What better place to spend what around the world is being hailed as a Brand New Day, than on a beautiful Falkland’s rock called … New Island.
Home to nesting albatrosses, Macaroni and rock hopper penguins and another forty breeds of birds, it is the most remote of all inhabited islands in the Falklands. Its human population is just two families and the entire island has recently been set aside under conservation easement turning it into a forever nature reserve.
Bonding with the rock hoppers, New Island, the Falklands
The cliffs on the far side of the island are rimmed with nesting birds and I spent the entire morning watching sizable albatross swoop in full-steam and throw on the brakes just before setting onto their cylindrical nests. Oddly, a few sneaky penguins had taken over a couple of the outsized nests making for strange side-by-side couplings.
Five hundred feet below the sea crashed onto tall rocks and I could see penguins swarming in from the ocean onto them, so vowed to figure out a way down for a closer look. A muddy scramble led to an incredibly pristine V in the wall, carved from centuries of wild seas crashing. I sat for an hour and watched as penguins were literally spit out of the violently raucous sea onto the rocks. I’m always amazed when I see them and their surf landings, surprised they don’t break wings, necks, beaks and more with great frequency. Instead, what I’ve observed, is that penguins tend to bounce pretty well.
It was a beautiful way to end this seven week adventure on the Southern Ocean; the next day it’s back to the tip of Argentina and civilization.
Looking back to late November, the days pile up on top of one another, a bit confused from this near-distance. While each day has been new and different, the one constant – from the Antarctic Peninsula to South Georgia and the Falklands – has been the Southern Ocean. Whenever I leave this deep south, it is with some regret because I love this part of our globe. But it’s also with some joy that I depart too, because … I know I’ll be back.
A line up of rock hoppers, New Island, the Falklands
When we sailed to the Antarctic Peninsula last year aboard Skip Novak’s “Pelagic Australis” to mount our sea kayaking adventure, the third mate aboard proved to have a big story to tell. An accomplished long-distance rower, the youngest to cross the Atlantic Ocean under his own power, 24-year-old Olly Hicks told us he intended a year later to attempt something never done before: To row around Antarctica. One of his reasons for working on the “Pelagic Australis” was to gain some insight into how the Southern Ocean works. Though he would be rowing around Antarctica in its waters, he would never actually see the continent.
Olly Hicks, in red jacket, during one of our Antarctica climbs, January 2008
Bon chance, Olly! One year later and his attempt is in the news. Not because of any particularly long days on the sea, but because a couple different government’s are not wild about his plan. His late-December hope to push off from New Zealand – and hopefully return some 500 days later! – was quashed by the New Zealand maritime bureau that saw it potentially being pulled into an expensive and risky rescue mission if something were to go awry and which it wanted no part of.
Ever plucky, Olly packed up his rowing boat, “The Flying Carrot,” and shipped off to Hobart, Tasmania, where he is now undergoing scrutiny anew. Have a look at the website of his Virgin Global Row. We’ll be staying tuned in.
Photo, Pete McBride
I saw South Georgia Island for the first time from about ten miles out, on a gusty, windy, blue-sky morning. Though we’d just sailed eight hundred miles east and north from the tip of Antarctica, giant tabular icebergs greeted us, nearly blocking the entryway to Cooper Bay. These big icebergs had broken off the Larsen Ice Shelf since 2002 and slowly made their way here, where they now sit grounded, sentinels placed as welcome mats or warning.
Antarctic icebergs rimming the southern tip of South Georgia have floated more than a thousand miles
I love seeing a place for the first time, convinced – like falling in love at first sight – that it is that very first glimpse that makes its biggest impression. My expectations were vast. While I’d heard about South Georgia for years – that its steep mountain peaks were covered by year-round snow, that more than one hundred and fifty glaciers filled its valleys, that tussock-covered fields spread up the hills from the sea, that it’s wildlife was out of this world – I had no mental images.
Now I have them. Big ones.
There are only a couple hundred volcanic islands in the South and Mid-Atlantic. Ascension, St. Helena, Tristan da Cunha, the Falklands and South Georgia are the best known.
South Georgia definitely has the most exotic reputation, in part thanks to Shackleton, in part due to its whaling history, but largely for its otherworldly menagerie.
Strong morning winds kept us trolling off the rocky coast for several hours searching for the appropriate approach. When we rounded the southeastern corner into Cooper Bay the gusts diminished as if with the snap of a finger. While the tall mountains and hanging glaciers were astonishing, the best part for me – after more than five weeks among the whiteness of Antarctica – was the green grass running down the hills to the sea. But it was when I raised binoculars to my eyes that I got the biggest jolt.
Something we haven't seen for awhile: Green grass
The beaches were, well, how do I put this. I’ve never seen such a mass of giant living, breathing sausage and blubber amassed in one place outside of a crowded East Coast beach on the 4th of July. Thousands of fur seals, hundreds of Weddell seals and hundreds more of the giant, two-ton female elephant seals, spread over the rock and sand beach … everywhere. And this is nothing. As I stare, mind-boggled, my friend Pete Pulesten tells me he first came here twenty-five years ago, and a couple months earlier in the breeding season, when thousands of horny, multi-ton male elephant seals line the beach like bratwurst. “That is when this place is truly wild,” says Pete.
South Georgia was first seen in 1675 by a Brit named Antoine de la Roche, who’d been blown far off course while rounding Cape Horn; the next time it was sighted was nearly one hundred years later, by the Spanish ship “Leon” who named it Ile de St. Pierre after the saint’s day (July 1) on which it was seen. It wasn’t until British explorer Captain James Cook, on his second voyage around the world in 1775, that South Georgia was mapped. Unfortunately for Cook, he thought he’d discovered the southern continent, Antarctica. When he rounded the southern tip of South Georgia, in the opposite direction than how we’d arrived this morning, and discovered he was looking due west, he named the point Cape Disappointment. He claimed the island for his homeland, sent home a report on the island’s “rich seas” and continued on his way.
Rich seas? That’s an understatement even today. In just a couple of hours, here’s what I saw: Penguins (Kings, chinstraps, Gentoo and Macaroni). Wandering and black-browed albatross. Southern and northern Giant petrels, as well as snow, white-chinned, the common diving and Wilson’s storm petrels. The South Georgia (Imperial) Shag. Hundreds of sheathbills and kelp gulls. Special terns and a pipit found nowhere else on earth. The south polar skua. Thousands and thousands of seals (fur and southern elephant). And, bizarrely, roaming in the background, sizable herds of reindeer (it’s a long story, but they were introduced by whalers more than one hundred years ago and they’ve not yet been exterminated).
Lounging female elephant seals
That’s all in just a couple hours. The sky was filled with flying critters, the shallows swimming with seals and the beaches chockablock with giant meat. (Lunching? Giant petrels literally disappear inside a dead fur seal, ripping its guts out with its sharp beak, such that the cadaver seemed to be flopping up and down on the beach on its own accord.)
My first impression? Walt Disney must have visited this place during his most productive years and created all of his magic kingdom’s based on South Georgia’s reality. Rugged mountains, covered by glacier and lush green tussock, rimmed by tens of thousands of flying, swimming, snorting, feeding, wrestling, playing critters. Everywhere.
A giant petrel, afloat
Photos, Fiona Stewart
When we left Elephant Island midday yesterday we formally left Antarctica behind. I’ve been to Antarctica many times since 1989 and every time I leave it in my trail, whether by C-130 cargo plane, small sailing boat or expedition ship it is with no small regret. It is a spectacular corner of the world that gets in your blood like no other I’ve experienced. Remote and foreboding it can also be intimate and fragile. The only good thing about leaving is that I am already looking forward to my next return.
We have endured a remarkable stretch of good weather these past six weeks, and the luck continues. Strong winds were expected during the night, which never arrived. As a result, the Scotia Sea – lying just east of the Drake Passage, sharing a similar reputation for wind and storm – is rolling but not rough.
We are now following directly in the traces of Shackleton’s sail for freedom in the twenty-three-and-a-half foot long “James Caird” and I stand on the aft deck for a long time this morning trying to imagine being out here in such a small craft. The eight hundred miles took the six men in the wooden lifeboat cum sailboat sixteen days; we’ll do it in about two. They had no idea what they’d find when they arrived, though they knew there was an active whaling station at Stromness and that the prevailing winds would (hopefully) be at their back. We know pretty much where we are headed and what we’ll find.
They had sailed due north from Elephant Island in hopes of quickly finding warmer temperatures, which did not work so well, though the winds out of the southwest did push them at a sixty to seventy mile a day pace. But the cold continued. “The sprays froze upon the boat and gave bows, sides, and decking a heavy coat of mail,” Shackleton wrote about what he described as “the boat journey.” “This accumulation of ice reduced the buoyancy of the boat, and to that extent was an added peril … we could not allow the load of ice to grow beyond a certain point and in turns we crawled about the decking forward, chipping and picking at it with the available tools … the weight of the ice that had formed in her and upon her was having its effect and she was becoming more like a log than a boat.”
Fifteen days after leaving Elephant Island, they sighted South Georgia. Reduced to straining the last of their fresh water through gauze to clear it of hair from their caribou sleeping bags, they spent one last night just offshore, unable to land due to giant seas. When they finally did land, in a cove that ultimately did not give them access to the rest of the island, they crawled into a cave and slept … though Shackleton stayed awake as long as he could that first night to watch over the “James Caird,” still their lifeline, as it bobbed in the surf just off the rocks.
Just as Elephant Island lives large in history due Shackleton link, South Georgia – for all its magical allure of big animals and grand landscape – is part and parcel of “the Boss’s” myth. I’m sure while we are here these next five or six days we’ll catch sight of his ghost on several occasions.
Photos, Fiona Stewart
Just as every day is different down south, every landscape is wildly different too.
We’ve moved to the other side of the Peninsula, the eastern edge of the five-hundred-mile long finger jutting out of the continent, into the Weddell Sea. We tried to get in here last year, by sailboat and kayak, but were shut out. The winter of 2007 had been a particularly cold one, even by Antarctic standards, and the entry to the Antarctic Sound had been blocked long into summer by a pair of giant icebergs, each tens of miles long. That blockage, combined with a lack of wind, meant that where we had hoped to paddle – circumnavigating Vega and James Ross islands – was choked by frozen sea, passes between the islands still filled by one and two year old ice.
Weddell Sea tabular
This year is very, very different. The winter of 2008 was warmer and windier and even though we’re a day away from the official start of summer, much of the Weddell is already clear of the same kind of thick pack we saw last year.
That said it is never a picnic over here. The landscape is stark, the islands short-hilled and rust-colored. Other than a solitary Argentine base, there’s no one around for one hundred miles, and you sense that remoteness. If more than 100,000 sizable bergs calve off the Antarctic continent each year, about one-third of them come from the glaciers lining the Weddell Sea. Remember in 2002, when a chunk of ice the size of Rhode Island dramatically broke off from the Larsen B ice shelf? The Larsen B is just south of where I am today and some of that ice and its brothers and sisters are still grounded here. As I write I’m standing alongside a flat-topped berg a few stories tall and at least two miles long.
The ice here is different too. The sky is bright blue, the wind howling at thirty to forty miles an hour and I spend the better part of an hour looking through a spotting scope towards Seymour Island, following “the pack” being pushed by wind and current. It is miles wide, floating on the surface, exactly what you would not want to get caught in. Imagine being surrounded by a fast-moving pack tens of miles wide, unable to escape. You could be stuck for days, or worse.
The Weddell’s icebergs are mean and tough too, none of that soft, slushy stuff you might see at this time of year on the western side of the Peninsula. Hit one of these, and you’ll suffer. They are extremely hard, toughened by years of extreme cold and wind, often studded just below the surface by giant, sharp continental rock. Even the name of the water here is ominous – the Terror and Erebus Gulf – named for a pair of historical wooden sailing ships that first risked exploring the region.
At the north end of the channel, I take a long walk on Paulet Island, known for its 100,000 pairs of nesting Adelies. There are so many birds it is nearly impossible to clamber up the boulder-strewn beach. Beneath many of the birds peek the first chicks I’ve seen this year. As the day goes on, the sky grows evermore blue, the winds stronger.
Some of the 200,000 Adelie pengins on Paulet Island
Wind swept and rocky, islands in the Weddell Sea are vastly different than the opposite side of the Peninsula
ANTARCTICA EXPEDITIONS UPDATES
For a summary of who’s doing what down south this year by ski, kite and foot, check in with my friend Kraig Becker’s The Adventure Blog. While I remain curious about the various attempts, admiring of the incredible physical stamina each requires, when you’re on the edge of the continent as I am, all of that seems very … foreign … very far away.
Photos, Fiona Stewart