Atlantic Odyssey-Gritviken Breakdown

Part1-Ushuaia to the big storm

Atlantic Odyssey 2012- Gritviken Breakdown

This trip was cursed from the moment it started. My original flights were changed at the last minute making it impossible for me to meet my connection from Sao Paulo to Buenos Aires and the flight booker who will remain nameless only wanted to refund two of the flights leaving me with two flights on either end that couldn’t be matched up. I still haven’t received a refund. I had to rebook at the last minute and these flights for complicated reasons didn’t pan out and at the last minute I had to be completely rerouted causing significant stress. The my baggage disappeared and it was quite unclear whether it would ever turn up miraculously appearing in Ushuaia the day before we left on the expedition.

Lesson#1-when making complicated air travel arrangements use a travel agent not a flight booker on the internet.

Ushuaia - March 24-28th

First Image Andes Mountains from Ushuaia Airport - Condor Country

First Image Looking across the Beagle Channel from Hotel Tolkeyen

Despite the problems I was thrilled to arrive in Ushuaia and spent several hours looking at and photographing the local birds before arriving at the Hotel Tolkeyen. This is a supurb place to stay while in Ushuiai right on the Beagle Channel. You can watch Black-browed Albatrosses, both species of Steamer Ducks, shorebirds and Kelp Geese right from the dining room.

First Image Upland Geese-Ushuaia

First Image Kelp Geese-Ushuaia

First Image Chamango Caracara- Ushuaia

First Image Dolphin Gull- Ushuaia

First Image Flying Steamer Ducks-Ushuaia

I met up with Bob Flood and Alan Harrington the next day and our first excursion was to of course to the local landfill. It was fantastic with
three species of Caracara and multiple Black-chested Buzzard Eagles.

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White-chinned Caracara- Ushuaia Landfill

First Image Black-chested Buzzard Eagle- Ushuaia Landfill

The next morning we were off to the
Magellanic Penguin colony at Martillo Island in the Beagle Channel. I was hoping for Magellanic Diving Petrel but you travel to the island on a speed boat that makes birding virtually impossible. The “leader” for Pira Tours was remarkably rude and tried to heard us around like kindergarten students constantly reminding us that she was the “expert”. Despite this it was a good visit with lots of Magellanic Penguins a few Gentoo Penguins and a real surprise a single King Penguin. A superb juvenile Chilean Skua made the day.

First Image Flying Steamer Duck at Sunrise- Ushuaia

First Image Chilean Skua, juvenile- Martillo Island

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First Image First Image Scenes from Martillo Island

First Image Juvenile Magellanic Penguins- Martillo Island

First Image Penguin Trifecta- Martillo Island

On the way back to Ushuaia I started thinking I may have made a miscalculation in regards to the Magellanic Diving Petrel- surely we would see a few on the way down the Beagle Channel.

The next day we spent at Tierra del Feugo National Park. We had a good start with a couple
Andean Condors soaring high in the mountain tops.
Things went down hill from here- no Magellanic Woodpecker despite spending the entire day in there usual haunts.

First Image Tufted Tit-Tyrant- Tierra del Fuego NP

First Image Thorn-tailed Ryadito -Tierra del Fuego NP

The highlight of a some what uninspiring day was getting mobbed by a large flock of Thorn-taied Ryaditios and Tufted Tit-Tyrants

The next day Bob and I hiked up to the Martial Glacier. We then started up the scree slope. This was one of the most fantastic spots I have ever seen for alpine plants-it must be spectacular in the spring.

After a couple of hours gingerly searching the 45 degree scree slope Bob signalled me- he had found the object of our quest- a
White-bellied Seedsnipe.

First Image First Image First Image White-Bellied Seedsnipe- Martial Glacier

What a great bird. Rarely seen I believe the trick is getting up into the scree slope along the snow line. After observing our bird for several minutes we realized there were another two perfectly still close behind it.

First Image First Image White-Bellied Seedsnipe- Martial Glacier

These birds are very reminiscent of ptarmigan in many ways. I have no idea why they would be grouped with the shorebirds-clearly gallinaceous birds.
What a thrill sitting in this unbelievable setting 15 feet from a
White-bellied Seednipe family pecking away oblivious to are presence.

First Image Adios Ushuaia - view from Hotel Tolkeyen

A great end to
our stay in Ushuaia. We celebrated with an amazing dinner at one of the excellent local Argentinian grills. Time for some seabirding.

Drake Passage- March 29-31
Unfortunately most of our limited time on the Beagle Channel was spent doing the mandatory lifeboat drill. There were lots of Black-browed Albatrosses, Southern Giant Petrels, Southern Fulmars, a few Sooty Shearwaters and a surprise molting Greater Shearwater.
We looked carefully until dark but not a single Magellanic Diving Petrel was seen.

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Snowy Albatross - Drake Passage

We spent two full days traversing the Drake Passage. Famed for its rough waters we had a relatively benign crossing. The first day we had a brisk wind and we had a wide variety of seabirds including Snowy, Grey-headed and Black-browed Albatross, both Giant Petrels, Blue Petrel and lots of Kerguelen Petrels and Southern Fulmars.

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Northern Giant Petrel- Drake Passage

I was very pleased to have lots of opportunities to photograph the Southern Fulmars- so different in jizz from the Northern species.

First Image First Image First Image First Image First Image Southern Fulmars- Drake Passage

Kerguelen Petrels
were quite common and we had a great opportunity to study this species and its distinctive flight style and jizz. Really a unique species.

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Kerguelen Petrel - Drake Passage

We had a few Wilson’s along with several Black-bellied Storm-Petrels. The ubiquitous seabird of the Southern Ocean-the Cape Petrel was never out of sight for long.

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Black-bellied Storm-Petrel- Drake Passage

First Image First Image Cape Petrel-nominate subsp. D.c.capense - Drake Passage

Our second day on the Drake was remarkably calm and seabirding was a bit lackluster. We started seeing a fair number of Antarctic Prions but not eben a glimpse of a Slender-billed Prion. We had our first Light-mantled Albatross.
At one point a medium sized all white bird came into view suddenly hovering right over the boat. After a brief moment of confusion given our deep water location the bird was identified- my first Pale-faced Sheathbill.

First Image Pale-faced Sheathbill -Drake Passage

A bit of a surprise but apparently they are seen occasionally far offshore and will often land on ships as this one eventually did.

Antarctica- April 1-3

We awoke on April 1st off the South Shetlands. It was less then settled with 60 kph winds and temperatures well below freezing. The plan was to explore the area arond Port Foster on Deception Island.

First Image Antarctic Peninsula, Drake Passage and surrounding areas

First Image South Shetland Islands

As we approached Deception Island along with our first icebergs came the first Snow Petrels. Southern Giant Petrels wheeled by in the gale and a few South Polar Skuas were noted.

First Image South Polar Skua off Deception Island
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Southern Giant Petrel enjoying the gale off Deception Island

Our first glimpse of land was a large column of rock of Deception Island. Conditions were bad and photography very limited.

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Columnar rock formation off Deception Island

Conditions improved as we entered the giant caldera that provides such a protected harbour for Deception Island. The planned zodiac landing however was not going to be possible in the very brisk conditions.

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Inside the caldera, Deception Island

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Old whaling station of Port Foster, Deception Island

Things didn’t get any better. We had a few Wilson’s Storm-Petrels and South Polar Skua along with Antarctic Shags and Terns enjoying the protection of the harbour. A few distant penguins could be seen along the shore but to distant to identify. There is a large Chin-strap Penguin colony here but at this late date most of them had headed north.

We finally gave up on the idea of landing and headed off towards the Peninsula hoping for some better weather.

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Rough seas, off Deception Island

The next day we woke up to decent weather just off the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. The plan was to land at the Adelie Penguin colony at Brown Bluff and the to cruise to the nearby Argentinian base -Esperanza.

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First look at Antarctica

It was a bit foggy and the ancient rock, mountains and ice had an extremely desolate appearance. We started cruising through some interesting ice and we started seeing numbers of Adelie Penguins.

First Image Ice sculpture, Antarctic Sound

First Image Flock of Adelie Penguins porpoising by, Antarctic Sound

We approached a large flock of Adelie Penguins on a large ice flow. As we closed in mass panic broke out with penguins squawking and running about madly.
They must feel very vulnerable on the ice as they aren’t skittish at all on land. They are probably much more susceptible to Leopard Seal predation on the ice.

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Adelie Penguins-“Panic Stations” -Antarctica Sound

We started seeing Crabeater Seals as well as Antarctic Fur Seals lazing on the ice.

First Image Antarctic Fur Seals, Antarctic Sound

As we headed to Brown Bluff we started to encounter some magnificent icebergs.

First Image First Image First Image First Image Icebergs, Antarctic Sound

Along with icebergs comes the “Angel of Antarctica” the
Snow Petrel. In this case the Lesser Snow Petrel. It was fantastic to see these wonderful birds swooping around the icebergs. This species can only be found around the pack ice were it stays year round.”Only in Antarctica”.

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Lesser Snow Petrels, Antarctic Sound

Adelie Penguins, South Polar Skua and a few Southern Fulmars, Southern Giant Petrels and Kelp Gulls were observed as we approached Brown Bluff.

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Adelie Penguins spying from high up on an iceberg -Antarctic Sound

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South Polar Skua -Antarctic Sound

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Fantastic iceberg off Brown Bluff

We excitedly prepared for a zodiac landing at Brown Bluff. The weather held with minimal wind and an easy landing ensued.

First Image Plancius at anchor at Brown Bluff

First Image Zodiac Landing at Brown Bluff

Brown Bluff is a tuya located at the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. The 1.5 km cobble beach is a breeding location for many Adelie and Gentoo Penguins along with a number of Antarctic Fur Seals. Cleaning up the mess of course were a number of Pale-faced Sheathbills.

First Image Antarctic Peninsula

First Image Brown Bluff, Antarctic Peninsula

It was exciting to finally set foot on Antarctica. Gentoo Penguins were there to greet the Zodiac along with a few Pale-faced Sheathbills and of course Antarctic Sea Lions.

First Image Alan Harrington and myself on the Southern continent for the first time at Brown Bluff

First Image Antarctic Fur Seal, Brown Bluff

Most of the
Adelie Penguins had cleared out for a winter on the ice flows. A lingering individual however performed stupendously allowing us lots of great photographic opportunities.

First Image First Image First Image First Image Adelie Penguin goofing around, Brown Bluff

Pale-faced Sheathbill
is the only resident land-based bird in the Antarctica. They range north to the subantarctic islands of the Scotia arc, the South Orkneys and South Georgia. They inhabit penguin colonies and scavenge for food and clean up waste. The southern most birds migrate short distances north for winter.

First Image Adelie Penguin scolding a Pale-faced Sheathbill, Brown Bluff

First Image First Image Pale-faced Sheathbill, Brown Bluff

Gentoo Penguins
seem to be one of the most ubiquitous of the penguins. Often found in small to moderate numbers in other penguin colonies as well as having large primary colonies. Gentoos have recently shown some dramatic declines - on Bird Island, South Georgia the population has plummeted by 2/3rds in 25 years.

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Gentoo Penguins,Brown Bluff

It is pretty difficult to get tired of Gentoo Penguins, like ther closest relative the Adelies they seemed please to entertain and have a never ending supply of goofy antics.

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Adelie Penguin more goofing around, Brown Bluff

The sky was starting to look ominous so we finished off our landing and headed back to the Plancius for lunch. As we ate lunch we steamed west for the Argentinian research base-Esperanza.

First Image Ominous skies, Brown Bluff

I made very quick work of lunch and was back on deck shortly for the cruise to Esperanza. The threatening sky made for some dramatic photo opportunities.

First Image Dramatic ice and sky, off Brown Bluff

The main target species at this point was Antarctic Petrel. This is a rather uncommon bird around the Peninsula especially this late in the season. As it turned out we dipped on this species - at least partly on account of the big storm which at this point was still over the horizon.

First Image Ice and rock - on the way to Esperanza

First Image Crabeater Seal on the Ice, Antarctic Sound

First Image Kelp Gulls loafing, Antarctic Sound

There was lots of action on the way to Esperanza.
Crabeater Seals were common and a few Leopard Seals were seen as well. A Wedell Seal was seen but I missed it.
Lesser Snow Petrels put on a decent show which in of itself was a phenomenal sea birding experience.

First Image First Image First Image Lesser Snow Petrel- Angel of the Antarctic, Antarctic Sound

We arrived at Esperanza in the mid afternoon. The base appeared very neat with all the red buildings against the black mountains and white snow,

First Image First Image First Image Esperanza, Argentinian Research Station - Antarctic Peninsula

An interesting piece of history presents itself upon landing at the station. A mean rock hut the winter home for three unlucky Swedes from the 1901 Swedish expedition led by Otto Njordenskjold.
There ship the “Antarctic” was crushed in the ice and they ended up stranded at Bahia Esperanza (Hope Bay) for the entire winter.

First Image Rock hut - winter quarters for Anderssen, Duse & Grunden 1902/03
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We were given tour of the station which took longer that it should have and subsequently were offered coffee and the chance to purchase a few souvenirs.

First Image Vintage snowmobiles- Esperanza

First Image Church- Esperanza

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Casino Esperanza

I made my escape as soon as was feasible and headed back to the
Gentoo Penguin colony.

First Image Gentoo Penguins on ancient rock shoreline -Esperanza

First Image First Image First Image First Image First Image Gentoo Penguins-Esperanza

Adelie Penguin waddled by seemingly oblivious to the fact that all his compatriots had flown (swum) the coop.

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Lone Adelie Penguin - Esperanza

As we waited to return to the Plancius I noted three
Gentoo Penguins on the shoreline. They were doing goofy penguin stuff and reminded me of The Three Stooges.

First Image First Image Curly, Larry & Moe - Esperanza

As we pulled away from Esperanza in the rapidly fading daylight a single Lesser Snow Petrel flew over my head and then off to a nearby iceberg. A fitting end to a great day in Antarctica.

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Lesser Snow Petrel- Esperanza

The plan for the next day was to cruise the dge of the ice pack along the Weddell Sea in search of Antactic Petrel and Emperor Penguin.
When we awoke in the morning we discovered a full fledged gale was coming in from the south and would likely severely disrupt our plans.

First Image Stormy morning off the stern of the Plancius -Antarctic Sound

Apparently the plan was to get into the shelter of Antarctic Sound. The wind was already up past 50 knots and the prediction was it was going to get a whole lot worse.

First Image First Image Iceberg and drift ice, Antarctic Sound

As we proceeded into Antarctic Sound it became clear that the south wind had blown a ton of pack ice up from the Weddell Sea and we very quickly became engulfed in thick pack ice.

First Image First Image Thick pack ice, Antarctic Sound

This was a rather tense situation and the Captain masterfully steered us around the giant iceberg through the thick pack ice and back to open water all in 50-60 knot winds.
I was having an amazing experience on deck on the stern despite the somewhat frigid conditions. Luckily the stern of the Plancius has some relatively sheltered spots you can wedge into during gale conditions.

First Image First Image First Image First Image First Image Growlers, mini icebergs and adverse conditions, Antarctic Sound

Well the Weddell Sea idea was clearly a no go so the plan shifted to heading out to the Bransfield Strait which was relatively ice free to ride out the gale.
The strong winds didn’t discourage the sea birds and as we head north-west we encountered
South Polar Skua, Southern Giant Petrels, Cape Petrels and a Light-mantled Sooty Albatross.

First Image South Polar Skua, Antarctic Sound

First Image Cape Petrel, Antarctic Sound

First Image Light-mantled Sooty Albatross, Antarctic Sound

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Southern Giant Petrel, Antarctic Sound

I was most pleased to run into good numbers of Chinstrap Penguins swimming north. We had had glimpse of these previously but this was the first time I had gotten a decent look at this species.

First Image First Image Chinstrap Penguins heading north- Antarctic Sound

The skies lightened up a bit and it looked like it might clear. Photographic conditions improved and an Antarctic Shag flew out to check us out allowing some decent shots.

First Image First Image First Image Antarctic Shag- Antarctic Sound

The sudden appearance of the sun seemed like a small miracle and I took the opportunity to get some nice shots of the Southern Fulmars and Cape Petrels riding the very brisk winds.

First Image First Image Southern Fulmar- Antarctic Sound
First Image Cape Petrel, Antarctic Sound

The improvement in the weather was very brief and the winds continued to pick up and the seas were getting quite interesting as we proceeded to more open waters. Twenty-five to thirty foot waves were starting to build.
First Image First Image Building seas, Bransfield Strait

Suddenly my worst fears were realized one of the crew had come to let me know they were not allowing ant one on the deck. The storm was expected to worsen and they were battening the hatches.
Reluctantly I moved indoors.
The crew were busy closing all the port holes, securing all the doors and covering all the windows.
I took an extra half of a Scopolamine tablet.
After lunch we were in the midst of a
Beaufort Scale 11 gale which is a Violent Storm with 70mph winds and waves from 32-52 feet Sea conditions are described as - Exceptionally high waves. Very large patches of foam, driven before the wind, cover much of the sea surface. Very large amounts of airborne spray severely reduce visibility.
Very cool.
This might be a once in lifetime opportunity so I discretely slipped out onto the the 3rd deck which was well protected and wedged myself into a cubbyhole and watched what was a truly awesome spectacle.

First Image First Image First Image First Image First Image Beaufort 11 Gale, 45 foot + wall of water from the third deck of the Plancius- Bransfield Strait

The gale lasted well into the evening and it was a bit of a challenging sleeping but nothing an extra Scopolamine couldn’t take care of.

The next morning we awoke to sunshine but brisk 40 knot winds.The ship was entirely encrusted in ice and it was very dangerous trying to maneuver on deck.

First Image First Image First Image Ice encrusted Plancius the morning after the big storm

With the bright sun and the spray, rainbows were visible everywhere -a good omen I was hoping.........

First Image Off to South Georgia

This is the end of Part 1-
Part 2 will continue the saga of the 2012 Atlantic Odyssey- Gritviken Breakdown