Mid-day update. We’ve spent the morning and first part of afternoon at Steeple Jason Island, the final of our stops in the Falklands. Steeple Jason’s notable feature is that it hosts the largest albatross colony in the Southern Hemisphere, and only the colony at Midway is bigger. 113,000 breeding pairs make the island their home, and another 50,000 or so non-breeding individuals will visit during the breeding season. A few penguins live among the albatross and skuas, and striated caracaras make their home here, too, but it’s the albatross colony that’s the highlight.
Breakfast was blueberry pancakes, and the sideboard now includes a sour yoghurt that’s pretty tasty. Lunch was sandwiches on land along with Twix and fruit brought along in the morning. We start boarding the zodiacs around 7:15, and Melinda and I are on shore by 8:15. Ted, the expedition leader, asks everyone to pack lightly today because of the difficulty of the zodiac trip, so my dry bag is pretty light – just the camera and one Nalgene; no extra lens and no second bottle of water. I would have been happier with the 75-200mm zoom but I got plenty of great shots with the lens I did bring. Plus, the lessened weight was appreciated.
Boarding the zodiac is tricky today because there were 1m swells at the ship, and the zodiac and the Ortelius don’t bob up and down in sync. Still, it ends up not so bad – move deliberately, don’t carry too much, accept the help from the crewman or the expedition staff member, and you’ll get in the boat just fine. The landing was among some rocks, not a beach, but the site was well protected from the wind and the water was pretty calm. Scrambling over the rocks without slipping took some care but not a whole lot.
We landed at the edge of a Gentoo colony, but they didn’t seem too concerned by us. We gave them 15’ of berth but made our dry bag pile here. Melinda and I headed off past the colony toward the albatrosses. The best viewing site is about half a mile from the landing site, or less than that, and the final 10 yards is pushing through 6’ tall tussac grasses. The reward is that, at the edge of the tussac, you’re at the edge of the colony, with albatross right there in front of you. We arrived just a few minutes before Jim gives a talk on albatross, so we wait a few moments before pushing through the tall grasses to visit the colony. I climb the top of a tussac mound and can see the birds – scores of thousands of them. Overhead, hundreds are soaring, moving in directions at will without flapping their wings. The noise from the colony is quite loud and sounds like a bee hive; between the sound and the ubiquitous thin black lines in the sky, one for each albatross, it’s like we’re in miniature and we’re observing a hive.
The lecture is brief, we get some questions answered, and we press on through the tussac to the edge of the colony. It’s pretty impressive to be this close to the birds, and for them to apparently not mind. I’m surprised to see when we look out that there’s rockhoppers among the albatross. We’re pretty far from the water and the albatross are _so_ tightly packed that there’s not a lot of room around them. But it’s enough, apparently. The rockhoppers don’t even make nests, they just make a little scrape in the ground, and the albatross pedestal nests are enough protection for them.
We sit here for perhaps an hour, taking a few pictures but mostly just observing. We see many of the big birds giving displays of affection and preening each other and their chicks. We’re under the runway for this neck of the colony and many birds soar just overhead as they land somewhat awkwardly. The rockhopper parents chase after their chicks but there’s no fresh fish coming up just yet, so they mostly just wait and occasionally squabble with each other or with the albatross. We watch one rockhopper improve its nest by moving nesting material from a few feet away to its nest. We see one egg in an albatross nest, but that’s pretty unusual, and perhaps it’s a failed egg – the chicks should have hatched about 10 days ago, and they all tend to hatch, and fledge, about the same time. We’re joined by perhaps 20 other people on the edge of the tussac, cameras pointed at the colony. We drink our fill and head out around 10:30.
The southern giant petrels breeding on the island are especially paranoid about humans this season, so we’ve been asked to avoid the southern lobe of the land, but we’re free to explore much of the rest of the island unfettered. Melinda and I strike out northeast from the viewing spot with a plan to walk around a hill in the saddle of the island. We round and climb it and come up to within 50’ or less of the top but end our ascent because we’re unsure of our footing. This hike would have been much easier with hiking boots rather than knee-high waterproof boots, but we’re satisfied with our achievement. We’re about 400’ above sea level at this point, and the wind howls past us. We get a good look around and begin our descent.
About half-way back to the landing site from the albatross we encounter a small gang of striated caracaras. They were there as we headed out so it’s no surprise to see them here again. They give each other about 15’ of room but they’re all together. As we approach one walks up to the bamboo stake marking our path and takes offense to it. The caracara bites the bamboo, tries to claw it, tries to pull it up with its beak, but nothing is successful. During this endeavor I’ve laid down some 10’ away, and when the caracara tires of the bamboo it spots me and ambles over to me. It gives me a good look over and explores my boot. Does it taste like a dead penguin? It puts a talon on it and tries to take a bite but doesn’t make a mark (good!). It walks a little around me but I sit up, slowly, but just enough to make the caracara understand that I’m not dead yet. It looks at me a little more then ambles toward Melinda, who’s about 10’ feet from me and has sat down. As the caracara approaches Melinda leans back and lets the bird walk around her. Soon another caracara, seeing this exploration, hops down from a nearby rise, chases off the first bird and picks up with the Melinda exploration. I warn Melinda just a few seconds before I think the bird will peck her; the beak is super sharp and I expect it would have hurt quite a bit. She sits up, a little, again just enough to make the bird understand that she’s not a dead hiker. It continues its assessment but eventually walks off and we continue our way. We take lots of photos of the encounter and another passenger shoots some video. Back at the landing site we learn that a caracara took away Ellen’s hat off her head. She said the bird dropped it, but she was unable to find it again.
We cross the Gentoo highway to return to the landing site, and as we’re crossing I see a cloud of dust sweep over the landing site. The highway is dirt without vegetation so the sand and dust kicks up pretty easily. We eat lunch (sandwich and fruit) but decide that it’s time to head back to the ship – the stiff wind (25 knots with gusts to 40?) and the debris it’s kicking up isn’t fun to experience. We’ve had a full day of excursion already – quarter-million albatross, a steep hike, and a close encounter with a caracara – so we call it a day around 1p.
The zodiac ride back is through 1m swell but the wind is less than in the morning (and, the overcast from the morning has cleared to sun in the afternoon, with temperatures easily in the 60s, as it’s been for the past two days). We pause briefly on the outboard trip so Nick can photograph some jellyfish just at the water’s surface, and there’re only three of us returning to the Ortelius – Melinda, me, and R.C., the only Indian on the trip, I believe. We pick up an extra sandwich onboard, leftovers from lunch, and begin a relaxing afternoon. I’ve now taken some pictures of the ship and interior I’d been wanting to take, and we’re recharging and emptying out the small camera for Melinda. I spoke with Oleg, the second officer on the ship, and he told me the history of this vessel. It was built in Poland and used by the Russians to move crew and supplies to oil and gas refineries. Later, it was used to haul automobiles from Japan to Russia. It was converted to carry passengers and used for tourism in Kamchatka (I think that’s what Oleg said…), and now is based in Lima (?) for Antarctic expeditions. It flies under the flag of Cyprus. I didn’t get to ask, but I’ll find him some time to learn when Oleg joined the crew – was it for this use of the Ortelius or for a previous one? I presume the crew is Russian in large part because all the signage is in Russian.
It’s 3:30p and we’re letting time pass now. Dinner’s at 7p, we set sail for South Georgia in 30 minutes, and our next landing will be Saturday. In the interim we’ll have lectures about wildlife and other things during the day. I hope to comb the small library aboard for good books on the sites we’re visiting. We’re learning great things about the wildlife but nothing about the history of the people. Eg, until last night I didn’t know where within the Falklands we’ve been landing (answer: along the western edge of the island group). The library has many good references so I’m hopeful I’ll find something useful there.
5:30 now, and we’re going 25 km/h (sorry, that’s what my phone GPS reports, I don’t know it in knots) toward South Georgia. I’ve spent the past two hours first reading in the library, or attempting to read at any rate. I instead spoke with several guests who were also in the library, some needing computer help (or at least commiseration) and some just for fun. Barbara (Danielsen) is from Phoenix, AZ and Ingrid (Raabe-Kohler) from Austria; they were drawing seabirds in the library. Barbara’s watercolor penguins and seals are fantastic; she painted the penguins, from a book, in order to learn to recognize them in the wild. She mentioned casually that she used salt to get the seal skin effect and rubber mask for the water splash for the penguins; there’s more to water color than I thought. Warren I met in Ushuaia. He’ll be 77 next week and this’ll be his seventh continent. His wife had planned to come but canceled at the last moment with a pinched nerve. So he and his daughter are taking photos and video enough to convince her to come back with them in the future. Warren and his wife and big into ecology – seeing the wildlife, not the people. Sarah (Skerker, from Virginia) is shooting with a Canon 5D mark II and another body, with wide zoom and standard (70-200) zoom lenses (L-series, though). I asked her about using a tripod and her rigor for storing photos from the trip. She’s been a little unhappy about the tripod – she’s always used it in the past but it’s a bother to carry and, with the IS lenses, not really necessary. She shoots everything RAW rather than JPEG, so she needs hundreds of GBs for storage. But she acknowledges that she’s really just taking vacation photos at this point – far better photographers, with far better equipment, are aboard this trip. She bought her new Canon body (not the 5D but the other one, the model of which I didn’t catch) with her paid-out leave when she retired from her job at a school district. Srdjan seemed a little disappointed about his photography excursion but was in good spirits nonetheless. Oh, I also found a big pile of chocolate chip cookies in the library. A success all-around.
It’s still a beautiful day outside, about 60F, so I spent about 20 minutes on the bow 5th deck watching the albatross run-take-off-and-fly out of the ship’s way as we sail in our E-SE direction. The wind is from our stern so the bow is quite still, and because it’s evening, shaded. Many other people were out this afternoon enjoying the great weather. It’ll all change when we cross into the Antarctic waters, of course: much colder conditions and probably overcast and maybe rain for many of the remaining landings. So, enjoying it while we can.
Dinner’s at 7p and there’s a lecture on Shackleton at 8:30. With tomorrow being just a day of travel I’m hoping to catch up on some sleep. But, in truth, waking up at 6a hasn’t been so hard, because we’ve been getting to bed at 10p lately and that’s still 8 hours.
P.S. See Melinda's Google+ post for me and the Caracara.