The Perfect Antarctic Morning

Our boat, The Hebridean Sky headed off from the Gerlache Straights into Wilhelmina Bay, where we found ourselves surrounded by tall snowy peaks and dramatic glaciers flowing down to the water’s edge. A large collection of windblown ice bergs, caught up in the sea ice, had started to crack and melt into crazy shapes and different blue, green and white patterns.

The anchor was lowered, casting a ripple over the glass like surface, sending the reflection spreading out over the bay. Small channels round the flat mini islands of snow and ice, had formed, creating the perfect spot for animals to rest and sunbathe. The snow flurries were disappearing and the mist was lifting off the surrounding glaciated peaks.

We eagerly put on our dry suits and tugged tight on the life jacket straps and headed out in the zodiac with our row of duckling kayaks bobbing along behind. We found an area of open water and slid into our kayaks, slipped over the water tight skirt and paddled off to see a couple of penguins perched on an ice berg. Today was going to be penguin heaven, we saw Adelie, Gentoo and Chinstrap in little clusters on the ice flows, preening and cleaning their silver white bellies.

The joy of being out in a kayak is there is no sound apart from the gentle tinkling of the water on the bow of the canoe, you feel part of nature and can hear everything.

Then while floating along and looking out for seals on the ice, we heard the incredible whoosh of a whale expelling air deep from inside its belly. We all stopped and looked at each other, trying to ascertain which direction the noise had come from. We worked out in our small group of 10 kayakers, that the sound had come from some distance away so we sat quietly…..waiting. Then the whoosh again and we saw a plume of spray rising between 2 mini icebergs. We paddled off to see if we could get closer and work out the whale type. There were 2 humpbacks, logging, they lie on the surface sleeping, closing off half of their brain. As we approached less than 100 metres away, they blew and then dived heading straight for our kayak. You could see the barnacle encrusted tail, swirling under the canoe, then they rose in tandem, expelling air and finally we were graced with the V shaped tail, disappearing into the sea.

We paddled past a leopard seal, relaxing in the sun, as we passed it yawned and showed off its razor-sharp teeth.

Heading back to the ship, canoeing through pancake ice to clearer water we suddenly spotted what looked like a giant penguin. As we floated closer our guide said she could not believe what she was seeing as it was indeed a large penguin – an Emperor Penguin. This is the largest penguin in the world and should not been on this side of the Antarctic Peninsula, it should be in the Weddell Sea. Our kayak guide had never seen an Emperor Penguin, nor had the boat hotel manager (who was on her 17th season), in these southern polar waters – so we were unbelievably lucky! We floated up to the it just 20 feet away, while the bird preened and looked very happy with himself. The sun came out and we took some great photos and video of the lone and very off course penguin.

We re-joined the main ship and as we sailed out of the mirror flat Wilhelmina Bay, we had 5 minke whales swim on one side of the boat and three very sleek Fin whales on the other side. Finally, we witnessed the carving off, from the tongue of a glacier, a huge chunk of ice, the same size as our boat, the sound of crashing and roaring ice reverberated round the bay.

What an unbelievable morning show Antarctica had put on for us, leaving lasting memories of an inhospitable yet magical snow-capped world with unique wildlife experiences.

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Antarctica at the start of the season?

Albatross flying over Saunders Island

Don’t discount a visit the polar regions outside of the peak months of January and February. The shoulder months of October and early November offer a different experience and there are often excellent deals to be had.

In the Falkland Island it will be spring with flowers in bloom, the vibrant yellow gorse and manicured cottage gardens of Stanley will remind you of home but the bird life is somewhat different. The gaudy Rock Hopper penguins will be gathering in their cliff top colonies, comically hoping up the rocks. Nearby the Black Browed Albatross pairs will be going through mating ritual dances, synchronised performances of preening, bill clacking, staring, heads bobbing and then heads thrown back and calling.

On South Georgia the Wandering Albatross Chicks will be preparing to fledge. Popping up from the tussock grass stretching their mighty wings and practising flapping in the winds on Prion Island. Once they leave they will remain at sea for up to 5 years and won’t reach sexual maturity until at least 7 years, returning to the very same colonies to reproduce.

Elephant seal activity on South Georgia reaches its peak during these months, with beaches covered in them, at all stages of life. From the just born pups through to the beach-master males weighing in up to 4000kg. The males will be fighting for mating rights and very protective of his harem of mothers who will be ready to mate around 18 days after giving birth. With mothers producing milk up to 50% pups soon grow and are weaned around 23 days from birth. The weaners are particularly endearing with their large brown eyes and they are often curious.

The Peninsula will be at its most pristine and in many cases you will be leaving the first footprints in the snow (other than those of the penguins.)  Adelie males arrive first to start making their nest of rocks with much squabbling and theft taking place. Gentoos and Chinstraps tend to arrive a little later and you may see rafts of them in the seas around the peninsula.

The bays and straights such a Gerlache, Paradise and Whlhemina will be choked with sea ice, trapping huge icebergs and nothing quite beats the fun of exploring these waterways in a zodiac, slipping through the leads as they open up in front of you.

Don’t take my word for it, see it for yourself on board the Hebridean Sky, re-launched last year following her refit and upgrade.

Get in touch to learn more about our Antarctica holidays. Email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601 753.

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Steppes Big 5: Antarctica Activities

The journey to the Great White Continent is certainly no mean feat. However, to really enhance your experience whilst you are there we recommend you take part in the following activities.

1. Kayaking

Paddling a kayak in polar waters gives a completely different perspective. Curious penguins often porpoise alongside, occasionally seals or even whales dive close to the kayak. The freedom of carving your own path through the chinking and crackling brash ice is amazing. All the expedition ships offer this during a cruise, for extended kayaking options try an Antarctic Peninsula Basecamp or Sailing in Antarctica.

2. Zodiac Cruising

Cruising in a small motor boat (zodiac) allows you to get near the shore and get close to the marine life and icebergs. All cruises include this activity.

3. Diving and snorkelling

For passengers who find the polar plunge (quick dip) is not enough then snorkelling and diving is available on some departures towards the end of the season. The waters around Antarctica are generally crystal clear so ideal for underwater viewing. Just under the surface experience an array of underwater marine life such as crustaceans, isopods, starfish and nudibranchs. Viewing penguins underwater must be one of the most mesmerising experiences, their remarkable speed and mobility is like watching little torpedo’s.

4. Trekking

On all the voyages there is the opportunity to go onshore and stretch your legs. On most excursions there is a range of walks from the gentle wander to the more strenuous longer treks where you can get some height and great views. Snow shoes are provided on a number of ships to aid walking in deeper snow.

5. Camping

During a visit to Antarctica camp out for the night on the snow, a special and unique experience with penguins and seals for company. Not many people can say they have slept out on the seventh continent. It may not be the best night’s sleep but probably the most memorable.

Talk to our Antarctica Travel Experts to start your journey to the white continent, call us on 01285 601 753  or email inspire@steppestravel.com.

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Leading Ladies: One of our own – Q & A with Sue Flood

Sue Flood was an Associate Producer on the award winning BBC series ‘The Blue Planet’ and is a photographer, author, wildlife filmmaker and conservationist. Her travel and photography highlights include diving with humpback whales in the South Pacific, face to face encounters with leopard seals in the Antarctic, filming of polar bears in the Arctic and on safari in Zambia. Sue has led many of our photographic wildlife group tours and will be joining our cruise to Antarctica, South Georgia and the Falklands with Monty Halls and Telegraph Tours departing next January.

We asked Sue to share her thoughts on who inspired her to become a photographer, which place she is happiest, her best travel advice and more…

What was your earliest or childhood ambition?

At school I wanted to work on wildlife films with David Attenborough, so to get to do that for 11 years was truly a dream come true!

What ambitions do you still have?

To be a better photographer and get fitter!

Ambition or talent: Which matters more?

They’re both important. And you make your own luck, to some extent. Whenever people tell me I’m lucky, I always reply that the harder I work, the luckier I get!

If your 20-year old self could see you know, what would he/she think?

I think she’d be pleasantly surprised at how happy I am, doing a job that I love, and very happily married to a childhood friend who I met when I was 9!  I also think she’d be amazed to find out I was invited to meet the Queen at Buckingham Palace as a result of my photography. 

If you had to rate your life so far, out of 10, what would you score?

It goes up to 11, like the amps in Spinal Tap.

In what place are you happiest?

Home is where the heart is. Though an emperor penguin colony is the place I’m happiest in the field!

Do you consider your carbon footprint?

Of course I do. I wish it were possible to do my job without getting on a plane.

How often do you travel?

Several long-haul trips a year.

The one essential you travel with?

My camera, of course!

Your best piece of travel advice?

Save your airmiles!  Saving my points with Virgin Airlines allowed me to get married on the beach on Necker Island last year (and Richard Branson was our witness!).

What advice would you give to young ladies wishing to follow in your footsteps?

Work hard, and don’t ever think of doing this job unless you want to do it more than anything else in the world!

What motivates you to do what you do?

Getting people interested in the natural world, whether through still or moving images.

Who has inspired you to do what you do?

No prizes for guessing it’s David Attenborough!

If you could do it all over again, is there anything you would change?

No – most of my career has been wonderful, and the bits that haven’t have taught me something, so I wouldn’t change a thing.

Travel with Sue on one of our wildlife group tours below or get in touch with our experts for more information on an exclusive Galapagos charter in 2017 led by her. Call us on 01285 601 791 or email inspire@steppestravel.com.

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Antarctica: A night with penguins & killer whales in the Bransfield Strait

Patience is a virtue and having blown in awful weather for 4 days our luck changed dramatically. Our first excursion off the ship and our run ashore was to be a landing on the Antarctic continent itself at Portal Point in Charlotte Sound. It was also to be our overnight campsite.

Camping in Antarctica | a night with the penguins

Of the people that travel to Antarctica, surprisingly, only a third of them choose to camp out for the night at the bottom of the world. Bragging rights aside, it fulfills one of my ultimate travel experiences.

Shallow pits were carved out of the snow and our bivi bags and extra thick sleeping bags were laid in them ready for a good nights sleep. Before bedding down we spent time with some chinstrap and Adelie penguins who seemed as curious about us as we were of them. They are undoubtedly amongst my favourite three species of penguin (it’s difficult to choose just one!). With a stark white ring encircling their eyes, their petite height and cheeky nature to steal rocks from their neighbours, the Adelies set themselves apart from the other species – just. We were briefed to keep at least a 5 meter distance from the penguins – set up by IAATO an organisation founded to protect and promote environmentally responsible travel to Antarctica. These penguins had obviously missed the briefing that day. They waddled and hopped from each member of our group, inquisitive as to what kind of kit we had bought to camp for the night. After a short encounter and numerous photos being taken the Adelies wandered off, leaving us to the quiet of the white land.

The night was never really dark and sleep was sporadic but it was certainly a night to remember. Given the subzero climate, we weren’t as cold as I had expected to be. Our sleeping bags and bivvys combined provided quite a snug cocoon.

In the morning all holes were filled in so that we left very little sign of our being there. Albeit short lived, we had been given the privilege of experiencing life as the early explorers had. After a short ride on the zodiac we were back on-board and the breakfast room was buzzing as we ravenously tucked into a very full spread. Everyone was keen to hear of our camping experiences and somewhat regretful they hadn’t taken the opportunity to spend the night amongst the penguins also.

Sailing alongside killer whales

The morning’s transit was through a myriad of icebergs of incredible sizes, shapes and every hue of blue. Many were home to small groups of penguins and a few flat ones to seals. Within a few moments we had spotted a pod of orcas who were hunting a young humpback whale. We cut our engines and watched with baited breath. Seeing orcas is a privilege, seeing them hunt, I believed, was a privilege bestowed upon on the BBC camera crew. The group repeatedly dived on top of the calf to drown it and in no time at all there was blood in the water.

Having reaped the rewards of their chase, the orcas seemed to get bored and headed off away from the ship. Before we could turn away they decided the show hadn’t finished. This time they headed towards us in hot pursuit of some penguins who were porpoising and leaping ahead of them, shooting off in directions in an attempt to ‘shake their pursuers’.

It has to be said that despite them trying for a good 45 minutes we only actually saw them catch one definitely. One wee chinstrap penguin headed towards the ship with 75 people cheering him on as he porpoised with all his might – there are only 53 passengers on-board but many of the Russian crew had come out onto the decks to see the spectacle. I know you should not anthropomorphise but we could not help ourselves as he reached us we all cheered for the little fella.
However, I am not so sure about his fate after we left.

Talk to our Antarctica Travel Experts to start your journey to the white continent, call us on 01285 601 753  or email inspire@steppestravel.com.

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The beginning of my Antarctic Cruise

If I had to sum up my Antarctic cruise so far in one word it would be “wind”. We left the UK as the big storm was hitting and with only a brief respite in Santiago have been experiencing high winds ever since.

The howling wind across the flat plains of Punta Arenas on the edge of the Straits of Magellan nearly knocked us off our feet. The Drake Passage was most definitely a Drake Shake as we had a force 9 wind full abeam for the crossing, I am so glad to be on such a stable ship as we rolled all night with various crashes and bangs of items falling but never to great extremes. The wind has now abated a little but it is still strong.

This morning we thought we had found a small safe harbour in Mikkelesen Cove to visit a Gentoo penguin colony at a small Argentinean station on D’Hainnaut Islands. The winds were at 35 knots so just within safe zodiac conditions. The Captain had positioned the vessel so the gangway was in the lee of the worst wind and just as we reached the top of the gangway Boris our expedition leader came out and said “sorry guys we are going to have to call this landing off”.

Almost immediately the winds picked up with squalls of up to 60 knots with blinding snow – it was a good call.

Despondently we returned to the mud room and took off our layers of outer clothing. It was good practise at how much gear you need to wear to stay warm. I spent a little time on the outer decks hoping things would clear but the visibility has now dropped and the wind continues to blow so I have headed in for a hot chocolate. We are now heading towards Cierva Cove in the hope that we will find some shelter here, we know the winds are even higher further south down the peninsula. I know Antarctica is a cruel mistress and travelling here is not easy, she is just reminding us. With the weather so changeable, who knows, it may be glorious sunshine later on.

The good thing that comes with high winds is bird life which have been a constant companions to our ship, Black Browed, Light Mantled Sooty and the occasional Wandering Albatross have been spotted along with Blue, Storm and Cape Petrels. We have also encountered many humpback whales who are migrating south from the warmer seas, we know it is all there to see we are just itching to be able to get off and experience it.

Talk to our Antarctica Travel Experts to start your journey to the white continent, call us on 01285 601 753  or email inspire@steppestravel.com.

 

Steppes Beyond |What Can An Antarctica Cruise Offer?

Penguin-Antarctica

True expertise in the Antarctic is defined by being able to draw a comparison between the many different ships offering Antarctic cruise holidays. Most are expeditionary while others are more luxurious. In addition you should consider the proficiency and number of guides, as well as the number of zodiacs. Our polar specialist Sue has travelled to Antarctica on a number of cruises and knows the ships intimately as well as the destination.

Below is copy of my presentation on our Antarctic holidays at our Steppes Beyond event in November 2015. For more information on any of our destinations please do get in touch.

Start your Antarctic cruise holiday with us, call us on 01285 601 639  or email inspire@steppestravel.com.

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The Countdown To My Antarctica Holiday Begins

Antarctica-landscape,-Antarctica-cruise,-Steppes-Travel

As the nights draw in and the clocks go back the Antarctic season begins and I find myself chatting to lots of clients who are soon to be heading south. This year I am as excited as them, as I too will be travelling on an Antarctica holiday in December.

Despite it being my third visit to the great white continent the novelty has certainly not worn off. This time I will be taking the quick route and flying from Punta Arenas in Chile directly to King George Island in the South Shetlands. This will save me two days at sea and take me straight into the heart of Antarctica.

The first few days I will explore the Antarctic Peninsula before heading into the Weddell Sea. The Weddell Sea region, the far side of the peninsula, will be completely new to me. I am looking forward to seeing the monumental tabular icebergs that it is renowned for along with the opportunity to see Emperor Penguins. History abounds here, this is where Shackleton and his men were trapped in the ice and the Swedish Nordenskjöld expedition built their stone shelter at Snow Hill Island, a structure over 100 years old that can still be seen today. From the Weddell Sea I head north to Elephant Island where fingers crossed we may land. This is a notoriously difficult landing, it took Shackleton four attempts before he could rescue his men, who had spent 137 days at Point Wild, so I am realistic about the chances but can always hope.

After a short sail across the Scotia Sea the final destination will be the Falkland Islands, home to Rock-Hopper and King Penguins along with the majestic Black Browed Albatross. From here it is a short flight back to Punta Arenas and home in time for turkey and trimmings.

With the flights taking out the days at sea I am hoping to pack in up to 19 landings or zodiac cruises on an 11 night voyage. This trip promises to pack a polar punch with great diversity of scenery and wildlife, I can’t wait.

I will be in Antarctica in 45 days – not that I am counting of course.

Get in touch with us for more information on planning your Antarctica holiday, call us on 01285 601 757 or email inspire@steppestravel.com.

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Book review | Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage

“No matter what the odds, a man does not pin his last hope for survival on something and then expect that it will fail.”

– Ernest Shackleton, Endurance

I am sat in my cosy room listening to the howling gale and rain lashing against my windows, somewhat miffed at not being able to get out in my garden. However, reading Endurance soon put this into perspective. This is a true tale of grit and determination; survival against the odds peppered with humour, camaraderie and unbelievable stoicism.

The story is of 28 men who became stuck in the ice of the Weddell Sea in January 1915. Caught in the sea ice they drifted north during the long Antarctica winter pushed from all sides. Eventually on October 27th the pressure on the ship was too great and she was abandoned to her fate. She sank just under a month later on November 21st.

Having kept the faith in their expedition leader – Ernest Shackleton – the men now faced a daunting march north; dragging their boats hoping to make land and a rescue. The manual hauling of the vessels proved too much and after five days they had only made 9 miles. The ice never broke up enough for the vessels to be successfully launched. They lived on an ever decreasing piece of ice until on April 9th, 1916 the ice broke apart and the party took to their three tiny boats hoping to make a landing.

The cruel tides and winds dragged them further from land and they battled on through storms to reach the tiny speck of land – Elephant Island; the first land they had touched for 497 days.

You may think the story ends here but Shackleton realised they would not be rediscovered by passing whalers so the only option was to head to South Georgia, not the closest point but with prevailing seas the most obvious. Shackleton set out on April 24th with 5 companions for this 650 mile crossing of one of the wildest oceans in the world in a tiny boat – the James Caird. After a month of battling the Scotia sea navigated by Captain Frank Worsley the James Caird reached the jagged shores of South Georgia, a staggering feat in its own right. Shackleton, Worsley & Crean then had to cross the mountains of South Georgia to finally reach the Norwegian Whaling station at Stromness. For the remaining crew on Elephant Island rescue eventually came on August 30th in the shape of a Chilean tug the Yelcho after a number of aborted attempts by various other ships.

The book is a story pinned together with personal diary accounts of the men, firstly giving an insight into their various characters as they set out on their great adventure to trek across the Antarctic Continent. As the story unfolds you find yourself gripped and much like my colleague, we found ourselves staying up late most nights reading to learn what happened next. If you only ever read one book about Antarctica then make it this one.

If you find yourself on South Georgia you can visit the graves of Sir Ernest Shackleton & Frank Wild. It is traditional to toast them with a drop of Irish whisky.

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Antarctica – The Great White Continent

No camera can quite capture the full Antarctic experience. That being said we’ve tried our best to show you just a little of the adventure to be had in the South.

Start your Antarctic cruise holiday with us, call us on 01285 601 639  or email inspire@steppestravel.com.

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An Antarctic Voyage

After spending a superb few days in Torres del Paine at the new Awasi hotel, I was so excited at the prospect of heading to Antarctica on the Fly & Cruise trip on the Ocean Nova.

I don’t tend to do early mornings very well however I made it to the White Continent as planned! It turned out that, thanks to the very early start and the steely resolve of a Captain who had been at sea for 40 years we had gained an extra day at sea allowing for some off-plan exploration!

As I had signed up for the kayaking program, the first day was incredible, paddling alongside the retreating sea ice and icebergs of this inhospitable area was a unique experience never to be forgotten. Incredible silence, the odd lonely Adelie Penguin and us 8 kayakers.

On we went, spending the next couple of days weaving our way from
Brown Bluff and the Erebus & Terror Gulf around the northern tip of the peninsula, and south along the eastern side. The captain even managed to stumble across an unmapped island on the early segment of the voyage! Over these days we encountered colonies of Adelie, Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins alongside an array of other birdlife – Wilson’s Storm Petrels, Antarctic Terns, Southern Fulmars and Antarctic Shags with cobalt blue iris’.

The daily kayak expeditions allowed the few of us to explore isolated coves filled with monstrous icebergs. Away from the noise of the zodiac

engines we were alone to take in the silence, calling birds and creaking icebergs. We were also lucky to encounter plenty of Weddell and Leopard Seals, largely lounging on the shoreline.

On we continued to Gourdin and Astrolabe Islands where I was very excited to step foot on pristine snow, we were the first of this season to arrive in some areas. Kayak and zodiac landings allowed for further wildlife experiences. One evening whilst supping a few beers, a lucky few of us night owls spotted around six humpbacks just off the bow, pretty close thanks to their typically intriguing manner. There were certainly a few toasts made in Chinese, Spanish, English and Australian!

One of my main highlights was Portal Point, kayaking through an unbelievable landscape of huge icebergs on a crystal clear day. You can see the contrast of our red kayaks against the ice blue ice. This was followed by a super hike through the deep snow and across a natural snow bridge. Scouted out by the mountaineering guide the views were fabulous and the photos taken of us amongst the icebergs are incredible. Feeling toasty in our dry suits we jumped into the water before boating back to the ship, fantastic until it started to fill up – the moral is to always do the chest zip up tightly!! The evening barbecue topped off a fine day, tables set up at the back of the ship overlooking the iceberg graveyard and mountains behind.

Arriving on Deception Island on our way back to King George Island the history of this region was evident with the remains if a whaling station and research station. I opted for a tough hike through the snow line to a stunning viewpoint over the huge active caldera. It is said that when this volcano heats up as does the water in the bay. I realised this was absolute rubbish as I dived into the sea in my shorts for the coldest experience of my life!

Later that day our last excursion was on a small spit of gravel on Livingston Island, home to a few Elephant seals, a Gentoo colony and tumbling glaciers. A few of us were on a zodiac cruise when humpback whales were sighted a few hundred metres away, slowly cruising the channel and showing off their dorsals and tails.

I must say that the expedition staff deserve huge recognition for their
expertise and for making this an incredible trip. The voyage felt truly expeditionary with expert mountaineers, kayakers,
photographers, historians, wild lifers and scientists alongside us, some able to conduct their important research alongside their daily chores.

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Last days in Antarctica

*Day 18* Alex called another early start with a 5am call for a 5.30 landing, he certainly is keen to make the most of our time in Antarctica, having bartered a 3pm must depart by the Captain.

Neko harbour I remember as one of my favourite places from my previous trip, we had beautiful blue skies and a stunning paddle through the tinkling ice covered waters. The weather today could not have been more different, there was only a very tiny area of beach showing and the guides had cut steps into the snow bank so we could access the landing point.

The snow fell heavily and the glacier was nowhere to be seen, although we knew it was somewhere in the murk. We climbed the steep snowy hill next to it and gradually the snow eased and we could see it in all its magnificence even without the sunshine. We all had great fun sliding down the steep hill after Elke set up two “ski runs” for us. Back on the beach a leopard seal had been sighted so there was no hesitation for me to return.

I spent an hour watching it patrol back and forth, the guides who were stood in the water holding the zodiacs keeping a close eye on it. Numerous penguins faced the gauntlet and I am pleased to say all made it safely although one did come very close as he skidded onto the beach just out of reach, triumphantly shaking himself off and heading up the bank to the colony. The clear waters meant you could generally see the leopard seal until he went out of sight towards the end of the beach, he would then just pop up out of the blue with his menacing leer and to the whirr of many camera shutters. As the snow thickened it made his game easier. A crabeater seal passed by almost on the beach; although the leopard seal was unlikely to consider him dinner he kept a close eye on him and snorted bubbles whenever he came close.

Time eventually ran out and I hopped into the zodiac, as luck would have it Colin the marine mammal specialist was the driver so he took very little persuasion to make it more of a zodiac cruise than transfer and found us a Weddell seal to “complete the set”.

On returning to the boat instead of the usual change into “ships clothes” for some of us it was a strip down for the polar plunge – a dozen brave (or simply daft) soles lined up at the gangway. We had gathered quite a crowd of onlookers – who I am sure were hoping the leopard seal would make an appearance. In we leapt into the chilly water, a true polar plunge in snowy conditions. Alex helpfully reminded us all to check the water for ice before we leapt. It was cold – no surprise there, we were all roped so inelegantly fished out of the waters by our helpful crew, hot showers and a hearty brunch.

We repositioned to the Melchior Islands for our final excursion, pushing through incredible ice, something our little ship and able captain seem to very much enjoy. All were on deck as the sun had broken through; we were clicking away taking our last photos of Antarctica. The Melchior islands are a zodiac driver’s playground, renowned for humpback whales we knew we were a little too early in the season for any likely sightings but it was the perfect excuse. There are numerous islands and rocks all covered in deep snow and the channels had trapped many icebergs which made for a spectacular back drop as we zipped around, the swell of the drake could be felt as we reached the outer islands and the guides revelled in the ever changing conditions.

The Captains thick Russian accent was heard of the radio – “Alex, I am moving the ship we are getting iced in, 3 o’clock remember”. Like naughty children we chased the ship down, the last zodiac pulled out of the water at 3pm on the dot and we headed out into the swell.

*Days 19 & 20*
The Drake was no lake, I am not good when the ship begins to corkscrew so spent much of the journey in my bunk. As it turned out I was not the only one, but with gale force 11 winds and 10 meter waves I don’t feel such a wimp, just annoyed that I missed some great talks including life at the South Pole station with Cecilia and Senior Inspect Morley’s quiz.

By the end of the 10th we had found refuge in the head of the Beagle Channel so had a calm final evening and a Captains dinner when we were not clinging to plates and glasses. We had a recap of the of the entire journey and a slide show of our trip, many drinks were bought in the bar as we saw in the wee hours saying fond farewells to friends who had been strangers just three weeks ago – but that seems a lifetime away. We knew it had been an incredible journey, despite a rough crossing on the Drake we had exceptional luck in South Georgia managing every landing, thanks to the Captains skill, Alex’s leadership and some amazingly committed zodiac driving and landings by all the expedition staff.

We had made our own luck by being prepared to take every chance with early starts and late options – just what expedition cruising is all about… Travelling 3,522 nautical miles with 19 landings, 1 ice landing and numerous zodiac and ship cruises.

Reaching Antarctica

*Day 16* – “Here comes the sun doo it n doo doo” Good morning; Alex woke us up gently with a song at 5 am for our first landing of the day on Barrientos Island, one of the Aitcho Island group in English Channel.

It was a beautiful still crisp morning as we loaded into the zodiacs and headed the short distance to the island which was coated in deep snow, the zodiacs crunched into the ice at the edge of the bay and we scrambled up on to the ridged, Chinstrap penguin colonies dotted all over along with the occasional Gentoo nest. The penguins busied themselves with their morning stretches, wing flapping and hooting, occasionally there would be a flurry as one chased another out of the colony to another with much flapping and tobogganing, the victor would then strut back to his colony.

In a small bay we discovered a Weddell Seal with pup, a very rare sight as they usually give birth on ice and maintain a breathing hole in the ice and stay well away from the beaches, they are the only mammal the over winters in Antarctica. The pup put on a great display of impatience, poking and prodding his mother, trying to climb on top of her, she was having nothing of it, occasionally she would look our way to check we had not got any closer, then she lolled back allowing the pup to suckle although play seemed more on its mind.

During breakfast we repositioned around 40 miles to Half Moon Island for our second landing. Here we encountered very deep snow – not ideal with stumpy legs; although the penguins seem to manage OK. I have been here before but could not recognise it other than the shape of the bay. On the beach there is an old wooden boat of unknown origin, even more unknown to us as only around an inch of the prow showed above the snow. A steep climb rewarded us with fantastic views across the bay with much broken ice clinking together in the very minimal swell, brooding blue skies contrasted with the stark snow the steep cliffs covered in red streaks. It was a place to find your spot, sit quietly and take it all in.

It is the day for new seals as we saw our first leopard seals today, a creature I find utterly beguiling with its sleek almost reptilian look, the huge gaping mouth when shut appears to have a leering smile, definitely untrustworthy. One very curious seal spent time checking out the zodiacs, diving underneath in the crystal clear water so graceful, twisting on its back as it slid menacingly under the bow, popping up for a breath and a better look it would sink again lurking under the surface awaiting for the unsuspecting penguin.

Deception Island was our final landing of the day, on my previous trip I had landed at Bailey Head and only sailed into the caldera but didn’t land so this was all new territory. As we sailed through Neptune’s Bellows, taking great care to avoid Raven Rock, there were a few Leopard seals on the ice in the entrance. Landing on the steaming beach amongst Gentoo penguins was really surreal, the water quite warm as we stepped out of the zodiacs. There are not too many buildings left since the last volcanic eruption in the 60’s. One of the huge oil drums you can walk inside and Paola broke into song, her amazing voice echoing around the chamber eerily beautiful. The furthest building was the old hanger which was full of snow blown in in amazing sculptured waves, the remnants of the British Antarctic Survey buildings. On the snow there were a two more Weddell seals, who obligingly scratched, stretched and yawn for me. We are now heading deep into the ice at the back of the caldera in hope of a post dinner ice landing.

*Day 16 further blog -* well I thought I had finished off for the day but we have just returned from an evening on ice. The Captain pushed the ship into the fast ice at the end of the caldera and we all disembarked straight onto it. With mulled wine flowing we played football, took photos and acted like children, a wonderful time was had by all. The Canadian flag was dropped from the bridge with a rendition of the national anthem, some people ran round in very little clothing and others in bare foot. It is amazing how an “odd opportunity” turns us all slightly crazy, all are now back in the bar chattering away, red faced and exhilarated!

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Enterprise and Cuverville Islands

*Day 17* – we were allowed a lie in this morning and didn’t head out into the wind until after breakfast. We are now on the Antarctic Peninsula and our first excursion was a zodiac cruise around Enterprise Island in Wilhelmina Bay in hope of seeing the wreck of the Guvernoren.

The ice charts for 2012 show that this winter has had the most ice ever – more even than when Shackleton was here so we were surprised to get as far south.

The bay was very full of huge chucks of ice which the captain weaved through to find a good anchorage, as we loaded into the zodiacs the weather closed in with heavy snow coating us. The ship could just be made out in the murky mist as we explored icescape, bergs of every hue of blue with beautifully sculpted faces. There were a number of crabeater seals hauled out on the ice which looked up nonchalantly then hunkered down as the winds picked up. The snow swirled around us and the ship found the ice was closing in around it so the captain hauled anchor and the zodiacs chased her in comical fashion. After an hour or so we called off the zodiac cruise, the ice was just thickening too much, but that is to be expected being the first cruise ship down this season – we are testing the ice as it were.

In the afternoon we reached Cuverville Island in the Errera Channel where the narrow channel concentrates the ice bergs and we had to slalom our way through them, having left the ship in a howling gale the bergs gave us shelter and a very spectacular landing. There were large Gentoo Penguin colonies at either end of the landing beach and the left hand colony appeared to have decide to decamp to right. A penguin parade streamed past us, a comical sight as they waddled towards us then streamed on by, some stopped for a quick inspection of the brightly clad new “colony” while others just bumbled on by. Fortunately there were a couple of breaks which allowed us to cross the “highway” to go off and explore.

A steep climb rewarded us with views into the ice choked bay with penguins in all directions – many of which had made the same steep climb. There was lots of displaying between pairs and quite a few squabbles along with some mating. The winds whipped up the snow into whirling dervishes and penguins and people alike turned their backs to the wind hoping for a little relief. The sun was shining on the surrounding glaciers so the wild weather just added to the atmosphere. At the other end of the beach two Crabeater seals were hauled out, much higher up than we would expect to see them. With one of the prolonged gusts they decided to come even higher, they moved quicker than expected and much closer than the 5 meter rule which saw us all backing off in a hurry. The three hours rushed by and we are now back on board and heading to Paradise Harbour for our evening adventure. The ice in tonight’s drinks was collected this morning, I am sure it will make the drinks taste even better!

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On to Elephant Island

*Days 13 – 15* our two and a half days at sea were not as bad as anticipated, the seas were very rough when we first left South Georgia but were much calmer as we headed closer to the South Shetland Islands.

The hours of staring out to sea paid off with me seeing a Sperm whale and an unspecified beaked whale (I didn’t manage to get a photo for identification). During the roughest part of the journey I looked out of my cabin window to see 5 Orcas just outside, they surfaced a few times before disappearing, the marine biologist, Colin Baird, is yet to forgive me for not telling him, although they would have been well gone by the time I found him. I am under pressure now to spot more Orcas and known on-board as the “whale whisperer”.

We also encountered 10 or so fin whales, the second largest species in the world, feeding in the very deep waters north of the peninsula. During the sea days we had talks on a wide range of subjects from the classic explorers to some of the lesser known such as Nordenskold whose journey was almost as epic as Shackleton’s.

Early on day 15 Elephant island loomed out of the fog, a truly godforsaken place to have to await rescue, we were here on a spring morning with thick snow but watery sunshine, they endured unbelievable hardship on this small spit of land enclosed by glaciers and cliffs, a sobering start to our day.

As we have reached the Antarctic Peninsula we went through our bio security checks again, cleaning all our equipment, hovering bags and all velcro fastenings to remove any seeds from other regions so we are ready for our upcoming excursions.

Our expedition leader Alex is the youngest member of staff (and probably on-board) yet he has very a wise head on his shoulders and six years of experience. He decided we should explore Gibbs Island by zodiac, not normally on the “tourist” map but we were not disappointed. The sun shone brightly, the seas were calm and we were rewarded with fantastic views into the snow covered mountains that were home to chinstrap penguins. We watched them swim in from the deep and leap onto the rocks of the beach before starting their arduous journey up to their nesting sites. The frequently trod routes were deep grooves in the snowfield creating what looked like moguls. We watched eagerly encouraging them to make their leaps, many of which ended with the poor penguins sliding back down the slope to begin again or an awkward beak first landing. One penguin disappeared completely only to be cheered on when he reappeared from the deep snow, shaking himself off rather indignantly. I could have stayed there for hours but lunch beckoned so we returned to the ship and are now heading to Deception Island for tomorrows landings.

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Final Days in South Georgia

*Day 12* – Gold Harbour bathed in golden light, those who got up at 4am were rewarded with a spectacular sunrise across the mountain and glaciers of this stunning harbour. The seas were calm and surf not too big which was good as most of us were still half asleep.

The beach was strewn with Elephant seals so densely packed it was hard to find a way through and there was a particularly high density of males, most of which were peacefully sleeping but a few reared up and bellowed or snorted at us but more half-hearted warnings than a serious threat. I picked my way to the back of the beach and walked along to the King Penguin colony, only a small one but fascinating as ever. The chicks were quick to come and look us over, hoping for food, all fluffed up with nowhere to go.

Sitting quietly watching the penguins a young elephant seal became quite curious shuffling ever closer with those big beseeching eyes looking up at me it stopped a few inches short of my boots and sniffed then seemed to settle down. A few minutes later curiosity got the better of it, I stood up gently so I could move away but before I could its flipper was on my boot. I stood as quietly as possible as it sniffed me straining it head up to smell my camera, it was quite a hefty little blighter. Satisfied I was friend not foe it began to nuzzle my knee, pushing harder it then started sucking my waterproof trousers, hoping for milk I assume, when it started to open it mouth wider and I could see the pink of his tongue as it wrapped its mouth very gently around my knee I decided I really should pull away. I managed to twist my foot down into the sand and pull my foot from under its flipper and backed away slowly, keeping an eye out for the other pups that were surrounding me. I have no photos from the encounter as it was too close but it will be etched on my mind forever.

A ships cruise up Drygalski Fjord was our final excursion for South Georgia and we saw her in raw beauty, the wind howled at 50 knots, snow racking our faces as we tried keep our feet, a bracing experience. At the end of the fjord is a large glacier, this gave us a little respite from the wind as we watched huge chucks of ice fall off the terminal face. The peaks of the mountains are shrouded in mist giving it an ethereal feel. We will sail out round cape disappointment this afternoon and head south towards the peninsula, we have already encountered a number of icebergs similar in size to the millennium stadium; we have seen satellite pictures of an iceberg north of South Georgia which is about half the size of the island itself so we are expecting great things. In true Shackleton style this year is the record for pack ice around the continent, the ice charts show just the tip of peninsula is free of fast ice, it will be interesting to see the difference from my previous visit in February.

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Arriving at South Georgia

*Day 8* – this whole venture started 12 months ago when I met John McKeon of Polar Latitudes, he then sent Alex (my boss) and e-mail saying “you must send Sue to South Georgia, it will blow her mind”. John was not wrong. Having sighted the Shag Rocks yesterday today we got to South Georgia for real.

Our first stop was Elsehul we had arrived in the night and I was up on deck early to gaze in awe at the steep cliffs that were full of Brown Albatross colonies. Unfortunately the wind here was too high for us to attempt a landing so we hauled anchor and set off further around the coast. I was so mesmerised by the scenery that I didn’t hear the call for breakfast and it was only when I noticed I was completely alone on deck that I thought I better go and check it out. Fortunately there was still a little left out so I scoffed a couple of bits of toast.

We repositioned to Right Whale Bay, where we were to get our first opportunity to land. I was in the first zodiac as we drew up in the surf on the black sand beach we could see huge male Elephant Seals hauled out along with some smaller females, in the distance we could see and hear the King Penguins. I could hardly believe I was stood on South Georgia and was not sure which way to go as there was so much wildlife around; we were directed between a huge Elephant Seal and a small group of penguins to the back of the beach. The Elephant seal lifted it head and snorted and burped at us, showing its pink throat, but it was a very half-hearted threat and he seemed placated by all the clicking cameras, he slumped back to the ground and closed his eyes with a snort.

We walked along the beach and back up towards the mountains, however we could see many small avalanches so didn’t go too far, the katabatic winds would come out of nowhere and it was hard to stay on our feet particularly in the deep snow. On the left hand edge of the bay was a small hummock covered in tussock, amongst this were a large number of fur seals and beyond we could hear the noise of a breeding King Penguin colony. The small groups we had seen on the beach were all moulting groups, looking quite grumpy and forlorn with their shaggy coats. Rounding the hummock we could see a vast colony (although small for here). Fluffy brown chicks and their elegant parents all honking to each other a cacophony. We spent an hour or so just sitting quietly watching the comings, goings and antics before we reluctantly returned to the beach. As if to remind us we had been lucky the wind picked up and snow “fell” horizontally, as we climbed into the zodiacs
in the surf and headed back to our warm and welcoming expedition ship.

During lunch we moved into the Bay of Isles and we are currently anchored in Rositta Bay, in a snow and hail storm.

*Day 9* – I have an odd collection of inspiring images around my desk at work including Edward Wilsons Blizzard a simple pencil sketch of a lone figure battling winds and snow to collect a meteorological reading, I felt like I had walked into the painting today. We had anchored off Salisbury Plain before breakfast in a very strong and cold wind, air temperature was 3 degrees but wind chill made this considerably lower. We all thought that the landing would be called off so to say the dining room emptied quickly when it was announced we would leave in 45 minutes is an understatement, Usain Bolt would have been impressed.

As we surfed into the beach the wind picked up and we picked our way through the elephant seals and were told to follow the flag marked route to the main colony avoiding all the small groups along the way. The wind blew and the snow whipped up, most stopped where they were expecting to be called back. I could just make out the flapping red of the flag so undeterred carried on.

The flags were just 30 meters apart but only just visible; sometimes having a low centre of gravity is a real bonus! I trudged on exhilarated by the feeling of utter remoteness and called by the faint noise of the colony over the howling gale. Perseverance was rewarded – I arrived at the colony which stretched in front of me and up into the low tussock covered hills. A mixture of the elegant adults with pristine plumage, fluffy brown chicks and scruffy adults in moult that looked decided unhappy with life. There was a cacophony of hooting and squeaking, the wind began to abate and the sun broke through shedding light across this spectacle that just grew and grew in front of my eyes to unbelievable numbers.

There are few destinations in life that truly live up to their hype but all that I had heard about this had not prepared me for such an amazing sight. Curious chicks approached these brightly coloured people not quite sure of us, a gust of wind would send them scuttling back into the huddle with comical wing flapping and exited squeaking. These balls of fluff had endured the entire winter on South Georgia and all that it could throw at them, after three hours we returned to our warm ship to be greeted with mugs of hot chocolate, back to reality!

This will be etched on my memory forever, along with the lingering smell of penguin poo that has impregnated my clothes and camera bag – something to share with the folks back home.

The reposition at lunch time was not far as we had been lucky enough to get a licence to visit Prion Island where Wandering Albatross nest. The beach landing was a small one and it was covered in elephant and fur seals, who were generous enough to be quite easy going about our presence since there was less than 5 meters between them. One of the Elephant seals gave birth just before we arrived and the tiny pup was suckling hard when we arrived.

A board walk led up into the tussock covered hills and at the end of this the Gentoo’s had decided to nest. We carefully picked out way through them and headed up into the hillocks. On the way up we passed the endemic South Georgia Pipit and also a pair of South Georgia Pintail ducks. The tussock grass was full of fur seals and higher up the nests of the Wandering Albatross. You wouldn’t believe that such a large bird could hide so well, what at first appearance was empty turned out to have at least 8 chicks from last year’s brood. They would occasionally pop up over the tussock in a slightly gawky fashion, then get up and stretch their mighty wings, only then could you really appreciate how large these birds are, I needed my wide angle lens to get the full wingspan in. Preening, stretching and generally looking rather ungainly they entertained us for hours. A reward for our patience was the arrival of an adult who then feed the enormous and
greedy chick.

In all a day that will be difficult to surpass however we start at 5am tomorrow so it seems there is plenty more to come.

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Discovering South Georgia

*Day 10* – an early start with a 5am alarm call for a pre breakfast landing at Fortuna Bay, a wet and windy landing with our first sighting of the reindeer that were introduce by the Norwegian whalers which have adapted to the reverse season of their native Arctic. They have decided to irradiate them due to the damage they are doing to native flora so this may soon be a very rare sight.

We got a great view of a Sooty Mantled Albatross nesting on a bluff which gave great views out over the bay. There were a number of Elephant Seal harems with a few hopeful males lurking in the surf only to be seen off buy the incumbent beach-master with little more than a snort and bellow. Many of the pups have already been weaned while others looked only days old, they put on so much weight in such a short space of time.

Back on board we are now eagerly awaiting breakfast while we relocate to Stromness the end of Shackleton’s great journey.

The sun shone in Stromness and we got to see South Georgia in stunning blue skies, the old whaling station is off limits due to the asbestos contamination but the beach is littered with remnants and whale bones along with the usual mixture of elephant and fur seals. Walking back up into the flat valley we saw a large herd of reindeer and also encountered an amazing bog with stunning green and red moss mounds. We could see the final mountain pass Shackleton and his men crossed before dropping down beside the waterfall on the plain and walking the final few hundred meters to the managers house.

Our final landing of the day was at Grytviken where we all paid tribute to Earnest Shackleton with a toast of Irish whisky, a quick swig for ourselves and a tot for the Boss along with Frank Wild who’s ashes were buried next to him last year. The graves of the many young men were a stark reminder of how tough life was here, many barely into their 20’s.

We were taken on a guided tour by the South Georgia Heritage staff through the various areas of the whaling station which has been kept as intact as possible. The tour ended at the fascinating museum which houses a replica of the James Caird. I am hoping the post cards I sent from here will take less than the 13 months the ones I sent from Antarctica took.

Final requirement for the night is the BBQ on the back deck.

*Day 11* – awesome and gobsmacked are not words I want to use in my blog but do actually seem right for today. We started with a landing at Gothul where the weather was a little inclement but the opportunity to get a little height and look down on the bay was too good an opportunity. In the tussock there were plenty of fur seals and on the exposed moss Gentoo penguins were nesting. There is still plenty of snow on the ground and hoof prints in the edge of the lake gave away the reindeer. In the cliffs Light Mantled Sooty Albatross were nesting and also Southern Giant Petrel.

After an early lunch we arrived into St Andrews Bay home to the largest King Penguin colony in South Georgia. The wind had picked up but now the sun shone on this magnificent bay surrounded by castellated peaks. The surf was big as we arrived on the beach making for a stern landing; the beach was strewn with Elephant seals, from new born pups and weeners to plenty of huge males. The beachmaster was being challenged and a ferocious battle ensued with both the victor and loser covered in blood by the end. The loser loped off into a nearby pool to lick his wounds and all was quiet – well as quiet as an elephant seal colony is with its constant belching and farting noises.

Leaving the fracas I headed up into the hills skirting by numerous groups of moulting penguins and the odd sleeping seals. The view down onto the colony was staggering, a patchwork of brown black and white. Groups of fluffy chicks huddled together, squawking and flapping when the ever present skuas swooped down looking for a meal, a wave of anxious chicks beaks waving would wobble like a Mexican wave. Amongst the chicks were groups of moulting birds along with a few adults that had returned to feed their chick. How they find their own chick in the confusion is incredible. All this with a backdrop of the glacier and mountains in blue sky, I simply sat mesmerised for a few hours watching the dramas play out.

We returned to the ship at 5.30 for an early meal hoping to get a landing in at Royal Bay but were thwarted by high winds, no matter the expedition leader as announced a 0415 first zodiac to Gold Harbour to watch the sunrise on our final day in South Georgia so an early night it is.

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Visiting Stanley

*Day five* – we spent the morning in Stanley on the Falkland Islands, a bizarre mix of Victorian cottages with a New Zealand village feel and quintessentially English flower gardens ablaze with bright daffodils.

There were two excursions on offer, a guided history walk with Jim that took in the many monuments along the waterfront and ended at the small but packed museum or a “pub crawl” with Colin who was celebrating his birthday. I decided on the former, on the latter they only managed 2 pubs out of the 5 options but all seemed quite merry when we returned to the ship.

The History of the Falklands was fascinating there is so much more to learn than just the more recent conflict which really put it on the map. I would have liked more time to see some of the battle famous sights and memorials; I will just have to come back! In the afternoon we set sail towards South Georgia taking with us a British couple who are going to be working on the island for 6 months looking after the shop, museum and taking on various other tasks as required, a job they had seen in the local Penguin News.

*Day 6* – the fickle Southern Ocean is our home again for the next few days as we sail across to South Georgia. At times just a gentle swell lulling you into the next set of huge waves that make the ship toss and lurch, she has a tendency to do this during meal times seeing how many plates and bowls of soup she can spill.

On deck you can watch as the huge waves roll onwards, we have the wind behind us which is helping our progress and we have a constant entourage of birds – the ever present Pintados and Petrels have been joined by Black Browed Albatross and today the magnificent Wandering Albatross swung in our wake, tantalising close but never quite as near as the other species. With unbelievable grace and hardly an adjustment of their wings they soar over the tumultuous seas, just skimming the waves but never getting caught out but them, as mesmerising as fire to watch. The lectures today covered Shackleton and his men along with King Penguins and the seals of Antarctica.

*Day 7* – today the seas are much calmer no longer 7-8 meter waves and gale force winds but also no longer the sunshine just a hazy sea mist as we head towards the Convergence where the cold Antarctic waters meet creating a dramatic drop in both water and air temperature. This is a barrier to many species so we are unlikely to see the dolphins in our wake any more.

Yesterday the weather was very changeable with bright sunshine dispersed with squalls of snow that blew up from nowhere and disappeared as quickly, icy blasts of snow like little ball bearings and the waves whipping up blasting the foam off the tops of the waves. The slackening of the wind has reduced the numbers of birds in our wake although a few new species have been spotted including Blue and White Bellied Petrels.

This afternoon we will completed our biosecurity checks, cleaning all clothing and equipment that we intend to take on to South Georgia. At around 4.30 we sighted Shag rocks, five towering cliffs up to 70 meter poking up in the seemingly endless sea, here there were a huge number of Blue eyed cormorants flying around and nesting on the precipitous cliffs. This means we are well on course to reach South Georgia tomorrow.

More coming soon ….

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Heading South

Sue is currently on her South Georgia, Falkland and Antarctica cruise – read all about her adventures as she sends us updates from the boat.

*Day One* – standing on the end of the pier at Puerto Madryn and looking forward to heading south. Puerto Madryn is the gateway to Peninsula Valdez famed for its wildlife including the Southern Wright whales that calve in the bay, fingers crossed we may see some as we set sail this afternoon, setting a course for the Falkland Islands.

The Only Way is South.

You know the omens are good for a trip when the first wildlife encounter is prior to leaving the dock; we had two huge sea lions alongside the ship just lazing on the dock only mildly interested in the to-ing and frow-ing. During the compulsory muster drill, that now has to be performed before the ship sets sail, a couple of Southern Wright whales were breaching in the bay, they continued to put on a show throughout the drill and well into the crew introductions. In the early evening we set sail heading south east towards the Falkland Islands a two day sail away, after a long flight I took advantage of an early night and was lulled to sleep with the rocking of the ocean.

*Day Two* – we awoke to a beautiful calm morning with sunshine, I was on deck by 6.30 watching birds in our wake, Cape petrels wheeling around the ship catching the updrafts with their dappled plumage catching the morning sunlight. Tiny storm petrels that look so fragile dancing across the tops of the waves and then the magnificent Albatross, both Royal and Black browed gracefully glide in with an occasional idle flap of their wings. They effortlessly caught up with us swirling and swooping alongside the ship.

Humpbacks were spotted on a number of occasions their huge blasts of air catching the sun as they took in lung fulls of air, then the tell-tale humpback before they dived again with a final flick of their tail. During the day we were joined by several small groups of hourglass dolphins who came in from a great distant to hang on our bow wave, like kids having fun they whipped back and forth leaping in front of the ship then disappearing as quickly as they had come. This along with six lectures over the course of the day covering everything from the conflicts of the Falkland Islands to whale identification we were never bored. With a slight tail wind and these gentle seas we are making good progress….

*Day Three* – another sunny one but the wind has picked up and the swells of the Southern Ocean have caught up with quite a few of us, lunchtime numbers were definitely depleted! Despite the rougher seas we did see a couple of humpback whales and we were again joined by the hour glass dolphins. The afternoon was set aside for the briefings on zodiac landings and the biosecurity measures. In the late afternoon land could be seen and as we were a little ahead of time we took the opportunity to sail close to the Jason Island group which has a large black browed Albatross colony and many of them wheeled around the boat as we watched the setting sun.

*Day Four* – the first big day as we were to have two landings today. The first was at Carcass Island where we landed at Dyke bay and walked along the head of the beach to the small holding which takes guests, a number of which had just flown in on one of the regular flights by Cessna. The coastline had plenty on offer, ducks kelp and highland geese many of which had chicks and in burrows the Magellenic penguins were beginning nesting. Caracaras were definitely in the mood for love and there was much displaying particularly around the farm house. At the farm we were warmly welcomed by the McGill family who provided us with a great cup of tea and an amazing display of cakes.

We were joined by both Commersons and Peals dolphins during the zodiac trip back to the ship. During lunch we repositioned to Saunders Island, here we were provided with a plethora of penguins – Gentoo, Magallenic, King and Rockhoppers. The landing spot was a stunning isthmus between two hills known as the neck with crashing surf on one side and slightly less on ours – which made for an exciting landing. The punky Rockhoppers were noisy neighbours to the far more serene Black Browed Albatross who looked rather disdainfully at their clamouring behaviour. In amongst these were gaudy Imperial cormorants with their bright red eyes and orange crest.

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More blogs coming soon …

Antarctic, Falklands and South Georgia Cruises

Gearing up to go, having seemed like it would never come around all of a sudden I am looking at the packing list for my trip to the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and Antarctica. What to pack is a question I get asked often so now it is my turn to question my judgement.

The best way to approach it is with a layering system so a good set of thermals both top and bottom, followed by a mid layer, ideally a thin fleece or turtleneck (ski wear) and trekking style trousers or fleece trousers. On top of this will be your thick fleece and finally the outer waterproof jacket and trousers which are essential. On your feet 2 layers of socks and wellies, I always take 3 pairs of gloves, one skinny liner type so I can wear and still use my camera, one waterproof outer pair and a spare pair in case one lot gets wet. I have a hat with ear flaps to keep my noggin warm and a neck gaiter which is much better than a scarf as it doesn’t flap or fall off. My adage is if you keep your head, hands and feet warm the rest of your body tends to keep up.

Almost all ships carry a selection of wellington boots which are essential for landings and also ideal for walking in snow. Many of our operators provide a good quality jacket with a zip in fleece and some even provide over trousers – what you do need to provide will be in your confirmation
pack.

I also pack some less obvious useful gadgets, a waterproof rucksack (or a good rucksack liner) for a day pack to keep camera, spare gloves and an extra base layer. As a keen photographer I also use a kneeler pad / sit mat – basically a bit of folded foam mat. If you are in the zodiac you can kneel in the bottom and use the pontoon as a rest which will help steady your camera and also makes it easier for everyone in the zodiac to see. Kneeling for a long time on a cold floor can be uncomfortable so I use my kneeler in its folded state.

Being prepared will make the most out of your trip, always assume it will be a wet landing (waterproof trousers outside wellies NOT tucked in). If you are going to be out in a zodiac for a while put on extra layers, if you are planning a longer walk you should heat up so a number of thin layers are will make it much easier to regulate you temperature then one big chunky one.

In Antarctica there is a lot of white and black so try to get bright clothes – it looks so much better on your photos.

If you do get cold think of those who went before you in their oils skins and heavy canvas, who didn’t have a nice expedition ship to return to with hot showers and cookies etc and next trip out remember that you need an extra layer or two.

If you want further advice about what to pack, or my Antarctic voyage, give a call on 01285 880 980.

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South Georgia Calling

10 years ago, much to my parent’s horror, I sold my house and downsized so I could afford a trip to Antarctica, a move we all soon realised was an excellent decision. I fell in love with this vast continent, it huge vistas, kayaking through ice filled bays, watching glaciers calve huge chunks of ice and of course the comical penguins.

In the long-term this decision paid off as I now encourage others to travel to all of the Polar Regions; essentially I get paid to chat about my holiday! Ok so there is much more to job and I am sat in an office behind a desk but I do still feel passionately that small expedition ship holidays are the perfect way to explore these remote destinations.

I have longed to go back and explore more of Antarctica and to visit the Falkland Islands and South Georgia with their King penguin colonies and nesting Albatross, I’m not twitcher but you can’t help but be impressed by these birds. In October I will realise my dream as I set sail south from Puerto Madryn. First stop will be the Falkland Islands where we hope to land on the remote western islands in search of Rockhoper, King and Macaroni penguins. This will be followed by the east coast and the small capital Stanley.

From the Falkland’s it is two days sail to South Georgia, keeping an eye out for whales and dolphins along the way, heading through the Antarctic convergence and entering Antarctic waters. During the sea crossing the expedition staff will offer formal and informal lectures on the birds, wildlife, history and characters of the region.

I will have five days to explore South Georgia. Its position, inside the Antarctica Convergence but outside the outer limit of the pack ice, makes the island an ideal breeding area for millions of penguins, seabirds and seals. King Penguins from fuzzy little chicks to fattened adults can be seen in the hundreds of thousands. The island is home to Elephant Seals, Fur Seals, Petrels, Macaroni Penguins, Albatross, Skuas, and Gulls. All this wildlife set with a backdrop of magnificent mountains, glaciers and rugged coastline.

After this sensory overload we head down to the Antarctic Peninsula which I will be intrigued to see after a 10 year absence, my previous visit was towards the end of the season in early February. In November the penguin colonies will be at their most pristine and we will be amongst the first visitors to set foot in the great white wilderness.

94 days and counting down….
If you think this journey floats your boat (pun intended) then there are a just few cabins left on this departure with a discount of around £1,325 per person up for grabs on these last berths.

For full details, please call me, Sue, on 01285 880 981.

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Exhibition | Scott’s Last Expedition

Tying in with this year’s centenary celebrations, from 20th January to 2nd September an exciting new exhibition is gracing London’s Natural History Museum.

Entitled Scott’s Last Expedition, it includes a life-size replica of Scott’s Antarctic hut where he and his men lived for months, which will be a fantastic and poignant experience. History and science lovers will also be able to read Scott’s last diary, as well as see thousands of photographs and artefacts from the ill-fated Terra Nova expedition.

Scott’s party made their way across the treacherous Transantarctic range only to discover having achieved the South Pole that they had been beaten there by Roald Amundsen and his men by 35 days. Making their way back home, the entire group tragically lost their lives. This is not, however, the end of the story. The group as a whole, made up of a heavy scientific contingent, made numerous scientific discoveries, which this exhibition quite rightly and in a timely fashion remembers and celebrates, 100 years on. At the exhibition you will be able to view more than 40,000 specimens Scott and his men collected, including the famous penguin embryos collected in the depths of the polar winter by Wilson, Bowers and Cherry-Garrard (read chapter three of Cherry-Garrard’s stirring account in ‘The worst journey in the world’).

If you can’t manage to get down to Antarctica yourself this year, South Kensington is a lot more convenient and this extraordinary exhibition will certainly prove inspiring!

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Wild and the Boss to be reunited again

As I am sure anyone with a passing interest in Antarctica knows, Sir Ernest Shackleton died while aboard the Quest in Grytviken Harbour, South Georgia. He was buried there and his grave has become a place of pilgrimage to many passengers on the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and Antarctic Peninsula voyages.

Frank Wild was Shackleton’s trusted second-in-command during the ill-fated Trans-Antarctic Expedition aboard the Endurance (1914-1916). He and 21 crewmates remained on desolate Elephant Island for over four months after the Endurance was lost while Shackleton and five others sailed a seven metre lifeboat to South Georgia to organise a rescue.

Frank Wild CBE is one of the great Antarctic explorers. In 1901 both he and Ernest Shackleton were members of Robert Falcon Scott’s expedition on the Discovery. In 1908-09 he was with Shackleton on the Nimrod expedition and in 1911 he joined Douglas Mawson’s Aurora expedition before being reunited with Shackleton aboard The Endurance from 1914-1916.

At the end of this week, renowned Antarctic explorer, Frank Wild CBE will have his last wish granted 72 years after his death, when his ashes are laid to rest alongside Sir Ernest Shackleton in a tiny graveyard in one of the remotest places on earth. Wild died and was cremated in 1939 in South Africa but his ashes, which were lost to the world for many years, were found only this year by British historian and author Angie Butler. His last wish that he be buried on South Georgia Island, next to Shackleton, was never granted due to the outbreak of WW11 two weeks later.

Belatedly Wild will be buried on November 27 2011 on South Georgia Island in the whalers’ graveyard by the ruins of Grytviken whaling station.

One Ocean Expeditions historian, David McGonigal said, “It’s likely to be the closing event of Antarctica’s Heroic Age. The Heroic Age was marked by the truly remarkable feats of the great explorers like Shackleton, Robert Falcon Scott, Douglas Mawson and Roald Amundsen and this event is even more significant as it takes place just two weeks before the centenary of Amundsen and his Norwegian compatriots achieving the South Pole for the first time.”

Angie Butler, and several relatives of Frank Wild as well as the Hon. Alexandra Shackleton, the grand- daughter of Sir Ernest Shackleton, will accompany Wild’s ashes to South Georgia onboard the Akademik Ioffe.

“The significance of the event will be recognized by the South Georgia Government at an official reception at Government House, Stanley, as well as the issuing of a set of commemorative stamps. A minister will sail from the Falkland Islands to conduct the service and the funeral proceedings at Grytviken that will be overseen by South Georgia’s Government Officer, Mr Pat Lurcock. “With favourable sailing conditions, the burial ceremony is expected to be conducted on Sunday 27 November 2011. “

TV presenter Paul Rose and a crew from BBC2 are onboard filming the expedition. The program is scheduled to be shown on BBC2 next April 2012.

So anyone looking for a great book for Christmas then Angie Butler, a British journalist and polar historian, found Wild’s ashes in Johannesburg. Her search is recounted in her book “The Quest for Frank Wild”.

If you are looking to visit South Georgia then contact our voyages team who will be happy to discuss the options.

Frozen Planet

As the nights draw in with a chill in the air why not snuggle up on the sofa with the new BBC series frozen planet.

They have gone and done it again, hours of patience and an attention to every detail another astounding series documenting life in the polar regions. From comical penguins nicking stones to the sophisticated hunting methods of killer whales that will certain send a shiver down the spine and enthral all those who have a hankering for cold places.

It will inevitably lead to my husband and I deciding yet again to put off that beach holiday and head to the cooler regions – Yippee!

Be inspired…..

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Amundsen and Scott South Pole Centenary Celebration

*Edward Wilson, Henry Bowers, Lawrence Oates, Edgar Evans* & *Robert Falcon Scott*

Always referred to as “Scott and his men” those unnamed men who died with Scott on their fateful return journey were no less important.

Dr Edward Wilson who was fondly known as Uncle Bill was a Bachelor of Medicine, and had a first class degree in Natural Sciences as well as being an accomplished artist. He is credited as being one of Scott’s closet friends, he had travelled to Antarctica on Scotts earlier Discovery Expedition and was one of the three who took the “worst journey in the world” with Henry Bowers and Apsley Cherry Garrard, to collect Emperor penguin eggs.

Henry “Birdie” Bowers had never travelled to Antarctica prior to this trip and was not originally listed for the expedition to the pole, but during the voyage he proved to be exceptionally organised with extraordinary powers of memory and an excellent navigator. He had accompanied Wilson on the winter trek to collect Emperor penguin eggs.

Lawrence (Titus) Oates will forever be known for saying “I am just going outside and may be some time”. Knowing that his deteriorating health was compromising the group, he selflessly walked out into the blizzard in the hope that his friends would make it back. His chief role on the expedition was to look after the horses.

Edgar Evans nearly missed the entire expedition by falling into the sea while drunk; he was forgiven his misdemeanours due to his resourcefulness and hard working nature. He suffered a number of accidents and died of a head injury during the return journey near the base of the Beardmore Glacier.

If you have been inspired by these brave men or Roald Amundsen who successfully returned from the South Pole, then 2012 is the centenary year and the ideal date to consider travelling.

For a lucky few there is the chance to stand on the South Pole one hundred years to the day after either Amundsen’s party on the 14th of December 1911 or Scott’s party on the 17th of January 1912.You can either take a challenging two week ski in option or a more comfortable 8 day fly in option. Celebrate these great achievements at the South Pole and learn about the current research that is being carried out. We also offer cruises to the Peninsula region at this time.

For full details contact Sue one of our Antarctic specialist on 01285 880981.

My top 5 wildlife experiences

Natural history experiences abound, whether you’re counting butterflies in your backyard or tracking snow leopards in the Himalayas, watching wildlife can stir all kinds of emotions. Two juvenile gorillas playfully chasing each other and rolling in the undergrowth is bound to amuse; watching a lion or leopard stalk and hunt its prey will get the adrenaline pumping; snorkelling through a shoal of tropical fish can leave you serene; whilst watching a polar bear cub will make you go ‘Awww!’.

I like lists so here’s a list of my personal top five wildlife encounters and my top five wish-list encounters.

My top five wildlife experiences:

1. Mountain Gorillas: Spending an hour with a family of Mountain Gorillas in the Virunga Mountains of Central Africa is without a doubt my greatest wildlife encounter. Later that day, when I’d left the Gorillas I actually got blurry eyed at the memory of the encounter.

2. Galapagos Islands: It really is like no other place I’ve been, the sheer abundance of wildlife both on land and underwater is astounding. Playful sea lion cubs, graceful rays, ancient tortoises and comical boobies all make for an amazing experience.

3. Antarctica Penguins: There is no greater backdrop than that of glaciers and icebergs to a multitude of penguins porpoising, sledging on their bellies and stealing stones from each other’s nests.

4. Cheetah hunting in the Masai Mara: I love going on Safari in Africa, it’s always a new experience and I’ve seen some great wildlife on the plains of East and Southern Africa but the top safari experience was watching 3 cheetahs stalk and hunt a waterbuck in the Masai Mara.

5. Costa Rica: With Costa Rica it’s not a single experience but a multitude of wildlife encounters with sloths, monkeys, frogs, toucans, and all kinds of other creatures. Watching wildlife in the jungle is often quite hard but this is where Costa Rica comes into its own.

My top five wish-list experiences:

1. Polar Bears: This large carnivore can be found across the Arctic from Spitsbergen to Canada.

2. Orang-utans: “The man of the forest” is found in Borneo and Sumatra with its Einstein hair and Cro-Magnon arms.

3. Komodo Dragons: Another Indonesian creature that looks as though it belongs in a remake of Jurassic Park

4. Tigers: The largest member of the cat family best seen in Central India

5. Jaguars: I have been to many places where jaguars roam. I’ve seen pug marks and other traces but the great cat has, so far, eluded me.

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Voyage to Antarctica

The infamous Drake Passage, 700 miles of open water separating Cape Horn from the Antarctic Peninsula, was unusually kind to us, but even so, half of the 64 passengers were confined to cabins. As we edged our way across, wandering albatross and storm petrels followed our wake, gracefully swooping and soaring in their endless search for food. We arrived at the South Shetland Islands disembarking by zodiac onto a rocky shore where a noisy (and smelly!) colony of gentoo penguins were on hand to greet us. Disinterested elephant and fur seals reclined on the beach, barely moving as we knelt to take too many photographs. In the afternoon we sailed into the flooded caldera of Deception Island, the old whaling station gradually giving up its soul to the harsh weather. More penguins and seals.

A night’s sail took us through the archipelago to the mainland, a sense of insignificance enveloping us all as we took our first steps on the White Continent, an area larger than Australia where not a single animal can call their home. More penguins, this time the little Adele identified by the white ring around their eyes. A landing at a Chilean research centre made us wonder quite what you had to do wrong to end up with this posting.

The following morning was spent in zodiacs cruising beneath ice cliffs which soared hundreds of feet above us waiting to crack and form another slowly moving iceberg. Later we arrived at Port Lockroy, the home of the Antarctic Heritage Trust which proved a fascinating insight into living in Antarctica. Excellent shop as well as a British post office so we all wrote cards home but then discovered we had missed the last boat of the summer and nothing would be picked up until October.

And then the sun came out and the true surreal, majestic beauty of the place came to life. We cruised in a bay without a drop of wind, mountains reflecting in the still waters, humpback whales arching through the water, flocks of penguins searching for food, seals basking on icebergs. A truly remarkable and unforgettable moment in time.

A final excursion to see chin strap penguins and more seals, and all too soon we were heading back towards Ushuaia, even calmer than before, allowing us to round Cape Horn, an old naval chart reminding us of just how many ships have foundered there over the centuries. Without question one of the greatest trips I have ever made.

Find out more about this cruise to the Antarctic Peninsula

Watch Nick’s film of his voyage taken in March this year:

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Ice Patrol in Antarctica

I have just finished watching the first in the Channel 5 series Ice Patrol which follows the crew of HMS Endurance who work in conjunction with British Antarctic Survey covering all the regions around the peninsula & it gave me a hankering to re-visit the great white continent.

I was lucky enough to spend 13 days down there a few years back on a converted Russian research vessel.

The real highlight of my voyage was the opportunity to kayak, with curious penguins porpoising next to me, a Minke whale swimming right under my kayak in crystal clear water and a close encounter with a leopard seal. In a kayak you become you own mini ice breaker as you nose you way between the floating chunks of brash ice, chinking & clinking as you go, the minerals fizzing against the hull, utter peace & tranquillity broken only by the noise of the ice bergs cracking & calving then realigning themselves with a big splosh.

We stopped at many research station both current & now abandoned, saw penguins by the million and had whales around us almost 24/7. The whales were mainly Humpbacks although we saw seven different species in all, some breaching and thrashing, some just cruising along next to us scrapping barnacles off their skins on our hull. From the bridge you were eye to eye with the entourage of petrels, pintados & albatross that accompanied the boat.

If you fancy this kind of adventure then give me a call on 01285 880981 – we can arrange voyages from 5 – 35 days in small vessels of various degrees of luxury, which allow you to get up close & personal to this awe inspiring destination.