Friday 19th November – Monday 29th November 2021
Leaders: Mike Watson and a second Birdquest leader, Oceanwide Expeditions leaders
||Group Size Limit 24
|Tierra del Fuego Extension
Wednesday 17th November – Friday 19th November 2021
||Group Size Limit 24
ANTARCTICA: IN SEARCH OF THE EMPEROR PENGUIN: OVERVIEW
Antarctica Birding Tours: Wonderful as they are, most Antarctica bird watching and wildlife holidays visit only the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula, where no Emperor Penguins can normally be observed. This special Antarctica birding and wildlife expedition explores the Weddell Sea, where this remarkable species breeds, and where there is a very high chance of success with finding Emperor Penguin. Not to mention all the other seabirds and marine mammals that make a trip to Antarctica so splendid.
This special Antarctic cruise is all about seeing Emperor Penguins! An Emperor Penguin rookery is situated south of Snow Hill Island in the Weddell Sea, on the east side of the Antarctic Peninsula. The captain of the vessel will do his utmost to position the vessel close enough to Snow Hill Island in order to enable the expedition team to offer ship-to-shore helicopter transfers to approximately 45 minutes walking distance from the Emperor Penguin Rookeries. If we succeed, this will be an amazing experience. Even if the ship cannot get close enough for a colony visit (which happens over 50% of the time) a great deal of effort will be made to find Emperor Penguins on the sea ice and the success rate so far is 100%!
A visit to Antarctica is like no other journey on earth; it is indeed about as close to visiting another planet as any of us are likely to get. We can say without hesitation that this is the ultimate wildlife adventure, a wilderness experience that is truly uplifting and really does make the heart sing with the joy of being alive. If you ever have the chance to go to Antarctica then take it, for you will surely never regret it!
Antarctica is the last frontier on our ever-shrinking planet, a place that every traveller longs to explore but so few ever see. An uninhabited continent of more than twelve million square kilometres almost entirely encrusted with ice – an awesomely silent but starkly beautiful frozen world. Here some of the most magnificent scenery of all can be seen under the cleanest skies on earth. Towering volcanoes, stark mountain ranges, lowering headlands, icebergs like floating cathedrals – all are 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. Some 90% of the world’s freshwater is locked up in Antarctica’s icecap, which if it were to melt would cause sea levels to rise over 200ft (over 60m), drowning much of the world’s arable land and hundreds of major cities.
One of the strangest features of this lost continent is the fact that Antarctica is surrounded by the richest oceans of all, thronged with marine life ranging from tiny krill to seals and whales, and supporting enormous numbers of seabirds. The tameness of Antarctica’s seabirds and sea mammals is legendary and this remarkable journey will not only provide numerous opportunities to see albatrosses, petrels, penguins and seals at sea but also see us wandering right amongst their breeding colonies, accepted without question by creatures that have learned no fear of man. Whale-watching is a feature of Antarctic cruises and we may enjoy some spectacular views of these leviathans breaching and sounding right next to our ship.
Our journey starts at Ushuaia, the southernmost town in the world, situated on the windswept but spectacularly beautiful shores of Tierra del Fuego. Here we join our ship and sail out into the Southern Ocean en route to the Antarctic Peninsula.
The sea crossings from South America to Antarctica offer some of the best pelagic birding experiences in the world, with no fewer than five species of albatross routinely encountered (Black-browed, Grey-headed, Light-mantled, Wandering and Southern Royal) and several others possible, as well as both Southern and Northern Giant Petrels, Cape, White-chinned and Blue Petrels, Slender-billed and Antarctic Prions, Great Shearwater, Wilson’s, Grey-backed and Black-bellied Storm Petrels, and Common Diving Petrel. We can also expect some cetaceans, including some large whales.
Steaming ever further south, we come at last to our ultimate goal, the Antarctic Peninsula, an icy finger of land pointing towards South America and first seen by human eyes only last century, and the rugged South Shetland Islands, home to millions of penguins and petrels. Here we will encounter Weddell, Crabeater and Leopard Seals, penguins and whales amidst the ice floes, visit Adelie, Chinstrap and Gentoo Penguin rookeries, experience the awesome scenery of the ice-choked Antarctic channels, watch pure-white Snow Petrels and piebald Antarctic Petrels soaring around icebergs, and visit the shores of the Antarctic continent itself. On this special cruise, the legendary Emperor Penguin will be our ultimate quarry.
From the Antarctic Peninsula we sail northwards, back across the deep waters of the Drake Passage to the southernmost tip of South America, where the turbulent waters of the Atlantic and the Pacific meet at lonely Cape Horn, before very reluctantly returning to ‘civilization’ at the port of Ushuaia with memories that only a lucky few can ever hope for.
The great advantage of taking this particular Antarctic cruise is, of course, the very high chance of seeing the much sought-after Emperor Penguin. You will also see many other Antarctic birds and sea mammals in all their glory. The itinerary and day to day schedule are strongly wildlife-orientated and concentrate on the Weddell Sea (the only part of the Antarctic Peninsula where Emperor Penguins occur). Oceanwide Expeditions always have at least one experienced birder/ornithologist amongst their expedition leaders.
Furthermore, at least one Birdquest leader will accompany our group and a second Birdquest leader will be added if numbers exceed 15.
Birdquest has operated Antarctica birding and wildlife tours since 1990.
Why is travelling on a smaller expedition ship and in a smaller group so important for birding and wildlife-orientated visitors to Antarctica? Many people are unaware that the tightening environmental regulations in Antarctica mean that it is no longer possible to land more than 100 passengers at a time at the great majority of landing sites.
This means that if you go on a ship that takes well over 100 passengers, either landing durations per person will be greatly reduced compared to those available with the smaller ships, or there will be fewer landings (either because not all passengers can go ashore at any given landing or because the ship will need to book two landing slots, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, at each location, leaving half the passengers on board during each landing slot). Sadly the trend in Antarctica is for larger and larger expedition ships, and there are now very few ships left that take fewer than 150 passengers and some that take 500 or more! This makes economic sense for the cruise companies, but is a huge step backwards for wildlife enthusiasts in our view. The whole point of going all that way and spending all that money is to have lots of time ashore in this magical part of the world!
Another important aspect to bear in mind is that all expedition ships have limited space at the bow and at the stern. These are the best places for birding during the sea crossings, at least in normal weather conditions. Even the bridge, where you have to look through glass, can only hold so many. If you go in a huge group of birders there will inevitably be frustrations, in our opinion, as too many people want the best observing spots and as communication weakens so good birds are missed. On a ‘normal’ cruise we often have the bows and stern to ourselves or share them with a few others. Most folk on these cruises are not interested in sustained seawatching, thank goodness.
Birdquest would never, ever consider taking a huge group on a ship holding 200 passengers or more. The greatly reduced number and variety of landings and the lack of space for pelagic birding would not be in the best interest of our clients and would spoil the whole experience, in our opinion.
What is the only reliable way to see Emperor Penguin on an Antarctic Peninsula expedition-cruise? The first thing to say is that the chances of seeing an Emperor Penguin on any conventional expedition cruise in the Antarctic Peninsula are very low at any time of the season. The only way to have a high chance of an encounter is to take a dedicated Emperor Penguin expedition with helicopters on board your ship (a rare offering).
The only reliable expedition cruises for seeing Emperor Penguin, indeed the only cruises that have more than a 5-10% chance or less, are those that use ship-borne helicopters to at least find one or more Emperors on ice floes in the vastness of the Weddell, and guide the ship as close as possible. Sometimes these cruises can get close enough for passengers to visit the actual Emperor Penguin colony at Snowhill Island (this happens on about 30% of these cruises). To date, this expedition has never failed to find at least one or more Emperor Penguins!
When is the best time for a birding and wildlife expedition-cruise in the Antarctic Peninsula? This is not a simple question to answer.
Laying aside the Emperor Penguin issue covered below, the easiest thing to say is that late southern summer/early autumn (late February into March) is definitely not the best time for a visit unless your main interest is cetaceans (which typically peak at this time), as most penguin colonies are winding down and the weather is no longer at its best.
During the early ‘ship season’, in November, the weather averages a bit colder and more unsettled than in December-early February, but more importantly, there can be issues in some years with sea ice blocking access to certain landing sites (this is particularly true of getting to Adelie Penguin colonies, for example). Furthermore, cetaceans are fewer in number at this time of year. On the other hand, the penguin colonies in Antarctica are less soiled.
During December to early February, the weather reaches it’s optimum, cetaceans become increasingly abundant, more sea ice melts or disperses, allowing more reliable access to some interesting areas, and most penguin species have endearing chicks.
Cruises to Antarctica from late December through to mid-February cost more than those at other times of the season because this is the peak demand period for Antarctic travellers in general.
Accommodation & Transport: We shall be sailing on the MV Ortelius, a converted, ice-strengthened former Dutch naval vessel of 4575 tons and over 91 metres in length operated by the well-respected Oceanwide Expeditions, who are based in the Netherlands. Ortelius is nowadays one of the relatively few smaller (100 or so passengers) ships available. 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.
Ortelius can accommodate a maximum of 108 passengers in 52 passenger cabins, all with private toilet and shower. Cabins consist of quad cabins with a porthole and two lower single beds and two upper, triple cabins with a porthole and two lower single beds and one upper, twin cabins with a porthole and two lower single beds, twin cabins with a window and two lower single beds, somewhat larger deluxe twin cabins with a window and two lower single beds and superior twin cabins which are almost 50% larger than a standard twin, with at least one 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. Both ships carry 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. The bridge is normally open to all (except when the ship is docking) and provides a great viewpoint whenever it is too breezy to stand comfortably outside.
Much of the sailing is done at night (or what passes for ‘night’ in summer in high latitudes), thus maximizing opportunities for going ashore and enjoying the harsh but beautiful landscapes of Antarctica to the full. Landings are carried out using 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.
Further information about the ship is available on the Oceanwide Expeditions website: https://oceanwide-expeditions.com/our-fleet/m-v-ortelius.
Walking: The walking effort during our Antarctica birding tour is mostly easy, but there are a very few optional harder walks.
Climate: Quite mild at this season (and a surprise to many visitors, who imagine extreme cold is a year-round feature of Antarctica). In the Antarctic Peninsula and surrounds the shade temperature is generally a little above freezing point. On sunny days it can feel relatively warm if there is no wind (often the case in Antarctica proper). In contrast, it can feel distinctly cold when windy at sea or on land. Sunny spells are interspersed with (often longer) overcast periods and some rain or snow are to be expected. In Tierra del Fuego conditions are typically cool, but considerably warmer than further south.
Bird/Sea Mammal Photography: Opportunities during our Antarctica birding tour are truly outstanding.
Landings & Itinerary: Adverse weather conditions may prevent landings on exposed coasts. It is, however, very unusual for more than a few intended landings to have to be called off during a cruise, and there is usually an alternative landing site available on such occasions. The information given about possible landing sites should be taken as a general indication about what is likely to be achieved during any given tour: every Antarctica cruise is different, being dependent on the amount of time available, sea and ice conditions, and the weather, and so it is likely that some of the sites visited on your particular tour will be different from those described.
Getting to Ushuaia in good time: Owing to the possibility, however small, of a severe airline delay, we would recommend that all participants on our Antarctica birding tour have at least one hotel night at the cruise start point prior to the tour and preferably two. 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 on request, both before and after the tour. There is also the option to join our Tierra del Fuego Pre-Tour Extension.
Birdquest Inclusions: Our tour prices include surface transportation, accommodations, meals and entrance fees.
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)
2021: For Ushuaia/Ushuaia arrangements:
Precise dates and prices are provisional:
£8000, $10560, €9600 in a quad-berth cabin with porthole and private bathroom
£8540, $11270, €10250 in a triple-berth cabin with porthole and private bathroom
£9120, $12040, €10950 in a twin-berth cabin with porthole and private bathroom
£95400, $12590, €11450, in a twin-berth cabin with window and private bathroom
£9910, $13090, €11900 in a twin-berth deluxe cabin with private bathroom
£10500, $13860, €12600 in a superior cabin with private bathroom
Tierra del Fuego Extension: £790, $1040, €950 Ushuaia/Ushuaia.
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 and crew work very long hours to make such cruises a success, and we understand that most passengers on these cruises give gratuities of between US$200-300.
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. Extension: £150, $190, €180.
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 aboard the ship.
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.