Atlantic Odyssey 2002 report

Early dawn at an iceberg-covered Weddell Sea, 20 March 2002    

       Atlantic Odyssey       March/April 2002

by Teus Luijendijk (and Hans Ackered, Lennart Falk, Yngve Hareland, Jan-Olov Hedblad & Jan Wendeby)

Straight to the full species list

Straight to the picture index


The Atlantic Odyssey is a pelagic journey onboard the Professor Molchanov  across the Atlantic Ocean, from Ushuaia in Southern Argentina, to Vlissingen, The Netherlands. During the trip, visits are made to South Shetland, the Antarctic Peninsula, South Orkney, South Georgia, Tristan da Cunha, St. Helena, Ascension, the Cape Verde Islands and the Azores. The visit to Ascension offers the opportunity of flying back home (as we did) before finishing the whole stretch.
The trip offers an unsurpassed opportunity to study S-Atlantic seabirds, as well as other wildlife in this region. Our main interest was birds, but the experience itself of travelling by ship and visiting some very remote islands was also very impressive.

We booked this trip through Wildwings.

A day-by-day account is given here:

March 15 (day 1) (=GMT-3)
High hopes for setting off from Ushuaia for the real pelagic stuff tonight, but in vain: some problems with the surface radar made us stay in the Ushuaia harbour during the night. This meant, however, that we would set sail during the next morning, allowing us to enjoy the Beagle Channel passage during daylight - a welcome bonus! Spent this day mainly in and around the Ushuaia harbour. For some pictures of the local birds, see my Argentina index.

March 16 (day 2)
Breakfast onboard and then it was finally time to leave! We had already had a catamaran trip through the Beagle Channel during the days before, but repetition of this was still an experience. Especially when one gets into open waters it's really something special. Peale's Dolphins Lagenorhynchus australis  were spotted and after rafts of Sooty Shearwaters Puffinus griseus  and (thousands! of) Black-browed Albatrosses Thalassarche melanophris , the first 'real big one', a Southern Royal Diomedea (e.) epomophora  was met almost with disbelief - what a bird! Also good views of Westland Petrels Procellaria westlandica  and Common Diving Petrel Pelecanoides urinatrix .
The weather remained relatively calm for these waters with the wind not exceeding force 5 on the Beaufort scale. A good opportunity to get used to the swell, without getting nauseated by it, although not everybody felt that way.

March 17 (day 3)
When heading SE over the Drake Passage one crosses the Antarctic convergence and this is really noticeable: not only the temperature drops with about 6 degrees, there is also a change in bird life in these waters: for instance Slender-billed Prions Pachyptila belcheri  are replaced by Antarctics P. desolata , and also Blue Halobaena caerulea , Cape Daption capense  and Kerguelen Petrel Pterodroma brevirostris , as well as Black-bellied Storm-petrel Fregetta tropica  are regular after the crossing.
Winds were picking up a little during the day, SE 6 in the afternoon.

March 18 (day 4)
Just after midday, we arrived at South Shetland, where we made a landing at Penguin Island (62°06'S 57°56'W), a young volcano situated at the southside of King George Island. Very impressive to walk for the first time among Gentoo Pygoscelis papua  and Chinstrap Penguins P. antarctica , Antarctic Fur Seals Arctocephalus australis  and Southern Giant Petrels Macronectes giganteus . Snowy Sheathbills Chionis alba  and Brown Skuas Catharacta lonnbergi  were also very approachable. In the evening we set off to cross the Bransfield Strait in a SSE direction, on our way to the tip of the Antarctic peninsula.

March 19 (day 5)
Getting up early is usually rewarding - and today proved that once more: I was up on deck early, but not early enough to see the trip's first Snow Petrel Pagodroma nivea ! But there was another good bird: an Antarctic Petrel Thalassoica antarctica  'rollercoasting' around the ship! Fortunately that stayed a bit longer so all birders got good views of it. We were now in the vicinity of the Antarctic continent and it was noticeable: icebergs everywhere.
We made a landing at Gourdin Island (63°11.714'S 57°18.627'W), home to the three species of brushtail penguins (Gentoo, Chinstrap and Adelie Pygoscelis adeliae ), although numbers had dwindled now at the end of the season. Beautiful views from the summit towards the Antarctic Peninsula.
In the afternoon we set foot on the continent, at Brown Bluff (63°31.221'S 56°53.307'W). The wind had now dropped to almost 0 which made a zodiac tour from here even more pleasant, especially as 2 Humpback Whales Megaptera novaeangliae  gave a little show just next to us. Also Minke Whales Balaenoptera acutorostrata/bonaerensis  and especially Leopard Seal Hydrurga leptonyx  were seen extremely well. Checking the many smaller icebergs yielded some Crabeater Seals Lobodon carcinophaga .

March 20 (day 6)
The most incredible dawn I have ever witnessed. Already 80 minutes before sunrise the sky glowed orange-red and together with the scenic view of icebergs everywhere it made me wonder if we hadn't sailed to another planet. Iceflows prevented us from continuing a bit more southward, so we headed back after reaching a southernmost position at 63°42'. Some more Humpback Whales performing in front of the ship's bow. We then slowly manoeuvred between icebergs towards Paulet Island (63°34.465'S 55°47.118'W) and this and the calm sea allowed us to use telescopes on deck. Although we couldn't find the hoped-for Emperor Penguin Aptenodytes forsteri , I did spot the other Snow Petrel of the trip - what a relief!
Paulet brought us more (ubiquitous!) fur seals, as well as Southern Elephant Seals Mirounga leonina , Antarctic Imperial Shags Phalacrocorax atriceps  and an almost totally deserted Adelie Penguin colony. My Swedish companions were (as was I) very much impressed by the remnants of the hut built by the Nordenskjöld expedition that wintered here in 1903 and had lived on penguins they had killed during the austral summer as a winter stock.

March 21 (day 7)
A foggy day, quite a contrast with the beautiful sunny days before. Therefore, a rather quiet day, although an impressive male Killer Whale Orcinus orca  made us realise we shouldn't let our concentration drop.

March 22 (day 8)
Upon waking up I realised we had dropped anchor. Out on deck I saw it was near a rugged-shaped, snow-covered South Orkney, Coronation Island to be exact. The Signy Base was no option for landing as the (British Antarctic Survey) people there were busy rebuilding so we headed for Shingle Cove on Coronation Island a bit further north. Here we had a look at some impressive Southern Elephant Seal bulls, again lots of Fur Seals, but not many penguins. Also the weather indicated that summer was nearing its end: hail and sleet with an increasing wind were not the pleasant conditions we had almost grown accustomed to on the Antarctic Peninsula. Quite frustrating was the find of a (long-)dead Snow Petrel.
After departure from here, the wind really gained force (uo to force 7), but it almost equally quickly subsided, though leaving a substantial swell of about 4 m.

March 23 (day 9) (=GMT-2)
Heading 030° over the Scotia Sea towards South Georgia. Still a big swell, but the wind only a moderate NW3. Fortunately the visibility had increased somewhat although it was still hazy, making a proper seawatch difficult. Hourglass Dolphins Lagenorhynchus cruciger  were showing nicely. Then our Wildwings tour leader Tony Marr called out a large penguin dead ahead. All birders present on the bridge quickly picked up the bird, all assuming it was our first King Penguin Aptenodytes patagonicus , supposedly soon to be followed by thousands more once we arrived at South Georgia. I quickly memorised some characters the bird showed and somehow couldn't really add up everything properly. Then it dived and somebody mentioned something like "Why wasn't it an Emperor?", thus acknowledging something I had not dared to say before. I rushed out to try and find the bird emerging from the water alongside or behind the ship, but I guess I went to the wrong side of the ship for it was nowhere to be found (although I later heard it was seen again by one observer). However, I was 'rewarded' by two Cattle Egrets Bubulcus ibis  following the vessel! We were still 193 nautical miles SSW of South Georgia (57°19'S 39°48'W), an incredible 865 nm from the mainland, from where they must have originated.
Summing up the details we had seen on the penguin we could not but conclude that it really had been an immature Emperor. But there was more to follow: during dinner someone mentioned that there were now far more Cattle Egrets flying along with the ship and when I went up to the bridge at 21:00 h I counted at least 80 birds! Fourteen were caught onboard the ship and taken into care. The next morning there were only a few left alongside the ship, so many must have perished in the ice-cold water during the night.

March 24 (day 10)
South Georgia is an impressive island: the first views of its skyline of rough, snow-covered peaks this morning is something I will never forget. But even this apparent paradise has been influenced strongly by the influence of man. For instance, the presence of rats on the island has strongly reduced the numbers of South Georgia Pipit Anthus antarcticus , the only passerine present here (and endemic). We were told that it was unlikely to be found away from islets, isolated from the main island. Fortunately, the situation was somewhat better: upon entering the Drygalski Fjord with our vessel, we noticed a songbird, obviously a pipit, flying towards the ship as if to inspect it or to show that its numbers haven't dwindled that much. Although not everyone seemed equally convinced that it was a South Georgia Pipit, we were already celebrating! Soon we would see a good deal more.
The sea around the island yielded good numbers of Wandering Diomedea exulans , Light-mantled Sooty Phoebetria palpebrata  and Black-browed Albatross, Blue Petrel, Fairy Prion Pachyptila turtur  and both Common and S-Georgian Diving Petrel Pelecanoides georgicus  (although I must say that distinguishing between the latter two is quite tough job). A Blue Whale Balaenoptera musculus  chose a bad time to pop up as we were down in the restaurant enjoying our lunch. Out on deck in less than 10 seconds, but we could not relocate it anymore.
We landed at Gold Harbour (54°37.047'S 35°56.459'W), where 1000s of King Penguins were breeding or raising their young. Apart from South Georgia Pintail Anas georgica , the usual opportunist scavengers as Snowy Sheathbill, both species of Giant Petrel and Brown Skua were also cooperating well for photography. The Cattle Egrets were released and miraculously their numbers soon appeared to have doubled, suggesting the arrival of more than just 'our' birds. This even though some rapidly fell victim to the ever-eager Brown Skuas. Later we would even see more Cattle Egrets at other places on South Georgia.

March 25 (day 11)
Rain spoiled a bit today, but a zodiac tour through Rookery Bay was rewarding as we saw well over a thousand Macaroni Penguins Eudyptes chrysolophus . We also spotted several herds of Reindeer, the offspring of introduced animals in the early 20th century, and another S-Georgia Pipit. Later that day we moored at Grytviken, the now abandoned Norwegian whaling station. We visited Ernest Shackleton's grave (and had a little drink in honour of him) and the local museum, and studied Kelp Gull Larus dominicanus  and the S-Georgian form of Antarctic Tern Sterna vittata georgiae .

March 26 (day 12)
Salisbury Plain in the north of South Georgia hosts a colony of many thousands of King Penguin. As it also has a gentle and easy beach, we experienced no difficulties in landing here. The sounds and smell of the penguins were already noticeable even before we set foot on land. It was here that we also had very good views of South Georgia Pipits, more South Georgia Pintails and a pair of Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses. Their melancholic calls got somewhat lost in the catabatic winds that were picking up, but it was still an unforgettable sight. Another Cattle Egret popped up here.
After lunch we put out the zodiacs on the other sid and landed on Albatross Island. Here one or two South Georgia Pipits were roaming the kelp on the beach and they provided excellent photo opportunities. Higher up on this islet, among the tussock, we found nesting Wandering Albatrosses and although harrassed every now and then by Fur Seals (which necessitated some vigorous bill snapping), they made a very peaceful impression. Chicks were still very young so they mainly remained hidden under the parents' wings. Display was practiced by some subadult birds and this also gave excellent opportunities for filming and photographing. Every now and then another pipit would pass making it at times difficult where to aim the camera at.
After return to the ship we set out on a 052° course for Tristan, which would take no less than 5 days to reach.

March 27 (day 13)(=GMT-1)
We were still south of the Antarctic convergence, but anyway saw some new tubenoses like White-bellied Storm-petrel Fregetta grallaria , Grey Petrel Procellaria cinerea , Little Shearwater Puffinus assimilis  and Sooty Albatross Phoebetria fusca . Especially the latter was interesting since 2 immature birds showed their somewhat 'Light-mantled' plumage. One or two Sperm Whales Physeter macrocephalus  also popped up briefly.

March 28 (day 14)
With the sea surface temperature rising, we must have crossed the convergence today. Somehow the differences in sealife were not as clear as during the Drake passage crossing. But we did get our first Atlantic petrel Pterodroma incerta , more Grey Petrels, 5 species of albatross, good numbers of Wilson's Storm-petrel Oceanites oceanicus  and 2 Skuas that were initially identified as Tristan Catharacta antarctica hamiltoni , but in retrospect were probably South Polars C. maccormicki , by their looks on the pictures.
Positions were 48°52'S 27°25'W at dawn, 47°39'S 25°43'W at dusk.

March 29 (day 15)
High numbers of seabirds today, with flocks of prions numbering well over a thousand, mainly Antarctic. Also highest scores of the trip today for Grey Petrel and Little Shearwater. Two Grey-backed Storm-petrels Garrodia nereis  and the first Spectacled Petrels Procellaria conspicillata  meant another celebration. Good filming opportunities for albatrosses, who seemed to find a 'lift' somewhere at upper deck level at close range. A bit less windy today than yesterday, but still a good force 6-7.
Positions were 45°46'S 23°13'W at dawn, 44°13'S 21°06'W at dusk.

March 30 (day 16)
Good opportunities today to study the first Tristan Albatrosses D. (exulans) dabbenena , but there also was one dark, rather small individual with an obvious dark bill tip. This sounded very much like an Amsterdam Albatross D. amsterdamensis !! However, although I just had recuperated from my first Wanderers 2 weeks ago and without any experience with the species that bears my capitol's name, I still think it was a little too smudgy (not evenly dark) to be a true Amsterdam. Unfortunately we didn't get any close views to ckeck out any possible dark edge to the upper mandible, either. A picture of the bird appears in Shirihai's excellent book A complete guide to Antarctic Wildlife , while more can be found here.
High-score for Atlantic Petrel today, with 21 individuals, while an addition to the list was made by the appearance of our first Great-winged Petrel Pterodroma macroptera . An adult Long-tailed Jaeger Stercorarius longicaudus  made us realise we were getting a little closer to home, albeit a little.
Positions were 42°14'S 18°36'W at dawn, 40°53'S 16°55'W at dusk.

March 31 (day 17)
Force 8 to 9 winds and a 5m swell made seawatching quite an ordeal. Only a few places on deck provided sufficient cover against spray and rain, so the bridge seemed the best place to be (although here of course the spray reduced visibility through the windows ahead to virtually zero). Quite spectacular anyway but I was glad the seasickness pills did their work. I also think it's amazing that Steve was able to identify a Strap-toothed Whale Mesoplodon layardii  under these conditions. New to the list was Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross Thalassarche chlororhynchos , while a Grey-backed Storm-petrel passing at close range meant a little bonus. A Fur Seal seen in these waters must have been a Subantarctic Arctocephalus tropicalis .
Positions were 38°50'S 14°24'W at dawn, 37°22'S 13°21'W at dusk.

April 1 (day 18)
Early morning brought a relatively calm sea, as we were sheltering from the strong winds behind the island of Tristan da Cunha. This actually meant good birding, as many seabirds were coming towards the ship to have a look. Albatrosses, Spectacled Petrels and Wilson's and White-bellied Storm-petrels gave a bit of a show at the stern of the ship, providing excellent opportunities for photography and study of their quite different feeding techniques. A pleasant surprise was the appearance of at least two Shy Albatrosses ('Shy' or White-capped) Thalassarche cauta  or steadi , but a group of penguins on the shore were just a bit too far off to identify as the Rockhoppers Eudyptes chrysocome  we were expecting.
Remained all day at position 37°05.2'S 12°12.1'W, steadily moving up and down along the northeastern shore of Tristan to remain as much as possible out of the still high swell.

April 2 (day 19)
Today even 3 Shy Albatrosses, but the weather situation had not improved at all. Therefore, we found ourselves just sailing up and down along the NE 'shores' of Tristan in the lee formed by the island. Peeking around the corner we could see that it really was no fun out there on the ocean, with gigantic waves rolling in, their crests being blown off by the force 9 wind to form lots of foam. So the focus was mainly at videoing, and particularly the Antarctic Terns and hamiltoni Skuas were cooperative today. In the evening we witnessed the increased activity of seabirds in these hours, for flocks of thousands (mainly Great Shearwaters Puffinus gravis ) could be discerned further off at sea. We also picked up a passenger from Tristan today, but that was a bit of a precarious operation in the high swell. Fortunately everything went fine (I guess these people know what they are doing). The continuation of stormy weather meant a big blow to our plans here, for the chances of visiting Nightingale Island (with all its seabirds nesting there + 2 species of bunting and Tristan Thrush) had now been reduced to virtually zero.

April 3 (day 20)
Finally an improvement in the conditions, so we put the zodiacs out, with good views of a passing Hammerhead Shark, and made it to the small harbour of the island. After the obligatory Cattle Egrets (they turn up everywhere indeed!) and visits to the post office and a shop, we had a little zodiac tour to check out those penguins at Sandy Point. Indeed they were Moseley's Rockhoppers (there are no other penguin species at Tristan, apart from vagrants), quite special birds, with their long plumy crests. Their shyness was indicative of (probably regular) egg poaching here, something we all (including our Tirstan passenger) agreed this rare form should be kept from.

April 4 (day 21)
Heading on a course of 010° for St. Helena. As soon as one leaves the Tristan waters, seabird numbers drop. This became quite clear today. Although not devoid of seabirds, everything seemed to quiet down a little. A pod of approximately 46 Sperm Whales was a great sight. We had our last views of Wandering, Sooty and Shy Albatross and also Atlantic Petrel would not be seen after today. Several unidentified Beaked Whales were seen.
Positions were 33°42'S 11°11'W at dawn, 37°26'S 10°26'W at dusk.

April 5 (day 22)
No change in course, but everything starts to become tropical now, with increasing temperatures (approx. 23°C) and emptier seas. Gentle SE3-4 winds and our last (Yellow-nosed) Albatrosses and Greater Shearwaters. First Flying Fish were seen today, as well as a pod of 8 Short-finned Pilot Whales Globicephala macrorhynchus , and 2 Fin Whales Balaenoptera physalus  at 27°29.083'S 09°09.667'W.
Positions were 28°49'S 09°35'W at dawn, 27°00'S 09°00'W at dusk.

April 6 (day 23)
Today we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn and although cloud cover increased during the day to 100% and even a little rainfall was noted, the temperature continued to rise (now 26°C). Very few birds today, with our last Spectacled and Great-winged Petrels and first Bulwer's Bulweria bulwerii , and Madeiran Storm-petrel Oceanodroma castro . No cetaceans, but an interesting bonus by a group of flying squid jumping off the ship's bow.
Positions were 24°29'S 08°15'W at dawn, 22°35'S 07°40'W at dusk.

April 7 (day 24)
Some more Bulwer's Petrels and Madeiran Storm-petrels today, but overall very quiet. In fact, this was the quitest day of the trip. Though not so in the evening, when we had a lively barbeque and party on deck.
Positions were 19°54'S 06°54'W at dawn, 17°49'S 06°19'W at dusk.

April 8 (day 25)
Arrival at St. Helena and we were not the only ones: the QE II had also just dropped anchor outside Jamestown. Good birding here in the bay facing Jamestown, with Red-billed Tropicbirds Phaethon aethereus  and White Terns Gygis alba  flying on and off the cliffs, as well as a flock of 6 Parasitic Jaegers Stercorarius parasiticus . We had a small boat trip towards Speery Island, where we had good views of Sooty Terns Sterna fuscata , Brown Anous stolidus  and Black Noddies Anous minutus , Masked Booby Sula dactylatra  and a playful pod of Atlantic Spotted Dolphins Stenella frontalis . In the afternoon we drove up the island towards Deadwood Plain, where we had no difficulty finding the local endemic Wirebird, or St. Helena Plover Charadrius sanctaehelenae  as it is officially called.
St. Helena is a tropical island and therefore quite warm. Particularly higher up on the island the humidity is high, so this adds up to the sweaty feeling one experiences here.

April 9 (day 26)
Visits to the house where Napoleon stayed in exile and a botanical excursion led by the local botanist George Benjamin. He showed us some plants that may be the last individuals of some endemic St. Helena species, like St. John's Bush, St. Helena Ebony and St. Helena Olive.
In the late evening we lifted anchor and started our last leg of the trip, towards Ascension Island.

April 10 (day 27)
Not much difference in sea life compared with the days before arrival at St.Helena. Two Long-tailed Jaegers were nice, as well as what probably was a False Killer Whale Pseudorca crassidens . With 28°C and 10% cloud cover it became wise to stay in the shade most of the time, as I realised a little too late.
Positions were 14°51'S 06°55'W at dawn, 13°13'S 08°45'W at dusk.

April 11 (day 28)
Another tropically hot day, with good numbers of Madeiran and 2 Leach's Storm-petrels Oceanodroma leucorhoa , 2 more Long-tailed Jaegers, the first frigatebirds appearing (though too far away for proper identification) and huge flocks of Sooty Terns, totalling almost a thousand. No cetaceans.
Positions were 11°27'S 10°41'W at dawn, 09°41'S 12°40'W at dusk.

April 12 (day 29)
At Ascension Island (08°00.503'S 14°24.786'W). Early a.m. on deck gave good views of Green Turtles Chelonia mydas  leaving Long Beach after a night's egg-laying. Ashore we had very good views of Ascension Frigatebirds Fregata aquila  that roamed the site for late turtle hatchlings, although one juvenile bird showed particular interest in a football thrown up from the beach every now and then by a bunch of playing children. We had a little trip to the (now unfortunately deserted) Sooty Tern colony at Wideawake Fair and walked a trail around the humid and green summit of this otherwise barren lava island. The evening had us taking the zodiacs out again towards Long Beach, where we witnessed the Green Turtle females egg-laying. There were also several freshly hatched young turtles, rushing towards the safety of the open water under the cover of darkness. Later we would see how the ones that tried to do so under daylight did not stand a chance against the ever alert Ascension Frigatebirds.

April 13 (day 30)
A circumnavigation of the island brought us, accompanied by some Bottlenose Dolphins Tursiops truncatus , at Boatswainbird Island, where the complete world population of Ascension Frigatebird breeds. A zodiac tour here gave very good views of breeding White-tailed Tropicbirds Phaethon lepturus , White Terns, Black Noddies and Masked, Brown Sula leucogaster  and Red-footed Boobies S. sula  (of both colour forms).

April 14 (day 31)
What was supposed to be a day in the air, back to Britain and then on to The Netherlands, became a day of mere waiting what was going to happen. The RAF-flight that was originally booked had to bring people from the Falklands back to Britain, so we had to wait until the next one. We had a look at Long Beach again early a.m. to take some pictures of the turtles and had an outing later in the day towards a observation point overlooking Boatswainbird Island. At the parking where the trail started, I also noticed a Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica , possibly a first for the island. As it was fairly warm buff on the underparts, it may well have been the American subspecies.

April 15 (day 32)
Finally, in the morning we were able to leave this island on an RAF flight heading for Brize Norton Air base. Nice views from above of the Canary Islands and the Portuguese coastline. Arrival in Britain late afternoon. We were granted accommodation at the air base as connecting flights were not available anymore the same day.

April 16 (day 33)
I had had to re-book my EasyJet flight from Gatwick to Amsterdam, so I took the one that (I thought) would allow me plenty of time to get there. Hadn't taken into consideration the Greater London rush hour traffic, though, so I JUST made it. Arrived home early afternoon.


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Copyright ©Teus Luijendijk 2003