You wouldn’t be very wrong if you thought Antarctica was just ice and penguins. But actually you have to think of it more like ICE! and PENGUINS!!!! because that’s pretty much how everyone feels on their first sight of this exotic land. We could barely hold ourselves still enough to eat breakfast. It was a beautiful calm sunny day and we’d anchored in a stunning little bay across from Mikkelsen Harbour, our first landing site, a little island teeming with PENGUINS!!! and seals. The excitement on board was feverish. There was a lot of high-pitched squealing going on, including from many of the men.
We loaded, 9 at a time onto the zodiacs that would carry us ashore. I don’t care how tough you think you are, landing on your first penguin (PENGUINS!!!) colony surrounded by thousands of them at very close range will melt your heart and make you want to snuggle one. Officially there is a 5 meter distance rule for the penguins and 15 meters for seals. Seals and sea lions are cute but for us they were mostly just fat lazy blobs. Just as people going to the zoo prefer to watch the active monkeys over the motionless crocodiles, so too were we more interested in the active penguins. We kept our distance from the seals but with penguins running around all over and giving no real notice to us and what we were doing, the distance quickly shrunk to “I hope Sasha doesn’t pick this one up” distance.
|Antarctic fur seals are actually sea lions.|
|All so thrilled to be here|
February is the time when most of the babies (BABY PENGUINS!!!!!!) have grown to near full size but still have their furry coats and can’t go into the water yet. Many of the adults are also in their moulting phase and are confined to land for a couple weeks as they bring in new feathers before the long winter ahead. The moulters (some with some amazing hairdos) are inactive and trying to conserve energy because they can’t go out and eat, but there was plenty of other action to observe. Penguins hopping rocks, chicks squawking and chasing parents around for food, many marching up and down the hills and to and from the sea, busy going about their lives. They are tough, well-designed animals but their awkwardness on land is undeniable. They would regularly fall on their bellies and faces mid run with plenty of penguins standing around with dirty bellies giving away their past accidents. There is one negative with penguins though and that is the smell. Put enough together on a small island for months and the stench can be nearly unbearable. They live in this filth so most of those that aren’t out getting washed in the sea everyday can be incredibly dirty.
|Snack time for a Gentoo baby|
|Adelie’s with awesome moulting hair|
|An unfortunate style, haha|
|A very dirty baby|
|The smallest baby we saw.|
Our landings averaged about 2 hours. We had many and although there were certainly other highlights to come, the memory of that first landing and our first encounter with the wildlife of Antarctica will always be a powerful one. The backdrop was much the same as it would be the rest of the journey, mountains covered in thick ice that came right to the water’s edge. As we continued sailing to our next destination, Deception Island, we tried our best to brave the cold and marvel at the icebergs, whales and swimming penguins (they hop out of the water like mini-dolphins when they swim). February and March are prime whale season and we were fortunate enough to see tons of Humpbacks as well as Fin (the 2nd largest whale in the world), Minke and Orcas. The Orcas were only seen on our last day in the area and it was quite the event with most of us out on deck watching them swim alongside and under the ship. Between landings we’d have lunch, lectures (optional but interesting) and some downtime which we usually spent socializing. After dinner they might play an Antarctic-themed movie or the bar would open up for those in need of a celebration. Our most frequent group topic of conversation was actually between the Brits and Americans, with both sides trying to teach the other English, lol. Sasha had the advantage there with the British mom and Canadian background 🙂
Deception Island is actually part of the South Shetlands and is an active volcano. It was quite the thrill sailing through the single narrow opening and into the flooded caldera of a volcanic bay that last erupted in 1969. As one of the most protected and sheltered bays in the area, it was a popular stop for ships and there are the ruins of a whaling station and British research station on the island. We stopped at the whaling station to walk among the ruins and on the black sand beach. Again the views left us speechless. The purity is unlike anywhere else. Where else could you hope to find such clear, unpolluted air and water? Even the soft polar light feels somehow fresher and gives everything it touches a different kind of glow.
|Deception Island whaling station|
|The old living quarters|
|Black sand, all is part of the inside of the caldera|
Speaking of beaches, before visiting the whaling station, the ship stopped on the other side of the bay where we could access a different beach where those who wanted to could do a polar plunge. This never sounds appealing to me, but the majority of passengers were wanting to and Sasha joined the rest of the crazies. On the beach there was a stream of hot water heated by the hot sand just below the surface, giving the false hope that maybe the water wouldn’t be below zero immediately offshore. Let’s just say that nobody went swimming very far, though all were very happy with their achievement. I’m also happy with my choice to not freeze to death.
Speaking of freezing, the weather. Sun or cloud, the daily temperature every morning was recorded as being 0C to -2C. Even the slightest wind would bring the windchill into the negative teens and with the humidity it felt colder. We were given rubber boots to wear which lack insulation so by the end of an excursion we had frozen toes and hands (from constantly taking the gloves off to take more pics). It was a constant internal battle between frostbite and penguins, frostbite, penguins, frostbite, PENGUINS!!!! The worst of the cold was in the wind on deck when the ship was sailing. Even geared up it was freezing, but we were often just lounging around and someone would shout “whale!” and we’d run outside for as long as we could handle.
On days 2 and 3 we visited the Weddell Sea on the much less frequently visited eastern side of the peninsula. It is generally colder and is known for its higher concentrations of icebergs and smaller ice formations. ICE! I’m talking about glacial blue ice, icebergs bigger than the ship and little ice flows with lounging seals and penguins.
|Getting up close!|
We continued to have excellent weather and our two excursions on day 2 were magical. The first on Paulet Island had us hiking up and around a huge Adelie penguin colony. At one point I got my penguin whisperer on. I started mimicking the flapping arms that they are always doing and managed to get one to flap back and walk toward me until it was right below me, both of us flapping away. I think it was love. That was definitely my favourite penguin of the trip.
|Carrying rocks to a nest|
|This one loves me…|
We were told that we were the first group to successfully land on Devil Island in years. It was a relatively small but steep island with more penguins along the shoreline and two peaks of about 500 ft. We walked to the top for some truly incredible views and photos, all of us in shock at how perfect these first days had been.
|Landing on Devil Island|
|Climbing Devil Island|
|Feeling on top of the world|
Day 3 started out with our first visit to a base, Petrel Base, an Argentine logistics station that was in the process of being reestablished and upgraded. More penguins, a walk on the local glacier, coffee with the officers at the base and a signing of the guest book sums up our stay. As mentioned before there are many bases scattered around the continent though most are located on the peninsula. Some, like this one will be, are airbases used to supply the other nearby more research oriented stations.
|Signing the guest book|
|Up on the glacier|
After we left, the weather started to turn so we said bye to the Adelie penguins and we made our way back over to the western side where the following morning we visited Port Lockroy, the first British Antarctic station, built in 1944, abandoned in the 60’s and neglected until the 90’s when it was restored and converted into a museum. It was a little strange to be shopping for souvenirs and mailing postcards from a remote outpost in Antarctica but there it was. Because it falls under the British system, sending a postcard home is actually about a quarter the price of sending one from Argentina. Some things just make no sense. The base was used as a communications post and for weather monitoring with all the old equipment and set up still there. Life didn’t look particularly fun for the residents. The kitchen was amusing, especially some of the recipe examples in the cookbook.
Port Lockroy is run for the season by a group of 5, most of which are newly hired each year by the British Antarctic Heritage Trust. Applications are open worldwide so if your dream is to live in Antarctica for a summer, staff a gift shop, and count penguins all day, you could actually make it happen.
We went on a scenic sailing through the Lemaire channel that evening. I don’t know what was better, the view from the bow, soaking in the silence, mesmerized by the reflection of the floating ice on the still water and feeling insignificantly squashable between the narrow mountains and the low clouds or the view from the bridge watching the captain steer us through this natural obstacle course to the sound of some very fitting and epic classical music. It was nice that they had an open door policy in the bridge and looking at ship radar was interesting from a work comparison standpoint, but I couldn’t convince anyone up there to put me in charge 😉
Our final day on the continent was a sad one as we’d been having such a great time and knew that it was coming to an end. In the morning we made our final landing, this time at the Chilean Gonzalez Videla station. Similar theme again with a small museum/gift shop, coffee with the staff and a little run around to see more Gentoo penguins. There had been some recent rain so the ground was muddy and most of the penguins looked like how I remember my sisters as kids, filthy head to toe 😛 Each base has its own passport stamp that you are able to get which is how most visitors end up with Antarctica stamps and I’ve seen a few varieties. We now have some of our own 🙂
|This one is probably a dancer…|
|Ready to start its sermon.|
|Gonzalez Videla Base|
|Coffee and cookies at the base|
We all bolted out of the middle of lunch later that day to see the aforementioned Orcas, but that was it before we started the long return to Ushuaia. The captain came down and gave us another briefing about another hellish crossing, but failed to impress upon us that it would be even worse. It peaked on one of the nights where we were literally holding onto the railings of our beds for dear life as we were being picked up and thrown around by the rolling of the ship. We could only wonder what was going on in the other rooms with all the crashing and thumping we could hear. Nobody slept of course and we were told by the crew the next morning that we’d had winds up to 75 knots (140 km/h) and waves of 12m (39 feet), the worst they’d had all season! It was worth it for the Antarctic experience but not something I personally feel the need to suffer through again.
Disembarking was a sad moment as we knew we going to have to say goodbye to our new friends we’d spent so much time getting to know and sharing so many great experiences with. We had our arrival day in Ushuaia together and then poof! we all just scattered in the wind, all sorts of new and amazing adventures awaiting us all in the different corners of this wide world. We’re nowhere near finished yet.
Categories: Savannah Grace