Today began with us cruising through the Lemaire Channel, a beautiful channel, only a mile wide, which would take us even further South, right down to 65oS. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t as great as yesterday, so the visibility wasn’t good and we couldn’t really see the towering mountains to the sides of us. It was more like the authentic Antarctic weather we had been expecting; snow, wind, mist…
The Plancius in an ice-filled Lemaire Channel (photo Sonja Heinrich)
The channel was filled with many floating glacial icebergs, glowing that incredible iridescent blue which, had I not seen it myself, would not have believed possible. Some of the bergs had the odd seal sat on top, but there was one seal in particular, floating stationary in the water with its head poking out, which Lars and Sonja disagreed with the identification. Lars was insistent it was an elephant seal, Sonja thought it was a crabeater seal… We just wanted them to agree on something so we could put it down on the data sheet… No such luck…
When we reached the end of the Lemaire Channel, we found it blocked by two massive icebergs, both of which were larger than the Plancius. Navigating around them was an impossibility, the gaps were barely wider than the Plancius; one small sweep of the current and we would have been scraping along a very icy wall… So we all very much respected Captain Alexej when he made the decision to turn around; it was most certainly the right thing to do.
Icebergs blocking our path (photo Vicki Balfour)
By this point, it was breakfast time and I was just walking to the table with my bowl of Rice Krispies when suddenly someone shouted: “Whale!” Everyone abandoned their breakfast and ran across to the window. And sure enough, not a moment later the announcement came over the tannoy; “Orcas on the starboard side!” And so there was. Two pods of Type B orcas with their large white eye patches and greyish coloured skin. They were blowing, breaching, spyhopping, … Of course, orcas aren’t actually whales, they are large dolphins, but that doesn’t make them any less exciting. The fact that we had seen them once on this trip was a bonus in itself, but seeing them twice was even a first for Sonja.
Killer whale spyhopping (photo Sonja Heinrich)
The orcas weren’t the only animals swimming around the ship. Dozens of Gentoo penguins were porpoising away in densely packed groups, seemingly trying to get away from the orcas as fast as they could. It almost appeared as though the orcas were rounding them up, exhibiting what seemed to be hunting behaviour. And just when everyone thought it couldn’t get any more exciting than this, two orcas came right up from under the Plancius, giving anyone who was in the dining room at the time the closest view that they could ever possibly get of these magnificent creatures.
Killer whales (photo Vicki Balfour)
Not long after that, travelling back north in the Lemaire Channel, there was a sighting of humpback whales. Three of them; two adults and a calf, again really close to the Plancius, giving us all a spectacular view, especially when they decided to dive and show us their beautiful tail flukes.
Humpback whale mother and calf (photo Sonja Heinrich)
Despite not being able to make it all the way through the Lemaire Channel, our Captain still managed to get us to our afternoon landing site; Charcot, on Booth Island, by taking an alternative route, so we still achieved our goal of reaching 65OS. Here we were all offered the opportunity to do a hike up to a cairn on the top of a hill at yet another Gentoo penguin colony. However, half way up it became too treacherous to continue because of the compacted ice, so instead we just hung out at the penguin colony and enjoyed the endless entertainment that came from watching penguins. The funniest was probably the parent being chased by its two chicks. The scrambled across the rocks and slipped across the ice, falling on their bums or sliding on their bellies. Everyone stopped to watch them as they tussled and fought, until eventually one of them floored its parent and was rewarded with some regurgitated food.
Gentoo penguins at Port Charcot (photo Vicki Balfour)
We then took up the challenge of finding the one Adelie penguin among the gentoos. It felt almost like “Where’s Wally?” but in this case was “Where’s the Adelie?” Between us all we found two actually, in different places merged in with the rest of the gentoos. Their beaks and heads were fully black unlike the gentoos and they were about a head shorter as well. Some people even saw four chinstrap penguins among the colony. So that meant that we’d managed to see all the four species of penguins we’d been hoping to see on this trip, including the Magellanic penguins we’d seen back in the Beagle Channel.
A lone Adelie penguin (photo Vicki Balfour)
Being able to sit there in amongst this buzzing penguin colony was such a privilege. They were super friendly (well, maybe not always to each other…) and so comical. And they really didn’t seem to be bothered by our presence at all. Here we were, come all the way from Scotland to see them, whereas in fact, they were just as interested in investigating us. We weren’t allowed to approach the penguins any closer than five meters, but if you sat down and waited patiently, you’d suddenly find yourself surrounded by curious penguins, all tilting their heads as if to say; “What strange creature are you?”
Crouching in the snow, I found myself being approached by three different penguins, one of which came right up to me and started tugging at my waterproof trousers with his beak. Then suddenly I felt a tug from behind too, and realised that one had snuck up behind me and was having a go at my jacket. I was probably covered in guano and my hands were blocks of ice from taking my gloves off to hold my camera, but all of it was completely worth it just for this moment here.
And it just really made you think; here we were at the end of the world, in a land filled with snow and ice. Nowhere else in the world could you have experienced what we all did here. It really put into perspective what an amazing place Antarctica is, and I only hope that it will still be here, as pristine as this, for future generations to experience too.
Written by Vicki Balfour
Vicki & penguins