Snow, Ice and Curious Creatures

Antarctic Peninsula – Day 1 and 2 

No collection of words or photographs can give you a clear and complete story that encapsulates the experience of Antarctica.  I can try with many words, like epic, outstanding, unbelievable and with photographs that give a narrative which may show the beauty and the feeling we got when we set foot on the White Continent.  If a trip like this is not on your bucket list and you desire to see pristine lands with inquisitive wildlife and an experience you cannot have anywhere else in the world – then add Antarctica to you list.  There are many places in the world you can view glaciers, trek up mountains with broad vistas and awe-inspiring sunsets as well as encounter rare wildlife, but no one place is like Antarctica.  Here, you can see it all.  

We prepped our clothing and washed our boots and awaited the call for Shackleton (our zodiac group name) to enter the disembarkation area for our first ride on the zodiac.  Aittcho Island would be an initial tease of what was to come in the next week.  It was just before 4pm and the air was crisp, but not freezing.  5 minutes in the zodiac and we landed on Barrientios (one of the Aittcho group of islands) where Alex gave us our briefing of what we could see and where.  Once on land, we were free to wander as we liked.   Gentoo penguins met our feet as we stepped from the water to the rocky beach.   They didn’t seem to be bothered by our presence.  To the contrary, they welcomed us with open wings.

Gentoo wandering to say hello.

Our first walk up a glacier, through a Gentoo colony led to a vista of typical coastal formations.  The land drew out into a point, where the ocean surrounded a coastal lake.  On the way, we passed fur seals intermixed with the penguins, which said hello with a snorting bark.  Down a steep slope, we treaded lightly to avoid the penguin highway (a foot trail the penguins leave in the snow as their access route from nest to sea for feeding).    A group of Southern elephant seals lie resting on the ocean shore as Skuas bathed and frolicked in the lake alongside a scattered whale skeleton.

Elephant Seal

Dale with one of the whale vetebral bones.

We were amused watching the penguins walk up the steep hill back to their nesting ground with full bellies.  It was about a 100m steep slope, which would take the average bird 30 minutes to walk up.   This commute is worth it for these birds to enjoy a feast of fish and protection of their nest from winds and the ocean.  As we passed back through the colony, we took our time.  This was our first of many close face to face encounters with Gentoos.  The chicks, not yet in the water yet, are only a couple of months old, and much more curious than their experienced parents.  We stopped at the edge of the nesting grounds, keeping our 5 m distance, and allowed them to come for a closer look.  Their snooping minds brought them to come within a few inches.  They were timid at first, bobbing their heads, looking around and over their shoulders to be sure mom and dad weren’t going to scold them for getting to close.  Then, before we knew it, they were pecking at our boots and pulling at our sleeves.   Obviously this was a novelty for both of us. 

The penguin highway

Fifteen minutes later, we decided to continue on our walk, as we were trailed by penguin shadows for a few meters.  As we passed by our landing sight, up another hill, we spotted Chinstrap penguins, which were more pretty than playful, and a different vista of the southern ocean.  High on fresh air and new legs, we were back on the Clipper after about 90 minutes, disinfected our boots, washed the penguin guano (aka poop) from our pants and prepped for dinner and our daily briefing.  Another amazing 4 course meal to celebrate Paul’s 50thbirthday was a great way to finish the day on a high.

Chinstrap penguin couple

The seas overnight were easy, and the forecast was positive.  Sunshine was to prevail for the next day.  Just after breakfast, we began day’s excursions at Portal Point.  This site holds a special place in our memories.  This was our first continental landing.  We were on the Antarctic Continent.  This excursion on land was about just that, setting foot on ice and snow with a view to die for and loads of time to take it all in.   Of course, we couldn’t let this pass without allowing our bare skin to touch the ground, or sliding down a massive ice slope on our behinds.   Good times.   For Dale, as soon as his boots hit the beach, he had officially set foot on all 7 continents.  I, on the other hand have some catching up to do in Australia and Africa.  After a glacier hike, following a route once used by British sledding explorers, we both took some time alone.  We chose different spots on the point, each with a view.  We took time to just be.  To think of nothing and everything and to enjoy the feeling of being blessed by the magnificence that surrounded us.  I enjoyed feeling small.  Everything around us was massive.  Our boat, just off-shore looked like a toy, gigantic icebergs of countless forms appeared like pebbles in the sea and the trails of the zodiacs were mere scribbles on the glass-like water of the bay.  The day was off to an excellent start.

Portal point - continental landing

Enjoying our time! (L-R) Camilla, me, Paul

When we were finished on land, we lucked out to be in Jimmy’s zodiac for our ride back to the Clipper.  Only, we weren’t going back.  Jimmy had spotted HB (short form for Humpback Whales) only 15 minutes away.  Once we got over the awe of it, watching these massive mammals (ranging from 12-16m carrying 36,000kg) was genuinely entertaining.  Like Gentoos, they too are curious and with enough patience, they too will get close and say hello.  Jimmy pointed in their direction, we turned to look.  First we heard the tell tale sound of the blow hole, followed by the sight of water and air shooting up into a geyser-like cloud from the surface, then a large dark hump breached ending with a small dorsal fin, and finally the finale of a full whale tale coming up out of the ocean as the animal dove deep beneath us.  Majestic.   We waited as the pair slowly made their way next to our zodiac, so close we could reach out and touch them.  They knew we were there.  They played around the boat, breached and rolled, waving hello with their fins and goodbye with their tails.  We could have gone home that night and the journey through the Drake Passage would have been worth it.

Humpback tale

The day wasn’t over yet.   After lunch, we hopped back on the zodiacs for a cruise around Enterprise Island, with amazing ice formations and the remains of a whaling ship that sunk by fire in the summer of 1916.  We also had more humpback sightings and caught a glimpse of our first Weddell and Crab eater Seals.

Zodiac cruising around icebergs Enterprise Island

In honour of stepping on Antarctica and vowing to take advantage of the full service of the ship, a gang of us decided to have dinner in our supplied bath robes and slippers.   Yup, we’re asses.  Our dinner time cruise was through beautiful Wilhelmina Bay, followed by a short lecture on avoiding sea sickness which could be summarized with, “it’s all in your head.”

The ocean was calm, there was very little wind or clouds in the sky and the forecast for the following day… more sun.

Latitude 60° 30.42’S Longitude 61°45.33’W

 

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