November 20 – December 8, 2014
I’m aboard the Akademik Ioffe, on a voyage to the Falklands, South Georgia, and Antarctica. Art Wolfe and I are leading a group of photographers on this journey, along with Denis Glennon and Shem Compion. Remarkably, I have a limited satellite phone internet connection aboard, which enables me to send logbook notes to Chris Eckstrom back home in Santa Cruz–and she is able to make these postings for me.
I will continue to send updates as best I can. It’s wonderful to be back here again, and I’m looking forward to returning here again in October-November 2015. And we’re making plans to return again in 2016, the centennial year of Shackleton’s astonishing voyage on the Endurance. We’ll announce more about that soon.
December 4, 2014, At sea along the Antarctic Peninsula
It was fifty years ago today that the slaughter of whales on South Georgia ended in 1964. More than 175,000 whales were killed there in the preceding 60 years. When I first visited the abandoned whaling stations on that island at the edge of Antarctica some twenty years after their closure, they were haunted places that still smelled of whale. Today one of them, Grytviken, has been turned into a museum of sorts visited by ships bound for Antarctica, while elephant seals and fur seals frolic in the snow. Offshore whales are making a slow comeback. Scientists wonder why they are not bouncing back more quickly, because the waters around South Georgia teem with krill. But perhaps, like elephants, some whales retain a memory of what happened to their forebears.
December 1, 2014, At sea off the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula
Today is Antarctica Day in recognition of the remarkable fact that in 1959, at the height of the Cold War, a group of twelve nations with competing interests—including the USA and the Soviet Union— decided to put their political differences aside and agreed instead to protect the sanctity of Antarctica as the last great wilderness on the planet. They agreed to put their territorial claims on hold, vowed to abstain from resource exploitation, promised to refrain from building military installations, and set out to cooperate on issues ranging from research to tourism to conservation.
Right now I’m sailing through the icy waters off the tip of the Antarctic peninsula, on a ship with photographers from many countries. As we heave through the swells I’m seeing scores of fin whales blowing spouts into the frigid air and it gives me hope that at least at the bottom of our planet, people of all nations are working to cooperate for the sake of the larger good—and that is a heartwarming realization.
November 30, 2014, At sea, cruising along the south coast of South Georgia
It’s 4:30 am and we’re cruising along the south coast of South Georgia. All the other passengers are sleeping. I’m thinking of the many times I’ve sailed this coast–first with the Poncet family on their yacht, Damien II, back in the 1980s, for an assignment for National Geographic. Amazingly, when we landed in the Falklands last week I met up with Sally Poncet at Tony Chater‘s rustic home in Stanley–we spent hours sharing stories. Then I went down to the harbor to find Dion, the Poncets’ oldest son, on his own boat. Dion was born aboard Damien II, and the Poncets’ three young boys were all aboard when I circumnavigated South Georgia with them many years ago–a serious adventure. Right now there’s a big swell with whitecaps, lots of birds cantilevering through the strong wind, but the ship is stable. Yesterday we went ashore in Fortuna Bay–fresh snow on the mountains, temperature just below freezing, but blissfully, there was almost no wind. We headed for another king penguin colony. I showed people how “low and slow” yields the best results. After a while a gaggle of king penguin chicks, aka “the oakum boys,” waddled up to us. In flagrant violation of the rule that no one shall approach an animal closer than five meters they came within inches, nibbling at lenses and boots. Needless to say, everyone was enchanted.
November 27, 2014, From Salisbury Plain, on the coast of South Georgia
I’m on South Georgia, surrounded by half a million king penguins–an awesome sight that always moves me. I first came here on assignment for National Geographic in the 1980s and have returned here a number of times since then. Each is like a pilgrimage to a place I hold dear. This very place is where Robert Cushman Murphy camped; while here, he wrote his celebrated “Logbook for Grace.” And from here he rowed himself to Albatross Island to study wandering albatrosses. I camped on the island two generations later, among the wanderers, and made some of my most cherished images there. Albatross Island is now closed to protect the birds–it will always be a holy grail to me.