What a magical day.
I thought yesterday that my cabin-mate and I had set the record for the swiftest wake up ever, but at 6:15 this morning, when we were told that there were orcas off the bow, we were even faster. In freezing temperatures, with all my warm gear downstairs in the mudroom, I raced outside in my jeans and pyjama top and stood out on the bow for an hour, watching for the whales. Most of the action was rather far from the ship, until the final show, right next to the bow. Excitement over, we all went down for a necessary cup of tea to restore circulation, and the ship returned to its original course, to Neko Harbour, the planned morning landing.
Not only was this morning’s wake up special because of the whales, but also because we woke up to find ourselves surrounded by ice, with snow covered mountains on both sides of the channel. Having passed through the South Shetlands, for the first time the landscape really looked like our preconceptions of Antarctica.
No sooner had we left the whales, when the fog descended again, and our progress was slowed. Not too long after we were called to the Discovery Lounge for a briefing, and were told that plans had been changed due to the fog and whale induced delay, and that instead of heading to Neko, we were going to visit Waterboat Point on Paradise Bay, home to a Chilean base. For me that was great news, since I’d visited Neko on my previous visit, whereas the Chilean base would be a new landing for me. Most important for everyone, this would be our first landing on the Antarctic continent itself, as our previous landing were all on islands.
The Chilean base was in a beautiful spot, with mountains behind it. The fog that we’d been sailing through had miraculously cleared, leaving blue skies and blinding sunlight. For the first time, sunglasses were a must.
In addition to Chilean forces personnel and researchers, the base was also home to a Gentoo penguin colony. After a brief tourist stop in the museum, where I got my passport stamped, I tried to find a spot to photograph incoming penguins, but having little success, decided to focus on landscapes, chicks instead. A bonus here was the sighting of a leucistic penguin – in layman’s terms, a blonde Gentoo.
After the landing we took a zodiac cruise through around the bay, stopping to photograph icebergs along the way. After stretching our time to the maximum, we had to return to the ship at full throttle – great fun, but very chilling. Despite retreating into my parka as far as possible, my face was frozen by the time we returned.
Once everyone was back on board (a process which takes a while, especially when landing on muddy sights, which necessity a long session of boot cleaning on return), we headed off in the direction of Cuverville Island, where we were planning to land this afternoon.
Luckily, the weather stayed on our side, and we were able to enjoy the stunning scenery in dazzling sunlight. We’d hardly made any progress when more whales were spotted, this time humpbacks. We all rushed on deck again, as the captain did his best to steer the ship according to the direction of the whales, taking us back in the opposite direction. After a few good shows, the whales dived back down into the deep and we continued back on our original course.
Frozen through again, we all retreated back inside to warm up, but no sooner had I taken my first sips of tea, then someone spotted some more orcas. Back outside we rushed, and this time I was able to secure myself a spot of prime real estate, right on the bow of the ship.
What a show. A female humpback and her calf were right in front of the ship, and surrounding them (and us) were a pod of orcas. We watched as the orcas closed in on the humpbacks, wondering if we were about to witness an attack. As we waited we drew in on both the humpbacks and a couple of the orcas, only to see two of the orcas surface right in front of us. In the end, the humpbacks dove and the orcas retreated a little. The action being over, and being far behind schedule, we turned around again and continued to Cuverville.
Cuverville Island is another of the spots I visited on my last trip, and I spent an enjoyable few hours on that visit photographing penguins hopping from rock to rock. This time, I wanted to focus my efforts on penguins porpoising, so I set myself up close to the waterline and watched, and waited. Well, whilst it’s true to say that my later efforts surpassed my earlier ones, I didn’t really end up achieving what I was hoping for, although I was get more near misses mixed in with my shots of empty sea and splashes! After whale photography, that was more or less the theme of the day.
All in all, today was the most perfect day I could possibly wish for, and all the more special for being my 37th birthday. As well as opening the cards that I’d brought with me, I was feted by the ship’s hotel crew, my photography group and my cabin-mate, and toasted with champagne. It’s going to be a hard job to top this birthday!