12th April: Patagonia (Peninsula Valdes)

Today we piled into a bus for a trip to Peninsula Valdes, a world heritage area due to its wildlife.

Our wildlife encounters started in the carpark when we arrived. This is a zorro or Patagonian Fox. Actually not a true fox, it is a member of a South American genus intermediate between dogs and foxes.

We were also met by small armadillos (zorritos), completely unafraid of humans and nuzzling determinedly into packs and pockets in search of food.

A handsome zorro or patagonian fox. Both the zorros and the zorritos were fruitlessly cruising the carpark looking for handouts. They must get some or they wouldn’t be there, though there were of course notices prohibiting it.

The zorritos were scuttling around like clockwork toys on steroids.

Further on from the carpark, near the edge of the water, there were several colonies of sea lions, all females and pups.

Here, beyond the kelp gulls, we see a female who has been calling pups to her. This might be related to potential danger from orcas in the water.

Turkey vulture overhead.

In the distance are two colonies of sea lions, with attendant gulls. There is also a French film crew, nestled above the second colony.

There were a few elephant seals on the beach, as here with a sea lion pup in front.

Sea Lions.

A sea lion parliament, perhaps.

Photographers waiting for action. Peninsula Valdes is one of the two areas in the world where orcas deliberately beach themselves trying to snaffle seals (the other is a French subantarctic island). They go after the pups, mainly sea lions or perhaps elephant seals.

An elephant seal pup and sea lions in the foreground.

We didn’t see any beachings but the orcas cruised past late in the afternoon, shortly before we had to return to the ship.

(That’s a cormorant behind the orca that is showing a bit of tail as it goes down).

… And so they passed on through …..

… and all the sea lion pups got to survive on this day….

On the bus on the way there and back we saw guanacos, rheas and maras. Maras are small animals related to cavies or guinea pigs and one of their forms of locomotion (which we observed from the bus) was a peculiar one called “stotting” where they bounce around on stiff legs as though they have had a sudden attack of tetanus and the ground is electrified.

11th April: Patagonia (Puerto Madryn)

A free day at Puerto Madryn, originally a Welsh colony, because the ship arrived early and nothing was organized.

We had left the Falklands a few days before, which was very British and where there were many references to the war in the ’80s. Here was the counterpart in Argentina, a monument to the war in the Malvinas.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the day was the pair of sea lions (originally three, I’m told) that settled down on the fairly small flat surface of a buttress on the wharf while the tide slowly receded and left them more than 20 feet above it.

I’m not sure when low tide was and how high they would have been then. Late in the day, they dropped 20 feet to the sea in order to leave.

Unlike the photographer above, I wasn’t prepared to take the risk of overbalancing and landing on top of some combination of chains, sea lions and buttress, so I lay dow on the wharf to take the images above.

This gives some idea of how far out of the water the sea lions were. It also shows something of the size of the ship and how large the waves would have been in the Drake Passage when they were washing on deck at the stern of the ship.

3rd April: Falkland Islands (Barren Island)

In the afternoon the weather turned fine and we had a delightful visit to Barren Island. There was a group of elephant seals beside the sea, putting on a great show for us – biffo by the beach. In the breeding season, when the beachmasters compete for territory this can be bloody and serious. In this case, though, it was probably mainly the young ones practicing for the time they may need to do it for real. They also made prolonged burping sounds at very high volume as though they were practicing for potential roles as lead singers in death metal bands.

Teethmarks left behind ...

Maybe not so serious after all ...

The beachmaster's mate

The beachmaster slips into the water to try to ease the moulting torment including scraping against the rocks in the sea

There were also a large number of sea lions up on the grass about 50 metres from the shore. They were in pairs and the males are about twice as large as the females and have large “manes”. They seemed to have lots of scars on their faces, often quite fresh, from their tiffs. They can also move surprisingly fast, faster than we could run. They were giving good displays when I first turned up but I went to the elephant seals first and when I went to photograph the sea lions they were mainly lying down in the grass and quiescent. Ah well, you can’t be everywhere. No point going up to them and poking them with a stick. Still, I still got a couple of interesting images:

Sea lions on their veldt (except we're in the Falklands; ther'd be a different word there)

Sea lions with battle scars

There were still many things to see apart from the elephant seals and sea lions….

Upland geese in flight

Kelp is at hand, though too far south for a Mexican wave

Upland geese

Upland geese

Upland geese

28th March: Antarctica (Arctowski Station, King George Island)

We had arrived at the Polish Arctowski Station to offload winter supplies and scientists.  The Poles here have an amphibious vehicle which you see here unloading supplies from the ship.

… and here they are coming out onto the land.

We received a warm welcome at Arctowski and then it was time to wander out and explore around the base.

If you’re going to be spending a winter in Antarctica, you need to find ways to amuse yourself and soccer is very popular when weather conditions allow.  We also observed from afar a soccer game at Vernadsky Station while we were there.

Nothing like relaxing on a white sand beach.  Just one problem, though.  This isn’t actually sand.  That’s a small lighthouse in the distance and some of the photographers from our expedition scattered around it.

Whalers were here as recently as the early twentieth century, especially since the huge Admiralty Bay never gets blocked by ice.  There are many whale bones along the shore.

I saw four seals of three different kinds and a gentoo penguin or two.  This is an elephant seal.

A weddell seal comfortably snuggled in on a mattress of snow and ice.

Another weddell seal taking advantage of its natural layers of insulation.

24th March: Antarctica (Argentine Islands – Afternoon – Licensed to Krill)

After lunch we headed off again in the zodiacs.

Fur seal preening

Crabeater seal

GPS Location. (green arrow)

Humpback whale tail and fairy tern

This was to be the day of the Humpback Whale as we continuously tracked humpback whales from our zodiacs. There were evidently large congregations of krill. We would follow the Antarctic Terns circling overhead, then a big patch of bubbles might rise to the surface and shortly after the humpbacks themselves would appear, sometimes quite close to the zodiacs.

GPS Location. (Green arrow)  At least as I write this, the google map is a bit misleading in that the  satellite images were taken in winter and there’s a big iceberg here – so ignore that.  All following images of the whales were taken close by, roughly two kilometres north of Vernadsky Station.

This is the underside of the whale's head and at the right, the lower jaw (the whale is on its side)

Whale tails.  The patterns on the underside of the tail are unique to individuals.

Two whales going down

There are three whales here. One has just come up with a great gulp of krill.

Antarctic tern and humpback whale. This is the head and the blowhole, perhaps looking something like a riveted armour-plated submarine from the American civil war.

As you can see from the light, it is now quite late in the afternoon

Eventually, it was getting late, we turned back and made for the ship.  Had we stayed for just another five minutes, I would have been able to show you a breaching, a whale soaring into the air, full body-length.  Altogether, a most amazing day. Some of the expedition staff who had been on many voyages to Antarctica said they had seen nothing like it.

A small iceberg eroded into a dramatic shape

24th March: Antarctica (Argentine Islands – Morning)

Having arrived in Vernadsky Station, we had several days to explore the surrounding area while the ship unloaded the supplies for the station for the winter. Here are some of the views from the zodiac:

Seal, variety not recorded

Gentoo Penguins

Blue Eyed Cormorant - but it's a juvenie so the eyes aren't yet blue

Maybe a cannonball fired in an intergalactic war ...

Ice, rocks and snow. The shape of the snow on the rock reminds me of cromagnon cave painting of wild cattle from Southern France some 20,000 or so years old.

A couple of humpback whales, massive enough in themselves though dwarfed by the scale of the landscape

Going down ...

Just a bit of tail

We’d been out for maybe an hour and a half and now came in for lunch. The images from the afternoon will follow in the next post.