Amazing Antarctica

Discovering The 7th Continent


“I set foot on Antarctica, my 7th & final continent. Pictures were taken with the Antarctica flag while a few gentoos, traversing the Penguin Highway behind me, added some conspiracy-quelling authenticity to the scene.” – Excerpt from day 5. November 30, 2015.


Image || Slowly does it. Navigating through Paradise Harbour, Antarctica. Day 6. December 1, 2015.

Antarctica

There’s a lot I miss about Antarctica. I miss the clean cold. I miss the towering, deep-blue icebergs that reminded me how small I really am. I miss the daily challenge of trying to take everything in & to adequately record the experience. I miss the enchanting, endless light. I miss the knowledgeable & affable Expedition Crew & their fervour for all they do. I miss my cosy cabin. I miss the zippy Zodiacs taking me twice a day to somewhere I’ll never, ever forget. I miss the rocking, ducking & diving of the M/V Ocean Endeavour as she tackled the notorious Drake Passage. I miss the serenity, the Chinese aside. I miss taking a coffee up on deck to keep me company as I watch the Antarctic world glide by. I miss the 5-star service, the incredible food, & the bottomless wine at dinner, all served by the placating waitstaff. I miss the smell of penguin poo, the defining aroma of Antarctica. I miss the informative expedition lectures & being educated on my surroundings & its fauna. I miss the fresh air, the cleanest on earth. I miss tracking our progress via on board maps. I miss hanging out (& staying out of harm’s way) on the bridge. I miss the ‘Good morning, good morning!’ announcements over the PA signalling the start of yet another unforgettable day. I miss feeling so remote. I miss the all-encompassing whiteness. I miss the challenge of sending sporadic tweets while not trying to run out of on board Wi-Fi credit. I miss getting robed up in my thermals, my canary-yellow parka & my rubber boots in the Mud Room. I miss feeling very special & very, very privileged. I miss being a photographer in Antarctica, an unrivalled photographers nirvana. I miss whale watching off the bow of the ship & the sound the whales make when they surface & expel air through their blowhole. I miss giving right of way to the locals on the Penguin Highway. I miss the friends I made and shared many a side-splitting laugh with. I miss drinks in the bar at night. Yes I miss all of that & more from my time in Antarctica, but mostly I miss the penguins, the awkward, boisterous, smelly & comedic little penguins that were everywhere & that I grew to love so much.

Chinstrap penguins on Half Moon Island, South Shetland Islands, Antarctica. November 29, 2015.

Chinstrap penguins on Half Moon Island, South Shetland Islands, Antarctica. November 29, 2015 || Antarctica, and just as I suspected it would, blew me away photographically. A pristine otherworldly location that treated me to various weather conditions and 24 hours light, it was easily, & as I’m hoping the pictures displayed here will attest to, the most photogenic place I’ve ever visited on planet earth. Captured on the morning of day 4 of my 10-day Antarctica cruise, this picture is the pick of many, many images I cherish from that 10-day period. In fact, it’s probably the pick of my images from 48 weeks of travel on 5 continents & through 38 countries & territories that was my hectic 2015.

It’s the trip of a lifetime.

Lonely Planet Antarctica

Antarctica || Driest, Windiest, Highest, Coldest

A little over 1000 kilometres south of Ushuaia, Argentina, the world’s most southern city, astonishing, mysterious & amazing Antarctica is the least explored continent on earth. Receiving only some 200 millimeters of precipitation a year, the desert that is Antarctica is not only the driest continent on earth, but also the windiest, highest and coldest – the lowest temperature ever recorded on earth was -89.2 °C at a Russian Antarctic research base in July 1983 (the continent’s average low is a balmy -60 °C… a domestic deep-freeze runs at about -20 °C). Covering 14 million square kilometres, 9% of the world’s landmass, the southernmost continent is the 5th largest. Bigger than Australia & 1.3 times the size of Europe, it is almost entirely (98%) covered by a sheet of ice that averages almost 2 kilometres in thickness and holds 90% of the world’s ice & 70% of its fresh water; estimates say that if all of Antarctica’s ice melted, the world’s sea level would rise by 60 metres.

Antarctica || Environment, Preservation & The Antarctic Treaty System
… shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes.

– The Antarctic Treaty

Antarctic Treaty System Flag

Antarctic Treaty Flag

Antarctica’s environment, the world’s last great wilderness & boasting the smallest human footprint of any environment on earth, is all gigantic glaciers combined with white mountains, flat highland (tableland) and an irregular 18,000 kilometre-long coastline of ice formations with fjords, estuaries and bays, home to an amazing variety of marine mammals and birds. Preserving this pristine & spotless environment, an international zone of Peace & Science, is the job of the Antarctic Treaty System. Brought into force in 1961 by its initial 12 members, today it comprises 53 parties/countries that effectively govern the politically-neutral continent & supposedly protect it by prohibiting military activities, mining & waste disposal while promoting scientific research. The only continent on earth without countries, certain countries do routinely claim parts of the continent for their own, moves that usually cause friction among other treaty members but moves that are largely ignored by the Treaty & its members.

Antarctica || Exploration & Tourism

The most inhospitable place on earth is one of its least explored regions. Captain James Cook, on his second voyage of discovery, sailed across the Antarctic Circle in January 1773 while searching for another continent in the southern hemisphere, the fabled Terra Australis, noting with pride in his journal that he was “undoubtedly the first that ever crossed that line.” However, he never laid eyes on the continent, deciding to sail north after encountering large masses of ice. The Antarctic continent was first sighted, it is widely accepted, on January 28, 1820, by Russian Naval explorers Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev. They beat, by two days, Irish-born British mariner Edward Bransfield, who sighted Trinity Peninsula, the northernmost part of the Antarctic Peninsula, on January 30, 1820. Anglo-American sealer John Davis is credited with captaining the vessel that may have seen man take the first steps on the continent of Antarctica in February, 1821. Thereafter vast, ice-chocked Antarctica remained largely neglected because of its hostile environment, lack of resources, and isolation. It was almost another century before man set foot at the South Pole when, on December 14, 1911, Norwegian Roald Amundsen famously pipped (Robert Falcon) Scott to the Pole, albeit by some 5 weeks. Scott & his party died on the return trek in what is probably the most widely published event in the continent’s history and certainly the most well-known, not to mention tragic, event of the so-called Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, an era beginning at the end of the 19th century and ending with Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition in February 1917.

The worst has happened; All the day dreams must go; Great God! This is an awful place.

– Scott commenting on the South Pole in his diary shortly after realising he had been beaten to the prize of the South Pole by Amundsen. January 17, 1912.

Today Antarctica is still the only continent on earth without a native human population & while there is no industry on the continent per se, small-scale tourism, which first emerged in the late 1950s, is making inroads. The continent attracts about 40,000 visitors a year (in comparison Chad gets approximately 100,000 visitors a year, France some 85 million), very few of whom would agree with Scott’s above observation. While these numbers are rising, they are still below the Antarctic high of 46,000 visitors during the 2007-2008 season shortly after which, in 2009, larger boats carrying 500+ passengers were banned from Antarctic waters.

Antarctica || Through The Lens

Lt. Adrien de Gerlache of the Belgian Navy conceived, organised and led the Belgian Antarctic Expedition of 1897-99. This expedition, whose Second Officer was a then unknown Roald Amundsen, was the first truly scientific expedition to visit Antarctica. The program was very broad and included hydrography, exploration of lands, meteorology, glaciology, soundings, dredging, study of fauna & flora, magnetism & photography. Indeed, this expedition is credited with producing the very first photographic records of places in Antarctica with some of the images returned of astonishing quality. The expedition’s photographer (& Doctor), American Frederick Cook, would later, in 1908, go on to claim to have discovered the North Pole.

The above text is reproduced from information on display in the Museo Maritimo (Maritime Museum) in Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina.

Early morning in Paradise Harbour, Antarctica. December 2, 2015.

Early morning in Paradise Harbour, Antarctica. December 2, 2015.

dMb In Antarctica

I kept a diary in Antarctica. Both a digital & a written one, neither of which were very structured; a few typed observations here, a few scribbled titbits of information there. Collectively they formed part of a strategy of preservation, to help me try and retain as I grow old as many memories as possible from my time in Antarctica. Those diary entries are the basis for what follows, a day-by-day, picture-heavy recap of a 10-day period during which I regularly commented that life probably doesn’t get any better than this (being in Antarctica will do that to you). I’m far from concise but an epic once-in-a-lifetime jaunt to Antarctica deserves an epic write up. This is my epic write up. It’s long & there’s quite a bit of reading. If it’s only pictures you’re after then fine, simply scroll (or click, link below) down to the Amazing Antarctica gallery. Chances are en route you’ll see something you like, something that stops you in your tracks. That happened to me almost daily in Amazing Antarctica.

A chinstrap Penguin on Barrientos Island of the Aitcho Islands, South Shetland Islands, Antarctica. November 28, 2015.

A chinstrap Penguin on Barrientos Island of the Aitcho Islands, South Shetland Islands, Antarctica. November 28, 2015.

Day One || November 26, 2015

Overview

Boarded, Settled In & Set Sail || Departed Ushuaia, Argentina. Entered the Beagle Channel en route to the Drake Passage.
Day 1 Diary & Pictures || Settling In

So far so good. This seems to have been worth the wait. I boarded the Quark Expeditions M/V Ocean Endeavour shortly after 16:30. I was 2nd on board (1st place for losers, dang) & was greeted by a champagne reception with fancy finger food in the Nautilus Lounge. Nice. I took advantage while trying to remain unobtrusive, a pointless enterprise; I’m sure budget-conscious travellers on these big-money sort of jaunts stick out like sore thumbs. I was led to my cabin, cabin 5146 on deck 5, by Jang, my smiley, eager & affable Filipino housekeeper, my bag, having been taken off me at the rendezvous earlier in Ushuaia, nowhere to be seen. Jang, still grinning ear-to-ear, departed to lead others, me wondering should I have tipped him. Probably not. It’s a bit too soon.

Cabin 5146 of the Quark Expeditions M/V Ocean Endeavour. November 26, 2015.

|| Day 1, 17:15 || Home in Antarctica, cabin 5146 on deck 5 of the Quark Expeditions M/V Ocean Endeavour. The first thing I did in here when alone was to explore, something I could have probably done with my feet rooted to the spot. I opened the presses, opened the faucets (poooooower shower baby), opened the minibar. I tested all the light switches. I made sure both the flat screen TV & its remote worked. The safe too, not that it’s needed. I checked the firmness of the bed(s) & the pillows. I checked the fluffiness of the towels, of which there were way too many in varying sizes. Everything was in order, everything worked. Shipshape, if you’ll pardon the pun. I didn’t really want to disturb anything. OK, so cabin 5146 has no window/porthole & not much room, neither of which I really need. It does, however, have plenty of comfort, Quark Expeditions-branded freebies, & a nice welcome note from the company informing me that I’m about to join an exclusive group of adventures by embarking on a trip to Antarctica. The cabin even has things to pilfer were I that way inclined & assuming they didn’t have my credit card on file – I’m not & they do.

||17:30 || A Welcome & Introduction briefing back in the Nautilus Lounge. It was informal & light-hearted but informative. We were introduced to the crew, both the Expedition Team who’ll look after us off the ship & the housekeeping & waitstaff who will do likewise on board. Both crews seem a content bunch and one can’t help but get the impression that collectively these guys, emm, run a tight ship. Myself and the other 175 passengers on board were told to expect a 5-star treatment throughout – while the Endeavour is clearly an oceangoing vessel, to some she’s a floating 5-star hotel. That’s fine by me. I’m easy. I’d take 4 stars. Hey, I’d even be happy with 3. It was recommended we ‘Drake proof’ our cabins by placing valuables or breakables on the floor ahead of our arrival in the notoriously choppy waters of the Drake Passage in the early hours of the morning, the early hours of cruise day 2. Seemingly things move around when the Drake rocks, which it does more often than not. That shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone. It certainly wasn’t to me; I’ve anticipated the Drake Passage challenge for many years & was looking forward to it finally fronting up. Back in my cabin. Still no sign of a roommate but at least my bag has materalised. Given the choice, I’d take my belongings over a roommate any day. || 18:30 || Mandatory Safety Briefing time. I’m to wear appropriate footwear when moving about the ship (no flip-flops), I’ve to mind the door jams (closing with quite a force, it’d be a nasty place to catch one’s fingers), & I’ve to try remember my designated Muster Station. Again I was led from the Nautilus Lounge, this time for a meet-and-greet with my designated lifeboat, number 4, out on deck. It was a beautiful evening as we were making our way down the Beagle Channel and I’m sure the Endeavour & her crew, marooned in Ushuaia for the past week-plus, were just as happy as I was to be finally underway.|| 19:30 || Dinner in the Polaris Restaurant. Wow. A five-course menu, crisp linen, spotless, reflective cutlery, gleaming classes, attentive waiter service, & seemingly bottomless wine. I can, & probably will, get used to this.

Thanksgiving Dinner Menu 2015 on board the M/V Ocean Endeavour, Beagle Channel. November 26, 2015.

|| Day 1, 19:45 || Cruise day 1 was American Thanksgiving so for the first meal on the M/V Ocean Endeavour I chose the turkey & ham. I chose one starter, not realising one is free to order both an appetiser AND a soup. A rookie mistake, one I won’t be making again.

After dinner, & with unfinished wine in hand, it was time to sort out some important logistics; to collect an expedition parka & a pair of rubber boots and sign up into one of 4 disembarkation teams – Leopard, Minke, Gentoo & Albatross. I’m a Gentoo and I like that; when in Antarctica I’d much rather be a penguin as opposed to a seal (leopard), a bird (albatross) or a whale (minke). Back to the cabin. The lights were dimmed & my bed turned down, a little mint chocolate perched on my puffed pillow. A small touch but a noticeable one. 5-star service indeed. Oh, and still no roommate. It looks like I do actually have a cabin all to myself. Yes, this was definitely worth the wait. (Update: It was only later, post-Antarctica, that I realised that the Ocean Endeavour accommodates single travellers in a private cabin without charging a single traveller supplement. Whoops). I popped a Drake-busting Agirax Dimenhidrinato, a seasickness pill that surely could have been given a more user-friendly name, before popping back to the Nautilus Lounge one final time on this day for a few beers. A nightcap. I’ve a feeling I’ll sleep well tonight.

Day Two || November 27, 2015

Overview

All at sea || Southbound on the Drake Passage. More Drake lake than Drake shake.

Wind Conditions

Beaufort 2 (Light breeze, 4-6 knots)

Sea State

Beaufort 2 (Small wavelets, 0.2-0.5 metre waves)

Sunrise || Sunset

04:35 || 21:40

A benign crossing. That’s what they are calling it. On this particular cruise, the southbound Drake Passage has been more Drake lake than Drake shake. Less than one metre swells, although large enough to rhythmically rock a 137-metre-long vessel, are nothing, seemingly. Maybe I don’t need to pop the seasickness pills I’m popping at 8 hour intervals. I made the effort to buy then so I may as well, their side effects notwithstanding. Conditions can change in an instant but the forecast is good & right now, a little over 24 hours since departing Ushuaia & some 17-20 hours from our first port of call in the sub-Antarctic South Shetland Islands, it’s plain sailing, or about as plain as sailing across the notorious Drake Passage gets.

Plain sailing. Southbound across the notorious Drake Passage en route to the South Shetland Islands aboard the M/V Ocean Endeavour. November 27, 2015.

Plain sailing. Southbound across the Drake Passage en route to the South Shetland Islands aboard the M/V Ocean Endeavour.

Day 2 Diary & Pictures || The Drake Passage Southbound

I did sleep well. Maybe too well. This cabin is comfy. And it’s all mine. I was up early. 07:00 for me is early. I was anticipating the room to be swaying but no. Well, yes. But nothing like I expected it to… and kind of wanted it to. You just want to experience everything, be it good or bad. || 07:40 || Breakfast. A full, buffet-style, help yourself job. I had a fry. It had been a while. The coffee was good. || 09:00 || I Went to my first of the optional lectures in the Nautilus Lounge. Delivered by Kiwi Adrian, the Expedition Team’s resident Ornithologist (one who knows a lot about birds), it was all about the penguins. I was drowsy at the lecture. Not because of the presentation content but because of the pills. Oh the pills. || 10:00 || Back to the cabin. I lay down, remote in hand scanning the TV channels. I couldn’t flick beyond David Attenborough on Antarctica. How could I? And oh how appropriate. More about penguins here, too. It seems they are everywhere already. || 11:00 || Lecture number 2. ‘Antarctic Ice’ with British Yvonne, the Geologist. I was almost shivering listening to her – iceberg, ice shelf, ice stream, ice sheet. So much ice. And some good quotes, too.

We might with equal chance of success try to sail through the cliffs of Dover, as to penetrate such a mass.

– James Clark Ross (1800-1862), British naval officer and explorer commenting, on January 28, 1841, on the discovery & naming of the Victoria Barrier, later changed to the Ross Ice Shelf, the largest ice shelf in Antarctica, a nearly vertical ice front to the open sea that is roughly the size of France, a rather big country.

After the lecture I poked around, eventually finding myself up on the bridge. It was fascinating. We were in open water and, I assume, on maritime autopilot but lots of numbers were still being brandied about. Mariners communicate in numbers or, and as they would know them, coordinates; coordinates are called out, coordinates are repeated, coordinates are verified, & finally coordinates are put into action. I saw a lot of things I dared not touch on the bridge – dials, leavers, buttons, binoculars, charts, maps, manuals – but what I didn’t see was the ‘No Access/Crew Only’ sign to the starboard (that’s right-hand side I was to learn) side of the bridge. Marla brought that transgression to my attention. Supervising the bridge at the time, Marla is Canadian & loves whales – she’s the on board Marine Biologist.

On the bridge of the Quark Expeditions M/V Ocean Endeavour. November 27, 2015.

|| Day 2, noon || Maps on the on the bridge of the Quark Expeditions M/V Ocean Endeavour crossing the Drake Passage en route from Ushuaia, Argentina, to the South Shetland Islands.

|| 12:30 || Lunch. A buffet again. I went for the smoked mackerel, veil steak & some rice pudding. As you do sailing across the Drake Passage. Exploring again saw me ending up reading about real explorers in the Endeavour’s Polar Library.

Passing time in the Polar Library on board the Quark Expeditions M/V Ocean Endeavour crossing the Drake Passage en route to the South Shetland Islands. November 27, 2015.

|| Day 2, 13:30 || Plenty of options for passing time in the Polar Library but I opted for a children’s book (nice illustrations & photos and less text to read) on Shackleton’s 1914–17 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, the failed attempt to make the first land crossing of the Antarctic continent. Shackleton’s ship Endurance famously became trapped in Weddell Sea pack ice and was slowly crushed, resulting in one of the most epic feats of human survival & Antarctic exploration when, against all the odds, he piloted a lifeboat to seek help before returning to Elephant Island to retrieve his crew.

After the conquest of the South Pole by Amundsen, who by a narrow margin of days only, was in advance of the British Expedition under Scott, there remained but one great main object of Antarctic journeying — the crossing of the South Polar continent from sea to sea.

– Sir Ernest Shackleton (1874-1922)

|| 14:00 || Mandatory IAATO briefing in the Nautilus Lounge. All about landing procedures & bio-security. Lots of don’ts – don’t pee on shore, don’t eat or drink on shore, don’t stray off defined paths (marked by flags) on shore, & definitely don’t disturb the wildlife. The latter is a big finger-waving, head-shaking, tut-tut-inducing no-no – while the curious penguins are free to investigate humans, humans have to keep a distance of at least 5 metres from the penguins. Oh, and I almost forgot. No drones allowed either. Dang. We were briefed on where we were hoping to go (weather & ice permitting), we were instructed how to dress – layers is key people, layers – & on safety/medevac procedures should anything go seriously wrong. It was then off to the Mud Room to have our clothes & bags, anything going ashore, examined for environmental threats – any alien, non-native species like seeds, algae, dirt etc. – & to sign a Antarctic Pre-Arrival Bio-Security Declaration. The Antarctic environment is pristine, its inhabitants protected. Steps are taken to ensure it stays that way. Make no mistake, Antarctica is the world’s ultimate leave only footprints & take only memories location.

Disembarkation Ground Zero. The Mud Room of the Quark Expeditions M/V Ocean Endeavour. November 27, 2015.

|| Day 2, 08:10 || Disembarkation Ground Zero. The Mud Room of the Quark Expeditions M/V Ocean Endeavour with a designated locker for everyone on board, one housing a life vest, a pair of The Muck Boot Company rubber boots, & a complimentary canary-yellow parka, a.k.a. a Quarka (see what I did there?). This place was a hive of activity during the bio-security checks but I had already paid it a visit earlier in the day when I was poking around and getting acquainted with the Endeavour.

I started into writing the 80+ #PostcardFromAntarctica project postcards this afternoon. Maybe I should have started sooner. Boy, this is going to take some time. || 18:45 || The first of the daily recaps in the Nautilus Lounge. Adrian reviewed the birds spotted over the Drake Passage throughout the day; we were told the ‘benign crossing’ means we are making good time; we were told to expect (more) fog; it was pointed out that as we are heading south so too, and as if we hadn’t noticed, are the temperatures – at 08:00 it was 7.1 Celsius, at 18:00 2.5 Celsius; and finally, it was pointed out that we’d crossed the Antarctic Convergence, a.k.a. the Polar Front, an irregular, mobile zone some 30-50 kilometres wide where the cold, northward-flowing Antarctic waters sink beneath the relatively warmer waters of the sub-Antarctic. That’s all well & good but it was also pointed out that crossing the convergence is considered to be entering Antarctica proper. Yay. I’m here and I didn’t even know it. || 19:30 || Dinner. Escargot & peach melba, among other delights. I think I’m into my stride now.

Day Three || November 28, 2015

Overview

Morning || Still at sea approaching South Shetland Islands. Afternoon || First disembarkation, Barrientos Island of the Aitcho group of islands (map pointer 1) in South Shetland Islands, & meeting the penguins.

Wind Conditions

Beaufort 4 (Moderate breeze, 11-16 knots)

Sea State

Beaufort 4 (Small waves, 1-2 metre waves)

Sunrise || Sunset

03:32 || 22:07

I knew when sitting having lunch this afternoon and seeing a massive iceberg float by the window all matter-of-factly that today, cruise day 3, was going to be special. And it was. The smooth crossing means we made good time in getting here to the South Shetland Islands which means this afternoon saw us wrap up & disembark the ship for the very first time, whisked to shore in groups aboard the zippy zodiacs. November 28, 2015, when I first saw Antarctic ice, penguins & set foot on the sub-Antarctic islands. It’s not quite the continent of Antarctica just yet – that’s a bit further south via the Bransfield Strait – but as an appetiser today did just fine. Just fine indeed.

Excursion Day Three & Four Itinerary Map

A penguin rookery on Barrientos Island of the Aitcho Island group of the South Shetland Islands, Antarctica. November 28, 2015.

A penguin rookery on Barrientos Island of the Aitcho Island group of the South Shetland Islands, Antarctica. November 28, 2015.

Day 3 Diary & Pictures || First Landing, South Shetland Islands

It was a struggle to get out of bed at 08:00. I wanted to be up earlier but those pills make more of a challenge than it should be. I took the final one, for now, shortly after rising. I probably won’t need them again before the return trip when I suspect I’ll probably really need them; surely one can’t get two calm Drakes. It’s breezier this morning meaning the M/V Ocean Endeavour is rocking & rolling a bit more today than she was yesterday. But it’s still relatively plain sailing, so much so that we’re probably going to get a ‘bonus’ landing this afternoon – normally the morning of day 4 is when cruisers first get to stretch their legs on sub-Antarctic terra firma. || 09:00 || Lecture in the Nautilus Lounge entitled ‘Introduction to the Marine Mammals of the Antarctic Summer’ with Marla. Wow. She’s so, so passionate about what she does. I’m starting to really like whales. || 11:00 || Mandatory Zodiac briefing where we got the low-down on the ins & outs of preparing for and travelling in the zodicas, the 11-man rubber dinghy that will take us off the Endeavour to either land or cruise. Either option sounds good to me right about now, the foggy conditions aside. Not long now. || 12:30 || Lunch was pretty memorable. No, not the food, although it was up to its usual high standards. It was the massive iceberg that got our attention as it drifted past. It was the first Antarctic ice we’ve encountered & it was appropriately huge. Massive, even from a distance. It signalled something special. It felt like we’d arrived, or were at the very least very close. I kept my eyes on the iceberg for as long as I could, my lasagne al Forno going cold in the process. || 13:30 || I wrapped up, grabbed my camera & headed for the forward deck, even at this early stage of proceedings a familiar stomping ground of mine.

Arriving at the sub-Antarctic Aticho Island group of the South Shetland Islands on board the M/V Ocean Endeavour. November 28, 2015.

|| Day 3, 13:45 || The thick haze when approaching the Aticho Island group of the South Shetland Islands meant visibility was poor. But as it was our very first port of call there were a sizable number of passengers up on the forward deck in anticipation of something new, something different. It was up here that I spotted my very first Antarctic penguins. It wasn’t immediately obvious what those little bullets torpedoing through the water or those little black specs on far-off icebergs were. It should have been but it wasn’t. It was an awe moment once the penny finally dropped. Wow! Penguins. Real penguins. Yes, we’d definitely arrived now alright.

||14:20|| Down below, the bridge was a hive of activity. Passengers not braving the forward deck were getting their first look at penguins in the waters all around us from behind glass. As for the crew. Well, the coordinates were really flying now. Eventually instructions were relayed, we came to a halt, the anchor was dropped, and that was that – we weren’t going anywhere for the first time in almost 2 days… except ashore.

On the bridge of the M/V Ocean Endeavour arriving at the sub-Antarctic Aticho Island group of the South Shetland Islands. November 28, 2015.

|| Day 3, 14:15 || Steady as she goes. On the bridge of the M/V Ocean Endeavour arriving at the sub-Antarctic Aticho Island group of the South Shetland Islands.

I waited for the announcement over the PA. I waited in my cabin, waited on the bridge, & waited on deck while watching the zodiacs being lowered into the water to do their thing.

Zodiacs being lowered from the M/V Ocean Endeavour into the water after arrival at the sub-Antarctic Aticho Island group of the South Shetland Islands. November 28, 2015.

|| Day 3, 14:40 || Zodiacs being lowered from the M/V Ocean Endeavour into the water after arrival at the sub-Antarctic Aticho Island group of the South Shetland Islands.

Eventually the call came through – Gentoo’s to assemble in the Mud Room at 15:00. Aye aye, I’ll be there. || 14:50 || I was early to the Mud Room. Nobody seemed to notice. Emptying locker 150, I put on my Quarka, life vest & boots for the first time in earnest and walked, like an astronaut walking to the Space Shuttle launch, from the Mud Room to the gangway off the beam of the ship from where I was helped into the zodiac – it’s all about the arm grip. It was raining. It was cold. It was windy. It was downright bloody miserable but I was warm and elated. A few minutes later, and after zipping the short distance across the water in the zodiac while realising in the process that my waterproof trousers were about as waterproof as toilet paper, I was among the penguins on Aitcho’s Barrientos Island. I sensed them long before I saw them, their very distinctive noise & aroma carrying on the breeze and through the haze.

A penguin rookery on Barrientos Island of the Aitcho Island group of the South Shetland Islands, Antarctica. November 28, 2015.

|| Day 3, 15:35 || I spent a lot of the two hours I passed on Barrientos Island just standing & staring at this rookery, trying to take it all in. The busy little penguins, the noise, the smell. Never forgetting where I was made me totally forgot about my camera. Forget about the cold. Forget about my wet trousers. It was awesome, a moment I’ll never, ever forget & a moment that makes me smile every time I recall it. Eventually I snapped this image, the very first I took on land in Antarctica & as it turns out one of my favourites of the whole trip, before moving on to see what else the island had in store for me.

When you first lay eyes on these ever-anthropomorphized birds, you know you’ll have arrived in Antarctica. From the tiny tuxedo-clad Adelie and the bushy-browed macaroni, to the world’s largest penguin, the fabulously debonair emperor, the Antarctic offers a chance to see these unique creatures on their own turf: sea, ice & shore. Spot them shooting out of the water, tobogganing along the ice or in cacophonous rookeries which are a sight to behold: squawking, gambolling birds, hatching, molting and carrying their young.

– Lonely Planet Antarctica on Meeting The Penguins

The Penguin
Penguins are birds so they have bodies covered in feathers, they can regulate their own body temperature, & they reproduce by means of eggs. But that’s where the similarities with birds as we know them end. A specialised group of flightless birds, penguins evolved, it is thought, from flying birds some 40 million years ago to reach a high level of adaption to the marine environment. Their body changed to a more streamlined form to allow efficient diving and swimming – unlike other birds, whose bones are light & air-filled, penguins’ bones are heavy and solid, perfect for life in the water. They also lost their ability to fly, their wings becoming stiff, paddle-like flippers. Spending 75% of their 15-20 year lifespan at sea, penguins only visit land to reproduce, molt, or when they are ill, their awkwardness & comedic waddles on land a big reason, along with their relatively small size, why they are universally loved among humans. On land they have no natural predators, hence why they have no fear of humans, but they are prey for Leopard seals when in the water. Reports suggest that climate change is putting these iconic birds in peril. The truth is a little more complex with some species declining while others are not depending on location. Found only in the southern hemisphere, of the 17 known species of penguins only eight live on or near Antarctica, where there is estimated to be 20 million breeding pairs, including the largest of the lot, the regal 1.1-metre-high, 35 kilogram-plus Emperor Penguin.

|| September 9, 1588 || Explorer & privateer Sir Thomas Cavendish returns to England having completed his circumnavigation of the globe via the Strait of Magellan in his ship Desire. The word ‘penguin’ is used for the very first time, describing the southern bird in his journal.

A Chinstrap penguin on Barrientos Island of the Aitcho Island group of the South Shetland Islands, Antarctica. November 28, 2015.

|| Day 3, 16:20 || A Chinstrap penguin on Barrientos Island. At only 70 cm & weighing on average 3-4 kilograms, the Chinstrap, the most numerous of all penguins, is one of the smaller penguins found in Antarctica. So called because of the distinctive strap of black feathers that extends around its chin, these guys have a reputation for being rather boisterous & aggressive, their rookeries probably the noisiest of all the penguin rookeries. This pictures show the tightly-packed feathers of a penguin which provide a waterproof coat. This, together with layers of insulated fat that lie beneath their skin & blood vessels in their flippers & legs that have evolved intricate structures to preserve heat, all combine to keep penguins warm even during the worst of the Antarctic winter.

Landing Location Low-down || Aitcho Islands
The Aitcho group of islands comprise of several islands and rock formations that were first mapped in 1936. Extending 1.7 by 0.5 kilometres, 160-acre ice-free Barrientos Island is the Aitcho island visited by tour operators. Saddle-shaped, the central portion of the island is elevated and is a favoured hangout for breeding gentoo & chinstrap penguins, the chinstraps favouring the higher elevations. Another feature of the island is the remains of an unidentified ship that are scattered about the island. It’s most likely the remains of a whaling or sealing factory ship – fragments of a ship timbers are to be found among whale bones on the island’s so-called Whalebone Beach, the favoured landing spot for visitors.

On Barrientos Island of the Aitcho Island group of the South Shetland Islands, Antarctica. November 28, 2015.

|| Day 3, 16:25 || Overlooking a rookery, a penguin nesting site, on Barrientos Island of the Aitcho Island group of the South Shetland Islands, Antarctica.

A Gentoo penguin on Barrientos Island of the Aitcho Island group of the South Shetland Islands, Antarctica. November 28, 2015.

|| Day 3, 16:40 || A Gentoo, just like me, on Barrientos Island. Measuring 85 cm and weighing up to 6 kilograms, the Gentoo penguin is the largest penguin found on the Antarctic Peninsula. They have distinctive white patches above each eye & have bright orange bills & feet. Their defining feature, however, is probably their tail. The largest tail of all penguins relative to body size, it helps the Gentoo reach swimming speeds of up to 35 kph, the fastest of all penguins.

||17:55 || I developed a new appreciation for my cabin. It’s such a nice contrast to the cold exterior, a perfect place to thaw out after being on land, a long shower just what the doctor ordered. And I don’t even mind that my cozy confines now smell of penguin poo. My trousers may not be good at repelling water but they like to attract scent. || 18:45 || Everyone was still buzzing, and had made an effort to spruce up, for Captain’s Welcome Cocktails in the Nautilus Lounge. Drinks were had, toasts given, & speeches delivered, Captain Alexey formally welcoming us all to Antarctica in his best broken English (he’s Russian). Looking all maritime dapper, he was an especially big hit with the large Chinese contingent. Pictures all round. Selfies even. I found it strange that the Captain’s Welcome Dinner, the gastronomic highlight of which for me was the freshly seared halibut, was held back until the third (‘turd’) night of the cruise, the utterance of which others found sidesplittingly hilarious. I guess I did too. I haven’t laughed as much in a long time. Drinks flowed this evening, both during & after dinner. It even felt the right time to break the seal on the litre bottle of rum I brought on board. Day 3, the ‘turd’ day of the cruise, the day things really got going. A great day, a great night. Seven more to go. Oh no, only 7 more to go.

Day Four || November 29, 2015

Overview

Ups & Downs || A morning of clear skies and Antarctica at what has to be its pristine best on Half Moon Island (map pointer 2). Huge ice formations in the Bransfield Strait en route to an afternoon failure to land on Deception Island (map pointer 3).

Sunrise || Sunset

03:20 || 22:16

They say if you get one clear day on a standard Antarctic cruise then you’re lucky. I’m feeling very lucky today, despite the disappointment of not getting to land on Deception Island, an Antarctic highlight and somewhere I’d really been looking forward to experiencing. That aside, clear skies, towering bergs, awesome wildlife (penguins, seals, & humpback whales) & stunning land & seascapes means today is just the latest day, following on from yesterday, that I’ll not be forgetting for a long time.

Day Four Tweet From The Bottom of The World

Excursion Day Three & Four Itinerary Map

An iceberg in the windswept Bransfield Strait, Antarctica. November 29, 2015.

It’s just the tip of the iceberg in a windswept Bransfield Strait, Antarctica. November 29, 2015.

Day 4 Diary & Pictures || Half Moon Island, South Shetland Islands, & Bransfield Strait
I was a bit hazy waking this morning, the remnants of a good night lingering stubbornly. Antarctica is not the place to be nursing a hangover, even a mild one. || 08:20 || Gentoos were first to disembark this morning for Half Moon Island. I was on the first zodiac, the first passenger to land. Even if I wasn’t, Half Moon Island would still have been special; the sun was out, the whiteness was blinding, the scenery incredible, the penguins in good fettle, the seals as lifeless as you’d expect them to be while laying out. For two solid hours my cameras were busy. My mild hangover was gone within seconds.

Chinstrap penguins on Half Moon Island, South Shetland Islands, Antarctica. November 29, 2015.

|| Day 4, 08:56 || Chinstrap penguins on Half Moon Island, South Shetland Islands.

The penguin love-in continues. As if penguins aren’t cool enough. I read the following on the notice board of the Endeavour and knew I just had to reproduce it on my blog. So here it is.

Penguins & Navigation
Most penguins seem to navigate by the sun and are equipped with an internal clock to adjust for the time of day. Experiments have shown that if penguins are captured and released far from their colony, the weather is crucial to the operation of their homing instinct. In sunny conditions they will immediately head in exactly the right direction. However, in overcast conditions it takes them longer to orient themselves and begin the trek to their colony. If it is very cloudy, they simply cannot work out what direction to take and their homeward journey is erratic. They will wander in the wrong direction for hours, then orient themselves correctly during brief clear spells but lose their way again when it clouds over. Evidently penguins know which direction they want to take, but can find it only by the position of the sun in the sky.

Penguins. Amazing little creatures.