Falkland Islands, South Georgia, and Antarctica with Quark Expeditions
As I return to a world filled with talk of social isolation, madness, and quarantine, I find peace and happiness looking through pictures of such an incredible journey. Although the Antarctic polar region is somewhat isolated itself, this trip was exactly the opposite.
I set out on this journey as a solo traveler, but never felt alone. I met incredible people who felt more like family, enjoyed breathtaking views, and ate wayyy more food than I ever could have imagined.
There are so many parts of this trip to discuss, but I’ll start with the places we visited.
Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas)
West Point Island
After spending a few days at sea, we landed at our first destination, West Point Island. This small island is home to the Black-browed Albatross and Rockhopper penguins. A quick zodiac cruise to shore and hike to Devil’s Nose revealed beautiful cliffs and our first wildlife experience! The stop wouldn’t have been complete without a stop for tea and snacks. Allen and Jacquie spent over 20 hours making all this food for us!
Not far from West Point is a beautiful island named for the HMS Carcass. Here we were treated to another opportunity to stretch our legs, and a short walk to Leopard Beach allowed us to see both Gentoo and Magellanic penguins. Other birdlife is plentiful as well, including the Cobb’s wren, Striated Caracara, and Ruddy-headed goose. A moderate hike to the top of the hill provides beautiful panoramic views.
Stanley is both the capital of the Falkland Islands and the most populated area. While strolling along the seafront, there is plenty to see and do. From the whalebone arch at the Catholic church to the Dockyard Museum, giftshops a-plenty, and pubs with local beer, a stop in Stanley is a can’t miss!
St. Andrew’s Bay
St. Andrew’s Bay is home to one of the largest King Penguin colonies in South Georgia—there are estimated to be more than 200,000 mating pairs! To get to the main colony, you must cross a glacial stream, which can be difficult, but the views are worth it. Even if you choose not to pass, there are plenty of penguins stretched out along the beach, and there are also fur and elephant seals littering the beach. If you visit in March, the teenage fur seals are curious, so watch out!
Salisbury Plain is South Georgia’s second-largest King Penguin colony. As we arrived, we were greeted by hundreds of King Penguins surrounding the ship playing and porpoising in the waters below. A zodiac cruise through the rocks had us laughing at the playful fur seals. Because they were moving so fast, it was difficult to take pictures. The landing area is an impressive stretch of green below the Grace and Lucas glaciers. We were surprised to see a number of fluffy, brown babies mixed in among the colony.
Hercules Bay was our first opportunity to see Macaroni penguins! And . . . because of some excellent navigating by our captain, we got our first chance to kayak! Steep mountain walls surround the bay with a waterfall at its back. Because I wanted to experience this amazing area from the kayak unencumbered, I left my camera on the ship. We were a little traumatized when we watched a penguin fall over the edge of the waterfall and plummeted into the waters below (rumor is he hopped up and shook it off. Let’s hope!).
Unsurprisingly, the Ernest Shackelton expedition was a common theme of our voyage and our stop in Stromness Bay was no exception. Despite a whaling history shrouded in despair, the bay was a welcome site to Ernest Shackelton after the hardships he faced in the Weddell Sea. We exited the ship in strong winds and marched our way to the waterfall descended by Shackelton and his men.
Upon our return to the beach, we gazed upon various, decaying whaling machinery. The equipment has not been well maintained, and visitors are required to stay at least 200 meters away.
Grytviken is the sight of the largest whaling station in South Georgia and Ernest Shackelton’s grave. Unlike Stromness, however, Grytviken has become a heritage site to educate people about the horrors of whaling and the wildlife of South Georgia. After a toast to Shackelton’s adventurous spirit, I made my way over to the post office as well as the gift shop and museum, dodging curious fur seal pups along the way.
The buildings covering the old whaling equipment have been removed, and the area cleaned up for safety, but history tours are given by the museum curator. Don’t forget to mail a postcard to a loved one before sailing off . . . they might get it in a few months!
Although the weather prevented us from the beauty of Gold Harbour days before, our expedition leader thought it was worth a second attempt. I’ll admit that despite the burning smell of elephant seals, watching the fog rise and rays of sun lighting up Bertrab Glacier was a highlight of the trip. Unlike our other stops, the King Penguin colony at Gold Harbour lives along the beach. Mixed in among them are plenty of young fur seals, elephant seals, and the occasional Gentoo. After a quick breakfast, our second visit to Gold Harbour provided us a rare opportunity to kayak around the headlands surrounding the bay.
After leaving the allure of Gold Harbour, Cooper Bay provided a second chance at kayaking. Although I was severely underdressed (the winds picked up and the temperature dropped), the wildlife and rocky coastline at Cooper Bay didn’t disappoint. We weaved through the rocks catching sight of FOUR different types of penguins, including Macaroni and Chinstraps, as well as multiple bird species, and an abundance of fur seals.
Our captain gifted us with an opportunity to sail Drygalski Fjord as we rounded the southern end of South Georgia and made our way toward the seventh continent.
A68-a is a massive piece of ice that broke off the Larsen C ice shelf in 2017. Since then, it has slowly turned and churned through the icy Antarctic waters on its way north. For a mere few weeks, this chunk of ice measuring about 5800 square kilometers was in the perfect position to be seen by expedition ships making their way to the peninsula.
On a cold, windy afternoon with luck on our side, the World Explorer caught sight of A68-a as it came over the horizon; however, we had been seeing the iceblink for hours. (Iceblink is the glare that can be seen on the underside of clouds as it reflects off a large piece of ice below.)
As we approached, the wind calmed, and a quiet stillness persisted—still enough, for the captain to anchor the ship and allow us to explore! For the first time (and only time considering it was the end of the season) since A68-a broke off, it was in a perfect position with ideal weather to allow an expedition. And a kayaking outing as a bonus!
While Paulet Island is home to around 100,000 breeding pairs of Adelie penguins, we were a little late in the season to experience them. There were a few leftover, luckily.
But what Paulet Island lacked in penguins, it gave back in good weather, beauty, history, and cormorants! We were able to nearly circumnavigate the island in sea kayaks, paddling through turquoise waters and small amounts of brash ice. Multiple Fur, Crabeater, and Weddell seals could be seen relaxing among the rocks.
Besides wildlife, though, Paulet Island is also well-known for the remnants of a small hut and grave, which remains from the wreck of Swedish explorer Otto Nordenskiöld’s ship, Antarctic, off the coast in 1903.
A narrow channel lined on both sides by snowcapped mountains and glacier fronts, Graham Passage, was a fantastic way to start our morning. We paddled slowly through brash ice, admiring the scenery as we passed through. Alas, a radio call for whales! We raced to join the zodiacs in a cove abutting the mainland just in time to see several Humpback whale blows and tails. Wow! What a view!
Finally! The Antarctic mainland! Portal Point was our access point to land. Once the home of a British refuge hut, which can be seen at the museum in Stanley, Portal Point gently slopes upward from the rocky landing allowing safe access to the peninsula. The bay is full of icebergs grounded long ago.
A zodiac cruise after the landing provided an incredible Humpback whale watching experience. We were surrounded by whales everywhere!
Enterprise Island/Foyn Harbour
On our last morning in Antarctica, we awoke to a gently falling snow, but we wouldn’t let that stop us from a day of adventure. (I had hoped we would see snow!) This stop had everything: from the wreck of the Governoren, a factory whaling ship, to beautiful scenery and wildlife, this stop was another of my favorites.
At the end of the excursion, we warmed up just to polar plunge into the icy waters.
Our last stop, Cuverville Island, is home to approximately 6,500 breeding pairs of Gentoo penguins. This late in the season, it is entertaining to watch the nearly grown chicks chasing their parents for food. The surrounding waters are teeming with whales and seals. Icebergs, in unbelievable shades of blue, are everywhere. If you’re lucky, you may even see a few Chinstrap penguins.
We finished the night enjoying a BBQ on the top deck while watching the sunset on Antarctica.
After the BBQ, we were called to the auditorium for a mandatory update. Unfortunately, the threat of COVID-19 was shutting down the borders of Argentina, and we needed to return early. This would give us a small chance to make it home before all flights to the US and many other countries were canceled.
** As I mentioned above, while kayaking, I left my cameras on the boat in order to enjoy the experience. For this reason, I don’t have any pictures of a few of the places we visited. There was a photographer taking photos, however, and someday I may update this. Heh.