Christmas Day at Sea

We are sailing from South Georgia and I've had awful seasickness. I wake up feeling much better and head for breakfast, but the dining room is empty. The clocks have gone back an hour, as we head for the Falkland Islands, and no-one has visited my sick bed to tell me.

Later , clocks suitably adjusted, I spiral down  to the presentation room – right in the stern, curtained and dark. Matty is giving his Granny Scale number 1 lecture - Merry Krillmas. But it’s not a good place to be, in terms of nausea induction and I have to beat a hasty retreat before he's even begun. They've lined the stairs with sick bags

It’s charismatic Lebanese barman, Rami’s birthday today. It’s mentioned considerably more often that then the official birthday we’re supposed to be celebrating. He is both suave and good looking and has flirting down to a fine art..

There’s little to see but grey sky and sea, through the port holes, other than the odd shout of ‘Humpback’, which has usually disappeared by the time I’ve located it. It’s raining and I’ve got a towel under my window to mop up the drips. At least the swell is running with us now. There’s nothing to do except sleep, read and anticipate each meal, making all too fragile resolutions about eating less. Maybe Robert Louis Stephenson had a better time at of it in Christmas at Sea. At least it was frosty for him.

Boxing Day -The Sea, The Sea

There is a mini riot on board today. The ship has had to slow to eight  knots, because of the bouncy waves and David has just diplomatically announced that we will be in The Falklands, for our excursions on December 28th, as planned. So, our voyage from South Georgia will have taken an extra day (four in all) and without our early start we wouldn’t have made any Falkland landing at all, other than Stanley. They don’t tell you this sort of thing in the brochures.

And now what to do? It's too pitchy to walk round the ship; Austrian/Australian Petra tells me she spent 50 minutes pacing Deck 3 earlier. I can’t cope with the presentation room.  There's nothing to see out of the window except grey waves and grey sky. Canadian/ Russian crew member, Boris, has given me some of his videos to watch, an unlikely selection of rom-coms. His official title is adventure concierge. I’m not sure what this involves, but I know from experience it’s his job to check on sick passengers and bring them bento boxes of mushy food from the galley. He also acts as translator for the crew, if necessary.

27 December - Sea Daze

Reading, sleeping and not least, eating, are still the main preoccupations and I'm brain dead. Time to  wonder how they manage to keep all the food so fresh, for such a long time, on a boat. We’re still being presented with  fruit and salad. And they haven’t served up whale meat yet.

It's a little calmer, the albatrosses are still wheeling and I can spend time trying to take a  picture that's in focus, as they zoom across the deck, playing games. Now you see me. Now you don't. Finally, this afternoon, land ahoy.  There are great clumps of kelp floating and a pod of Peale's dolphins riding under the bows. Now I know how Christopher Columbus felt. Excitement is rife, but the ship maintains a tantalising distance from the Falkland Islands coast. We're promised our landing in the morning.

The limerick competition is judged this evening.  Unexpectedly, the expedition staff all stand in the corner calling Sueooooo, Sueooooo, while I'm trying to read my piece. By the time  I've finished the whole room  is joining in. So, I win the overall first prize – based on audience reaction. Here is my offering:

There was a young lady named Sue
Who travelled in search of gentoo
The penguins elusive
Antarctic exclusive -
She only found piles of pink poo

28 December Fabulous Falkland Islands

Wey hey. A landing at West Point Island - and what a landing. David knows how to redeem himself. A hike across a mile of gorse sprinkled hills, in yellow flower, glimpses of cobalt and aquamarine seas, looking deceptively tropical. There are few trees in the islands, and those that are there have all been planted by man. On the far side, above more crags, the tussock grass is head height, giving a proper expedition feel.  In the midst, a mixed colony of black-browed albatrosses and rockhopper penguins, both species with fledging checks in their nests.

The penguins don’t quite co-exist peacefully. The rockhoppers, really do hop round on the rocks, two feet together, with guttural shrieks, crests wobbling, trying to ward off the albatrosses, who in their turn make their disdain known, with ships’ siren calls. Nevertheless, both sets of birds seem to make excellent parents, preening or feeding their babies constantly and shifting around to make them comfy.

I’ve read that the Falkland Islands are home to 65% of the world’s black-browed albatross population. The white fluffy albatross chicks are settled in mud bowls, set pedestal like on the rocks, or tussocks of grass. The albatrosses take it in turns to go foraging and land, broad like cargo planes, wings held askew, scattering any birds in their path. Those taking their turn at babysitting perch serenely on their posts, every so often setting off a Mexican wave of cooling wing wafting. In-between, the adults without chicks indulge in beak fencing. Perhaps this is practice courtship.

The rockhoppers’ chicks are less fortunate, in that they seem to be stuffed under any suitable piece of rock, often beneath the albatross nests. But their parents are equally attentive, indulging in hugs and caresses, even though their offspring are not much smaller than them. Out in the cobalt bay float hundreds of albatrosses, behind them sei whales blowing. Glorious.

Elevenses in a farmhouse above the bay. They run 1000 sheep and 20 cows here, though none of them are in evidence. But we have a semblance of civilisation at last. China cups, Christmas cake and mince pies.

In the afternoon a second Falkland Islands landing and a plethora of penguins at Saunders Island. Gentoo, king, rockhopper and Magellanic penguins (stripy with a pink patch on the face, living in burrows) all lay claim to a stretch of stunning white beach. All have chicks, the gentoo babies as endearing as the adults, often lying flat out on the sand between their parents’ legs. Some individuals are laboriously collecting pebbles, one at a time, to build nests.  The gorgeous kings stand erect, eggs in their pouches. The Magellans scrabble down from their lofty burrows for a swim, introducing some of the bigger chicks to the water. And, at the point at the end of the bay, the rockhoppers jump in and out of the water, frolicking in the foam. Leaping dolphins escort the zodiac back to the gangway. It’s a great send off.

There’s an end of trip slideshow and it seems that now I'm famous. Every time I feature everyone calls out ‘Sueooooo, Sueooooo’. They miss one though. Maybe it’s because I’m in a group in that snap.

29 December - Stuck in Stanley -Trying To Leave the Falkland Islands

A big storm is forecast and they’re shutting the Falkland Islands Airport, so I can't leave today as planned.

That leaves a little more time to explore. The capital of the Falkland Islands, Stanley, sits on East Falkland, the largest island in the group. It’s the only town. There are no cash points, just one bank, no chain stores, a couple of supermarkets and cafes and seven pubs. There are red telephone boxes, which is more than we have at home. And just like in Britain, you drive on the left, if there is any other traffic. The cars are all four-wheel drive and the local dealer is Land Rover. There’s even a number 38 Routemaster double decker serving as a tourist vehicle. It’s the bus I used to catch to work and the West End, when I lived in Islington. There are also several  memorials of different sorts, mainly to the war in 1982, and a bust of Margaret Thatcher.

I wander a little, taking pictures in the increasingly blustery wind, - when I'm not waiting outside the LATAM office trying to rearrange my flight. it's more than a little stressful.

30 December Leaving the Falkland Islands - Onwards and Upwards

My fan club are still there at breakfast. ‘We love you Sueoooooo’. I shall miss them. The staff form a long line, wedding reception style to say good-bye. It’s all quite emotional. Naturally, today is sunny with blue skies, so I spend my last hour or so re-capturing all the photos I took yesterday, with a brighter background.

Aruba next - eventually - I hope...

Who Owns the Falkland Islands?

The Falkland Islands are a British Overseas Territory. They are self-governing, except for matters of defence and foreign affairs; the people voted to remain a British Overseas Territory in a referendum.

The British claim to sovereignty dates from 1690, and the United Kingdom has exercised de facto sovereignty over the archipelago almost continuously since 1833. … They gained full British citizenship with the British Nationality (Falkland Islands) Act 1983, after British victory in the Falklands War.

Argentina has claimed the Falkland Islands, since 1927. Their primary claim is based on proximity to Argentina. They have never had any permanent outpost on the island and their claim is only recognised by a few neighbouring countries in South America. They attempted an invasion in 1982, which led to the Falkland Islands War with the United Kingdom.

The Falkland Islands - Snippets of Information

  • The Falklands are entirely financially self-sufficient, except for the cost of defence, which is only necessary in light of the threat from Argentina - the cost of which amounts to some 0.177% of the total UK defence budget.
  • The population is around 3,000 – almost all British by birth or descent.
  • There are 500,000 sheep on the islands.
  • The currency is the Falkland Islands pound, which is worth exactly the same as British pound sterling.

How Many Islands are in the Falkland Islands?

The Falkland Islands archipelago consists of two main islands, West Falkland and East Falkland, and about 776 smaller islands. They have a land area of 4,700 square miles and a coastline estimated at 800 miles.

Are the Falkland Islands Safe?

Crime is relatively unknown in the Falkland Islands. This must must be one of the safest places for the solo traveller to visit. Muggings and pickpockets belong to another world. The islanders are friendly. Once you've managed to get to this remote place.

Getting In and Out of the Falkland Islands

You come by boat or fly from Ushaiaa. I arrive by boat from South Georgia, which takes a very long time because of the ocean swell. Bad weather has plagued us the whole trip and the weather gods are rolling the dice again. A big storm is forecast and they’re shutting Mount Pleasant (not very appropriately named) Airport – there will be no planes leaving. I have a whole series of connecting flights planned up to Aruba in the Caribbean.

I spend most of my time in Stanley queuing outside the LATAM office, which is open from 10-12 on a Saturday morning. It costs me £1500 to buy new tickets. LATAM say it’s not their fault the airport is closed and Avianca don’t have any economy seats left up to Aruba. It’s almost New Year’s Eve. It feels more like Bah Humbug! I’m lucky. I was fourth in the queue. There are still folk standing outside the office at 12.30 a.m.

The airport is open again the next day. It's 40 miles or so from Stanley; East Falkland is a surprisingly big island and we haven’t even ventured very far inland, according to my map. The stark green hills, littered with copious amounts of stone, look beautiful in the summer weather, though it’s probably a gloomy prospect the rest of the year. There’s a fairly large river running through them - the Fitzroy, named after the captain of the Beagle. Mount Pleasant is the military base, established after the 1982 war and we have to be vetted before we're allowed through the gate. Aruba is four connecting flights away…

Is South Georgia in Antarctica?

South Georgia is considered part of the Antarctic, even though South Georgia Island is not part of the Antarctic continent, as it lies below the Antarctic convergence. This is the hydrologic boundary between the colder waters of the Antarctic and the warmer waters of the Atlantic. The South Georgian mountains are part of the Andes chain that does a hairpin loop from the bottom of South America back to the top of the Antarctic Peninsula. The climate is colder in South Georgia than that at other similar latitudes. This is due to the prevailing currents, which force cold water from Cape Horn up and around the islands.

South Georgia is about 150 kilometres long and 1.4 to 37 kilometres wide and rises to Mount Paget at almost 3,000 metres.

Does Anyone Live on South Georgia?

The main settlement is Grytviken. A small number of scientists and support personnel maintain British Antarctic Survey stations here, on King Edward Point and at Bird Island, off the northwest tip of the island. They constitute the island’s only inhabitants, other than two museum staff at Grytviken who are semi-permanent residents.

James Cook made the first landing on South Georgia in 1775, naming it after King George III. It was primarily used as a whaling station between 1905 and 1966.

Who Does South Georgia Belong To?

South Georgia is an island in the southern Atlantic Ocean. It is part of the British Overseas Territory of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.

Argentina has claimed South Georgia, along with the Falkland Islands, since 1927. They call the island “San Pedro”. Their primary claim is based on proximity to Argentina. They have never had any permanent outpost on the island and their claim is only recognised by a few neighbouring countries in South America. During the 1982 Falkland Islands War, Argentina sent troops to South Georgia.

The Commissioner of South Georgia is also the Governor of the Falkland Islands.

Why Go to South Georgia?

South Georgia Island has been called The Greatest Wildlife Show on Earth. It is the most important penguin and seabird breeding area in the world. Millions of penguins can be found in colonies around the island. King and Gentoo penguins are especially populous. There are millions of other seabirds which inhabit the island as well including albatrosses,skuas, petrels, terns, and gulls. There are also two endemic species: the South Georgia Pipit (the southernmost songbird in the world) and the South Georgia Pintail.

How Do You Get to South Georgia Island?

The island currently receives about 5,000 visitors per year, excluding military, shipping and science personnel. There is no landing strip on South Georgia, so all visitors have to come by boat. This makes it one of the least visited territories on Earth. My boat has cruised from the Antarctic Peninsula. We are going on to the Falkland Islands.

19  December - South Georgia - In the Wake of Shackleton

From the Antarctic Peninusula, across the Scotia Sea, the eastern end of the Drake Passage, following Shackleton’s route to South Georgia. Thankfully in a much larger vessel. Thankfully also, the weather is mild, the sky is blue (though we’re been trying to outrun some snow clouds all day) and the swell is running in the right direction.

The crew do their best to keep us entertained, encouraging us to run around the ship pursuing whale sightings (imaginary or otherwise) and then, as they peter out, lauding the antics of the sea birds wheeling in the ship’s wake. There are also a series of Antarctic themed lectures. Naturalist, Matty is one of the most infectiously enthusiastic presenters. He’s from Fareham originally, but now has pan-galactic accented English, promoting his offerings by referring to his 85 year old granny’s gradings. ‘Pinnipeds (seals) are ranked presentation number 3’, he explains over the intercom. I think this is a positive.

20 December - As We Are Heading for (South) Georgia

Another balmy day, at six degrees Celsius, though another long one, with an open, gentle sea, the odd giant petrel or black browed albatross overhead and humpbacks alongside. There are more mandatory briefings (there’s a register) and bio securing in preparation for tomorrow’s landings on South Georgia. It all helps to keep us busy. Much is said about the danger of fur seals in the breeding season. The fur seal population was almost wiped out by hunters in the early twentieth century, but they have come back with a vengeance. It is believed that the fur seal population is now almost fully recovered to its nineteenth Century levels. The seals are said to be fast and aggressive and prone to bite. I’m not as keen to go ashore now as I was. Though South Georgia is billed as The Greatest Wildlife Show on Earth.

21 December - South Gorgeous

We are woken at six (which is actually five, as the clocks have gone forward an hour) to find we have reached South Georgia. The ship is entering the stunning aquamarine Drygalski Fjord, waterfalls, razor peaks and glinting glaciers. This is reputedly where James Cook first set eyes on the island.

The wind is blustering at 60 miles per hour and it’s a struggle to stay upright and enjoy the views; the bow is off limits. Unsurprisingly, this morning’s landing at Cooper’s Bay is off (including, sadly, the macaroni penguins) and we are motoring on to look for more sheltered spots. Appropriately, the headland is named Cape Disappointment. This is to reflect James Cook’s mood when he realised, he had not after all, reached the South American continent.

Gold Harbour, South Georgia

The weather calms and we are finally decanted at Gold Harbour, one of the island’s iconic viewing spots. There are fifty thousand king penguins, adults and chicks nestling under an azure sky, bit parts are played by elephant seals and fur seals and the whole is framed by mountain peaks and a tumbling glacier. The king penguins are more dignified than the comical gentoos, who still make their presence known, waddling through from the tussocks behind the beach. The air is alive with noise. The fluffy brown king penguin chicks, puffed up balls that are often larger than their parents, whistle, the adults hum like electric grid stations and the elephant seals make farting noises.

Pinnipeds Ahoy

The elephant seals mostly dispose themselves about the beach in heaps, occasionally making a bid for another group with languorous break-dance movements. After a few wriggles they have to rest, eventually belly flopping on top of the pile, causing mayhem for a few seconds as they all shuffle around. The large males butt heads, pink mouths ferocious and wide, before they all subside.

The fur seals are far more energetic, moving at an alarming pace. They growl and bare their teeth if we approach too closely, making mock charges. We’ve been instructed to bring walking poles to brandish (not too ferociously) if necessary. But it’s the gorgeous king penguins that are the stars of the show, stately in their dinner jackets, gossiping in groups, politely welcoming and gently curious.

22 December - St Andrew's Point, South Georgia

Making our way westwards along the north coast. Another iconic spot today - St Andrew’s Point. We hike over grassy hillocks, terminal moraine and through a rushing river, to a vantage point on a ridge. Here we look down on 400,000 pairs of birds assembled in piano keyboard rows, a cacophony of noise and splendour. The king penguins are at all stages of their 14-month breeding cycle. Groups of chicks clamour for food. It’s a long time for a chick to evade predators whilst waiting hopefully, beak ever at the ready, for his parents to bring him something to eat. Giant petrels line up to sail down the river. They bob along and then skitter into groups of astonished penguins, huge wings held aloft.

On the open grass areas, the fur seals indulge in mock battles and sexual foreplay. The males of both the elephant and fur seal species are mainly the beta boys. Most of the alphas have had their wicked way and left for sea, so the betas are doing their best with their leavings. There are continuing skirmishes with the younger females who have not yet mated. The air reeks of fur seal musk.

A Toast to Shackleton

In the afternoon Grytviken, where we toast Ernest Shackleton with whisky. His epic and aborted voyage to Antarctic in 1922 ended almost as badly. He and five other men travelled from Elephant Island to South Georgia, by life boat, to fetch help for his crew . They arrived on the wrong side of the island and had to climb the unexplored mountains of the interior to reach a whaling station to get help.

Shackleton died of a heart attack on his return to South Georgia, preparing for another expedition. He is buried in the Grytviken graveyard. To be honest, I’m not clear why he was so venerated, as none of his four expeditions seems to have been very successful.

There’s a little museum devoted to Shackleton, the eradication of rats and the history of whaling, Whaling ceased here in 1965, but is still evidenced by rusting boats ruined habitations and machinery. Officials are keen to explain that South Georgia Island had a large problem with invasive rats. These hitched aboard early whaling vessels and all but wiped out many nesting sites for seabirds by eating their eggs. The government embarked on the world’s largest ever rat eradication programme. This involved spreading tons of pellets of rat poison around the island, using helicopters and manual labour. It worked – they even brought in specially trained terriers to check that no rats remained.

23 December - Fortuna Bay

More superb mountain scenery, low snow-capped peaks and glaciers - sadly receding fast. Over scree, trying to keep an eye out for the ten thousand very excitable fur seals, each determined to protect their own five square metres of territory. There are many more males in this area. The alpha seals boisterously pursue those errant females in danger of being lured away from their harems. They’re giving the penguins a hard time, charging through their ranks and scattering them, as they scrap. (I would say sending them flying, but they can’t.) Matty is leading the way, acting as the seal whisperer. ‘It’s ok old chap, we’re just going past’.

There are larger numbers of adolescent king penguins here. They look oddly ragged as they moult, brown fur, hanging on in patches, and revealing the glorious black white and yellow beneath. It’s only bright orange when they are fully mature. Swimming, in the many small pools or the sea, is a popular pastime for the penguins. The sea is not just a source of food. It’s single file again, into the water, sliding in on their stomachs, and paddling along in a tight flock by the water’s edge, (it's called a raft). Until the inevitable fur seal makes an appearance and they splash back to shore with significantly less decorum.

Sally and Bob from Perth feature often in my meanderings. Bob pops up as often as a meerkat, wielding his tripod and video camera.

Stromness

Up the coast to Stromness, where Shackleton finished his epic trek. It’s another derelict whaling station that has been totally overrun by seals. There are so many pinnipeds that we take to the zodiacs, instead of running the gauntlet ashore. The seals are literally rocking and rolling all round us in the icy water. We cruise past the beaches and ruins at Stromness and pop around the corner to the largest station of all, at Leith. Now, it’s cold and rainy and altogether like being back in Scotland. But overall, it probably is The Greatest Wildlife Show on Earth.

24 December - Batten Down the Hatches

Today, the weather is playing with us again. We’ve been blown out of the Bay of Isles and past Bird Island, sadly no albatross nests then. W are heading for the Falklands early. They’ve told us to batten down the hatches. Christmas dinner is served this evening. This is too European in my book - but hey by then I’m surviving on sea sick pills and another injection anyway.

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