Saturday, 30 March 2013

Return from the End of the World

Sadly, it was now time to start cruising back to Ushuaia. We departed the great Ice Desert on another perfect evening with an endless sunset and headed for the notorious Drake Passage (named after the famous explorer - where many ships have been wrecked by the rough sea) on our way homeward bound.

And so our journey to The End of The World was over … what an amazingly awesome, special place Antarctica is. What a privilege for me, Chris & Monique to have had the opportunity of spending time here, appreciating its beauty and sharing time with its spectacular wildlife.
I said good bye to Chris and Monique and thanked them not just for one amazing adventure in Antarctica but also the amazing time earlier last year when they introduced me to the amazing great white sharks in  False Bay. 

Friday, 29 March 2013

Ice floes and Antarctic seals

On our last day in Antarctica we  sailed into Fornier Bay on a completely flat sea. We thought the scenery could not be any more spectacular. The water colour was an unbelievable shade of purple and the water visibility was crystal clear which gave us a different view of the hundreds of icebergs that floated around us.
As the water was so clear we could see both the reflection of the iceberg and also the base of the iceberg which make up 90% of the iceberg which is normally hidden beneath the surface of the sea.

The inflatable zodiacs were launched for a final cruise around the icebergs and the great conditions meant we could get within touching distance of them. We really got to have a great look at the many bridges and holes that make up detailed parts of the icebergs … and the all the different colours of blue that are so unique to the ice bergs.
We also used this zodiac cruise to search for seals on the ice floes.

The first seal we spotted was a crab eater seal and again in the great conditions the zodiac could rest right against the piece of ice he was resting on, which gave us a great view. We then spotted the next seal about a hundred meters away … a large Weddell seal ….
And then as we left the weddell seal we came across an Antarctic Minke whale that was cruising through the ice. It was very relaxed so we were able to get really close to it. It was beautiful to watch as it cruised peacefully amongst the ice on a perfect flat and quite sea, and at the same time we could listen to the sound of its exhalation echoing around us each time it came to the surface to breathe.

I was hoping to see a leopard seal. Monique said that the leopard seal was an Apex Predator, just like the great white shark is off South Africa. This meant it was at the top of the food chain and it had no natural predators.

Monique suddenly pointed out a shape on the ice. It was leopard seal and we moved in closer.
Unlike the other seals we had seen this one did not look very cuddly in fact its head and neck looked more like a big snake such as an anaconda! It moves is fairly slippery as it snakes in and out of the water.
It was a bit sad to find out that leopard seals eat penguins, but I remembered that Monique had explained to me before how important apex predators are. Just like the great white sharks, the leopard seals help to keep the other animals in Antarctica in balance - even the penguins. 


Wednesday, 27 March 2013

I never knew there were so many different types of Penguin.

We were able to spend a lot of time at the penguin colonies which meant that we got to see the penguins doing all sorts of things.

It was fascinating and sometimes funny to watch.  
The male Gentoo penguins were very busy trying to impress the females.
The males would bring the females gifts such as small stones and then make pretty piles with the collection.

The chinstrap penguin pairs would do a dramatic welcome as they would throw their flippers back, lift their heads to the sky and bray really loudly in unison.
They were almost as noisy as the Jackass penguins I saw in South Africa last year.

It was fascinating watching the Gentoo penguins depart from the land and return from sea. They would never seem too keen to jump off the rocks into the sea. There were many false alarms and looks of intention from the penguins on the edge of the sea, but then they would change their minds.

However as more and more penguins bunched up behind them this eventually forced the penguin at the front to dive in.  As if this was the signal they had all been waiting for, the rest of the group would follow and dive in all together.

Getting back up onto land from the sea was much more of a problem. The penguins would have to swim very fast to get enough speed to propel them from the water. They looked like spring loaded jumping jacks as they popped out of the water and back onto land.
The Adelie penguins were also very comical as they waddled around seemingly aimlessly like wind up toys.

I loved watching the penguins; Monique said they kept me entertained for hours at each place and that I always looked sad to leave each landing site. Penguins have been one of my favourite sea creatures since I first saw them in South Africa and met the rescued penguin Zuki at Two Oceans Aquarium.

Monday, 25 March 2013

That Sinking Feeling

One evening a landing was planned at Mikkelsen Harbour from 8pm to 11pm. This “night” trip was to visit a Gentoo penguin.

Groups from other vessels had not landed here for a while so when we began walking around it was hilarious to take a step forward and then land almost thigh deep in the snow as the ground fell away beneath us. Even Ed, who is not a very heavy Bear, fell deep into the snow a few times. It was a lot of fun...(By Monique)

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Day without Night

The sun does not really set at this time of the year down in the Peninsula and although the sun slips briefly below the horizon, the sky never gets dark.

Out of all the amazing things I have seen in Antarctica, this was the strangest. It went pass the time I would normally sleep, but I never felt sleepy enough to go to bed, so it was very long days for me as we enjoyed Antarctica.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Awesone Icebergs and Ancient Ice

Finally the Ship headed for the Antarctic Peninsula. Before actually being able to put foot (or paw) on Antarctica we sailed through the Gerlache Strait and landed at a number of Islands in order to visit various Adelie, Gentoo and Chinstrap penguin colonies. These penguins are much smaller than the emperor penguins we saw earlier on our trip. They are the same size as the jackass penguins I meet in South Africa.
Sailing into the Gerlache Strait was amazing. I just stared in awe at the passing “iceberg” show that we sailed through.  We were surrounded by icebergs of various shapes and colours, littered across the ocean in front of you. It did not seem that long but Monique said I had been staring at the ice bergs for 5 hours.
Each one is different and it kind of feels like they are each alive and have their own characters. Sometimes we would pass so close to one that you can hear the snap, crackle, pop as the ice compresses. Unbelievably, some of the ice in Antarctica is said to be millions of years old … thinking about such big numbers made my head spin ! Water frozen for millions of years without thawing out. Wow!

Friday, 22 March 2013

Ice cream and penguins

We learned that the pack ice was the thickest it has been in the last 10 years and this meant that we would not be able to reach the South Orkney Islands. Monique explained that pack ice is when the sea water freezes in places and this meant that we could not sail through it.
The pack ice stretched for as far as the eye could see and was truly fascinating. There were a number of small icebergs just on the sea side of the pack ice and one of these was a haul out spot for about 200 Adelie penguins. So we stood on the deck eating ice cream sundaes and at the same time admiring the pack ice and an iceberg home to Adelie penguins. So much fun !

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Stunning glaciers and even more penguins

In the afternoon I got to see an even more spectacular site, a Glacier In a fjord. Fjord is an Icelandic name for a long, narrow inlet with very tall steep sides or cliffs.

The fjord is created in a valley carved by the slowly moving ice. Monique said the best way to describe it was a very slow flowing river of ice. The ice also wears away the rock beneath which creates the Fjord.

As we approached the head of a fjord the front and two sides were spectacular glaciers. One was a hanging glacier leaving us all wondering how on earth the whole thing had not come toppling down yet, and the other two were tide glaciers, meaning they end into the sea.

We could clearly see the ice thickly packed behind the face of the glaciers and we could imagine the immense pressure pushing forward. The colour was also dramatic, a deep blue colour. Wow this is just as spectacular as seeing all those King penguins.

Before we left South Georgia we visited a few more King penguin colonies. I found these penguins fascinating and could watch them all day.
The downside of being adapted to live in the sea and swim underwater is that they walk with a funny waddle – but it doesn’t bother the penguins at all.

As we left we spotted a light mantled sooty albatross nesting site on a hanging cliff, our stay at South Georgia has come to an end. we are now on our way to South Orkney Island. This would mean another 3 days cruising at sea and watching sea birds from the stern (front) of the boat.

However the Antarctic waters are also rich in life and food so many types of whale and dolphin also visit these cold waters. Some the whales I had seen before, I have watched the humpbacked whales in the Hawaiian Islands and the Channel Islands (USA) and these whales travel north to the Arctic to feed.
There are also sperm whales, the biggest of all the toothed whales. They can grow to 20 m and have the biggest brain of any whale (even though it’s not the biggest whale). Orcas are the biggest type of dolphin, also known as killer whales.
They feed on seals and penguins. I am glad that I did not see any seals or penguins being eaten, but just like the seal eating great white sharks that Chris and Monique study, this is all part of natures balance.

Monique also pointed out some small dolphins, peales dolphin and hour glass dolphins. I had not seen these dolphins before, or the sperm whales. You might think it would be boring spending 3 days to travel to our next destination but I found it very exciting wondering what we would come across next!

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Walking amongst Penguins

Hi all

After 3 days at sea we finally arrived at South Georgia Island, home to 40 million sea birds, Antarctic fur seals and southern elephant seals. I had prepared myself to experience the awesome landscape of ice and snow, and even to witness human damage.

I thought I might see a few whales the occasional seal and a few penguins. I was really surprised to discover that there was so much animal life living here. I thought it would just be ice and snow. There are no plants or forests in Antarctica but there is a lot of wildlife that has adapted to live here. Monique said it’s because they all find their food in the ocean.
4.30am was a very early morning wake up for Chris & Monique and me. Monique said our first landing was to be at Salisbury Plain, home to 250,000 King penguins, yes, 250,000 !!!

Outside it was 1 deg C and snowing, Monique said this was perfect conditions for Antarctic penguin watching!

Our arrival on the beach was rather chaotic… there was a little bit of a swell which pushed our zodiac boat up the beach and as we leaped out we had to be very careful to avoid a large number of very aggressive male Antarctic fur seals. Monique carried me so I was safe.
These bull fur seals have territories on the beach so our sudden arrival caused a lot of chaos. Monique said it was important not to disturb wildlife, but sometimes it is hard not to do so. So, in these kind of situations it is best to move as quickly as possible out of the trouble area. So, we ran up the beach, dodging bull seals and then finally we were in the gigantic King penguin colony.

250,000 penguins were jam packed together on a large plain and then stretched even further up the mountain side.

Included in this were also many thousands of chicks. They are brown in colour and look completely different to their parents.
They are not as colourful and look a bit scruffy, but they need these fluffy feathers to keep them warm.

The noise was unbelievable and the penguins sounded like loud race cars revving their engines before the start of a race.
Not many people get to visit Antarctica and even fewer get to walk around.. This is probably why the penguins were not afraid of people at all and if we sat very still many times both the adults and the chicks would approach within a meter of us.

Monique said they were particularly curious of me with my bright green jacket standing out amongst everyone else in the group. It was an amazing wildlife experience; complete sensory over load (too much to see and loads of noise and too). This is one of the most amazing and memorable sights ever. Wow!

Saturday, 16 March 2013


As you know, Ed the Bear is a very well-travelled bear but not even he has had the opportunity of visiting Antarctica, the very end of the world… You will know from earlier entries that he recently visited us to come face to face with the great white sharks we study and also to find out the true facts about these awesome predators.
So, when Chris and I invited Ed along with us on our trip to Antarctica, he pulled on his beanie and his warm winter jacket ready for adventure! Even though it was summer in Antarctica we had to be prepared for zero and sub-zero temperatures.

Ed The Bear would be cruising with us and many other eager travellers on a big Russian Ship called the “The Akademic Vavilov”, a special ice-breaker designed for the cold Antarctic waters.
The Ship departed from Ushuaia, the most southern city in the world, in Argentina and would not only be cruising to The Antarctic Peninsula but would also make stops at The Falkland Islands, South Georgia Island and The South Orkney Islands, all amazingly special and unique wildlife places. This special expedition was specifically to look for Antarctic wildlife and as such we would be making 2 zodiac landings each day.

We were going to have very close encounters with animals and birds we have never seen before. It was most exciting as we finally headed off.   We were also set to cross the infamous Drake Passage. This piece of water between Antarctica and Argentina is home to some of the most dangerous and rough pieces of water in the world where winds can reach up to 100 knots and ocean swells can be as big as 30m. For this reason Ed packed extra seasickness tablets, just in case.  

We would be in Antartica for about 2 weeks and these are the highlights of my adventures here.

One of the highlights of the expedition was standing on the stern (that’s the front) of the ship and watching the huge number of sea birds that were attracted to the ship.
Luckily I had brought my binoculars.

Monique explained that in the open ocean sea birds are attracted to travelling vessels, mostly in the hope of scavenging food. They also make use of the up drafts created by prevailing winds blowing up against the ship to effortlessly soar around us.
Black browed Albatross

Cape Petrel

Many of these birds spend much of their life at sea and only return to land to nest.
Antarctic Giant Petrel 
These open ocean birds all form part of the group called “tubenoses” and the group is made up of various species of Albatross, Petrels & shearwaters, storm petrels and diving petrels. I said that tubernose was a funny name.
Light-mantled Sooty Albatross

Monique explained that these birds have a horny appendage which sits atop of the bill, whose function seems to relate to obtaining the direction of food by its smell as its blown on the wind.

Monique said that the Latin name for the tubenose group is Procellariiformes. This means word means “violent wind or storm”, the perfect description to the habitat they must survive in.

I found the name Procellariiformes difficult to remember and pronounce but this was the perfect word to describe them. Monique said tbey feed mainly on fish, squid and similar marine animals.

It really was a great experience for Ed to watch the multitude of sea birds soaring around the ship, although he had to make sure to hold on very tight most of the time. Sometimes the sea was very rough and we all had to be very careful to not fall overboard!