Birding in Antarctica

Specialist guide Will Wagstaff relates the story of his recent trip to Antarctica.

The mixture of penguins, albatrosses and icebergs is a heady one, and when you add in whales, seals and a variety of seabirds it becomes even more attractive. It is therefore no surprise that, for many, Antarctica is very high on their wish list of places to visit. A few years ago I worked on expedition ships in this region and I was lucky enough to be given another opportunity this year on Prince Albert II, owned and operated by Silver Seas.

The most accessible region of the seventh continent is the Antarctic Peninsular which lies some seven hundred miles south of South America and is within two days sail from ports such as Ushuaia in Argentina and Punta Arenas in Chile. It is possible to visit Antarctica from Australia and New Zealand but as this involves a lot more sea time, it’s not as popular as cruises that depart from South America. There are a wide variety of ships that ply these waters, from those carrying many hundreds of passengers that just cruise around the Peninsular without landing, to the smaller expedition ships such as the Prince Albert II that are able to land at some of the many sites on the Antarctic islands and on the Peninsular itself. The latter is very popular with those trying to visit all seven continents to do that ‘Continental Landing’. The weather is often not as cold as expected with temperatures around or just below zero on many occasions, but there are days when the breeze gets up and the wind chill makes it feel much colder. That’s when the need for another layer or two becomes paramount. On sunny days, on the other hand, a good sun screen is essential with the clear atmosphere and the reflection off the snow and sea.

For many the prospect of crossing the Drake Passage can seem rather daunting, with its reputation as one of the roughest sea crossings on the planet. However the likelihood of a calm ‘Drake Lake’ is just as likely as a rough crossing. Those who are unlucky enough to see the Drake at its worst will dine out for years on stories of how high the waves were! It is in these seas, however, that one becomes entranced with close encounters with the gigantic Wandering Albatrosses as they serenely glide, low over the swells, often coming right up behind the ship before wheeling away, only to return a few minutes later. They are usually joined by several Southern Giant Petrels that have an equally graceful flight, although they are not such an attractive bird.

Their rarer cousin the Northern Giant Petrel can sometimes also be seen coming to have a closer look at the ship. Black-browed Albatrosses are common near to South America with Grey-headed and occasionally Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses also putting in an appearance. In amongst all these giants there are many smaller species to be seen, ranging from the tiny Wilson’s Storm-Petrels and sundry Diving-Petrels to the ever-graceful prions and shearwaters. Sooty Shearwaters are particularly numerous near the tip of South America and as you travel further south, the bouncy flight of the Black-bellied Storm Petrel can be seen, skipping their way along the sea surface. Leaving the Beagle Channel, Commerson’s Dolphin can sometimes be found riding the bow waves of the Pilot Boats as they meet each cruise ship.

As you near the Peninsular the chance of whale sightings increases, but they can be seen anywhere if the weather is calm enough. The sighting of that first ‘blow’ is one of the magical moments of any cruise. It may well turn out to be a small group of Fin Whales closing in on a school of fish, or more likely in voyages in the post Christmas season, it will be a Humpback Whale. Although these animals do not have such a large blow, they have a smaller, rather bumpy dorsal fin they more than make up for this by showing their tail flukes as they deep-dive after a few minutes of shallow dives. Humpback Whales are very curious and will sometimes approach a stationary ship. When this happens, you can get wonderful displays as they cruise close to and fro, often underneath the ship. If you’re really lucky they will breach, coming clear out of the water. Other species of whales can be seen on calm days, as well as the very attractive black and white Hourglass Dolphins which are often one of the highlights of a Drake crossing.

The crossing of the Antarctic Convergence, where the sea temperature drops to below 2˚C, is rarely marked by any obvious physical phenomena but is an important waymark on any trip south. The expedition staff that are on board take advantage of the days at sea to give lectures on a wide variety of subjects, from the birdlife you hope to see to the marine mammals, to geology and history of the areas the ship will visit. These usually take place during the daytime with recaps before dinner that give more information about the sights and events of the day.

Every cruise is different as the weather has a way of making the best laid plans go awry. If it has been a ‘Drake Lake’ crossing, depending upon the speed of the vessel, there is usually a first landing in the South Shetland Islands. As the ship nears these islands the attractive black and white upperwing pattern of the Cape Petrels can be seen from the ship’s windows, as they glide in synchronised flocks back and fore as if trying to make sure they can be seen from every cabin. Antarctic Skuas also become more numerous when land comes into sight. However, it is the sight of white capped hills that brings everyone on deck as Antarctica comes into view.

There are a great many sites that ships can visit, looking for wildlife, history, geology or just marvelling at the magnificent scenery. Ice permitting, the opportunity to visit the Adelie Penguin colonies on islands such as Paulet Island or at Brown Bluff in the Weddell Sea is one of the highlights of any cruise. Sailing through Antarctic Sound towards these sites is a photographer’s dream on a sunny day as there are many enormous bergs of all shapes from tabular to the sculptured. On approaching the landing site large numbers of Adelie Penguins can be seen marching along the waterfront from one end of the colony to the other. Later in the season these adults are joined by the youngsters who very quickly grasp that to be an Adelie Penguin involves a lot walking. The Brown Bluff landing is also a good site for volcanic geology and is a ‘continental landing’.

Port Lockroy is the most visited site in Antarctica as it is one of the historic sites in the Peninsular. It was used as a British base until the early 1960s and is now a museum and shop with associated post office. The museum is an excellent opportunity to see how the bases were run and what equipment was used but it is the shop. The chance to send a postcard also makes this a very popular stop. It has a colony of Gentoo Penguins that nest very close to the buildings and are seemingly oblivious to all the comings and goings.

One other base that is a popular stop is the Ukraine base at Vernadsky in the Argentine Islands. This ex-British Base, now run by some very welcoming Ukraine scientists, gives a very good idea of what it must be like to live and work for months at a time in one of the most remote places on earth.

One of the most magical experiences on an Antarctic voyage is a sunset cruise through the Lemaire Channel. This spectacular fjord with its peaks on each side climbing almost vertically to over 3000 feet, lit by the orange glow of the setting sun, is a fantastic sight. It is also a good area for wildlife with Minke Whale and Humpback Whale seen regularly. The ice floes are good sites for Crabeater and Leopard Seals. Other popular channels for cruising include the Errera Channel and Gerlach Strait, which are scenic and have a wide variety of wildlife.

With so many landing sites containing abundant wildlife it must sometimes be difficult for the expedition leaders to decide where to land when the schedules are sorted out. Two favourite sites are on Cuverville Island and Peterman Island. Both contain good numbers of penguins with Gentoos dominating on Cuverville, where it is also possible to find one of the two flowering plants on the continent, the Antarctic Hair Grass. Peterman Island also has a small population of Adelie Penguins which are often the only ones seen on cruises early in the season when ice prevents access into the Weddell Sea.

Zodiac cruising is also popular, particularly at the Argentine Base Brown where half of the group will land on the continent and explore this base, although it is often closed. The other half can cruise around Paradise Harbour looking for seals, whales, penguins and icebergs in superb scenery before later swapping over. The most famous cruising area is in Pleneau Bay, otherwise known as ‘Iceberg Graveyard’, where many large bergs have grounded and are slowly being eroded into the most fantastic shapes and colours. The smaller, flatter icebergs are temporary home to many Crabeater Seals and there are usually Leopard Seals to be found. The latter often investigating the passing zodiacs. Their sinuous grace in the water allied to their sinister ‘smile’ makes for a memorable experience as they pass beneath the boat.

The majority of cruises to Antarctica visit the South Shetland Islands and the Peninsular but there are some that also call in at the Falkland Islands and South Georgia. The Falkland Islands are some of my favourite destinations. I am always pleased to visit this amazing archipelago. As most ships are coming from the tip of South America, the western side of the Falklands is their first port of call. This usually means a visit to West Point Island or New Island, or sometimes both, which have very accessible colonies of Black-browed Albatrosses and Rockhopper Penguins. These charismatic birds can keep you entertained for hours with their antics, and photographing flying albatrosses is one of the most frustrating and rewarding time wasters I know.

The nearby Carcass and Saunders Islands are also popular stops with Gentoo and Magellanic Penguins added to the Black-browed and Rockhopper mix on Saunders, in a wonderful site known as ‘The Neck’. Carcass Island also has two species of penguins and has the added attraction of a small settlement with its welcoming hosts and a table groaning with cakes and tea. It also has an amazing array of small birds, as this island has remained rat free throughout its history. So, Black-chinned Siskins abound in the pines around the houses and the endemic Cobb’s Wren can pop up almost anywhere. The very rare Striated Caracara is always present here, on the look out for something to steal and live up to its local nickname of ‘Johnny Rook’. Small flocks of the endemic Falkland Flightless Steamer Duck are scattered along the beach, along with large numbers of Kelp Geese and Speckled Teal.

Most ships only spend two days in the islands, visiting Stanley, the very colourful capital where the museum is a popular stop on the bus tours around the town. There are a range of souvenir shops close to the jetty plus an array of very familiar looking pubs for those looking for a touch of local colour. The larger ships that call into Stanley can make it seem a very busy place at times with passengers coming and going on battlefield tours or farm visits as well as spending time around the capital. Sea Lion Island and Bleaker Island lying to the south east are popular stops for those ships coming up from Antarctica or South Georgia. They are also well deserving of the title of wildlife spectaculars, with the huge Southern Elephant Seals of Sea Lion Island being particularly popular.

A few days at sea heading south east you find the spectacular island of South Georgia with its snow capped peaks and abundant wildlife. Most ships visit the northern side of the island where the many sheltered bays are home to huge colonies of Fur Seals and Elephant Seals. The island is probably best known for the enormous King Penguin colonies, in particular at St Andrew’s Bay and Salisbury Plain, but it is the very scenic Gold Harbour which is a favourite of those fortunate enough to have visited all these sites.

A visit to either Prion or Albatross Island in the Bay of Isles is a highlight of any visit to South Georgia as it provides a chance to see Wandering Albatross on its home ground. Visits to these islands are very strictly controlled, with numbers of passengers ashore at any one time being limited and each landing restricted to a short duration to minimise any disturbance of these magnificent birds. Whether it is a huge fluffy chick walking around the Tussac waiting for its parents to return or an adult bird, it is always memorable encountering these enormous birds with their 12 foot wingspan.

The disused whaling station at Grytviken is a must-visit site, with its fascinating museum containing relics from when it was a hive of activity. After a lot of work the buildings have been cleared of loose metal and asbestos so that all the machinery that was used in processing the whales can be seen. The popular museum also contains the shop. It is here that you can also visit the grave of one of the best known Antarctic Explorers, Ernest Shackleton, on one side of the bay. His memorial is at nearby King Edward Point, home to the British Antarctic Survey base.

As the ships cruise in the waters around South Georgia small groups of Macaroni Penguin can be seen porpoising their way to and from the open sea. Their colonies are on some of the steeper Tussac Grass covered slopes and, as such, are not easy to access, but some of those at Cooper Bay at the eastern end of the island are sometimes visited. This area is also home to the northernmost colonies of the Chinstrap Penguin.

Although not a cheap holiday, the memories from an Antarctic cruise are priceless and the lure of a repeat trip to the ice almost irresistible.


NOTE: Every cruise ship that visits Antarctica should belong to IAATO (the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators) so that you travel in the knowledge that the highest standards of environmental protection are in force.