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Sector 3: Punta Arenas to Buenos Aires

Punta Arenas to Cape Horn

On the 13th February, Jeff and Laura welcomed Emma Neave-Webb and Russell Neave aboard MS Balmoral. They had been travelling from their home in Sanday, in the Orkney Islands, for the best part of a week to rendezvous with the ship at the tip of mainland South America.

Domestic arrangements conducted we were all on deck in time for the sail-away along the Magellan Strait as Balmoral made her way to the infamous Cape Horn. As we departed, we left behind the massive colonies of Imperial Cormorant that decorate the coastal areas of Punta Arenas.

An Imperial Cormorant preens on the stantion for mooring cruise ships in Punta Arenas harbour 13th February 2023
Imperial Cormorant on MS Balmoral's mooring stantion in Punta Arenas © Jeff Clarke - OWE

Almost immediately we were on high alert for cetaceans, and it wasn’t long before we connected with our first pod of Peale’s Dolphins indulging in their energetic high jinks. We were on the lookout for Sei Whale as the waters here hold good numbers of this medium-sized rorqual, but surprisingly we could only confirm one definite sei whale, though three unidentified rorquals were probably this species. Unusually in these waters they were outscored by Humpback Whales with seven individuals confirmed.


The other marine mammals on our list were the South American Sea Lion, which is always abundant close to Punta Arenas, but it was more of a surprise to record over a hundred South American Fur Seal in these waters before sunset. It had been a promising start to what would be a phenomenal two weeks.


Cape Horn

On 14th February 2023 Balmoral made her approach towards the infamous Cape Horn. We’ve all made this trip a number of times and we’ve seen these waters in tumult and in eerily placid states. This time, mother nature smiled upon us with a benign mood, at least for our passage past the Cape. Just as well because when we looked at our weather report for the day it said simply “Everything!”


We approached from the Pacific running in from the NW. It’s not something we get to do very often as the weather is often too unfavourable. Rather surprisingly, we only saw a single Snowy Wandering Albatross, but we did at least add a new species of albatross to our trip list in the sublime form of Grey-headed Albatross, a true cold-water species that is like a Black-browed Albatross with whistles and bells attached. Black-browed Albatross was by far the most numerous albatross species seen, though 50+ Southern Royal Albatross was an impressive total for that species.

A Grey-headed Albatross passes MS Balmoral on the approach to Cape Horn 140223
Grey-headed Albatross (record shot) off Cape Horn © Jeff Clarke

As we made our approach towards the Horn, there were black and white dots decorating the rocks. These were Imperial Shags, thousands and thousands of them! Both forms were present here, the black-faced King and the pale faced ‘Blue-eyed’.


However, Jeff noticed something sat on top of the highest rock pinnacle which had a distinctly raptorial shape. Sure enough, once we had it in the scope, there sat a juvenile Andean Condor, or as the passengers called it, “the dot on the rock”. After a short period of time it took off, causing consternation among the cormorants. Of all the things we anticipated seeing that day, a condor at the most southerly point of South America certainly wasn’t on the list. As we made our two-thirds circumnavigation of the Cape we also saw our one and only Striated Caracara of the whole trip.

A Andean Condor perches on the top of the rock at Cape Horn, with a breeding colony of Imperial Cormorants below. 140223
The 'Dot on the Rock' Cape Horn above Imperial Cormorants © Jeff Clarke - OWE

The cetacean highlight was undoubtedly the pod of Peale’s Dolphin that put on a spectacular aerial performance. Otherwise, it was one of those frustrating days when most of the whales didn’t show well and only a single Sei Whale was confirmed to species.


Ushuaia

We spent most of the 15th February in Ushuaia, the capital of Tierra del Fuego, but more of that in our ‘off-piste’ blog. As we departed that evening along the Beagle Channel, the terrible light made photography pointless, which was a shame as the channel itself was loaded with birds, particularly Sooty Shearwaters. We also saw several pods of dolphins; most were identified as Peale’s Dolphin and some even came to ride Balmoral’s bow. Just as darkness finally fell, we reached Martillo Island and through the scope it was possible to see thousands of Magellanic Penguins along its shoreline. This was a foretaste of what was to come at our next destination, Antarctica.


Drake Passage Southward

There are many notorious stretches of ocean, but few are quite so ferocious, or infamous, as the Drake Passage. Thankfully we were in a weather window between storms so we had an easy ride in force 4 winds and moderate seas. It was even sunny in the early part of the day.

Things looked promising when we were joined shortly after breakfast by an immature Light-mantled Sooty Albatross. This species often checks out passing ships for a few minutes before continuing their exploration of the Southern Ocean and this individual followed the same pattern. All albatrosses are fabulous birds but there is something about the Light-mantled Sooty that elevates it to another level.

Light-mantled Sooty Albatross immature - Drake Passage © Jeff Clarke - OWE

Unfortunately, the head-on southerly wind made it very difficult to stay on the bow end for long. The wind shake made getting good pictures a lottery but there were Prions, small silvery grey seabirds, angling past the bow. These birds are notoriously difficult to identify to species with certainty, and in order to be confident we needed a few conclusive photographs. The majority of images we have suggest that most were Slender-billed Prions, but we also recorded Antarctic Prion. Many remained unidentified to species. We were also picking up Soft-plumaged Petrels and Black-bellied Storm Petrels. We did our best to get some good images, but the wind was the winner today.

Slender billed Prion - Drake Passage © Jeff Clarke - OWE

Black-bellied Storm-petrel - Drake Passage © Jeff Clarke - OWE

We even struggled with the cetaceans, by the end of the day we had accumulated unidentified beaked whale 1, unidentified Rorqual Whale 1, unidentified dolphin sp 3. The unidentified rorqual whale was hugely frustrating. Emma saw it surface close to the ship twice and got an immediate impression of a small rorqual whale with a blunt head. This would likely make it a Pygmy Right Whale which we all were desperate to see, but it promptly vanished into the depths not to be seen again. Some days that’s just how the cookie crumbles.


Antarctica

There will hardly be a naturalist alive that doesn’t have Antarctica on their bucket-list, so you can imagine the buzz among the OWE team as we approached the Antarctic Peninsula. The closer we got to the ice the more porpoising penguins appeared in the water and then we started seeing blows against the murky skies.

Gentoo Penguin porpoising © Jeff Clarke - OWE

The first group of whales had very divergent bushy blows; we dared to hope, and as the trio fluked they confirmed their identity as Southern Right Whales, our first of the trip and big whoops of delight all around. Little did we know they would be the only ones we would see.

Pretty soon afterwards we were seeing more blows and groups of whales, bushy but less divergent; sure enough they turned out to be Humpback Whales.


Once we entered Neumeyer Channel Humpbacks seemed to be everywhere. In just a few hours we recorded a minimum of 44 and we ended up with some great fluke shots that we have since sent across to HappyWhale in the hope of getting some information on the individuals in question. More on that later!

The weather was very variable during the day - one minute sunshine, the next engulfed in a blizzard - although the latter produced some of our most atmospheric images of the Humpbacks.

Humpback in an Antarctic blizzard © Jeff Clarke - OWE

As we approached Port Lockroy another cetacean, this time an Antarctic Minke Whale, popped up alongside Balmoral. Off in the distance towards the Penguin Post Office Emma picked up on a couple of other shapes in the water. They were beaked whales, but as usual they eluded identification.

Antarctic Minke Whale - Antarctic Peninsula © Jeff Clarke - OWE

There were plenty of bergs in the water and the Ice Pilots aboard Balmoral were working with the Navigational Bridge to take us safely thought the maze of ice. Every now and again we would pass a berg with a shape lying prone upon it. It would be a seal, but it could be one of three species.

Weddell Seal - Antarctica © Jeff Clarke - OWE

Crabeater Seal - Antarctica © Russell Neave - OWE

Weddell and Crabeater Seals are the commonest and they are the ones typically targeted by the Large Type B Killer Whales made famous in documentaries such as Blue Planet and Frozen Earth. We searched in vain for the Killer Whales, but we saw several of their favourite prey. The third seal, the fearsome Leopard Seal is only rarely targeted by Killer Whales, and with good reason as they have a fearsome set of gnashers and huge gape. They could certainly inflict severe injury on a careless Killer Whale. We saw at least five Leopard seals lying on their preferred flattish bergs. Nearby we would see their favourite food too, penguins!

Leopard Seal - Antarctica © Jeff Clarke - OWE

The other seal species present in the area was less prone to being prone, as it was an eared seal, Antarctic Fur Seal to be precise. They have distinctive white whiskers and a habit of using their elongated fore-flippers as a resting prop, this gives them a distinctive angled posture, making them easy to identify even at great distance.

Antarctic Fur Seal - Antarctica © Emma Neave-Webb - OWE

There were thousands of Gentoo Penguins in the general area dispersed in breeding colonies marked out by brownish stains on the ice or as tracks leading up the slopes to higher colonies. They were also on the bergs, or scooting through the water between them. The Leopard seals would have to be quick to catch a Gentoo as they are the fastest penguin in the water. Careful searching through the penguins on the bergs would occasionally reveal another species, the delightful Chinstrap Penguin.

Gentoo Penguin colony - Antarctica © Jeff Clarke - OWE

Chinstrap Penguin - Antarctica © Jeff Clarke - OWE

We slowly picked our way through though the system and towards the end of the day we explored the Lamaire Channel. This unexpected bonus produced one of the most scenically outstanding moments of this Antarctic passage as the setting sun peaked through a gap in the clouds to create an illuminated patch of ice at the head of the channel. It was a ‘wow’ moment that will live with us all forever.

Lamaire Channel at Sunset © Jeff Clarke - OWE

Shortly after breakfast on the 18th we began cruising though the appropriately named Paradise Bay. It was a stupendous scene and the multitude of blowing Humpback Whales was the icing on the cake, so to speak. Some of the Humpies were in a demonstrative mood and we finally caught one in mid-breach. There was plenty of lunge-feeding activity and flipper slapping and it was an excellent opportunity to see how these animals work together in pairs to feed.


Breaching Humpback - Antarctica © Jeff Clarke - OWE

End of the breach sequence - Antarctica © Jeff Clarke - OWE

Lunge feeding and flipper slapping Humpbacked Whales - Antarctica © Jeff Clarke - OWE

A selection of Humpbacked Whale flukes - Antarctica © Jeff Clarke - OWE

Antarctic Peninsula Humpbacked Whale Activity heat map - 92 whales - 18th Feb 2023 © Laura Dennis - OWE

There were big bergs aplenty, and this provided one of our stellar birds of the trip, the gorgeous Snow Petrel, initially picked up by Tim Watson, as a small flock sat atop a huge berg. In the afternoon we cruised through the Gerlache Strait. It was a feast of ice, with plenty of seals and countless numbers of penguins, but despite really hard searching we still found no Killer Whales.

Snow Petrels atop a large berg - Antarctic Peninsula © Jeff Clarke - OWE

Once back out in the open ocean we began picking up a greater variety of seabirds including Wilson’s Storm-petrels and Southern Fulmars in good numbers, but conditions deteriorated and photography wasn’t really viable. By the time we passed Enterprise Island that evening it was mostly lost in the mist.

Wilson's Storm-Petrel - Antarctic Peninsula © Jeff Clarke - OWE

Photography opportunities and the weather significantly improved on the 19th as we passed Deception and King George Islands in the South Shetland Islands. The first big prize of the day came in the form of a ‘White Nelly’, prompting Jeff to spring from one side of the bow to the other yelling loudly to get people on the bird. A White Nelly is a very scarce ‘white-morph’ form of the Southern Giant Petrel. We’d glimpsed one a couple of day earlier in the mist, but today we got a fantastic view of one sat on the water close to the bow on the starboard side.

'White Nelly' morph Southern Giant Petrel - South Sheltand Islands © Jeff Clarke - OWE

Deception Island is full of penguins but here the Chinstraps matched the Gentoos in numbers and we estimated no fewer than 10,000 of each species. It was an incredible sight to see the shorelines of the islands decorated with the dots of penguins. But there were also lots of brown lumps between them. A closer look through the telescope confirmed they were almost all Antarctic Fur Seals; over 2000 of them.

Penguin Colonies on Deception Island - South Shetland © Jeff Clarke - OWE

We had large numbers of skuas present and most of those we identified to species proved to be South Polar Skua. We had all kinds of weather during the day; one moment we were photographing skua in the sunshine, the next it was an adult Northern Giant Petrel in a blizzard.

South Polar Skua - South Shetland Islands © Jeff Clarke - OWE

Northern Giant Petrel in a blizzard - South Shetland Islands © Jeff Clarke - OWE

Perhaps one of the salutary moments of the trip came at King George Island. The place is riddled with Antarctic Research Stations and the following nations have bases there: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, China, South Korea, Peru, Poland, Russia, Uruguay and the United States. Considering the fragile state of the Antarctic ecosystem you would imagine that a single research facility under the auspices of the United Nations would have a reduced impact on the environment. We can only conclude that the political imperatives of the individual nations are considered more valuable than co-operation in scientific endeavours.


If what had gone before in Antarctica had been memorable and emotional, then what occurred on the 20th as we passed Elephant Island transcended all expectations. It would be one of the standout wildlife days of the OWE team’s collective consciousness. On top of that, you had the human history aspect. This was the place where Ernest Shackleton and his extraordinary crew landed after escaping their fate in Antarctica where their vessel Endurance had been crushed in sea-ice, and somehow, they found a way to survive a winter on Elephant Island, before navigating their way to South Georgia and rescue.

Elephant Island - 20th February 2023 © Jeff Clarke - OWE

First up, as we made our approach, we had another memorable encounter with a ‘White-Nelly’, this time a close fly-by. We had many species coming close enough for reasonable photographs: Antarctic Prions, Southern Fulmars and Soft-plumaged Petrels. We also had two more Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses, which included our one and only adult specimen.

'White Nelly' Southern Giant Petrel off Elephant Island © Jeff Clarke - OWE

Antarctic Prion off Elephant Island © Jeff Clarke - OWE


Southern Fulmar off Elephant Island © Jeff Clarke - OWE

Light-mantled Sooty Albatross adult off Elephant Island © Jeff Clarke - OWE

As we closed in on the channel between Clarence Island and Elephant Island the ocean dynamics created a crescendo of organic life. The blows of big rorqual whales were all around us and in the distance were maelstroms of oceanic birds in a feeding frenzy, reminiscent of a humungous Catherine wheel laid out horizontally as the birds swirled in a vortex. To describe the situation as a sensory overload is not an exaggeration. It was impossible to know where to look, it was everything, everywhere, all at once.


There were tens of thousands of birds in a very small part of the ocean and the majority were the stunningly beautiful Cape Petrel or Pintado as it is also known. They were intermingled with almost as many Antarctic Prions and there were also thousands of Gentoo Penguins in the water below the frenzy.

Cape (Pintado) Petrel off Elephant Island © Jeff Clarke - OWE

There were so many fin whales we were struggling to keep up with recording them. For three out of the four of us this two-three hour spell of activity would bring our personal best tally days for Fin Whale. Had we been able to identify all of the rorqual blows, Emma would have broken her own record too. By the end of the day, we had amassed a huge total of 153 Fin Whales and 133 unidentified large rorquals. The vast majority of these, if not all of them, were probably also Fin Whales, but we’ll never know.

Fin Whale blowing off Elephant Island © Jeff Clarke - OWE

Fin Whale rolling off Elephant Island © Jeff Clarke - OWE

Fin Whale Activity heat map - Elephant Island - 20th Feb 2023 © Laura Dennis - OWE

Elephant Island is a well-known haunt of the Southern Elephant Seal. We scanned the shorelines assiduously picking up some small groups hauled up on the beaches. We recorded a minimum of 40+ animals. They were outnumbered 5 to 1 by Antarctic Fur Seal.


As we later steamed north through the Drake Passage on track for the Falkland Islands, there was a noticeable drop off in true Antarctic birds like Southern Fulmar and a noticeable increase in the likes of Soft-plumaged Petrel and Common Diving Petrel. Russ and Jeff also individually managed to locate separate Blue Petrel. This was a species long overdue for the pair of them. Sadly, no images as both birds were brief fly-bys.


Shortly before sunset, approximately 150 nautical miles north of Elephant Island, Jeff photographed a rather distant 'Wandering' Albatross. Whilst processing images for this blog, several months later, we noticed this birds has a blue dye patch on its chest. We have put out the feelers with albatross research groups to see if we can get some further information on this bird. We'll update the blog if we do.

Colour-dyed Wandering Alabatross sp. presumed D. exulans Drake Passage © Jeff Clarke - OWE


Drake Passage - Heading North

If the Drake Passage had been rather quiet for seabirds and cetaceans on the southward leg, it was a much livelier scene on the northbound leg towards the Falkland Islands. We had huge numbers of Sooty and Great Shearwaters, almost a constant stream at times, but they were supported by a superb array of tubenoses. A single Juan Fernandez Petrel was a complete surprise, as it was in the wrong ocean. The 50+ Grey Petrel were more anticipated and a new addition to our trip list. They would often tail Balmoral high over the ocean. Soft-plumaged Petrel were again out in force backed up by a small number of the slightly larger, more relaxed, Atlantic Petrel.

Grey Petrel - Drake Passage © Jeff Clarke - OWE

As usual, the Black-browed Albatross was the most abundant albatross with over 100 sighted during the day. Just two Southern Royals and 4+ Snowy Wanderers were slim pickings for the great albatrosses. We also had a young wanderer, that left us scratching our heads. It had a dark cutting edge on the upper mandible. We are doing some more research to try and get it identified to species, but it is likely to remain unresolved.

Black browed Albatross - Drake Passage © Jeff Clarke - OWE

Southern Royal Albatross - Drake Passage © Jeff Clarke - OWE

juvenile 'Wanderer' type Albatross with dark cutting edge on bill - Drake Passage © Jeff Clarke - OWE

Once again prions were in evidence, with both Slender-billed and Antarctic Prion recorded. The former being the far more numerous of those successfully identified. We also had a small number of White-chinned Petrel, a species almost continuously ubiquitous once we passed through the Panama Canal and headed southward. We again had both Giant Petrels for company with the Southern being comfortably the commoner. We also had a mystery petrel, spotted by passenger Tim Watson. His description seemed to match Great-winged Petrel, but we couldn’t eliminate Kerguelan Petrel from the conundrum as we had no photographic evidence to help us.

Slender-billed Prions - Drake Passage © Jeff Clarke - OWE

White-chinned Petrel - Drake Passage © Jeff Clarke - OWE

Southern Giant Petrel adult 'bicycling' - Drake Passage © Jeff Clarke - OWE

Throughout the day we had a rather lively sea state with plenty of white caps and a force 5 wind. This made looking for small cetacean something of a lottery. Thankfully 4 Sei whale showed well enough to be identified. Prior to joining the ship we’d all be contemplating what possibilities lay in store and for three of us in the team we had two distinctive black and white dolphin species on our wish list. We were in good waters for both species but the chop on the water was dampening our prospects.


Late in the afternoon we’d pretty much conceded defeat. Not a single dolphin fin had shown itself all day. In the last knockings of decent daylight, a splash ahead of the ship on the starboard side went suspiciously the 'wrong' way. Then nothing happened for a good ten minutes. We put the splash down to wishful thinking. Jeff was up toward the bow end on starboard when a series of splashes erupted approximately 400 metres at right angles to the ship. Up went the shout “DOLPHINS!” Jeff immediately got a few passengers close to him on to the area where the dolphins were. A quick scan to watch them leap clear and several distinct two-tone animals crashed through the wave tops. Radioing through to the others at the stern trying to get them on to the pod and out came the dolphins again and a very diagnostic dorsal, surely these were one of our target species. Other than a

minor disturbance at the surface a few seconds later the dolphins never showed again.


The rest of the team missed them entirely. By good fortune one of the few people that Jeff had managed to alert to their presence happened to be ‘dead-eye Dick’ photographer Barry Tichenor. Barry’s dedication had already paid off many times and now he presented his camera screen showing a leaping dolphin. Not any old dolphin, a black dolphin with a wasp-waisted white stripe running along its flank. Irrefutable proof that Jeff hadn’t been hallucinating his desired Hourglass Dolphins. There was nothing for it but to plant a big ‘smackaroony’ on Barry’s left cheek. Apparently, Barry is still in counselling!

Hourglass Dolphin - Drake Passage - photograph courtesy of © Barry Tichenor

Jeff gives Barry Tichenor a 'smackaroony', for nailing the Hourglass Dolphin © OWE

As ecstatic as Jeff was, his joy was tinged with a bit of frustration that the rest of the team had missed out. As hard as we tried, we never found any more Hourglass Dolphins during the trip.


At Sea North of the Falklands

We spent the greater part of the 22nd anchored off Stanley in the Falkland Islands. The conditions were perfect so we would get the chance to tender ashore to enjoy a day ‘off-piste’. As we waited for the tendering operation to begin, we scanned the coastal edge and found a pod of Commerson’s Dolphin working the rocky shore. Some lucky passengers would see them alongside their tender boats a little later in the day.


Following our onshore Penguin expedition, we returned to the ship. As Balmoral made her sedate way back out to the Atlantic, we scanned the shores and before long we had racked up over a 1000+ Gentoo Penguins and another 400+ Magellanic Penguins dotted along the beaches and rocky promontories. Alongside them were Falkland Cormorants, Rock Cormorants, Falkland Steamer Ducks and a couple of Falkland Skua.

Falkland Steamer-duck pair - East Falkland © Jeff Clarke - OWE

Before too long we reached the deeper water of the outer channel to be greeted by thousands of Sooty Shearwater and our first blows from rorqual whales. We positively identified at least 3 Sei Whale, but there were at least nine others which had to go down as rorqual sp. As darkness closed in, we hit a pod of cavorting Peale’s Dolphins. It was just a pity it was so dark as they were putting on a great show.

Peale's Dolphin leaping near MS Balmoral's bow after sunset off East Falkland © Jeff Clarke - OWE

We now had three days at sea to look forward to. They would prove to be outstanding, exciting, educational and scientifically fascinating.


As we left Stanley the ship headed out eastwards initially before switching northwards on route to Montevideo. This took us on a perfect line running the bottom edge of the drop-off from the Argentine Sea shelf. The weather was fairly benign, force 5 initially, with moderate seas, but gradually dropping to force 3 and a slight sea over the three days of sailing.

The first day northwards we were blown away by the huge numbers of Soft-Plumaged Petrels; they were never out of view, and we easily exceeded 10,000. Though these numbers were soon to be eclipsed by vast hordes of Great Shearwaters, with over 50,000 on the 24th alone. Atlantic Petrels were also in attendance, mostly they kept their distance from Balmoral, but occasionally an individual would perform at close quarters to the ship and allow us to capture the subtle beauty of thier plumage.

Soft-plumaged Petrel north of Falkland Islands © Jeff Clarke - OWE

Atlantic Petrel north of Falkland Islands © Jeff Clarke - OWE

Great Shearwater north of Falkland Islands © Jeff Clarke - OWE

One petrel species that really caught the eye was the Spectacled Petrel. The ‘spectacles’ can be reduced and difficult to discern on some individuals but all the birds we saw had stonkingly obvious white ribbons encircling the eyes and they stood out like the proverbial sore thumb. This is a rare seabird that nests only on the high western plateau of Inaccessible Island in the South Atlantic Tristan da Cunha group.

Spectacled Petrel crossing MS Balmoral's wake - one day north of Falklands © Jeff Clarke - OWE

To back up the Tristan de Cunha connection we also recorded a number of White-bellied Storm Petrels, never easy to photograph from a large ship but we managed a few that were just about good enough to confirm one of them as Gough Storm-Petrel.

Gough Storm-Petrel - one day north of Falklands © Jeff Clarke - OWE


This brings us to one of the most interesting happening’s that any of us have experienced at sea.


𝐁𝟗𝟔 - '𝐖𝐨𝐧𝐝𝐞𝐫𝐢𝐧𝐠' 𝐀𝐥𝐛𝐚𝐭𝐫𝐨𝐬𝐬?

As the day dawned on 23rd February 2023, Balmoral was cruising north of the Falkland Islands on a course for Montevideo. It would prove to be a day filled with amazing seabirds, including albatrosses, and a particularly exciting bit of scientific research.


All day we were seeing more and more big 'wanderer type' albatrosses with near identical appearances, largely dark-winged, a band on the tail, a trace of grey over the back, a bit of smudging on the rump and in many cases, a bit of speckling on the top of the head.

A selection of 'Wandering type' albatrosses from 23rd February 2023 © Jeff Clarke - OWE

Snowy or Tristan Albatross? - same bird as 2nd in gallery above - photo courtesy of passenger © David Geary

The options were Snowy Wandering Albatross or Tristan 'wandering' Albatross, but we were generally reluctant to put a species name to them without more information. Indeed, knowing that the separation of these two different species of great albatross at sea is extremely challenging, even to the extent that a juvenile Tristan Albatross was ringed as a presumed Wandering Albatross at a breeding colony of Wandering Albatross at the Crozet Islands in 2009 (https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00300-020-02786-0), shows how difficult their identification really is!


Whilst taking photographs of some of the birds off Balmoral's stern, one bird momentarily dropped down to the ship’s wake and as it did so, we captured an image of a Darvic ring on the bird's right leg. The zoomed image showed it to read B96.

Mystery wanderer type albatross' touches down in MS Balmoral's wake © Jeff Clarke OWE

Darvic leg ring showing B96 as albatross takes off in MS Balmoral's wake on 23rd Feb 2023 © Jeff Clarke

We also took a lat-long reading of the ship’s GPS position. After a flurry of emails, WhatsApp messages and texts to those in the know, back came the answer from the British Antarctic Survey: B96 was a teenage female Snowy Wandering Albatross breeding on Bird Island, South Georgia. We even had details of her life history:

● Fledged on Bird Island in 2009

● First returned to Bird Island in 2015/16 but didn't breed

● Returned again in 2017/18 and didn't breed

● Returned to breed in 2019/20 but failed

● Returned to breed again in 2020/21 and successfully raised a chick to fledging

● Returned to breed again in 2023

Snowy Wandering Albatross B96 - one day north of Falklands Islands 23rd Feb 2023 © Jeff Clarke - OWE

What an amazing bit of science to get that level of detail back, in less than a week, from a bird ring, on the right leg of one of the most charismatic birds on the planet, photographed from an ocean liner in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean!


Were all the ‘wanderers’ that day Snowies? Or were they a mix of Snowy and Tristan? We’ve examined lots of images from that day, including some contributed by passengers, and there are certainly some birds that slightly favour one species or the other, but no ring, no confidence.


This event reaffirmed our understanding that we may never be able to reliably identify some of the great wandering albatross species at sea, away from their breeding colonies, without corroborating evidence like a satellite transmitter or a readable ring, or until further identification criteria become apparent. But this type of challenge is what drives us to continue exploring the world’s oceans and sharing such wonders with our fellow passengers.

Ocean Wildlife Encounters would like to thank all those people from British Antarctic Survey, The Gough Island Restoration, RSPB, and British Trust for Ornithology for their invaluable assistance in resolving this fascinating avian puzzle.


The 23rd was also not without whale and dolphin interest, indeed we had a magical moment with two pods of Long-finned Pilot Whales, comprising a minimum of 40+ animals. In gorgeous light, a tight group including a calf passed close on the starboard side; it was made even better as were able to share the experience with so many passengers. You know you are in deep water when you see this species and that was emphasised when we also saw four deep-diving Sperm Whale. We also had Fin and Humpback Whales for good measure at various points of the day.

Long-finned Pilot Whales 23rd February 2023 - north of Falklands © Russell Neave - OWE

We were still in deep water on the 24th and the sea was finally calm enough to give us a chance of spotting beaked whales. Two went by unnamed but we were grateful to be able to photograph and put a name to the deepest of all divers, the Cuvier’s beaked Whale. It also happens to be the beaked whale most frequently observed.

Cuvier's Beaked Whale - north of Falkland Islands 24th February 2023 © Russell Neave - OWE

There were other things in the sea this day including two huge Ocean Sunfish.

Ocean Sunfish fin 24th Feb 2023 © Jeff Clarke - OWE

We’d largely run out of the big wanderer type albatrosses, with just two seen during the day and both were rather distant. We did however find our first Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross, though the four observed on the 24th were significantly eclipsed by the 100+ of the 25th. It was a day of curiosities bird-wise; we had 30+ Cory’s Shearwaters and at least one Cape Verde Shearwater. The former was a little bit south of its mapped range, but as we demonstrated many times on this journey, at sea, range maps can be somewhat arbitrary.

Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross - north of Falklands 25th February 2023 © Jeff Clarke - OWE

The 25th was our final sea day, so we completed our final talk with a ‘Wildlife Review’ of the previous two-week epic. Despite various team members spending a fair amount of time indoors because of talk preparation and delivery there was still another magnificent wildlife spectacular on show from MS Balmoral’s decks. The big cetacean event of the day was finally having pod after pod of Common Dolphin making a beeline for Balmoral’s bow. It was joyous to look along the promenade deck rail and see all the giddy expressions of delight on the passenger’s faces.

'Short-beaked' Common Dolphins power in to join Balmoral 25th Feb 2023 © Jeff Clarke - OWE

Our most significant sighting of the day related to an albatross species. Salvin’s Albatross is barely recorded in the Atlantic. The first record from the Patagonian shelf only occurred in 2006. So, our record of 12+ during the day was really remarkable.

Salvin's Albatross - three days north of Falkland Islands 25th February 2023 © Russell Neave - OWE

Ocean-wise this was OWE’s last hurrah for this cruise. After a day ashore in Montevideo, which you can read about in the ‘off-piste’ blog, it was time for Emma, Russell, Laura and Jeff to say goodbye and wish the passengers a “Bon Voyage”.

Ocean Wildlife Encounters - Team 3: From left Jeff Clarke, Laura Dennis, Emma Neave-Webb, Russell Neave © OWE


Throughout the time that Ocean Wildlife Encounters was aboard MS Balmoral we consistently made important discoveries, whether that was La Nina distributions of Chilean Blue Whale, a snapshot in the life of a particular female Snowy Wandering Albatross, or ‘outside of known range’ sightings for a series of seabirds. We will be putting our records and sightings mapping to good use and making sure they get to where they need to go to help protect our oceanic wildlife.


We had an absolute blast, we met so many lovely people and hopefully helped many of the passengers aboard to maximise their wildlife experiences during this part of their cruise. Hopefully we’ll meet again somewhere out in the ‘big blue’ very soon.

We still have collating to do and data to crunch relating to this adventure and we’ll be posting additional information through our various media outlets in the near future. There will be more ‘off-piste’ blogs associated with the cruise published in the next few weeks.


Your Ocean Wildlife Encounters team for this cruise:

Jeff Clarke, Anthony Brandreth, David Chilcott, Laura Dennis, Mike Bailey, Brian Tollitt, Emma Neave-Webb and Russell Neave.


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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