Antarctica: The Peninsula

This tour is for birdwatchers, wildlife enthusiasts, and nature photographers. For birders there is the opportunity to see birds only possible on the “White Continent”, for wildlife enthusiasts there are sure to be very close up encounters with a variety of polar wildlife from seals to penguins to whales and penguins. Lastly, for photographers there will be unforgettable images of icescapes and wildlife at extremely close quarters unlike anywhere else on Earth except perhaps the famed Galapagos Islands of Ecuador. Indeed, if there is to be one trip in the world you chose to buy a camera especially for, this is the one.

One of the last true great wildernesses on Earth, Antarctica is everything it is trumped up to be. Profusions of porpoising penguins, gigantic deep-ocean whales cresting the waves, docile seals, and sheets of blue ice that typify this mysterious landscape make it truly like nowhere else on Earth. Our journey starts on the southern tip of South America and we pass through the tumultuous Southern Oceans, the fabulous, seabird-rich waters of the Drake Passage. When we arrive at the Antarctic Peninsula on the white continent, prepare to be dazzled. En route we will be watching for the many spectacular oceanic wanderers that grace these oceans, including a regular contingent of albatrosses, petrels, prions, and shearwaters. However, it may be the impressive mammals, such as a pod of Orcas, a slick Sei Whale cresting the surface, or a breaching Antarctic Minke Whale, which might steal the limelight.

Day 1: Ushuaia.Ushuaia is the southernmost city on the South American mainland, proclaimed all over town as “the end of the world”. Although the cruise does not start until the following afternoon, we highly recommend arriving on this day to ensure we all make it on board for this amazing Antarctic adventure (if you are not joining our Tierra del Fuego pre-extension). Tropical Birding will provide a hotel for this night, although no official activities are planned for this day or the following morning (if not on the extension), and meal inclusions only commence with the cruise on the afternoon of day 2, so you are free to explore this bustling tourist town. This day provides you with a great opportunity to do any last minute shopping for your polar tour, as the main street in Ushuaia is lined with well-stocked outdoor outlets and camera stores, so that you should not leave anything behind and will board well prepared. For birders with itchy feet you are free to explore the rich birding area of Tierra del Fuego. The coasts around town hold Kelp and Upland Geese, both Magellanic and Blackish Oystercatchers, and Dolphin Gulls. You might also run into the local White-throated Caracara scavenging for scraps. If you wish to venture further afield, Tierra del Fuego National Park just outside the city holds one of South America’s greatest prizes, the mighty Magellanic Woodpecker, in addition to the nuthatch-like White-throated Treerunner, and odd Thorn-tailed Ryadito. The glacier that looms over Ushuaia is also home to the scarce Yellow-bridled Finch, giant Andean Condor, and Buff-winged Cinclodes.

Day 2: Departure through the Beagle Channel. After meeting in our hotel lobby at 15.15 we will make our way down to the port to familiarize ourselves with our ocean vessel that will be our comfortable home for this exciting cruise to the seventh continent. In the late afternoon we will begin moving eastwards along the channel keeping an eye out for our first penguins, as Magellanic Penguins regular dip into these waters. South American Terns and Imperial Shags will be in abundance and we might also find a Chilean Skua or two haunting the skies above. In the evening we will enjoy our first welcome meal, and look forward to awaking in the southern oceans with myriad of seabird and whale possibilities ahead of us. Night on board.

Days 3-4: Drake Passage. During these two days we will pass through some big wave seas as we approach the “Furious Fifties” and the amazing seabird spectacle that accompanies it. These two days at sea could be quite different. Our first day will be traversing through the warmer northern waters that will provide ample opportunities to catch up with the great oceanic “journeyman” like Southern Royal Albatross and the largest flying bird on Earth, the Wandering Albatross that boasts a wingspan of over 3.5m (more than 11 feet)! Along with these we should also find Black-browed Albatrosses, the most common species of albatross in these Southern Oceans, along with regular Sooty Shearwaters turning up in our wake. As we go further south though, approaching the Antarctic convergence that marks the change from warmer northern waters into the cooler waters north of Antarctica, the seabird mix will change, as the great albatrosses fade away and Gray-headed Albatrosses take over. Pintado (Cape) Petrels too will begin to appear in numbers as will White-chinned and Soft-plumaged Petrels, Black-bellied Storm-Petrel, and Antarctic Prions. If we keep a sharp eye on the seas we might also pick up a Light-mantled Albatross cruising these cooler waters. If the seas are calm we will also have a good shot at picking up our first cetaceans breaking the glassy surface, with Hourglass Dolphin, Sei and Fin Whales, and even Orcas all being possible. For those wishing to photograph seabirds these days provide a great opportunity as some of these mighty ocean wanderers will pass by at extremely close range, while the ship cruises gently past us. The subjects on offer will be dominated by Black-browed Albatross, although the ocean giants, Southern Royal and Wandering Albatrosses, although there is smaller numbers also regularly approach well within shooting range.

Days 5-9: Antarctic Peninsula. Arriving at the White Continent is an exhilarating and breathtaking experience, as it is the most pristine and gorgeous wilderness area remaining on Earth. We will arrive early at the bridge to take in the awe-inspiring sight of our first blue icebergs littering the chilly channels that traverse the coasts of the peninsula. Cameras are sure to be deployed regularly as we capture these amazing Antarctic scenes, that will be a daily feature and provide numerous landscape photographic opportunities.

We will use our Zodiacs to explore the host of waterways that hold the finest of Antarctica’s wildlife. The icebergs also provide resting places for the seals of the pack ice, notably Crabeater Seals, and the predatory Leopard Seal. The latter uses icebergs to survey the surrounding seas, keeping a watchful eye out for any passing, unsuspecting penguin. One of the great sights in Antarctica is seeing the thrill of a Leopard Seal on the hunt, and we will be watchful for this as we scan the channels and ice floes for any action from our Zodiacs. The beauty of using the powerful Zodiacs is they allow us to take a front row seat to the action, and offer up awesome photographic possibilities of all the action happening right around the boat. Our boat staff also keep in regular contact with each other. If another Zodiac hits a hot spot for wildlife activity, we will not miss out as radio communication will bring us into contact with the action shortly after.

We will make a number of landings and excursions on islands off the Peninsula, including at the southernmost post office in the World in Port Lockroy that is surrounded by hundreds of Gentoo Penguins, and comical Snowy Sheathbills scurry around amongst them looking to scavenge and prey on anything they can. We will also visit a vast Chinstrap Penguin colony, and wander amongst these tuxedo-wearing birds and watch on as they regularly throw their heads back and call to each other in a comical shows that will be played out within just a few feet of us. Although there is a five meter rule in these parts in reality these curious penguins have not been informed of this and often break ranks wandering right up to us as we walk among them. Our fourth penguin possibility will be the white-eyed Adelie Penguin, as a substantial colony exists on the Peninsula and will provide us with further close-ups of these odd sea-faring birds, while they come to land to breed, where they often seem out of place and ill at ease, although provides for a wonderful wildlife spectacle as they attend to their chicks and wander awkwardly across the ice. We will also see these penguins swimming near the colonies, a perilous time as Orcas and Leopard Seals cruise the waters looking for the weak among them. At these times the penguins then appear quite different and masterful in their true home, the cool seas off Antarctica, and we will revel in “pods” of Gentoos porpoising gracefully through the channels within reach of our boats, in stark contrast to their clumsy appearance on land. These landings will allow us to walk among the birds, and animals, and get incredible close ups likable to experience of the Galapagos, where fearless birds and seals sit beside us while we click away to our hearts content. Few trips offer as many photo opps. as Antarctica, and it is certain no matter what camera gear you bring on board you will walk away with a large number of memorable images. It is actually recommended for those with digital SLRs to bring several lenses to cope with the myriad subjects on offer from mid-blowing landscapes to spectacular wildlife activities played out by the boats and on land.

In addition to the penguin shows that will be a surefire highlight for all types of people on board, we will check the ice floes and bergs for other wildlife like a mottled Weddell Seal or a mob of Antarctic Minke Whales breaking the calm surfaces, or the huge fluke of a Humpback Whale breaking the skyline. The first hint of any of this and our Zodiacs will be deployed and head out in pursuit, as like almost nowhere else on Earth (except for the Galapagos Islands off Ecuador), the animals of Antarctica are extremely approachable and often at ease surfacing right beside the Zodiacs, or even passing right underneath for a truly exhilarating wildlife experience.

Of course though, the appeal of the staggeringly beautiful scenery too here should not be underestimated. More than anywhere else the wildlife can take a supporting role to the truly incredible landscapes that only the Antarctic can offer. Vast blue bergs litter the seas, huge snow-covered peaks flank the channels, making even wildlife-less moments unforgettable. No coffee-table book, brochure, or photo can truly prepare you for the amazing sights that await on the peninsula, where the scenery is of such spectacular beauty that it is worth the journey alone for this.

After four days around the peninsula we will head off to the South Shetland Islands, with a starkly contrasting environment to the Peninsula. Icebergs forgotten, the beaches here are covered in blackish, volcanic sands, and flanked by red rock cliffs that provide vital nesting habitats for seabirds. The rock faces play host to Cape Petrels, Antarctic Shags, and Southern Giant Petrels of both the common dark morph and the strikingly different ivory-white morph too. Our last excursion will visit one final mixed penguin colony with further chances of comical Chinstraps and playful Gentoos, and perhaps too a small number of amusing Macaroni Penguins that have a tiny population in the Shetlands. However, other wildlife might steal the show as monstrous Southern Elephant Seals loaf along the shore in “piles” and regularly react to each other in agitated fashion, bearing their substantial teeth, revealing their bright pink, saliva-covered gapes, and exhaling a stream of steamy breath. Ugly yes, but also one of the great sights in the Antarctic and one that should leave a lasting memory of these true giants of this polar region. As with everywhere on this tour the photo opportunities abound, and it will be with some regret that we have to leave this continent behind and head back north and to the substantially different reality of life north of the Drake Passage.

Days 10-11: Drake Passage. We begin our return journey by tackling the formidable Drake Passage, hoping to catch up with more birds and wildlife on our way back to the known world!

Day 12: Ushuaia. In the morning we will dock again in Ushuaia (around 09.00am) and connect you with your international flights home. For those departing on later flights we will provide storage facilities in town so you are again free to explore this city at the end of the world before returning to normality once more!
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OPTIONAL EXTENSION

Tierra del Fuego Pre-Extension (5 days)

Day 1: Arrival in Ushuaia and Tierra del Fuego National Park. After a morning arrival in Ushuaia, the southernmost city on mainland South America, and dropping our bags in our nearby hotel we will head to the national park just outside the city. Beautiful scenery awaits with snow-capped mountains cloaked in rich Southern Beech forests, and dotted with glassy, montane lakes. Our main target here will be the massive Magellanic Woodpecker, the largest in all of South America, with males being up to 18 inches in length. These beech forests also hold the cute, nuthatch-impressionist, White-throated Treerunner and odd Thorn-tailed Ryadito too. We will also check the coasts and lake shores for Upland and Kelp Geese, Magellanic Oystercatcher, Flying Steamerduck, Imperial Cormoarnt, Rock Shag, Crested Duck, Red Shoveler, and Dark-bellied Cinclodes. A trip to a local dump might does not sound particularly interesting but can be surprisingly good for the local White-throated Caracara trying to scavenge all it can along with the far more common Chimango and Southern Caracaras, and maybe a few Black-chested Buzzard-Eagles too. These birds can be surprisingly photogenic as they wait patiently for tipping to begin.

Day 2: Northern Tierra del Fuego. We will start early and take a long drive up to the north of Tierra del Fuego island which will put us in range for a number of other bird species confined to the north of the island. En route we may see our first Guanacos (a powerfully built relative of the camel), and note Fire-eyed Diucons perched along the roadside fenceposts. Once up into the north of the “land of the fire” we will be on the lookout for the rare Ruddy-headed Goose hiding out amongst massive flocks of Upland and Ashy-headed Geese, and scour the grasslands and coastlines for a swathe of new birds, including the handsome Rufous-chested Dotterel and striking Two-banded Plover. On large saline lagoons we will also keep an eye out for pink shapes peppering the lakes, as Chilean Flamingoes occur on these Fuegian wetlands. Other possibilities include Least Seedsnipe, Short-billed Miner, and some distinctive ground-dwelling flycatchers like Chocolate-vented Tyrant and Cinnamon-belied Ground-Tyrant. We will overnight in the town of Rio Grande.

Day 3: Return to Ushuaia. After some further scouring of the coasts and lakes on the north of the island, we will return to Ushuaia for another two nights.

Day 4: Beagle Channel Cruise. Today we will take a relaxing boat trip out into the Beagle Channel, that runs eastwards out into the Drake Passage from Ushuaia. This pleasant cruise will give us our first chance at getting up close and cozy with penguins, notably Magellanic Penguins that we will not encounter on the Antarctic Peninsula. Walking among them will bring us not only wonderful views of these fearless black-and-white birds but also provide memorable photo subjects for those with lenses on board. We should also pick up our first oceanic birds like Black-browed Albatross, as this species tends to occur closer inshore than its larger, more pelagic, cousins that occur out in the Drake Passage, and we’ll also have a chance at picking up our first hyper-active Magellanic Diving-Petrels fluttering low over the water. Birds will not be our only focus though as a colony of South American Sea Lions along the channel should also peak our interest too. Although for most walking among penguins is likely to be the highlight and a precursor of what is to come on our Antarctic adventure.

Day 5: Martial Glacier and the start of our cruise. (Please note: This day is also day 2 of the full tour itinerary listed above). In the morning we will take a chair lift up to the Martial Glacier that looms large above the city of Ushuaia. A walk around below this impressive glacier may yield the scarce Yellow-bridled Finch, as well as Dark-faced and Ochre-naped Ground-Tyrants, and the recently split Buff-winged Cinclodes (from Bar-winged). The rare White-bellied Seedsnipe also occurs on the mountain, although we will need some extraordinary luck and patience in order to find it. In the afternoon we will return to Ushuaia to meet up with the rest of the group in our hotel, and board our vessel in Ushuaia Port for our impending Antarctic cruise.

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OPTIONAL EXTENSION

Tierra del Fuego Pre-Extension (5 days)

Day 1: Arrival in Ushuaia and Tierra del Fuego National Park. After a morning arrival in Ushuaia, the southernmost city on mainland South America, and dropping our bags in our nearby hotel we will head to the national park just outside the city. Beautiful scenery awaits with snow-capped mountains cloaked in rich Southern Beech forests, and dotted with glassy, montane lakes. Our main target here will be the massive Magellanic Woodpecker, the largest in all of South America, with males being up to 18 inches in length. These beech forests also hold the cute, nuthatch-impressionist, White-throated Treerunner and odd Thorn-tailed Ryadito too. We will also check the coasts and lake shores for Upland and Kelp Geese, Magellanic Oystercatcher, Flying Steamerduck, Imperial Cormoarnt, Rock Shag, Crested Duck, Red Shoveler, and Dark-bellied Cinclodes. A trip to a local dump might does not sound particularly interesting but can be surprisingly good for the local White-throated Caracara trying to scavenge all it can along with the far more common Chimango and Southern Caracaras, and maybe a few Black-chested Buzzard-Eagles too. These birds can be surprisingly photogenic as they wait patiently for tipping to begin.

Day 2: Northern Tierra del Fuego. We will start early and take a long drive up to the north of Tierra del Fuego island which will put us in range for a number of other bird species confined to the north of the island. En route we may see our first Guanacos (a powerfully built relative of the camel), and note Fire-eyed Diucons perched along the roadside fenceposts. Once up into the north of the “land of the fire” we will be on the lookout for the rare Ruddy-headed Goose hiding out amongst massive flocks of Upland and Ashy-headed Geese, and scour the grasslands and coastlines for a swathe of new birds, including the handsome Rufous-chested Dotterel and striking Two-banded Plover. On large saline lagoons we will also keep an eye out for pink shapes peppering the lakes, as Chilean Flamingoes occur on these Fuegian wetlands. Other possibilities include Least Seedsnipe, Short-billed Miner, and some distinctive ground-dwelling flycatchers like Chocolate-vented Tyrant and Cinnamon-belied Ground-Tyrant. We will overnight in the town of Rio Grande.

Day 3: Return to Ushuaia. After some further scouring of the coasts and lakes on the north of the island, we will return to Ushuaia for another two nights.

Day 4: Beagle Channel Cruise. Today we will take a relaxing boat trip out into the Beagle Channel, that runs eastwards out into the Drake Passage from Ushuaia. This pleasant cruise will give us our first chance at getting up close and cozy with penguins, notably Magellanic Penguins that we will not encounter on the Antarctic Peninsula. Walking among them will bring us not only wonderful views of these fearless black-and-white birds but also provide memorable photo subjects for those with lenses on board. We should also pick up our first oceanic birds like Black-browed Albatross, as this species tends to occur closer inshore than its larger, more pelagic, cousins that occur out in the Drake Passage, and we’ll also have a chance at picking up our first hyper-active Magellanic Diving-Petrels fluttering low over the water. Birds will not be our only focus though as a colony of South American Sea Lions along the channel should also peak our interest too. Although for most walking among penguins is likely to be the highlight and a precursor of what is to come on our Antarctic adventure.

Day 5: Martial Glacier and the start of our cruise. (Please note: This day is also day 2 of the full tour itinerary listed above). In the morning we will take a chair lift up to the Martial Glacier that looms large above the city of Ushuaia. A walk around below this impressive glacier may yield the scarce Yellow-bridled Finch, as well as Dark-faced and Ochre-naped Ground-Tyrants, and the recently split Buff-winged Cinclodes (from Bar-winged). The rare White-bellied Seedsnipe also occurs on the mountain, although we will need some extraordinary luck and patience in order to find it. In the afternoon we will return to Ushuaia to meet up with the rest of the group in our hotel, and board our vessel in Ushuaia Port for our impending Antarctic cruise.

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

CLIMATE: Freezing cold (around zero degrees Celsius) to mild, depending on prevailing weather conditions. Rain, snow, and sleet possible at any time.

DIFFICULTY: The cruise trip is not at all physically challenging. Most activities involve rides on zodiacs and easy walking. The ocean crossings can be rough, and seasickness for those prone to it is a real possibility. For the pre-extension there are a couple of optional hikes in the mountains (e.g. Martial Glacier), although most of this is accessible to all. On this day you can opt to stay around the base of the glacier and avoid the steeper walk.

ACCOMMODATION: Excellent on board facilities and also in Ushuaia.

____________________________________

TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

CLIMATE: Freezing cold (around zero degrees Celsius) to mild, depending on prevailing weather conditions. Rain, snow, and sleet possible at any time.

DIFFICULTY: The cruise trip is not at all physically challenging. Most activities involve rides on zodiacs and easy walking. The ocean crossings can be rough, and seasickness for those prone to it is a real possibility. For the pre-extension there are a couple of optional hikes in the mountains (e.g. Martial Glacier), although most of this is accessible to all. On this day you can opt to stay around the base of the glacier and avoid the steeper walk.

ACCOMMODATION: Excellent on board facilities and also in Ushuaia.