Isolation

It is fortunate that nature is not affected by corona chaos. It just steadily gets on with doing its stuff, slowly adjusting to the seasons. Spring is trying its best to appear….the primroses in the bank, the occasional bumble bee and butterfly in a sunny corner, a chiffchaff singing from a copse and the superb blackbird singing outside the bedroom window at the first hint of dawn (it piped up at 5.43 this morning).

Coronavirus can’t mess up the coastal scenery either. In fact, unbelievably, it has made it a bit better, because there are no vapour trails in the sky. It is an extraordinary coincidence that only a month ago I was saying that the cherry on top of the iced bun that is the remoteness of Antarctica was that there were no vapour trails overhead, which kept the absence of human influence absolutely complete.

And here it was (or wasn’t). Right here on our doorstep in Cornwall. not a plane in sight. You would normally expect to see up to a dozen trails lined across a morning vista such as this.

No vapour trails here…..

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Portmellon Dawn

No vapour trails there……..

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Vault Beach

No vapour trails anywhere……

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Chapel Point

Not having the exhaust fumes from 100,000 flights per day around the globe can only be of benefit to the inhabitants therein (or thereon).

Enough of the heavy stuff, let’s go for a bit of a paddle and see what we can find!

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C’mon Everybody

Oystercatchers are always good. Everything about them is extrovert and full on. They make absolutely no attempt at camouflage or being quiet and unnoticed. They kick up an enormous racket. And they are common enough to liven up virtually every trip I do.

This one is obligingly perched with a waterfall in the background, making the image even more easy on the eye.

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Oystercatcher and waterfall
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Oystercatcher

Further offshore (and opportunities to paddle out have been few and far between due to wind) it’s quite quiet. There are not many hunting Gannets around, and few hunting Gannets tends to mean few dolphins or porpoises.

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Gannet looking for fish

So to find some cetaceans I had to make a bit of an effort to paddle out beyond one of the most notoriously hairy headlands of the south coast…Dodman Point. It has a reputation for wild seas, which get thrown up when the wind and the tide race have a disagreement. However, with a bit of cunning planning, and a windless morning, I managed to find three Harbour porpoises rolling very quietly at the surface at the tideline, where the water moving past the end of the point shears past the more static water of Mevagissey bay.

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Dodman Point
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Harbour Porpoise (Portloe behind)

Of course I had to take a bit of a spin around Mevagissey’s inner harbour….its charm seems to increase each time I drop by.

Back out in the open sea the Guillemots are just deciding that it’s time to put on their summer outfits. The one on the left is still in non-breeding (winter) plumage, the one on the right is in full breeding (summer) colours.

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Guillemots

You can see why these members of the auk family have the nickname of ‘northern penguins’ *. They are remarkably similar to penguins such as the Gentoos I watched a month or two ago. Guillemots use their wings to propel themselves underwater in exactly the same way penguins do. See the similarity yourself.

*if they haven’t, they should

I was joined by a very smart looking Fulmar Petrel off Polperro. Like most birds of the open sea, they can’t resist coming over to have a look.

These are part of the ‘tubenose’ group of seabirds that have a salt extraction gland located on top of their beak to enable them to survive using the sea as their only source of water.

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Fulmar

Here’s a close up of the tube. And study at that beak; it looks as though it’s been air-brushed and polished like a car at a vintage rally.

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Eric the Eider isn’t so curious however. He’s doing his best to go unnoticed.

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Eider

Grey Seals are a constant source of fascination. They too are inherently inquisitive but some are very much more shy than others. This one could be either. It is fast asleep (bottling) with just the tip of its nose above the water. My main job is to not wake it up. That would be unfair (and completely unacceptable). Observe the wildlife, don’t frighten it.

Grey seals come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. This (I think) is a this-year’s pup. It puts on a good show with a perfect three-point turn. (And you can hear a Dunnock (aka Hedge Sparrow) singing in the background)

In major contrast to the fine features of the juvenile seal, this is a grizzled old bull. I think this could have been the largest seal I have ever seen in the UK. When it rolled at the surface its back was more like a small whale. It also had a very nasty-looking scar on the end of its nose.P1060166

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Huge bull Grey Seal

And I didn’t come within ten metres of another person (apart from passing cars) all day.

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Polperro

Tough going

It’s been just about the windiest month on record so not great for kayaking. There has been just one morning of misty calm…in fact this was probably the only classic frosty, misty morning of the entire winter!P1020130

And the only glassy surface for months, although Morwellham Quay in the Tamar Valley is about as sheltered as it is possible to get in SW England.

I have battled my way up a variety of other creeks in Cornwall since the New Year. It’s important to get the tides right to avoid getting sludged at low tide. But low tide is the time to enjoy the wintering waders feeding on the expansive mud flats, such as these super-cool Black-tailed Godwits.

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Black-tailed Godwits

And a mixed bag of Oystercatchers and Curlew.

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Oystercatchers

At high tide the waders roost on whatever suitable perch they can find at the edge of the water…Redshank and a single Greenshank.

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Redshank and Greenshank

This Snipe doesn’t make too much of an effort to conceal itself because it is quite well concealed anyway with its camo-clothing.

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Snipe

What’s all that weird blue stuff in the sky?…OMG, there’s the sun!

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Paul picked up a huge plastic dumpy bag that had been caught up in the waterside trees…good job and one less, very large, piece of plastic pollution.

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Excellent to see this Common Sandpiper doing its stuff hunting for edible critters beneath the leaves. These little birds used to migrate to the continent during winter but increasing numbers now stay in the local estuaries during the colder months.

A familiar face resting on an exposed sand bar in the middle of the Fowey river. I have encountered this Harbour Seal at several locations over the last few years (including Looe Island).

I have only been able to venture out onto the open coast once. Clearly I was not the only kayaker to have researched the most sheltered section of coast that day. This kayak was bristling with hardware…the fish don’t stand a chance.

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Lovely drake Common Scoter trying to keep a low profile. Scoters are a true offshore sea duck.

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Common Scoter

I often get a sort of low-grade burning in the back of my head as if I am being scrutinised by a pair (or two) of very intense eyeballs. This is because there is not very many sections of coast where I am NOT being studied by the bird with the sharpest eyes of all…the Peregrine Falcon.

This pair show the discrepancy in size between the female (left) and the male (right) quite nicely. No prizes for guessing who wears the trousers.

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Time for a tea break.

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The ideal snack if you are feeling low on E numbers

I could hardly believe my eyeballs (and ears) when a pair of porpoises surfaced with a loud puff in front of me as I was cowering along the coast trying to keep out of the wind. They were only 50 metres from a mini headland, about as close in as I have ever seen one. A hugely pleasant surprise making the effort of paddling on such a marginal day worthwhile, and the first cetaceans since the Humpbacks of Antarctica!

You can actually see the eye on this one which is unusual because porpoises aren’t that ‘showy’.

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A good seal encounter livens up a dull winter’s day. This one has just caught a cuttlefish and demolishes it very expertly, and very quickly:

And these two seem to be having something of a disagreement over social distancing (very topical).

The seals on the pontoon are a bit more relaxed than their friend the Shag,

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especially this one…..

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super-chilled seal

Big Spring low tides are a feast for the local gulls. They are not stupid. Although to the casual observer they spend most of the day just sitting around and generating a bad public image (which I think is completely unjustified..it’s their home more than ours), they know when to move in for a tasty meal. They stalk silently amongst the rock pools which are chock full of fish and crabs. It’s not good to be a fish or a crab when a pair of Great Black-backed Gulls are on the prowl.

This Butterfish goes down the hatch whole, and still wriggling:

And I’m sure this Spider Crab thought it was too big to end up as lunch for a Seagull. Wrong.

Better weather next week…..bring it on.P1060045

 

Antarctica. A Fond Farewell.

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We had one more superb kayak trip through the misty stillness of Graham passage. Once again the silence was so intense that I kept doing the yawny thing to try to unblock my ears. There was just the occasional cheerful chatter of a passing Antarctic Tern, and the gentle splish of kayak paddles, to convince me that I hadn’t gone deaf overnight.

The snow covered rocky mountains gave way to full-blown ice walls every so often.

 

We were becoming a bit spoilt, because we were now EXPECTING to hear the blow of a whale cracking the quietness. This time the great blast came from very close to the cliff. I am still programmed to think that the whales will favour the deeper water in the middle of the channel, but here they seem quite at home close to the edge…..wherever there is food (krill) I suppose.

It was another pair of Humpbacks, mother and calf again I suspect.

 

Everything about Humpbacks is thrilling, especially their habit of throwing those enormous tail flukes up when they do a deep dive. It is a popular misconception that all whales do this, but in fact only a handful of species do (although they are the most well-known). Humpbacks and Sperm Whales.

These two gave us a great send-off with both throwing up their tails in a suitably snowy and icy Antarctic setting. We did glimpse another Humpback and a Minke whale as we were leaving a mini-beach after taking a break, but that was the last of the whales seen from the kayak seat. No complaints from me, we had seen as many in six days and forty-four miles of paddling, as I had seen in fifteen years and twenty-four thousand miles previously.

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The icebergs havn’t really had much of a mention yet….the hole in this one made a convenient perch for a prowling skua. Up to no good for certain (as usual).P1040270

Our last kayak trip was a circuit of Half-moon island. As usual the penguins just got on with their daily routine as the kayak flotilla slipped quietly past in the background.

The Weddell seals showed marginally more, but still only a passing, interest in us.

 

So that was it, our last paddle in Antarctica. It was time to get out on the pontoon at the back of the ship. The weather was suitably antarctic as a light snow started to fall.

It was farewell to the Chinstraps, the most characterful of the penguins..chinstrap 2

We watched the last of the snowy crags of Antarctica fading into the distance as the ship headed north and started to roll in the swell of the open sea of the fabled Drake passage. But there was no time to relax because Drake passage is chock full of marine marvels, including the most charismatic bird in the entire world (which just happens to have the longest wingspan as well)…the Wandering Albatross.

Here’s a pictorial summary of what we saw from the back of the ship during the two day crossing back to Ushuaia. No written commentary because it was not seen, or photographed, from a kayak.

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Southern Giant petrel
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Black-browed Albatross

These next two are the ‘Great’ Albatrosses, with the greatest wingspan of any bird on the planet…..a mere 11-12ft.

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Royal Albatross
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Wandering Albatross
Antipodean maybe 1
(possible) Antipodean Albatross
Antipodean maybe 2
(possible) Antipodean Albatross
Antipodean maybe 5
(possible) Antipodean Albatross
Antipodean maybe 4
(possible) Antipodean Albatross
Hourglass dolphins
Hourglass Dolphins
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Pilot Whales
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Sei Whales

The Black-browed Albatrosses in Drake’s passage nicely demonstrated how they use even small waves (such as this, the bow wave generated by our ship) to ‘surf’ along.

A few final pics from Ushuaia and Iguazu (North Argentina/Brazil) on our way back north.

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Magellanic Woodpecker

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Black Vultures, Iguazu
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Toco Toucan
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Toco Toucan

We have arrived back in the UK and been battered by wind and rain ever since. The wettest and windiest February on record. So opportunities for kayaking have been few and far between, but there has been plenty of time to reflect on the enormity of our short time spent in the enormity of Antarctica.

Its size is indeed one of its superlatives. If the Antarctic continent was the size of your house, the three hundred miles we ventured into it wouldn’t get us much past the front doormat.

It is quite impressive that such a desolate place, without a hint of vegetation, could have stimulated our sensory centres so much that every kilo, mega and terabyte of capacity within our whirring craniums was stuffed to max capacity.

There’s so much we didn’t see that makes it even more remarkable. No litter, not a hint of any plastic pollution in the sea, and hardly any sign that humans exist, or have ever existed. The occasional other ship, one or two yachts, a few scientific bases and tumbledown whaling stations.

For me personally it was the whales that made it so very, very special. The huge tail rising far out of the water is jawdropping enough, but it is the blow that is the signature sound of the Antarctic. It perfectly complements the limitless vista of rock, snow, and ice. It is hard to believe that only half-a-century ago there were hardly any Humpbacks here, in fact during the previous fifty years the numbers got so low that they very, very nearly didn’t bounce back. The population was virtually annihilated when whaling stations were set up in the area in the early 1900s. They came as close to the brink as it is possible to get.

That made our close encounters even more thrilling. How fantastic is it that this pair of Humpbacks just swam round and round us (blowing an amazing THIRTEEN times on the video…and the hairs stand up on the back of my neck every time), obviously taking a look at us. You can see them slowing down and doing some tight turns to stay in amongst the group of three kayaks. Real gentle giants.

Whales are BIG in so many ways.

This is the standout clip. Taken from the kayak seat, of course.

Antarctica. The Sleeping Giants

 

The assault on the senses was relentless. The endless expanse of snow and rock, devoid of any vegetation, apart from the odd patch of pink algae, and the extraordinary silence. There are really no humans to mess it up (apart from on our ship), in fact no sign that humans have ever existed. There aren’t even any vapour trails in the sky. Antarctica is en route to nowhere.

OMG….there’s another ship! Claustrophobia.P1040027

Our ship, the Greg Mortimer, slipped silently to a halt deep inside a fjord flanked by hefty mountains and a lot of glaciers. We (I) were (was) bursting with excitement as we waited to get into our kayak.

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Greg Mortimer

This was precisely what I had been waiting for, and hoped the Antarctic would be like. Dead still, smooth sea, mountains and icebergs reflected in the water, total and utter remoteness and wildness as far as the eye could see. And still nothing far, far beyond, you could just tell that.

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On the water
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We’re off!

I always love paddling over glassy water because it is so effortless. But in this enormous place it is the silence that really makes it special. It definitely qualifies for a thumbs up (in this clip you can hear a penguin squawk and the slight ‘quip’ of a tern)

We soon got completely absorbed, and pleasantly lost, amongst the mass of floating ice.

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tabletop berg
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Geoff and Tom beneath a big berg

But it wasn’t completely quiet. There was the regular cheerful chatter of Antarctic terns, and intermittent cackle of Gentoo Penguins.

Every so often there was a seismic echoing boom coming from one of the surrounding ice sheets, as the entire face of the mountain inched closer towards the sea. As loud, and sounding very much like, thunder.

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Hefty hill

Icefall…..

Next tick on the bucket-list was a Snow Petrel. These completely white little gems lives their entire lives down here and are never so happy as when they are carving about around an iceberg. I had really hoped to see one (but didn’t think I would).

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Snow Petrel

We just kept on paddling. Today was the day. Not sure what of, but I had a feeling something big was going to happen.

On, on, and on. Looking, looking, always looking.

If you don’t look, you don’t see.

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I mentioned to Becky that seeing a Humpback in this astonishing place would very much be the cherry on top of the icing on top of the cake. To hear that great blow breaking the icy silence would be really something. But that was probably being a bit greedy, and we hadn’t seen a single blow during the hour the ship was quietly entering the fjord, despite a thorough (as usual) look. So we weren’t very hopeful.

We just carried on enjoying ourselves, as did our fellow paddlers…

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Leanne and Carl looking about as epic as it is possible to be (better than a jetski, eh Carl?)

Then word came over Alex (the guide) ‘s radio that the other kayak group, about a mile away, had seen a whale. Becky and I were off out of the blocks faster than Katarina Johnson-Thompson. And as we approached the location expecting to see a great dark back hunching at the surface every so often, or some flukes being raised, we were a bit surprised to see two very large ‘logs’, floating completely stationary, in front of us. Completely quiet. I initially thought they were bergs of dark ice.

Wow, two sleeping Humpback whales, the one on the left clearly bigger, so probably a mother and her well-grown calf. How absolutely superb,and in about as compelling a location as it is possible to find here on planet earth.

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‘Logging’ Humpback

Every so often the larger whale would rock a bit, showing the top of her lumpy jawline.P1040150

It was a very long wait for that sensational blow, and of course I was watching the wrong whale every time one took a mighty breath. The photographer’s curse.

I have included every inch of video footage here, and am not even going to mention the word apology. There cannot be very many better natural sights while sitting in a kayak seat, and in such a monumental location.

We were told by the expedition leaders prior to departure that the Antarctic would get under our skin. It has. But what they didn’t tell us was that blast of a breathing whale shattering the silence of a frosty Antarctic afternoon would bypass our skin completely and skewer right through to our inner self. (They probably knew that but didn’t like to say in case we didn’t see one…quite understandable).

That blast has got to be the most amazing sound in the natural world.

One thing I really like about dolphins and whales is their ability to elicit a shriek response from people who don’t generally shriek. I remember watching a pod of dolphins doing their stuff in the Turquoise waters off Land’s End in Cornwall, right in front of the Minack Theatre perched on top of the cliff ( I was in kayak, of course). The theatre was packed and a play was ongoing, and every jump or splash of a dolphin was greeted with a spontaneous, and very loud, cheer from the onlookers. It was much much louder than the applause for the play itself.

And similarly on this trip, every time the Humpback flukes go up there is a wave of appreciation, cheers and smiles all round. From kayakers, people on the boat, hardened mariners. Even from the passengers who quite clearly were not into nature or outdoor stuff , or for shouting out loud at a whale. It’s all good healthy stuff.

The pair appeared to be getting a bit ready to move, but still I managed to miss the one making the blow..

At last the big female let out a breath through her double blowhole, and then took it easy again. No hurry to get going….for us or the whales. This was the best front row seat ever.

Eventually Mum clearly thought it was time to get going.

Dave is ‘on the money’ with his whale pic….P1040158

They dived and the rest of the kayak group headed back towards the ship. Supper calling. But Becky and I, and Danny the very patient kayak guide, stayed behind to see if the whales were going to hang around. They did. (you can see the mothership, the Greg Mortimer, in the background in this clip).

 

It was really difficult to drag ourselves away. How about one more farewell megaview of these two magnificent creatures…..

Here it is again, a bit slower.

Smiles all round….yet again.

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Sioux and Dave

The day finished with a rarely witnessed drama, also involving Humpbacks. It was lucky it was after the nine o’clock watershed, because it did involve violence. As the Antarctic evening (very) slowly drew in, we saw several whale blows far ahead of the ship as we watched from the observation deck. As the ship drew closer, the occasional bigger ‘puff’ was matched by a succession of smaller puffs. It was a pair of Humpback whales surrounded by a pod of Orcas. A fluke would go up, all would go quiet, then the larger whale would surface again and the Orcas would move in. Right close against the Humpbacks. It all happened at quite long range, and visibility wasn’t great as it was starting to get dark, but there is no doubt the Orcas were intent on getting one of the Humpbacks, presumably a calf (defended by its mother).

The relentless harassment went on for over an hour as the ship was moving only just faster than the whales. Splashing, flukes, fins, Orcas surging about. Eventually we lost sight of them as they slipped behind the ship, but there was no sign of a letup in the Orca’s purpose. Only one outcome, I suspect.

An eventful day, and one we won’t forget in a hurry.20170115_201114

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Antarctica, part 2. Seals, Penguins, and (a few) People

I have never been that big on penguins, but how can you not love this…

Also an hour spent observing the organised chaos of a Gentoo colony, with penguins going about their business with such charm and determination, converted me into a bit of a fan.

There’s a lot of mouths to feed.P1030634

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teenagers chilling

While some youngsters were fairly well grown, other penguins were still incubating.P1030596

How touching is this? The care that this penguins uses to place the stones for her nest is extraordinary. She seems so proud.

and she’s probably moved them all around dozens of times before.

A new bird species for me were the Snowy Sheathbills, aka Paddies, that wander about the penguin colony eating absolutely anything that bears a resemblance to something that might be food. They are not the most attractive of birds and seem to embrace the high level of squalor in the heavily crowded colony. But if it wasn’t for the sheathbills, it would be a lot worse.

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Snowy Sheathbill (in need of a napkin)

Also waiting in the wings for an opportunity to pounce are the skuas. They are rather more sinister than the Sheathbills and have a taste for penguin chicks (and the odd sheathbill). To see a single skua around Devon and Cornwall is quite an unusual event, but here they are common  and this combined with their dowdy plumage makes them unremarkable, and generally overlooked. However their trump card is terrorism. I saw one catch and drown an adult shag on the way here, and even witnessed a persistent attack (although unsuccessful) on a Wandering Albatross, with wingspan over three times bigger than the skua, later.

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(Innocent-looking) Antarctic Skua.

And so we continued south, passing silently and slowly (iceberg alert!) through the amazing Lemaire Channel. The  wind had dropped, at last, and the sea became smooth so that the snowy mountains on either side of the channel were reflected. Perfect. Just how I had imagined Antarctica to be.

Humpbacks blowing, and an Antarctic Minke Whale slinking along in front of us. Difficult to see because it doesn’t have a visible blow. A (slightly) different species to the Minkes in the north.

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Antarctic Minke Whale
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Yours truly, Becky, Pete, Bron.

Our kayak trip at Vernadsky was looking good…calm water and there was even a bit of blue sky!! And a stunning backdrop of snowy peaks for a few pics of fellow intrepid kayakers.P1030775

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Pete n Bron
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Dave and Sioux (foreground), Leanne and Carl (background)

We are hugely indebted to Dave and Sioux who originally suggested to Becky and I (via Pete and Bron) to partake in the Antarctic adventure. And you can see from the smiles all round they were exceptionally good company, as were Carl and Leanne. Australian and English (and Irish and Scottish) humour seems to be very compatible.

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Bron….through the…er….iceberg window
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Pete
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Becky

 

We passed a few seals as we weaved around a mass of islands. This Crabeater was snoozing beneath an iceberg.

A load more were hauled out onto another conveniently flat berg.

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Crabeaters (on the berg)

This one is super-relaxed.

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Crabeater

 

Vernadsky was as far south as we got…65degrees  14′ south so not quite into the Antarctic circle.

At Torgerson island it was a change of penguin species…the bright-eyed Adelies.

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Adelie

and on the shore Southern Elephant seals spread out over the beach. Big, but they get a lot bigger, because the gigantic males weren’t around.

southern elephant seals
southern elephant seals.

I struggle a bit with antarctic seal identification, although I am sure (and a bit disappointed) I didn’t see a Leopard seal, although others (who were on the zodiacs) did.

I’m pretty sure the rounded head and languid gaze makes this a Weddell seal.

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Weddell Seal

There’s no mistaking the most lively and dynamic seal of the area however. The Antarctic Fur Seal. I quite like it’s haughty sort of demeanour, nose in the air. Not sure about the ears.

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Fur Seal

And in the water it is fast and slippery, very like an otter.

This one did a good job of photobombing the wedding dress photographs of the Chinese couple on honeymoon.

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fur seal photobombing the wedding party

And here’s my favourite seal, and favourite penguin, a Chinstrap, in the same clip.

Who on earth ever thought that the little line would ever work as a plumage feature? But, like just about everything else in nature, it works brilliantly and looks superb.

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If this post has tended towards a bit of a list of the many different creatures we have experienced, the next blog post is very much more focussed on one particular, absolutely unbelievable, encounter. In an equally unbelievable location. Get ready for THE SLEEPING GIANTS.

Here’s a sneak preview. Filmed, of course, from the seat of the kayak….

 

Antarctica. Humpbacks, Orcas and a Little Bit of Scenery.

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I had done my homework, seen the pics, read the book. But nothing can prepare you for the enormity of the Antarctic. It just goes on and on for days and days, and weeks or months if you are really lucky.

Water, lots of icebergs, glaciers so long you can’t see the other side, and most surprisingly huge mountains rising out of the sea.

The only way to visit as a ‘tourist’ is to go by ship, and ours was the very new and very modern-looking Greg Mortimer owned by Aurora. It is the first passenger ship to feature the wave-piercing Ulstein X-BOW.

GM 1
Greg Mortimer

It is superbly set up for looking out of the windows and it wasn’t long before we had our first sight of the creatures which (in my humble opinion) define the antarctic waters.

How fantastic is that…..more humpbacks than I have ever seen in my life all together in one pod…..with more in the background!

Of course I am not entirely happy until I am watching these sensational creatures from the comfort and security of the kayak seat, so I was beside myself with excitement when we were all writhing our way into our drysuits  having piled on the thermal underclothes, and were waiting at the back of the ship to get into our kayak. As the sleet blew horizontally past the open hatch, some of the kayakers looked as though they thought they might have made a mistake and would have preferred to have been in the zodiacs. No, no, no, kayaking is ALWAYS more fun.

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Pete and Bron ready to go

Our first venture out onto the water was at Deception island and it was indeed very cold and very choppy. Wildlife nuggets were a Fur Seal on the beach and a colony of Cape Petrels nesting on the headland. It was a challenging start although it was good to know it was possible to stay warm when the temperature is hovering about zero.

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Becky well wrapped up

That was our first ‘taster’ of Antarctic kayaking. Day two was similarly windy and grey as we paddled around Portal Point. However the massive face of the glacier, the huge walls of ice and piles of snow, and the icebergs, more than compensated for the monochrome sky.

The tiny insignificance of a kayak beneath the mighty ice cliffs and bergs makes the appreciation of the scale of the surroundings all the more palpable.

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whopping berg
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P and B and a few thousand (or tens of thousand) years of ice

Wildlife close encounters started to build nicely, with a mugshot of an Antarctic Shag and its unfeasibly blue eye…

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Antarctic Shag

and an itchy Crabeater seal with a snotty right nostril.

Back on board the wildlife action around the ship started to hot up…..hardly any time to wolf down the expansive buffet.

There were more humpbacks:

 

and rather more dramatically, and splashily, a passing pod of Orcas. About fifteen scattered about, including the males with the huge straight dorsal fin, and a couple of calves stuck like glue to the side of their mum.

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Male Orca
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medium-sized Orca
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mother and calf Orca

(oh how I would love to see one from the kayak)

Next stop Cuverville Island. A Gentoo penguin colony. It was still windy and the ship was moored in an exposed location, so the kayak guides suggested only the keenest (aka most stupid) kayakers should take to the water….the rest could go ashore by boat. I had just seen a couple of Humpbacks surface nearby as the ship was coming to a halt so there was absolutely no question whether Becky and I were going to take to the water.

As it turned out it was just Becky and I, and guides Alex and John, who took to the water. And boy was it worthwhile making the effort as we were all to have a wildlife encounter that is right up there with the best possible. The choppy sea and challenging conditions actually enhanced the experience and made the whole thing more extreme.

We headed over to where I had last seen the whales only a quarter of a mile from the ship, and just sat and waited……and they came to us!!!!

John ( the guide) was the first to get a bit of a surprise when the pair surfaced a few feet in front  of him.john humpback pair

You will see at the end of this clip that the nearer whale turns on its side and raises half of its tail fluke above the water.

I think this was a mother and (well-grown) calf and it was the calf that couldn’t resist the inquisitiveness of youth and wanted to know what on earth we were about.

Alex (the other guide) was next to be inspected.

The youngster surfaces it is on its back and waves half of its tail out of the water…..it seems to be enjoying the show (but not as much as we were).

Becky and I (well…..mainly me) felt we were missing out on the really close stuff. It is unacceptable to paddle towards a whale ( in case you frighten it) so we just waited around, watched in awe, and the whales continued to circle us. then one slithered a few feet under our kayak. It’s conveniently white pectoral fin (about fifteen foot long) was ghost-like underwater. And then we got sprayed by the blow. Close enough, now.

I apologise for my barked orders 9 and general ramblings) to Becky you can hear, but  shaky camerawork (due to my trembling ) and original soundtrack is important. Authenticity rules.

I attempted some underwater stuff with the GoPro, but although the whale was quite close and would have just about filled the screen if the water was clear, the plankton bloom made visibility poor. You can just see its white flippers and tail.

After they had both surfaced maybe a dozen times they decided it was time for a deeper dive so up came the flukes and they were off.

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Becky and I followed Alex and John into the calmer waters around the back of Cuverville island, in a state of stunned silence. This was good because in the smooth water not a sound could be heard, apart from the slighter pitter-patter of a soft rain.

And the quiet splashing of a little posse of penguins.

And the great blow of (another) humpback. Apologies if you are not a humpback fan, because here’s another video. Needless to say I cannot get enough of them. Partly because I have paddled over 20,000 miles looking for whales (and their chums) from my kayak, but also partly because Humpback whales should really not be around at all, having been virtually exterminated by whalers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Even fifty years before hunting Humpbacks was banned in 1966, whalers had given up looking for them because there were so few left.

So hearing the blast of everybody’s favourite whale breaking the silence of a monumental antarctic scene is a very special moment indeed. The quietness would be very hollow without it.

So, here we go again…bring it on. (and actually I don’t apologise for it at all. If you are not a Humpback fan, you should be)

Our day filled with jaw-dropping wildlife from the freezer wasn’t finished yet. We hauled ashore for a view of the colony of Gentoo penguins, doing what penguins do best. Being busy and making a (pleasant) racket.

At last it was time to go back to the ship which was waiting out beyond the line of icebergs, with wafts of supper smelling good.

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Greg Mortimer awaits

Becky and I today joined the very small club of kayakers who have been doused by the blow of a Humpback…

 

NEXT Antarctica blog coming soon….The Sleeping Giants….