Antarctica is surely the ultimate destination! The scenic settings are as magnificent as any on earth, and the scale of nearly everything is grand to say the least. Complimenting these astounding vistas are vast colonies of majestic penguins, brash skuas, giant petrels, weird sheathbills, somnolent seals and feeding whales that all add life to the region’s stark and amazing beauty. Our birding cruise traverses some of the most interesting areas in the Southern Ocean; notably the Falkland and South Georgia Islands, both of which are renowned as among the richest of all Subantarctic islands. South Georgia’s rugged beauty is worthy of Antarctica itself, while the Falkland Islands are better known as the battlegrounds for the 1982 Anglo-Argentine War. Several days are spent at sea, cruising from one island group to the next until we find ourselves at the very tip of the icy continent itself. These crossings provide thrilling pelagic birding, with huge numbers of albatrosses, petrels, prions, skuas and other seabirds making a daily appearance. Cetaceans are also regular, ranging from the largest whales to the striking Hourglass and Commerson’s Dolphins. This journey to Antarctica is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience and cannot come more highly recommended!
King, Emperor, Gentoo, Adelie, Chinstrap, Southern Rockhopper, Macaroni & Magellanic Penguins; Flying, Fuegian & Falkland Steamer Ducks; Upland, Kelp & Ruddy-headed Goose; Yellow-billed Pintail; Wandering, Southern Royal, Northern Royal, Light-mantled, Black-browed & Grey-headed Albatrosses; Wilson’s, Grey-backed & Black-bellied Storm Petrels; Southern & Northern Giant Petrels; Southern Fulmar; Antarctic, Cape, Snow, Blue, White-headed, White-chinned, Kerguelen & Great-winged Petrels; Antarctic, Slender-billed & Fairy Prions; Sooty & Great Shearwaters; Magellanic, South Georgia & Common Diving Petrels; Rock, Imperial, South Georgia & Antarctic Shags; Snowy Sheathbill; Magellanic & Blackish Oystercatchers; Two-banded & Rufous-chested Plovers; Dolphin Gull; Chilean, South Polar & Brown Skuas; Striated Caracara; Blackish Cinclodes; Dark-faced Ground Tyrant; Grass & Cobb’s Wren; Austral Thrush; Correndera & South Georgia Pipits; Black-chinned Siskin; Long-tailed Meadowlark; White-bridled & Black-throated Finches.
South American & Antarctic Fur Seals; South American Sea Lion; Leopard, Weddell, Crabeater & Southern Elephant Seals; Burmeister’s Porpoise; Southern Bottlenose, Long-finned Pilot, Killer, Antarctic Minke, Sei, Fin & Humpback Whales; Peale’s, Hourglass & Commerson’s Dolphins.
coastal and pelagic waters, sub-Antarctic islands & Antarctic Peninsula, pack ice
temperate to subzero, sunny and calm to gale force conditions can be expected
easy pace, mostly undemanding walks
spectacular sub-Antarctic scenery, the most remote continent, icebergs and pack ice, nesting albatrosses, vast penguin colonies
Day 1: Arrival in Ushuaia, boarding ship and departure
This afternoon, we board our ship and begin our journey eastwards toward the Falkland Islands. As we leave the scenic harbour of the world’s most southern city, we enter the famous Beagle Channel. Forming the boundary between Argentina and Chile, we will have rugged cliffs and islands on either side of us and our birding will begin in earnest! We will look out for both Flying and the flightless Fuegian Steamer Ducks, Upland Goose, Great Grebe, Rock and Imperial Shags, Dolphin Gull, Chilean Skua and South American Tern. Even the mighty Andean Condor has been seen here on previous Rockjumper cruises. We may well encounter our debut penguins in the form of Magellanic; but once we enter the open ocean, we will begin our lessons in pelagic bird identification. Here we will meet the first of many Black-browed Albatross, Cape and White-chinned Petrels, Southern Giant Petrel and Sooty Shearwater, and we will also keep alert for Magellanic Diving Petrel as we enjoy our first watery sunset.
Day 2: At sea northeast toward Falkland Islands
We’ll watch for seabirds and marine mammals from the bridge and the stern, where albatrosses and giant petrels should be following our ship.
Spectacular Wandering Albatrosses should make their first appearances, along with Grey-headed and Black-browed Albatrosses, White-chinned Petrel, Great Shearwater and Slender-billed Prion. Wilson’s Storm Petrel is abundant, and we will scour the masses for the rarer Black-bellied and Grey-backed Storm Petrels. While sorting out the Northern Giant Petrels from the Southern species, we will also become familiar with all the commoner petrels in order to notice any rarities that may appear. Dusky and the localised Peale’s Dolphin may put in an appearance; and if we are lucky, we might be treated to a sighting of the rare Dwarf Minke Whale, one of the many possible mammal prizes of this adventure. In addition, information-packed, onboard lectures will serve as entertainment during some of the crossings.
Day 3: Falkland Islands, with planned landings at West Point and Carcass Islands
This morning on our birding cruise, we will wake up in the Falkland Islands! Whilst in these waters, we will hope for Atlantic Yellow-nosed and Sooty Albatrosses and Atlantic Petrel, three species typical of this more temperate ocean. We will spend the entire day on the fascinating western side of the archipelago. Our first stop will likely be West Point Island, with its vast rookeries of Southern (Western) Rockhopper Penguin; while South American Sea Lion, South American Fur Seal and Peale’s and noisy Commerson’s Dolphins are likely in the surrounding waters (the latter known locally as “Puffing Pigs” due to their load huffing noises). Blackish Cinclodes should be waiting for us at the dock as we land, and here we usually also find a nesting pair of Blackish Oystercatcher and a pair of Falkland Steamer Ducks. Other birds occurring here include Austral Thrush, Dark-faced Ground Tyrant, Black-chinned Siskin and Long-tailed Meadowlark. We will also carefully scan flocks of geese to find the rare Ruddy-headed Goose. We should come across confiding Striated Caracaras on the lovely hike to a Black-browed Albatross colony, the main objective for this morning. Here we will soak up the beauty of the spectacular wildlife on view; thousands of Black-browed Albatrosses nesting on a magnificent cliff; pairs in display and a continuous stream of individuals landing and taking off, all at touching distance – a truly incredible sight! As if that isn’t enough, entertaining Southern Rockhopper Penguins also nest among the albatrosses.
After lunch back on board, we plan to proceed to the pristine Carcass Island, which supports the highest diversity and abundance of land and waterbirds in the Falklands. Our explorations here will seek out Magellanic and Gentoo Penguins, Rock and Imperial Shags, the lovely Dolphin Gull, the aptly-named Kelp Goose that forages in the beds of giant kelp, Correndera Pipit, the lovely White-bridled Finch, Grass Wren and the endemic Cobb’s Wren, amongst other species. The approachability of these birds is remarkable, and superb photographic opportunities can be expected. In the late afternoon, we will steam towards Stanley.
Day 4: Stanley, Falkland Islands
The roughly 2,000 people inhabiting the historic town of Stanley represent about 80% of the population of the entire Falkland Islands. Our visit will give perspective on the history of British settlement of the islands, plus the 1982 Anglo-Argentine War in which Argentinean forces invaded but were subsequently defeated and expelled by the British. We will explore various birding sites in the vicinity, and besides looking for species we may already have seen, such as the endemic Falkland Steamer Duck, White-bridled Finch and Black-chinned Siskin, we will try find additions to our list. These may include Two-banded and the attractive Rufous-chested Plover, Brown-hooded Gull and South American Snipe. Time will also be available to explore the museums, shipwrecks, historical trails and shops of Stanley. In the afternoon, we begin our multi-day birding cruise to dramatic South Georgia.
Days 5 & 6: At sea between Falkland Islands and South Georgia
For the seabird enthusiast, these are some of the most exciting waters in the world. As we cruise from the Falklands to South Georgia, we cross the Antarctic Convergence, where the warmer, saline water from the north meets the colder and less salty Antarctic water. This is a very rich feeding ground for seabirds and marine mammals, attracting large volumes of wildlife from distant breeding islands and waters. Though the Convergence attracts birds from both north and south, we will notice a shift of species and relative numbers between the waters on either side of the Convergence. Albatrosses and petrels will predominate here. In addition to the species already noted, we are likely to see Royal Albatross (usually both the Northern and Southern species are observed), Light-mantled Albatross (arguably the most attractive of all albatross), Southern Fulmar, both Northern and Southern Giant Petrels, Soft-plumaged, White-headed and Blue Petrels, Antarctic Prion, Grey-backed and Black-bellied Storm Petrels and Common Diving Petrel. We will also look for rarer prizes, such as Kerguelen, Grey and Great-winged Petrels, and albatrosses from the other side of the Subantarctic.
Days 7 to 9: South Georgia islands with planned landings at Salisbury Plain, St Andrew’s, Fortuna and Stromness Bays, Gold Harbour, Prion Island and Grytviken
As we approach South Georgia, the marine avifauna is dominated increasingly by the species breeding there. Given the enormous numbers of seabirds nesting on South Georgia and its surrounding islets, this is not surprising. Although this island lies south of the Antarctic Convergence, its waters don’t freeze in winter, meaning it can support life throughout the year. As a result, vast numbers of birds and pinnipeds live here year round – over 500,000 pairs of King Penguins call this island home, and walking through their packed colonies is without a doubt one of the single greatest wildlife experiences on the planet. In fact, the area around Salisbury Plain is believed to have the highest density of wildlife of anywhere on Earth!
We have three full days of our birding cruise to explore this mountainous, glaciated island. So stark, but home to such mind-bogglingly abundant and exciting wildlife. All landings will be weather permitting, but we will make every effort to explore the Salisbury Plain, where beyond the black sand beach, lies one of the world’s largest King Penguin colonies. In addition, we plan a landing at St Andrew’s Bay, where an even bigger King Penguin colony exists. Nearby is also the breeding grounds for Light-mantled Albatross, White-chinned Petrel, Snowy Sheathbill, Brown Skua and Antarctic Tern.
The beaches heave with South American Fur Seal, but one of our special targets of this early season voyage will be to watch enormous Southern Elephant Seal beachmasters battling for supremacy. These enormous animals, the largest species in the order Carnivora, reach weights of up to 4,000 kg (8,800 lb) and lengths of 5.8 m (19 ft). Their large proboscis, which gives them their name, allows them to roar extraordinarily loudly. This, combined with their fierce fighting, result in an incredible spectacle to experience.
We also plan to visit Grytviken, the the whaling station where the largest individual animal known to have lived on earth, a huge Blue Whale specimen, was butchered. Here we will visit the South Georgia Museum, remnants of the whaling station and the grave of the famed Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton. Of course, birds and pinnipeds are also resident, and photographic opportunities will be breathtaking throughout (Please bear in mind, that throughout Antarctica and the Subantarctic, landings are subject to the weather conditions; alternatives are usually available when winds and surf are unfavourable at a planned site).
Other birds we seek during these three unforgettable days of our birding cruise include South Georgia Diving Petrel, the endemic South Georgia Shag, inquisitive Snowy Seathbills, the Subantarctic race of Brown Skua and Antarctic Tern. The endemic South Georgia Pipit, the world’s most southern passerine, was completely restricted to small offshore islands, but great news is that it has now expanded due to the eradication of rats from South Georgia, and is now far more easily located than before. Over 3 million pairs of Macaroni Penguin breed on the island, but are nowhere near as obvious as the Kings, but we will no doubt encounter them. Another target is the “South Georgia” Yellow-billed Pintail, a strange race of this more widespread species which is known to be carnivorous here on South Georgia.
Our final day on spectacular South Georgia features some of the most dazzling scenery yet, especially around the south-east tip of the island; while the stunning Drygalski Fjord is framed by sharp, non-glaciated mountain peaks. For photographers, this day offers some truly spectacular photographic opportunities and seabirding will be at its very best as we depart from South Georgia. In particular we will look out for our first pure-white Snow Petrels, as well as South Georgia Diving Petrels and most of the species already mentioned, but in particular Kerguelen Petrels.
Days 10 to 12: At sea towards Antarctica and possibly Elephant Island
Weather and ice will dictate our crossing of the Scotia Sea from South Georgia to Antarctica, leading us perhaps to Elephant Island. As with all of our itinerary planning, our expedition leader and captain will make a decision based on the conditions at the time, also bearing in mind our plan to try access the Weddell Sea.
As we cruise south-west towards Antarctica, we cross increasingly polar waters. More temperate species disappear; while the true Antarctic species become more prominent, but total numbers and diversity will drop. Our informative onboard lectures will continue to provide breaks from the hours of watching seabirds, whales, dolphins and icebergs. At some point, we will encounter sea-ice, and it is at the ice-edge where we increase our chances for high-Antarctic species, such as Snow Petrel, Chinstrap Penguin and the predatory Leopard Seal. We will keep our eyes peeled to pick out the sought-after Antarctic Petrel in and amongst sometimes vast flocks of Cape Petrel.
As we edge ever closer to the frozen continent, large icebergs announce our arrival in Antarctic waters. If conditions allow, we will hope to see the dark cliffs of Elephant Island appear on the horizon. Shackleton and his men were encamped here for many months, having lost HMS Endurance in the thick sea ice, far to the south in the Weddell Sea, in 1915. From the desolate beach at Point Wild, Shackleton and six companions set off on the rescue mission to South Georgia, aboard the tiny lifeboat, James Caird. To this day, the epic ocean crossing is considered one of the greatest in history. If conditions and time allow, we will attempt a landing at Point Wild on Elephant Island.
Brown Skua and Southern Giant, Cape, Snow and Wilson’s Storm Petrels should entertain us in this region, and cetaceans might include Sei Whale and Hourglass Dolphin.
Days 13 to 16: The Antarctic Sound, Weddell Sea, South Shetland Islands and the Antarctic Peninsula.
On the morning of day 13, we hope to wake up in the Antarctic Sound, a channel between the north-eastern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula and Joinville Island. Here we will encounter awe-inspiring tabular icebergs, large fragments of the vast Weddell Ice Shelf, and the ice shelves along the east side of the Antarctic Peninsula. At this time of year, we stand a very reasonable chance to find the holy grail of Antarctica, the Emperor Penguin. This highly sought-after true denizen on the Antarctic, famed for its ability to nest through the hard polar winter, is only guaranteed on exceedingly expensive fly-in tours to their colonies. However, we will head as far south through the Antarctic Sound into the Weddell Sea as ice conditions will allow. Each mile southwards towards the Emperor colony on Snow Hill Island will improve our chances of finding one of these incredible birds resting on the ice.
We may take our first landing at Paulet Island, a tiny island boasting a huge colony of beautiful Adelie Penguins. Whilst we enjoy these delightful creatures, we will also be entertained by more Snowy Sheathbill, Brown Skua and a nearby colony of Antarctic Shag, a very beautiful cormorant. Our first steps on the Antarctic continent itself may be at Brown Bluff, where we will be treated to spectacular scenery, colonies of Gentoo and Adelie Penguins, and possibly even nesting Snow Petrels, for those willing to partake of a hike. Mammals in this region include Leopard Seal and its favourite prey, Weddell and Crabeater Seals, as well as Antarctic Minke Whale and pods of Orca.
Next, we will head north again, and around 60 miles off the coast of the Antarctic mainland, we find the South Shetland Island chain. Possible landing sites could include Half Moon Island or King George Island, and dazzling wildlife sightings await us on our excursions to these islands. Weather conditions permitting, we will sail the ship into the flooded volcanic caldera of Deception Island. With rugged scenery, great sites of geologic interest and an overwhelming display of whaling and scientific exploration history, Deception Island is a perfect museum of natural and exploration history. For those wanting to stretch their legs, a spectacular hike to the crater rim offers a challenge! At one or more of these landings, we can expect to find the delicately-patterned Chinstrap Penguin, which however emits a yowl that is far from a pleasant! We will also add another new bird to our list: South Polar Skua, which occurs in smaller numbers than Brown Skuas.
Later, we will zigzag back through the Bransfield Strait heading south-westwards towards Mikkelsen Harbour and Cierva Cove. In this area, we will enjoy zodiac excursions through the pack ice, marvelling at the myriad of shapes and colours of these ancient formations. Here we may even be lucky enough to encounter another Emperor Penguin, as we did during our 2016 cruise. Although we are unlikely to get many new additions to our list, we will have plenty photo opportunities and time to experience the scenery and wildlife of this amazing region. We again plan to make landings on the Antarctic continent. The scenery here, from the colossal icebergs to the seemingly endless Antarctic ice-sheet with distant high mountains, is truly breathtaking.
Later, we sail past or maybe even land on the Orne Islands with its large colonies of Chinstrap Penguin and a beautiful view across the Gerlache Strait to Cuverville Island – a small precipitous island nestled between the mountains of the Antarctic Peninsula. Cuverville Island is home to the region’s largest Gentoo Penguin colony and most of the region’s breeding bird species. Such penguin colonies and their inevitable attendants are frequent highlights. Here, again, we can explore by zodiac, join our photographic guides for close-up penguin photography, hike to the top of a snowy mountain saddle with one of our adventure guides, and possibly visit a science base or an old historic hut if the opportunity presents itself. For the more adventurous, kayaking* up to several miles from the ship is an option for a truly memorable experience.
*Sea kayaking – Please note, if you have some experience with sea kayaking and are interested in doing this activity during the expedition, you will need to book this option prior to departure from home (sea kayaking price is extra and is not included in the tour cost). We cannot book this activity once onboard. There is a separate document for sea kayakers that you will need to review beforehand. It’s also important you have some prior paddling experience. If you are unsure, please contact our office for further information.
Days 17 & 18: At sea in the Drake Passage
Sadly, we will bid farewell to this frozen wonderland and head north through the famous Drake Passage between Antarctica and Tierra del Fuego. With another crossing of the Antarctic Convergence, we will again have many opportunities to enjoy and study the region’s rich seabirds and cetaceans. While encountering the pelagic seabirds of the Subantarctic Southern Ocean, especially the now-familiar albatrosses and petrels, we will examine each bird in search of rarer species – perhaps a Westland Petrel, Subantarctic Shearwater, or one of the Shy Albatross complex of species will put in an appearance. We will also keep our eyes peeled for breaching whales and bow-riding dolphins. Lectures continue to provide entertaining diversions and educational information; while on our last night, we will toast the conclusion of our amazing venture with a celebratory dinner.
Day 19: Return to Ushuaia and disembarkation
Today, we cruise into the Beagle Channel and land at Ushuaia in the early morning. This provides another chance to see sea and land birds of Tierra del Fuego, before bidding farewell to the fellow travellers with whom we have shared this remarkable voyage of a lifetime.