Antarctica Travel Guide
Date Visited: January 2016
There’s no other destination quite like Antarctica – the driest, windiest, coldest, iciest, remotest continent on Earth. If you’re looking for a unique travel experience – the journey of a lifetime – then Antarctica is your destination and for many well-traveled souls this is continent number 7 of 7 and a place where most visitors experience a deep sense of awe and respect for the wonder that is ‘mother nature’.
Travelling to Antarctica requires a little planning and isn’t cheap but the rewards of spending time on the continent cannot be overstated, the space, silence, remoteness and dramatic vistas can be overwhelming at times – it’s an experience that will always stay with you.
Antarctica was the last continent to be explored and is the only continent with no permanent (human) residents, no infrastructure or anything else – it’s 100% raw, unforgiving nature. The continent is not owned by any one country, instead it is governed by a treaty (see the ‘Antarctic Treaty‘ section below).
Everything you require on a trip to Antarctica needs to be carried in from the outside world. The environment is pristine and strict rules placed on tour operators ensure it remains that way – including washing your boots every time you leave the boat for a land excursion. You can not leave anything on the continent nor can you remove anything – not even a small pebble from a beach.
From towering peaks, pristine ice-filled bays, massive calving glaciers, icebergs, penguins, seals, whales and birds the scenery and wildlife of Antarctica is nothing short of astounding. If you are a keen photographer, my advice is to carry ample spare memory cards for your camera – I took about 7,000 photos during my two week trip.
One guarantee with a trip here is that each day, just when you think it can’t get any grander or any more spectacular – it does. Antarctica is awe-inspiring and humbling. There is a magic in the cool, crisp air – a magic that will always remain with those fortunate few who get to travel here.
Antarctica is located at the bottom of the world at the South Pole and is surrounded by the Southern Ocean. Over 98% of Antarctica is covered by ice and it has the distinction of being the driest and coldest continent on earth. Beneath all that ice is a sizable landmass which makes Antarctica the fifth largest continent on earth.
The term Antarctic was first used in the 2nd century AD and refers to the “opposite of the Arctic“. The existence of a vast southern continent (Terra Australis) was based on a centuries-old theory that the land mass in the Northern Hemisphere must be balanced by a large land mass in the Southern hemisphere. The first person to cross the Antarctic circle was explorer Captain James Cook in 1773. He explored islands close to Antarctica but never sighted the continental landmass. Instead Cook sailed on to discover Australia and in the early 1800’s the British (believing there could be no other great southern landmass) named Australia after Terra Australis.
In the 1820’s several expeditions claimed to have sighted the Antarctic ice shelf and in 1821, an American sealer – John Davis – claimed to be the first person to set foot on the continent. In the 1890’s Norwegian whalers set up whaling camps, the remains of which can still be seen today on various beaches.
In the early 20th century, during a period known as the ‘Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration‘ different countries launched expeditions to the continent with many focused on one goal – to be the first to reach the South Pole. The Norwegian Roald Amundsen was the first person to reach the pole on December 14, 1911 – narrowly beating an expedition led by an Englishman – Robert Falcon Scott.
One of the principal figures during this period was Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton whose first exposure to Antarctica was as an officer on Scott’s expedition in 1901. Shackleton led three British expeditions to Antarctica, with the most ambitious being the last – an attempt to cross the continent from sea to sea. This failed when his ship – Endurance – became stuck in pack ice.
An American – Richard E. Byrd – was the first person to fly a plane over the South Pole in 1929. Today scientists from more than 25 countries inhabit research bases on the continent.
In 1959, twelve countries (who at the time were actively using Antarctica for scientific research purposes) came together in Washington DC to sign the Antarctic Treaty.
Today, 53 countries are signatories to the treaty, the main articles of which are:
- Antarctica shall be used for peaceful purposes only (Art. I)
- Freedom of scientific investigation in Antarctica and cooperation toward that end … shall continue (Art. II).
- Scientific observations and results from Antarctica shall be exchanged and made freely available (Art. III).
While certain countries maintain territorial claims over parts of Antarctica, Article IV states:
“No acts or activities taking place while the present Treaty is in force shall constitute a basis for asserting , supporting or denying a claim to territorial sovereignty in Antarctica or create any rights of sovereignty in Antarctica. No new claim, or enlargement of an existing claim to territorial sovereignty in Antarctica shall be asserted while the present Treaty is in force.”
Antarctica is rich in mineral resources, which many countries are keen to exploit. While the treaty maintains the current status quo, it is set to expire in 2048.
Antarctic landscapes tend to be very monochrome, with white, grey and black being the predominate colours. Interrupting this are the spectacular splashes of Antarctic blue which can be seen in the many glaciers and icebergs.
The striking blue tone is caused when light enters ice – the red (long wavelengths) part of white light is absorbed by ice and the blue (short wavelengths) light is transmitted and scattered, often creating spectacular, dazzling scenes of Antarctic blues.
Yes! Antarctica has it’s own tartan which was designed at the other end of the world in Scotland. The colours used in the design are representative of colours found on the continent – white represents snow, ice and ice floes; grey represents the rocks and towering granite peaks and the seals; yellow represents penguin plumage and pale blue represents the crevasses in the glaciers and icebergs.
The scarves are sold at the British-run Port Lockroy Post Office (see ‘Day 7’ below). Apart from the ships gift shop – the PO was the only shopping opportunity on the trip.
There is no Antarctic currency! All expenses on the ship were billed to my credit card while the Port Lockroy post office accepted Credit cards, U.S. dollars, Pound Sterling and Euro.
When to Go
Travel to Antarctica is restricted to spring/ summer (October to March), when daylight lasts between 18 and 24 hours each day.
Since no country owns Antarctica, no visa or even a passport is required to visit. However, you will need your passport in order to gain entry to the country where you end your expedition. The British post office at Port Lockroy offers a cute souvenir passport stamp.
Despite its remote location and harsh environment, there are plenty of tour companies who offer paying guests the opportunity to join comfortable ‘expedition’ ships which sail from the world’s most southern city (Ushuaia, Argentina). There are no facilities anywhere in Antarctica so your ship serves as your floating world during your journey – the only time you leave the ship is twice a day for excursions.
I chose to travel with Seattle-based Quark Expeditions who were very professional, extremely well organised and generally provided a very smooth travel experience. I would highly recommend them. I contacted the office last minute and secured a berth in a shared 3-bed cabin on their 14-day “Crossing the Circle” expedition which is Quarks most southern expedition, crossing the Antarctic Circle at 66 degrees 33.7 minutes south. Most trips to Antarctica do not venture as far south as the circle.
The cost of the trip in a shared triple room was US$9,000, if you require more privacy you will need to pay much more – up to $15,000. Everything was included in the price except for alcoholic beverages and any additional activities you wished to do. I added a night of camping which cost an additional US$250 – how often will you have the opportunity to sleep under the stars on Antarctica?
Life aboard the Ocean Diamond
My home in the Antarctic was the Ocean Diamond, which Quark describe as a modern, stable super-yacht and with its twin stabilisers and an ice-strengthened hull, the ship is ideal for a trip to Antarctica.
The ship features 100 suites, accommodating up to 189 passengers, with 100 crew members on board from three different teams:
- Ship Crew – The crew included our Russian Captain, other officers and a host of Filipinos who took care of the operational side of the ship.
- Hotel Crew – Headed up by a competent German manager, the hotel crew was comprised mostly of Filipinos who took care of the cabins, served up amazing ‘5-star’ multi-course meals three times a day (many people gained weight) and manned the bar into the wee hours.
- Expedition Team – The expedition team was headed up by ‘Woody‘, an Australian who has many years of polar experience – both in the Arctic and Antarctic. The team included scientists, biologists, geologists and other specialists from a host of countries who gave daily presentations on the flora, fauna, geology and history of Antarctica. Twice a day we would leave the ship to do either sea or land excursions with a member of the expedition team piloting a zodiac.
For those who would rather not cross the rough Drake Passage by ship – or are short on time – Quark offer ‘Fly/ Cruise voyages‘ where you can either fly both ways (flights depart from Punta Arenas in Chile) or fly one way/ sail one way.
Day 1 – 3
The first part of the journey was a relaxing sail through the narrow Beagle Channel from Ushuaia to the Southern Ocean and the roaring Drake Passage. Once in the passage, and after being forewarned to make the ship ‘Drake-proof‘, we set a direct course south to the Antarctic Circle.
Crossing the circle (or even getting near it) isn’t always possible and is dependent on sea-ice conditions at the time. The journey to the circle took 77-hours, with the boat heaving in heavy seas most of the way. Thanks to the giant on-board stabilisers, the journey was smoother on the Ocean Diamond than it would have been on other boats, however 70% of passengers remained in bed for the crossing.
Eventually the seas calmed, icebergs started to appear and the nights became longer. Our Russian captain (who had a wealth of polar experience) maneuvered the ship between icebergs to allow us to reach our goal at 66 degrees 33.7 minutes South.
Shortly before 5 am on day four, our expedition leader – Woody – woke all of us with an announcement that we would shortly cross the circle and invited us to join the crew on deck to drink a celebratory toast of champagne – we were also warned that “there may be a slight bump” as we cross this line on the map.
After crossing the circle we attempted to push further south to Marguerite Bay but unfortunately ice conditions worsened, blocking our way, so the captain anchored off Adelaide island and we did a sea excursion – our first time off the ship in 4 days.
During the excursion we photographed amazing icebergs and lots of Crabeater Seals (see ‘Seals’ below) lazing around on ice floes. After the excursion the ship about-faced and sailed north away from the ice and towards the protected waters of Crystal Sound.
On the morning of day 5 we awoke in Crystal Sound and made our first land excursion when we visited Detaille Island – home to Base W – a former British research station.
Built in 1956, the base was the home of the Antarctic Tennis Club, the first place where tennis was played south of the Antarctic circle. After opening the Olympic games in Melbourne in 1956, the Duke of Edinburgh, who was conducting a tour of British Antarctic bases, played a game of tennis at the base.
In 1958 the base was hastily abandoned due to bad weather, with the occupants instructed to leave everything behind. Today the base is a perfectly preserved time capsule of 1950’s Antarctic life, with kitchen cupboards stocked with provisions, clothes still hanging on their hangers and books arranged on bookshelves – all of it perfectly preserved by the dry, freezing Antarctic air. It all feels as if the occupants left yesterday. A fascinating insight!
In the afternoon of day 5 we made a sea excursion in Crystal Sound with the two highlights being our first sighting of a huge, adult male Southern Elephant Seal (see ‘Seals’ below) and our only sighting of a small group of majestic Emperor Penguins (see ‘Penguins’ below) – who were looking less than majestic as they were undergoing their annual Catastrophic molt.
Overnight our ship sailed north to the Yalour Islands, which is a group of islands and rocks in the southern part of the Wilhelm Archipelago.
The small rocky islands are known for their Adélie Penguin (see ‘Penguins’ below) colonies. During a raging blizzard we made a sea excursion in our zodiacs, which allowed us to get up close to the colonies. There were lots of newborn chicks present, who were huddled together to maintain body warmth and protect themselves (their feathers are not waterproof at this stage) against the driving snow.
Next stop was Petermann Island – home to an Argentine refuge hut and a Gentoo penguin (see ‘Penguins’ below) breeding colony of 3,000 pairs, which provided us with our first interaction with this colourful penguin. A highlight of the land excursion to the island was the sighting of another huge Southern Elephant Seal which had parked itself alongside the refuge hut.
On the morning of day 7 we made a sea excursion around Damoy Point. Our expedition leader wanted to make a land excursion to visit a former British scientific base which still contains scientific equipment and other artifacts but ice conditions around the shoreline were not favourable so plan ‘B’ was a sea excursion. During our excursion we saw lots of funky-shaped icebergs and Gentoo penguins.
In the afternoon we had a very short sail around the point and into Port Lockroy – home to a British base (Base ‘A’) since WWII. The base was renovated in 1966 and now features a small post office/ gift shop (where you can get your passport stamped and buy your Antarctica souvenirs) and a museum.
The post office is manned by four volunteers who spend the summer months at the base. There are no showers at the base so the volunteers came aboard our ship to use our shower facilities. At the time of our visit, the whole place was overrun with not-so-shy Gentoo penguins who had built a breeding colony around the front door of the post office.
After visiting Port Lockroy, we continued our meander north, passing through the breathtaking Lemaire channel which is 11 km long and 1,600 metres wide at its narrowest point. The channel is lined with dramatic, soaring ridges and peaks and was the first place we experienced blue skies and sunshine in Antarctica. Sailing through the channel with clear skies was an amazing experience – yet another highlight!
On the morning of day 8 we awoke in Paradise Harbour which is one of the few places where the terrain allows you to set foot on the actual continent of Antarctica (in all other places we landed on offshore islands). There were quite a few travelers present who added continent #7 to their list of visited continents – including myself.
We stepped onto the continent at the Argentine research base of Almirante Brown (Admiral Brown), where a path leads up a small slope above the station to a vantage point which offers spectaculars views of Paradise Harbour. A large Gentoo penguin colony allowed for (yet more) entertaining photos.
After visiting the base, we did a sea excursion in our Zodiac around the magnificent Andvord Bay, which is part of the larger Neko Harbour. The bay is lined with an imposing glacier whose ice face towers hundreds of feet above the shoreline.
In the afternoon we continued north, passing through the Errera Channel, eventually reaching Danco Island, which is home to a very large (and a very smelly) Gentoo Penguin colony. A trail up onto a ridge provides spectacular views of the channel.
On the evening of day 8 those lucky souls you paid for a night of camping were taken to (relatively) sheltered Leith Point. After receiving some instructions, we dug ourselves a ditch in the snow, laid out our bivouacs and tried to sleep through the howling, icy cold winds (I slept with five layers of clothes).
Tents are not an option and not really needed (provided you dig your ditch deep enough). The setting is very dramatic with the island surrounded on all sides by towering ice walls and glaciers which crack, explode and calve through the night. Despite the cold, it was a beautiful, unforgettable experience.
On the morning of day 9 we made a land excursion to Cuverville Island, which stands at the entrance of the Errera Channel and is flanked by the precipitous mountains and glaciers of the Antarctic mainland. The island is home to a sizable colony of Gentoo penguins.
In the afternoon we sailed into the spectacular Wilhelmina Bay which is known as ‘the’ place to see Humpback Whales (see ‘Whales’ below). We did a sea excursion and spent the afternoon surrounded by pods of Humpbacks. You never know where the whales will surface and there were a few near misses as we had to scramble out of the way. Full details in the ‘Whales of Antarctica‘ section below.
After our whale watching it was time for the much-anticipated Polar Plunge.
Speed is the key when diving into Antarctic waters. With water temperatures of about 2 degrees (35 Fahrenheit), you don’t spend longer than is necessary in Antarctic waters. We were offered the chance to dive into the icy cold waters of Wilhelmina Bay, which requires a safety harness as people have occasionally gone into shock upon entering the frigid water. I can tell you from my experience that I have never moved so quickly as I did climbing the ladder back onto the ship. So cold!
On day 10 we awoke to sunshine and the magnificent scenery of the Graham Passage. After breakfast we embarked on a sea excursion on the perfectly calm waters of the passage, with the highlight of the excursion being the sighting of our first (and only) Leopard Seal (see ‘Seals’ below) who was lazing about on an ice floe. There were plenty of Crabeater seals on neighbouring ice floes who were no doubt keeping an eye on the movements of their unwelcome predator.
In the afternoon we sailed into Mikkelsen Harbour where we made a land excursion to D’Hainaut Island. Once a whaling base (the sheltered harbour offered a safe place for whalers to live and process slaughtered whales) and today home to a small Argentine refuge, the island is home to a large Gentoo Penguin colony. The penguins here are so numerous, they have created deep ruts (known as penguin highways) through the snow as they waddle to and from the sea. The island is also a favoured refuge for Weddell seals (see ‘Seals’ below) and we were lucky to see one lazing about in the snow.
On the morning of day 11 we made one last sea excursion where we saw Chinstrap Penguins (see ‘Penguins’ below) and our one and only Fur Seal (see ‘Seals below).
In the afternoon we set a direct course back to South America and sailed into our last Antarctic sunset.
On days 12 and 13 we sailed back across the Drake Lake – yes – it was that calm. As a result of our smooth voyage, we arrived ahead of schedule and had to wait half a day for our appointment with our assigned Argentine pilot who would escort us through the Beagle channel and back into Ushuaia port.
We arrived early into Ushuaia, cleared customs and immigration, said goodbye to new friends and went our separate ways. An amazing experience and worth every cent.
Penguins of Antarctica
Did you know…. the 24th of April each year is designated “World Penguin Day“.
There are a total of 17 different species of penguins on the planet – all of them resident in the Southern hemisphere. While many penguins call Antarctica home, a greater number prefer to inhabit the warmer sub-Antarctic islands, the southern reaches of Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and South America. Thanks to the cold Humboldt Current, penguins can even be found on the Equator in the Galapagos Islands. All penguins are flightless birds with wings that have been modified into paddle-like flippers and streamlined bodies which are a perfectly adapted for life in a marine habitat.
Antarctica is home to 5 different breeding species:
- Adélie Penguin
- Chinstrap Penguin
- Emperor Penguin
- Gentoo Penguin
- Macaroni Penguin
Of the five different species, I saw four during my trip – Chinstrap, Adelie, Emperor and Gentoo.
What’s with the tuxedo look?
Most penguins sport a very fancy looking pelt which resembles a tuxedo with the dorsal side, back and head being black and the belly being white. What’s with the look? The feather pattern is a form of camouflage called counter-shading, which is used to help them hide from predators while in the water. Viewed from above, their black back and head blends in with the dark seafloor. When viewed from below, their white belly blends into the bright surface of the water.
The most southerly (and most numerous) of breeding Antarctic penguins – Adélie penguins were discovered in 1840 by scientists on a French Antarctic expedition led by explorer Jules Dumont d’Urville, who named the penguins after his wife – Adéle.
Closely related to the Gentoo and the Chinstrap, the Adélie inhabit the most southern reaches of the Antarctic peninsula and were the first we saw upon arrival in Antarctica. Recent satellite surveys have led to revised population figures for the penguin with an estimated six million on the peninsula – an increase of more than 50% over previous figures. The penguins inhabit large breeding colonies which are very smelly, loud, raucous and busy affairs. Like the Chinstrap and Gentoo they build their nests using small pebbles on raised ground (prevents flooding when the snow and ice melt) and give birth to two young.
During our visit their were plenty of chicks vying for the attention of their (feeding) parents. Chicks are at risk of being snatched by predatory Skua’s (see ‘Birds of Antarctica‘ below) who also feed on unhatched eggs. Like other penguins, the Adélie feed mainly on krill but are themselves a valuable food source for Leopard Seals, Sea Lions, Orcas, and Sharks.
Chinstrap penguins get their name from the fine black line which runs, from cheek-to-cheek, across their white face. Closely related to Gentoo and Adélie penguins, during our trip the Chinstrap’s were busy maintaining their nests, incubating their eggs (normally two) and looking after new-born chicks. Like other penguins, their nests are built from small pebbles which they arrange in a roughly circular pile. The Chinstrap has a similar diet and faces the same predatory threats as the Adélie and Gentoo penguins.
The name says it all! The Emperor penguin is the most majestic, the tallest (up to 122 cm/ 48 in) and the heaviest (from 22 to 45 kg / 49 to 99 lb) of all penguins and is found only in Antarctica. It is the undisputed heavyweight of the penguin world! Apart from its stature, the penguin is easily distinguished thanks to the broad yellow patches on each side of its head. To see such a majestic creature in the wild is something truly special.
The Emperor is the only species that breeds during the savage Antarctic winter, and it’s not uncommon for them to trek over a hundred kilometres inland to reach their breeding colony. Once at the colony, the female lays a single egg, which is then incubated by the male who rests the egg on his feet (to keep it off the freezing ground) for 65 days (actually it’s one long, cold period of night at this time of year) while the female returns to the sea to feed. During this period the male does not eat and will typically lose 40% of his body weight. The female, now full of food, returns to feed the newly-born chick while the male dashes to the sea to satisfy his dying hunger. With a diet that consists primarily of fish and krill, the Emperor has a life span of about 20 years.
A Catastrophic Molt
Like all other penguin species, Emperors go through a molting process. This happens once a year and is referred to as a Catastrophic Molt due to the fact that all their feathers are replaced at once. The new feather grows under the old one, pushing it out. The old feather does not fall out until the new one is completely in place. The process lasts about two weeks and during this time they must remain on land as their feathers are not waterproof during the process. Since they feed on fish they are on an enforced ‘fast’ until they can return to the sea.
During our trip we were very fortunate to see one small group of Emperor’s who were going through this awkward process. Why awkward? The molt is patchy and can give penguins a scruffy look – it’s not always pretty! Then there’s the waiting around – two weeks on land. However – it allowed us to observe this rarely seen penguin at close quarters – and you know something is special when the crew are just as excited as the passengers.
In an otherwise monochrome landscape, the Gentoo penguin provides a much appreciated splash of colour. With its flamboyant reddish/ orange-coloured beak and peach-colored feet, the Gentoo penguin stands out against the usually drab-coloured landscape. The Gentoo is the 3rd-largest species of penguin after the Emperor and King.
Like their cousins – the Chinstraps – the Gentoo were busy during our trip with all the rituals associated with the breeding season. Also like the Chinstraps – their nests are built from small pebbles which they arrange in a roughly circular pile. The pebbles are jealously guarded and their ownership can be the subject of noisy disputes between individual penguins. Often a male will gain ‘favour’ from a female by offering her a nice stone – which he would have stolen from a neighbouring nest. This of course leads to disputes and a whole lot of noise. The Gentoo is not shy, is very mischievous and entertaining – a real pleasure to spend time observing.
During the breeding season the even more mischievous and opportunistic Skua preys on breeding Gentoo colonies, stealing unhatched eggs or snatching baby chicks.
Seals of Antarctica
Although there are 35 species of seals (or more correctly – Pinnipeds) in the World, only six species inhabit Antarctica:
- Antarctic Fur Seals
- Crabeater Seals
- Leopard Seals
- Ross Seals (rarely seen as it inhabits remote ice shelves)
- Southern Elephant Seals
- Weddell Seals
Seals are categorized into three families:
- True seals (this includes all Antarctic seals except the Fur Seal)
- Eared seals (common to most zoos and includes the Fur seal)
- Walruses (only found in the Arctic).
We saw five different species during our trip:
Antarctic Fur Seal
You can excuse the poor Fur Seal for having bad manners (they have been known to bite humans without provocation) but we did nearly hunt them into extinction. At one point, their total population was reduced to a few thousand. Fur Seals were placed under protection at the beginning of this century and have made a remarkable recovery.
Normally found in more northern parts of the Antarctic Peninsula and the sub-Antarctic islands, we were lucky enough to see just one lonely fur seal on a remote rocky shore during our trip.
The most common seal in Antarctica, the Crabeater accounts for over half of the world’s seal population with an estimated population of 30 million. Despite their name, Crabeaters mainly eat krill but are themselves preyed upon by Orca whales and the aggressive Leopard seal, which will attack young pups. Most Crabeaters bear deep bodily scars from battles fought with Leopard seals.
Each day we saw plenty of Crabeater seals who spend most of their time lazing around on ice floes. Feeding Orcas like to bump the ice floes in order to knock the seals into the water.
A lean, mean, fighting machine – the aggressive, powerful Leopard Seal sits at the top of the food chain in the seal world. Easily identified by its reptilian-like head, the seals diet is based on krill and lots of warm-blooded baby animals such as penguins and juvenile Crabeater seals.
With worldwide population (all in the Antarctic region) figures ranging from 220,000 – 440,000, the seals are not too common. During our entire trip we saw one lone seal lazing about on an ice floe.
Southern Elephant Seal
Named for the male’s trunk-like proboscis (nose) and weighing in at a hefty 3,600 kilos (7,900 pounds), these are the big daddies of the seal world. There is no bigger seal than the Southern Elephant Seal. Longer (4.5 metres/ 15 feet) and heavier than the average family car, these guys eat a whole lot. In order to satisfy their huge appetites, Southern Elephant Seals can dive to depths in excess of 2,000 metres/ 6,500 feet and can remain underwater for up to two hours.
The lucky (or maybe unlucky) males live in harems which can include up to 50 females. Breeding colonies can become cramped affairs which small pups often becoming crushed under the weight of adult seals.
Unlike other seal species, Weddell Seals prefer to lie on shoreline snow and ice rather than floating ice floes where they could be preyed upon. They prefer to stay a safe distance from their main predator – the Orca.
During the winter months, Weddell’s must maintain diving/breathing holes in the ice in order to feed. Feeding primarily on fish, Weddell’s can dive in excess of 300 metres / 1,000 feet in search of food. To make these long dives possible, they carry five time the amount of oxygen in their blood as human do. To get the most from this, Weddell’s slow their heart rate and limit blood circulation to vital organs such as the brain, kidneys, and liver.
Whales of Antarctica
The food-rich waters of Antarctica attract a large number of feeding whales from Right, Blue, Sei, Humpback, Minke, Fin, Sperm and Killer.
In Wilhelmina Bay (aka “Whale-mina Bay”) we had the opportunity to get very close to a number of feeding pods of Humpback Whales. With soaring (2,000 metre +) mountains on two sides – and an inaccessible shoreline covered with towering ice walls, glaciers and snow – this sheltered and stunningly beautiful wide bay (24 km across) is a preferred feeding ground for this majestic creature. The humpback gets its name from its habit of raising and bending its back in preparation for a dive, thereby accentuating the hump in front of the dorsal fin.
The diet of this giant (adults can weigh up to 30,000 kg) is tiny plankton, krill and fish, with adults consuming up to 2,500 kg of food each day. In order to gather such large quantities of what is very small prey, the whales employ a technique known as ‘bubble net‘ feeding. This behavior is not instinctual, it is learned with the whales using vocalisations to communicate to one another in order to effectively and efficiently execute the bubble net in order for them all to feed. The technique involves the pod circling below a school of prey, while exhaling out of their blowholes, producing a wall of bubbles which corrals the fish into the centre of the circle. The captured fish become disoriented then one whale will sound a feeding call, at which point all whales simultaneously swim upwards with mouths open to feed on the trapped fish. On its way to the surface, the humpback can collect up to 57,000 litres (15,000 gallons) of seawater in its mouth, which it then strains out through its baleen plates, allowing it to swallow it’s catch.
We ventured out into the bay in our Zodiac and made a bee-line for the first pod we saw surfacing. The pod had a new member – a young calf – and was too busy feeding to be disturbed by our presence. Observing all the rules, we kept our distance. The whales would disappear beneath the calm waters of the bay – then, sometime later, a ring of bubbles would start to appear on the surface, then the calm would be shattered when a giant feeding Humpback came shooting up out of the water with its mouth wide open. While we kept our distance, the whales know no boundaries and will create a bubble net wherever the prey is concentrated – at times this can be right under your little zodiac. While we were waiting for one pod to surface, the zodiac next to ours was suddenly surrounded by bubbles. Seeing this the driver quickly put the boat into reverse and got out of the way just as a 30,000 kg missile came shooting out of the water. It was very close!
At one point we were surrounded by four feeding pods, with whales surfacing and diving all about us. We were busy taking photos and watching out for the bubbles.
I’ve had the opportunity to do whale watching in various places around the world but there’s nothing like whale watching in Antarctica. From the stunning scenery, the quiet, remote isolation and the fact that you can get so close to such magnificent wildlife – everyday in Antarctica provides another lifetime memory.
Birds of Antarctica
Besides Penguins (yes – they are birds!), Antarctic is home to many other birds. Some of the birds we encountered on the trip included:
The brown skua, also known as the Antarctic skua, can best be described as an avian pirate. These birds are very mischievous, cheeky and opportunistic and will seize almost anything – one once tried to seize my 10 kg camera bag while it was on the ground.
The bain of every mother penguin – the skuas favourite feeding grounds are the numerous penguin colonies, where they easily snatch unhatched eggs and newborn chicks.
An omnivore and an opportunistic feeder, despite their name the diet of the Kelp Gull is not limited to kelp but also includes live Right Whales. Yes – the gull has been observed using its beck to peck down several centimetres into the skin and blubber, often leaving the whales with large open sores. Nasty!
The Antarctic Tern is easily spotted thanks to it’s bright red beak. The tern breeds in Antarctica and the sub-Antarctic islands, with a diet of fish which it hunts along coastal areas.
Otherwise known as the ‘Paddy’, the Snowy Sheathbill is one of two types of species of sheathbill and is usually found on the ground. It is the only land bird native to the Antarctic continent. Lacking webbed feet, the sheathbill feeds on land, stealing krill and fish from penguins and sometimes eating penguin eggs and young penguin chicks.
A trip to Antarctica is an unforgettable experience. From the remoteness of the continent to the stupendous, breath-taking scenery that surrounds you every day, to the amazing wildlife interactions to the experience of being part of an expedition ship – it’s a memory that will stay with you forever.
While the cost of joining an expedition may seem high – I felt at the end of the trip that the money I paid was very reasonable. I was provided comfortable accommodation on-board a well-appointed ship, which was operated by a crew of 100, professional, competent staff members from all corners of the globe. We were fed amazing multi-course meals three times, were provided with a constant supply of snacks between excursions and were provided with nightly entertainment from members of the expedition team. Also included was the expertise and knowledge of the various expedition team members, most of whom provided presentations during the voyage and expert commentary and insights when on excursions.
Would I do it again? Yes – and if you have the means to make such a trip I would highly recommend that you do so – at least once in your life!