We embarked the MS Expedition at 4pm on February 17th. The Expedition is owned and operated by G Adventures (formerly GAP). The captain is a Canadian from Toronto with 25 years experience in these waters. He is also the head honcho at G. Nicola and I had separate rooms. She was in a triple with two other women and I was in a double with another guy. The maximum number of passengers is 134. We set sail at 6pm. We watched the sail away from the deck. The route out of Ushuaia was through the Beagle Channel and then into the Drake Passage. The Drake Passage is notoriously rough sailing. It is the convergence of the Atlantic and Pacific and it is not uncommon for half of the people on board to get sea sick. During our orientation the ship’s doctor said we could get sea sickness patches from her. I have never been seasick in my life but I thought I may as well get one. Better safe then sorry. During the initial orientation session in the Discovery Lounge we were told some of the basics about this cruise. The key word is flexibility. If the weather kicked up things could change. If the ice socked in things could change. For this reason there was no set itinerary. Instead they would brief us daily about where we would be going and doing. For most people they wanted to go to Antarctica and see penguins and other wildlife. No one cares which place exactly. We also got to meet the full expedition team. These include experts on birds, sea mammals, geology/glaciology history etc. There are also kayak leaders, camping leaders, zodiac drivers, etc. Nic and I had not signed up for either camping nor kayaking. On our second day we were still making amazing time through the Drake Passage. No doubt that this is the Drake Lake not the Drake Shake. We are so lucky to have such a smooth crossing. I was told by someone who was told by one of the crew that the captain said that his smoothest crossing of the Drake in 25 years was three weeks ago and this is a close second. I might take off the sea sickness patch and save it for the return trip if there is anything left in it. We got our first sightings of icebergs and whales around midday. We crossed the Antarctic convergence in the night, quite a bit ahead of schedule. You could see the excitement and anticipation on people as we began to see more things. There were lectures scheduled throughout the day. We had a lecture on sea mammals, birds, and ice. They were all amazingly informative. The focus was all on what we would or might see on this trip. There was also a lecture on the Antarctic Treaty which was less helpful. He was all over the place which made it hard to follow. Our first whale sighting was humpback whales. They were not too close and the ship kept moving. I think people would have liked it if we could have gotten closer but I am certain the crew just knew there was many more where they came from. By mid-afternoon there was an announcement for an unexpected meeting. We were told that due to such good seas and our amazing time in crossing the Drake we were going to have our first expedition that afternoon. People clapped and cheered. I was getting so excited it was hard to calm down. Before we could have any landings though we needed to do a mandatory bio-check. What this is involves the crew checking all of our outerwear and vacuuming it to ensure we are not taking any foreign biological stuff ashore. For example, we might have pollen or seeds of some sort from home that cannot be introduced into this ecology. Once everyone was bio-checked, we began the landings. Since no landing site can ever have more than 100 people ashore according to IATTO rules, there were two landing sites. Held would go to one and the other half to the other. Then people could switch between them. There is 130 people on the MS Expedition so it was pretty flexible. We first went to the better of the two islands. On this island there were colonies of gentoo penguins and chinstraps sharing the same general area. They do not necessarily intermingle but they share the same common areas. It is late February and it is late in the breeding season. The chicks are out of the nests and the adults are moulting. The parents take turns going to sea to get food and then return with food. The chicks stimulate the parent to regurgitate the food which the chicks then eat. The chicks are almost as big as the adults but they look fluffy and furry instead of having smooth feathers like the parents. Later in the season the parents will just not return which forces the chicks to take to the sea themselves and learn to fend for themselves or perish. The adults are moulting. This means that they are shedding all their feathers. They look scraggy with some feathers still their while the rest have been lost. They grow new feathers once the old ones are gone. During this time they cannot go in the water and often look tired and lazy.
There are rules about what we can and cannot do. The rules are created by a consortium of the international tour operators of Antarctica (IATTO). We were told not to go within 5 metres of the penguins but there were no rules for the penguins. So, if we sat still and a penguin approached us that was fine. The chicks are curious. I sat on the rocks and just remained quiet and still. Two chicks approached me. They pecked at my pants and my coat. One of them came up between my legs and tried to climb up on my legs. He could not get up but fumbled his way over my legs to the other side. It was so adorable and to have these penguins so close to me was something I will never forget. And we must have a million pictures to help me remember.
Also on this beach were two elephant seals. They just laid there and slept. They did eventually wriggle their way down the beach and into the water. Elephant seals have a proboscis kind of like an elephant trunk which is how they get their name. There were four fur seals hanging around as well. Fur seals are the funniest guys. These are upright seals unlike the reposing elephant seals. Fur seals are somewhat aggressive but their bark is worse than their bite. We were told that if a fur seal rushed you, do not back up but rather stand your ground and bark at them. We stopped to watch them an d almost immediately one adolescent male started to rush me. No one else, just me. I am guessing that because I was the tallest he was trying to challenge me. I barked at him and he backed right off. I liked the power ;-). He did it several times. A couple of times he got very close and instinctively I backed up a little. They told we could also bang rocks together and they would back off. I did not have rocks but I clapped my hands and he backed off. Interestingly, he only came at me when I stood up completely straight or when I crouched down to take a photo. It was very cool and we took many pics and a few videos of it.
We also climbed over a plateau to see that there were several distinct colonies of penguins all in the same general area. It is fun to just watch their behaviours. They are funny creatures. Tie your belt around your knees and then go about your business. Then you can learn how it feels to walk and hop the way they do. Sometimes they chase each other and often they are on guard because of their predators from the sky. I think we were generally just in awe that we are here. Frolicking with penguins and seals. I congratulated Nic on getting to her 7th continent. A couple of the crew suggested this isn’t really the continent because it is an island. One of them even lives on Manhattan and so I said “then I guess you do not live in North America if islands are not parts of continents?” This is crazy to me but nevertheless we would get to the mainland the next day. We switched over to the other island with only about 20 minutes left. There was less to see here. There were more penguins. What this island had that the other one did not was nesting petrels. There was one nest with a chick still in it. All in all, our second day was phenomenal. We did not expect any of this on day two. Normally it is on the third day when you get to start having these experiences. It was hard to talk about anything else that evening. Everyone was beaming with excitement. Not to mention that the weather was so wonderful that you were not cold. Day 3 of our Antarctic adventure started out with action pretty much from the moment we woke up. This was the day that was supposed to be our first day of landings. However, as I mentioned above we got lucky and had our first expedition the day before. Shortly after the wake up announcements they announced that there were orcas off the front bow. We saw a pod of probably 15 killer whales. They were phenomenal. It gave us a good opportunity to use the new information we had on how to use our camera. I set it to shutter speed priority and 1600 which is fast enough to catch action without any blur. It is still difficult with the ice, water, and sky to get it perfect because on this semi-automatic setting the camera can be tricked into thinking there is more or less light than there really is. So I kept playing with pushing and holding back the exposure.
The killer whales kept rolling on their backs and showing their flukes as they dove. It is still a challenge to get the perfect photo because the moment is so fleeting. Luckily they kept doing it giving us lots of chances to get some good photos. These were type A orcas. They eat minke whales. There were also tonnes of icebergs that we manoeuvred through and they can also be difficult to photograph. The white ice can look kind of grey. Trying to capture the whites and blues against a grey sky can be difficult. After breakfast we went on our first expedition of the day. The first half would be a zodiac safari. Half the passengers would do that while the other half went ashore in Neko Bay. During our zodiac safari, we immediately went looking for humpback whales. They were sighted not too far from us. The water was like glass in the bay. That is glass speckled with sea ice and the odd iceberg or bergy bit… oh, and about half a dozen zodiacs bombing around. It is usually not too difficult to find where whales are. They surface and blow and you can follow the sound and the spray. We saw a few different small pods of humpbacks. They are massive and as they are about to dive deep they raise their fluke into the air and then disappear for about five minutes. It was so cool to be in the zodiac and so close to them. I am not sure how close we got exactly but I would guess within 100m. We also went seal hunting… Well, not hunting in the traditional sense… I left my club on the ship. There were random seals reposing on top of bergy bits. The first one we saw was a Weddell seal. Then we saw a crab-eater seal. These are two types of reposing seals, along with the elephant seal we saw the day before, meaning they cannot sit upright like a fur seal. They lay on their side and move around land by bellying and wiggling around. We did see on skittish fur seal laying on the ice but as we got close he disappeared into the water. As we approached the shore we encountered more porpoising penguins. This is not a type of penguin, these were gentoo penguins, but rather how they swim like a porpoise. To swim fast they shallow dive and then fully breach the surface and dive through the air. It is the neatest thing to see because there will be large groups of them porpoising sometimes in unison and sometimes out of chorus. It is fantastic to see them fly through the air. We saw them several times from the ship but up close in the zodiac is much more amazing. This again was a great chance to use a fast shutter speed and continuous shooting. I got one amazing picture of a penguin in mid air. On the land they are the silliest looking things that wobble around tripping over everything, however in the water they are speedy and smooth.
Halfway through the expedition we went ashore and the first group went into the zodiacs. On shore there is a large colony of gentoo penguins. They primarily stay up on a plateau above the beach level. The iceberg on the far side of the bay calves occasionally and large waves have been known to hit the beach. The penguins know that it is best to stay up high. It is the end of the breeding season. Most of the chicks are wandering around now. There is a few still in the nest and we even saw one guy with his egg still in the nest. Chances are these very young chicks won’t make it and there is very little chance the egg will make it. It is too late. The colony looks a bit like a blood bath. There is lots of blood around. Generally speaking penguins are not very afraid of humans because they have no land predators. Their predators come in the water and in the sky. Petrol sand skuas are perhaps the two birds they must watch out for the most. We saw one dead penguin being munched on by a skua. For the most part it is the chicks that fall prey to these birds. The colony makes quite a racket when one of these birds is about.
On shore, we also climbed to a peak for some amazing panoramic views. There is a well established which is sometimes a penguin highway. As we climbed up we were stopped several times by the sound of the cracking ice on the far side. At one point there was an avalanche of snow across the bay and probably a couple of tonnes of snow raced down the hill side and blended into the glacier below. I was hoping that it would trigger some fantastic calving but it never did. The glacier made a lot of noise but did not calve for us. Maybe somewhere else. From the summit you can really see how spectacular this all is. The glasslike crystal clear water, surrounded by walls of glaciers, and nearby summits make it all breathtaking. Following the first expedition was lunch while the ship repositioned itself to Paradise Bay. This is where our next expedition would happen. We arrived in Paradise at about 3pm which was enough time for a wee bit of a kip (according to Allen, my British roommate). It is called Paradise Bay because whalers used to tuck into this bay to avoid rough waters and bad Antarctic storms. There is an Argentine research base here. Our group, the Ross group, was the first to go ashore this time. The zodiac dropped us at the research base. We met a young girl who works there. It is manned for two months this year. They are doing research on penguins and cormorants at the moment. The penguins are all around the research base. They are gentoo penguins except for one chinstrap penguin. There is apparently also an Adelie penguin here but we did not see it. I am wondering if we misunderstood them and it was one chinstrap. Interestingly, there was also an albino gentoo chick here. The chicks are all fuzzy but have not grown their feathers yet. This one was beige and white instead of grey and white like all the other chicks. We climbed up to the top of the hill. The ship’s expedition team marked out the route with flags. It was quite a slippery path in our rubber boots. At the top their is an