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


First day in Antarctica proper – AMAZING! 20 March 2017

When I woke early this morning and looked out the little porthole, I was greeted with my first taste of Antarctica, ice! In an earlier lecture, we were told that no matter where we look, we will never find more ice than in Antarctica. As the morning went on, we saw more and more ice around us until we finally started seeing proper icebergs. With so much ice around I am very glad to have such an experienced crew navigating our boat.

Humpback whale fluke in front of ice (photo Vicky Balfour)

Just as we were finishing our breakfast, the expedition leader made an intercom announcement that there had been humpback whales sighted off the ship. They had been spotted by our student observer team who were on effort and keeping a lookout for marine mammals. Since these were the first humpback whales sighted on this trip everyone, students and passengers included, got really excited and hurried out to see if we could catch a glimpse of them. We came out on the bridge and saw an amazing sight, icebergs of different sizes floating on the water, giant glaciers on land next to us and humpbacks everywhere in between! I could look in any direction and see a blow from a humpback or see a tail fluke coming out of the water. It was an amazing experience.

Humpback whales from a zodiac (photo Haley Arnold)

Not long after we had first spotted the humpback whales the boat anchored close to Cuverville Island where we would get to do our first expedition on land. Being the “scientists in training” that we are, we had work to do before we could land on the island. We got on a zodiac (sturdy inflatable boat) and went out into the bay. Here we stopped at a few points to take CTD and Secchi disk measurements. A CTD measures the temperature and salinity of the water. A Secchi disk measures the transparency of the water (the less transparent the water, the more “stuff” such as: zooplankton, algae, sediments and other particles there are). Whist we were taking measurements we were surrounded by humpback whales, some were so close we were concerned that they might accidentally tip our boat! A little distracting when we are supposed to be working…..

Crabeater seals at Cuverville (photo Sonja Heinrich)

After we finished our measurements, we got to set foot on Cuverville Island which is inhabited by Gentoo penguins. Walking on this island was rather difficult because we had to give penguins right of way. So whilst waking along the shore we had to avoid getting run over by penguins and accidentally stepping on the well camouflaged (and feisty) fur seals.

Curious Gentoo penguin & Jules (photo Sonja Heinrich)

Some of the young penguins on the island were really curious. A few walked up to us and stare into the cameras, some even giving the lens a peck. The funniest penguin walked up to Michael and proceeded to bite his pants, probably determined to bite a hole in them.

Killer whales with Wilson’s storm petrel (photo Sonja Heinrich)

Back on the boat for lunch, the dining room was filled with excited voices. Everyone was talking about what we had just experienced. We all agreed that it had been the best day so far, yet it was only 1 pm in the afternoon. Many of us probably thought the day couldn’t get much better, but we could not have been more wrong. Not long after lunch was finished Lars and Sonja, while supporting the observers on their lookout, spotted several large fins ahead of the ship… A.pod of orcas! The subsequent intercom announcement by expedition leader Beau led to people streaming out onto the decks to see the orcas (killer whales). Some, myself included, didn’t even give themselves enough time to put on their jackets. However, a little (or rather a lot) of cold was a small price to pay to see these beautiful animals! The ship cruised around the area for a while allowing for all of us to get good looks, and some even got amazing pictures of the orcas. Interestingly there were fur seals swimming amongst the pod of orcas. Now normally this might mean feeding time for the orcas and the fur seals trying to flee, but this didn’t seem to be the case. The fur seals appeared to be actively following the orcas, and seeking to interact with them, a rather strange phenomenon that isn’t seen very often.

Killer whale and Antarctic fur seal (photo Sonja Heinrich)

After all the excitement with the orcas we set off to the next destination where we got to cruise around on zodiacs to look at a shipwreck. The ship, Govenoren, was once a Norwegian cargo ship transporting whale oil. However, shortly after picking up the whale oil the ship caught fire. The captain on board decided that the cargo was worth more than the ship itself and made the decision to run the ship aground destroying the ship, but saving the cargo. This happened little more than a 100 years ago, yet the ship can still be seen partially sunk with the bow sticking out of the water. Because it is so cold and dry in Antarctica things take longer to decay, so a bit away from the wreck a few wooden lifeboats can be seen. Presumably the lifeboats the sailors used to abandon the Govenoren and save the whale oil.

The wreck of the Governoren (photo Vicky Balfour)

I think everyone agrees that the first day in Antarctica was certainly the best day of the trip so far! Ticking off many of the things people wanted to see on this trip: Penguins, humpback whales, killer whales, icebergs and glaciers……. Today went beyond our expectations and will certainly set the bar very high for the rest of the trip…..

Written by Rebecca Vidin


In Antarctica! 19 March 2017

Our second full day on board the Plancius was eventful to say the least. During the night we crossed both the Antarctic Convergence and 60 degree South latitude, meaning we are now both biologically and geographically in Antarctic waters – yay!

Marine mammal and seabird surveys began bright and early before breakfast. Having crossed the convergence, we’re now experiencing cooler weather (around 3 degrees Celsius instead of 7) and, much to everyone’s delight, far calmer waters. A low lying fog surrounded the ship, reducing visibility to less than 2 km, but still we persisted, determined for a successful second day of surveying. Soon enough we had our first sightings: a group of chinstrap penguins resting on the surface off port side, and a pod of around 6 hourglass dolphins proposing on the starboard side… And all before 9.30am!

Chinstrap penguin (photo Jules Sutherland)

By late morning we were into the full swing of things with cape petrels, Wilson’s storm petrels, black-bellied storm petrels, southern fulmars, and the occasional sooty albatross circling the boat regularly. Chinstrap penguins continued to porpoise past, and we kept our eyes scanning for our first whale blow… Finally, just after 11am, it happened. Two large blows were seen in the distant fog, and as they moved closer we saw the scythe shaped dorsal fins which confirmed our first large cetacean sighting: fin whales. As we moved closer more dorsal fins appeared, and soon there were 5 fin whales around 600m away from the boat. To say we were excited beyond all belief is putting it lightly – it was the moment we’d all been waiting for since leaving Edinburgh airport a week ago.

Fin whales (Jules Sutherland)

As the day continued we saw the occasional fin whale, and much to my joy, we encountered our first Antarctic fur seals since our first fur seal sightings (but South American) of them when leaving the Beagle Channel a few days ago. These charismatic otariid seals were seen porpoise past the boat, bobbing their heads up to take a look, and one even floated past, lying on its back with all four fins in the air. Surveys continued through until dinner at 7pm, where the whole dining room wad bustling with excitement about the day just passed and anticipation for the days to come.

Pintado petrel (photo Jules Sutherland)

By 9.30pm we were ready for some downtime. Looking around the lounge you could see half the inhabitants popping open bottles of red wine and pulling out a pack of cards, and the half were dozing off on sofas and half-falling asleep slouched over computers and books… I’ll give you one guess as to which half the ‘student’s on board were! Having well and truly morphed into our role as polar scientists, we headed off to bed early in preparation for another eventful day tomorrow.

written by Jules Sutherland


Title: Hurrah – first day at sea! – 18 March 2017

Our voyage on board has certainly thrown us in at the deep end. Our windows down on the 2nd floor resemble washing machines and I’m completely in awe at how gracefully the staff can handle themselves while the ship is pitching this way and that. After our first night on the Plancius our group is slightly rocked and frazzled, but still eagerly pushing forward.

With the ship at sea it’s hard to get the horizon level.

The day, apart from the waves, started serenely with our first and last lie-in on board. We were woken up by the ‘smooth and melodious’ voice of our expedition leader, Beau, over the intercom sharply at 7:40 am followed by a fantastic buffet breakfast. After setting up equipment, we began surveying seabirds and marine mammals at 9:30 am. Lars, the master of the schedule, arranged us into teams and then he and Sonja guided us in how to complete the surveys, identify the animals, use the radios and enter data. And, importantly, where the big red ‘torpedo’ button is on the bridge that we absolutely will not press. Or so we’ve promised…

One button not to touch on the bridge….

There have been lots of wandering albatross, black-browed albatross and white-chinned petrels following the ship and some lucky passengers even saw hourglass dolphins and what was possibly a beaked whale.

Wandering Albatross (photo Sonja Heinrich)

When we’re not surveying, there are lectures to go to, power naps to take and a fabulous tea/coffee machine to keep us amply caffeinated the rest of the time. The meals, apart from being amazing in and of themselves, have also been a great place to meet other passengers. Everyone I’ve met so far has been incredibly kind and I’ve so loved hearing their stories.

Observers with their trusty field guide

At the end of the day, we had a team briefing to go over what we did today, what we can do better and what to look forward to tomorrow. It seems we’re all holding our breath till we see an abundance of cape petrels marking our proximity to the Antarctic Peninsula, when hopefully the swells calm down. But, in my opinion, there’s nothing quite like general gastrointestinal discomfort and slight sleep deprivation to really bring the team together!

written by Haley Arnold


Onwards to Antarctica: Our final moments on the edge of the world – 17 March 2017

Today was our last day in Ushuaia before we set off for Antarctica. We started the day by checking out of the hotel and tagging our luggage for loading onto the Plancius, at 10:00 am. After that, we were given until 13:30 pm to explore the rest of the city. Most of us went shopping for souvenirs, at least Sam, Naomi, Rebecca and I did.

On the edge of the world

At 13:30 pm the whole group met up back at the hotel on the top floor for Lars’ lecture. He spoke about what our lives on the Plancius would be like and demonstrated the logging softer procedure we would use when conducting our surveys on board. Once we finished up there, we began to make our way to the ship, for what would be our last steps on land until we touch down on the Antarctic Peninsula. At this point, a few began popping out their sea sickness tablets in anticipation of rocky seas. Before we could embark, we had to take our group photo at the Ushuaia sign. Luckily there were some friendly photographers there so Lars was excited to know that he too could be in the photo.

MV Plancius

When waiting in line to board, you could feel everyone’s excitement pouring out when approaching our ship and acknowledging the reality that we were so close to going to Antarctica. On board, we got a five-star welcome treatment from the crew. We were escorted to our cabins where our luggage was waiting for us. We got the best rooms because they are at the bottom and back of the ship, so we won’t feel the rolling and pitching as much. The rooms and bathrooms were comfortable. After settling in, all passengers reported to the main hall for orientation and safety drills.

The safety brieflng

With that done, some students or “junior scientists” as Sonja prefers to call us, went on the outside deck to admire the scenery and for some early birding. From the ship, whilst leaving harbour in the Beagle Channel, we managed to spot some Southern Giant Petrels, Imperial Shags, many Kelp Gulls, our first penguins – Magellanic penguins, and the exciting Black-Browed Albatross. Alec was the first to spot our first marine mammal from the ship – a South American fur seal.

Haley’s birthday cake

Back down into the lounge, we received a warm welcome and introduction from all crew and expedition staff; even the captain gave a toast to a good expedition. At dinner, we celebrated a special occasion because it was Haley’s 22nd Birthday. Whilst dining, the lights suddenly blacked out and a cake with a large rocket candle made its way to Haley. Haley was blushing whilst they sang a different rendition of Happy Birthday. Something about this celebration was particularly moving, because Haley’s parents made the trip down to Argentina from the US to come on this trip to celebrate her birthday with her. They have always been together on her birthday, making what I believe a special birthday for them all. We ended this exciting day with a meeting from Lars and Sonja briefing us on the plan for the next day. Most of us headed to bed to rest for the activities the next day has to offer.

written by Michael Petroni