South America and Antarctica 2016 travel blog


Cruise to South Georgia and Antarctica on board the Ponant Ship, Le Lyrial

Saturday November 19

Boarded the ship in Montevideo, Uruguay around 4pm. Felt special right away - so many crew including the captain and officers lined up to greet us. Every step there seemed to be someone to guide us, show us to our cabins, bring luggage. Very luxurious ship. I have a deluxe suite on level 6, having been upgraded, much to my surprise and delight. Walk into a hallway, separate toilet and spacious bathroom on the left, two wardrobes on the right and then you walk into the bedroom. King size bed, a sofa, table, a tub chair, well stocked fridge, coffee machine, TV, iPod dock, lamps, and then a balcony with two chairs and a table. Orchids (silk), good lighting, luxurious bathrobes and slippers. Hermes toiletries. Fridge stocked with gin, Bacardi, vodka, Johnny Walker red Label, beer, tonic etc etc. all included!

So far have talked with Aussies, French, Dutch and an Israeli. There are 194 passengers and 156 crew so we are very well looked after. Two restaurants, one of which is a buffet. A couple of observation lounges, a library, gym, beauty spa and steam room.

After a welcome drink there was an introductory session in the very comfortable theatre, followed by a safely demonstration. There are 13 expedition guides. Then a suburb dinner in one of the two restaurants. Checked out the dancing but instead went to the library which is off the forward lounge and listened to the pianist play classical music. When I got back to my cabin a large bowl of fruit had appeared, the bed was turned down. Could take a lot of this! Let's see what tomorrow brings!

Sunday November 20

The excellent food continues, a joy after the food in some of South America. Especially the bread which is baked daily. In South America it was quite sweet and cakey. Today there was a briefing about life on the ship, an introduction to the expedition team of 8. Then trying on of parkas and boots.

At night the Captions Gala Dinner preceded by champagne. Some passengers made a great effort to dress in evening or cocktail dress but I couldn't carry my non existent party frocks across South America so was put to shame..not really - I did wear a skirt and nice top and really no one cares. A very nice dinner of 6 courses - all small thankfully. This was followed by a dance by 4 women and a man , various styles of dancing, quick costume changes. Afterwards some of us joined in - the sea was getting rougher so we were sliding from side to side a bit. A good night.

Monday November 21

Rougher seas today - 2-3 metres. After breakfast there was a briefing on our first port of call, South Georgia and the regulations we need to observe to protect the environment and animals. Lazed around until 4pm when I visited the bridge with 9 others. It was very interesting and high tech as the ship was only commissioned last year. Instrument panels everywhere. There are two totally independent systems. 3 crew rotate on 4 hour watches. It is on auto pilot most of the time. A classical piano concert in the theatre after dinner - she is very accomplished.

Last year there were 43000 visitors to Antarctica

Tonight we put clocks forward 1 hour.

Tuesday November 22. Overcast and rainy and calmer seas

The Norwegian explorer Roald Admunsen led the first expedition to reach the geographic South Pole reaching it January 7, 1912, a journey of 99 days.

Morning talk by Andy about seals. Seals are Phocids. Southern Elephant Seals start breeding in September and have huge sexual dimorphism. They have smaller flippers than Fur Seals They leave these parts in November and the Fur Seals arrive then. Males are about 6 metres long and weigh about 4 tones. Females 2.7 metres and 500 kgs. Males loose about 40% of their weight at the rate of 12kgs a day. Pups are born about 0-10 days after arrival , lactation about 23 days, and weaning happens after three weeks. Females loose 35% of their weight at a rate of 8 kgs a day. Mating occurs 3-5 days after birth. There are around 700000 on South Georgia.

Fur seals arrive November. Males weigh up to 188 kg, females 35 kg. After being hunted almost to extinction they now number about 4 million. They eat krill, squid, fish and occasionally small penguins. There are usually 10 females to one male. They give birth 2 days after arriving in November and mate one week later. Nurse pups 1-2 days , pups weaned at 4 months. Females go to see for 3-5 days. If pup abandoned it will not survive. 1:1000 are blonde.

Penguins are only found in the Southern Hemisphere and there are 17-21 species. Their knees are inside the body. Webbed feet together with the tail are used for steering and wings for propulsion. No teeth. Good sense of smell and eyes are great underwater.

The Gentoo penguin have reddish pink feet and beck and males and females are almost identical.

Chinstrap is the second most abundant - 7 million pairs. 27 inches tall and lay 2 eggs in November/December.

Sea lions can lose 1 ½ kgs a day over 30 days.

In the afternoon we had to take previously used equipment such as boots, pants, backpacks and camera bags to be vacuumed and cleaned in case there are any seeds or suchlike which may be introduced to South Georgia and contaminate the environment there.

In the evening 6 of us had dinner with two of the expedition team, Andy from Vancouver but who spends lots of time in Beijing and whose specialty is seals; and André German who is studying for his Ph.D. In oceanography In Holland.

Then to bed only to be woken about 2am by a banging noise which I finally discovered was a panel on my balcony which had come loose and kept hitting the wall. It couldn't be fixed till 8:30am so had a sleepless night.

Wednesday November 23 sunny

The first solitary iceberg was spotted this morning.

Morning lecture on South Georgia, it's history and flora and fauna by Samuel. South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands are Bristish Territories in the Southern Atlantic Ocean. South Georgia has a huge concentration and diversity of wildlife, being home to several dozen whale species,63 million birds in 81 species, 2.8 million Antarctic fur seals, leopard and elephant seals. It's at 54 degrees latitude, the same as New York. It's at the end of the Andes and is 70% snow and ice all year. It was first spotted in1675 and in January 1775 James Cook took possession. Seal hunting for ,,skins of fur seals started in 1786 and later elephant seals were hunted for fat. Larsen realized that whales would be profitable and over 175 million were killed in 60 years. In 1917/18 there were 7 whaling stations. The last one closed in 1965. British started research in 1960. Falkland war 1982 after Argentina invaded Sourh Georgia claiming it was theirs. Since 1985 South Georgia and the South Shetlands have been British territories. Illegal fishing of Patagonian Toothfish and 300000 birds killed by long line fishing.

Thursday November 24

Today is the day we finally go ashore on South Georgia at Salisbury Plain. Such excitement - it was a broken sleep for many of us. I was up just before 6 to gaze on the stunning snow capped mountains and to see the zodiacs unloaded. There are 7 summits over 2000 metres high. In the distance could be seen the colonies of King Peguins and fur seals. We are broken into 4 colour groups for disembarking - I am in the green group and we were second for this landing. Such an amazing sight, Antarctic fur seals slumbering on the pebbly beach, a colony of King Penguins which are said to number 250,000, as well as various bird species such as Southern Giant Petrels, Sooty Albatross, Snowy Sheathbills, Antarctic Terns, Northern Giant Petrels eying off the weaker birds for later prey. Most of the penguins were chicks which had molted but there were so many which hadn't molded looking like brown balls of fluff. Some had a few tufts of fluff remaining. It was east to pick out the weakest ones who would provide food for the birds. They were so funny to watch and to listen to. What a cacophony of sound. Not so the smell, what with so many birds to poo in one area. Different colour poo depending on diet. Pink indicates krill, green meant fish and white that they hadn't eaten for days?. After a very special one and a half hours we zodiaced back for late breakfast and the sharing of special moments. King penguins are the second largest, after Emperors, standing at 85-95 cms, weighing 12-14 kgs. Dives to depths of 350-1000 feet spending about 5 minutes under water during daylight and at night 98 feet. Main diet is small fish such as lantern fish and squid. Less reliance on krill and other crustaceans than most Southern Ocean predators.

In the late afternoon we again went onshore, this time to Grytviken and the rusting remains of of the whaling staton there. A lovely cove, flat plain at the head of the cove where the museum, post office, church and the cemetery where Sir Ernest Shackleton, amongst other less well known mortals are buried. A very good museum and of course a shop which did a brisk business.

The Grytviken inhabitants came on board for dinner following a presentation about the South Georgia Preservation Trust.

Friday November 25

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This morning we arrived in Stromness Harbour . It was here that Shackleton ended his epic voyage and it is a good site for fur seals to birth their pups. We are a few days early for the main arrivals but there were a couple of new pups on the beach along with quite a few adults and a huge elephant seal. Another elephant was cruising by the waters edge, apparently since 5am but the one on the beach wouldn't allow him to come ashore..I started the 2 mile return walk up Shackleton Valley toward the waterfall but gave up when my back started complaining. The rubber boots they gave us are warm and waterproof but not great for walking distances.the waterfall anyway wasn't spectacular and the antics of he seals on the beach and in the water were. Disappointingly we had to abort the planned landing at St Andrews Bay as it was not thought safe to land the zodiacs. Such a shame as the colony is around 500-600,000 and from the ship look amazing. However plan B saw us land at Molke Bay where there are lots of King penguins and young elephant seals in shallow water coming up to us tugging pants, boots. It was a lot of fun. Also adult elephant seals and some nesting penguins . A late fixed menu - very rich but delicious. Great conversation with Yorc from Berlin and his Icelandic wife Rita.

Saturday November 26

Up early for 6:15 disembarkation at Golden Harbour where we saw a very impressive colony of Gentoo penguins , some nesting in the rushes beyond a shallow stream and more very friendly young elephant seals. One spent a bit of time examining my legs - he was very strong. A poor penguin which had been injured probably by a seal had a bloody belly. He was being very stoic but probably wouldn't last long. It's the life cycle but confronting. Also skuas were having a great feast on a dead penguin. Went out again at 11am at Cooper Bay to climb up to see Macaroni penguins, the ones with funny little orange/yellow feathers looking a bit like fascinators on their heads. Also a couple of Chin Strapped penguins on some rocks.

A little snow then the weather really changed, the wind came up and seas got rough.

We sailed into the magnificent Drygalski Fjiord where there are very high peaks and stunning glaciers. Then off to the Antarctic Peninsula, the fifth largest continent.

The restaurant on Deck 6 which is a buffet is closed. We are advised not to go on deck. Seas were very rough tonight.

Saw the screening of David Attenborough’s “ Earth of Ice?

Sunday November 27

Rough seas continue. Waves 4-5m - winds 70kms

A very pleasant surprise this morning when because of non functioning internet we were all given a voucher for €100 so I spent it on a spray jacket and a t-shirt. Some talks today on ice and an Introduction to Antarctica which were a little too technical for me. However ice can be 5 kms deep and 90% of its volume is under water. The lowest Antarctic temperature was recorded at -89degrees at Vostok. In the late afternoon we had the briefing on our excursions to Golden Harbour, Cooper Bay and Moltke Bay. Also a game of bingo which I think the organizers had little idea of how it worked and a game of scrabble with 3 others.

Monday November 28

Calmer seas today but cloud and rain.

A very interesting talk this morning titled Creatures of Culture comparing large brained animals such as whales, dolphins, elephants and chimpanzees with humans in the way they socialize. Our brains grow by one third after birth. We all have connectors called spindle cells but those of whales are three times those of humans.

Sperm whales have a coda similar to morse code. Males grow to 60 metres long and 57000 kgs and are not sexually active until 40 years old. Females are 36 metres and 24000 kgs. They live in units of about 10 and these units combine to clans of maybe 100.

Humpbacks - mother and calf bond for only one year. Only the males sing and for up to 45 minutes.

Orca’s or killer whales are really dolphins and are amazing hunters. Males grow to 7-10 metres and 5600kgs while females grow 6-8 metres and weigh 3800 kgs.

Tuesday November 29

Lovely day early with very calm seas and when I woke at just after 3am - it was already light - there were two large tabular icebergs on the horizon, one with a flat top and one with a jagged one. Although it was reported at 2 degrees when I went on deck at 7:30 in one layer of clothing I wasn't cold. Mind you I only stayed 5 minutes!

The day did get colder but if you layer up its OK. Lots of icebergs, some quite huge but nothing like as big as those we were told which can be up to 81kms long! A couple of dolphins, various birds but whales are still elusive although some reported seeing some fin whales. We had another bio security session to ensure we didn't transport any seeds from South Georgia onto the Antarctic Continent today. As it turned out it was unsafe to land us on Gourdin Island so instead we went on a zodiac cruise around icebergs for over an hour looking at Adelie , Gentoo and Chin Strap Penguins. Then we were lucky enough to see a Leopard Seal kill a penguin, thrashing it around for quite a while. Back on the ship I spent some time in the steam room which they call a hamman. After dinner there was a concert of French songs then Jean Paul who is a much better singer and pianist entertained us finishing with an hilarious song about colonoscopies!

Wednesday November 30

This morning we anchored off Paulet Island. A very pebbly beach and a colony of Adelie penguins. They were nesting on the beach, saw a few with their eggs, some males mating with nesting females ( it's an extremely quick act) as well as males pinching the stones from others nests to put on their own. A few seals- Weddell and Leopard. The afternoon excursion was to the Argentinian base at Esperence Bay. This was preceded by a 40 minute zodiac cruise through ice flows as only 50 people were allowed on the base at any one time. I was so cold that when our time came I got out of the zodiac, took a few steps on the Antarctic Continent ( our first opportunity) and went back to the ship giving the base a miss. I was pleased I did because when I returned to the ship many of the residents of the base were on the ship. So I spent maybe an hour chatting with some of them, especially a 12 year old boy and his mother, both of whom spoke good English. She is the kindergarten teacher, was married last Saturday to the primary school teacher and love the place. Have been there two years and plan to stay another one. High school is via Internet. There are 54 residents. Most have contracts for a year maximum and most stay only for the summer. They of course love coming aboard ship, having drinks, nibbles and different company. Our ship gives them some fresh fruit and maybe other things as a thank you for hosting us.

For the second night I booked a table in the buffet restaurant which some of us prefer and is hard to get into.

Thursday December 1

An early start, disembarking at 6:30 for landing at Deception Bay, a volcanic beach and previously a Norwegian whaling port. There are abandoned huts, a cemetery some chin strap penguins and a couple of seals. A very scenic island.

Excitement late morning when a couple of humpback whales were sighted. The French were more excited than those of us who had previously seen whales. I didn't get a terribly good look at them. We have been hanging out for whales all the trip so good to finally encounter some. After lunch we landed at the incredibly scenic Half Moon Bay where there were lots of Chin Strap Penguins. They are so funny to watch waddling around, sliding down snow at ice and jumping over rocks.

Now it's off to Ushaia across the notorious Drake Passage. Predictions are for calm seas of not more than 3 metres, so fingers crossed!u

Friday December 2

So far so good in the Drake! A lazy day with a preview of the expedition movie which they have for sale, a talk about Ice and Climate and a recap of the voyage. Captains farewell gala dinner at night. Again a very rich dinner with good company.

Saturday December 3

The Drake Passage was very kind to us and again was the Drake Lake. Across the Magellan Strait into the Beagle Channel with its very calm water and lovely scenery. Saw a very interesting film called “Ice in the Sky” or in French La Glace et la Soliel” the story of Claude Lorius who first predicted climate change in the 1950’s and has been numerous times to Antarctic with scientific expeditions. Arrived Ushuaia around 3pm and disembarked by 4pm. Went to the small town with Jill and Fanny - walked up and down the street - lots of crappy souvenir and clothing shops. It's an attractive enough place with some colourful buildings. Had a hot chocolate so we could use internet before coming back to the ship for our last dinner.

What a wonderful trip - would love to go again

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