Day 19 and 20 - The Drake Passage to Buenos Aires
After getting out of the waterproof and thermal gear following our final landing on Antarctica (and the trip), we headed to the bar for a pre-dinner drink. The sun was being quickly hidden by low cloud as we ventured out over a choppy Bransfield Strait. A small flock of about a dozen Pintados had come alongside, effortlessly gliding in the stiff breeze. Peter, Jim and I were enjoying a cold bottle of beer when Jim shouted "Antarctic Petrel!" and pointed over my shoulder and out the window. I was in mid-swig and nearly choked on the beer, carelessly placed the bottle on the counter, which was caught by Johnson (best barman on the Southern Oceans), and ran out the door in just a t-shirt and a pair of jeans. This was probably the last new bird species of the trip for me and it was one I really wanted to see. My panicked reaction to Jim's shout had piqued the interest of fellow passengers. A few arrived out on deck all wrapped up, asking had I spotted more whales. When I explained that it was an Antarctic Petrel, they grumbled and just went back inside. None too impressed. I stood outside in the freezing cold and watched the Pintado flock circle the boat a dozen times, but no sign of the Antarctic Petrel. I went back inside to continue supping on my beer. No sooner had I had my first sup when Jim shouted again! Repeat the procedure. Repeat the failure. There was always tomorrow.
The species that were coming close to the ship in the murky conditions that evening were Southern Fulmar, Pintados, Grey-headed Albatross, Wilson's Storm Petrels and Southern Giant Petrels. Nothing to turn one's nose up to. It's always a good day when one sees Albatrosses!
The following morning I was up early again on Deck 5-Aft, coffee and biscuits in hand as per usual, in search of the Antarctic Petrel. This day would be my last chance to see the bird. The Drake was not behaving itself all that well during those first 6-7 hours of the day on the deck. The seas were rolling nicely and the wind was strong and head on. While it was "interesting" to experience the Drake a little bit angry, it was only a 5-6 metre swell. Nothing like the 8-10 metre swell Jim experienced on the previous crossing of the Drake he did. I was thankful when the Drake calmed down such that it took on the appearance of the mythical "Drake Lake" for the remainder of the journey. The light improved during the day and it remained dry. It was quite a surreal journey back. A touch of melancholy mixed with bewilderment and disbelief. I did not want this to end.
The birds were starting to change as well, noticeably so from the Antarctic. The constants were Black-browed Albatross, Southern Giant Petrel, Pintado, Southern Fulmar and Wilson's Storm Petrel. Brown Skuas went past every now and then, while White-chinned Petrels and Southern Royal Albatrosses put in an appearance from time to time. One Southern Giant Petrel in particular became very interested in the ship, and flew literally inches over our heads at the stern of the boat on numerous occasions - it was an amazing thing to behold. One could hear the wind ruffle the feathers on the bird. The only disappointment was not seeing any Antarctic Petrels at all that day. Despite scouring the seas and every flock of Pintados that went by or hung about the ship, no Antarctic Petrel materialised. I was gutted. What was even worse, Johnson told me he saw one from the bar window that afternoon. I thought he was taking the piss but when he described the bird he saw to me, it was definitely an Antarctic Petrel. I was gutted.
Antarctic Prion was flying high over the ship...fantastic to see these small birds in total control in the strong winds.
The other highlights of sailing back across the Drake towards South America were very close encounters with Light-mantled Sooty Albatross, Southern Fulmar, Southern Royal Albatross, Northern Royal Albatross, Wandering Albatross, Black-browed Albatross and Antarctic Prions. It was still exciting to see these giant albatrosses coming in from distance and heading up and along the wake of the ship, looking for food and scraps. Even thinking of it now, almost a year later, I still get an adrenaline rush.
We made good time, too good in my opinion, getting back to Ushuaia. So much so that we had to anchor up outside the Beagle Channel overnight. What struck me most about this was that when were still about an hour or more away from sighting land, one could catch the spicy scent of the Patagonian forests. It was the first time in over a week or 10 days that one caught a scent of foliage or earth or plant matter. It was quite surreal on the senses to breath that scent in, to get a first whiff of land without seeing it. In fact, it was quite overwhelming. It gave one a real sense of what the early explorers must have felt like after weeks at sea to finally get a sniff of land. To be honest, I was not sure I was looking forward to getting back to civilisation, unlike the explorers who probably couldn't wait to get to land.
As we contemplated the trip we just experienced and were looking out on Cape Horn to the port side, we had an amazing close encounter with at least 3 Sperm Whales off the stern and we within touching distance of Tierra del Fuego. They were logging on the surface, breathing and just acting like typical Sperm Whales. I was delighted as it was the first time I had seen Sperm Whales alive and it was totally unexpected. The only other experience I had with Sperm Whales was of a beached and dead Sperm Whale in Dungarvan Co. Waterford, Ireland a few years back. To see them in all their glory alive and breathing was a great moment for me. Chilean Skuas were flying overhead that evening and gave everyone (well, me at least) a sense that we had definitely left the magical world of South Georgia and Antartica far, far behind.
The final night on board consisted of a farewell dinner, the Captain's speech and swapping of email addresses and contact details. During the farewell speech from Cheli Larsen, the Expedition Leader, the total piss was taken out of me for not seeing Antarctic Petrel on the trip, despite spending a minimum of 18 hours a day staring at the sea! A lovely image of the species was put up for all to see so that everyone could show me what it looks like when it flies by! Antarctic Petrel has now become my ultimate bogey bird, my arch nemesis of the Antarctic seas.
It was sad saying good bye to some great people I met on board, and to the fantastic staff who worked on the trip. The slideshow from the DVD we received at the end of the trip was also shown in the lounge that evening, with some great images of the Polar Plunge crew as they, including me, jumped in (proof I did it is below!).
The passengers and field staff from our trip...can you spot where I am?
To say it was cold is an understatement! My cousin Peter and I doing the Polar Plunge. It was Peter's second time doing it!
After packing my bag in a solemn mood the night before, and after a deep sleep, I woke at dawn to find that we were pulling in and docking at Ushuaia. It was sad having to leave the ship. I had had a wonderful time and made some friends along the way. It was also brilliant, and fitting, to share the experience with my uncle and cousin, Jim and Peter. After all, it was Jim who started me birdwatching as a kid and it was in one of his seabird books I had first seen a depiction of the Cape Pigeon (Pintado) that I had dreamt of seeing all my life. It made the trip for me very special indeed.
Not a happy camper having to leave the ship and go back to Buenos Aires, before heading home to Dublin.
We departed the ship after a hearty breakfast in the morning, and headed to a cafe in Ushuaia to get a coffee and some WIFI. I had not checked my email, turned on my phone or tuned into the outside world for 3 weeks. It was bliss being totally unplugged. I got a bit of a fright to see how many personal emails I had to trawl through and I was getting the Glenroes thinking about how many work emails I would have to go through when I was back in the office! I had a final coffee and bite to eat with Jim and Peter, said my goodbyes and went to the local airport for the 3 hour flight to Buenos Aires. Being back in Buenos Aires was horrible (going from sub-zero to +35C was a shock to the system). So, once I got to the hotel room, showered and refreshed, I went out for a quiet stroll and a coffee down the side streets near the hotel. It was very strange sitting down, having a coffee and watching the world go by. The noises, smells, sounds, sights, the frantic pace, the constant delivery of information...the senses were being attacked from all angles and I really didn't want it! Hence, I returned to my room, ordered a steak and some Malbec (when in Rome...), a local beer and slept like a baby in a bed that did not move. The following day, it was back to London and Dublin...back to reality. Back to the stresses and strains of 21st Century life.
And so has ended a trip of a lifetime and a journey I will never forget. Thank you all for sticking through the blog posts and images. I hope that you have enjoyed reading them as much as I have enjoyed writing them. I have priceless memories and thousands of images to remind me of how lucky I was to travel to these magical lands. I just hope that the Antarctic Treaty is signed by all (including my own country, Ireland!) and that this wondrous place is never touched by man's hands again. I hope that I can get back down there again to finally see my Antarctic nemesis, the Antarctic Petrel, before it is too late.
Keywords: Albatross, Birds, Canon, Carmody, Carmody, Jim Wilson, Mark Carmody, Penguin, Photo, Photography, Plunge, Quark, South, South Georgia, Steak, Whale, bird, petrel
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