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.  

Day 12 - Moltke Harbour and Drygalski Fjord

April 15, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

The morning of the 12th day of the trip was rougher than normal. This was evidenced by the appearance of sick bags on the handrails throughout the ship and the bigger roll of the ship as I partook in a game of pinball with the walls of the ship's corridors. After carefully getting my coffee (and biscuits) onto its usual spot at Deck 4 Aft prior to breakfast, I set about checking to see what was around. What was noticeable was the apparent drop in temperatures. It was frickin' freezing. The sea spray was freezing on the deck of the ship and icicles were being formed along the railings. This was the coldest yet. Time went by and soon it was necessary to grab breakfast prior to our morning excursion to Moltke Harbour. I quickly made a beeline for the dining room for a massive mug of hot coffee and the Chef's Special omelette. 


Sea spray freezes on the railings of the MV Sea Spirit as we headed further south

MC000765 glacierMC000765 glacier

One of the many glaciers scattered along the coast of South Georgia.

Having warmed up during breakfast, I headed back up on deck for more punishment thrills and adrenaline rushes in the bitterly cold wind. The usual species were making themselves obvious as we steamed towards Moltke Harbour, our port of call for the morning. Pintado, Antarctic Prions, Blue Petrels, Black-browed and Grey-headed Albatross, Light-mantled Sooty Albatross, Wilson's and Black-bellied Storm Petrels, White-chinned Petrels and Northern Giant Petrels. A single Common Diving Petrel was a highlight from the deck. With snow falling as we approached Moltke Harbour, a pair of Snow Petrels appeared out of the blizzard and circled the ship for a time. What a rush!!! I was running inside looking for one of the passengers, a legend of a man called Ritch, who hails from Hawaii. He was determined to see Snow Petrel, so I was delighted to point them out to him. 

MC000612 PintadoMC000612 Pintado

Pintado or Cape Petrel or Cape Pigeon floats over the surface of the Southern Ocean. I love these birds. 

MC000622 Snow PetrelMC000622 Snow Petrel

Snow Petrels through the their element. MC000650 Snow PetrelMC000650 Snow Petrel

Snow Petrel MC000685 Wilsons PetrelMC000685 Wilsons Petrel

Wilson's Storm Petrel MC000854 Antarctic PrionMC000854 Antarctic Prion

Antarctic Prions

MC000910 Antarctic PetrelMC000910 Antarctic Petrel

Antarctic Prion MC000942 Blue PetrelMC000942 Blue Petrel

Blue Petrel MC000900 Antarctic and Blue PetrelMC000900 Antarctic and Blue Petrel

Antarctic Prion (left) and Blue Petrel (right). Easy to distinguish these species from each other by the pattern/colouring on the undertail and uppertail feathers. DSCF1191DSCF1191

Moltke could smell the Fur Seals from here! Some rare blue sky peeking through the cloud.

When we reached Moltke Harbour, the smell of the Fur Seals was very obvious on the wind. It was also soon apparent to those of us out on deck that there was no way we were going to land Zodiacs here. It was just too rough. The wave heights were too big at the back of the ship where we would get into the Zodiacs. And this was soon confirmed over the tannoy when a recon team went to suss out the landing. Time to drive on. It was the first time that a landing/Zodiac tour had been cancelled on the trip. Quite incredible really, when one considers where we were and the conditions that usually prevail. We were very lucky in that regard. However, I think some passengers looked slightly relieved as it was very, very cold out there. As Moltke Harbour was out of bounds, we headed for Dyrgalski Fjord earlier than planned. We were not sure if it was going to be possible to access the Fjord as it had a tendency to be ice-bound due to ice shed from the Risting Glacier, which sits at the end of the Fjord, and from sea ice coming up from the Ross Ice Shelf in the Antarctic. The birds continued to appear. My first Chinstrap Penguins of the trip were seen porpoising out of the increasingly rougher seas, and Albatrosses swept along in total control, accompanied by Prions and Petrels. 

MC001079 BP BBAMC001079 BP BBA

A Blue Petrel following a Black-browed Albatross in worsening conditions   MC001102 Penguin porpoiseMC001102 Penguin porpoise

A Gentoo Penguin porpoises behind 3 Chinstrap first Chinstraps of the trip! Antarctic Prion and Blue Petrel are in the background.   MC001112 Grey-headed AlbatrossMC001112 Grey-headed Albatross

Grey-headed Albatross

Soon the icebergs started appearing as well. My jaw dropped when I saw my first. I have seen plenty of sea ice before in northern Japan during the winter months, together with frozen harbours, but I had never seen an iceberg before. This was epic. We really were heading towards Antarctic waters now. The richness and depth of the wildlife we had experienced so far from Ushuaia to St. Andrew's Bay, was suddenly being usurped and replaced by the bleak and barren landscape of south-east South Georgia being brushed by a massive tabular iceberg from Antarctica. Things were changing on the horizon. 

DSCF1214DSCF1214 MC001103 Iceberg landMC001103 Iceberg land A massive tabular iceberg, probably from the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica, floats past our boat and the south-east corner of South Georgia. A Light-mantled Sooty Albatross heads towards it, while Antarctic Prions glide below. 

MC001124 Iceberg petrelsMC001124 Iceberg petrels Antarctic Prion and Cape Petrels fly past the iceberg.

MC001118 IcebergMC001118 Iceberg MC001143 IcebergMC001143 Iceberg As we entered Drygalski Fjord, we were greeted with snow-covered sheer cliffs and Snow Petrels. Thankfully, we were not greeted with pack ice and icebergs! Drygalski Fjord is a bay 1 mile (1.6 km) wide which recedes northwestwards 7 miles (11 km), entered immediately north of Nattriss Head along the southeast coast of South Georgia. The sheerness of the cliff faces, the size and scale of the place was so difficult to grasp. Trying to portray this in images is even more difficult. This was becoming a common theme throughout the trip! It was also the first time that many, if not all, of the expedition crew were going to tour in and around Drygalski Fjord on a Zodiac, so the excitement in all was palpable. The team were itching to get out on the water and have a look at the Risting Glacier, explore the nooks and crannies, and just see what was out there. The water was not too rough but the air was freezing. Snow was constantly falling, albeit not too heavily. It really added to the scene and atmosphere though. 

DSCF1227DSCF1227 DSCF1235DSCF1235 The entrance to Drygalski Fjord MC001174 Snow PetrelMC001174 Snow Petrel Snow Petrel in the snow MC__0582 DrygalskiMC__0582 Drygalski

National Geographic Photographers Paul Nicklen and Cristina Mittermeier take the first Zodiac out to test the waters of Drygalski Fjord. 

What we did not expect to see as we puttered around on the Zodiacs was a feeding flock of about 40-50 Snow Petrels. I was in a Zodiac with Dave "Danger Dave" Riordan (great guy), whose family originally came from Cork and Italy! Dave brought us gently towards the feeding flock. They were calling and bickering on the water, as well as roosting up on the brash ice that had broken off the Risting Glacier found at the end of the Fjord. They were truly mesmerising, sitting on the cobalt blue waters. Another aspect of the fjord was the colour of the water. It was the richest of blue, and most mineral-rich sea water I have ever seen.

MC001218 Snow PetrelMC001218 Snow Petrel MC001276 Snow PetrelMC001276 Snow Petrel MC001282 Snow PetrelMC001282 Snow Petrel MC001344 Snow PetrelMC001344 Snow Petrel MC001353 Snow PetrelMC001353 Snow Petrel MC001361 Snow PetrelMC001361 Snow Petrel MC001364MC001364 MC001371 Snow PetrelMC001371 Snow Petrel MC001379 Snow Petrel portMC001379 Snow Petrel port MC__0601 DrygalskiMC__0601 Drygalski MC001456 Snow PetrelMC001456 Snow Petrel MC001479 Snow PetrelMC001479 Snow Petrel MC001501 Snow petrelsMC001501 Snow petrels MC001511 Snow PetrelsMC001511 Snow Petrels

After leaving the Snow Petrels to do their thing, we toured around the Fjord, listening to the glacier creak, groan and moan. The cracks were loud and echoed around the Fjord, signalling a potential calving event at the front of the glacier. On one occasion an event occurred after such a crack and it was such a wonderful thing to witness, seeing a massive chunk of ice fall away into the sea from the face of the glacier. The Antarctic Terns, Snow Petrels and Pintado also feed along the front of the Risting Glacier, where the meltwater cascades into the sea. The Risting Glacier is 4.5 nautical miles long, lying north of Jenkins Glacier and flowing southeast into the head of Drygalski Fjord. 

MC001388 Snow Petrel glacierMC001388 Snow Petrel glacier MC001392 Antarctic Terns PintadoMC001392 Antarctic Terns Pintado MC001421 Snow Petrel iceMC001421 Snow Petrel ice MC__0640 DrygalskiMC__0640 Drygalski

The face of the Risting Glacier.  MC__0645 DamoMC__0645 Damo

Damian Caniglia ( at the bow of the Zodiac being driven by Emma, leading his photographic tour group around the fjord. Great guy.  MC001546 PintadoMC001546 Pintado

Pintado (Cape Petrel) MC__0697 DrygalskiMC__0697 Drygalski

The face of the Risting Glacier, with the MV Sea Spirit there for scale. A Zodiac can be seen on the left, with a few more near the front of the glacier. 

MC__0718 DrygalskiMC__0718 Drygalski

The blue glacial ice floating in the blue glacial waters.

A handful of Gentoo Penguins were dotted around, looking lost and forlorn. Brown Skuas and Kelp Gulls also quartered the skies looking for food. A handful of Antarctic Fur Seals were hauled up along the steep edges. But it was a few Weddell Seals, our first of the trip, that got the most attention. Although they are the most numerous seal in Antarctic waters, we only saw a dozen at best. We casually drove around, seeing some more Weddell Seals, Brown Skuas and a couple of King Penguins, also looking a bit lost on the steep-sided shoreline. Dave skilfully navigated the glacial ice in the water, being careful not to get too carried away as we sped over some brash ice. The sound of the ice off the base of the Zodiac was a bit unnerving! Great fun though. South Georgian Shags also hung around the rocks and scree. It was so quiet. When the engine was turned off, the quietness of the place was overwhelming. The snow kept falling and we were finally called to shore. It was time to leave one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited. 

MC__0671 DrygalskiMC__0671 Drygalski MC001573 Wedell SealMC001573 Wedell Seal

Weddell Seal  MC001630 Antarctic TernMC001630 Antarctic Tern

Antarctic Tern MC001646 GentooMC001646 Gentoo

Gentoo Penguin

MC__0745 DrygalskiMC__0745 Drygalski MC__1078 Damo, Nicklen and PeterMC__1078 Damo, Nicklen and Peter

Paul Nicklen drives the Zodiac in the background, while my cousin Peter Wilson drives the Zodiac in the foreground. It was quite cold now, having been out on the sea for 3-4 hrous in the snow and facing the wind coming off the Glacier. We did get some hot chocoloate and Bailey's delivered via Zodaic though! That was a nice touch.

This was, hands down, the best and most moving of experiences on my trip. I think the knowledge that we were leaving behind the mind-boggling mass of wildlife on South Georgia and heading towards the desolate and sparse Antarctic continent added to it. Dyrgalski Fjord gave an idea of what it would be like but the beauty and peacefulness I felt in the Fjord will stay with me forever. 

Day 11 Saint Andrew's Bay, South Georgia

March 30, 2015  •  2 Comments

I am an emotional being. I wear my heart on my sleeve more often than I should, or at least I used to do that. The trip thus far had tested my emotions in terms of what I was witnessing, the natural spectacles unfolding before my eyes, and the joy of being totally unplugged from the stresses of the world. Yet, what I was to witness on the afternoon of the 26th November 2014 will stay with me for a long, long time. I had not been moved by anything in this way for as long as I could remember. We were to land at St. Andrew's Bay. Home to hundreds of thousands of King Penguins. Mounds of adult Elephants Seals along the beaches and young Weaner pups everywhere to be seen. Fur Seals lined the shoreline acting as sentries along their patch of stony soil, and Petrels, Gulls, Skuas and Sheathbills patrolled the skies and nesting colonies in search of an easy meal. I could wax lyrical about this place all day. I could go on to describe the beauty, its silence and solitude, the often pungent smells, the sounds, the lack of contrails, the lack of humans, the absence of man-made noise and noise of man, the feeling of being the alien, of being the observer, of being the non-native, the stranger, of not belonging...but I do not have the vocabulary to give this place the justice it deserves. All I can do instead is present a selection of photographs here to allow you to get a peek into the domain of King Penguins and their mammalian companions 

MC__0125 Kings glacial streamMC__0125 Kings glacial stream MC__0128 Kings glacial flowMC__0128 Kings glacial flow MC__0360 King Penguin weanersMC__0360 King Penguin weaners MC__0140 Weaner haremMC__0140 Weaner harem MC__0289 Elephant Seal haremMC__0289 Elephant Seal harem MC__0430 Weaners fightingMC__0430 Weaners fighting

MC__0134 King Penguin pairMC__0134 King Penguin pair MC__0158 King Penguin pair AndrewMC__0158 King Penguin pair Andrew MC__0173 King Penguins Andrews BayMC__0173 King Penguins Andrews Bay MC__0180 King Penguin AndrewsMC__0180 King Penguin Andrews MC__0206 King AndrewsMC__0206 King Andrews MC__0258 Kings St. Andrews BayMC__0258 Kings St. Andrews Bay MC__0208 King Penguins AndrewsMC__0208 King Penguins Andrews MC__0214 King Penguin rowMC__0214 King Penguin row MC__0278 Antarctic Brown SkuaMC__0278 Antarctic Brown Skua MC__0294 King Penguin gangMC__0294 King Penguin gang MC__0467 Elephant maleMC__0467 Elephant male MC__0273 King PairMC__0273 King Pair MC__0454 King Penguin profileMC__0454 King Penguin profile And while I did manage to sit down, try to take all this in and shed a tear at the beauty and wonder of the place, I also smiled and laughed at the realisation of my disbelief of where I was standing. Surreal does not even come close. 

MC__0260 Mark CarmodyMC__0260 Mark Carmody

Huge thanks to Jim Wilson for taking the photograph of me (a rare thing) standing by the King Penguin colony. I had on three layers of pants, 4 layers of tops and the waterproof/windproof jacket. It was cold and my hands were numb at this stage. 

Despite the remoteness of this island, the impact of man on the global climate was quite evident by the retreating Ross Glacier in the background. Where I am standing in the photograph was once covered by the glacier. It has retreated many kilometres back up the valley in the past 25 years. The last thing I noticed as we left the area in our Zodiac was a single Wilson's Storm Petrel zipping past my head and heading up the glacial valley, no doubt going to its nest site. What a thrill. 

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