Thursday, 30 December 2010

A white Christmas!

Hard to believe that Christmas has been and gone for another year, and we are now staring down the barrel of New Year’s Eve.  We have just arrived into Ushuaia after another excellent cruise down to the Antarctic Peninsula, with fairly good weather for most of it, and the Drake showing shades of what it can do.

The crossing of the Drake on the way down was fairly bumpy, but eased as we got closer to the South Shetland Islands.  It had been forecast to be very rough on the first day, but luckily this was a slight over-forecast.  So my 36th birthday was spent bouncing along in the Drake – and all in all a pretty good day, with a birthday cake even at dinner time!  In stark contrast to the crossings on the last cruise we saw very few light-mantled sooty albatross, and more of the usual suspects – with wandering and black-browed albatross being in their usual numbers, as well as blue petrels, Antarctic prions, giant petrels, and Antarctic fulmars.  Again no significant cetacean sightings in the Drake (but we did have a nice minke in the Beagle).

Black-browed alb

Black-browed alb coming in close

And a bit further off with the Drake as a back drop

And again

Antarctic fulmar flying past the bridge

Approaching the South Shetland Islands on the second day of the crossing we had our first iceberg, and as per last trip there were accompanying humpback whales – so two birds with one stone.  The berg was a superb sculpted shape, with some large swells hitting it, and so I got some nice shots of whales, swell, and iceberg.  We again passed through to the southern side of the islands and in to Aitcho Island where we did a landing after dinner.  The light was absolutely stunning with patches of blue sky and atmospheric cloud around the mountains nearby.  Ashore we found good numbers of gentoo penguins at the colonies, with some chinstraps mingling around, and even a lone Adelie.  The gentoos had a few chicks present in the nests, and there was a good group of Southern elephant seals hauled up on one of the beaches.  As per usual the belching and farting of the elephant seals was amusing to all, and with the fantastic light I spent as much time taking photos of the seals as possible.  Perhaps the highlight for me though was watching half a dozen or so Wilson’s storm-petrels flitting around the crags and screes slopes nearby.  You could even hear them calling in amongst the rocks, obviously nesting within the cracks.  Very cool!  Unfortunately it was not easy to get photos of them with low light levels and their rapid flight – but I got a couple of record shots.  Lovely silhouettes of the gentoos against the lowering sun were possible as we left the landing site just on 10pm.

The first berg

Berg and humpback

Cape petrels near Aitcho Island

A beaut evening at Aitcho

Southern elephant seal

...and a big yawn!

Gentoos against the evening sky

The next day we awoke to a very breezy morning, but with mostly sunny conditions, and we did a pre-breakfast zodiac cruise around Edinburgh Hill.  This is a massive columnar basalt plug that juts up out of the sea, and you can get right up to it making stunning photos against the sky.  Back onboard we relocated to Half Moon Island where the blue skies persisted and we had great views of the surrounding mountains and the chinstrap penguin colonies.  Simon managed to locate a lone macaroni penguin at the site where there is often one, and so we got photos of it, and managed to locate lots of newly hatched and hatching chinstrap chicks.  Seems the colony laid fairly synchronously as there were a lot of eggs just piping and at the same stage.  After lunch we then entered Deception Island and landed again at Whaler’s Bay.  This time I marked the route up to Ronald’s Hill which overlooks the caldera and settlement area.  Pretty nice view, still with clear skies, lots of steam on the beach, and very light breezes.  Many of the passengers made the hike up to the top of the hill and Mike then came up and so I headed won to the beach for a swim.  Myself and Greg (one of the younger passengers) got a ride out in the zodiac with Ian and did a dive and swim from about 80m off the beach.  VERY refreshing!

Edinburgh Hill

Edinburgh Hill with zodiac for scale

Mr Macaroni in amongst the chinstraps

Chinstrap acrobat

Chinstrap feeding chick

Antarctic tern on Deception Island

Next day the weather had turned with overcast skies, still light winds but the odd snow flake falling.  We did a morning landing at Almirante Brown Station in Paradise Bay, with a zodiac cruise as well.  They were able to climb to the top of the ill to get a nice overview of the Bay, but I spent the morning in the zodiacs dropping people ashore and then doing the zodiac cruises.  Found a few nice things on the cruises with some Antarctic terns breeding nearby, the large Antarctic shag colony on the bluffs, some crabeater and Weddell seals up on ice, and even a couple of minke whales.  The minkes were a little bit skittery, but I managed to get some reasonable shots which are probably the best I have to date of this species.  At one stage one of the whales surfaced only about 50m away so pretty nice views.  However, they have the habit of being able to almost completely disappear, and did so shortly after.

The evasive minke

Beautiful ice cave (with Antarctic tern)

The Lemaire Channel through the bow

The afternoon was spent cruising through the Lemaire Channel – this time in overcast but very atmospheric conditions...and quite a bit of ice, that gradually increased to almost completely loose pack ice as we came out the southern end.  We had hoped to do a landing at Peterman Island but the ice was way too thick, and so we headed to Vernadsky Station to see if it was possible to get in there.  On the way we had quite a few Adelie penguins on ice, plus crabeaters, and then two leopard seals, one of which the ship was able to get relatively close too.  With the ice getting thicker the chance of us getting ashore was diminishing, and so the Base Commander and a couple of other staff headed out to us in their rigid hull boat.  It took them a while, but they managed to get to us, with stamps, trinkets, etc and gave a talk, sold bits and pieces, and even posed for photos with bras – the thing is a donated bra at the base gets you a free shot of vodka...I guess depending on the brand it could be a pretty expensive shot of vodka!  So they stayed onboard for a little while and then departed and we headed north again back through the Lemaire.

Next day we woke to a pretty clear sky and a cruise through the Peltier Channel and past Port Lockroy to do a landing at Dorian Hill.  The wind was pretty gusty with it being around 30 knots to start with as we took people ashore.  The landing was relatively easy onto a beach, and people were able to walk up to overlook Port Lockroy and check out a small penguin colony.  I was driving one of the zodiacs and as we started to get a few bigger gusts thought to myself...hmmmm this could get interesting!  The Bridge let Hannah know the wind was increasing slightly, and she decided we needed to start getting people off the beach.  As the tide went out this got trickier, but we had some fun times in the boats with winds steadily getting up to 45 knots or so.  I think the people were impressed with the wind and waves, and they got to experience the ‘real’ Antarctic.  Always fun driving in slightly challenging conditions.  Once everyone was back onboard we relocated to Port Lockroy and had hoped to go ashore, but with the wind not relenting we went ashore and picked up the guys from the Base and took them and a bunch of souvenirs, stamps, etc back to the ship.  The afternoon was spent watching the wind and waves which put a little dampner on the BBQ dinner that had been planned.  We still managed a BBQ dinner, but not quite with the really was a white and wild Xmas eve.  Sounds like it might have been pretty windy back in NZ as well.

So next day and it was Xmas day...thank goodness the wind had dropped and despite being overcast we were able to do a great landing at Neko Harbour – with a lovely glacier calving and small tsunami wave on the beach.  I was helping out at the landing site, but just as we were about to leave we had a Weddell seal haul out right in front of us and slowly make its way up through the snow.  I’m not sure what possessed it to continue about 80m from the beach, perhaps it was scared of tsunamis as well?  Anyway, made for some great photos, as did the gentoo penguins playing in the surf.  After lunch we did a landing at Cuverville Island and as I was driving I had some time to zip around and try and find some wildlife once everyone was ashore.  Its times like this when you have a zodiac and half an hour or so that just make this whole job even more rewarding.  There were some great bergs around so I checked them out trying to find some seals, but no luck there but found a berg that had a current line in which 5-6 Wilson’s storm-petrels were feeding.  It was super cool to be able to just float clowly past them as the wind pushed me along and get almost full frame photos of them feeding...out of the several hundred images there were a few that were even sharp and in focus!  Really magic to be so close to these awesome little guys.  So after we finished the landing we stayed anchored over dinner and enjoyed the fantastic scenery on our Xmas evening.

Peltier Channel

Gentoos playing in the surf

Gentoos playing in the surf

Weddell Seal coming ashore

Wilson's storm-petrel bouncing

Next day the wake up call was way earlier than it should have been...stupid whales hadn’t got the memo about not performing before it was a 5:45 wake up and onto the outer decks.  We had humpback whales right around the ship – a little way off to start with, but then gradually we had some pretty close, and even got a couple of breaches right at the back of the ship.  The light was fantastic and the winds had dropped so it was a beautiful morning...even at that hour!  And finally, yes finally everything came together and I actually managed to capture it with sufficient shutter speed, accurately exposed and got an awesome series of shots.  There have been many chances in the past, but finally I got it together and everything worked.  They then continued to surface right beside the ship, doing some bubble-netting (blowing bubbles whilst underwater to form a circular curtain of bubbles to entrap food), but unfortunately weren’t lunging up through it when they were right beside the ship.  They did do it a little way off though and so got a couple of distant shots of them on the surface with fully engorged throats.  Also later on we saw a whale with the end of its right fluke missing and all scarred.  Looking at my photos afterwards you can clearly see killer whale teeth marks and it looks like the tip of the tail was removed and badly damaged by killer whales, probably when it was a young animal.  We gradually headed into Cierva Cove and did an awesome zodiac cruise with another humpback really close by in the brash ice, plus we found a couple of crabeater seals and leopard seals, so nice photos of these guys too.  There was an awesome big tabular berg just out of the bay as well so we cruised around that too.

Back onboard we then headed to Mikkelsen Harbour, still with awesome blue skies and a light breeze and did a landing there with the gentoo penguins.  Man the stench of guano was pretty strong with a lot of pretty stinky wet muddy areas around the nests, but the penguins were putting on a good show and a bunch of Weddell seals were hauled out.  The brown skuas were also playing around and chasing each other so some good photo opps with them in nice light as well.  We did short zodiac cruises on the way back to the ship as well, and I found another leopard seal hauled out on ice, and later another hauled out nearby.  So all in all a pretty amazing last day on the Peninsula!

We hauled anchor and were on our way around late afternoon, heading out into a slightly wobbly Bransfield Strait, before getting out into the Drake later that night.  It is was even more wobbly out there, being a little bumpy during the night.  A pretty good crossing though with conditions on the first day being bumpy but easing over the next day.  I did my seabird adaptations lecture again on the first day, and then we had the usual jobs like getting the photo CD together, etc.  Not a great amount of birds around, but did have several light-mantled sooty albs on the first day, and then as we came past Cape Horn on the evening of the second day had a few wandering and a Southern Royal albs, a white phase Southern giant petrel, and a few other bits and bobs.  There is a rumour that later that evening a birder was seen doing the chicken dance with a certain pair of green shorts on at the talent show, but I’m sure that is just a rumour...

So we are now back in Ushuaia, it’s time to check email and have a few hours ashore before we sail this evening again.  Hoping for another relatively calm crossing and more good photo opportunities!  I have uploaded a whole heap more photos to my facebook account.

The breach 'moneyshot'!

Close encounters of the humpback kind

A nice big tabular berg at Cierva Cove

I'm sure that leopard seal is smiling at me!

The ship at Mikkelsen Harbour

Monday, 20 December 2010

The first trip...

Well an excellent first cruise down to the Antarctic Peninsula.  As you will have guessed from the lack of Tweets and updates, I don’t have internet access onboard the ship, so you’ll just have to wait 10 days between trips to get updates!  How will you cope??

We had a nice departure through the Beagle Channel as we left Ushuaia, with lovely light and the odd rainbow over the shore.  Magellanic penguins kicked off the penguin list with small groups in the water and then a bunch on one of the points.  The Drake was relatively kind to us on the southward trip, with a little bouncy weather on day one, and then calmer on day two.  The Polar Star is probably the best ship I have been on with regards to the bridge and outdoor areas for getting around the ship, and this means that birding from the outer decks is superb.  Towards the end of day one we had up to 8 light-mantled sooty albatross around the ship – absolutely awesome.  I have never seen this before having usually just the one or sometimes two, and never this close.  They were all around us on day two, sometimes just off the side of the ship or bridge wing, literally at touching distance.  Almost full-frame head shots of light-mantled sooty albatross in fantastic light, served on a plate!  We also had a few Antarctic petrels around the ship doing their characteristic acrobatics and fast sweeps over the bow and around the bridge – very cool!  Also some nice close grey-headed albatross, but what was interesting was the almost total lack of wandering albatross (single bird seen), and very low numbers of black-browed albatross.  We did get both Royal albatrosses though, both thin-billed and Antarctic prions, Antarctic fulmar, quite a few blue petrel, both Wilson’s and black-bellied stormies, both giant petrels, and of course lots of Cape petrels.

Beagle Channel in nice light

Antarctic petrel

OH yeah! Light-mantled sooty albatross

Grey-headed albatross coming alongside the ship

Light-mantled at arms length!

The Drake Lake

Our first humpback experience

Later on that day we could see the South Shetlands and our first iceberg was spotted, with humpbacks nearby.  So we had our first whales (that stayed visible, after a brief sighting of a minke and a beaked whale previously) and our first iceberg.  And what an absolute beauty it was – crabeater seal, chinstrap penguins, and stunning shape!  The clouds and light were also pretty spectacular and everyone was on deck for this one.  As we cruised through the islands the light was beautiful and looked good for the morning.  But next morning dawned (well not quite dawned I guess) and we were up at 0300 to do a 0400 landing at Aitcho Island...only problem was it was snowing/raining and 20-40 knots of wind.  Sitting in a zodiac waiting for the command at this hour of the morning and in these conditions and the novelty was wearing off!  In the end we cancelled the landing, and waited for another chance after breakfast, but then headed to Deception as the weather continued throwing its toys.

The first berg

Brown skua and South Polar skua

Polar Star in Deception Island

Things were a little different at Deception Island, and we entered through Neptune’s Bellows to calm conditions and decreasing cloud.  The landing at Whaler’s Bay was superb with almost no wind at Neptune’s Window, lots of steam on the beach and quite a few people swimming and really nice light for photography.  More humpbacks as we departed and some stunning shots of flukes against the mountains and dusky horizon.
Next morning was clear blue skies and almost no wind at Neko Harbour – what a spectacular place!  A great landing for everyone amongst the gentoos and climbing the hill, and I managed to find some snow petrels amongst the brash ice, and even feeding Wilson’s stormies.  Very nice, so my first good shots of snow petrel.  We did some short zodiac cruises after the landing and found some nice looking icebergs.  Then it was on to Port Lockroy for a landing there and at Jougla Point opposite – still beaut clear skies and almost no wind, so another great landing.  The gentoo penguins had recently had some chicks hatch, and as usual there were lots of sheathbills around running through the colony causing trouble.  Antarctic terns and kelp gulls were also pretty common, and the Antarctic shags were also on nests.  A small number of chinstrap penguins were also scattered around the place, and a couple of Weddell seals hauled out.  We then had a BBQ dinner on the stern of the ship and the guys from Port Lockroy came across to dine with us.

Snow petrel...beaut!

Neko Harbour on a nice day

Neko Harbour landing

Neumayer Channel

Jougla Point in Port Lockroy

Look Ma I can fly!

Gentoo penguin

Next day early morning cruising through the Lemaire Channel with blue skies, amazing light, calm conditions and lots of ice – just gorgeous!  Breathtaking views of the mountains and great photo opportunities.  We then had a great morning anchored just off the Argentine Islands and took people ashore to Vernadsky Station (a small Ukranian Station that gets few visitors even during the summer cruise season), and took them on zodiac cruises through the ice.  We managed to find some nice flat sea ice chunks and were able to park the zodiacs up on these to get people out and standing on the ice for photos etc.  With blue skies and calm conditions the photos were pretty nice.  Found a few interesting icebergs with holes and icicles, and even a confiding Antarctic shag roosting on a rock.

Icicles at Port Lockroy

Lemaire Channel in beautiful conditions

Lemaire Channel cruising

Lemaire Channel

Stranded on ice!

Then it was lunch and cruising back northwards (we had reached our southern most point) towards the Yalour Islands where we did a great landing at an Adelie penguin colony.  My first real experience at an Adelie colony so I was keen to be ashore and spend as much time there as possible.  The sun came and went as it gradually clouded over from midday, but we had some excellent photographic opportunities with several chicks having very recently hatched, some birds still building nests, and courting and mating going on.  Of course the skuas were out and about and we watched on several occasions as birds tried to take on the penguins for eggs or chicks, and in the end of course one was successful at taking a tiny chick – managed a few photos of the legs disappearing down the birds gullet!  Despite the cloud the light was actually really nice, so very happy with some of my photos.  Towards the end of the landing a Wilson’s storm-petrel came in over some rocks near to where I was standing, and doing a couple of circuits the bird then disappeared into a crack.  Luckily the crack was easily accessible being close to a snowfield, and looking in to it I could see the bird sitting on its nest – very very cool, and despite the several hours taking photos of the penguins during the afternoon was probably the highlight of the landing for me.  A short zodiac cruise finding another awesome iceberg with icicles and a hole, and we were then back on the ship to head back up through the Lemaire.
Next day dawned icy and cold, with snow on the decks and portholes, but as we tucked into Cierva Cove the wind seemed to drop, the skies brightened somewhat and we launched the zodiacs.  Several groups of humpback whales were feeding nearby and we were able to get great views of these guys from the zodiacs as they did shallow dives obviously in earnest feeding mode.  There were also lots more lovely icebergs around to see, and feeding humpbacks with such a back-drop was surely something for people to remember.  A leopard seal on a piece of ice was also found.

Adelie penguins on ice

Adelie penguin

Adelie feeding chicks

Icebergs and icicles

Through the bar porthole on an icy morning

Back onboard we then decided that due to the weather we would head for Ushuaia.  The possibility of another landing was on the cards but with more snow falling and increasing winds it wasn’t going to beat what we had just experienced with the we headed northwards.  The Drake was very civil to us over the next two days and we headed back towards the Beagle Channel.  A little roll at times, but low winds and small swells made for a pretty comfortable trip.  Again we had light-mantled sooty albatrosses, and the other usual suspects.  The rarity (which I missed) was a mottled petrel...only 5000 nautical miles off course from where it should have been in New Zealand!  Perhaps it was looking for me?  I gave a lecture on seabird life history and adaptations and spent time on the bridge and whittling the photo collection down.

Humpbacks in Cierva Cove

Now in Ushuaia uploading this – I will post as many photos as I can to my Facebook account also – before heading out this evening on the next cruise...