Days 13 to 15 - Retracing Shackleton's steps to Elephant Island, Antarctica
It's been quite a while since I updated the blog. It has been a busy few of months for me, for many reasons. One of the main reasons was that I was fortunate to spend two weeks on board the M.V. National Geographic Explorer (operated by Lindblad) sailing around the British and Irish Isles. My purpose on board was as a Naturalist (read that carefully), showing people the wildlife we encountered, giving a talk on Seabirds and generally managing the passengers expectations on board. To say I loved it would be an understatement! There was not much time for concentrated photography, but I did manage to get a few here and there. But more of that anon. Now it's back to the reason you are here.
A huge(!)tabular iceberg indicated we were heading south and into the polar waters of Antarctica. This was 10km long!
Following the mind-bending ending to the South Georgia leg of the trip, we headed southwest towards the Antarctic continent. We spent two days at sea, essentially tracing, in reverse, the route that Shackleton, Crean and Worsley & Co. took to get get from Elephant Island to South Georgia. This was to take us two full days from leaving South Georgia to reaching Elephant Island. Along the way, we experienced some variable sea-states, with one of the days a bit nastier than normal. The wind was getting colder and wilder. Snow started to become a regular occurrence and the second day at sea was hampered by fog. Icebergs, LARGE icebergs started making appearances. I was buzzing again. The emotional exhaustion from the South Georgian experience was replaced with the excitement and anticipation of what was to come.
Light-mantled Sooty Albatross
Southern Giant Petrel ('White Nellie')
Southern Giant Petrels
The birds played ball as well, with albatross (Light-mantled Sooty, Grey-headed, Black-browed), petrels (Northern Giant, Southern Giant Cape, Snow, Blue, White-chinned, Wilson's Storm, Black-bellied Storm, Diving), penguins (King and Chinstrap), Antarctic Prion, Southern Fulmar and Brown Skua. These were the species that were pretty much evident each day at sea, but at much lower numbers than we were used to seeing. A white-phase Southern Giant Petrel (known as White Nellies) was a real treat.
A very pale-headed Light-mantled Sooty Albatross
Light-mantled Sooty Albatross
It was getting colder and colder out on deck. Despite the layers and two pairs of gloves, my hands would be the first to go cold. I would nip into the bar and grab a coffee. Defrost for 10 minutes, carefully scanning the Pintado (Cape) Petrels for a stray Antarctic Petrel, and venture back out again. But the cold and the numbness was soon forgotten when we stumbled upon a massive gathering of large blubber...there were Humpback and Fin Whale blows as far as the eye could see! I estimated that at least 35 Humpback Whales and at least 30 Fin Whales. We also saw 10 Antarctic Minke Whale and, unexpectedly, 6 Southern Bottlenose Whales. Another new whale species for me and others on the ship. It was also incredible to see Antarctic Fur Seals so far out to sea and away from land.
Southern Bottlenose Whales (heavy crops) Humpback Whales
The second day at sea came to an end and we all went to bed with the knowledge that the morning would bring us to quite an historic venue...Elephant Island and Point Wild.
We were greeted on our first morning at the South Shetland Islands with a dissipating fog, wind, heavy seas and snow. Not to mention bitterly cold temperatures. Damian and I were up on deck early, as usual. When we ventured out, there lay Elephant Island and Point Wild in all its mythical glory. Point Wild is a point 11 km (6.8 mi) west of Cape Valentine and 2 km (1.2 mi) east of Saddleback Point on the north coast of Elephant Island, in the South Shetland Islands of Antarctica. It was named Cape Wild by the Shackleton Endurance expedition of 1914-16, but was later changed to Point Wild to avoid confusion with Cape Wild on George V Coast. It was named for Frank Wild, leader of the party from Shackleton's shipwrecked expedition. What I noticed first upon gazing at the area where Shackleton's men hunkered down for 4 months until being rescued in August 1916 was that it was so, so desolate. The cliffs were sheer, steep and imposing. The glaciers swept down into the ocean without providing any break. There was so little shoreline here. So little to hold onto. They spent the Antarctic winter there. It must have been hell. It was so difficult, almost 100 years later, trying to imagine what it must have been like. Here I was, layered up with Merino Wool base layers, thermal mid-layers and windproof, insulated outer layers, not to mention thermal underwear and wind-proof pants, hats, gloves, neck warmer...you get the picture. And I still felt the cold. They did not have all that current technology can provide, nor did they have a heated ship with fantastic food and a constant supply of hot water and hot drinks. It is mindboggling to think what they had to endure and how incredible their sense of survival must have been. Having been here now, these adventurers are held in my highest esteem. Truly remarkable.
Point Wild and the bust of Captain Pardo (the Chilean Captain of the tug Yelcho that rescued the men, with Shackleton on board) A view of Point Wild, Elephant Island from the ship in the morning gloaming.
We stayed in the area for an hour or more. I really couldn't tell how long to be honest. It was not possible to land on Point Wild, or even Elephant Island along this coast, due to the direction of the wind, its strength and the state of the tide. We would have to find a more sheltered bay and set foot on Elephant Island at a different site. However, we were still treated to hundreds, if not thousands, of Chinstrap Penguins along the snow-covered slopes. How these intrepid birds get up the slopes here is a head-scratcher. They, rather than the Rockhoppers, are known as the climbers of the penguin family. Quite remarkable little birds.
Chinstraps as far as the eye could see on the mountainsides. Amazing.
After our fill of Point Wild, we headed off around the corner to a sheltered bay so that we could take a Zodiac cruise and step foot on the hallowed "turf" of Elephant Island. On our way around the corner we came across a lot of icebergs, some with Chinstrap or Gentoo Penguins idling standing around, or with Brown Skuas floating overhead looking for an easy meal. Gentoo Penguins porpoised out of the water, while Black-bellied Petrels dragged their left leg in a characteristic fashion as the fed ahead of the wash from the ship's bow. The landscape was truly remarkable. Quite surreal after South Georgia, which now seemed like an age when, in fact, only a couple of days had passed. Time just seems to behave differently down here, or maybe it just behaved differently for me.
Antarctic Brown Skua Black-bellied Petrel, dragging its left leg in the water as it fed in front of the wash from the ship's bow. A typical sight. Southern Fulmar in the snow. A porpoising Gentoo Penguin An iceberg with an Antarctic Brown Skua sitting on top. An Elephant Island glacier Chinstrap Penguins chilling out on an iceberg
As we rounded the corner into the sheltered bay, one could smell the penguin rookeries. It was quite something. There was a big colony of Macaroni Penguins here. A few of the staff went out on a scouting mission to see if they could land anywhere and to see what was about. After about 20 minutes, the guys came back and the other Zodiac drivers buzzed and jostled for position at the marine deck at the stern of the ship. We were dispatched into our Zodiacs, all wrapped up in a lot of layers to combat the wind chill and snow. The temperatures certainly plummeted since yesterday.
Antarctic Brown Skua
We ventured out and were provided a fantastic taste of life ashore on Elephant Island. I was in the Zodiac with Colin Baird (a very interesting man who helped to rehabilitate Keiko or "Free Willy"), while Peter Wilson was shadowing us with his passengers. The area we were now touring was a bit more sheltered. However, the waves were still quite choppy and the snow was still driving across our faces. It was cold and uncomfortable but to be honest, who cares?! Where we were was sensational. I had my gloves off because I couldn't operate the shutter and buttons on the camera. It was bitter. But the sights of Macaroni Penguins, Chinstrap Penguins and my first Adelie Penguin made up for the cold. While we did miss a Leopard Seal, we did some more Elephant Seals and some nice views of Snowy Sheathbills as well. The views of all the species were close, spectacular and mesmerising. As a couple of small 'bergs had grounded themselves along the shore of Elephant Island, which gave us a chance to drive around and over one of them! The 'berg had been weathered and beaten to a U-shape, so the Zodiacs could drift across between the two sides...very cool.
Peter Wilson with his, very cold-looking, passengers. It was a bit lumpy, which made for difficult photographic conditions, particularly in the low light and snow.
Mating Snowy Sheathbills amongst none-too-impressed Chinstrap Penguins
Macaroni Penguin colony
Some nice grounded icebergs were about - we went over this one!
We also had a chance to land and step foot on Elephant Island. A bucket list tick for many people on board. We had fantastic close views of Chinstrap and Gentoo Penguin at the landing site, with a sleep female Elephant Seal ignoring us. The Sheathbills were curious as ever and came over to investigate everything and everyone. We had literally 5 minutes ashore before we had to get back on the Zodiac and continue our tour of the area. We stumbled across a sleeping flock of Pintado on the water, which allowed us to get quite close. They were chattering away amongst themselves. It was a great sound. We were also very lucky to stumble upon a moving party of Macaroni Penguins coming down to enter the sea from their breeding colony. It was the best views of Macaroni Penguins we had all trip. They are really beautiful penguins, with their colourful feathering and bills. It was also a great opportunity to see Chinstraps really up close, with their vibrant pink legs and pinky glow to their underwings.
Chinstrap Penguin A Gentoo Penguin legging it out of the water, looking very clean. We later found out that there was a Leopard Seal in the water, but our Zodiac did not see it...
A dirty Chinstrap Penguin going down to the sea for a well-deserved wash. A Chinstrap Penguin checks us out, while a young female Elephant Seal snoozes without paying us any attention at all The always-curious Snowy Sheathbill on the seashore of Elephant Island. Hard to believe that this is classed as a Wader! Macaroni Penguins in all their splendour
After the incredible Zodiac tour around the bay, and despite the bittersweet moment of missing the first Leopard Seal of the trip, it was time to get back in the ship, warm up and shelter from the deteriorating weather. We were out on the water for about 3.5 hours so a lot of people had had enough. I would have stayed out there all day. Even as we made our way south-west towards the Antarctic peninsula, the landscape did not fail to impress. We passed Gibbs Island, with its stark landscape and grounded icebergs. It was a sight to behold. The size of some of the tabular icebergs that floated past us were phenomenal. Quite a sight...
A resting flock of Pintados. Tough birds. Southern Fulmar South Shetland Islands and an big tabular iceberg As big as ships A big tabular iceberg grounded near the shoreline of Gibbs Island The fantastic spectacle of a grounded Antarctic iceberg against Gibbs Island. A tad surreal.
It was with bated breath that I went to sleep that night, knowing that what lay ahead the following morning would take all who have never been here by total surprise. I was more than excited. Despite the tiredness from the 6am appointments on deck, I couldn't wait to get up in the morning and freeze my proverbials off in the Antarctic conditions.
Keywords: Albatross, Albatross, Antarctica, Canon, Canon Professional Network, Carmody, Expedition, Fur Seal, Jim Wilson, Mark Carmody, Penguin, Photography, Quark, Seal, South, South Georgia, Whale
No other words.
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