Today we’d be heading into the Lemaire Channel which at its narrowest point is about 75 metres and full of icebergs. Mario woke us up over the PA at 7am and we stumbled up to the dining room for breakfast. Wonder if I can pay Mario to record me a personalised wake up alarm for my phone, he’s got such a soothing voice. As for breakfast, I’m definitely getting fatter on this cruise, they feed us a little bit too well and I don’t have an off switch when it comes to bacon, even if it’s that weird, crunchy shit they have everywhere else in the world.
Breakfasts have become lengthy affairs as we’ve made friends aboard the ship. We sit around chatting and jump starting our brains with our various socially acceptable drugs. After I managed to tear myself away from the buffet I got my lovely red parka on and headed to the bow to get a bit of fresh air and stare into the ice. Even with the weather being various shades of grey, it was still an incredible view. I was stood right at the front wondering why we’d changed course and were now heading directly towards a fuck off great big wall of ice and rock when Mario’s voice crackled over the PA and told us there was a pod of killer whales at 12 o’ clock. That’d be why then!
They were distant at first, just disturbances in the water over yonder which could have been literally anything if this was the only view we had but the crew spent a lot of time on the bridge with binoculars looking for shit we might like to put in our eyeholes. If they said it was killer whales then it was killer whales. It was bastard cold up here at the front too, the wind was biting and I’d only worn enough clothes to pop out for ten minutes, it better bloody be killer whales.
We edged closer, not too quickly, we could still only see little blasts of air until suddenly there it was! That distinctive dorsal fin! Not one, loads of them! We got close enough to see their eye patches as they surfaced and dived, but there was also a humpback whale in amongst them. We watched them for quite a while, they were right off the bow, but I’d lost the feeling in my fingers, my camera was covered in sea spray whipped up by the wind and I felt like the skin on my upper thighs had turned to paper under my trousers and was about to rip. Yeah nah, fuck it. I went back inside but honestly, what an incredible interaction between us, the killer whales and the one, lone humpback. It was very considerate of them to wait until after breakfast to show up too.
We were all obviously very excited and had a million questions so we were all gathered together in the lounge for a Q&A on what we’d just seen. I hadn’t thought much about the presence of the humpback, I naively thought they were just hanging out despite the fact they eat completely different things. Turns out that Matt and Fiver had seen this sort of behaviour in Canada. Killer whales are silent when they hunt, like bitey ninjas, but once they kill something they start vocalising. Nearby humpbacks hear this and they don’t want riff raff like them hanging around their area so they show up to try and chase them off and this is what we were seeing.
There is only one species of killer whale but then there are four or five eco types, then eleven sub eco types. We learned that they were eco type B or Gerlache killer whales, and you can tell this by the size of their eyepatch. They had this yellow hue on account of diatomatious growth. You only get this inside the Antarctic convergence, once they leave the yellow will disappear and they turn white again. We chatted for ages, we learned so much cool shit until they had no more time to answer any more questions, largely on account of the fact the wanted to feed us Baileys hot chocolate which was very fucking welcome given the cold. It had started pissing rain too and it basically did not stop.
We were heading to the Yalour Islands this afternoon with the hope of landing but the weather was absolutely abysmal. Wet, cold, generally meh, and the water was a bit choppy too. Not enough to relieve me of my lunch but enough for them to send out a scout to see if it was doable without losing a tourist overboard. I don’t think they give a crap about rain, I think it’s the wind that scares them and quite frankly it scared me too. Turned out the conditions were right on the edge of acceptable but those with issues with mobility or balance should have a long, hard think about whether they wanted to be bundled into a zodiac.
I have the balance of a drunk badger. See, it’s not the bumpy zodiac ride that bothers me, it’s the getting in and out of aforementioned tiny vessel whilst it’s being casually dashed against the side of the ship so I went to the mudroom to speak to Keith and Lyn. Lyn said I was right to be nervous which validated my feelings but somehow didn’t make me feel any better, so she suggested I go up to the top deck, lean over and watch the other humans being manhandled onto the boat. So it’s just about outside my comfort zone but at least two people have hold of you until you’re safely sat down, and there’s a third holding onto the back of you until you’re in the boat. Righto then, I reckon I could do this without faceplanting the zodiac.
We were the third group today anyway and due to restrictions on numbers on the islands we had to wait until the first two groups were on their way back so I had plenty of time to work myself up. A few of us stood in the lounge watching the boats launch and make their way across the bay being tossed like a people salad. Oh. Good. Then Albatross were called so off we shuffled to the mudroom to get kitted up in all our layers.
The zodiacs had been getting progressively… I’m loathe to use the word “worse”. Challenging, shall we say? A little bit more drowny each time? The first one was glorious, flat and dry. The second a little more choppy and we definitely got a bit wet. Today with the constant rain and the chop hurling massive sprays of Antarctic ocean onto the boat we were drenched in seconds. It wasn’t long before we landed and were helped up the rocks by various staff members and we wandered off into the snow to see what we came to see.
Penguins. You can smell them before you see them. These were adelie penguins and they’re obviously super cute, but they also had the backdrop of snow covered hills and icebergs. I don’t think it could get any more quintessentially Antarctic unless a humpback showed up and breached in the midground. This did not happen so we contented ourselves with cooing over the adorable little seabirds.
They’d had chicks too, some of them were still huddled underneath a parent but a few were too big for that and were braving the weather with the adults. It was outstandingly cute, obviously, but baby penguins are not waterproof. It’s not the end of the world right now, their feathers are thick and downy and will go some way to keep them warm but if they don’t get a chance to dry off before the temperature drops below zero they’ll literally freeze to death. Lyn said later that she didn’t think it had been a good season for penguins at all. We needed a sunny day tomorrow, please. Not for us, do it for the penguins, weather gods.
I could watch these little guys for hours, they’re so entertaining. One penguin was collecting stones and dropping them onto a slope at the edge of the rock so they’d roll away. No one knew why, perhaps it was trying to build a nest but was incompetent? Who knows. As we were walking back there were a few returning from the sea, sliding on their bellies because it’s quicker than waddling on stumpy little legs. They’re like a comedy show wrapped in a tuxedo.
We headed back to the ship, the chop had died down but been replaced with swell which meant you really had to watch what your feet were doing when exiting the boat onto the gangway lest the ground disappear as the water level suddenly changes. Style and grace are not my forte but fortunately we had four people making sure we didn’t end up as orca food.
Straight to the lounge for a beer then. Every day Mario tells us what they were hoping to do the following day, conditions permitting, then Jeff leads a recap of the day. It’s a really nice way to decompress and process everything you’ve seen. Every day has just been, like, I don’t even have a word to describe it right now. All the words I have just seem inappropriately mundane. It’s utterly fucking life changing.
After dinner we all headed to the bar to hear Scobie tell tales from his Antarctica days in the 70s. He was a right rascal in his day and it was an absolute joy to hear him talk about getting stuck in an old dive suit he found at a whaling station, a controlled explosion which almost triggered an international incident when the Russians thought they’d been fired on, the time he stole a leg of lamb from an officers’ buffet, and when he met Lord Shackleton whilst tending to his father, Sir Ernest Shackleton’s grave. He cracked up like an excited kid when he told his stories and I got so much joy out of his delight. He’s such an interesting chap.
The weather had cleared up somewhat. I mean, we’re not talking blue skies and sunshine but enough light was breaking through the cloud to illuminate the odd iceberg and the golden colour on the horizon was pretty fucking special. Perhaps the weather gods had heard our prayer and would go easy on us tomorrow. Y’know, for the penguins.
🇦🇶 Lemaire Channel & Yalour Islands, Antarctica
Stayed at: On board the G Expedition