Birding Despite Disability

Obsessions Don't Care About Limitations

Birding the Drake Passage and the Antarctic Peninsula

After a few days of birding in Tierra del Fuego, we took a nine-day cruise from Ushuaia, Argentina, to the South Shetland Islands and Antarctica. The trip was organized by Albatros Expeditions and the ship was the Ocean Victory, a mid-sized vessel that carried about 160 passengers and 80 crew for our particular voyage, starting in December 7, 2022.

The Ocean Victory, in a photo provided by Albatros Expeditions, taken during our trip.

The size of the ship is an importatn consideration — too small and the motion during the Drake Passage crossing may be problematic for non-seafaring types like us — but if it is too large, international laws will not allow the ship to send any landing parties. And what is the point in going to Antarctica if you do not get to step foot on this most remote continent?

From Ushuaia it took about a day and a half to cross the Drake Passage between Tierra del Fuego and Antarctica. The first stop was in the South Shetland Islands, but we hugged the mainland for about four days.

In terms of birding, this was a trip for quality, not quantity. We knew that we’d get only 20-30 species on this trip, but because we paired it up with birding in both southern and northern Argentina (and a stop in Colombia on the way home), it provided a nice counterpoint. Paucity of species notwithstanding, we found to be decidedly the most beautiful place on earth. Here you can stand on land that is part of no country. There are no roads, and only rarely any signs of human activity.

The Beagle Channel, looking east from Ushuaia.

Before starting, we stayed five nights in Tierra del Fuego and got in four days of birding. On the day of departure, we boarded the ship around 2 PM, did the necessary safety drills and briefings, and finally left port at 6 PM.

Looking back at Ushuaia from the deck, just before leaving

The ship is new and gorgeous, and although we selected an inexpensive cabin, we still had our own window from which we did a lot of pelagic birding.

Our room on board. This ship is only a few years old and was very modern and comfortable, except when crossing the Drake Passage, which was a bit nauseating

With the far southern latitude, there was plenty of light for the voyage out through the Beagle Channel between Argentina and Chile. We found a few distant colonies of Magellenic Penguins and Rock Cormorants. Kelp and Dolphin Gulls, Southern Giant Petrels, and South American Terns were plentiful.

First night, heading east through the Beagle Channel. Argentina on the left, Chile on the right

The Beagle Channel is smooth sialing but when we woke up the first morning, we were well into the Drake Passage and the movement was considerable. This, despite the fact that the water was relatively calm, bording on what they call the “Drake Lake.” I don’t usually have seasicknesses but I did here, at least whenever inside and unable to see the horizon.

Light-mantled Albatross in the Drake Passage

We alternated between birding from the warm interior and the cold and sometimes wet deck. Several lifers, such as Blue Petrel, and Gray-headed and Light-mantled Albatross, introduced themselves to us while we were in our cabin. Others, such as the mixed Slender-billed and Antarctic Prions, required scanning and photographing off the back the of boat.

Slender-billed Prion trailing the ship

We made good time, arriving at the South Shetland Island after just a day and a half on the vessel. The ship anchored at Half Moon Island and we were able to take our first expedition out to land, by way of a Zodiac, a small inflatable boat that holds a dozen people. This was our first chance to get within a few meters of both Gentoo and Chinstrap Penguins.

Chinstrap Penguins on Half Moon Island
Gentoo Penguins watch as a Southern Giant Petrel scavenges one of their dead mates. Photo from Albatros Expeditions team.

Another facet of the trip worth discussing here has to do with the biosecurity precaucions taken by the expedition team. They have a very thorough and easy method to help insure that non-native invasives are not brought into these ecosystems. All exterior clothing and bags get a thorough inspection, and upon donning the ship-provided boots, it is necessary to step into a shallow tank of chemicals that effectively sterilize them. This is done upon returning to the ship as well.

Glacier in the South Shetland Islands

Due to our rapid crossing of the Drake, we were able to get to the mainland on the morning of the third day. The shipped dropped anchor at Portal Point and we got to spend an hour or so wandering around on the continent. With sunshine and no appreciable wind it was very comfortable, with temperatures right around freezing generally.

An excursion out to the mainland at Portal Point, making it continent number seven for our birding quest

Having stepp on Antarctica we planned to forego most of the remaining Zodiac trips and use the time to bird from the ship, which is much quieter with everyone else off. Sometimes the birds even came to us…

Claire on deck with a Snowy Sheathbill on the railing

Snowy Sheathbills always seemed like such an exotic species in my mind, but once you get down here, you find that they are rather common, tame and curious enough to regularly land on the ship and snoop around.

Snowy Sheathbill

It is impossible to capture the grandeur of this place with a few images. A scene like the one below extends 360 degrees around you, and the silence and peace of this place are profound.

One of the countless gorgeous views near the mainland, available 24 hours a day.

One night we were awakened by an excited voice on the ship intercom announcing that a pod of Orcas had been found off the bow. We hurried out in bathrobes. Such sightings are not common.

Young Orca diving

Something about seeing these apex predators in the eerie, late-night twilight was especially lovely. We would often get up at obscene hours in order to take in the change in illumination.

Late night scene. There is only a long twilight, and no darkness

We generally worked southward every day, so more and more ice was encountered. We were getting a bit antsy after a few days because we had not yet found any Adelie Penguins, another species that we knew should be in the area. We learned that we would find them after sailing through the narrow Lemaire Channel and landing on Petermann Island.

The Lemaire Channel, seen from the north. We passed through this narrow gap between the mainland on the left and Booth Island on the right

Adelies were found, as well as nesting Antarctic Shags with young birds. I manaaged to get a recording of their calls and uploaded it to xeno-canto, where it is the first and only audio submitted for this species.

Adelie Penguin on Petermann Island
The process of heading back to the ship from Petermann Island. Small Zodiac boats ferried about ten at a time.
Luckily we had abundant sunshine and very little wind during our four days here
Gentoo Penguins porpoising
A small Gentoo Penguin colony
On a Zodiac. Parkas were provided and yours to keep!
If blue is your color, you’ll love it here

Finally, Albatoss Expeditions provided some great summaries of the trip, including many photos taken by the expedition team and shared with the guests (several of which are used here) and a map showing the sites visited.

Where you can go with four days in Antarctica

All told, from the time we set foot on the ship until we left, we got 29 species. eBird trip report.

Once back in Ushuaia, we flew into central Argentina for the next stage: nine days working from Cordoba up to the Bolivia border.

One response to “Birding the Drake Passage and the Antarctic Peninsula”

  1. Absolutely beautiful!

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: