Category

South Georgia Island

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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
Previous: Steeple Jason, West Falklands
Trip Index: Cheesemans Antarctica, Falklands and South Georgia
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Photography Gear for Antarctica, South Georgia and Falklands

Antarctica, Falklands, South Georgia Island, Southern Ocean

Recommended List of Photography Equipment for Antarctica, South Georgia and Falklands.

Brash Ice, Antarctic Peninsula

Brash Ice, Antarctic Peninsula

Following is what I took on my recent trip, along with comments about how useful it was and how I will change for my next trip. Yup, I took too much, but most people do and next time I’ll have it dialed in. Weight and bulk are an issue on this sort of trip, and one wants to be nimble on shore without too much gear. By March 2010 I should have linked to several example photos taken with each piece of gear, but as of now I am just beginning my edit. Take note of my comments about 300/500 vs. 200-400 below.

  • Canon 1Ds Mark III — primary body. I love this thing. You can have it when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.
  • Canon 1Ds Mark II — used for time lapse sequences, and as back up body. Just a few years ago this was the standard by which other 35mm digital cameras were judged, and mine is still going strong after probably 200,000 frames.
  • Canon 5D Mark II — used for video, and as a landscape body. Attached 24-105 remained on camera the entire trip to minimize dust issues. This is something of a toy camera, it just does not feel right, too light and plasticy. It does NOT have the ability to withstand harsh weather that the 1D series bodies have, so be careful with it in the rain, snow and spray! The files, however, are quite nice and I am going to have a lot of fun with the video capabilities of this thing.
  • Canon 500 f/4 — great for portraits, and for isolating subjects due to its narrow field of view (almost half of the view angle of a 300). I used this for portraits of penguins, and for many subjects in Falklands. Once at South Georgia and in Antarctica, this length was no longer needed. I even used it handheld with 1.4x (700mm equivalent) for photographing Wandering albatross in flight, since they rarely came near to the boat. Granted that is quite a load to handhold on a moving boat, but it was the only way I could fill the frame with those distant birds. The images are quite sharp.
  • Canon 300 f/2.8 — most useful of the prime telephoto lenses, crazy sharp on its own and still very sharp as a handheld flight lens with the 1.4x converter (420mm equivalent). If I were to take just one prime telephoto, this is the one.
  • Canon 70-200 f/4 — probably the most useful of all lenses for this trip. Great for much of the wildlife and many of the landscapes. You want the f/4 version due to its lightness since it makes handling two lenses easier. With today’s high ISO camera bodies there is little need for the f/2.8 version, which is rumored to be softer than the f/4 version anyway. I love this sharp little lens.
  • Canon 24-70 f/2.8 — brought this along as a back-up in case the recently purchased 24-105 failed to live up to expectations. I only used this lens for a few time lapse experiments. For a trip on which weight is an issue, this lens is too heavy and not as versatile as the 24-105. Next time it will stay home.
  • Canon 24-105 f/4 — kept it permanently attached to my 5D Mark II. It performed well, although like the 5DII this lens is not well-suited to wet or harsh environments. But it is so light, small and sharp that, provided it is cared for properly, it has a place in my gear bag in the future. It does have some barrel distortion at 24mm.
  • Canon 16-35 f/2.8 II — this is often too wide but I did break it out a few times in ice or when we had clear or dramatic skies. Sharper and with less distortion than the 17-40 f/4, but heavier too.
  • Canon 15mm f/2.8 fisheye — ok, if you don’t understand why you want a fisheye in Antarctica, you need to rethink being a photographer.
  • Gitzo 1327 Tripod with RRS BH-55 ballhead and Wimberley Sidekick. The Wimberley Sidekick was used only for the 500 and will be left at home next time. The RRS BH-55 ballhead is strong enough to handle a 300/2.8 or 200-400/4. I may bring a light monopod next time, as many times I would have preferred that. But a tripod is needed for 500 or longer, or when shooting time lapse, video or in low light.
  • Think Tank Airport Acceleration v2 Backpack — this thing performed wonderfully in the airport and in the field. I had no problems with it at all. I was able to pack even more stuff in this pack than my huge Lowepro, so much so that my pack was damn-near too heavy on the flight down to Ushuaia. This pack comes with a rain cover but I did not use it in the field since the pack sheds rain and snow so well. This is what I packed on the trip down: 1DsIII/1DsII/300/500/70-200/16-35/1.4x/harddisks/laptop/couple chargers/spare clothes. (The 5DII/24-105/15 went in a small second bag.) That’s a lot in one pack.
  • NRS 3.8 Liter Heavy Duty Dry Bag. I used a really big, strong dry bag from NRS. It was large enough that I could slip my entire backpack into it, along with spare sweaters, shoes, jacket, whatever. I would leave it at the landing site and return to it if I needed to exchange gear, or remove clothes if it got too warm, etc. This thing is built like a tank, reinforced at all stress points with double thick material on the boat for abrasion resistance. Be warned: this particular bag is big. I needed a big bag to put my big backpack in, and I am big enough to heft it around. You may want to go with a smaller dry bag, especially if your camera backpack is small.
  • Laptop computer, three Seagate Freeagent Go 500gb portable drives and one Hyperspace Colorspace 320gb photo storage device. My computer (a very small Sony Vaio) is used for writing, playing movies and downloading images. I do not do any serious editing while traveling. The Seagate Freeagent Go drives are great, so tiny and light and they do not require their own power source (using USB power from the computer). The “Colorspace device” is much faster at downloading images than a computer, but is less flexible when it comes to doing a quick review in the evening. The Hyperspace Colorspace, while not a full-fledged computer, is sophisticated enough that it can be configured to read/write to my 500gb external hard disks which is helpful if the computer were to die during the trip. Probably the ideal solution, for someone who did not want to bring a computer, would be to bring two Colorspace devices (two backups is safer than one).

I always had the 5DII / 24-105 with me, as well as the 70-200 mounted on a body. The only question was, do I have along a longer lens (typically in Falklands) or a wider lens (Antarctica). South Georgia had so much variety that I ended up carrying more gear there than anywhere else.

NOTE: One major change I will make next time will be to leave the 300 and 500 lenses at home in favor of the Nikon 200-400 f/4, probably on a D300 crop body (equivalent 300-600mm). I owned a 200-400 and D3 briefly and just loved that combo, but could not justify the expense at that time and sold them after one shoot. The 200-400 is so absolutely perfect for this trip that I simply must have one in spite of the fact it is not quite as sharp as a prime, and loses a bit more quality with crop bodies which I avoid whenever possible. But on this trip the versatility of the 200-400 is enough to make up for it, and it almost doesn’t matter whether it is paired with a crop body (D300) or fullframe (D3/D3x/D700). I would guess that bird photographers will want the D300 for tighter bird stuff. Carryon luggage can be an issue on this trip (special thanks to the arbitrary and capricious ticket agents at Aerolineas Argentina when flying between Buenos Aires and Ushuaia!) and exchanging two big primes for one big zoom will ease my carryon situation a lot.

Note also that I do not carry high-speed bodies. I just don’t feel a need for them. I have used most of Canon’s bodies and have never really been satisfied with the image quality of the 1.6x crop bodies after becoming accustomed to the full frame quality. And the only shooting situations I have found that absolutely required high frame rates are photographing surf and action sports. Perhaps the 1D Mark IV will tempt me if the AF is good enough, but for now the 1DsIII and 1DsII were more than enough to handle the AF and frame-rate situations I encountered on this trip.

Conclusion, the ideal setup for me would have been: 1DsIII and 5DII with 15 / 16-35 / 24-105 / 70-200, and D3/D3x with 200-400.

Next: Black-Browed Albatross at Sunset
Previous: Equipment List for Antarctica, South Georgia and Falklands
Trip Index: Cheesemans Antarctica, Falklands and South Georgia
All “Southern Ocean” entries

Cheesemans Antarctica, Falklands and South Georgia

Antarctica, Falklands, South Georgia Island, Southern Ocean

Trip report and photos from Antarctica, the Falkland Islands, South Georgia Island, the South Orkney Islands and the South Shetland Islands on the icebreaker M/V Polar Star with Cheesemans Ecology Safaris.

I have just returned from a one-month trip during which I joined the most recent Cheesemans Ecology Safaris voyage to the Falklands, South Georgia Island and the Antarctic Peninsula. (Note: the Cheesemans are repeating this trip in December 2011, many cabins are already reserved.) This was one of the few trips I have experienced that can honestly be called an “expedition”. There are a variety of tour operators that conduct trips to Antarctica, somewhat fewer that include Falklands and South Georgia as well. The Cheesemans claim to fame with this trip is that they get their guests ashore as much as possible. Did they? Absolutely! In spite of serious challenges presented by poor weather, expedition leader Ted Cheeseman and his crack staff really delivered, doing their utmost to work safely with the captain and crew of the M/V Polar Star to get us ashore. We made 29 landings with a total of about 130 hours ashore. That is in addition to the many hours we had both in zodiacs and on the deck of the M/V Polar Star admiring the scenery and wildlife of the wonderful Southern Ocean waters.

Chinstrap penguins at Bailey Head, Deception Island.  Chinstrap penguins enter and exit the surf on the black sand beach at Bailey Head on Deception Island.  Bailey Head is home to one of the largest colonies of chinstrap penguins in the world, Pygoscelis antarcticus

Chinstrap penguins at Bailey Head, Deception Island. Chinstrap penguins enter and exit the surf on the black sand beach at Bailey Head on Deception Island. Bailey Head is home to one of the largest colonies of chinstrap penguins in the world.
Image ID: 25456
Species: Chinstrap Penguin, Pygoscelis antarcticus
Location: Deception Island, Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica

I am not too keen about traveling in large groups. Usually I make my own plans, arrange my own accomodations, and do my own thing once I arrive somewhere. However, travel to Antarctica and South Georgia Island is sufficiently difficult that getting there on one’s own is just not feasible. The economies of scale and logistic realities make it necessary to join some kind of group, either a lay-group of travelers or a scientific party. A few years ago Bob returned from the 2007/2008 Cheesemans Antarctica trip and stated very simply that it was the greatest trip he and Rosie had ever experienced. Coming from a couple who spends 6-8 months a year traveling and who has been literally all over the world, his recommendation required that I sit up and take notice. So I decided to give Antarctica a try. I researched operators and scrutinized comments on the web by other travelers who had taken this sort of trip before. What influenced me most was a series of short conversations I had with Ted Cheeseman. Ted repeatedly stressed that the Cheesemans’ itinerary placed great emphasis on getting people ashore. I really did not want to find myself trapped on a boat after investing so much time, effort and money to get to Antarctica. I wanted to be ashore, among outdoors people who enjoyed long days with their boots on the ground, experiencing the wonders of these places first hand. Ted’s attitude about maximum time ashore made my decision simple, and I joined the recent 2009/2010 Cheesemans 26-day trip to Falklands, South Georgia and the Antarctic peninsula.

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

The trip was wonderful and I hope to do it again, with Cheesemans, in the future. I’ll have lots more to say about the trip in coming weeks. For now, suffice it to say that the Cheesemans staff was superb both in the field and in the many presentations they made during the course of the trip. From Doug’s morning wake-up call to Ted’s after-dinner daily recap, the staff’s attitude was always positive and energetic, not easy to maintain on such a long and fatiguing trip. The ship M/V Polar Star was a good choice by the Cheesemans for this trip, being comfortable, accomodating and seaworthy. The group? It was a good one. This sort of travel is self-selective in the sense that the very people who choose to visit Antarctica and South Georgia are the most enjoyable sort to travel with anyway, so it all works out well. Some had been on many past Cheesemans trips elsewhere in the world, others were first-timers like me. It was a pleasant assemblage of relatively experienced travelers who were comfortable in the sometimes-uncomfortable environs we moved through and were laid-back and enjoyable to be with during our many hours on board together. Weather? OK, the weather could have been better. But this is the Southern Ocean, one of the most turbulent climates on the planet, so challenging weather is to be expected. We just smiled and rolled with whatever Mother Nature handed us, having a great time in spite of the wind, snow and rain. Photography? It was great, and next time it will be better now that I know what to expect and how to best gear up for it. I shot over 30,000 photos that should provide plenty of blog fodder in the coming months. Thanks Cheesemans!

Posts related to this trip, most recent to oldest:

Photography Expedition to Antarctica, South Georgia Island and the Falkland Islands
The Drake Passage
Hannah Point, Livingston Island, South Shetland Islands
Humpback whales in the Gerlache Strait
Neko Harbor, Antarctica
Cloudy Morning in Paradise Bay, Antarctica
Peterman Island, Antarctica
Lemaire Channel, Antarctica
Port Lockroy, Antarctica
Cuverville Island, Antarctica
Cierva Cove, Antarctica
Bailey Head, Deception Island, Antarctica
Brown Bluff, Antarctica
Devil Island, Antarctica
Zodiac Cruising in Antarctica
Paulet Island, Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica
Nature’s Best Photography Cover Shot
Pack Ice at the Edge of the Weddell Sea
Shingle Cove, Coronation Island, South Orkneys
Coronation Island, South Orkney Islands
Scotia Sea, en route to South Orkney Islands
Cooper Bay, South Georgia Island
Drygalski Fjord, South Georgia Island
Godthul, South Georgia Island
Prion Island, South Georgia Island
Salisbury Plain, South Georgia Island
Grytviken, South Georgia Island
Hercules Bay, South Georgia Island
Stromness Harbour and Shackleton Hike, South Georgia Island
Fortuna Bay, South Georgia Island
Right Whale Bay, South Georgia Island
Approaching South Georgia Island
En Route to South Georgia Island
Steeple Jason, West Falklands
Carcass Island, Falkland Islands
Westpoint Island, Falkland Islands
New Island, Falkland Islands
Southern Giant Petrel, Macronectes giganteus, Southern Ocean
Cerro Cinco Hermanos, The Five Brothers, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina
Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina
Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina
Sunset Arch, Southern Ocean
Black-Browed Albatross at Sunset
Photography Gear for Antarctica, South Georgia and Falklands
Equipment List for Antarctica, South Georgia and Falklands
Penguin Encounter, Paulet Island, Antarctic Peninsula
Cheesemans Antarctica, Falklands and South Georgia
Sunset Cruise Through Antarctic Ice
All “Southern Ocean” entries