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