Sunday, March 26, 2017


As a major element of our 2017 trip to Antarctica with Quark Expeditions, we spent three full days exploring the amazing island of South Georgia, not exactly on the way to the Antarctic Peninsula from our embarkation point at Ushuaia, but well worth the three-day southeasterly jaunt on the open but calm sea. South Georgia is a 100-mile spit of land in the Antarctic region, made famous by intrepid explorers, like Captain Cook in the 18th century and  Ernest Shackleton in the 20th century.  But in most recent times the primary reason adventure travelers go there is to see the amazing wildlife, like the king penguins, the gentoos, the fur and elephant seals, and the unique bird life, 87 species having been recorded there in 2012.  

Of course, the wandering albatross is the superstar that most birders are anxious to see, since they have the largest wingspan of any bird, with a record measurement of 11 feet 10 inches.  The wandering albatross also live their lives to the fullest, some as long as 60 years, but they are slow breeders, so numbers are falling fast.  Due to their very sensitive organs that allow them to sense tiny changes in air pressure and wind velocity, wandering albatross fly from South Georgia thousands of miles northward, always over open water--sometimes as far as the seas off Brazil--to obtain food for their nestlings, often carrying  2-5 pounds of ingested food for a period of eight days while covering up to 5000 miles.  This would never be possible without extremely energy-efficient flight.

Fur seals get their name because of their very dense coat, which made them ideal targets for commercial exploitation in the 19th century.  But fortunately the days of whaling and sealing are behind us, and South Georgia is a pristine wilderness for all wildlife and fortunate travelers, like me,  to enjoy.    When our zodiacs landed and ten humans dressed in bright yellow jackets popped out on to land, the frisky fur pups, with globe-like eyes, bluff-charged us, but we were warned to shoo them away because they have a deadly bite.  "Fur pups are a bit like Woody Allen," our expedition leader explained.    "They charge with exuberant confidence, but when you clap your hands to shoo them away,  they back off in a quivering, self-conscious sort of way."   

You already know from previous chapters what made South Georgia really special for me.  It was not just the incredibly beautiful landscape.   It was the hundreds of thousands--maybe even millions--of adult King Penguins and their somewhat ugly but still adorable chicks, who are slowly losing their fur coats in exchange for one made of silky feathers.  I've been home from my trip for almost a month, and I still dream about penguins.  And I swear I still smell their poo.   Since adult penguins have no natural land predators, they are fearless and comically curious.  At our first landing, dozens of them waddled down to greet us at the beach, whacking each other with their stumpy wings, as if to say me first, and pecking at our boots.  The squawking noise from the immense throng was deafening, but still music to our ears.  During our three days exploring different parts of this beautiful place, I felt as though I was able to communicate with the king penguins.  As you will see from my photos, there were many times when a penguin came so close to me that I was able to see the gleam of light in his eye.  

Because the breeding season was over for elephant seals, we only saw the lazy females sleeping and sunning themselves in the grass. Since I've seen plenty of elephant seals on a few beaches in California, these behemoths were not a novelty to me.  Nonetheless, combined with the fur seals, the penguins and the unique birds, this was a jaw-dropping experience.

We were told that currently1500 square miles of South Georgia are covered in ice and permanent snow, but we saw significant evidence of climate change as glaciers were receding.  Because we were in this region during the Antarctic summer months, the temperature was quite tolerable, especially when one is wearing four layers of clothing.  However, except for the times we rode in the zodiacs, which brought on a wind chill, I seldom wore gloves when taking my pictures.

While there are no permanent inhabitants on the island, there are a small number of people operating research stations during the summer months.  There are also a few people, mainly volunteers, who operate the museum and a bookstore at the small outpost called Grytviken, which in the early 1900s was the site of a thriving whaling industry, evidenced by the old ships and decaying equipment left behind.  Grytviken is also the final resting place for Ernest Shackleton, whose grave we visited on February 15th, which ironically was Shackleton's birthday.  How many visitors are able to stand at this famous spot in front of this remarkable man's grave, sip some Irish whiskey, and listen to our expedition historian, Jonathan Shackleton, toast his distant cousin.  Grytviken also has a small but iconic church that was pre-fabricated in Norway and erected by workers at this South Georgia site in 1913.  Despite efforts to preserve the church, as well as remnants of the historical whaling days, harsh winter storms have made renovation and restoration a difficult and expensive enterprise. Purchases and contributions by visitors to the gift shop and museum help in this effort.

South Georgia was a spectacular experience, a hard act to follow, I thought, as we sailed away toward the continent of Antarctica. But our visit to the Antarctic Peninsula was no let-down, as I will describe in Chapter 4. 


Sunday, March 5, 2017


The Albatross

In one day I must have dressed and undressed at least three times, but my wardrobe pretty much stayed the same with long underwear and fleece as the basic theme.  Thankfully, penguins, seals and albatross weren't interested in our clothes, although I wondered what they thought when these strange-looking  dudes wearing bright yellow jackets walked on their turf.   They didn't appear afraid or nervous, but many looked at us curiously and some even pecked at our boots.


How cold was it, you ask?   Surprisingly, the temperature never got much below 30 degrees and maybe warmed up to 40 by mid-day, but no one ever complained since we were dressed in so many warm layers, plus we had relatively little wind on South Georgia.  A few times I used boot warmers when walking in the snow, but  often I didn't wear gloves when taking photos.   

When we landed on Prion Island, known as the breeding and nesting home to many wandering albatross, we were greeted by a group of smaller penguins, called gentoo, and a number of lazy seals, who were more interested in bickering with each other than noticing us.   Our zodiac group lucked out and had Noah Strycker as our helmsman and birding guide.  At age 30 Noah has packed in more birding adventures than most people do in a life time, setting an all time record for being the first person to see more than 6000 species of birds in a single calendar year (2015).   I have included below a five minute YouTube video of Noah's around-the-world one-year birding trip which you will definitely enjoy.   

Although I'm not a birder, I can definitely see the appeal, but I've been told by birding friends that I should stick to riding my bike.  Pam, you don't have the patience for birds and besides you talk too much.  My feelings weren't hurt because I know my patience is limited, and my reputation for talking seems to follow me wherever I go, but here on Prion Island it seemed like a different story.  Searching for birds did not require patience because they were everywhere, and we were all talking at the same time, asking Noah tons of questions about the mating behaviors of the albatross.  "They mate for life," Noah told us.  "The courtship ritual begins when the male spreads his huge wings and dances about trying to get the attention of the female."  I looked over at the female who sat placidly on her nest looking ever so bored and totally unimpressed while this male albatross used all his energy on very weak legs to impress her by madly flapping his wings.  The wandering albatross returns to the same nesting place each year and the female lays only one egg per year, but the first year of life is tough and 80-90% die. 

The wandering albatross have the largest wingspan of any living bird,  ranging from eight to twelve feet.  They can glide up to forty miles per hour and because of their wingspan, an albatross can remain in the air for several hours without flapping its wings.  In fact,  these birds spend most of their life in flight, landing only to breed and feed. Scientists have attached GPS devices to some wandering albatross and have tracked them as far north as the coast of Brazil, before returning to Prion Island to feed their young by regurgitating the food collected during their wanderings.  As members of a sea bird family called tubenoses,  the tubes on their bill help remove salt from their system. 

Like so much of our planet's wildlife, these seabirds are in serious danger and vulnerable to what is called long-line fishing.  This is  a commercial technique that is very controversial because, while the long lines are successful in hooking fish (most notably Chilean sea bass), they also hook and drown sea birds that dive for the bait.  Approximately 100,000 albatross die this way each year.  While there is a conservation effort underway within the seafood industry to alter this form of fishing, some countries are slow to change.  Given the vulnerability of these magnificent birds, it was my good fortune to spend time around them, watching them fly,  perform their mating rituals, and photographing them at their very best.

At length did cross an albatross
Through the fog it came
As if it had been a Christian Soul
We hailed it in God's name.

It ate the food it never had eat
and round and round it flew
and ice did split with a thunder-fit;
the helmsman steered us through!

And a good south wind sprung up behind;
The Albatross did follow
And every day, for food or play, 
Came to the Mariner's hollo!

From The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1834

The adventure continues .................

P.S.  Watch Noah Strycker's amazing five minute video here.