From Edinburgh to the End of the World

Waking up on the Friday at my mum’s house in Edinburgh I still didn’t quite believe that I would soon be starting my long journey to reach Ushuaia, Argentina where a boat would take our group to the Antarctic Peninsula. A short flight from Edinburgh brought us to Heathrow for 8pm where we made haste to terminal C to board our next flight at 9:15pm. A 13-hour flight to Buenos Aires gives you a lot of time to get to know the people you’re going to be sharing a ship with, or at least it would if, unlike me, you don’t sleep for any part of the flight that isn’t take-off or landing!

Picture 1 – signs (to be added at a later date)

The bus ride into Buenos Aires gave ample time to soak in the sights of a city that’s far removed from the three streets of St Andrews I’ve grown used to. The hotel’s location meant I was never further than a five-minute walk to a restaurant, shop, or bar and I had a good explore around the few surrounding blocks. I had lunch at a restaurant that prized themselves on their ‘Milanese’ which appeared to be pounded down meat or chicken covered in breadcrumbs and fried. This is a food item I’ve seen here in Ushuaia as well, so I assume it’s quite a common meal here in Argentina and I can highly recommend it.

Picture 2 – group photo (to be added at a later date)

The next morning, we took a much smaller plane than the one that took us over the Atlantic and arrived in Ushuaia, the end of the world. After checking into the hotel, we had the chance to explore Ushuaia and see what it had to offer. The guide on the way in from the airport mentioned that over 60% the population is under 25 and this is evident in the shops that make up the city’s main street. There are plenty of modern clothing stores, sporting goods stores, cafes, and souvenir shops that displayed the city’s past as a prison colony.

Picture 3 – house front prisoners (to be added at a later date)

This being a biological expedition I did have a look at the local wildlife, especially around the harbour area. The Southern Giant Petrels were very abundant around the pier and their sheer size took me by surprise! I also got to practice my Ornithological photography on lapwings, Dolphin gulls (Picture 4), and a Chimango Caracara which must be the cutest raptor I’ve ever seen.

Picture 4 – dolphin gulls (to be added at a later date)

Two days of travel may seem quite rough but so far it has been well worth it.

written by Ryan Teague

A piece of Antarctica in Scotland

RRS Discovery in front of the V&A Dundee (the brand-new international centre for design) – photo: S. Heinrich

Even though our direction was northward bound (from St Andrews), our visit to the RRS Discovery in Dundee felt like a step closer to Antarctica.

When the masts of the ship appeared on the horizon lyrics from “Dr. Livingstone I presume” by the Moody Blues popped into my head:

Captain Scott, you were so bold,
Now you’re looking rather cold,
Out there in the snow.

What did you find there?
Did you stand awhile and stare?
Did you meet anyone?

Captain Robert Falcon Scott was the first to lead the Discovery on a research expedition to Antarctica. Sadly, he passed away in 1912 during his second expedition to Antarctica, so our captain for exploring the RRS Discovery was Ali from Dundee Heritage. He took us along a wonderful tour around this 117 year (!) old vessel.

Ali & future Antarctic explorers (photo: S. Heinrich)

The Discovery was launched in 1901 and was the first British ship to be built with a scientific purpose. When the ship and the crew arrived in Antarctica in 1902 that was only the beginning of their adventures, because the vessel got stuck in the ice for 2 years! In the end two relief ships, saws and explosives freed her from the cold grip of the sea ice. Once she and the crew returned to UK the expedition costs had exploded and had to be paid. As a result the Discovery was sold. She then made many more journeys including to the Falkland Islands and Antarctica, but over time was refitted to serve as a training ship for the Sea Cadet Corps in Britain. Eventually she was retired and found a home at the RRS Discovery centre where we could admire her today.

Exploring Discovery – on which side of the wheel do you stand? (photo: M. Barabanov)

Ali also told us many stories about the life of the crew on board the ship during the first expedition to Antarctica. For example, there were two toilets on deck. One was for the 12 officers and the other toilet was for the 36 crew members! The crew worked four hour shifts and shared hammocks  accordingly (hot bunking). They also had to take one bath a week. Literally one bath for 36 people that is. You can imagine that you did not want to be the last person who entered that tub…..

Cramped crew quarters (but there was warmth in numbers) – (photo: M. Barabanov)

Everyone on the ship received three cooked meals a day. Although the ship could store food for three years, the crew started to experience a shortage of fresh food when they were in Antarctica. Therefore, penguin and seal became part of the menu. Without realising it, this meat might have actually saved lives, because it contained vitamin C and prevented the man from getting scurvy. The amount of penguins and seals that were sacrificed was estimated at 500 in total.

Waiting to be served seal or penguin… (photo: M. Barabanov)

Besides from people there were also several animals on board. It started with a flock of sheep, a pack of huskies (the sledge dogs) and two cats to get rid of the rats. Later on two weakened Emperor penguins were taken aboard in a (failed) attempt to rescue them.

As Edward Wilson might have seen and drawn it….(photo: M. Barabanov)

Although Captain Scott and later on Shackleton became famous by name, our historic role models of the first Antarctica expedition was probably physician and biologist Reginald Koettlitz. For example, he collected all types of rock, grew the first crops on Antarctic soil and had his own dark room to develop photographs. Of course there was also the later so famous Edward Wilson, zoologist and artist who drew many excellent portraits of Antarctica’s natural inhabitants. This early polar research and other findings during the many expeditions with the Discovery eventually helped to contribute to the conservation of the Antarctic ecosystem today.

Practicing polar story telling (photo: M Barabanov)

Our tour ended outside on the deck of the Discovery. It had already gotten dark and the wind was chilly. When I closed my eyes I could almost image myself in the Antarctic. Our visit to the Discovery centre made history come to life. Where first things seemed unreal our expedition now became more tangible. If we feel like complaining about the cold and harsh conditions while we are on the Plancius in March we only need to think back of our visit to the Discovery and remember that we are privileged to travel to Antarctica in luxury (and in heated cabins with en-suite toilets!).

written by Nathalie Houtman


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