Photographer’s First Light 2017
As the days grow longer, the mountains shed their snowy mantle, king penguins shuffle eggs on their feet, elephant seals pup and fur seals are rambunctious. Currents of krill sweep up from the Weddell Sea, providing food for one of the greatest wildlife concentrations on the planet. Explore the spectacular Antarctic Peninsula, South Shetland Islands and follow Shackleton’s route from Elephant Island to South Georgia, photographing penguins, seals, whales and historic sites.
Day 1: Punta Arenas to Puerto Williams – Expeditioners will gather in Punta Arenas, Chile, overlooking the Straits of Magellan. Situated astride one of the world’s historic trade routes, its prosperity has risen and fallen with that trade. Punta Arenas enjoyed its first great boom during the California Gold Rush, when it served as a haven for great clipper ships. Although the port’s importance diminished after the opening of the Panama Canal, the city reached even greater prosperity early in this century as the center of Chile’s international wool trade. Today, Punta Arenas reflects a great mix of cultures, from English sheep ranchers to Portuguese sailors, and it remains a fascinating testament to Chile’s rich history. Punta Arenas is also the starting point for excursions to some of the most spectacular scenery in the world. The best spot to gain an introduction to Punta Arenas is the Cerro La Cruz promontory, which provides panoramic views of the city’s orderly streets, colorful tin roofs, and the strait beyond.
Among the city’s most interesting attractions are the Museo Salesiano de Mayonino Borgatello, started by an order of Italian missionaries, and the Centro Cultural Braun-Menendèz, housed in the mansion of one of the city’s most prosperous families. The museum provides visitors with an eclectic introduction to the region. Its collection, accumulated by the missionaries during their extensive travels, is extensive—from ceramics to rare animals. The Centro Cultural is equally engaging, offering an intimate glimpse of the life of a prosperous Punta Arenas trading family. Furnished with fine European antiques, Italian marble floors, and grand ceiling frescos, this mansion showcases the economic stature of Punta Arenas before the Panama Canal.
Our midday charter flight from Punta Arenas to Puerto Williams will take approximately forty-five minutes. The flight will provide a birds’ eye view of the breath taking landscape of Cordillera Darwin with its magnificent glaciers, narrow austral channels and hidden colored lagoons. On arrival in Puerto Williams, you will be taken on a tour of the town and its natural surroundings. In the early afternoon you will be greeted by your Expedition team and Russian crew as you embark Polar Pioneer for your trip of a lifetime.
Days 2 – 3: Drake Passage – As we sail past Cape Horn, the most southerly point of the American continent, some of us will approach this historic crossing with more than a little trepidation. But despite its reputation, there are many times when the Drake Passage resembles a lake, with lazy Southern Ocean swells rolling under the keel.
The mood on board is definitely casual. At sea we are totally self- sufficient. The days flow by as we travel snugly in our cocoon. A favorite pastime on board is to stand at the stern watching the many seabirds, including majestic albatrosses and giant petrels following in our wake. They rise and fall skillfully, using air currents created by the ship to gain momentum.
During our Drake crossing, we will commence our lecture program on the wildlife, geology, history and geography of the Antarctic Peninsula. Our history lectures will largely be focused on Shackleton’s historic journey. We will be given guidelines for approaching wildlife and talk about the implications of the Antarctic Treaty.
Nearing the tip of the Peninsula towards the end of day three, excitement reaches fever pitch with everyone on the bridge watching for our first iceberg. The ocean takes on a whole new perspective once we are below the Antarctic Convergence and are surrounded by the surreal presence of floating ice sculptures. The memory of your first big iceberg sighting is likely to remain with you forever.
Days 4 – 7: Antarctic Peninsula – A peep out of the porthole very early this morning should confirm that we have reached Antarctica. The glaciated mountains of Booth Island may well tower above Polar Pioneer as the captain and crew put us in position to travel down the Lemaire Channel and all going well, sail through and visit Pleneau Island on the other side. If ice conditions allow, we will stand quietly on the bow of Polar Pioneer as 2,300 ft (700 m) high cliff faces pass by. The water is so still that perfect reflections are mirrored on the surface. Gigantic icebergs often clog the channel, creating interesting navigation challenges for the captain and crew occasionally obstructing our passage. Once we arrive in the waters of the Bransfield and Gerlache Straits, we will generally make landings or Zodiac excursions two to three times a day.
A host of choices are now open to us and depending on the ice and weather conditions the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula is ours to explore. Our experienced leaders, who have made countless journeys to this area, will use their expertise to design our voyage from day to day. This allows us to make best use of the prevailing weather and ice conditions and wildlife opportunities. We will use daylight hours as vigorously as possible to make the most of our day. We are always keen to explore new territory, so if the opportunity arises, we will! That’s why we call our cruises, “Expeditions of Exploration and Adventure” – who knows where we will go? To get ashore we will use Zodiacs (inflatable rubber boats). You will have been briefed on the workings of these sturdy craft and their use, during our Drake Passage crossing. Sometimes we will cruise along spectacular ice cliffs, or follow whales that are feeding near the surface. In these situations we will appreciate the distinct advantage of being on a small vessel, which gives everyone the opportunity to experience these very special close encounters with the wildlife.
Hearty meals are prepared by our on board chefs and served in our cosy dining rooms. Accompanied by good conversation, they will become a focal point of our shipboard life.
A sample of some of the places where we may hike, photograph or view spectacular wildlife follows:
A fine example of the South Shetland Islands. This tiny toe of land is literally alive with wildlife. Here we will find two species of penguins breeding, Chinstraps and Gentoos. It is not uncommon to find wallows of Elephant seals that are 40 beasts strong. Giant petrels nest on the ridge-line. The vegetation consists of mosses, lichens and the only grass species that grows in Antarctica. All this is set against a stunning backdrop of mountains and glaciers of the surrounding islands.
Half Moon Island
A wildlife rich island tucked into a neat bay at the eastern end of Livingston Island. On a clear day the glaciers and mountains of Livingston Island dominate the scene. There is a healthy chinstrap penguin rookery tucked in between basaltic turrets colored by yellow and orange lichens. Gulls nest on these turrets and there are often fur seals and elephant seals hauled out on the pebble beaches. At one extremity of the island there is a large colony of nesting blue-eyed shags. At the other end lies a small Argentine station that is sometimes occupied by scientists conducting research on the penguin colony and surrounding waterways.
Visiting Deception Island is like making a journey to the moon. We sail through the narrow opening of Neptune’s Bellows to enter the flooded volcanic crater. Inside is an unworldly scene, virtually devoid of life. Glaciers flow down from the edge of the crater, littered by black volcanic ash. We can explore the lifeless remains of a derelict whaling station and a vacant British base, or climb to the rim of the crater. Steam rises from the shore indicating that the water is actually warm enough for a swim, for those who dare. Outside the crater, if conditions allow, we might land at Bailey Head to explore the enormous chinstrap penguin rookery that featured in David Attenborough’s Life in the Freezer series.
A protected bay surrounded by magnificent peaks and spectacular glaciers, the rocky cliffs of this unforgettable piece of heaven provide perfect nesting sites for blue-eyed shags, terns and gulls. The serenity of Paradise Harbor envelops us once the sound of the dropping anchor fades from our ears. This is a haven for whales and we keep our eyes open for humpbacks, orcas and minkes, as well as crabeater seals, as we explore the bay in Zodiacs. Imagine being so close to a whale that when he surfaces to blow, the fishy spray of his exhalation momentarily blurs your vision. Words cannot describe this experience.
Other places we may visit around the Antarctic Peninsula are: Petermann Island, Penola Strait, Neko Harbor, Cuverville Island, Danco Island, Port Lockroy (a historic British base that is now a museum and post office), Nansen Island, Two Hummock Island, Hydrurga Rocks..or a variety of other surprises.
Day 8 : Elephant Island – Today, if weather permits, we set course for Elephant Island, a half-submerged mountain cloaked with an ice sheet at the outer limits of the South Shetlands. En route, our recaps and lectures will resume and there will be time to gather energy for the busy days ahead.
We’ll learn the story of Shackleton and hear how his ship, the Endurance, was crushed in pack ice in the Weddell Sea, before he and his men climbed into three open boats, spending 16 months at sea, before finally making landfall on this tiny toe of rock and ice in the vastness of the Southern Ocean on 14 April 1916.
As we commemorate the upcoming century of Shackleton’s fateful expedition, we plan to sail past Cape Valentine to see the beach where the men first put ashore nearly 100 years ago. Weather permitting, we hope to follow the coastline six miles west to Point Wild, where the men eventually set up camp under two of their upturned open boats and some old tents. We will attempt to make at least one landing on historic Elephant Island.
Days 9 – 10: At Sea – En route for South Georgia we’ll head across the Scotia Sea, following the route that Shackleton and five of his men took in order to find help for the rest of their crew. On 24 April 1916, they piled into the James Caird, the most seaworthy of their open boats, to attempt this perilous journey to South Georgia, some 800 mi (1290 km) distant. Shackleton hoped to reach South Georgia in two weeks. There he would enlist the help of the whalers to return to Elephant Island and rescue the men who had been left behind.
We’ll enjoy the comfort of our ocean crossing as we ponder the hardships Shackleton and his men experienced as they crawled about on the rocks used as ballast on board James Caird:
“Nearly always there were gales. So small was our boat and so great were the seas that often our sail flapped idly in the calm between the crests of two waves. Then we would climb the next slope and catch the full fury of the gale where the wool-like whiteness of the breaking water surged around us.”
– Ernest Shackleton
Days 11 – 14: South Georgia – To us, South Georgia is one of the most beautiful places in the world. The island is a tiny speck in the South Atlantic Ocean, located in one of the most desolate parts of our planet. A 9,800 ft (3,000 m) mountain range traces the spine of this long, narrow island. Between the mountains, shattered glaciers carve their way through tussock grass to the deeply indented coastline. Though geographically speaking the island lies in the Subantarctic area, as do the islands of Macquarie and Heard, it has a climate more in keeping with the true Antarctic regions. This is because South Georgia lies near the Antarctic Convergence.
South Georgia is a British possession, having been claimed and named for King George III on 16 January 1775 by Captain James Cook, who records in his journal:
“The wild rocks raised their lofty summits till they were lost in the clouds and the valleys lay buried in ever-lasting snow. Not a tree or a shrub was to be seen, no, not even big enough to make a toothpick. I landed in three different places, displayed our colors and took possession of the country in His Majesty’s name under a discharge of small arms.”
– Quote from Antarctic Housewife by Nan Brown.
Some of the glorious destinations that we plan to visit in South Georgia are listed below:
Originally a Norwegian sealing and whaling station, it was finally abandoned in 1965. Here we must be careful to avoid stepping on sleeping elephant seals as we skirt the ruins of factory buildings peering into the past, trying to imagine what it was like when whale processing was in full swing. Abandoned ships lie sunken alongside old wharves, while pitted concrete walls remind us of the more recent Falkland’s War, which started here.
Sir Ernest Shackleton died from a heart attack during his final expedition on board the Quest on 6 May 1922. His body was laid to rest at Grytviken and we hope to make a pilgrimage to visit the cross his men erected in his memory looking out across beautiful Cumberland Bay.
St Andrews Bay
The sandy black beach is a resting place for hundreds of elephant seals that haul out on the shore to molt. Behind the beach, the sight and sound of tens upon tens of thousands of king penguins at different stages of their breeding cycle will be overwhelming. The glacial river that runs into the sea here will be alive with penguin chicks and elephant seal pups testing their aquatic skills. If we lift our gaze from the wildlife for a moment, we will glimpse the snow-capped peaks of some of the world’s most spectacular mountains.
Imagine indented bays lined with bleached whalebones, teeming with fur seals and with penguins just “hanging about”. Here you have the opportunity to clamber through the tussock to a spectacular plateau offering magnificent views across the island and the waters beyond. A careful descent leads us to a magnificent Macaroni penguin rookery.
We will aim to visit Prion Island where we can sit quietly to watch serene wandering albatrosses sitting proudly on eggs or cute downy chicks. We may be blessed by the performance of an intimate courtship dance, or may witness a youngster being lovingly fed. We watch adolescents exercising their wide wing spans, trying to launch themselves into the air, as they realize that mom and dad will no longer feed them and they must leave the island in search of food.
Other stunning wildlife destinations we may visit include:
Elsehul Bay, Cooper Bay, Larsen Harbor, Salisbury Plains, Right Whale Bay, Royal Harbor, Drygalski Fjord, Stromness, Gold Harbor, Possession Bay
Day 15: Shag Rocks – If time and weather permit, we may pass Shag Rocks, six small islands in the westernmost extremity of South Georgia. The fascinating group of jagged rocky islets protrude from the sea and blue-eyed cormorants fill the air; their precarious nesting sites are white with guano.
Days 16 – 17: At Sea – We begin cruising back towards the Falklands Islands/Malvinas. On this leg we are usually traveling into the prevailing weather so it is difficult to estimate our arrival time in the Falklands. Our lecture program will continue and we’ll have ample time to enjoy the rest of our time observing the sea birds that follow the ship, whale watching from the bridge, or simply relaxing in the bar with a favorite book.
Day 18: The Falkland Islands/Malvinas – Polar Pioneer will glide into Port Stanley for our early morning arrival. Our morning will be spent sampling the unique history and culture of Stanley, the capital of the Falkland Islands and remote British outpost. We depart Stanley at midday for Sea Lion Island – one of nature’s gems with seals, penguins and flightless ducks awaiting us for our last landing of the expedition.
Day 19: At Sea – Time to head back to Argentina’s Tierra del Feugo, with lectures and videos to complete our Antarctic education. This is a time for reflection and discussion about what we have seen and felt, and the impact this voyage has had on our attitude to life.
Day 20: Beagle Channel & Ushuaia – During the early morning we cruise up the Beagle Channel, before quietly slipping into dock in Ushuaia, where we will be free to disembark around 9:00am. It’s a busy time, saying farewell to our crew and to fellow passengers who have shared the intensity of exploring this magnificent white wilderness. We head off in our different directions, hopefully with a newfound sense of the immense power of nature. At the conclusion of the voyage, flights are not to be booked from Ushuaia prior to 12 noon on the day of disembarkation.
Please note that all of our itineraries are at the mercy of weather conditions and not all landings are guaranteed. Our itineraries are flexible and will change voyage to voyage, allowing the best chance to make the most of surprising wildlife displays and unexpected opportunities.