“I'm most excited to visit the Tristan da Cunha Islands for the first time. They're just so exotic! We're talking about the world's most remote inhabited islands, and being able to explore that history, culture and birdlife is a rare opportunity.”
Famed ornithologist Noah Stryker's infectious excitement about his upcoming expedition from South Georgia to Cape Verde still brings a smile to my face. He and I spoke about this epic adventure and what he most hoped to see, do and share with the birders, photographers and adventure travelers he'll be guiding on this trip.
Now the countdown to this one-of-a-kind avian adventure is on! Over an epic 33-day journey that departs the port of Ushuaia, Argentina on March 10th, passengers will travel from deep in the Southern Ocean—just above the Antarctic Circle—to some of the world's most remote and intriguing islands. Their birding adventure will take them to South Georgia and the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas), the Tristan da Cunha islands, St. Helena, Ascension Island, Boatswain Bird Island and finally, to Cape Verde just off the coast of Africa.
Noah was named the American Birding Association's Young Birder of the Year in 2004 and went on to earn a degree in Fisheries and Wildlife in 2008. Just 22 at the time, he ventured off to Cape Crozier on Ross Island, Antarctica, where he spent 3 months living in a tent and studying a colony of 300,000 Adélie penguins. More recently, he set a world record for seeing over 6,000 bird species in a single year. On this unique voyage, Noah tells us that he expects to spot close to 50 varieties of tube-nosed seabirds like prion and albatross. He also hopes to see native species like the South Georgia Pipit, Falkland Steamer Ducks, Tristan Buntings and more.
In this post, we'll take a closer look at the native and endemic species you'll have a chance to spot in the pristine wilds of these remote Atlantic islands. We'll also check out a few of the fascinating and rarely visited historic sites along this storied route, and you'll find tips from Noah throughout.
Sail the Strait of Magellan and the Beagle Channel
Sunset views of Ushuaia. Photo: Acacia Johnson
You'll board the 132-passenger Ocean Adventurer in the picturesque Patagonian city of Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world. Stay close to marine biologist and ornithologist Sam Thalmann as you sail the scenic Beagle Channel. He's a member of your Expedition Team on this journey, and will be on the lookout for seals, sea lions and seabirds hunting for fish in the rich, cold waters of the channel. On a small expedition ship like this, your Expedition Team members are always accessible and totally approachable. Don't be afraid to pick Sam's brain about what you're seeing and experiencing. He generously shares the vast knowledge he's accumulated over a 20-year career in marine conservation research programs.
Say goodbye to Tierra del Fuego and the ancient Andes, as a Chilean pilot guides your ship between the Strait of Magellan and Ushuaia, through the Magdalena and the Cockburn Channels, and out to the Pacific Ocean. There's plenty to do as you get settled in your cabin and meet your Expedition Team and ship's crew, but keep your eyes open for pods of Peale's and dusky dolphins, too.
Explore the Historic Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas)
Home to 63 breeding species and 23 annual migrants, the Falkland Islands (or Islas Malvinas, to the Argentines) are a birder's paradise. You're almost sure to see black-browed albatross, as 70% of the world's population call these historic islands home.
Weather permitting, you'll have the opportunity to explore by Zodiac cruiser and go ashore to visit historic Port Stanley, the capital of the Falklands on East Falkland island.
Noah Says: “One of the cool things about the progression of this trip is that we'll have the opportunity to see a cross-section of birds living in very different regions, as we traverse from the polar regions through the Atlantic islands and towards the equator. For example, we could see southern Rockhopper penguins in the Falkland Islands, then encounter their northern counterparts in the Tristan da Cunha Islands. You could also see Magellanic and Gentoo penguins in the Falklands.”
As you set sail for South Georgia and cross the Antarctic Convergence, Expedition Team members, including marine biologist and ornithologist Fabrice Genevois will be on the lookout for marine animals. If they're in the surrounding waters, he's your best chance to see them; Fabrice has been doing research and guiding in the polar regions since 1989.
Keep your camera handy in case you're called out on deck—this nutrient-rich area is known for sightings of humpback whales, blue whales, fin whales and southern right whales.
Spot South Georgia Pipits & Pintails Among an Abundance of Subpolar Wildlife
Watch for the wandering albatross on your approach; it breeds here in South Georgia. Home to 30 species of breeding birds and an abundance of subpolar wildlife, this British overseas territory is a photographer's dream. Antarctic fur seals and massive southern elephant seals sun and molt on the island's rocky beaches. The cacophony of king and gentoo penguin rookeries sometimes numbering in the hundreds of thousands, the vibrant landscape and seemingly endless skies can overload the senses.
Noah Says: “A polarizing lens is a good addition to your photo bag on this expedition, to cut the glare and reflection as you're capturing birds in flight over the water.”
South Georgia also offers an incredibly meaningful opportunity to pay homage to one of the most beloved Antarctic explorers, Sir Ernest Shackleton. You'll visit his grave at the Grytviken Church, where your guide may lead you in a toast to the man who famously escaped to South Georgia with his crew, after his ship became trapped in pack ice during his 1914–17 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.
The remnants of old whaling stations and abandoned outposts can be found around the island, which was once the world's largest whaling center. Today, South Georgia's land and marine environments are protected. Southern elephant and fur seals hunted nearly to extinction are now plentiful. The South Georgia Heritage Trust's (SGHT) Habitat Restoration Project, an initiative to restore bird populations through the eradication of rodents, has resulted in the restoration of two endemic species—South Georgia pipits and pintails--and the return of thousands of other birds to the island.
Noah Says: “Nothing is ever guaranteed on a birding adventure, but this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to get in position for some epic birding. I've been to the Falkland Islands and South Georgia several times and am excited to share these pristine and ecologically diverse destinations with other birders. But I've never been to Tristan da Cunha, so this is a first for me, as well! Is there anything better than making those discoveries and sharing the best finds with like minds?”
The next leg of your journey guides you into warmer waters, where you might spot your first subtropical species. Watch for sooty albatross, spectacled petrel or great-winged petrel gliding high over Ocean Adventurer's decks and in your wake.
Visit the Tristan da Cunha Islands for Epic Birding & Pirate Lore
Weather permitting, you'll spend up to four days exploring the most remote archipelago in the world. Home to 29 species of birds (including several endemic varieties), the Tristan da Cunha Islands offer incredibly rare and brag-worthy sightings.
Explore the history and lore of Tristan da Cunha-area shipwrecks. Learn about the 260 inhabitants of the village of Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, all descendents of the survivors of the 1821 wreck of the British ship Blenden Hall. How do they survive 1,510 miles (2,430 km) from their nearest neighbors on St. Helena Island? This is just one story you can dig into with historian and expedition guide David Burton.
You might visit Gough Island, one of the archipelago's two wildlife reserves and UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Named for Captain Charles Gough, who sighted it in 1732, it's one of the most untouched islands in the South Atlantic. The second wildlife reserve is the inaccessible, well… Inaccessible Island. Its sheer cliffs and boulder beaches make Inaccessible difficult for anyone but the seabirds to reach. Grab your binoculars and camera; weather-permitting, we'll explore seaside albatross colonies from the surface of the water, via Zodiac cruiser.
The Tristan da Cunha Islands have been identified by BirdLife International as an Important Bird Area. Nightingale Island in particular offers a stunning number of seabirds--over a million--on just one square mile (3.2 sq. km) of volcanic rock. It's such a prolific breeding ground for seabirds and endemic landbirds that it's almost completely occupied by wildlife. This is also a great place to see subantarctic fur seals.
Are you feeling lucky? Legend has it that the craggy caves of Nightingale Island are the forever-home of Captain John Thomas's hidden pirate loot. Where could it be?
Shhh… We're Off to St Helena Island, the ‘Secret of the South Atlantic'
A major port of call for European ships bound for Asia and South Africa, St. Helena was first discovered in 1502 by the Portuguese. They sure kept a good secret, though, as it took the English until 1588 to catch on. That was when Sir Thomas Cavendish stopped in to stock up for his return from a round-the-world voyage. (Ask your guides about Sir Francis Drake, who's rumored to have located it earlier on his 1577-80 circumnavigation of the globe.)
Napoleon's Residence, Longwood House, Saint Helena
How many of your friends can say they've visited the residence and former tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte? You'll have a chance to visit the home he stayed in during his exile from 1815 to 1821 when you reach St. Helena Island.
Despite these hundreds of years of history, the British outpost island of St. Helena is home to little more than 4,200 people. There could be an opportunity to climb all 699 steps of Jacob's Ladder, if you're so inclined, or stop by the oldest Anglican church in the southern hemisphere. If you get a chance, head up to High Knoll Fort, a redoubt-style fort that looks over Jamestown and the island from 584 metres (1,916 ft) above sea level.
Ascension Island and Boatswain Bird Island
You're well and truly settled into your expedition rhythm now. Mother Nature's hand has guided you to some of the most remote, least visited islands in the Atlantic, accompanied by passionate ornithologists and naturalists who've helped you take it all in. You've taken onboard photography workshops, studied up on your species and now, you're headed to one of the most important seabird breeding sites in the tropical Atlantic.
Noah Says: “We have a lot of ocean to cover, and that presents fantastic opportunities to see a variety of seabirds. I expect we may see close to 50 varieties of tube-nosed seabirds, including prions, albatross and more.”
Ascension Island and Boatswain Bird Island support more than 400,000 birds from 11 species. Famously referred to as “arid and treeless” by Charles Darwin, the island's 34 m2 (88 km2) are a surreal mosaic of lava flows and cinder cones. Explore the area alongside geologist/glaciologist and guide Yvonne Cook, an earth scientist from New Zealand. A PhD in Antarctic geology, Yvonne has worked in Antarctica since 1990.
Sooty Terns spotted at Ascension Island
Near the coast, black volcanic rock gives way in places to beautiful sand beaches. These aren't for swimming, though. Long Beach, the largest of the island's beaches, is an important nesting area for giant green turtles, which travel all the way from Brazil to lay their eggs in the sand.
Stay and Explore Cape Verde (Optional)
As you traverse the tropical waters from Ascension Island and Boatswain Bird Island to Cape Verde, watch for bottlenose dolphins and pods of whales. You may also spot the Cape Verde shearwater off the coast of Senegal.
You might choose to spend a few extra days unwinding in Cape Verde, an Atlantic archipelago colonized by the Portuguese in 1461. Now a member of the African Union, Cape Verde is a fascinating study in transatlantic cultures and chill, Caribbean-esque island lifestyle. Explore ruins and villages or go birdwatching on Santiago, the largest island in the group. Shoot the stunning sand dunes and seascapes of Boa Vista. Make your way to Fogo, the only island with an active volcano, to explore the coffee and wine making region of the islands.
Join Ornithologist Noah Stryker & Expert Guides on the Birding Adventure of a Lifetime
Say so long (but not goodbye!) to new friends and the adventure of a lifetime. If visiting the world's most remote islands in search of rare and unique birds alongside Noah Strycker sounds like your idea of the perfect adventure.