Falklands, South Georgia and Antarctica Cruise Log
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IWA directors Randy and Susie Green joined IWA’s Falklands, South Georgia and Antarctica cruise and filed this trip log. Find out what it’s like to take a cruise to Antarctica!
See all of IWA’s Antarctica Cruises! (Will open in a new window.)
Preparing for an Antarctic Cruise
First off, I’d like to suggest a modification to the old cliché. A journey of more than a few miles begins with 1,000 steps. As in packing.
Constantly shifting airline rules require a level of planning for an Antarctic cruise that used to be relegated to the expedition into deepest Africa or, say, the Space Station. So much to consider: number of bags, size of bags, weight of bags. Not to mention trying to anticipate what you’ll need to bring along for clothing and camera gear.
Our living room floor looked like a major home renovation for a week before my wife, Susie, and I finally finished stuffing the last bit of gear into an impossibly unwieldy assortment of duffles and backpacks. We weighed and re-weighed, to make sure we hit the ever-moving target of airline baggage rules.
Our final tally: three large duffles and one enormous tripod case containing the video and still tripods and as many miscellaneous bits of clothing we could stuff there.
Argentina Isn’t just the Tango…
No need to whine about modern long-distance air travel. If you’ve done it recently, you know the routine. Survival is the key.
Fifteen hours of flying put us in Buenos Aires Argentina around 9 AM local time. We met up with several of our fellow shipmates and headed off for a short tour of the city and lunch at a local restaurant.
IWA’s Falklands, South Georgia and Antarctica voyage includes a couple of days in Buenos Aires, one of South America’s gems that is more European in flavor than almost anything else. It was established in the early 1500s and reflects that old world heritage.
Buenos Aires is the birthplace of the tango and the city doesn’t let you overlook that. Tango shows are everywhere, including at outdoor cafes (above) in the old La boca neighborhood, established by Italian immigrants years ago.
Most Antarctic trips these days begin in the far southern city of Ushuaia at the tip of South America in the archipelago called Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire), so-named by Magellan for the fires along the shore lit by the indigenous people. After another flight of several hours, we arrived in this growing little outpost of 2500 inhabitants.
The Clelia II was docked at the city pier along with her sister ship, the Corinthian II, which was also loading for her voyage down the Antarctic Peninsula. Around 8:30 PM we cast off and headed east through the Beagle Channel, a fiery sunset bathing the rugged peaks above Ushuaia. A fierce west wind had picked up, a reminder of the harsh weather in this remote outpost.
Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas)
A night and a day of sailing rolling seas brought us to the Falkland Islands. The first islands appeared on the northeastern horizon in the early light: relatively low and devoid of any trees. The climate is too harsh for them.
The Falklands, or Islas Malvinas as the Argentinians call them, are an archipelago of more than 700 separate islands lying east-southeast of the southern tip of South America. They are an Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom, which is responsible for their defense, a fact that became very real for Falklanders in 1982, when Argentina, which had also claimed the islands for over 150 years, invaded.
The resulting two month war brought casualties to both sides, British and Argentine. The Brits prevailed and the whole affair is still a sore point between everyone involved. Many parts of the islands still have land mines buried by the Argentines, though the more populated areas and sheep ranches have been cleared.
We made an early departure in our Zodiac landing craft into a protected cove to a small dock at a remote sheep ranch on West Point Island, owned by the Napier family. Their tidy little homestead is typical of other ranch operations in the islands — a small, white, wood-framed farmhouse, surrounded by a meticulous yard and white picket fence, and various out-buildings. Their only electric power is from a small wind turbine. Wind is a cheap commodity here.
But our main target was at the end of a mile and a half hike to the other side of the island: a large colony of nesting rockhopper penguins and black-browed albatross on a steep slope above the sea. The two species nest together among the tussock grass clumps, getting only mildly irritated when the other tries to pick its way through the maze of nests. We watched and photographed here for several hours before trudging back to the Napiers’ homestead where they had put up a great tea with all sorts of baked goods for us.
On the return, our zodiac was surrounded by playful and curious Comerson’s dolphins, small black and white dolphins with tiny, rounded dorsal fins.
Back on the ship, while eating lunch (not that we needed it after the Napiers!), the ship was repositioned a couple of hours away to Saunders Island. This is the largest of the Falkland Islands and the site of the first British settlement in 1765. Here in a narrow neck of land between two large hills we found colonies of Magellanic, gentoo, rockhopper and king penguins.
The beautiful king penguins are the second-largest of the penguins and we found a few here, along with their hilarious ‘little’ chicks. These young appear larger and fatter than the parents, mainly due to their thick, brown downy coats, making them look like they are dressed in oversized fur coats. With any luck, we’ll find thousands on South Georgia island, which we visit in a few days.
Falkland Islands/Islas Malvinas
We cruised all night through rolling seas and anchored shortly after dawn in the bay at Port Stanley, the only city in the islands. Stanley was a major supply point for whalers, fishermen, and sealers over the last 200+ years.
I had been in Port Stanley more than 20 years ago and wasn’t prepared for the changes. With the popularity of Antarctic and southern ocean cruises, it has become a favored stopover for ships large and small. On the morning we arrived, we shared the town with 3,000 other passengers from a single cruise ship that was too large to anchor in the main harbor. The ship’s tenders took hours to shuttle the passengers into town. It effectively doubled the size of the town for the day!
While the main part of town was pretty much the same as when I was last here (except for the bulging crowds on the narrow sidewalks), the gold rush of money into town had fueled many new houses and apartments on the edges of town.
On my last visit, I was struck by the number of large 19th Century sailing vessels that lay stranded in the shallow bay, preserved by the cold air and water. Some with hulls of wood and some of iron, many with masts and rigging still intact, it was a veritable maritime museum. The wood ships that were too far gone had been converted into warehouses along the town’s shoreline.
Now most were gone, either rotted or refloated and taken to maritime museums in Britain and Maine, with the notable exception of the Lady Elizabeth at the far end of the bay. This large, three-masted schooner, some 250-300 feet in length was beached in a shallow inlet. She had suffered damage in rounding the Horn and limped into Port Stanley. Locals informed the crew that they didn’t have the resources to fix her, so she suffered the usual fate of end-of-the-line ships in Stanley — she became a warehouse. But in the 1930s a storm blew her to her current location.
A group of us took a very long walk along the far shore of the harbor, past a colony of nesting burrows of Magellanic penguins and pinnacles with nesting black-crowned night herons. We also skirted a gorgeous white-sand beach replete with warning signs about mines. It seemed that the Argentines thought this would be a great beach for the Brits to mount one of their assaults from the sea,
After lunch and a pint at the old Globe Pub on the waterfront, we wandered town a bit more and headed back to the ship. We weighed anchor around 5PM, cruised past the mega-ship in the outer harbor and into the heaving swell of the open ocean, bound for South Georgia Island, the whaling capital of the universe only 50 years ago, some tow days and nights away.
As I write this, the waves are booming and crashing over the bow of our “tiny” 300-foot ship, while the 1500-foot long megaship can be seen in the late light on the northwestern horizon, headed back for the South American mainland.
We’re headed southeast, for more adventurous spots. Stay tuned!
Somewhere in the Scotia Sea
We’ve been incredibly lucky so far — except for a few hours of moderate seas after leaving Stanley’s harbor, it has been extremely smooth sailing on our passage to South Georgia Island. This is where we cross the Antarctic Convergence Zone, a notorious breeder of bad weather and nasty seas.
The Convergence marks the edge of colder water and a change in direction of the current circulating the continent of Antarctica. The drop from 4 – 5 degrees Celsius to around one degree is enough to produce mist or fog as well as spawn strong winds and storms. It also produces an upwelling of oceanic nutrients and is a often a great area for concentrating seabirds and whales — something we’re really looking forward to.
The exact location of the Convergence varies, so we’re not really sure when we cross it until we do. But it will be sometime before we make South Georgia later tonight. Satellite indicates some strong cold fronts doing their own form of converging on the island over the next day or so, giving us a bit or worry about our planned landings.
In the meantime, we’ve been photographing the multitude of seabirds circling the ship, including the first wandering albatross (below), one of the world’s large birds with a wingspan of up to 11.5 feet. A real modern pterodactyl.
Next, South Georgia!
South Georgia: Salisbury Plain, Stromness and Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Voyage
Despite the terrible reputation of the stretch between the Falklands and South Georgia, our passage was easy – smooth seas and light winds.
Dawn found us anchored off the shore of Salisbury Plain, one of the best king penguin rookeries anywhere.
Mist and clouds surrounded the tall craggy mountains above the beach at Salisbury. Along the distant strip of beach you could just make out the harems of fur seals. But what was above the beach drew most of the attention. Large patches or fingers could be seen extending up the green lower slopes of the foothills. Once we landed on the beach it became clear these were staggeringly huge colonies of king penguins, the second largest of the penguins.
A few clutches of kings wandered about on the beach, some just having tumbled in from the waves hitting the shore. But as we moved inland, past the aggressive and quarrelsome fur seals defending their harems, the colony grew and grew until it was solid penguin, beak to beak, flipper to flipper. Most were adults with their beautiful orange throats, but there were many ‘bearcoats’, young chicks still wearing the brown, fluffy down they would soon shed.
South Georgia’s place in history is pivotal in the southern seas. Claimed by the British in the 18th Century, it served as a whaling and sealing center right up until the 1960s. In fact the whaling station at Grytviken was one of the most productive in the world. The island provided a jumping off point for many well-known Antarctic exploration parties, one of the most famous being the ill-fated Shackleton expedition.
In what has become one of history’s most amazing tales of heroism and survival, the Shackleton Expedition continues to astound and inspire. Ernest Shackleton and a small band of explorers set sail on December 5, 1914 aboard the Endurance, an ice-strengthened wooden hull, three-masted sailing ship for the Weddell Sea, hoping to beat explorer Roald Amundsen to the South Pole.
Within a short distance of the continent, the Endurance was stuck in sea ice and Shackleton and his men were stranded on the ice as the ship was crushed and sank. Dragging supplies and their lifeboats across the ice northward, they then rowed hundreds of miles to Elephant Island, landing on a rocky finger of land. Shackleton left most of the crew at Elephant Island and took four men, re-boarded one of the boats, and rowed and partially sailed another 800 miles back to South Georgia Island.
Their ordeal was hardly over, however. In order to get help at one of the whaling stations they had to cross a mountain range with peaks up to 7,000 feet. So Shackleton left two men with the boat and provisions, and set out with two others on a harrowing three day journey, eventually arriving at the whaling station of Stromness.
In a final unbelievable act of heroism, they obtained a Chilean vessel and returned to Elephant Island and rescued the stranded explorers. It had been a year and a half since they left South Georgia on the Endurance and not a man was lost.
Shackleton returned to South Georgia several years later (h
e was knighted by the Queen of England) for another attempt on the pole, but suffered a heart attack at the age of just 45. Sir Ernest Shackleton was buried in the little whalers’ cemetery at Grytviken, per his wife’s wishes, with his grave pointed south to Antarctica. All of the others’ graves point east.
If you’d like to read more about this incredible journey, pick up a copy of Endurance at your library or bookstore.
In the afternoon, our own landing at Stromness was less about survival and more about discovery. The little whaling station is of course long abandoned and falling apart. We weren’t able to poke around the ruins, as the high winds made the danger of blowing sheet metal dangerous and the facility is full of asbestos, posing another risk of a different kind. Instead we photographed the many fur and elephant seals on the beach, as well as a number of gentoo penguins.
One of our expedition staff is Sir Peter Hillary, son of Sir Edmund Hillary, one of the first two men to climb Mount Everest. Peter has climbed Everest twice himself as well as leading the first expedition to the South Pole on skis. Peter took a small group of us a couple of miles up a beautiful braided river valley to the waterfall that Shackleton and his men were forced to descend in their wintertime trek across the mountains.
Jason Harbor, Grytviken and a toast to Sir Ernest
Saturday, December 19, 2009
We did a morning landing at Jason Harbor where there was a small shack built in the early 20th Century as a emergency refuge for stranded whalers and other travelers. It also is a great beach for fur seals, elephant seals and king and gentoo penguins.
A young elephant seal promptly adopted our landing party, inching over to lay on the legs of anyone who sat on the beach long enough.
At midday, we repositioned the Clelia II to Grytviken, one of the busiest whaling stations in its heyday in the world. It was founded in 1902 and finally shut down in the 1960s. On my first visit here more than 20 years ago, you could stand on the flensing dock and still smell the rancid whale oil impregnated in the timbers.
Now many of the station’s docks and buildings have rotten and been cleared away for safety’s sake. A small foundation dedicated to preserving the heritage of the site maintains the remaining structures and even has a small gift shop to take in revenue to support the operation.
We landed near the little cemetery containing Sir Ernest’s grave, brought out the scotch and orange juice for a toast to “The Boss” (his moniker given him by his admiring men, long before Springsteen, I might add). Trevor, one of our expedition staff from Scotland, gave a reading from one of The Boss’s journals.
We took the rest of the afternoon to poke around the station and photograph more of the seals round the beach, including one endearing little fur seal pup who nosed around several of us, hoping one of us was its mum. The Petrel, one of the original whaling chase craft was still in its last resting place, harpoon still afixed to the bow, never to be fired again. It had been sabotaged at the dock just before my first visit by some anti-whaling activists.
Our evening departure from this historic and stunningly beautiful island was graced by one of the most vivid, wierd sunsets I’ve ever seen. Enormous lenticular clouds brought about by the interaction of the upper level storm winds and the island’s mountain range produced fantastic shapes reminiscent of a Steven Spielberg movie.
At Sea & Arrival at Coronation Island
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
We continued to luck out with moderate seas. Only one night of fairly serious rollers. New scopalamine patches appear behind ears, to ward off the evil spirits of seasickness.
Peter Hillary gave a great talk about his ascent of Mt. Vinson on the Antarctic mainland.
Trevor, our indomitable Scottish expedition guide, gave a jaw-dropping account and slide show of his retracement of Shackleton’s 800-mile lifeboat voyage from Elephant Island to South Georgia. He had an exact replica of the James Caird built in Scotland and then brought to Elephant Island on the Kapitan Klebnikov. From there, he and three others sailed to South Georgia in the tiny wooden craft, enduring two gales and freezing temperatures.
On the afternoon of the 22nd of December, we gained sight of Coronation Island, one of the islands in the South Orkney group. Sculpted icebergs dotted the waters around the snow-capped island.
As we approached a chinstrap penguin colony, we began to see leopard seals cruising just off shore. These large seals are an efficient predator of penguins, with their huge jaws giving them a snake-like appearance. We were only about 50 yards from shore when the water exploded near us – a leopard seal had caught a chinstrap and was flinging it back and forth, trying to tear its skin off. Seabirds like petrels and shearwaters flocked past, dipping into the water and sharing bits of the feast. Grim, but leopard seals have to eat too.
We landed on the pebbled beach amid large chunks of ice that had broken off a nearby glacier and floated to shore. Chinstraps on their nests were everywhere and the shore was a penguin highway. A leopard seal slid stealthily among the ice blocks a couple of yards from shore and just a few yards from us, probably hoping to catch penguins as they swam back to their nests.
Small groups of penguins would suddenly burst out of the water, skitter over the ice blocks and race up on the shore, doing their best to avoid the seal. It was poignant to see their panicked frenzy gradually calm down as they realized they had made it safely to shore.
After leaving Coronation Island in the South Orkneys, we headed northwest towards Elephant Island. Icebergs became more numerous and much, much larger. We passed many big tabular bergs, some 150 feet tall and more than a mile long on a side. These had come from the Weddell Ice Shelf in the Weddell Sea.
Elephant Island is where 22 of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s men were stranded upon reaching the island after escaping their shipwreck in the Weddell Sea. As I mentioned on the South Georgia entry, Shackleton left the men on the island at Point Wild while he and other crew members left to get help at South Georgia in their little lifeboat, the James Caird. Point Wild is nothing more than a tiny spit of land (bottom center, in photo below) between the main island and a smaller, triangular-shaped island, barely big enough for their overturned lifeboats which they used as shelter.
Elephant Island almost always presents a difficult landing, and this time was no exception. Our way was blocked by an abundance of last winter’s sea ice as well as heavy surf. so we didn’t attempt a landing, instead maneuvering our ship to less than a mile from Point Wild
On my first expedition here, some 21 years ago, we were able to make a rare landing on the rocky spit. A small colony of chinstraps greeted us, most of them nesting on the very spot the Endurance crew spent the winter. Nearby, a small monument stood to commemorate the Chilean captain whose ship Shackleton used to finally rescue the stranded crew.
Today, we only looked, humbled by what the Endurance crew had to endure. Then we sailed south.
Brown’s Bluff & Attempting Paulet
Tuesday, December 24, 2009
During the night, we sailed south from Elephant Island to some of the outer islands of the Antarctic Peninsula. This is the point of land closest to the South American continent.
Our first landing was at Brown Bluff, where a large gentoo and adelie colony thrived at the foot of vertical cliffs several hundred feet high, the island’s namesake. A short climb up a slippery snowfield allowed us a peek into a rock crevice where two snow petrels were nesting.
Thick sea ice prevented us from making a landing at Paulet Island, unfortunately. Paulet Island was where members of Otto Nordenskiöld’s 1902 Swedish Antarctic Expedition overwintered in a small hut, which I visited on my first voyage a couple of decades ago.
So we headed northwest through a narrow passageway choked with great tabular icebergs, gleaming in the stormy late afternoon light and turned south along the Danko Coast.
Exploring the Danko Coast
Note: The date of these postings is not necessarily the date of the day described, as I’m playing catch-up with these entries, due to spotty satellite and time! The order of the visits is correct however.
As we head south, as one might expect, the temperatures are dropping. The snow on the sharp, rugged mountains and on the expanses of tidewater glaciers has gotten thicker. Great tabular icebergs are more numerous, as is the sea ice.
The question arises: what’s the difference between icebergs and sea ice? Icebergs are derived from pieces of glaciers which calve into the sea. It is, in essence, fossil ice — it can be many thousands of years old, sometimes tens of thousands, depending on the length of distance and time it has traveled on its course t the sea. On the other hand, sea ice is ice that has formed during the winter from the freezing of the sea surface. In both polar regions it can be anywhere from one to several years old, the latter if it did not completely thaw during a summer season and re-froze the following winter. In that case, it often accumulates a layer of snow too, making it thicker.
Sea ice can be crunched through to a limited extent by an ice-strengthened polar expedition vessel, but icebergs are thicker, harder and more massive. They are avoided by all vessels at all costs: hitting one is like hitting a rock. And we all know at least one great example of an encounter of a ship with an iceberg!
Today is Christmas Day. It’s spectacularly clear with a brisk wind, and we take a zodiac excursion of Cierva Cove, site of the Argentine Primavera Station, inhabited only in the spring and summer. On our way to the cove, we are treated to a pod of humpback whales swimming under our zodiacs and showing off just yards away!
In the afternoon we attempted a landing in Mikkelsen Harbor on Trinity Island, but our old nemesis, the wind, sprung up and we had to abandon our plans. The sea was simply too rough to risk it in our little zodiacs.
So, we headed further south along the Antarctic Peninsula, and enjoyed a superb Christmas dinner. Late at night our Filipino crew treated us to a wonderful Christmas show which provided a sample of the amazing diversity of the staff.
A few of the really intrepid group went for a midnight zodiac cruise of Skontrop Cove in Paradise Bay after the Christmas show. The light was getting dimmer, but the color was subtle and spectacular on the massive glacier and iceberg precipices.
Our last day on the Peninsula & return north
We were REALLY going to pack a lot into today, but as is often the case, Mother Nature had other ideas.
Our plans were to do a 6 AM landing in Andvord Bay, but at 5 AM Expedition Leader Susan Adie’s voice came over the ship PA system to announce that the wind had picked up to more than 45 knots (almost 50 mph), so back to bed…
We continued to sail south through the Neumeyer Channel. On each side of the ship, the scenery continued to get more and more stark and rugged – jagged black rock peaks capped with massively thick snowfields, and in the valleys, huge tidewater glaciers.
By late morning we arrived at Weinke Island near Dorian Bay, where the both the Argentines and the British Antarctic Survey had built small huts for the resupply of their respective area research stations. Peter Hillary and some of the other guides took those looking for a hike up a long, snowy hill for a better view of the other side of the island, while most of the rest of us explored a large gentoo penguin colony.
This gentoo colony was being beset by a pair of skuas who were intent on stealing eggs. One of the pair would wander into the thick of the gentoos and draw their ire and pecks, while the other would attack from the other side of the nest, more often that not making off with an egg.
It’s tough being a penguin.
We continued our southward journey, entering the narrow (only 1600 meters across at its narrowest!) but spectacular Lemaire Channel in the early afternoon. At one point we were accompanied by several dwarf minke whales, a subsepcies found in the southern waters.
Our target, and last landing in the Antarctic was Petermann Island, with healthy nesting colonies of blue-eyed shags (cormorants), adelie and gentoo penguins. The late afternoon light was stunning on Mount Scott and the other mountains above the Lemaire. On the west side of the island was a small cove with an iceberg graveyard, where grounded icebergs awaited their inevitable fate.
It was late evening when we headed back north through the Lemaire, retracing our route, and accompanied at a distance by our sister ship, the Corinthian II, who was also on a trip to the Antarctic Peninsula. The skies had cleared a bit and the late evening sun shone on the icebergs and peaks until almost 11 PM. It was hard to stay off the deck and fill up our cameras’ memory cards!
By early morning of December 27, our ship began to pitch and roll heavily as we entered the legendary unprotected waters of the Drake Passage, named for the 16th Century English privateer Sir Francis Drake. The seas boomed against the ship and some washed completely over the bow. Those who hadn’t succumbed to seasickness before in the voyage were now reaching for medication! But by the second day, the waves subsided to a modest couple meters high and we were blessed with an easy passage all the way back into Ushuaia, Argentina.
Our days were filled with more fascinating lectures, including a moving personal account from Peter Hillary about his tragic attempt on the summit of infamous K2.
* * * * * * *
Upon arriving in Ushuaia, we had completed 18 days and some 3504 nautical miles of one of the most treacherous, stormy, isolated, beautiful and biologically unique areas on the planet. The Antarctic and sub-Antarctic region has claimed staggering numbers of ships, lives and dreams over the centuries.
We were so very fortunate to have a modern, comfortable ship in the Clelia II to explore this remarkable region. We relied upon satellites and modern charts for navigation, not astrolabes, sextants or dead reckoning. We had radio and even satellite internet for communications, instead of rock cairns with messages inside.
Yet travel in this unforgiving region is not without peril; only a couple of years ago another ship of our size, the M/V Explorer, struck an iceberg and sunk to the sea floor, amazingly sparing all aboard. I had been fortunate some 21 years ago to make my first voyage to Antarctica (on this same itinerary) aboard the Explorer, and some of our crew aboard the Clelia II had actually been aboard the Explorer on her last, ill-fated cruise.
But it’s been characteristic of those who have ventured into this southern realm to return time and again, and I’m glad I’ve been one of them. There are so few places left that are so unchanged, so isolated and so beautiful; in fact, fewer with each passing year.
If you can, go.
See all of IWA’s Antarctica Cruises! (Will open in a new window.)