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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
One final albatross picture, because they are awesome
As much as it kills me to have left my work with the British Antarctic Survey, the new job has some pretty amazing perks. Working at King Edward Point allowed me to see a small part of South Georgia over a long period of time working immersed within incredible wildlife. However, life on board National Geographic Explorer has 5 star food every night, a masseuse and most importantly, access to much much more of the island than we were able to visit from base.
One of my favourite new landings to visit this year is Gold Harbour. Not the largest king penguin colony on South Georgia but still spectacular.
One of the many things that make this site stunning is the Bertrab Glacier, which hangs over the colony.
During spring the beaches are covered by harems of Elephant seals which push the colony back into the tussock.
The breeding season is a difficult time for these giants. Beachmasters will spend months on end starving on land, battling to defend their harems from competitors. During this time, the battles can be brutal and so moments of rest and recovery must be taken at every opportunity.
Not all the fights end in blood and gore; youngsters are always practising because they know that at some point it will be their turn to fight for real.
As the elephant seals head out to sea for a much needed foraging trip the beach opens up, allowing other wildlife some space to thrive.
Wherever there are penguins and seal colonies, predators and scavengers are never too far away
Although not in the same abundance, elephant seals can still be found here late in the season since they return to the South Georgia coast in order to moult. This process takes roughly a month. Several animals will lie in the same location for most of this process and the combination of their weight and excrement kills everything beneath them, leaving foul smelling wallows throughout the coastline.
If the wildlife doesn’t quite do it for you, then you can keep your eyes above the seals and penguins and it still ain’t half bad.
Despite the 4 a.m. mornings there is very little that can spoil an experience like this. However, we did find one thing that did just this on our final landing of the season. A young Antarctic Fur Seal with fishing material wrapped around its neck.
Despite South Georgia’s isolated location, there is no escape from marine pollution. Ghost fishing and marine waste are a real problem here. During my time on South Georgia we freed, any number of animals entangled within fishing or packaging waste. And on a landing at King Haakon Bay, we even managed to retrieve a washed-up fridge from the beach, as well as numerous bottles and bags.
If you think about how little activity and fishing there is in sub antarctic waters in comparison to other areas further north then the impacts and effects this will be having is hard to fathom. Over 100,000 marine animals are harmed through pollution such as this every year.
Not to end on a negative note, here are a few time lapses from a day at Gold Harbour
It’s been a while but I thought it was about time that I wrote a blog about a typical day as a Naturalist on board the National Geographic Explorer. And what better location to do so than from Salibury Plain. The second largest king penguin colony on the island, Salisbury Plain lies within the Bay Of Isles towards the North of South Georgia.
After a blustery night anchored in the Bay of Isles, guests awoke expecting poor conditions but were pleasantly surprised to see flat seas and a fresh coat of snow covering the bay. Just five days previously, when we were last in the bay, there was barely any snow on the near mountains.
Its been a hard year for these King Penguin chicks, after the eggs were laid a year ago they have been stuck on this beach through the harsh South Georgia winter. Some of the chicks will have gone months between feeds shrinking up to 50% in weight during these periods.
The landing did not disappoint, a natural path through the colony allowed guests to get their best views of the “Oakum Boys” yet. Despite the cold temperatures, the light was stunning and guests used every second on shore to get their shots.
The cold was obviously too much for this penguin who couldn’t stop sneezing!
By this stage of the breeding season, the weakest chicks will have perished, so those remaining all looked in good health. After more than a year of development these chicks will soon loose this downy coat in favour of their waterproof juvenile coat.
After a long but spectacular morning on the colony we headed back to the ship for hot drinks and tasty food, a luxury which the British Antarctic Survey never provided!
The island is home to millions of birds including ten of thousands of Black Browed Albatross which thrive in these windy conditions.
Having taken a 23 hour bus from Santiago to San Pedro, I arrived as the sunset over the Atacama desert. Even with the lights of San Pedro, the sky was filled with stars.
San Pedro isn’t the cheapest place to stay because it is located in the middle of the desert and surrounded by so many tourist attractions, hostels can afford to up their prices. However, whatever you pay, the cost is worth it. The town in very small and basic, with the majority of the buildings in the centre used by the 40+ tour agencies selling exactly the same trips. Although this choice of agencies can be slightly frustrating, it does present a great opportunity for haggling.
San Pedro is one of the starting towns for the expeditions across the Bolivian Salt flats. The other options involve starting in Uyuni or Tupiza. The Tupiza option involves a lot of additional driving.
With the surrounding environment of San Pedro being very similar to that over the Bolivian borders. Many of the San Pedro day trips, visit very similar sites to those included in the Salt flat tour. Whilst in San Pedro, I opted for the Valle De Luna tour which takes you to several different stunning landscapes on the Chilean salt flats before finishing at Luna Valley for sunset.
Other trips offered in San Oedro include various astronomy tours to view the spectacular night skies, early morning visits to the worlds largest Geyser field, Sandboarding, and trips into the Atacama desert to see its lakes and weird geological formations.
Whilst the Atacama desert will wow you, the Bolivian Salt flats will absolutely blow you away. The tour involves a lot of time within the car, but stops are frequent and each is as spectacular as the next.
The three day/two night salt flat tour includes a visit to a small geyser field with magma pools as well as a number of weird and wonderful rock formations located in the vast desert.
Another stunning location is the Anaconda Valley, which offers vast views over a small canyon which hosts a slithering green river.
There are also great opportunities to get up close and personal with the local Lamas and, if you’re lucky, they will have been dressed up by locals. Don’t get too close though, the farmers may get angry and the lamas may spit!
The tour includes stops at various multicoloured lakes. These are coloured as a result of the minerals and sometimes bacteria found within them.
Most spectacular of all comes on the final day when you make it to the true salt flats, for sunrise. I was lucky enough to time my visit in early April meaning that there was residual water from the wet season. This meant I had the chance for the sky, reflection pictures that everyone wants.
The rainy season on the flats comes in February and March, so views like this are almost guarenteed at this time of year. However, if there is too much water, many vehicles struggle to make it through the flats to other promised destinations. By timing your trip for the end of the wet season is you get the best of both! Wet ones allowing for reflection pictures and dry ones allowing for the also cliche perspective pictures.
Before the tour drops you off in Uyuni ready for a warm shower, there is time for visits to a Salt museum, Artisanal market and the train graveyard.
If you’re interested, I paid 95,000 Chilean pesos for a 3 day trip which included all food and accommodation (one night in a salt hostel), local guide (only spoke Spanish). I also opted to pay the 5,000 extra so that I could pay by credit card. This means if there were any problems I could withdraw the payment.
For anyone taking this trip I would recommend taking something to protect your face from the dust which, even with the windows closed, can be brutal at times. Also pack lots of warm clothes as early starts expose you to sub zero temperatures before the desert warms up for the day!
This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Antarctica
Something that surprised me about my recent visit to the Antarctic Peninsula was that the ice was equally as impressive as the Killer Whales, Leopard Seals and the Humpbacks.
Nothing can prepare you for the different shades of blue captured within these floating structures and the size of the slabs is simply staggering!
Fortunately conditions allowed us to make it south past the Antarctic circle!
And if the Ice isn’t enough the landscape and mountains ain’t half bad either!
Its been a while since I posted pictures of my penguin friends so here are a few of my favourites from the Peninsula where I was finally able to see the Holy Grail of Penguin species; The Emperor Penguin. As well as all three species of brush tail, magellanic and rockhopper.
For more images check out my two Antarctic Galleries….
This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Antarctica
Another blog from my latest amazing trip to Antarctica, focussing on Humpback whales this time. You’ll be glad to know that there is less blood than in the previous post.
Having lived for a year on South Georgia, immersed in the depressing history of Antarctic whaling and the impact of humans on Baleen whales, it was amazing to sail through Antarctic waters and see first-hand how the whales are bouncing back. Sightings of baleen whales were frequent with the most common being humpbacks: these majestic 36 tonne beasts were almost ubiquitous throughout, it was an absolute pleasure.
Almost without fail, by the time breakfast was served on board National Geographic Explorer, there had been a blow, or a sighting of the distinctive hump, or flukes of these animals.
Possibly the best experience of my time on board came as the sun was setting on an already eventful day of killer whales and penguins. Stupidly thinking the excitement was over for the day, I retreated to my room in order to download a few photos, when the call of ‘feeding Humpbacks’ came out over the tannoy.
As a kid, I read about bubble net feeding whales and had seen footage of it numerous times on David Attenborough documentaries. For those others who have seen this footage, you will understand why seeing this activity has been on my bucket list for years. However, travelling to Antarctica, I had no expectations of ticking this off the list, since it was my understanding that such behaviour had only been observed in Alaska! Bubble net feeding is obviously a foraging method where the humpbacks blow clouds of bubbles around their prey at the surface. This traps the prey between the bubbles and the surface allowing the whales to swim up with their mouths open and take huge mouthfuls of prey.
The video bwlow shows one of these events happening and you can see the bubbles at the surface before the humpbacks lunge through open-mouthed
Humpback whales that spend summers in the Antarctic, exploiting the rich cold waters, migrate north to spend the winters in the tropics around Costa Rica. Here, there is an overlap with the Northern Humpbacks that spend their summers in Alaska and migrate south also to Central American tropics. The hypothesis is that these Northern whales, having learnt and practiced the behaviour in Alaska, migrated south to Central America before continuing through to Antarctica.
As a result, you now have whales practicing bubble net feeding in Antarctic waters. The humpbacks have uniquely marked flukes which allow them to be identified.
Hopefully, the individuals we photographed in Antarctica will have been observed previously in the world and we will get a better understanding of how this behaviour has spread.
And when you get bored of the whales (as if!) the sunset and the ice aren’t too bad substitutes!
This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Antarctica
CAUTION: “Nature red in tooth and claw” warning.
This post contains graphic pictures which some readers may find disturbing.
My recent trip to Antarctica had many incredible highlights. I was lucky enough to see a ridiculous amount of wildlife with many memorable encounters.
Leopard seals are number two in the Antarctic food chain, second only to killer whales. The majority of sightings are very relaxed with these seemingly lazy animals apparently spending most of their lives hauled out on ice flows, relaxing and sleeping.
These sightings are great because they give you an opportunity to see clearly the markings which make each individual distinctive and identifiable; they also allow you to see the size of the animal, which can often be difficult when they are in the water.
Female leopard seals can reach 5 metres in length. They are generalist predators and will feed on whatever is locally abundant, including krill, other species of seals and penguins. I visited Brown Bluff on the Antarctic continent twice within the space of 10 days. During my first visit, the few leopard seals we encountered had been feeding on krill, 10 days later the story was very different.
With Gentoo and Adelie penguin chicks both beginning to explore the shallow waters, local leopard seal observations were much higher as they were sighted patrolling ice floes and shallows for penguins.
From ashore, it was incredible to see these animals pursue penguins through the shallows at great speeds for their next meal. The amount of kills and hunts observed by all on board was staggering.
As we headed back to the ship in the Zodiac, we came across a hunting leopard seal and decided it would be rude not to see what happened next …
The attack, although spectacular and very interesting, was very depressing to watch as the leopard seal played with its prey for a considerable amount of time before finally opting to eat,
Leopard seals use the friction of throwing animals against the water to open up their prey and rip bite-sized chunks of meat off the penguin.
This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Antarctica
Just a quck update from my latest travels. I am currently working as a Naturalist for National Geographic Expeditions. It has been my job to guide lucky passengers on board the National Geographic Explorer around the Antarctic wildlife.
During the past few weeks, I have been lucky enough to share the very best wildlife watching experiences in the world with these passengers as we navigate from South America, south through the Drake Passage as far as the Antarctic circle.
Highlights have been too numerous to list but amongst the latest to be ticked off the bucket list are seeing killer whales and emperor penguins, as well as watching humpback whales bubble feeding. On top of this, there were lots of penguins and stunning scenery – plus ca change!
When I return to better internet, I will endeavour to update my blog with more images and stories from these latest travels but for now, here is a selection of images so far!
Although not the prettiest birds to grace the planet, if you ever get the chance to see giant petrels in the wild, they will command your respect like few others. There is nothing quite like watching the coming together of hundreds of these majestic giants at a recently deceased corpse.
With piranha-like efficiency, giant petrels can tear hundreds of kilograms of flesh from an elephant seal skeleton in hours, with powerful tube-nosed bills strong enough to crack open a seal skull. Plunging deep into the carcass, the heads and necks of these usually exquisitely preened birds quickly become coated with bright red blood and gore.
Equally as striking is the intraspecific competition for the optimal place at the carcass. The birds posture with wings spread and tails fanned, moving their heads from side to side whilst emitting their best war songs – unforgettable primitive guttural cries – to deter challengers.
If the deterrent is unsuccessful, the birds clash chest to chest, locking bills and slapping wings until one challenger concedes. It’s a spectacular display of carnage from this ultimate scavenger.
Because the males are larger than the females, gatherings such as this are usually between males whilst females tend to forage at sea where competition is less harsh.
I was recently approached by Will Harper-Penrose from Woodmansterne Primary School and Children’s Centre via the wonderful medium of Twitter. His year two pupils were learning about the Antarctic and exploration, and he got in touch to ask about the possibilities of doing a Q&A Skype session.
Unfortunately, South Georgia’s internet connection was not up to a Skype video so, on hearing that, Will came up with a much more imaginative way to ask the questions. Being a music teacher, he composed a song for his pupils to sing, asking questions like ‘Have you seen a penguin sliding on its belly?’ and ‘What do you eat in Antarctica?’
As you can see for yourself, the video, song and dance are awesome and put a smile on everyone’s face on base. Completely aware that this amazing video would outshine any video of mine, I used my surroundings on the island to assist me, featuring penguins, seals, icebergs and boating, here is a compilation of some of my footage from a year on South Georgia.
I hope that this will entertain the kids and hopefully inspire one or two to become polar scientists