Classic Antarctica Photo Expedition: The Falklands, South Georgia & Antarctica
Antarctica is surely the ultimate destination! The scenic settings are as magnificent as any on earth, and the scale of nearly everything is grand, to say the least. Complementing these astounding vistas are vast colonies of majestic penguins, brash skuas, giant albatrosses, weird sheathbills, somnolent seals and feeding whales that all add life to the region’s stark and amazing beauty.
Our voyage traverses some of the most productive regions of the Southern Ocean; notably the Falkland and South Georgia Islands, both of which are renowned as among the richest of all Subantarctic islands. South Georgia’s rugged beauty is worthy of Antarctica itself, while the Falkland Islands are better known as the battlegrounds for the 1982 Anglo-Argentine War. Several days are spent at sea, cruising from one island group to the next until we find ourselves on the Great White Continent itself. These crossings provide thrilling pelagic birding, with huge numbers of albatrosses, petrels, prions, skuas and other seabirds making a daily appearance. Cetaceans are also regular, ranging from the largest whales to the striking Hourglass and Commerson’s Dolphins.
This journey to Antarctica is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience and cannot come more highly recommended!
The Tour in Detail
Although ORYX has journeyed annually to Antarctica, this will be the second time that we are taking a full Antarctic charter in collaboration with our sister company Rockjumper Birding Tours. We will have a team of ORYX Photographic and Rockjumper Birding tour leaders aboard the very comfortable RCGS Resolute, one of the best rated small vessels doing this classic route. Our voyage will be the first of the season, which besides offering pristine snowscapes, will mean that we will encounter and photograph displaying penguins and other breeding birds, as well as duelling Southern Elephant Seal beachmasters (these giants are usually gone by late November when most expeditions come south). However, the main reason for our early season departure is to maximise our chances of finding the holy grail of the Antarctic; the Emperor Penguin. We have designed our cruise route to ensure we have time to head through the Antarctic Sound and as far into the Weddell Sea as ice and weather conditions will allow to search for the Emperors here, and get as close as we can to their breeding colony on Snow Hill Island.
The other advantage of this early season cruise is a lower cost structure; and this being our own charter, we will be able to ensure our landings will give us the best birding and photographic opportunities possible. We look forward to sharing this adventure of a lifetime with you.
SANTIAGO TO PORT STANLEY, FALKLAND ISLANDS
We will start our day off with a flight from Santiago, Chile to Stanley. The roughly 2,000 people inhabiting the historic town of Stanley represent about 80% of the population of the entire Falkland Islands. Our visit will give perspective on the history of British settlement of the islands, plus the 1982 Anglo-Argentine War in which Argentinean forces invaded but were subsequently defeated and expelled by the British. Time will also be available to explore the museums, shipwrecks, historical trails and shops of Stanley, before we board our well-appointed vessel.
DAY 2 & 3:
AT SEA BETWEEN THE FALKLAND ISLANDS & SOUTH GEORGIA
For the seabird photographic enthusiast, these are some of the most exciting waters in the world. As we cruise from the Falklands to South Georgia, we cross the Antarctic Convergence, where the warmer, saline water from the north meets the colder and less salty Antarctic water. This is a very rich feeding ground for seabirds and marine mammals, attracting large volumes of wildlife from distant breeding islands and waters. Though the Convergence attracts birds from both north and south, we will notice a shift of species and relative numbers between the waters on either side of the Convergence.
Albatrosses and petrels will predominate here. In addition to the species already noted, we are likely to see and photograph Royal Albatross (usually both the Northern and Southern species are observed), and Light-mantled Albatross (arguably the most attractive of all albatross).
DAY 4 TO 7:
SOUTH GEORGIA; PLANNED LANDINGS AT SALISBURY PLAIN, ST ANDREW’S, FORTUNA AND STROMNESS BAYS, GOLD HARBOUR, PRION ISLAND AND GRYTVIKEN
As we approach South Georgia, the marine avifauna is dominated increasingly by the species breeding there. Given the enormous numbers of seabirds nesting on South Georgia and its surrounding islets, this is not surprising. Although this island lies south of the Antarctic Convergence, its waters don’t freeze in winter, meaning it can support life throughout the year. As a result, vast numbers of birds and pinnipeds live here year-round – over 500,000 pairs of King Penguins call this island home, and walking through, and photographing their packed colonies is without a doubt one of the single greatest wildlife experiences on the planet. In fact, the area around Salisbury Plain is believed to have the highest density of wildlife of anywhere on Earth!
We have three full days to explore, and capture this mountainous, glaciated island. So, stark, but home to such mindbogglingly abundant and exciting wildlife. All landings will be weather permitting, but we will make every effort to explore the Salisbury Plain, where beyond the black sand beach, lies one of the world’s largest King Penguin colonies. In addition, we plan a landing at St Andrew’s Bay, where an even bigger King Penguin colony exists. The beaches heave with South American Fur Seal, but one of our special targets of this early season voyage will be to watch enormous Southern Elephant Seal beachmasters battling for supremacy. These enormous animals, the largest species in the order Carnivora, reach weights of up to 4,000 kg (8,800 lb.) and lengths of 5.8 m (19 ft). Their large proboscis, which gives them their name, allows them to roar extraordinarily loudly. This, combined with their fierce fighting, result in an incredible spectacle to experience.
We also plan to visit Grytviken, the whaling station where the largest individual animal known to have lived on earth, a huge Blue Whale specimen, was butchered. Here we will visit the South Georgia Museum, remnants of the whaling station and the grave of the famed Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton. Of course, birds and pinnipeds are also resident, and photographic opportunities will be breathtaking throughout (Please bear in mind, that throughout Antarctica and the Subantarctic, landings are subject to the weather conditions; alternatives are usually available when winds and surf are unfavourable at a planned site).
Over 3 million pairs of Macaroni Penguin breed on the island, but are nowhere near as obvious as the Kings. Our final day on spectacular South Georgia features some of the most dazzling scenery yet, especially around the south-east tip of the island; while the stunning Drygalski Fjord is framed by sharp, non-glaciated mountain peaks. For photographers, this day offers some truly spectacular photographic opportunities.
DAYS 8 TO 10:
SAT SEA TOWARDS ANTARCTICA AND POSSIBLY ELEPHANT ISLAND
Weather and ice will dictate our crossing of the Scotia Sea from South Georgia to Antarctica, leading us perhaps to Elephant Island. As with all of our itinerary planning, our expedition leader and captain will make a decision based on the conditions at the time, also bearing in mind our plan to try access the Weddell Sea. As we cruise south-west towards Antarctica, we cross increasingly polar waters. More temperate species disappear; while the true Antarctic species become more prominent, but total numbers and diversity will drop. Our informative on board lectures will continue to provide breaks from the hours of photographing seabirds, whales, dolphins and icebergs. At some point, we will encounter sea-ice, and it is at the ice-edge where we increase our chances capturing high-Antarctic species, such as Snow Petrel, Chinstrap Penguin and the predatory Leopard Seal. As we edge ever closer to the frozen continent, large icebergs announce our arrival in Antarctic waters. If conditions allow, we will hope to see the dark cliffs of Elephant Island appear on the horizon. Shackleton and his men were encamped here for many months, having lost HMS Endurance in the thick sea ice, far to the south in the Weddell Sea, in 1915. From the desolate beach at Point Wild, Shackleton and six companions set off on the rescue mission to South Georgia, aboard the tiny lifeboat, James Caird.
To this day, the epic ocean crossing is considered one of the greatest in history. If conditions and time allow, we will attempt a landing at Point Wild on Elephant Island.
DAYS 11 TO 15:
ANTARCTICA AND THE SOUTH SHETLAND ISLANDS
On the morning of day 11, we hope to wake up in the Antarctic Sound, a channel between the north-eastern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula and Joinville Island. Here we will encounter awe-inspiring tabular icebergs, large fragments of the vast Weddell Ice Shelf, and the ice shelves along the east side of the Antarctic Peninsula. At this time of year, we stand a very reasonable chance to find the holy grail of Antarctica, the Emperor Penguin. This highly sought-after true denizen on the Antarctic, famed for its ability to nest through the hard polar winter, is only guaranteed on exceedingly expensive fly-in tours to their colonies.
However, we will head as far south through the Antarctic Sound into the Weddell Sea as ice conditions will allow. Each mile southwards towards the Emperor colony on Snow Hill Island will improve our chances of finding one of these incredible birds resting on the ice. We may take our first landing at Paulet Island, a tiny island boasting a huge colony of beautiful Adelie Penguins. Whilst we photograph these delightful creatures, we will also be entertained by more Snowy Sheathbill, Brown Skua and a nearby colony of Antarctic Shag, a very beautiful cormorant. Our first steps on the Antarctic continent itself may be at Brown Bluff, where we will be treated to spectacular scenery, colonies of Gentoo and Adelie Penguins. Mammals in this region include Leopard Seal and its favourite prey, Weddell and Crabeater Seals, as well as Antarctic Minke Whale and pods of Orca.
Next, we will head north again, and around 60 miles off the coast of the Antarctic mainland, we find the South Shetland Island chain. Possible landing sites could include Half Moon Island or King George Island, and dazzling wildlife sightings await us on our excursions to these islands. Weather conditions permitting, we will sail the ship into the flooded volcanic caldera of Deception Island. With rugged scenery, great sites of geologic interest and an overwhelming display of whaling and scientific exploration history, Deception Island is a perfect museum of natural and exploration history! At one or more of these landings, we can expect to find the delicately-patterned Chinstrap Penguin, which however emits a yowl that is far from a pleasant! We will also add another new bird to our list: South Polar Skua, which occurs in smaller numbers than Brown Skuas.
Later, we will zigzag back through the Bransfield Strait heading south-westwards towards Mikkelsen Harbour and Cierva Cove. In this area, we will enjoy zodiac excursions through the pack ice, marvelling at the myriad of shapes and colours of these ancient formations. Although we are unlikely to get many new additions to our list, we will have plenty photo opportunities and time to experience the scenery and wildlife of this amazing region. We again plan to make landings on the Antarctic continent.
The scenery here, from the colossal icebergs to the seemingly endless Antarctic ice-sheet with distant high mountains, is truly breathtaking. Later, we sail past or maybe even land on the Orne Islands with its large colonies of Chinstrap Penguin and a beautiful view across the Gerlache Strait to Cuverville Island – a small precipitous island nestled between the mountains of the Antarctic Peninsula. Cuverville Island is home to the region’s largest Gentoo Penguin colony and most of the region’s breeding bird species. Such penguin colonies and their inevitable attendants are frequent highlights.
Here, again, we can explore by zodiac, join your photographic guides for close-up penguin photography, and possibly visit a science base or an old historic hut if the opportunity presents itself. For the more adventurous, kayaking* up to several miles from the ship is an option for a truly memorable experience.
*Sea kayaking – Please note, if you have some experience with sea kayaking and are interested in doing this activity during the expedition, you will need to book this option prior to departure from home (sea kayaking price is extra and is not included in the tour cost). We cannot book this activity once on board. There is a separate document for sea kayakers that you will need to review beforehand. It’s also important you have some prior paddling experience. If you are unsure, please contact our office for further information.
DAYS 16 TO 17:
AT SEA IN THE DRAKE PASSAGE
Sadly, we will bid farewell to this frozen wonderland and head north through the famous Drake Passage between Antarctica and Tierra del Fuego. With another crossing of the Antarctic Convergence, we will again have many opportunities to photograph the region’s rich seabirds and cetaceans. Post-processing lectures continue to provide entertaining diversions and educational information; while on our last night, we will toast the conclusion of our amazing venture with a celebratory dinner.
FALKLAND ISLANDS; WEST POINT AND CARCASS ISLANDS
This morning, we will wake up in the Falkland Islands! We will spend the entire day on the fascinating western side of the archipelago. Our first stop will likely be West Point Island, with its vast rookeries of Southern (Western) Rockhopper Penguin; while South American Sea Lion, South American Fur Seal and Peale’s and noisy Commerson’s Dolphins are likely in the surrounding waters (the latter known locally as “Puffing Pigs” due to their load huffing noises). We should come across confiding Striated Caracaras on the lovely hike to a Black-browed Albatross colony, the main objective for this morning.
Here we will soak up the beauty of the spectacular wildlife on view; thousands of Black-browed Albatrosses nesting on a magnificent cliff; pairs in display and a continuous stream of individuals landing and taking off, all at touching distance – a truly incredible sight! As if that isn’t enough, entertaining Southern Rockhopper Penguins also nest among the albatrosses.
After lunch back on board, we plan to proceed to the pristine Carcass Island, which supports the highest diversity and abundance of land and water birds in the Falklands. Our photography here will focus on Magellanic and Gentoo Penguins, Rock and Imperial Shags, the lovely Dolphin Gull, the aptly-named Kelp Goose that forages in the beds of giant kelp, The approachability of these birds is remarkable, and superb photographic opportunities can be expected. In the late afternoon, we will steam towards Stanley, and will toast the conclusion of our amazing venture with a celebratory dinner on our last night together.
RETURN TO PORT STANLEY, AND FLIGHT TO SANTIAGO
Today, we cruise back into Port Stanley, where we will disembark from our home away from home for the past 18 days. There may be time to do one last stint of exploring around Stanley before we board our return flights to Santiago, and bid farewell to the fellow travellers with whom we have shared this voyage of a lifetime.