Day 18 - Cierva Cove, The Antarctic Peninsula...the last day

November 08, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

This was it. This was the last morning I would wake up looking upon the glory and majesty of Antarctica. The last morning where I would be greeted on deck by icebergs, glaciers, snow-covered islands and landmasses. The last morning I would look up at the sky and not see any contrails from man. 

MC005715 Sea Spirit Deck 5 aftMC005715 Sea Spirit Deck 5 aft The view from Deck 5-Aft looking into Cierva Cove

The sight that greeted Damo and I as we stood on the Deck 5-Aft was white and blue heaven. Icebergs, sea ice, fast ice, mini-bergs, snow, snow-capped mountains and snow-covered land surrounded us. It was a glorious, yet freezing, morning with no windIt was frankly quite ridiculous. As we stood supping our coffee and brushing the biscuit crumbs off our fleeces, there was no need for any words to be exchanged. The vista was breathtaking. Then, the unmistakable sound of a whale taking a breath broke the silence. A quick scan off the stern revealed the leviathan to us. Well, a mini-leviathan. The characteristic arched back of a Humpback Whale, a juvenile, emerged from the icy waters again, taking a breath and diving. It did this for the entire morning we were there, albeit keeping a good distance from the Zodiacs and the ship. What a welcome to Cierva Cove on the Antarctic Peninsula. 

MC005732 Humpback whaleMC005732 Humpback whale A juvenile Humpback Whale surfaces amongst the icebergs and sea fast ice.

The area was just covered with sea ice and icebergs. A massive glacier spilled down to the sea, with a face that was over 100 feet high. The icebergs that calved from this glacier were, to me, enormous. The scale of the scene was so difficult to take in. A scout Zodiac zipping across the sea and light sea ice, going past some icebergs, did put a scale on the vista we were looking out on. Once we were out on the water, seeing the ship against some of the 'bergs were really put into context. The different colours of the 'bergs were quite amazing. From pure whites to off-white to blue to being totally transparent. Very small chunks of floating ice that rise only about 1 meter/3 feet out of the water are called "growlers". When trapped air escapes as the iceberg melts, it sometimes makes a sound like the growl of an animal, and that's how growlers got their name. Some of these growlers are transparent (called black growlers) and are a serious threat to shipping lanes where icebergs or growlers occur, as they are very difficult to see. The Cove was simply covered with growlers and black growlers. It was tricky navigating through them in the Zodiac. 

MC__5227 Antarctica IcebergMC__5227 Antarctica Iceberg MC__5250 Cierva Cove ZodiacMC__5250 Cierva Cove Zodiac MC__5255 Glacier scoreMC__5255 Glacier score MC__5295 Cierva Cove growlerMC__5295 Cierva Cove growler Black Growler  MC__5300 Antarctica IcebergMC__5300 Antarctica Iceberg MC__5346 Antarctica Iceberg Sea SpiritMC__5346 Antarctica Iceberg Sea Spirit MC005799 AntarcticaMC005799 Antarctica MC__5358 IcebergMC__5358 Iceberg

The next thing on the agenda was to land and set foot on the Antarctic Peninsula. For that, we headed around to Base Primavera, an Argentinian base on the peninsula. Each Zodiac took it in turns to land, have a photograph taken with the flag and then back on the Zodiac again for further cruising around Cierva Cove. I was fortunate to be on the Zodiac with Paul Nicklen, Cristina Mittermeier, Jim and a couple of other passengers. It was great to be piloted around by Paul. His eye for a photograph was just amazing to see in action as he pointed the Zodiac in the right place, using the light and reflections from the sea and 'bergs. Cristina was also incredible to watch in action, swapping cameras and using different focal length lenses and different perspectives for particular situations. It was a brilliant learning experience from a photography standpoint. In case you are wondering, I did set foot on the peninsula and the photograph below is proof!  There were about a dozen Weddell Seals hauled out in well-worn dips in the ice there. It was great to see them so close and they did not pay us any attention at all save for a fleeting glance. A South Polar Skua was also lounging around, waiting for any scraps that surrounded the seals. 

MC005826 Weddell SealMC005826 Weddell Seal MC__5376 Cheli Paul CristinaMC__5376 Cheli Paul Cristina Paul Nicklen, Cheli Larsen and Cristina Mittermeier  MC005865 South Polar SkuaMC005865 South Polar Skua MC005883 Bawe PrimaveraMC005883 Bawe Primavera MC__5384 Mark Carmody on AntarcticaMC__5384 Mark Carmody on Antarctica

A rare photograph of me, and an even rarer one of me standing on the Antarctic Peninsula (with thanks to Jim Wilson for taking the photograph). 

After the stop off, we headed back to the ship to have lunch. Paul took us by some seriously impressive icebergs, some of which were close to flipping over, which would be quite dangerous to be near if it happened. We also swept by a Chinstrap Penguin colony high up the slope near Primavera Base. The penguin highways were clearly visible through the snow and ice. It is amazing how these birds survive down here and how they manage to walk up those slopes. Very impressive. Antarctic Imperial Shags balanced precariously on top of unstable icebergs, while Snowy Sheathbills, Kelp Gulls and both Brown and South Polar Skuas patrolled the area for an easy meal. "Danger" Dave Riordan then gave a fine example of daredevil Zodiac driving while sitting in a kayak...

MC__5394 Antarctic IcebergMC__5394 Antarctic Iceberg MC005898 Chinstrap colonyMC005898 Chinstrap colony MC__5411 AntarcticaMC__5411 Antarctica MC__5475 Base PrimaveraMC__5475 Base Primavera MC005924 Antarctic ShagMC005924 Antarctic Shag MC__5557 Dave in kayakMC__5557 Dave in kayak MC__5490 proper Cierva vistaMC__5490 proper Cierva vista

After lunch, we headed off across the Gerlache Straits to Mikkelsen Harbour on the south side of Trinity Island, and the smaller D'Hainaut Island which is found in the middle of the harbour and home to a small Argentinian refuge and a series of Gentoo Penguin colonies. We passed some massive icebergs on our transit across the Straits, as well as one of the only ships we encountered on our trip in these waters. This was one of the Russian-owned cruise ships, meandering through those massive icebergs. Having to gaze across another ship was almost an affront to our perceived isolation and expedition-esque journey. There were very few birds on this crossing, the odd Wilson's Storm Petrel and Southern Giant Petrel. A White-chinned Petrel or two was the best there, while a couple of Snow Petrels flew past as well. I spent some time just leaning against the hull of the ship, taking it all in. The realisation that we would be on our way later that evening was beginning to sink in. 

MC__5609 Gerlache StraitMC__5609 Gerlache Strait MC__5637 Russian ShipMC__5637 Russian Ship

Once the Gerlache Strait was traversed, we arrived at D'Hainaut Island, which is home to Weddell Seals and Gentoo Penguins. The typical raiders of South Polar and Brown Skuas, Southern Giant Petrels and Kelp Gulls, and the enigmatic Snowy Sheathbill were also present. A handful of Adelie Penguins, looking suitably lost, were near the landing area. The nearest breeding colony of Adelie's was quite a ways away, so we were not sure what they were doing there. Maybe they were spreading out and looking for new breeding areas. Only time will tell, I guess. This little island was very easy to walk around, despite the hilly terrain. There were Gentoo colonies dotted all around. It was lovely to just stroll around, take in the vista and breathe in the odour of penguin pooh for the final time this trip. The weather was glorious, with blue sky, little cloud and no wind. It was a fitting end to what had been a trip of a lifetime. I had loved every second of it. I could not take enough in. I was knackered but exhilarated all at the same time. 

MC__5659 Weddell SealMC__5659 Weddell Seal MC__5668 Gentoo RidgeMC__5668 Gentoo Ridge MC006018 Gentoo PortraitMC006018 Gentoo Portrait MC__5699 Gentoo portraitMC__5699 Gentoo portrait MC006097 Gentoo screamMC006097 Gentoo scream MC006104 Snoozing gentooMC006104 Snoozing gentoo MC006121 Kelp GullMC006121 Kelp Gull MC__5772 Gentoo colonyMC__5772 Gentoo colony MC__5774 Gentoo pairMC__5774 Gentoo pair MC006167 Antarctic SkuaMC006167 Antarctic Skua MC006141 Adelie pair lostMC006141 Adelie pair lost

MC__5814 Antarctic Skua and Weddell SealMC__5814 Antarctic Skua and Weddell Seal

As we walked back down the slope to the landing area, we were greeting once again by the slumber party that had congregated there; a couple of Weddell Seals and the five Adelie Penguins. A Brown Skua had joined the party, its bill dripping dark red blood from its latest snack, a penguin egg. Kelp Gulls scooted by, saying their goodbyes and the Giant Petrels zoomed over our heads like the Nazgûl about to strike terror into everything below. I made sure to savour the last moments ashore on Antarctica, and sat down on the snow-covered hill with the bones of slaughtered whales for company, watching a large Elephant Seal snooze on the rocky shoreline, and a Snowy Sheathbill picking its way around it. As I was implored by our great leader Cheli Larsen to "get in the bloody Zodiac", I rubbed some Antarctic dirt into my de-gloved hands and said goodbye to the most amazing place I have ever visited. 

It was with a really heavy heart that I stepped foot in the Zodiac for the last time. When we bounced off the pontoon of the Zodiac and on to the splash deck of the ship, I washed my boots as normal in the biocidal wash for the final time and we set sail once more. We were heading into the Bransfield Strait, named after the man who is credited as being the first person to see Antarctica and who was born and raised a mere 20 miles from my home. Once clear of the Bransfield Strait, it was a 2 day journey to Ushuaia across the dreaded Drake Passage...

Day 17 - Livingston Island and the Aitcho Island Group, South Shetland Islands, Antarctica

October 03, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

Our second morning on the Antarctic Peninsula and our second-to-last day of the Antarctic leg of the trip. It was sort of setting in that the trip was coming to an end. The mental and physical fatigue had also started to take its toll, as I struggled out of the leaba (Gaelic for "bed", pronounced lah-bah) to make sure I did not miss anything. The original plans for the day were changed over night due to an over-abundance of sea ice clogging up some of the bays we had planned to visit. This being due to the excess ice in Antarctica that winter and an excess shedding of ice from the glaciers there. It was a significant reminder of the effect mankind has had on our planet. Up on deck, assuming the position, there was Caniglia in his usual spot, wide-angle in hand with a look of disbelief and a smile on his face. Damo was very generous with his camera gear, and let me borrow his 17-40mm lens at times, which was great to get some really nice wide views. We were entering Halfmoon Bay of Halfmoon Island and heading for Livingston Island. The island was home to Gentoo and Chinstrap Penguins, as well as Antarctic Terns, South Polar Skua, Northern and Southern Giant Petrels and Snowy Sheathbills. The lack of variety and number of species was noticeable the more we sailed around the Antarctic continent. 

MC004872 (1) Chinstrap portraitMC004872 (1) Chinstrap portrait MC004876 (1) Chinstrap snoozingMC004876 (1) Chinstrap snoozing MC004881 (1) Chinstrap carrying stoneMC004881 (1) Chinstrap carrying stone MC004895 (1) Chinstrap portraitMC004895 (1) Chinstrap portrait MC004925 (1) Antarctic SkuaMC004925 (1) Antarctic Skua A Brown Skua keeping a watchful eye out for an easy meal.  MC004945 Antarctica Kelp GullMC004945 Antarctica Kelp Gull A pair of Kelp Gulls

MC004963 (1) Chinstrap groomingMC004963 (1) Chinstrap grooming

The Chinstrap Penguins were the first species we encountered on this island. They were nesting in dug out holes in the snow and ice, and making their way up the slope of the island to little nesting groups dotted about the ridges. The South Polar Skuas and Kelp Gulls were keeping a sharp lookout for any opportunity to nick in and steal an egg. We were too early for chicks. No doubt quite a few of those would be part of the daily takings of these top aerial predators. A lot of the Chinstraps, I noticed, when they came out of the sea, would eat some of the snow. Others would be carrying stones up the hill to their partner on the nest site. There was lots of grooming going on around the place. 

MC004967 (1) Weddell SealMC004967 (1) Weddell Seal A sleepy Weddell Seal having a scratch. Note the thick, short fur. 

MC__4836 ChinstrapMC__4836 Chinstrap MC__4845 Chinstrap Sea SpiritMC__4845 Chinstrap Sea Spirit The view from the nesting colony of Chinstrap Penguins. The M.V. Sea Spirit in the background.  MC__4853 Chinstrap SheathbillMC__4853 Chinstrap Sheathbill Can you spot the Snowy Sheathbill?

MC005008 (1) Screaming ChinstrapMC005008 (1) Screaming Chinstrap MC005020 (2) Screaming ChinstrapMC005020 (2) Screaming Chinstrap MC__4860 Chinstrap Sea SpiritMC__4860 Chinstrap Sea Spirit The view from the nesting colony of Chinstrap Penguins. The M.V. Sea Spirit in the background. 

MC__4869 VistaMC__4869 Vista

Walking up the slope from the landing zone, we were greeted by crying Chinstrap Penguins, arguing over space and robbing stones from each other's nests. It was quite good fun to watch. The Snowy Sheathbills were hanging around like the scavengers that they are, the Antarctic's own garbage collectors. South Polar Skua's patrolled vigilantly. A Weddell Seal or two were hauled out up the slopes, having a snooze and a scratch. The weather was changeable, with squally snow showers rushing through, making the temperatures drop below zero and freezing even further. Remnants of sea ice and icebergs were dotted along the shoreline of the island. But the vista these guys had from their nesting areas was stunning. It was getting to a point now where I did not know where to look. The birds were captivating, the scenery was jaw-dropping and the seals were just adorable. I was becoming emotionally drained at this stage. It was getting all a bit too much!

MC__4873 Jim Cierva CoveMC__4873 Jim Cierva Cove

Some people have asked did I hang around with Jim and Peter much when I was on board. Apart from a couple of drinks at the end of the day, and meeting at the coffee machine in the bar when we were motoring along to a new destination, I did not see much of the lads on a daily basis. They were busy working and I was busy standing on the deck freezing my proverbials off or wandering around on my own during the Zodiac landings. This was one of the few times I actually could take a photo of Jim working as I was usually off on a jaunt somewhere else, under guidance from Jim as to where to go on a landing. Having worked for the first time this summer past, I understand now how much time one does NOT have to spend taking photographs as one is far too busy looking after passengers and making sure nobody is straying beyond where they are supposed to be going. Still, I was delighted to catch this image of Jim just as he realised it was me pointing the camera at him.  

MC005120 (1) Antarctic TernMC005120 (1) Antarctic Tern Antarctic Tern riding the wind  MC__4881 PassengersMC__4881 Passengers

The squally showers did not deter my fellow yellow penguins from wandering around, following the marked-out route of luminous flags, which were clearly visible from some distance. There was a feeling and atmosphere of awe from everyone there. It was quite humbling to be stood there, talking it all in. The quietness and scale of the place is impossible to describe. So is the smell from the penguin colonies! The Argentinian base, Camp Livingston, is visible in the image below. Some grounded icebergs were also a treat to see. What was also quite a unique moment to witness was the wedding of a couple of guests! The Captain came ashore and officiated the exchange of vows, with Jim and Colin Baird being the witnesses. Colin insisted that he was best man while Jim was maid of honour! I got the impression that the Captain did not like being on terra firma...

MC__4883 Quark passengersMC__4883 Quark passengers The landing at Livingston Island, with the Argentinian base in the background. There are snow shoes laid out in rows at the landing site.  MC__4920 Cristina PaulMC__4920 Cristina Paul Cristina Mittermeier and Paul Nicklen - incredible people, photographers and conservationists  MC005158 (1) Chinstrap blizzardMC005158 (1) Chinstrap blizzard The squalls produced these rough conditions on the slopes, but the Chinstraps kept waddling along and not bothered by anything. 

MC__5015 Antarctic PassengersMC__5015 Antarctic Passengers

MC__4960 PassengersMC__4960 Passengers MC__5014 SandpiperMC__5014 Sandpiper Colin Baird, a.k.a Sandpiper, walking along the slopes of Livingstone Island, with the M.V. Sea Spirit moored off in the background.  MC__5017 Jim and MarlaMC__5017 Jim and Marla Marla and Jim trying to determine what the plan of action is. It was getting very cold now.    MC__5039 South Polar SkuaMC__5039 South Polar Skua South Polar Skua MC005250 (1) PintadoMC005250 (1) Pintado Pintado off the back of the M.V. Spirit on our return. Beautiful birds. MC005274 (1) EuropaMC005274 (1) Europa The Europa sailed past us on that day, while we were having lunch on the ship. The first time we saw another vessel since South Georgia.  MC__5064 IcebergMC__5064 Iceberg
With everyone safely aboard the ship, we had lunch on the open deck and headed back out into the Bransfield Strait. The Europa, a three-masted sailing ship built in 1911, sailed past us on the horizon. It was the first of only two ships we saw on our South Georgia/Antarctica leg of the trip. It was quite a strange feeling seeing another ship, a reminder of the world that I had left behind and a reminder that the feats of those who journeyed here over 100 years ago were very brave and adventurous souls. As we headed back out into the Bransfield Strait, icebergs began to increase in their size and different colours of white and blue. It was quite something to behold and there were times where I just started laughing, smiling and shaking my head in disbelief that I was actually here, in Antarctica. What was also in the back of my mind was that we were sailing on a stretch of water that was named after a man (Edward Bransfield) born less than 15 miles down the road from where I grew up! It is quite a small world we live in. 

MC005362 Gentoo Head onMC005362 Gentoo Head on MC__5100 Chinstrap colonyMC__5100 Chinstrap colony MC__5127 Chinstrap stoneMC__5127 Chinstrap stone MC__5135 ChinstrapMC__5135 Chinstrap MC__5138 Gentoo PenguinsMC__5138 Gentoo Penguins MC__5142 Chinstrap BWMC__5142 Chinstrap BW MC__5152 Antarctic GentooMC__5152 Antarctic Gentoo MC__5165 Sea Spirit and DaveMC__5165 Sea Spirit and Dave

As we sailed across the Strait to the Aitcho Island Group, we came across some small groups of Humpback Whales and the odd Antarctic Minke Whale or two. It was always exciting to see some blubber surfacing and sending out their plumes of breath. Black-bellied and Wilson's Storm Petrels had increased slightly than on previous days, with Northern and Southern Giant Petrels, Southern Fulmar, Pintado and both Brown and South Polar Skuas flying by the ship. When we approached Barrientos Island, Snowy Sheathbills flew out to the boat for a gander, while a couple of Snow Petrels also flew a couple of times around the ship. The Zodiacs were put down and the scouting party went out to set up the landing. The island hosted both Chinstrap and Gentoo Penguin colonies throughout the island. There were a few Elephant Seals beached up on the rocky shore at our landing site. We were allowed wander around the marked out path on the island for a few hours. So, off I went in search of wonder. 

MC__5186 Gentoo climbMC__5186 Gentoo climb

A Gentoo Penguin begins the trek up to its nesting site along a clearly marked out penguin highway on the snow MC__5199 Gentoos on whaleMC__5199 Gentoos on whale Gentoo Penguins perching on a the vertebrae of a long-deceased Fin or Blue Whale. 

MC__5203 ChinstrapMC__5203 Chinstrap

A Chinstrap Penguin making its way up the slope to its nesting site. A clearly marked highway is at the base of the image.

MC__5205 Gentoo Colony BarrientosMC__5205 Gentoo Colony Barrientos

The Gentoo Penguins nested on the rocky shore but the Chinstraps did not. The penguins lying down on the slope in the background are eating snow. 

MC005319 Gentoo face offMC005319 Gentoo face off MC005333 Chinstrap walkingMC005333 Chinstrap walking MC005394 Gentoo pairMC005394 Gentoo pair

The areas where the penguins were nesting were quickly becoming quite wet mud baths from the defrosted snow and ice, caused primarily by the body heat from the penguins. What was interesting to note was that those penguins that had buried into the snow and earth underneath, were now sitting in a pool of cold water trying to incubate what was probably a lost egg. It is quite remarkable how the feet of these guys don't freeze standing around in freezing mud and the harsh conditions. The colonies are quite independent as well. Any Chinstrap Penguin that decide to navigate through the Gentoo Penguin colony got a good nipping from those that it ran by. This could be become quite aggressive and no holds were barred on some occasions. 

MC005409 South Polar SkuaMC005409 South Polar Skua

A South Polar Skua looking for a unattended egg. 

MC005415 South Polar Skua huntingMC005415 South Polar Skua hunting MC005423 Gentoo cry tripleMC005423 Gentoo cry triple MC005432 South Polar Skua snowMC005432 South Polar Skua snow MC005511 Gentoo head portraitMC005511 Gentoo head portrait MC005597 Southern Giant PetrelMC005597 Southern Giant Petrel

A Southern Giant Petrel also looking for a free meal, flying against the snowy backdrop

The island was criss-crossed with compacted, shiny snow highways that were patted down by the countless journeys the penguins make too and from the sea. We were warned, quite vehemently, NEVER to stand on a penguins highway for fear of putting a big ugly footprint on it, thus creating a nasty hole that these guys could trip up in. I sat down on a slope looking down on a Gentoo Penguin colony for what must have been 30 minutes and just watched. I didn't take any photographs, didn't raise my binoculars, I just watched. It was nice to do that. There was a lot of courtship, bickering, stone carrying, stone stealing, egg laying, egg abandoning, egg stealing and snow eating going on all around me. South Polar and Brown Skuas were flying low overhead and Southern Giant Petrels soaring higher up. It was quite epic against the backdrop of snow-laden slopes and mountain tops. Once again, the only sound one could hear was the cry of the Gentoo and Chinstrap Penguins. It was quite something. 

After a few hours of walking around, we were all beckoned back to the Zodiacs. As always, I was on the last Zodiac back to the ship, my hands frozen solid, my bladder bursting (one is not allowed to relieve oneself when on Antarctica or any of the islands...AT ALL!), my camera batteries draining due to the cold and my mind blown by what my eyes were feasting upon. After dinner, a couple of bottles of beer in the bar with Jim and Peter, I went to bed with a somewhat heavy heart as I knew that the following day was my final day in Antarctica. 


Day 16 - Gourdin Island, Antarctic Sound

September 01, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

The "Café" on Deck 5-Aft was occupied with the usual nutters in yours truly and Damian Caniglia just prior to sunrise. The morning sky was cast with a flat grey cloud that had the slightest hint of a red glow behind it. The possibility of some sun warmed the soul in the bitter cold. The air temperature outside was a cool -2C, with a constant falling of light snow. Thankfully the wind was non-existent, which negated any potentially crippling windchill factor. Suitably wrapped in thermals and layers, we stood there in silence for quite some time. What we were gazing out on was the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, a sea packed with sea ice and icebergs, and glaciers tumbling and rolling into the sea from the numerous islands that were around us. All we did for the first 20 minutes while drinking coffee, eating biscuits and taking photographs in total silence was smile as wide as Cheshire cats. With spare batteries tucked in our pockets to keep the charge fresh, we continued to fill the CF/SD cards over the next couple of hours prior to the Chef's Special for breakfast.

MC__1334 Icebergs DaveMC__1334 Icebergs Dave Dave Riordan in his Zodiac approaching a grounded iceberg. The small dot on top is an Antarctic Skua. The larger blob on the right is a large boulder that would have come off another iceberg or the glacier which calved this beast. 

MC__1343 BS on BergMC__1343 BS on Berg An Antarctic Skua sitting on top of a grounded iceberg.

MC__1356 BergsMC__1356 Bergs MC__1560 Hiding AdelieMC__1560 Hiding Adelie A lone Adélie Penguin hiding on some sea ice. MC__1810 Zodiac scaleMC__1810 Zodiac scale The sense of scale is hard to convey...can you spot the 16 foot (5m) Zodiac near the sea ice edge?

MC004132 MountainMC004132 Mountain

The enormity of the mountains here, the amount of snow. It was epic.

MC__1206 AntarcticaMC__1206 Antarctica The morning was spent just cruising around the area on the Sea Spirit. The plan had been to visit Brown Bluff, an extinct volcano that formed about 1 million years ago, but the amount of sea ice that had built up from the storms we had managed to navigate around the previous couple of days, had prevented us from getting anywhere near it. This is the beauty of the expedition beast. All was not lost however, and as the cloud cleared and the sun shone, we boarded our Zodiacs for a 4 hour tour around the frigid waters and air of Gourdin Island in the Antarctic Sound. There were large icebergs and large blocks of sea ice in the area of Gourdin Island. The island is home to hundreds, if not thousands, of Adélie Penguins. So, the blocks of sea ice generally had a handful or more, or sometimes less, of Adélie Penguins lounging or travelling on. When our Zodiacs puttered up to them, they would get very curious and sometimes just amble over for a look. These are my favourite penguin species. Fantastic characters. The pale eye-ring on the plain black face adds to the anthropomorphic expressions they appear to be making. 

MC__1279 Adelie tripleMC__1279 Adelie triple MC__1269 Adelie singleMC__1269 Adelie single MC__1294 AdelieMC__1294 Adelie

There were also our first Crabeater Seals of the trip on the sea ice. They are more rotund and bilcoloured than the Weddell Seals. They were just snoozing on the ice, taking no notice of anything, or us. By turning off the outboard motors on the Zodiacs, we were able to glide past them resting on the ice. They are big mammals and very cool to see. This was my sixth seal species of the trip. They were colourful characters in the sense that they were neither black, brown, grey or white! Apart from that, they just slept and growled at us if we disturbed their sleep. A bit like me first thing in the morning and up until I have drank my coffee. 

MC__1466 Wedell SealMC__1466 Wedell Seal MC__1472 Wedell sealMC__1472 Wedell seal MC__1493 Wedell SealMC__1493 Wedell Seal MC__1629 Sea SpiritMC__1629 Sea Spirit

The M.V. Sea Spirit on the calm sea of the Antarctic Sound. My home for 20 days. The icebergs can be seen in the background.

The area was packed sea ice, icebergs and snow. It was quite remarkable. I had, not for the first and not for the last time, never seen anything like this before. It was both beautiful and intimidating all wrapped up in its virgin white and azure blue colours. The harshness of the dark mountains against the pristine snow fields was mesmerising. It was so quiet. It was quite eerie. The sense of scale, as I've said above, is difficult to get across without a reference point. Having the 16ft Zodiacs with passengers in the foreground lends some form of scale for you, dear reader, of the sea ice, icebergs and glaciers. What struck me most when cruising amongst the sea ice and icebergs. was the clarity of the sea water, the blueness of some of the ice, and the quietness. The lack of noise. The Zodiac drivers turned off their engines. We simply drifted through the ice, the only sound being the click of the camera shutters and the scraping of the sea ice off the bottom of the Zodiacs. I closed my eyes and just breathed in the clean, cold air; concentrating on the noise in my ears that only pure silence can bring. In amongst the white noise of the silence was the occasional hissing of trapped air bubbles, thousands of years old, pop and hiss as the glacial mini-icebergs melt. It was a lovely moment. A moment of calm in what had been, thus far, a mind-bending trip. 

MC__1641Blue iceMC__1641Blue ice MC__1731 Sea Ice ZodiacMC__1731 Sea Ice Zodiac MC__1741 Blue IceMC__1741 Blue Ice MC__1771 GlacierMC__1771 Glacier MC004153 IcebergMC004153 Iceberg

The Gourdin Island colony of Adélie Penguins was the largest we had seen yet. There were Gentoo and Chinstrap Penguins present as well, albeit in much smaller numbers. The silence was broken by the sounds of the penguins and the splashes in the water from porpoising penguins. I was fortunate to be in the Zodiac that was being driven by Paul Nicklen. Paul's huge experience driving in these conditions meant that he pushed the Zodiac's limits and got into places other Zodiac drivers may not try. It was also beneficial because of Paul's undoubted knowledge and unparalleled understanding of polar light. He always positioned the Zodiac in the right place to get the right light on the subject. It was a huge privilege and honour to be with him for this trip. It made a huge difference. The Adelie's were in great spirits, with hundreds of them trying to get into the water after their stint incubating eggs, or digging nesting areas. A lot of them were bunched on the edges of the islands, itching to dive in to the water. Apprehension of what may be in the water holding them back. Leopard Seals should have been arriving at that time, just before the start of breeding season. To pick off slow swimmers, the first divers into the was something to see. Unfortunately for me, but fortunately for the penguins, we didn't see any Leopard Seals. We enjoyed the show they put on, just going about their normal, daily business. Jumping, waddling, belly sliding and porpoising their way around their home. See if you can spot the odd Chinstrap or Gentoo Penguin in the following shots. 

MC004176 AdelieMC004176 Adelie MC004198 AdelieMC004198 Adelie MC004214 Adelie PortraitMC004214 Adelie Portrait MC004250 Swimming AdelieMC004250 Swimming Adelie MC004268 Adelie and GentooMC004268 Adelie and Gentoo MC004275 AdeliesMC004275 Adelies MC004306 Gentoo and Chinstrap AntarcticaMC004306 Gentoo and Chinstrap Antarctica MC004326 AdeliesMC004326 Adelies MC004366 Adelie jumoMC004366 Adelie jumo MC004384 Jumping AdeliesMC004384 Jumping Adelies MC004404 Adelie ChinstrapMC004404 Adelie Chinstrap MC004551 Adelie prortraitMC004551 Adelie prortrait MC004649 skating AdelieMC004649 skating Adelie

MC004603MC004603 MC004619 AdelieMC004619 Adelie

MC004684 AdelieMC004684 Adelie MC004673MC004673

MC__1505 SandpiperMC__1505 Sandpiper

Colin "Sandpiper" Baird with his yellow penguins in the frigid conditions amongst the glacial ice debris. MC__1684 Damo and DaveMC__1684 Damo and Dave

Dave "Danger Dave" Riordan, cleanly shaven, drives the Zodiac that Damian Caniglia is in guiding his group. Damo is the crazy Aussie not wearing gloves in these conditions. Hard core. 

After the cruising was finished, it was time for the Polar Plunge!! 26 brave souls jumped into the icy Antarctic waters, including yours truly. The water temperature was -1.1C!! For those of you wondering, sea water freezes when it reaches -2C. My cousin, Peter, wanted the two of us to go in last and together. Let's be honest, when is the next time I could get a chance to jump in the waters of the Antarctic Sound with my cousin? Probably never... So with that, we donned our Antarctic tartan ties to accompany our swimming shorts and jumped in. One has a safety rope tied around one's waist, just in case the frigid waters induce a coronary or other nasty shock to the system. If it happens, at least they can drag you back in! While Peter jumped straight down, I decided to go for a swim, so dove outwards. I swam out, underwater and it was then that the shock of the cold water really hit home, so much so that all I wanted to do was breath. It was a strange feeling. I knew I had enough oxygen in my lungs for a minute or more under water. But after 5-10 seconds, I felt like I had none. All I wanted to do was breath. So, up I surfaced and gulped in lungful after lungful of, the air felt warmer than the water! After being hauled back in, Peter and I were wrapped in towels, and we made our way to the hot tub on Deck 6 to warm up. After getting into the steaming water, we cracked open a beer and toasted the beauty of the Antarctic that surrounded us on all sides. What a day...

Peter and I antarctic plungePeter and I antarctic plunge My cousin, Peter, smiling for the camera operated by Colin Souness (thanks for the photo, Colin!). The legs, seemingly attached to the rope, in the background are mine :) (c) Colin Souness

As this is currently the only photograph I have of me swimming in Antarctica, and I have misplaced my DVD of the trip, if anyone reading this has a one or two photographs of me in the water or out of it following the swim, I'd appreciate if you could email them to me!!

The sights to be had in this area were a quick reminder that we really have to do as much as we can to preserve this wonderful and magical place. 

MC004696 Giant Petrel glacierMC004696 Giant Petrel glacier MC004730 Crabeater SealMC004730 Crabeater Seal Weddell Seal MC004769 Antarctic GlacierMC004769 Antarctic Glacier MC004418 Lonely AdelieMC004418 Lonely Adelie MC004425 Crab-eater SealMC004425 Crab-eater Seal Crabeater Seal on some sea ice MC004487 GlacierMC004487 Glacier MC004414 Iceberg MountainsMC004414 Iceberg Mountains MC004463 GP take offMC004463 GP take off Southern Giant Petrel taking off from some sea ice

I've made the Long-list!

August 30, 2015  •  Leave a Comment


Not quite the Booker, but I made the Long-List for the Irish Blog Awards 2015 in the photography category. The long-list will be further reduced to a shortlist which will be announced on September 2nd. #bloggies2015

Days 13 to 15 - Retracing Shackleton's steps to Elephant Island, Antarctica

August 20, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

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. 

MC001889 TabularMC001889 Tabular 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. 

MC001849 Snow PetrelMC001849 Snow Petrel Snow Petrel

MC002045 LMSAMC002045 LMSA Light-mantled Sooty Albatross

MC002387 Antarctic PrionMC002387 Antarctic Prion

Antarctic Prion

MC002501 White NellieMC002501 White Nellie Southern Giant Petrel ('White Nellie')

MC002497 NGP NellieMC002497 NGP 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. 

MC002636 Antarctic PrionMC002636 Antarctic Prion Antarctic Prion

MC002599 Southern FulmarMC002599 Southern Fulmar Southern Fulmar

MC002551 LMSAMC002551 LMSA A very pale-headed Light-mantled Sooty Albatross

MC002540 LMSAMC002540 LMSA 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. 

MC001932 Beaked WhaleMC001932 Beaked Whale MC001978 Beaked WhaleMC001978 Beaked Whale MC001979 Beaked WhaleMC001979 Beaked Whale

Southern Bottlenose Whales (heavy crops) MC002988 (1) HumpbacksMC002988 (1) Humpbacks Humpback Whales

MC003107 (1) Fin WhaleMC003107 (1) Fin Whale Fin Whale

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 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. 

MC002797 Point WildMC002797 Point Wild MC002800 Chinstrap ElephantMC002800 Chinstrap Elephant MC002832 (1) Point WildMC002832 (1) Point Wild Point Wild and the bust of Captain Pardo (the Chilean Captain of the tug Yelcho that rescued the men, with Shackleton on board) DSCF1260 Point Wild, Elephant Island, Antarctica where Shackelton's men stayed for 3 months prior to resuceDSCF1260 Point Wild, Elephant Island, Antarctica where Shackelton's men stayed for 3 months prior to resuce 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. 

MC002810 (1) Point WildMC002810 (1) Point Wild MC002864 Chinstrap Point WildMC002864 Chinstrap Point Wild MC__1198 (1) Chinstrap WildMC__1198 (1) Chinstrap Wild 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.

MC002711 South Polar SkuaMC002711 South Polar Skua Antarctic Brown Skua MC002737 Black-bellied PetrelMC002737 Black-bellied Petrel 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.  MC002902 (1) Southern FulmarMC002902 (1) Southern Fulmar Southern Fulmar in the snow.  MC003068 (1) Gentoo porpoiseMC003068 (1) Gentoo porpoise A porpoising Gentoo Penguin MC003081 Point Wild, Elephant Island Antarctica IcebergMC003081 Point Wild, Elephant Island Antarctica Iceberg An iceberg with an Antarctic Brown Skua sitting on top.  MC003088 (1) Elephant Island glacierMC003088 (1) Elephant Island glacier An Elephant Island glacier Chinstrap on Berg copyChinstrap on Berg copy 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. 

MC003193 (1) Elephant IslandMC003193 (1) Elephant Island MC003199 (1) Chinstrap IcebergMC003199 (1) Chinstrap Iceberg MC003207 (1) SP SkuaMC003207 (1) SP Skua 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. 

MC__0989 Peter ElephantMC__0989 Peter Elephant

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.

MC003294 (1) SheathbillsMC003294 (1) Sheathbills Mating Snowy Sheathbills amongst none-too-impressed Chinstrap Penguins

MC003306 (1) ChinstrapMC003306 (1) Chinstrap

Chinstrap Penguin

MC003382 (1) MacaroniMC003382 (1) Macaroni Macaroni Penguin colony

MC__0971 (1) Iceberg Elephant IsleMC__0971 (1) Iceberg Elephant Isle

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. 

MC003538 (1) ChinstrapMC003538 (1) Chinstrap

Chinstrap Penguin MC003591 (1) GentooMC003591 (1) Gentoo 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...

MC003595 (1) ChinstrapMC003595 (1) Chinstrap

A dirty Chinstrap Penguin going down to the sea for a well-deserved wash. MC__1052 (1) Chinstrap and ElephantMC__1052 (1) Chinstrap and Elephant A Chinstrap Penguin checks us out, while a young female Elephant Seal snoozes without paying us any attention at all MC__1061 (1) SheathbillMC__1061 (1) Sheathbill The always-curious Snowy Sheathbill on the seashore of Elephant Island. Hard to believe that this is classed as a Wader! MC003744 Macaroni copyMC003744 Macaroni copy 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...

MC003958 (1) Pintado flockMC003958 (1) Pintado flock A resting flock of Pintados. Tough birds.   MC003975 (1) Southern FulmarMC003975 (1) Southern Fulmar Southern Fulmar MC__1081 (1) Berg SheltandsMC__1081 (1) Berg Sheltands South Shetland Islands and an big tabular iceberg  MC__1102 (1) Two bergs ElephantMC__1102 (1) Two bergs Elephant As big as ships  MC__1125 (1) Iceberg ElephantMC__1125 (1) Iceberg Elephant A big tabular iceberg grounded near the shoreline of Gibbs Island  MC__1159 (1) Elephant IcebergMC__1159 (1) Elephant Iceberg 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.  

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