From 21 November to 16 December 2021
Antarctica is the Earth’s southernmost continent and is surrounded by the Southern Ocean. It is the iciest, coldest, windiest, and driest continent with 98% of its land area covered by thick ice.
Having watched many fascinating documentaries about it, I wanted to go and see it for myself. When I saw that Antarctica was in the path of an upcoming solar eclipse, I decided that now was the time to go. I contacted Speyside Wildlife to see if they had put on a tour to coincide with the eclipse; they had and I booked. That was before the pandemic.
The tour was a cruise with Oceanwide Expeditions aboard the MV Plancius, starting from Ushuaia in Argentina and taking in the Antarctica Peninsula, South Georgia, and Falkland Island.
Due to the pandemic it was far from certain that the trip could go ahead. In September 2021, I heard that several Antarctic trips had been cancelled so I was very pleased when it was announced that ours had been given the go-ahead by Oceanwide. However, it wasn’t until 1 November, when Argentina officially opened its borders to tourists, that I was sure that it was really happening. The following three weeks were spent sorting out clothing and paperwork before flying out on 22 November 2021.
The Journey starts
Sunday 21 & Monday 22 November 2021 — Trip log: day 1-2
It was a long flight from Heathrow via Madrid to Buenos Aires. There, we had to retrieve our luggage and wait for our internal flight to Ushuaia, where we had an overnight stay before embarking. Unfortunately, four of the people in our small group of ten found that their luggage was still in Madrid and would not arrive in time.
Early the next morning, Tuesday 23 November, we did some birding outside the hotel. After breakfast, we were taken into Ushuaia where we dropped off our luggage. Some of us set off to explore the town while the unlucky four went to do some emergency shopping. We met for lunch after which we had the mandatory covid test and were ready for embarkation. I was sharing a cabin with Jean, who I had met on the Yellowstone Eclipse trip. We went to find our cabin (number 411) and got settled in. Jean didn’t have much to unpack as she was one of the unlucky four.
On our way to Antarctica
Tuesday 23 to Wednesday 25 November 2021 — Ship log: day 1 – 3; Trip log: day 3 – 5
Before the ship could leave port we had to have completed the mandatory safety drill. As the sun was setting, the Plancius finally set off down the Beagle Channel. After dinner, we did our species list in the observation lounge and went to bed.
For the next few days, we were crossing Drake’s Passage. The sea was quite rough at times but the anti-seasickness patches worked wonders. The time was spent getting used to the ship with talks and briefings as well as being on deck looking for wildlife. The ship followed a pod of Orcas for a while and we came quite close to them. We also saw Fin Whales in the distance.
South Shetland Islands
Friday 26 November 2021 — Ship log: day 4; Trip log: day 6
Our first landing in the Antarctic was at Elephant Point on Livingston Island. The beach was covered in Elephant Seals and Gentoo Penguins. We had been told to keep our distance from the penguins and seals but nobody had told the penguins of the arrangement.
In the afternoon we sailed through Neptune’s Bellow and into the caldera of Deception Island. There were two other cruise ships there and further in we saw what might have been a military ship. We landed from our zodiac craft at a secluded beach near an abandoned Chilean research station where there was a slight mist from underground geothermal activity. After a while, it started snowing quite heavily but that didn’t put us off. We saw lots of Gentoo Penguins, as well as one Chinstrap, and we found a Snow Petrel’s wing on the beach
Stepping onto the Antarctic continent
Saturday 27 November 2021 — Ship log: day 5; Trip log: day 7
This was the day we were due to take our first steps on the Antarctic continent. It snowed on and off for most of the day and in the morning it was too windy for a landing. Luckily, the wind died down by the afternoon so we were at last able to go ashore. The staff had prepared a path up a hillside for us to walk up to a point just above the top penguin colony. There were two Adele Penguins among all the Gentoo and on the way back down we saw a Humpback Whale out at sea. I managed to slip into the shallow water while trying to get back into the zodiac; instinctively, I put my arm out to save myself from falling in completely and did not get too wet.
The Goulash Straight & Paradise Bay
Sunday 28 November 2021 — Ship log: day 6; Trip log: day 8
We couldn’t land at the Argentinian summer research base in Paradise Bay, as the snow was too deep, so we had an interesting cruise around the bay instead. George, the photographer, was in charge of our zodiac and steered us to great views of lots of Gentoo Penguins. We also went past a colony of nesting Antarctic (blue-eyed) Shags and saw some Arctic Terns mobbing a South Polar Skua. Further into the bay, we saw a Weddell Seal snoozing on an iceberg.
In the afternoon we went ashore at Stony Point. On our way, we stopped to look at a Crabeater Seal on an ice flow. The crew had prepared a zig-zag path up to the top of a hill along which we walked on snowshoes. From the top, we had a tremendous view.
When we got back down to the beach a few people did the polar plunge: not me.
The Lemaire Channel
Monday 29 November 2021 — Ship log: day 7; Trip log: day 9
We were woken up on a glorious morning, just as the ship was entering the Lemaire Channel. The scenery was spectacular. Despite lots of ice at the mouth of the channel we made it through.
After breakfast, we were due to land at Peterman Island. They split us into two groups to minimise the numbers on land at the same time. I was in the second group and had a cruise around the island before going ashore at Port Circumcision. Again, we put on snowshoes and walked up a hill where we got quite close to some penguin colonies; the birds didn’t seem bothered by us at all.
During lunch, we were told this was the furthest south that we could go because of the ice and, on the way back to the boat, we saw that there was a lot more of it than before. It looked quite dazzling in the brilliant sunshine. We were at 65 degrees south.
In the afternoon we dropped anchor at Port Charcot where we had a zodiac cruise through the iceberg graveyard and saw a group of Minke Whales, a Crabeater Seal and a Leopard Seal as well as lots of penguins.
In the evening we had a barbecue out on the aft deck and then the ship turned back to the north, the way we had come. I stayed up in the lounge and watched us going back through the Lemaire Channel. The light and the sunset was stunning.
Tuesday 30 November 2021 — Ship log: day 8; Trip log: day 10
The next morning it was sunny again but rather windy. We went ashore at Orne Island in the Gerlache straight, which is known for its Chinstrap Penguin colony. We put on snowshoes again and walked up to a point where we had great views all around with the Chinstraps just below us. There were also lots of Gentoo penguins, as usual. Afterwards, we got back into the zodiacs for a cruise around the island. One of the zodiacs had engine failure so we had to tow it back to the ship from where another zodiac came to take on its passengers. It was quite tricky for them to move between the zodiacs in open water but all managed. That accomplished, we continued our tour and had a good view of another Leopard Seal.
In the afternoon the wind picked up and we couldn’t go out again in the zodiacs. Instead, the ship made its way north towards the Weddell Sea. As usual, while at sea, there were interesting presentations from the expedition team
Wednesday 1 December 2021 — Ship log: day 9; Trip log: day 11
This was a very grey and foggy morning and we couldn’t see much from the ship. We were coming through the Antarctic Sound and making our way to Paulet Island where we were due to go ashore. However, the winds were far too strong to go out in the zodiacs so we had to view it from the deck. There were also various lectures throughout the day. We got as far south into the Weddell Sea as possible; the bow of the ship actually touched the edge of the packed sea ice. We stayed there a while to watch an Emperor Penguin in the far distance.
As we turned to go towards the South Orkney Islands the wind picked up and we were told not to go onto the outside deck. The staff put up Christmas decorations.
Thursday 2 December 2021 — Ship log: day 10; Trip log: day 12
Black-browed Albatrosses and Cape Petrels were our constant companions at sea. We also saw plenty of other petrels and albatrosses as well as Prions, Shags and various other birds. I will include a full list of what we saw at the end of this account.
South Orkney Islands
Friday 3 December 2021 — Ship log: day 11; Trip log: day 13
After a day at sea in high winds, we arrived at the South Orkney Islands where the plan was to find a sheltered bay to anchor and watch the eclipse. The ship circled round the islands, and we had a view of an Argentinian research station, the oldest in the area. The weather forecast was for snowstorms so we headed out to sea again to find a clearer sky to better see the eclipse.
Saturday 4 December 2021 — Ship log: day 12; Trip log: day 14
We got up just before 3.00 am and made our way to the upper deck by the bridge. There were few people there, probably because the sky was still overcast. Although we could not see the eclipse as such, we saw the shadow and darkness at 4.05 am. We then went down to the lounge for some pastries.
We were now on our way to South Georgia and spent the day having our clothes and bags biosecurity checked and listening to various lectures.
St Andrews Bay
Sunday 5 December 2021 — Ship log: day 13; Trip log: day 15
In the morning we went ashore at St. Andrew’s Bay, home to huge colonies of King Penguins. There are over 200,000 of them, as well as thousands of Fur and Elephant Seals. It was a beautiful morning and we were greeted by curious King Penguins as soon as we landed. Keeping our distance from these and the seals was not easy. After a walk we also had a zodiac cruise along the shore.
In the afternoon, and after another biosecurity check, we had a zodiac cruise around Cooper Bay where there were colonies of Macaroni Penguins. We had great views of these as well as lots of seals and some Pintail Ducks.
Monday 6 December 2021 — Ship log: day 14; Trip log: day 16
After breakfast and a minimal biosecurity check, we went ashore at Grytviken. As we came ashore there was a leucistic seal pup, looking rather cute, amongst all the seals on the beach. Dodging seals, we made our way up to the cemetery where we drank a toast at Shackleton’s grave. The graveyard was full of Norwegians.
I made my way over to the Norwegian church and then the post office to post a few cards seeing many derelict buildings from the whaling era on the way. Finally, I had a good look around the museum before going back to the ship.
In the afternoon we were supposed to go for a walk along the last part of a path used by Shackleton on his way to his rescue in Stromness Bay. However, we couldn’t land as there were too many fur seals in the way and they refused to budge. We went for a Zodiac cruise, along the beach by Stromness Station instead. It was interesting to see all the derelict buildings, now taken over by wildlife. There was much going on, with squabbling Giant Petrels and seals. There was even an adult leucistic seal, which is not a common sight.
We found an Isopod, a prehistoric-looking crustacean, in the boat. After photographing it, Laura, our zodiac driver dropped it back in the sea. In the evening, we had another barbecue but it was so cold and windy that most people came back inside.
Tuesday 7 to Thursday 9 December 2021 — Ship log: day 15 – 17; Trip log: day 17-19
For the next three days, we were at sea on our way to the Falkland Islands. Unfortunately, the weather was quite bad and the sea was so rough for the first two days that the outside decks, apart from a small area next to the bridge, were closed. Watching from the observation lounge or from out by the bridge, we saw lots of birds including a Wandering Albatross. There were also sightings of the odd whale as well as several talks to keep us entertained.
Friday 10 December 2021 — Ship log: day 18; Trip log: day 20
The high winds had delayed our passage to the Falklands and we only had a few hours to spend ashore.
An excursion to Gypsy Cove was arranged for all the passengers but a group of us plus Martin, the expedition leader, had arranged our own outing to see a Rockhopper colony on private land. The owners took us off-road to the colony in three land-rovers. We saw several interesting birds on the way, including a Rufus-chested Dotterel. The Rockhopper penguins were wonderful.
We got back to Stanley with just enough time to have a very quick look round. I walked up Main Street to the catholic church but by then I’d had enough and went back to the ship. At 1.00 pm, we set off on our way back to Ushuaia. During lunch, we passed the ship Sir David Attenborough in the bay and we quickly popped out on deck to take some photos before going back to our food. The weather was now very good.
At sea in the Beagle Channel
Saturday 11 December 2021 — Ship log: day 19; Trip log: day 21
We were then on the last stretch back to Ushuaia and the end of the cruise. In the morning we had a wonderful encounter with Hourglass Dolphins and a pod of Pilot Whales. The captain turned the ship around so that we could get closer to the whales. They were swimming around the ship and we had excellent views of them. Unfortunately, we were running out of time and had to turn back towards Ushuaia.
Sunday 12 December 2021 — Ship log: day 20; Trip log: day 22
We arrived back in Ushuaia in the early morning and we disembarked after breakfast. The Oceanwide staff have created a detailed log of our trip. This can be viewed here.
Our luggage was to be stored at the Oceanwide depot until after lunch so most of the group went shopping. Roy, Jean and I decided to see if we could walk to the airport but it soon became clear that what Roy thought was the airport wasn’t the airport so we found a nice nature reserve instead. After lunch, we picked up our luggage and were taken to our hotel from where we had an interesting walk around the area before dinner.
Tierra del Fuego
Monday 13 December 2021 — Trip log: day 23
Our flight back to Buenos Aires wasn’t until the late afternoon so we spent the morning in part of Tierra del Fuego very close to Chile with Esteban, a local guide. He took us on a walk and then for a nice picnic beside a lake. There were lots of flowers and birds to see including a Chilean Condor in the distance flying over the Andes.
We didn’t arrive at our hotel in Buenos Aires until quite late but, after a good night’s sleep, we were ready to go and find the local wildlife.
Reserva Ecológica Costanera Sur
Tuesday 14 December 2021 — Trip log: day 24
Reserva Ecológica Costanera Sur is a huge wetland between Rio del la Plata, the world’s widest river, and the Puerto Madero district of Buenos Aires, and this is where we spent the day. There were many birds to see and also a snake that crossed our path. The day included a buffet lunch, Argentinian style, at a nice place in Puerto Madero.
We also had to take our pre-flight covid test. The rules had changed while we were away but Tania, from Speyside, sorted everything out for us.
We had come to the end of a wonderful holiday and all that was left was to complete the various forms before catching the flight home. Tania at Speyside had done a sterling job throughout keeping us up-to-date with the various changes in regulations, organising testing and providing detailed instructions for completing all the necessary forms. However, when we got to the airport, BA had lost our booking. After some initial panic they managed to find us all seats and the flight home was uneventful.
Roy was an excellent guide, friendly and knowledgeable. I had been a little nervous about sharing with somebody I didn’t know well but Jean and I got along famously and the other guests in our party were all good company too.