This week our field staff sent us a multisensory feast, whether they were photographing musicians in Belize, a red sand beach during golden hour in the Galápagos Islands, or a colony of gentoo penguins in Antarctica.
National Geographic Endurance moved west today into the relatively milder waters of Falkland Plateau—moving out of the Southern Ocean and into the South Atlantic. Foggy conditions frustrated our sea-watching efforts, but we still saw some humpback whales and hourglass dolphins despite poor visibility. By evening, the fog lifted enough for us to enjoy views of wandering albatross and their smaller cousins, including various petrels.
Opportunity knocks, and this morning we woke up in Panama Canal’s Gatun Lake for our second leg of transit. We had time in the morning to arrange for local panga boats to pick us up. We enjoyed a rainforest expedition on land to the famous Pipeline Road, world-renowned for bird counts with over 480 species of birds in a 24-hour period. Historically, this road was merely a service road of military construction. Covertly placed underneath and alongside the canal, the pipeline covered the distance between oceans. In case of an attack on the waterway, the road would have allowed the passage of bunker fuel for the US navy. The canal was never attacked, but ornithologists and bird enthusiasts took advantage of Pipeline Road from its beginnings in 1945. On our way down the channel, we enjoyed spectacular views and photo opportunities. From our boats, we saw gigantic Neopanamax ships make their way across Gatun Lake. As we meandered, we entered coves deep inside the edges of the canal. We observed abundant wildlife and came across our fifth monkey species, Geoffroy’s tamarin. The Panama Canal marks the northernmost range in South America for this monkey. Once on land, we took a quick ten-minute ride to Soberania National Park. We quickly spotted birds from the windows as we reached the Discovery Center and a birding tower nestled smack in the middle of thick rainforest. We stepped out to hear the birds’ musical symphony surrounding us. We enjoyed great views of hummingbirds, blue-crowned motmots, woodcreepers and slaty-tailed trogons. Most of us made the 90-foot climb to the top of the tower to take in the breathtaking scenery. The protected rainforest is immense and critical for watershed preservation. Returning midday, we prepared for our call from the Panama Canal authorities to let us know our cue time for final transit. We enjoyed an onboard wine tasting prepared by our fabulous hotel management staff. The cuisine aboard National Geographic Quest is nothing short of excellent!
Just before breakfast was served, National Geographic Endurance entered King Haakon Bay with its many glaciers and spectacular scenery. High winds prevented a landing, so we enjoyed a slow ship cruise in the historic bay. We passed Cave Cove, where Shackleton first landed after his epic voyage from Elephant Island. Once the ship left the bay, we turned south and headed down to Annenkov Island for an incredible Zodiac cruise. We spotted albatross, penguins and seals. We also saw multiple waterfalls and sea caves. To top off a great day, we spotted blue whales, a mother and her calf. Our mighty ship sailed north toward the Falkland Islands as we admired the spectacular scenery. Just another great day in South Georgia!
Grytviken is the historic site where whaling began in the Southern Ocean in 1904. Situated in East Cumberland Bay, it was the perfect place for a station with protection from wind, plenty of fresh water and literally hundreds of whales in the bay. We went ashore this morning to get a glimpse into the lives of the men who hunted and processed whales. On a lighter note, the antics of local wildlife brightened our somber moods. This afternoon we visited Salisbury Plain, the second largest king penguin colony on South Georgia. Literally hundreds of thousands of king penguins were present, each trying to produce a single chick and rear it to fledging. The cacophony of calls is as audibly overwhelming as is the sight (and smell) of so many penguins. Incredible!
Back and forth we roll, to and fro, over (but certainly not under) the waves we go. Crossing the Drake Passage, now officially recognized as a body of water, is a mariner milestone that is never the same journey twice. Over 200 nautical miles of open ocean are at the mercy of the truly unbridled weather of the Southern Ocean. No mountain ranges stop or slow the winds that travel around the White Continent. Storms build and whip up an impressive sea state that tops out the scale used to measure such things. Winds simply continue in a clockwise rotation as they see fit. There are lulls between these systems, and with the right ship and team, a very pleasant crossing can be had.
Joining us on any expedition means signing up for adventure; and the reward for your curiosity is inevitable—the most exhilarating experience of pure discovery possible.