This morning was a bit of an earlier start. We were out in the zodiacs by 8 am, cruising around Paradise Bay. This time, all 5 of us were in the same boat, which made it more fun.
The first thing we went to see was cormorants nesting in the cliffs. This is Morgan taking what are probably far better pictures than me, but at least in this shot you can get an idea of the cliffs we were looking at.
There was great excitement when we realised that there were a couple of chicks there. The best shot I could get was this one – you can see the chick’s head peering out from under the mother in the nest on the left if you zoom in.
The guide driving our zodiac is a birder in his free time. In fact, most of the guides have a burning interest in something bird -ish, plankton-ish, to do with whales, seals and sounds in the sea, etc. With this job they get paid for following their passions.
“I think that the animals in the Antarctic get too much press,” he said. “The birds are equally as interesting… and as beautiful.”
We stayed there for a while, then word came over the walk-in talkies that there was at least one humpback whale in the bay, right beside the glacier.
Other zodiacs were closer to it than us, so we hung back to let them get a good look. Dammit. But there’s one good thing about being on a tour and having friends – Eneko was on a different zodiac. A closer zodiac. And he likes to take videos.
This is what I saw. Zoom in beside the light blue iceberg on the right.
There’s a rule that there should be 4 zodiacs at the most going near an animal. If it starts to look distressed, angry or starts to try and get away, we turn around and let them go.
This particular whale was feeding. We’d see the blow at first. Then he’d surface and we’d see the arch of his back before he’d slide under the waves again.
We followed him for a fair while before our guide pulled the pin, saying that it looked like he was starting to avoid us, so we should go.
Ah well. In Antarctica it’s the luck of being in the right place at the right time. OR having the right friends who are in a better-placed zodiac.
So do you want to see what Eneko’s zodiac saw? Here it is:
I’m so grateful that people like Eneko and the other members of our group are so generous with their photos and videos.
A few minutes later we saw a leopard seal lying on a little iceberg.
What? You can’t see him?
Here he is, raising his head.
And stretching his flipper.
He was totally unconcerned about us, just lolling around sleepily.
Our guide looked at the sky.
“Looks as if that band of snow might cause us trouble later on when you’re doing the landing,” he said.
I looked where he was looking. The sky was a gun metal grey and the wind was getting colder. I fished out my cowl from my backpack and put it on. Corrina, opposite me, was beginning to shiver.
There was only one patch of blue in the sky.
‘ Never mind,’ I said to myself. ‘This is the sort of weather that people expect to have when they come here. It’d be unreasonable to expect another day like yesterday.’
But I still felt a bit wistful.
We continued cruising around, going up to a glacier for a closer look. Not too close though. If ice fell off the glacier if we were right in front of it, we could be swamped by the wave it would cause.
After a little while it was our turn to go ashore.
We slowly moved towards an Argentinian research base called Almirante Brown. It’s only used in the summer and it was still deserted, so we were able to use it. It has a landing area, which makes it convenient.
Crazy true story about this place. Back in the day, this base used to be manned all year round. A doctor was stationed there for a year. He was all set to come home when Argentina radioed the base and said that he had to stay for another winter. Or another year. Anyway, a lot longer.
So he went mad and burned the place down. Now they only have people there in the warmer months of the year.
As we made our way towards the little landing steps, there were Gentoo penguins on the pebbly beach. Someone asked if they were nesting there and our guide said, no, they were just resting after being in the sea. They won’t nest there because of the tide.
“ Last year on a different beach I saw what must have been a couple of inexperienced penguins building a nest very close to the tide. When we went back the next day, the nest was gone- completely washed away.”
You can see how closely the penguins live among the buildings. Here is a penguin highway, with traffic going both ways.
Once we made it up the steep stairs, we put on snowshoes and started to make our way along the paths that our guides had laid out earlier that day.
Look! Who would ever have thought I’d need to know about snowshoes?
There was a lower path and a higher path.
The lower path swung right by a couple of Gentoo penguin colonies that had taken over the Argentine camp.
After that, the trodden- down path headed up the hill towards a place that promised a great photo op.
Being fat and unfit as I am, once I had my snowshoes on, I looked up at where the finishing point was and decided that I’d stick to the low path.
It was beautiful. Even though there were buildings here, in a strange way they seemed to enhance the scene, rather than detract from it. The penguin colonies were smaller here, but the were still just as gossipy, with their cries that sound a little bit like a donkey’s bray echoing from one group to another.
It’s fascinating to stand and look at the penguins. There’s always something to see. They’re such busy, sociable creatures.
Plus, it helps that they look so comical when they walk.
After watching them for a while, I kept walking along the track. As I got a little higher, the view that I was aiming for gradually appeared.
It was a little bay. Words can’t do it justice…
Once I’d viewed my fill, I snowshoed back to the fork in the road, where I decided to keep going to the top. I figured I could stop every now and then to catch my breath and pretend to take a photo.
No one would know…
Liga: “Come on Frogdancer! You’re nearly here!”
I was so glad I made myself do it. The weather was fine. A little grey, maybe, but clear and sunny.
The view was incredible.
No, not this view. This is just us spelling ‘ICE.” We’re not allowed to sit on the snow, remember? So this was the best we could do.
I stayed up there for ages, not able to tear myself away from how magical it all was.
On the way down, I accidentally strayed off the path and suddenly I was up to my thigh in snow. Oops. Went on the wrong side of the red pole.
Luckily for me, Morgan was nearby, just waiting for a phto op as I was starting to get up:
I was proud of myself though. I was able to stand up again without needing anyone’s help.
Off I walked, a sadder and wiser woman…
All this extra sadness and wisdon didn’t help me when, 10 minutes later while I was waiting for a zodiac, I tripped over someone’s discarded snowshoes and almost face planted in the snow.
Not my most graceful day.
Our tour group leader Morgan sent photos of himself to his family showing that he was wearing a teeshirt yesterday. His brother wrote back, “Why are you wearing a tee shirt? It looks like it’s warmer at the South Pole than it is in France! We’ve really fucked up the planet.”
During lunch I made sure to sit where I could see the views from the windows. People were there laughing and talking, while all the while there was the most spectacular scenery on Earth silently gliding past.
What an extraordinary experience I’m having!
But something momentous is looming over me, something that will be incredibly difficult for me to achieve. Yet achieve it I must.
Maybe I’ll do it.
I said I would do it, but I don’t have to…
But I made sure to pack my bathers.
The sea water is currently between 0 and 2 degrees. That’s NOT in my comfort zone.
Will I do the Polar Plunge???