Travel

Close encounters of the wildlife kind in Antarctica

Penguins at Half Moon Island, one of the first or last landing spots on many Antarctic peninsula cruises

Antarctica is a destination for people with bold bucket lists - it’s cold, wild and icy. The driest continent on the planet is filled with magical wildlife and scenery best experienced from the vantage of a cruise ship, a Zodiac or even a kayak.

By Leonie Jarrett

Antarctica was not at the top of my bucket list. My husband was desperate to go and I was merely his plus one. 

We cruised to Antarctica on the Scenic Eclipse and I was blown away!

I had been a bit worried about the rough Drake Passage crossing from Argentina and whether I would feel nervous and vulnerable out in the middle of nowhere in a place the waters reach more than 3 km deep. 

Drake Passage crossing wasn’t too rough and I managed it with travel wristbands and seasickness tablets. As for feeling vulnerable, I didn’t. I felt exhilarated!

Never have I seen so much snow, so many penguins, so many glaciers (actually, I had never seen a glacier before!), so many exotic seabirds and so many whales.

Antarctica’s waters are full of krill (small shrimp-like crustaceans) which attract humpback whales like this one pictured above. When winter makes the Antarctic krill population fall, the whales migrate up the eastern coast of Australia to warmer waters.  

Icy beginnings while flightseeing

Ice is the main attraction in Antarctica and it is vast. It comes in shades of white and blue but is spectacular in the form of an iceberg or a glacier.

Flying 3000 metres above the ice in a helicopter flightseeing (a new term I learnt onboard), helped me see how massive icebergs are, even when most of it is hidden under the water.

 

Ice and icebergs come in spectacular blue hues in Antarctica, but it’s the calving that’s truly spectacular.

Chunks of ice break off at the end of a glacier. This is called calving. You hear the thunderous noise first. If you’re quick enough to turn and spot the exact location of the calving before it’s finished, you witness the ice breaking and falling. It lasts a matter of seconds and then you see the beautiful chunks of fallen ice bobbing in the water.

Penguins waddling up the penguin highway

We visited the Antarctic Peninsula and saw hundreds of Gentoo, Chinstrap and Adélie penguins. 

We saw them incubating eggs, swimming and even “porpoising”, which is rising and submerging in the water. We saw them make nests out of stones and waddle up the “penguin highways” they carve from the snow between their nests and the water.

Penguins have no land predators in Antarctica so they are not scared of human visitors. We often had to scurry out of their way to keep the required 5 metre distance. Penguins also make a lot of noise and smell. Luckily they are cute!

The whale sightings were unforgettable. 

It started off with the odd Minke whale sighting from the ship then the excitement of the first humpback “blow” (the spray a whale generates when it releases air from its blowhole). 

The writer Leonie and her husband kayaking at Cierva Cove, named after Juan de la Cierva, who invented the autogyro - an early type of helicopter - in the early 1920s. 

One night, dinner was interrupted by an announcement informing all onboard that there was a pod of humpbacks gliding past. We rushed out to the deck and watched the show - gliding like submarines, diving and fluking. 

Fluking was another term I learned – it’s when a whale or dolphin begins a deep dive and lifts its tail into the air to help it thrust its body into a more steeply-angled descent to dive into deeper waters.  

 

This penguin is walking up his penguin highway tracks at Half Moon Island.

Another afternoon, a briefing about the itinerary for the next day was interrupted by another announcement. 

This time, it was a pod of orcas playing. Both times the pods were spotted, the ship stopped so that we could watch some of the most majestic creatures on Earth in their natural environment. Breathtaking!

It’s the pristine ecosystem that’s impressive

More than the ice, more than the penguins and whales, what impressed us was the pristine environment. 

Antarctica is the largest wilderness area on Earth which makes it like a giant, open air museum.

 

The weather is changeable in Antarctica - Leonie travelled in the month of December and saw snow and cobalt blue skies.

We were blessed with cobalt blue skies for a couple of days on our Antarctica cruise and a few days of falling snow. 

The blue skies were a photographer’s delight, as was falling snow.

It was cold (about zero degrees celsius most days) but, with appropriate clothing, I was only very cold once when I was drenched on a Zodiac crossing coming back to the ship. Never have I welcomed a hot shower more!

The Zodiac trips from the main cruise boat get you closer to the wildlife and Antarctica action.

The cruise company we travelled with, Scenic, follows the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) guidelines.

This caps guests landing on Antarctica to a maximum of 100 at a time. There were only 200 guests on our cruise, so we all had multiple daily and unrushed landings.  

We usually had a landing morning and afternoon – different sites each time. 

The Zodiac rides from the Scenic Eclipse to the landing spots were exhilarating and each of the landings were different in terms of scenery and wildlife. 

Zodiacs are the inflatable boats used for excursions on Antarctica cruises and allow passengers to get closer to nature.

There were always seabirds – from Antarctic Skuas to Wandering Albatrosses. Sometimes, there were seals.

Wild-eyed in the wild

The guests we spoke to on our cruise were like us, first-time visitors to Antarctica who had the destination on their bucket list.  

Deception Island is an old whaling and sealing station in the South Shetland Islands, northwest of the Antarctic Peninsula, which was deserted after a volcano in the late 1960s.

We were all wide-eyed with amazement and spoke of an immense feeling of privilege to be visiting Antarctica. It was one “pinch me” moment after the other. 

Trying to snap “the” photo was an endless quest. We have ended up with hundreds of photos and we don’t tire of admiring them. Fact is, though, that photos do not do justice to the scenery. 

The proportion of the ice and snow, apart from the beauty, is impossible to capture.

I started off on this cruise as the reluctant plus one but quickly realised it was the trip of a lifetime. If you have the opportunity to visit Antarctica, just do it.

  

The writer travelled to Antarctica on Scenic Eclipse at her own expense on the Antarctica in Depth.

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