Sunday 19th January – Thursday 6th February 2020
Leaders: Mark Beaman and Oceanwide Expeditions leaders
||Group Size Limit ship
Tuesday 1st November – Monday 21st November 2022
Leader: Birdquest leader to be announced and Oceanwide Expeditions leaders
||Group Size Limit ship
ANTARCTICA, FALKLAND ISLANDS & SOUTH GEORGIA: OVERVIEW
Birdquest’s combined Antarctica, Falkland Islands and South Georgia birding tours are a truly marvellous bird and wildlife adventure that takes you to the ‘great white continent’. Our Antarctica, Falkland Islands & South Georgia birding tour is an expedition-style cruise that offers up a feast of seabirds, rare land birds (including a number of endemics) and marine mammals (seals, whales and dolphins) that you will remember forever. You don’t even have to put up with very cold conditions in Antarctica in order to see all these wonders – it is relatively mild down there at the time of year we visit.
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 South Georgia and 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 elephant 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 are likely to enjoy some spectacular views of these leviathans breaching and sounding right next to our ship.
Our Antarctica, Falkland Islands & South Georgia birding tour 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 South Atlantic en route to the Falkland Islands.
The sea crossings from South America to the Falklands and onwards to South Georgia and 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, Soft-plumaged, Atlantic, Kerguelen and Blue Petrels, Slender-billed, Antarctic and Fairy Prions, Great Shearwater, Wilson’s, Grey-backed and Black-bellied Storm Petrels, and Common and South Georgia Diving Petrels. We can also expect a good selection of cetaceans, including some large whales.
Our exploration of the wild yet beautiful Falkland Islands will be enlivened by the spectacular and very approachable wildlife of the archipelago. Here are some of the largest colonies of Black-browed Albatrosses and Southern Rockhopper Penguins in the Southern Ocean, while other attractions include South American Fur Seal, Magellanic Penguin, Rock and Imperial Shags, Kelp, Upland and the rare Ruddy-headed Geese, Falkland Steamer Duck, Striated Caracara, Magellanic and Blackish Oystercatchers, Rufous-chested Plover, Two-banded Plover, Brown Skua, Dolphin Gull, South American Tern, Blackish Cinclodes, Dark-faced Ground-Tyrant, Cobb’s Wren and White-bridled Finch.
After enjoying the attractive scenery and marvellous birdlife of these rugged, wind-swept islands we sail onwards to South Georgia, enjoying some wonderful pelagic birding en route. This most mountainous of the sub-Antarctic 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 our journey amidst dramatic scenery, walking amidst huge colonies of stately King Penguins, standing close to gigantic Southern Elephant Seals and enjoying superb views of nesting Wandering Albatrosses, while other notable creatures include Macaroni and Gentoo Penguins, South Georgia Shag, South Georgia Pintail, South Georgia Pipit and the bad-tempered Antarctic Fur Seal.
To the south lie the ice-mantled South Orkney Islands, considered a northern outpost of Antarctica and a major breeding site for the lovely Snow Petrel. This is also a place where numerous huge icebergs, spawned by the Weddell Sea, come to rest in the shallows.
Steaming even further south, across the Scotia Sea, our Antarctica, Falkland Islands & South Georgia birding tour comes 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 in Antarctica proper 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. At this time of year, we even have a real chance of encountering the legendary Emperor Penguin.
From the Antarctic Peninsula we sail northwards 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, enjoying yet more pelagic birding 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 cruise, if you are especially interested in seeing Antarctic birds and other wildlife in all their glory, is that this particular itinerary is very strongly wildlife-orientated and includes the Weddell Sea, ice conditions permitting.
Furthermore, a Birdquest leader will accompany our group regardless of the number of Birdquest participants.
Birdquest has operated Antarctica birding and wildlife tours, including the Falkland Islands and South Georgia, since 1990.
When is the best time for a birding and wildlife expedition-cruise in the Antarctic Peninsula and South Georgia? 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 unless your main interest is cetaceans, as most penguin colonies are winding down and the weather is no longer at its best.
The early ‘ship season’, which lasts from late October to November, is a mixed bag. As with the end of the season, the weather averages colder and more unsettled, but more importantly, there can be issues in some years with sea ice blocking access to wanted landing sites (particularly true of getting to Adelie Penguin colonies, for example). Furthermore, cetaceans are largely lacking at this time. On the other hand the adult Southern Elephant Seals are around in greater numbers on South Georgia and the penguin colonies in Antarctica proper are more pristine, less soiled.
During December to early February, the weather reaches it’s optimum, cetaceans become increasingly abundant, more sea ice melts or disperses, allowing better access to some interesting areas, and most penguin species have endearing small chicks. At South Georgia, Prion Island closes from mid-November to early January, so only outside that period can you observe and photograph Wandering Albatrosses on land.
Note that cruises to Antarctica from late December through to early February cost more than those at other times because this is widely considered (by Antarctic travellers in general) the optimum time to visit, both for the best weather and for access to some of the top landing sites. From a purely birding perspective, there is relatively little difference over the November-January period.
When is the best time for a chance of Emperor Penguin on an Antarctic Peninsula expedition-cruise? There seems to be a widespread misperception about this. You have a better chance of seeing an Emperor Penguin in the Antarctic Peninsula region if you take a cruise that has an itinerary that both includes an intention to enter the Weddell Sea (and not many itineraries do that) and is scheduled to visit the area between January and March. The reason for this is simple: ice cover in the region reaches its minimum extent in February and Emperor Penguin colonies are largely deserted by the adults from mid-December onwards, with the birds dispersing away from the inaccessible colonies on the permanent ‘fast ice’ to areas of sea ice where both adults and immatures moult.
The confusion about the early part of the ‘ship season’ (late October to November) being best seems to derive from the fact that tours that plan to reach Emperor Penguin breeding colonies (by means of aircraft or ship-borne helicopters) are operated at that time. The problem for expedition ships without helicopters (which is the vast majority) is that the chances of getting into the Weddell far enough to encounter Emperors on ice floes averages much lower from late October to December than it does later in the season after more sea ice melts. You can get lucky in the early season, especially if you take an extended cruise to Antarctica, but your chances of success on any given Antarctic Peninsula cruise are very low.
Between mid-January and mid-March, your chances on any given cruise that manages to enter the Weddell Sea are improved, but still not good, being somewhere between 20-30%.
Accommodation & Transport: 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 a maximum of 114 passengers in 53 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 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.
A major advantage of Plancius is that with an absolute maximum of 114 passengers on board, landings can be of longer duration. These days there are fewer and fewer of the smaller expedition ships left and the larger vessels that are becoming the norm have to reduce landing durations so that they comply with Antarctic visitor regulations.
Further information about the cruise, including photographs and details of the ship, are available on the Oceanwide Expeditions website: www.oceanwide-expeditions.com.
Walking: The walking effort during our Antarctica, Falklands and South Georgia 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 (and as high as 4-7°C, or 39-45°F, at South Georgia). On sunny days it can feel relatively warm if there is no wind (often the case in Antarctica proper, much less often the case in South Georgia). In contrast, it can feel distinctly cold when windy at sea or while on land at South Georgia. Sunny spells are interspersed with (often longer) overcast periods and some rain or snow are to be expected. In Tierra del Fuego and in the Falklands conditions are typically cool, but considerably warmer than further south.
Bird/Sea Mammal Photography: Opportunities during our Antarctica, Falkland Islands & South Georgia birding tour are truly outstanding.
Important: Adverse weather conditions may prevent landings on exposed coasts. It is, however, very unusual for more than a very few landings to have to be called off during a cruise. 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 and South Georgia 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.
Important: Owing to the possibility, however small, of a severe airline delay, we would recommend that all participants on our Antarctica, Falkland Islands & South Georgia birding tour have two hotel nights at the cruise start point prior to the tour. 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.
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)
2020: For Ushuaia/Ushuaia arrangements:
£10480, $13500, €11950 in a quad-berth cabin with porthole and private bathroom
£11350, $14630, €12950 in a triple-berth cabin with porthole and private bathroom
£12580, $16210, €14350 in a twin-berth cabin with porthole and private bathroom
£13110, $16890, €14950, in a twin-berth cabin with window and private bathroom
£13990, $18020, €15950 in a twin-berth deluxe cabin with private bathroom
£15080, $19430, €17200 in a superior cabin with private bathroom
2022: For Ushuaia/Ushuaia arrangements:
Precise Dates and Prices are provisional:
£9370, $11760, €10500 in a quad-berth cabin with porthole and private bathroom
£10350, $12990, €11600 in a triple-berth cabin with porthole and private bathroom
£11380, $14280, €12750 in a twin-berth cabin with porthole and private bathroom
£11870, $14890, €13300, in a twin-berth cabin with window and private bathroom
£12630, $15840, €14150 in a twin-berth deluxe cabin with private bathroom
£13570, $17020, €15200 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 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$300-400.
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.