50-Foot Waves, the South Shetland Islands and Antarctica

(How did the two of us come to travel to Antarctica on a Russian oceanographic ship? What did we experience in the first two wild weeks of this adventure? For all the exciting photos and past installments, scroll down to earlier posts.)

Our new friend and shipmate Ruediger Loechner of Germany captured the feel of the awe-inspiring 50-foot waves, which towered over the ship. (photo by Ruediger Loechner)

"THEY'RE NOW CALLING IT A CYCLONE," One Ocean Expeditions leader Boris Wise told our group of Antarctic voyagers during dinner on the Akademik Sergey Vavilov on November 12. "The winds are over 50 knots. We're heading right for the eye of it."

That's a cape petrel, our most common traveling companion as we neared Antarctica. (photo by Ruediger Loechner)

Almost two weeks into our multi-stop trip from the tip of South America to Antarctica organized by the great British zoologist, wildlife photographer, writer and conservationist Mark Carwardine, Pamelia and I were getting close to the vast white continent—and also close to a massive storm, the second big blow of our voyage. We were seeing the Southern Ocean at its classic best, meaning wildest, and none of the hearty souls on board the Sergey Vavilov was complaining. We all loved the adventure. 

Let me pause to offer these words of reassurance to any of you who may be intrigued by the idea of going to Antarctica but are seasickness-prone: I am too. I learned during this voyage to preload on Bonine motion-sickness tablets, stick to my bunk as much as possible in high waves and endure jolts of electricity on the underside of my wrist from an anti-seasickness wristband that helped me immensely. I never got seasick—just a little queasy—throughout as rough a voyage as any you'll experience. So don't be deterred.

For three more days we rode turbulent seas—50-foot waves that dwarfed the 30-foot giants we'd gone through earlier—but thanks to deft navigating by our Russian captain, we avoided worse.  At last we arrived at the South Shetland Islands, on Antarctica's doorstep. We now were in a world of icebergs. Pamelia was about to set foot on her seventh continent and I on my sixth.

From every angle the towers of blue ice looked different. Much of the ice was many thousands of years old, compressed to a density and hardness that were hard to imagine.

Because of continuing waves, winds and weather, we could not go ashore for a day, but took Zodiacs through the icy world near Turret Point on King George Island in the South Shetlands. I've put together two photo galleries below, one made up of Pamelia and my shots and one of photos taken by fellow voaygers Ruediger and Eva Loechner. (Thanks again, Ruediger and Eva.)

During  two Zodiac expeditions, wind, cold and sudden snow squalls were part of the iceberg-watching experience. (photo by Ruediger Loechner)

Once back on board the Sergey Vavliov, we caught sight of another in a succession of whales that we had seen. I believe this one was a humpback. (photo by Ruediger Loechner)

photo by Ruediger Loechner

The next morning, November 14, we awoke to a 26-degree F air temperature, 30 mph winds and a 29-degree water temperature—the perfect Antarctic feeling for our expedition to Mikkelson Point, Antarctica. This would be the day Pamelia added her seventh continent. I'll let the photos below tell the story of yet another spectacular morning of exploration.

Pamelia was ready to go as we waited to board Zodiacs for the ride ashore at Mikkelsen Harbor. She had been hoping for decades for a chance to set foot on Antarctica.

The ride to Mikkelsen aboard Nate's Zodiac was bitterly cold, choppy...and spectacular. 

A lone Weddell Seal served as our Antarctic welcoming party. Weddells (named for British sealing captain James Weddell, who first saw them in the 1820s in the Antarctic waters now known as the Weddell Sea) have the most southerly distribution of any mammal. They're found only around Antarctica, and their range extends much farther south than the tip of the Antarctic peninsula, which we had reached.

I've mentioned how quickly and dramatically the weather can change in the Antarctic. Here at Mikkelsen it never stopped changing, from blowing snow to wild clouds to sun and back. The beauty was overwhelming.

The rolling terrain at Mikkelsen is home to breeding and nesting gentoo penguins, which were clustered in several spots.

As I've written previously, the 30-inch-tall gentoos are the third-biggest species of penguin after emperors and kings. They're long-tailed penguins closely related two other species that we would unexpectedly see at Mikkelsen in the hours ahead—chinstraps and Adelies; in the course of evolution their genus broke off from those of other penguins 38 million years ago.

As mentioned, the gentoos were mating. Gentoos lay two eggs, and males and females take turn (one per day) roosting on them for 34 to 36 days. 

Gentoos are quite vocal...

...and feisty.

Some of the gentoos already had laid eggs.

I saw only one, not two, in this nest. which may have been a sign that...

...a predatory skua might have stolen one. (photo by Ruedigger Loechner)

Pamelia later painted an ink study of this battle royal. Later I'll show you the time-lapse video she created while painting it. 

This was an emergency hut—the first we'd seen on our trip through thousands of almost completely human-free miles. That is an Argentinian flag painted on the side, a reflection of the closest neighbor on the South American continent. 

These are snowy sheathbills, scavengers that we had seen near several earlier penguin and seal breeding grounds. They'll eat anything from afterbirths to feces, which perhaps explains why they seem to spend so much time cleaning and grooming themselves. 

I love this shot Pamelia took of a swooping sheathbill.

Many of the sheathbills held one leg up to retain warmth in the frigid conditions. (photo by Ruediger Loechner)

Note the stunning bill and sheath. (photo by Ruediger Loechner)

Surprise! Suddenly a lone chinstrap penguin was wandering around.

Surprise! Suddenly a lone chinstrap penguin was wandering around.

Chinstraps are slightly smaller than gentoos and loaded with personalty.

They have amazing-looking eyes.

The chinstrap and a gentoo passed each other without incident—or even acknowledgement.

And who's this? An Adelie penguin popped up next—also a loner. Adelies were first seen in 1840 by French Antarctic explorer Jules Dumont d'Urville, whose wife was named Adelie. 

Adelies stand between 18 and 28 inches tall and have particularly long tails. Their numbers have been declining on the Antarctic peninsula (perhaps because of warming conditions and melting ice), but not (yet, anyway) in Antarctica as a whole.

You may have seen the horrific news story in February 2016 that 150,000 Adelies on Cape Denison in Antarctica had starved as a result of a giant iceberg that had floated in and blocked their access to the sea. The penguins had to make a 75-mile round trip on land to get food. The consequences of melting ice in the Antarctic could be dire for the planet as a whole, but sometimes they are localized, sudden and unforeseeable.

One of our new favorite birds became the blue-eyed shag, or cormorant. Pamelia took this amazing shot.

Our friend Ruediger matched that by capturing two of the blue-eyed shags in sync. Great shot. (photo by Ruediger Loechner)

As the morning began to wind down, we could see the Sergey Vavilov in the distance waiting for us.

We hiked back past the gentoo encampments.

As always, Charles Darwin was traveling with us and was exuberant about the naturalist discoveries he was making. He had become a regular on the ship and had even begun writing his own blog. Charles continues to explore the 21st century, and relive his life and career, as part of The Naturalist's Notebook team.

Pamelia took a shot of me with some of my gentoo penguin buddies. Neither of us could fully absorb the fact that we were standing in Antarctica, the last wild continent left on Earth.   

Pamelia took a shot of me with some of my gentoo penguin buddies. Neither of us could fully absorb the fact that we were standing in Antarctica, the last wild continent left on Earth.


STAY TUNED FOR THE NEXT ANTARCTIC POST: We'll be taking you to Neko Harbor in Antarctica, our final stop on the continent before a voyage back to civilization through hurricane-force winds in the Drake Passage. Oh yeah. This story ain't over yet. —Craig Neff and Pamelia Markwood

Come Along On a One-Day, Three-Stop Antarctic Wildlife Adventure

Dessert first, anyone? Never before had I wolfed down freshly baked butterscotch-chip cookies and coffee for breakfast, but trust me, it's not an unpleasant way to begin a day in the Antarctic (or anywhere else, I suspect). It's also a rapid way to fuel up if it's 4 a.m. and you're in a hurry to pull on boots, gloves, a hat and four layers of warm clothing and climb into a Zodiac boat for the first of three—three!—expeditions in the same day at major bird and seal breeding grounds on the remote, remarkable wonder of the world that is South Georgia Island. 

We arrived at Salisbury Plain on South Georgia Island in time to watch the Sun rise over a vast expanse of king penguins and elephant and fur seals.

Those of you who already have been following our three-week trip to Antarctica aboard the Russian oceanographic vessel the Akademik Sergey Vavilov (and if you haven't been following, please feel free to scroll down or look at the index on the right to find earlier posts) have seen amazing photos from Tierra del Fuego, the Falkland Islands, the open ocean and parts of South Georgia Island. Prepare for more.

On this day Pamelia and I and our shipmates would wander through the beautiful landscapes, wildly changing weather and extraordinary wildlife at Salisbury Plain, Prion Island and Elsehul, three of the gems of South Georgia Island. We would see a total of 25 animal species, including four types of albatrosses, three kinds of seals, and a trio of penguin varieties. It would be another day-of-a-lifetime, of which this trip had provided several already. I will let the pictures below tell the story. 

The king penguins and their brown, fluffy chicks filled the plain around us in every direction on South Georgia Island's largest coastal plain.

Salisbury Plain is home to South Georgia's greatest king penguin colony. See our previous posts, below, for more on these regal, remarkable animals. 

Waves of king penguins came ashore and joined the masses on the plain. The ocean is home to these penguins for most of their lives, during the months when they're not breeding or molting (as many of them were at this time).

Fur seals popped up between the clumps of tussock grass. I had learned the hard way about the aggressiveness of these seals (see our post "Don't Mess With a Fur Seal") and would hear several weeks later about a bloody encounter: A passenger on another Antarctic voyage soon after ours suffered a severed artery when bitten here at Salisbury Plain by a fur seal. The injury required the ship to rendezvous with a British Navy vessel at sea and transfer the man for emergency surgery in the Falkland Islands.

Southern giant petrels scouted the plain for prey, specifically penguin chicks.

The eyes and bill of the Southern giant petrel are equally striking. Note the tube on the bill, part of a system that seabirds have evolved over millions of years for excreting salt from the sea water that they drink.

Pamelia spent one-on-one time with certain king penguins for ink studies that she would paint later. We'll soon share more of those studies and her time-lapse videos of herself painting them.

Once again we felt we were standing in one of the most breathtaking places on Earth.

As many of you know, we've brought the young Charles Darwin back to life at The Naturalist's Notebook and he was with us, enjoying his first voyage to the Antarctic. He's been writing his own blog about his trip. 

The weather took a dramatic shift as we prepared to board the Zodiacs and return to the ship for a brief rest before heading to our next landing site, Prion Island. It was still just 7 a.m. 

Soon we were on the rough seas in a Zodiac again, this time bound for Prion Island, home to wandering albatrosses on the nest and—at long last—rare South Georgia pipits for Pamelia and me to see.

Soon we were on the rough seas in a Zodiac again, this time bound for Prion Island, home to wandering albatrosses on the nest and—at long last—rare South Georgia pipits for Pamelia and me to see.

A male Southern elephant seal stood sentry along the narrowing channel we had to negotiate to reach Prion Island.

We caught our first good glimpse of a leopard seal—a species that can grow to more than 11 feet long and is second only to killer whales among Antarctic predators. He was resting and presumably waiting for a chance to devour one of the gentoo penguins that were nesting and swimming nearby.

We ascended an icy wooden observation walkway (the only such visitor trail we would encounter on our three-week Antarctic voyage) to get a look at the wandering albatrosses nesting in the tussock grass.

Wandering albatrosses are extraordinary birds. They have the largest wingspan of any avian species (up to 11-and-a-half feet) and can live for 50 years if not done in by getting snagged on baited longline fishing hooks, which kill about 100,000 albatrosses of all kinds each year. 

The wandering albatrosses that we saw on the nests were seven-month-old juveniles. Our ship ornithologist, Simon Boyes, affectionately called this one Albert. Young Albert had been waiting for days for his parents—amazing long-distance flyers, as all albatrosses are—to return from a 3,100-mile flight to the waters off Brazil to gather food that they would regurgitate to feed him.

Wandering albatrosses flying along with a ship have always been thought of by sailors as a good omen—a mythology made famous by Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 1798 poem "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," in which the mariner shoots an albatross that has just led his ship to safety from an Antarctic ice jam. The mariner and his ship suffer the consequences. We don't believe in omens, but seeing Albert certainly felt like a lifetime moment of good fortune.

Nearly as thrilling as standing a few yards from a wandering albatross was finding and photographing a South Georgia pipit, a species that had been endangered by the invasive brown rats in South Georgia. (See our previous Antarctic post for more on the extreme efforts underway to eradicate the rats.) These pipits hover in the air before diving into the tussock grass to catch insects. I was able to watch this one wandering and hunting in the grass for several minutes.

After a few hours back on board the Akademik Sergey Vavilov, we embarked on our final expedition of the day, to Elsehul, home to breeding gentoo penguins, fur seals, gray-headed albatrosses and light-mantled albatrosses. And also a macaroni penguin colony—that grayish patch within the green on the mountainside. 

Here's a (blurry) closeup of the colony. Macaroni penguins are closely related to rockhopper penguins and share the ability to climb up steep rocky hills to reach seemingly inaccessible spots like this.

Some of the macaroni penguins were swimming.

Pamelia and I were bundled up again the strong winds and pelting snow.

Fur seals were watching us. Often visitors are not allowed to go ashore at at Elsehul because the breeding male fur seals are too aggressive (or because the waves and weather make landings impossible). Throughout our time at Elsehul, we had to be extremely careful not to intrude on the fur seals' space—and there were a lot of them around, often blending in with the rocks.

We headed off on a rocky climb.

Seal (and skua and petrel and penguin?) bones littered the ground—so many of them that one of the expedition members, noted wildlife filmmaker Peter Bassett, later put together a comical mock horror film in which the nesting gentoo penguins were bloodthirsty killers responsible for turning Elsehul into a boneyard.

We were on our way through muck and tussock grass to see penguins and albatrosses.

We soon encountered more gentoo penguins stomping around with their webbed, peach-colored feet.

Gentoos are playful, long-tailed penguins and, at 30 inches, the third-tallest of all penguin species.  

Yes, this gentoo's nest was made mostly of bones. Cue the horror music! 

Most of the nests were made of mud and stones. Male and female gentoos take turns on the nests (which contain two eggs) for a month, trading places every one to three days. 

A nest builder in action.

Sometimes it was hard to believe that we were on one of the world's most remote and wildlife-rich islands watching these amazing animals.

The penguins and fur seals shared some of the same ground, though the penguins quickly moved aside if a fur seal charged through.

The albatrosses were nesting on the cliffside ahead of us.

Our first look at a gray-headed albatross, a threatened species whose numbers are continuing to decline. 

A nesting gray-headed albatross like this one lays one egg in a year. If the chick survives, its parents will take a year off before breeding again. In that year, these remarkable flyers might circle the globe more than once.

I had seen a light-mantled albatross once before on the trip (see earlier post), but not this close.


As we started to make our way back through the nesting gentoos, the fur seals again watched us and sometimes rumbled threateningly in our direction.

This shot gives a feel for the density of gentoo nests we saw.

There's a glimpse of that long tail, a distinguishing trait of not just gentoos but also two other types of penguins (chinstraps and adelies).

On the Zodiac ride back to the ship, we again watched the swimming macaroni penguins and steered close to short to revisit their hillside colony.

By dinner time on this mid-November Monday at the bottom of the world, Pamelia and I were back on the Akademik Sergey Vavilov, once again energized and exhausted and exhilarated. We had been phenomenally fortunate over the previous few days, thanks in no small part to the efforts of the One Ocean Expedition team and the Russian captain and crew. Visitors to South Georgia Island—and there aren't that many of them—sometimes are able to go ashore only once or twice (or not at all) because of waves, weather and breeding-season restrictions. We had gone ashore at an unheard-of seven spots on the island.  Seven. All of them unforgettable. 

Let by Mark Carwardine, the renowned British wildlife photographer, zoologist, conservationist and writer who had set up this entire trip, we and our fellow adventurers raised glasses of champagne in a toast to all we had seen. And to the final, crowning destination ahead.

"Next stop, Antarctica," said Mark. . —Craig Neff and Pamelia Markwood

Stuck at Sea In the Antarctic With A Rescued Bird, A Paintbrush and a Stowaway

At 6 a.m. we had a problem. Waves and 45-mph winds were swaying our Russian science-research ship, the Akademik Sergey Vavilov, as it cruised along the coast of South Georgia Island. Would our group of Antarctic expeditioners still go ashore by Zodiac at 7:30 a.m. as planned? Would we be able to explore yet another extraordinary part of South Georgia, the vast penguin and seal colony at Salisbury Plain?

Not on this day. The winds would soon top 50 knots (close to 60 mph), making Zodiac travel impossible. Instead, as the Vavliov searched without luck for a landing spot anywhere on South Georgia, we explored the Antarctic on board, through lectures, books, binoculars, conversations and, in Pamelia's case, art.  

So close yet so far: On a day of wild waves and constantly changing weather—including sideways-blowing snow and brief explosions of sunshine—we couldn't reach the spectacular South Georgia shores in front of us. 

The ever-fun One Oceans Expeditions team and trip organizer/zoologist/wildlife photographer Mark Carwardine had prepared us for high-wind days with a slide show earlier in the voyage. This was one of my favorite slides.

Even in rough conditions, our cabin window afforded Pamelia a good view for photographing birds and other sights.

Having passed the Antarctic Convergence (where cold and warm ocean waters collide and the Antarctic climate and ecosystems begin) we were seeing icebergs more regularly. They glowed blue from the light hitting an exceptionally clear, dense, air-bubble-less type of ice that absorbs every color of light except blue. It's air bubbles that make ice look white.

The ship brought us within sight of the abandoned Stromness whaling station. This is where the remarkable explorer Ernest Shackleton, desperate to find help for his stranded crew, arrived in May 1916 after surviving not only months with his ship locked in sea ice, but also a journey to desolate Elephant Island, an 800-mile open-water voyage to South Georgia in a lifeboat and finally a nonstop, last-ounce-of-energy crossing of the mountains shown here. We would be visiting Shackleton's grave soon. 

A few hearty souls ventured onto the bow during lulls in the winds.

This stranded-at-sea day had another surprise twist: Two stowaways were on the ship. One was in a cardboard box in a gear room on a lower deck. The other was our cabin, soon to be seasick. 

The stowaway in the box was a common diving petrel. The ship's ornithologist, Simon Boyes of One Ocean Expeditions, had found it during his daily check for any birds that had accidentally flown into or been blown into the Sergey Vavilov.

The petrel was not injured, just stunned. Whether he had been attracted by lights on the ship we couldn't know, but for days we had been required to darken all windows (and the ship had minimized its lights) to avoid just such an occurrence. Some of us gathered to watch as Simon released the fully revived bird—which would soon be back to its routine of diving up to 200 feet underwater to feed on crustaceans—early in the afternoon.

Simon Boyes held up the web-footed common diving petrel for all of us to see before releasing it from the side of the ship.

Just a handful of people on the Sergey Vavilov knew about the second stowaway. Pamelia and I had smuggled him on board in Ushuaia, Argentina, the day the trip began. Those who had seen him had reacted positively. "Good to know he's here," voyage organizer Mark Carwardine, the British zoologist and conservationist, had told us after meeting him. "We might call upon him if we need another after-dinner speaker one night."

The stowaway—whom One Ocean Expeditions trip leader Boris Wise referred to with a smile as "the ninety-ninth passenger"—was the fellow shown here:

Yes, Charles Darwin was on board.

Say what, you ask? History's greatest naturalist? The one who died in 1882? Well, nearly a year ago we brought Darwin back to life at The Naturalist's Notebook—see the Darwin Lives! header at the top of this page—and we have been traveling with him ever since. Taking him on this voyage made perfect sense because he had visited Tierra del Fuego and the Falkland Islands in the 1830s while aboard the Beagle and both stops had helped him gather evidence that culminated in his world-changing 1859 book, On the Origin of Species.

Charles was so excited about revisiting parts of his Beagle route that (with some coaxing from us) he even began writing Charles Darwin's Blog (click on bold letters to read) at the start of this trip.

Here's Charles Darwin with us in May 2015 at his home, Down House, in England. This is the famous Sand Walk on which he took his daily strolls with his beloved dogs back in the 1800s. Darwin called it his "thinking path."

You'll see more of Darwin before the voyage is over, but for now I'll leave you with one image that illustrates how the great but seasickness-prone adventurer was feeling on this day:

As we rested with Darwin in our cabin, Pamelia took out her paint brush and inks and began a series of time-lapse penguin paintings, which some of you have heard about. For those of you who missed it, Pamelia began sketching penguins in order to get to know and identify them better. She held her pink iPhone in her left hand and taped time-lapse movies of herself painting with her right hand, all on a swaying ship. It was amazing to watch.

She said that the phone sometimes blocked her view as she was painting.

Check out the short video above to see her king penguin time-lapse, the second in her penguin series. We'll be posting others soon. If you missed the first time-lapse (painting a chinstrap penguin), scroll down and you'll find it. Or click on this link: https://youtu.be/8_0xjyI4sr4

In our cabin, the gallery of Pamelia's penguin and Falkland Island bird studies was growing. That large study in the middle was her second time-lapse attempt at a king penguin—and still she felt that she did not get it right. But that's why you do multiple studies.

For fun, Pamelia and I also made a 22-second time-lapse of activity in our cabin on this day at sea, below. Darwin's even in it (sort of)!

By early evening, the weather was looking more promising. The revised expedition forecast called for at least two landings, a big dose of history and wildlife galore on South Georgia Island the next morning. We Antarctic adventurers were back on track, and even Charles Darwin was feeling better.—Craig Neff and Pamelia Markwood

Sunset over South Georgia Island.

Coming next: Whaling, rat patrols, rare ducks and 10 a.m. whiskey?