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Ushuaia ~ 5th January 2023

This is day so many have dreamed about for years, embarkation on a Falklands/South Georgia/Antarctica cruise. After an early start in Buenos Aires, we were transferred to Ezeiza Airport for the nearly 4 hour flight south to Ushuaia in Patagonia. Argentina is a big country. As many say – the land of Meat and Malbec! What a comfort when all guests tested negative for Covid at the Aracur Hotel, and enjoyed a delicious lunch looking out over Ushuaia and the Beagle Channel. Ushuaia means bay facing west, well known for its extremely variable weather and high winds. With roughly 45 000 inhabitants, and growing rapidly, Ushuaia provides the gateway for the vast majority of guests visiting South Georgia and Antarctica. I walked into town to have a decent cup of coffee, and enjoy a chat with Karen on reliable WiFi. Today, being turnaround day for us is chaos. After guests disembark between 8.15 and 9am, we get all sorts of gear off the ship from last cruise, and load similar gear (ordered by guests) for this cruise. Parkas, waterproof trousers, bog boots, back packs and waterbottles are delivered by the Team to each cabin between 1 and 2.30pm. Embarking guests (155 pax) start arriving at 3.30pm

The anticipation of high winds urged the Captain of our luxury vessel Le Lyrial to depart the quayside earlier than planned. His caution was well-founded; within 45 minutes of our departure the winds in Ushuaia were at 35 knots/63kph. Depending on the direction, wind can make leaving the quay extremely difficult.
The energy level and enthusiasm amongst this group of A&K guests is palpable, and infectious. After a warm welcome from Expedition Director Suzana D’Oliveira and Expedition Leader Marco Favero, Cruise Director Paul Carter introduced various aspects of the ship to us. Experienced Expedition Team members hailing from the USA, UK, South Africa, Norway, Tasmania, Canada, Dubai and Brazil introduced themselves. Clearly extremely passionate about Antarctica, and experts in their respective fields. A new woman staff member from Norway is a professional dog musher, and has competed in the Yukon Quest and Iditarod races. I am dying to learn more from her in terms of the intricacies of running 16 dogs (8 pairs), who comfortably pull 400kg. Living in remote Norway, Sylvia is not a regular urban woman.

The mandatory life boat/evacuation drill was carried out according to Maritime Law, guests looking comical in their huge orange life jackets before filing out the Theatre to their respective life boats midships.
We are assured of calm seas en route to the Falkland Islands, as we move with the current and prevailing winds of the Drake Passage. Our ship, Le Lyrial chartered by A&K from French company Ponant, is a sleek, modern, fast, stable platform to use as a beautiful floating hotel for our lengthy cruise as ships do not move quickly in real terms.  We require a good 36 hours to get to the Falkland Islands, where A&K plan to run the first Zodiac operations of this expedition.

At sea en route to Falklands ~ 6th January 2023

” The old man knew he was going far out and he left the smell of the land behind and rowed out into the clean early morning smell of the ocean” – Ernest Hemingway. William Faulkner once said Hemingway had never used a word which sent him to the dictionary. Hemingway responded – Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?

Either way, we have left the smell of the land behind us, and heading out across the clean ocean towards the Falkland Islands, where we plan to enjoy two landings tomorrow.
The early morning stretch class hosted by the dancers was well attended, before guests were given the opportunity to exchange parkas, boots and waterproof trousers for a better fit. Ornithologist Patri Silva gave a passionate talk about Seabirds of the Southern Ocean, creatures she understands intimately. As required by IAATO (International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators), the mandatory briefings were given regarding safe use of Zodiacs, and expected conduct ashore in Falklands/South Georgia and Antarctica. Sir David Attenborough has beautifully narrated the video regarding actions and behaviour in these wilderness areas. Life vests were handed out, amidst excitement that this voyage really is happening. The sea is extremely calm today and we have been making good progress.

The Falklands are 300 miles/480km off the east coast of South America’s Patagonian coast, and 752miles/1210km from the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. As a British Overseas Territory, the Falklands have internal self-governance, but the United Kingdom takes responsibility for their defence and foreign affairs. Controversy exists over the Falklands discovery and subsequent colonisation by Europeans. At various times, French, British, Spanish and Argentinians have settled these islands.

The Falklands War was an undeclared war between Britain and Argentina in 1982, lasting 10 weeks. General Galtieri had conducted a military coup in Argentina, and wanting to take attention off burgeoning issues at home decided to invade the Falklands on 2 April 1982. Argentina has always considered the Falklands to be part of their own territory – Islas Malvinas. On 5 April, the British government dispatched a naval task force to engage the Argentine Navy and Air Force, before making an amphibious assault on the islands. Galtieri conscripted young men scarcely out of school to occupy the Falklands, with woefully inadequate clothing, given the onset of winter. Decent Falklanders often collected these young soldiers in the hills around Stanley, brought them into their homes for a warm dinner and bath, whilst drying their uniforms and taking them back out into the hills. Colonel H Jones whose colleagues always maintained was destined for infamy perished at Goose Green leading the Parachute Battalion against overwhelming odds, earning a posthumous Victoria Cross. San Carlos harbour, with its high surrounding hills, presented all manner of problems for Argentine bombers attacking British naval vessels, which spared many British losses. The ship carrying the British heavy-lift helicopters was sunk, necessitating the help of Falkland farmers with tractors and Land Rovers to move heavy guns and equipment into position. Not easy waging a war 8000 miles from home.. Patriotic sentiment ran high in Argentina, but the unfavourable outcome prompted large protests against the ruling military juncta, hastening its downfall and democratisation of the country. Argentina surrendered after 74 days, on 14 June 1982, after 649 Argentines, 255 British soldiers and 3 Falkland Islanders had perished. The islands continue to operate as a self-governing British Overseas Territory.

This is the 40th anniversary of the conflict, and the Dockyard Museum has a powerful display reminding all of the dire ongoing consequences of this unfortunate conflict. Margaret Thatcher when asked about negotiating with Argentina, she responded that she was happy to on most all matters, EXCEPT sovereignty! Almost all Falklanders voted in favour of remaining a British Overseas Territory in the 2013 sovereignty referendum. Sheep farming is the predominant farming activity producing high quality wool. The Falklands are treeless, and have a wind-resistant vegetation largely composed of dwarf shrubs and Tussock Grass. All the rural area outside of Stanley is known as Camp, and very much enjoyed by the local 3600 inhabitants. Hiking is known as yomping. The once ubiquitous Land Rovers are steadily being replaced by Japanese marques. Sadly many bird species have abandoned breeding on the two main islands due to introduced species, such as Patagonian foxes, dogs, cats, rabbits, rats and reindeer.
Expedition Team member Pete Clement hails from the Falklands and is a font of knowledge about Life on these remote islands, along with being an expert small boat driver and naturalist.

Order of Canada recipient, Nikon Ambassador and Photo Coach Michelle Valberg presented a talk on Creativity and Composition, showing many of her exquisite images. As is so often the case with masters, they make their chosen vocation look and sound very simple. I sensed that everyone in the audience dreams of taking the sort of photos Michelle does. To do so requires knowledge of equipment, patience, understanding of light and exposure, knowledge of subjects’ behaviour, an eye for composition and more patience. Even Michelle’s cell phone images are magnificent. For those interested, Google her work. Only A&K achieve this level of resource for their clients. Extraordinary indeed.

Various Expedition Team members created and presented A Falklands Medley, to give us all some idea of what to expect from the Falklands, before Marco Favero’s briefing regarding tomorrow’s activities. Tonight Captain Julien Duroussy introduced his senior officers to the guests, before a magnificent Gala Dinner in Le Celeste restaurant on Deck 2. Old ship traditions live on, and it was wonderful to watch each course being delivered to the Captain’s table, before other tables were served.

I sat with Rich Pagen and Sylvia (German/Norwegian who has competed in Yukon Quest and Iditarod Sled Dog races), along with Stephanie from the A&K office in Chicago. A wonderful evening filled with laughter. On a very calm sea, with beautiful sunset, we are very much looking forward to landing on Albatross Island in the morning.

West Point Falklands ~ 7th January 2023

Early this morning, we dropped anchor off West Point Island, on the north-western corner of the Falklands archipelago. The dramatic west-facing cliffs are the highest in the Falklands, with Cliff Mountain rising to 381 meters (1250 feet). Shaped rather like a sand dune with a gentle eastern slope, climbing gradually to high, dramatic western drop-offs and cliffs. Empty, windswept landscapes, in stark contrast to landing in Stanley itself. As we approached the landing site we saw Magellanic Penguins, Steamer Ducks, Patagonian Crested Ducks, Upland and Kelp Geese, Ruddy-headed Geese, Oystercatchers, Striated Caricaras, Austral Thrushes and Turkey Vultures. A completely renovated shearing shed bears the date 1879 above the door. Seminal year for me given Anglo-Zulu War!

Thiess and Kiki greeted us warmly, and assisted those unable to make the 1,5 mile walk to the Albatross and Penguin colonies with a lift in Land Rovers. Unusually experienced sailors who have based themselves for some years in the Falklands, as a jumping off point for sailing trips to South Georgia. Thiess sold many guests their beautiful coffee table book on South Georgia and Antarctica.
On the west-facing cliff tops of the island, Black-browed Albatrosses and Rockhopper Penguins share space to raise their young. A scene too beautiful really to describe, looking out over the ocean, with seabirds riding the winds. The Albatrosses have an elaborate beak-clicking greeting, their eggs or chicks on raised nests, the Penguin chicks in creches. Kiki had prepared a sumptuous tea with various eats back at the farmhouse, for all to enjoy in the private garden. We noted the windbreaks created by vegetation, and were told of the violent storms over the past week. Today’s weather is magnificent, blue skies, balmy temperatures and no wind to speak of.

Le Lyrial repositioned over lunchtime, to Grave Cove. The grim name is believed to be for sealers who are buried in remote graves in this sheltered bay. The Zodiacs were not hoisted back onto the ship, but simply driven over to Grave Cove, since time is of the essence. This week’s storms have left much seaweed and kelp along the shoreline. We need to be gone by 4pm, in order to cover the 900NM (1620km) to South Georgia over the next 60 hours (around 15 knots required on average). The land owner at Grave Cove kindly gave the guests some history of the land and their tenure (also sailors), and the birdlife was prolific. Two Gentoo Penguin colonies fascinated our excited guests, who cannot believe their first day on this extraordinary A&K adventure.
I hosted dinner, before introducing the movie Endurance about Shackleton’s ill-fated expedition. Having been out most of the day, bed is calling. WiFi very intermittent so hoping this will go. Good night readers.

At Sea ~ 8th January 2023

It is often suggested that irrespective of its mood, the ocean is always beautiful… Certainly we have been sailing a very calm, benign, beautiful ocean since leaving Ushuaia. Last night after dinner the movie Endurance depicting Shackleton’s incredible survival story was shown, introduced by myself. Despite the very busy day yesterday in the Falklands, with plenty of walking, the show was well attended.

Welsh Geologist Jason Hicks, who now calls Denver, Colorado home, delivered a beautiful presentation on the break-up of Gondwanaland and how the Continents were formed, in his own quite inimitable style. Clearly Jason was considered when the word eccentric was created. Canadian Marine Mammals lecturer Pierre Richard was up next, speaking about the seals of the regions we are visiting. Much humour was created by his “their nast are bitey”, rather than their bites are nasty when referring to Fur Seals. Pierre’s home language is French.

Today is Photographer Michelle Valberg’s birthday. Michelle hails from Ottawa, Canada. During the afternoon, all guests and staff going ashore in South Georgia, cleaned their boots, backpacks and outer clothing layers, to comply with strict Biosecurity regulations. We do not want to bring any alien species onto South Georgia. Pockets, zips, velcro and boot soles requiring particular attention. Rich Pagen and I were frantically scrubbing boots with Virkon solution on rear deck, whilst Russ Manning prised out of the treads any organic matter. The queue eventually became so long, that we asked for reinforcements, which thankfully appeared quickly in the form of Marco Favero and Pete Clement. A jovial atmosphere as guests are very excited to get to South Georgia.

An all chocolate tea was served, whilst Carlos and Alberto provided the music. The afternoon enrichment lectures provided information regarding photography on South Georgia, and penguins. Most guests heading south want to know about penguins and whales, before any other subject. History is probably last on the list. Of course, much of the appeal to any of the bird lectures is A&K’s extraordinary Ornithologist Patri Silva. Patri was born and raised in Uruguay. The humour and inflection she brings to her lectures, never mind her encyclopaedic knowledge, is legendary.

It is Sunday at sea, so my blog may be longer than usual, after A&K asked me to reduce my blogs by 50-70%. Read as much or as little as you wish to. This season is so starkly different to my Alaskan experience last year. Feeling wanted, appreciated and respected makes such a difference, along with being part of an experienced team of wonderful people. The crew onboard per se’ are probably the nicest we have ever worked with, making Life here a pleasure. When one works for other companies on other ships, the differences are glaring. From the speed with which Zodiacs are deployed and retrieved, Zodiac embarkation, but most importantly a Captain, Suzana and Marco who are always looking for ways to DO things, rather than reasons to cancel activities. A&K run a magnificent operation, and take fantastic care of their staff.
Westward towards South Georgia ~ 9th January 2023

Thankfully our voyage westward towards South Georgia, continues on very calm seas. During the morning we enjoyed lectures on getting more out of our cameras, and how Roald Amundsen was first to reach the South Pole on 14 December 1911.

During the afternoon, we passed Shag Rocks. A tiny fragment of the Andes which was left out in the middle of the ocean when the continents drifted apart, around 140MYA. Fin Whales were seen about the ship, along with hundreds of Antarctic Prions and Imperial Shags, hence the name of this cluster of rocks. Most guests were intrigued at Photo Coach Richard Harker’s advice on shooting with an iPhone, learning just what their phones are capable of, and how best to use them on South Georgia.

In place of Recaps tonight, we watched a beautiful video narrated by Sir David Attenborough, regarding guidelines and behavioural expectations for guests visiting South Georgia. The footage is magnificent, accentuating excitement to get to this remote, magical place. South Georgia is the most spectacular and mountainous of all the Sub-Antarctic islands. Unfortunately the video builds expectations unusually high in terms of what guests now anticipate seeing on South Georgia. Anybody visiting Antarctica would be strongly advised to choose an itinerary which includes South Georgia. The scenic beauty and wildlife concentrations beggar belief.

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