Day 8 - Thar' she blows!!..and the Shag Rocks

February 08, 2015  •  1 Comment

Another dawn, another coffee, more biscuits and more seabirds, albeit a bit quieter than the day before. A full day steaming at sea lay ahead. A thick fog lingered for most of the day, only lifting for short periods. The fog had an interesting effect on the seabirds. It basically prevented them from being seen! It also prevented the birds from seeing the ship and so there were not so many species or volume of birds around the ship. The usual suspects were around the ship: Black-browed Albatross, Northern and Southern Giant Petrels, Cape Petrel, Antarctic Prions, White-chinned Petrels and Wilson's Storm-Petrels. The sea was very calm, very flat which meant little wind, ergo, few albatross.

Calm seaCalm sea

Fog from the bow. Visibility only okay.

Northern Giant PetrelNorthern Giant Petrel

Northern Giant Petrel through the gloom. Visibility decreasing. 

Wilson's Storm PetrelWilson's Storm Petrel

Wilson's Storm Petrel in a clear moment.

White-chinned PetrelWhite-chinned Petrel

White-chinned Petrel

Antarctic PrionAntarctic Prion

Antarctic Prion.

I popped in and out of the indoors, from Deck 4 Aft, Deck 3 for the Prion images, the dining room for breakfast, the bar area to grab coffee (and biscuits) and the lounge area for some talks on geology, birds and blubber. As the day progressed, there was a distinct aroma in the air. A thick, rich and slightly ammoniac air. It smelt familiar, in a seabird colony sort of way. But we were miles from land, at least 36 hours from Falklands/Las Malvinas and at least 18 hours from South Georgia. Then, an Imperial Shag flew past the stern. Then another. And another. The smell was indeed bird poo. It was Imperial Shag poo. We must be approaching the Shag Rocks! It was so foggy, however, that there was nothing to see. The race of Imperial Shag found in these waters is known as the South Georgia Shag. South Georgia Shags have white cheeks (the Falkland Island Shag has black cheeks) and a distinct demarcation line between the white cheek and black chin and hindneck. Exciting to think we were that we were closer to South Georgia than to the Las Malvinas/Falklands, and a long way from home. 

South Georgia ShagSouth Georgia Shag South Georgia (Imperial) Shag flying very close to the ship through the fog. Note the white cheeks and distinct demarcation line between white cheek and dark face.

South Georgia ShagSouth Georgia Shag South Georgia Shag (Imperial Shag) -  sub-adult.

South Georgia ShagSouth Georgia Shag South Georgia Shag (Imperial Shag )- adult.

Over the tannoy came an announcement in Cheli's best New Zealand drawl: "We are now approaching the Shag Rocks". The smell we were experiencing was a good indicator after all! The collection of six small islands appeared in the distance through the undulating movement of the fog as it lifted and dropped constantly. We were warned previously that we may have an opportunity to see the islands but it would all depend on weather and fog. Too stormy, and it would too dangerous to approach; too foggy, and it still might be too dangerous to approach. The Shag Rocks are about 250km west of South Georgia and about 1,000km off the Las Malvinas/Falklands. Luckily for us, the fog lifted and we were in a position to make an approach on the Shag was a very cool thing to see. They reminded me a lot of the Stag Rocks off the south-west coast of Ireland and I kept referring to the Shag Rocks as the Stag Rocks all day beacuse of that! I think I confused both myself and the passengers!

From the ship, we could clearly see the fronds of Giant Kelp fastened to the base of the rocks, just where the water washed over the rocks. Hundreds of Imperial Shags were dotted around the islands, with Black-browed Albatross and Wandering Albatross soaring around the peaks and bases. It was quite an impressive sight. The Shags were busy nesting and carrying nesting materials to and from the rocks. Where they were getting the organic matter to line the rock edges was a mystery. 

Shag RocksShag Rocks Shag RocksShag Rocks Shag Rocks and WaveShag Rocks and Wave South Georgia Shags on Shag RockSouth Georgia Shags on Shag Rock South Georgia Shags on Shag RockSouth Georgia Shags on Shag Rock Shag Rocks

As we headed in towards the Rocks, the captain brought in the stabilisers from the ship. It was incredible how much of a difference the make to the stability of the ship. While it was not rough, there was probably a 2m swell with a lot of time in between the waves. However, the ship really rolled. It was quite something. As we changed course and started moving onwards again, we spotted a large, bushy blow from a whale not too far away and in towards the Shag Rocks. Once we were locked on to its position, it dived and a large stocky tail lifted straight up in the air and down. Some thought it was a Humpback whale but Peter Wilson and I didn't agree. The tailstock was nothing like a Humpback and the general shape of the tail was not that of a Humpback. The stock was thick and the tail flukes were too broad and deep. I wondered if it was a Sperm Whale. With the difference of opinion on its ID, it was decided to turn the ship around and head back in to see if we could find the whale again.

As we were slowly approaching the area where we saw the whale initially another blow materialised and the head was clearly seen..."look at the [insert expletive here] callosities on that!!!" was shouted and all our initial theories on the ID were thrown overboard! This was a SOUTHERN RIGHT WHALE!!!!! A new species of whale for many on board, including some of the experienced expedition crew. The whale logged on the surface for a while, arching its back resulting in the head and tail both at the surface. After 5-6 minutes, the whale continued to dive and finally disappeared from our view. What a moment. High-fives everywhere. Smiles all around. Two major whale sightings in two days. This trip was exceeding expectations already. 

Southern Right WhaleSouthern Right Whale

A blow from the Southern Right Whale.

Southern Right WhaleSouthern Right Whale Southern Right Whale clearly showing the callosities on its head, with a South Georgia Shag in the background

Finally leaving the Southern Right Whale to themselves, we pushed on towards South Georgia and the fog lifted. As it did so, we could see more and more out towards the horizon. Some Southern Fulmars and Southern Royal Albatrosses found the ship, as did a couple of Grey-headed Albatross. Northern Giant Petrels were flying close to the ship, as were Black-browed Albtrasses and Cape Petrels. Antarctic Prions began to show in bigger numbers. A couple of Northern Royal Albatross were picked out amongst the large albatross following in the ship's wake. It was turning into a nice relaxing afternoon of seawatching after the excitement of the Shag Rocks and our Southern Right Whale encounter. 

Northern Giant PetrelNorthern Giant Petrel Northern Giant Petrel

Black-browed AlbatrossBlack-browed Albatross Black-browed Albatross flies very close to the stern of the ship. Just stunning. 

Then, as if out of nowhere, there were blubber blows all around the ship. Up to a dozen whales were actively coming to the surface and they were all Humpback Whales. Of that we were certain. I was up on the gangway around the bridge to get a better all-round view of the horizon. News of the sightings went out over the tannoy and the vast majority of the passengers were out on deck. The most I'd seen out on deck at any one time (and was to be for the rest of the trip), clearly demonstrating the lure of Humpback Whales. A particular group of Humpback became very curious and came right up to the ship. Great views were had by all and the photographs obtained by some passengers were excellent. The water is so clear here that it is quite easy to see whales coming up to surface from a few metres down. The air was punctuated with lots of "oohs" and "aahs" as the whales performed for the ship, spy-hopping and tail fluking. 

Humpback Whale blowHumpback Whale blow Humpback Whale surfaces right by the ship.

Humpback Whale TriumvirateHumpback Whale Triumvirate Three of the Humpback Whales that came close to the ship, with the smallest of the three (on the left) spy-hopping.

Humpback WhaleHumpback Whale Two of the Humpback Whales that came close to the ship

I was unfortunate not to be in the right position on the ship when the Humpbacks came right alongside. The expedition leader said that it was the first time they had ever had Humpback Whales come up to the ship like that. It couldn't have gone any better. While I missed getting decent images of the Humpback Whales alongside the ship, I did manage to capture images of the two adult Humpbacks as they tail-fluked before diving. The underside of a Humpback's tail is like a fingerprint and is unique to each individual. I must determine where I can send these images to to catalogue the whales and see whether these whales have already been recorded in the Southern Ocean before. 

Humpback pair tailsHumpback pair tails The flukes of two of the Humpbacks we saw.

All in all, a fantastic day out on the sea. Plenty of whale action but a slower day on the seabird front. However, it was great witnessing the passenger's enjoyment of the scene of the friendly and playful Humpback whales. These are the stories that they will bring back home with them and hopefully inspire others (and themselves) to help secure our planet's future. 



Jim Fitzharris(non-registered)

I am reading your blog with great interest and salivating all the while!

Great write-up and stunning photos!

My retirement beckons in a couple of years and I already have a cunning plan to blow a large blue whale-sized hole in the lump sum ....


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