Nature’s Home writer David Lindo has just returned from his first visit to Antarctica with Hurtigruten – and it was spectacular before he even reached the ‘white continent’…
There was something weirdly nerve-wracking about embarking on a trip to Antarctica. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it as I stood on the top deck of Hurtigruten’s MS Midnitsol.
We were going to a place that even now has been visited by relatively few people. My trepidation was in fact, extreme excitement, a feeling that I had not experienced in a long time.
Petrels, shearwaters and albatrosses
The first part of the expedition was stunningly scenic. Cruising the Beagle Channel, eyeing up the Chilean Fjords was a joy.
But when we got to the open ocean to cross the notorious Drake’s Passage, the fun really started. It’s the best area for observing petrels, shearwaters and several species of albatross. It was also dubbed, by mariners of old, as the most treacherous stretch of sea that you are ever likely to traverse.
During the 36-hour crossing the sea conditions can be bad or terrible. And this time it was terrible. We skirted the edge of a storm that sent mighty waves lashing over the bow of the ship.
I decided to brave the voyage without seasickness medication – and I found that being on deck watching for birds was a great antidote for nausea.
I was richly rewarded for my on-deck diligence. I jumped with glee as I watched thousands of sooty shearwaters fly past the ship in streams, heading for Cape Horn and further north. Riding the slipstream with them were large and ugly southern giant petrels - the size of a small albatross.
As we neared the continental shelf the profusion of seabirds increased. White-chinned petrels were joined by the attractive southern fulmar, piebald cape petrels and blue petrels that careered along the surface of the waves.
Also riding the air currents were black-browed albatrosses, occasionally joined by grey-headed and light-mantled sooty albatrosses. On rarer occasions a southern royal albatross might swing into the vista before disappearing as quickly as it came.
I even found a couple of wandering albatrosses, the king of all travellers. With a 3.5-metre wingspan they made the black-brows look like gulls. A careful search of the rolling waves revealed tiny Wilson’s storm-petrels meticulously searching the water’s surface for morsels.
As we drifted beyond Drake’s Passage and into Antarctic waters, in came marauding brown skuas and kelp gulls along with patrolling Antarctic terns and scudding Antarctic cormorants.
Icy monsters of the Antarctic
Nothing can prepare you for when you set eyes upon your first iceberg. Stunning, amazing, fantastic are all superlatives that quickly get used up within the first five minutes. The silence as we drifted past these monsters was deafening.
Circling around some of the ice floes were ghostly snow petrels, and lying on the floes themselves was the first of hundreds of crabeater seals. A ‘blow’ in the distance turned out to be a group of humpback whales.
But it was seeing the majestic mountainous Antarctic continent itself that really took my breath away. Our visit was to the northern tip of the Antarctic peninsula that, if you could imagine, was like visiting a tiny spot on the western coast of Ireland knowing that there was a vast swathe of unknown land that stretched as far as Moscow!
This trip really felt like an expedition into the unknown. We made landings into guano-reeking gentoo penguin colonies, with a few chinstraps and even a lone king penguin that should have been breeding in South Georgia, at least a thousand miles to the north.
I could write a book about my Antarctic experience. But instead, I will wait for the next time I get to visit this enchanting, fragile and hostile place. One thing is for sure. Antarctica is the sort of place you have to visit at least once in your life.
Hurtigruten has supported the RSPB for over five years. By booking a voyage at www.hurtigruten.co.uk and quoting UK13HRRTRSPB5, 10% of the cost of your booking* will be donated to the RSPB, supporting seabird conservation – and you’ll also receive a 5% discount. So far, supporters like you have helped to raise £80,000 through their expeditions with Hurtigruten. Why not make a difference for wildlife with your holiday?
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We’re super excited this week, because Springwatch is about to return!
Episode 1 airs on BBC2 this bank holiday Monday, when my family and I will be away in Gloucestershire for a half-term break – but will still be tuning in at 8pm every night. It’s the BBC’s only live wildlife show and the whole family have been looking forward to it ever since spring actually sprang.
The kids love seeing the animals and learning a bit about them, and the grownups love all that, too - as well as the tips, the cleverly woven narratives, the poetic cinematography interludes and mini-dramas, the expert camerawork and the brilliant chemistry between the presenters. We adore Chris Packham’s passion and wit, and Martin Hughes-Games’ open-hearted joy in the nature around him - even though it’s nearly always him who has to wade neck-deep into a swamp, or spend a night on an icy mountain.
Here (in no particular order) are some of our family’s favourite ‘Watch’ moments from recent years.
Spineless Simon the stickleback (Springwatch 2015)
A humble stickleback fish became a national hero thanks to Springwatch. Photo: RSPB (rspb-images.com)
Life in the waters of a reed-fringed river at RSPB Minsmere felt as tense as an episode of 24. Our two-inch national hero, a freshwater fish (Gasterosteus aculeatus), was a hard worker and devoted father, who overcame disaster and cheated death every day in his simple but determined quest to raise a family.
Would Spineless Si ever find love? Would he have the heart to rebuild his nest after a passing otter destroyed it? Would the heron finally eat him? Thanks to brilliantly engaging narrative by Chris Packham and the team, the daily trials and tribulations of this tiny fish captured the imagination of not just my own family, but the rest of the country, too - Si rapidly acquired his own Twitter account, and quite a following! He’ll be long dead now, but we’ve never forgotten him.
Springwatch in Japan (April 2017)
I’ve never been to Japan (except through books) and much of the imagery I’ve seen from there depicts a futuristic, clinical-looking world of gleaming architecture and cutting-edge technology. So it was wonderful to see another side to Japan - the celebration of sakura (cherry blossom) and the custom of hanami (flower watching) that unites all of Japan in joy, revelry and nature-worship for a couple of weeks each spring.
The Springwatch team broadcast a single one-hour episode against this impossibly romantic backdrop of swirling pink blossom, and we learned about all sorts of wildlife and birds I never even knew existed. Three weeks later, we went out and brought our own sakura tree - so that next spring, our household can turn Japanese and celebrate our very own hanami, too!
Our daughter waters in our new sakura tree in the front garden.
The waxwing winter (Winterwatch 2017)
Apparently, last winter was a “waxwing winter”. Not in my patch of Wiltshire, it wasn’t. We didn’t see a single one, sadly. But the Winterwatch team brought them to us, instead.
Last year, the UK had a wet spring and warm summer, which apparently yields a bumper berry harvest, coaxing hungry waxwings across the North Sea for the bonanza. This segment from newbie presenter Gillian Burke introduced me to a bird I have yet to see in the flesh, yet managed to make it a favourite.
Booming bitterns (Springwatch 2014)
Springwatch at Minsmere inspired me to go and track down my first bitterns. Photo: Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)
The bittern is a secretive bird, seldom spotted as it moves silently through thick reedbeds, rarely taking flight. I’d never seen nor heard of them before Springwatch introduced them to me, and the presenters’ enthusiasm - Martin’s boyish face lighting up and breaking into a huge grin as he heard the two-tone ‘bottle-blowing’ boom floating across RSPB Minsemere’s marshes - was utterly infectious. Suddenly, our family was bittern-mad. My son, then four, did booming bittern impressions at the breakfast table… in fact, we all did. Daddy’s were the best.
We followed a bittern family’s ups and downs as chicks hatched; one got eaten by its own mother, then the remaining youngsters took numerous tumbles into the drink in their attempts to leave their precarious overwater nest… I think it may have been the first time a bittern nest had ever been filmed in the UK. Their many skills and escapades are summarised nicely in a segment called ‘bitterns got talent’.
The following summer, I finally found my own bitterns, on a trip to RSPB Ham Wall, about an hour from home. An easy sunlit saunter from carpark to boardwalk, and boardwalk to wetland hide, and although there was no booming going on that time of year, I saw not one but three of the elusive brown herons - briefly - rise from the reeds and dip again, and one of them flapped obligingly along the fringes of the nearest waterway. Springwatch gave me a dream, and RSPB Ham Wall made it come true.
The mouse maze, Winterwatch 2017
I am always impressed, though never surprised, by the intelligence of even some of our most modest-looking species. When the Winterwatch team put some nuts into a wooden maze, they were able to time how long it took the local mice and voles to find a way in and then learn the way through the maze. We followed their progress over several episodes, and let’s just say they’re fast learners! I think both species did a better job than I would have. Food for thought… Literally.
Springwatch keeps nature alive in the hearts of both my children. “I love nature,” my five-year-old told me recently, skipping around the garden. “I love the birds, and the butterflies, and the buzzy-buzzy bees.” I’m sure that our cosy evenings snuggled on the sofa watching the best of British wildlife as a family has helped foster this attitude – and hopefully will fuel a lifelong interest in the world around us.
Springwatch 2017 bursts onto our screens on BBC2 at 8pm next week, from Monday through Thursday. Though it’s not being filmed at an RSPB reserve this time, I hope you’ll join my family and I, and immerse yourselves in the wonderful natural world all around us. Tell us what you think by logging in to comment below, or email us at Nature’s Home magazine!
I think many of us imagine or dream of flying at some point in our lives. Soaring high and low, above land and out to sea. For me, nowhere has this dream been more strongly felt than at RSPB Bempton Cliffs in the East Riding of Yorkshire. 100,000s of seabirds come here every year to breed, creating a true UK wildlife spectacle, so I felt that this year I had to see it for myself.
There are some serious views at RSPB Bempton Cliffs (Photo: Jack Plumb)
My visit to Bempton wasn’t entirely spontaneous, as I’ve wanted to visit York for its history for a number of years. But once I got wind of 12-year-old Joe Fryer's albatross sighting it sealed the deal and I booked a B’n’B for a cheeky weekend away. Of course the albatross wasn’t the only reason to go. I hadn’t seen a puffin since I was about 7 or 8, and a couple of the other seabirds that make Bempton their nesting site of choice would also be new to me.
A gathering of gannets (Photo: Jack Plumb)
As soon as I stepped out of the car I could hear and see seabirds. The numbers are simply gobsmacking! Picking out anything to begin with was tricky, but once I had my eye in (years of Where’s Wally? books helped enormously), I was able to pick out some gems. The puffins weren’t so active, but they were there. Shags flying back and forth from the shore below were a nice treat, and huge numbers of huge gannets was always going to be spectacular.
Spot the puffin - apparently they were more active in the rain the day before (Photo: Jack Plumb)
RSPB Bempton Cliffs is pitched as the best place in the UK to see, hear and smell seabirds. I can’t imagine a place where there’s more wildlife activity, concentrated into an easy to access space, with all the comfort and convenience of a great café and visitor centre. To top it off, the staff and volunteers were beaming with Yorkshire friendliness whether they were making coffee or helping people spot puffins at one of the six viewing platforms that look over the cliffs.
RSPB Bempton Cliffs is sure to wow the young'uns, so bring your pufflings along (Photo: Jack Plumb)
I’ve been fascinated by albatrosses since I was a child. I think most children who have an interest in birds now, or adults who did in the past, have thought that albatrosses are pretty incredible. I had really hoped I’d finally see one, and in the UK, but it wasn’t to be. If I’m completely honest, I had become so engrossed with the cacophony of sound and visual spectacle of RSPB Bempton Cliffs, I’d forgotten all about the albatross. Plus, I don’t think I’d need an excuse like that to visit again – the place is more than enough on its own merit.