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Equator to Antarctica - Sector 2:

Updated: Apr 16, 2023

Callao to Punta Arenas

As Anno and Dave departed, we awaited the arrival of Brian Tollitt and Mikey Bailey. Brian made it to the ship by mid-morning, but Mikey got badly delayed on his journey and it would be well after 11pm before the whole team were united. Looking on the bright side, at least they had their luggage with them, so they were a lot luckier than many of the other entertainers! While we waited for Mikey, we contented ourselves with taking some photographs from the ship.

The ship’s ropes were playing host to the Humboldt’s most iconic bird: the incomparable Inca Tern. It’s difficult to describe the impact this bird has on you when you first encounter it. There is nothing else like it. Stunningly extravagant white handlebar moustache and brilliant red feet and bill, set against a deep grey basic plumage with crisp white trim. They would be a constant feature in the coastal areas of our journey right through to Valparaiso.

As is usual in Callao harbour there were large numbers of gulls present including Franklin’s, Belcher’s (Band-tailed) and Grey Gull. The latter two species are specific to the region, whilst the former is a long-distance migrant from the prairie potholes of North America. The seasonal changeover was apparent as the local birds were beginning to moult into winter plumage while the Franklin’s were developing their breeding plumage.

Inca Terns rest on the ropes of the cruise liner MS Balmoral in the port of Callao Peru 29th January 2023
Inca Terns rest on MS Balmoral's ropes in Callao, Peru © Jeff Clarke - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

Inca Tern flying around Callao harbour 29th January 2023
Inca Tern in flight, Callao, Peru © Jeff Clarke - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

A Franklins Gull in the harbour at Callao, Peru 29th January 2023
Franklin's Gull gaining summer plumage, Callao, Peru © Jeff Clarke - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

A Belchers Gull in the habour at Callao, Peru 29th January 2023
Belcher's (Band-tailed) Gull, Callao, Peru © Jeff Clarke - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

We would now have two highly productive days at sea as we set off for Arica. As ever, the team, despite their two weary travellers, were on deck by sunrise on the 30th of January.

In terms of cetaceans, the big prize (literally) was another two Chilean Blue Whales, and thankfully this time we managed to get some half-decent photographs. Fin whales were also in evidence and this gave us the opportunity to help the passengers understand the diagnostic features of the two species. We occasionally record Humpback Whales in the Humboldt at this time of year but a tally of 28 that day was exceptional in our experience. One 'humpy' breached spectacularly very close to the port side bow, bringing a huge cheer from the watchers. Thankfully, David Geary, one of the passengers aboard, captured the moment, Later that day we also had a 40+ pod of very large, dark, Common Bottlenose Dolphins, their bulk and colouration typical of the ‘offshore’ ecotype.

Two Chilean Blue Whales sounding in the Humboldt Current off southern Peru 30th January 2023
Chilean Blue Whales Humboldt Current, southern Peru © Mike Bailey - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

A Humpbacked Whale breaches close to MS Balmoral off Peru 30th January 2023
Humpbacked Whale breaching Humboldt current off Peru © David Geary

A Humpbacked Whale flukes in the Humboldt Current off Pero on the 30th January 2023
Humpback fluking off Peru © Mike Bailey - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

A pod of offshore ecotype Common Bottlenose Dolphins in the Humboldt current of Southern Peru on the 30th January 2023
Pod of 'offshore' Common Bottlenose Dolphin, Humboldt Current of Peru © Mike Bailey - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

There were things leaping out of the ocean other than dolphins, there were regular 'tuna boils' and also a fish with many names, take your pick from Mahi-mahi, Dolphinfish, or Dorado, that also happened to be a regular feature on MS Balmoral's menu.

A Mahi-mahi jumps out of the Humboldt off Southern Peru 31st January 2023.
A Mahi-mahi goes aerial off southern Peru © Mike Bailey - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

Depressingly, we were still seeing dead sea lions, but with a bizarre twist on cause and effect. Every time we saw an American Black Tern it was stood on a dead pinniped. Clearly this tern has macabre perch preferences!

An American Black Tern uses a dead South American Sea Lion as a perch of southern Peru 30th  January 2023
American Black Tern perched on dead Sea Lion © Jeff Clarke - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

One of the curiosities of travelling on a cruise ship along the Humboldt Current off Ecuador and Peru is the different behaviour exhibited by Swallow-tailed Gull, depending upon whether it is day or night. During the day, the best you can hope for is a close fly-by. At night, the birds will come in close to feed on zooplankton and fish that are disturbed by the ship. Following the nightly sightings log on the 31st January there was an opportunity to test this. Brian’s torch beam illuminated a number of birds flying alongside Balmoral and Mikey caught a wonderfully ethereal image of a summer-plumaged bird feeding alongside the ship.

A summer plumaged Swallow-tailed Gull caught in the torchbeam as it feeds alongside MS Balmoral off southern Peru 30th January 2023
Swallow-tailed Gull feeds in the dead of night off southern Peru © Mike Bailey - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

This section of the cruise proved particularly productive for storm-petrels, with Fuegian, Peruvian (Wedge-rumped) and Markham’s all being recorded. Hornby’s, in particular, were present in very large numbers, with well in excess of 2000 observed on 31st January alone. The same day also saw 600+ Peruvian Storm-petrels recorded, so it was no surprise when one of them landed on the ship overnight and needed to be rescued the following day.

Hornby's (Ringed) Storm-petrels off southern Peru, all images © Mike Bailey - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

Due to the political unrest in Peru we had the bonus of two days in Arica to look forward to. The berthed ship was an excellent vantage point to survey the adjacent coastal waters for all kinds of marine life. The first couple of hours of daylight on the 1st of February were spent scanning from Balmoral’s top deck. Following a tip-off from Dave we were on high alert for another cetacean. The waters were beautifully calm, perfect for picking up the slightest ripple, 95% of which were created by South American Sea Lions. We were looking for a distinctive dorsal profile and sure enough after about 15 minutes of scanning we got our first glimpses of the elusive Burmeister’s Porpoise. Quite a few passengers had joined us and we spent an hour or so getting everyone keyed into these seldom-seen cetaceans. Three of our team had plied these waters before, multiple times, and never previously connected with Burmeister’s. It was a new species for all of us and was rightfully celebrated later in the day in one of the ship’s bars.

There is a Burmeister's Porpoise in this image. Honestly! Arica, Chile © Mike Bailey - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

From the top deck we could easily scope part of Ex Isla del Alacrán. It was obvious that there were lots of birds over there, particularly wading birds, so along with some keen birding passengers we set off on foot to explore it, only stopping momentarily to photograph a West Peruvian (Pacific) Dove.

A Pacific (West Peruvian) Dove in Arica, Chile 1st February 2023
West Peruvian (Pacific) Dove - Arica, Chile © Jeff Clarke - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

The standout feature of the island were the large numbers of Surfbird. The tide was advancing, so we sat down at a strategic point and patiently waited for the tide to bring the birds to us. This afforded some truly intimate views and the chance to get really detailed, close photographs. The Surfbirds were in a range of plumages, some still clearly in the drab grey of winter, while others had almost completed their transition to the variegated hues of their summer dress. Most of these birds would be departing for the mountains of Alaska and Yukon in early March.

Surfbirds - Arica, Chile © Mike Bailey (left & centre), Jeff Clarke (right) - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

Eventually we tore ourselves away from the Surfbirds to explore the rest of the island. If the Surfbirds had been sublime, watching Turkey Vultures consuming a dead Sea Lion through its eye socket was a little less edifying. Nature needs its undertakers.

A dead South American Sea Lion is consumed by Turkey Vultures on a beach in Arica, Chile, 1st February 2023
The Undertakers. Turkey Vultures consume a dead sea lion in Arica, Chile © Jeff Clarke - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

The rocky beach area was busy with lizards. Most scuttled away, but the odd one posed, almost demanding to be photographed, so it seemed rude not to. They were identified, once we got back to the UK, as most likely being Four-banded Pacific Iguana Microlophus quadrivittatus. The rocks were also hosting Sally Lightfoot Crabs in the surf zone.

Four-banded Pacific Iguana - Arica, Chile © Jeff Clarke - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

Sally Lightfoot crabs on a beach in Arica, Chile 1st February 2023
Sally Lightfoot crabs - Arica, Chile © Jeff Clarke - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

Peruvian Boobies were feeding inshore and would periodically come in close to the surf line, giving a chance to really appreciate their fine plumage details.

A Peruvian Booby uses the updraught from the surf . Arica, Chile 1st February 2023
Peruvian Booby cruises past the surf off Arica, Chile © Jeff Clarke - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

Close to the outer point of the island we found a few other waders and terns. The foaming surf created some interesting uplighting effects and allowed us to get some lovely underlit images of the passing Hudsonian Whimbrels.

Hudsonian Whimbrels - Arica, Chile © Mike Bailey (left) Jeff Clarke (centre & right) - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

We then returned to the ship for refreshments before heading out on a true off-piste exploration.

Iquique and Beyond

On the 3rd of February we were docked for the first part of the day in Iquique. As we were due to sail mid-afternoon we opted to stay aboard, as there was no greenery within a two-hour drive. There was plenty of wildlife viewable from the ship however, including a party of 14 Black Skimmers and large numbers of three species of cormorant, namely Neotropic, Guanay and Red-legged. There were also hundreds of Inca and Elegant Terns close to hand within the harbour area. Waders visible from the ship included Hudsonian Whimbrel, as well as Blackish and American Oystercatcher.

A flock of Black Skimmers in flight in the port of Iquique, Chile 3rd February 2023
Black Skimmers pass MS Bamoral - Iquique , Chile © Mike Bailey - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

We would have a day and a half at sea before our next port. Once underway it wasn’t long before we were connecting with an impressive assortment of seabirds. This included our final sighting of Waved Albatross for the trip. The most abundant seabird over this section of the Humboldt was Markham’s Storm-petrel with over 850 recorded.

Markham's Storm-petrels off northern Chile © Jeff Clarke - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

About an hour before sunset, we had one of our most important sightings of the whole trip. The Chilean Coast was clearly visible off the port side when we saw a major disturbance in the water ahead of the ship also on the port side. We were astounded to see a distant Fin Whale ‘porpoising’ away at high speed. Two other Fin whales were also in the same general area. They all appeared to be in ‘flight’ mode. This seemed to be confirmed moments later when the tell-tale puffy blows and distinctive dorsals of Orca/Killer Whale erupted from the surface a few hundred metres behind them. They were strung out over several hundred metres in a picket-line arrangement. Once we locked on to them properly we were immediately struck by their huge white eye-patches. Our photographs, and the photographs of others, confirmed what we suspected: these were large ‘Type B’ Orca. This is significant because this ecotype primarily hunts seals in Antarctica, but it is suspected they travel to warmer waters whilst they are moulting their skin. Here was proof in black and white.

As the ship drew level with the Orca they had re-assembled as a cohesive pod and there was much lobtailing and other social interaction taking place. We lost them from view shortly afterwards but they remain vivid in the mind’s eye. We had other Orca sightings later that day but none as clear and exciting as this first one.

An Orca (large type B ecotype, one of a pod of 5+ of northern Chile just south of Iquique 3rd January 2023
Orca/Killer Whale (Large Type B Ecotype) of northern Chile © Mike Bailey - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

Two Orca/Killer Whale (Large Type B ecotype off northern Chile © Jeff Clarke - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

It was a busy afternoon and evening for cetaceans and marine mammals in general with Fin Whales, Sei Whales and Striped Dolphins also recorded, plus at least 18 rorqual whales that remained unidentified. Alongside the 600+ South American Sea Lions and at least one South American Fur Seal. Laura had her work cut-out logging all the sightings.

A fin whale surfaces off northern Chile just south of Iquique 3rd February 2023
Fin Whale of northern Chile © Mike Bailey - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

Our second sea day off northern Chile was even busier, with an even greater variety of pelagic birds and another stellar day for cetaceans.

Overnight a seabird had come aboard and landed on a passenger’s balcony. We were informed about it and as ever wondered what it would turn out to be. It was, as usual, another ‘tubenose’. On this occasion it was a Peruvian (Wedge-rumped) Storm-petrel. After a thorough check to ensure it was uninjured, we once more liberated it to continue its life on the ocean. It’s interesting to think that this bird could live and breed successfully for another twenty years, but just another day or so stranded on the ship and it would have died. If you ever do a cruise and have a balcony, please check it each morning for stranded birds. If you find one report it to Guest Services. Whilst we may not be aboard to do the rescuing, each cruise ship is supposed to have someone on board who is responsible for rescuing and releasing seabirds.

A Peruvian (Wedge-rumped) Storm-petrel is examined, by licensed bird Ringer Brian Tollitt for signs of injury before release from MS Balmoral  3rd February 2023
Brian Tollitt checks out a Peruvian Storm-Petrel prior to release © Jeff Clarke - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

The most abundant seabird of the day was Peruvian Booby with over 400 recorded, but it was two other booby species that were the standout records of the day. The first was a brown phase Red-footed Booby that actually settled on the bow of Balmoral and the second was a lone Nazca Booby that circled Balmoral just before sunset. These are both extreme rarities in Chilean waters, and both were hundreds of miles south of their normal southerly limit. It was no surprise that we were picking up good numbers of Juan Fernandez Petrels, with over 200 recorded during the day, as this Pterodroma’s breeding site of Isla Alejandro Selkirk was not too far away to the south-west. However, the similar number of Buller’s Shearwaters we observed came from much further afield. This species only breeds on small islets north of New Zealand. Most of these birds were clearly in heavy moult and had completed their breeding season. Markham’s Storm-petrel was by far the most abundant ‘Stormie’ of the four species observed during the day.

An adult Nazca Booby flies around MS Balmoral late evening 4th February 2023  just north of Coquimbo
Adult Nazca Booby, Humboldt current just north of Coquimbo, Chile © Jeff Clarke - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

Red-footed Booby off northern Chile © Jeff Clarke (left & centre) Mike Bailey (right) - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

Juan Fernandez Petrels off northern Chile © Mike Bailey - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

Buller's Shearwaters off northern Chile © Jeff Clarke - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

For long periods during the day fins were poking above the surface of the calm sea, the vast majority belonged to South American Fur Seals. They tend to rest head down, and flippers up, so they can keep an eye out for underwater threats.

A South American Fur Seal is disturbed from its slumber as MS Balmoral passes it by in the Humboldt Current north of Coquimbo. 4th February 2023
South American Fur Seal off northern Chile © Brian Tollitt - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

The 4th of February was particularly good for shark sightings. It’s usually difficult to identify sharks to species level, but of the 13 individuals seen, one was definitely a Smooth Hammerhead. There was also a Thresher-type, what appeared to be a Blue Shark, and we also recorded a billfish sp.

Billfish species off northern Chile © Mike Bailey - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

Any day with a Blue Whale is a good one; any day with five Chilean Blue Whales is nothing short of exceptional. We wonder how many Common Dolphins it takes to make one Chilean Blue Whale? Perhaps the 1,615+ recorded on this day might just be enough. At one point we thought we might get that ultimate dolphin shot leaping against the setting sun. We failed, but we got close to achieving it, and it was still a glorious scene.

A pod of Common Dolphins leaping in front of the setting sun off northern Chile just north of Coquimbo 4th February 2023
Common Dolphins at Sunset off northern Chile © Jeff Clarke - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

At Sea off Coquimbo

The harbour at Coquimbo is a great vantage point for seeing a wide variety of coastal seabirds and you could hardly miss the many thousands of Kelp Gulls massed around the area. No doubt most of them were taking advantage of the free handouts available from the nearby fish market. We were still seeing plenty of Inca Terns at this point, and of course there were the scavenging Turkey Vultures and Chimango Caracara to be observed from the ship whilst in the harbour.

A Chimango Caracara feeds on a large bone in Coquimbo , Chile 5th February 2023
A Chimango Caracara scavenging a large bone in Coquimbo © Jeff Clarke - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

We only had five hours of daylight left as Balmoral left Coquimbo but it proved to be a very productive spell. Right outside the harbour mouth were hundreds of cormorants, both Guanay and Neotropic, together with perhaps 50 Red-legged Cormorant.

A large flock of Guanay Cormorant feeding of Coquimbo, Chile 5th February 2023
A large flock of Guanay Cormorant just off Coquimbo, Chile © Jeff Clarke - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

Once out in the Humboldt Current we enjoyed a fantastic spell for one of the small petrels: De Filippi’s Petrel, sometimes referred to as Masatierra Petrel. This species breeds out on the Juan Fernandez Islands and it was therefore no surprise that we also saw smaller numbers of its much larger congener, the Juan Fernandez Petrel. As it happens, Masatierra is an alternative name for the Juan Fernandez Islands.

A De Filippi's Petrel in the Humboldt Current off Coquimbo, Chile 5th February 2023
De Filippi's (Masatierra) Petrel off Coquimbo, Chile © Mike Bailey - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

De Filippi's Petrels off Coquimbo, Chile © Mike Bailey (left) Jeff Clarke (centre & right)) - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

We did pick up a few significant sightings of other tubenoses including a Westland Petrel. The only known breeding colonies are in New Zealand on the west coast of South Island in the forested coastal foothills between Barrytown and Punakaiki.

Westland Petrel off Coquimbo, Chile © Jeff Clarke - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

We also picked out two White-bellied Storm-petrels. This is an interesting species because the latest research indicates that it is likely to be another complex of cryptic species. The ones we were observing here are presumably what some authorities refer to as Juan Fernandez Storm-petrel.

White-bellied Storm-petrel off Coquimbo © Jeff Clarke (left & centre) Mike Bailey (right) - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

Albatross-wise it was slim pickings with just five Salvin’s Albatross recorded; this species’ closest breeding sites being some of the sub-Antarctic Islands of New Zealand.

At Sea off Concepción

On the 7th of February we awoke to a moody, lumpy, grey sea. A force 6 wind dampened our hopes of a dolphin-fest, but dark clouds can still have silver linings. It would turn out to be another day full of interest, even if getting decent images in the murky conditions would be a challenge.

We hadn’t been on deck very long when a Chilean Blue Whale broke surface close to the ship allowing us to get a few reasonable shots as it rolled before sounding. Small by Blue Whale standards, this is nonetheless a very big beast, with a mighty blow.

A Chilean Blue Whale surfaces in the Humboldt Current aproximately 100nm north of Concepcion, Chile 7th February 2023
Chilean Blue Whale 100nm north of Concepcion, Chile © Jeff Clarke - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

It wasn’t long before our next surprise. Jeff had just left the bow and was heading down the port side when a medium-sized rorqual whale suddenly leapt clear out of the water not too far from the ship. He didn’t even have time to lift the camera to his eye so just fired off a burst of images. More by luck than judgment he captured the whale mid-leap. The light was poor, so the image is very grainy, but we’ve done some extra, post-production, work on the picture since we got back and the consensus is probably that it is a young Sei, rather than a young Fin Whale.

A young rorqual whale, presumed Sei, breaches in the Humboldt Current off Central Chile 7th February 2023
Young Sei Whale (presumed) breaching off central Chile © Jeff Clarke - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

While we were watching all of this whale activity, we were also seeing masses of Grey Phalaropes again, with over 2000 recorded, re-affirming the frequent connection between their presence and the proximity of big whales. Most of the whale activity was well north, more than 60 nautical miles, of Concepción. Strangely, when we reached Concepción, we barely saw a large cetacean, in an area where previously large concentrations of baleen whales have congregated at this time of year. La Niña is having some interesting impacts on distributions within the Humboldt this year.

Large flocks of Grey Phalarope congregate close to concentrations of large rorqual whales  in the Humboldt Current 7th February 2023
Grey Phalaropes near concentrations of rorqual whales off Central Chile © Mike Bailey - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

Given the conditions, we were delighted when we finally picked up a pod of dolphins scooting through the whitecaps. Their distinctive two-tone arcing fins gave them away as Dusky Dolphins and we eventually saw one or two momentarily leap clear to confirm their identity.

It was a good day for the diversity of tubenoses. Stejneger’s, De-Filippi’s and Juan Fernandez Petrels were all seen along with a probable Kermadec Petrel, though Pink-footed and particularly Sooty Shearwaters were the most abundant.

A Stejneger's Petrel in the Humboldt Current north of Concepcion, Chile 7th February 2023
Stejneger's Petrel (record shot) off central Chile © Mike Bailey - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

It was also a good day for albatrosses, with three Snowy Wanderers, 60+ Salvin’s, 50+ Black-browed and 50+ Northern Royal all recorded. One of the latter was an exceptionally unusual bird as it had silvery grey upper-wings, compared with the normal wholly blackish. This bird seemed to be expressing ‘leucism’ in its plumage, a well-known condition in many bird species, however we’ve checked the internet and can find no reference to any previous observations of it in this species.

A Salvin's Albatross in the Humboldt Current off central Chile 7th February 2023
Salvin's Albatross off central Chile © Mike Bailey - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

A Northern Royal Albatross in the Humboldt Current off central Chile 7th February 2023
Northern Royal Albatross off central Chile © Brian Tollitt - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

Northern Royal Albatross © Mike Bailey (left) Jeff Clarke (centre) Brian Tollitt (right) - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

As dusk fell we had pretty much concluded our vigil for the day when Mikey got on to a blowing beast in the water. He looked at his images to confirm his suspicions. It was a Sperm Whale; surprisingly our first of the trip.

A Sperm Whale surfaces of central Chile 7th February 2023
Sperm Whale off central Chile © Mike Bailey - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

The weather on the 8th of February was a lot kinder, force 3-4 wind and slight seas, but we lost a few hours to fog, so our cetacean and seabird totals look somewhat less impressive than the previous day. Sooty Shearwater was the most abundant seabird with over 5000 recorded. Arguably the tubenose highlight of the day was Subantarctic Shearwater. We recorded a minimum of twelve as we approached Chiloé Island. This species was taxonomically split from Little Shearwater in 2015.

A Subantarctic Little Shearwater in the Humboldt current north of Chiloe Island 8th February 2022
Subantarctic Little Shearwater off central Chile © Mike Bailey - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

We recorded a handful of Giant Petrels, at least one of which proved to be Northern Giant Petrel, usually much the scarcer of the two species in the Humboldt.

A Northern Giant Petrel in the Humboldt Current north of Chiloe Island 8th February 2023
Northern Giant Petrel north of Chiloe Island © Jeff Clarke - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

Most of our cetacean sightings occurred as we closed in on Chiloé Island. Several hours had passed without a sighting when suddenly a small pod of cavorting dolphins went aerial and their hooded appearance confirmed them as Peale’s Dolphin, another new species for the trip to add to the list.

Just off the north-west coast of Chiloé there is an underwater canyon. It is a known hotspot for whales, particularly Chilean Blue Whales. We had keyed many of the passengers in to be on the alert, especially as our track would just about clip the tail-end of the canyon.

There were the hoped-for blows… big blows… Excitement was rising, and then a pale body rolled and a fluke broke the surface at a shallow angle. Right on cue. Three Chilean Blue Whales showed distantly and for many of our passengers this was a big moment as it was their very first view of a Chilean Blue Whale. Suddenly there were lots of blows and over the next hour, 24 more whales were spotted at least 20 of which were identified as Humpback Whales.

A 'fog-bow' north of Chiloe Island © Brian Tollitt - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

There were also lots of inshore birds in view, without any being close enough to photograph, as we made our way toward the Chacao Strait, and then on through in to the Golfo de Ancud: Peruvian Pelican, Red-legged, Imperial and Neotropic Cormorant, Kelp Gull and South American Tern. Just at the narrows, as the sun dipped below the horizon, we spied our first Black-necked Swans: a pre-cursor for the following day ashore.

Leaving Chiloé Island

As we departed Chiloé Island we left behind the Kelp and Brown-hooded Gulls at the tender jetty. As MS Balmoral made her sedate passage through the channels that lead out into the Golfo de Corcovado, many south American Terns were fishing around the oyster farms and a little further out penguins began appearing ahead of the vessel. All of those we identified to species were Magellanic Penguin, but they all need checking here because this is the last stop for the Humboldt Penguin as well.

A South American Tern with Chiloe Island in the background 9th February 2023
South American Tern flying against the backdrop of Chiloe island © Jeff Clarke - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

A Magellanic Penguin in the channels off Castro, Chiloe Island 9th February 2023
Magellanic Penguin off Chiloe Island © Jeff Clarke - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

We were also picking up Peale’s Dolphins, and we had two pods totalling at least nine individuals. This same area has a lot of oyster farms and the buoys marking these farms were filled with loafing South American Sea Lions, probably more than 200 were counted in short order. A little further out we once again found Humpback Whales, with a total of five observed.

Peale's Dolphins in the channels of Chiloe Island 9th February 2023
Peale's Dolphins plough through the water off Castro, Chiloe Island © Jeff Clarke - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

Once we cleared the channels and got out into the Golfo de Corcovado we were on high alert for the diminutive and local endemic, Pincoya Storm-petrel. This is just about their most southerly limit. It was obviously our lucky day as Mikey and Brian found a few birds initially and a little while later Laura and Jeff found another small flock. Several birds were indulging in their characteristic ‘mouse-run’ where they quickly patter over the surface with their wings close to their sides. The bonus was getting some of the keener birders aboard on to this range-restricted species. We passed this small flock and minutes later we were watching increasing numbers of Fuegian Storm-petrels. We never saw another Pincoya.

A little while later we noticed the Sooty Shearwater numbers picking up and we quickly counted over 2000, but the daylight slipped away too soon.

A Sooty Shearwater taking off in the Golfo de Corcovado 9th February 2023
A Sooty Shearwater gets airborne - Golfo de Corcovado, Chile © Jeff Clarke - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

On the morning of the 10th we were in Aysen Fjord heading for Puerto Chacabuco. Sadly, we never made it as there was a blockage across the harbour, caused by stray fishing gear, that the port authorities could not clear in time. So we headed back out of the system and into the Pacific.

Once back out in the Pacific the Sooty Shearwaters were picking up exactly where they had left off the previous evening and by the end of the day we recorded over 10,000.

Unfortunately, the wind had picked up considerably and was gusting force 8 at times, sometimes combined with heavy squalls. Finding cetaceans would be a tall order but the birds were making up for it. Surprisingly, we were seeing lots of South American Fur Seals, with many of them passing very close to the ship despite the swell.

Black-browed Albatross - Chile © Mike Bailey (imm. left) Jeff Clarke (Ads centre & right) - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

It would be another day with five species of albatross. Black-browed was by far the most abundant, but we were regally entertained by both Southern and Northern Royals, backed up by a Wandering Albatross species and finally Salvin’s Albatross. The light in the morning was really poor but it improved after mid-afternoon and that allowed us to try and photograph the Southern Giant Petrels and albatrosses that played around Balmoral’s stern. There would be no getting on the bow on this day; the wind was too fierce.

A Snowy wandering Albatross, possibly stage3, off Southern Chile 10th February 2023
Wandering Albatross species (immature) off Southern Chile © Jeff Clarke - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

Southern Giant Petrels - Chile © Jeff Clarke (Ads left & centre) Mike Bailey (imm. right) - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

The 11th would be a day for Brian to get his hands on another seabird. This time he rescued a Sooty Shearwater off a balcony. These are very powerful birds and take a lot of controlling. You need to be cautious of their razor-sharp talon-like toes just as much as their hook-tipped bill. Brian gave it a thorough health check and once satisfied, prepared it for release. Having previously taken lumps out of him, the bird now sat contentedly on Brian’s outstretched arm. It was good couple of minutes when, with a little encouragement, it finally departed to return to a life on the ocean.

Brian Tollitt of Ocean Wildlife Encounters recues and releases a Sooty Shearwater in Southern Chile 11th February 2023
Brian Tollitt rescues and releases a Sooty Shearwater - southern Chile © Mike Bailey - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

The 11th would also provide great entertainment on the albatross front. As usual the Black-browed Albatross dominated but we had a wonderful selection of plumage stages for the Wandering Albatrosses. The Snowy Wanderer is the default wanderer species in this region but after inspecting our images once we were home, we began questioning that assumption. On this day nearly all the birds seen had distinctive solid caps, a feature for Antipodean Albatross which is known to turn up in the Humboldt. During the morning we also had excellent encounters with a few Southern Royal Albatrosses, the heaviest of all albatross species. It also happens to hail from the same vector as the Antipodean Albatross.

A Wandering Albatross species, presumed Antipodean , probably female, off Southern Chile 11th February 2023. Photographed from MS Balmoral
Presumed Antipodean Albatross, probably female, off Southern Chile © Jeff Clarke - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

Presumed Antipodean Albatrosses - Chile © Jeff Clarke - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

Wanderer species, probably Antipodean Albatross - southern Chile © Mike Bailey - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

Southern Royal Albatrosses - Chile © Mike Bailey - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

The morning of the 12th was Mikey and Brian’s last full day aboard and we aimed to make the most of it.

A Southern Giant Petrel glides past cruise liner MS Balmoral on 12th February 2023
Southern Giant Petrel - Magellan Strait, Chile © Jeff Clarke - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

Fairly early in the day we re-entered the fjord system and began our transit along the Magellan Strait. Seabird diversity tends to reduce in the fjords but there are parts of the Magellan Strait that can still be productive for the likes of Black-browed Albatross, Southern Giant Petrel and Magellanic Diving Petrel. The small flock of Rufous-chested Dotterel that passed Balmoral, as we reached the most southerly point of mainland South America, were less anticipated.

A flock of Rufouse-chested Dotterel fly past MS Balmoral in the Magellan Strait 12th February 2023
Rufous-chested Dotterels - Magellan Strait, Chile © Jeff Clarke - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

There are also a few hotspots for cetaceans. We scanned every tidal rip in search of the region’s smallest cetacean and we eventually had a few seconds view of two separate Chilean Dolphins, but they were only seen by Mikey and Jeff. The most productive area was around the King Carlos III Island, where we encountered a scattered group of Humpback Whales as well as some more Peale’s Dolphins. We eventually arrived in Punta Arenas shortly after 4pm. As usual we had successfully located a few Sei Whales which frequent the strait in that area. Those passengers touring Magdallena Island the following day would have very close encounters with them.

As usual the coast around Punta Arenas was thronging with birdlife as there were thousands of Imperial Cormorants, and smaller numbers of Rock Cormorant mixed in. Along the beach where Balmoral was berthed you could find Magellanic Oystercatcher. Dolphin Gulls and Kelp Gulls adorned the ship’s ropes and were dotted around the harbour. Crested Ducks and Kelp Geese were scattered along the coastline, along with a passerine, Dark-bellied Cinclodes. There were, as usual, plenty of Sea Lions around the harbour and these would be the last marine mammal recorded by the Sector Two team.

An Imperial Cormorant on the beach at Punta Arenas 12th February 2023
Imperial Cormorant - Punta Arenas © Brian Tollitt - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

Magellanic Oystercatcher - Punta Arenas © Brian Tollitt - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

A Dolphin Gull on the ship's rail in Punta Arenas 12th February 2023
Dolphin Gull - Punta Arenas © Brian Tollitt - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

Kelp Gull - Punta Arenas © Brian Tollitt - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

Bar one last ‘off’piste’ adventure that was it for this middle sector.

The following morning it was time for Mikey and Brian to head for the airport. It had been a superb two weeks, and despite the exhaustion it had flown by. Mikey and Brian were a big hit with the passengers. We’d all worked our socks off and it had paid off handsomely. The final bonus moment came as Emma and Russell, their replacements, arrived in the passenger terminal at the cruise port before Mikey and Brian had left, and they had a chance for a quick catch-up, before the hellish four-flight journey back to the UK.

Two members of the Ocean Wildlife Encounters team  (Mike Bailey and Brain Tollitt) keeping watch at sunset on MS Balmoral February 2023
Mike Bailey and Brian Tollitt keep watch at sunset on MS Balmoral © Ocean Wildlife Encounters

Team Sector 2 from left, Mike Bailey, Jeff Clarke, Laura Dennis & Brian Tollitt © Ocean Wildlife Encounters

You can read the Sector 1 blog here

Please note: All images and text are copyright of the photographer/author and Ocean Wildlife Encounters. Passengers on the cruise may copy images copyrighted to Ocean Wildlife Encounters for personal use only.

The final part (3) of the blog is in preparation and will be published shortly.

Acknowledgments: Ocean Wildlife Encounters would like to thank the following individuals and organisations: Fred Olsen Cruise Lines, the crew of MS Balmoral, our agents Peel Talent and in particular Sara Andrew, for enabling our participation in this epic adventure.

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