The Mid Atlantic islands of Tristan da Cunha, Saint Helena, and Ascension are among the most remote inhabited places on Earth. This once-in-a-lifetime voyage takes you to nine of the Mid Atlantic islands. Each of these islands is a paradise for birders and cetacean enthusiasts, promising a wealth of amazing sightings, from endemic birds to breathtaking mountainous and volcanic landscapes. Days at sea will be highlighted with amazing seabird life and migrating whales, along with unique lectures by expert expedition staff – and of course delicious dining!
Our odyssey sets off from the Falklands, from which we head towards the enigmatic South Georgia Islands. Here we visit wildlife colonies and of course expect to find huge numbers of King Penguins. After taking in this mindblowing spectacle, we navigate towards some of the world’s most isolated islands in the middle of the South Atlantic. The following days we visit Gough, Inaccessible Island, and Tristan da Cunha, places that only a very few people get to experience. Our voyage continues to exotic Saint Helena, where Napoleon Bonaparte was famously imprisoned. The end of our voyage entails visits to Ascension Island, and we disembark at Cape Verde.
Day 1: Port Stanley, Falklands. Port Stanley, the capital of the Falkland Islands, is a quaint and very British outpost in the south Atlantic. The town is walkable, with colorful houses and cozy pubs lining the streets. You will possibly encounter the endemic flightless steamer duck in the harbor, as well as the delicate Dolphin Gull. Fur Seals are often trying to occupy our landing pier. Our expedition vessel is anchored in the harbor, and you will embark the ship by Zodiacs by mid-afternoon. After being shown to your stateroom you will be given the mandatory safety briefing, while the captain gets ready to steer out into the South Atlantic Ocean.
Days 2-3: At sea en route to South Georgia. Heading east, we will be followed by numerous Black-browed Albatrosses as well as other seabirds. We will probably also come across both Peale’s dolphin and Commerson’s dolphin. We will pass Shag Rock on our way to South Georgia where huge swarms of seabirds feed in between large flocks of Fur Seals.
Days 4-6: South Georgia – wildlife paradise of the South Atlantic. 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 couple of days are largely dependent on the weather and the sea. We will have a chance to visit Salisbury Plain, home to one of the largest King Penguin colonies on the island, estimated between 250,000 and 5,000,000. At this time of the year the beaches will also be crowded with plenty of young and very curious Fur Seals as well as Southern Elephant Seals. Another possible landing site we hope to visit is Prion Island, a reserve for the Wandering Albatross. The site is closed until the end of January to protect the breeding birds. This is one of the few sites to observe these gentle creatures with the largest wingspan of any bird in the world. Gentoo Penguins, both giant-petrels, and Antarctic Prions also breed on the island. 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. Endemic South Georgia Pipits and South Georgia Pintails may be seen around the buildings.
Days 7-10: At sea towards Tristan da Cunha archipelago. Setting a north-westerly course we soon reach warmer waters as well as westerly winds, giving us a proper push towards the archipelago of Tristan da Cunha. The sea can be rough, but the unique backward sloping bow of our ship and her efficient stabilizers reduce vibration and slamming against the waves. En route to these remote islands, we will have plenty of time to edit our photos of wildlife and stunning landscapes. Our onboard photographer will offer you help, tips and tricks to improve your skills. You can attend various lectures on geology, meteorology, birdlife, marine mammals as well as the history on exploration of the Southern Ocean. From the upper decks, you can can the sea for albatrosses, petrels, and shearwaters soaring from lee to windward of the ship.
Day 11: Gough Island. The rough and remote volcanic island of Gough rises from the horizon. It is 1600 miles (2600 kilometers) to the Cape of Good Hope, the nearest mainland in Africa, and we are now truly in the middle of the South Atlantic. It is not permitted to land on Gough Island, since it is a strictly protected nature reserve only inhabited by a few weather station personnel. The island’s entire coastline consists of steep lava cliffs often several hundred meters high, which we will carefully approach from the leeward side, hoping to make Zodiac cruises as close to the shore as the sea allows. Gough Island is famous for its seabird colonies, including Tristan albatross, Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross, and Atlantic Petrel.
Days 12-13: Tristan da Cunha, Inaccessible, and Nightingale Islands. We have two full days to explore the unique and isolated northern islands of the archipelago, Tristan, Inaccessible, and Nightingale. Our first landing will be at Tristan da Cunha, the main island. Less than 250 hardy folks earn their living mainly from fishing, all based in the only settlement, Edinburgh of the Seven Seas. As always on expedition voyages like these, we are visitors at the mercy of wind and swell, and with no proper pier at “The Settlement”, a successful landing requires a bit of luck. The active volcano Queen Mary’s Peak looms more than 6500 ft. (2000 m.) above sea level, making it an important landmark visible from far away. It had a major eruption from 1961 to 1962, forcing all inhabitants to flee to nearby Gough Island for shelter. Besides visiting the small town, we hope to spot some of the endemic birds breeding in the archipelago, such as Northern Rockhopper Penguin. This penguin has long golden tassels and is the only penguin on the island. One of the most exciting tubenoses in the South Atlantic, Sooty Albatross breeds in good numbers on Tristan, as well as several species of smaller petrels such as Soft-plumaged Petrel. Also of interest is the endemic Tristan Thrush and the flightless Gough Moorhen, which has been introduced to Tristan. We continue the short distance to Inaccessible Island. We have applied for a permit to visit this nature reserve, and will be accompanied by a certified guide from Tristan. Our hope is to spot the endemic Inaccessible Island Rail, the world’s smallest flightless bird. Northern Rockhoppers are also a likely sight. Before heading north again, we will cruise along the colorful volcanic cliffs of Nightingale.
Days 14-17: At sea towards Saint Helena. Humpback Whales will become quite common in this part of the remote Atlantic, and we can hopefully also enjoy views of large numbers of seabirds. Dolphins often follow our ship, and we should be on the lookout for Spinner, Clymene, and Fraser’s dolphins. We expect to pass the Tropic of Capricorn during the afternoon of day 15. It is the southernmost latitude where the sun can be seen directly overhead, but in April it is straight above the Equator. More importantly, this means we are out of the westerlies and into the southeasterly trade winds, hopefully pushing our stern for most of the remaining journey. Saint Helena is our next call!
Days 18-19: Saint Helena. With a wind perpetually blowing from the southeast, Saint Helena’s only port is of course located on the northwest coast. While our ship anchors off the tiny port, we will utilize the Zodiacs to land at the beaches below Jamestown, the main town of the island. Saint Helena is a tropical island situated about 1200 mi. (2000 km.) from the African coast. The island, along with Tristan da Cunha and Ascension Island, are British Overseas Territories, with Jamestown as the islands’ cultural capital. We will take a walk through this quant and tiny town, located in the steep-sided James Valley. Most buildings are kept in the classic architectural style dating back to 18th century, when the island was administered by the British East India Company. Saint Helena is famous for being the very remote prison for the exiled Napoleon Bonaparte. He stayed in Longwood House outside of Jamestown from 1815 until his death in 1821. We will visit his residence and conduct several other walks in the countryside. Those who feel energetic might want to climb Jacob’s ladder, a century old staircase rising almost 200 meters up the side of James Valley above the town. The natural habitats on the island have been severely changed by the introduction of cattle, sheep, rats as well as a large number of exotic plants. Nevertheless, the island has still around 400 endemic plant species found nowhere else in the world. It may be possible to locate the Saint Helena Plover, the only endemic bird on the island, though they are declining in numbers. On our second day at Helena, we aim for an excursion to the central part of the island and, if swell allows, take a Zodiac cruise along the coast.
Days 20-21: At sea towards Ascension Island. On our route farther north into tropical seas, we will pass over the volcanic spreading zone of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, some 10000 ft (3 km) below us. We will keep an eye out for frigatebirds, noddies, and boobies as we get closer to our next destination.
Days 22-23: Ascension Island. The barren, volcanic island of Ascension is the northernmost of the three islands in the British Overseas Territory. The whitewashed naval barracks and fortifications with vaguely hidden cannons show that the capital settlement of Georgetown has been a British stronghold for centuries. The town is located (as we are now used to) on the leeward northwest coast. We anchor in Clarence Bay and make a Zodiac landing on the white beaches close to Georgetown. With no commercial flights into Ascension, we are likely to be the only visitors. A stroll through town, a hike into the volcanic landscapes along the coast and possibly a Zodiac cruise will give us glimpses of this otherworldly island. Despite the introduction of various exotic species, the island is still an important habitat for a number of seabirds such as Red-billed Tropicbird, Ascension Frigatebird (an endemic breeder), and Black Noddy. Sooty Terns breed here in vast numbers, estimated at upwards of 1 million birds. After cats were eradicated from the islands in 2009, Ascension Frigatebird has returned to breed on the main island. With two days at Ascension, we have time for an evening excursion to one of the beaches famous for nesting Green Sea Turtles, which come here in thousands each year.
Days 24-27: At sea towards Cape Verde. We will likely cross the Equator on day 25. We will be in the area called the doldrums, where the northern and southern trade winds converge and where light winds prevail. Approaching Cape Verde, we will spend some time on deck to maximize our chances of spotting seabirds that are difficult to find anywhere else: such as Fea’s petrel, Cape Verde Shearwater, Boyd’s Shearwater, Bulwer’s Petrel, and Brown Booby. There is also a good chance to see Atlantic Dolphin, Pantropical Spotted Dolphin, and Short-finned Pilot Whale.
Day 28: Cape Verde and disambarkation. Cape Verde, or officially, República de Cabo Verde, is a group of ten volcanic islands with a Portuguese speaking population of half a million people. The islands were discovered by Portuguese navigators, and they played a central role in the era of the Atlantic slave-trade. Cape Verde received its independence from Portugal in 1975. Like the other isolated Atlantic islands we have visited on this journey, these islands are home to a number of endemic species of birds, plants, and reptiles. The endemic Cape Verde Swift and Cape Verde Sparrow are likely to be seen along with Red-billed Tropicbird on the Praia cliffs. After four weeks on board, it’s time to say a heartfelt farewell to our faithful crew, and get ready for homebound flights.
CLIMATE: Very variable, from freezing conditions in South Georgia to hot and humid in the tropics of St. Helena, Ascension Island, and Cape Verde. 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 well-appointed and comfortable, and the food is superb throughout the voyage.