Monthly Archives

March 2010

Hercules Bay, South Georgia Island

South Georgia Island, Southern Ocean

Photos of Hercules Bay and Macaroni Penguins, South Georgia Island

It is snowing this morning. We are anchored at Stromness but can hardly see the mountains over which we hiked yesterday. The M/V Polar Star is covered with snow. The beaches surrounding our anchorage are dusted with snow and look cold. During breakfast we slowly motor north to Hercules Bay, anchor and prepare for a look at more penguins and seals. Hercules Bay is a spectacular cirque, a snow-topped bowl that rises on three sides of us. A waterfall drops hundreds of feet to a narrow cobblestone beach on which king penguins, fur seals and elephant seals reside.

Macaroni penguins, on the rocky shoreline of Hercules Bay, South Georgia Island.  One of the crested penguin species, the macaroni penguin bears a distinctive yellow crest on its head.  They grow to be about 12 lb and 28" high.  Macaroni penguins eat primarily krill and other crustaceans, small fishes and cephalopods, Eudyptes chrysolophus

Macaroni penguins, on the rocky shoreline of Hercules Bay, South Georgia Island. One of the crested penguin species, the macaroni penguin bears a distinctive yellow crest on its head. They grow to be about 12 lb and 28″ high. Macaroni penguins eat primarily krill and other crustaceans, small fishes and cephalopods.
Image ID: 24390
Species: Macaroni penguin, Eudyptes chrysolophus
Location: Hercules Bay, South Georgia Island

Macaroni penguins, on the rocky shoreline of Hercules Bay, South Georgia Island.  One of the crested penguin species, the macaroni penguin bears a distinctive yellow crest on its head.  They grow to be about 12 lb and 28" high.  Macaroni penguins eat primarily krill and other crustaceans, small fishes and cephalopods, Eudyptes chrysolophus

Macaroni penguins, on the rocky shoreline of Hercules Bay, South Georgia Island. One of the crested penguin species, the macaroni penguin bears a distinctive yellow crest on its head. They grow to be about 12 lb and 28″ high. Macaroni penguins eat primarily krill and other crustaceans, small fishes and cephalopods.
Image ID: 24391
Species: Macaroni penguin, Eudyptes chrysolophus
Location: Hercules Bay, South Georgia Island

It continues to snow as we motor in the zodiacs. As we arrive in a small rocky cove, the stench of bird guano and pinniped poop is stunningly strong, a bracing waft of lung-shaking malodorous fumes. Nothing like a group of elephant seals lying in puddles of their own making to open up one’s sinuses. Everyone winces. Ahhh, to be alive on South Georgia Island! Indeed, this is the smell we traveled halfway around the world to experience. For a hour or so we watch Macaroni penguins (Eudyptes chrysolophus) as they walk to and fro from their nests in the tussac grass on bluffs overlooking the bay down to rocks at the water’s edge. As we do, we must avoid Antarctic fur seals and elephant seals resting on the rocks. Two lone chinstrap penguins are hassled by the larger macaronis, which we now realize are nothing more than 24” bullying avian thugs. Clouds break and the sun begins to light the beach. The air is actually fairly warm now yet snow still falls. What a morning! It is beautiful here, wow.

Hercules Bay, with the steep mountains and narrow waterfalls of South Georgia Island rising above

Hercules Bay, with the steep mountains and narrow waterfalls of South Georgia Island rising above.
Image ID: 24417
Location: Hercules Bay, South Georgia Island

Antarctic fur seal, adult male (bull), Arctocephalus gazella, Hercules Bay

Antarctic fur seal, adult male (bull).
Image ID: 24569
Species: Antarctic Fur Seal, Arctocephalus gazella
Location: Hercules Bay, South Georgia Island

King penguins gather in a steam to molt, below a waterfall on a cobblestone beach at Hercules Bay, Aptenodytes patagonicus

King penguins gather in a steam to molt, below a waterfall on a cobblestone beach at Hercules Bay.
Image ID: 24557
Species: King penguin, Aptenodytes patagonicus
Location: Hercules Bay, South Georgia Island

After an hour we move by zodiac to another cove a short distance away, the one we saw earlier with a waterfall dropping into it. On a small cobblestone beach with mountains rising high above us, a group of about 100 molting King penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus) are standing in the fresh water as it flows the short distance from the cliff to the ocean. A few young fur seals move about the edge of the king penguin group. Feathers dropped during the penguin’s molt gather in clumps in the stream, and blow about in the air when a breeze rises. They are very photogenic and cooperative. Besides the photos I take of them, I shoot a video to show my kids later, hoping that the audio track captures the croaking of the penguins, barking of the fur seals and elephant seals and the soft tap-tap-tap of the still-falling snow. Eventually it is time to leave Hercules Bay and the staff gathers the zodiacs back on board. As we motor away toward Grytviken, the skies open up and show us how really gorgeous this bay is.

Next: Grytviken, South Georgia Island
Previous: Stromness Harbour and Shackleton Hike, South Georgia Island
Trip Index: Cheesemans Antarctica, Falklands and South Georgia
All “Southern Ocean” entries

Stromness Harbour and Shackleton Hike, South Georgia Island

South Georgia Island, Southern Ocean

Photos of Stromness Harbour and Shackleton Hike, South Georgia Island

After lunch on the boat we return to the far side of Fortuna Bay to set out on a 3.5m hike over a mountain pass to Stromness. This hike will follow the final leg in Ernest Shackleton’s heroic journey from Elephant Island to South Georgia Island. As Shackleton crossed over South Georgia Island, his goal was Stromness Harbour where he knew he could find help from the whaling station there. However, he mistakenly descended into Fortuna Bay. Upon realizing this, he made for Stromness Harbour by the most direct route, over a low pass. Our hike today is a reenactment of that final short traverse, one that he performed in winter. Thanks to the forgiving weather, our walk turns out to be fun and easy, but the thought of hiking up on the mountains above in winter as Shackleton did holds no appeal.

A hiker ascends the slopes of South Georgia Island above Fortuna Bay

A hiker ascends the slopes of South Georgia Island above Fortuna Bay.
Image ID: 24591
Location: Fortuna Bay, South Georgia Island

Crean Lake, with permanent ice and snow, near the pass over South Georgia Island between Fortuna Bay and Stromness Bay

Crean Lake, with permanent ice and snow, near the pass over South Georgia Island between Fortuna Bay and Stromness Bay.
Image ID: 24589
Location: South Georgia Island

We leave from – what else – a small cobblestone beach with fur seals and elephant seals. The initial ascent is steep but simple, with open views of still-overcast Fortuna Bay below. The route (not a trail) is a over some type of slate scree, a fascinating debris that must be revealing the geologic history of the rock below but which I can’t read. I just like the footing it offers, and I can travel easily and quickly. On the way to the top of the saddle I pass a stream and several small lakes, and patches of snow. It is drizzling lightly. Once over the pass I see my first views of Stromness Harbour and the whaling station there. Several glaciers in the surrounding basin feed into the stream that winds across a wide flat alluvial flood plain below. A steep snow patch blocks the way – nothing to do but descend. Others who have gone before me have slid down on their butts but I left my foul weather pants on the boat so decide to schuss-ski the 300 yards run on my feet. It’s really fun. Below the snow I find Shackleton’s Falls (not sure what the actual name of this waterfall is), dropping in several parts nearly all the way to the flood plain. I shoot a few photos and a video, then head off across the wet plain alongside the stream. From this point a hill blocks Stromness Harbour from sight, so that one must either go over or around. I go up and over. Atop the hill there are a few colonies of gentoo penguins (why so far inland and high up?), skuas laying in grass, and lichen-covered ancient-looking rock formations. The drizzle now changes to snow, and I am forced to put my jacket on. Reindeer are running over the grassy hills a half mile away across a gap, travelling up the mountainside as far as the lower reaches of snow. More waterfalls can be seen from the top of this hill, each descending to the flood plain and into the bay at Stromness. The abandoned whaling station at Stromness can be seen clearly from atop this hill. It is a decrepit wreck of rusting metal, docks, cranes, barrels and old roads. I descend through beautiful spreads of tall tussock and mounds of short grasses to the beach below, passing by bachelor fur seals and gentoos walking from the water to their hilltop colonies.

Hiker looks down on Stromness Harbour from the pass high above

Hiker looks down on Stromness Harbour from the pass high above.
Image ID: 24582
Location: Stromness Harbour, South Georgia Island

Shackleton Falls, named for explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, formed from glacial meltwaters, near Stromness Bay, Stromness Harbour

Shackleton Falls, named for explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, formed from glacial meltwaters, near Stromness Bay.
Image ID: 24636
Location: Stromness Harbour, South Georgia Island

Glacial melt waters, runoff, flows across an alluvial flood plain between mountains, on its way to Stromness Bay, Stromness Harbour

Glacial melt waters, runoff, flows across an alluvial flood plain between mountains, on its way to Stromness Bay.
Image ID: 24587
Location: Stromness Harbour, South Georgia Island

Gentoo penguins, permanent nesting colony in grassy hills about a mile inland from the ocean, near Stromness Bay, South Georgia Island, Pygoscelis papua, Stromness Harbour

Gentoo penguins, permanent nesting colony in grassy hills about a mile inland from the ocean, near Stromness Bay, South Georgia Island.
Image ID: 24635
Species: Gentoo penguin, Pygoscelis papua
Location: Stromness Harbour, South Georgia Island

Next: Hercules Bay, South Georgia Island
Previous: Fortuna Bay, South Georgia Island
Trip Index: Cheesemans Antarctica, Falklands and South Georgia
All “Southern Ocean” entries

Fortuna Bay, South Georgia Island

South Georgia Island, Southern Ocean

Photos of Fortuna Bay and Antarctic Fur Seals, South Georgia Island

Fortuna Bay, with icebreaker M/V Polar Star at anchor

Fortuna Bay, with icebreaker M/V Polar Star at anchor.
Image ID: 24593
Location: Fortuna Bay, South Georgia Island

This morning we awake anchored in Fortuna Bay. Some early birds opt for a 6am landing, while others wait until after breakfast to go ashore. I go early. The beach has many fur seals and king penguins, more broadly spread about than what we saw yesterday. It is very overcast, and the light is low. The animals are soaking wet, as is the grass in which the fur seals bed down. I decide to shoot portraits, using as much lens as I have. My goal is to illustrate the long whiskers that are characteristic of Antarctic fur seals. The fur seals use these whiskers when foraging for food, although the exact sense that the whiskers provide is not yet fully known. The whiskers may serve as a crude form of close-proximity radar at depths so great there is no light, providing exceptionally sensitive touch for sensing vibration in the water caused by their prey: squid and fish.

Antarctic fur seal, adult male (bull), showing distinctive pointed snout and long whiskers that are typical of many fur seal species, Arctocephalus gazella, Fortuna Bay

Antarctic fur seal, adult male (bull), showing distinctive pointed snout and long whiskers that are typical of many fur seal species.
Image ID: 24632
Species: Antarctic Fur Seal, Arctocephalus gazella
Location: Fortuna Bay, South Georgia Island

Most of the group arrives after breakfast by which time the fog is lifting and it is getting brighter. Above us, on the lower slopes of the mountains that tower above Fortuna Bay, is a small herd of reindeer and an area with nesting terns. I hike about 300-400’ up to see the reindeer, and am surprised to find many fur seals that have settled down on the grassy slopes high above the beach. Why do they feel the need to climb so high? It must be for the view. After returning down to the beach I sit down to watch a group of king penguins, several of whom approach me so closely I can photograph a single king penguin’s head full-frame. Their plumage is really something to behold. What great birds. There are fur seal pups scattered among the tussock grass and playing in small pockets of water on the beach. I find one leucistic antarctic fur seal pup, so lacking in pigmentation that it appears blond. We will ony see a few leucistic fur seals then entire trip, they are quite uncommon.

King penguin, showing ornate and distinctive neck, breast and head plumage and orange beak, Aptenodytes patagonicus, Fortuna Bay

King penguin, showing ornate and distinctive neck, breast and head plumage and orange beak.
Image ID: 24581
Species: King penguin, Aptenodytes patagonicus
Location: Fortuna Bay, South Georgia Island

Antarctic fur seal, on grass slopes high above Fortuna Bay, Arctocephalus gazella

Antarctic fur seal, on grass slopes high above Fortuna Bay.
Image ID: 24583
Species: Antarctic Fur Seal, Arctocephalus gazella
Location: Fortuna Bay, South Georgia Island

An antarctic fur seal pup plays in the water, Arctocephalus gazella, Fortuna Bay

An antarctic fur seal pup plays in the water.
Image ID: 24605
Species: Antarctic Fur Seal, Arctocephalus gazella
Location: Fortuna Bay, South Georgia Island

Next: Stromness Harbour and Shackleton Hike, South Georgia Island
Previous: Right Whale Bay, South Georgia Island
Trip Index: Cheesemans Antarctica, Falklands and South Georgia
All “Southern Ocean” entries

In Search of Chocolate Lilies

California, Flora, Wildflowers

I got out early this morning with Mike. We went looking for chocolate lilies (Fritillaria biflora) on the Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve. We got there at sunrise. It was warm and clear. We found a lot of lilies. They were so dark brown I am declaring them to be a new sub-species, or at least a new variety: Super Double-Kahlua Belgian Chocolate Lily, Fritillaria biflora kahluensis belgiatica. Lucky for us the lilies were near peak, with some past and some coming into peak now. I spent some time shooting oaks and a big vernal pool panorama. I got back home by noon (yay, no ticks).

Chocolate lily growing among grasses on oak-covered hillsides.  The chocolate lily is a herbaceous perennial monocot that is increasingly difficult to find in the wild due to habitat loss.  The flower is a striking brown color akin to the color of chocolate, Fritillaria biflora, Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve, Murrieta, California

Chocolate lily growing among grasses on oak-covered hillsides. The chocolate lily is a herbaceous perennial monocot that is increasingly difficult to find in the wild due to habitat loss. The flower is a striking brown color akin to the color of chocolate.
Image ID: 24366
Species: Chocolate lily, Fritillaria biflora
Location: Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve, Murrieta, California, USA

Shooting stars, a springtime flower, blooming on the Santa Rosa Plateau, Dodecatheon clevelandii, Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve, Murrieta, California

Shooting stars, a springtime flower, blooming on the Santa Rosa Plateau.
Image ID: 24368
Species: Shooting star, Dodecatheon clevelandii
Location: Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve, Murrieta, California, USA

Oak tree at sunrise, Santa Rosa Plateau, Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve, Murrieta, California

Oak tree at sunrise, Santa Rosa Plateau.
Image ID: 24382
Location: Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve, Murrieta, California, USA

Chocolate lily growing among grasses on oak-covered hillsides.  The chocolate lily is a herbaceous perennial monocot that is increasingly difficult to find in the wild due to habitat loss.  The flower is a striking brown color akin to the color of chocolate, Fritillaria biflora, Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve, Murrieta, California

Chocolate lily growing among grasses on oak-covered hillsides. The chocolate lily is a herbaceous perennial monocot that is increasingly difficult to find in the wild due to habitat loss. The flower is a striking brown color akin to the color of chocolate.
Image ID: 24369
Species: Chocolate lily, Fritillaria biflora
Location: Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve, Murrieta, California, USA

California poppies grow on Santa Rosa Plateau in spring, Eschscholzia californica, Eschscholtzia californica, Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve, Murrieta

California poppies grow on Santa Rosa Plateau in spring.
Image ID: 24371
Species: California poppy, Eschscholzia californica, Eschscholtzia californica
Location: Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve, Murrieta, California, USA

Vernal pool, full of water following spring rains, Santa Rosa Plateau, Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve, Murrieta, California

Vernal pool, full of water following spring rains, Santa Rosa Plateau.
Image ID: 24375
Location: Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve, Murrieta, California, USA

Vernal pool, full of water following spring rains, Santa Rosa Plateau, Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve, Murrieta, California

Vernal pool, full of water following spring rains, Santa Rosa Plateau.
Image ID: 24379
Location: Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve, Murrieta, California, USA

Panorama of a large vernal pool, full of water following spring rains, Santa Rosa Plateau, Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve, Murrieta, California

Panorama of a large vernal pool, full of water following spring rains, Santa Rosa Plateau.
Image ID: 24381
Location: Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve, Murrieta, California, USA

California Poppy Photos, Eschscholzia californica

Wildflowers

Photos of California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) from past seasons. I am hoping we get some good displays this year!

California poppies cover the hillsides in bright orange, just months after the area was devastated by wildfires, Eschscholzia californica, Eschscholtzia californica, Del Dios, San Diego

California poppies cover the hillsides in bright orange, just months after the area was devastated by wildfires.
Image ID: 20497
Species: California poppy, Eschscholzia californica, Eschscholtzia californica
Location: Del Dios, San Diego, California, USA

California poppy plants viewed from the perspective of a bug walking below the bright orange blooms, Eschscholzia californica, Eschscholtzia californica, Del Dios, San Diego

California poppy plants viewed from the perspective of a bug walking below the bright orange blooms.
Image ID: 20539
Species: California poppy, Eschscholzia californica, Eschscholtzia californica
Location: Del Dios, San Diego, California, USA

California poppies cover the hillsides in bright orange, just months after the area was devastated by wildfires, Eschscholzia californica, Eschscholtzia californica, Del Dios, San Diego

California poppies cover the hillsides in bright orange, just months after the area was devastated by wildfires.
Image ID: 20499
Species: California poppy, Eschscholzia californica, Eschscholtzia californica
Location: Del Dios, San Diego, California, USA

California poppies bloom amidst rock boulders, Eschscholzia californica, Eschscholtzia californica, Elsinore

California poppies bloom amidst rock boulders.
Image ID: 20520
Species: California poppy, Eschscholzia californica, Eschscholtzia californica
Location: Elsinore, California, USA

California poppies cover the hillsides in bright orange, just months after the area was devastated by wildfires, Eschscholzia californica, Eschscholtzia californica, Del Dios, San Diego

California poppies cover the hillsides in bright orange, just months after the area was devastated by wildfires.
Image ID: 20540
Species: California poppy, Eschscholzia californica, Eschscholtzia californica
Location: Del Dios, San Diego, California, USA

See lots more California poppy photos as well as photos of Eschscholzia californica.

Right Whale Bay, South Georgia Island

South Georgia Island, Southern Ocean

Photos of Right Whale Bay and Antarctic Fur Seals, South Georgia Island

Antarctic fur seal colony, on a sand beach alongside Right Whale Bay, with the mountains of South Georgia Island in the background, sunset, Arctocephalus gazella

Antarctic fur seal colony, on a sand beach alongside Right Whale Bay, with the mountains of South Georgia Island in the background, sunset.
Image ID: 24315
Species: Antarctic Fur Seal, Arctocephalus gazella
Location: Right Whale Bay, South Georgia Island

Upon reaching South Georgia Island late in the day today, we made straight for Elsehul, a small bay at the north end of the island. The island is rugged, with sea cliffs rising almost vertically from the ocean. The peaks above, some of which are hidden in clouds, rise to over 9,000′. They are covered in snow and glaciers. Glaciers lead from the peaks down almost to sea level and are clearly what has formed the many bays, inlets and notches to define the coastline. Gray-headed albatrosses are seen here, the first I have seen of them on the trip, flying alongside the boat and about the cliffs at Elsehul upon which they nest. Antarctic fur seals are swimming in the waters of the bay. Using binoculors one can easily see that the beaches at Elsehul, however, are so plugged with fur seals that a landing is untenable, so we move down the coast to Right Whale Bay. After dinner the staff surveyed the beaches within Right Whale Bay and decided that there was room for us to land without disturbing the inhabitants, so at 7:30 pm we made for shore. Antarctic fur seals (Arctocephalus gazella) cover this beach too (a common theme for the trip, as we shall see). At our landing spot there are many bull fur seals (adult males) managing their harems of females. Occasionally a bachelor male will move too close to a harem, perhaps hoping to pick off one of the females on the outskirts and and try for a quick opportunity at mating, but usually the harem’s bull will quickly chase the interloper away.

Antarctic fur seals, adult male bull and female, illustrating extreme sexual dimorphism common among pinnipeds (seals, sea lions and fur seals), Arctocephalus gazella, Right Whale Bay

Antarctic fur seals, adult male bull and female, illustrating extreme sexual dimorphism common among pinnipeds (seals, sea lions and fur seals).
Image ID: 24324
Species: Antarctic Fur Seal, Arctocephalus gazella
Location: Right Whale Bay, South Georgia Island

Pups are literally strewn about on the sand, small and black, some near there mothers while others gather in small groups a few yards away from the adults. About 100 yards in from the ocean the sand beach transitions to a gravel alluvial flood plain created by streams leading down from the mountains that rise so quickly above us. King penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus) occupy much of the plain — singletons, small groups and gatherings of hundreds and thousands. Dead fur seals lie in the stream, testament to the difficulty of survival here. Giant petrels and skuas bury their heads deep into the carcasses, emerging with blood covered beaks draped with bits of entrails. Dominant skuas chase away lesser competitors from some of the better carcasses. We walk along the outskirts of the fur seal colony, watching them and taking photographs. The sun is behind the mountains already and it is growing dark. About the time we must depart the beach and return by zodiac to the big boat for the night, we receive a final surprise: the clouds above catch their last sunlight of the day, lighting up with pink and orange. Awesome!

M/V Polar Star, an icebreaker expedition ship, lies at anchor in Right Whale Bay, South Georgia Island.  Antarctic fur seals on the beach, and the rugged South Georgia Island mountains in the distance.  Sunset, dusk, Arctocephalus gazella

M/V Polar Star, an icebreaker expedition ship, lies at anchor in Right Whale Bay, South Georgia Island. Antarctic fur seals on the beach, and the rugged South Georgia Island mountains in the distance. Sunset, dusk.
Image ID: 24318
Species: Antarctic Fur Seal, Arctocephalus gazella
Location: Right Whale Bay, South Georgia Island

Next: Fortuna Bay, South Georgia Island
Previous: Approaching South Georgia Island
Trip Index: Cheesemans Antarctica, Falklands and South Georgia
All “Southern Ocean” entries

Approaching South Georgia Island

South Georgia Island, Southern Ocean

Approaching South Georgia Island

Stern of the M/V Polar Star, foggy weather, sea birds flying in the wake of the ship, at sea

Stern of the M/V Polar Star, foggy weather, sea birds flying in the wake of the ship, at sea.
Image ID: 24137
Location: Southern Ocean

This was our third day sailing for South Georgia Island. We are fortunate to have had calm seas the entire time. Today I woke up at 5am, hoping to see Shag Rock which we were estimated to pass at about 5:30am. However, it was heavily overcast and drizzly. We never saw Shag Rock which is not surprising since, if I were the captain in this weather, I would have steered clear of that hazard by several miles. The water is a different color now, steel gray or sometimes black depending on the light. We crossed the Antarctic Convergence Line sometime during the night, and were now officially in “southern waters”. Crossing the convergence line, a transition which can be a brief as 100 yards, led us into water that was only 1’C, about 3-4 degrees colder than yesterday. The air is noticeably colder too, so I put on my heaviest sweater and jacket, gloves and an ugly woolen hat. No more flipflops now (well, until we get to Antarctica that is).

Before industrial whaling, the waters below our ship were teeming with behemoth blue whales, right whales, fins, humpback whales and sperm whales. In the depths over which we are now sailing whalers plyed their bloody trade, taking hundreds of thousands of whales. In terms of biomass, whale hunting in the Southern Ocean, which is still ongoing, is arguably the greatest killing spree mankind has ever embarked upon, more than any of humanity’s wars. South Georgia whalers were a major part of that gruesome machine. The whaling station at Grytviken, which we will visit in a few days, was active into the 1960s and took more whales than any other station in the Atlantic. It is a somber thought. We see no blows today.

Icebreaker M/V Polar Star approaches Elsehul harbor on South Georgia Island

Icebreaker M/V Polar Star approaches Elsehul harbor on South Georgia Island.
Image ID: 24323
Location: South Georgia Island

For much of the day I assumed a spot on the back deck hoping to see more albatross. Since we were now only about 150nm from South Georgia, today figured to be a better day for bird sightings than yesterday. Albatrosses – black-browed, gray-headed and occasional wandering – could be seen soaring through the troughs and over the peaks of waves, riding the updrafts of the wind that was following us, but they were hard to see. The looked like ghosts as they appeared along the edge of the fog surrounding us. Prions and other small seabirds flitted about the boat throughout the day and I tried to photograph them. Epic fail. They are too damn small and fast. I could not track them they moved so quickly and erraticly. Big, slow birds are what I prefer. I take very few photos today, instead listening to Mark Isham’s Vapor Drawings on my iPod and staring out to sea. Chill. We are scheduled to arrive at South Georgia Island about 6pm hoping to make a evening visit at Elsehul (Else’s Bay) after dinner. The visit may morph into a Zodiac ride along the shore if there are too many Antarctic fur seals on shore. It is mating season for fur seals. They come ashore in such vast numbers, and are so stoked up on hormones, territoriality and sex, that it may be impossible for us to traverse the beach at Elsehul. A few hours before we sight the island, we began to see Antarctic fur seals swimming in groups in the open ocean. The fog lifts occasionally letting the sun through, then it settles in again around the boat. It feels very “South”, quite different than the balmy temperatures and sunny skies we experienced in the Falklands. This is the weather I expected.

South Georgia Island coastline, showing the island's characteristic rugged topography.  56% of the island is covered by 161 glaciers, which have created numerous large bays and inlets that provide excellent habitat for marine animals and seabirds. Mountains meet the sea in steep-sided seacliffs covered with sparse vegetation.  The highest point on South Georgia Island is Mt. Paget at 2,915m

South Georgia Island coastline, showing the island’s characteristic rugged topography. 56% of the island is covered by 161 glaciers, which have created numerous large bays and inlets that provide excellent habitat for marine animals and seabirds. Mountains meet the sea in steep-sided seacliffs covered with sparse vegetation. The highest point on South Georgia Island is Mt. Paget at 2,915m.
Image ID: 24317
Location: South Georgia Island

Finally, after three days of quite comfortable and uneventful sailing, we make our first sighting of South Georgia Island. As we approach, the island rises steeply out of the ocean. A brief clearing of blue sky closes out and we find ourselves below the cloud layer that envelops the island. It is ominious and exciting. The island is imposing. Tortured earth. I wonder about the geologic tale of upheaval and torment that is written in the rocky seacliffs that burst from the depths and reach hundreds of feet into the air. This island was once part of the Andes Mountains. I would love to see the eons-long time lapse movie illustrating the tumultuous forces that parted this island from it’s mother South America, leaving it so distant, rugged and alone. I really look forward to going ashore.

Next: Right Whale Bay, South Georgia Island
Previous: En Route to South Georgia Island
Trip Index: Cheesemans Antarctica, Falklands and South Georgia
All “Southern Ocean” entries

Raging Waters in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

California, Desert, Video, Wildflowers

It is uncommon for water to be flowing in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. At least, I have never seen it before. Sure, the washes are there for a reason: they channel rainwater that comes down the canyons out to the floor of the Anza-Borrego basin. But the running water does not last long. So as I was out in Anza-Borrego for a look-see at the spring wildflower bloom and cactus situation, I was pleased to see the stream in Borrego Palm Canyon, near the visitor center, still running after the most recent bout of rains the week before. The sounds of the running water were pleasant so I used my camera to record a little video and tried to include some of the brittlebush alongside the stream that is just coming into bloom now. This was shot Saturday morning a few minutes after sunrise.

Anza-Borrego Desert Wildflower Update

California, Desert, Wildflowers

Brittlebush at sunrise, dawn, springtime bloom, Palm Canyon, Anza Borrego Desert State Park, Encelia farinosa, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Brittlebush at sunrise, dawn, springtime bloom, Palm Canyon, Anza Borrego Desert State Park.
Image ID: 24301
Species: Brittlebush, Encelia farinosa
Location: Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, Anza Borrego, California, USA

I made a sunrise visit to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, my first visit this spring. By 9am I had seen enough to know there was no further point in staying, and the light had grown harsh. There is some good news and bad news — bad news first.

Bad: Since I have been monitoring reports from other photographers for the past month, especially Ron Niebrugge‘s, I had a reasonable idea of what to expect. Nonetheless, I was surprised and deeply disappointed by the extent to which invasive Sarahan mustard has overrun some of the best and most accessible wildflower areas of past years. Everyone who has visited Anza-Borrego for wildflowers is probably familiar with the alluvial flood area that descends from Coyote Canyon, and is bordered by DiGorgio Road on the west, Henderson Canyon Road on the south, and mountains to the east. My fear is that that entire area will never again produce the gorgeous expanses of Dune Evening Primrose and Sand Verbena that is has in the past. Currently, it is totally overrun and choked by saharan mustard. In theory this year’s timing of rain and warm spells should have produced a fantastic bloom in that area right about now, peaking in the next 10 days or so. Well, that won’t be happening. I did not even bother to get my camera out as I made a few stops on Henderson Canyon Road and past the end of DiGiorgio Road; I had a hard time even finding patches of verbena to look at. With some walking way in from the road, one can find patches of sand verbena (Abronia villosa) but honestly they are just nothing like in past years. While there are desert lilies about, they are overshadowed by the taller, engulfing mustard. My favorite desert flower, the dune evening primrose (Oenothera deltoides), is just not happening this season; the few that are blooming are being smothered. To the east of Borrego Springs, on S22 out toward the Fonts Point and Arroyo Salado turnoffs, past years have often had large swaths of sand verbena. That’s not happening in those areas right now, and probably won’t this year. Mustard is starting to appear in those areas as well, unfortunately.

I hate to say it, but my sense is that this year’s flower bloom in Anza-Borrego will be (is?) sub-par. The same may hold true for the Coachella Valley. We saw virtually no color on the western flanks of the Coachella Valley, including almost no brittlebush, as we left Palm Desert and drove up into the mountains today.

Good: I think this may be a super year for cactus blooms. I went to a couple of my favorite canyons and found thousands of cacti, including large red barrel cactus (Ferocactus cylindraceus), looking healthy, in bud stage or just beginning to bloom. They look great. I plan to come back in a couple weeks to see how they have progressed. Brittlebush is beginning to bloom now, and looks very good in some areas, including Borrego Palm Canyon (near the visitor center), where it can be seen growing alongside the short-lived stream that is still flowing (video). While the brittlebush (Encelia farinosa) is sparse relative to past years, it provides the best opportunities for color. I am hopeful the brittlebush fills out and covers the western flanks of the Anza-Borrego basin in yellow as it has in the past. If it does, it will probably take at least another week or two to develop that way.

I will return in another week or so for the cactus, ocotillo, agave and brittlebush, but with little hope for the flowers.

Update 1: Micheal Gordon posted his observations (similar to mine). Many have commented on the Carol Leigh’s Calphoto wildflower sheet, also with some dour news about the mustard

Update 2: I was pleased to see water in Palm Canyon, so I shot and posted a little video of the stream flowing past brittlebush.

Update 3: Oh, yeah, here is a shameless plug: Borrego Springs House for Sale! A family member is selling a home in Borrego Springs. It is a beautiful, custom, single-level high-end home with interior pool and courtyard on a large quiet lot. Let me know if you are interested.

Below are some photos I got this morning between sunrise and 9am.

Brittlebush blooms in spring, Palm Canyon, Anza Borrego Desert State Park, Encelia farinosa, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Brittlebush blooms in spring, Palm Canyon, Anza Borrego Desert State Park.
Image ID: 24304
Species: Brittlebush, Encelia farinosa
Location: Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, Anza Borrego, California, USA

Red barrel cactus, Glorietta Canyon, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, Ferocactus cylindraceus, Anza Borrego, California

Red barrel cactus, Glorietta Canyon, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
Image ID: 24302
Species: Red barrel cactus, Ferocactus cylindraceus
Location: Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, Anza Borrego, California, USA

Cholla cactus, sunrise, dawn, Palm Canyon, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, Opuntia, Anza Borrego, California

Cholla cactus, sunrise, dawn, Palm Canyon, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
Image ID: 24305
Species: Cholla cactus, Opuntia
Location: Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, Anza Borrego, California, USA

Red barrel flower bloom, cactus detail, spines and flower on top of the cactus, Glorietta Canyon, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, Ferocactus cylindraceus, Anza Borrego, California

Red barrel flower bloom, cactus detail, spines and flower on top of the cactus, Glorietta Canyon, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
Image ID: 24309
Species: Red barrel cactus, Ferocactus cylindraceus
Location: Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, Anza Borrego, California, USA

En Route to South Georgia Island

Albatross, Falklands, South Georgia Island, Southern Ocean

En Route to South Georgia Island, Wandering albatross in flight

Sunset clouds create a colorful arch, spanning the heavens from horizon to horizon, over the open sea between the Falkland Islands and South Georgia Island

Sunset clouds create a colorful arch, spanning the heavens from horizon to horizon, over the open sea between the Falkland Islands and South Georgia Island.
Image ID: 24073
Location: Southern Ocean

It is a three day sail from the Falkland Islands to South Georgia Island. Day 1 dawned with leaden gray skies that soon clear, at which time the weather can only be described as great, with following seas, light winds and very little swell. I spent the day on deck trying to photograph and identify seabirds and spot whales. Sunset was stunning, with an arch of red and orange clouds that required a 180-degree fisheye lens to capture in its entirety. Day 2 brings my first Wandering Albatross (Diomedea exulans), enormous and elegant birds that soar over the open ocean swells, arcing and diving to take full advantage of the updraft created by each passing wave.

Wandering albatross in flight, over the open sea.  The wandering albatross has the largest wingspan of any living bird, with the wingspan between, up to 12' from wingtip to wingtip.  It can soar on the open ocean for hours at a time, riding the updrafts from individual swells, with a glide ratio of 22 units of distance for every unit of drop.  The wandering albatross can live up to 23 years.  They hunt at night on the open ocean for cephalopods, small fish, and crustaceans. The survival of the species is at risk due to mortality from long-line fishing gear, Diomedea exulans

Wandering albatross in flight, over the open sea. The wandering albatross has the largest wingspan of any living bird, with the wingspan between, up to 12′ from wingtip to wingtip. It can soar on the open ocean for hours at a time, riding the updrafts from individual swells, with a glide ratio of 22 units of distance for every unit of drop. The wandering albatross can live up to 23 years. They hunt at night on the open ocean for cephalopods, small fish, and crustaceans. The survival of the species is at risk due to mortality from long-line fishing gear.
Image ID: 24071
Species: Wandering albatross, Diomedea exulans
Location: Southern Ocean

Wandering albatross have the largest wingspan of any living species of bird, over 11 feet from tip to tip. When one wandering albatross passed alongside the boat very close I was able to hear the wind as it parted and passed over the wings of this magnificent bird. The wandering albatrosses glide almost the entire time they are in sight; their aerodynamics are so remarkably efficient they rarely need to flap their wings. Most excellent. I am glad to have been able to see this species of albatross out here in the middle of the ocean, where it is so obviously at home and I am so obviously not. The oft-quoted ornithologist Robert Cushman Murphy said it well upon sighting his first Wandering Albatross in 1912: I now belong to a higher cult of mortals, for I have seen the albatross!

Sunset viewed through the window of my cabin on the M/V Polar Star, somewhere between Falkland Islands and South Georgia Island

Sunset viewed through the window of my cabin on the M/V Polar Star, somewhere between Falkland Islands and South Georgia Island.
Image ID: 24097
Location: Southern Ocean

At one point a storm of prions and other small seabirds gather aloft behind the boat, dipping the beaks into the water as they flit and hover above the ocean’s surface. It seems to me they are feeding. Simultaneously we spot our first whales. The fact the two species are present here is no coincidence — we must be in an area of food, perhaps krill. Much guessing among my shipmates ensues as to what species of whales they are. I refuse to speculate early on, as I have learned from many hours spotting whales that I need to see at least the dorsal ridge or fluke, preferably both, to hazard a guess. Gradually I decide that they are all fin whales, based on the manner of their round out and dive, the shape and color of their rostrums and their dorsal fins, and their blows. The flock of small birds and our whale sightings eventually lessen, indicating we are leaving the feeding zone (if that is indeed what it was). As the day wears on, periodic individual wandering albatrosses are seen soaring around the M/V Polar Star, always angling and turning to best use the updrafts of the swells to glide. Since the wandering albatrosses tend to stay at a distance from the boat, I needed my longest lens and a teleconverter (500+1.4x), a heavy combination to handhold on the deck a rolling boat. I took a lot of photos and was lucky to manage a few sharp images. I go to bed wondering what South Georgia Island will look like when we arrive tomorrow.

Wandering albatross in flight, over the open sea.  The wandering albatross has the largest wingspan of any living bird, with the wingspan between, up to 12' from wingtip to wingtip.  It can soar on the open ocean for hours at a time, riding the updrafts from individual swells, with a glide ratio of 22 units of distance for every unit of drop.  The wandering albatross can live up to 23 years.  They hunt at night on the open ocean for cephalopods, small fish, and crustaceans. The survival of the species is at risk due to mortality from long-line fishing gear, Diomedea exulans

Wandering albatross in flight, over the open sea. The wandering albatross has the largest wingspan of any living bird, with the wingspan between, up to 12′ from wingtip to wingtip. It can soar on the open ocean for hours at a time, riding the updrafts from individual swells, with a glide ratio of 22 units of distance for every unit of drop. The wandering albatross can live up to 23 years. They hunt at night on the open ocean for cephalopods, small fish, and crustaceans. The survival of the species is at risk due to mortality from long-line fishing gear.
Image ID: 24092
Species: Wandering albatross, Diomedea exulans
Location: Southern Ocean

Next: Approaching South Georgia Island
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Trip Index: Cheesemans Antarctica, Falklands and South Georgia
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