It’s not often that you have whales photo-bombing your penguin and glacier photos, but this was becoming a habit as we kayaked along the Gerlache Strait on the Antarctic Peninsula. Groups of humpbacks were everywhere, coming to the surface with a loud ‘pffffff’, their curved fin cutting the glassy surface of the ocean, sometimes preceded by a bobbly head barely rising above the sea, like a crocodile in stealth mode. Suddenly one of the whales’ back arches up into a small mountain, the tell tale sign that we will be treated to the magnificent display of a symmetrical fluke floating up into the air and piercing the sea as the whale disappears into the depths in search of lunch. Two other whales follow suit and I wonder how do they know when to dive? Are they working together to gather krill into their gigantic cauldron mouths? It’s amazing that one of the largest animals on the planet survives by eating one of the smallest.
This is my third visit to Antarctica, guiding strong paddlers on a month long adventure to explore the frozen continent. There are nine of us on board a 61 foot yacht. We took 4 days to sail across the notorious Drake Passage – the racing hull coping much better with the 50 knot gusts than all of us! The sailing is an adventure, we take it in turns to be on watch for three hour shifts. At times, we lounge in the sun, watching albatrosses cruise by without a wingbeat, other times we wear all of our clothes and huddle under the protection of the Perspex cockpit cover as the cold wind finds it’s way through all of our layers to our core. We’re looking for icebergs and ships and sometimes helping with trimming sails.
Through shifting clouds, we’re all delighted to have our first glimpse of icy islands and tabular icebergs. In this land of black and white, it’s hard to gauge scale. There are no trees or houses to let you know if you’re looking at a 100 meter high island nearby, or a 1,000 meter high island some distance away. The scale of the mountains and the glaciers is staggering. We drop anchor near nightfall at Deception Island, a flooded volcano with just one narrow breach through its circular barricade.
We spend the next 18 days kayaking past jagged peaks smothered by cascading glaciers. A chunk of overhanging ice is impossibly balanced on every non-vertical rock face. We dodge icebergs that range from car to city size, occasionally witnessing one roll over, the hidden depths rising to the surface with a loud swoosh and a turquoise wave. Every day the scenery is different. We explore low-lying snowy islands, paddle alongside rows of jagged mountains and at a safe distance from jagged, calving blue and white glaciers.
I’ve heard Antarctica described as a wasteland devoid of life but that’s far from the truth. It’s a vibrant community of hardy creatures, all perfectly adapted to the cold and perfectly situated to make the most of the smorgasbord of krill that thrives in these cold, nutrient rich waters. The one species of gull nests on rocky cliffs covered in rich green moss. The lone cormorant species has no fear of humans and flies so low over our heads that we duck. They lift their webbed feet and land with a splash right next to our kayaks, perhaps looking for krill stirred up by our paddles.
White slug-like crabeater seals lounge on small icebergs digesting their last meal. Red strands of saliva dangle from their mouths and red blotches by their other end show that they too rely on the abundant krill to sustain them. Dark brown fur seals are more frequently found resting on rocks, often interrupting their snooze to stand on their front flippers and pick a fight with their neighbor. They are practicing for when they’ll be battling over females. Solo spotted Weddell seals are occasionally seen resting on rocks and fat elephant seals are congregated in massive brown, writhing piles of snorting blubber. The prehistoric looking leopard seal with its snake like head is the only animal that sends a chill through me when I see it. They eat penguins, seal pups and whatever else they can get their sharp teeth into.
And of course the Antarctic mascot, the black and white penguins porpoise past us, appearing out of the water just too quickly for our shutters to capture them on the way up. I have a dozen photos of their bushy tails disappearing back into the inky sea. On land, they gather in big noisy groups to raise their young. Any rocky headland is prime penguin territory. Their currency is small pebbles to make their nests, and they will happily steal from their neighbor if they can get away with it. We spent many hours watching the diminutive birds regurgitating their food in the mouths of their chicks, chasing downy teenagers away and squawking at the aggressive Skuas who are ever circling, looking for an abandoned baby or a weakling.
Many countries have bases on the Antarctic Peninsula, all staking a claim to possible future profits if exploitation of the resources is permitted. We visit Chilean, Argentinian, British, American and Ukrainian bases, each of a different size and character. In Vernadsky, 30 Ukrainian scientists study the ozone hole, dive for marine spiders and make homemade vodka. We get invited to use their roasting sauna, interspersed with dips into the frigid ocean. The Chilean search and rescue base has one small zodiac but offers us tea, coffee and a tour. The British base that was once a center for research, is now the best gift shop in Antarctica, with all manner of Antarctic-themed books, clothing and gifts, even including Shackleton whiskey. We sent postcards with an Antarctica stamp, which should reach their destinations about 2 months later, long after we are home.
There is something inexplicably special about Antarctica – a place that on the surface is black, white and uniform, but on closer inspection is a spectrum of whites, blues, greens, browns and grays. It is so far away from the rest of the world, physically and in feeling. To explore this icy wonderland by kayak, to bounce through bergy bits, surrounded by wildlife is an experience that will stick with me for the rest of my life.
My patched up 2 year old Kokatat Meridian dry suit kept me dry for 16 days paddling in the frozen continent. My Storm Cag was an essential piece of kit as we soon cooled off when we stopped for a break on land. The cag kept in just enough heat to allow extended breaks to enjoy the penguins.
There is something inexplicably special about Antarctica – a place that on the surface is black, white and uniform, but on closer inspection is a spectrum of whites, blues, greens, browns and grays.