Atlantic Odyssey: Antarctica to Ascension

This is an incredible trans-Atlantic sojourn aboard an ice-strengthened Polar expedition ship. This cruise departs from the southern tip of South America before taking in the amazing and remote South Georgia archipelago before heading to the seldom visited Gough and Tristan groups in the mid-Atlantic, and finally plying the subtropical waters of St. Helena. For those of you who still have not had enough, you can either join an Antarctic Peninsula pre-trip, or stay on the ship for onward passage to Ascension Island and the Cape Verdes.



This trip promises a voyage from the poles to the tropics via some of the wildest and most remote island groups on the planet. We ought to notch up an impressive number of seabirds and cetaceans, plus a handful of island endemics seen only by a handfuls of people. Highlights should include the great oceanic journeymen such as Wandering, Southern Royal and the Critically Endangered Tristan Albatrosses. The elegant Light-mantled and Sooty Albatrosses should all be logged too. We should manage five species of penguin, including the impressive King, cute Gentoo, and both Northern and Southern Rockhoppers. We can expect an exceptional diversity of pelagic birds, with around 30 species of petrel and storm-petrel on offer, including the good studies of the rare Spectacled and Atlantic Petrels.

This cruise is also amazing for marine mammals, with mouthwatering lists of up to 6 seal and 17 cetacean species from previous cruises. Such delectable treasures as Kogia Sperm Whales, Orcas, False Killer Whales, Hourglass, Rissos and Clymene dolphins have all been found before. It is truly an amazing journey that can and will deliver a bevy of treats never to be forgotten, so join us for this incredible trip to parts of the World traditionally enjoyed by so few.

Day 0: Arrival in Ushuaia While this day is not technically part of the cruise, it should be considered essential to arrive a day early as insurance against travel days. Our office can help with hotel booking and airport transfers if necessary.

Day 1: Ushuaia. In the afternoon, we embark in Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world located at the Beagle Channel and sail through this scenic waterway for the rest of the evening.

Days 2-5: At sea. During these two days we sail across the Drake Passage. When we cross the Antarctic Convergence, we arrive in the circum-Antarctic up welling zone. In this area we may see Wandering Albatrosses, Grey Headed Albatrosses, Black- browed Albatrosses, Light- mantled Sooty Albatrosses, Cape Petrels, Southern Fulmars, Wilson’s Storm Petrels, Blue Petrels and Antarctic Petrels.

Southern Royal Albatross
Southern Royal Albatross (Nick Athanas)

Days 6-8: South Georgia. We aim to visit some of the major King penguin rookeries in the World, such as the 60,000 strong Salisbury Plains colony. The late season offers an outstanding chance to see the King penguins with chicks. The rookeries are packed at this time of year and the traffic to and from the beach is astounding. Salisbury Plain offers this scenario in mind boggling quantity. We will see the huge King penguin colony along with Elephant seals and endless numbers of fur seal pups playing in the surf. On Prion Island in the Bay of Isles we can see breeding Wandering Albatrosses. We will also find time to visit the old whaling settlement in Grytviken, where the penguins walk through the streets, talk about a bizarre scene indeed! Grytviken is home to a small, but highly informative museum and also offers a chance to visit the graves of Sir Ernest Shackleton who is buried here alongside his trusted friend and second in command Frank Wild. We will attempt to land Gold Harbour and St Andrews Bay with stunningly beautiful scenery and a wildlife density second to none. King penguins are truly Kings here!

King Penguins in extraordinary numbers are the highlight of the tour for many
King Penguins in extraordinary numbers are the highlight of the tour for many (Nick Athanas)

Days 9 – 13: At sea. In the Westerlies we have often have a pleasant tailwind. On both sides of the Antarctic Convergence, we observe many species and great numbers of Antarctic and sub-Antarctic seabirds.

Soft-plumaged Petrel is sometimes fairly common on our sea days.
Soft-plumaged Petrel is sometimes fairly common on our sea days. (Nick Athanas)

Day 14: Gough Island. Today we plan to approach the unique Gough Island for zodiac cruising in Quest Bay. As always weather permitting. Here we can see the Northern Rockhopper Penguins, and Sub-Antarctic Fur Seals. In previous years we managed to circumnavigate all but four miles of the 33-mile circumference of the island in the ship, saw spectacular scenery and an unprecedented abundance of wildlife. We felt very privileged to be among the few visitors who have been able to experience Gough Island and in particular, to see it at such close quarters. We hope to be lucky to repeat this unique experience with you.

Days 15-18: Tristan Da Cunha archipelago. In the Tristan da Cunha archipelago we plan to call on the settlement at the west side of the main island. We will also try to make landings at Nightingale Island and Inaccessible Island with millions of seabirds ranging from Yellow-nosed Albatrosses to Brown Noddies. We allow one day in reserve for bad weather. Please note that we will try and approach for landings, however due to the weather conditions this is not always possible. The oceans around the islands offer some delectable petrels including the near-endemic Spectacled and Atlantic Petrels.

Days 19-22: At sea. A journey of 1330 nautical miles (2140km) lies ahead, as we move steadily north, and away from the cool waters of the South Atlantic into subtropical waters. The seabird diversity within these warmer waters will be markedly lower than that experienced further south, but we should still add new species, as the trip wears on. These could include Masked Booby, Bulwer’s Petrel, Band-rumped Storm-Petrel, White Tern and Black Noddy by the end of this section of the voyage. Cetaceans, like False Killer Whale and Sperm Whale may also feature too. Evidence of our arrival into warmer tropical waters are also likely to be provided by large numbers of flying fish that shall spice up this journey somewhat.

Days 23-25: St. Helena. St. Helena has a good anchorage and landing site at Jamestown. On this island, we will have opportunity to enjoy local culture, pleasant climate, and endemic plants and birds. We will visit Longwood House, the place where Napoleon lived and died in exile. There will be opportunities to explore the Island on your own and for snorkelling in the shallow surf where we can find a multitude of tropical and sub-tropical fish species.

EXTENSION TO ASCENSION AND CAPE VERDES

Day 1: Departure from St Helena. After some time in this strange archipelago we go pelagic again as we begin steaming north.

Days 2–3. At sea to Ascension Island. We spend the next few days en route to Ascension, a journey of around 700 nautical miles (1125km), where we hope to see Band-rumped and Leach’s Storm Petrels, Arctic Tern, and perhaps also Cory’s and Sooty Shearwaters, and the odd jaeger. As we approach Ascension, we look for Ascension Frigatebirds, White-tailed Tropicbird, Black Noody and Masked, Brown and Red-footed Boobys.

Days 4-5: Ascension Island. Ascension Island is a dry volcanic island with a moist and richly vegetated top. The Sooty Tern (wide-awake) colony sometimes consists of more than 1 million breeding pairs. We will try to make a trip to the moist summit of Ascension Island and make a zodiac-cruise around Boatswain Bird Island. At Comfortless Cove near Georgetown we can offer a very comfortable swim with good snorkelling too (no snorkelling gear is supplied). We may also witness egg-laying sea turtles coming ashore at night.

Days 6 – 10: Crossing the Equator. After departing from Ascension, you will be at sea for another 6 days en-route to the incredible Cape Verde Islands, 1400 nautical miles (870km) to the north. As we ply north into the more temperate waters of the north Atlantic we should see an improvement in numbers and composition of the seabirds. Cory’s Shearwaters, Leach’s Storm Petrel and jaegars should become more frequent. As we approach the Cape Verde Islands we hope to encounter Fea’s Petrel, Boyd’s and Cape Verde Shearwaters. Cetaceans may include Spotted, Pantropical and Risso’s Dolphins, as well as Cuvier’s and Blainville’s Beaked Whales, and Short-finned Pilot Whales.

Day 11: Praia, Cape Verde Islands. You disembark in Praia on Santiago Island – the capital of the Cape Verde Islands, at 9:00 hours*. If you’re flying out on the night of May 2/May 3, we offer an additional tour in and around Praia. Here you can visit the historic Cidade Velha and its massive hillside fortress, built to defend against English raiders. Other sights include the oldest Christian church in the tropics, and the slave whipping post in the main square. Stroll the Praia streets and enjoy the variety of indigenous folk music spilling out of the tavern windows. Birds may include endemics such as Alexander’s Kestrel, Cape Verde Swift, Cape Verde Warbler, and Iago Sparrow, along with more widespread species like Gray-headed Kingfisher, Spectacled Warbler, and Blackcap. After freshening up, or an overnight at a hotel, it will be time to either catch a flight back to ‘civilization’, or else to extend your stay and do some additional birding on the amazing Cape Verde archipelago.

ANTARCTIC PENINSULA PRE-TRIP EXTENSION

If you still have not been to the great white continent and fancy increasing your time on-board, this pre-trip extension ensures a phenomenal cross-section of southern Oceans delights just prior to the Atlantic Odyssey.

Day 1: Embark for Antarctica in the afternoon. It is highly recommended to arrive the day before as insurance against travel delays.

Days 2 – 3: At Sea. Getting across the famous Drake passage is a famous and epic journey. With luck it will be calm, but if not the silver-lining is that the birding ought to be great, including chances of the prion-like Blue Petrel that we hope to pick out from the more numerous Antarctic Prions en route, along with more such as Northern and Southern Royal and Wandering albatrosses.

Days 4 – 7: Antarctic Peninsula and the South Shetland islands. Icebergs forgotten, the beaches here are covered in blackish, volcanic sands, and flanked by red rock cliffs that provide vital 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. Visits to colonies will give us chances of comical Chinstraps and playful Gentoos, and perhaps too a small number of Macaronis. 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. 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.

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 show 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 cameras 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. 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.

Days 8 – 9: At sea in the Drake Passage. During these two days we will pass through some big wave seas as we pass 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.

Day 10: Ushuaia and Departure for Atlantic Odyssey. In the morning we will dock again in Ushuaia and await new passengers joining the ship, before departing for the Atlantic Odyssey.

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

CLIMATE: Very variable, from freezing conditions in Antarctica to hot and humid in the tropics of St. Helena, Ascension Island, and Cape Verdes. It is fair to say that almost any type of weather can be expected on this trip and you will need to bring clothing to cover almost any possibility.

DIFFICULTY: Easy. 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: The cabins on the ship are excellent, and food is wonderful throughout the voyage.