Okay so firstly I need to address the exceptional housekeeping on this ship. You’d kind of expect your room to be refreshed once a day if you were feeling a little bit fancy, right? The housekeeper comes in in the morning once you’re up and about and do the usual. They make your bed, put your pajamas under your pillow, vacuum the floor and clean the bathroom. You’d think that would be it, right? But no. They come in late afternoonish, draw the curtains, put a sidelight on and fold the corner of your duvet down so when you stumble in after a few beers at the Polar Bear Bar you’re faced with a very inviting room just begging you to curl up for a nice sleep. Like, what the fuck. I have never experienced this level of customer service before and I’m devastated that I can’t afford for this to be my new normal.
Anyway! This morning was all low cloud and shit visibility but it was calm and it wasn’t raining so I’ll take it. Mario gently eased us into waking life at 6.30am over the PA and we shuffled up for breakfast where I convinced myself I’d have a lovely fruit salad with perhaps a spot of yoghurt. This lasted all of four seconds before I loaded my plate with spuds, beans and bacon which I attacked like I was raised by wolves as the rest of the table no doubt looked on in horror. We’d generally eat with a rotation of the same people every day which is lovely, but no table has been identical which is even more lovely. The dynamics on this ship are really quite wonderful.
So a lot of people on the ship had paid extra for the privilege of going kayaking but so far they’d been thwarted by the wind. Right at the beginning they’d got a far as getting all their kit on and getting the kayaks out before the wind soared to twenty knots and it was cancelled. Today though, today they got to go out and we were so fucking pleased for them. Several people we come to think of as friends were in the kayak group and it brought us joy to see them finally get to realise their dream of kayaking the literal, actual Antarctic.
As for the rest of us, we were moored in Mikkelsen Harbour and we were all going to land on a nearby island which housed nesting gentoo penguins and a load of weddell seals. We were greeted on the beach as always by Mario who welcomed us, as is custom, to “the most beautiful place in the world… today!” Also a part of the welcoming party were two penguins, a stack of old, bleached whale bones and a plethora of snowy sheathbills which are a scavenging bird. They have no feathers around their face, similar to carrion birds such as vultures, on account of the fact they stick their faces into all manner of muck in search of an easy meal.
The staff had flagged out a route for us which was a loop taking us up through the gentoo colonys then down past the weddell seals but one of the earlier groups stopped us on the way and told us to go and see Jeff. He was with the seals and one of them was singing! Okay so this is a thing that can happen but it’s so super fucking rare that you generally assume it’s not going to. Jeff had a microphone stuck out in the general direction of a seal which was executing some manner of synthetic pop sound, sort of like a less tuneful mogwai.
We stopped and listened to it, it was like nothing else. Tarrant had come over on Sarah’s zodiac and she’d mentioned it as a thing the weddell seals did. It was the first time Jeff had ever experienced it in person so he was as excited as we were. He told us they usually sing underwater so to hear it on land was quite the honour. We stood for a while and just enjoyed it piping up every now and then. Y’know, one of the things I love most about this trip is how excited the staff get when we witness cool shit. They literally do this for a living but the joy they exhibit is so contagious it really adds to our experience in an already incredible situation.
We tore ourselves away from the seals and headed up to see the penguins lying on their little nests built from stones. It does not look even a little bit comfortable. Fuck being a nesting penguin quite frankly. Lyn had already told us that they have, like, a pouch I guess? I little patch of bare skin that they can expose to flop over an egg to incubate it with their body heat. It’s not going to do any good trying to incubate it with their thick, waterproof feathers, no heat would reach it. We found Lyn and she said they all had eggs but there were no chicks yet, but they’d really need to start hatching soon or they wouldn’t be grown enough in time to survive the winter. Penguin stories this summer are really sad.
We got back to the ship and caught up with the kayakers over lunch and they’d seen a leopard seal which is one of my bucket list animals to see. Is there a word or phrase in the English language that describes being genuinely and completely happy for someone because they got to experience something amazing, but you’re also a little bit jealous, but not ugly jealous? That. Later on when we were speaking to Mario he said that in Italian it would be sana invidia which means healthy envy. So I guess healthy envy then. I would have loved to see a leopard seal but you know what? I got to witness a weddell seal singing and gentoo penguins guarding their eggs, and I’m so pleased that the kayakers finally got to kayak and had such a great experience.
Captain Gilles steered us towards our afternoon destination. The weather wasn’t any manner of perfect but it was the kind of weather I’d come to associate with Antarctica; grey, unpredictable but still so beautiful. We sailed into Cierva Cove and the water was so still it could almost be described as glass. You could even see the delicate ripples made by tiny bits of brash ice as it floated silently past the ship. And the scenery? This is what we’d paid money for. These were the photos you’d see in the brochures. The landscape practically screamed “Antarctica” loud enough to cause avalanches.
We wouldn’t be landing anywhere here but we were to be taken on a zodiac exploration, the first two groups heading out first followed by the second two groups when we got back after an hour. Our group, Albatross, had cycled back around to first place so we headed down to the mudroom. There are certain guides we kind of really wanted driving our zodiac; the passionate ones who would steer you out of the way for that close encounter. Sarah was one, Fiver would have been one but she was out again with the kayakers, and Matt was definitely a high first choice and that is who we got. Fucking fantastic!
His job was to basically steer us through brash ice for an hour, which is basically the sea of broken up bits of ice which looks kind of impenetrable. These zodiacs are properly adapted for a minimum quantity of drowning in an Antarctic environment though, they’re lined with kevlar so they can get through the ice, and they’re divided into sections so if one is punctured they can still safely get back to the ship. Matt told us that he’s had more than one incident of a curious leopard seal having a nibble on his zodiac (not a euphemism) thus bursting it and there’s nothing you can do about it. You just have to let the seal get on with it before limping to safety.
Speaking of leopard seals, we actually saw one! It was chilling on a slab of ice drifting right next to an absolutely huge iceberg which Matt had no interest in getting close to. He explained that if that iceberg suddenly flipped the wrong way there was enough ice below the surface to catapult us into oblivion. I don’t quite fancy the sound of oblivion. He did also point out that the seal was drifting with the current so he took us way out away from the ‘berg but right in the path of the seal which cruised right by us, mere metres away. Yes, Matt! Let the wildlife come to us! What a legend! As we swung past it lifted its head to look at us. Matt explained that was nervous behaviour and we should head off so we didn’t upset it further.
Off we fucked to look at ice. Turns out these sod off great big icebergs tell a story. They rotate in the sea and you can tell where a previous water level was before it rotated 90° to the left, and which part had previously been under water before it tilted to the right. Some of these big buggers have been floating around for decades. Matt maneuvered us so slowly through the brash ice, fully geeking out over the ice and explaining everything to us in proper layman’s terms so we genuinely understood. I can’t even remember most of what was discussed on account of hanging over the edge drooling into the extra salty ocean.
We returned to the ship once our hour was up and popped to the sauna, because yes, there’s a fucking sauna, before shuffling to our cabin for showers. I’d been fighting the urge to nap all day so I was quite proud of myself that I’d made it this far without faceplanting my cup of tea. To be fair, every time I’ve tried to nap I’d gotten distracted by the ice and penguins outside the window. We were told our plans for tomorrow, had our daily recap, applied way too much food to our faceholes which has pretty much become tradition and I can’t stop now, then headed to the lounge where Lela, an American friend we’d made on board, plied me with Baileys which is more or less a direct route to my heart. Another spectacular, one-of-a-kind day in Antarctica.
🇦🇶 Mikkelsen Harbour & Cierva Cove, Antarctica
Stayed at: On board the G Expedition