Gentoo Penguin colony on Cuverville Island
When I was a child, I had a large picture of a red Ferrari TestaRossa hanging over my bed. I used to dream that one day, I would own a Ferrari, or at least drive one. Well, when I was 19, I actually got to do that, drive one, not own one. A few years after the Ferrari, I replaced the Ferrari picture with one of a Humpback Whale, diving and holding his fluke tail perfectly against the horizon. Alas, here I was, already past 30, and I still had never seen a Humpback fluking. But that was about to change, many times over, in Antarctica.
Humpback Whale fluking off Cuverville Island
Our twice daily excursions on our expedition to Antarctica were generally composed of around an hour sailing around in a zodiac of about 10 people, and another hour or so exploring the land by foot. And the zodiac tours were the absolute highlight of the trip. We had anchored overnight off the coast of Cuverville Island amidst numerous icebergs and an island covered in glaciers. The bay was covered in icebergs and we set off on a zodiac cruise first to get a closer look. As we cruised around the bay, one of the group caught a glimpse of a whale surfacing for air. Chris, our driver, approached slowly so as not to scare them off, and within a few minutes we were within 25 metres of a pair of humpback whales who were feeding. We watched them as they swam lazily around blowing a fountain of misty breath high in the air, and then diving deep, waving goodbye with a long, graceful flip of their fluke. Left me wondering what I’m going to hang on my bedroom wall next.
Leopard Seal - little cutie would bite your head off if he could
On a high, we headed for the island to check out the Gentoo Penguin colony. There are regulations that oblige tourists to keep a certain distance for the animals, but the animals themselves are not bound by this law. In general the penguins will move away from humans as we are quite big and they don’t know what to make of us. But a common trick is to lie on the ground, so that the penguins no longer feel intimidated, and wait. It’s pretty hard to find a clean piece of ground to lie on in a penguin colony as it’s stinky and more or less covered in pink penguin poo, and at this time of year, feathers. We were in Antarctica at the end of the moulting season when young and old shed their downy feathers. I found a relatively clean spot and lay down. Sure enough, not long after, the curious penguins were nipping at my coat and boots. They were very playful and some of them were even sneaking up on unsuspecting visitors while they were sitting down having a rest.
Gentoo penguins on Cuverville Island
It wasn’t all fun though, and the Gentoo colony proved some of the harder facts of life. Some penguin chicks were visibly smaller than their peers, and it seems that they were either born too late in the season, or perhaps their parent had fallen foul of a predator and never returned. These pitiful penguin chicks were a tragic beauty. And all around the rookery, shady groups of Skuas, surveyed the scene, working to isolate and attack the weakest. The penguins would group up and scare off the skuas, but some penguin carcasses among the rocks suggested that the victor was not always the penguin. The Skuas are very aggressive birds, and several fights broke out among them. Check out the photos here.
That afternoon, we set sail for Neko Harbour, and our landing on the actual continent of Antarctica itself. Not a lot of cruises include a continental landing as it can be very hard to get past the ice, and the continent is typically steep cliffs and overhanging glaciers, almost impossible to access. We were all excited that we were going to land on the continent, but I don’t think anyone was expecting it to be so beautiful. Here we were, under a clear blue sky, surrounded on three sides by majestic snow-covered peaks and glaciers, cruising through a blanket of brash ice, past little icebergs with Crabeater seals drying off in the sun. It was spectacular!
Guaranteed that we would have an hour on shore, Ninfa and I opted to go for a kayak first through the brash ice which covered the bay. This was a lot of fun, as each paddle stroke had to push through the slushy ice on the surface. Numerous collisions occurred as we paddled up leads that led to dead-ends, ran aground on growlers (small icebergs, not angry seals), and paddled frantically to dodge the ship which had not dropped anchor for fear of an excessive impact with an iceberg. This was what we had expected, and we had a great time kayaking this day. But we were all eager to get on to the shore, the continent.
Kayaking in Neko Harbour
Ninfa represents on the Antarctic continent
We climbed out of the kayaks into a zodiac and sped onshore. There was a trek through the Gentoo colony and up a steep rise to a lookout point. As we made our way briskly along, we stopped to watch an avalanche cascade down the slope of a mountain on the far side of the glacier between us. Further along, we stopped again, this time our heads turned by the roar of a huge chunk of ice being calved from the glacier, the birth of an iceberg. Before racing to the top, as the clock was ticking, we stopped to savour the moment. Ninfa, who I’m convinced is the only Honduran to ever stand on the Antarctic continent (subject to independent verification), sported all her national loyalties, a green scarf for Ireland (my eyes welled), a football shirt from Honduras, and a headscarf from Palestine, honouring all aspects of her noble heritage. I, true to character, withdrew from my bag a bottle of Jameson Irish Whiskey and, although I generally don’t drink it on ice, raised a toast to setting foot on the White Continent. As we returned to our zodiac, we passed a few stragglers who were posing with hastily made signs of 7/7, meaning they had now visited all 7 continents on Earth. It was at this point that Ninfa and I remembered we were only on number 6. Aah, I knew there was a reason to go to Australia or New Zealand. Alas, the finish line is in touching distance.
Antarctica!!! Standing on the continent!
That night, the routine dinner in the restaurant was promising a twist. We had been told to dress warmly and assemble on the rear deck. Our expectation prior to booking was that the majority of passengers would be wealthy senior citizens, and not a lot of fun. It turned out however that the majority were young travellers, a lot of whom had booked last minute, and a generally lively and fun set of seniors. So when we assembled on the rear deck, and were told we were dining al fresco at an Antarctican barbeque, we knew we were in for a good night. Not only that, but there was free booze for the first hour too. On my first night on board the ship, I had worn my Philippines tracksuit top to dinner, and proved to be the guest of honour as all the restaurant staff were Filipino. We were best buddies, and as a result, the party night involved free booze all night for Ninfa and I and a few of our friends. And what a night, watching the sun set on Paradise Harbour, Filipino DJ, everyone on a high from our continental landing. And when the booze finally ran out, the Russian crewmen came, and Sergey, Sasha and Yuri took out the crew’s store of vodka. Cue arm-wrestling competitions and bare-chested dancing in sub-zero temperatures, and an amusing moment when a handstand went hilariously wrong due to an evil trick by the mischievous assistant (sorry Andrew!).
The following morning, we sailed through the Lemaire Channel, a narrow path through two looming cliffs and covered in icebergs. It’s supposed to be beautiful – we slept right through it. We did manage to get up for our morning expedition though as we hoped the fresh air might revive us. We had anchored in a foggy morning just off Pleneau Island, and were about to depart on a zodiac cruise through Iceberg Alley. If we didn’t know we were in Antarctica already, this was the moment. Antarctica is the only continent on Earth with no indigenous population. It is the land of ice and very few animals can even survive here. This was our opportunity to pass through its secret garden of immense, statuesque icebergs sculpted by the extremest forces of nature. We floated slowly around in the silent vastness of the bay, alone except for the Arctic Terns, tiny, graceful birds which migrate from pole to pole every summer, and a few Crabeater Seals resting on their immense beds of ice.
Leopard Seal kills a penguin
A more brutal side of the animal kingdom was revealed to us as we approached Pleneau Island. A rampant leopard seal had just killed his prey, a Gentoo penguin, and was peeling its skin by gripping the carcass in his huge jaws and violently thrusting his immense neck from side to side. Around it, petrels hopped on the water luring krill to the surface and gulls swooped in a mad scramble for scraps of flesh from the penguin. This was not a land intended for man.
Chilling out at the bar in Antarctica
And yet that afternoon, man’s relationship with this harshest of environments was revealed to us as we made a stop at the Vernadsky Research Station. Vernadsky is a Ukrainian station, known until the 1990s as Faraday Base, when the British sold it to Ukraine for the symbolic price of one sterling pound – the pound coin is kept in a case in the bar. Yes, a bar – of all days, I had just sworn in the morning that I’d never drink again – we were so enthusiastic that we were the first ones off the boat and had to wait for about 5 minutes before anyone else was even ready! The raison d’etre of Vernadsky is mainly to monitor climactic conditions in Antarctica and understand their relation to the world’s weather, as well as keeping check on the Ozone Hole which lies directly above Antarctica. One of the resident meteorologists gave us a brief tour of the small station before leading us upstairs to the leisure area. Here we were able to get our passports stamped and buy some postcards. The post service is highly unreliable in Antarctica and we are yet to hear of any of our postcards actually arriving yet. Next year, perhaps? Next to the post office is the Faraday Bar. The bar is famous as the southernmost bar in the world, and the Ukrainians at the base have a talent for brewing their own vodka – Antarctica’s official drink. We had been split up into 3 groups of 30 for the station visit, and as soon as we walked in, Keller, a Texan in our group, took out a hundred dollar bill and bought a round for the whole group. This saved Ninfa a dilemma as women are offered free shots in exchange for a bra which they hang in the bar. Although it’s $3 a shot, the barman called drinks on the house for everyone for the duration of our stay – no more money and no bras – which resulted in 30 quite tipsy tourists leaving 15 minutes later.
Vernadsky Research Station - Peace!
Faraday Bar at Vernadsky Research Station
Our last stop at the Research Station was Wordie House, which was originally built in the 1940s and was the predecessor to the current station. The British Antarctic Society has preserved it as a museum where the life of the 1940s explorer and researcher can be imagined. It’s a small wooden building which looks all too fragile for its surroundings. Inside, cans of Bovril line the shelves and old woollen socks hang from the bunks. We even found an old cookbook with a recipe for Tournedos of Seal. It was one of three old houses that we visited in Antarctica, each of them seemingly frozen in time. The images of these houses and their contents enlivened my evening readings of the heroic voyage of Ernest Shackleton and the crew of the Endurance, testaments to the heroic age of Antarctic Exploration.
I'm afraid we're out of beef
Ninfa views the new apartment - let's take it!
All that remains for us to complete our Antarctic Exploration is to cross the Polar Circle in the morning, and for news of that grand finale to our expedition, you’ll have to read our next post. For photos from this leg on our journey, see some of the highlights below, or the full story here: the historic Antarctic base at Wordie House, the modern research station (and bar!!!) at Vernadsky, lots of close-ups of seals in Port Charcot, icebergs, petrels, terns and a violent leopard seal in Iceberg Alley and Pleneau Island, the amazing Neko Harbour where we landed on the continent and where we kayaked, and Humpback Whales and thousands of Gentoo Penguins at Cuverville Island.