My Blog - Jeff Clarke
Updates and photos from around the world on my travels both through pleasure and work
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All images are authentic to the tour and copyright © Jeff Clarke unless otherwise stated. Click on images to view at full size.
I’d just returned from a dramatically foreshortened cruise, where a five-week tour had been truncated to one-week due to Covid-19 complications, so you’d imagine I’d be sceptical about accepting an offer to join Viking Jupiter in Chile, with just two weeks’ notice to embarkation. As someone who is generally one of life’s optimists, I perceived the logistical hurdles as surmountable and the pull of possibilities as irresistible.
So it was that Laura and I boarded Viking Jupiter in the early afternoon of 11th February 2022. The ship would spend two nights in Valparaíso before departure. On embarkation we took a mandatory PCR test and were required to isolate in our cabin until we received the all-clear. We were delighted to discover we’d been upgraded to a balcony, which fortuitously faced out into the harbour and this meant we could enjoy watching the passing marine wildlife. I’m sure isolation had seldom been more enjoyable. We unpacked, sorted out the cameras and optical gear and began our vigil. I was pleased to discover that an adjacent floating dry-dock was hosting Inca Terns and a Red-legged Cormorant. The latter soon entered the water, and this brought it close enough to grab some images as it fished.
Several South American Sea Lions were patrolling the waters of the harbour and seemed to be finding fish with consummate ease. Peering down into the water below the balcony also revealed the presence of many large jellyfish, most appeared to be Chrysaora plocamia also known as South American Sea Nettle.
Franklin's Gull © Jeff Clarke
As with most harbours this one was full of gulls, mostly Kelp Gulls, but there was also smaller numbers of Brown-hooded Gulls and Franklin’s Gulls, the former mostly entering winter plumage as they are local breeders, the latter moulting into summer plumage as they breed in North America and were preparing to migrate.
Before long the on-board PCR testing lab had given us the good news, we were all negative and so we could move around the ship, albeit masked up.
Free travel ashore was still not possible, so we joined a tour to a winery in the Casablanca district in the hope it would produce some bird sightings. A small selection of typical Chilean avifauna was on show and I managed to sneak away from the group just long enough to grab some images of Duica Finch, Long-tailed Meadowlark, Austral Blackbird and a party of the vociferous Southern Lapwings, that even the regular tour group members could hardly fail to notice. I’m sure I could have secured some better images but the three glasses of wine consumed before mid-morning may have impaired my skills. The pair of us are not big drinkers, so by the time Laura and I got back to our cabin we were both ‘half-cut’.
The ship would depart Valparaíso in the late afternoon of 13th Feb and pre-departure I noticed the Inca Terns were coming much closer to the vessel than they had previously, so I tried to get a few extra images. Once beyond the harbour the Pacific Ocean was seething with birds, mainly Sooty Shearwater, but it also included Pink-footed Shearwater, a few Juan Fernández Petrel, as well as Guanay Cormorant, Peruvian Booby and Peruvian Pelican. We were also connecting with albatrosses and before dark we recorded Black-browed, Salvin’s and Northern Royal, as well as Southern Giant Petrel, Fuegian Storm-petrels and our first Chilean Skua.
As dusk settled, I noticed that the visibility conditions were rather hazy and this prompted me to get up in the early hours and scour the decks for stranded sea-birds. I quickly located a Defilippi’s Petrel on the promenade deck and after a quick photo returned it to the ocean.
Our second day at sea was spent cruising southward in the Humboldt Current. I’d completed my introductory lecture on the whales and dolphins of the region and hopes were high that we would connect with some exciting marine mammals.
The wind direction and speedy progress of our vessel limited our ability to get on the front of the ship, so most watching occurred from the promenade deck. Good for birds but a bit low for cetacean spotting in the conditions, meaning the return of four Humpback Whales and 50+ South American Fur Seals was significantly lower than the potential of the route. The birds did compensate significantly; we encountered our first Magellanic Penguins, whilst Sooty Shearwater and Pink-footed Shearwater numbered in their thousands, our albatross list gained Southern Royal, but only Northern Royal and Black-browed came close enough to be photographed. Grey (Red) Phalarope were numerous, and I did manage to secure a reasonable image of a group in flight. During the day 50+ dusky looking diving petrels, periodically skittering away from the ship in small numbers would, based on distribution, be Peruvian Diving-petrel. By the end of the day, we’d noted 18 different species of seabird, including my first Snowy-crowned Terns, but the real highlight was the shear abundance of birdlife.
Our first port of call was Puerto Montt, I’d never previously manged to get ashore here, it’s a tendered port and I escorted a tour to visit the Osorno Volcano, via Petrohué Falls. The falls were crowded with sightseers and wildlife sightings were very much at a premium, with only Tufted Tit-Tyrant providing anything more than a glimpse. Thankfully the mountain had few visitors, and you were blessed with a feeling of space and during some ‘free time’ Laura and I had the opportunity to escape humanity for a brief period. Though the vegetation was spartan in this volcanic habitat I was amazed to see how numerous the Green-backed Firecrown hummingbirds were, as they zoomed across the lunar landscape. The only other passerine bird present at this altitude was Buff-winged Clinclodes. The only raptor we saw here, a Black Vulture, was a dot in the distance, high above the clouds, but still below our vantage point.
Whilst waiting for the tender on our return to port, I noticed a Black-crowned Night Heron, of the subspecies obscurus, fishing close to the dock. I found a single small gap in the security fencing, and much to the astonishment of my fellow passengers, I lay down on the ramp so I could photograph it, prior to returning to the ship. I’m sure some of them thought I was barking mad at the time, but they understood why I go to such lengths, when they saw my images during my final talk, nearly a fortnight later.
As we set off southward from Puerto Montt my hope was that I could photograph the locally endemic Pincoya Storm Petrel, my efforts on previous cruises through the Golfo de Corcovado had been woeful. They were thin on the ground but eventually I got a few shots off; the images were marginally better than my previous efforts. I also glimpsed a couple of Chilean Dolphin before the gathering wind and rain forced us to take shelter inside.
By next morning we were passing along the Humboldt current, in the vicinity of Cabo Taito, when we hit the motherload of Sei Whales. I plotted our encounters throughout the day, the only gaps in my recording being for comfort breaks and giving a talk. We were rarely out of sight of rorqual blows for more than a few minutes. By the end of the day, I’d logged one Fin Whale, three Humpback Whale, two Dwarf Minke Whale and 24 Sei Whale. Additionally, we recorded a further 33 rorqual whales, most of which I suspected as being Sei Whales. As a cetacean watcher these are the days that make up for all those others when you see absolutely nothing. I also manged to obtain some of my best images of Sei Whale as a bonus.
Bird-wise it was another day befitting the abundance of the Humboldt. We added another albatross species, this time the bird with the longest wingspan on the planet, the mighty Snowy Wandering Albatross. I spent some time trying to secure a decent image as the light conditions improved, but after a time the effect of another early morning’s deck scouring for seabirds took its effect and I decided I needed a ‘nanna nap’. When I woke up half an hour later, I discovered Laura had picked up my camera whilst I was snoozing, and taken some amazing shots of the wanderers, having never previously used my camera! You can go off people.
The next time the sun rose we would be in the Chilean Fjords.
The fjord system is without doubt a scenic wonder, wildlife-wise they can be a challenge as species diversity is low and typically somewhat distant from the ship. It does however hold the promise of some special wildlife and overall, we got lucky over the following few days.
Approaching the Brüggen Glacier © Jeff Clarke
Our first glacier was Brüggen Glacier, also known as Pío XI, arguably the only currently advancing glacier on the planet. Alongside the ubiquitous Kelp Gulls and Imperial Cormorants we spied another fjord regular in the form of our first Flightless Steamer Ducks of the tour. A few distant dorsal fins were deduced as belonging to Peale’s Dolphin, but we would have a much more intimate encounter with this species as we approached Penguin Glacier. It was here that a playful pod cavorted around the ship as we rotated in a large gap in the brash ice. This allowed many passengers to get stellar views of these delightful dolphins and also enabled me to secure some lovely atmospheric shots, as they leapt over glass calm waters dimpled with rain drops. A very magical moment.
By the 19th February we awoke to the sounds of the ship docking in Punta Arenas in the Magellan Strait. It was overcast, but thankfully winds were light and our trip to Magdalena Island would go ahead. I’ve visited a few Magellanic Penguin colonies but never previously made it out to Magdalena. It had a reputation for being a good trip to spot Commerson’s Dolphin and so it proved. On the outward journey and on the return journey, we had pods of these black and white aquatic pandas, zooming into the bow at high speed. They were nearly impossible to photograph as the catamaran bounded over the waves and my images do not do justice to the thrill of these encounters.
The island itself was a treat, though from my perspective we didn’t have remotely enough time ashore to take in the abundance of wildlife. The Magellanic penguins are, quite naturally, the main attraction and in reality the only thing most visitors are interested in, but there was so much more to be enjoyed than just penguins. It was one of those trips where I wanted to take charge and go “Hey, look at this amazing Rufous-chested Dotterel. The bird with the bubble-gum legs and a carrot for a bill is a Blackish Oystercatcher. This raucous bunch of sea-swallows are South American Terns but these little blue and white birds skimming the turf are swallows, Chilean Swallows to be precise. Oh, and while we are about it, these little ‘peeps’ probing the grasses are White-rumped Sandpipers and they have flown all the way here from the Arctic tundra of Canada to spend the northern winter down here on the southern tip of Chile. Next stop Antarctica. Isn’t that amazing?” I was struck by just how many people adopt this 'blinkered' way of seeing the natural world when I did my final wildlife round-up talk. I showed an image of a Dark-bellied Cinclodes sat on a rope in a tarpaulin covered boat that was positioned right next to where we re-boarded the catamaran. These passerines were all over the beach areas of the islands and were remarkably tame, yet not a single person on the trip, other than me and Laura, had any memory of them at all. I don’t blame the other cruise passengers for this, it’s not a failing in them, it’s a societal failing, an educational failing, it’s how we are conditioned to see wildlife. If you do visit Magdalena Island, make sure that you take it all in, it’s an amazing place to visit.
On the return journey we gained decent views of Magellanic Diving-Petrel and more good sightings of Commerson’s dolphins and Sei whales.
After a foggy start the following day, the weather at Punta arenas turned into a sparkling afternoon with flat calm conditions. Following a morning tour into the Nothofagus Patagonian rainforest, Laura and I placed ourselves strategically on the front of Deck 7 to scan for cetaceans and birds. A few distant blows proved to be the anticipated Sei Whales. Then some splashes across the bay attracted our attention and we were delighted to see a pod of Peale’s Dolphins headed in our direction. A few minutes later we were privileged to witness this pod cavort joyously in front of the bow, leaping for all they were worth, topped off by a calf stopping to spy-hop us, before re-joining its mother. Cue big beaming smiles on the face of everyone who witnessed this glorious moment. If you let it, nature can give you the most uplifting natural highs, better than any drug, any day!
The harbour area is alive with wildlife, from sea lions sunbathing on the ship’s mooring jetty, to hordes of Imperial and Rock Cormorants decorating the derelict piers, Dolphin Gulls using the ship as a place of repose and Chilean Skuas dive bombing any bird deemed to be carrying a fish worth stealing. As we departed Punta Arenas, heading for a golden sunset, we had the bonus of more Peale’s Dolphins, a couple of Bottlenose Dolphins and a minimum of 12 Sei Whales.
We returned to the Chilean fjord system and awoke to a scintillating day, in a breath-taking setting, the mirror-calm waters reflecting the snow-capped mountains and serendipitous silence of Seno Hyatt, as we delicately threaded our way through the brash ice and bergs to the Videla Glacier. My ‘spidey sense’ was tingling and the conditions reminded me of a previous tour that visited Laguna San Rafael. I’d only just prepped folk joining me on the forward deck 7, as to the potential for Leopard Seal, when we spied a lithe shape on a berg. It was a genuine ‘punch the air’ moment. As if by magic there lay the supine form of this unmistakable apex predator. We passed it very slowly and it lifted its head to inspect the vessel, giving me the opportunity to capture its distinctive, almost reptilian, profile. Moments later it slid quietly into the water and disappeared. Sometimes it’s difficult to convince folk they have witnessed something special, but on this occasion, they could see it written all over my face and some of us are born doubly lucky.
On the 22nd we passed through the Beagle Channel on route to Cape Horn. We dipped our toes into Atlantic waters and as if to signal the switching of oceans, a smattering of Great Shearwaters could be picked out among the masses of their sooty relatives. The seas became increasingly mountainous and the careening albatrosses took centre stage, which was fitting as I was designated to deliver ‘Ode to a Wandering Albatross’, by Pablo Neruda, during the on-board Cape Horn ceremony. As we processed toward the horn the albatross numbers increased and they approached ever closer to our vessel. Among the throng of black-broweds a dusky headed stranger appeared, then another. Pretty soon more than a dozen Grey-headed Albatrosses were soaring over the now 'foaming' ocean. Due to the sea conditions, there was only a short section of one exterior deck open to the public, but it gave me the opportunity I required, and I spent a joyous hour photographing this truly cold-water dependent albatross. It’s a hypnotically graceful looking bird with a total mastery of the capricious conditions, that is nothing short of spellbinding.
The following day we were back in the Magellan Strait and we passed through the Francisco Coloane Marine Park area, designated for the protection of Humpbacked Whales, we saw a total of nine and the crowd at the front of deck 7 were duly thrilled to see them fluking as they 'sounded'.
Our final port, before returning to Valparaíso, was Puerto Chacabuco. On a previous tour here I’d visited the Rio Simpson reserve but this time we took the ship excursion to the Parque Aiken. The forest here is dense to the point of being near impenetrable. In the more open areas a large invertebrate, in the form of Darwin Beetle, also known locally as the Deer-head beetle, was very evident.They looked fearsome, but were harmless to humans, if not to other Darwin beetles. The bird populations were clearly abundant, though spotting them was anything but straightforward, so it was little wonder that our guides tended to concentrate on the botanical aspects of the reserve. It was good to catch up with Black-throated Huet-huet, a strange passerine than seems to be blackbird crossed with a moorhen, but our main ornithological goal was the Chilean endemic, Chucao Tapaculo. A true skulker of a bird in a dense dark thicket. After a while I hung back from the group and ‘pished’ one out on to the footpath, so close it was almost at my feet and too close to photograph. A little later, I tried with a second bird and this time got a passable record shot, but the dense shade ensured a grainy image. Nonetheless it did allow our group to see this emblematic little bird.
It's definitely a reserve I’ll revisit if I’m lucky enough to go back to Chile in the next few years.
It was time to return to Valparaíso. And I was looking forward to two days at sea. On day one we headed back up the Golfo Corcovado, with Chiloé Island off our port side. The big moment would come around 1pm as we re-entered the Pacific. Frustratingly, we were confined inside as the stiff head-wind, and quickly moving ship, meant conditions on exterior decks were somewhat compromised. Nevertheless, following my suggestion, a large crowd had gathered in the Explorers’ Lounge in the hope of seeing something very significant. As if they were reading the script, we were suddenly confronted with the multiple blows of large whales, for a time there were blows everywhere and a Fin Whale surfaced close to the ship, but the whale ahead of the ship was our real focus, the next big blow drew our gaze to the heaving form of a ‘sounding’ Chilean blue whale, as it serenely arced back into the water, revealing it's diagnostic stub of a dorsal fin. Mission accomplished. Over the next 45 minutes we saw a further four Chilean blues, including one individual that passed very close down our starboard side, so that we could clearly see its turquiose form, swimming beneath the waves.
Our final day at sea was an absolute belter. Shortly after breakfast, Laura and I stepped out on to the promenade deck, to the strong scent of fish on the wind, and were immediately aware of the fusillade of whale blows all around the ship. These were big blows and every whale I could see to identify was confirmed as a Fin Whale, this included one that surfaced so close to the ship that the first you knew of its presence was the blasting sound of its exhalation. I quickly lost count of how many whales we were recording, but it was not fewer than 45+ Fin Whales and many, many more unidentified rorqual blows. Most of this action took place offshore from Concepción. Not much was going to top that, though a cavalcade of seabirds did their best to match the leviathan bonanza. As a final gift at the very end of this memorable trip, whilst we were packing our suitcases, our cabin phone rang. The cabin stewards had heeded my call to alert them to stranded seabirds and one of them had rescued a bird from a balcony. There before my eyes was a sparkling Juan Fernández petrel. I was really delighted to have such a close encounter with this magical bird. I took the bird down to the promenade deck where I released it back into the Humboldt.
What a truly memorable trip and a welcome distraction in troubled times.
I’d like to finish with a few thank-yous. Firstly, to Viking Cruises and to my agents at Peel Talent for making it possible for me to support this amazing cruise. A big thanks to my fellow speakers for their camaraderie and support. A very special thank you to the Cruise Director Katy Syrett and her team for their outstanding work on behalf of the passengers and the entertainers. The passengers were hugely supportive of the speakers and their enthusiastic attendance at our lectures was greatly appreciated. Anyone who was aboard this cruise is more than welcome to download the images posted here as a memento. Finally, I’d like to thank Laura, for supporting me during this fabulous adventure and taking those remarkable images of the Snowy Wandering Albatross.
If you have never travelled in Chile, I would thoroughly recommend it and, what’s more, doing it by ship allows to you experience localities and special places where it is not logistically possible to visit by any other means. I personally can’t wait for my next exploration of the Humboldt Current and beyond.