60 days in Antarctica

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The last voyage of my Antarctic season just ended this morning and I am already sitting in the  airport.  After two months on the ship being completely absorbed in such a remote and beautiful landscape my head is swooning as I am forced back into the  world. The airport is a harsh re-enty to society.

One Ocean expeditions markets the last voyage of the season as a marine mammals special exploratory trip. In late March the penguin chicks have all fledged from the nest and the adults are heading out to sea and penguin viewing becomes less of a focus of our journey. The whales in Antarctica tend to congregate around the Antarctic peninsula this time of year. Krill, the main food source of all the marine critters, aggregate in deep water bays and swarm into a biomass that can exceed  two million tons.  We sail into these bays, launch zodiacs and cruise among the feasting whales hoping for close encounters.

The second day of our voyage we spotted two Blue whales charging forward of the ship.  Blue whales reach lengths of over 100 feet long and weigh over 170 tons. Not only are they the largest living creature on the planet today, they are also the largest animal to have ever lived, larger than any dinosaur that ever roamed the earth. It is estimated that there  are only a two thousand blue whales in the southern ocean. Given the size of the southern ocean a blue whale sighting is a near impossible occurrence.  The opportunity to see  not just one, but two so close to the ship was, well, words can’t describe it and the pictures don’t do it justice.

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Blue whale surging past the ship

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When we arrived in Antarctica we launched our zodiacs and kayaks and were immediately visited by Minkie and humpback whales.  The whales are so satiated from feasting on massive amounts of krill that they log on the surface napping in a food coma. As we cruise past them they ofter become curious and swim over to us to have a closer look. It’s quite exciting to be held in the gaze of such a and large mysterious sea creature.

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We spent six days cruising the peninsula and the South Shetland islands searching for whales and seals. The leopard seals begin to prey on penguins this time of year. As the fledging chicks enter the ocean for the first time they are easy pickings.  Leopard seals like to show off their kill by swimming close to our zodiac’s, forcing us to watch as they thrash the carcass to tear off bits of flesh.

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Along the Journey we get excellent opportunities to see and photograph Elephant seal, Crab eater seals, Wedell seals and Fur seals.

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There are still plenty of penguins around. We make at least two landings a day to wander among the remaining penguins. Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins are the most common penguins we see late in march. On this voyage we were lucky to see a rare pair of Macaroni penguins.

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Wildlife viewing is obviously a huge draw to travelers wanting to see this portion of the world, but the ice that covers and surrounds the entire continent is what gives this place life and creates a magical landscape unlike any other place on earth.

I look forward to getting back there next season.

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