Category Archives: Penguins

Back in Blighty

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We are back. In fact we have been back six months. How time flies!!

It took us a while to get back into the swing of things & even longer for our prized table top book to arrive from Australia.

Packed with memories from our Polar Pioneer adventures; our daily journals & photos brought together in a one off edition, for us & our fellow passengers..

With thoughts now turning to where we will go for my big birthday in 2016 – Patrick……if you are reading this, there is something I need to ask you! – plus our imminent trip to Sri Lanka to celebrate a friend’s wedding & check out elephants, we thought it was high time to recall the highlights…..

Our bucket list holiday delivered everything we could ask for – & so much more – up closer than close encounters with mighty humpback whales, curious & playful leopard seals & more penguins than we could possibly hope to see. We didn’t think much could top this – & then we went to the Galapagos Islands. Nature once again blew us away as we literally had to pick our way along paths & beaches littered with iguanas & seals, saw an enormous number of other species & swam with penguins.

There were other highlights of course; the mournful tango watched in an old dancehall in the heart of Beunos Aires, savouring wines galore in Mendoza & the first jagged peaks of Fitzroy coming into view…. Patagonia, a playground we will surely return to.

Even now, when someone asks us “so how was your trip” a wry smile passes our lips as we try to put into words just how utterly a-mazing our holiday was. We can’t. We dubbed it as a an adventure to the end of the world; it was all that & so much more.

Matt & Jules xxx

For anyone interested in reading our mini adventure in Sri Lanka, go to the link below:
mjules2013.wordpress.com

Island hopping in the Galapagos….

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From the very get-go we had both wanted to go to the Galapagos Islands, land of myth and mystery made famous by Charles Darwin and his groundbreaking “Origin of Species”; his theory of biological evolution and natural selection shaped following his short stay on the islands in the five year voyage aboard the Beagle.

Santa Cruz giant tortoise

Santa Cruz giant tortoise

The Galapagos Islands, Archipiélago de Colón or Islas Galápagos are located some 900km west of Ecuador on the Nazca tectonic plate and given the spanish name for (giant) tortoise by Tomás de Berlanga, the first Bishop of Panama. He drifted off course while sailing from Panama to Peru and accidently discovered the islands…and the tortoises. The group of islands straddle the equator and consist of 18 main and three smaller islands across a land area of nearly 8000km. In spite of being located in the tropics, the islands’ micro-climate is curiously dry, with annual rainfall of as little as 6-10cm in the lower regions and only a handful of islands with their own source of freshwater.

With only a matter of days before our plane touched down in Guayaquil, gateway to the Baltra, Santa Cruz and the islands beyond, we still had not secured passage on a live aboard boat for the dates we wanted.  Not for want of trying; Matt had contacted all of the small boats that fitted the bill, but with limited internet access since leaving Mendoza, his travel agent and negotiation skills were tested to the limit!. Eventually we secured one of the last cabins on the 16-passenger boat M/S Beluga (ironically one of our first choices) that was bound for the older eastern islands. Result!!!

Arriving in Baltra, we were hit by the heat – 32 degrees with shirt-sticking, hair-frizzing humidity that had us diving for the air-con button, the minute we checked into our hotel on Santa Cruz.

Fisherman's friend...

Fisherman’s friend…

imageSanta Cruz and with it’s key port town of Puerto Ayora, is the main tourist hub of the islands and boasts the longest pedestrianized street with more souvenirs shops than-you-can-shake-a-stick-at, a cute and colourful artisan market, galleries and tour operators galore.  The small fishing dock cum market draws big crowds of people plus its fair share of sea lions, pelicans, and as you’d expect,the restaurants serve up pretty mean seafood –  fresh off the boats – Isla Grill ticked the boxes for us, with a sweet and tender Mariscada salad of chargrilled shrimp, octopus and calamari, that went down rather nicely with a icy cold bottle of Palomino Fino Ecuadoran white wine. Perfecto!

From here we boarded our boat and met our fellow passengers, half British and half North American.  All of us up for the adventure of a lifetime. We cruised at night and making landings by day; island hopping across the eastern archipelago with chances of seeing colonies of sea lions, the odd penguin (yes please!) iguanas, tortoises, frigate birds and the infamous boobies plus other species. Not a card carrying twitcher, I was not as excited about seeing lots of different birds unless they were really different (boobies and flamingoes), or didn’t fly (penguins). Wriggling into a wetsuit and going snorkelling or diving with fish, rays and sharks – now that got my heart racing!!

Shrimp feeding

Shrimp feeding

Cerro Dragon, Dragon’s Hill was to be our first landing and not quite the dry one we were expecting, scrabbling last minute to take off our boots and wade ashore. We headed inland towards the two salt lakes (there was no fresh water on the island) and stopped to quietly watch seven flamingoes, filter feeding on the brine shrimp.  With dusk not that far away we carried along the trail and up the hill, black/white sticks marking out the path, so we couldn’t accidentally stray. In the short dense grass we saw our first land iguana and stopped in our tracks to stare. Not as “pre-historic” as the marine variety, golden yellow, streaked with shades of burnt orange with patches of shedding skin, it blended in to the scenery. And then we saw another, and another… by the time we counted close to a dozen littering the path, we began to joke with our guide, Silvia …. whatever she had paid the chap ahead to plant them for us to find, it was worth it!

Land iguanas ... or mini dragons ?

Land iguanas … or mini dragons ?

Sally crabs

Sally crabs

The next morning we visited South Plaza, one of the twin islands off the coast of Santa Cruz.  Scrambling ashore we tried hard not to tread on the ‘sally lightfoot’ crabs that clung to the rocky shore as waves rolled in. One firmly eye fixed on the crabs and the other on the sea lions littering the beach and the landing platform. Never mind the two metre ruling for their benefit… what about us?!

Welcoming committee of sea lions

Welcoming committee of sea lions

Despite its small size, South Plaza is also home to a ridiculous amount of nesting birds; numerous gulls, Tropic birds and Swallow-Tail doves, for starters.  No sign of the blue footed boobie, but we had plenty of time yet and more islands to visit.

Santa Fe, also called Barrington Island after British Admiral Samuel Barrington, is a small island and home to a different species of iguanas, paler and smaller along with giant prickly pear cactus. The iguanas, patiently sit for days, weeks in fact, waiting for the lush pads to fall before feasting away on the juicy pulpy flesh. We watched an iguana tearing into the cactus pad – prickly spikes included – wondering just how long he had waited.

Deserted island....

Deserted island….

After a fab three course dinner – soup, succulent pork chops, red cabbage with spiced sultanas and prunes, broccoli and a decadent chocolate pud – that I could have laid down and died for – we slept like babies as we made our way towards the fifth largest and easternmost island of San Cristobel, stopping at Cerro Brujo on the way.  Pristine coral beaches, with lava rock breakers and sandy dunes were a welcome surprise.  We braved the chilly surf for a paddle and watched boobies, frigates and albatross punch-diving for their breakfast.

Giant saddleback tortoise

Giant saddleback tortoise

Visiting the tortoise reserve and breeding centre was an eye-opener as we discovered some 200,000 had been eaten over previous centuries – ships fodder and local fayre when it was discovered tortoises could live for a up to a year on their own fat reserves without any food and water- providing a tasty source of fresh meat on long voyages. Following man’s introduction (and later eradication) of other species on some islands entire populations were wiped out as they struggled to compete for food.  They inhabit seven of the islands and can grow to a whopping 500kg, living to a ripe old age of 100, however at five they are tiny, barely 20cm, living in a semi natural habitat, awaiting repatriation with their ancestral island where they adapted to, hundreds of years sgo; ‘saddle backs’ are able to reach high up into the cactus plants and under vegetation, ‘dome backs’, found on islands with humid lowlands, just bulldoze their way through the undergrowth!

Iguana pile up

Iguana pile up

Espanola was one of the oldest and southernmost islands that we were keen to see; created from a single caldera, it has, over thousands of years, moved away from the volcanic ‘hot spot’ and is flat as can be. Similarly to Hawaii, the islands are located on s particularly hot mantle, that, in essence, burns through the earth’s crust, creating volcanic activity, which give the islands their harsh and dynamic landscapes. Espanola is home to the ‘Waved’ Albatross, loads of other bird species and masses of marine iguanas. Basking in the afternoon sun, sprawled all over each other, they lifted a lazy eye – almost in acknowledgement of our presence. Inland we came across the females, more drab (natch sadly) and ready to fight for their square of land to lay their eggs. Everywhere we looked there was a bird we hadn’t seen before, a new species of lizard or a pile of iguanas. Wildlife overload, it was almost a welcome relief just staring out to sea at the blow holes – incoming tide forced through fissures on the porous lavarock, spraying jets of water as high than the geysers we had seen in the Atacama desert.

Blow baby

Blow baby

As we picked our way between the rocks, careful not to disturb any birds we stumbled across, we hit the headland and “Albatross Runway”.  Hard not to miss this particular bird with a wingspan over two metres… even so, we struggled to capture one on the wing. We all laughed as we tried to get the ‘money shot’ of an albatross perfectly framed in full flight.  The National Geographic would not be knocking on our door anytime soon! . It was touching to see the males perched in the long grass, waiting patiently for their mate to return to the same spot as last year, as they mate for life. True love!

Waved albatross waiting for his mate

Waved albatross waiting for his mate

Onward we tramped along the trail, hot and sweaty, swapping skittish lava lizards for marine iguanas, piled high on top of each other to conserve body heat, arms and legs akimbo and playful sea lions, making the most of the surf along the reef. Silvia had to put her finest naturalist skills to the test… “shoo-ing” and cajoling along the sea lions that blocked our path to the zodiacs and return to the boat!

Sea lions on the shore..

Sea lions on the shore..

All the islands were formed through the layering and lifting of repeated volcanic eruptions, building layer upon layer over time. Santiago, our next stop, was an incredible example of this. Originally named James Island, after King James II, it was the second island that Charles Darwin visited. Just a couple hundred metres offshore are two islets; Chinese Hat, with its delicate lava and spatter cones, has intricate channels of lava that lead to the sea to create little coralline beaches. The perfect hang out for juvenile reef sharks and sea lions, golden rays and the odd penguin. Yep, we really got to see the tiny Galapagos penguin bobbling along, like a duck in the current, completely fearless of our approaching zodiac – with only five percent of the total population spread across three western islands, we were very lucky. We even got to snorkel with them.. More on that later!!

Penguins inspecting the pahoehoe lava flow on Santiago

Penguins inspecting the pahoehoe lava flow on Santiago

Sullivan Bay, our landing spot was incredible in its barrenness and beauty. As you walk along the flow, or lava field stretching more than 50 km square, smooth sheets of lava rock, pock-marked by lava ‘bombs’ spewed out from the nearby eruptions a hundred years ago, are all mixed up with sections resembling twisted rope, silky ribbons of lava toffee and cake batter and scrunched up knotted entrails. You can just imagine the slow moving surface lava, oozing, creasing, wrinkling finally crumpling as it’s surface cools, completely at odds with the molten magma river flowing much faster below, both further inland and towards the sea.

Bubbling lava rock

Bubbling lava rock

We peered into gaping chasms made by lava flowing out below the solidified surface lava crust and later collapsing, intrigued by the coloured multilayered rock made up of minerals, gases and crystals that get picked up and mixed up on the way. The slow moving pahoehoe lava flow looks completely different to the more common aa flows (phonetically named this in Hawaii because it hurts when you stand/fall on it!), the faster flowing lava flows found on other higher islands, that we had seen. It’s leaves a far more spectacular landscape in its wake.

When two became three….

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It was totally unplanned. A complete spur of the moment decision that we hope we won’t live to regret.

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Port Lockroy museum

Perhaps it was down to the feelings of nostalgia that swept over us as we wandered round the museum at Port Lockroy screaming home and family. A testament to all that is British, the restoration of the base back to its former 60’s research station glory, obvs made an impact.

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Storeroom staples

With a kitchen full of retro tins of long forgotten foods plus brands that have stood the test of time – good ol’ beefy Bovril, Marmite, Tate & Lyle, Crawfords biscuits and the Sunlight washing up soap that conjure up memories from yesteryear.

Anyway, getting back to why I am adding this post…. In the last British Post on the Antarctic we felt compelled to make a statement of our own and adopted our very own gentoo penguin.

An adolescent one at that – still a tad fluffy rather that feather-y and way too cute to leave behind, we have added to our family; Pingu I and II now have a sibling called P-Roy. A dapper little fella with his own Antarctic tartan scarf to keep out the cold…

The three penguins at Murano  Glaciar

The 3 P’s

Whilst we are on the subject of Port Lockroy, we had to laugh when Flo, who was honorary post mistress during her four month stint, told us that the last of the post that would be handled this season was leaving with her (and us) on the Pioneer, heading towards Port Stanley. Anything else that is left for posting on the farthest most Post Office would not get mailed until next November!

Kayaking and penguins parts II and III

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Feeling time at gentoo colony on port lockroy

Feeding time..

We couldn’t get used to two things… How bone numbing cold our hands got paddling and how easy it was to while away time watching penguins – Shooting through the water like missiles on a bizarre and bumpy course (who said penguins can’t fly?!), waddling along well worn tracks along the shoreline, popping up out of the surf one by one and generally going about their lives.

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Cierva cove colony

As we neared Cierva Cove (named after the Spanish chap who invented the autogiro) we saw and smelt the 5-6,000 strong colony of gentoo penguins. Gingerly we picked our way along the shore, avoiding the pink stained rocks of the rookeries. We had literally never seen so many penguins in one space, as the chicks fell over each other in search of a playmate or food from their parents, whilst some of the adult penguins posed meditative-like and others lay ‘belly-flopped’ on the stones.

Bleached whale bones on Cierva Cove beach

Bleached bones

Walking along the beach to the farthest end of the shore, we picked our way through whale bones, washed out and bleached by the Antarctic sun. Further along, the main rookery came into view that stretched for a good km and then some.

Happy kayakers

Happy as…

We never tired of how blessed we felt paddling – through swathes of brash ice, slipping across tranquil and glassy coves or navigating our way past tricky and tight-nit ice floes. Even our epic return to the ship in gnarly white capped conditions, took us onwards to our next exciting experience. Once in a lifetime, for sure.

At Port Lockroy (home to the Antarctic post office plus colony of adelies) we were greeted by tufty moulting chicks along the craggy shoreline as we surfed ashore. Similar to Detaille Island’s restoration of Base “W”, the British Antarctic Heritage Fund had put its volunteers to good uses, renovating Base “A” as well as monitoring the penguin colony.

 

Bentos hoisting the flag at port Lockroy

All together now.. God save the queen….

Pingus at port Lockroy post office

Penguin post

We were pleased to learn from Flo, one of the volunteers that regular interaction with humans had had no ill-effect on the colony at Lockroy; with half the island off limits to all but penguins, a four year study had concluded no damage done… Probably just as well, as we were literally tripping over penguins who seemed just as keen and curious as we were to see the painted images on the walls of the old living quarters and pick up souvenirs from the post office.

Kayaking & penguins part I

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With our half hour call to kayak, we donned our many layers and with trepidation turned our tags to let the crew know we were ‘off ship’ and headed to the stern deck. Matt discovered why marigolds are the best outer layer for hands, as his ‘seal skins’ were soaked within minutes mopping out our kayak.  Not the best start, but thankfully we packed extra gloves and layers in our dry bags.
Paddles in hand, stomachs in our mouths we made our way down the rope ladder into the waiting zodiac before clambering/sliding across the side into our awaiting kayak….bobbing gently in the water. With a water temp of below zero, we gingerly pushed off from the zodiac, careful not to upset the equilibrium and capsize.  ‘Skirts’ on, after several attempts and rudder down we were off and in pursuit of Judd as he deftly led us across choppy waters, through brash ice, past the first of many spectacular small bergs “calving” from glaciers.
Robbie & Philip heading to Brown Bluff

En route to Brown Bluff

We spotted out first fur seal, happily sleeping on an ice floe and wondered how many more we would see. With hands becoming increasingly numb from the bitter cold (in spite of layers and hand warmers)  we were glad to see ahead the flat top of Brown Bluff – our very first landing and sight of adelie and gentoo penguins.
We ‘surfed’ ashore and left our kayaks behind as we crunched a few steps along the beach, mesmerised by moulting adelie chicks chasing each other and their parents along the shoreline (some of them nearly as big as their parents).  It was nigh on impossible to observe the ‘5 metre rule’ as the penguins moved towards us, rather than away. We didn’t know which way to turn as we vainly tried to capture images of penguins at play.
Gentoo penguins on the shoreline at Brown Bluff

Gentoos on the shoreline

Cold hands were completely forgotten as we looked back to see a group of curious gentoo penguins take more than a passing interest in our kayaks!
Penguins discuss who will go in the back & steer

Flip you for who steers..

Ravenous after our morning kayak session and hours spent on deck, looking out for minke whales, we heartily tucked into our pumpkin soup and homemade bread, swapping stories with our fellow hard-core kayakers. Well we thought we were at any rate!