Antarctica, Falkland Islands & South Georgia with Penny Robartes
There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not man the less, but Nature more.
– Lord Byron
Going far back into history and historic accounts, it seems that we as a race, have long been wanderers. From desert landscapes to icy mountain slopes, from vast grasslands to thick forests, people have carved a life for themselves in every habitat on Earth.The need to discover new destinations, explore the unknown and experience the diversity of our Earth’s natural heritage seems to be ingrained within us. With this in mind, there is little wonder that our progression is to continue this exploration to destinations that have always captured our own imagination, but now with camera in hand.
A fact that contributes to the spellbinding destination and what truly makes travelling there so special is its remoteness and the expedition of getting to the Islands that we explored during my Antarctica photography tour; The Falkland (Malvinas) Islands, South Georgia, South Shetlands and the Antarctic Peninsula.
There is a certain excitement, a certain feeling of anticipation when getting ready for a tour that is quite unlike the tours I generally run. Although I have led and hosted this expedition once before in 2017, I remember those experiences so vividly that it was quite hard to try put them aside and open myself to the new experiences I would have of the destinations that blew me away. Knowledge of the places visited would be taken with me, photographic and wildlife experiences would be remembered, but I know that no matter how many times one may visit a destination, no two times are the same.
And they weren’t.
My guests and I embarked on the Ocean Diamond which would take us on a 20-day expedition to Falkland Islands, South Georgia and Antarctica. With all of the destinations, the aim was to visit multiple landing sights as well as combine zodiac cruises into the mix. With great weather predicted ahead of us, we left the interesting town of Ushuaia and made our way across the Beagle Channel.
The Falkland Islands is definitely a place that needs to be first on this type of excursions itinerary. It is an easy introduction into ship life, it gives guests a taste of the potential wildlife as well as to how excursions will be conducted.
We visited 3 areas of the Falkland Islands; Carcass Island, West Point and Port Stanley. West Point is always a firm favourite for me, and many of my guests felt similarly. I would say that it is definitely the first true introduction to the close proximity we will have with wildlife, experiencing a large scale of breeding & courting birds, and most importantly, how we manage ourselves around them in order to not have a negative impact of these birds. West Point has a large colony of breeding and courting Black-browed Albatross. These porcelain-looking birds are not only large in size and stature, but where they nest is so close to the path that we are allowed to walk on, that one could see and photograph every little detail of the individuals who were close up. The nesting site is spread wide across a gorge and down a steep hill edge which is a perfect vantage point for the not-so-graceful fliers to take off from. Another highlight to West Point is the small, grumpy-looking Rockhopper penguins. Like the Black-browed beauties, some Rockhoppers where in the process of courtship while others were nesting. It was a true delight to observe these bird species so up close, to then watch & photograph their different behaviours.
With my guests’ photographic experience and knowledge ranging in different degrees, it is always very stimulating for me to be able to able to dissect what exactly each client needed from me as a photo tour leader, such as pointing out different animal behaviours and keeping an eye out for potential photographic behaviours coming out to play. Some guests required more camera assistance, technical and creative input, while others enjoyed photographing on their own and we would meet up on the ship to look through images together for review and editing feedback. Others sought to follow their own photographic visions all the while knowing that behind-the-scenes, guidance, and longer photographic time (where possible) were being organized by myself and my colleague with the ship’s expedition staff.
South Georgia offers some of the most awe-inspiring wildlife scenes on the planet. The density of penguins at the different colonies we visited are truly a sight to behold. Their vocalisations carry in the air all around you and are briefly broken up by the grunts, snorts, and belches of fat Elephant seals. Your senses are all alight before we even got to shore. The zodiac transfers to the landing sights upped our excitement as we received our first taste of the visual splendours ahead of us. Activities included both zodiac excursions as well as landings at key sights. South Georgia in known for having pretty wild weather as well as the potential for difficult shore landings. Not all proposed 6 landing sights are always achieved due to the temperamental weather and catabatic winds that suddenly arise, but we had immense luck on our side! We were able to make every landing excursion as well as zodiac cruise with wonderful weather on our side. Beach landings were generally easy and pretty gentle by South Georgia standards, and only one landing was cut a little short on duration due to catabatic winds suddenly picking up when we were at St Andrew’s Bay, and one zodiac cruise too was cut a bit shorter due to the drizzle becoming more of a downfall. This was by Stromness after our landing excursion.
The whaling post of Grytviken never ceases to make me feel very reflective, and after it’s many years of disuse, it still cradles a somber atmosphere close to it. Many, many years ago, the sea and this natural harbour were teeming with whales. There have been accounts recorded from people who worked there of seeing hundreds of whales within this natural harbor’s walls. Now? You don’t see evidence of a live whale in the harbour, although whale numbers in general are recovering from Grytviken and other whaling stations complete annihilation. Grytviken was extremely prosperous and was in continuous use for 58 years. It was established in November 1904, at a time when whale oil was in extremely high demand. All that remains now of this whaling industry are the deserted buildings, ships and structures that are being preserved for historical purposes. Of course, a big drawcard to Grytviken are the towering tombstones of Sir Ernest Shackleton and Frank Wild. We paid homage to these two incredible explorers and the adventure that underwent. A true testament to the wandering nature of humans and our desires to explore the unexplored.
A belching charm of South Georgia are its Elephant seals that are dotted or clumped together in heeps everywhere along the pebbly shorelines.
And they know how to use their vocal cords!
Snorting, bellowing, meowing, farting.. you name it! The sounds that come out and from these large mammals are a cause of much amusement. That is until you hear the bellowing of the Elephant seal beachmasters, and you know everyone has their cameras trained on them for potential action ahead.
Beachmasters are truly gigantic in their own right and are know to reach lengths of 6 meters (19ft!) and they can weigh more than 3 tons. Females are such smaller and do not have the same facial features as the males. The males are absolutely fascinating to watch, and there was never a moment from these seals (beach masters, females and young) in general. Mature and established males were constantly on the lookout for the younger males who sought to challenge them for their harem, which can be up to a 150 females. The scars and blood found on these beasts show that they truly fight, and fight hard, to keep their females and chase the weaker males away.
My guests and I all revelled in the awesome diversity of nature, from it’s wildlife to the exquisite landscapes that we were traversing upon.
Many of the beaches of the landing sights in South Georgia were shared by Elephant seals, male Fur Seals, and colonies of beautifully coloured and poised King Penguins. The male Fur seals too were in a battle between territorial males and their challengers. What I loved about these males were how elegant they sat in the middle of their territory (a space that seemed only a few meters wide) with their eyes closed and heads raised to the sky. They looked like mountain peaks.
The King Penguin colonies were truly spectacular to behold, spend time walking through, and photographing. Salisbury Plains and St Andrews Bay gave us massive numbers to turn our cameras to.There were massive, fluffy, brown baby King Penguins everywhere, mixed within the sleek-looking adults. It was absolutely marvelous!
King Penguins, much like the Elephant Seals, did not seem too bothered by us being there – as again, we kept an awareness to where we were in position to them, and made sure that we were never in their way, as some would walk together down paths to the crashing waves behind us. The chicks, however, are very curious, and would often come up and look at us, arms splayed open from their sides whilst peering out with one eye.
From South Georgia we journeyed to the South Shetland Islands and the Antarctic Peninsula. This section was most certainly the time where every guest on board could be found on every level and space on the outside of the ship as we were surrounded by some of the most breath-taking landscapes of ice, mountains, and reflections that can be termed ethereal in every aspect. I even found an ice sheet that was in the shape of the African continent!
From Chinstrap colonies to Gentoos, Adelie and Kings, our luck continued to flourish when at 10pm one evening, our phenomenal captain brough us close by to an icesheet which sat on of the Top 5 most sought-out birds in the world; the Emperor Penguin. The quality of light wasn’t good, but we didn’t care for that. We finally got to see this incredible Penguin, the largest of its species, and relatively close up! The whole ship was absolutely ecstatic, and the hotel staff and other crew members got to gaze upon these birds too.
This blog post hasn’t done this expedition, the experiences, the visuals, the memories, the moments any justice. It never can.
How do you begin to describe a destination and the multitude of experiences had, that has had a profound impact on who you are?
You will just need to come with me to see it to believe it all. Capture your own memories, your own heart-enthralling moments.
I look forward to welcoming you to one of the Earth’s most tantalising wilderness areas.
– Your Senior Photo Tour Leader, Penny Robartes