Pacific Adventure

Blue waters of the Cook Islands

Its been a long time coming but I wanted to add a few pictures from my latest adventure. For the first time in a few years my work took me to sunnier climes and allowed me to get into the water somewhere warm. I was lucky enough to work on board the National Geographic Orion in the Pacific region. 

Inside the crater of Tahiti
Humpback whale coming to say hello in Mo’orea
Racoon Butterflyfish in Fakarava
National Geographic Orion in Mo’orea

Highlights real of my time in Fakarava with music by Eto performed on a moto off Taha’a

This is a spectacular region and over my stint here I was fortunate to visit French Polynesia, Cook Islands, Samoa, Wallis & Futuna and Samoa. My visit allowed me to explore lots of different islands and Motu’s and experience their different cultures as well as take in some spectacular wildlife. 

Bora Bora lagoon looking spectacular from above unfortunately much of the reef is dead
Rough-toothed dolphins in the Society Islands

Coming to the Pacific and especially French Polynesia, there were many places that I was itching to get to, such as Tahiti and Bora Bora. However in hindsight the most enjoyable islands were those I had never heard of, like Makatea and Toau. As a result of their lack of development, many of these had much more diverse and healthy ecosystems as well as more untouched and natural cultures on land. 

Paddleboarding and kayaking in the Bay of Isles, Fiji
Tie dying in Bora Bora

As mentioned earlier, one of my favourite locations was an island called Makatea in the Tuamotu Islands of French Polynesia. This is an uplifted coral island which as steep 80m cliffs, is covered in rich forest with several endemic species and is surrounded by crystal waters and healthy reefs.

Who said pigeons and doves are ugly?! Many of these islands have vibrant species of fruit dove. This is the Makatea Fruit Dove
The uplifted island of Makatea
Getting ashore wasn’t always easy but with our talented AB drivers we always made it

Lying at the heart of this island is it’s best secret a number of underground freshwater grottos which allow you to snorkel and free dive amongst stalactites and stalagmites. 

Freediving one of Makatea’s grottos. Photo taken by Michael S. Nolan. All rights reserved Worldwide.
Another picture of me poking around a grotto taken by taken by Michael S. Nolan. All rights reserved Worldwide.

There is not the densities of seabirds that you find in the colder regions as a result of these warmer waters being less nutrient rich. But there can still be some great seawatching. Boobies, noddies, tropicbirds and frigates are common as well as large numbers of petrel and shearwater species that are endemic to the region. 

Inquisitive red footed booby off the bow of the ship
Black winged petrel and mottled petrel were fairly common on route to Fiji
Black Noddy

It wasn’t just the birdlife that kept me entertained. I was lucky enough to tick several wildlife experiences off my bucket list in this beautiful region. Highlights included snorkelling with Humpbacks in Mo’orea, diving with Tigersharks in Tahiti and also night diving with the hunting reef sharks of Fakarava

Snorkeller and Humpback whale in front of the spectacular Mo’orea hills
One of 4 tiger sharks seen on two dives
This diving operation allows research to be carried out on the movements of these incredible 4m giants. They are all identifiable by markings in pictures and therefore photo catalogues have been created here
Another highlight involved sub winging with Spinner dolphins
Its not just the large wildlife I appreciate
Samoan Myzomela are one of many endemics across the region
A rare rainy day!
Sharks galore in Tahiti
Beautiful snapper schools
Sea krait hunting a reef in Futuna
Underwater with the humpback
Not the wildlife I expected to see at sea

Whilst we travelled the regions surrounding Fiji and Samoa we were treated to a number of different cultural experiences including war dances performed by both kids and adults.

Young warrior in the village of Waitabu, Fiji

Seranaded on the beaches of Fakarava

I shall finish with a travel tip of mine…. I highly recommend finding some locals to show you around wherever you find yourself in the world. You’ll meet some amazing people and have a way better time! Having spent 4 days on Tahiti in advance of my trip in the rain I was deeply disappointed. However I was lucky enough to meet two amazing people who showed me the time of my life before I departed; free diving with turtles, wake boarding in the sunset, tiger shark diving, watching the locals surf and sub winging with dolphins! 

I didn’t fancy giving it a go but was happy to watch from the shore
Tahiti hills
Wakeboarding inside the Tahiti lagoon (picture by Perrine Reidy)

On reflection, my summer wasn’t too bad at all!

Falkland Islands – Surprise wildlife package

Before coming South, whenever someone mentioned the Falklands, I would think of barren and windy islands with not much to offer. However, I was pleasantly surprised with the reality. Many of the guests on board the ship have the same mentality as I once did, seeing the Falklands simply as a convenience stop to stretch their legs before we get down to South Georgia and Antarctica. They most definitely are not anticipating the beauty of sites such as West Point Island and the densities of tame wildlife that these islands offer.

A Falklands beach – not what you’d expect
Black browed albatross chicks at West Point

The Falklands are home to 60-70% of the world’s breeding black-browed albatross and host the largest albatross colony in the world at Steeple Jason. Seeing thousands of these birds proudly perched on their nest structures for as far as the eye can see is a breathtaking experience.

Black browed adult cruising over the heads of grounded chicks
Adult and chick
There are several hundred thousand birds breeding on the island

Many of the colonies are also home to thousands of rockhopper penguins early in the season and watching the entertaining relationships between these species is endless fun. The sounds that accompany these interspecific relations are also entertaining.

The two species can often be seen disagreeing with each other
And if it’s not the black browed albatross the problem is with, then it’s their neighbours

Both the rockhoppers and the black browed albatross tend to pick the most exposed areas of the islands to breed. The albatross are dependent on the wind in order to aid their takeoffs and the penguins use the exposed coasts in order to deter predators.

Black browed in flight over Steeple Jason
The wind helps both with taking off and landing

The islands are also home to magellanic, king and gentoo penguins and if you’re lucky you may also see macaronis hiding within the rockhoppers.

Magellanic Penguin on carcass island. These are burrow nesting penguins and so are never too far from their holes
Gentoo penguin playing in the surf at Bull Point

There is also some beautiful, if a little flat, hiking to be had over these islands and you’re never too far away from geese, raptors and songbirds (especially on the rat free islands).

Ruddy headed goose in the tussock
Long tailed meadowlark or military starling are always a bright highlight
Upland geese in flight
Variable hawk overhead on Carcass Island
Cobb’s wren are a Falkland’s endemic and are only found on the islands that are rat free
Jonny rook or striated caracara are part of the falcon family. These are never too far from breeding colonies on the islands

And when you get onto the sea the wildlife doesn’t stop. There’s a healthy population of steamer ducks patrolling the coastline and both Peale’s and Commerson’s dolphins are often around and keen to play.

Commerson’s dolphins off the shore of Saunder’s
Falkland steamer ducks are very territorial and can sometimes kill each other in disputes
Peale’s off the bow
Fin and Sei whales are frequently seen fishing in the rich waters surrounding the islands

One final albatross picture, because they are awesome

Adult and chick

 

Link to previous blog. Gold Harbour, South Georgia

Few images from St Andrews Bay, South Georgia

The Journey Begins…

My adventure finally begins! First stop Brize Norton in order to catch a flight to the Falklands via Ascension Island. Didn’t really know what to expect on the flight, there were rumours of a 19.5 hours of discomfort without any in flight entertainment but fortunately this was not the case. In fact it was pretty standard if a little outdated, the only real difference was that we were brought food and drinks almost every hour, even throughout the night! Large calorie intake is necessary to keep up the RAF physique obviously!

We had a brief 2 hour stop at Ascension island where I was assured that I would easily add the endemic Ascension Frigatebird to my world list. However, it seems I was lied to!

Giant Petrel passing over head in the Falklands
Giant Petrel passing over head in the Falklands

When we finally arrived in the Falklands the weather was beautiful even though I was assured this most definitely would not be the case. For those not fortunate enough to have visited it, it’s very similar to the Western Isles. We didn’t really get much time to explore as we were into the Governor’s Office first thing the following morning in order for Roger, our Base Commander, to be made a magistrate of South Georgia. Shortly after, we were being whisked off to board the Pharos Fisheries Patrol Vessel to sail to South Georgia.

Cape Petrel cruising behind our boat as we leave Falkland for South Georgia
Cape Petrel cruising behind our boat as we leave Falkland for South Georgia

Our cruise to South Georgia took us 5 days and our only responsibilities were to eat and sleep, which gave us loads of time to sit up on the bridge and search for pelagic wildlife!

As we were waiting to leave harbour, we were able to see good numbers of King Shags, Skuas and Southern Giant Petrels, not a bad start! After a couple of small delays we were eventually escorted out of the harbour by our pilot vessel who herself was escorted by a group of 3 Commerson’s Dolphins.

As we left towards more open waters, both of our escorts left us, but luckily our sightings continued. Several small groups of the migratory Magellanic Penguins were observed logging (resting) on the surface before I got to see my first ever Gentoo Penguins, acting similarly. Conditions were absolutely perfect for wildlife watching with flat seas, no wind and blue skies and it wasn’t long before we were joined by our second species of dolphins. This time, there were three Peale’s Dolphins bow riding and performing for us.

One of three Peele's Dolphins Escorting us on our crossing
One of three Peele’s Dolphins escorting us on our crossing

As we continued away from Falkland waters after dinner, we were joined by good numbers of Cape Petrels, Black Browed Albatross’s, Atlantic Fulmers and more Southern Giant Petrels with small numbers of Wilson’s Petrel and Antarctic Prions also present. Not a bad haul for half a day at sea, buzzing is an understatement! As the sunset drew on and we congregated on deck to look for the illusive green flash* unsuccessfully, we were rewarded with the consolation of a distant whale blow and my first ever Wandering Albatross! They are flipping massive! What a day!

* see “green flash” in Wikipedia.

Close up shot of one of the many Black Browed Albatross that followed us for the dayClose up shot of one of the many Black Browed Albatross that followed us for the day