So we’ve been back from Antarctica for almost 2 months …. but the journey is not over…. for many of the Antarctic expeditioners this is a time of transition…. Our senior honours team members have finished their studies and are set to graduate in June with a BSc (Hons) degree from St Andrews. Our MSc team members have finished their (last?) exams (ever?) and are now getting ready for a short field trip to the West coast of Scotland (not quite Antarctica, but still, ….nice!) followed by a very intense 3-months period with their MSc dissertations.

Today was a great day because many of the SH and MSc explorers got together in St Andrews to deliver a departmental seminar in Biology – topic: our Antarctic expedition 2017. And amongst the many penguin appearances, there were tales of whales, more whales, seals and seabirds, …..and some funny videos… the explorers shared what they did, what they saw (hint, lots), what they loved…… Well done to the eight hard working explorers who filled an hour with fun, facts and memories! And we now have a cool expedition logo too….. (thanks to Naomi’s artistic talents!)….

St Andrews in the Antarctic….. recognise it?

(c) Naomi Tuhuteru


Favourite Moments III – it’s all about penguins…

Kathleen: “I feel that this picture captures the character and curiosity of Gentoo penguins which we were so lucky to see so many of and spend time watching their interesting, and sometimes comical interactions!”

Rebecca: “This picture depicts my favourite moment of the trip, our first excursion and first meeting with penguins.”

Vicki: “This penguin was adamant about ignoring the 5m rule. Instead curiosity got the better of it and it approached me before having a nibble at my knee.”

Michael: “Abbey Road Penguins – On our first landing, one of the first things I see are these five Gentoo penguins waddling in a perfect line as though they were posing for an Abbey Road (from the Beatles) poster shoot . This was probably the start of my new found love for these hilarious animals.“

Favourite Moments II

Haley: “This picture is from the first day when we saw more humpback whales than I ever thought possible – though it was really just like any other day on board the Plancius: too wonderful to describe.”

Naomi: “In Antarctica, you don’t observe penguins, the penguins observe you.”

Jules: “Eye contact with a Southern Giant Petrel… This guy kept me company during my final marine mammal survey of the expedition – he would glide past slowly, close enough that I could look into his eye, then disappear in front of the ship before swooping back around. It’s one of my fondest memories, and I’m so please I can relive that feeling every time I look at this photo.”

Sam: “Behind every shiny, happy penguin, there was a grumpy moulting adult glaring at them with envy in their eyes.”

Sonja: “In a strange twist of roles, we observed Antarctic fur seals actively seeking out the company of Type B killer whales (which are meant to eat seals and penguins). Here, a feisty fur seal surfaces in the midst of a tightly knit group of killer whales, right next to the only calf in the group.”

Favourite Moments I

Here are the first five pictures capturing amazing moments during our recent Antarctic expedition.  Enjoy!!! : )

Laura: “As a marine mammal science student, I didn’t expect to be so taken by the penguins! This Gentoo cooling off had so much attitude and really won me over!”

Emily: “The morning I looked out of the cabin porthole and saw ice for the first time was the moment when it really dawned on me how lucky we were to be here, and upon running up to the deck the overwhelming majesty of the Antarctic landscape was just heart-stopping.”

Lizzie: “Everyone had chills as our ship squeezed between icebergs through the Lemaire Channel.”

Alec: “Five more minutes please…- This poor fur seal kept being woken up by noisy Gentoo penguins.”

Sarah: “Three Antarctic Shags in flight. I chose this as it was a real challenge for me to get a sharp picture of one bird, but in this one I somehow managed three!”

Homeward bound

Sunday 26th March 2017 – Ushuaia to Buenos Aires

We awoke to the final dulcet “good morning” announcement of our beloved expedition leader Beau, and after one last delicious breakfast disembarked the Plancius, our home for the past week, with heavy hearts but excitement for communication with our loved ones in Ushuaia. Whilst half of the group headed for the nearest WiFi signal, the rest of us took a three hour walk around the sleepy town of Ushuaia, soaking in the high culture of the only establishments open at 8.30am on a Sunday: souvenir shops.

Penguins in Ushuaia…. (photo Naomi Tuhuteru)

We spent most of our remaining dollars on “End of the World” branded shot glasses, searching in vain for stamps for our many postcards and befriended the local dogs. Then we headed for the airport for our 2pm flight to Buenos Aires, waving goodbye to the beautiful mountainous landscape of Ushuaia.

Aerial view after leaving Ushuaia (photo Emily Mosely)

We were warmly welcomed by our lovely guide Alicia in Buenos Aires who brought us back to the hotel Dazzler. Following quick naps and showers we headed to La Costilla for our final group meal (minus a few who were too sleepy!). They fed us well on excellent Argentinian steak and even free Prosecco to the extent that we all rolled out of the restaurant. While some headed back to the hotel, a few of us kept on rolling to the local Soho Palermo watering holes.

Group dinner at La Costilla in Buenos Aires – even the vegetarians were well looked after, and that in an Argentinian restaurant named “Rib”!

Monday 27th March 2017 – Buenos Aires to Scotland

The following morning, whilst some were feeling energised and rearing to go, others (not naming any names…(Sam)) weren’t feeling their best selves thanks to a local delicacy some call “shotsssss” (Petroni, 2017). Once we arrived at Buenos Aires airport, to prepare for the 3.45pm long flight we enjoyed the freedom of stretching on the floor by the gate and tried to settle in until go time. After thirteen hours of watching films, sleep deprivation and asking the person next to you to stand up so you could go to the bathroom, we had a quick change-over in Amsterdam giving us an hour to practice our Dutch phrases taught by Naomi (which all turned out to be dirty). The last stretch of the journey was a short flight to Edinburgh after which we quickly had to say goodbye to some of our expedition buddies (EMMS students) who would continue their travels west to Oban, whilst the rest of us headed back east to St Andrews.

Describing this expedition as a Trip of a Lifetime is an understatement: we’ve experienced astounding scenery, unbelievable and personal wildlife encounters and made friendships that will never sink (get it?). We want to say thank you so much to Larnja, as we have lovingly named our lecturers (Lars and Sonja) who have made all of this possible. Next up: making group shirts and giving a seminar at St Andrews, and hopefully at some point in the near future a reunion (at the Union?).

St Andrews Group 2017 in front of MV Plancius

written by  Naomi Tuhuteru and Emmie Moseley

The Cherry on the Cake – 25 March – Drake’s Passage

It started to dawn on us when we woke up (pun definitely intended) that this was our final day of sightings on the good ship Plancius. After a busy day of balancing our regular surveys and creating the evening presentation, we were looking forward to a relaxing day of sightings and sight-seeing. Fuelled with a few litres of coffee, we noticed the light gradually increasing outside the windows of the viewing lounge, and what can only be described as a hoard of albatross awaiting the bird survey.

Black-browed albatross galore next the the ship (photo Sonja Heinrich)

And boy did Lars and Sonja pull out all the stops! Expecting the classic Drake Passage shenanigans, we were instead greeted with a beautiful, calm sunrise. Lars had apparently decided to treat us by demanding nothing but a fine summer’s day for the end of our trip. And as if that wasn’t enough, Sonja treated us to the big 3 of the final passage; Peale’s Dolphins, Sei Whales and Dusky Dolphins. A special delivery as a reward for all our hard work.

Peale’s dolphin next to Plancius (photo Naomi Tuhuteru)

All of which occurred in what seemed like a very short span of time. And whether you like it or not I’m going to tell you the story. As we drew closer to our special destination of Cape Horn, we were suddenly aware that we were being escorted by the first of our top three, the Peale’s dolphins. They were courteous enough to play with the boat and give us an impressive show before we were close enough to the shore to appreciate Cape Horn.

Plancius approaching Cape Horn (photo Sonja Heinrich)

Later, with Argentinian land in sight, and the challenging glare of the afternoon sun upon us, Hawkeye SK spotted what seemed to be multiple blows at almost 5km away. As we drew closer, much of our group had gathered on deck to join the fun of a new sighting. They were still too far away for us to ID, but the more land we could see, the more we realised that the characteristic whale blows weren’t just in one area, they stretched all along the upcoming coastline.

One of the many sei whale sightings (photo Alec Christie)

As we were still pressing our eyes into the binoculars (as if we were expecting that to help us see farther), SHAZAM! One popped up right next to the ship! And was kind enough to give us an unmistakeable look at the dorsal fin, confirming our hopes that these were indeed sei whales!

Sunset in the Beagle Channel (photo Sam Wilson)

We continued our journey hugging the coastline, watching South American fur seals and Magellanic penguins floating by soaking up the sun. Then just as the sun was beginning to set, it was time for Alec to take the Hawkeye mantle, spotting some tell-tale splashing far off on the horizon. This time we weren’t so lucky to see the group up close, but with some impressive camera work we agreed that they were our final big sighting of the trip, the Dusky dolphins.

Amazing night sky over Plancius (photo Alec Christie)

To top the day off, after dinner we all went outside to appreciate the first cloudless, and brilliantly starry night we have had in the southern hemisphere.  A perfect day to end a perfect expedition. But stay tuned, there’ll be plenty of shenanigans in the coming days from our journey home!

written by Sam Wilson


Drake Passage adventures

Our second last day on the Plancius. We woke up to a slightly rough sea on the Drake Passage, however, it was much calmer than expected. The morning was quiet as we went about our routine marine mammal and seabird surveys. We were however, given an insight into one of the afternoon activities – deploying an Argo float from the ship.

Student observer on watch facing strong winds and being watched by the bridge duck…..

The Argo float was scheduled to be deployed at 2 pm and as people gathered around the back of the ship to see science in action we were given an explanation of what the float does. A simplistic way to describe an Agro float is as a large, self-sufficient, passively floating, CTD, which has been discussed in previous blog posts. The float is large, as tall as a small person. Once the float is deployed it will descend to around 2km depth, drift for about 10 days and ascending again. This cycle will be repeated for about 4 to 5 years. On the ascent the Argo float measures the temperature and salinity of the water and transmits this data when it reaches the surface via satellite to a ground station. The temperature and salinity of water are important measures as together they determine the density if the water. Generally water density increases with increasing salinity and decreasing water temperature. The density of water is an important measure as it plays a role in understanding currents and sea level. The float that was deployed today will send important information to scientists for use around the world.

Chief Engineer Sebastian and second officer Matei ready the Argo float

As the Argo float was being deployed, there were also exciting sights! A number of people, including myself, who had vacated the crowded recommended 4th deck viewing area in search of a less populated area had spotted something more interesting at the bow of the ship – Hourglass dolphins! Hourglass dolphins have a distinct black and white hourglass pattern which is easily identifiable from both the side and top of their bodies. We were lucky to witness the dolphins swimming gracefully on both side of the ship, seemingly ducking under the bow to go quickly from one side to the other. The dolphins stayed with the ship and swam in this way for around 30 minutes. This was such a great experience as only a few of us had seen hourglass dolphins in the Drake Passage heading down to Antarctica, and those who had seen them had spotted them for only a few seconds.

Hourglass dolphin leaping next to the Plancius (photo Alec Christie)

Throughout the day, between Argo launch, hourglass dolphin sightings and surveys all of the students were working hard to compile a presentation for the passengers about what we had been doing on the ship and the different animals that we had seen throughout our expedition. Although we were short on time we worked together and produced graphs and a presentation with time to spare for a practice run. We were ready to present during the evening recap. The presentation began with life size cloth replicas of an hourglass dolphin and a mike whale. This certainly got the passengers’ attention and they were all ears for our presentation. We described the surveys we had carried out and the secchi disk and CTD measurements we had taken. We also presented graphs and pictures of where we had seen certain species of animals, which acted as a nice recap of sightings for both students and passengers. Although many students were understandably nervous about presenting we received nothing but praise and thanks from the passengers (and lecturers!) who had enjoyed our small recap of our trip, making our hard work today really worthwhile.

Life-sized minke whale making an appearance during the students’ recap

written by Kathleen Herbison


The sunny finale – our last day in Antarctica – 23 March 2017

This morning we woke up at the Melchior Islands. The towering mountains that surrounded us rose steeply from the Antarctic waters, to glisten brightly against the clear blue sky creating breath-taking views of the southern continent. This awe-inspiring backdrop ticked one of the last boxes on our expedition wish list; to see this ice-covered continent in all its glory on a blue sky day. One couldn’t wish for more to round-off our last day in Antarctica.

Morning sun (photo Niamh Ryan)

With eager anticipation, we once again embarked on a zodiac cruise around the islands. Shags swooped in low overhead as we lowered the Secchi-disc and CTD for one last time to take our environmental measurements of these polar waters. Enormous icebergs dwarfed teams of polar explorers in their zodiacs as they eagerly criss-crossed the bay to explore the myriad of rocks and island outcrops harbouring many fur seals and the occasional gentoo penguin lapping up the morning sun. A sighting of a Weddell seal brought a satisfying end to our morning zodiac cruise.

Secchi disk measurement (photo Niamh Ryan)

Back on board, we indulged our insatiable photo-happy tendencies to take a piece of the continent home with us while warming up with hot chocolate drinks on the upper deck. As we set sail for the Drake Passage after lunch, with the great continent slowly fading into the distance, one could only feel deep gratitude for all the wonders we had seen and the many life-changing memories we were taking with us.

Icebergs (photo Niamh Ryan)

We once again enthusiastically embraced our familiar routine of marine mammal observations and seabird surveys from the bridge, hoping to possibly tick any residual boxes on our Antarctic expedition bucket list. We were swiftly rewarded with a rare sighting of a snow petrel. The unusually calm waters of the Drake Passage brought relief to those of us relying on patches and pills for the crossing. As the peninsula dropped from view and Smith Island appeared on the horizon, the blows from two groups of fin whales encouraged us all back on deck, reminding us that our journey had some adventures left in it yet.

Fin whales (photo Sonja Heinrich)

Written by Niamh Ryan


Where Penguins Rule the World – 22 March 2017

Today began with us cruising through the Lemaire Channel, a beautiful channel, only a mile wide, which would take us even further South, right down to 65oS. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t as great as yesterday, so the visibility wasn’t good and we couldn’t really see the towering mountains to the sides of us. It was more like the authentic Antarctic weather we had been expecting; snow, wind, mist…

The Plancius in an ice-filled Lemaire Channel (photo Sonja Heinrich)

The channel was filled with many floating glacial icebergs, glowing that incredible iridescent blue which, had I not seen it myself, would not have believed possible. Some of the bergs had the odd seal sat on top, but there was one seal in particular, floating stationary in the water with its head poking out, which Lars and Sonja disagreed with the identification. Lars was insistent it was an elephant seal, Sonja thought it was a crabeater seal… We just wanted them to agree on something so we could put it down on the data sheet… No such luck…

When we reached the end of the Lemaire Channel, we found it blocked by two massive icebergs, both of which were larger than the Plancius. Navigating around them was an impossibility, the gaps were barely wider than the Plancius; one small sweep of the current and we would have been scraping along a very icy wall… So we all very much respected Captain Alexej when he made the decision to turn around; it was most certainly the right thing to do.

Icebergs blocking our path (photo Vicki Balfour)

By this point, it was breakfast time and I was just walking to the table with my bowl of Rice Krispies when suddenly someone shouted: “Whale!” Everyone abandoned their breakfast and ran across to the window. And sure enough, not a moment later the announcement came over the tannoy; “Orcas on the starboard side!” And so there was. Two pods of Type B orcas with their large white eye patches and greyish coloured skin. They were blowing, breaching, spyhopping, … Of course, orcas aren’t actually whales, they are large dolphins, but that doesn’t make them any less exciting. The fact that we had seen them once on this trip was a bonus in itself, but seeing them twice was even a first for Sonja.

Killer whale spyhopping (photo Sonja Heinrich)

The orcas weren’t the only animals swimming around the ship. Dozens of Gentoo penguins were porpoising away in densely packed groups, seemingly trying to get away from the orcas as fast as they could. It almost appeared as though the orcas were rounding them up, exhibiting what seemed to be hunting behaviour. And just when everyone thought it couldn’t get any more exciting than this, two orcas came right up from under the Plancius, giving anyone who was in the dining room at the time the closest view that they could ever possibly get of these magnificent creatures.

Killer whales (photo Vicki Balfour)

Not long after that, travelling back north in the Lemaire Channel, there was a sighting of humpback whales. Three of them; two adults and a calf, again really close to the Plancius, giving us all a spectacular view, especially when they decided to dive and show us their beautiful tail flukes.

Humpback whale mother and calf (photo Sonja Heinrich)

Despite not being able to make it all the way through the Lemaire Channel, our Captain still managed to get us to our afternoon landing site; Charcot, on Booth Island, by taking an alternative route, so we still achieved our goal of reaching 65OS. Here we were all offered the opportunity to do a hike up to a cairn on the top of a hill at yet another Gentoo penguin colony. However, half way up it became too treacherous to continue because of the compacted ice, so instead we just hung out at the penguin colony and enjoyed the endless entertainment that came from watching penguins. The funniest was probably the parent being chased by its two chicks. The scrambled across the rocks and slipped across the ice, falling on their bums or sliding on their bellies. Everyone stopped to watch them as they tussled and fought, until eventually one of them floored its parent and was rewarded with some regurgitated food.

Gentoo penguins at Port Charcot (photo Vicki Balfour)

We then took up the challenge of finding the one Adelie penguin among the gentoos. It felt almost like “Where’s Wally?” but in this case was “Where’s the Adelie?” Between us all we found two actually, in different places merged in with the rest of the gentoos. Their beaks and heads were fully black unlike the gentoos and they were about a head shorter as well. Some people even saw four chinstrap penguins among the colony. So that meant that we’d managed to see all the four species of penguins we’d been hoping to see on this trip, including the Magellanic penguins we’d seen back in the Beagle Channel.

A lone Adelie penguin (photo Vicki Balfour)

Being able to sit there in amongst this buzzing penguin colony was such a privilege. They were super friendly (well, maybe not always to each other…) and so comical. And they really didn’t seem to be bothered by our presence at all. Here we were, come all the way from Scotland to see them, whereas in fact, they were just as interested in investigating us. We weren’t allowed to approach the penguins any closer than five meters, but if you sat down and waited patiently, you’d suddenly find yourself surrounded by curious penguins, all tilting their heads as if to say; “What strange creature are you?”

Crouching in the snow, I found myself being approached by three different penguins, one of which came right up to me and started tugging at my waterproof trousers with his beak. Then suddenly I felt a tug from behind too, and realised that one had snuck up behind me and was having a go at my jacket. I was probably covered in guano and my hands were blocks of ice from taking my gloves off to hold my camera, but all of it was completely worth it just for this moment here.

And it just really made you think; here we were at the end of the world, in a land filled with snow and ice. Nowhere else in the world could you have experienced what we all did here. It really put into perspective what an amazing place Antarctica is, and I only hope that it will still be here, as pristine as this, for future generations to experience too.

Written by Vicki Balfour

Vicki & penguins

A day in Paradise – 21 March 2017

Today we set foot on the continent of Antarctica proper! Neko Harbour has claimed a special place in our hearts as our first continental landing. We stepped onto the shore of a rocky beach surrounded by a wall of massive blue glaciers. A colony of Gentoo penguins welcomed us, many still fluffy from their moult. As none of us have had our fill of Gentoos yet, we delighted in another chance to get to know them.

Neko Harbour (photo Sonja Heinrich)

One determined penguin needlessly kept up with his nest maintenance (breeding season is long gone). We watched as a parent penguin broadcasted its return from sea with a loud squawk. Its chick scrambled to his side and feverishly pecked at his beak, eliciting a generous regurgitated meal. Suddenly, the parent penguin took off in a sprint across the rocks with the fledgling racing to keep up. If the parents didn’t force exercise on their chicks, they would remain sedentary, always waiting for the next meal.

Penguin feed (photo Sam Wilson)

After this spectacle, it was time to… undress? Antarctic sand between our toes, we all hurtled into the sea as synchronously as possible for the much anticipated polar plunge. The water was stunningly cold, but we managed to stay in long enough for a photo! Our CTD recordings later revealed Neko Harbour held the coldest water we’ve encountered so far, a chilly subzero temperature at -0.28 °C. Scarily close to saltwater’s freezing point of -1.8 °C, it took us a good half hour to regain feeling in our toes. Thankfully Lars only told us of his leopard seal spotting after we were warm and dry back on the ship.

Polar plunge (photo Sonja Heinrich)

Our next stop was the Argentinian Base Brown, wedged into an area called Paradise Bay. We soon understood where the name comes from. The weather here was phenomenal and totally un-Antarctic – in the sunshine the temperature was a balmy 12 °C. We cruised through the glassy sea in our zodiacs, marvelling at striking blue copper embedded in mossy rock cliffs, intricately chunky icebergs and a colony of Antarctic shags nestled precariously on rocky perches. Every few minutes we heard thunder, as parts of surrounding glaciers crumbled off creating mini tsunamis.

In Paradise Bay with an ice halo around the sun (photo Naomi Tuhuteru)

Base Brown was no longer in use, so the main inhabitants here were Gentoo penguins and several cunning snowy sheathbills which terrorized some of the penguins. Because penguins won’t eat food off the ground, the sheathbills tackle chicks just as a parent offers it food, knocking its meal onto the ground, thus ensuring their own feast. After watching the spectacle repeat itself several times, we hiked up a snowy hill for a beautiful view of the mountain-framed bay and Plancius floating serenely amongst icebergs.

A group photo in paradise (photo Lars Boehme)

Back at the ship and anchored in the middle of Paradise Bay, we bundled up for a BBQ dinner outside on the deck. We drank mulled wine and beers in front of this jaw-dropping Antarctic backdrop. Then, ‘It’s Raining Men’ came on, and here we can end the blog with a quote from our beloved SK, “What happens below the Antarctic Convergence stays below the Antarctic Convergence.”

BBQ time

Written by Lizzie Scott