SOUTHERN OCEAN EXPEDITION: Falklands, South Georgia, and the Antarctic Peninsula

10 December 2014 --- 10 January 2015


Lynn & John Salmon <>{

SOUTHERN OCEAN: Trip in Photos


PART 2: South Georgia // PART 3: Antarctic Peninsula


While preparing for our upcoming jaunt around the Southern Ocean, I came across this great quote:

  • South Georgia weather is dominated by wind as well as storms sweeping across the Scotia Sea bringing gale force winds.
Sounds lovely - sign us up!

So why are we heading to the end of the world and beyond for a month?

  • to celebrate our one billion second anniversary
  • because salmon are anadromous fish
  • because we are attracted to wacky and wonderful places as evidenced by some of our earlier travel logs

And, after the fifth or sixth friend we told about our upcoming trip to Antarctica recommended the book, Where'd ya go Bernadette, we got a copy from the library. It was a fun read, but doesn't really describe our motivations. Much to our surprise, no one else on our trip mentioned this book, and we didn't see a single copy for sale along the way.

ARGENTINA (December 11-15, 2014)

Our original flight from JFK to Buenos Aires was scheduled for December 9th, but Aerolineas Argentinas decided to cancel that flight and reschedule us for the next day. Since I was running around frantically trying to get our new kitchen finished before leaving, it was a welcome delay, although it reduced our stay in Buenos Aires to only one night. However, we visited Argentina 22 years ago during our Trip to the End of the World, and a few extra days at the front of our itinerary were meant as a safety so we wouldn't miss our ship's departure on the 15th due to travel delays en route.

We arrive in Buenos Aires in the wee hours of the morning and there's very little traffic. We breeze into the city and find our hotel a stone's throw from the Obelisco, and immediately go to sleep. The internet is terrible at Hotel Bristol. Otherwise it's fine accommodation. It's seen better days, but breakfast is good. The plumbing works. The room is clean. No funny smells. It's all we need - except that the internet times out every 30 seconds.

We're not very good at visiting "cities" and do very little during our day in Buenos Aires. We do have a nice "afternoon tea" at cafe Moka across the street from our hotel. We take a longish walk, watch some birds in a park, find a couple of geocaches, and get dinner at Estancia consisting of huge platters of meat, and we make a pretty good dent in it. As we walk back to the hotel (only a couple of blocks) after dinner, the streets are far more deserted than we expect. When we arrived at our hotel 20 years ago at about 2am, the streets were bustling with families, young couples, old folks, everybody out eating and getting coffees, like Greenwich Village at midnight. But now it's more like Ossining at midnight - the only people out are people who don't have somewhere else to be.

The next day we fly to Ushuaia, a main target of our Trip to the End of the World in 1992. It's much more developed today and bustling with tourism. The airport has been expanded, and the hold your breath and hope the plane can stop on the short runway experience at landing is a thing of the past.

Our hotel, The Albatross is conveniently located near the water. Ushuaia is not very large, and we can easily walk most places. We take a long walk along the shore of the Beagle Channel spotting a number of new life birds. We also walk up into the suburban hills as far as we can go and enjoy looking at a large variety of housing construction.

Unfortunately, John's back begins to trouble him, and we spend much of our next two days concerned about whether we can/should go on the trip. He sleeps on the floor rather than the way too soft hotel bed, and as you can see from the length of the log - we end up boarding the ship as planned.

There's a new, and very large museum now housed in the prison at the end of the world. We spend a full morning there, so that John can take it easy on his back. We also do some additional gentle walking around town. There's some signage near the port in Spanish: "Prohibido el amarre de los buques piratas ingleses". Translation: Prohibited mooring of English pirate ships. I guess all other pirate ships are allowed.

THE TRIP STARTS, the organized portion of it, that is. We have a choice of 3 buses all heading to Tierra del Fuego National Park to keep us busy for the day until it's time to board our ship this evening. We choose the "birding" bus, which will skip a planned visit to the small Museo Fin del Mundo and instead make a side-trip to the landfill. Who wouldn't want to go to the world's most southern dump.

It turns out to be a great outing. We have a local birding guide, Esteban, who is very good. We see our Flying and Flightless Steamer Ducks early. Along with many others, including Ashy Headed goose, a snipe, upland geese with chicks, and the trip highlight: a Magellanic Woodpecker that we get because John is slowly bringing up the rear with Joe who spots it flying. They track it to a tree, where it spends 10 minutes hammering away and eventually gets a grub.

There's time to send word to the rest of the group as they are collecting getting lunch bags and most of the group return for a look at the woodpecker that everyone had been eagerly searching for all morning. Lots of photographers with lots of long lenses inch closer and closer, but nobody gets too close and we spend a long time enjoying the action.

There's more birding action as we head to the end of "Route 3", the Pan American Highway. We've been on it in Chile, and of course on the I-5 in CA and WA. I don't think we were on it in Alaska. And, of course, the day ends with the visit to the landfill at the end of the world and round out the day's bird list with a couple of new caracaras and a buzzard eagle.

LIFE ABOARD THE ORTELIUS (Tuesday, 16 December 2014)

We boarded our new home-away-from-home: the expedition vessel, M/V Ortelius, last night before dinner. Today we are en route to the Falkland Islands with a full day on the southern ocean to get acquainted. The Ortelius was originally built in Poland and served as a special purpose vessel for the Russian Academy of Science. It is 91.25 meters long and has the highest ice-class rating.

The ship is named after the Flemish cartographer and geographer Abraham Ortelius. He published his first map in 1564 and is generally recognized as the creator of the first modern atlas, the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Theatre of the World).

We attend a couple of mandatory lectures on zodiac safety and sustainability issues for tourism in the Sub antarctic, have one life boat drill, and generally explore the ship. Our pre-trip documents described it as basic, but we find it cozy and comfortable. The bar has a fancy coffee machine and hot water for tea and soup open 24/7. The trip maintains an open bridge policy most of the time. The food is usually plentiful and good considering we are unable to supply with fresh ingredients for the duration of the trip.

In addition to the 98 passengers like ourselves, the ship is also home to approximately 40 crew, plus 15 trip leaders including Pauline and Tim Carr. Tim and Pauline are a remarkable couple who were the only permanent residents on South Georgia from 1992 - 2004. We greatly enjoyed getting to know them and the rest of the trip guides/leaders during the voyage.

NEW ISLAND, THE FALKLANDS (Wednesday, 17 December 2014)

We made our first zodiac landing on wildlife-rich New Island in the Falklands. The weather was fantastic and conditions couldn't have been better for our introduction to the process of getting on and off the ship via a gangway leading to a bobbing zodiac that would zip us to shore.

After a reasonably calm landing on an easy sandy beach, we made a short uphill walk to a Black-browed Albatross colony perched dramatically at the edge of a cliff about a half mile from the landing site. Rockhopper penguins and king cormorants were nesting mixed-in among the albatross. On the way we saw the first penguins of the trip, our old friends the magellanics.

We had 5 hours available to explore this side of the island at our own pace. After an hour or so watching and photographing the albatross colony, we headed onward to a gentoo penguin surf-beach, spent a few hours there, and made a return visit to the rockhoppers and albatross on our return trip to the zodiac landing site.

On the way down to the beach we passed a large gentoo colony with a small cluster of nesting skuas right next door. The caracaras and skuas wander around the penguin colony, mostly unmolested. We did catch one caracara making off with a penguin egg.

Down at the beach we got some good looks at snowy sheathbills and some baby upland geese that looked like creatures from a star wars movie. John made some half-hearted attempts to photograph penguins surfing up the beach, but the line-up of big Canon and Nikon glass on heavy tripods suggested it best to leave that particular shot to the others. It was perfect beach weather (mid 40's, mildly sunny) so we hung out and enjoyed the show for a while.

Our lunch was a pretty thin ham sandwich and we remained hungry for the rest of the afternoon. In general, the food on board the Ortelius has been excellent, but the box-lunches, especially for the Falklands, are disappointing. A combination of bio-security restrictions and political restrictions (nothing from Argentina allowed) makes it hard to provide much.

After lunch, we hop on a Zodiac and cruise around the point to the "settlement". There's a nice little museum in the settlement with some old equipment, big cook pots, some 18th century harpoons, etc. There's a long story about a British captain who saves some marooned french sailors, who then take over his ship, and maroon him on this island. His crew turns on him, various other changes of fortune happen, etc. We should look this up when we get home.

We walk up the hill to a large rockhopper penguin rookery. There are blue-eyed shags in amongst the red-eyed rockhoppers. The wind is pretty fierce, and it is difficult to enjoy the cliff side views, so we return to the settlement and shelter from the wind until time for a bird walk with Joe and Nan. We had a sighting of a Falkland steamer duck (Tachyeres brachypterus) with chicks, a white-bridled finch, one of the siskins, some blackish oystercatchers and a nice black-capped night heron (today's bird list).

It starts to rain a bit on the walk and by 5pm we are tired and ravenous. We opt to take one of the first zodiacs back to the ship rather than remain on shore until 7:30pm. When the Cheeseman company advertises maximum time in the field, they really mean it. Boy we're pooped!

More of our New Island photos

STEEPLE JASON ISLAND (Thursday, 18 December 2014)

The dramatic Steeple Jason Island in the Falklands is home to the world's largest breeding colony of Black-browed albatross. The most recent estimate put numbers around 440,000 - that's a lot of big birds! The colony is spread along 3 miles of coastline with numerous Rockhopper penguin pairs breeding in among the albatross.

This is our second day in the Falklands. It begins with a pretty sunrise and a wake-up message over the PA from Pauline Carr quoting the often said adage, "red sky at morning, sailors take warning." We chose the option to get up at 5am, have a cold breakfast and take the first zodiacs to shore at 5:30 rather than sleep in and go to shore after breakfast, as did about half of the other passengers. Seas were a bit rougher than yesterday, but having made two zodiac landings the day before, we know what to expect. The difficult landing on rocks advertised by the expedition leader turned out to be a piece of cake. I guess our kayaking and scrambling onto rocks for geocaches has made me a pro at transferring from a small boat onto shore via rocks.

When we leave the ship, the weather is a bit windy, but dry. By the time we arrive and make the half mile trek to the albatross colony it is raining lightly. Striated caracaras were out in force attacking the temporary flagpoles put out to mark our route. As the day wore on they would stalk and attack the occasional person. One of the culprits was tagged G33 on a leg band, its partner in crime also had G3, but the third number was broken off. We spot a few smaller birds to add to our bird list including the tussock bird, a little brown jobber that was not the least bit shy around people and a finch with yellow coloring identified by Joe as the White-bridled finch.

We push our way through about 50 feet of tall (taller than Lynn) tussock grass and emerge at the edge of the albatross colony. The tall grass provides protection from the wind and rain, and we both nestle in comfortably where we can watch the lively activity of the birds unobtrusively.

The birds are coming in LOW. VERY, VERY LOW. And they're big with 7-8 feet (200-240cm) wing spans. At the edge of the colony, they are only a few meters away. There are chicks in many of the nests. The adults are here for a long time. Courting, mating, laying, hatching and fledging take around 5 months. These guys can live for over 70 years.

There are rockhoppers in amongst the albatross. This looks like a great spot for rockhoppers because there are no skuas or caracara to be seen. As long as they don't get stepped on by Black-broweds, the rockhoppers have found a great spot.

We walked back to the landing point around 8am and donned additional warm layers and ate some lovely hummus sandwiches. The rain was heavier and the wind had picked up quite a bit by this time and we learned that the planned after breakfast zodiac departures from the ship had been postponed. This also meant we were not leaving the island any time soon.

We returned to the albatross colony for another look and hunkered down in the tall tussock grass for another couple of hours. At 11am, we make the trek back to the landing point and find that a couple of boats taking people back to the ship for lunch had already gone. A few more people had come from the ship to the island, but not that many. Two people wanted to go back - Lynn and another woman, so Nick took them back, intending to start a new round of shuttling people from the boat to the island. BUT this time, the conditions were scary rough. Lynn was the last one off the island for many hours. Zodiac operations were put on hold.

Yes, the zodiac ride back to the ship was a bit more thrilling than I would have liked, but Celie and I made it back and clambered up the gangway without broken limbs. During the trip I had a death grip on the chicken rope and mostly looked at the floor rather than the swells heading our way and washing over the zodiac. The ship was not where we had left it in the morning, and we learn that it is heading around to the other side of the island to hopefully find a more favorable spot to pick up those left behind.

Meanwhile, back with John - stranded on Steeple Jason Island :-).

The weather was starting to clear when Lynn went back, and I wanted to try another look at the albatross colony in good light. I stayed, figuring I'd go back on an early "regular afternoon return".

I headed off around the "back" of the island, heading up toward the saddle that I thought might come over the ridge and down onto the colony from behind. It didn't take long to get out of sight of everyone, and to get some terrific views of the northern coastline. The slope would have been steep to attack head-on, but was easy to take at an angle. After fighting the wind for a while heading toward the shoulder, I realized that if I turned around, I could get an uphill wind assist. The rest of the climb was MUCH easier. I sat down once before coming in sight of the landing and the other people and appeared to have all of Steeple Jason Island to myself. I could see a jeep track heading off along the coast, but no other signs of human activity. Then I went up a bit higher and could look down on the landing and the two gentoo colonies that seemed quite large when we were down there. It was very relaxing. I could have taken a nap, except for the caracaras, who started getting pretty aggressive. They were hovering over and behind me and getting bolder and bolder and more and more numerous. Up to four seemed to be planning an attack. I decided to put on my neoprene gloves, but I must have lost one. I only had one. That's disappointing - they were pretty useful. Still, I ended up walking down the hill with a gloved hand on top of my head for protection.

When I got back down I learned that Zodiac operations were still "on hold" and the ship had left (!). But, she was coming back - around the other side of the island, and she was scheduled to return for a 3:30 departure.

So I poked around the nearby gentoo colonies and then went back again to the Black-browed albatross colony. This time the weather and lighting were nice, and there were a lot fewer people. The 3:30pm departure time came and went and thoughts turned to the meager food supplies brought along in the morning. We learn that tussock grass is edible. Water is probably a bigger concern than food.

The stranded passengers are eventually retrieved shortly after dinner.

More of our Steeple Jason Island photos

SEA LION ISLAND (Friday, 19 December 2014)

We enjoyed a morning on the bridge watching some birds that would be regular sitings during the trip like wandering albatross, Wilson's storm petrel, cape petrels, giant petrels, and prions. We love the open bridge policy on the ship, and spend many hours up there on days we don't go ashore. It often our first stop in the morning after coffee before breakfast, and a place to wind down after dinner before going to bed.

We were delayed due to the late departure yesterday from Steeple Jason and high winds and didn't get to spend all day exploring Sea Lion Island as scheduled. We did manage to land for a couple of hours from 3-5pm and had to choose one activity from a variety of options.

We chose to join Joe and Nan for another bird walk once we learned that the Cobb's wren (Troglodytes cobbi), which is vulnerable to extinction, is found on only a few small rat-free islands in the Falklands including this one. After a bit of tramping around the tussock grass and trying not to collapse any magellanic penguin burrows with a mis-step we spotted a Cobb's wren much to everyone's delight. We have something of a "where's waldo" type picture of it, or the grassy spot the bird had just vacated.

We got a much better photo of a South American Snipe.

AT SEA (20-21 December 2014)

We have nearly 3 full days at sea en route to South Georgia. Our days at sea fall into a comfortable pattern. Most mornings, and throughout the day, people are up on the bridge or out on the deck for ID and photography of seabirds and marine mammals. Numerous optional lectures by expedition staff are scheduled to fill the time between meals, and there is much ado about biosecurity.

A sampling from Saturday, 20 December 2014:

  • 7:30 wake-up call (Ortelius Good Morning)
  • 8:00 Breakfast
  • 9:30 Lecture: Southern Ocean: Marine Food Web by Sadie Youngstrom
  • 10:30 Lecture: Dynamics of seabird flight by Dr Marco Restani
  • 11:30 Lecture: Slippery When Wet: Aquatic Adaptations of marine mammals and swimming diving birds by world famous Nick Mooney. Nick has some of the best lecture titles, and we can look forward to The Importance of Being Big and Fat by him tomorrow.
  • 12:30 Lunch
  • 2:30 Workshop: Drawing/Watercolor by Marybee Kaufman
  • 3:30 Tea time
  • 4:00 Lecture: Lightroom and Shooting Raw by Tom Rivest
  • 5:00 Lecture: Ultimate Landfall by Tim and Pauline Carr
  • 6:30 Dinner
  • 8:00 Lecture: Landscape and Bird Photography, examples from Iceland by Steve Kaufman

Sometime during these two days at sea, each passenger is scheduled for 30 minutes of biosecurity inspection. The government of South Georgia requires that we take steps to prevent being a vector of species introduction to the island by inspecting and cleaning all of our landing equipment before our first landfall, expected on the 22nd. All visitors must complete cleaning of all gear and sign a statement declaring they have done so. A vacuum station is set up in the bar and expedition staff are on hand to inspect all clothing, camera bags, shoes, boots, etc.

We sign up for one of the first half hour slots, and the scene is chaotic in the bar area. Things get sorted out after the first couple of hours and everything goes smoothly for the next couple of days. Though, the bar is filled with the sound of vacuuming non-stop making it a less than a peaceful place to hang out for a couple of afternoons and evenings. During the cleaning process, we remove a collection of dirt and potential grass seeds that have been collecting in our jacket pockets over the years. People discover hidden pockets in clothing that they never knew existed, and I'm sure some lost keys and change in a variety of currencies must have been found.

December 21 brings the solstice and the longest day of the trip. We also cross the "Antarctic convergence zone" or "polar front". This area is where warmer subtropical surface water (5 to 8oC) mixes with cold polar water carried northward by the "antarctic circumpolar current". At this zone, sea surface temperatures decrease to around 0 to 2oC with the influx of cold, nutrient rich water. These waters sustain an area rich in invertebrates, an incomparable feeding ground for cetaceans and seabirds south of this zone.

Over the next 6 days we make 9 landings in South Georgia. Things get exciting!


Lynn Salmon <>{