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 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).

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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. 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.

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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….