The Falkland Islands was the furthest south either of us had ventured. In fact, we were about 100 miles south of the islands. With the onset of the austral autumn, it was cold, windy and the sea was rough and swelly. We saw snow, fog, rain, but rarely the sun.
Viewing conditions were challenging and our sighting rate was disappointingly low. Nevertheless, we managed to see some a couple of species that were new to us: hourglass dolphins (Lagenorhynchus cruciger) and Peale's dolphin (Lagenorhynchus australis). The hourglass dolphins in particular seemed to be extremely energetic and dashed past the ship at high speed, as we fumbled for the camera with gloved hands.
We saw several sei whales (Balaenoptera borealis), and as usual for this species, they were quite difficult to track. On one occasion we thought we were watching one whale, but when we came to look at the photographs, there had been two whales present. The lower two photos show the dorsal fins of the two individual whales, which were clearly different in shape.
Considering that we were so far from land, we were surprised to see South American sea lions (Otaria byronia) on several occasions. Their curiously up-turned nose gave the impression that they looked at our ship rather disdainfully.
The sparsity of marine mammal sightings was more than made up by the outstanding bird life. It was especially thrilling to see the enormous wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans) with their truly awesome wingspan.
The young birds have a brownish mottled appearance, and like gannets take several years to acquire the smart black and white plumage of an adult. Their rather gawkish expression often made us smile.
The most abundant albatross, almost constantly in view, was the black-browed albatross (Diomedea melanophris). Up to 80% of the estimated world population of three million birds nest on the Falklands. Unfortunately however, they are severely threatened by long-line fisheries and significant decreases are seen annually at the breeding colonies.
We saw this bird sitting on the water, pecking at something. It seemed to have a long strand of something trailing from its bill, and we couldn't decide whether it was a piece of fishing line or some sort of seaweed.
Juvenile black-browed albatross have darker bills and a grey neck. This youngster was given first place at the dinner table by two adults, although they perhaps didn't fancy what was on the menu - it looked pretty unappetising to us!
We also saw a third species of albatross, the grey-headed albatross (Diomedea chrysostoma). They are very smart looking birds, but unfortunately, we didn't manage to get any decent photos. White-chinned petrels (Procellaria aequinoctialis) were one of the more abundant species, along with great shearwaters (Puffinus gravis) and sooty shearwaters (Puffinus griseus).
The giant petrel (Macronectes giganteus) was another abundant species. They are true giants, as big as some of the smaller albatrosses, but with a menacing look and massive beak. Their plumage is extremely variable, some birds being almost pure white, but the majority being more or less mottled brown.
The smaller seabirds were dominated by Wilson's storm petrels (Oceanites oceanicus) and Antarctic prions (Pachyptila desolata). Both were real challenges to our photographic skills, and the images below were the best we could do.
Occasional visitors were the southern fulmar (Fulmarus glacialoides) and the wonderfully mottled Cape petrel (Daption capense).
We had a number of sightings of penguins at sea, but they were difficult to spot in the choppy seas and big swells, as they sit low in the water and usually dived well before the ship came close to them. We nevertheless managed to identify king penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus), Magellanic penguins (Spheniscus magellanicus) and either rockhopper (Eudyptes chrysocome) or macaroni penguins (Eudyptes chrysolophus), the latter two appearing rather similar at long range.
The mermaids were rather elusive, and we saw only their long, wavy locks of auburn hair.
Several species of land birds turned up on our ship, despite being a long way from land. One of the most extraordinary was the pale-faced sheathbill (Chionis alba), Antarctica's only true land bird. With no history of human predation, these birds are quite fearless and we were able to approach them quite closely.
The portraits show the curious facial caruncles and sheathed bill of this species.
We were surprised to be visited by cattle egrets (Bubulcus ibis) on a number of occasions, usually associating this species with warmer climes. At one time we had a flock of 40 individuals resting on the deck!
There was great excitement one day, when a peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) turned up, clutching its kill of an Antarctic prion. It settled on the ship to pluck and devour its prey, before heading off on its travels again.