There’s a little town at the southern tip of Argentina, with huge mountains lining the flight path from the north and an ocean unlike any other to the south. There’s nothing remarkable about the town save for the memorial to young, innocent, Argentinian soldiers who lost their lives fighting for an island their country calls ‘the Malvinas’. Seven miles or so out of town is the entrance to an amazing national park called Tierra del Fuego or, in English, the Land of Fire. It is the most southerly town in the world and it’s name is Ushuaia.
Ushuaia is where, in January, we started our journey on a small expedition ship to the continent of Antarctica. But before Antarctica, we headed first to the Falkland Islands and then to South Georgia. The south Atlantic at this point is totally unpredictable. The ‘roaring forties’ and the ‘furious fifties’ are so called because of the weather conditions that can prevail at these latitudes and those descriptions are quite apt most of the time. The last time we were in this area of the south Atlantic we were very fortunate to have calm weather. On this occasion we had a bit of everything from fairly quiet seas to strong winds and huge swells where the ship crashed around and us with it.
The Falklands are a cluster of islands, making up West and East Falklands, with Port Stanley being the capital. Otherwise known to the Argentinians as Malvinas, these islands were, of course, the scene of the Falklands war in 1982 where, not only Argentinian soldiers lost their lives, but also many British service personnel. Had we not just travelled thousands of miles to get there we might have guessed we were in Britain. Stanley has the old, red, telephone boxes outside it’s post office. Its police station is staffed by some British officers. There is a street called ‘Thatcher Drive’. The town feels British and its residents consider themselves British. However, you would soon be disabused of the notion that you’re in Britain when you come across the many penguins of different varieties that inhabit the islands.
South Georgia is totally different. This is from where Ernest Shackleton and his band of adventurers set off for their failed attempt to reach the South Pole in 1916, a story which is almost unbelievable in its challenges and endurance. South Georgia’s only human residents now are research staff from various countries who live in the scientific establishments scattered across the island. Old whaling stations sit in ruins and fishing boats, including an old Hull trawler, lie abandoned on the beaches. But at Grytviken, the ‘capital’ of South Georgia, is probably the most southerly church in the world.
And here are some of the large colonies of hundreds of thousands of penguins which we were dying to see. The sight (and the smell) was amazing! Here, also, is the most southerly songbird in the world, the South Georgia pipit, a carnivore and endemic to the island. Following the eradication of rats from the island in 2014, the pipit, once close to extinction, is now regularly seen flitting among the rocks and the kelp beds of the island’s coastline.
From South Georgia we travelled south to Elephant Island and then on to Antarctica, a continent which is the 5th largest at 14 million square kilometres and almost twice the size of Australia. Where the south Atlantic meets the Antarctic Ocean is a moving line known as the Antarctic convergence. When you cross this line, everything changes. The water temperature is lower, the marine life is different, food sources change and so do the predators. Here you begin to see more whales, pinnipeds (seals and sea-lions), and the large, pelagic, seabirds that take advantage of the rich pickings in the cold waters.
We were incredibly fortunate that the weather eased on every occasion we wanted to land. To get on to the land, you have to descend the ship’s gangway and step onto a zodiac, an inflatable dinghy, which takes you to a wet landing on the beach. If the winds are strong, the swell becomes too dangerous to perform this manoeuvre. Getting to land meant we were able to join the different penguin colonies; Adelie, chinstrap, king, Magellanic, gentoo, rockhopper and macaroni, and to see up close the fur seals and elephant seals resting there.
The weather was perfect for cruising through the Weddell Sea. The still water provided mirror-like reflections for the snow-covered mountains and ice-bergs. The scenery was breathtaking, the light simply perfect, nevertheless, the photography could never do justice to the incredible landscapes. Add on the 100+ humpback whales we saw in one day alone, the porpoising penguins, fur seals and those awesome predators, orcas and leopard seals, and the experience was nothing short of magical. And, if you were wondering what a big iceberg looks like, try imagining iceberg A57A, 20kms long and 9kms wide, floating around the ocean.
Leaving Antarctica was a bit of a wrench. The two days crossing Drake’s passage on our return to Ushuaia could not have been different. The first day was very rough with poor visibility, the second calm, warm and sunny, testimony to the vagaries of southern ocean weather. We were accompanied on both days by the graceful flight of southern royal and wandering albatrosses.
This was our second trip to this region, although this latest expedition was a much more detailed and up-close experience. If this short article has whetted your appetite, turn up at the Yetton hub, Kirkheaton, at 7.30pm on 11th June and I’ll tell you more about this amazing place, it’s landscapes and its wildlife.