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ANTARCTICA, THE FALKLANDS & SOUTH GEORGIA

Saturday 3rd November - Friday 23rd November 2018

MIKE WATSON

Light-mantled Albatross, at sea west of South Georgia (Mike Watson)

Light-mantled Albatross, at sea west of South Georgia (Mike Watson)

On a windswept visit to the Southern Ocean and ultimately the white continent, Antarctica, we enjoyed some amazing wildlife spectacles in stunning surroundings. One of the main features of this tour is the opportunity for endless seabirding from the deck of MV Plancius and our highlights included Wandering, Southern and Northern Royal, Light-mantled (Sooty), Grey-headed and Black-browed Albatrosses. Other tubenoses included Southern and Northern Giant Petrels, Southern Fulmar, Antarctic, Cape, Snow, Blue, Atlantic, Soft-plumaged, White-headed and White-chinned Petrels as well as Antarctic and Slender-billed Prions and Sooty, Manx and Great Shearwaters.

Our cruise is timed to coincide with the height of bird activity at the start of the southern hemisphere’s spring and in the Falkland Islands many seabirds were already busy breeding. We visited bustling Black-browed Albatross, Southern Rockhopper and Gentoo Penguin colonies as well as taking in other avian highlights in the form of the endemic Falkland Steamer Duck and the trio of geese, Upland, Kelp and the pretty Ruddy-headed. Magellanic and Blackish Oystercatchers delighted along the kelp-covered shore. A special land excursion out of Port Stanley delivered super smart Two-banded Plovers and Rufous-chested Dotterels as well as South American (or Magellanic) Snipe and breeding Magellanic Penguins of note in a historical setting courtesy of Falklands War veteran Sergeant Major Brian Sullivan.

South Georgia was the jewel in the crown this time with unbeatable King Penguin performances at the mega colonies of Salisbury Plain, St Andrew’s Bay and Gold Harbour, with a superb supporting cast of Southern Elephant Seals, Antarctic Fur Seals, Southern Giant Petrels and Brown Skuas and all in the most perfect un-spoilt glaciated landscapes. Our landing at the iconic location of Grytviken included a toast at the grave of heroic Irish explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, as well as a fierce snowstorm, which made the experience even more atmospheric than usual. South Georgia Pipits, now happily recovered after the recent rat eradication project were seen on all landings on the island and even offshore!

Heading further south we added Chinstrap and Adelie Penguins to our list in the South Orkneys as well as some of the world’s most impressive tabular icebergs including the infamous and enormous B-09F. We also visited the Orcada (Laurie Island, South Orkneys - Argentinian) and Bellingshausen (King George Island, South Shetlands - Russian) Antarctic research bases. Ultimately our visit to the Antarctic Peninsula itself was blighted by stormy weather, which prevented us from entering the Weddell Sea or Antarctic Sound and therefore also killing any realistic hope of Emperor Penguin. This was a disappointment for the birders but we did at least have one perfect day further south along the peninsula, landing at both the idyllic Danco Island and Neko Harbour Gentoo Penguin colonies. The latter of course involved setting foot on the seventh continent itself rather than simply its offshore islands, a very significant moment for many! Other wildlife included the southern seals: Crabeater, Leopard and Weddell and numerous cetacean sightings included Peale’s, Dusky and Commerson’s

Dolphins, Orca, Southern Bottlenose, Humpback, Sei, Fin and Antarctic Minke Whales, not forgetting those Southern Right Whales that we cruised past out of Puerto Madryn so long ago. However we were not able to detour for cetaceans while cruising at sea as many sightings are fleeting anyway, so many blows went unidentified with only a minority close enough to see their makers in the usually choppy seas. For the record we tallied 86 bird species and 17 mammals.

This cruise remains one of the world’s classic wildlife expeditions and is simply a must ‘bucket list’ experience for anyone interested in the natural world with the time and resources to make the dream a reality. My overwhelming feeling was of being very privileged to be able to visit such a remote part of the planet, where we have done relatively little to screw up the natural world as we have done almost everywhere else. The astonishing numbers of birds and other wildlife were overwhelming at times. Added to this some very impressive scenery indeed and all via the comfort of our purpose built expedition ship MV Plancius made for an unforgettable experience.

With the vast distances to cover between locations there is a lot of time spent sailing far from land on this cruise. For those not wishing to stay on deck as long as possible there were numerous excellent lectures to attend covering all aspects of the region we were travelling through, mostly encompassing its geology, wildlife and history of exploration, all delivered with passion and enthusiasm by the very knowledgeable and experienced expedition staff.

Gentoo Penguin on the Antarctic Peninsula (Mike Watson)

Gentoo Penguin on the Antarctic Peninsula (Mike Watson)