A flying start to the great penguin adventure
Already on the way out through the Beagle Channel, the adventure was in full swing! A large number of seabirds of various kinds followed Ocean Nova out towards the Falkland Islands, and already after the first day at sea, the group's birdwatchers were able to tick off both king and black-browed albatrosses, southern giant petrels, and other species on their species lists.
The first stop on the Falkland Islands, West Point Island, was reached early in the morning. We received a warm welcome on our initial landing from the delightful couple responsible for looking after the island on behalf of its owners. To our great delight, we were served a sumptuous English afternoon tea with scones and seven types of cakes at their farm. All the treats were homemade, following recipes from a well-used copy of the Swedish cookery book "Seven Kinds of Cakes," which the half-Swedish hostess possessed. Some biscuits and hot tea really warmed up the little kitchen in this remote, windswept place!
An unmarked grave covered in spring flowers in the backyard of the farmhouse led the coffee hour conversation to the life story of Swedish-American man Lars-Eric Lindblad. Born in Sweden, he emigrated to America as a young man and later became a successful entrepreneur in the travel industry after launching the concept of expedition cruising - travelling to remote places, aimed at the general public, with exciting landings, hikes and Zodiac cruises. This was something completely new in the 1960s and attracted a lot of interest!
The very first landing on the first expedition cruise in 1968 took place right here on West Point Island with the ship Navarino. When Lindblad passed away in 1994 after a long and successful career, his last wish was to be laid to rest in an unmarked grave covered with the Felton's calandrinia, in this lonely spot in the South Atlantic where it all began.
But there was much more than coffee and stories to focus on this day! During a walk of a few kilometres, we were accompanied by a couple of curiously close specimens of the rare striated caracara which is common on this particular island. We walked over green hills, dotted with bright yellow flowering, coconut-scented common gorse, and finally reached a bird colony on the other side of the island.
There, on the rocky slope, nesting spaces were shared fraternally between numerous rockhopper penguins and black-browed albatrosses. Some neighbors got along well, while others constantly bickered over the space. An albatross glided majestically and seemingly effortlessly down to the cliff. It tenderly greeted its chosen partner by rubbing their beaks together for a long while.
The poor little rockhopper penguins had to work even harder, using their small, hopping steps to climb up and down the high, steep cliff, inch by inch, to reach the water for feeding. However, they also seemed, judging by the cheerful, squeaky sounds, to be happy to see their partners hopping along. "They sound like squeaky wagon wheels!" someone remarked.
We returned to Ocean Nova to digest our impressions and enjoy a good lunch as we headed north-east to our next destination, Saunders Island. There, we faced a challenging afternoon landing in 20 m/s winds and waves crashing against the shore. Until the last moment, it was uncertain whether we would manage to disembark; we received reports that another ship had canceled its landing earlier in the day due to the weather conditions. Some of our guides, dressed in dry suits, went ahead to assess the conditions closer to the beach. The advance team successfully made it ashore and gave the green light for the rest of us.
It got a bit wet, but that was quickly forgotten as we stepped ashore on the long white sandy beach. Already at the water's edge, we were greeted by gentoo penguins going both up and down into the water. Further up the beach, their partners were resting on their small stone nests, patiently awaiting the changing of the guard.
Already after a few hundred metres we reached the other side of the narrow isthmus and were greeted by the sight of an even larger and whiter sandy beach than the one we had landed on. Here even more gentoo penguins waddled around, but in a separate cluster stood a smaller colony of king penguins, both adults and chicks. At this point, the chicks were almost as large as the adults, yet they remained entirely dependent on their parents for survival. This is because, during their second summer of life, they still wore their fluffy brown juvenile plumage, which, unlike the adults', is not waterproof.
"It looks like a dry-cleaned bear!" someone said of the fuzzy brown apparitions, and we laughed at the apt comparison.
At the far end of the beach, a steep cliff rose, plunging down into the sea. High up there, a colony of rockhopper penguins, true to their species name, had chosen to settle.
Further down the grassy slope the ground was perforated with holes, but no penguins were to be seen. It wasn't until we were just about to head back to the Zodiacs that a shy Magellanic penguin suddenly peeked out of its burrow, much to everyone's delight. Then another one, and yet another!
A bit salt-sprayed and wind-ruffled, but very pleased to have had the honor of encountering four different penguin species on the very first day, we returned to our floating home for the next few weeks.
600 miles south of Cape Horn we find the world’s most isolated and remote wilderness – Antarctica. The grand and beautiful Antarctic landscape leaves its visitors in awe. The continent and surrounding islands are home to millions of penguins, seals and whales. Worth mentioning is the subantarctic island of South Georgia, a haven for anyone interested in wildlife and widely regarded as one of the most beautiful places on earth.