Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Why I'd Revisit S. Georgia

A few birds and a few marine mammals sighted on the way to Argentina
     After S. Georgia we had planned to visit Sea Lion Island in the Falklands, but sadly - this was not to be.  Guess why?  Yes, weather.  Again. We sailed all thee way there but could not land.
      It seemed like the 19 day trip to S. Georgia was way too short, with the time it took to get there, and the many landings prevented or cut short by weather.  Wildlife trips are always a crapshoot in that you never know what you will see, there are never any guarantees, you have to go with the flow, and itineraries are subject to change.  Still, generally even if you can't have the experiences you had planned, you can do something, and overall it doesn't seem like there is a lot of downtime.  For example, in the Galapagos there were a few days where we couldn't snorkel as planned due to storms or poor visibility, but we still had enough snorkeling that it didn't seem like a big deal in the overall trip to miss a couple.  In Raja Ampat, Indonesia, we could not always snorkel where planned due to currents, but we always found a place to get in the water that was workable, we just might have to move the ship or wait a bit. 
     S. Georgia seemed different - and I think the way to approach a trip in the southern ocean, whether to Antarctica, S. Georgia or the other islands in that part of the world, is to expect you will not be able to do 1/3 of the landings.  Just accept going in that 1/3 of the itinerary is unlikely to be possible - you don't know which third until you get there.  When you can't land, there is nothing else to do - you read or hang out on the ship but there is not an alternate activity, there is down time.  You might get lucky and not miss 1/3 of your planned landings, or you might get unlucky and miss more than 1/3, but I highly recommend having the expectation that you just physically cannot do about 1/3 of what you plan to do, so stock up on your Kindle books and don't be surprised.  It is also a little shocking how much travel time it takes to get to S. Georgia and back, and between landings - it doesn't pay to do the math on hours spent on the ship vs. land, it would not be a number I'd want to see.  I know there's a TON more ship time than land time.  But still, it's worth it - and knowing going in what the time investment is would be a plus the second time around.  The first time is was a bit of a shock.
     Each landing site was unique and special, and I understood, having been to S. Georgia, why so many people who go do in fact repeat the trip and go more than once.  As I wrote in my post about the beginning of the trip, I was shocked how many repeat visitors there were to a place so hard to get to and on a trip so expensive most would consider it once in a lifetime.  But now I completely get it.
     First, you want to go back to see the landing sites you missed the first time due to weather. 
     And second, you want to go back to see again the incredible places that were so stunning, yet so overwhelming they were hard to completely take in.  Having been to St. Andrews Bay once, for example, I know where the colony is and how the terrain is and where I would want to spend more time ashore.  The same is true of all sites.
     For me personally, the incredible shock of evidence of all the massive killing, and how much mankind has managed to completely screw up this unique ecosystem in just a few hundred years was like a very strong undertow the first part of the trip.  Although it bothered me throughout the trip in the same way visiting a holocaust museum weighs on one, eventually I learned to cope with it and set it aside enough to be in the present, which is very hard to do for an introspective person sometimes.  I am sure it would still be difficult again, but not with the same intensity.  My best analogy is how I felt visiting the Rwanda genocide museum.  The first time, I didn't sleep for a few days, and I carried some of the images I saw with me for months (and still have them, though farther in mental storage now vs. present and disturbing me unexpectedly).  The intensity of the horror was staggering; the scale and the degree of cruelty was previously unknown to me and as I learned details and saw photos, it was horrific beyond measure.  I then read a ton of books on the genocide, and when I revisited a few years later, more educated and with more reflection, I had better coping skills.  The atrocities were just as horrific but I was in a better mental and emotional place to deal with them and carry on - the museum remained terribly moving but was no longer so overwhelming it was hard to function. 
     Third, the density of wildlife is stunning and it is far more sparsely visited than Galapagos and thus far more appealing a place to spend time with animals who do not fear man.  Having had a baby elephant seal in my lap once, how could I not crave another?  Having had penguins walk past me mere inches away, unbothered, and fur seals mock charge me, and giant elephant seals bellow so close to me the steam from their chest gets into my could I not want to experience those magical moments again?
     Fourth, it takes awhile to figure out the logistics of such a trip - and the second time around I would not fret about what gear to wear or bring, or worry about getting on and off the zodiac.  Repeaters know when to queue up and how to efficiently spend the maximum time at each landing site and the least amount of time waiting for zodiacs.  This is a different kind of trip and there is a learning curve, and right when you learn how to do it well, the trip is over.  One is left with a sense of disappointment, as though there is unfinished business.  It's like learning an instrument and then never getting to play it again.  Bummer.
The metal stairs off the side of the ship and a zodiac; mastering
 getting on and off the ship was non-trivial and took time
      Fifth, the Southern Ocean summer is so short, each week belongs to a different activity - so visiting one time of year you will see mating elephant seals and elephant seal pups, as I did, but a different time of year will bring mating fur seals and fur seal pups.  One week offers penguins buildings nests, another time penguins sitting on eggs, another time penguin chicks.  Whale activity varies greatly as well.  I now know what to expect in November on S. Georgia, but I haven't seen the offerings for December, January, February or March! 
     If I had the money, I would visit once a year, despite all the expense and the hassle and the difficulty.  I would go into it each trip with the notion that I had bought a chance to land and nothing more, and wait to see what the weather brought.  I have no idea if I will ever make it back to S. Georgia, but I do hope so, and I no longer scratch my head in disbelief at the repeat visitors.
     I wish I had links to all the blogs and websites that had photos taken on the same S. Georgia trip I was on.  I should have done a better job of tracking them down, but I was in a kind of shock after the trip that made it hard to think about such details.  I do know there are a few, if they are of interest, to see what others captured from the same trip.
     Clemens Vanderwerf, a professional photographer whose photos I really, really admire has a few photos from the trip (and trips he has taken to Antarctica) on his website.  I think his photos are stunning.  Sean Traynor is a photographer who took some really great photos on the S. Georgia trip and was also on the Antarctica portion with us; this is his website. An interesting video blog, that captures a lot of the sounds of S. Georgia, done by fellow passenger Glenn Bartley, can be viewed on Youtube here. Marian Herz was a professional photographer who worked really hard to capture pippet photos (among others) and her website is here.  Arthur Morris, a professional photographer specializing in birds, had several posts with his photos; you can start here and search "South Georgia" on his blog if you want to see more. A fellow traveler who was not a professional photographer wrote a lovely blog about the trip you can see here.  I know there are many others and it was/is interesting to see what others took away from the same landings.
     We sailed for Ushuaia, Argentina, and that meant crossing the dreaded Drake Passage, which generations have classed as the roughest part of the world's oceans.  Sailors back in whaling days wrote of how difficult the passage was to cross, and how many feared the journey.  Based on the storm we went through to get from the Falklands to S. Georgia, I could really see why one would fear the passage. 
     We got unlucky and had a storm on the way to Argentina, crossing the Drake.  Once again, everything was tossed violently around the ship.  All the windows and port holes were closed.  All one could do was take the seasickness medicine of choice and wait it out, being tossed about in the process.  For two long days.  At long last, after more dishes were broken, etc., we arrived in Ushuaia, where we had to disembark for a few hours as the crew readied the  ship for a new group of guides (different company) and passengers, ready to sail for Antarctica that evening.
Sighting land again, Ushuaia

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Prion Island, S. Georgia

    Our final stop at S. Georgia was Prion Island, which is heavily regulated, so we broke into small groups.  A boardwalk has been constructed so that people don't destroy the habitat, which is probably a good thing.  This is an island where wandering albatross and other birds have nests.  The wandering albatross is one of the world's biggest birds.  Supposedly they breed every other year, but not until they are 11 to 13 years of age, and only 30% of chicks survive.  You have to go to a very remote place indeed to see a nest, so even though I am not a birder, it was an interesting experience.
     The chick, although mostly fledged, still had some white downy fuzz.  Sitting alone on a blustery cliff, waiting for its parents to return with food, the chick was already bigger than mature giant petrels curled up nearby.
 The chick spent a good deal of time stretching out his or her wings in the wind, but never leaving the ground - or the nest.

Pretty incredible nest location, protected from predators
     Here's a small video of the chick stretching its wings in the wind, probably just a few days from attempting his or her first flight.  I hope this chick made it and is flying somewhere right now.

Salisbury Plain, S. Georgia

     The last morning we were in S. Georgia, we landed at Salisbury Plain.  For once, the weather was nice the entire time, so we were able to stay ashore the entire time and not have to return freezing.  It was also one of the few landings where my husband and I were together, as often he took the optional hike while I focused on wildlife.  By this point in the trip, we had finally mastered landings - transferring from the zodiac to the ship or to the shore, managing what to bring ashore to be ready for all conditions, etc.  so it wasn't stressful anymore.  It was amazing how 78 passengers and at least 20 staff could be ashore and yet all disappear, with each off doing his or her own thing, taking photos or walking among the animals.  There were always a few people trying to photograph the S. Georgia pippet and people trying to get various photos or angles on the penguin colony. 
     Birders were excited about the S. Georgia pippet as it had been all but eradicated, though endemic, by invasive rats.  Rats brought by ships ate pippet eggs on the mainland of S. Georgia for decades, and the only pippets that survived were on small islands not attached to S. Georgia proper.  However, recently a rat eradication  program was undertaken - a speaker came aboard and explained how it was done.  Essentially poison pellets were dropped on the island to kill the rats, and they made a calculation that although some other species might eat the poison and die, if the program worked and the rats died off, endemic pippets could return - and if they could not return they would go extinct.  Apparently the program was a success and the rats were killed off, en masse, and so in 2015 pippets were seen for the first time on the main island.  Much rejoicing among birders over this success.  I tried not to dwell on the massive poisoning, terrible way to die, and once again the tragedy wrought by careless and idiotic humans by bringing rats in the first place.  Watching the little pippets, I was glad all the same they were where they belonged, and not extinct...what terrible effort we must go through to try to repair the damage we have done.  At least some of it can still be repaired.
     I spent several hours sitting in the tussock grass overlooking the colony and watching behavior.  Individual penguins coming from the ocean searched for their chicks in the colony.  Chicks looked for parents.  There were all kinds of behaviors among the various penguins in groups. I haven't found words to do this experience justice, and my photos don't either, but here are a few glimpses into this incredible experience.
With hundreds of thousands of penguins, it is hard to focus on any one individual, yet each and every one has a personality and a place in the group.  This was a curious chick I watched for some time,

Once again it is hard to capture the scale, but penguins stretched from the shore to the mountain
A chick and parent find each other, and the chick enjoys a meal
Groups of chicks huddle together with rivers of adults intermingled
Skuas and giant petrels chased after some of the chicks and clearly looked for weak ones.  Among the chicks, some go to the middle of the group to hide, and others emerge as little leaders.  This cute little chick is telling the skua to get lost and protecting all his little chick buddies.

Although it is stunning to see all the penguins, there are also many who haven't made it.  In this photo, there is a skeleton of a penguin to the right, a body of a deceased chick in the upper left, and also one at the very top.  It was indeed sad to see all the dead penguins, but it is nature, without intervention.
This lucky chick has a moment with BOTH its parents
A parent affectionately grooming its chick

I never tired of this cute stretch of an elephant seal
This kind of stretch made the front of the elephant seal look flat
A band of adults coming in from the sea
Incredible scenery in addition to incredible wildlife
The elusive S. Georgia pippet
S. Georgia pintail
With all the movement of animals, it seems like there is always a flowing stream
An adult calls for its chick among the masses
     By this stage of the trip I had also gotten better at videos - though I am still way behind the average 12 year old, I'm sure.  I tried to capture a few of the sights and sounds, a few seconds here and there.  I have had a huge objection to video forever - mainly as it consumes real time, and I prefer to capture moments - but I do like that it captures some of the way the animals move and how they sound.  There is enough value in that to outweigh some of my reluctance to video.

And the funny squack of the elephant seal pup:

Friday, April 21, 2017

Incredible St. Andrews Bay, S. Georgia

This place was breathtaking
    Words can't really do justice to our landing the next day at St. Andrews Bay.  Weather had made our prior attempt at this landing site impossible previously, but we took another chance another day.  The passengers who had visited before all said this was one of the best landing sites and were very excited about it, but it was impossible to know how good it would be.  Pictures likely won't do this landing any justice either, but this will be a photo-centric post to try and capture at least a bit.  We got up early for morning sunrise/golden hour light - which this far south meant getting up before 4am.  The dedicated crew and guides went out of their way to give us such an amazing opportunity.     From the landing site it was a long hike to the colony, across a river, and I was glad to have my husband's help navigating the terrain.  When we finally reached the colony, it was mind blowing, with over a million penguins, both adults and chicks.
King penguin chicks make small brown rivers among the adult penguins
It wasn't possible to capture the scale of the penguins beneath the mountains
A river ran from the mountains to the ocean, through the penguins
The light was amazing, but I'm not a good enough photographer to do it justice
Isolating one "Oakum Boy" chick among the hundreds of thousands for a photo
There was something hypnotic and mesmerizing about a colony so huge

The chicks literally seemed to light up as the sun rose
One of the most gorgeous scenes I've ever witnessed
The chicks were so chubby they were sometimes larger than adults
I tried to take a video of the scene but it is a complete failure at truly capturing the scope and scale - at least there is a little sound:

Some penguins headed farther up the mountains, a very long trek from  the sea
Close up of some of the molting King penguins at St. Andrews Bay
Rivers of penguins - hard to describe
Once the morning light was gone...penguins coming ashore to the colony
A male elephant seal nuzzled into the sand on the beach
I love these adorable elephant seals!!!  As if a million penguins weren't enough.....

Two males fighting for mating rights; I should have videotaped it for sound and action

I tried to capture the movement of one of these big guys across the beach; this is short but I love it.  Must learn to take video, this trip taught me that.
This male is calling loudly, showing bloody battle scars
I love the expressions on the faces of both victorious male and "prize"female
Despite the size difference, they successfully mated just a few feet from the zodiac

Two males fighting for another female along the beach; busy mating season!
The Ortelius in the distance

Fortuna Bay, S. Georgia

      I have experienced a lot of windy places, and even been in a hurricane once, but the strongest wind I have ever been in was at Fortuna Bay on S. Georgia Island.  My husband slept in, and I headed to the landing site on my own.  This proved problematic, because on this particular landing, there were a lot of large fur seals.  Every time I tried to sit or lay down to get some photos of penguins from a low angle, a fur seal came after me, and I had to scramble to my feet.  (Once again, I was really grateful that they bark to warn before attacking).  It would have been good to have someone to play defense.
    Shortly after landing I came across two Arctic terns.  They were trading a bug back and forth.  I'm not a birder by any means, but I stayed and watched them for awhile, with their unique red webbed feet. These two were cheeky.
     I spent a lot of time with King penguins. There were lots of them swimming along the shore ready to come ashore and walk to the colony. There were several groupings here and there I spent time trying to photograph, despite the attacking fur seals.  There was a river or stream of water that had been frozen and penguins were breaking the ice and trying to cross, a few at a time.  It was very cold and windy most of the time, with some snow flurries.  I walked a long way - especially challenging in the heavy polar boots. 
King penguins getting ready to come ashore
I tried to get a very short video of the birds coming ashore - though I'm terrible at video.
     I don't know whether the water was a stream or river, salt water or fresh, but it varied in width and depth and was a challenge for me to cross as well as the penguins.  I caught a small video of a molting penguin, with the funny mohawk look.
This is my favorite photo from this landing
     Someone always has to go first - I never did decipher their selection system.
      This is one of two leucistic penguins, with unusually pale coloring, I saw during the trip. 
      When I was far away from everyone else, way at the end of the beach, I started to head back.  It was tricky, as I mentioned previously, as every 5 feet or so was a territorial fur seal.  At one point, a wind gust literally picked me up and blew me a couple of feet into a fur seal, who barked and also ran at me.  This was the only time I was attacked where I had to raise my hands, stand my ground, and seriously hope.  My heart was really pounding and he stopped less than a foot from me.  I slowly backed away, and all was well.  I didn't take a photo of the one that attacked, but this photo is of a similar fur seal.
     One more layer of depressing stuff this trip: reindeer antlers - here is an example.  Apparently at some point some moron decided to introduce reindeer (what could possibly go wrong with putting an invasive species on an isolated island?)  The result was destruction of tussock grass, and eventually, many, many years later (bit not many before I arrived) the reindeer were exterminated.  Yep, all the innocent reindeer, imported long ago and surviving peacefully ever since, to the detriment of endemic species, were murdered, and the evidence they were there remains.  In the end it is for the best they are no longer there, but it is still terrible they had to die as they did, all because of stupid human error.
     Eventually, the weather changed, and instead of snow there was some sun.  I laid on the freezing rocks of the beach for as long as I could stand it, watching the penguins go out into the ocean to feed and come back in to return to the colony, talking to each other all the while.
     Every landing had its elephant seals.  I liked this big male, lounging among the tussocks to the right of the landing site.  He snoozed the entire time I was at Fortuna Bay.
     This big male had a small harem he was keen on protecting.  I didn't see any fighting here among the elephant seals though - there seemed to be enough space and enough females for everyone.
     Overall it was a pleasant day, but a bit stressful with the constant fur seal warnings, and always having to be on guard.  I also found the cold and wind draining, so I was glad to get back to the ship when I decided to call it a day.  If I had been with someone else I would have liked to stay longer, but I was exhausted with constantly getting up and down trying to take photos yet not get bitten by the fur seals.