An Expedition Cruise to Tierra del Fuego, the Falkland Islands, South Georgia, and (almost) Antarctica
After years of planning, three latter-day explorers – Andrew Harrison, Geoffrey McMullan, and your humble author – banded together for the adventure of a lifetime: A cruise through the southern Atlantic from Tierra del Fuego to the Falklands, South Georgia, Antarctica and back. The trip contained moments of transcendent beauty and some truly grim events, but it was never boring. And yes, there were a few birds along the way!
I will spare you a blow-by-blow account of a trip that, with travel time, lasted most of a month. But here are a few highlights.
Ushuaia and Tierra del Fuego
The company assembled in Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. We were travelling with British touring company Birdquest so there was no quiet settling-in period. On the first morning we had a rather strenuous hike up Garibaldi Pass, but successfully achieved the aim of nabbing the highly-desirable White-bellied Seedsnipe. In the following days we roamed through beautiful parks, shoreline, and the municipal dump, along the way getting cracking close-up views of Tierra del Fuego’s star bird – the Magellanic Woodpecker – along with most of the other endemic and local species. The final pre-boarding day saw us hop aboard a small boat for a cruise of the outer islands. A three-hour cruise.
We also caught our first glimpse of our home for the next two weeks – the MV Plancius. Formerly a research vessel for the Royal Netherlands Navy, Plancius had been converted to expedition duties. It was amusing and mildly alarming to see this small 105-pax vessel, hidden as it was amongst much larger cruise ships, but we had been assured that its diminutive size allowed it to get into smaller anchorages than the big boys. This proved to be true, though there were other implications of its size that would become clear in time.
Falklands Part 1
Finally we set sail through the Beagle Channel headed for the Falkland Islands. For me this was terra incognita. My compañeros had both visited the place at the behest of her Majesty, but I got the distinct impression that work had significantly interfered with these birding holidays.
After a pleasant day on the back deck getting acquainted with seabirds we made landfall, visiting Grave Cove and West Point Island in West Falkland. Gentoo and Southern Rockhopper Penguins were on their nests, as were masses of Black-browed Albatrosses, and a handful of Magellanic Penguins emerged from their burrows to inspect us.
It was an excellent day, though the increasingly stiff wind should have been a clue that all might not be well. And sure enough, as we transited the islands headed for Port Stanley those winds increased to seven on the Beaufort Scale and it emerged that we would be unable to dock at Stanley as the port was closed. Somewhat disappointed, we pushed on through high seas and strong winds on our way to South Georgia.
Sailing, sailing, over the bounding main
Three full days of seawatching ensued. Along the way we crossed over the Antarctic Convergence and the air temperature dropped significantly, but the hardcore birders still kept watch from the deck while more timid passengers huddled in the lounge.
As we sailed through the Roaring Forties and on into the Furious Fifties another aspect of the Plancius’s size manifested itself. She definitely was bounced around by the wind and seas, and displayed a strong tendency to roll. With our bunks oriented at 90 degrees to the ship’s axis this introduced the novel experience of falling asleep whilst continuously sliding from one end of the bed to the other! But one adapts.
Finally we arrived, but the wind that had plagued us was not prepared to relent. Gusts of 40-50 knots meant that our first planned landing in Prince Olav Harbour was converted into a zodiac cruise. We were next due to visit the King Penguin colony on Salisbury Plain. Conditions remained unfavourable so we did some scenic cruising along the coast, but finally the wind relented and we were deposited on a long sand beach with no one to keep us company but a couple of hundred seals and around 200,000 King Penguins.
We had been warned not to approach within 5 metres of the penguins, but the penguins evidently did not get that memo. They were extremely interested in these novel creatures that had entered their domain, and despite evident disappointment on discovering that we were not edible, they continued to observe us closely.
This became the pattern for the next few days: sail around a bit, boat into shore, commune with penguins and seals, and move on again. King, Gentoo, Chinstrap, and Macaroni Penguins each had their turn in the starring role, with a strong supporting cast of skuas, petrels, shags, terns and the perky South Georgia Pipit.
We did make the obligatory stop at Grytviken to view the rusting remains of a massive whale-processing facility that was the final resting place of 175,000 whales and countless seals. And needless to say a fine dram was hoisted at the grave of the master mariner Sir Ernest Shackleton.
South towards Antarctica…
Too soon our time among the spectacular wildlife of South Georgia came to an end and in high spirits we turned south for the three-day run down to the South Orkney Islands and the Weddell Sea.
We were now crossing into the Screaming Sixties, and learning that the seas there truly earned their name. In the teeth of a proper gale – Force 9 and 30-metre swells – the mighty Plancius crawled southwards at a true speed of about seven knots. Sadly, seawatching was curtailed as the decks were made off limits to passengers.
On the first night outbound tragedy struck. A fellow passenger had a fall and badly injured his head. Suddenly plans had to change. Antarctica was no longer on the programme as we turned around and headed back to the nearest medical facilities at Port Stanley – three long days away. The ship’s doctor and medical professionals amongst the passengers did their best for the casualty, but after about 24 hours he succumbed to his injuries. We later learned that he was one of three passengers killed on Antarctic cruises that season.
Falklands Part 2
Being obliged to continue on to Stanley so the Coroner could conduct an investigation, we were able to see the birds of the East Falklands that we had missed on the first go-around. After a morale-building round of fish and chips at the Victory Bar. A thorough search was conducted.
We were also able to fit in a few more birdy islands in West Falkland on the way home, inter alia bagging the endemic Cobb’s Wren.
And just to show that the weather gods have a sense of humour, we had calm seas and warm winds all the way back to Ushuaia.
The story would not be complete without a shout-out to this leafy suburb of Buenos Aires close by the airport. Or more properly to the birds therein. I found a handful of new life birds while overnighting on the way down and back, including the remarkably odd Guira Cuckoo.
This was, quite possibly, the trip of a lifetime. The wildlife spectacle of South Georgia is equalled only by the great migration on the Serengeti plains. Add in the remoteness, the arduous conditions, and the limited number of people willing and able to make the trip and it becomes something truly special. Are we sad to have missed standing on the Antarctic continent? Definitely. Are we likely to take another month of our lives and another big pile of cash to do a regain? Flat no to that. Would we recommend it to others? Yes, strongly. But with a quiet talk about the actual risks and the physical requirements to navigate one’s way around a rolling ship a long way from help.
More photos from the trip can be found on my Flickr page.