Antarctica, South Georgia, and the Falklands

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If you are looking for the most extensive trip lists of birds and animals in the Antarctic this is the trip for you. This offers the very best sites in Antarctica, and is a must for both world listers chasing endemic birds, as well as photographers looking for the greatest wildlife spectacles in the Antarctic region. A combination of the Falklands, South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula provides the ultimate mix of sites to create the best trip lists in the region for birds and also other Antarctic wildlife, as well as providing a spectacular photography tour. While the Falklands and South Georgia provide opportunities to chase endemic and specialty species like Falklands Steamerduck and South Georgia Pipit respectively, they offer much more than that and it is well established that they host some of the most impressive wildlife concentrations on the planet. Standing among hundreds of thousands of King Penguins on South Georgia and on the Falklands are experiences found almost nowhere else, and make these islands perennial favorites among birders, photographers and other wildlife enthusiasts. Simply put, this tour offers the very best scenery and wildlife opportunities in the region, and is therefore appropriate for families, avid birders, and all levels of wildlife photographers.


Please note – Specific sites visited will depend on ice and weather conditions, and the planned itinerary will be updated at the time of final preparations, as well as throughout the voyage in order to take advantage of favorable conditions. As with all polar expeditions, safety is the top priority, and weather, ice, or other conditions could prevent visiting any of these locations after the tour begins.

Day 1: Embarkation from Ushuaia and the Beagle Channel. Boarding typically begins in mid-afternoon. After familiarizing ourselves with our comfortable home for the following 18 days we will set sail down the Beagle Channel. As we make our way slowly along this channel that runs into the vast Southern Oceans we will be on the lookout for Magellanic Penguins swimming off the bow, along with Rock Shags, Imperial Cormorants, Chilean Skuas, and there is sure to be abundance of South American Terns too. Arriving in Ushuaia at least a day early is highly recommended as insurance against possible flight or luggage delays.

Day 2: At sea towards the Falklands. We will continue our journey towards the promise of the Falklands. There are always birding possibilities en route, as we traverse a rich area for pelagic birds that could include some of the “giants” of the Southern Ocean, like Wandering and Southern Royal Albatrosses, as well as Sooty and Great Shearwaters. If we experience calm seas we4 will also keep watch for cetaceans breaking the surface like Peale’s Dolphins or Sei Whales. While we make our way towards the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas) there will be plenty of time to get to know the ship as well as participating in the many activities offered on board. Lectures about wildlife and the history of the Falkland Islands will be held, and the experienced expedition team will share stories and lectures that vary based on the locations we visit and their areas of expertise.

Days 3-4: Falkland Islands. During the morning we approach Falkland Islands and in the early afternoon Ocean Atlantic will cast anchor by the sheltered natural harbor of Port Stanley. Stanley is the capital of the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas), a remote South Atlantic archipelago. Utilizing our Zodiacs, we will land in town center, and take a leisurely stroll through the streets of Stanley. On the following day we will make landings – weather permitting – at two of the islands’ many magnificent wildlife spots, where penguins and other seabirds gather. Although not true Antarctica, we will get our first taste of Antarctic birdlife as we experience some large penguin rookeries, although unlike down on the “White Continent” there is a profusion of other life on these islands too. The diversity on these subantarctic islands is impressive with more than sixty species having been recorded nesting in the archipelago. We will make landings in various areas to target not only the nesting seabirds and penguins but also target the special landbirds of the Falklands, which make for a markedly different experience from further south on this trip, where no landbirds occur. The Falklands is home to a number of specialties and endemic taxa, with some 14 endemic tax known. Although only a few are currently recognized as species they are all of interest all the same in the dynamic, ever-changing world of taxonomy. Some of specialties we will focus our attentions on include Striated Caracara, Cobb’s Wren, Ruddy-headed Goose, and the unbelievably confiding Blackish Cinclodes that can even sometimes be observed walking across people’s shoes! Other landbirds in the island include Long-tailed Meadowlark, Correndera Pipit and Dark-faced Ground-Tyrant. Falkland Steamerducks are also to be expected as they are fairly common on the islands. In addition to these specialties we will also see breeding Black-browed Albatrosses, visit colonies of Rockhopper Penguins at West Point and Magellanic Penguins at Carcass Island and enjoy views of many of the Southern Giant Petrels that breed on these rich subantarctic islands. Other attractive species that we will search for include the handsome Rufous-chested Dotterel and striking Two-banded Plover, in addition to a number of commoner species also easily found on Tierra del Fuego, including Magellanic Oystercatchers, Dolphin Gulls, and Chilean Skuas. In contrast to Antarctica at this time of year ice will not dominate the scenery but lush grass-covered hills and rocky cliffs that play host to the profusion of breeding seabirds, like petrels, albatrosses, and cormorants. Birds though will not be the only wildlife on offer with Peale’s and Commerson’s Dolphins possible offshore and South American Sea Lions are possible along the scenic coastlines.

A visit to a nesting colony of Black-browed Albatrosses is a major highlight in the Falklands
A visit to a nesting colony of Black-browed Albatrosses is a major highlight in the Falklands (Nick Athanas)

Striated Caracara: a specialty of the Falkland Islands
Striated Caracara: a specialty of the Falkland Islands (Nick Athanas)

Rockhopper Penguin
Rockhopper Penguin (Nick Athanas)

Days 5-6: At sea towards South Georgia. Although two days at sea sounds daunting this can actually be some of the more fascinating days of the tour, as the regular seabirds in the area peak our interest, and we also have a shot at some interesting whales and dolphins and the chance of the odd rarity too. The mix of fauna on this crossing is not uniform either as the Antarctic Convergence” that is an invisible line that demarks the change from the warmer northern waters of the subantarctic to the cooler waters of the Antarctic. With this change comes a change in the birds present, and so we will see a distinct shift in species over the two days. Scanning for pelagic birds in the warmer waters should produce constantly attendant Black-browed Albatrosses around the ship, although the Gray-headed Albatrosses should only begin to appear as we approach the cooler waters further south. In addition to these mollymawks we have good chances to see some of the great albatrosses up close, as Wandering and Royal Albatrosses both feed in these rich Southern Oceans. Likewise, Slender-billed Prions are generally found in the warmer northern waters, and should be replaced by the cool water Antarctic Prions as we cruise south. Other birding possibilities include Black-bellied, Wilson’s and Gray-backed Storm-Petrels, and even the white-tipped Blue Petrel as we enter the cooler southern waters. Rarer species that have been recorded on this route include Great-winged, Kergeulen and Atlantic Petrels and will be vigilant for any rarities in the mix. Birds are not the only focus though as this can be a rich area for cetaceans too and from our comfortable position on the bridge we will survey the seas for Minke, and Fin Whales or even an Orca. Days at sea are also great for participating in lectures, photo sessions and recaps, reading books in the ship library and watching the ubiquitous storm petrels and albatrosses from top deck. From photography workshops to lectures on the regions we visit by our knowledgeable expedition team and guest lecturers. Additionally, a raffle or auction onboard usually takes place during this time, to raise funds for charitable organizations focused on global issues and local environmental solutions. In this case, for example, South Georgia Heritage Trust, Whale & Dolphin Conservation, and more. Take this opportunity to give back to the world while educating yourself on the subjects that these organizations support in a fun and enjoyable time.

Soft-plumaged Petrels are sometimes encountered between the Falklands and South Georgia
Soft-plumaged Petrels are sometimes encountered between the Falklands and South Georgia (Nick Athanas)

Days 7-11: South Georgia. South Georgia has a dramatic setting with glacier-clad rugged mountains. Lying in the Southern Ocean south of the Antarctic convergence, the cold sea is booming with life. The island, often referred to as “The Galapagos of the Poles”, can only be reached by ship. There is no permanent human settlement, but seabirds and seals breed in the millions. The difficulty of getting there and the restrictions to protect the environment, makes South Georgia one of the least-visited tourist destinations in the world. Today the island has been largely left to recover from human over-exploration, resulting in dramatic increases in the number of whales, seals as well as penguin and seabird populations. The itinerary and activities over the next days are largely dependent on the weather and the sea. South Georgia is the place where we expect to see one of the greatest wildlife spectacles on the planet: the vast King Penguin colony of Salisbury Plain (weather-permitting), where some 200,000 birds nest! The site of this massive colony is one of the most incredible experiences anywhere on Earth and will provide long-lasting memories and a bewildering array of photographic opportunities. Sitting alongside these regal birds is likely to be Snowy Sheathbills and Brown Skuas, and Southern Giant Petrels always on the lookout for any feeding or scavenging opportunities that inevitably arise from a colony of this size. Relative to the Falklands South Georgia is depauperate for passerines, having just one breeding species, the endemic South Georgia Pipit. This is the southern most passerine on Earth and we will make a special effort to see this very special bird. Other specialties include the South Georgia Diving Petrel and South Georgia Shag both of which will also search for on this beautifully rugged island. The main attractions though will also be the seabird colonies, with four species of penguins nesting on Georgia, including millions of Macaroni Penguins and thousands of Chinstraps too. The Light-mantled Albatross also breeds on the island and we are sure to run into these beautiful albatrosses during our time there. The British administration at Grytviken, a former Norwegian whaling station, is also worth a visit. The famed British explorer Ernest Shackleton died in Grytviken on his second visit, and is buried south of the station.

Visiting King Penguin colonies on South Georgia is an incredible experience
Visiting King Penguin colonies on South Georgia is an incredible experience (Nick Athanas)

Snowy Sheathbills roam the penguin colonies
Snowy Sheathbills roam the penguin colonies (Nick Athanas)

Gentoo Penguin feeding young on South Georgia
Gentoo Penguin feeding young on South Georgia (Nick Athanas)

Days 12-13: At sea towards the South Shetlands. These days are spent travelling on the South Atlantic Sea’s southern waters, crossing the 60th parallel south and from hence on, we are in the Southern Ocean’s swells. During our time at sea, a variety of activities will be arranged on board and it provides the perfect opportunity to socialize with fellow travelers. As the white shimmer of Antarctica looms on our horizon, the presence of wildlife multiples by tens of thousands with many species of lively penguins, inquisitive seals, nesting birds and the spray of marine mammals.

Days 14-19: Antarctic Peninsula and South Shetlands Islands. Over the coming days, we will begin the exciting Antarctic experience at the very tip of the Continent. The itinerary and activities over the next few days depend on weather and ice conditions. The route and shore landings will be determined by the captain and expedition Leader and communicated to the guests through regularly scheduled briefings. Some of the places we may visit include 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.

Extreme close-ups with Chinstrap Penguins and other wildlife are to be expected
Extreme close-ups with Chinstrap Penguins and other wildlife are to be expected (Sam Woods)

Visits to colonies will give us further chances of comical Chinstraps and playful Gentoos, and perhaps too a small number of Macaronis too 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. In the South Shetlands a number of landings are planned and, weather-permitting, we may stop off at the islands of King George, Half Moon, Barrientos, Livingston, or Deception.

Arriving at the White Continent, in Paradise Harbor or Hope Bay, is an exhilarating and breathtaking experience, as it is the most pristine and gorgeous wilderness continent 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.

Zodiac cruising in Antarctica
Zodiac cruising in Antarctica (Nick Athanas)

We will make a number of landings and excursions on islands around the Peninsula, and also plan to step on continental Antarctica itself, 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.

Another 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.

Weddell Seal, a specialty of the pack-ice zone
Weddell Seal, a specialty of the pack-ice zone (Sam Woods)

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.

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.

The landscapes on this tour are truly breathtaking
The landscapes on this tour are truly breathtaking (Sam Woods)

Days 20-21: Drake Passage. We depart Antarctica and spend two days at sea on our way back to the calms of Beagle Channel and Ushuaia, Argentina. We will pass through some big wave seas as we cruise through the “Furious Fifties” and the amazing seabird spectacle that accompanies it. These two days at sea could be quite different. Initially we will be in the cool waters south of the Antarctic convergence that marks the change from warmer northern waters into the cooler waters north of Antarctica, that will provide further chances at Gray-headed Albatrosses and Pintado (Cape) Petrels too be around in good numbers as will White-chinned and Soft-plumaged Petrels, Black-bellied Storm-Petrel, and Antarctic Prions. 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 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.

Our second day will involve 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, and maybe even Great Shearwaters as we round Cape Horn.

During our time at sea, a variety of activities will be arranged on board and it provides the perfect opportunity to dwell on some of the fantastic moments we have witnessed during our great voyage.

Wandering Albatross
Wandering Albatross (Nick Athanas)

Day 22: Arrival in Ushuaia and disembarkation. This morning, we arrive back in Ushuaia for the conclusion of our voyage.

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

CLIMATE: Very chilly (near freezing) to mild, depending on prevailing weather conditions. Rain, snow, and sleet possible at any time.

DIFFICULTY: The cruise is not physically challenging. Most activities involve rides on zodiacs and easy walking, with occasional more difficult hikes up to lookouts that are optional and often not particularly good for bird or wildlife viewing. The only major restriction is that you must be able to safely get in and out of the Zodiac, so anyone with a serious physical issue that could affect this should contact our office for advice. The ocean crossings can be rough, and seasickness for those prone to it is a real possibility – taking along seasick pills or patches is absolutely essential.

ACCOMMODATION: Excellent on board facilities, though room specifications depend on the level of cabin booked.

INCLUDED: Accommodation on the ship, English-speaking expedition team, shore landings by Zodiac, information briefings and lectures by expedition team, full board on the ship, free coffee and tea on the ship, boots in assorted sizes suitable for shore landings, parkas for all guests, port fees.

NOT INCLUDED: Flights, hotel accommodation in Ushuaia (we can arrange this for additional cost), travel insurance, trip cancellation insurance, extra excursions and activities not mentioned in the itinerary, meals no onboard the ship, beverages (other than coffee, tea, and ice water), tips, and optional kayaking, snowshoeing, and camping (sometimes available for additional cost).