Up on the monkey island from 04.00, very very cold, sea temp -1.93 degrees. The wind had gone, the sky cloudy with dawn’s post orange glow low on the horizon. Our ship was cruising at about 5 knots through mile after mile of pancake ice, the odd patch of open water and the occasional small piece of iceberg. Chinstrap Penguins were present in small numbers, either sitting about on the ice ‘cakes’ or swimming in open water. Antarctic Minke Whales could be seen feeding in the open water, their falcate dorsal fins and rolling backs breaking the waters, ‘footprints’ in their wake. The extension of the pale grey flanks up the sides of the animals could be seen. And everywhere Snow and Antarctic Petrels, constantly around the ship and feeding in the channel of water that was our wake, hawking low looking for krill. The best views of these two species that one could obtain anywhere, film after film happily exposed. For those who had not visited the white continent before I’m sure they did not really appreciate the continued close presence of these two species, both endemic to the region. But today’s main quarry normally required fast ice and our captain steered south, deeper into this incredible white wilderness. Sunglasses became de rigeur in order to avoid snow blindness, the cameras having considerable trouble on autofocus with the pure white Snow Petrels in their white home. Our captain wanted to nudge a piece of ice with his bows and finally found a small piece to do so, the lucky few on the the front deck enjoying an Antarctic Minke Whale at point blank range, being able to see the whole animal as it glided just under the surface, the white leading edges to the flippers being visable apparently. A white-headed dark-bodied Southern Giant Petrel appeared in our wake, bird species number five for the day.
Antarctic Petrels are a distinctive and often gregarious inhabitant of the pack ice. They feed on crustacea and small fish by surface-seizing and plunge-diving. We regularly encountered small groups loafing on small patches of open water or on flat pieces of ice. Many followed the ship snatching krill thrown onto the ice by the disturbance of the wake. Similar in color pattern to Cape Petrel, Antarctic Petrels are appreciably larger with pale brown upper parts and more solid blocks of brown and white.
Some of us finally went down to a long awaited breakfast, and within a few minutes were tucking into bowls of museli, the fresh coffee just poured. Ian Sinclair suddenly came down the stairs and muttered the immortal words.."Emperor Penguin!"..I doubt the dining room would have been evacuated quicker if the ship was sinking, we were gone and racing for our cabins and warm weather gear to rush outside. Confusion reigned supreme and the no one seem to know where…scanning the ice and open water revealed a few Chinstraps and nothing more. Back to the cabin, all the gear off again and another shout. This time Martin and I went towards the bows, two patchs of open water ahead. Then it surfaced, a large dark bulky shape in the water, dipping it’s head in, bill opening and closing, an immature Emperor. Great scope views, it dived again but now stayed down for a few minutes only each time, coming quite close to the drifting ship, not quite close enough for the cameras except for record shots. Much jubilation and smiling faces. This whole trip was a real first, no one had tried to bird the edge of the winter ice pack before and we had just seen our main hoped for target.
A subadult Emporer Penguin fishes in a patch of open water. Similar to adults, immatures are paler lacking the rich orange-yellow wash to the auricular patch and chin. The bill stripe is also much reduced and is not visible in this photograph. Photo by Angus Wilson
Breakfast and then back up on deck. Even the sun broke through for a little while and the temperature rose to a more tolerable level. We continued on further south, the pancakes become larger and thicker. As the ship pushed some of them out of the way, you could see the green and yellow algae underneath, the food source of the staple creature of the entire Antarctic ecosystem, Antarctic Krill. And all the while, the ever present Snow and Antarctic Petrels swooped and flew around in our wake. Another half an hour and the ship’s engines cut out again, up to the front and two Crabeater Seals basking on the ice, their dog like faces looking up at us. Onwards again and soon our last avian quarry, two immature Adelie Penguins sitting on the ice, not quite knowing what to make of the huge red ship close to them. A small piece of blue ice in the distance was going to be our furthest southerly point and lunch was called, up on the rear helideck. As we moved again, now heading north west for the open sea, another seal in the distance. This time a Leopard Seal, hardly suprising considering the number of small penguins in the area, its reptilian smile for all to see.
Adelie Penguins are the most widely distributed of the Antarctic penguins but rarely venture north of 60 degrees S. The combination of solid black upperparts and conspicuous white eye ring are diagnostic. The white chin and throat show these to be subadult birds. Our South African guides identified and aged these birds from a fantastic distance, a credit to their experience with Antarctic wildlife.
The red coloration on these Crabeater Seals comes from their Antarctic Krill (Euphasia superba) diet. Their unique interlocking and bizarrely serrated teeth allow Crabeater Seals to strain krill from the water. When freshly molted, the fur is dark brown but slowly lightens through the year and is almost entirely blonde by summer. Largley restricted to cold Antarctic waters, this is probably the most numerous pinniped in the world, with population estimates as high as 70 million.
A solitary Leopard Seal lounges on a piece of ice. Notice the elongated body and serpentine head with enormously long gape line. Crabeater Seals and Penguins are important components of its diet and many Crabeater Seals carry long scars as evidence of failed attacks.
The captain appeared and announced we were about to begin the long journey back to Cape Town, he would however stop for any adult Emps, sadly not to be. Peter Ryan pointed out to those close by some red Antarctic Krill, the size of large prawns which could be seen on some of the ice, displaced by us from the water as we travelled by. It had now begun to snow and we spent the afternoon cruising through the drift ice, in a by now steady snowfall. The only new birds seen in this empty landscape for the day were a few Blue Petrels and a prion sp. Late afternoon and a celebration braai (a South African bar-b-q) was held on the back deck, in spite of the driving blizzard. Much drink flowed as we increased our speed, heading again for the Southern Ocean. The party turned into a snowball fight until an unnamed British birder hit the captain and that was that! Before bed, a quick look out the back, still Snow and Antarctic Petrels in our wake, still a thousand miles of winter ice to the continent itself and their breeding grounds, amazing birds and a real privilege to be amongst them.
After last night’s partying, a later start for many, again this proved very costly. Chris Collins had been up on the monkey island, from practically when the vessel left Cape Town and for almost every minute of daylight since. At 07.00 he got his just reward when two Strap-toothed Whales appeared in the rollers just in front of the bows (52.5 degrees S, 21.5 degrees E)). These poorly known but unmistakable animals sank and reappeared briefly before submerging again for good. Yet again we found ourselves in a Force 9 gale, the spray from the bows frequently washing over the bridge, and the return of many old friends, battling against the wind as we were. Kergulen Petrels, prions, Blue & Cape Petrels and a trickle of Wandering Albatross’s. Oddly, no sign of Angus and Martin this morning, I wonder why?
The Force 9 increased to 11 (gusting 12) and the sea was really mountainous during the afternoon. Waves washed down the port side of the ship, testing the seals of the cabin windows, some of which didn’t hold! The port side of the ship was the place to be, sheltered and from which you could take photos of the furious fifties. The captain turned us into the westerlies and kept minimum speed just to keep steerage control. By the end of the day we had just moved a hundred miles sideways. Sales of soft drinks peaked at the bar this evening, many were still suffering from the night before. Paul Funston gave the evening lecture, superb photos of his Lion research in the Kruger National Park. At one point the projector flew off it’s stand but was well caught by Dick Newell and even continued to work afterwards. Little sleep was had by all and those of us in the top bunks wondered if this was the night we would find ourselves on the floor. Even Stugeron & wine didn’t help you sleep.
BLAST FROM THE PAST
It is now my brave
boys we are clear of the Ice
And keep a good heart if you'll take my advice;
We are out of the cold my brave boys do not fear,
For the Cape of Good Hope with good hearts we do steer.
A verse from "The Antarctic
Muse" written in February 1775 by Tom Perry, a crewman aboard
Resolution during Captain Cook's 2nd voyage, as they turned northwards
for the last time, and like us, headed for Cape Town. After thirty months
at sea, Cook gave up hope of finding the Southern Continent on this expedition
and so turned for home a few hundred miles east of Bouvet Island. This
is very close to where we explored the ice. It is very sobering to imagine
these 18th Centuary sailors exploring the hostile waters of the same Southern
Ocean in a tiny wooden ship and literally without a map. - AW.
here for the Trip List (seabirds and mammals)