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 (or their luggage) 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 (and even White-bellied Seedsnipe with both persistence and luck), or you could pay a 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 2-4 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 and Southern 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 3.5m or 11.5ft!). 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!
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 eastwards 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 5-7 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 2,934m (9,626ft), 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 plan to make multiple 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, a 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 should be able to go ashore at one or two of the largest of these, for example 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 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 (now rapidly increasing after a successful rat eradication campaign) and also the rather tame endemic race of the Yellow-billed Pintail which is sometimes treated as a full species, the South Georgia Pintail. Other species that we should find breeding in South Georgia include the bizarre-looking Macaroni Penguin, the awesome Lesser Snow Petrel, the beautiful Grey-headed Albatross and South Georgia Shag. There is also a fairly good chance of seeing a few Chinstrap Penguins.
Atlantic Odyssey: Days 8-11 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 Parasitic, Pomarine and Long-tailed Jaegers (or Arctic, Pomarine and Long-tailed Skuas) 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, Subantarctic Shearwaters and White-faced Storm Petrels.
Atlantic Odyssey: Day 12 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 kilometres (8 miles) 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 land birds 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 Penguins (144,000 pairs), almost the entire world population of Tristan Albatrosses (1,500 pairs), 5,000 pairs of Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatrosses and 5,000 pairs of Sooty Albatrosses, 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, Subantarctic Shearwaters and Grey-backed, White-faced and White-bellied Storm Petrels, and smaller numbers of Brown 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 (weather permitting) to see the two endemic land birds, 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 13-16 The three main islands in the Tristan group (Tristan da Cunha, Inaccessible and Nightingale) lie within 40 kilometres (25 miles) of each other, 2,782 kilometres (1,729 miles) from Cape Town in South Africa and 3,947 kilometres (2,453 miles) 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 (6,759 feet) 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 land birds.
Nightingale Island, some 38 kilometres (24 miles) southwest of Tristan, is only 2.5 kilometres (1.6 miles) 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 kilometres (14 miles) northwest of Nightingale, is almost surrounded by sheer cliffs that rise to around 300m (about 1,000ft), 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 also 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 an extra day in the area compared with Atlantic Odysseys prior to 2019. A very good move in our opinion.
Atlantic Odyssey: Days 17-20 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 will 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’ population, 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.
As we approach St. Helena we should also encounter Brown Booby, White Tern and Brown and Black Noddies.
Atlantic Odyssey: Days 21-23 Saint Helena is an Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom, 1,913 kilometres (1,189 miles) west of Angola and 3,284 kilometres (2,041 miles) east of 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 land bird. 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 land bird is the Common Moorhen, which apparently arrived under its own steam in relatively recent times. All the other land birds were introduced and include Common Pheasant, Zebra Dove, Common Myna, Madagascar Fody, Java Sparrow, Common Waxbill and Yellow Canary.
The island is renowned for its luxuriant vegetation, but much of this consists of exotic plants such as hibiscus, begonias 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 or 2,690ft, the highest point on the island) where there is a small remnant of native thicket with endemic ferns and cabbage trees.
Those who wish to can opt to 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 Red-billed Tropicbirds, Masked and Brown Boobies, White Terns, and Brown and Black Noddies. We may also find Common Bottlenose Dolphins and Rough-toothed Dolphins in these waters, and perhaps gigantic Whale Sharks.
If you are not taking the extension to Ascension Island and onwards to Praia, Cape Verde Islands, you will disembark from the ship on Day 23.
Atlantic Odyssey: Days 24-25 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 relatively few in number, 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 Jaegers (or Long-tailed Skuas) and Arctic Terns. As we approach Ascension we will be on the lookout for ‘Ascension Storm Petrel’, the local population 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 26-27 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 land birds 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 or 2,818ft) in Green Mountain National Park.
Ascension’s long sandy beaches are a major breeding site for Atlantic Green 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 (341ft) high stack, only 3 hectares (7.4 acres) 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 ‘Ascension’ 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 White Terns.
Atlantic Odyssey: Days 28-30 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 a 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 and Band-rumped, Cape Verde and Leach’s Storm Petrels, along with a few 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: Day 31 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 the Americas. 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.
As we approach the islands today, we should encounter Cape Verde Shearwaters and Boyd’s Shearwaters, as well as Fea’s (or Cape Verde) Petrels.
Atlantic Odyssey: Day 32 This morning we will arrive at the small capital, Praia, on the island of Santiago, where endemic Cape Verde Swifts can often be seen overhead. The expedition ends today at Praia. Lunch is not included but you can stay on board until 1800 if you wish.
An optional land tour, which features Cidade Velha, the old capital with its ruined cathedral, slave whipping post and massive fortress, is usually offered by the cruise operator, but this may be at extra cost.