Antarctica Day 4

What a fucking day then! They’d told us yesterday if conditions were good, which was 50/50, that we could land on one of the South Shetland Islands. We tried to keep our hopes in check but it’s difficult, especially when we got our first glimpse of land, plus a bonus iceberg for good measure. It was all pretty exciting and the water was as calm as it could be.

This albatross looks like it’s on a proper mission. Apologies for the poor quality of the photos, a lot of them are very zoomed in and will look like utter shite on anything bigger than a phone.

After breakfast we caught a lecture on the various whales that we might be able to see in the Antarctic and the islands just north. Sarah explained how you could identify each species by the air expelled from the blow hole, the shape of the back and the fluke, or tail. She told us that’s how you spot whales; by the blast of air they eject from their heads like that’s a completely normal way to breathe. I thought it was water. It’s not, it’s literally air from their lungs, it’s just a bit damp due to condensation and the fact the whale is wet when it expels the air.

Our first sighting of land since we left the South American continent behind! I was utterly excited about this like I’d been lost at sea for three fucking months or something and had to live off teabags.
You’ll never forget your first iceberg ❤️

Halfway through the lecture we heard walkie talkies crackling. Sarah stopped mid sentence.
“Are we being interrupted for whales?” she asked a staff member scurrying towards her, “Because I’m okay with that!” she finished. Turns out, yes. Blasts of air had been spotted near the horizon, we all smooshed ourselves against the starboard windows, straining to see. There! They were distant but there they were! Whales existed here and we saw them breathing! A couple of people spotted a tail but I didn’t.

No sooner had we learned from Lyn that porpoising was a thing that existed we saw chinstrap penguins doing it. They swim well underwater, they’re so fast, but they breathe air so they jump out of the water like a dolphin, gulping in air as they go. This photo is zoomed in on an already blurry shot but it’s the best I can do.

Sarah finished her lecture and Tarrant and I went to the bow to gaze into the blue for a while before Lyn gave a talk on penguins, and who doesn’t love penguins? Sociopaths, that’s who. We learned all manner of things. Turns out their feathers are like a survival suit and whilst their fat helps keep them insulated they’re actually quite hard and not the cuddly little squishes we think they are. I’m not saying this fact has ruined my life or anything. They’re built for swimming with their strong flippers, their torpedo shaped body and the position of their feet which they tuck under their tail and use as a rudder.

Bye bye, boat. SHIP! I MEAN SHIP!

We saw this in action after lunch which was when we sighted Smith Island looming out of the haze, and the iceberg on the horizon and i don’t think I’ve ever been so excited about a block of ice before. It was beautiful, shining white and blue in the sun. We stood on the bow just taking it all in when we noticed movement in the water. It was penguins! Proper nippy little fuckers they were, speeding along and jumping out of the water like tiny bird shaped dolphins. This is called porpoising and they do this so they can grab a gulp of air to breath. It was incredible to watch, there were loads of them.

Our first zodiac landing in Antarctica! So bloody exciting!

The ship was steered towards Snow Island and we were just enamoured with the little penguins and the occasional distant blast of air from a passing whales. We dropped anchor and a zodiac was sent out to check the conditions at President Head where we hoped to land today. Apparently it’s rarely good to land there. Too swelley. But today? Today was perfect! They’d split us up into four groups which would rotate in priority and on this landing we would be first. Team Albatross.

‘Scuse me mate, I think your seal melted.

We got kitted up into all our layers and headed to the mud room where our rather fetching boots were waiting for us. We wrestled those on and shuffled to the gangway to the waiting zodiac, were helped onto it by three men, even I managed not to faceplant it then off we fucked. Even as we approached the beach we could see masses of elephant seals just hanging out on the beach. Wait, wasn’t this dangerous? At Peninsula Valdes we were told in no uncertain terms that we weren’t to go to the beach and I figured that was because we’d probably die.

Turns out that five metres is your viewing distance for elephant seals, unless they’re jousting then you give them twenty five metres. I don’t think these seals had jousting in them to be fair and we were allowed to get right up to that five metre limit which they’d marked with flags. It was amazing. Every now and then a seal would lift its head up, lazily regard the red coats gathered on the beach, maybe treat us to a yawn, then it’d flop back down. We wandered up the beach and bothered a couple of gentoo penguins. One of them was lying down, the other was preening itself.

Just chilling.

It’s crazy what you see when you know what to look for. It kept reaching down to a spot at the base of its tail and this morning we’d learned that that’s where it has an oil gland, and it reaches down to grab a bit of oil to spread through its feathers to help with waterproofing. Now I knew what it was I could see it! So cool. There was speculation that the one lying down was on a nest but Lyn told us later that no way would they make a nest away from the protection of the colony and they were probably just hanging out. There’s no way of knowing the gender of them at a glance either.

This is the chinstrap penguin going for its oil gland.
This is a close up of one of the gentoo penguins. You think they’d put it in a more convenient spot. Blurry photo on account of the zooming.

A bit further along Jeff, the resident photographer, was chilling with a load of juvenile elephant seals. You can’t tell their gender until the males start growing their proboscis, and there were a few with the start of a trunk but mostly they could have been anything. Jeff said they were moulting so they couldn’t swim, they just had to hang out on the beach until they grew their fur back. Apparently it’s not a fun experience for them at all.

So I thought seals had smooth edged flippers but if you look closely you can see they have, like, fingers with claws and it looks so creepy when they’re scratching themselves. I think I could have lived the rest of my life not knowing seals had fingers and been happy about it.

There was also a chinstrap penguin wandering up and down the beach. We asked why it was alone, Jeff said they were just stupid. Lyn later said that it had probably just rocked up from a nearby colony and would head back there later. It was collecting stones though which is apparently something they do when they’re nest building. Maybe Jeff was right.

It was walking and hopping and walking and hopping. I caught him mid-hop. So cute!

We spent an hour and a half alternating between strolling and staring. It’s not like anything was doing anything particularly interesting, penguins weren’t doing a little dance with a top hat and cane to an elephant seal barbershop quartet, but we couldn’t stop gawping at them. I can’t believe how close we were! Staff were on hand to make sure no one got too close because let’s face it, tourists gonna tourist and they’ll tourist extra hard for that selfie.

May I introduce you to this rock, or more specifically the lichen on it. Keith told us that an old way of determining the age of ice melt was lichen. I think there are more sophisticated ways of doing it now but if you knew what it was and how quickly it grew you could work out how long ago the ice melted.

That was fucking insanely good though. We were taken back to the ship and scrubbed our boots clean which actually involves painstakingly picking the tiny stones from the beach out of the grooves in the sole. They do check too and you’ll be called out for the hall of shame over the PA if they’re not spotless. Everyone was on such a high though, you could feel the buzz in the lounge as Mario went over the plan for tomorrow and Jeff recapped the incredible day. We all headed up to dinner at 7.15pm.

This little guy is a weaner, so called because he’s been weaned already. I think it takes 4 weeks?
Every now and then the males would mock joust. These guys rose up like this for a few seconds, made a bit of noise then just flopped back down a bit like nah, fuck it.

As we were shovelling our starters into our chops a whoop went up from the people sat by the port side windows. Humpback whales! But, like, really fucking close! The captain steered the ship closer and just stopped and we all pressed ourselves against the windows. They were blasting air then surfacing, flashing us a bit of dorsal fin and tail. Phwoar! One of them breached! Fuck it, we went outside. We don’t go anywhere without our parkas now in case we have to rapidly get on deck to put wildlife into our eyeholes, we threw them on and headed to the front of the ship.

So close to the ship, and there were so many we didn’t know where to look.

Guys, there were about ten of them just circling the ship, blasting air. They were so close and they’re so fucking huge! They stopped the ship for an hour and just drifted. The whales put on a show for us, there were three breaches and the ship erupted in cheers when it happened. I only saw one but fuck me, what an experience. There were so many we didn’t know where to look resulting in a flurry of tourists scurrying from port to starboard and back again. I got a few photos but there were so many and we were there for so long I was able to enjoy it with my eyeholes too.

That on the left is a whale head.

Even better, we didn’t miss dinner. The galley staff kept it warm for us so we were able to eat. We were resigning ourselves to getting stuck into the pot pastas we’d completely unnecessarily brought with us which would totally have been worth it because how often do you get to watch whales? And to be fair we’d been fed so much food throughout the day we probably had enough fat reserves to support us in the event of a casual marooning.

FLUKE!!

I reiterate; what a fucking day! Wait, that needs more exclamation marks… What. A. Fucking. Day!!!!!! We had a couple of drinks in the bar and chatted with our new friends and tried to absorb what we’d seen. I don’t think I quite believed it. I feel like it’s going to be one of those things that sinks in randomly and I’ll start chuckling like an absolute maniac.



🇦🇶 The Drake Passage & The South Shetland Islands, Antarctica

Stayed at: On board the G Expedition

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