Homeward bound

4 February 2019: And that’s a wrap for this trip: 15.5 months, 5 continents, 21 countries and too many dodgy hostel rooms with even dodgier plumbing to count. We leave with countless brilliant memories and thousands and thousands of photos (not all of which are of penguins) which now all need to be sorted. Homeward bound with a change of clothes in sight! Now let’s get that kettle on.

South Georgia: All those dots behind us are king penguins and their chicks

Mano de Dios

L: Obelisk, Central Buenos Aires; M: Eva Peron: R: Boca Juniors Football Stadium
On a walking tour of La Boca, we were told by our guide that if we asked any Argentinean about the 1986 world cup quarter final game against England, they would probably admit that Maradona cheated when he scored a goal with a handball (the Hand of God) but then they would quickly point to his fabulous second goal only about 5 minutes later when he dribbled the ball past five England players: in any event, we were told that no one in Argentina really cares how the game was won: the fact remains that Argentina went on to win the World Cup that year (and haven’t done it since) and therefore Maradona is seen as a god as a result. This is quite clear from a lot of the street art dotted around Buenos Aires dedicated to him. You also see Pope Francis, Eva Peron and the tango musician, Carlos Gardel, being honoured in this way but really this is a Maradona show: he beats all the other legends hands down (pun intended).

Maradona, Eva Peron and Carlos Gardel

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Joint billing with Pope Francis

Our second trip to Buenos Aires was a lot more positive than our first admin trip when we had been in transit and were over tired. This time we understood what everyone loved about this city from its European style architecture (interestingly far more French than Spanish looking), the quirky neighbourhoods with colourful houses, artwork and street markets, the good food, and of course the tango although in fact this is not quite as prevalent as I had imagined and now is often only performed for tourists.

Touristy or not, it is worth catching a show or stopping to admire one of the impromptu displays put on in parks etc as there is some rather fancy footwork going on, the kind I can only dream of ever mastering and had instead to be happy just watching in amazement as yet another flick of someone’s leg goes up without tripping over their partner. Needless to say this wasn’t quite the experience we had when we took a half hour group class but still it was a laugh and we didn’t fall over so that was a result!

L: Colourful street art; M: French style architecture; R: The colourful Caminito in La Boca, Buenos Aires

The mightily impressive Iguazu falls

One of the highlights of the tourist trail in Argentina is of course a visit to the mighty Iguazu falls, the largest waterfall system in the world. Move over Niagara and Victoria Falls (which we have both also visited), this is the Real McCoy. If you like water and rainbows which add an artistic touch to your photos, then this is the place to be. Nature in its finest form.

On the Argentinean side, you have more of the waterfalls themselves and you can get really close while doing the lower walk and also have a view from above from the higher walk. Some people we spoke to seemed to be writing off the Brazilian side but I think that is really unfair; from this side you get a full panorama of the falls and it is hard not to be struck by the huge scale of this stunning natural phenomenon.

And if you are after a bit of a drenching, both sides can happily provide that as the spray is of course tremendous and actually very welcome too as it was incredibly hot and humid when we were there. You just need to be a little careful with your camera and phone but once those are safely waterproofed, it was a joy to get a little bit wet and a little cooler!

M is for Mendoza, Malbec and Medium Rare

 

Aaah, it’s a tough life going wine tasting in Mendoza, the region renowned for its world class Malbec although (as we soon learned) various other delicious wines including white wines are also produced here.  Actually because we chose to do the wine tasting by bicycle in the 30+ degree heat cycling about 25 km in the Maipu neighbourhood, it did involve a little bit of effort on our part so it wasn’t a complete indulgence (she says trying to justify it)!

Maal Vineyard, Mendoza

We visited 3 different wineries: at first we thought we would be able to fit in a lot more but actually it took a while to get from A to B and in the heat, only so much was possible. Our first vineyard was the Maal vineyard which is a really small one which only produces about 170,000 bottles of wine a year: apparently a vineyard in this region is deemed to be small if it produces only 1 million bottles each year so this one operates on a tiny scale.  They only produce Malbec but interestingly, they also produce what they call a white (or “blanc de noir”) Malbec (which had a slight pink colour) called “ambiguo” which was really delicious.  Next on the list was “impossible” a more traditional red malbec (but produced using oak staves inside the cement vats rather than traditional barrels which gave rise to its name).  Like “ambiguo” this was also served chilled which seems to be quite common practice in Argentina – in many (but not all) restaurants, our red wine has been served straight out of the fridge and that’s just because it would get too hot if stored at room temperature.  The wine specialists at the vineyards told us that it does the Malbec no harm to be stored in the fridge (at a slightly warmer temperature than a normal food fridge) but then generally once it has been opened it is left to “warm up” rather than being put in an ice bucket like white wine would be.

Trivento Winery

After a full day of wine tasting, we felt able to tackle the extremely long wine menus in the restaurants in Mendoza – they tend to list all the wines by the name of the wineries and so we were able to spot a couple of familiar names and felt like “old pros”. 

L: Now that is what I call a parilla (grill); M: A perfect rare steak; R: Cycling through Cechin vineyards

And obviously what goes well with a great bottle of Malbec when you are in Argentina?  Yes, that’s right, an amazing steak or two (or maybe three or four).  Some of the portions though were ridiculous– on one menu, the sizes were either 400g or 800g – I mean 400g is about 14 ounces so who on earth is meant to eat a 800g steak?  Even tackling 400g felt like I was eating half a (very delicious) cow and was not something that could be undertaken lightly, albeit it was a challenge I was happy to accept.  It’s strange to think though that this time last year we were pretty much vegetarian when we were in the Indian sub-continent: when in Rome etc etc.  To be fair, if you are vegetarian in Argentina, food options can be rather limited, especially outside of the big cities. 

Ice ice baby

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Perito Moreno Glacier

Not content with having seen some amazing glaciers and icebergs in Antarctica, when back on terra firma in Argentina, we went to El Calafate and did a side day trip to the Perito Moreno Glacier in Los Glaciares National Park which was great: a “must see” without a doubt.  The glacier is 250 square kilometres in size (30 km long) with 74m sticking out above the lake level and is hugely impressive.

One of the most amazing things about our visit there was the noise: every so often there were sporadic very loud cracking noises (at first, these were a little disconcerting if I’m honest) which were made by chunks of ice breaking off the glacier and falling down, sometimes into the lake creating a mini tsunami.  It’s as though the whole thing is alive and we really felt as though the whole shape of the glacier was changing even during our relatively short (3 hour) visit there.  The glacier is also quite unusual as it is still advancing (most glaciers are currently in retreat). 

Walking in Los Glaciares National Park, El Chalten

Further north in the same national park, we stayed in El Chalten which is situated in the park itself.  This allows you just to walk straight out of town either for day treks (or if you want to camp (which we didn’t) you can do longer overnight treks too).  Here again the scenery was lovely although it’s fair to say that we weren’t exactly that lucky with the weather and got drenched on both our days of walking.  In fact when we did the “big” Sendero Mount Fitzroy walk, as well as pretty high winds that actually knocked us off balance a little from time to time, we also had to contend with horizontal snow which then turned into torrential rain.  I’m not sure at what point my walking shoes stopped pretending to be waterproof but I know that I was sloshing along in them for many kilometres but by that point in time, the paths had also turned into mini rivers so it really didn’t matter – we’d reached the point where we couldn’t get any wetter and just continued to splish splosh through the water. 

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Amusingly, when the sun did eventually deign to make an appearance (at about the 14th kilometre of an 18 kilometre walk), you could see other walkers stopping to take off their boots to pour the water out of them and also to wring out their gloves and hats etc: I don’t think anyone escaped a good drenching on that particular day and when we got back to our hostel, we realised that even our money had taken a hit as well and we had to lay that out to dry.  What was a shame about the walk was that when we were at the top at Lake Torre we did not get the splendid and hoped for view of Mount Fitzroy which was a shame but never mind. 

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Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi
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View from Cerro Catedral

Fortunately as we started moving further northwards, the weather improved.  In Bariloche in the Lake District area, it was much warmer (after all it is summer in Argentina at the moment) although there was still quite a chilly wind at times and especially when we went up Cerro Catedral which was about 2100m above sea level.  It was at this point that I began to wonder why we had chosen to wear shorts especially when we were sitting on the open ski lifts and the sun had decided to disappear behind the clouds.  But fortunately it wasn’t too bad and we soon warmed up again once we descended.  This was another beautiful pocket of what is a truly beautiful country and a pleasure to visit. 

Views of Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi (Bariloche) including the cable car at Cerro Catedral

Only in China (or on a Chinese chartered cruise boat)

The lady’s question is ‘Can we eat the penguin eggs?‘” said a giggling Rose, one of the translators, to a somewhat shocked George, the British ornithologist, who had just completed his first lecture about birds with a heavy focus on conservation. He was now taking questions and this was one of the very first from one of the Chinese passengers on board the Ocean Atlantic. Once he had got over his deep and very obvious surprise, his answer was actually quite neutral. “We could if we didn’t care about conservation but on this trip, no, we won’t be serving penguin eggs in the dining room“. The question however had obviously stayed with him though as he did some more research and subsequently confirmed that in fact in the Falkland Islands, people are still allowed to eat a certain number of penguin eggs and they still do so.

All our lectures were presented in English and were then translated into Mandarin although (without actually knowing any Chinese myself), it didn’t appear that everything was translated word for word as the laughs weren’t always in the same place. And sometimes the lengths of the translations seem to bear no resemblance to the original words so who knew exactly what was being said? Mind you, hats off to the translators who had to deal with some pretty specific biological and geological terminology as well as some rather dour poetry penned by one of the members of the expedition team. At first, having to wait for the translations was a tad annoying but after a short while, we became very used to it and it even gave us an opportunity to muse over the point that had just been made while the translation was in progress.

L: It was common for people to take photos of the presentations, sometimes to upload to their own accounts; R: not everyone was a model student in lectures!

Another rather odd comment (this time addressed to the Expedition Leader) came in the form of a concern raised by a Chinese lady about her boots getting wet during a beach landing. Given we were all kitted out by the boat with rubber wellingtons, specifically for the purpose of getting off the zodiacs into shallow waters on the edge of beaches, it was somewhat mystifying how anyone felt this was an issue which needed to be raised. Perhaps they had been lulled into a false sense of security by the initial landings in the Falkland Islands which were onto jetties and therefore dry. Either way it was made very clear that all landings in both South Georgia and Antarctica would be wet and in fact in Peter’s case, one landing in particular was very wet as unfortunately he was encouraged to leave the zodiac just as a large wave came in leaving him with a wellington boot full of icy water which wasn’t ideal.

It’s fair to say that the Chinese passengers were a pretty enthusiastic bunch. Any lecturer who started their talk with a resounding “ni hao” was treated to a round of applause and those who ended with “xie xie” (thank you) were adored. In fact, throughout the 3 week trip, there was a lot of spontaneous clapping, the kind you get sometimes on an aeroplane which has just landed (always a mystery to me that one). Mind you, this enthusiasm was pretty contagious and I found myself joining in with the clapping and cheering, even the whooping, from time to time.

And on two or three occasions in particular the excitement seemed to reach stratospheric levels. When we finally made it to our most southerly point of the trip (66 degrees 45 minutes) even beyond the Antarctic Circle which we crossed at 66 degrees and 33 minute, everyone suddenly started to act like crazed were-wolves at full moon, rushing around having their photos taken in front of a massive Chinese flag someone had conveniently produced and generally being terribly over excited.

L: Photo opportunities at the Antarctic Circle; M & R: China’s Great Wall research base

But the pinnacle of the excitement levels came when we visited China’s own Great Wall research base on King George Island in Antarctica despite the total absence of any wildlife on this landing. For the international passengers, this was therefore probably the least exciting landing and a bit of a shame that it was in fact our last one, but for the Chinese passengers, this was a big deal and a moment of deep national pride for them. We were told how difficult it was to be able to reserve a landing here and were given a whole list of rules to follow, the most important of which was the specific instruction about flags and banners: no flags whatsoever other than the Chinese flag were allowed onshore here and, critically, this was not the time to produce the “Free Tibet” banner you might have to hand in your rucsac or anything else concerning another potential political hot potato such as Hong Kong and/or Taiwan. After all, this was very clearly Chinese territory.

Once back on board following the Great Wall Station landing, the levels of excitement continued and at dinner, vast quantities of wine were drunk which was unusual. And when I say “drunk”, I’d never really seen anything like it: instead of sipping wine as is customary, the Chinese simply downed in one full 175ml glasses of wine in the same way as you might down a much smaller shot. And then they refilled their wine glasses and downed it again. And so it went on which was all pretty interesting as that night we began our second Drake Passage crossing and it wasn’t quite as smooth as the first one.

And let’s not forget the sudden and somewhat surprising appearance of ‘Miss Antarctica’. On our first morning in Antarctica, the weather was pretty kind and some people decided to get rid of their big jackets for a few selfies in slightly more flattering clothes. But then suddenly one Chinese female passenger took this idea a whole lot further by coming out onto deck in her dressing gown which she soon discarded to pose for photos wearing only a bikini paired with completely impracticable furry boots which she must have packed specifically for this moment. Unbelievable.

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“Miss Antarctica”

It’s fair to say that not really surprisingly our fellow passengers were a keen bunch of photographers. A lot of them spent the trip lugging around photographic equipment that was almost bigger than them – super large cameras (often more than one) with simply enormous lenses as well as large 1.5m high tripods. On our first landing in the Falkland Islands, I even saw one passenger trying to wheel a medium sized wheelie suitcase full of his camera equipment over very bumpy (tussock grass) terrain so it was hugely impracticable – and this was for a landing which lasted maximum 1 hour! Out on deck, everyone would charge from one side of the boat to the other if someone started pointing into the ocean, just to make sure they got the best vantage point and didn’t miss out on any potential whale sighting. Given this, it was very tempting to make some arbitrary gesticulations just to get people running around. And let’s not forget the machine gun noise of all the thousands of cameras, i.e. the sound of continuous photos being taken even of (non moving) landscape scenes.


And finally you could really tell you were on a Chinese cruise ship when it came to the evening entertainment. We had regular karaoke nights as well as quiz nights, talent shows and game shows, each taken extremely seriously. In fact when the quiz master tried to introduce a degree of leniency for some of the answers to the quiz (for example allowing an answer to a question about the length or tonnage of the ship to include a small range of figures instead of an exact one), he was challenged heavily and shot down: the answer was apparently right or wrong – end of! And when it came to the question about which Antarctic research station had pulled off the feat of drilling the longest continuous borehole through the Antarctic ice sheet, all hell almost seemed to break loose when it was clear that the correct answer was not the Chinese research station (although interestingly there is an ongoing attempt by the Chinese scientists in progress to set a new record in this regard).
On the final night, there was a charity auction raising funds for the worthy hookpod charity (www.hookpod.com). At this point, we realised that we were in the company of some very rich (and generous) people. Some of the prizes (art works made by members of the expedition team) went for as much as USD 9,000 which was more than we had paid for our passage. Although even here there was a little crazy twist: the lady who made the highest bid of the night made her payment conditional on having a 15 minute sunset bird-watching walk on deck with one of the male members of the expedition team (with translator in tow of course). Only on a Chinese chartered vessel!

The Seventh Continent

20190109_084912And so finally we made it to what apparently is the highest, driest, coldest and windiest continent – Antarctica.  And it isn’t difficult to add another superlative here – the most magical continent.  One thing that truly was breath-taking (apart from the cold) was the huge scale which was almost impossible to capture in photographs.  Just being there made you realise how largely insignificant we (humans) are: snow-capped mountains rose directly out of the icy water and there was so much space and peace.  Obviously there aren’t that many visitors who have made it here – apparently in total there have only been about 140,000 visitors (including explorers, scientists and now tourists of course): that’s not that much when you consider the current world’s population currently stands at around 7.5 billion people.

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20190111_105502But it’s not an uninhabited place of course.  Here we met chinstrap penguins for the first time and reacquainted ourselves with gentoo penguins again.  It was funny to watch these fellows nicking stones from each other: apparently this is part of their mating rituals – the males try to impress the females with their choice of stones (if you remind yourself that a diamond is a stone, perhaps we humans have something in common with gentoo penguins!). 

Chinstrap penguins and chicks.  R: Chinstraps throw their head up to the sky as part of their noisy mating signal. 

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Gentoo penguin colony on Useful Island, Antarctica

Unfortunately due to ice blocking our route (a common hazard in these parts of the world!), we were unable to make it to Petermann Island where we had hoped to meet adelie penguins (who live only in the Antarctic region) and so (much like the macaroni penguins of South Georgia), these were a penguin species that got away from us.  Never mind: maybe it provides us with a reason to return in the future?  We knew that it was very unlikely that we would see any emperor penguins as they breed inland very far south in crazy weather conditions but still, all in all, we did get to see an awful lot of penguins on this trip. 

Gentoo penguins and chicks.  L: Warding off a potential attack by a skua; M: a careful selection of stones

As well as leopard seals, we saw crabeater seals and were treated to a fantastic display by a school of orca whales (also known as killer whales) who curiously approached our ship and played around it for about 20 minutes.  The water was so clear that you could see them under the water as well as when they came up to the surface properly.  A wonderful few minutes.   

L: Crabeater seal; M: Leopard seal; R: Crabeater seal near the Antarctic Circle

20190109_173530Unlike the famous explorers before us, we were nowhere near the South Pole and stayed mainly on the South Shetland Islands and the Antarctic Peninsula although we did get as far south as the Antarctic circle (unsurprisingly there wasn’t a big red line in the ocean marking the spot, not least as this is a point that is always moving: apparently we had to travel 1.2 metres further south to reach the Antarctic Circle than we would have had to have done a month earlier). However, it was a cause for celebration on the boat and marked our most southerly point of the voyage. 

L: The water became a lot icier once we were down by the Antarctic Circle; M & R: stunning iceberg formations off the Antarctic Peninsula

 

 

Drama on the High Seas

The trip was all going very well when unusually we were called back for a briefing after dinner one night. In fact in the earlier briefing that day, we had been told to get an early night as we had some early starts for our planned landings the next day (on what was to be our final day in South Georgia). Ever the obedient passengers, Peter and I were already in bed when the tannoy summoned us back to the lounge which we knew did not sound like it was to impart good news.

And it wasn’t. Unfortunately one of our Chinese passengers had had a heart attack when he had returned to the ship after a landing that day which had involved a bit of a hike (although we are not talking about anything too strenuous here). As a result, the captain had already turned the ship around and we were now hurtling full pelt back to the Falkland Islands which was due to take 2 days and 3 nights and it was very much hoped that the guy would survive the journey. It really made us realise that we were in the middle of absolutely nowhere when a ship going as fast as it possibly can still needs 2½ days to get to a hospital. As luck would have it though, one of the other Chinese passengers happened to be one of China’s leading heart surgeons so the guy was in good hands, the only problem being that the ship’s hospital wasn’t equipped sufficiently and so he couldn’t operate on board.

Drama on the High Seas indeed and for us a bit of a disappointment as we lost our final day of wildlife spotting in South Georgia and an opportunity to see another species of penguin, macaronis. To date we had literally seen only one macaroni penguin who had somehow rocked up at St Andrew’s Bay which was a king penguin colony. Rather than finding his way back to join his family and friends, he had obviously decided to hang out with the kings instead who didn’t seem to mind his intrusion. Still even if he wasn’t anxious to get back to his own kin, we would have loved to have had the opportunity to meet them, but alas it was not to be.

We therefore faced 4 consecutive days at sea while we went back to Stanley and then down to Antarctica to pick up our initial itinerary again as soon as possible. 4 sea days and an extra crossing of the famous Drake Passage but fortunately for us this was a pretty calm experience (apparently on the trip just before ours, the “Drake Shake” had been out in full force with dining furniture being turned upside down etc as the ship lurched from side to side). As always during the sea days there was a full program of lectures as well as other activities such as dance and art classes as well as dumpling making. In for a penny (or should that be a yuan!).

Almost as soon as we were notified about the ship’s turnaround, the Chinese whispers (literally Chinese whispers given we were on board a Chinese charter) began. Somehow the language barriers seemed to get broken down as the rumour mill cranked up to overdrive. We heard stories about the sick passenger making a quasi recovery within the next 24 hours and him promptly announcing that he was going to refuse to get off the boat at Stanley and was instead demanding that the captain turn the boat round again and continue with the original programme. Some said he wanted to continue to participate fully and do more landings and zodiac rides himself while others “heard” that he had agreed to stay on the ship in his cabin for the rest of the trip and would sign any sort of disclaimer put in front of him.

At first we had understood that he was a 62 year old male with no relevant medical history, but subsequent tales included the fact that apparently he had had a problem (maybe even a minor attack?) only 2 weeks before he had boarded the Ocean Atlantic and had been prescribed medication but had not been taking it since coming on board. This seemed to be put down to the fact that his wife hadn’t joined him on this part of the trip and while the cat was away, the mouse indeed seemed to be playing by not taking his pills and instead over eating (as indeed we all were), but (the gossip mongers noted further), he was eating an awful lot of eggs, bacon and ice cream (presumably separately but who really knows and nor did it really matter for the purposes of the over-heated rumour mill!).
Questions were asked (passenger to passenger only just to keep the gossipy chat alive) about why we were returning to Stanley and not pushing onto Antarctica and in particular to King George Island where there is an airport. It is here where anyone who does a flying/sailing cruise arrives by plane but these flights are highly weather dependent and do not always run to schedule. Presumably if we had sailed there, there was no guarantee that there would have been a proper flight connection for him and, more importantly, there are no medical facilities on King George Island. Obviously some people were more anxious to minimise disruption to their own trips of a lifetime rather than being too concerned about the passenger but ultimately we were all in it together.

Apparently once the captain radioed in the incident, he would then have been instructed by none other than British officials (given we were in South Georgian (and therefore British) waters when the incident happened) to proceed to Stanley. And you don’t want to upset the Brits after all! The fact that the passenger began to recover was neither here nor there; he remained a potential liability for the rest of the trip and we were unable to change course again. Apparently there are about 48 medical evacuations every season and at the time ours was in process, we understood that a French boat was also undertaking a medical evacuation too. Shame we couldn’t meet up to offload our passenger onto them although that would hardly have been practical in open waters!

L: The assembled crowd of “well wishers”; R: the British flag was raised as we approached Falkland Island waters

When we arrived at Stanley, the passenger was able to walk off the ship and get onto the hospital boat that had been sent out to meet our ship. A large number of passengers had turned out to watch him get off the boat (myself included). I wasn’t sure if the big turnout was to find out who he was, or to wish him well, or to make sure he got off the boat (given the earlier rumours) or, as in my case, it was something to see after 2 full days at sea when suddenly land was ahoy once more and there was more to see than rolling waves! A bit of excitement!

Post script: we subsequently heard that the passenger made a full recovery (again through the Chinese rumour mill). Let’s hope that piece of information was correct.

South Georgia

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Cumberland Bay glacier, South Georgia

On arrival in South Georgia, I immediately understood the comparison to the amazing Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador. The sheer volumes of the wildlife, predominantly seals and penguins, was breath-taking as was the scenery. As if we didn’t already have enough to contend with when trying to make the landings (what with the katabatic winds, fickle waves and high swells in these ever changing microclimates), on some beaches it was also difficult for the expedition team to find a good spot to land, simply because there was just so much wildlife on the beach.

The male Antarctic fur seals were pretty territorial about their patches of beach (which were reserved solely for them and their harem) and woe betide any intruders who could be charged down irrespective of size. While their “homes” may not have looked that much to the casual observer, let’s just say they were a pretty house proud bunch and the advice was to stay off their patch although in practice, this was a little tricky as stepping off one fur seal’s domain typically put you squarely into another’s!

Antarctic fur seals and king penguins

We were advised that if we were charged, rather than fleeing, we had to stand our ground and make ourselves look as tall and big as possible raising our hands above our heads (in a sort of hands-up surrender-like position) while taking the opportunity to heartily roar back. And it seemed to do the trick at least against what I would probably class as mini charges rather than full on charges which are apparently more common earlier in the season when the animals spend about 4 weeks mating during which they don’t leave their patch of land not even to feed and can lose as much as 1.5kg a day while they are fasting. In fact, when we were there, the vast majority of the seals seemed pretty chilled happily lolling around on the beach even doing some sun bathing when the weather was kind. What was quite amusing was getting “charged” by the pups who were just learning the ropes and were hugely endearing although I suspect a nip from them would not have been that pleasant so still best to avoid.

As I’ve already said, what was incredible was the sheer volume of seals that we saw, particularly given that during the height of the whaling and sealing industries in the first half of the 20th century, apparently the numbers of Antarctic fur seals reduced to only 100 animals in total. Today, apparently there are between 4 to 6 million of the furry fellows globally, with about 95% living happily (now unhunted) in South Georgia. Isn’t that a wonderful rebound story – and it certainly felt like we saw a significant percentage of that current population, there were so many of them.

The disused whaling station, Stromness. Every single one of those dots in those photos is an Antarctic fur seal (the numbers were simply crazy!)

Antarctic fur seals are not a predator of penguins, at least not normally, so in South Georgia you find penguins and fur seals living pretty harmoniously side by side.

Elephant seals (they also go through an annual moulting process like the penguins)

As well as fur seals, other neighbours of the penguins are the massive elephant seals. When I say massive, I really mean that: some males can grow up to almost 5 metres in length and weigh up to 3000kg! However, despite their size, again they are pretty harmless if you happen to be a penguin unless you get in the way of an elephant seal bull fight during which time all bets are off and apparently penguins and even seal pups (including even their own elephant seal pups) can and do get regularly crushed in the charge. Again during the peak sealing and whaling period (South Georgia was the global whaling centre until the industry collapsed in the 1960s), elephant seals were hunted aggressively: apparently despite their size they didn’t put up much of a fight and were easy targets known as “sea elephants”.

The king penguin colonies seemed to go on forever!

But probably the crown of our wildlife spotting in South Georgia went to the king penguins of which we literally saw hundreds of thousands – some simply enormous colonies including at St Andrew’s Bay which I understand is home to the world’s largest king penguin colony comprising of over 160,000 mating pairs. By the time we were there most of the chicks had already hatched and were wandering around in their rather ugly brown suits, eager to explore and also to check us out. Other older penguins had come back onshore for their annual catastrophic moult which can take between 2 to 5 weeks during which the penguins effectively fast as they don’t return to the sea to go fishing. This process led to some quite odd looks being sported during this moulting phase which is done to replenish the penguin’s waterproof feathers.

King penguin chicks

There are predators here too of course – after all, the circle of life continues no matter how upsetting it was to see injured or even dead penguins. On land, large skua birds steal eggs and chicks while in the water leopard seals aggressively hunt for penguins which is why we quite often saw relatively sizey groups of penguins on land tentatively approaching the edge of the water in case there was a strategically placed hungry leopard seal hanging around. I guess the theory was that there would at least be some safety in numbers.

King penguins: the “headless” look (as per the picture on the left) always makes me laugh

A simply stunning place to visit and even though sometimes the weather was unkind to us and we weren’t able to make all our hoped for landings, we had such an amazing time there, albeit all too short.

P-p-p-p-pick up a penguin

 

Rockhopper penguins, West Point

Of course our main reason to visit the Falkland Islands was the wildlife and it did not disappoint in this regard.  In fact here was one of my favourite landings of the whole 21 day trip, namely Saunders Island.

Black browed albatross and rockhopper penguin colonies, West Point, Falkland Islands

At West Point we walked across the island to an area of tussock grasses hidden in the middle of which were hundreds of black browed albatrosses nesting side by side with the rather diddy (approximately 50cm high) rockhopper penguins. It was a magnificent first wildlife sighting and the sheer number of birds here was spectacular.  We also got to see a striated caracara (known locally as Johnny rook) which is one of the world’s rarest birds (albeit there are fairly large numbers in the Falklands so the odds were in our favour) and various geese and other birds. 

L: Striated caracara; M: Female and male kelp geese; R: Upland Goose, West Point

That afternoon we landed on the beach of Saunders Island for a truly magical landing.  As soon as we clambered ashore from the zodiac, there were penguins everywhere, a feast for sore eyes.  This small area was home to 4 different types of penguins: magellanic, gentoo, rockhoppers and a relatively small colony of king penguins.

Gentoo penguins, Saunders Island

In the beautiful turquoise waters off a wonderful sandy beach we also saw some small commerson dolphins.  In my ignorance up until this point I had thought all dolphins were grey but these were black and white beauties.  Although were a little far away for me to capture on film, you could still see them in the water as it was so clear. Fortunately the beach here was one of the ones which is free of land mines, a fact which sadly is not true for all beaches in the Falkland Islands – another unpleasant reminder of the conflict over 35 years ago.

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The beach on Saunders Island

The rockhopper penguin colony, Saunders Island

While the rockhopper penguins seemed to keep themselves separate from the others (preferring to nest on the rocks (of course!) above the beach), the other penguins seemed more sociable and happy to intermingle, especially where the boundaries of their colonies were not clearly demarcated.  Given the vast numbers, essentially they were all nesting on top of each other but it didn’t seem to bother them too much.  

King penguins on Saunders Island including ones undertaking their annual “catastrophic moult”

The penguins were also pretty unphased by us. We were told to ensure that we remained 5 metres away from the wildlife at all times and the expedition team marked out a trail for us to follow to minimise wildlife disturbance.  However, not all of the penguins had obviously got the memo about the 5 metre rule as the more curious among them would come a lot closer to have a good look (and occasionally the odd peck).  Simply wonderful flippered fools.

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Magellanic penguins, Saunders Island