3 January 2013

Drygalski Fjord, Larsen Harbor Landing, Humpback and Southern Right Whales, Cooper Bay Landing

Drygalski Fjord, South Georgia Island Photo Credit: www.traveladventures.org exclusive proprietor of this image.

Drygalski Fjord, South Georgia Island
Photo Credit: http://www.traveladventures.org exclusive proprietor of this image.

An incredible day! Between whales and a discontinuity zone, there were rare sightings to delight geologists and biologists alike. Before breakfast the ship cruised up dramatic, narrow Drygalski Fjord, past unnamed tongues of hanging glaciers so close they were almost overhead, up to the calving face of Risting Glacier. The soaring cliff faces revealed stark contrasts between granitic felsic rocks cut by mafic dikes in various directions. Beautiful pure white Snow Petrels, delicate birds with black eyes, bills, and feet, nest on these sheer ledges and were feeding on the water surface along with black-and-white Pintado Petrels and pale grey Antarctic Terns. The milky turquoise blue water filled the scene with color and contrast.

Sunlight on the top of one the glaciers above Drygalski FjordPhoto Credit:

Sunlight on the top of one the glaciers above Drygalski Fjord, South Georgia Island
Photo Credit: http://www.traveladventures.org exclusive proprietor of this image.

Breakfast was within the fjord while the captain found a good position to launch zodiacs for our specially permitted landing in Larsen Harbor. There was a large swell out to sea but in Larsen’s protected cove our landing was easy except for slippery rocks underfoot. Once expedition staff had established a walking path around various indifferent-to-testy fur seals on the talus and one sleepy elephant seal weanling, people sorted into groups for geology, hiking, and sightseeing by zodiac.

Near the landing Rudolph Trouw and Ian Dalziel explained the ophiolite complex including pillow lavas and pillow breccias, with evidence of ocean floor metamorphism, cut by many vertical dikes. Tim Carr led a steep hike up a snow-covered col to a saddle with views to an outer cove and of the hanging glaciers all around. Zodiac passengers got good looks at five Weddell seals hauled out on the snowy beach opposite our landing site as well as simply stunning scenery and outcrops, with light snow flurries falling. Even in the water tiny wildlife appeared, in the form of ctenophore jellies pulsing their rainbow cilia in the shallows.

Weddell Seal Photo Credit: Glenn Browning/Australian Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population & Communities - Antarctic Division

Weddell Seal
Photo Credit: Glenn Browning/Australian Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water,
Population & Communities – Antarctic Division

The two- to three-meter swell was a concern for our afternoon landing planned for Cooper Bay, though worries were forgotten when whales were spotted after lunch. The ship was rounding Cooper Island, home to a large Chinstrap Penguin colony and Black-browed Albatross colonies, when a mother and calf pair of humpback whales were seen by observers on the bridge. They were swimming slowly away to starboard when a third whale breached on the port side with a great splash. On its second leap halfway out of the water its wide, squared-off pectoral flippers were clearly visible and confirmed it was a southern right whale, a very exciting sighting.

Cooper Bay, South GeorgiaThis diverse beach includes Northern Giant Petrels, King Penguins, Antarctic Fur Seals, Southern Elephant Seals, and Gentoo Penguins. Photo Credit: Liam Quinn

Cooper Bay, South Georgia
This diverse beach includes Northern Giant Petrels, King Penguins, Antarctic Fur Seals, Southern Elephant Seals, and Gentoo Penguins.
Photo Credit: Liam Quinn

When the right whale was announced from the bridge people poured out onto the decks to see and the captain obligingly turned the ship to slowly follow the whale. It continued cavorting, in its slow whale way, rolling onto its side and back, repeatedly raising its flippers up like flags, and often lifting its beautiful smooth-edged tail like a sail. By any standard it was an especially good half hour of whale watching and did our hearts good to see this young right whale in South Georgia waters where its kind was almost completely killed off less than a hundred years ago. Michael Moore and passenger Tomas Hub both got excellent identification photos of the whale’s head callosities. These might be the first usable right whale ID photos taken since Michael did a whale survey here in 1997. These will be compared with the catalog of Patagonian and Brazilian breeding right whales to see if there is a match.

Southern Right WhalePhoto Credit: Michaël Catanzariti

Southern Right Whale
Photo Credit: Michaël Catanzariti

Sea conditions in Cooper Bay turned out to be difficult but not impossible and we landed zodiacs in Albatross Cove, a little-used inlet below tussac-covered slopes with rare access to a Macaroni Penguins colony.  Macaronis look like Rockhoppers with an even bushier yellow feather crest that they shake at each other in courtship. They nest only on very steep ocean-facing cliffs so most colonies are completely inaccessible. Even here it was a very stressful hike for many because of the many especially grouchy fur seals lounging all through the grasses up the hill. Sleeping fur seals are hard to see through the shoulder-high grass until they awaken with a growling snarl and they sometimes charge until fended off with a hiking pole. It can be quite alarming to chart a course through the grass.

Macaroni Penguins Photo Credit: Jerzy Strzelecki

Macaroni Penguins
Photo Credit: Jerzy Strzelecki

Rudolph Trouw led a geology group along the shore in the opposite direction through subhorizontal phyllites with conspicuous stretching lineations and isoclinal folds being re-folded by open folds. Reaching the discontinuity area, they observed subvertical mylonites, proving the existence of an important shear zone. “Well, what we really did was we walked through a lot of vicious fur seals,” said one geology hiker.

After all the day’s excitement, two landings, and with the big Shackleton Hike on the menu for tomorrow, it was early to bed for some and for others a good cause for socializing in the bar after dinner.

- Kate Spencer, Staff Naturalist; Cheesemans’ Ecology Safaris