Up for first light at 04.00. Luckily the wind had abated overnight and we were still off the southern end of Marion Island. The first of the three endemics were quite numerous, handsome Crozet Shags, swimming in the water and flying around.
The semi-endemic Crozet Shag is found on the Prince Edward Islands (400+ breeding pairs) and on the Crozets (800+ breeding pairs). A member of the Imperial Shag (Phallacrocorax atriceps) superspecies, Crozet Shag differs in having a more limited amount of white on the back, scapulars and forewing. Notice the color band/ring placed by South Africa biologists.
As we approached the kelp beds just offshore from the base, the first terns could be seen fishing. "Orca" came the cry and we raced around to the seaward side of the ship to see a pod of 6-7 animals swimming away from us giving excellent views as they went. The group included a large male and at least one small calf. The male spyhopped when about half a mile away, a female tail lobbed. You could see them swimming underwater, the white flank patches being very visible. Back to the birds of the island side and great scope views of the Kerguelan Terns. Short billed, short tailed and very dark underparts, almost giving them a Whiskered Tern appearance. The upper tail coverts being diagnostically grey.
Kerguelen Tern is restricted to a handful of subantarctic islands in the Indian Ocean. Similar to Antarctic Tern, Kerguelens have a much shorter bill and darker underparts. Notice the striking white line separating the black cap from the dark gray underparts. Small groups of terns were observed feeding over kelp beds, dropping to the surface to snatch prey. In this respect they were very reminiscent of freshwater marsh terns.
Light rain fell continuously and
wiping lenses became second nature every few minutes. Salvin's Prions continued
to be everywhere and diving petrels weren't in short supply either. The white
blobs on the hillsides and cliffs soon became the third endemic, Lesser or Black-faced
Sheathbill. Four species of penguin could be seen in various groups along the
coast, Kings, Gentoos, Macaronis and Eastern Rockhoppers. A small colony of
Light-mantled Sooty Albatross's could be seen on the cliffs whilst the odd Wanderer
chick could be seen on the slopes above between the nesting skuas and giant
petrels. The snow dusted centre of the island came out of the mirk, as well
as the small volcanic cones reminding us of the islands turbulent geological
past. A wonderful sight but oh so frustrating at not being able to land. Some
of the King Penguins swam round the ship, their curious nature getting the better
of them. Big smiles all round as we went down to breakfast. Two zodiacs were
launched in the now rapidly increasing wind again. Some skillful boat handling
got our passenger and some supplies and parcels from home for the base ashore,
picked up by the permanent crane mounted on the cliffside. A trypot on a beach
just to the west of the base reminding us of man's previous exploitation of
these islands wildlife. We soon were in another gale again, our timing had been
just right. We sailed up the eastern side of the island, rolling as we went,
heading for Prince Edward Island to the north west. The stern of the ship had
the usual attendant giant petrels and prions with the occasional albatross.
We were struck with how many of the older Wanderers had completely white tails.
We crossed the 15 miles or so of sea to arrive at the south east corner of uninhabited Prince Edward and the captain maneuvered the ship into a bay with yet more penguin colonies visible. The wind was still strong and he had to hold the ship in position using its bow thrusters. Expectant eyes scoped the shore from just a little too far out, the vibration from the thrusters making identification onshore difficult. More Kings, a few Rockhoppers and Macaronis. The odd Southern Elephant Seal could be seen on the beaches, a piece of darkened large whale bone too. After lunch we cruised slowly up the east coast , giant petrels, prions and tubenoses all around.
Prince Edward is smaller than Marion but has a steeper coastline and has never suffered from introduce mammals and as a consequence huge numbers of seabirds nest. The cliffs and steep slopes were lined with Indian Yellow-nosed Albatrosses. Photo by Angus Wilson.
The ghostly Ship Rock looms out of the mist on the eastern side of Prince Edward Island. Photo by Angus Wilson.
The wind was now NW and very strong. Staying up on the flying bridge gave a spectacular ride round the very wild northern end. A brief chumming attempt was not entirely successful, the giant petrels had the lot before the smaller birds could get a look in. Mid-afternoon and "dolphins" came the cry, "Orcas" I corrected as another three or so animals appeared briefly on the seaward side. A few minutes later they appeared again on the port side of the ship and we overtook them as we continued our circumnavigation of the island. Interestingly Barrie Rose, one of our guides had been talking to a Toothfish trawler 10 miles to the north east who were complaining bitterly about the local Orcas and Sperm Whales. Both species had taken to taking fish off their long lines, the Sperm Whales having to swim upside down to do it. At last, nature fighting back! Similar problems are now being reported from Chile too although pirate vessels are already suspected of trying to shoot them. We sailed back down to the leeward side of Marion to cruise past a large King & Macaroni colony on the eastern side before heading south west into the Southern Ocean again and our other main destination, the yet to melt winter pack ice around Antarctica which we knew currently ,we should find at 56 degrees south. I finally saw a couple of Grey-backed Storm Petrels on this leg, and two more Antarctic Fulmars appeared. Entries for the sweepstakes as to when the first iceberg would appear had closed.
Ever curious Northern and Southern Giant Petrels crowded round the ship in hopes of galley scraps. They were rewarded with a bucket of Vegetable Biriani, which was consumed in seconds. These guys are waiting for a cold lager to be poured overboard!
Out on deck by 05.45, the early brigade having had a brief view of a Fin Whale and a distant blow of a Humpback. The sea was a steely grey and the air temperature and sea temp were now less than 2 degrees. We had almost certainly crossed the Antarctic convergence during the night and birds in general were far fewer. The odd albatross, Blue Petrel and prion. A few White-headed Petrels went past the bows, the occasional Grey-backed and Black-bellied Storm Petrel whilst the diving petrels still looked like commons.
Diving Petrels were numerous in the waters around the islands but generally took flight ahead of the ship. Most seemed to be Common Diving Petrels as illustrated here. Notice the dark underwings.
Antarctic Fulmars seemed to be building up in number at least, so much more elegant than their northern counterparts. Two Arctic Terns flew past the stern, having nearly completed their incredible journey from Northern Europe to their winter feeding grounds around Antarctica. After breakfast, back up on monkey island. As the day wore on the wind seemed to increase, the troughs getting bigger. Four Macaroni Penguins passed by in the water on the port side. Midmorning and the shout of 'whale' I raised my bins in time to see a medium size yellow brown back and prominent triangular dorsal fin roll into view just ahead of us. Greenish blotching was apparent but no signs of scarring. The animal crossed our bow just ahead of us, being visible just under the surface but did not rise out to blow again. A presumably male Southern Bottlenose Whale.
Quite a few more Kerguelen Petrels today, including several just across the bows. Vicious little snow squalls raced passed us as we headed on down towards the ice. Just after 15.00, the first ice berg, a tabular type leaning into the sea at 45 degrees on the port side. Angus won the bottle of wine for spotting it. Peter Ryan gave a fascinating lecture on his experiences 15 years ago working on the continent itself, studying a Snow Petrel colony over 100 miles inland. Angus and others had switched to digital photography which really had progressed in terms of quality and flexibility. Nightly sessions on a laptop showed images of incredible detail especially for birds such as prions.
here for the Trip List (seabirds and mammals)