28 Feb 2024

Antarctic Expedition. Part 10. The Falklands. Stanley and Carcass Island

Our visit to the Falklands was quite poignant for me. It was the Argentinian invasion in 1982 that prevented me going to join the British Antarctic Survey. I also had school and university friends that fought in the war and thankfully all came home safely but some were traumatised by what they'd seen and experienced. However, if I'd gone to the Antarctic in 1982,  I'd never have gone to work in Finland and then move up to Cheshire and met my lovely wife or have such wonderful kids and grandchildren..... Fate is a curious thing.

I actually spent time doing touristy things in the short time we had in Stanley - posting more postcards to the grandkids, visiting the museum and having afternoon tea! I did did see a few birds though with Falklands Flightless and Flighted Steamer Ducks being added to the trip list along with superb views of Turkey Vultures.

Female Steamer Duck

Falklands Flightless Steamer Duck showing spurs at 'elbow' joint of wing

Turkey Vultures

With the cultural activities completed I was keen to get to our next location as the following morning we were due to visit the Magellanic Penguin colony at Carcass Island. What a place! Regis had warned me I'd see plenty of birds including the endemic Cobb's Wren and there were far more passerines than we'd seen on any of our previous landings with Blackish Cinclodes. Long-tailed meadow Lark , Black-chinned Siskin and Black-chinned Finch, Falklands Austral and Dark-faced Ground Tyrant all being fairly easily seen. The Cobb's Wrens were hopping around on the beach as we landed and the Blackish Cinclodes were so tame they were walking over my feet! 
Black-choinned Finch

Black-chinned Siskin

Blackish Cinclodes

Cobb's Wren

Dark-faced Ground Tyrant

Long-tailed meadow Larks

Falklands (Austral) Thrush.

What we'd really come to see though was the large colony of Magellanic Penguins and they didn't disappoint. Magellanics breed in burrows and many were covered in soil as they stood guard outside their burrow entrances to protect their eggs or young from marauding Striated Caracara's.

Above and below: Striated Caracara's

Striated Caracara and Magellanic Penguin

As is usual in penguin colonies there was a lot of activity with birds returning from fishing trips being mobbed by youngsters begging for food and birds wandering down from their colonies to the beach to go off to sea to fish. Other birds were just hanging around displaying and interacting with their neighbours.

All to soon our time here came to an end. It had been arranged that we'd take the zodiacs to another bay where the community hall had been opened up for us to provide a traditional Falklands 'smoko' or morning tea with home made cakes and freshly brewed pots of steaming hot tea. There was still time for a few more birds on the walk back to the beach and the zodiacs though with Magellanic Snipe and Magellanic Oystercatcher both showing well.

Needless to say I thoroughly enjoyed my 'smoko' and despite several cakes I still had room for lunch back on board the Plancius as we set off for our next landfall with the promise of our final penguin species and breeding Black-browed Albatross.



26 Feb 2024

Antarctic Expedition. Part 9. At sea again and sailing to the Falklands.

Leaving Gryviken behind us we headed out to the open sea again and headed north to the Falklands. Elke, on of our guides on board, had told me the waters around Bird Island were some of the richest in the region and we'd expect to see loads of seabirds! She wasn't wrong! On this leg of the trip I had some of my best views of several species including Southern Giant Petrel , Wandering Albatross, Grey-headed Albatross and Southern Royal Albatross. As usual I spent as much time as I could on the bridge and was talking to someone about albatross identification when a bird flew close by and, spotting it out the corner of my eye,  my overloaded brain took a few seconds to realise it wasn't just another Black-browed but a Grey-headed! By the time my brain had registered and processed the information the bird was quite a distance behind us but  I managed one reasonable photo.

Grey-headed Albatross

Black-browed Albatross

juvenile Southern  Giant petrel

juvenile Wandering Albatross

If you look closely at the photos above of the juvenile Wandering Albatross and Southern Giant Petrel you 
can see a drop of water at the tip of the bill. This isn't a 'runny nose' or an indication of bird flu but a secretion from the slat  gland. Many seabirds can eat salty prey and drink seawater as they have a built in desalination unit that allows them to secrete excess salt. This slat gland is based in the front of the head and salt rich water is secreted via the nostril and drips down to thee tip of the bill. An amazing adaptation which means these birds can live their life at sea without having to drink freshwater.

Light-mantled Albatross

South Georgia Diving Petrel

The diving petrels were like little stones skimming above the surface before dropping on the the sea and disappearing! 

The juvenile Wandering Albatross spent about an hour passing backwards and forwards alongside the Plancius, or in the wake, eying us curiously at some points level with the camera. We also saw adult Wandering Albatross and our first Northern Royal of the trip.

sub-adult Wandering Albatross

adult Wandering Albatross

This stage of our trip took two days and it was on the final days approach to the Falklands that I picked out a bird that had me puzzled. I couldn't work put what it was was and it wasn't on the list of birds we'd expect to see that was pinned up and updated daily in the lounge.......

I couldn't find it in the books I'd brought with me in my cabin or in the books on the bridge so was getting more and more puzzled. When Rgis arrived on deck I showed him the photos nd he to was puzzled and started looking through various guides. It didn't take long for him to realise that it was a species he'd ringed on Kerguelen Island - Grey Petrel! Luckily it hung around and he managed to see it as well. 

Grey Petrel

We saw lots of whales and dolphins on this leg of the trip and many more people spent time on deck. At one point we had Humpbacks all around the boat but one of the passengers,  Johannes,  spotted something different. Spotting a large blow he called it and it was identified immediately by Elke as a Blue Whale! One of the species I really wanted to see but didn't hold out much hope as their numbers are still critically low after years of hunting. Blue Whales are the biggest animals on the planet and the biggest to ever have lived. With only around 8,000 individuals in the South Atlantic it was a special moment.

My on board slipped back into an easy routine. Up around 5 am and skipping breakfast to spend as much time as possible on deck, a quick lunch, daily-briefing by Edu around 6.30 pm followed by dinner. Another quick sea-watch from the bridge deck and then quite often working until midnight downloading photos editing them. It was beginning to take its toll and I succumbed to the heavy cold that that been going round and my eyes were red rimmed with the salt and wind but I was loving every minute.

22 Feb 2024

Antarctic Expedition. Part 9. Grytviken and Macaroni's

After cruising slowly around the coast of South Georgia we arrived at our destination in glorious weather. Ideal for our zodiac landing at the old whaling base at Grytviken. Before that  we had a presentation from Lauren of the South Georgia Heritage Trust about their work. This was followed a presentation on biosecurity from Dee Baum from the Governors office. The first ten passengers to board the zodiacs were thoroughly inspected and had a 100% pass rate in the biosecurity checks - just as well really as I was the first to be inspected! 

Grytviken is famous for Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton's grave. Unfortunately bird flu in the area meant we couldn't visit but we managed to see it from the zodiacs as we motored past. A real shame but I understood, more than most on board, about the need for biosecurity and the spread of bird flu.

Shakletons grave

Grytviken was also home to the largest whaling station on South Georgia and it was sobering to think how many whales were slaughtered and processed here for their blubber, which was rendered into oil for use in a whole range of what were everyday products. Elephant Seals were also processed here for their blubber. All of the whale carcasses were used with the flesh and bones being ground to make fertiliser and bone meal. The waters around the harbour are still littered with the skeletal remains of whales and their decomposition gives the water a strange colour. As late as 1966 whales were still being hunted here but the decline in the whale population and the development of pelagic factory ships (meaning the whales could be processed at sea) led to its eventual decline.

This extract is from the South Georgia Heritage Trusts history of whaling in South Georgia. See here for more details.

Between 1904 and 1965 some 175,250 whales were processed at South Georgia shore stations. In the whole of the Antarctica region some 1,432,862 animals were taken between 1904 and 1978, when hunting of the larger species ceased. Probably the largest whale ever recorded was taken at South Georgia, it was a blue whale processed at Grytviken in about 1912, with a length of 33.58 meters. Another was processed in 1931 at Prince Olaf Harbour was 29.48m long and estimated to weigh 177 tonnes. 

Incredible to think that not so long agoa we were so reliant on whale oil. Michael Green, assistant expedition leader, made a very valid observation when he said our descendants would look back at us in a 100 years time and wonder how we could have caused so much environmental devastation by using fossil fuels! 

Once ashore I made straight to the post office to send postcards to our grandchildren in Australia and the UK before exploring the areas we were allowed into and searching for the two South Georgia endemics  - the pipit and pintail.

Despite the feelings of profound sorrowat what the equipment and machinery was used for the old whale processing equipment was fascinating to see. It really was mass slaughter on an industrial scale and I felt it was only fitting to photograph in black and white rather than colour.

Abandoned whaling boats hauled up at Grytviken

By contrast the small 'whalers church' seemed an incongruous haven of peace and tranquility.


Fur Seals and King Penguins were all over the area but there was no sign of any pipits. South Georgia Pintails were common though and we counted 22 in one small area. This small duck has the morbid reputation of being carnivorous as its sometimes known to feed on seal carcasses in the same way as Giant Petrels  - once the body cavities been opened up they'll get right inside the carcass.

Our time on South Georgia was soon over and we headed back to the Plancius to move to the Nordenskj√∂ld Glacier where we moored and had a BBQ on the rear deck surrounded by growlers (small icebergs and with incredible views of the glacier. A great evening.

Overnight we moved again and woke the next morning near Hercules Bay where we visited the Macaroni Penguin colony! Once again we couldn't land but took a zodiac cruise around the bay. In reality we didn't need to land. We had superb views of the Macaroni's! They were nesting higher up the hillside in the tussock grass but following their 'penguin highways' down to enter the sea. We probably had better views from the zodiacs than if we'd landed as the birds were nearly completely hidden by the tussock grass.

Another fantastic experience and it was here, at Hercules Bay, that we finally got good views of the elusive South Georgia Pipit with several pairs behaving just like the Rock Pipits back on Hilbre Island in the UK! 

In danger of being made extinct due to predation the pipit is now heard singing again  due to the eradication of the rodents that were eating the young and eggs. Its South Georgias only songbird so a poignant moment to see and hear them so well.

Out time at South Georgia came to an end wit hout trip to Hercules Bay. With six species of penguin already under our belts it was time to head to our final destination - The Falklands. This entailed another two days at sea providing me with plenty of seawatching opportunities...........and more missed breakfasts!