Communing with Wildlife in Antarctica

It’s Valentine’s Day and I’m in love. The object of my affection sidles up to me, cocks his head and regards me with a flirtatious eye. My heart melts.

A big penguin chick waits for mom to feed him at Fort Lockroy, Antarctica. (photo credit: Katherine Rodeghier c 2012)

But hearts are fickle in Antarctica and before my 11-day cruise ends, I give mine to dozens of tuxedo-clad creatures. Penguins are plentiful on the Antarctic Peninsula and I am smitten with all of them. Could I just put one of these cute guys in my backpack and take him home—please?

My Quark Expeditions cruise is typical of most educational cruises of the Antarctic Peninsula. These small expedition vessels depart from the tip of South America with a team of experts on board to give lectures and accompany passengers on shore landings where they observe wildlife at close proximity.

Safeguarding Antarctica’s ecosystem

Viewing Antarctica’s wildlife without threatening it or its habitat becomes the central theme of our cruise. We follow a strict set of guidelines set down by the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, or IAATO, formed in 1991 when tourism to the Antarctic had just begun to take off.

We may not collect stones or feathers or any other objects on shore and nothing — cigarette butts, tissues — can be left behind. Anyone who experiences his own “call of nature” while ashore must wait until he is back on ship to answer it. We are told to stay 15 feet from wildlife, farther from fur seals, which can be ornery. Birds flying and calling overhead mean we are too close to a nest. Any change in animal behavior means we should back off.

In Your Bucket Because

  • You want to see Earth’s last great wilderness and its wildlife
  • You’re on a quest to visit all seven continents
  • Good for those who love animals and wilderness, as well as cruiser lovers looking for something more adventurous, and photographers.

Our landing sites are controlled by IAATO so no more than 100 passengers at a time visit any one area. We make eight landings and see penguins at each. Before going ashore and when returning to the ship we thoroughly wash our boots to prevent the spread of plant and animal matter. Those cute penguins can be quite messy during nesting and molting season when huge colonies of them stand on rocky outcroppings. It’s February so they have been around a couple of months and the accumulation of droppings is impressive. Downwind from the rookery the smell permeates clothing right down to long underwear.

Up close to penguins and seals

On my first landing a Chinstrap catches my eye, its head marked by a distinct black line of feathers stretching from ear to ear. It waddles and hops over rocks on Half Moon Island, stopping to peer at the strange creature in the red parka.

Passengers on cruise ships must leave nothing behind to safeguard the animals and their habitat. (photo credit: Katherine Rodeghier c 2012)

At Neko Harbour perhaps a hundred Gentoos perch high above the landing site, setting up a racket as parents and chicks call to each other. During the nesting period penguins feed on krill, climb back to the nest and regurgitate the food into the mouths of their noisy, demanding offspring. Skuas and other marine birds flap around overhead, hoping to snatch a morsel. For the penguin chicks it’s a desperate game of survival. As many as one-third of them — those not old enough or strong enough — will die when the colony returns to the sea for the winter.

On a sightseeing excursion by Zodiac, penguins leap from the water around us. Seals and small minke whales torpedo toward us, then dive below the Zodiac just as they come within arm’s reach. We motor close to a small berg where a leopard seal perches. The penguin’s natural predator, a leopard can devour six penguins an hour, killing them as they enter the sea to feed. With huge head and big eyes — the better to see under water — leopard seals look almost reptilian. We see them lying in wait offshore from a penguin colony or stretched out on the ice, sated and sleepy.

 

Hungry leopard seals feed on penguins. (photo credit: Katherine Rodeghier c 2012)

 

Crossing the Antarctic Circle

The exact itineraries of Antarctic cruises are subject to weather and ice conditions. We are told early on that we will not cross the Antarctic Circle, but as the ship draws farther south a buzz develops among the crew. It’s the warmest month in the Antarctic and passages normally blocked with ice are breaking up. On our sixth night, our expedition leader makes the announcement: We’re going to go for it.

While we sleep, the ship glides over that invisible line at 66 degrees, 33 minutes south and we wake up below the circle in Crystal Sound. The sea is smooth as glass, the sun is out and icebergs and glaciers sparkle all around us. We line up for the Zodiacs.

Crystal Sound, below the Antarctic Circle, has abundant wildlife and sculpted icebergs in shades of blue.

Our driver spots four Weddell seals on an ice floe. We circle the ice twice; one big fellow rears up and yawns. We head toward shore where about 20 fur seals sit barking, then amuse ourselves by cruising past towering ice cliffs. The water of one inlet is so blue and full of crystal cubes it seems we are floating in an exotic cocktail.

Our driver turns off the motor and we sit in silence, admiring the reflection of locomotive-size icebergs mirrored in the calm water, listening to the call of a tern overhead and watching a pair of crabeater seals dive and chase each other. When they notice us they swim over and circle the raft.

No one wants to leave, so when the driver’s walkie-talkie squawks, telling us it is time to return to the ship, he answers: “You’re breaking up.” That buys us an extra 10 minutes until it squawks again: “We know you can hear us, come back.”

Playing with whales

As the Zodiacs are loaded, someone spots a pair of humpback whales about 40 yards away, diving and showing their flukes. The ship remains at anchor as the whales spyhop and breach before approaching the ship. We line the deck rails on the port side and watch as a mother and young adult swim slowly past, roll to one side and look us right in the eye. They disappear and pop up on the other side of the ship sending our cheering throng scurrying to starboard. For more than an hour they play with us as we stampede back and forth.

It’s one of many memories that will last as we cross the Drake Passage to Argentina and head for home.

 Practicalities

  • Quark Expeditions, www.quarkexpeditions.com.  Other cruise operators are listed with International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, http://apps.iaato.org/iaato/directory/.
  • Antarctic cruise season runs mid-November to mid-March.
  • Bring warm, mid-calf waterproof boots with slip-resistant soles, a parka, water-resistant pants, warm socks, hat, two pairs of gloves, sunglasses and a backpack. Some cruise companies provide gear. You may also reserve gear for rental from Antarctic Equipment in Ushuaia, Argentina, antarcticequipment.com.ar/ushuaia.htm.

About 

Katherine Rodeghier has more than 30 years of experiences as a travel writer and editor for newspapers, magazines and websites. She has researched and photographed destinations in more than 75 countries on all seven continents and has taken cruises across the globe.

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