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Published: February 23rd 2013
I woke the next morning to the gentle rocking and rolling of the ship. We had entered the Drake. The weather was quite good so the seas were also not too bad – just a small swell. The day was largely spent viewing sea birds from out on the decks. Most of my previous knowledge on albatrosses centered around golf, but by the end of those two days I knew much more and spent a lot of time on deck trying to snap photos of them. They are huge birds. Their wingspans can be up to 3.5 metres! Roughly twice my height. They like to circle and follow the boat as it churns up the little fishies in the water and also gives them some extra help with flying (they can fly for hours without flapping their wings once).
Speaking of which, one thing I wasn’t expecting was how great the food was. You have 3 meals per day. Breakfast and Lunch were buffet style (all you can eat) and dinner usually 5 courses. Dessert was available for both lunch and dinner. There was usually an afternoon tea. Going hungry was not going to be a problem. I
stuffed my face with as many veggies as possible. Being a backpacker I wasn’t going to let this opportunity slip. The cruise also provided free alcohol from an extensive bar. You read that correctly. Seeing as not much was happening while crossing the Drake, everyone got well acquainted with the bar.
The next day late in the afternoon the first iceberg was spotted to much excitement. It was quite large and unexpected. I was a little perplexed because we didn’t see the next iceberg for a number of hours after that. I also briefly spotted a whale off the front of the ship, but it was mainly just a couple of spouts of water and a small glimpse of its back before it disappeared. First land sighting was around 8:30pm and this caused more excitement. That was short lived as the weather turned for the worse and the seas became very rough, with the swell reaching around 3-4 metres. A lot of people stayed away from the bar that night.
The next day were made our first landing at Half Moon Bay. In order to get to and from the island we made use of Zodiac boats. If
you’ve never been in one before they look like a rubber dingy, but they are very versatile. They are the most popular vessel in the world and also used by military/police forces. The process of getting 110 people from the ship to land only took around 40 minutes which we reduced as we got more familiar with the process.
We were in the South Shetland Islands which is part of Antarctica, but not the actual mainland. Here we would be introduced to a big Chinstrap Penguin colony. By the end of the trip I knew most of the different penguin species. The most overpowering smell emanated from this island - Guano. Or penguin shit as its otherwise known. The rocks around their nests were covered in the stuff – mostly dark red. The way they just lifted their tails and let fly in projectile fashion no matter where they stood was quite funny. And interesting. I would be tempted to remove the word ‘pig’ from that very common saying and replace it with ‘penguin’. You’d see them covered head to toe in the stuff – big red patches on their white bellies. Considering how often they fell over I
was not surprised. Some of the penguins were nursing young chicks, of which many were less than a day old which was pretty special.
Penguins are completely fish out of water when it comes to standing upright (pardon the pun). Not only are they not suited to walking, they must contend with slippery and icy slopes, rocks, and other penguins and sometimes seals blocking their paths. Even though they always seem to be walking with a purpose, they wear what I would describe as a masked grimace. When they fall over there is little grace. It is akin to a baby taking its first steps and plomping down on its backside. Though with penguins its usually face-first. But they are quite stoic and simply get back up and carry on. Maybe a little more quickly than before. I swear you can see a glimpse of embarrassment.
But as soon as they get into the water it’s a complete metamorphosis. I could not believe how quickly they could move and change directions in the water. It doesn’t seem to add up. They have no flippers, just some little webbed feet. And their wings aren’t terribly remarkable. But
remarkable the penguins are. Often you’d see them porpoising out of the water and darting left and right. I’ll never (well, try not to) laugh at another penguin falling over again. Much respect little fellas.
The next stop was another island – Deception island. Nobody knows the true origin of the name but there are a few theories. And believe it or not, way out here there is quite a bit of history to the place. The island was formed after a volcano magma chamber collapsed. You can still see steam emanating from the thermally heated water which gives the place a fantastic eery vibe. The island was used as a Whaling station by the Norwegians in the early 1900’s, but they had to abandon the place after they harvested every whale in sight. By the end of the 30’s they had to travel more than 200km’s just to find a whale. A bit sad to be honest.
In 1941 British Commandoes went to Deception island to suss out if there was any German activity in the area. They then sabotaged the old Norwegian storage tanks used for fuel and whale oil so the German’s or their allies
could not use the place as a staging base. It’s surprising to see that some of the old wooden buildings are still standing, though just barely.
The next day we explored Cuverville island, though we took the Zodiac’s on a detour around some huge icebergs and spotted a Leopard seal camped out on a sheet of ice. The seal was taking an opportunity to rest because they were in the stages of moulting, which not only involves moulting their fur, but also their skin! Ergh. We were informed that this process is somewhat painful. You reckon?!
We also spotted a Weddell seal who inquisitively approached the Zodiac. It was fun watching him for a few minutes before we landed on Cuverville. Here we saw Gentoo penguin colonies – again with young chicks, and some unhatched eggs. We also watched in despair as a Skua (angry seabird) circled one particular colony and snatched away a young penguin chick, then proceeded to rip it to shreds in front of our very eyes. You just have to keep telling yourself that it’s all part of nature (and secretly wish bad thoughts on the dirty Skua).
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