Wednesday, January 30, 2013

December 28, 2012: The Falkland Islands

Throughout all of my travels, there have been very few instances in which I have been overcome by emotion upon visiting a new place—today was one of those days.  Our first stop in the Falklands Islands was West Point Island in the west Falklands.  I knew there would be a large breeding colony of black-browed albatross that we would be visiting and I was incredibly excited as this is one of my favorite birds.  Arriving on West Point, we hiked about 1km over a ridge (spotting kelp and upland geese, long-tailed meadow larks, a grass wren, black faced ground tyrants, and black-chinned siskins) to reach the breeding colony.  As soon as I reached the top of the ridge, I was overcome with emotion, tears streamed down my face (even writing about it now, days later, it still gets to me).  There they were, within inches, 100’s of nesting black-browed albatross amidst 100’s of nesting rockhopper penguins.  Maybe 1000's of each now that I think about....either way, there were a lot of birds!

Blackbrowed albatross

Unconcerned with our presence the albatross went about their daily routine of feeding their chicks, preening their mates, and flying out to sea to feed.  With an 8 foot wing span, landing in a busy colony is a less than graceful event; taking off also requiring some maneuvering to get into a position in which their large wings will catch the wind.  This being the reason albatross often nest high on cliffs or ridges.  I spent nearly three hours sitting near the colony, taking photographs, and enjoying one of the most stunning moments I have ever had in all of my travels.

Left: Rockhopper penguin, Center: Blackbrowed albatross reigning over the Rockhopper penguins, Right: Rockhopper penguin disagreement

Left: Gentoo from the Falklands, Right: Gentoo from the
Antarctic Peninsula
But the fun did not end there!  In the afternoon we sailed north to Saunders Island, home to 5 species of breeding penguins (well to be fair, there was just one Macaroni penguin).  Magellanic penguins, striated caracaras, and Falkland Island Steamer ducks (of the flighted variety) greeted us on the beach.  Moving towards the center of the island we found several Gentoo penguin colonies, most with large chicks that looked to be 3-4 weeks old.  Used to seeing Gentoo penguins in Antarctica, these Gentoos immediately looked different to me.  Their beaks and feet were bright orange rather than the reddish-orange typical of Gentoo penguins in Antarctica which suggests a diet that contains less krill than their Antarctic counterparts (the krill providing the red pigments—think Flamingoes and their pink plumage).  The Gentoo penguins in the Falklands also have more, white spotting across their nape, behind their eyes, and down their necks while the Gentoos further south have a complete white band from eye to eye with little to no spotting on the black head and neck.  Further on we came to a small group of king penguins, the first I have ever seen, and then a large rockhopper penguin and imperial shag colony high on a cliff.

Falkland Island Steamer ducks

Gentoo penguins, Saunders Island

The waters in this bay are crystalline blue and turquoise, almost as if they should be in the Caribbean somewhere--making seeing penguins swimming about seem out of place.  Though I will say the contrasting black and white of the penguins with the turquoise background was simply stunning and from what I heard from some brave waders, the clear waters here should not be mistaken for the warm seas of the Caribbean.  It was hard to drag everyone off of that beach to return to the ship, especially knowing that this was our last landing.  Tomorrow morning we are to arrive in Port Stanley, on the eastern side of the Falklands, to disembark.  It is here in Port Stanley that I will wait with two other staff members from One Ocean for the Vavilov to arrive on December 31.  For then it is on to what may be the best adventure yet…South Georgia!!!

Magellanic penguins coming ashore

December 25, 2012: Antarctica, where one always gets a white Christmas

Every year people ask me if I “miss Christmas” since I travel to the Antarctic over the holidays.  It is a simple question of course, but for me, travelling over the holidays for the past 3 years, it is a bit more complex.  On the simplest level, I couldn’t miss Christmas if I tried--December 25 arrives in the south polar region too!  Santa even made his way down via zodiac on Christmas morning!  Of course this is not what people mean when they ask if I miss Christmas, Christmas is more than a date on the calendar.  It is about spending time with your friends and family, laughing, eating, reminiscing, eating….

I am fortunate in that I have two families with whom I can celebrate Christmas, my ship family and my family back home in the U.S.  This year my ship family included a big part of my Wilmington family in having Kate, Mark, and their daughter Annie on board.  This year our ship Christmas was quite festive.  A few days before Christmas we all gathered in the lounge one night to decorate; we made snowflakes, strings of popcorn (well, that was the idea though I am pretty sure the only place popcorn went was in our bellies), strung up lights, and stuck cloves into oranges filling the lounge with the smells of the holidays.  On Christmas Eve, during happy hour, we sang Christmas carols, with many of us wearing festive Christmas attire.  The staff all gathered together for a secret Santa gift exchange, it was great fun and felt like spending the holiday with my extended family.

Christmas day began with Santa arriving on the starboard side of the ship to take passengers out on a zodiac cruise through about 12 nautical miles of ice packed around Elephant Island.  This was one of the best zodiac cruises I have ever been on.  The ice was just incredible.  After a few hours and few frozen toes later we returned to the ship for a Christmas BBQ on the stern deck.  And like any good BBQ on a bright sunny day, it quickly segued into a stern deck dance party.  A dance party being the perfect solution to getting blood flowing to those frozen toes and fingers.  We toasted the Antarctic just before setting sail for the Falkland Islands for the last adventures on this trip. 

Left: zodiac cruising through ice. Center: Crabeater seal. Right: Chinstrap penguin

So to answer the question, no, I do not miss Christmas—I am lucky enough to have three Christmases this year.  I had one very special celebration before I left and will celebrate with my family when I return on January 16.  In between those I had a wonderful, white Christmas with a fantastic group of friends aboard the Ioffe.  After all, how many people can say they had a BBQ dance party on a ship in the Antarctic for Christmas?

Christmas BBQ and dance party on the stern deck of the ship