Quark Expedition – Day 8 Danco Island and Wilhelmina Bay

“Once wedded to Nature there is no divorce – separate her you may and hide yourself amongst the flesh-pots of London, but the wild will keep calling and calling forever in your ears. You cannot escape the “Little Voices.”

~ Frank Wild

Woke up feeling like shit and coughing up crap. Dammit. It’s been going around the ship since Day 1 and I was hoping to avoid it.  I distinctly remember someone with a horrid sounding rattly cough sitting directly behind me during our lifeboat drill when we first embarked in Ushuaia, but there is not much you can do to avoid picking up bugs in the confined and enclosed space of a ship.  So yeah, feeling pretty ordinary, possibly have a bit of a temperature but I rugged up for our zodiac excursions anyway…

This morning we are planning to do a land excursion and zodiac cruise at Danco Island. Danco lies in the southern end of the Errera Channel. It is relatively small at only 1.6kms long, but for being so small has quite a high ‘peak’ measuring 180m. There are also lots of beautiful rolled icebergs that tend to collect in this shallow area of the Errera Channel and as we are finding all along the Peninsula, Danco is home to more Gentoo penguins – approximately 3476 breeding pairs (which I thought was rather specific for being an approximation!). Last century, Danco was also home to the British Antarctic Survey’s Station ‘O’. The station was closed in1959 when the work was completed and the hut was removed in 2004 but there’s a plaque indicating where its location was.

More little juveniles learning to swim – they are so funny to watch, hopping in, falling about and hopping straight out again.  The more time we spend with the penguins, the more character and personality we seem to be attributing to them. Yep, that’ll keep you warm… What you looking at? Hey!Run, Gentoo! Run!Photo by Arthur:

Photo by Lorenzo:

We had a wonderful time ashore with just light snow and a bit of a cool breeze.  One of the most fun things to do is just to find a quiet rock and sit on it.  We have a policy of not encroaching on their space and trying to stay about 5m away from the penguins so as not to scare them or cause them to feel chased – but if they come towards where you are, then that’s fine.  So if you just sit and wait for a while or even just stand still long enough, the penguins will come and visit you.  We had quite a few curious little fellows biting at our jackets, boots and gloves as they came and checked us out.

After our visit to Danco, we hit the zodiacs in the stillest and calmest conditions we had yet encountered.  It was only now that we stopped moving that the snowy conditions actually started to feel cold, (Mind you, that could be because I might have been running a bit of a temperature as well…?  who knows?).

Driving the zodiac through the brash ice is a strange feeling, a bit like scraping along a sandbar for ages. Most of the whales we met this morning were just lolling about logging. It seems they tend to be more active in the afternoons when they are awake and feeding more.  We saw some other wildlife this morning – mostly birds and a few crabeater seals.

Photo by Barry: Photo by Arthur: Photo by Jayn: Photo by Arthur: And of course, more beautiful icebergs.

Went back to the ship to warm up and have some lunch and we met a man at lunch today who seemed to be the first person I have met here who doesn’t seem excited or even appreciative to actually be here.  It’s truly weird how much he stood out compared to the other passengers.  There is an odd phenomenon on cruise ships, whereby you often encounter people who only seem happy when they have something to complain about!  No, I’m not kidding, they are on holiday and floating in a luxury hotel where they can do as little or as much as they like, and have all their needs catered to – but they will still find plenty of things to complain about.  This guy is probably one of them and I can’t decide if he’s a sorry old sod or just a complete prat. Anyway, he sat down and started immediately complaining about the food that we’ve been enjoying on the ship – everything is too salty, too spicy or too strong, for his liking but he mentioned this in such a way as to disparage the choices we had made for our lunches?! We then watched him have a small token bowl of soup for lunch, followed by three trips back to the dessert table for ice cream, strawberry jam roll-ups and some sort of pudding.  He was also the sort of person who would not shut up… about himself.  He was in the Australian Navy ‘back in the day’ and was telling us that he’d heard a rumour that we may have to outrun a storm on the way back to Ushuaia… whereupon he launched into a story about being stuck on a navy ship caught in a storm that ‘came out of nowhere back in ’84 off the coast of Coffs Harbour’. There were apparently 25m swells, their ship (can’t remember what type of ship he said it was, some sort of warship or frigate), was riding up the huge waves, ‘teetering at the top a bit’ and then plunging down into the sea with the bow going about 50’ into the ocean, which made the ship jag and jerk as it came back out of the water – the feeling was apparently scary as hell and he thought he was going to meet Neptune. He said you couldn’t walk around the ship without being slammed into the walls and the most dangerous things was attempting a flight of stairs as there would suddenly be nothing under your feet – the Captain he claimed, literally left marks from his fingernails dug into the deck on the bridge.

He then proceeded to subtly start playing the Travel Game with us – first person on the ship to do so – telling us all the bigger and better and more remote places that he had been to (Seriously? more remote than Antarctica?) … from Coldfoot Alaska for ‘the best viewing of the northern lights in the world – you know, way better than Iceland or Greenland’, to Svalbard in northern Norway ‘that you can’t get to by road, you can only get there by supply ship’. He was obviously well travelled and for some reason he wanted us all to know it and then I figured out why… He proudly proclaimed that he had only been ashore the first day of this trip and now that he’d ‘stepped foot on Antarctica’, he’d been here he didn’t need to go ashore again.  I couldn’t understand his attitude, he had spent all this money and come all this way and didn’t seem to feel the need to get the most out of the voyage?!  I wanted to roll my eyes and say, ‘Yeah, I’ve been to Bangkok; airports count, yeah?’ but instead, I proceeded to goad him (just a little) by saying ‘Well actually, our first landing site wasn’t strictly speaking on the Antarctic continent, as Stonington is just one of the small islands off the Peninsula.” He completely ignored my comment and changed the topic. I didn’t catch his name and I am only mentioning him here because everyone has been so delightful and full of an adventurous spirit, but this guy had come all this way, seemingly so he could say he had been here but was completely disinterested in actually *being here*. I’m rather hoping that he doesn’t sit with us again, and I’m thinking of avoiding the entire greater Sydney region in case I ever have the misfortune to run into him again.

Anyway, lunch was lovely and we managed to get a few hours to warm up before our afternoon excursion to Wilhelmina Bay.  Wilhelmina Bay is located between the Reclus Peninsula and Cape Anne, along the west coast of Graham Land… yes, Graham Land.  My Dad always wanted to come to Antarctica, I think that is how it has ended up such a thing in our imaginations, and we get here and discover there is a Graham Land, a Graham Island, a Graham Harbour and a Graham Channel – it kinds feels like he was meant to be here and I’m sorry that he never got to visit this place before he passed away.  But I digress… Wilhelmina Bay was discovered by Adrian de Gerlache during the haphazard Belgian Antarctic Expeditions of 1897-99 and was named for Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands who was 18 years old at the time and reigned until 1848. It is a large 24km wide glaciated bay containing many islands and we are going there because it is a favoured whale hangout.

I very nearly piked, as I was feeling rather exausted from the morning’s excursions and the coughing was wreaking havoc with my back pain, but for the first time in my life the FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) seriously got the better of me and I trussed myself up in my Michelin Man get up and went out anyway – I mean, what if *today* was the day that we saw *THE* David Attenborough Antarctica moment where the orca hunts a seal off an iceberg and I missed it beacuse I have a bit of a cold?  Nope.  Not going to happen!  🙂

So I added an extra layer of clothing, because it seemed extra cold today (yes, I am pretty convinced I am running a temperature now) and out we went – for a rather eventful and exciting afternoon of very active whale watching in the most beautiful, moody and atmospheric area imaginable.

Landscape photo by Acacia:Uncredited, unfortunately, I assume one of the kayak guides took it: Photo by Leanne: Photo by Leane:Back to the ship and it was very shortly time for our debrief/recap and then onto a BBQ on the back deck for an evening of dining al fresco! Yep, no shit – Gunter, our head chef and his entire team cooked up a storm out on the open decks and we had a crazy hat party.

Today just happened to also be Aunty Mary’s birthday which made it doubly special… who else can say they had an outdoor BBQ in Antarctica to celebrate their 69th birthday?! I mean, seriously. Happy Birthday Mum!  <3  Alex, our Ukrainian Maitre D’ and some of his servers came and sung Happy Birthday.


A great finish to another excellent day in Antarctica.  I’m loving this voyage – it’s simply unbelievable.

Quark Expedition – Day 7 Cuverville Island & Brown Research Station

“Most people might be oppressed by such surroundings, with its silence and inhuman expanses… But he who seeks peace and quiet in Nature, undisturbed by human activity… will find here what he seeks… even although, beset in the ice, one is a plaything of the forces on Nature.”

~ Fridjof Nasen

Today we had plans to visit Cuverville Island and an area called Neko Harbour.  Cuverville Island lies in the Errera Channel, between Ronge Island and Arctowski Peninsula. This small rocky island has vertical cliffs measuring 200m in elevation and is often called “The Forest of the Antarctic Peninsula” because of its extensive moss cover – it’s the most greenery you’ll see down here!  Cuverville Island is home to the largest Gentoo penguin colony in the region (around 6,500 breeding pairs of the cute little guys) along with plenty of birdlife such as the Southern Giant Petrels, Kelp Gulls, Antarctic Terns, Snowy Sheathbills and South Polar Skuas – none of which have I learned to identify on sight yet though!  The island is scattered with whalebones as well, which we had to be careful not to disturb.

Our zodiac group, Amundsen, was called first, and I must say, we are getting better at getting all our gear on – instead of taking nearly 20-30mins to get kitted up to get out the gangway, we have got it down now to less than 10 mins.  Thermals, shirt, waterproof pants, Muck boots, Quark parka and PFD all going on quickly now. Also, due to the short nature of each excursion usually 1.5hrs to 3hrs, I have pared my EDC right down to the bare minimum to avoid carrying a backpack everywhere… and I should be fine unless we get unexpectedly stranded somewhere for an unspecified period of time – in which case I am right proper fucked.  😛

These guys are juveniles, going through the moulting process to shed all their baby feathers.  They aren’t ‘waterproof’ while they have fluffy feathers all over them, and they can’t get into the water and learn how to swim properly until they have finished moutling. While we were here I took an opportunity to fly some colours for Lochac – I had hastily arranged to borrow a banner as I was packing to leave Brisbane and thankfully remembered to take it ashore… for Lochac and for Ynys Fawr! 

Cuverville Island in Paradise Bay is absolutely beautiful

It’s a bit warmer here so you get algae growth in the ice near the water’s edge which is rich with nutrients from penguin guano. Photo by Leanne of her, ‘Penguin with Attitude’… he kept pecking at her boots. Norm and Dany with some little friends in tow: Photo by Leanne: Photo of our friendly neighbourhood microbiologist, Ema. Taken by Pato: Some of the ‘rainforest’, photo by Tommy:

After that, it was our turn to switch with the Shackleton and Scott zodiac teams and head to the water while they came to visit with the penguins. They had us split into groups of Amundsen and Wild, Shackleton and Scott for the purposes of moving people about quickly and letting us know what our group would be doing next.  It gets quite warm walking around on land in all this gear, but you tend to get real cold very quickly once you are sitting still in the zodiac, so it’s out with the beanies, neckwarmers and gloves quite smartly.  Pato was our zodiac guide for this trip and he was… how do you say, a little more ‘confident’ than some of our other guides.  By the time we had been in his boat for about ten minutes I was warning him, ‘No cracking donuts in the zodiac!’
We tootled around the harbour for a bit but within moments came across the most unexpected and startling ‘David Attenborough Moment’… I had been talking to Trish just this morning about how cool it would be to see Orca hunting seals along a beach somewhere but wasn’t expecting to stumble onto leopard seals hunting the cute penguins that we had just been watching as they learned to swim.  Leopard seals are opportunistic feeders, so they live on krill, fish, squid and small animals like fur seal pups and penguins.  They have large canines which allow them to grab their prey but in the absence of ‘hands’, they resort to throwing and flailing their prey around in and out of the water, until chunks of flesh are ripped free so that they can then consume the smaller pieces. It was a bit gruesome to watch but absolutely fascinating.

Photo by Jean on her iPad: Photo by Arthur:Three Photos by Scotty:

Poor penguin.  :/  After the excitement of the leopard seal we had a serene cruise around the bay before returning to the ship for lunch.

We saw some whales this morning – but they were mostly ‘logging’… which is basically sleeping.  Whales do the unihemispherical sleeping thing too, so they float along, with half their brain asleep just staying afloat and breathing.  They came very close to our zodiac but they were not very active. I can’t get over the colour of the water and the ice… it’s just gorgeous.

After lunch we were supposed to stop into Neko Harbour which lies on the eastern shore of Andvord Bay on the actual Antarctic continent itself.  The land stops we have done so far are on small islands off the Peninsula.  Neko Harbour is approximately 11k south of the Errera Channel and was named for the floating whale factory ship, ‘Neko’ which often operated in this bay. Neko operated here between 1911-1912 and again from 1923-1924 as well as in the South Shetland Islands and along the Antarctic Peninsula.  We were pretty excited about our first continent landing site, and of course, the roughly 250 breeding pairs of Gentoo penguins that are known to reside in Neko Harbour – can’t get enough of those cute little penguin dudes.

However… Neko Harbour was completely iced in and we couldn’t make our way into the Harbour at all.  Which means, as often happens on these expeditions, we had to make a change of plan. Our fearless leader Woody, decided upon a landing point at Brown Argentinian Research Station in Paradise Harbour instead – which is also a continental landing site.  This afternoon our group was zodiac cruising first and then heading to the island to clamour about to a lookout spot after that.

We had the best zodiac crusing with Justine this afternoon!  No sooner were we in the water and went for about a kilometre or two and suddenly we were surrounded by over a dozen humpback whales who were all diving for krill to feed. In doing so they were giving us lovely displays of their enormous tails as they dived under the surface.  Each whale’s tail is unique and the shape, ridges, marks and colouration is used by researchers to identify individual whales and their habits and migration patterns.  So we were all on the hunt for good whale tail pictures that could be forwarded to researchers and add to their understanding of different whale pod migration habits.

One of the things I have enjoyed most about whale watching here is the silence and awe they evoke when we encounter these enormous gentle creatures – and then the sounds that reverberate through their gigantic bodies when they breathe or move around in the water.  They are truly magnificent and I tried to take a short video to capture these deep resonant sounds…

The zodiacs in this pic taken in Paradise Harbour by Acacia really show the scale of the surrounding environment:
We were all busy watching the whales diving and getting those beautiful tail shots as they curved their bodies and plunged beneath the water when Jean snapped this pick inside the jaws of a humpback – you can see the baleen tendrils that they use to sieve krill when gulp feeding and the soft pink of their upper palate.
Photo by Jean: We were all watching these whales as though our heads were on swivels, there were so many of them, and they seemed to be in every direction, and so close to our zodiacs… Finally, one of them breached and we all gasped and held our collective breaths.  It was magnificent to see such a huge and majestic animal throwing itself out of the water – and from what scientists can tell, they do it for no other reason than the joy of it. I was too astonished to raise my camera, but thankfully others did… Photo by Chris Moon:Three photos taken in Paradise Harbour by Pato:

After our wonderful zodiac cruise with Justine, we went to Brown Station, which has a high lookout point that we were able to venture up to.  I was again lamenting my oversized clown shoes – even more so today (as if that were humanly possible), as we were traversing very hard icy, and therefore slippery, terrain.  I tried hard to scout out a path of fresh crunchy snow to walk on where possible, as I was sliding around inside my boots and on the ice, which led to predictably, hurting both my knees rather painfully by the end of the afternoon.  But there were more penguins and absolutely stunning views to make up for it.

We were walking through the snow and talking about snow angels – as you do when you are Australian and you’re not accustomed to seeing a lot of snow – and it turns out Trish had never made a snow angel before.  I had, in Switzerland with BluddyMary back in ’95, and Mum had I think she said in Nepal around that time… so that meant it was Trisha’s turn – and you know if you are going to make a snow angel for the first time, why not Antarctica?!  🙂

We got to the top of the lookout and it was a positively stunning view down to the harbour.  The water is so calm and was offering beautiful reflections.  We are hoping for some clearer weather over the coming days, but I have to say that for photography, this cool, moody and ‘romantic’ light is wonderful.

Once we were back on board, it was a little time to clean up and recover from out onshore exertions before we were off for the daily debrief and recap and then another wonderful dinner.  Tonight, Federico is giving an informal talk “Confessions of a True Argentine Tango Dancer”.

As we sailed out of Paradise Harbour, we saw some glimpses of blue skies and a promise of what Antarctica would look like if we had a favourable change in weather.

Obviously, early explorers came here under very conditions than those we are able to experience now. One of the things our Expedition Team members have been impressing on us is the fact that those very early expeditions lacked photography. They were unable to simply take photographs home to show people the amazing sights they were greeted with here at the ‘Bottom of the World, instead they made do with paintings and written descriptions. Many explorers expressed themselves in poetry – and we are being encouraged to compose our own poems. So far we have come up with this over dinner:

An Antarctic Valentine
Snow is white
Ice is too
Penguins are cute
and so are you!

What do you think?

Quark Expedition – Day 6 Yalour Islands & Port Charcot


“Glittering white, shining blue, raven black, in the light of the sun the land looks like a fairy-tale. Pinnacle after pinnacle, peak after peak, crevassed, wild as any land on our glove, it lies, unseen and untrodden.”

~ Roald Amundsen

It’s amazing to pop out on the deck in the morning and be greeted by more soft fluffy snow and an amazing and ever-changing landscape.  This morning was no different as we head towards the Yalour Islands to do some zodiac touring.

The Yalour Islands are located east of the Argentine Islands in the Penola Strait. They were discovered and named by Charcot’s French Antarctic Expedition of 1903-05. The low lying islands are scattered over a distance of 2.4kms and are home to over 8,000 breeding pairs of Adelie penguins, spread among thirteen colonies. Due to the shallow waters in the area, grounded icebergs are common in this region which provides plenty of opportunities to see marine animals.

We disembarked for some zodiac cruising this morning and saw some of the amazing icebergs – they were huge, and beautiful and blue and striated and just gorgeous. In among these, we saw humpback whales, jumping and swimming Gentoo penguins, cormorants, seals and apparently the gold star of Antarctic bird watching – a very rare Snowy Tern.

Photo by Pato: A seal floating on a small iceberg in the brash icefield.Brash ice beside the zodiac.
Jean, our Adelie expert guiding out zodiac today. Photo by Pato: Photo by Linda: Photo by Barry:Photo by Arthur:Photo by Ling:Photo by Scotty:

This afternoon we did some more zodiac cruising at Port Charcot which lies on the north coast of Booth Island (once called Wandel Island). It was discovered by Jean-Baptiste Charcot in 1904 and named for his father. Charcot’s crew spend the winter of 1904 in this location when their ship, the Francais was moored and the men slept onboard. They established a shore station for scientific observations as a potential emergency shelter.   Charcot was considered ‘The Gentleman of the Antarctic”, he was beloved by his crew and did small things to make life easier for them – like bringing a year’s worth of newspapers with him to bring out and read each day (admittedly they were a year old, but it kept them occupied through the long winter). He also kept a pet pig, called Toby. Here we can find a huge iceberg graveyard – well some call it a graveyard, but I preferred Acacia’s description of it as ‘sculpture gallery’ – there are large tabular icebergs and older, rolled icebergs that have run aground making a hugely dramatic landscape.

The ‘sculpture gallery’ comprised of these large grounded icebergs is fairly safe to navigate in the zodiacs.  They’ve become stuck on the bottom in the shallow waters and have all accumulated in an alley of sorts.  They are incredibly beautiful and each one looks completely unique.  It is also incredible how you can view an iceberg from one side and then go to another side of it and it looks so completely different. Front of an iceberg that looks like a castle… Side view of the same iceberg that looks nothing like a castle anymore!

Snowy Tern – Photo by Acacia:After our cruise through the ‘sculpture gallery’, we went to Port Charcot to visit with a very cute little Gentoo penguin colony. They were mostly chicks from this year’s breeding season, that were very inquisitive and around their visitors. Penguins have right of way in the Antarctic and we have to work hard to stay out of their way. Best way to see them is to just sit down and wait for them to come and check you out. It was wonderful to take some beautiful photos of these cute little guys with the icebergs and the snow-capped mountains in the background.

Photo by Scotty: Photo by Linda: Photo by Acacia:

After our visit with the Gentoo – it was back on the ship and we set sail north through the famous Lemaire Channel. And if we thought the scenery on our two outings today was spectacular, I can only say I am blown away by the incredible natural beauty and grandeur of this famous channel. The tidewater glaciers are up to 300m tall and go on for kilometres. It’s impossible to capture the sheer size and scale of these formations.

We have had an amazing day marvelling at the ice, the fresh snow sitting on everything, and gargantuan-sized icebergs right outside our windows. It is quite simply beyond description.  I am rarely at a loss for words, but have been feeling very much as if my vocabularly has been failing me since we got here.  The Expedition Team all warned us that we woudl have trouble describing the places we had been and what we had seen to people back home… and they were 100% right.

Quark Expedition – Day 5 Crystal Bay

“We must always remember with gratitude and admiration the first sailors who steered their vessels through storms and mists, and increased our knowledge of the lands of ice in the South.” ~ Roald Amundsen

Woke up this morning to the sound of everything on the desk hitting the floor. Thankfully it was only some jewellery, some sunglasses and a few other bits and pieces, but no cameras or laptops. The ship was really rocking and rolling, it was still snowing outside and the sea was, well… let’s just say it was finally showing some ‘character’. There were icebergs the size of office blocks outside our window and the crew were busy shovelling snow – yes, SHOVELLING snow off the upper decks.

We had hoped to be taking some zodiac excursions this morning to view icebergs and wildlife just inside Crystal Bay between Biscoe Island and Graham Land, but… the weather had other plans for us and we ended up going much further south into the sound until, about an hour and a half later, we eventually found a well-protected spot to go exploring.

We didn’t realize how quickly the zodiacs could be loaded and were told on the program that our zodiac group would be called about half an hour after the first two groups were called – but instead, we heard the announcement for the first groups, and a 15 minute, ‘arm and stand ready’ type call, for the second group and next thing we knew they were calling for last passengers when half of us barely had our Muck boots on, let alone the other twenty things you need to have on to leave the ship!

Speaking of those damn Muck boots, I had a huge problem with the ones I was wearing yesterday in the form of them nearly cutting off the circulation to my feet.  I mentioned when I picked them up that having tiny feet and not having skinny chicken legs is not exactly compatible with trying to wear boy’s sized boots and this was the result – rather unpleasant and painfully bruised shins from just one outing.  I had to go back to Flipper (equipment logistics dude) to try and sort something out.  They really have NO ladies boots on the ship and my only option was to go up another size to a men’s 6 – now two sizes too big for my tiny feet! – and put a couple of inner soles in the boots and wear thick socks and hope for the best!  Only now I really do feel like I’m wearing clown shoes, my feet are slipping around inside the boots a lot, let alone slipping about outside on ice and rocks. I also lost all confidence in my ability to even navigate the stairs up and down to the gangway because I feel like I am walking around in yale’s shoes!  Not ideal – had I known this was going to become such an issue I would have looked at buying suitable boots, hang the expense.  :/  Nothing to be done though, but soldier on (very fucking carefully and slowly!) and hope I don’t take a tumble down a flight of stairs ruining the rest of the trip…

We raced down to the gangway still zipping up jackets and clicking on lifejackets as we hightailed it down the stairs as quickly as our big chunky clown boots would allow.

Once loaded into the zodiacs we were quickly shooting off across the water towards *the* most enormous icebergs and ice cliffs I could ever have imagined. The scale and grandeur of this place is hard to put into words, and most of the images we capture are completely without scale, so it is hard to communicate what the landscape before us truly looks like, let alone the feeling that this place evokes in the viewer.  It is highly dramatic and like no other place I’ve ever been – from the huge cliffs of the ancient glacier faces to the deceptively sized icebergs that have broken away from these creeping rivers of ice as they move inexorably towards the oceans.

Surrounded by this indescribably immense and uninterrupted, otherworldly and fascinating, ancient wilderness makes you feel decidedly small, temporary and completely insignificant… 

It’s very hard to communicate the vast monumental humongousness of it all, so I will let these photos try to speak for themselves; all too well aware that these representations convey not even a fraction of the enormity of this place.

Penguin photos: Scotty We were many kilometres away from the iceberg pictured below – I would estimate that the portion we can see above water it is possibly as much as four times the size of Carindale Westfield shopping centre.  The scale of everything we are seeing here is truly hard to wrap your head around – size and distance are very difficult to judge without trees, people or animals providing scale.Photo: Rex

One of Barry’s photos of this same iceberg with a zodiac in it for scale… note though, that the zodiacs are required to remain a minimum of 200m away or twice the estimated height of the iceberg (whichever is greater) for safety purposes in the event of ice calving – so you can imagine how tiny the little boat would look if it were actually anywhere near close to the base of this gigantic iceberg.Photo: LindaThese photos are of Andersen Island and Crystal Bay, so named for all the scientists that studied ice crystals here in the 1960s.

After our excursion, we chattered excitedly as we all quickly got rid of all our wet weather gear and head down to lunch. It was a fabulous, if cold and snowy, morning out. Some group saw lots of seals, some saw a group of Minke whales, and some saw a few Adelie penguins. Everyone saw the enormously beautiful glacier on the Continent, the mountain of ice on Andersen Island and the indescribably beautiful and enormous icebergs that surrounded us.

After lunch, there was a lecture on microbiology with Ema – which I just didn’t feel I had the energy for, but I made sure I attended the later History lecture with Federico on the early Belgium Antarctic explorers.

Seriously – this may be the most amusing least boring history lecture ever, so give it a few minutes before you abandon the text and end up down “HERE”.

Belgian Antarctica Expeditions of 1896-1899

The South Shetland Islands were discovered in 1818 by one, William Smith, a British explorer which eventually led to the islands becoming a stronghold for sealing stations that harvested pelts and produced fur.  The ‘Seal Rush’ that followed Smith’s explorations did not lead to not many purely exploration expeditions in the sub-Antarctic, they were primarily ‘for profit’ expeditions aimed at exploiting the seal resources.

In 1885, the 6th International Geographic Congress was held and a decision was made to focus on the exploration of Antarctica to study all possible branches of science, leading to the Exploring Age, whereupon we meet Adrien de Gerlache.

Adrien de GERLACHE was born in Hasselt in Belgium, he had applied to be part of Neils’ NE passage expedition, but unfortunately, Neils died before he could complete his plans.  Gerlache then decided to raise funds to do an exploration of his own.  There was no national funding available at this time, as Belgium was engaged in expending resources in the Belgium Congo but Gerlache managed to get himself a sailing vessel in 1896, the Belgica (previously named the Patrica) with an auxiliary engine with a whopping 150hp motor.

He pulled together a motley international crew – most of them were unpaid and between them, they had no common language… and it is at this point the entire venture starts to sound like a comedy of errors.

Gerlache – Belgian, Captain and Lead Explorer
Georges Lecointe – Belgian, 2iC, Navigator and Astronomer
Roald Amundsen – Norwegian, First Mate
Frederick Cook – America, Doctor and Photographer
Emile Danco – Belgian, Studies in Magnetism
Emil Racoviță – Romanian, Biologist
Henry Arctowski – Polish, Geology, Oceanography and Meteorology

They departed for the Antarctic after two weeks of preparation in Rio de Janeiro, where they had acquired a cook. They then pushed south on 11th of November 1897 to Montevideo, whereupon said cook promptly quit, and they sacked some sailors.

They then went around to Punta Arenas in Southern Chile, where more sailors were sacked for insubordination and where they thankfully found a new cook.  Their plan was to sail south to the Antarctic Peninsula area, and then head to the Ross Sea with a smaller party.  From there, they were to send the ship to winter in Australia and then come back and pick up the small land party from the Ross Sea on the way back.

It took them two weeks longer to get to the Peninsula than they expected which caused them to abandon the plan of going to the Ross Sea shelf – so instead they returned to Ushuaia to try and get free coal from Argentinan Navy, where they lost another two weeks waiting on the free coal.  The summer was rapidly fading now and things were not going well. Once they finally got their coal, they encountered yet another obstacle when they hit a reef in the Beagle Channel and had to dump their water supplies to lift the ship off the reef.

It was at this point that they met the Reverend Thomas Bridges who was working in Ushuaia writing a Yamana to English Dictionary… Frederick Cook, the expedition’s American doctor borrowed Bridge’s dictionary and didn’t return it. Eventually, Cook returned to the US and attempted to publish the dictionary under his own name!  Nice guy.

They then stopped on Staten Island to get more fresh water – and found the Lighthouse at the End of the World – the site that inspired Jules Verne’s novel of the same name.

By now it was January 22nd and weather was getting worse. They had a man overboard incident during a fierce storm when a young sailor named Weincke who was trying to secure coal from the scuppers was swept overboard.  They had nearly managed to pull him back onto the ship when Weincke, just let go from the cold.  More misfortune for the Belgian expedition.

January 24th 1888 and they finally started their scientific expedition. They discovered the only insect that lives in the Antarctic, the Belgica Antarctica – which is a flightless midgee adapted to the frigid environment.  They also discovered the waterway that goes between the Antarctic Peninsula and the Palmer archipelago – which was eventually named the Galache strait.

“The night… fixes my attention and makes sleep impossible. There is a glitter in the sea, a sparkle on the ice, and stillness in the atmosphere… a solitude and restfulness about the whole scene which can only be felt; it cannot be described…” ~ from Gerlache’s log.

They did the first dog sledging journeys in Antarctica, and this, they paved the road for explorers for many explorers to come.  They managed to sail through the Neumayer Chanel, named after an earlier German Explorer and named a small island there, Wiencke – after the young sailor who was lost.

They became the first explorers to sail through the Errera Chanel and then onto another channel named the Lemaire Channel, which had been previously discovered by Germans in 1874 but these Belgians were the first to traverse it.

The Belgica at anchor near Mt William, 1898

By this time they were considering the expedition to be most successful in its mapping and charting endeavours – but Gerlache wanted more, and they made their way down to cross the Antartic Circle and they ended up at Alexandre Island. Secretly the idiot commander wanted to be the first person to spend a winter below the Circle. By the time he said he ‘wanted’ to leave on March 4th, the ship was beset by ice and couldn’t get out even if he had actually wanted to.

By May 16th the long winter had set in and they would not see daylight again for over 70 days. The entire crew started to suffer from bad nutrition, depression, muscular convulsions, and various mental illnesses. Frederick Cook, the dictionary stealing doctor of the expedition took moral command (?) of the expedition and demanded they started eating seals and penguins to start getting some vitamin C into the crew to avoid scurvy. Apparently, it tasted bad – really bad – but in the absence of other supplies, it helped the men remain strong:

“It is rather difficult to describe its taste and appearance; we have absolutely no meat with which to compare it.  The penguin, as an aminal, appears to be made up of an equal proportion of mammal, fish and foul.  If it is possible to imagine a piece of beef, and odoriferous codfish and a canvasback duck roasted in a pot with blood and cod-liver oil for sauce, the illustration will be complete.” ~ Gerlache on eating penguins.

The forward-thinking Cook also instructed the men to stand in front of a stove for light each day ‘for their health’.  With a decidedly weakened crew, a deceptive incompetent for a Captain, it was the experienced Norwegian, Amundsen who eventually took effective command of the expedition, as he was the strongest of the officers remaining. When the sun finally started to re-emerge, under Amundsen’s command they attempted to recommenced their scientific studies.

However, their ship, the Belgica remained stuck in the ice until well and truly mid-summer of ’98/’99 and the men were worried they were going to find themselves stranded for another winter – so they started to dig channels to try and free the ship. Eventually a more ambitious plan was hatched to dig a more substantial channel that would allow the ship to leave. The only one exempt from the digging efforts was the cook who was feeding the men constantly to keep them working 12 hours a day. Whenever they seemed close to freeing the ship, the ice would move and it would close the channel. Several men went mad during this period, including one Belgian sailor who literally walked away from the expedition into the wilderness saying he was going back to Belgium!  After weeks of labor, they managed to get the ship off the ice by March 14th and went straight to Punta Arenas on March 28th.

Garlache was completely broke by their return and could not afford to buy more coal with which to continue with any future expeditions – if indeed he could have found any crew to sail with him. He eventually applied to get a whaling lease in the Antarctica but was not successful in being granted a license.

His next venture involved buying a called the Polaris to be used to lead ‘Antarctica Safaris’ for tourists, but that venture failed and he ended up selling the ship to Shackleton – the same ship that Shackleton renamed, Endurance and which was eventually crushed by ice in the Arctic.  All up, Gerlache appears to have accomplished quite a lot with his expeditions, but not without significant cost to his crew.


After our history talk, it was Happy Hour at the bar…, and the ‘cocktail of the day’ was called – you would never have guessed it, an ‘Iceberg’ cocktail, made with vodka, blue curacao, and lemonade served over glacier ice! No shit, the zodiac guides all hunt for nice pieces of interestingly shaped or particularly clear chunks glacial ice which they fish out of the bay and out on the bar.  So the bar staff were breaking up the 80,000-year-old ice to put in our cocktails.

After cocktails and whatnot, we had our daily recap/debrief which was now seems to habitually be about letting us know where we hadn’t stuck to the program today, what the program is for tomorrow, and how to expect that are unlikely to stick to the program tomorrow either!  We also have a general chat about the things we have seen today and other ship activities.

Not long after that it was yet another delicious dinner in the dining room, this time with Jean from the Expedition Team for company – Jean’s background is with 16 years in researching Adelie penguins in colonies near the Ross Sea and she is now ‘retired’ and spends November to March each year ‘not working’ on Quark’s ships sharing her passion for Antarctica. What a way to semi-retire!

Dinner was French onion soup, lamb-shanks and crepe Suzette… Gunter, the Austrian Executive Chef on board is totally spoiling us. Every meal has been just delicious.

Anyway, a cuppa, a port and bed time for me. Tomorrow we plan to zodiac cuise the Yalour Islands and then later do a landing and cruise excursion to Port Chacot… weather and conditions permitting of course!



Quark Antarctic Expedition – Day 4 Stonington Island


Antarctica has this mythic weight. It resides in the collective conscious of so many and it makes this huge impact, just like outer space. It’s like going to the moon.

~ Jon Krakauer

Well, getting up at 0200 to toast Crossing the Circle was a lot of fun, but it seems once I was awake that was it – I pretty much tossed and turned for the next few hours and felt like I stayed awake. We arose this morning to exactly 0°C outside, lots of icebergs floating past our window and more light snow up on deck. Which is no problem until we factor in that we are considering going swimming this afternoon… I was pretty keen on doing the Polar Plunge – I mean, where else are you going to get an opportunity to jump into the icy cold waters of the Antarctic?  But looking outside this morning – now I’m not so sure. So let’s hope for a tiny break in the clouds or a cessation in the snow, to make it look even just a tiny bit more like swimming weather..?  😀

Outside our window when we woke up:

Skipped breakfast again – they are just feeding us too much on this ship – in favour of staying on the heat-pack. My back is NOT enjoying the cold (lack of decent sleep doesn’t help either), and I have a feeling it is only going to get worse today once we are wearing all of our heavy, cumbersome and restrictive Antarctic clothing for most of the day. We got dressed up yesterday to sort of trial out our gear and I literally feel like the Michelin Man in all those layers – I have no idea how agile we will be getting in and out of the zodiacs this afternoon all trussed up like fatted pigs.

We have two lectures today – the first presented by Liliana, the onboard ornithologists on everyone’s favourite birds: “Penguins – 101″.  TIL that penguins can’t fly – unless you throw them.  If you’re not interested in the education stuff (I can’t help myself, I’m a perpetual student and obsessive note taker) then skip down to the “HERE!” bit below.

Waimanu fossils show a prehistoric mega-penguin that was a precursor to modern penguins. The Waimanu was a flying and diving bird, which evolved off the coast of New Zealand where there were no coastal predators just after the period of the great dinosaurs when the great aquatic reptiles were also gone from the environment.

Penguins are incredibly adapted to their aquatic environments, they can swim up to 40kms per hour, and they can jump up to 3-4m out of the water.  Living in the harsh UV of the Antartic environment, Antarctic penguins will undergo a catastrophic moult after the summer.  Penguins literally bleach from black to grey from the harsh UV conditions in the Antarctic each summer and they need to change their feathers to gain a new coat of UV protection.  Their fresh black feathers will also attract heat to their bodies during the winter.  While they are moulting, they are unable to swim as they are not sleek and waterproof, so they stay on land and will go weeks without feeding.

Penguins come in a variety of species ranging in size and markings –

Emperor penguins – approximately 1.1m tall
King penguins – approximately 0.9m tall
Humbolt penguins – approximately 0.5m tall
Fairy Penguins – approximately 0.3m tall

Strangely Liliana said, the questions she is asked most often about penguins was ‘Are they still birds?’ and ‘do they breathe water like fish?’  Yes, unfortunately she gets a lot of American tourists down this way… (I can still hear the strong American accent of a woman at Hampton Court Palace admiring the topiary garden and asking “Do those trees grow like that?”  *rolls eyes*)  Anyway, YES – penguins are still considered birds, and no they do not breathe water.  They have beaks with no teeth like birds (an adaption to flight so their bodies can be light as possible, but which is redundant for a penguin).  They have hollow bones, are pneumatic and are entirely covered in feathers. Additionally, they lay eggs. Oh, and they also have long legs and penguins do have knees – they’ve just evolved to have their long legs inside their bodies to minimise their external extremities to keep their bodies warm.

The wings of a penguin have evolved to be flippers more useful for their marine environment, but still posses the same bones that are evident in wings, but the bones were heavy and over time fused together to be more robust.

In flying birds, the feathers are placed in a row and come in primary and secondary rows that give the ability to be airborne, but in penguins, the feathers are almost all exactly the same size, and they cover the entire body.

I also learned today that the word ‘penguin’ is the same in nearly every language!  Very unusual…

Penguins were first seen in the north – the Great Auk (pinguinius inteninus which means ‘penguin white head’), that are now extinct but which were living off the coast of Iceland during the Golden Age of Discovery.  Sir Drake and his 16thC Welsh sailors named the similar birds they found in the Southern Oceans, ‘penguins’ (most probably Magellanic penguins) as they were used to seeing the Great Auks also called ‘penguins’ back home.

In the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic areas, we most commonly see Emperor, King, Adelie, Gentoo and Magellanic penguins:

We delved quite a bit more in the breeding habits of the various penguin species in the sub-Antarctic – the pebble offerings of the Chinstrap penguins, the Adelie males incubating the eggs while the females feed, the march of the Emperor penguins and all that good stuff.  I won’t go into it any further here as penguins – of all creatures – seem to have a bloody good PR machine working for them… thanks to Happy Feet, Surf’s Up, Madagascar and Morgan Freeman’s efforts, most of us already know quite a bit about penguins and are rather fond of them.  I particularly like Emperor penguins for their brilliant colours, Rockhopper penguins for their tenacity and Fairy Penguins, because, well… cuteness overload.

After a cuppa, we had another lecture by Annie, the wonderfully enthusiastic marine biologist, on “Giants in Ice – Whales of Antarctica”.  Visiting Antarctica at different times during the season will change the likelihood of what sort of wildlife you are likely to encounter.  Earlier in the season, you are likely to see penguins in their breeding phases, sitting on eggs and nurturing chicks, towards the end of the season, you are likely to see those chicks becoming more independent, learning to swim and more whales as they begin their northerly migrations… seeing we are at the end of the summer season, it is not unrealistic that we may see a greater number of whales.

Whales are the largest of the marine mammals, which are not an isolated systematic group in zoology – they stem from different mammalian groups. Seals, sea lions and walruses (Order Pinnipedia) – are more closely related to bears than other marine mammals.  The second group are the Sea cows – dugong and manatees (Order Sirenia) who are more closely related to elephants of all things, and a third group (Order Cetacea) – whales dolphins and porpoises are more closely related to hoofed animals but have evolved to be more adapted to marine environments.  I would never have thought whales are more closely related to reindeer than dugongs..?!?  The world is a weird place.

Anyway, the Antarctic as a habitat has no terrestrial animals – the questions Annie gets asked most often is ‘Where are all the polar bears?’.  No shit, people think there are polar bears in the Antarctic.  There are, however, 23 species of marine mammals species in Antarctica, but not a single one of them is a bear.

Of these marine mammals:

  • 3 are ‘endangered’ – the Blue whale, the Fin whale and the Sei whale
  • 1 species is currently listed as ‘vulnerable’ – the Sperm whale
  • 10 species are currently listed as ‘least concern’ – mostly seals they are faster breeders
  • 8 species there is insufficient data to classify their endangered status
  • 1 species is currently unevaluated – the Antarctic minke whale

Baleen whales – Suborder Mysticetes : they have two blowholes and no echo-location

Within the Baleen whales there are three families :
Right Whales (Balaenidae – skim feeders)
Rorqual Whales (Balaenopteridae – gulp feeders)
Grey Whales (Eschrichteriidae – bottom feeders)

Baleen whales have ‘baleen’ instead of teeth – a baleen is a long filter that allows for system of baleen plates that hang from the upper jaw (made out of kerotene – like fingernails or hair) that is used to filter out small particles from the water. The kerotene plates are soft and flexible in water but rigid when dried out. Some of the Baleen whales include:

  • Minke Whales
    • Balaenoptera bonaerensis
    • Small whale, genetically different from the common Minke whale
    • more closely related to Sei Whale
    • 7m in length and about 9,100kgs
    • opportunistic feeder – krill, copepods, amphipods, crocodile icefish, even squid
    • 155-415 baleen plates
    • mostly solitary in small groups
    • doesn’t vocalize a lot
    • females tend to stay away from males, and stay away from other females without calves
    • subject to predation by killer whales
    • population estimate vary to several hundred thousand
    • not sure if monogamous of polygamous
    • gestation about 10 months
    • 1 calf only every 1-2 years, weaned after 6-7 months
    • sexual maturity males 5-8 years, females 7-9 years
    • lifespan up to 50 years
    • prevalent across the entire Southern Ocean
  • Humpback Whales
    • Megaptera novaeangeliae
    • Middle sized rorqual baleen whale – 17m, about 30-40 metric tonnes
    • Often solitary or in small unstable groups
    • Cooperative feeding on feeding grounds – bubble net feeding
    • Feed mostly on krill and shoaling fish
    • Most complex vocalisation in the animal kingdom – travels up to 50kms
    • Southern hemisphere population estimated to be 17,000 -20,000 animals. no longer considered to be endangered anymore
    • first larger whale population to recover from industrial whaling
    • long range migration between high latitude feeding grounds and breeding grounds
    • competitive male groups around females – use song and physical contest to attract mates
    • gestation is approximately 11-12 months
    • no genetic exchanged between north and south humpback whales as they move by the season – winter in the tropics and summer in the Antarctic/Artic, so the humpbacks of the north never cross with those of the south.
    • Calving in July-Aug – one calf only, weaning 1-2 years. calve every 2-3 years. Weaning is later as they have to learn when its safe to start vocalizing without attracting prey.
    • sexual maturity 6-10 years
    • life span may be 45-50 years
  • Blue Whales
    • balaenoptera musculus
    • Largest animal on the planet and largest whale in the rorqual family
    • largest recorded: 33.3m long, 180 metric tones.
    • whalers focused on largest for most blubber so this size not seen anymore. genetically larger whales are no longer seen
    • Today they are more like 28m in size
    • Flipper about 3m, tail width about 4m
    • 55-68 ventral pleats
    • Feeds exclusively on krill of less than 5cm in length, eating as much as 4-5 metric tonnes of krill per day.
    • Produces long infrasonic sounds for reproduction
    • Southern Hemispher populations est 400-1400 animals
    • Considered critically endangered, <1% of pre-whaling population estimated to be 202,000 – 311,000.
    • Left with less than 1% of genetic diversity of the population
    • Migration routes hardly known (southern hemisphere to atlantic)
    • Male competition around females result in physical contest
    • Similar to Humpback whales in reproductive cycle, gestation is approx. 11-12 months. Short term pairs
    • Males will swim behind females and test their reproductive capacity by checking for pheromones. – they pair up for less than an hour, or they hang out for days
    • Weaned after 7 months.
    • Growth rate is up to 90kgs per day.. 3.7kgs per day
    • Calving interval 203 years
    • Hybridization with Fin Whales has been seen (5 cases) and Humpback Whales 1-3 cases) . Hybrids were fertile.
    • Not deep divers
    • Every blue whale has a unique pattern on the side of their skin, some have marks/scars that allow for identification.
    • Sexing needs to be done by biopsy

This is actually really cool – humpbacks migrate according to the season, so when it’s summer in the south, the humpbacks are closer to Antarctica, but the ones in the north are in winter, so they are wintering closer to the equator.  Likewise, when it is winter in the south, the southern humpbacks are closer to the equator while their northern cousins are summering in the Arctic – so they never meet.  Genetically, they remain quite discreet.

Toothed whales – Suborder Odontocetes : one blow holes, use echo locations (including beluga and narwhal) sonar above 20khz which is above the human hearing range, and it allows them to create a 3D map of their environment.  Species include:

  • Dolphins
  • Killer Whale
    • Orcinus orca
    • Largest species of delphinids
    • they are the most widespread cetacean
    • Size m: 9m 5,600kgs
    • Size f: 7.9m, 3,800kgs
    • Large dorsal fin and rounded flippers, eye patch, saddle patch are highly variable
    • 4 different Ecotypes… ABCD (broken down below) different prey types and a high degree of reproductive isolation
    • Key predators in all marine ecosystems
    • Diet includes shoaling fish/squid, salmon, turtles, otters, seals, sirenians, sharks, dolphins, porpoises
    • Population is estimated at around 80,000
    • Type A – whaling killer whale, typical black and white pattern that inhibits ice-free waters offshore. Type A feeds on whales – they will try to outrun their prey until the prey succumbs to exhaustion.  The whale’s cognitive capability will decide within seconds whether it is worth pursuing depending on the condition of the prey.
    • Type B – sealing killer whale – grey, black and white, with a large eye patch and dorsal fin, forages on pinnipeds and perhaps emperors penguins. They tend to forage on pack ice
    • Type C – fishing killer whale – usually found in the Ross Seas, similar to Type B but with a narrow oblique eye patch. They tend to forages in dense packs.
    • Type D – is a hybrid. of the fishing killer whales.
  • Long Finned Pilot Whale
  • Hourglass Dolphin
  • Commerson’s Dolphin
  • Beaked whales
  • Sperm whales
    • Largest of the toothed whales
    • dives to 600-900m where deep-sea squid are found
    • has been known to dive to 3000m
    • size: M: 18.2m long and 57 metric tonnes
    • size: F: 11m long and 23 metric tonnes
    • produces the loudest acoustic signals in animal kingdom 230db ultrasound – sound is used to stun squid.
    • very stable groups up to 12 and between females – males migrate across groups and ocean basins.
    • numbers recovering slowly – still vulnerable status
    • slow maturation and growth – 18 month gestation with up to 3 year weaning period., calving intervals of 406 years
    • lifespan up to 60 years
    • has a spermacetic organ which is like a tank of oil in the forehead used to regulate buoyancy. At the surface, the oil is a liquid at 34C and when they want to dive, they can regulate a drop in the temp of the oil which crystalises it and allows the whale to sink. On ascent, it will reactivate the blood flow to the oil in the forehead to warm it up and create more buoyancy allowing it to ascend without energy expended!


So whale lecture over, I return to our program.  We marched downstairs to the Main Dining room for a quick lunch. Lunch was again, absolutely superb, but many of us were not really paying attention to the food – everyone seemed excited and somewhat preoccupied as we were preparing to finally go out in the zodiacs and foot on Antarctica this afternoon.

While we had been busily engaged in these educational lectures this morning, the Expedition Team had been working with the Bridge to get us as far south as possible down past Adelaide Island and into the Marguerite Bay. Our goal was to visit Stonington Island where two remote abandoned research bases were located.

Before leaving the ship, we all walked through tubs of disinfectant to make sure we were not transferring any unwanted germs or microbes onto the Island, and again upon entering the abandoned stations, we all had our boots scrubbed of any obvious snow, plant or guano matter to maintain the integrity of the sites. We went through the same process later in the afternoon when entering the ship as well – so I think it is safe to say that the Expedition Team (which consists of many career scientists) take their biosecurity obligations very seriously.

A group of Adelies hanging out in the cold. Stonington Island is named for Stonington Connecticut, the home port of an American sealing captain Nathanial Brown Palmer. In 1941, America established a research base here on Stonington Island, however, the US base was short-lived as the outbreak of WWII saw military resources pulled back from Antarctic exploration and redeployed elsewhere. A few years later though, in 1946, The British Antarctic Survey arrived in Stonington and built Station ‘E’ which was occupied by 6-17 men and some 150 sled dogs for the purpose of finally completing a map of Antarctica. In 1948 when some privately funded US researchers returned, they found the British had taken over their hut to use as a sledge workshop, they had hoisted the Union Jack from the US flagpole and they had ‘repurposed’ the US base’s plumbing – and by that, apparently they stole their loo!  Initially this led to some international tensions, the two bases are barely 230m apart, but eventually, they started to work together as the US planes complimented the sled dog teams efforts to map the area.

We visited the Stonington stations which oddly enough, had an unexpected British research team camped out between the old research huts. Members of this research team greeted us and gave us some brief history of the site. We were able to post some postcards with them, though Lord knows when they will end up back in ‘the real world’.

I was wearing merino thermal layer next to my skin, a long sleeved t-shirt layer, a down jacket that is zipped into my fabulous bright yellow Quark parka.  On the lower half, merino thermal tights, insulated waterproof ski pants, thick socks, toe warmers, and the poorly fitting Muck boots.  I was also wearing a PFD (personal floatation device) which is required for anyone getting into the zodiacs which had to be quite tightly fitted so it didn’t just slip off and mark the place where you sank if you happened to fall in!  On top of that, I was carrying stuff in my backpack: gloves, glove liners, a beanie, a waterproof sack, spare socks (because my boots were folded down and I had no idea what to expect), water, camera, sunglasses, sunscreen and lipbalm.  I’ve never felt so Gumby in my life.  Even kneeling down to take a photo is a huge chore… but as you can see, it wasn’t that cold while walking around, I’m not wearing my beanie or my gloves.After our land visit to the Island, we loaded back into the zodiacs to do some scenic cruising and to look for wildlife. One of the IAATO conventions is that no tour operator takes more than 100 people onto land in Antarctica at any one time, so our groups take turns at visiting the land sites and zodiac cruising around the glaciers and icebergs. The system works really well, and while it is in place to protect the delicate Antarctic environment, it also allows visitors to have wonderful experiences traipsing around on land but also fantastic opportunities to view the landscape and the wildlife up close from the zodiacs.

Here is where it gets difficult to decide which photographs to include and which to leave out… everything is so wildly different from anything I have seen before.  Antarctica is other-worldly and everything feels kinda surreal.  In every direction around us, there are beautiful tidewater glacier ice cliffs, enormous floating icebergs, and all sense of space and distance becomes lost as you can’t rightly judge the how large or how far something is with no frame of reference.  Everything is enormous – you think you are looking at an iceberg the size of a double-decker bus, but then you get closer or better still, you see another zodiac get closer to it and you realise it is the size of an office building instead!

We were fortunate enough to see some crab-eater seals, a couple of Weddell seals, some Antarctic terns and some Adelie penguins. There was a sighting of a fin whale, but by the time we arrived where it was claimed to have been sighted, it must have moved on.

The colours in the ice are quite astonishing – even in these moody and romantic light conditions, you can see these brilliant blues coming through in the glacial icebergs. 

As soon as we were sitting on the zodiacs at -1°C, while it was lightly snowing and no longer walking around the unsure ground of the landing site meant we were getting pretty damn cold very quickly.  It was out with the beanies and gloves and mittens as soon as we cooled down from our walk.  Those ugly yellow parkas soon became our best friends – because even in these conditions, no one was shivering.  The biggest problem, of course, is the desire to leave your camera hand free of your warm mittens.  I decided pretty quickly I would rather have lots of photos and one cold hand!  After our zodiac cruise, everyone was recalled back to the ship for the next most exciting thing that was going to happen today – as if Crossing the Antarctic Circle and stepping foot on Antarctica itself wasn’t enough – we were being given an opportunity to take the Polar Plunge!

For those who don’t know what that is – it is pretty much exactly how it sounds. You throw on your bathers and jump off the side of the ship into the freezing cold waters of the Antarctic. Woody, our fearless Expedition Leader had decided that since hardly any visitors to Antarctica come this far south, that this is where we should do our swim. Not sure about the sanity of that… but we were doing it anyway!

We all donned bathers and bathrobes and excitedly formed a queue that wound its way through the corridors and up the stairwells of the ship, waiting for our turn to walk down to the gangway and jump into the icy waters. And when I say ‘icy waters’, I mean ‘icy waters’ – there was literally ICE bobbing around in the water that we were about to jump into.

As I moved up the queue, I found myself not feeling excited, or apprehensive or even nervous, but rather I had a, ‘Come on! Let’s get on with it!’ sort of feeling… I wanted to jump and didn’t want to have to wait – but at the same time, it also felt rather like waiting in a queue to get a flu jab or something. You want to do it, you feel compelled to even, but you’re 100% confident that the whole endeavour is going to be decidedly unpleasant for a brief moment.   😛

Eventually, I came to the front of the queue, dropped my bathrobe and stepped out onto the top of the stairs. I was greeted by a freezing cold wind as I stepped outside the ship in a pair of bathers into the still softly falling snow. Down the wet steps, I went with my hands feeling that the handrails were too cold, and my feet already telling me, ‘Oh that is way too cold and wet’. But I had decided I was going to do this, as I would unlikely ever happen to have the opportunity again – so down the gangway, I went. Woody, tied a harness around my waist – a safety precaution in case of shock or heart attack I should imagine, and then the people from the upper decks who were either too chicken or too sane started to chant in encouragement. Without giving it too much more thought, I stepped off the pontoon and plunged into the freezing cold water. I came to the surface spluttering thinking, ‘Must not swear, must not swear.’ Got my head above water and yelled out really loud, “HOLY SNAPPING DUCK SHIT THAT’S COLD!”

And that is me… in the water.  The ambient temperature was about -1°C to -2°C… water temperature, apparently, was roughly the same.It was cold…
This is Vlad, one of the ship’s guides – positioned beside the gangway pontoon to take photos of people jumping in the water.   He’s looking pretty relaxed and groovy and well, warm! Vlad got some great shots of people jumping in that I’ll be able to access at the end of the trip.

Woody diving in after all the passengers had been through.We had 89 people take the Polar Plunge today – which is apparently far more than they usually have… Naomi was putting it down to the adventurous nature of people who choose the itinerary that comes so far south.  Normally, they will have a couple of dozen people jump in and they find half the staff jump as well to sort of show people it’s not that bad.  Today, not so many staff jumping in – they thought it was particularly cold this far south.  Most Antarctic visitors do a Polar Plunge much further north on the Peninsula up near Deception Island which, it turns out, is a volcanically formed island that has plenty of geothermal activity that means the water temperature in summer rarely gets colder than 4°C-5°C there.  There was actually some concern that we wouldn’t be able to jump in today because sea water starts to freeze and turn into sheet ice at -1.8°C.  So if it had gotten any colder, we could have been breaking ice to be able to swim. As soon as we got out, we were handed what felt like a warm towel but was rather just one at the ambient temperature that cut the wind away from our freezing bodies.

I came back in rapidly found my robe and room key and was in the shower and warming up quicker then you can say ‘Whose crazy idea was that?!’ It was exhilarating, and kinda crazy, but felt like it just had to be done. Here is a shot from the Bridge of the exact coordinates where we all thought it’d be a great idea to go for a brief swim!



The view from our room while I was drying my hair… yeah, I’m just shaking my head as how nuts this all is and I can’t believe I am actually in Antarctica!

Once all the excitement from our crazy adventures today calmed down – we had our evening recap and debrief and gained a now familiar ‘vague idea’ of what we would be hopefully doing tomorrow.

We then went down to the Dining Room for another stellar meal (shrimp, salmon and all good things). We had the very pleasant company tonight at dinner, of ‘Pato’ (our photobomber from the first day), a 21-year-old, hot air balloon pilot from the Yarra Valley.  Almost as soon as he sat down I started asking him about the most spectacular places in the world to go hot air ballooning – and the list went ‘The Yarra Valley (no bias!), Kenya, Burma, Turkey, New Zealand …’ and on and on and on! We had a great conversation about his last gig – which, you will never believe this, was flying the Sky Whale of ACT fame, in Brazil!  He was working on an Arctic expedition flying balloons near the North Pole off a Russian nuclear Arctic expedition ship (as you do!) and decided he had to get himself onto a Quark Antarctica expedition. So he just up and flew to Brazil and kinda pestered them until they took him on as a guide. In the meantime, he picked up a gig flying the Sky Whale in Brazil (as you do!)  Next on Pato’s agenda is a return to Oz for a few months, then off to Poland for the International Ballooning Festival in September. I apparently have earned myself a place on his team should he need people to hold ropes when he decides to take a balloon up to northern Western Australia to go flying over Cable Beach and the Kimberleys – count me in!

We are meeting some of the most amazing and diverse people here – it’s awesome.  🙂

After such an early morning start, a huge morning of lectures, an awesome afternoon of excursions and a positively exhilarating polar plunge experience in the early evening, and scintillating conversation over dinner – I am completely fooked and going to bed early! G’night!