Friday, December 24

Wildlife encounters galore

Within hours of boarding the Ocean Nova, our expedition leader had us boarding zodiacs for our first zodiac excursion. We spent more than an hour chasing a humpback whale that had been spotted feeding along the shore of Maxwell Bay. In the distance we could see thousands upon thousands of penguins nesting on the shore, including many lining low ridges above the beach. As we cruised in our zodiacs we witnessed time and time again penguins “porpoising” through the water. This is basically a technique they use to avoid danger. It involves leaping out of the water as the birds swim, making for a wonderful spectacle of nature.

After lunch we took to the boats again. We’d been given permission to visit the penguins colonies we’d seen earlier in the day. This excursion proved to be a real highlight of our cruise. We landed on small pebble beach and were immediately told to avoid the juvenile Elephant Seal lounging further along the shore. Our expedition guide took us slowly along the shore as penguins came and went in front of us. As we walked we spotted three separate species; Gentoo, Chinstrap and Adele.

 We eventually found ourselves at the base of a rocky outcrop where Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins were nesting. This was a magical moment. We spent more almost 30 minutes watching penguins feeding chicks, some barely a week old. We were told that penguins in the area had bred early this year and so we’d witnessed an unusual sight. Days later, further south we encountered nesting penguins all of which were still incubating their eggs.

I can also report that penguin colonies stink. It seems that thousands of nesting birds generate a lot of guano. It covers the rocks and shoreline in every direction; and simply stinks. As a result, every time we returned to the ship we scrubbed our boots in a disinfectant bath before returning to our cabin. The same procedure was conducted each time we left the vessel. This practice discourages the introduction of alien species into the Antarctic environment.

Shortly after the start of dinner we pulled up anchor and headed 130 kilometres south across the Bransfield Strait which separates the South Shetland Islands from the Antarctic peninsula. This was the only stretch of open sea we experienced on our entire cruise. Thank goodness. During the crossing we encountered 40 knot gales which had most of us feeling rather uncomfortable within hours.

I eventually retired to bed in the clothes I was wearing after my head began spinning. I dared not move again for fear of losing my dinner. Fortunately, the night passed without incident and we woke to calm waters in Mikkelsen Harbour, Trinity Island; located at the head of the ever so scenic Gerlache Strait. The crew later told us that our crossing of the Bransfield Strait would have been considered a relatively smooth Drake Passage crossing. I can safely say this insight immediately vindicated our decision to spend more flying to Antarctica.

The photos above give you a taste of the truly stark, breath-taking polar scene that greeted us when we woke on Christmas morning. Click here for more about our icy Christmas Day excursions as we cruised among icebergs more than 64 degrees south.

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