Start: February 5, Pleneau
Finish: February 5, Torgersen Island
Birthdays Celebrated in Antarctica: 1
Whales Within Arms Reach: 2
Species of Penguins Seen to Date: 4
By all accounts today proved to be the most memorable day we spent in Antartica, possibly of the entire trip. We start off with a zodiac cruise in an iceberg graveyard in Pleneau, then head to visit a colony of charismatic gentoo penguins. That night we celebrate Jessica's birthday and the crew throws a party in celebration of New Zealand's Waitangi Day.
The Pleneau zodiac cruise was, for me at least, the single most amazing experience on this trip. Not only did we get up close and personal with the bluest and most beautiful icebergs we've seen, but we also came within arms reach of a humpback whale and a leopard seal. In this ever-changing environment you're only guaranteed two things: it'll never be the same twice, and it will always be spectacular.
We were told to dress warmly for our cruise through the iceberg graveyard. The light snow mixed with rain and dark, low gray skies had us bundled up tightly as we set off in the morning. Even though the weather wasn't perfect, the constrast of the dark gray skies behind blue icebergs made for great photos.
Within minutes we were in the ice. Pillars, sometimes 80 feet tall, surrounded us on all sides. Aptly named, the iceberg graveyard in Pleneau is the final resting ground for hundreds of bergs that calve from shelf ice farther south on the continent. A unique combination of geography and ocean currents bring the ice into this area where they become trapped and live out their remaining years slowly disintegrating into the ocean.
Although the seas freeze in the winter, and the icebergs gain some mass as new snow falls, once the ice travels this far north, the summer sun and warmer waters take more than can be replenished.
Rafts of Gentoo penguins porpouse through the water, sometimes surrounding the zodiac. Groups of over 100 are seen more than once, and individual penguins playing, feeding and bathing are glimpsed every time we can peel our eyes from the stunning icebergs.
After a half an hour between the bergs our zodiac pilot is contacted via radio that several humpback whales are in the area. We arrive just in time to see the whale dive and swim directly beneath one of the zodiacs that was first on the scene. In these situations the pilots kill the engines and we simply float along hoping that luck will bring the gigantic whales in our direction. Some are lucky, some aren't
We got lucky! The group of three whales, two adults with a calf, turned and came towards our zodiac. One swam directly under our boat, submerging three feet from where I sat.
The humpbacks continued to give us a show. Above, a mother and calf synchronously dive deep to scoop up a batch of krill.
After the whales head their own way, we continue cruising among the ice until we spot a playful leopard seal. He's hanging out above an ice shelf, part of a big iceberg that remains under water. Our zodiac captain won't bring us over the shelf, in case the iceberg suddenly flips in the water. But we get close enough watch the seal cruise between the icy blue water above the shelf and the contrasting dark waters of the deep sea.
The leopard seal gets a bit curious after we spend five minutes watching him dive and surface around the ice shelf. Leopard seals have been known to take a chunk out a zodiac, deflating part of a pontoon and ending the cruise early. After he gives us a few pokes with his nose the captain decides it's wisest to move on.
Almost as if posing for a photo, these five kelp gulls are taking a break on this partially submerged ice shelf, part of a massive and picturesque iceberg that stretches over 100 feet long and 40 feet high.
Back on board the ship for lunch, the aft deck BBQ is canceled due to inclimite weather as snow starts to fall more heavily. Jessica and Kobus pose for a photo while the ship crosses through a narrow channel lined with glaciers and steep granite cliffs en route to our next stop.
Torgersen island, home to a gentoo penguin colony, is our afternoon destination. On the way to the landing point we take a short cruise around a stunning iceberg that was spotted off the starboard side of the ship. It's like a piece of Superman's Fortress of Solitude broke off and decided to go for a little ride around the Antarctic peninsula.
We also swing by this leopard seal, who appears to have found himself a nest among the chunks of floating ice that surround the ship.
On the island Jessica sets up to shoot a few more timelapse clips of the penguin colony while I play hide and seek with this gentoo penguin who seems out of sorts among the gentoo colony.
The staff expedition leader calls Adrlie penguins "Mexican fighting penguins." We didn't get the back story on this, but we can certainly say that these little guys have a lot of attitude. Strutting around, making a ton of noise, and like the other three penguin species we've encountered, stinking up the place.
Gentoos are the only species of penguin we encounter that are true Antarctic penguins. Meaning they can lay their eggs on ice and survive the brutal Antarctic winter on the mainland rather then relative warm and protected islands of the peninsula.
The gentoo chicks were molting, growing out of their fluffy baby feathers and into the waterproof coat that will allow them to begin swimming and fending for themselves in the Antarctic waters. They're still a bit pudgier than their adult counterparts, and their mismatched feathers give them a comically disheveled look that we can't help but laugh at.
After our stop off at the Mexican fighting penguin colony, it's time for Jessica's birthday dinner. Kobus and I both order our dinners with a side of steak in an effort to pack on the pounds for our impending weighout in several days.
Little did Jessica know, while we were out photographing penguins, Kobus was making arrangements with the staff for a proper cruise ship birthday. Cake, champagne and a rousing serenade by the hotel and dining staff left her feeling a bit overwhelmed. Presents of chocolates, stickers for her now well-traveled clothes bin, and a map of the Antarctic peninsula so that she can chart our voyage, made up for the shock.
That night we celebrated Waitangi Day, a New Zealand holiday that still remains a bit of a mystery to us. It seemed to involve ruthlessly harassing Australians and talking about how bat sh*t insane New Zealanders are. No photos were taken to commemorate that occasion, we'd had too many drinks by that point to remember our cameras.
Up next: Our last day in Antarctic waters before returning back to port in Ushuaia.