Feature image photo credits to Massimo Bassano of Albatross Expeditions
I used to watch StarTrek when I was a kid and would dream of exploring space beyond our galaxy. Of course, I knew it would never happen, not in my lifetime, but I thought it would be amazing. I had similar thoughts when watching documentaries about places like Antarctica. Only explorers or scientist go there, right?
Yet there I was on a ship that was headed to Antarctica by way of the Falklands and South Georgia. The ship was even going as far as entering the Antarctica circle. On December 25, I sailed from Ushuaia, the end of the world, on the Ocean Atlantic headed to places that were beyond my dreams.
Trin had found a last-minute deal for me on a Chinese-chartered ship. They had only a few bunks left and they wanted to sell them all. There would only be about 15 other English-speaking passengers, but the entire staff and expedition team also spoke English. It would actually be a treat for me to have so many people to speak English with after two years in Latin America.
An Expedition to the Antarctica Region
“This is not a cruise,” Sam, our expedition leader, declared.
“This is an expedition. Our route and landings will depend on the weather and the ice. Our landings will all be wet landings,” he said. He was trying to set our expectations for the next 22 days that we would be together. Sam was in charge of calling off expeditions if the weather made it dangerous.
The Ocean Atlantic is a 200-passenger boat. Small enough so that we can comply with the rules on Antarctica and South Georgia where only 100 people or fewer could be onshore at any one given time, fewer than that in certain places. Half the passengers would tool around the coast on small Zodiac cruises. The other half would explore on land at the same time, then we would switch.
Zodiacs were our means of transportation from the ship to shore for each landing. These are rigid-hulled inflatable boats often used in the military for their durability and low center of gravity. The boats pull up to the beach where we land. A few expedition team members would hold the boat steady in the waves. We would quickly slide off the side near the back and wade to shore. This is why it is called a wet landing.
The ship provided Wellington boots and we were required to wear waterproof pants for all landings. Water was generally never over the level of our knees. But even on the day, I ended up almost waist-deep in the surf I didn’t get soaked through thanks to my waterproof pants.
Our first stop on this journey was the Falkland Islands located in the Antarctica ecozone.
The Falkland Islands
The Falkland Islands are a British archipelago of two main islands and about 776 smaller islands. The islands are home to about 3,000 people 70% of them live in Stanley, the capital. The islands are also home to five different Penguin species. Almost half a million Penguin breeding pairs are thought to live on the islands. Over 80% of the entire world’s population of black-browed albatross nest on these islands.
On the third day on the ship, we reached our first landing. We would be docking in a bay of West Point in the Falkland Islands.
Penguins and Albatross
The rolling green hills of West Point greeted us on all sides of the bay. We were excited to get on land and walk on solid ground that did not move. After we jumped out of the Zodiak, we meandered toward a tiny farmhouse, the only one on the island. It was nestled in the hillside with windswept trees that sheltered it from the strongest winds.
The couple who lived there greeted us warmly. They told us to stop by for tea after we finish exploring. We hiked over the hill and made our way to the other side of the island.
As we approached the cliffs on the opposite side of the islands one of the guides from our ship showed us the path we should take into the Tussock grass along the cliff. They asked for us to be very quiet along this path. I could hear squawking and saw a few albatross in the air. I wound my way through the path surrounded by the shoulder-high Tussock grasses.
We didn’t know what to expect but as the Tussock grasses gave way to a rock outcropping I saw a Rockhopper penguin. It had the characteristic red eyes and spiky feathers on its head. I like to think of them as punk penguins. She was sitting on a large fuzzy baby. Behind him sat a myriad of other Rockhopper penguins and Black-browed albatross nesting together in a large colony. The parent birds kept their chicks warm in the nests.
I stood there amazed at the beauty before me and the sounds of the colony calling to each other. The sight filled me with excitement. I was close to tears at the overwhelming beauty of it.
The albatross directly in front of me shifted gracefully turning its dark eyes down to check on the gray fuzzy baby in the pot-shaped nest below her. The next closest thing to this that I’ve experienced was in Genovesa Island in the Galapagos where we walked amongst the Nazca and Red-Footed Boobies.
The sounds of both penguins and albatross talking and squabbling filled the air as I stayed behind the tall grass just beside them. Two adult penguins rubbed their beaks together in a mating ritual. The tenderness was palpable even as the orange plum on the side of their heads flopped around like little punk rockers.
Unhappy Punk Penguin
Following the path through the grass further, I could see even more of the nesting grounds. They reached all the way down the cliff to the beach.
An adult albatross stood to let the young one beneath her resettle. The fuzzy baby moved around a bit positioning its back end toward the edge of the nest. Without warning, the baby squirted out a long white jet nailing the Rockhopper Penguin next to them. The penguin stood there his head slightly down, his black tuxedo back now bearing white lines. He didn’t look amused. However, nesting near the Albatross does offer some protection against Skua that fly in to steal their eggs.
I could have stood there gazing at this scene for hours. But time was ticking and it was time for us to head back over the island toward our ship. We stopped at the beautiful little country home and were greeted with a massive spread of home-baked desserts and hot tea.
We boarded the Z
During lunch, our ship pulled up anchor and sailed towards Saunders Island. We would spend the afternoon there on a narrow section of the island with a white sand beach.
Dolphins and Penguins played in the water near us as we rode the zodiacs to shore. There on the beach thousands of Penguins greeted us. Some of them curiously watched us disembark from the boats.
Masses of Penguins each stood in huddles near their own kind. King Penguins seemed to dominate the beach with their size and colors, but they were not the largest group. Gentoo and Magellanic Penguins stood in
This beach was special because of the large colony of Rockhopper Penguins that nested on the cliff to the right of the beach. It was a struggle to pull myself from the King Penguins but I knew this would probably be the last time to view the Rockhoppers.
We climbed the hill to our right for a vantage point above the rocks. There we gazed down over the small Rockhopper Penguin colony. The adults weigh only 5 to 10 lbs each. Compare that to the King Penguins who weigh 25 to 35 lbs as adults.
A Sheer and Pissant Danger
At the top I found a rock to sit on and just watch the wildlife. A few of the Penguins also just stood there as if they were frozen in place the entire time I sat there. Others were quite busy wandering around their head bobbing from side to side with each step. All of them were vigilant in watching their young chicks and guarding their eggs. A few Skuas were flying around looking for eggs to steal.
We watched as one of the Skuas grabbed an egg and flew away. My friend Kirsten Holst caught it in a picture. She is an amazing photographer.
White Sandy Beaches
After making my way back down to the beach I watched Penguins gliding in and out of the water and meandering to the base of the cliff. It was comical to watch the rockhoppers so gracefully swim to the shore then begin their ascent up the cliff. They would bow their heads low then snap it up high as they launch themselves up to the next rock.
Just offshore Commerson dolphins played in the waves. It was such a beautiful peaceful place.
Overnight our ship once again pulled up anchor and made its way to Stanley, the capital of the Falkland Islands. Stanley is full of colorful homes and a few taverns. This would be our only landing in an actual town. I enjoyed walking the streets and wandered into the far side of town weaving through neighborhoods just to get a feel for the place. It is a quiet town.
In town, I stopped by the Falkland Island museum. The upstairs was full of taxidermied animals and remnants of ancient ships from some of the first explorers. The first floor had an exhibit of the island’s history and I was captivated.
The Falkland Islands were uninhabited until 1764. That year the French were the first people to start a colony on the islands. The very next year the British laid claim to the islands. Nine years later a Spanish commander from what is now known as Argentina today forced the British out. But the British returned in 1833 retaking the islands.
Since 1833 sovereignty of the islands has been a debate. Britain has said it would consider relinquishing the sovereignty claim to Argentina. The islanders themselves,
Seventy-Four days that changed the Falklands forever
Some of you may or may not remember the siege in 1982. That year Argentina invaded Stanley claiming sovereignty over the Falklands. The siege lasted 74 days. It is deep in the memory of the island-dwellers, a nightmare they will never forget. Britain sent warships in response and kicked Argentina back out.
I was careful not to use any Spanish words while on the island. It is a beautiful quiet island with friendly islanders who welcome visitors. Why bring up the memory of that nightmare even with a “gracias” when a “thank you” will do.
It’s for the Birds
Temperatures on the Falkland Islands range from -5 °C (23 °F) to 24 °C (75 °F) throughout the year. There are shrubs but no indigenous trees. Most of the islands are grass-covered. It is an ideal environment for many of the species who come here to nest.
I was thankful throughout the journey for the expertise of the expedition team with people like George Swan. It seemed like he could pick out any bird from the sky and tell us the species. He would tell you differently but I was quite impressed with his ability to pick them out and name them all.
Ursula, also one of our expedition guides, was on a research team for 20 years studying Minke whales and also has a master’s degree. Together she and George helped us with bird and whale sightings. Both were fun to talk to and learn from.
One of my highlights of this journey was the afternoon that George spotted Orcas near the ship. He gave me his binoculars so that I could see them up close and personal.
The moment pulled me in and the chatter around me died away. The water was so clear I could see the Orcas gliding just beneath the surface. Then an entire family of five whales breached arching together. The water it seemed was full of Orcas playing around the ship.
By the time I came out of my reverie word had spread on the ship. The deck was full, everyone pressing up against the rail in an attempt to get a picture of the graceful whales. I had drowned out the sounds of people again and only saw the deep blue water filled with whales.
Our visit to the Falkland Islands would not be half as fun were it not for the wonderful expedition team. They shared their knowledge and their binoculars and gave lectures with so much expertise and enthusiasm. They kept us well informed and entertained throughout. I love to see people who are passionate about what they do.
What are you passionate about? Are you prepared to take opportunities that come your way?