Thursday, March 25, 2010


Shearwater Journeys' charter voyage to the Falkland Islands, Shag Rocks, South Georgia, Weddell Sea and Antarctic Peninsula, January 6-24, 2010 was, hands' down, a resounding success!

Here, I present a final recap of our incredible voyage—

PENGUINS— We saw eight species of penguins: Emperor, King, Gentoo, Adelie, Chinstrap, Southern Rockhopper, Macaroni and Magellanic. Pre-trip Chile participants also saw  Humboldt Penguins. This represents half of the world's species of penguins! Of these, we saw all but the Emperors at their breeding colonies.

NINE EMPEROR PENGUINS! En route to the Weddell Sea, and inside the Weddell Sea, we had encounters with the majestic Emperor Penguins. Our good Captain Pruss, navigated the ship so close to three five month old Emperors that we were able to obtain stunning images, as well as vocalizations for those of us who used video cameras! The vast majority of voyages to this region do not encounter any Emperor Penguins, let alone having such close encounters with them.

DIVING PETRELS— We observed Common, South Georgia and Magellanic Diving Petrels. Pre-trip Chile participants added Peruvian Diving Petrel, as well. This represents all of the world's species of diving petrels!

ANTARCTIC PETRELS— Most voyages to Antarctica hope to see a few of these enigmatic petrels. Average counts for most voyages range from none at all to 3-8 individuals. Among dozens of voyages that Morten, Don and Debra have completed, their all time high count of Antarctic Petrels was 27 on one voyage. Our final count approached 500! Flocks of a hundred or more, sometimes lifted off of passing icebergs.

ALBATROSSES— Wandering Southern and Northern Royal, Gray-headed, Black-browed, and Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses—all of the expected species were recorded. At Steeple Jason in the Falkland Islands, we experienced the rare opportunity to observe the world's largest Black-browed Albatross colony. At Grytviken, we saw Light-mantled Sooty Albatross on the nest with its young. At Elsehul, South Georgia, we saw nesting Gray-headed Albatrosses.

SEALS— We experienced close encounters with seals by being able to walk up to all of the expected species without causing any disturbance to them whatsoever! Seals we observed and photographed were: Southern Elephant Seals, Antarctic Fur Seals, Leopard Seal, Weddell Seal, and Crabeater Seal. 

FALKLAND ISLANDS— We spent two glorious days on wildlife rich islands, in gloriously warm, T-shirt weather. After being greeted by the Cobb's Wrens and Tussacbirds on Carcass Island, we enjoyed a proper Falkland Islanders' tea with the McGill family. On Steeple Jason the stunning and sweeping scenery was as awesome as the albatross colony itself. And, one full day on Saunders Island just wasn't enough— from watching Commerson's Dolphins and Rockhopper Penguins playing in the surf, to fluffy skua chicks and Magellanic penguins in their burrows to the Johnny Rooks stealing our socks on the beach— it was non-stop wildlife! In all, we tallied all of the Falkland Island endemic species, as well as all of the endemic subspecies

SHAG ROCKS— In gloriously calm seas our Captain gave us quite the show of these small, lonesome, isolated sub-Antarctic islands, as he slowly navigated our ship around the rocks. To be sure, tens of thousands of Antarctic Prions were swarming the ship, while several thousand Georgian Shags could be seen, coming and going from their nests. It was so calm that we could see the waves breaking over Black Rock some 17 km away. It is only possible to observe this rarely seen rock that just barely breaks the surface of the sea during periods of flat, calm conditions! None of the staff on board had ever seen it on prior voyages.

SOUTH GEORGIA— Five outings were executed in South Georgia, one of the most incredible places on earth. On our amazing 8 pm Zodiac cruise at Elsehul, we saw Gray-headed Albatrosses on the nest and Macaroni Penguins at eye level on the rocks. Four landings included the second largest King Penguin colony at Salisbury Plain, visiting the whaling station at Grytviken, Sir Ernest Shackleton's grave and a Light-mantled Sooty Albatross nest with a chick; stunning scenery of Fortuna Bay fjord, among others. Both the South Georgia Pintail and Pipit were found at several sites. 

WEDDELL SEA & ICE— Our experiences with ice were second to none! Staff maintained a 24 hour watch, spotting Emperor Penguins. The Captain cruised our ship north of Paulet Island, along the pack ice for a lunch date with Emperor Penguins. Immense tabular ice surrounded us. The ship cruised Fridjhof Sound where icebergs of every shape and size could be seen. We experienced true expedition cruising by walking on pack ice! This is a rare event on most voyages to Antarctica. Frazil and grease ice could be seen, forming on the surface of the ocean, as we cruised under heavenly conditions. Tens of thousands of Adelie Penguins were standing on the pack ice edge. Hundreds of them were porpoising at the edge!

ANTARCTIC LANDINGS— THE SEVENTH CONTINENT! We landed on a small cobble beach at Byrd Point on the Tabarin Peninsula— almost certainly where no other people have ever landed in the past, nor will ever land again, in the future. This, too,  was part a true expedition experience. Snowmen and women were built. We left only our footprints on this most unusual and out of the ordinary landing. We also experienced a more "standard" continental landing in bright sunshine at Hope Bay. This is one of the many spots where most ships' passengers land. Still, we were thrilled to have not one, but two continental landings!

ESPERANZA ANTARCTIC RESEARCH STATION— At Hope Bay, we were given a guided tour of the Argentine Antarctic research station, Esperanza. Here, entire families live and work. It was amazing to see children walking to school amongst the Gentoo Penguins. 

NORDENSKJOLD TRIFECTA— We achieved a trifecta with the Nordenskjold huts, visiting the remains of the hut that Larson built on Paulet Island, now overtaken by Adelie Penguins; visiting the hut built by the Anderson party at Hope Bay, and seeing the hut that Nordenskjold built on Snow Hill Island! Many of us were quite taken by the lecture about Otto Nordenskjold's Expeditions. Seeing the huts brought this to life for us.

PAULET & DECEPTION ISLANDS— Amid tens of thousands of Adelie Penguins, we hiked the pink, krill stained hills of Paulet Island. Truly, this is one of the most remarkable wildlife spectacles open to public visitation in Antarctica. Just how long it will remain open for future visits is unknown. Navigation and geology were on tap for our visit to Deception Island. Entering Neptune's Bellows, we cruised the the inner parts of this active volcanic caldera.

WEATHER— We experienced all Antarctic weather! This included a Force 11 gale which we waited out in a sheltered bay at South Georgia (while other unlucky ships had to do battle with it at sea), complete sunshine and T-shirt weather on the Falkland Islands, snow, rain, and glassy, flat calm seas! 

CAPE HORN— Because the weather forecast called for a gale from the northwest, our Captain turned the ship toward the Cape Horn area on our return route. This made for a much more pleasant ride on our last day of crossing the Drake Passage. It also allowed us to see, from a distance, Cape Horn! Few ships returning from the Antarctic Peninsula ever see the Cape.

OTHER SEABIRDS & CETACEANS— We saw all of the expected species of seabirds that could be hoped for on this voyage. Arctic Terns were a bonus! We also encountered all of the expected cetaceans, except Orcas. These included: Fin, Sei, Antarctic Minke, Southern Bottlenose, Southern Right, Humpback Whales; Hourglass, Peale's, Dusky and Commerson's Dolphins. 

LECTURES— Our staff presented 25 lectures in 18 days on subjects covering a wide range of topics from the flora of the Falkland Islands by Linda Terrill to the effects of global warming on Adelie Penguin populations by Scott Terrill to the world's most polygamous mammal— the Southern Elephant Seal by David Vander Pluym, and more. Don Doolittle's presentation of the Nordenskjold Expedition was so popular that it was repeated a second time! And, his recaps about the west wind drift, Coreolis Effect, and "How far is the horizon?" were mini-lectures in themselves. As well, our evening DVD wildlife programs were highly sought after. 

CAPTAIN ALEXANDER PRUSS— I list our Captain as one of the highlights of our voyage because— well, he was! Completely unlike any other ship's master, he was involved with our activities at a level never seen before this voyage. He and Morten scouted our landing at Fortuna Bay! He gave us 110%! We shall never forget him. Certainly, we hope to see him again on one of our voyages.

MORTEN J├śRGENSEN— Head's above all other Expedition Leaders, Morten worked tirelessly for all of us. A highly skilled communicator, he was able to bring new experiences and new places to all of us. Helpful to the end, even in the airport on our return flights to home, Morten was there for us! Naturally, we expect to travel with him on future voyages.

KATE GOLDBERG— Ship's doctors are seldom birders or wildlife enthusiasts. Not so with Kate! I don't think anyone spent more time on deck, searching and finding wildlife than Kate did. Rather than a doctor who was simply on board for a vacation, Kate was an active participant at all levels, including, of course, tending to any minor injuries. She was a tough gangway master, too! 

DANIELA CRISTOFF, MARCEL ALEJANDRO CANEL & JUAN ANDRES SOZA— As our hotel manager, we could not have asked for a better person than Daniela. Always cheerful and positive, she had to solve a wide range of issues. Accommodating chefs, Marcel and Juan, helped make our sometimes crazy landing times possible. And, the food— over the top! 

MASSAGE— No, we were not on a luxury cruise ship! However, on board massage was on offer by one of our passengers, James Doolittle, who is a certified massage therapist. Many passengers had the kinks of holding binoculars, or other body aches worked out by James. As far as I know, no other small expedition ship has had massage on offer. 

USHUAIA BIRDING— Three, short pre-trips were offered in Ushuaia, our port of embarkation and debarkation. Birding with 46 people in Tierra del Fuego National Park certainly does not sound like the picnic that it ultimately turned out to be! Nevertheless, with eight leaders, we were able to find many of the specialty bird species and get everyone in this large group on them! Some of these species included: Austral Pygmy Owl, Magellanic Woodpeckers, Andean Condors, White-throated Caracara, Thorn-tailed Rayadito and White-throated Treerunner. In a comedy of errors, a gang of Chimango Caracaras made a feast of an unattended picnic lunch, including eating the chicken on the hot grill! A short field trip up to the Martial Glacier on the morning of our embarkation produced the frosting on the cake— White-bellied Seedsnipe!

PROMISES MADE & KEPT— The pre-trip information which I provided stipulated a number of things which made this exclusive charter expedition unique. These included the following promises which were made: a voyage based on searching for wildlife first and foremost; a voyage that would make as many landings as possible; landings for as long as possible; a dedicated search for Emperor Penguins in the Weddell Sea; quality leadership; one of the highest passenger/leader ratios of any voyage to the region; a voyage scheduled at the absolute peak time of year for wildlife activity and viewing chicks in the nest; travel with a group of like-minded folks; and one of the best values in travel to the Antarctic region. I promised to wake you up on the ship's PA system for wildlife sightings. This I did on the very first day at sea, after leaving the Falkland Islands, when Southern Right Whales and Fin Whales were just off our bow at 6:15 am! This trend continued throughout the voyage, when Morten did not hesitate to wake you, gently, at 4:30 am for the first Antarctic Petrels! I promised to interrupt meals for significant wildlife sightings. This we did, when Linda Terrill spotted the first Emperor Penguin during lunch, causing a stampede out the doors! I promised to make unusually early or late landings, so that we could fit more wildlife into each day. This we did with an 8 pm Zodiac cruise at Elsehul and a 4:30 am landing at Godthul. All of these things could only have been accomplished with the co-operation of our Expedition Leader, Captain, and hotel/restaurant staff. Ordinary expeditions are not able to offer all that was offered on this special voyage, even if they are charter expeditions. Truly, in every sense of the word, this was not only the "Voyage of a Lifetime," but the "Experience of a Lifetime."

Many, many thanks to all!

Debra Shearwater

Debra Shearwater
Shearwater Journeys, Inc.
PO Box 190
Hollister, CA 95024

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