blue whales and wandering albatrosses
Back in Port Stanley now after a epic, beautiful and bumpy journey back from South Georgia aboard the Hans Hanson, a small ship owned by the Poncet family. I had sailed with Jerome and Dion many years ago - for this trip, Dion was captain - a hugely competent sailor. 13 on board - not sure if that was unlucky or not, but in the end the trip was so amazing, I don't think it can have been. Sailing west from the research station at King Edward Point, we spent a day heading out to Bird Island, literally a stone's throw from the western tip of South Georgia itself. Aptly named by Cook, the island is blasted by wind and rain most of the time, apart from when it is blasted by snow and wind. Then, occasionally, like once a year, the sky clears and it is calm. We had that day - and what an amazing place. It is hard, not to find amazing things here, it has to be said, but sitting in a wandering albatross colony with these huge, superb birds displaying and nesting all around us has to be one of the highlights of my life. It is difficult not to use superlatives when one talks about albatrosses, and especially wanderers - not only because they have the largest wingspan of any bird. Albatorsses lock their wings and may spend their first five years at sea before returning to their place of birth to pair with a mate that they may keep for 50 years or more. Huge, beautiful and haunting in the sky, they are calm, inquisative and restful on their nests. The bit in between, when they land, is not graceful, and you don't want to be landed on by one - they are enormous. We spent a day with the wanderers and grey headed albatrosses - whose chicks have a habit of throwing up on you if you get too close - and a colony of FOUR HUNDRED THOUSAND! macaroni penguins - locally known as Big Mac - noisy, smelly and mesmerising.
The long sea jouney home began with a clear, calm day which turned out to be the only one we would have. Still, it gave us the opportunity to drift in amongst what seemed a huge swarm of krill - with thousands of sea birds - mostly albatross and petrel sat on the water feeding around us. The birds were accompanied by whales - lots of whales. First some Humpbacks that are relatviely common here - showing their flukes as tehy dive down through the water column. Fin whales next - in their dozens. These, the second largest whale, are distinctive with their dark skin and large dorsal fin. Although they were happy with the ship approaching slowly, they did not seem particularly interested in us - and we certainly didn't scare them off. So, an hour or two were spent in their company. That would have been enough - that, and the dolphins that were porpoising and leaping around the bow of the ship. But, no, there was more. At sea, whales are most easily spotted because of their blows - a distinctive cloud of water vapour is expelled as they exhale - and this can be seen from hundreds of metres away in the case of the largest whales. Bearing in mind we had been in the presence of Fin whales for a while, we were all excited to see a really large blow - much larger than any we had seen previously, and whatever the whale was, was heading for us. It turned out to be two whales, surfacing and diving repeatedly as they fed. After a short time a guide to whales and dolphins was located, but to be honest we knew that this could only be a blue whale and her calf. She was beautiful - a dark grey-blue with a distinctive mound around the blow hole. It was just the most amazing thing to witness. For so many years, these incredible animals were hunted and are still so rare - estimates of their population size varies but they have been slow to recover from near extinction. It is hard to take a useful picture of a whale at sea - the only thing you see is a dark lump in the water - mostly they just don't jump about too much. Still, I have my vague wobbly pictures of my blue whale, and they will be amongst the first I print up and frame when I get home - along with my wandering albatrosses. More later - stay in touch - Gerard