The Antarctic saga – where do I begin?

Firstly some admin. An apology for the fact that I simply will not be able to go back over all your postings for the last month. I follow so many blogs and the backlog is too daunting. If I combined this with my unread e mails and the financial blog posts I follow, then I would be reading for a week. Secondly a big thank you for the kind comments on the prion image.

So, how was it? Pretty good on the whole. Why not excellent? Well we missed a few landings due to the swells. The zodiacs could not land. The seas between South Georgia and Antarctica were brutal. Part of Drake’s Passage was bad but then calmed to the Drake Lake. We were not good sailors, especially me. The biggest debate before we went, camera gear aside, was what motion sickness medication to take. We took 3 different sorts and I started by using the scopolamine patches. These are designed to deliver the drug over 3 days. After 2 days I was pretty dire but I had no nausea. The doctor on board told me the patches were probably the problem not the cure. I removed them and switched to dramamine (Gravol is the brand name here) and that was so much better. Others used the patches for the full trip but the doctor advised against that.

The swells meant we only had one proper landing in The Falklands at our “Plan C” site. And that in poor weather – calm but constant drizzle. So we missed some target species there. We also stopped in Stanley. There are a few interesting birds there but I can live without Falkland Islands Pipit on my life list. I visited the local bank. The only bank in the FI. I turned up at the counter in expedition gear with full Captain Haddock beard and announced in true British style that I used to be from Head Office and if I still were I would be here to help. One of the three great lies in life. I demanded to see the manager and presented the staff with a large box of chocolates. As it turned out I knew the manager! We had a good chat and then Mrs. Ha and I went off to find lunch. The local staff of SCB FI don’t see too many people from the rest of the group so I thought it was the least I could do to cheer up their lives.

Dare I say that Stanley left me underwhelmed? It has little to offer if you have no interest in the history of the place, especially the 1982 war. It is certainly colourful but hardly worth a full day on an Antarctic trip. The war memorial was moving and I shall post a picture eventually if I remember. Just before we arrived at our port of embarkation, Ushuaia, the Brits threw another left jab at the Argies by indulging in some QE2 60th Jubilee renaming rites. This irritated the plucky Ushuaians and there had been violent protests. You may think that Stanley is the capital of the Falklands but all over Ushuaia are signs reminding you that in reality it is Ushuaia. I arrived for our 4 day sojourn expecting some hostility. Wrong. With the honourable exception of one restaurant that seemed not to want our custom we found the Argentinians friendly, helpful, warm and welcoming, both in Buenos Aires and Ushuaia. Could the dastardly Brits be unfairly portraying the Argentinians as devils incarnate? I am sure it is all political and  I am saddened that the nations can’t reconcile their differences. However I can’t see the Falklanders ever choosing to accept Argentinian sovereignty. Stanley was a microcosm of Much Binding in the Marsh. And we shall never forgive Maradona the ‘Hand of God’ “goal”.

I alluded above to the challenges of the 3 day crossing from South Georgia to Antarctica. There was the mother of all storms and we had to go round it. There was also treacherous ice all the way up to SG and this meant we could not have visited the staging posts planned in any case. We saw the satellite maps and it was alarming to see how far the ice spread at this point in the season – high summer. However eventually we made it into wonderland and saw sights that will live long in our increasingly frail memories. I landed on the continent to complete my set of seven and Shirley took her tally to six.

I was asked about the photographic gear. Best decision was to take my Lumix LX5. This little gem shoots RAW and has a Leica lens. It slips in the pocket and I used it constantly. Nobody to my knowledge had any camera failures. Condensation was not an issue. Neither  was battery life. I used far less GB than I expected – maybe only a 100GB, probably because on sea days it was too rocky to shoot from deck once we left South Georgia. My gear was fine but the 1D4 had awful autofocus issues and as the trip went on I increasingly shot with the 5D3 and traded slower frames per second for better tracking. The 400mm F5.6 was a great choice.

Generally the best approach seemed to be to use a 100-400mm zoom and combine this with a shorter zoom. One or two people screwed up and lost their photos by deleting their cards by mistake. I backed up each night and kept all my cards intact. I still have not deleted anything. Shooting from a zodiac is tough. It is constantly  moving, people get in the way, whales won’t sit still and penguins thumb their noses at you as they porpoise past at full speed. One large fur seal tried to splash Mrs. Ha and we were privileged to have humpback whales both around and under our zodiac at one point. Most sightings however were distant dots – the odd blow or fin and rarely a fluke.

The trip list will be lengthy but it is of course a composite of everything seen by everyone. The two naturalists on board were excellent but I am afraid that they and the several marine biologists on board seemed to see things invisible to the layman. One kept talking about the dozen (?) beaked whales we had seen. We? I saw the square root of nothing. But look, there, at 12 o’clock to the bow, 2 fingers below the horizon…… Really? That is a beaked whale? Indeed, a Strap-toothed beaked whale no less. Well pardon me but I thought a fly had crapped on my binoculars. But we did have good discussions about the prions and albatrosses. And as I know that no post is complete without a photo or two, here I offer a Light-mantled sooty albatross, Phoebetria palpebrata, and the much scarcer and more distant, Grey-headed albatross,  Thalassarche chrysostoma. Sad to say we didn’t have many Wanderers or Royals. The daily dose was Black-browed.


Above: Grey headed albatross


Above: Light-mantled sooty albatross


Above: Black-browed albatross

If I have whetted your appetite, beware. Unless you live in South America, Ushuaia is a dreadful place to get to. Most travelled via Buenos Aires, a few via Santiago. All were cream-crackered.  Our fellow voyagers were mainly Canadians, Americans (USA) or Australians. Very few Europeans and even fewer Asians. An interesting bunch of people with one thing in common, a passion for wildlife and travel.

To be continued.


14 thoughts on “The Antarctic saga – where do I begin?

  1. Stunning photographs Andrew, and really fascinating to hear about your trip too. I get the most terrible motion sickness so I’m going to make a note of what you took so that I can get hold of some in the future.

    • Thanks Lottie. I really did not get on with scopolamine. Australian doctors do not prescribe it. The ship’s doctor advised that those who used it should only do so when needed but some people wore the patches for 3 weeks without a break. It takes 6 hours to kick in and stays in your system I guess a similar period after you remove the patches. I guess your doctor will advise but we found the Gravol quick acting and effective. This is the stuff:

      Oddly Mrs Ha had fewer problems than I did even though she gets horrendously car sick.

  2. Mmmmm…… yes, the experts seem to be able to identify the exotic cetaceans at a distance of ten nautical miles….it doesn’t work for me.

    The LM Sooty Albatross is my pick as “cutest”, more, please !

  3. Andrew, I am so glad that you and Mrs Ha had a pretty decent trip and tha you two are back home safe and I hope, sound. The albatross photos are top notch. Only thing- I don’t envy you having to go through all those photos and then trying to decide which one/s to delete. But I am sure that is probably not a problem for you. Will anxiously await your next post.

    And ,gee whiz, I don’t know who in their right mind would expect you to catch up on anyone’s posts. It would be silly to even try. No need to apologize for that.

    • Thanks Yvonne. I will delete on my main externalHD but everything will be on the back up drive for a long time. The editing is indeed the hard part.

  4. Appetite duly whetted!
    Awaiting further reports.
    Good rally on the stock exchanges whilst you were away.
    Welcome back.

  5. Some fine images Andrew.
    I imagine those same naturalists could spot the Yeti for you too.
    I like your collection of socialogical observations. You must have made quite the impression as a visitor from the home office and nice bit of happenstance that you knew the manager.
    Eager for further travelogue entries.

  6. I’ve just looked through your Antarctic photos. Stunning! What a photographers’ feast of a place! On a holiday in Quebec as a kid I went out whale-spotting in a zodiac and I know how exciting it must have been. I envy you for the humpback whale moment (even if you couldn’t shoot it!)

  7. Beautiful Shots Andrew. I hadn’t considered the motion sickness aspect. Considering I can get motion sickness from floating in a pool, I’ll have think about if adding Antartica to my list is even possible. Of course, I have to add 4 others besides to hit 7.

    Love the light-mantled sooty albatross. Very nice shot. I wish I could figure out how to take any photo of a bird that looks good.

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