At last I have achieved this childhood dream. The Antarctic was both more and less than I'd dared to hope. The scenery was far more spectacular than I'd expected. The mountains were higher and more rugged, and they thrust skyward from the sea sometimes with no beach whatsoever. Of course there was lots of snow and ice, but the colours were surprising. The sky was blue; the water was black. The ice was sometimes white, sometimes blue, sometimes transparent. Icebergs came in all shapes and sizes. As they melted slowly into the black water, an eerie milky almost iridescent green puddle surrounded the base of the iceberg. As huge chunks of glaciers calved off, a sound like an explosion preceded the splash into the water. Sometimes, pack ice of all sizes seemed to cover the sea for many kilometres in all directions. The ship ploughed through this and it closed like a zipper behind us.
But I was on a birding trip, not a sight seeing tour. Penguins are always personality plus birds: often endearing, sometimes confiding, forever memorable. We must have seen hundreds of thousands of them. I saw six different species - more of them later. I saw five species of albatross. The most numerous was Black-browed, then Grey-headed, then Light-mantled Sooty, then Wandering, and finally, Southern Royal. I had hoped to see Sooty Albatross, but we did not. We saw lots of Cape Petrels, Blue Petrels, Antarctic Prions and Imperial Shags of various races.
|Atlantic Petrel, photo by Mick Roderick|
|Antarctic Petrel, photo by Mick Roderick|
For me the birding highlights were Atlantic Petrel, Antarctic Petrel, Southern Fulmars and ethereal Snow Petrels. We saw just two Atlantic Petrels on the second day. That was our quota. We saw Antarctic Petrels on five consecutive days, but only ever one or two individuals. By contrast, we saw many thousands of Southern Fulmars. On one day alone we recorded over a thousand. This was a bird I particularly wanted to see, as it has always eluded my Australian list. I thought I saw one on my Macquarie Island trip: a large white bird flying high in the sky. Now that I've seen fulmars, I can say that my unidentified Macquarie Island bird was not a fulmar: it did not have a large enough wingspan. Fulmars are surprisingly pretty birds: none of the illustrations I've seen do them justice. The last of my special birds is the breathtaking Snow Petrel. Everyone loves Snow Petrels. I saw them on four days; the largest number on any day was a total of fifty birds.
|Snow Petrel, photo by Mick Roderick|
I scored just nine lifers on the Antarctic leg of my trip.
We boarded our ship, Aurora's Polar Pioneer, at Stanley in the Falklands. We flew from Chile into the military airport, picked up our baggage and were immediately taken by bus to Stanley. The countryside was not particularly attractive, but birds flew past the windows of the bus (lifers for me) as our guide gave commentary about the war. I have no doubt that some people would find commentary about the war more interesting than unidentified strange birds. Those people had not signed up for a birding tour.
With no time at all for birding, I left the Falklands with 6 lifers: the flightless Falkland Steamerduck; the easily identified Rock Cormorant (with a bright red face); Magellanic Oystercatcher; Rufous-chested Dotterel (which I spied while everyone else was photographing a shipwreck); Dolphin Gull (at the port as we left) and, very luckily, Correndera Pipit (which I saw from the bus as it flew). I also saw a pair of caracara, whose identification remains unclear. I thought they were Striated, but I'm told that's impossible and they must have been Southern. Alas, I will never know.
|South Georgia Pipit, photo by Mick Roderick|
We left the Falklands on Saturday evening and arrived at South Georgia on Tuesday. That day I achieved three lifers: the most endearing and very naughty Snowy Sheathbill; South Georgia Pintails and South Georgia Pipit, the world's most southern passerine.
We played around South Georgia until Saturday, visiting several memorable spots. Everyone likes Salisbury Plain, which 250,000 King Penguins call home. My favourite spot was Gold Harbour, where there were only 20,000 King Penguins, and also Gentoos, skuas, giant-petrels, intimidating fur seals and elephant seals. The King Penguins trumpet loudly and mate rather roughly. The fluffy brown chicks whistle 'Maroochydore.' Many of the seals had pups, which were undeniably cute. While we were on South Georgia, a photographer from another cruise ship was bitten by a fur seal on Salisbury Plain, and the boat returned to the Falklands to get proper medical attention for him. The Drygalski Fjord was spectacular. There was nowhere to land, but we cruised up the fjord while dozens of Antarctic Terns flew around the ship.
We learnt about the rat eradication program on South Georgia, which has cost 7.5 million pounds, and seems to have been successful. We visited the museum at Grytiviken, where I enjoyed the display of birdlife. They had birds, various eggs, and a burrow showing a diving-petrel. Much to my amusement, it was a Common Diving-petrel, not the local South Georgian species. Put this down to my ignorance. I later learned that there are more Common Diving-petrels on South Georgia (3.8 million breeding pairs) than there are South Georgian Diving-petrels (2 million). The birds look identical at sea and I did not really expect to be able to say that I'd seen any new diving-petrel on this trip. However, thanks to Mick Roderick and his terrific photos, we did confirm that we had seen South Georgian birds. While we were in Grytiviken, we visited Shackleton's grave and toasted his memory. We also had a celebratory Shackleton dinner, with the dining rooms decorated with the ship's flags and paper lanterns, made from biosecurity forms we had dutifully filled out!
|Northern Giant-Petrel, photo by Mick Roderick|
After we left South Georgia, we spent two days cruising until we arrived at Elephant Island. We saw few birds during these two days, the most common being Antarctic Prion, followed by Cape Petrel. There were lots of Blue Petrels on the first day, but very few thereafter. We saw Wilson's Storm-petrels every day of the trip, but never in big numbers. We also saw Black-bellied Storm-petrels, but not every day. We saw Grey-backed Storm-petrels on three days only, a total of five birds. White-chinned Petrels were with us all the time, until we arrived in the Antarctic. We saw a few birds every day, up to fifty individuals.
On Gourdin Island, three penguins were breeding: Chinstrap, Adelie and Gentoo. There was constant braying: the Chinstrap have the highest pitch, then the Adelies and the Gentoos the lowest. A veritable cacophony.
|Chinstrap Penguin, photo by Mick Roderick|
An Antarctic wind storm slowed us down and prevented us from landing at Cuverville. Snow was pretty, as was the pack ice, but huge chunks of ice falling from the rigging was a little disconcerting. I had planned to send postcards from Port Lockroy, but there was too much ice for us to land.
I rather liked the frozen waterfall on Deception Island, and certainly enjoyed the skuas having a hot thermal bath on Livingston Island.
Drake Passage did not live up to its reputation. We had very calm seas - nothing at all like my experience around Macquarie Island. In fact, visiting The Horn was somewhat of an anticlimax.
I am delighted to have fulfilled my childhood dream, and finally visited the Antarctic. The scenery was breath taking. However, I confess that I was disappointed in the birdlife. I had expected more birds and more species. The picture of Light-mantled Sooty Albatross doing their mating ballet will remain with me forever, and the size of the penguin colonies is simply overwhelming, while individual birds that seem to want to make friends will be a treasured memory for years to come.
It was the experience of a lifetime.