National Geographic Orion returned to New Zealand for the first time since 2014; our staff in Costa Rica and the Galapagos Islands captured incredible wildlife close-ups; and sweeping, ice-filled landscapes greeted guests in Patagonia and Antarctica.
Exploring just Antarctica or Patagonia is thrilling enough, but pairing these two marquee destinations together makes for an exceptionally exhilarating adventure. Travel photographer Alex Stead shows us why.
We continue making our way southeast towards the Ross Sea for an exciting new chapter in this already incredible voyage. This morning, we had part two of visiting scientist Alessandro Silvano’s presentation, “Southern Ocean.” We came to grips with what exactly Antarctic bottom water is, how it forms, and why it is important to Antarctica and the rest of the planet. Later in the morning, naturalist Jessica Farrer presented her case for the conservation of the Antarctic toothfish, diving deep into why and where this incredible fish species needs to be protected from overfishing. In the late afternoon, naturalist Gabriela Roland introduced us to the Southern Cross Expedition (1898-1900), describing how the crew of this exploratory expedition experienced being the first people ever to spend a winter on mainland Antarctica, thus leading the way for future Antarctic explorers. After three days at sea, we are chomping at the bit to meet the White Continent when we wake tomorrow morning.
We enjoyed calm seas from the early morning. Some of us were busy birdwatching on the bridge. We spotted lots of sooty shearwaters, Cape petrels, and light-mantled albatrosses. The highlight of our morning was spotting a group of fin whales actively feeding near the surface of the sea. Fin whales are among the fastest swimming great whales. Aggregations of the whales in productive areas of the Southern Ocean attract special attention of scientists and visitors to Antarctica. And we encountered blue whales! We also saw the first tabular iceberg of our voyage. As we traveled through time zones, we had to move one hour ahead. We enjoyed a bunch of presentations focused on animal migrations, the Southern Ocean, and New Zealand fisheries. For our photography enthusiasts, we had a photo feedback session to review images taken during the first portion of our journey.
Please Note: This expedition crosses the International Date Line, so there will be two DERs for February 5. A calm but foggy morning greeted us for our last day of exploring the Subantarctic Islands of New Zealand and Australia. Macquarie is unique in its position on the boundary of the Pacific and Australian tectonic plates. The island is entirely comprised of oceanic rocks with a complete sequence from mantle to extruded ocean floor. These rocks are draped with a lush vegetation dominated by grasses and megaherbs that tumble down precipitous slopes to the shore. Many seabirds call this place home, including the elegant light-mantled albatross, the endemic Macquarie shag, and the effervescent rockhopper penguin. The main story is in the massive colonies of royal penguins and king penguins, estimated at well over a million pairs.
Please Note: This expedition crosses the International Date Line, so there will be two DERs for February 5. Fog hung low over the rolling waves this morning. The number of seabirds has started to dwindle following our departure from the Subantarctic Islands. We have been extremely lucky with the weather and wind so far on our journey south. We had a day full of relaxation, lectures, and ice cream. Naturalist Jamie Coleman started the day’s lectures with a broad overview of the Southern Ocean’s most iconic bird, the penguin. Jamie covered everything from brood pouch temperatures to population trends and vision. This lecture was particularly insightful, as Jamie spent several seasons working with seabirds on the Island of South Georgia. He had many firsthand stories to share. After Jamie’s penguin talk, naturalist Emmet Clarkin was up next to enlighten us on the kelps of the Southern Ocean. Kelp is arguably not as charismatic as the penguins that swim through it. However, Emmet gets just as excited when he discusses macroalgal rafts as Jamie gets when he talks about king penguins. Both species are incredibly important to the ecosystem in the Southern Ocean. Perhaps a good sea day endeavor would be a debate between naturalists as to which is more important. I digress… After lunch, those of us who didn’t overdo it on dessert joined wellness specialist Lola in the sanctuary for afternoon stretches. And then, for the stretched and digested, it was time for ice cream! The hotel department put out quite the spread for our afternoon Ice Cream Social. As the afternoon wound down, we had a final lecture about what nobody would argue is the keystone species in the Antarctic: Antarctic krill. This presentation was given by naturalist Katya Uriupova, who has extensive experience working on scientific projects that revolve around climate change in the polar regions. Perhaps the biggest event of the day was our crossing over of the Antarctic Convergence. We may still be far from the Antarctic continent, but we have entered the Antarctic biologically and oceanographically. We have crossed into the convergence and the Antarctic Circumpolar Current. The water temperature has dropped to nearly 0 degrees Celsius. These cold, productive waters are the summer foraging grounds for the largest mammals on the planet. For the next two days, we will be on the lookout for fin, blue, humpback, and many other kinds of cetaceans that spend time foraging here. Every minute, we are getting that much closer to the Antarctic continent. The king penguin and albatross sightings from today will decline from here and soon be replaced by Adelie and, if we are lucky, emperor penguins.
After three wonderful days in New Zealand’s Subantarctic Islands, we are making our way south to Macquarie Island, within the Tasmin State of Australia. Macquarie is a UNESCO World Heritage site, namely for its fascinating geology. The intact seafloor was pushed above sea level by mid-oceanic convergence to form the island. The same ridge that produced Macquarie Island also creates ocean currents that generate biodiverse hotspots, and we were greeted with evidence of just that this morning. During breakfast, we spotted several whale blows in all directions around National Geographic Endurance . We sighted two southern right whales, one of the rarer cetaceans in the Southern Ocean, and numerous sei whales. We were also escorted by a large pod of long-finned pilot whales. The large males and pairs of mothers and calves were just off the bow. They had large, round, shiny heads, white blazes, and beautiful saddles. It was truly a treat to watch them effortlessly move through the water as a unit before disappearing together in one fluid dive. We had two lectures by the photo team. One helped us better understand the phone in our pockets, a.k.a. our smartphone, and the other helped us improve our bird photography. Next up was a lecture on the smell of the ocean by naturalist Conor Ryan. We learned how birds find dense prey aggregations in the vast ocean they call home. The seas were relatively calm, and the fog came and went throughout the day. Albatrosses soared along effortlessly as we moved toward our next destination. The air is getting noticeably cooler. Soon we will lose sight of the vegetation we have been enjoying along with the milder temperatures. We are getting ever closer to the Ross Sea. We are getting closer to Antarctica.