etc for, and with ease. Despite the constant light snow falling and not the greatest light, it was fantastic to see our penultimate Penguin colony.
Next up was our last landing of the trip further north up the South Shetlands. Our final port of call was Robert Point, and what a fine ending it was. We had to cross an active Chinstrap path, then another Gentoo colony, to then come across some angry Elephant Seals on the beach. The sounds of all the animals was very atmospheric and a terrific ending to our time in the deep south. We set sail once more and by the evening we had entered the notorious Drake's Passage, but was the sea state going to treat us well?



 Chinstrap Penguins
 Elephant Seals - even I wouldn't cuddle up to these
 entering Deception Island
 one of a few destroyed buildings on Deception
an obvious Wilson's Storm-Petrel nest - the water behind is what I swam in.










Antarctic Voyage Part 5 - S. Georgia to Antarctica

Day 11
A full day out at sea today that provided a lot of interest despite what we had forecasted. The weather was grim all day with the outside decks being closed for most of the day. However from the bridge wings a great total of Kerguelen Petrels was witnessed, with a minimum of 21 birds seen passing the ship throughout the day. There was also a great showing of Snow Petrels today, with perhaps 80+ birds encountered. Also our first noticeable number of Southern Fulmars were seen. A productive day.


 Snow Petrel in a perfect setting
 Kerguelen Petrel
Light-mantled Albatross

Day 12
Today was the coldest day of the entire trip, that was inevitably influenced by the 35 knot wind. At the stern of the ship a large gathering of Cape Petrels were following the boat, and mixed in was a superb Antarctic Petrel. It tracked the boat for about an hour providing superb views, and just as well as this was only one of two birds seen throughout the entire trip, much to my surprise. Midway through the morning land came into view and it was the South Orkney Islands. Even though we wanted to land here, it was extremely difficult but somehow we got on. The captain had anchored as close as he could to provide as much shelter as possible. This enabled a zodiac landing at the Argentinian base of Orcadas, established in 1904 on Laurie Island. At the landing area, the sea was full of Cape Petrels with an estimated 600 birds counted taking shelter from the wind. On the beach our final species of Penguin was on view, the rather cute Adelie Penguin, with three birds looking as unimpressed with the weather as we were. Despite the relentless wind, an Argentinian worker showed us around the meteorological station and museum. A very interesting site and a lucky treat to have landed here. Back on board we slowly sailed away and continued towards the continent. With the islands still in view, we were treated to a spectacular display of feeding Fin Whales that for around twenty minutes fed around the boat. The birding from here onwards to dark was relatively the same as this morning with little variety.

 Antarctic Petrel


 Cape Petrels taking refuge
 our first Adelie Penguin

 one of the five Fin Whales that surrounded our boat

 Orcadas
South Orkney Islands

Day 13
A brilliant day today but not really for the birds. We woke up to an almost flat calm sea and a scattering of small icebergs that stretched for miles. Halfway through the morning a large Dutch sailing ship came into view and had apparently set sail from The Netherlands. There was little in the way of variety today in regards to the birding, but stacks of Cape Petrels followed the ship for most of the morning. However, now being in much cooler waters, Whales stole the show for the day and overall we saw numerous Southern Bottlenose Whales and Fin Whales. Large islands were coming into view and we knew that when the next morning dawned, the great continent of Antarctica would be in view.

Totals for the few days are as follows:
Adelie Penguin
Chinstrap Penguin
Wandering Albatross
Light-mantled Albatross
Antarctic Petrel
Snow Petrel
Kerguelen Petrel - 21
Blue Petrel
Antarctic Prion
Black-bellied Storm-Petrel
South Georgia Shag

Fin Whale
Southern Bottlenose Whale - including a pod of 14 animals

 Southern Fulmar
 a brilliant start to the day sailing past these bergs

 Southern Bottlenose Whales, and a Wilson's Storm-Petrel
Elephant Island - now getting close to the continent