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An Antarctic Expedition: Volume I

Chile-bound for the adventure of a lifetime

Hey friends, it has been a loooong time since I posted anything on my blog and the main reason being is that the past six months or so have been incredibly busy! I left the UK in December last year and have pretty much been on the go ever since! Now I've got a brief interlude in my schedule, I thought I'd finally write down some of my amazing experiences during my time down in the deep South... because they need to be shared!! So I'll get stuck into it straight away. Just before Christmas last year, I embarked on what can only be described as the adventure of a lifetime. I flew down to Punta Arenas in Chile to set sail towards the Southern Ocean… and that can only mean one thing, right? I was heading for the white continent of Antarctica!

Before I could even think about the prospect of what was to come, I had to catch four flights before reaching the tip of South America. Prior to December, I’d never been on a long-haul flight before so I was a little apprehensive and not sure what to expect. Overall, the long-hauls weren't a horrendous experience, but I've definitely don't enjoy them. A good book, noise-cancelling headphones and snacks are essential (I learned the hard way!).

Flying over the Andes and landing in Santiago de Chile, Nina Herbert, 2022.

Embarkation day soon came around after what felt like 72 hours of flying and I embarked on MS Fram, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, early the following morning. She's a beautiful ship, 114m and purpose-built for expedition cruising, aptly named after Fridtjof Nansen's polar explorer ship 'Fram' (meaning 'Forward'). After some brief introductions between the expedition team, it was straight to work, and soon we would set sail on our extraordinary adventure.


Touchdown (feet only!) on the Falklands

Our first landing after leaving Punta Arenas was New Island on the Falkland Islands. This was the first of many tender boat landings to come across the season. The expedition team were on standby early in the morning, geared up in layers and life jackets, loading the tender boats with landing equipment which was taken ashore during each visit. The landing gear consisted mainly of shelters, water, rations, blankets etc. and was essential when visiting remote regions like the Falklands, South Georgia and Antarctica.

View of MS Fram from New Island, Falkland Islands. Nina Herbert, 2022.

New Island is one of the most beautiful islands within the Falklands archipelago and has a diverse range of wildlife. The team and I hopped into the zodiacs and zoomed to shore, heading to a sheltered little cove called Coffin’s Harbour, which was to be our first landing site. I remember being taken aback by how clear the water was; it was a shimmering turquoise colour and the sun’s rays were dancing idly on the surface. It was only a short journey to shore from where MS Fram was anchored, but it was exciting and the breeze gently whipped up around my face. I even put my sunglasses on! En route to shore, we passed a shipwreck which I later found out was the remnants of the Protector III, a sealing vessel originally built in Nova Scotia in 1942. It has been beached in the harbour since 1969.

Me standing in front of the shipwrecked Protector III, an old sealing vessel. Nina Herbert, New Island, Falkland Islands, 2022.

New Island had a quaint little museum (Barnard Memorial Museum) situated by the beach and was full of interesting artefacts that had been well preserved for centuries. It also had a few souvenirs for sale and I have to admit, I am a sucker for a souvenir. So, I purchased some penguin pins to add to my pin badge bag back home and a postcard or two… for the scrapbook, you know? After a brief look around inside the museum, I headed off to my post for the morning, which was up at the rockhopper penguin and black-browed albatross colony. This was my first proper encounter with penguins in the wild, and boy was excited an understatement. I remember slowly approaching the colony (to a safe distance) and not knowing at all what to expect. I could hear the cacophony of noise before I could see anything and for a moment, I just stood still and closed my eyes, revelling in the moment. I still couldn’t quite believe I was here, in the Falklands, and I just needed a minute to regroup my thoughts and clear my mind. As I neared the top of the hill, I caught a glimpse of a small, black and white mound of fluff perched on top of a stained white rock. The feathery ball then removed its head from under its flipper and that’s when I saw the little yellow crest, like long, golden eyebrows perched to perfection atop its tiny head. Rockhopper penguins are the smallest of the crested penguins, reaching approximately 46cm in height. Some were huddled on top of little chicks, keeping them safe and warm, away from the prying eyes (and beaks) of brown skuas circling meticulously overhead. Others were nestled together in pairs, affectionately pecking and preening one another. Some were waddling around with pebbles, stones and pieces of vegetation in their beaks, manoeuvring their way through the crowds, towards their nests. It was a real sight to behold and I was genuinely smiling from ear to ear, utterly speechless!

An adult rockhopper penguin perched on a rock. Nina Herbert, New Island, Falkland Islands, 2022.

Two rockhoppers enjoying a brief moment of rest. Nina Herbert, New Island, Falkland Islands, 2022.

They are aptly named rockhoppers due to their agile nature and are often observed hopping from one rock to another, or up steep hills with both feet together. Sometimes, they can jump more than a metre at a time! I saw many a rockhopper jumping from perch to perch and rambling up steep cliffsides during my time up near the colony. It was absolutely fascinating to see these animals go about their lives, completely unphased by human presence. On average, less than 2000 visitors come to the Falklands each year during the austral summer, and so many, if not all of these animals, have no real fear of humans.

I was lucky enough to visit New Island twice during my time down South and what a difference there was between visiting in December and then again in early January! The most noticeable change was that the rockhopper chicks were now in crèches. Vast groups of small, fluffy brown and white chicks were littered across the steep clifftops, nuzzling and pecking at each other. New Island is home to ~13,000 breeding rockhopper pairs. Breeding season on the Falklands typically starts around early to mid-October. The female usually lays two eggs, the second (B) being larger and heavier than the first (A). This is because between egg A and B, she has had more time to feed and so, produces a second, heavier egg. Both parents then alternate during incubation which lasts about ~34 days. Chicks typically begin to crèche in January, where they congregate in large groups. By February, most chicks have fledged but some linger until late March!

Rockhopper chicks grouped in crèches, New Island, Falkland Islands, 2022.

I can’t finish my first instalment on the Falklands and forget to mention the impressive black-browed albatross. I’d spotted a few out on deck during my wildlife watches from Punta Arenas, across the South Atlantic, but at a distance. They are still incredibly impressive, even through binoculars, due to their sheer size. They have a wingspan of between 2 and 2.5m and glide on stiff wings, soaring above the waves. On New Island, they too were perched atop nests, and were keeping their babies safe from predators above. What really struck me was the size of the birds while they were sat resting. It was quite hard to fathom but still very cool. They are beautiful birds and have a tell-tale black marking above their eyes, hence their name. I think it looks a little bit like smoky eyeshadow or winged eyeliner!

A black-browed albatross resting atop its nest. Nina Herbert, New Island, Falkland Islands, 2022.

One of my favourite encounters with these birds was watching a pair affectionately caressing one another, which I managed to capture on my camera. These birds are socially monogamous and often mate for life, creating strong bonds with one another that last a lifetime. This is not wholly exclusive, and some do stray from their partners and go rogue, but as a species, are generally paired up for good. There are approximately 29,000 breeding albatross pairs living on the island.

Two black-browed albatross caressing each other. Nina Herbert, New Island, Falkland Islands, 2022.

My first landing on the Falklands was a huge success! I experienced penguins in the wild for the very first time and marvelled at one of the largest seabirds on earth, in all their glory. Tune in for more content from the deep South!

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