The Ultimate In Birding Tours

Tours that are mostly easy

ATLANTIC ODYSSEY

Antarctica to the Cape Verde Islands: The Ultimate Atlantic Birding Experience

Sunday 29th March – Wednesday 22nd April 2020

Leaders: Mark Van Beirs and Oceanwide Expeditions leaders

25 Days Group Size Limit 12
Antarctic Peninsula Extension

Friday 20th March – Sunday 29th March 2020

10 Days Group Size Limit 12
St Helena to Ascension & Cape Verde Islands Extension

Wednesday 22nd April – Saturday 2nd May 2020

11 Days Group Size Limit 12

ATLANTIC ODYSSEY: OVERVIEW

Birdquest’s Atlantic Odyssey birding tours are an epic journey through the Atlantic Islands from Tierra del Fuego to South Georgia, Gough Island, the Tristan da Cunha group, Saint Helena, Ascension Island and the Cape Verde Islands, offered together with an extension to Antarctica. Our Atlantic Odyssey birding tour is one of the most extraordinary opportunities to see pelagic seabirds, not to mention the penguins, rarely-seen endemics, sea mammals, amazing scenery, little-visited islands and the rest. And all this at a very economical price compared to a standard Antarctica and South Georgia expedition cruise because it is a repositioning cruise at the end of the Antarctic season, when the ship has to return through the Atlantic to the northern hemisphere in time for the upcoming Arctic season.

Important: in 2020 a Birdquest guide will accompany our group regardless of the number of Birdquest participants (excluding the Antarctic Peninsula tour extension).

From the frozen wastes of Antarctica to hot, steamy, tropical seas, this extraordinary Atlantic journey of over 6,200 miles (10,000 kilometres) from Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego to the Cape Verde Islands by way of the Antarctic Peninsula, South Georgia, Gough Island, Tristan da Cunha, Saint Helena and Ascension offers the adventurous traveller the chance to visit some of the farthest flung places on earth and to experience a seabird extravaganza beyond most birdwatchers’ wildest dreams.

This superb opportunity is made possible by the need to bring expedition cruise ships back from Antarctica to Europe in spring for the start of the Arctic cruising season. Our remarkable Atlantic Odyssey birding tour on board one of these vessels will not only provide splendid opportunities for observing a bewildering array of seabirds, from penguins and albatrosses to frigatebirds and tropicbirds, at sea, but will also give us a chance to wander through their breeding colonies, as we step ashore on some of the remotest islands in the world. Opportunities for whale-watching will also be superb, especially in Antarctic waters and the Southern Ocean, where we are likely to enjoy some spectacular views of these leviathans sounding right next to our ship.

Our Atlantic Odyssey birding tour begins in earnest at Ushuaia, the southernmost town in the world and our base for some enjoyable birding amidst the splendid scenery of Tierra del Fuego National Park. Soon we join our ship and sail out of the Beagle Channel into the turbulent waters of the Drake Passage, where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans meet. During the optional first part of the tour we will be heading south-southeast the Antarctic Peninsula, an icy finger of land pointing towards South America and first seen by human eyes only as recently as 1820.

Antarctica is the last frontier on our ever-shrinking planet, an uninhabited continent of more than twelve million square kilometres almost entirely encrusted with ice – an awesomely silent but starkly beautiful frozen world that every traveller longs to explore but so few ever see. Here we will gaze in wonder at some of the world’s most magnificent scenery – towering volcanoes, stark mountain ranges, lowering headlands, icebergs like floating cathedrals, all enhanced by the peculiar quality of the light, which lends an ethereal beauty to the savage grandeur of the landscapes. This is a land of superlatives, at one and the same time the coldest, highest, windiest, driest, most barren and least known area on earth.

During our explorations, we plan to be able to step ashore on the continent itself, visit Adelie, Chinstrap and Gentoo Penguin colonies, see immaculate Lesser Snow Petrels and striking Antarctic Petrels, cruise amongst majestic icebergs, watch many Humpback Whales, other cetaceans and seals, and experience some of the most amazing and dramatic scenery that our wonderful world has to offer. At this late period in the season there is even a slim but real chance of finding that most sought-after of all Antarctic birds, the Emperor Penguin.

After those ctaking the Antarctic Peninsula tour extension return to Ushuaia, the main cruise begins. Initially we shall be sailing east across the South Atlantic to South Georgia, enjoying spectacular pelagic birding as we pass through some of the richest seas on earth.

South Georgia, the most mountainous of the Subantarctic islands, appears like a series of snow-covered peaks rising from the sea, scalloped with fjords carved by more than 150 glaciers. Here we will experience some of the most unforgettable wildlife spectacles of the tour as we walk amidst huge colonies of stately King Penguins, stand close to gigantic Southern Elephant Seals and enjoy superb views of nesting Wandering Albatrosses. Among the specialities here are Georgian Diving Petrel and the endemic South Georgia Pipit.

We will also be calling in at Grytviken, a former Norwegian whaling station where we can visit the excellent whaling museum and the grave of Sir Ernest Shackleton.

Five days of open sea separate South Georgia from our next port of call at Gough Island, but the diversity and abundance of seabirds and cetaceans is sure to provide us with some of the best pelagic birding imaginable, especially as we approach Gough. With its millions of breeding seabirds of 20 species, Gough Island is a strong contender for the title of most important seabird colony in the world. Although we will not be allowed to land on this strict nature reserve, we should be able to Zodiac cruise close inshore and catch site of the two endemic landbirds, the Gough Moorhen and Gough Bunting, as well as another key speciality, the Northern Rockhopper Penguin.

From Gough our tour will proceed northeastwards across the South Atlantic to Tristan da Cunha, the remotest inhabited island in the world, where we will go ashore to meet some of the islanders and perhaps buy a few postage stamps – a major source of revenue in these islands. We also hope to be able to visit nearby Nightingale Island, with its huge seabird colony including over two million pairs of Great Shearwaters and large numbers of Atlantic Yellow-nosed and Sooty Albatrosses, large rookery of Subantarctic Fur Seals and Southern Elephant Seals, and three endemic landbirds – a thrush and two buntings. If we are really fortunate with the weather, we will be able to land on Inaccessible Island and seek the world’s smallest flightless bird, the incredible Inaccessible Island Rail.

Our next destination, Saint Helena, lies to the north of the Tropic of Capricorn and is another four days sailing away. As we leave the cold waters of the South Atlantic behind and enter the warm waters of the tropics, we finally say goodbye to our last albatrosses and pick up an entirely different set of seabirds and cetaceans, along with our first flying-fish. On Saint Helena, we will visit the house where Napoleon lived in exile, and look for the island’s only surviving endemic landbird, the Saint Helena Plover or Wirebird (so-named because of its long, spindly legs). We will also take a trip out in a local boat to look for dolphins and to visit a group of islets with breeding seabirds.

Continuing on almost to the Equator, we will come to Ascension Island where we will visit an enormous breeding colony of Sooty Terns, circumnavigate a small islet that supports the entire world population of Ascension Frigatebirds, and perhaps visit a beach at night to witness the spectacle of Green Sea Turtles laying their eggs in the sand. Interesting seabirds in these waters include the ‘Ascension Storm-Petrel’.

Eventually, those taking the second tour extension will cross the Equator and enter the North Atlantic, en route to the Cape Verde Islands, where Cape Verde and Boyd’s Shearwaters and Fea’s Petrels await us. Here, sadly, it will be time to disembark from our ship for the last time and return to the ‘real world’. There will be an option to look for some of the islands’ endemic landbirds before leaving the Cape Verdes.

We shall be sailing on the MV Plancius, a converted, ice-strengthened former Dutch naval vessel of 3434 tons and 89 metres in length operated by the well-respected Oceanwide Expeditions, who are based in the Netherlands. While significantly more comfortable and more modern than the old Russian expedition ships, this is still not a ‘cruise ship’ in the traditional manner and is designed for exploring wild places and enjoying wild nature, rather than enjoying luxurious surroundings and ‘black-tie’ dinners with the officers. Plancius can accommodate up to 114 passengers in 53 passenger cabins, all with private toilet and shower. Cabins consist of 4 quad cabins with a porthole and two lower single beds and two upper, 2 triple cabins with a porthole and two lower single beds and one upper, 9 twin cabins with a porthole and two lower single beds, 26 twin cabins with a window and two lower single beds, 2 somewhat larger deluxe twin cabins with a window and two lower single beds and 10 superior twin cabins which are almost 50% larger than a standard twin, with a window and one queen-sized bed. Cabins have ample storage space and an outside view.

Public facilities include a restaurant/lecture theatre, an observation lounge/bar with panoramic views, a library and a small shop. Food is plentiful, of good quality, waitress-served and prepared by experienced chefs. The ship carries a small complement of expedition staff who, as well as guiding excursions ashore and zodiac cruises, double up as guest lecturers and give informal talks on the environment, wildlife and history of the areas visited. There will be at least one naturalist among them who will also be there to point out seabirds and cetaceans at sea. The bridge is normally open to all (except when the ship is docking) and the big ‘picture’ windows provide a great viewpoint whenever it is too breezy to stand comfortably at the bow.

Landings are carried out by means of a fleet of zodiacs/naiads, the rugged, fast-moving type of inflatables first developed by Jacques Cousteau for expedition work which allow safe landings on remote coastlines in all types of conditions. The speed and efficiency with which the crew and expedition staff carry out these landings allows everyone plenty of time ashore, a key factor when considering any cruise of this type.

Further information about the cruise, including photographs and details of the ship layout, including all cabin categories, are available on the Oceanwide Expeditions website: www.oceanwide-expeditions.com.

The great advantage of taking this particular cruise, if you are especially interested in seeing birds and other wildlife, is that the tour itinerary and day to day schedule are strongly wildlife-orientated.

Birdquest has operated Atlantic Odyssey birding tours to the Atlantic Islands since 1990.

Accommodation: For details of the ship, see the introductory section.

Walking: The walking effort during our Atlantic Odyssey birding tour is mostly easy, but there are a few optional harder walks.

Climate: In southern Argentina conditions are typically cool, with sunny periods and showers. Around the Antarctic Peninsula the temperature is generally around freezing point (around 4-5°C or 39-41°F at South Georgia) and on sunny days it can feel relatively warm if there is no wind (but it feels decidedly cold on windy days at sea). Sunny spells are interspersed with (often longer) overcast periods and some rain or snow are to be expected. In the South Atlantic at Gough and Tristan da Cunha, the climate is cool with maximum temperatures around 11-15°C (52-59°F) and a high probability of low cloud and rain. On St. Helena, Ascension and the Cape Verde Islands, the weather is usually warm or hot and humid, with maximum temperatures around 27-31°C (81-88°F). There is a possibility of some rain in this mid-Atlantic section.

Bird/Sea Mammal Photography: Opportunities during our Atlantic Odyssey birding tour are outstanding in the south, quite good in the north.

Important: This unique trip is subject to the vagaries of weather and sea conditions, especially in the South Atlantic where periods of high winds and rough seas can make landing on islands in the Tristan da Cunha group very difficult. In Antarctica, the precise itinerary may vary from year to year according to local ice conditions. Adverse weather conditions may prevent landings on exposed coasts and on some islands, but it is unusual for more than two or three landings to have to be called off during a cruise.

Important: Owing to the possibility, however small, of a severe airline delay, we would recommend that all participants have two nights at Ushuaia prior to the cruise start. Kindly note that in the event you do not arrive in time, the ship will not wait and neither the cruise operator nor the tour operator can make a refund in such circumstances. Arriving early also has the advantage that your luggage could still catch up with you, should it go astray. We can make hotel bookings for you in Ushuaia on request, either before or after the tour.


PRICE INFORMATION

Birdquest Inclusions: Our prices include surface transportation, accommodations, meals and entrance fees. The tour price covers the cruise arrangements from embarkation on the ship at Ushuaia port to disembarkation from the ship at St Helena or Praia port.

Deposit: 20% of the relevant twin-share cabin price (plus 20% of the relevant single supplement if you are taking a single occupancy cabin).

TO BOOK THIS TOUR: Click here (you will need the tour dates and deposit amount)

 

2020: For Ushuaia/St Helena arrangements:

£5130, $6610, €5850 in a quad-berth cabin with porthole and private bathroom

£5700, $7340, €6500 in a triple-berth cabin with porthole and private bathroom

£6310, $8130, €7200 in a twin-berth cabin with porthole and private bathroom

£6570, $8470, €7500 in a twin-berth cabin with window and private bathroom

£6870, $8920, €7900 in a deluxe cabin with private bathroom

£7410, $9540, €8450 in a superior cabin with private bathroom.

 

2020: For St Helena/Praia Extension arrangements:

£1180, $1520, €1350 in a quad-berth cabin with porthole and private bathroom

£1350, $1750, €1550 in a triple-berth cabin with porthole and private bathroom

£1570, $2030, €1800 in a twin-berth cabin with porthole and private bathroom

£1710, $2200, €1950 in a twin-berth cabin with window and private bathroom

£1790, $2310, €2050 in a deluxe cabin with private bathroom

£1970, $2540, €2250 in a superior cabin with private bathroom

 

2020: For Ushuaia/St Helena arrangements, including the Antarctic Peninsula Extension:

£8510, $10960, €9700 in a quad-berth cabin with porthole and private bathroom

£9470, $12200, €10800 in a triple-berth cabin with porthole and private bathroom

£10300, $13270, €11750 in a twin-berth cabin with porthole and private bathroom

£10780, $13890, €12300 in a twin-berth cabin with window and private bathroom

£11600, $14850, €13150 in a deluxe cabin with private bathroom

£12230, $15760, €13950 in a superior cabin with private bathroom

Gratuities for the expedition staff and crew are not included in the tour price. The level of gratuities is entirely a matter for personal discretion. The staff work very long hours to make such cruises a success, including a great deal of night sailing, and we have been told that most passengers give gratuities of around US$300-450 for such a cruise (plus around US$100-150 for each extension).

Single Supplement: Single occupancy of twin-berth cabins can be obtained in return for a 70% supplement on top of the relevant twin-share cabin price.

Please note that if you are willing to share but no cabin-mate is available you will not have to pay the single occupancy supplement.

This tour is priced in Euros. Amounts shown in other currencies are indicative.

Air Travel To & From The Tour: Our in-house IATA ticket agency will be pleased to arrange your air travel on request, or you may arrange this yourself if you prefer.

ATLANTIC ODYSSEY BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY

Atlantic Odyssey: Day 1  Our Atlantic Odyssey birding expedition begins this afternoon at Ushuaia, at the toe of South America. Ushuaia, which is situated on the south coast of Tierra del Fuego at 55 degrees south, is the southernmost town in the world. If it is clear during the flight south across Argentina, you will be able to see the vast, arid landscapes of Patagonia far below and eventually the ice-clad spires and vast snowfields of Tierra del Fuego. Named by Magellan after the warning fires that the now-extinct Ona Amerindians lit when they saw his ships, Tierra del Fuego lies at the extreme southern tip of South America and is a wild land of grassland, windswept moors, stunted Nothofagus beech forests, snow-capped peaks and glaciers.

Participants normally choose to have one or two nights in Ushuaia before the cruise starts, in order to make sure that flight delays do not cause them to literally ‘miss the boat’, and it is easy to see a good number of birds simply by birding in the vicinity of this small town, most of which will not be seen during the expedition itself. Likely species while birding close to town include Imperial and Rock Shags, Black-crowned Night Heron, Black-faced Ibis, the striking Kelp Goose (which feeds almost exclusively along the shoreline on giant kelp), the equally handsome Upland and Ashy-headed Geese, Flying and Fuegian (or Flightless) Steamer-Ducks, Chiloe Wigeon, Speckled Teal, Crested Duck, Turkey Vulture, Variable Hawk, Southern Crested and Chimango Caracaras, Magellanic and Blackish Oystercatchers, Southern Lapwing, White-rumped Sandpiper, Chilean Skua, Dolphin and Kelp Gulls, South American Tern, Dark-bellied Cinclodes, Fire-eyed Diucon, Austral Negrito, Chilean Swallow, House Wren, Austral Thrush, Rufous-collared Sparrow, Black-chinned Siskin, Austral Blackbird and Long-tailed Meadowlark. Less frequently encountered species include Black-chested Buzzard Eagle, Rufous-chested Dotterel and Brown-hooded Gull. If the weather is fine, you might take the ski lift up to the Martial Glacier and search for species such as Bar-winged Cinclodes, Dark-faced Ground-Tyrant and Yellow-bridled Finch, or you could pay a quick visit to the municipal rubbish dump to look for White-throated Caracaras.

If you decide to go birding in Tierra del Fuego National Park, a spectacular region of seacoasts, forests, lakes and snow-capped mountains on the Chilean border, you may well see Great Grebe, the huge Andean Condor, Austral Parakeet, the impressive Magellanic Woodpecker (the largest of the South American woodpeckers), the attractive White-throated Treerunner, Thorn-tailed Rayadito, White-crested Elaenia and Patagonian Sierra-Finch. We can help you with birding information and arranging a rental car, or we could arrange for you to take a day out with a local bird guide if you prefer.

This afternoon we will board our ship prior to setting sail down the Beagle Channel. As we sail eastwards along the channel, Magellanic Penguins, Black-browed Albatrosses, Southern Giant-Petrels, Sooty Shearwaters and diminutive Magellanic Diving Petrels will be on show, but they are only an appetizer compared to the seabird glories of Antarctica and the subantarctic that still lie ahead.

Atlantic Odyssey: Days 2-5  As we sail eastwards at the borders of the South Atlantic and the Southern Ocean, we will initially be looking out for seabirds that are typical of these shallower, warmer waters such as Sooty and Great Shearwaters.

The long sea crossing to South Georgia will be a highlight of the voyage. As we travel ever further to the southeast we shall pass from the warmer sub-Antarctic waters that surround southern South America and the Falklands to the cold waters of the Antarctic. The line of demarcation between these two water masses is quite strongly pronounced and is known as the Antarctic Convergence. Here the upwelling currents create conditions ideal for plankton and the rich feeding attracts numerous seabirds and often cetaceans. As we watch from the decks we will see an endless succession of seabirds following the ship, or sailing indifferently past, including Black-browed and Grey-headed Albatrosses, the graceful Light-mantled (Sooty) Albatross, the enormous Northern (or Hall’s) and Southern (or Common) Giant-Petrels, Cape, Soft-plumaged and White-chinned Petrels, Wilson’s, Grey-backed and Black-bellied Storm Petrels, and Brown Skuas. We shall check the Slender-billed and Antarctic Prions for Blue Petrels and Fairy Prions but the star of this ever-changing spectacle will be the greatest seabird of all, the Wandering Albatross, with its remarkable wingspan (up to 3.5 metres!). As we watch these huge birds gliding low over the sea between waves and then circling high into the air without even the slightest movement of their wings we will be witnessing one of nature’s ultimate creations in action – a bird which is in total harmony with its environment. We will also come across the confusingly similar Southern Royal Albatross amongst the Wanderings and be reminded just how difficult it is to separate some seabirds! This is a good area for rarities and we shall keep a lookout for such occasional visitors to these waters as Atlantic, Kerguelen and Grey Petrels and Arctic (or Parasitic), Pomarine and Long-tailed Skuas (or Jaegers). We also have an excellent chance of seeing whales, especially when we cross a bank where the sea depth decreases from over 4000m to under 200m, producing an upwelling that creates a plankton swarm highly attractive to whales: the most regular species here being Minke Whale, Fin Whale and Hourglass Dolphin. If we are lucky we will encounter Gray’s Beaked Whale or Southern Bottlenose Whale. As we voyage southwards we will have a chance to listen to some fascinating lectures on the Antarctic environment and its wildlife or visit the bridge to learn about the many complex navigation instruments in use on our ship.

As we near South Georgia, both the numbers and diversity of species will increase markedly. We should now encounter our first diminutive Common Diving Petrels and Georgian Diving Petrels, and will need to be especially quick off the mark if we are to separate these two very similar species as they get up hurriedly from the water and sweep past our ship on rapidly whirring wings. Antarctic Prions are particularly abundant in these waters, and amongst them we may find a few Fairy Prions.

Atlantic Odyssey: Days 6-8  South Georgia lies at the northeastern corner of the Scotia Ridge, a largely submarine formation with only the summits poking above the sea as islands, that links the Andes of South America with the mountains of Antarctica. Profoundly remote, a mass of inaccessible ice-clad mountains rising to 2934m, South Georgia is the most spectacular of all the Subantarctic islands. Described by Robert Cushman Murphy, that great pioneer of seabird research in the southern oceans, as presenting ‘one of the world’s most glorious spectacles – like the Alps in mid-ocean’, the coastline of South Georgia endlessly surprises and delights as one striking vista of deep fjords, jagged peaks and glacier-dominated valleys gives way to another and yet another. During our three days in this marvellous area we will plan to make several landings.

For over fifty years South Georgia was the hub of the South Atlantic whaling industry, and we shall explore the eerie, silent ghost settlement of Grytviken, the oldest whaling station on the island. Here we will see the simple grave of Ernest Shackleton, that hero of Antarctic exploration who died at Cumberland Bay in 1922, and also visit the excellent whaling museum that charts the history of the island. South Georgia is famous for its vast nesting colonies of King Penguins, and we hope to be able to go ashore at one of the largest of these, at Salisbury Plain, where we will be enthralled by the incomparable spectacle of tens of thousands of these colourful penguins and their bright chocolate young against a dramatic backdrop of snow-covered mountains and huge glaciers. Here and in several other places we will find groups of enormous Southern Elephant Seals piled on the shoreline like heaps of giant slugs, occasionally stirring from their slumbers to growl a protest as a neighbour jostles them beyond the point of acceptability. On one of the small islands in the Bay of Isles, we may have to brave the smaller but much more aggressive Antarctic Fur Seals, now more than recovered from the depredations of nineteenth century sealers, in order to wander through a colony of Wandering Albatrosses – so graceful in the air yet so awkward on land – while not far away, Southern Giant-Petrels squat Dodo-like on their untidy nests, hissing at intruders. Light-mantled (Sooty) Albatrosses, the most beautiful and most gentle of all the albatrosses, are widespread as nesting birds and it is a thrilling sight to watch them gliding to and fro along the cliffs or displaying to their mates. During our stay in South Georgia we will certainly want to track down the endemic South Georgia Pipit and also the rather tame endemic race of the Yellow-billed Pintail, now sometimes treated as a full species, the South Georgia Pintail. Other species that we should find breeding in South Georgia include bizarre-looking Macaroni Penguins, Grey-headed Albatrosses and South Georgia Shags.

Atlantic Odyssey: Days 9-13  The five-day journey from South Georgia in the Southern Ocean to Gough Island in the South Atlantic – a distance of over 2,500 km (1,350 nautical miles) – will give us plenty of time to enjoy some of the very best pelagic birding in the world. Soon after leaving South Georgia, we will cross the Antarctic Convergence and enter the warmer Subantarctic waters. Many of our old companions will still be with us, but we will now be on the lookout for species that are typical of warmer waters such as Atlantic Yellow-nosed and Sooty Albatrosses, Atlantic, Kerguelen, Grey and Great-winged Petrels, Great Shearwater, and Grey-backed and White-bellied Storm Petrels. We may also come across our first Arctic (or Parasitic), Pomarine and Long-tailed Skuas (or Jaegers) on their way north to breeding grounds in the Northern Hemisphere. We have an excellent chance of seeing whales and dolphins in this area, including Humpback, Fin and Sei Whales, and Hourglass Dolphins, and if we are lucky, we will chance upon one of the rarer species such as Gray’s Beaked Whale, Strap-toothed Whale or Southern Bottlenose Whale. As we near Gough Island, we should see our first Tristan Albatrosses (one of the ‘Wandering’ group), along with handsome Spectacled Petrels, Little Shearwaters of the distinctive subspecies elegans (known as Subantarctic Shearwater), and White-faced Storm Petrels.

Atlantic Odyssey: Day 14  Part of the Dependency of Tristan da Cunha, Gough Island lies some 410 km (220 nautical miles) southeast of Tristan da Cunha, and is farther from the nearest populated continental landmass than almost any other island in the world. It is a volcanic island, 13 km across at its widest, and uninhabited apart from a small meteorological station. Thanks to its isolation, the island ecosystem has remained relatively unmodified, with only one introduced mammal (the House Mouse), no introduced birds and relatively few introduced plant species. The entire island has been designated as a Nature Reserve and World Heritage Site, and landings are forbidden in order to protect the delicate ecosystem. Fortunately, however, most of the 20 species of seabirds that come to the island to breed are easily seen in the surrounding waters, while the two endemic landbirds can often be seen along the shoreline. The total number of seabirds breeding on Gough is unknown, but thought to be many millions. These include almost half the world population of Northern Rockhopper Penguin (144,000 pairs), almost the entire world population of Tristan Albatross (1,500 pairs), 5,000 pairs of Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross and 5,000 pairs of Sooty Albatross, hundreds of thousands of pairs of Broad-billed Prions and Great Shearwaters, tens of thousands of pairs of Kerguelen, Great-winged, Atlantic, Soft-plumaged and Grey Petrels, Little Shearwater and Grey-backed, White-faced and White-bellied Storm Petrels, and smaller numbers of Subantarctic Skuas (of the subspecies hamiltoni, sometimes treated as a separate species, the Tristan Skua), Antarctic Terns and Brown Noddies (here at their southernmost breeding site in the Atlantic). On the sheltered eastern side of the island we plan to take a zodiac cruise and hope to be able to approach close enough to the shore to see the two endemic landbirds, the Gough Moorhen and Gough Bunting, both of which remain fairly common. Amongst the many thousands of Subantarctic Fur Seals thronging the shoreline, we should find a few Southern Elephant Seals.

Atlantic Odyssey: Days 15-18  The three main islands in the Tristan group (Tristan da Cunha, Inaccessible and Nightingale) lie within 40 km of each other, 2,782 km from Cape Town in South Africa and 3,947 km from Mar del Plata in South America. Along with Gough, these Atlantic islands are a Dependency of St. Helena, and are unquestionably the most remote inhabited islands in the world. As we approach the main island of Tristan da Cunha, the scene will be dominated by the impressive volcanic cone of Tristan Peak which rises to over 2,060 metres above the principal settlement at Edinburgh at the northwestern corner of the island. First discovered in 1506 by the Portuguese navigator Tristão da Cunha, this island, with a diameter of only 12 km, has a thriving community of about 280 people with a colourful series of ancestors that includes a number of ship-wrecked sailors. The fiercely proud islanders were driven from their homes by the volcanic eruption of 1961, but after eighteen months of exile in Britain most chose to return to Tristan to rebuild their lives. During our visit we shall have a chance to meet the islanders and call in at the post office and store where we can buy the much sought-after postage stamps which help to provide the island with some extra revenue.

We plan to walk out beyond the town to the potato patches which were once a measure of a man’s wealth. Tristan is the main breeding site for the Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross, with some 20,000-30,000 pairs, but otherwise there are rather few birds on this island because of the abundance of introduced rats and cats. However, we should see lots of Sooty Albatrosses over the cliffs and a few Tristan Skuas and Antarctic Terns. The endemic Tristan Moorhen, formerly considered conspecific with the Gough Moorhen, became extinct in the late 19th century, but there is a small population of Gough Moorhens that were introduced on the island in the 1950s.

If weather conditions permit, we will be able to visit the other two main islands in the group, Nightingale and Inaccessible, where there are immense breeding colonies of seabirds and four endemic landbirds.

Nightingale Island, some 38 km southwest of Tristan, is only 2.5 km across and mostly covered in Spartina tussock-grassland. This tiny island is home to a huge breeding colony of Great Shearwaters, thought to number over two million pairs, and countless other seabirds, including 125,000 pairs of Northern Rockhopper Penguins, 5,000 pairs of Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatrosses and tens of thousands of pairs of Broad-billed Prions, White-faced Storm Petrels and Common Diving Petrels. If we are lucky enough to be able to step ashore into this timeless, magical natural world, we should have no difficulty in finding the endemic Tristan Thrush and Tristan Bunting, but we will have to hike up to the island’s central plateau if we are to find the much rarer Grosbeak Bunting which favours areas with scattered trees. Here also we will come face to face with Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatrosses at their nests, and watch in fascination as Great Shearwaters emerge from their burrows in the tussock grass and launch themselves into the air from a convenient rock.

Inaccessible Island, 22 km northwest of Nightingale, is almost surrounded by sheer cliffs that rise to 300m, but there are two beaches where a landing is possible under relatively calm conditions. This island, which was declared a Nature Reserve in 1997, is home to the world’s smallest flightless bird, the incredible mouse-like Inaccessible Island Rail. Fortunately, the rail is quite common, but we will still need some luck if we are to see one scuttling about in the dense tussock grass behind the beach. Inaccessible is also the only known breeding site for the critically endangered Spectacled Petrel, and supports a huge colony of Sooty Albatrosses.

The weather in the Tristan da Cunha group is dominated by severe cyclonic storms and there is a high chance that strong winds and rough seas will hamper our activities in this area. As a result Oceanwide Expeditions have now allowed a full day extra in the area compared with previous Atlantic Odysseys (2018 and previously). A very good move in our opinion.

Atlantic Odyssey: Days 19-22  The next leg of our Atlantic journey takes us for another 2,460 km (1,330 nautical miles) from the wild, stormy seas of the South Atlantic to the calm waters and balmy weather of the tropics. As we head north-northeast towards the Tropic of Capricorn and Saint Helena, the pace becomes a little more relaxed, with time to enjoy barbecues on deck and maybe even catch up on some reading. The number and diversity of seabirds diminish rapidly as we sail into warmer, subtropical waters, and the appearance of large shoals of flying-fish definitely adds a tropical flavour to our sea-watching. As we bid farewell to our last albatrosses and Atlantic, Soft-plumaged and Spectacled Petrels, we begin to encounter our first warm-water species such as Bulwer’s Petrel, Band-rumped Storm Petrel (of the ‘St Helena Storm Petrel’ form, as yet not widely recognized as a full species), Red-billed Tropicbird and Masked Booby. We will also be on the lookout for Sperm Whales as we pass through a rich feeding area for this species.

Atlantic Odyssey: Days 23-25  Saint Helena is an Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom, 1,913 km west of Angola and 3,284 km east of southeastern Brazil. Like virtually all of the Atlantic’s isolated islands, Saint Helena’s mountainous massif, with its jumble of steep V-shaped valleys and imposing sea cliffs, is of volcanic origin. Although the island lies well north of the Tropic of Capricorn, the climate is subtropical with temperatures influenced by the Southeast Trade Winds and ocean currents from the Antarctic. The island was discovered by the Portuguese in 1502, and it was here that Napoleon was exiled after his defeat at Waterloo in 1816.

During our stay, we will have ample opportunity to enjoy the pleasant climate and see something of the local culture, endemic flora and birdlife. We will begin our exploration of the island at the main settlement of Jamestown on the west coast, where Common White  (or Fairy) Terns hover overhead as we step ashore. Most people will want to make the obligatory pilgrimage to the house at Longwood where Napoleon lived, surrounded by flowers, until his death in 1821, and you can also visit the Governor’s residence at Plantation House, with its ancient tortoises on the lawn.

We will definitely want to visit Deadwood Plain, one of the best sites for the Saint Helena Plover or Wirebird, the island’s only surviving endemic landbird. This critically endangered species, the total population of which numbered only some 208 individuals in 2005, has become a kind of local mascot to the extraordinarily friendly islanders. The only other native landbird is the Common Moorhen, which apparently arrived under its own steam in relatively recent times. All the other landbirds were introduced and include Common Pheasant, Zebra Dove, Common Myna, Madagascar Fody, Java Sparrow, Common Waxbill and Yellow Canary. The island is renown for its luxuriant vegetation, but much of this consists of exotic plants such as Hibiscus, Begonia and geraniums brought in by settlers, and only small pockets of the endemic flora still survive as, for example, at Diana’s Peak (at 820m, the highest point on the island) where there is a small remnant of native thicket with endemic ferns and cabbage trees.

Those who wish can go out in one of the local boats along the sheltered west coast of the island to look for Pantropical Spotted Dolphins and to visit a group of small islets with breeding Band-rumped Storm Petrels, Red-billed Tropicbirds, Masked and Brown Boobies, White Terns, and Brown and Black Noddies. We may also find Bottlenose Dolphins and Rough-toothed Dolphins in these waters, as well as gigantic Whale Sharks.

If you are not taking the extension to Ascension and Praia, you will disembark from the ship on Day 25.

ST HELENA TO ASCENSION & CAPE VERDE ISLANDS EXTENSION

Atlantic Odyssey Extension: Days 1-2  It is just under 1,300 km (700 nautical miles) from St. Helena to our next destination, Ascension Island. Now we will have plenty of time to relax on deck and enjoy the balmy sea breezes of the Southeast Trades, as well as continue birding. Birds will be few and far between, but we should encounter our first Cory’s Shearwaters and Leach’s Storm Petrels along with more Bulwer’s Petrels and perhaps a few Long-tailed Skuas (or Long-tailed Jaegers) and Arctic Terns. As we approach Ascension we will be on the lookout for ‘Ascension Storm Petrel’, the local form of the Band-rumped Storm Petrel complex, which may represent a distinct species. There is also a good possibility of Sperm Whale as we pass near the Grattan Seamount.

Atlantic Odyssey Extension: Days 3-4  Ascension Island is a relatively young volcanic island only eight degrees south of the Equator and with a distinctly tropical climate. Discovered in 1501 by the Portuguese navigator Juan da Nova Castella, the island was not inhabited until 1815 when the British established a naval garrison. Ascension played an important role in the Falkland Islands conflict and continues to provide an important link in the supply line to these islands. There are rather few indigenous plant species, the luxuriant vegetation being comprised almost entirely of introduced species such as Bougainvillea, Casuarina and Hibiscus, and the only landbirds are four introduced species, Red-necked Francolin, Common Myna, Common Waxbill and Yellow Canary. We will go ashore at the main settlement at Georgetown and take a tour of the island, visiting a huge breeding colony of Sooty Terns at Wideawake Fairs and driving up almost to the summit of the island (859m) in Green Mountain National Park. Ascension’s long sandy beaches are a major breeding site for Atlantic Green Sea Turtles, and as we shall be visiting the island during the egg-laying season, we may be able to arrange to visit a nesting beach in the late evening and hope to witness female turtles coming ashore to lay their eggs. However, the highlight of our stay on Ascension will be a zodiac cruise around rat-free Boatswain Bird Island, a small Bird Sanctuary off the northeast coast of the main island. This 104m high stack, only 3 ha in extent, is home to the entire world population of Ascension Frigatebirds (10,000-12,000 individuals) as well as about 1,500 pairs of Band-rumped Storm Petrels, 500 pairs of Red-billed Tropicbirds, 1,000 pairs of White-tailed Tropicbirds, 1,300 pairs of Masked Boobies, 5,000 pairs of Black Noddies, and smaller numbers of Red-footed and Brown Boobies, and Common White Terns.

Atlantic Odyssey Extension: Days 5-9  We continue our epic birding journey north towards the Cape Verde Islands. During this portion of the voyage we will cross the Equator and pay our respects to King Neptune in the time-honoured manner when ‘Crossing the Line’ into the North Atlantic.

It will be very hot and humid as we pass through The Doldrums, and numbers of seabirds will be low, but we may well encounter Cory’s Shearwaters, Bulwer’s Petrels, Band-rumped, Cape Verde and Leach’s Storm Petrels, along with a few Long-tailed Skuas (or Long-tailed Jaegers), Sabine’s Gulls and Arctic Terns on their northbound spring migration, while cetaceans could include Clymene and Spinner Dolphins, and Short-finned Pilot Whale.

Atlantic Odyssey Extension: Day 10  The Cape Verde archipelago consists of some 10 Atlantic islands of volcanic origin. They were settled by the Portuguese in the 15th century and later the islands were an important port of call for slave ships on their way to America. The islands emanate an African flavour, reflected in the people, local culture and colourful markets, yet links with Portugal and even the United States are evident. At sea, as we approach the islands, we should encounter Cape Verde Shearwater (split from Cory’s) and Boyd’s Shearwater (split from Little), as well as Fea’s (or Cape Verde) Petrel.

Atlantic Odyssey Exctension: Day 11  This morning we will disembark at the small capital, Praia, on the island of Santiago, where endemic Cape Verde Swifts can often be seen overhead.

A land tour, which features Cidade Velha, the old capital with its ruined cathedral, slave whipping post and massive fortress, may be included by the cruise operator, or even an organized birding excursion. (It is not confirmed in advance what the Oceanwide Expeditions leader might arrange at the time. It might be nothing.)

You may prefer the certainty of a private excursion (sharing vehicle costs) into the mountainous interior of Santiago to search for such endemics as Cape Verde Buzzard, Alexander’s Kestrel, Cape Verde Warbler and Iago Sparrow, as well as the colourful Grey-headed Kingfisher.

ANTARCTIC PENINSULA PRE-TOUR EXTENSION

Antarctic Peninsula: Day 1  This afternoon we will board our ship in Ushuaia prior to setting sail down the Beagle Channel. We will spend the next 9 nights aboard. As we sail eastwards along the channel, Magellanic Penguins, Black-browed Albatrosses, Southern Giant-Petrels, Sooty Shearwaters and diminutive Magellanic Diving Petrels will be on show, but they are only an appetizer compared to the wonders of Antarctica that still lie ahead.

Antarctic Peninsula: Days 2-3  To the south of Tierra del Fuego lies the thousand kilometres of the Drake Passage, separating the curving tail end of South America from the Antarctic Peninsula. Crossing this historic waterway, named after the great English seafarer whose expedition almost came to grief in these wild waters, is an exciting experience and gives us our first chance to enjoy a host of albatrosses and petrels which will soon become familiar companions to us during our voyage in the great Southern Ocean. As we travel south, we shall pass from the warmer Subantarctic waters that surround southern South America to the cold waters of the Antarctic. The line of demarcation between these two water masses is quite strongly pronounced and is known as the Antarctic Convergence. Here the upwelling currents create conditions ideal for plankton and the rich feeding attracts numerous seabirds and often cetaceans.

As we watch from the decks we will see an endless succession of seabirds following the ship, or sailing indifferently past, including Black-browed and Grey-headed Albatrosses, the graceful Light-mantled (Sooty) Albatross, Southern and Northern Giant-Petrels, Southern Fulmar, Cape (or Pintado) Petrel, Blue Petrel, Slender-billed and Antarctic Prions, Soft-plumaged and White-chinned Petrels, and Wilson’s and Black-bellied Storm Petrels. The star of this ever-changing spectacle will be the greatest seabird of all, the Wandering Albatross, with its remarkable four metre wingspan. As we watch these huge birds gliding low over the sea between waves and then circling high into the air without even the slightest movement of their wings we will be witnessing one of nature’s ultimate creations in action – a bird which is in total harmony with its environment. We will also come across the confusingly similar Southern and Northern Royal Albatrosses and be reminded just how difficult it is to separate some seabirds!

Cetacean numbers are recovering in this area, with the most likely large species being Fin Whale, but there are also chances for beaked whales, Southern Right Whale and even the mighty Blue Whale. Peale’s Dolphin and the lovely Hourglass Dolphin are both quite likely to be encountered.

As we voyage southwards we will have a chance to listen to some fascinating lectures on the Antarctic environment and its wildlife or visit the bridge to learn about the many complex navigation instruments in use on our ship. By the evening of our second full day at sea, we should have reached the southern edge of the Bransfield Strait between the South Shetland Islands and the Antarctic Peninsula.

Antarctic Peninsula: Days 4-7  As we continue southwards past the Melchior Islands and through the dramatically narrow Schollaert Channel between Brabant and Anvers Islands that leads into the much wider but even more dramatic Gerlache Strait, we will passing icebergs of immense size and awesome beauty, some white, others tinged blue-green by algae. In this area we shall be keeping a lookout for the huge flukes of sounding Humpback Whales, the high dorsal fins of Killer Whales slicing through the water and the unobtrusive Antarctic Minke Whale. Indeed frequent whale sightings are likely throughout our cruise in the peninsula.

Chinstrap and Gentoo Penguins porpoise through the waves or scamper from side to side as we approach their ice-floes, and the first Lesser Snow Petrels should appear amongst the much more numerous Southern Fulmars and Cape Petrels. Some of the icebergs are the most intense blue colour and have been sculptured into fantastic shapes by the action of wind, water and sun. The immaculate Lesser Snow Petrel regularly adopts these bergs as a ‘home away from home’ and we can expect to see numbers of these beautiful birds that surely epitomize Antarctica, circling around their floating ‘islands’. In particular we will be looking out for the striking Antarctic Petrel, which is usually straightforward to find in these waters. They often rest on icebergs and frequently make a pass or two around the ship as it approaches.

Here the silence is profound as the sun glows on ice floes dotted with Crabeater, Weddell and Leopard Seals, whilst beyond is an endless vista of icebergs and the distant, snow-covered mountains of the Antarctic Peninsula.

We plan to make at least one landing on the Antarctic continent itself, although the exact site will depend on ice conditions at the time. Often there is a landing at the dramatic Neko Harbour, where a spectacular glacier curves its way down to an iceberg-spattered channel right next to a large Gentoo Penguin colony. The views here are truly awesome and it is a very fitting place to step ashore on ‘The Last Continent’.

During landings at such places as Cuverville, Danco and Orne Islands we should find groups of moulting Gentoo Penguins and chicken-like Pale-faced (or Snowy) Sheathbills, while Subantarctic (or Brown) and South Polar Skuas patrol the shoreline in search of an easy meal and graceful Antarctic Terns perch on blocks of floating ice out in the bay. There will be more chances for fairly close-up encounters with Weddell, Crabeater and Leopard Seals.

At Paradise Bay, ice conditions permitting, we can zodiac cruise amongst spectacular icebergs at the head of the bay, while at the Lemaire Channel we will pass through a dramatic marine ‘gorge’ that separates the continent from Booth Island, a place considered one of the most extraordinary scenic wonders in the Antarctic Peninsula, and that is really saying something!

At the southern end of our explorations, we intend to make a landing at Petermann Island, which supports a large breeding colony of endearing little Adelie Penguins. Although most of the penguins will have left the colonies by now, we should find some lingering adults still completing their moult. There is also a colony of Antarctic Shags.

Although the chances are only slim, we will be keeping a careful lookout on the ice floes and icebergs for that greatest of all avian prizes in Antarctica, the Emperor Penguin. Sometimes birds disperse from their largely inaccessible colonies in the Weddell Sea and turn up on the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula, mostly late in the cruising season, but we want to stress that this species is a real rarity here.

Antarctic Peninsula: Days 8-9  We will return north-northwestwards across the Drake Passage towards South America, with plenty of pelagic birding possibilities along the way.

Antarctic Peninsula: Day 10  Today we return to Ushuaia and meet up with those arriving for the main expedition.

ATLANTIC ODYSSEY TOUR REPORT 2011

View Report

Other far-flung Oceanic Islands birding tours by Birdquest include:

Comoro

Tours of shorter duration

COMORO ISLANDS

Niau

Tours good for bird/wildlife photography

FRENCH POLYNESIA & COOK ISLANDS

Pohnpei

Australasia & Pacific Islands Tours

MICRONESIA

Kagu

Tours that are mostly easy

NEW CALEDONIA, FIJI, VANUATU & SAMOA

Tuamotu

Tours of shorter duration

PITCAIRN, HENDERSON & TUAMOTU ISLANDS

Seychelles

Tours that are mostly easy

SEYCHELLES, MAURITIUS & RÉUNION

Tahiti

Australasia & Pacific Islands Tours

WESTERN PACIFIC ODYSSEY