Tag Archives: Environment

(South) Georgia On My Mind

Sunday 3 March 2024­ – The observant among you will have noticed a lacuna in the updates to these pages.  That’s because nothing of any photographic import happened yesterday. It was a Sea Day as we headed towards South Georgia – in surprisingly calm conditions, bearing in mind that we were adjacent to the Drake Passage and could well have had some unsettled weather as a result.  But we didn’t.  We just had fog,

Even the best efforts of my image processing software couldn’t improve much on the view.

The weather did cheer up to the extent that we could infer the presence of sunshine via a fogbow.

That’s not to say that the day was dull, or content-free. There were some lectures, about the geology of South Georgia and about the whaling industry, which developed from a start around Grytviken on the Island and plundered the seas of a significant proportion of the whale population before humanity came to its collective senses (just about) and banned the practice. Pippa, who gave the lecture, pointed out that at the time, whale oil was as important to the world as fossil fuel oil and gas is to it now; a commodity which it was necessary t exploit.

More importantly, there was a mandatory procedure to go through before we would be free to visit the Island.  It’s a UK Overseas Territory, and has its own governance committee; a passport is essential for all visitors to the area.  More importantly, it has very, very strict rules and controls regarding biosecurity.  The rules are substantially similar to the ones we’d been briefed about for visiting the Antarctic region, but the stakes are higher. A particular concern is that avian flu has been raging across South Georgia since October last year and the importance was impressed on us of not putting anything on the ground, or sitting or lying down anywhere, and keeping at least 5 metres away from wildlife if at all possible. (I wonder, from what we were told, if the situation in some areas of South Georgia might be similar to the Galapagos, where wildlife is so ubiquitous that it’s actually impossible to keep your distance.)

A key part of the briefing was a “Visitors Guide” video, narrated by David Attenborough, which is well worth a watch by anyone, not just those planning to visit.  South Georgia was, at one stage, an environmental disaster area; the strict controls that are in place have actually made it almost unique on the planet in that it is a recovering ecological system.  Our boat will be inspected by officials from the island; the inspection will include a dog team to ensure there are no rodent stowaways and a sample of passengers will also be inspected to ensure their boots and other outerwear are free of any trace of biological material.  To try to ensure that the boat is compliant, a significant part of the day was spent with the staff doing a preliminary inspection of every passenger’s gear to make sure that it was clean and clear. And every cabin has blackout blinds, which must be lowered before dinner to try to ensure that no birds land on the boat.

Thus it was, having steamed all day and much of the night, that Hondius was just off the south-eastern tip of South Georgia, in Cooper Bay.  The scenery was a sharp change from what we’d been accustomed to on the Antarctic Peninsula.

It was green! The centre of South Georgia is covered in glaciers, but tussock grass is very widespread, and it’s this that gives the very different appearance.  The sunshine helped make it a gorgeous day.  Our guide for our first Zodiac cruise, Elizabeth, said that she had never seen weather like it at Cooper Bay; once again, we are very fortunate.

The plan for the day involved two Zodiac cruises.  Landings, though they have been part of previous expeditions, were not possible for us because not permitted – avian influenza means that the landing sites towards the south of the island are off limits.

But we had a great morning, nonetheless.  There were new species of penguins to look for, as well as seals and plenty of bird life.  The scenery generally was outstanding.

It included an area which is known as “the cathedral”, which was spectacular.

The penguin species we were expecting to see most of was macaroni penguins.  The name derives from foppish and elaborate 18th century wigs, following Italian fashion, which in the UK were nicknamed after a familiar type of pasta. (It’s probably why Yankee Doodle called the feather in his hat “macaroni”, by the way). Anyway, the penguins indeed sported a foppish and elaborate hairstyle!

Among the adults were some fledging chicks,

some of which were beginning to grow the punk fringe that marks the species out.

As well as the macaronis, there were numerous king penguins.

More of them later.  Many, many more.

Other wildlife included several fur seals,

and I was able to catch a few photos of the many sorts of bird life in evidence:

giant petrels,

(including one in a white morph

and a sequence of one taking off from the water);

the inevitable shags;

several snowy sheathbills, known, because of their dietary habits, as shit chickens;

a juvenile kelp gull;

an Antarctic tern


and – at last! – my stormy petrel on a stick!

It was a great morning, with uniquely lovely weather.  After lunch, we moved around the island, amid a forest of icebergs,

to St. Andrew’s Bay, on the north-east side, where there was a colony of king penguins.  There were lots of them.

Really, lots.

No, seriously, really lots. ‘king loads of them.

There are something like 200,000 nesting pairs in this colony.  That’s 400,000 adults, plus their young and “teenage” chicks.

Really, a lot of penguins.  To the point where I was a bit bored, to be frank.  There are only so many pictures and video one can take of penguins, after all.

One “teenage” chick was very engaging, half way between the brown down he had when born to his adult plumage.

There was other wildlife, of course.  Elephant seals;


kelp gulls;

as well as the giant petrels.  The videos I have show that there was quite a lot of sparring between the young fur seals and the penguins on the beach, so there were a few things to distract one, but I felt the Zodiac cruise was about an hour too long.

Back at the boat, the kitchen had organised a barbecue, which was quite fun, if a bit chilly.

The beer and wine were free and the food was very good; but I was quite frozen by this stage so didn’t stay long.

We are undergoing quite an extraordinary period of weather.  Normally, the west coast of the island is battered by winds, and hence seas, which would make it impossible to mount any kind of expedition from the ship.  However, for us tomorrow, the west side offers a better forecast than the east, so the plan is to visit the sites on the western side, in King Haakon Bay: Cape Rosa and Peggotty Bluff, where the sainted Shackleton first made ground on the island in the former before seeking a way, via the latter, to get to the whaling station to seek the help of the men who had told him not to go out in the first place.  Two cruises and a possible landing await.  If the conditions are right…

Whitehorse, Green Light

Saturday 27 August 2022 – Despite a late night, we couldn’t indulge ourselves with a late rising because we were booked on a City Tour starting at 10am.   We took breakfast in the hotel; it was a substantial rather than a luxury offering, but tasty – and they have Earl Grey tea.  The dining room (in fact much of the hotel)  is set up with vibes from the good ol’ days when people came out here to die whilst failing to find gold.

After breakfast, whilst Jane was discussing the strange antics of the telephone in our room with reception, I popped outside to see what the temperature was.  Looking through the hotel window, I’d been disconcerted to see ice in the gutter outside.

It turned out to be foamy detergent runoff, presumably from cleaning the car. The temperature outside was mild – about 10°C.

For the City Tour our guide was Bernie, originally from Germany but a long-time resident here.  He first took us to the Hydro Dam, which uses the Yukon River for electricity generation.

Impressive as the mighty flow of the river is, it’s not as impressive as the facility that runs beside it – the longest wooden salmon ladder in the world.

These pictures tell only half the story, but, as a digression, if you look at the picture above you can see a beaver in the water.  He obligingly popped out for his close-up (yes, I know I’m making an assumption here; deal with it)

and then rather satisfyingly buggered off before anyone else in our little tour group could get a photo.  The salmon ladder extends out the other way as well before turning back on itself for a total distance of 1182 feet to help the salmon rise 60 feet vertically and bypass the dam, which would otherwise be an impassable barrier.

The dam constructors specifically put in an impassable waterfall to ensure that the salmon made their way up the ladder.

There is a hatchery there, which deals in the Chinook breed of salmon that inhabit the river. Inside, there are  windows into the ladder

alongside much other information about this particular  salmon run, which, at 2,000 miles, is the longest in the world (the red line in this map).

The shape of that red line is used in a rather nice, if slightly dog-eared, artwork outside

and there’s much other artwork on the salmonid theme there

along with a rather depressingly low number of returning salmon counted there this year – 128 so far, when in previous years the total was in the thousands.  It all underlines the increasing challenges the salmon have to overcome in the face of climate change.

Bernie then took us to the Whitehorse visitor centre (via the log skyscraper, of which I hope to write tomorrow). He explained a lot about the geography of the whole vast area – Alaska, Yukon and the North Western Territory

in which mining is a major industry – all sorts of minerals come from this part of the world, celebrated in a display case in the centre.

The other major industries of the area are government – Whitehorse is the capital of the Yukon territory – and tourism. He also explained that it was an expanding town.  There were lots of well-paid job vacancies, but the trouble is that house-building hasn’t kept pace, meaning that accommodation is (a) hard to come by and (b) expensive.

That was the end of the City Tour (it’s a small place, and Jane and I have a plan to walk round it to explore it further tomorrow, weather permitting); but Jane had spotted another tour which looked interesting, to the Yukon Wildlife Preserve. As it happened, Bernie led that tour as well. The preserve is about half an hour’s drive from Whitehorse and is home to around a dozen Yukon species, each in their own natural areas, spread over 350 acres.  One can walk round the 3-mile trails, but Bernie took us in his minibus.  Here’s a selection of pictures of what we saw; each species is in wire-fenced enclosures, some of which are very large and so we couldn’t get close, but we certainly got a flavour of the wildlife and spotted several species we wouldn’t otherwise have been able to see.


mule deer;


red fox (actually, this one was wild, nothing to do with the preserve);

thinhorn sheep, female and male;

musk oxen;

mountain goats;

a cute little arctic fox, which Jane captured very nicely;

reindeer, or caribou as they’re known in these here parts;

a scene which should have featured a moose but it was hiding somewhere;

and – my favourite – a lynx.  I wouldn’t have spotted it, but Jane did and between us we managed to get a very satisfactory image even though it was quite distant.  My mobile phone did a great job, here.

There are other photos – no, really – but these are the pick of the bunch in my view.

As I’ve hinted before and elsewhere, we had an activity booked to start at 10.30pm, so we went out for dinner to store up the necessary energy.  Jane’s first choice, a joint called Klondike Rib and Salmon, was taking walk-in customers only and the line of them stretched down the street. So we headed for another place, one Bernie had recommended as we drove around on his tour.  It is called Antoinette’s and has, I think, been recently opened, because they had all sorts of signs around the outside insisting that they were, indeed, open.  They also had a table free, so we had their unusual twist of Yukon and Caribbean cuisine, and very good it was, too.  I’ve not eaten bison or elk before, and this meal enabled me to try both.

Then it was time for our evening activity, which was an attempt to see the Northern Lights; this is actually the principal reason we visited Whitehorse, and was as part of a special Aurora package put together by Northern Tales, a local agency (who also provided our City Tour and Wildlife Preserve tour earlier). We were whisked away to a site north of Whitehorse (and not too far away from the wildlife preserve, as it happens), where there were a couple of heated cabins, drinks, snacks, a bonfire and an open area where we could set up to view and photograph the Aurora Borealis.  As anyone who has tried this will know, success is entirely a matter of chance, and the initial omens weren’t too good, as we drove there through what sounded like heavy rain.  The rain, at least, had largely ceased by the time we got there, and so I busied myself with the relatively drawn-out process of setting up to get photos should the clouds decide to clear and the aurora to turn up. This excursion was basically the reason I had toted a tripod and an extra wide-angle lens with me, though it turns out that I could have left the tripod at home, as they provided some.  Never mind, I am familiar with mine which helps, I think.

After a few minutes, it seemed that the rain was going to hold off, so I set my tripod up with the camera and a remote trigger on it and checked, as far as I could, that I had a working setup. jane helpfully made tea and eventually (because the cabin was too warm and the weather was not cold) we settled down on a seat near my and others’ tripods and stared into the far distance to see if we could see anything happening.  It was really quite dark by that stage, although we could just make out lighter and darker patches; after a while of getting dark adapted, my eyes started playing tricks on me and I could have sworn I saw flickering patterns in the sky and the odd occasional dancing light.  We waited for about an hour, between 1130 and half-past midnight, taking occasional photos of dark sky and clouds.  I got to the stage where I thought I could entitle this blog post “I came for the Northern Lights and all I got was this bloody wildlife” when we thought that maybe we saw a little extra light out to the north.  So I took another photo, and, sure enough there was a tiny flash of green in the far distance.

Was it real?


The next 90 minutes was an orgy of photo taking and checking the results as best one can in near-total darkness.  I thanked God for a Nikon product called Snapbridge, which transferred photos from camera to phone, so we could check results on a phone screen rather than on the small one on the back of the camera.

It was great. We didn’t see the gorgeous dancing hanging curtains of light so beloved of marketing departments; but we did see enough to make staying up until 3am worthwhile.

A fundamental truth of the northern lights is that they are rarely bright enough for the human eye to see the colours; camera sensors, however, have greater colour sensitivity.  Often, humans see just a greyish light when the camera shows green.  But sometimes the lights are bright enough so that the cones in the human eye can make out colours; and so it proved now – we could just about make out the colours, although they were much clearer on digital images.

I took a lot of photos.  No, really.  But to save you the agony of looking through them, here’s a video constructed from two sequences of photos from two slightly different viewpoints.

Obvs, I’m pretty pleased with that little selection, but that may just be because I’ve only had four hours’ sleep and I’m getting hysterical.

You’ll be glad to know (yes, you will) that we repeat the whole process tonight, so I may take a few more snaps and share them with you.  Come back tomorrow and see whether the clouds got in the way or not.

Oh My God! More? Can I bear it?

Friday 26 August 2022 – After two days of full-on encounters with wildlife (apart from the boring waiting around bits, that is), we were (a) sad to be leaving Farewell Harbour Lodge and (b) quietly pleased that we elected to have a morning sitting around in the lodge and catching our breath, rather than taking on any of the excursions that Tim had made available (a First Nation village visit, Sea Kayaking or a local hike on Berry Island, where the lodge is located).

There we were, having a leisurely breakfast, when another ripple of excitement ran through the room. A bear was wandering around on the island! Everyone immediately shot outside, and – quietly – watched as a black bear wandered around helping herself to berries from the bushes by the shore.

The bear was Evie, and was the same bear that we’d seen the previous evening; she had swum across from the neighbouring island. Her quest for the berries brought her closer to the lodge than anyone had seen before.

The lodge’s internet connection stabilised enough for me to upload some videos and therefore to write up the breathless excitement of yesterday’s encounter with the fishing bear. Whilst I was doing this, Jane was filling in the (inevitable, these days) feedback form. We don’t always bother with this, but it was so clear that Tim and his team cared what people thought of their offerings that we took the time to fill it in. Not that it took much time, since the quality of everything – accommodation, food, arrangements, service, excursions, gin – was absolutely faultless. Tim has built up a superb environment and it was a real pleasure to have experienced what he and his team had to offer.

Whilst we were doing this, Bill, one of the group of eight Brits who had been on substantially the same itinerary at the lodge, went out kayaking

as it was a calm, clear morning.

(He ended up kayaking right round Berry Island, encountered Evie again on the far side and came back with a smile on his face and a severely numb bum.)

Too soon, though (because I’d only just finalised the blog posting and it was a bit of a scramble getting the brag about it up on to Facebook), it was time to leave the lodge and be ferried over to Alder Bay. We were about half way over when, just as I thought that perhaps we could get from A to B without having to stop and admire some wildlife, one of our group, Eileen, exclaimed that she’d seen the spouting of an Orca. Our driver, AJ (a genial, larger-than-life Canadian with a deeper and larger-than-life voice) soon also spotted them and we slowed down to take a look. Sure enough, there were five of them; it seemed they were resting, rather than actually going somewhere.

And so it was that right up to the point where we left the inlet, the wildlife were queuing up for us to see them, again and again. We really had been amazingly lucky with what we’d been able to see, and it’s a tribute to the skill and passion of the staff at the lodge that they’d got us into the positions where we could take full advantage of what the environment had to offer.
At Alder Bay, we bade goodbye to two of the members of the group we’d spent time with over the previous two days, Paula and Sandrine.

We had one final wildlife encounter of sorts still in store for us. The remaining six in the group – Eileen and Dave, Berni and Bill and Jane and I – were to be ferried to Port Hardy for our flight towards our next adventure by a young lad called Chris (who had also brought a batch of new punters to Alder Bay to be ferried back to the lodge). Tim had arranged for us to be able to visit a wild salmon hatchery (very different from a salmon farm). It is called the Quatse River Hatchery; because we arrived a few minutes early, Chris led us to a gazebo where we could eat the sandwiches that the lodge had thoughtfully provided.

As we were eating our sandwiches, a vagrant drifted past and shambled down to the river, coming back muttering that it was worse than he’d seen it in 15 years. This turned out to be Patrick, our tour guide, who then took us on a tour.

(Patrick on the left, with Chris; Eileen also in the picture.)

He actually started by taking us to see the river, which, indeed, was barely a trickle in places.

Not only was it too low for fish to navigate up, it was also too warm. Salmon thrive in temperatures up to about 13°C, and the river was up to about 17°C. Patrick showed us the fish counter

(very different from the one you’d find at any decent supermarket) which should be under water, so fish can swim over it and be seen and counted by the cameras above it. This was a further stark demonstration that the whole area is in desperate need of heavy rain, and soon.

The hatchery also has an interpretation centre, set up to educate visitors about the role of the hatchery and the critical importance of salmon to the environment generally, as they provide food when alive and nutrients for the waterways when dead. In the wild, as I’ve said elsewhere, a female salmon’s clutch of around 2500 eggs might give rise to two adult salmon – the hatchery has a neat demonstration of the difficulties faced by salmon in the form of a “wheel of fortune”, which you can spin to understand the odds of survival, rather than being eaten or dying from disease.

We were then treated to a short video about the development of the salmon and the methods the hatchery uses to fertilise the eggs and process the fry to the point where they can be released into the river or downstream lake, being very careful to keep different species separate and to mark all they produce by clipping the adipose fin (the one to the rear of their backs, between the dorsal fin and the tail – this has been shown not to disadvantage the fish). The segregation serves to prevent interbreeding between species; and the fin clipping not only allows data to be gathered on relative numbers of wild vs hatchery salmon making it back to spawn; it also enables the control of what the fishing industry gets up to; there’s a complicated set of rules as to how many hatchery versus how many wild salmon the fishing boats are allowed to keep, and the fishery inspectors apparently police this quite rigorously.

The hatchery has a room where all the eggs harvested from salmon are carefully vetted as well as nurtured. They sit in racks, washed with cold water, and every diseased egg is removed before it can develop into a danger to the others.

Finally, Patrick showed us a couple of the tanks in which the growing fry (in this case coho salmon) are nurtured.

Different sizes of fish are kept in different sizes of tanks and nurtured differently (the hatchery only processes pink, chum and coho breeds of salmon); pink salmon can look after themselves but the other species need feeding as part of ensuring their survival.

Patrick himself is an interesting case; he has a degree in political science and in one of his previous lives has lived in the UK (he is a West Ham supporter, bless him). Although not a biological scientist, he clearly had a good knowledge of the practicalities of the hatchery process and clearly had a passion for his role.

Chris then took us to the Port Hardy airport, where the six of us joined the single queue for the single check-in desk (it’s not a huge airport; it doesn’t even have a café). As we stood there, a nice staff member came over to explain to us that The Powers That Be had changed the aeroplane on them and it was by no means clear that they’d be able to get all the bags on to the (now smaller) plane. In front of us in the queue were some people with enormous bags, and one guy even had three large cardboard boxes marked “Canada Fish Produce”; since we needed to pick up our bags at Vancouver and transfer to an Air North flight to Whitehorse, this didn’t lessen the stress levels in that check-in queue, I can tell you.

In the end, there appeared to be room for all the big bags in the plane, which was a 30-seat propeller jobbie, and we breathed a sigh of relief as we noted our bags being hurled into the furthest recesses of what passes for a hold in that sort of aeroplane. A lot of passengers had fairly substantial hand luggage, some of which (mine included) wouldn’t fit into the overhead or under-seat spaces. The nice steward, a very helpful and friendly chap called Matthew, offered to put mine in a space at the front, which was kind; I heard him mutter “God, that’s heavy!” as he heaved it around.

We were a few minutes behind schedule after everyone had boarded and Matthew had sorted the bags (and told the captain about the resultant weight distribution). However, we sat on a full plane with the doors still open and the captain came on to explain that because of Vancouver air traffic controls, we wouldn’t be able to take of for a little while. All of a sudden, therefore, the stress levels rocketed up again. Our schedule allowed us an hour and a quarter to transfer between flights. Since, in the end, we were going to land 45 minutes late, it seemed that we would miss our onward flight. Jane and Matthew chatted about this a little and he was very helpful with information, such as the fact that we would be arriving in Vancouver’s South Terminal which was a shuttle bus ride from the main terminal whence our Whitehorse flight would depart. He suggested that a cab might be quicker than the shuttle and cost only 15 or 20 dollars…..

In the end, we simply accepted the fact that we would miss our flight and hoped that we would get on a later flight. And that’s what happened. We shot off the plane but had to wait a few minutes to pick up our bags. The shuttle bus departed very soon after we got on, and we went for a mystery bus tour, almost, it seemed, to downtown Vancouver, on the way to the main terminal. As we entered the terminal, I noted that our flight was marked “Final Call”.

We eventually found the two Air North desks among the myriad Air Canada and Westjet desks, and a very helpful lady got us transferred on to a later flight. In the end it was a better flight, as it was direct, while the one we’d originally been booked on went from Vancouver to Whitehorse via Victoria, which is a long way round. We passed the time until our flight taking some dinner. There were two eateries in the departures area, both takeaway joints; a charbroiled burger bar (huge queue) and a salad bar (no queue). We had a blameless falafel salad with Earl Grey tea and then it was time to go for our flight. As are most of these things it was entirely crash-free, though there were a couple of bumpy passages, and we arrived at Whitehorse at 11.30pm. only 1 hour behind our original schedule. The baggage carousel provided some amusement whilst we awaited our bags

which arrived in due course, and we headed out, expecting to have to take a cab to our hotel. As it happens, the hotel we were staying in (Best Western Goldrush Inn) had a shuttle bus waiting and so we were reasonably swiftly taken there. The last people to board the bus were a group of four hunters who had, as well as vast amounts of luggage which I helped to unload at the hotel, their own gun cases, each of which was as tall and almost as wide as they were, and which were loaded on at the front of the bus. The driver asked their leader what they were going to hunt, and he said, counter-intuitively, “sheep”. Apparently it’s a thing; we learned later that the specific sheep to be hunted are mountain sheep which have to be targeted from above. So it’s not just a question of “you just stand there looking cute / and if something moves, you shoot”*; it’s bloody hard work, it seems.

Anyway, that was about it for the evening; the hotel were thankfully expecting us and the organisers of the package that brought us here had provided information for us. It informed us that we had to be ready for a City Tour at 10am and our other planned activity at 1030pm. Unless you’ve already guessed or I’ve accidentally spilled the beans, you’ll have to come back and find out what that activity is.

* © Tom Lehrer, 1953.