We land in Antarctica!!!

January 1, 2020. After the days of exploring the Falklands and South Georgia and the few intervening days totally at sea, I could hardly wait to touch down in Antarctica. This was the day! 

Antarctic Petrels at sea
Orcadas Station
Crew members on the island stay here year-round

Laurie Island, South Orkneys, Antarctica
Our first stop, by zodiac, was to explore some of Laurie Island in the South Orkneys. It was originally the site of a hut known as Omond House. It’s now the site of Orcadas Station, occupied year-round by Argentine personnel primarily as a bird hide and field refuge. We were warmly welcomed—they don’t get a lot of visitors! 

Then we had some time to explore and view penguins by zodiac…

Zodiac cruising to view penguins–with rough seas!


Chinstrap penguin watching us too!

and finally, an incredible sunset. 

Sunsets extraordinaire!

Some history: The Voyage of the Scotia
“Omond House was a building erected in 1903 on Laurie Island in the South Orkney Islands. It was built to house shore-based members of the 1902-1904 Scottish National Antarctic Expedition, led by William Bruce.” 

“The house was named after Scottish meteorologist Robert T Omond, a strong supporter of the idea of making meteorological observations in Antarctica. It was built with over 100 tonnes of stone manually quarried then hauled on sledges from an adjacent glacial moraine.

“Its main purposes were to serve as a base for meteorological observations made at the nearby weather station, and as living quarters for small parties left behind both when the Scotia returned to Buenos Aires for repairs and supplies, and when she finally returned to Scotland.” Link here

“In January 1904, Bruce offered control of Omond House to Argentina and which was later renamed the Orcadas Station. Link here

Awestruck in South Georgia

We were soon to land on South Georgia Island…
I hoped it would be something like the photos we had seen in travel brochures—it surpassed my expectations!

But back to where we left off in the previous post—at sea. After spending Christmas Day at sea, everyone was happy to see any land again. Shag Rocks, out in the middle of seemingly nowhere, had to do. Birders were happy, the rest of us could hardly wait to get to our first two stops in South Georgia—which we reached on December 27, 2020.


Snag Islands–an isolated group of islands off the coast of Antarctica.
65°8′S 64°27′W. Important nesting site for birdlife.

Once again our four groups took turns cruising around the islands and landing to view the wildlife. And what wildlife there was! The following pictures should be worth the proverbial 1,000 words. 

You really do not want to tangle with fur seals. We were told to watch each others backs in case of  aggressive behavior.

Fur seals have recovered from earlier days when they were widely hunted.


Early explorers thought these furry balls were a different species, but they are the young King Penguins.     More to come!                                                                                       

West Point Island and Stanley, Falkland Islands

Windswept and gorgeous West Point Island, Falklands

West Point Island
After our rewarding morning watching Rockhopper Penguins on New Island in the Falklands, we were eager to see more. The captain and activity leader continued to follow the weather reports and decided to keep us on the north side of the island group to find more sheltered conditions for taking out the zodiacs and for our landings.

We headed toward West Point Island for our afternoon’s adventure. The 5.67 sq. mi. island is on the north-west tip of West Falkland—a location that was judged to provide good protection from the prevailing winds (which incidentally reached 8, gale force winds, later that night).

Landing
Once again our groups took turns going over to land and touring in the zodiacs because only 50 people were allowed  on the island at a time. When we were on land, we walked about a 1.5 miles to a rookery and again were mesmerized by the activities of the Rockhopper Penguins and the Black-browed Albatross.

Privately held island
Like New Island, the terrain here was largely grassland, but with the addition of large masses of bright-yellow gorse and eroded sandstone cliffs. It probably would not have been safe to veer off our designed trail, but I wished we could get an even closer look at the rock formations.

 

The island is privately owned, but we were able to look into and around the collection of old barns and other weathered farm buildings. 

 

 

 

Stanley (or Port Stanley)

Stanley is the capital  of the Falkland Islands with a population of approximately 2,500 residents. It’s on the northern side of the island of East Falkland and is one of the wettest places in the archipelago. It’s a favored landing point (no zodiacs required) because it’s a unique British outpost. We were able to visit the small museum, a church, post office, and pub.

Commemorative stamped envelopes in Stanley’s Post Office.

We also had time to walk up the hill into the residential area where we’d been encouraged to visit because the home had a front yard filled with statues of leprechauns. 

Later, back on the ship we had a crazy hat competition as part of the Christmas Eve party. Some very interesting hats were created out of whatever props the participants could come up with—penguins were a popular theme.  

After spending Christmas Day at sea, our next stop would be South Georgia. The excitement in anticipation of seeing the wildlife there was in the air! 

An old pillowcase turned into a head for her penguin.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Antarctica & the Falkland Islands

Black browed albatross

Strictly speaking, the Falklands Islands (also known as Islas Malvinas Islands) are not part of Antarctica. However, on our recent cruise to the southernmost continent, it was one of the places our ship, the Ocean Endeavor, visited. In fact we made  three different stops—at New Island, West Point Island, and Stanley.

Avoiding Seasickness
Not, though, until we had spent one full day at sea. I found that day difficult; I was worried that I would get seasick.  Perhaps this was fueled by the many sailors’ tales that I grew up reading about the Drake Passage (named after British Explorer Francis Drake), which is still considered by many to be the roughest stretch of water in the world. 

Hearing the weather forecasts each night, did not ease my concerns. At one briefing, we learned about the Beaufort Wind Scale—(developed in 1805 by Sir Francis Beaufort, U.K. Royal Navy), which  rates wind forces on a scale of 0-12. Zero indicates that the water is as smooth as glass; twelve is a hurricane with winds 64 knots and waves  over 45 ft high. The reports indicated we would be experiencing seas in the 6-8 range—”strong breeze, near gale, or gale.”

Chairs bolted to the dining room’s floor was a sobering sight!

Precautions
It was suggested that we keep any heavy objects in our room on the floor instead of counter tops, and that if we did not want to hear objects in the drawers rolling around, that we stuff objects around them. One of the activities’ crew members said that he had been in seas so violent that he had taken his mattress off the bed and put it on the floor. 

I noticed that the chairs in the dining room had been bolted to the floor. 

But it seemed as if I was the only person worried about the motion of the ship; many of my shipmates appeared totally unconcerned about the ship’s bobbing up and down, side to side, and lurching. Those who were transfixed with the abundant bird life were rewarded with sightings of albatross and petrol ((and occasionally spouting humpback whales and dolphins).

Part of the problem was that my doctor had refused to prescribe medication—asserting that  such  meds were highly risky to those over 65, so I had brought ginger tablets and wrist bands, but I didn’t have confidence that they would work. As it turned out I did fine with what I had, but my fear definitely got the best of me for a time.

Landing by zodiacs on New Island, Falklands

Happiness is a zodiac ride!
Though the weather forecasts were sobering the first few days, it helped when I studied the maps and realized where we actually were in relation to South America and Antarctica. The Falkland Islands are actually NE of Argentina—we hadn’t even entered the Drake Passage.

We could have watched these Rockhoppers all day!

Things became much more exciting!
When it came to Days 3 and 4 on the ship, things definitely improved as far as I was concerned. We began to visit the islands by zodiacs. The Falklands were the first of the several stops where the amount of wildlife we would find was surreal. Not only did we see thousands of Rockhopper penguins on New Island and West Point Island, we were thrilled to be able to get so close to them. These entertaining birds have no natural fear of humans and so they don’t flee when people  approach. The colonies were full of activity and the best moments were spent watching them strut, mate, sitting protectively on their nests, or feeding their young.

Rockhopper colony

Please come back for more about Falkland Islands and Stanley in the next post. 

 

Jumping off spot for Antarctica–Ushuaia

It was becoming real!
Though our recent trip to the Antarctic officially began in Buenos Aires,it was when our travel company, Quark, flew us to Ushuaia, Argentina, that we could really believe that we were on our way to the 7th continent. After arriving in the town of 150,000, our group was allotted a couple of hours to explore.

Though Wikipedia calls this windy and chilly town on the tip of South American a resort, to me it felt more like a frontier town in Alaska. With its colorfully painted wooden buildings that appear to have had little in the way of city inspector’s approvals—to my delight—it felt like a stepping off point to a great adventure. It was an amazing setting—surrounded as it was by the bay of Tierra del Fuego, the Beagle Channel, and the backdrop of the Martial Mountain range. 

Exploring the town
There were numerous small buildings on the waterfront that offered tours of points south. I wondered how many people would come all the way to Ushuaia before making the big leap of signing up for a week’s (or more)  cruise through the Beagle Channel and down to Antarctica. Going to Antarctica is generally a major expense—I wondered who would do it on a whim.

As we walked along the main drag and up a few steep hills in town, we noticed several hotels and restaurants. I speculated that they were kept busy with people enjoying the natural setting at the end of the world, or with tourists waiting to head further south, or to take a ferry over to tour nearby Tierra del Fuego National Park—a gem featuring towering forest, waterfalls, lakes, and glaciers. 

A long way from home!

Ushuaia, “End of the World,” Argentina

After our brief walkabout, we boarded our ship, “The Endeavor,” which would be our home for the next 20 days. I was excited about what lay ahead, but also a bit nervous because I had read enough books to know that many early sailors and adventurers lost their lives sailing through the Drake Passage—and I also had heard from friends of their Antarctic vacation—which ended when their ship hit an iceberg and sank!

To be continued…