Archive for the Elephant seals Category

Antarctica and then some

Posted in antarctica, Elephant seals, Falkland Islands, Fur seals, guiding, Leopard seal, penguins, photography, South Georgia Island, tourism, travel, Uncategorized, whales, wildlife with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 29, 2012 by polarguide

Our ship, Russian owned and operated Ice class research vessel the Akademik Ioffee

For History buffs, photographers, adventurers and wildlife enthusiasts Antarctica is the ultimate vacation destination. This will be my third season working in Antarctica with One Ocean Expeditions. One Ocean offers several Antarctic voyages ranging in length from ten to eighteen days.  The crown jewel of wildlife viewing polar expeditions is the eighteen day Falkland Islands, South Georgia and Antarctica adventure.

The Falklands float 250 nautical miles west of Argentina, it takes two full days at sea  to reach the Islands.  The archipelago is a self-governing off shore territory of the United Kingdom.  There are more than 200 Islands  with a population of  3,100 people, the vast majority being of British decent.  Argentina has always claimed the Falklands to be an Argentinian territory and in 1982 the Argentinian military invaded the islands and a two month-long war ensued resulting in the defeat and surrender of all Argentinian troops.  To this day Barbed wire fences barricade beaches and pastures laden with land mines.

The Islands are a windswept landscape of stony hills and sea cliffs  punctuated  with  emerald pompoms of  tussock grass. For three days we make landings at significant wildlife viewing areas. We visit nesting sites of the Black browed albatross, Rockhopper, Magellanic and Gentoo penguins.  Fur seals, Sea lions  and elephant seals rest and raise their young on wavy beaches.  We complete our time in the Falklands with a visit to the city of Stanley, the capital of the islands, Population 1,500.  From there we begin our two-day journey to South Georgia Island.

Windy hillside of Carcass Island, Falkland Islands.

Nesting colony of Black browed albatross

Nesting pair of Black browed albatross

Magellanic Penguin

Rockhopper penguin

Captain james cook was the first person to step ashore on South Georgia Island in 1775.  The first Sealing campaign began in 1788 and by 1828 1.2 million Fur seals were slaughtered for their pelts, driving the species to the edge of extinction.  Whalers arrived in the late 1890’s and by 1930 40,000 whales had been killed. By 1965 the whale populations had declined so severely the industry was no longer economical and the whaling stations were abandoned.   During our three days on South Georgia Island we visit the remains of these whaling stations.  The bones of long abandoned building and the rusty corpses of ships that once participated in the slaughter  now serve as shelter for the Fur seals and penguins they once exploited.

Abandoned ship near whaling station

Fur seal pups take shelter under propellers from abandoned whaling ships

South Georgia Island  is one of the most intense wildlife experience on the planet.  Its stormy shores teem with life and the  number of animals on one beach can be overwhelming.  We visit King penguin colonies where the penguins number in the hundreds of thousands.  They waddle down beaches along side fur seals.  The Elephant seals stack themselves side by side so numerous you could walk their backs for the entire length of the beach, although I wouldn’t recommend it, these behemoths weigh in at eight tons.

Typical South Georgia beach

250,000 king penguins

Don’t get too close to these guys

Before landing at south Georgia we issue bright red rain-gear and green rubber boots to every passenger. This wardrobe serves two functions: It keeps the penguin poo off the passengers clothes and  helps the staff differentiate people from penguins. We lecture every passenger about how to safely conduct themselves around so much wildlife.  We remind people that Elephant seals are wild animals,and although they have a placid demeanor they can be accidentally dangerous.  “You can avoid being crushed to death” I tell people, “by not napping on the beach.”  I also advise that if while photographing a fur seal it rises up on its flippers and runs at you open-mouthed as if it might bite you, it might.  And last but not least, please don’t stand on the penguins.

Pushing the limits

Passengers give their full attention to this lecture.  They nod in agreement as if it were all common sense, but when the first zodiac surfs to a landing grown men and women revert to children. I call it the “Willy Wonka effect”. Remember that scene in Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory when Willy swings open the doors to his world of candy ?  All the children run wild stuffing their faces with exotic sweets and wreak havoc on willy’s wonderland of confection. Then the fat kid falls into the chocolate river.  landing on South Georgia Island  is a-lot like that.

A zodiac slides up the beach, red pants swing over pontoons, green boots trudge up the gravel slope and penguins scatter.  They knock into each other like concerned and confused umpa-lumpas. I stand back and watch the comedy unfold: People can’t control themselves, I watch them chase penguins with their point and shoots cameras. To my left I see someone topple over a penguin while walking backwards trying to take a photograph. A little old lady runs past me with an angry fur seal hot on her heels while to my right a man inches too close to a mountain of Elephant seals, daring one to crush him. And then the fat kid falls into the chocolate river, except the river isn’t chocolate its a hot puddle of penguin shit mixed with Elephant seal dung.

After snapping several thousand photographs everyone relaxes. The penguins catch their breath and with the guidance of experienced staff people learn that if they just stand still the wildlife becomes curious.  Slowly, animals assemble to gawk at the strange creatures with red legs and awkward green feet.  Penguins side up to inspect the new comers in a highbrow manner, as if comparing wardrobes. At the end of every excursion passengers return to the ship in a state of joy. cocktail hour and dinner are all a buzz with tales of the day.  Everyone has an exciting story to share of their intimate wildlife experience.

Close encounters with Fur seal pups

Communing with king penguins

Our last stop at south Georgia is at Grytviken whaling station to visit the grave of Antarctica’s most famous explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton.  We make a procession to his grave and toast the boss with a slug of whiskey then spend the afternoon walking among the relics of the whaling station.

Grytviken whaling station

Shackleton’s Grave

As we sail south I watch from  the aft deck as the island fades into the northern horizon.  Here I become washed by a wave of nostalgia.  Our ship surfs the wake of  histories great heroes. We are following a course set by men such as: Vasco DA Gamma, Ferdinand Magellan, Francis Drake, James cook and Thaddeus Von Bellinghausen. Our destination, a continent so secluded its existence remained a myth until it was first sighted in 1820. Antarctica.

The ice in Antarctica is immense and looms above everything like a great glinting mountain.   Black cliffs reach to the sun as if trying to escape the sinking weight of the blue blanket if ice .  The entire continent is entombed in a world of winter.

Enormous iceberg dwarfs a zodiac

The continent is frozen under seven thousand feet of glacial ice, the downward force drives its plastic mass seaward until its precipice shatters into the ocean creating icebergs the size of small countries.  The bergs glow a surprising shade of blue that seems to radiate from deep inside, as if an icy neon light burned at its core. The temperature of the thick ocean drifts around 32 degrees. There are no trees, the vegetation is limited to lichen and moss.  It is a stark world of contrast that shines like a jewel.

Breaking through sea ice below the Antarctic circle

Regardless of the harsh, barren environment Antarctica flourishes with life.  The extended summer sunlight and constant upwelling current create a marine soup that supports a complex and bountiful ecosystem.  Thousands of Penguins nest on rocky snow-covered hill sides.  Leopard seals, crab eater seals and Wedell seals nap on ice floes while orca whales hunt through a maze of icebergs.  humpback whales graze on krill in the frigid inky water.  Being there  feels like  you have traveled through time to a place before people.  A place where the earths forces conduct a symphony life.

Lonely penguin returning to the nest

Close encounter with a Humpback whale

Orca whales dwarfed by Antarctic landscape

My first voyage departs November 8th.

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