Day 7 - on the Southern Ocean heading to South Georgia
Dawn broke under a low cloud, with some fog and drizzle surrounding the ship. Not ideal weather conditions for photography. Nevertheless, I donned the waterproofs, thermals, neck warmer, hat, gloves and cameras, and headed straight to the bar! Not for a pint but for a mug of strong coffee and some shortbread biscuits to get the brain going at 6am. As soon as I stepped outside to my spot at Deck 4 Aft, the wind chill was very noticeable. We were heading south, towards South Georgia and the ice of Antarctica, and is was much colder than we had experienced as of yet. Throw the drizzle and fog in, and it made for an uncomfortable first hour. However, despite the cold, once I cast my watering eyes out to the sea, all I could see was clouds of Prions. They were everywhere! Antarctic Prions to boot, with a handful of Thin-billed (or Slender-billed) Prions as well. They were circling the ship and it was difficult to concentrate on individuals as they were wheeling around so quickly. Northern Giant Petrels and Cape Petrels were in evidence, with a single Brown Skua causing a bit of havoc.
A quick look around the corner into the biting wind, I could see a nice group of Wilson's Storm Petrel off the bow albeit a bit distant. I walked quickly to the bow and quickly picked up a Grey-backed Storm Petrel in amongst the group. If the brain hadn't been quite awake yet, it certainly was now with my heart galloping and the adrenaline flowed. Again, the bird was distant so no photographs. I was hoping to pick up some Common Diving Petrels but none materialised despite my best efforts in the polar wind. After the rush of seeing another Grey-backed Storm Petrel, I headed back to the shelter of the Deck 4 Aft and the cloud of Antarctic Prions. I was no sooner back and settled into my nook when I picked up some big albatrosses coming along the wash of the ship...more Wandering Albatross, with Southern Royal Albatross thrown in for good measure. We had four Wanderers in amongst the Prions and Giant Petrels that morning. Black-browed Albatross were also evident and continued to be around the ship for the entire day.
Wandering Albatross (sub-adult) shortly after dawn
Wandering Albatross (juvenile) in amongst Antarctic Prion
Wandering Albatross (sub-adult) with Antarctic Prion
Southern Giant Petrel with Antarctic Petrel
In amongst the Prions were also some White-chinned Petrels, Grey-headed Albatross and the ever-present Black-browed Albatross. Southern Royal Albatross began to make an appearance as we headed further south. A couple of Great Shearwater and Sooty Shearwater brought a familiar feel to proceedings, as they are the typical large shearwaters we see of the coast of Ireland during Autumn, but the blizzard of Antarctic Prion they were flying amongst reorientated the geography in my head.
Southern Royal Albatross in amongst the Antarctic Prion with a Black-browed Albatross in the background
Southern Royal Albatross in amongst the Antarctic Prion with a Black-browed Albatross in the background
White-chinned Petrel with Antarctic Prion
Late morning, Jim was giving a talk on the albatrosses and seabirds we should expect on the route down to South Georgia. I grabbed a coffee and some more biscuits (thank goodness for elasticated pants), and headed down to the lounge. Like a typical male mass-goer of old, I sat down the back of the room to ensure I could sneak away should I see anything through the window. With one eye on the screen and my full aural attention, I kept one eye on the window. From where I was sitting, I could see Southern Royal Albatross, Giant and Cape Petrels and Prions glide by. Then, a large all dark shearwater or albatross, glided past the window. Then it glided past again...sweet baby jesus it was a Light-mantled Sooty Albatross!! I quietly legged it out of the room and up on deck. There, flying around the ship and in amongst the melee of Antarctic Prions and Black-browed Albatross were a handful of Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses. And such incredible beasts!! All grace and beauty in a streamlined form. They just glided effortlessly around the ship, sometimes at head height, and at times flying in parallel in a courtship dance. A dream bird to see and I was like a kid in a sweetshop. I think some of the passengers thought I was bonkers, jumping up and down, running around like a headless chicken, screaming obscenities in the excitement when an albatross flew by or a Cape Petrel flew within a foot of my head. This is what it was all about. This is what the utterance of Southern Oceans conjures up for me in my mind. Clouds of seabirds and majestic albatrosses. This day did not disappoint.
Light-mantled Sooty Albatross
Light-mantled Sooty Albatross with a Black-browed Albatross
After the excitement of the Light-mantled Sooties, I scanned the area for what else could be out there. I came upon a small feeding flock of Giant Petrels and then noticed a small shearwater skirt by. I couldn't believe it. I followed it but it kept quite a ways out and never came in too close. I rattled off a few images and kept watching it. I managed to get one of the passengers standing next to me on to it with their camera (few passengers had binoculars) and he managed to get a few more images. It is possible to get Manx Shearwater down this far south, but it would be rare. The only other species I could think of off the top of my head was Little Shearwater. The bird flew onwards and was lost to sight. I had resigned that encounter as one that got away.
After lunch, I was hanging out with Jim on Deck 5 aft for the "wildlife hour", where Jim and Colin Baird point out to the passengers any birds and any whales encountered. We were scanning the area when Jim picked up an Atlantic Petrel coming in towards the ship. I got on to the bird and was delighted to connect with this species. While they do occur in this region, it is not always guaranteed to see one. A full fledged tick!! In the end, we had at least 5 individuals in the space of an hour or so, indicating that this particular spot was good for them.
Incredibly, I also managed to either relocate the same or find a different small shearwater at the same distance out I had seen the one an hour or two earlier. I eventually got Jim on the bird and we spent at least 5 minutes tracking it, calling out features as we observed. The "common sandpiper"-like flight behaviour, the open face and short wings led us to conclude that it was a Little Shearwater!!! This was a new species for Jim in these waters. An excellent species to add to the trip list.
A pair of Black-browed Albatross and Light-mantled Sooty Albatross sweep through a flock of Antarctic Prion
After about 90 minutes of standing in the biting wind and cold conditions, it was time to head to the warmth and comfort of the bridge to keep an eye on what was coming down the line! The captain and the officers of the Sea Spirit were very tolerant of passengers being on the bridge, provided that the ship was not coming into shore or during rough conditions. From the bridge, and from the walkway around the bridge outside, a great 180 degree view was provided. As I was watching Giant Petrels, Cape Petrels and Black-browed Albatrosses wheel around in front of us, I picked up a blow from the port side and about halfway out to the horizon. It was a big blow. A very big and tall blow. The first officer spotted it as well and got excited. I threw up the bins and all I could see was a pale grey and mottled back that went on and on and on until a tiny dorsal fin finally appeared...Blue Whale?! BLUE FRICKIN' WHALE!!!! My heart started going like the clappers and the adrenaline was pumping. I didn't know what to do. I started to leg it out the door to tell the others. So as I opened the door to leg it out, and then realised that the bridge could talk to all the expedition staff, but then I saw Jim running downing the corridor towards the bridge shouting "did you see that?!?!" and so I just turned around and went back outside. I didn't get any photographs because I simply forgot to. However, we all got great views of the whale and high-fives were being thrown everywhere. What a moment! I'll never forget the rush I felt when I realised what I was looking at. Unbelievable.
After a calming cup of coffee (and some homemade chocolate chip cookies - can you see a pattern forming here?), it was back out on deck to check what else was going by. I soon picked up some Grey-headed Albatrosses coming along the wash of the ship, in amongst the usual suspects. A very attractive and graceful albatross, which are about the same size of the Black-browed Albatross. Southern Fulmars also started to make an appearance now as well, indicating that we were heading south towards the polar convergence. We didn't need the appearance of Southern Fulmar to tell us we were heading towards the polar convergence; the air temperature and wind chill was a reminder of that! A very pale Light-mantled Sooty Albatross stood out from some distance and thankfully, came into investigate the ship providing some fantastic views.
Light-mantled Sooty Albatross (a very pale individual)
Grey-headed Albatross (juvenile)
Northern Giant Petrel (note dark tip to bill)
As the Prions were still wheeling about the ship, I ventured down to Deck 2 where they were flying very, very close and approaching eye level. I spent an hour trying to get some decent flight shots of the Antarctic Prions and the odd Thin (Slender)-billed Prions. It was great watching them skim and glide over the waves in an effortless fashion while into a strong headwind. Magic birds.
Antarctic Prion and Thin (Slender)-billed Prion
Thin (Slender)-billed Prion
As the day drew to a close, we toasted the Blue Whale and Little Shearwater in the bar that evening. The prospect of what the following full day at sea would bring, made for a very fitful and anxious sleep.
Keywords: Albatross, Birds of Ireland, Blue Whale, Carmody, Grey-backed, Jim Wilson, Light-mantled, Mark Carmody, Petrels, Photography, Prion, Quark, Sea Spirit, Shearwater, Sooty, Whale
Mark, Beautiful images and a beautiful account. I can just about picture your excitement with the Light mantled Sooty..... Fantastic!
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