Landing on Antarctica: whales, penguins, seals and icebergs

This is a continuation of my earlier post chronicling the first 5 days of my Antarctica cruise, specifically covering the departure from Ushuaia, the tumultuous Drake’s passage and landing on sub-Antarctic islands. Here’s the rest of my diary.

Day 6: Port Lockroy, Lemaire Channel

If I had to vote for the best day on the trip, I’d vote for Day 6. White snow-capped mountains and penguins can get a bit monotonous. The stench of penguin poo is not very inviting either. Enter Port Lockroy, a bright red post office in the middle of nowhere.

Penguin Post Office, Antarctica by Angik Sarkar on 500px.com
Penguin Post Office, Port Lockroy

How often do you see a house with a bright door nestled in an island just off the coast featuring snow capped glaciers flowing into the ocean? As a bonus there was even a penguin chick which had just hatched. Can it get better? Oh yes, you can send postcards with an Antarctica stamp from here! Picture perfect.

I thought I had seen the best possible scenery in Antarctica. Little did I know, I was soon to be proved wrong. Our ship was scheduled to go into the Lemaire channel. However, a river of icebergs suddenly moved in to block the mouth of the channel and 65S turned out to be the southernmost point of our trip.

Iceberg and zodiac by Angik Sarkar on 500px.com
Cruising among icebergs

I was disappointed at missing the opportunity to cross the Antarctic Circle. However, the icebergs more than made up for it. It is difficult to even imagine the experience of moving around thousands of  icebergs teeming with Weddell seals, penguins, whales and even the most dangerous predator in Antarctica, the leopard seal.

The leopard seal is endemic to Antarctica. They are difficult to spot; since they spend a majority of their time underwater in the austral summer. When we spotted a leopard seal napping on an iceberg, our zodiac turned off its motor to get a better look at it without disturbing. We snapped hundreds of photos of the “smiling devil” in the next 5 minutes, totally oblivious of the surrounding. Suddenly, we noticed that drifting icebergs had trapped us on all sides. Scary!

However, our zodiac was being steered by Snowy, probably one of most experienced crew aboard any Antarctic ship. He steered the zodiac on an small iceberg, made us shift weights and glided across it as it submerged with the weight. I was amazed by the maneuver. Takes a lot of experience to do that.

Weddell seal on Antarctica iceberg by Angik Sarkar on 500px.com
Antarctic Weddell seal among icebergs

Day 7:  Paradise Harbor,  Useful Island

Our Antarctic adventures were starting to get even more exciting. You know that the rest of the day will be great when you wake up to the mirror image of snow capped mountains reflecting in the calm water of an area aptly named the Paradise Harbor. We set out on a usual zodiac cruise around the harbor with penguins, birds and the usual Antarctic scenery. Suddenly, one of our group members shouted “whhhhaaleeeeeeee”. There it was, a whale swimming right under our small zodiac.

Handshake with a Minke by Angik Sarkar on 500px.com
A minke Whale up close
Band of Brothers by Angik Sarkar on 500px.com
Kayaks team up to prevent being overturned by a curious whale

Other zodiacs quickly came towards us and formed a bridge so that the whale does not overturn us. The kayaks joined together too. The whale seemed to enjoy itself, swimming under us in circles. On one of these runs, the whale was so close, I could probably touch it if I wanted! Scary, but definitely, the best Christmas present ever.

That evening, the ship moored near Useful Island. The island is so named because of the spectacular 360 degree view that the peak of the island offers. It was “useful”  to whalers, who used this island to spot whales and hunt them to extinction. I think it should be renamed to Graveyard Island. In the words of our crew captain, the area is an “iceberg graveyard”- it is dotted with icebergs stuck in the shallow water around the channel. If you ever land on Useful island, I highly recommend climbing to the peak of the island to gaze at the surreal scenery: dark blue water speckled with white icerbergs and snow-white glaciers in the background. The climb is a short and strenuous; but as an incentive, the slope is perfect for a glissading down. Even if you don’t want to climb the peak, you’ll have a blast at the shore watching penguins frolicking among the icebergs.

Iceberg graveyard around Useful Island by Angik Sarkar on 500px.com
The view from the peak of Useful Island

Day 8 (Christmas): Cuverville Island, Melchior Islands,

The weather in Antarctica is finicky. The weather deteriorated rapidly on Day 8. It was cold and snowing. It was as if Antarctica was weeping for our impending return. Nevertheless, the overcast weather brought to light a different aspect of Antarctica. The dramatic lights of sun occasionally peeping through the clouds rendered the same scenery differently. The icebergs displayed even more hues of blue, the mountains were now grayish white with some blue patches. The penguins very confused by the weather too; not sure whether to stay on shore or jump into the ocean.

Penguin Queue by Angik Sarkar on 500px.com
Penguins jumping off an iceberg

The weather deteriorated further when we reached melchoir Island, to the point that there was no landing. However, we saw an iceberg that was definitely more than a mile long and at least 20 stories tall. Snowy told us it is probably a part of the Antarctic ice shelf. If you do not believe in global warming go to Antarctica!

Day 9,10: The Drake

The mood was somber over the next two days. Many were suffering from sea sickness as we navigated the Drake. While others were sad. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity was coming to an end.

I had mentioned earlier that on the journey to Antarctica, we had passed the Beagle channel in twilight. On our return, we reached the entrance to Beagle Channel by sunset and had the privilege of watching the jaw-dropping sunset I had read about.

Day 11: Ushuaia

10 days after we left Ushuaia, we returned on a bright and sunny morning. I had a hard time describing my mood. I was somewhat gloomy; it would be years until I could afford to visit Antarctica again. Yet, I felt incredibly privileged to store a lifetime of memories into a small locker of my brain.

Antarctic sunset glow by Angik Sarkar on 500px.com
Sunset in Antarctic

Let me know if you have any questions

Do not use any photo included with this post without the permission of the author

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My Antarctica trip diary: Drake passage, Shetland islands
How to plan a budget trip to Antarctica
One or Two weeks in Argentina: Suggested itinerary

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