What’s hot about Antarctica?

Weddell seal AntarcticaFollowing on from last week’s post, An Epic Antarctic Love Affair, Intrepid’s Jane Crouch shares more on the Shackleton Epic expedition and what it’s like to spot ‘nice-bergs’ and curious leopard seals at close range…

“The Polish base, Arctowski, on King George Island was the base for our 6 hardy intrepid adventurers whilst completing their final preparations, sea trialling the Alexandra Shackleton, and readying their gear and themselves for the journey ahead.

Paul Larsen, who in November last year set the world speed sailing record of 65.45 knots aboard VESTAS Sailrocket 2 in Namibia, met the Alexandra Shackleton boat for the first time at Arctowski. Paul with his constant 1000 watt smile said at the time “it humours me that I’m so excited about sailing such a grossly underpowered boat!” She is a beautifully made little boat, but without a keel or centre board I can’t help but have major concerns for their risk of capsizing. Paul describes sailing her as “more akin to tobogganing than skiing!”

Paul received some mountaineering training from Baz in preparation for the journey. I was thrilled to learn of his crossing of South Georgia along with Tim and Baz, and of him having the opportunity to apply these skills as they negotiated the hazards of glaciers and crevasses. The team efforts and complimentary skills are clearly major contributors to the expedition’s success.

Travelling around the Antarctic Peninsula, exploring its delights, is like gliding through a thick icy soup, chock filled with nourishing life, punctuated with ice-berg croutons and all ‘contained’ in a jagged bowl of snow covered mountains and glaciers. It’s rarely quiet in this ‘soup’. There’s a regular rumbling coming from the glaciers, and the occasional gun-shot-like sounds, as a piece of glacier cracks and calves off, splashing into the water and creating waves through the previously calm. Some of this ‘fresh’ ice floats by the Australis and it’s noisy – snap, crackle and popping as trapped air from by-gone years is released. We can’t resist collecting some of this possibly 40,000 year old ice, to feel its tingling on our tongues and try it out in a very memorable gin and tonic on the deck, on a gloriously sunny evening!

Those ice-berg ‘croutons’ are a treat to behold. From the freshly calved brash ice that often surrounds our boat, providing sun-decks for lounging seals and pottering penguins, to the gargantuan 10 storey office block sized bergs and everything in between – the bergs are astounding.

I coin the phrase ‘nice-bergs’ for ones that especially impress me, and there are many qualifiers. I alternate between gazing in awe and snapping away with the camera, trying to capture some of nature at her most creative with all the fantastical shapes that enchant, enthral and spark your imagination. I’m blown away by the myriad shades of blue – turquoise, cyan, sapphire and indigo, that colour many of the bergs and are all the more vivid and eye-inspiring when I remove my sunglasses! I learn that blue photons can penetrate further through ice than other colours, and that the deeper the light travels, the bluer it looks.

The collective nouns for penguins are so appropriate! We see ‘rafts’ of penguins darting around the water regularly – seemingly going all which ways depending on the leader of the moment. And on land they are known as a ‘waddle’ where they congregate and nest. We stop at several gentoo colonies and quietly observe their nesting from a respectful distance.

Gentoo penguins are quite distinctive with their red bills and a white flash above their eyes. Mums and dads share parenting responsibilities. Some were laying with their plump bellies over the top of 1 or 2 eggs, laid into a nest of pebbles. Some stood with chicks at their feet, wrapped in the warmth of their belly feathers, periodically bending down and regurgitating a morsel of pre-digested food for their youngsters.

As individual penguins return from the sea to the colonies, they greet their mates with a bowing of the head, dipping up and down several times, while making a gentle ‘ah, aha, aha’ sound. They didn’t seem in the least bothered by we respectful human observers, with our strange clicking boxes at the ready!

There was little rest from amazing wildlife encounters. In Wilhelmina Bay we were surrounded by a bevy of whales. A quick scan revealed maybe 40 or more minke, humpback and orcas (killer whales) – feeding up on the abundant krill, breaching, waving with slapping flippers and giving flourishes of their tails. Some come right by the Australis and we wonder if we might be bumped, but of course their senses are well attuned to skirting around obstacles. Fellow traveller Keith, an acoustics expert by trade, puts his recording equipment in the water and we’re later delighted to hear some whale singing and burps – suggesting their fine dining satisfaction.

There’s something a little eery about the unmistakable black and white orcas with their streamlined bodies and tall dorsal fins. We mostly see them gliding placidly through the water, but recent viewings of Sir David Attenborough documentaries remind us of their dramatic dining habits, where a frenzied group attack may make short work of an unfortunate seal.

The Australis crew have seen and experienced innumerable remarkable wildlife wonders over their years, travelling through these waters. But they tell us our leopard seal encounter was quite unique. We stopped in the Errera Channel when one curious leopard seal came by the boat and proceeded to entertain us for half-an-hour or more, ducking, weaving and gliding effortlessly by the boat, going under us and turning back – making eye contact and seemingly responding to our waving arms with interest. His face looks placid and friendly, but knowing they are partial to penguins and will attack humans at close range, as tempting as it is…I decided this was not the time for a polar plunge! One dip did come later though, in positively balmy 0 degree Celsius waters near Port Lockroy.

humpback whale AntarcticaWith 24 hour light and wildlife abounding – I find it very hard to call it a day each evening and head to bed. As Magnus steers the Australis through the waters of the Gerlache Strait late one evening, a watch out in nearly every direction soon reveals the spouting of blow-holes and we see humpbacks and fin whales. As I reluctantly decide I best head off for some sleep, I ask Magnus if he’d like some replacement company at the helm. “No thanks …I’m OK” Magnus replies with a look of serenity. “Sometimes it feels pretty special to feel like I have all of Antarctica to myself”. Amen.”

The Shackleton Epic supports Fauna & Flora International and their biodiversity and habitat protection work. To aid Jane’s efforts to raise funds for the linked cause, please visit justgiving.com/JaneCrouch.

Photos: Jane Crouch, Weddell seal and humpback whale

About the author

Sue Elliot - Like many of us, Sue contracted a serious travel bug at an early age. She's visited over 90 countries in search of a cure, but her wanderlust just seems to get worse. Thankfully at Intrepid Travel she's amongst people who understand the affliction and since 1998 Sue has enjoyed being our blog and newsletter editor. Here you'll read about Sue's travel experiences, find helpful travel advice and she loves sharing great tales from Intrepid travellers.

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