From Patagonia to the Falklands and South Georgia - my expedition 2017

This trip is one of the most exciting photography expeditions you can imagine to some of the most distant locations world wide. It lead us to truly unique wildlife places and we have seen (and could take pictures of...) whales in Valdez, albatrosses and penguins on the Falklands, the huge breeding colonies of King Penguins with several 100!! thousand pairs on the shores of South Georgia, seals and albatrosses and petrels and whaling stations and and and....

But all this comes at a price, it is far far away. The Antarctic Peninsula seems very approachable compared to the island of South Georgia. Our group flew from Frankfurt to Buenos Aires and from Buenos Aires to Trelew in Patagonia. From there by bus to Puerto Madryn, where we boarded our ship the MV Sea Spirit. From Puerto Madryn we had two sea days to the Falkland Islands and again two full days and three nights until we finally arrived on the shores of South Georgia!

 

 

On the way back our landfall in South America was Ushuaia on Tierra del Fuego again with a stop over on the Falklands. Weatherwise we had been very, very lucky. The stretch of water between the Falklands and South Georgia is notorious for its frequent and very violent storms and I can tell you from my last visit in South Georgia that these storms can be very vicious. And we had - nothing, just strong winds! I guess the winds did not exceed force 8, which is really peaceful for this area, the wave heights may have been 5-6m, not a real challenge for a ship like the Sea Spirit. Yes we have been very lucky.

As I stayed another three weeks in Argentina the whole journey did not end when I was back in Buenos Aires, but the stories of this part of the journey will be told in another blog..... First things first!

 

 

Patagonia - Peninsula Valdez

The Peninsula Valdez is famous for its whale watching and lots of other wildlife like several species of seals and some penguins as well. To understand the history of South Geogia with its industry of whaling and sealing you have to see and feel whales up close with their size and strange elegance. This was my main motivation to add a special day in Valdez just for our group in a privately chartered small open boat.

We had rough weather during our whale watching trip and I think nobody in the group was dry, but nobody left the boat untouched as well. We were close to many whales and the wild waves added drama to the experience and the pictures. At least I will never forget these moments and it definitly was the first highlight of the trip! Back from the boat we needed more than one coffee to dry out a little bit, but as I mentioned, this was a very memorable experience!

The next day we participated in a trip organized by the shipping company, the visit in the pinguineria was great, but the whale watching was dissapointing (to many people crammed like sardines into a big ship...).

Good for us, we had our unforgettable whale experience the day before!

Finally, after our two days in Puerto Madryn we could board the MV Sea Spirit, our very comfortable home for the next weeks. Everybody was very curious about the ship and excited that, at last, we started to head for the Falklands and South Georgia. The weather was fine (and should stay like this for the next days) and after about one hour the South American continent vanished behind the horizon.

The Subantarctic Islands - a very special area

Subantarctica or the Subantarctic Islands are a chain of islands with, to be honest, a very loose definition. They are located north of Antarctica, very often close the Antarctic Convergence (thats the area where cold antarctic waters meet the warmer water bodies of the Atlantic/Pacific/Indian Ocean). They still have vegetation like Tussock Grass, shrubs sometimes even small trees, often they are glaciated in higher elevations. Islands like the Crozet Islands, Macquarie, or the Kerguelen are very typical (and even harder to go to than South Georiga). South Georgia is typical subantarctic regarding vegetation and wildlife, but it is already quite a bit south of the Convergence (now called polar front). Therefore it is sometimes considered an antarctic island. 

A bit north of the convergence you can find far south of New Zealand islands like the Snares, Enderby or Auckland, which have quite a lot of trees, but are considered subantarctic as well. My times as a scientist are long over, therefore I prefere the simple definition. As long as their fauna and flora is mostly subantarctic and they are "close" to the convergence I prefer to call them subantarctic...

These islands have never been inhabited, some had whaling/sealing stations, and most of them have now permanent scientific research stations. The Falkland Islands are again a bit different, as they are far north of the Convergence and are inhabited since well before 1800. But their vegetation was subantarctic as well as their original fauna, but with some south american species like geese, vultures and song birds.

More about all that later......

The Mammals of Subantarctica (of our trip)

Mammals means seals on the subantarctic islands and it means plenty of them. They haul out to breed, to give birth and to change their fur.

Sometimes they form huge colonies like the Elephant Seals of South Georgia, sometimes the colonies are smaller like the colonies of the Hooker's Sea Lion, which call islands north of New Zealand his home. The Hooker is a strange beast anyway. I have met a solitary pair on Campbell Island at elevations of more than 300m and many km inland on mountain ranges. They seem to like hiking, and the mountains of Campbell Island are steep....

Hooker's or New Zealand Sea Lion - Campbell, Enderby and Auckland Islands south of New Zealand

Back to South Georgia and their mammals. South Georgia is home to Southern Elephant Seals and Antarctic Fur Seals and we have seen plenty! Sometimes to many, as the beaches are so crowded that access is impossible. This spoilt our visit to Gold Harbour, my favourite place on South Georgia a bit as we had to stay in the Tussock rim, which is a bad place for photography. The challenge as a photographer is not to find them, but to create good pictures.

Southern Elephant Seals form harems and the dominant bull defends his territory with his cows in bloody and violent battles. The peak of the fighting season was already over when we arrived at South Georgia, but some clashes still happened. But we have seen many matings, births and suckling scenes. Southern Elephant Seals are not especially aggressive, but if the bulls start to fight and you are in their way it is not good for you or your equipment! The deep scars on the neck of the bulls are the testimony of their fights!

Southern Elephant Seal gallery:

Antarctic Fur Seals

Antarctic Fur Seals are the second numerous species on South Georgia. They made an incredible come back after being protected many years ago and do now outnumber Elephant Seals easily. As they feed primarily on krill and whales as the top krill predators are still very, very rare around South Georgia they really proliferate. They come ashore a bit later than the Elephant Seals and this was our luck. Later in the year some important beaches are closed to visitors or your movement on the beaches are very restricted. Fur Seals are aggressive, quick on their flippers and they bite! They maybe pretty but you need lots of space between your camera and a fur seal.....

Anyway, I love the agility and playfullness of the females but I am very carefull as well. Many years ago, when I visited South Georgia on a yacht my nickname was Sea Bear Warrior as I had the special honour to convince the bulls to give way to our group or to defend our landing site. All happened of course without harming or menacing the animals and it was not the nicest of jobs I had in my lifetime....

Similar to Elephant Seals the Antarctic Fur Seals form harems, which are defended by the males. The males are impressive and sometimes quite vocal. Males and females just arrived on the beaches and everything was still quite relaxed, the bulls where often lazily snoring away on the beach and I guess most of the passengers did not believe the stories of the aggressivity of Fur Seals, but trust me they can be aggressive and sometimes I think individual bulls can work together to drive intruders away.

I remember a story where an experienced co-skipper of a yacht, who waited for her guests on the shore, where driven in to the sea by two bulls. She was rescued by zodiac, which she called by radio. I have seen her still shivering on the yacht, the water temperature around South Georgia is between 2 and 4 degrees! No fun!

And then we have some very few Weddell Seals, which is a true antarctic species. They form a small colony in Larson Harbour and yes we have seen one during a very wet and adventurous zodiac cruise. Access on land is restricted and due to the weather and restriction this was an event for the adventurous soul in us not for the photographer....

And this smiling fellow did not smile half as much as I did! No it is no Weddell Seal, it is the first Leopard Seal I have ever seen. It was one of the big luck events of this journey. I have spent many, many weeks in Subantarctica, I even had seen a Weddell on the Falklands, but never a Leopard Seal, which are regular visitors to all subantarctic islands including the Falklands. The sea was very bumpy and this picture is definitly not my strongest composition, but it was my first Leopard Seal.....

Besides the seals there had been no mammal on South Georgia, the sealers and whalers changed this dramatically. Rats have been introduced probably quite early and prospered on all the birds, the vegetation and later on all the offal and waste the whaling stations produced. They killed most of the small birds and they are gone now, yes they are gone! It was the biggest rat eradication programm yet worldwide. If you look at the topography of South Georgia you can hardly believe that it is so far successfull. Check out this page to learn about this huge undertaking!

Another introduced species, now history as well, has been reindeer. The whalers introduced the species for meat and hunting, the whalers left, the reindeer stayed and they did quite well. But the local Tussock Grass does not tolerate grazing well and this resulted in major erosion. All reindeer was culled several years ago. I still have files where reindeer is grazing in the whaling stations.

That is it, no more mammals on South Georgia.

On the Falklands you find no Antarctic Fur Seal, but South American Fur Seals, you have Southern Elephant Seals and Southern Sea Lions. As the FAlklands have been seperated from the continent for a very long time there was no land mammal but one species, a local fox. It is still not clear how this species made it to the Falklands....

Birds of South Georgia (and Subantarctica)

There are many, many birds on South Georgia (and other subantarctic islands). You may think "Sea Bird", "Penguin" or "Albatross" and of course you are correct. Subantarctica is THE area for penguins and albatrosses and most islands have slightly different species. But some of these islands including South Georgia have resident and breeding populations of non seabirds like the South Georgia Pipit or the South Georgia Pintail which where probably blown by storms to these remote islands.

On South Georiga the numbers of the small birds are increasing now as the rat as a predator is gone and you can listen to the song of a pipit on South Georgia again!

For me it was clear that I focussed on the major species like penguins and tubenoses, they are just pretty and more "rewarding" for my photography.

King Penguins

We have seen plenty of King Penguins, more than you can count, more than you will see ever again (unless you come to Subantarctica again...). It is an amazing sight to stand or sit on the edge of the huge colonies at St. Andrews Bay or Salisbury Plains. Just this sight is worth the many sea days.

As I have many good portraits of Kings from the Falkland Islands (there is a small colony there), I decided to go for numbers and chicks. The sheer number of Kings in one place is what makes South Georgia so different!

In spring you find in the colonies half grown chicks huddled together in groups waiting for the parents or for the food they bring. The number of adults differs a lot as they come ashore just for feeding their young. But there is another group of adults, that are the moulters. The exact cycle courting, breeding, feeding, moulting ist a bit complex and I think not yet fully understood. The moulters are forming huge groups often on snow fields or cold streams where they stand without much motion. Any disturbance will cost the energy to change the plumage, as they have to starve until the new plumage is ready. As a visitor you have to be quite carefull not to disturb them....

South Georgia has more penguin species than Kings and we have seen them all!!

Gentoos, Macaroni and Chinstrap (a loaner close to the Chinstrap colony, which is off limits). Add the Falkland species Rockhopper and Magallanic to the list and we had good opportunities to take pictures of all typical species of this subantarctic region. Great!

Chinstraps are more antarctic and it was just big luck to find one on a rock, quite close to my Leopard Seal. Probably the loaner just had to wait until the Leopard Seal swims away, good luck for us.... The little colony of Chinstraps on South Georgia is the most northern chinstrap colony world wide. We could see it from the ship, but, as I mentioned already, access is forbidden.

Tubenoses - Albatrosses, Giant Petrels, Petrels

The airspace in Subantarctica belongs to the tubenoses. As soon as we left Puerto Madryn harbour, the ship was followed by Giant Petrels and Cape Petrels, sometimes joined by Black-browed Albatrosses or the huge Wandering Albatrosses.

On land we had not been so lucky with tubenoses. But as usual there is one exception to the rule and this time it was the visit of the Black-browed Albatross colony on West Point Island (Falkland). This was our last landing and it was just great. Perfect weather, lots of flying, dancing, mating and so on. As usual The West Is The Best was true on the Falklands.....

Second best has been, and thats a bit surprising, Giant Petrels. They are plentyfull around the huge colonies of seals and penguins, but their nesting sites are far away, remote and cruise ships avoid these sites, as Giant Petrels are quite endangered and sometimes easily disturbed. These birds, sometimes called vultures of the southern seas, are scavengers, but also take chicks and eggs. Even on the Falklands their breedings sites are strictly protected. On South Georgia it is another story and the birds are much more relaxed than on the Falklands.

My experience with Giant Petrels on the New Zealand subantarctic islands is similar to South Georgia, they are relaxed around the colonies and even on nests. I guess the Falkland population have different experience with people (in the past).

It was mere luck, that we found a probably new nesting site close to a gentoo colony on South Georgia. We kept our distance and the Giant Petrel was a bit interested in the strange visitors but basically did not care much....

A very special experience was the visit of Prion Island with its colony of Wandering Albatrosses.

The landing is difficult, as it is subject to heavy swell, later in the year the landing beach is full of Fur Seals and therefore closed for visitors and access is restricted to 25 people, which can stay only about one hour. It is a very special experience to watch this very rare species and of course one of the highlights of the whole trip. As all visitors have to stay on the boardwalk  it is a matter of luck how close to the boardwalk nests are occupied. We have been lucky to be able to land, but occupied nests have been far away, an excellent experience, but not very good for wildlife photography.

I was a bit sad not to be able to walk up to the nests of my favourite Albatross species - light mantled sooty Albatrosses. We have seen many swirling around, but could not walk up to the nesting sites..... a real pity!

To finish the birds of the Subantarctic Islands some pictures of one of the many incarnations of the Brown Skua, the South Georgia Skua

Whaling and Sealing on South Georgia

South Georgia would not be South Georgia as it is today without this part of history. I was looking forward to seeing the Whaling Stations again. I knew that only Grytviken are open to visitors, as all others are closed due to falling debris and asbestos. These closed stations are now kind of fenced off with a huge perimeter around the buildings, even the cemeteries cannot be visited any longer. I really doubt, that such a huge perimeter makes really sense. If it is blowing hard, nobody can go ashore anyway and asbestos fibers will always fly with the wind regardless how close you are. Anyway it is like it is.

But somebody had a really good idea and the South Georgian goverment created high resolution 3D models using modern laser-scanning technology. You have to watch the links. It is the only way to imagine the huge industrial complexes at the edge of the world....

Leith Whaling Station

Leith Whaling Station - Plant detail

Leith Whaling station - another detail

if you search the web, you will find some more.....

 

 

 

And now Grytviken. All what is left after the "renovation" and "asbestos cleaning" is the heavy machinery! No walls, no roofs! My first emotion was "Grytviken is now soulless". I am sure the adminisitration had good reasons to demolish everything, but all the same my reaction is still the same.

It was fun to take pictures of all the heavy machinery, especially as we had (again) splendid weather, but.....

I cannot help, but perhaps they cut off the arm, when only a finger was infected, I really do not know. Everything you do in such an environment is difficult and expensive, I am very well aware of this fact, but I have my doubts.

The next time I will visit Grytviken I will be "mentally prepared"! We cannot turn back time and Grytviken will not come back, enjoy the pictures and the atmosphere. I tried as hard as I could to recreate the atmosphere, just use your imagination and put walls and roofs around the machinery, let steam out of the chimneys and feel the noise and stench!

South Georgia's Landscape

South Georgia is associated with wildlife not so much with landscape and that is completely wrong! South Georgia is like our central Alps submerged with the glaciers calfing into the Inn valley. The highest peak is nearly 3000m but the island is just 20km wide. The sight on a clear day is incredible. That is the big difference to the Falklands where the landscape on most islands is "unintersting".

Imagine Mount Grossglockner with 100.000 penguins next to the Pasterze glacier, such good is South Georgia!

Falkland's wildlife

Many people ask me about the difference between Falkland's and South Georgia's wildlife. Falkland is subantarctic with lots of influences from the South American continent, South Georgia is fully subantarctic with very little influences...

Both have lots of penguins and albatrosses, skuas and (giant) petrels. But the Falklands have geese, ducks, vultures, caracaras and many songbirds. In terms of number of species, Falkland is much richer, in terms of absolute numbers of a species (colony/rookery size) South Georgia is (much) more impressive!

The spectacular landscape is hard to access on the Falklands, as the interesting islands are hard to go to and have no real accomodation. But the real difference is neiter landscape nor wildlife, both islands are absolutely fascinating and highly recommended. The real difference is access and means of travel. You can take a (long) flight to the Falklands, stay in lodges or cottages on dry land and haveas much time with the wildlife as you want.

South Georgia is unique but you have to book/charter a cruise or a yacht to go there. You have to stay on the ship and landings are highly regulated, but you can see things you will not see anywhere else in the world. It is your choice!

Falkland Impressions gallery

Will I return to Subantarctica?

Will I return to Subantarctica? Definitly yes! This region is just to exciting!

Falkland is again on the horizon as we have already bookings for my Falkland Islands workshop in 2019 (hurry if you are intersted).

South Georgia or other subantarctic islands, thats a different story. I am sure I will visit these islands again, if the right opportunity pops up or if we have enough people to organize a similar journey again. Let us know, if you are interested in Subantarctica! Leaving a message does not hurt.....

 

What else is to say?

This trip was extraordinary and I will never forget these three weeks!

I will be at home for the next weeks, I really need some rest after all the travelling. My discs are more than full and the files have to find their way to the customers as well.

I will write some more blogs about Buenos Aires and Northern Argentina, stay tuned

Check out my workshop pages for my next workshops especially our expedition to Greenland is a unique opportunity to see and photograph some of the most fascinating places Greenland can offer!

 

Munich December 2017