Close (Wildlife) Encounters In an Alien Land

I’m writing from the ship’s library again as I sip a cup of tea and try to warm up after spending several hours on the bow and stern of the ship attempting to capture the magnificent towering glaciers that surrounded us as we sailed through the Lemaire Channel this evening. Today has been a whirlwind of activity and adventure!

First thing this morning, we landed at Orne Harbour, an area close to Port Lockroy on the Antarctic Peninsula. We began with a zodiac cruise around the harbor in the midst of increasingly heavy morning snow. The naturalist in my zodiac, Connor Ryan, is a whale expert from Ireland, and not long after we headed out, he spotted a whale. Within minutes, we were surrounded by a pod of 40-50 Type ‘b’ Killer Whales. These magnificent creatures dive to depths of 400-500 meters to feed on Antarctic Toothfish and other sea creatures, and they eat with teeth rather than baleen like Humpbacks. They are social animals, and they capture prey like leopard seals by working together to make a wave that knocks the seals off icebergs into the water. The whales in this pod – particularly the young females – were quite curious about our boat, and they came close to check us out as we floated silently in the bay. Killer whales are massive water mammals, and it was incredible to watch them swim around us and appear within feet of our little water craft. EDIT: Check out this incredible footage of Type ‘B’ killer whales captured by another National Geographic expedition in early January 2018!

A Type ‘b’ Killer Whale surfaces in Orne Harbour
This photo provides some perspective and shows just how close these beautiful water mammals came to our zodiacs.

After more than thirty minutes of whale watching, we headed to shore to begin a 1000 foot ascent up to Spigot Peak. The mountain was covered in a layer of deep snow (probably 1.5-2 feet in many places), and we used walking sticks to help ourselves climb as the snow got heavier and became more icy. About two thirds of the way up, I encountered one of the naturalists. My face must have betrayed my discomfort as tiny icy pellets stung my skin in the bitter wind because she shouted – with genuine enthusiasm – “Sarah, isn’t this wonderful?! This is your Antarctic moment. This is what you imagined when you pictured Antarctica, right?” And that is true. The biting wind, the sting of the snow and ice on my face, and the trudging up a snow-covered mountain while focusing on nothing but putting one foot in front of the other, was indeed very much how I’d pictured the experiences of early Antarctic explorers. I did finally make it to the top, and the views and a colony of intrepid chinstrap penguins who live on the peak made it worth the challenge. Going down, as it turns out, was more like downhill skiing on a very steep and windy trail. Since my skiing experience is limited to two visits to the bunny slope, I did lots of tumbling before I reached the bottom.

After a quick lunch and a change of clothes, we “suited up” again in our full Antarctic gear (for me – silk sock liners and two pairs of wool socks + a thermal undershirt, a fleece jacket, my parka shell jacket, and my ship-issued parka + a pair of wool-lined leggings, a pair of jeans, a pair of sweatpants, and waterproof pants/boots + a hat or headband + two pairs of gloves). Sometimes, it feels like we’re astronauts getting ready to land on another planet. This time, we headed to Port Lockroy – a site that was first used by whalers and later by the British as part of a secret wartime initiative to monitor German shipping movements. It continued to be used for civilian activities until it was disbanded in 1964, and in recent years, it has been restored and is now open to tourists as a museum during Antarctica’s summer months. Next, we headed to Jougla Point (right across from Port Lockroy) where we visited a colony of penguins and watched a pair of sleeping Wedell Seals “talk” in their sleep, as they made noises that sounded like a mix between R2D2 and a pinball machine.

A sleeping wedell seal at Jougla Point

During dinner, I sat at a table with Hannah Johns, a member of this year’s Port Lockroy summer team. She, along with three other volunteers, are spending four months working at historic Port Lockroy on an island the size of a soccer field. They live in very primitive conditions (no running water, no electricity, no internet, gas heat, limited cooking facilities) and are responsible for maintaining the site, completing curatorial work with the site’s artifacts, and maintaining records on the penguin populations on the tiny island. Hannah is a teacher who has taught both at home in the U.K. and in schools around the world, and she will be running the post office of Antarctica this summer (November through March). She kindly shared a little bit about her unique position in a brief video interview for our students. We ended our day sailing through the Lemaire Channel, a narrow passage on the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula known for its towering glacial walls on either side.

So, yes, it was an incredible, exhausting whirlwind of a day.

One Comment

  1. Karen Keeter

    I am loving your accounts of all your adventures! What a wonderful Antarctic experience!!

    xoxo and stay warm!

  Comments are closed.