Antarctica Tour: Great Whales and Penguins Big and Small

By Jim Danzenbaker and Ann Nightingale

16 January 2012


The "Ortelius" and the people on deck cast shadows on passing ice floes. (Photo by Ann Nightingale)

Jim’s View: There’s nothing like looking out the porthole window and seeing icebergs floating by. We had arrived in the Weddell Sea, which borders the east coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. This was the Antarctica that I had been looking forward to—large tabular icebergs, crystal clear blue water, and relatively cold (-2°C) temperature. Towering bergs of all shapes and sizes passed by, stirring my imagination for proper descriptions. 

While at breakfast, Rod Planck came in and made the announcement “Humpback Whales at 12 o’clock”. The dining room cleared immediately and the bridge and bow filled just as quickly. I witnessed Humpback Whales viewing at its finest for the next hour. Up to a dozen Humpbacks proceeded to interact with each other and at times, with the ship. Spyhopping, pectoral flipper slapping, fluking, and plenty of dorsal fins and blows kept our collective attention. It was an extreme pixel moment with camera shutters activated everywhere. I chose to simply watch in awe as these creatures gave a view into how nature should be, unafraid, majestic, and truly wild. The deep bellowing sounds that these whales make when blowing is incredibly primal. Surprisingly, we found many more Humpback Whales this morning—up to five in a group, usually including a cow and a calf, that allowed for this close interaction. 


Humpback Whales surrounded the ship, putting on an impressive display. (Photo by Ann Nightingale)

Soon a group of Orcas was spotted and all got views of a regal diatom-covered male with females and young in the pod. Our next task was a daunting one—find the Holy Grail of Antarctic birds: the Emperor Penguin. Three years ago, we endured a 40-hour watch until we found one; on the last trip, it only took three minutes. We didn’t know how long it would take this year. I was incredibly relieved to spot a larger penguin loafing on an ice floe 100 meters in front of the bow. Could it be? It was our quarry and all had the opportunity to see this immature male Emperor as it slowly tobogganed across the ice with an Adelie. The captain maneuvered the ship with incredible skill so that photographers on the bow could get excellent photos. It eventually leapt in the cold waters of the Weddell Sea, possible to never be seen by a human again. 

We journeyed along the edge of the pack ice with a slight change of schedule—and evening landing at Paulet Island and its multitude of Adelie Penguins. En route, we encountered more Humpback Whales and a large pod of Orcas. At least ten to twelve of these magnificent creatures plowed through the water. I had a feeling that they were on a kill—a baby Humpback, perhaps?  

After a quick staff meeting, we headed to shore. The sight of about 800 thousand pairs of Adelie Penguins was amazing. These quintessential black and white penguins covered the beach and nearby hillsides. A penguin highway to the left of the landing site was teeming with Adelies. I had colony duty, so I walked over guano and mud covered rocks and stones to a position near the back of the colony. I was able to study Adelie family life including chick feeding, nest pebble stealing, territorial disputes, courting rituals, and mating. Life in this colony is so every bit as loud and busy as it is smelly. I would not be able to eliminate the aroma of “eau de Paulet”. Many folks enjoyed Adelie life on the beach. It is so wonderful to visit a penguin colony whether it is big or small—the sheer biomass is truly spectacular.  


How Jim dresses for Antarctica (above), how Ann dresses for Antarctica (below).


Ann’s view: Today made up for the last few, with one incredible event after another. It had been small consolation to me that our expedition leader revealed that our crossing to this spot had been one of the roughest they had experienced. We are well into the ice, and the bergs are truly impressive! There are hundreds of them, and we’ve made a game of trying to figure out the shapes—kind of like cloud-watching upside-down. 

The first real highlight came this morning, when the Ortelius was surrounded by Humpback Whales that put on a show right by the ship. They were feeding, spyhopping, tail slapping, and fluke displaying in all directions. It was a challenge to keep up with them visually, let alone get a camera on them. They were so close to the ship that we could watch them swim underwater. This display went on for more than an hour. Over the course of the day, several more were seen a little farther away, but still an awesome day for whales. 

As if the Humpback show wasn’t enough, we were also treated to two pods of Orcas as we made our way through the ice.  Arriving in the ice makes the watch for Emperor Penguin, a priority for the naturalists on board. Right before noon, Jim spotted one on an ice floe with an Adelie Penguin. The call went out and the captain maneuvered the ship right next to the floe so that everyone could have a good look. I started this trip with no penguins on my life list; I now have seven, all that we could hope to see. 


Both the penguins and the people have their lineups on Paulet Island. (Photo by Ann Nightingale)

We arrived in time for a short landing at Paulet Island, home to a billion Adelie Penguins. Okay, not a billion, but enough that the island seems to literally crawl with them. The first impression of one slope of the island is that it is seething, almost like squirming maggots, but these wigglers weren’t fly larvae, these were adult penguins making their way up the rock and snow to get to their nests. The chicks here are already quite large, but not quite to the stage of being independent. 

Adelies love the ice, and seem to take advantage of every small chunk of it near the shore. They hop onto the ice, gracefully most of the time, and slide off as if it’s a game to them. I had heard the term “smelly Adelies” before I got here; I now know why. While we were still at least a mile away, the aroma of Paulet Island reached the ship. Today’s best advice: “Don’t put anything on the ground. You’ll never get the smell off of it.”  After supper, we headed south for a ship cruise, as the wind was too strong for Zodiac cruising. The icebergs were stunning, and the sunset brilliant. I’ve almost forgotten about the seasickness already.


already bughot it I bughot the VCD couple of days back Actually this is for my home (Ahmedabad) collection so wanna keep it simple and there is the warm fuzzy feeling you get if you get the real thing.Thanks for the link though am scouring through it right now. Am sure I will find some of the movies I could not find elsewhere.~~Miles to go before I sleep.


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