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

Eight Things to Do If You Hit 30-Foot Waves On the Way to Antarctica

Pamelia and I were heading for one of the wildest and most astounding places on the planet, an island "smack in the middle of nowhere," in the words of our Antarctic expedition organizer, the esteemed British zoologist, conservationist and wildlife photographer Mark Carwardine. 

He was speaking not of Antarctica—though he could have been—but of South Georgia Island, the breathtaking Serengeti of Antarctic wildlife. Small (100 miles long), rugged (11 mountains more than 6,500 feet tall, plus glaciers) and uninhabited (except for staff at two small science stations and a post office/museum/British government office located near an abandoned whaling station), South Georgia sits 750 miles from the nearest speck of civilization, the Falkland Islands and more than 1,000 miles from any continent. 

To reach South Georgia Island, our Russian oceanographic ship, the Akademik Sergey Vavilov, would travel through 30-foot waves and cross one of the most distinct geographic and climatic boundaries on Earth, the Antarctic convergence. That's where warm ocean waters from the north collide with frigid waters from the bottom of the planet. Weather, animal life and scenery (here come the icebergs!) all abruptly change. It's where the Antarctic truly begins.

But we would not see South Georgia's snowy peaks and many thousands of penguins and seals for two to three days. What would we and our 90-odd fellow expeditioners do while our ship powered its way through roller-coaster seas? A whole lot, as it turned out. I've summed a few in my Top Eight Things to Do in 30-Foot Waves:

1) Photograph the waves to try to show their size. Photos rarely do justice to massive ocean-open swells, but below are a few of our attempts. (Unbeknownst to us, we would be seeing waves almost twice this big—50-footers—later in the trip.) 

From the third deck on the Akademik Sergey Vavilov—normally about 15 feet above the water line—we looked up at colossal waves such as this one... 

...and these...

...and these...

...and these...

...and oh, yeah, it started to snow heavily. That orange pod is one of the lifeboats, designed to sardine-pack 56 passengers, an adventure we hoped not to experience.

2) Try not to fall off your bed. When a huge wave smacked and heaved the side of the Sergey Vavilov—which is a remarkably stable ship, I should point out, specially designed for polar travel and rough oceans—I would sometimes start to roll off my narrow bunk. I learned to sleep with my arms out as cross-braces, my legs spread wide and my toes hooked over an edge of the bed. 

3) Laugh at the adventure. Glasses and bottles tipped over and slid off tables in the dining room. As recounted to us by Roz Kidman Cox, the longtime editor of BBC Wildlife magazine who was on board and writing a diary of the journey, two of our shipmates had their mini-fridge fly out of its cubby and dump milk and red wine throughout their cabin. Another passenger was flung out of the shower while not hanging onto the hand rail. Another was emphatically hand-signaled off the bow of the ship by a Russian crew member who was worried that the next big wave might wash him overboard. Two others failed to fully screw-tighten their cabin porthole and got a cold-water bath. Another, as a solution to the roll-off-the-bed problem, put her mattress on the floor and slept on it there.

I loved the tale told to us by Richard and Sue, a delightful couple from England, of a previous voyage they had taken through rough seas. Richard was tossed across the ship's bar and cut his forehead so severely that it needed stitches. He refused to let Sue, a nurse, do the stitching because he didn't want to yell at his wife if the procedure hurt too much. Instead he recruited a crew member, who stayed up all night practicing his stitch work on a banana—and ultimately handled the procedure so well that Richard doesn't even have a scar.

4) Defy seasickness. Having suffered my whole life from wretched bouts of motion sickness, I prepared for our voyage through the world's most turbulent ocean by bringing an arsenal of anti-sickness weaponry:  Bonine tablets; a wristwatch-style device that, when strapped on, shot pulses of electricity into the underside of my wrist; anti-nausea gum; a queasiness-preventing inhaler; and stomach-settling candied ginger. All of those, and my decision to be extra cautious and lie down at the hint of a whisper of approaching nausea, worked. 

Bottom line: Never rule out a trip to the Antarctic because you think you'll get seasick. You very well may not. And trust me, the voyage will be worth it even if you do.

5) Try to ignore the waves and attend lectures on the wildlife and places you're about to see. Pamelia and I had been studying the Antarctic for weeks before the trip, but on board we also soaked up the knowledge not only of the renowned Mark Carwardine, who had been to the Antarctic an astounding 23 times, but also of the likes of ornithologist Simon Boyes, entomologist and ecologist Mark Thatchell and award-winning wildlife filmmaker Peter Bassett, who as one of David Attenborough's BBC producers has ended up spending months at a time at places like South Georgia dealing with things like a tent-flooding river of penguin guano and a diet of dried mutton granules (tales he recounts hilariously).

How is the Antarctic defined? Many scientists will tell you it begins not at 66 degrees south latitude (the start of the geographical Antarctic Circle) but at the more northerly and varying line of the convergence, where warm and cold oceans meet, the Antarctic environment starts and the sea becomes richer with churned-up nutrients, feeding a profusion of marine wildlife and birds.  

And so en route to South Georgia, even as the ship swayed, we learned about everything from Antarctic photography (much more on that later) to sea birds to the natural history of South Georgia to the story of the ill-fated Endurance voyage led by Ernest Shackleton (whose grave we would visit on South Georgia) to the seal species we would soon encounter to the biology and Earth science of the 20- to 30-mile-wide Antarctic convergence zone, which we slowly angled across.

We couldn't see the warm and cold waters meeting at the convergence, of course, but beneath us the colliding waters were churning up nutrients that would feed countless billions (trillions?) of tiny, shrimp-like krill, on which Antarctic's larger ocean mammals and birds directly or indirectly feast. The water temperature, which had been about 43 degrees Fahrenheit in the Falklands, dropped by 11 degrees F to 32. (Around Antarctica proper, the water is 28 degrees, a sub-freezing temperature it can reach because of its saltiness.) 

That's Ernest Shackleton's famously  ice-trapped ship, the Endurance. Enriched by the insights of our ship's spellbinding young Scottish historian, Katie Murray, we would in the days ahead be following Shackleton's path, rediscovering his remarkable tale of survival and even seeing his final resting place.

We would see all of these except the Ross seal, which lives closer to the South Pole.

6) Act like a real sailor and scrub your gear. In our case, we had no choice. One Oceans Expeditions is a stickler for "bio-securing" the boots and outer clothing of its voyagers to avoid spreading invasive diseases, plants or animals to any of its Antarctic destinations. We had been scrubbing off anyway before and after each trip ashore, but the time at sea was a good opportunity to bring out not just brushes and disinfectant but also vacuum cleaners, to suck up any stray seeds that might be hiding in the velcro strips on our jacket and pant straps.

Pamelia at the scrubbing station.

7) Be creative. Pamelia takes risks as an artist. Despite the rough seas, she flung our cabin window open, kneeled on my bed and, grabbing materials she had handy, attempted to do some small indigo ink paintings of waves while trying not to fall over. She said they were quick studies (indigo wouldn't have been her color of choice to represent the water) to try to grasp, interact with and record an impression of the incredible ocean moment—AND it was great fun. That was a lesson: When the giant waves come, have fun and get to know them!

"I was aware of what a rare experience this was and wanted to try to know it more," she said afterward. "It was challenging to paint while being jolted by wave action. Sometimes the brushstroke was made by the wave—my hand would involuntarily be jerked and the brush would make marks that I didn't control. I loved the process. Now every time I look at this little painting I'll be brought back to this moment."

Pamelia's sense of artistic adventure matched the wild sea conditions. 

This is a study using white ink in a notebook with black paper, for which she had to think in reverse when trying to represent dark and light. In the days ahead Pamelia would be painting and drawing on the ship and on land, producing 30 studies and experimenting with a video component that we'll show you in the days ahead.  

8) Think of the amazing sights ahead. "Ships run on two things: diesel fuel and rumors," Boris Wise, the day-to-day expedition leader, told us all during one of our meals at sea. He knew that we adventurers were all speculating on when we might set foot on South Georgia, given the rough ocean conditions and strong winds. We were beyond eager.

And then the sightings began: the first snow petrel, named for its pure whiteness. The first wandering albatrosses, the first gray-headed albatrosses, the first chunks of sea ice and glowing blue icebergs. And then... The first rocky, snow-capped islands we laid our eyes upon were the Willis Islands, just west of the main island of South Georgia. Then came South Georgia itself, forbidding and gorgeous, its white peaks rising as high as 9,600 feet. Seeing it, even from a distance, while standing in the biting cold wind on a viewing wing off the bridge, we were in awe. South Georgia was spectacular. And we were going to explore it.

Land ho! We were about to embark on four days of exploring South Georgia.

Inhospitable? That's what explorers from Captain Cook on have called it, but the animals living there would turn out to be quite hospitable to us human visitors.

At dinner that night, Boris gave us the good news. Tomorrow there would be a 4 a.m. wakeup call, followed by a quick 4:30 breakfast and a 5:30 departure on Zodiac rafts for South Georgia—specifically the beach at St. Andrews Bay, home to more than 100,000 king penguins, many thousands of elephant seals and the retreating Ross glacier.

We were, to borrow assistant expedition leader Nate Small's phrase from a few days earlier, about to have our minds blown.—Craig Neff and Pamelia Markwood

Coming next: Can you imagine a landscape of penguins and seals as far as you can see?

Look at what's ahead!

How the Two of Us Ended Up On an Adventure In Antarctica

In early 2015 Pamelia and I decided to seize an extraordinary opportunity. We would join an expedition to the planet's largest, coldest, most remote wilderness led by Mark Carwardine, a British zoologist, conservationist, wildlife photographer and writer whom we had admired for more than 20 years.

No, these seemingly headless king penguins aren't the two of US, but they're among the many unforgettable sights that we would see in our voyage to the deep, deep, deep South.  (Feel free to invent a funny caption.)

The trip would begin October 30 on a Russian ship, the Akademik Sergey Vavilov. That scientific research vessel, chartered by One Ocean Expeditions, would take us from the world's southernmost city, Ushuaia, Argentina, at the tip of South America, to a succession of unique and amazing places: the Falkland Islands, South Georgia, the South Shetland Islands and Antarctica. We would be at sea and away from all distractions—no phones, no Internet—for 19 days. 

We didn't know at the time that during the trip we would twice battle hurricane-force winds and monster waves in Earth's roughest sea, the Southern Ocean. Or that we would have even closer encounters than we had imagined with hundreds of thousands of birds and mammals in settings almost too spectacular for words. Or that one of us would come home as a winner of an international photography competition. Or that Pamelia would invent a new art form involving penguins. Or that by journey's end people would break into applause at the very sight of the shirt I was wearing.

South Georgia would be one of the most dazzlingly beautiful spots we would visit, though every destination was stunning and some places were wild in more ways than one. 

Pamelia and others learned that the best way to get Antarctic wildlife to approach was to sit still and wait. That time of quiet watching brought other rewards, including insights into the animals' behavior and a deep sense of connection to the animals and the place. 

With a stellar cast of about 100 shipmates—including not just Mark Carwardine but also one of the world's 40 most influential nature and landscape photographers, a longtime editor of BBC Wildlife magazine, an ornithologist, a research entomologist, a primatologist, a cosmologist, a geophysicist and a wildlife filmmaker and former producer of David Attenborough's BBC documentaries, who would be shooting footage during the trip—we would venture into the realm of great explorers such as Capt. James Cook, the heroic Ernest Shackleton and history's most important naturalist, Charles Darwin. 

Little did the others know that Pamelia and I would be smuggling Charles Darwin onto the ship, but I will save that story for later.

So come along with us, our naturalists' notebooks and our cameras as we share this adventure at the Bottom of the World in a series of diary entries that will unfold before you in the days ahead and may change the way you view our planet.

Oh, the places you'll see.

—Craig Neff and Pamelia Markwood