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.

Royal
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
pilot whales
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, 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.

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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.

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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….