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.

greg mortimer
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.

On the water
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.

tabletop berg
geoff and tom
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.

Hefty hill


Next tick on the bucket-list was a Snow Petrel. These completely white little gems live 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).

snow petrel
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.


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…

leanne and carl
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.

sleeping giant
‘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.

sioux and dave
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

blowhole 3

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


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.

snowy sheathbill
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.

(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.

Antarctic Minke Whale
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

Pete n Bron
dave sue carl leanne
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.

Bron….through the…er….iceberg window


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.

Crabeaters (on the berg)

This one is super-relaxed.

crabeater seal


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.

adelie penguin

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.

weddell seal
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.

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.

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.



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.




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.

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.

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.

whopping berg
pete n Bron
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…

shag 2
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.

Male Orca
medium-sized Orca
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… 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.



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.

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….



Beneath the Condor’s Gaze. Patagonia.

Andean Condor

Wow. This is some place. It’s a bit of a struggle to know where to look next. To check out another nugget of wildlife unfamiliar to visitors from little England, or stand agape at the mountains of Torres de Paine which rise up almost vertically to over 8,000 ft. Not a bad backdrop for a spot of kayaking.

This was my first experience of kayaking in Chile, and my first in South America. And my first in the southern hemisphere since (kayak) surfing in South Africa in 1989.

It’s actually rare for me to venture further south than Penzance, so thanks to Pete and Bron for masterminding the adventure (and Dave and Sioux, but more about that in the next blog when we explore even further south).

Becky, Pete, Bron

Mornings start with a nice and noisy display by the Black-faced Ibises that are setting off on their daily routine.

Black-faced Ibis

Matching them in looks, personality, and volume are the Southern Lapwings that seem full of the joys of the southern summer. Breeding season is in full swing down here…the Lapwing chicks are well grown,

Southern Lapwings (what on earth are those things sticking out of their shoulders?)

as are the pair of Great Grebe chicks, and their parent, out on the wider section of the Rio Serrano….

The extended family of Upland Geese must have one of the most impressive views on the planet from their goosey ‘office window’.

I was of course dead excited to get out on the water in a kayak. It’s not that easy because howling wind is the norm here so expeditions are frequently cancelled. Fortunately the morning Becky and I had chosen for a paddle was relatively still (for a couple of hours).

Yours truly getting twitchy……come on……hurry up!


At last, after safety briefings and instructions on how to paddle, we were on the water and soon out along the edge of the very large Lago el Toro. It was good to be paddling in Chile!

Blinking heck what a backdrop!

 I had a glimpse of the wind forecast earlier, and it looked a bit worrying. There was a gale force wind expected to arrive after midday, and we had encountered a few (Chilean-style) holdups already. Although we were paddling under the expertise of a very experienced guide, I felt we really needed to get a move on to get into the river before the wind started to howl.

The only problem was there was wildlife to be watched. Such as this Eagle.

Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle.

But conditions stayed calm and it actually felt quite warm.

Lago el Toro
Torres paddling team

Just before we were about to cross a critical 200m exposed arm of the lake which would lead us on to the more sheltered river section, we heard a roar behind us like a jet taking off. It was the wind arriving in true Patagonian style…very big, very sudden, and very dramatic. And we failed to get across the channel by literally minutes. The surface of the lake was instantly churned up into whitecaps with spindrift being whipped off the top. So we pulled up onto a beach and the guides did a spot of thinking about what to do next.

Becky and I loafed about on a little beach while the guides went off for a wander, and a funny thing happened. Before I left home my chum Dave, who is an experienced Patagonian adventurer, had said that if you want to see a Condor up close you must lay flat out on your back like a corpse, and the birds will soon come over to investigate. I was too polite to suggest that he was mixing up reality with mythology…..but he was absolutely right!

Although we were wearing high-vis dayglo green drysuits, a pair of Condors that we could see hanging over a distant mountain as a couple of dots, were soon on their way over to eye us up for a meal.


As we lay on the beach one dropped down to really quite a low level and hung about overhead, undoubtedly trying to work out what was going on, and who these strange creatures were loafing about on its ‘patch’.

Andean Condor

Some might have felt a bit uneasy, as the largest flying bird on the planet, with a wingspan of over ten feet, hangs overhead. Particularly if you were a hobbit, because the head of a Condor bears more than a passing resemblance to a winged steed of a Nazgul.

condor mugshot close up
condor mugshot

We, however , were thrilled to have such a superb view of one of the world’s legendary creatures, which we were only expecting to see as a dot over a far mountainside (if at all). More like this…….

distant Condor

That beach was as far as we were going to get and marked the end of our (short) kayaking adventure in Patagonia. The trip had to be aborted because of the wind. Never mind, because the Condor encounter made it all worthwhile.

Andean Condor

The rest of our Patagonia experience was punctuated with  more top wildlife, including two different Pumas on a single day (courtesy of Pete’s alertness, and Bron’s absolutely unbelievable long -range spot).

crested caracara
Crested Caracara
puma 1
Puma no.1 (Bron’s)
Puma no 2 (Pete’s)

Hard to believe we were only there for four days!P1020396


Next blog…coming soon.   KAYAKING IN THE ANTARCTIC….. don’t go away!

blinking blooming chuffing heck!