From Patagonia to Antarctica (and back) - four weeks full of wildlife and scenery

Patagonia, Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula - all in one amazing trip

This trip was very unique. It was the longest trip I did as a guide, it was the largest group I ever guided, it was postponed several times due to Covid, the details had to be changed several times as flight and ship schedules changed from postponement to postponement and the number of participants changed over time and so on.

But it was and is something nobody else was offering so far, as I said, very unique.

We started in Frankfurt and arrived via Santiago de Chile in Punta Arenas in Chilean Patagonia. After two days the next destination was the Falkland Islands, where we had a full week at different locations before we boarded the Sea Spirit. This part of the expedition made a big loop from the Falklands to South Georgia to Elephant Island and finally to the Antarctic Peninsula. From there we crossed the Drake Passage to Ushuaia. After a brief visit to the NP Tierra del Fuego we flew to Buenos Aires and further on back to Frankfurt. Overall it was a bit more than 4 weeks!

This trip was full of suspense, too, a bit to much for my taste as a guide. Arriving in the Falklands news spread that bird flu has arrived in South Georgia. The first cases were reported from Bird Island, which is strictly off limits to visitors. Very likely skuas or other scavengers brought the virus to South Georgia. It was clear that from now on it would spread to other places. The government of South Georgia declared that all beaches with bird flu, would be closed to visitors. This news was not good for the wildlife and of course not good for us.

Spring in Antarctica is also unpredictable. Wind, ice conditions and wave hights can enrich your experience, but can also make any landings impossible. The atmosphere of Antarctica during this rough season is special and worth while the risk. I think we did as good as possible, this was also due to some decisions of the expedition team on our ship, the Sea Spirit. Instead of staying around the South Shetland Islands, which would be the natural spot for spring expeditions, they headed down south, even further than Port Lockroy. To much wind and to high waves around the warmer north antarctic Islands.

But we had been lucky. We had splendid weather on the Falklands, we could do some maginificent landings on South Georgia, despite the closing of many beaches and heavy winds. We could do some landings in Antarctica and did many zodiac cruises and we had very calm crossings in the roaring fourties.

First however, lets go back to Patagonia. In Patagonia we focused on the endangered Andean Condor, Magellanic Penguins and local seals. Due to the size of the condor hide, we had to split the group in two. We had two days where we shifted the groups. This is a bit risky as wildlife and weather is unpredictable and one day is never like any other. The condor hide was good (not very good, no males around) one day, just ok the other, the cliff walk for flying condors was the other way round and two times VERY windy. To see Andean Condors is very special. Huge birds with intense eyes. Very special and not easy to see. It remains a mystery why the second day was different. Normally caracaras show up very soon, but even these falcon like birds, which are risk takers, did not want to come. And when they appeared they did not stay long. The local bird expert, which guided us and had been to the hide many times, had only guesses. Maybe a puma or whatever was around and scared the birds. Nobody knows.....

The flight from Punta Areans, our base in Patagonia, to Mount Pleasant Airport on the Falklands was uneventful. I am always glad when I take off to MPA. More than once the flight was delayed due to weather and even more often due to some strange argentine reasons. It was very windy at MPA, but we could land and three FIGAS planes, nearly the whole fleet, waited for us at MPA, to fly us to the islands. FIGAS is the local airline serving the farms and islands by request. The schedule is made the day before.

The flight was gorgeous, clear skys, no haze, we could not have hoped for a better beginning. Our group of 16 had to be split again, as none of the wildlife destinations can handle such a group. Four of us flew first to Saunders, the rest including myself to Sea Lion Island. After some days we swapped islands to be reunited in Stanley for our last trip on the Falklands, this time by 4x4 to Volunteer Point with its King Penguin colony. Amazingly everything worked well, all flights worked due to the sunny weather, which changed to horrible on the day trip to Volunteer.

It is hard to find any particular highlight for our stay in the Faklands. It is Sea-Elephant season and all penguin species are already in the rookeries, but no chicks. Of course the Kings are different, maybe thats the real reason why they are called kings, it is their regal attitude.... Therefore it is not the right time to watch the cuddly sweet penguin chicks, it is the time to watch Elephant seals during their harem period. All birds are mating and building their nests, but the rookeries are "quiet" compared to January, when most of the chicks have hatched and the parents must go fishing to feed the next generation!

It may sound strange, to visit a "small" place like Sea Lion Island for Sea Elephants, when visiting South Georgia Island with its huge population and its terrific scenery later on. But this year it was essential. Due to bird flu all of the great Sea Elephant beaches were closed. No Gold Harbour, no St. Andrews Bay, no Ocean Harbour! We had been lucky and the days with the Elephant Seals on Sea Lion Islands offered lots of good opportunities to watch their behaviour and to take pictures.

Same story with King Penguins. We had a day at Volunteer Point, which is a great place with a great beach. I love it. But South Georgia is a different league. The recommondation was to focus on portraits in Volunteer and it "payed of". Again we had been lucky. On our last day in South Georgia we could visit the last remaining huge King colony, Salisbury Plains. And what a visit it was. Everything was near perfect and a day before we had a sunny day at Fortuna Bay. But all other famous places had been closed for onshore excursions. We had close ups and dramatic weather in Volunteer and the (remaining) huge places in South Georgia!

Falkland is my photographic home and in my blog there are many stories covering these unique wildlife destination. The Falklands are unique and all photographers and wildlife enthusiasts are coming back changed, they are spoiled and many are getting addicted to such an experience (I am still addicted and I can tell you there is no cure!).

Every visit down there has its highlights, which will last in my memories. This time it will be the Giant Petrels.

Giant Petrels are tubenoses just like Albatrosses, but for most people they are not as "likeable". They are savengers, have a mottled plumage not the pure black and white patterns of the Albatrosses, they are stiff winged flyers and not the elegant gliders! And they do the dirty business, eating the carcasses and sometimes butchering young penguin chicks. Anyway I found and find them amazing and interesting and I love to take pictures of them. Access to their nesting places is difficult and very restricted. Sometimes we could visit a small colony in the Falklands, on the subantarctic and antarctic islands it is nearly impossible to visit colonies and if you can you have a distance of at least 25m. They are protected birds.

For whatever reason we saw more Giant Petrels on the Falklands than in any of my previous visits. Quite often on carcasses, but also flying or just hanging around. Maybe its the season or maybe they just become more numerous down there.

On South Georgia the photo opportunities had been similar good, but as mentioned before for a sad reason. At least in the beginning they had food as probably never before since the butchering of whales. How they can cope as a scavenger with the virus has to be seen. It was definitly a extremely good harvest of Giant Petrel pictures (both species, northern or Halls and Southern Giant Petrel), the best I ever had in the Falklands or South Georgia.

Birds in flight, behavioral shots, portraits all worked with the Giant Petrel this year! I know that commercially Albatrosses are much more looked after, but anyway I liked and like to cover this species and I hope for more when am back to the Falklands in January.

Both pictures above show the difference between Halls/Northern and Southern Giant Petrel and between mature and immature. Look at the eyes, dark eyes belong to the immature, as well as grey mottled versus dark brown plumage, both species show this differntiation. The best way to tell the species apart is the tip of the beak. If it is pale to greenish, its a Southern, if it is reddish it is the Hall's.

Back to the days in the Falklands. Sea Lion Island is the destination for Elephant Seals and going in spring is the best time. The harems are established and defended, lots of mating and suckling of the pups and the cute weaners are already left alone to slim down for their life in the ocean. If you want to watch the bulls fighting over their beach territories you have to be even earlier in the year. But earlier means also that not much wildlife can be watched! It is always a compromise. All the same we could watch short bull fights and the open wounds at the neck of the bulls are proof to this fact. During the past weeks the bulls learned exactly their place in the pecking order, a threat display of a harem bull is often enough to discourage an intruder.

It is hard to believe, how different the behaviour of the bulls is during the later months. They are happily laying together on the beaches to shed their old fur! Weaned Elephant Seal pups are called weaners. Very sweet things and they are looking for attention, trying to follow you. When they have shed their black baby fur, which is not waterproof and lost a bit of their baby fat, they vanish in the dangerous waters of the ocean. Cows are suckling their young and very soon after giving birth they mate again. After mating and weaning the cows go back to the sea.

On South Georgia we had the opportunity to watch many Elephant Seal beaches from the Zodiac, which allows for great opportunities to watch them from the water and in the water.

As long as the Elephant Seals are on the beach they do not have to fear any predator. Pups are sometimes crushed by bulls, that is their biggest risk. In the waters around the big harem beaches predators are lurking, mostly Orcas but also Leopard Seals. Around Falkland there was and is a group of Orcas and we could watch them wating for the females returning to the sea. A very peculiar "predator", restricted to the Falklands, is the Tussock-Bird. The small birds are picking flesh from the wounds of the bulls, not life threating of course, but a nuisance.

I could watch one behaviour however, which was new to me, quite sad to watch I must admit. 

A male Sea Lion was first seperating a Sea Elephant pup from the group, then it pushed the pup step by step into the water, to drown or kill it by whatever method. The pups are not defended by the bulls or cows. It was a bit hearbreaking to watch the scene with the helpless pup fearfully squeaking, but that's nature. I asked Mickey, the owner of the Lodge about this and it seems to be a very new behaviour. Another guest watched it the first time only one day before my observation. It seems to be a new pattern. I talked about this with the seal expert on the Sea Spirit, even she did not know about such a behavour.

On Saunders during a chat with the islands's owner I talked about this. The older Falklanders always knew that pups are killed by Sea Lions, but the experts did not believe them, he said. On Saunders there was a Elephant Seal beach for generations and according to him predation by Sea Lions was so strong, that the Elephant Seals moved to other places (they are coming back now and start to establish a breeding beach again).

Another behavour I watched, this time on South Georgia was very different and probably not so rare, but I have seen it the first time.

As you see, a secondary bull tries to mate with a weaner. This went on for a long time and I had finally to board my Zodiac. Again the pup was squeaking......

Enough from the giants, lets move to the Penguins, the main reason, why people visit the Falklands, South Georgia and Antarctica!

We could see all penguin species of this area, that is amazing given the season. In fact it is more difficult as you might think. Earlier in the spring Rockhoppers and Macaroni Penguins are not yet there and in the Antarctic Peninsula and Antarctica proper is still much snow and especially Adelie Penguins are not yet there. If you go later, the Elephant seals start to vanish and lots of beaches are not possible to visit due to the large number of our furry friends the Antarctic Fur Seals.

In Antarctica we had plenty of time with Gentoo's and some encounters with Chinstrap and Adelie. South Georgia was as usual full of King Penguins, we visited one of the Gentoo colonies, used the Zodiac to watch the only Chinstrap Colony of South Georgia and where lucky that the Macaronis had just arrived to watch them at two places.

On the Falklands we spent time with Magellanic (in Patagonia as well), thousands of Gentoo's and of course the King Penguins of Volunteer. The Rockhoppers had been back to their colonies, too. All in all seven species!

You can find much more stories about penguins in my blogs, therefore I just mention the difference to the high season: No chicks (as already told, Kings have chicks), but lots of mating and dating. "Nest" building is still going on, if you want to call the nests nests. In Antarctica you just have snow and all Penguines with the exception of Emperor Penguins need solid ground for nesting, therefore even less activities further south. Kings breed later in the season, where all the snow is gone from their rookeries anyway, No idea how they handle snow, probably quite good, as the chicks rest on their feet, just like the Emperors do it.

Landscape in South Gerogia and Antarctica - as good as it gets. The harsh weather had its advantages.....

Antarctica is called the white continent. This might be true for Antarctica mainland but, the lower altitudes and flat islands of the more northern South Shetlands are free of snow and even a bit green during summer. However as you get a bit higher up to the hills or mountains the glaciers start soon. As I mentionend, most penguins need solid ground for breeding. No snowfree environment no Penguins colony (not the Emperor of course, they are different). During spring all is white with lots of deep snow. It is a very different atmosphere compared to summer, more archaic, more antarctic!

My last visit to Antarctica was at the height of summer and I found the spring much more impressive, but you are limited to the northern parts. Famous places like Paradise Bay or Lemair Channel are still full of ice and therefore out of reach. We made it to the area around Port Lockroy, which is already pretty impressive with all its mountains and glaciers. Again compared to summer it was wilder, more ice, more antarctic!

Ît is definitly a different experience to come early, it is a bit more risky regarding ice, weather and wildlife, but it also has its very special and rewarding atmosphere!

A word about the crossings. Falkland - South Georgia - Antarctica - Tierra del Fuego, this means lots of sea days. The gods had mercy and we had no storm no nothing! Often sunny, a good breeze, waves max 4 m. This made the crossings very pleasant! Lots of birds around and amazingly lots of icebergs around South Georgia, which is very unusual! During the sea days I offered in the morning and afternoon workshops (composition, postpocessing and sensor technology). About the half of the group attended and we had lots of discussions and often trouble shooting after the sessions. I am sure the attendees took lots of information and a bit of practical experience back home. If the crossing would have been rough, this schedule would have been hard to keep! Many thanks to the participants and their contributions!

South Georgia is not only about wildlife it is also about landscape with its dramatic and icy mountain scenery! There is no place like South Georgia. Only a few kilometers are between the beach full of wildlife and the peaks close to 3000m.

The first and only land you find between the Falklands and South Georgia are the Shag Rocks. This time they had been awesome. Lots of big icebergs around and not to foggy and only a bit of sleet. The best view of  Shag Rocks I ever had! As far as I know there was only one "landing" for a couple of minutes to collect rock sampes to understand the geology of the area. A geologist was lowered from a helicopter for a few minutes.....

South Georgia greeted us with a nice sunrise and as I said lots of icebergs. Later on we got lots of the typical katabathic winds often in gale force. There is a true story about a landing at Grytviken, a very sheltered place and home to the administration and museum, a place where everybody goes. The people went ashore by Zodiac visited Shackeltons grave, the whaling station an the museum. Suddenly the kathabatic winds started out of nowhere. All had to sleep in the museum and church, as it was impossible to use the Zodiacs any longer! Weather can be very tricky in these areas.

We had been in the Zodiacs around Cooper Bay in quite calm weather and headed with the Sea Spirit to Drygalski Fjord, which is just a few miles apart. We approached the mouth of the fjord and the Sea Spirit tilted when she was hit by the gales of probably 100km/h or even a bit higher. No Drygalki Fjord, a pity, but nobody discussed this decision!

South Georgia is magnificent, even under such conditions! A few more pics will show you more of its landscape and the Whaling Stations..... the pictures will tell the story!

You probably know by now, that I love the Island of South Georgia.....

Another highlight and something I have never seen before in such dimensions was a tubular iceberg we saw while crossing the iceberg ally between South Georgia and Elephant Island. This thing was huge, you would have needed an aerial view to grasp the size. I guess it took the Sea Spirit about half an hour to pass by it.

Before coming to an end lets talk about more wildlife, seals first.

The first species to mention is of course the Antarctic Fur Seal, so common in South Georgia that they make landings sometimes impossible. We arrived right at the time, when the bulls establish/have established their harem territory and wait for the females. Sometimes they can be aggressive and you have to be careful in the vicinity of these Fur Seals. The fights between the males can be vicious and you cannot believe how quick and agile the males are, when they defend their beach area.

Just like Elephant Seals the males start to exercise very early and it looks very playfull, as you see in one of the pictures below.

In Antarctica/South Georgia we saw Leopard, Crabeater and Weddell Seal, in the Falklands (some of us) and Patagonia South American Sea Lions. Again that is all you can see in this area, we habe been quite lucky. There is another Fur Seal species in the Falklands (South American Fur Seal), but it is restricted to some very remote islands and I have never seen it in any other place in the Falklands.

A word about Albatrossess. In the Falklands the Black-browed Albatrossess were dutiful sitting on their tower-shaped nests, at least some of them had their one and only egg already. From time to time they repaired or extended their homes with their huge beak and mud. One participant told me, he saw a pair working as a team, to get more material! Immaculate and pretty birds!

During the crossings lots of tubenoses have been around the ship. Wandering Albatrosses and probably some Royals, Sooties and sometimes Grey-headed and of course Black-browed. It had been good crossings.

There is lots of more birdlife I could talk about, but I guess that's enough for this blog. Especially smaller birds, ducks and geese would deserve more attention, maybe next time. And next time is for me already in the beginning of January 2024, in 10 days!

A few pictures, which are worth while to be shared shall finish this blog. Have fun with the pictures.

Will we do such an extreme trip again? We do not know yet, but we will check out some options, let us know, if you might be interested.

First I will go back to the Falklands in the very beginning of January with a smaller group. It will be the first time, that I visit the Falklands twice in one season. I was there twice in a year, but not in one season.... Many thanks to the Expedition Team and the crew of the Sea Spirit and of course to all my guests. I enjoyed the lectures and all the discussions!

Take care Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year

Munich, Christmas 2023

The final word in german, next workshops

Wir sind jetzt wieder regelmäßig auf den Fototagen und Reisemessen unterwegs. Wenn Ihr wollt besucht uns! Die nächsten Messen sind in  folgenden Städten.


Unsere Fotoreisen und Foto-Workshops, ein Klick auf die Reise bringt Sie zu einer Beschreibung der Reise

Thats it for the moment! Stay tuned and healthy!

Munich, May 2023