Antarctica, Falkland Islands & South Georgia with Dale Morris
It all starts in Argentina’s Ushuaia; the southernmost city on earth; a modern, western-style locale and the staging point for cruise liners heading down south to the Antarctic.
Here, we meet in the plush Albatross hotel, shake hands with our fellow guests for the first time, and then go explore the town for a while.
We walk the pedestrian paths along the cold-water bay, enjoying the birding there, and we explore the town and dine in the restaurants made famous for the region’s specialty dish – king crabs served up in myriad different styles.
And then we are off- All aboard the Ocean Diamond; a luxury cruise liner with a hull made for ice.
It takes us a day and a while to sail down the beagle channel and over to the Falkland Islands. A time used well by finding our sea legs, familiarizing ourselves with the shipboard routine, and doing a spot of bird watching from the back of the vessel.
There are albatross and gannets and other seafaring avians, all of which make for wonderful photo opportunities as they glide like kites between white horses and clouds.
There are also daily scheduled lectures from the expert and qualified staff aboard; a series of entertaining talks about Antarctic history, bird biology, glaciers, and all things polar
Between bouts of eating the delectable food served up in the ship’s restaurant, watching the ocean from the many viewing decks, and taking photos; there is very little time for anything as frivolous as boredom.
And soon enough, we find ourselves dropping anchor off West Point and Carcass island- our first opportunities to make landfall.
Despite its somewhat ominous title, Carcass island is not named after corpses, but rather a sailing ship used by the British in the 18th century. It’s a green place, somewhat Scottish in appearance, and is home to numerous charismatic birds.
We walk for a while, visiting beaches where steamer ducks and oystercatchers search the high tideline for food, and we pause to take photographs of our first penguin colony.
Magellanics gather in large numbers ashore; as do a smattering of gentoos; their red-coloured beaks offering a splash of colour among the greens of the heather and the gray of the skies.
West point is even more exhilarating, and after a stroll up into the surrounding hills, we arrive at an amazing shared colony of Albatross and rockhopper penguins.
The giant gull-like birds soar alongside beautiful sea cliffs, coming in to land on terrestrial nests made of mud. They dance to one another in graceful displays of fidelity; bowing in a courtly manner before stretching their necks to the skies in unison.
They share this site with the penguins; stout little fellows who bicker and squabble amongst themselves; vying for space in a crowded colony of hundreds, if not thousands, of Sub Antarctic birds
Of course, this all makes for a wonderful place to take photos, as do the zodiac cruises we participate in, where seals are seen, as is the small, yet beautiful pied Commerson’s dolphins. They huff and puff through the waves, and come close to our little boats to see what we are.
Our 2nd full day on the Falklands introduces us to Port Stanley; the capital town of this small group of islands. It feels a bit like Britain here, which is no surprise really, seeing as the place is populated by those who hail from that faraway European country.
Quaint 70s-style houses skirt a calm water bay. Churches and museums and war memorials are evident as are British-style pubs that serve beer on tap to go along with a traditional menu of fried fish and chips.
But we are not really here for the towns and the culture (as nice as they are) instead, we board a bus and head out to visit a coastal bay where wildlife abounds. This day, the sky is an unusual blue, and the white sands and bright garish yellows of gorse flowers make for beautiful backdrops to a wonderful landscape photography session.
There are gentoos again, upon the beaches, and there are raptors and other feathered specialties in the sky and amongst the heather-like plants that cover these islands in a dense coat of life.
And then were out at sea again, cruising in a south-easterly direction towards the lonely island of South Georgia.
It’s a stunning place to be sure. A landscape of towering mountains and snowfields.
Here we make landfall on the amazing Salisbury plains. It’s foggy when we arrive, but despite the lack of visual clarity, we can well hear the residents even before we disembark at the beach in our zodiacs
Hundreds of thousands of king penguins fill the air with their braying songs; fur seals bark and play in the shallows, and elephant seals belch and gurgle like old drunkard men.
It’s a marvel to see all these penguins. They are stately birds, and beautiful to behold.
And what’s more, they’re not shy at all.
We wander at leisure amongst them, taking hundreds of photos of fields full of magnificent birds, and we watch young seals at play in the ponds and freshwater streams that flow through the grasslands. Often, we are surrounded. Wildlife all around, just meters away.
And then the mist lifts.
Oh, my word- what a sight! Suddenly we see where we truly are- a plain of never-ending penguins surrounded by marvelous mountains all covered in snow.
There are ice fields in the distance. Sparkling and white. There are black jagged peaks and swirling clouds. There is the sea; blue and black, and then there are the kings. So many of them, that one can hardly comprehend the size of this colony.
Wherever one looks there is an award-winning photo to be taken. It’s almost overwhelming.
From territorial pairs defending their space from intruders with harsh slaps from their flippers to an endless horizon of densely packed birds. Salisbury plain must surely be one of the world’s true natural wonders.
It’s just one of the amazing locations we are to visit on South Georgia over the subsequent 3 days.
A photographic highlight (and there are so many) was a landing at an old whaling station that has long since been abandoned by humans and has now been commandeered by territorial sea lions.
They hold their ground against each other; snarling and snapping like dogs at the feeding bowl, and we walk among them, also snapping, but with cameras, not teeth.
And then if the Salisbury plain was not awe-inspiring enough; we spend a morning visiting Gold Harbor. It is here that we are treated to the amazing spectacle of yet more colonies of king penguins. A long sweeping beach terminates at a hanging glacier, but the beach is not really something you can see. This is because it is so densely packed with giant elephant seals and uncountable penguins, that one can scarcely make out the sand beneath them.
The rolling waves are alive with the colours of the kings as they to-and-fro between their feeding grounds out at sea. Brown downy chicks, waddle in agitation; searching for their parents and begging for food.
Sometimes they get confused, and will approach a photographer; flippers quivering and beaks stretched towards us as if we will somehow regurgitate a fish for them.
Beach masters (the name given to mature bull elephant seals) raise themselves to their full height and battle against each other with the ferocity of berserkers. These behemoths can weigh more than four tons, and it’s easy to see how they got their name.
After several fruitful shore landings and zodiac cruises, we end our foray into, and around, South Georgia with a visit to Grytviken; a glorious mountain-backed harbor that was once the main whaling station on the island.
Giant vats and rusting machinery serve as a witness to what was once an industrious era of slaughter when whales were almost hunted into extinction, and seals and penguins were rendered down into fats that were used for everything from street lighting to soaps and lip balms.
We now live in somewhat more ‘enlightened’ times, and the only purpose that the ghost town of Grytviken now serves is as a historical monument to darker days, now thankfully gone.
We wander among the ruins and take photos of the wildlife who have reclaimed the area. Oxidized whaling ships list in the shallows, and penguins walk up and down the footpaths that lead to a gift shop and museum.
After a lengthy photo session, we all get together at the last resting place of Ernest Shackleton and lift a toast of Shackleton whisky to this gone, but never forgotten, explorer
Although the wildlife and scenery of South Georgia and the South Polar regions are why we have traveled down here to the ends of the earth, human history is every bit as fascinating, as are the remnants that the early colonizers and explorers have left in their wake.
After three days on South Georgia, it’s now time to head south towards the Antarctic Peninsula, a journey that takes several days, but one that rewards us with unforgettable seabird encounters, fascinating lectures, and our first sighting of icebergs.
Mid-journey we encounter the massive A-76a iceberg, a mind-boggling island of floating ice that is 120km long and larger than some European countries.
It is massive at its face; rising like a giant shimmering wall into the sky above us as we sail alongside it, photographing prions and albatross as they shadow our ship.
Eventually, this monstrous shelf will break apart and dissipate into nothingness, but for now, it stands tall; ominous and impressive, and testimony to the incalculable grandeur of the icy Antarctic
When we eventually reach the Peninsula, we are all awestruck by its splendor, as we plow ever further south in search of the elusive emperor.
This bird is the holy grail of penguins and is usually only available to see on specialized fly-in tours. We were fortunate enough that the Ocean diamond was able to push through the floating icebergs and gravelly sea for an encounter with these enigmatic creatures.
Photos were taken, and the birders on board were beside themselves with joy.
That night there was a party in the ship’s bar, as people celebrated the sighting of an animal that most people can never dream to encounter.
The next four days were spent exploring the great continent of Antarctica, from the peninsula to the sheltering South Shetland islands, where numerous land excursions were undertaken.
We walked upon snow and ice and photographed colonies of charismatic chinstrap and Adele’s penguins, and we cruised in zodiacs on calm sheltered waters in a Disneyesque world of bright blue ice.
Its beauty was at times overwhelming, and the magnificence of the floating bergs and towering glaciers would take our breath away.
On one excursion, our zodiac driver skillfully pushed through the ice until we were able to approach a leopard seal – one of the top predators of the Antarctic. On another excursion, humpback whales lifted their tales in front of us, an icy cliff of brilliant blue and white making for an awesome photographic backdrop.
Our cameras never stopped clicking, and we often found ourselves having to replace our overflowing memory cards with new ones, or else risk losing the opportunity to take ever more photos.
But sadly, all good things must eventually come to an end and it was time to turn the bow and head back towards the real world, but not before we had time to raise a glass and a raise a cheer to the wonderful experiences we had had.
Now the real work lies ahead, as we sit in front of our computers at home, and try to sort through all of the incredible photographs we have taken.
A trip to the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic islands is a once-in-a-lifetime experience- unless, of course, you come back for another go. After all, there’s always one more photograph to take.
From the ORYX Team would like to extend our heartfelt gratitude to all of you who joined us on the Antarctica, Falkland Islands & South Georgia Expedition. Your participation has made it an even more memorable and unique experience.
Thank you also for sharing all your incredible images with us. These pictures serve as a testament to the wonderful memories and experiences we shared together and will be treasured for years to come.
Once again, thank you for being part of this incredible journey and for capturing it so beautifully through your photographs.
We hope to continue creating new and meaningful experiences together. Your passion for photography and appreciation for the natural world inspires us, and we are honored to have had the opportunity to guide and host you on this photo tour.
We look forward to the next opportunity to embark on another adventure and capture more stunning images together. Until then, we wish you all the best and hope to stay in touch.