Antarctic Peninsula Kayaking

2015 Across the Antarctic Circle Field Report

Sara Mulnix|August 18, 2015|Field Report

Sunday & Monday, February 22 & 23, 2015 - Ushuaia, Argentina / Embark Sea Spirit: Having spent a full day (or more!) traveling to the southernmost city of the world, many of us took time to enjoy the lovely Arakur Resort & Spa and its amenities, or rode into Ushuaia to explore the tiny town. After a welcome dinner at the hotel, we headed off to bed to prepare for our upcoming journey.

The next morning, fully rested, our adventure was officially beginning! After a leisurely breakfast, we boarded a catamaran that would take us through the Beagle Channel. Several of us braved the wind and mild rain outdoors with naturalists Carmen and Conrad Field and ornithologist Jim Wilson, looking out for soaring seabirds. We saw black-browed albatross, Chilean skuas, and several colonies of blue-eyed cormorants. We were able to get quite close to South American sea lions and fur seals, as well.

We cruised into Tierra del Fuego National Park, where we enjoyed a walk along one of the park’s lakes and spotted even more local wildlife, with the help of our fearless leaders.

In the afternoon, we embarked the Sea Spirit. After introductions to the expedition team, we waved goodbye to Ushuaia and looked forward to hopefully landing on the Great White Continent.

Tuesday & Wednesday, February 24 & 25: Drake Passage: Two days of cruising the Drake Passage began with observing the occasional seabird gliding behind our wake—we saw snow, Wilson’s storm, cape, and southern giant petrels, as well as black-browed, wandering, gray-headed, and light-mantled sooty albatross.

In between our eager viewings, we squeezed in our lecture series. Conrad opened up with Whales of the South, followed by Jim’s presentation, Petrels, Prions, Skuas, and Other Seabirds of the Antarctic Peninsula and the Drake Passage. After a captivating look at Frozen Planet, we heard from Carmen on Pitbulls and Blubber Slugs: Seals of the South.

The next day brought more of the same—searching for soaring seabirds, looking out for possible whale sightings, and enjoying our continuing lecture series. Jim began our day with Penguins of the Antarctic Peninsula and Tierra del Fuego, before our mandatory IAATO and Zodiac briefings. Those of us interested in kayaking listened to a briefing by Kevins Sampson and Clement, before several of us braved the cold for lunch on the Lido Deck.

Afterwards we attended a mandatory bio-security meeting, to learn how best to protect the Antarctic wildlife, before heading back outside. Today, we spotted pintado and white-chinned petrels, Antarctic prions, and southern fulmars. We also glimpsed our first whales, spotting fin and humpback. Soon, it was time for Tom Sharpe’s presentation, Ice and Introduction to Antarctica, before the captain’s welcome cocktails and dinner.

Thursday, February 26 - Portal Point / Port Lockroy / Jougla Point / Lemaire Channel: Today…wow! After two days on the ship, this was a phenomenal introduction to the continent. Waking up this morning, we were surrounded by icebergs, gentoo penguins swimming and porpoising alongside, and even fur seals popping up. And this was all just a precursor to the whales—humpbacks were everywhere and no one got a better look than our hardy kayakers. The rest of us enjoyed Zodiac cruises where we saw plenty of flukes and even bubble feeding!

More importantly, at least to some—we were able to take our first steps on the continent, many of us claiming our seventh. We observed fur seals snoozing right at our landing site before climbing a snowy hill and taking in our surroundings.

Back on the ship we were treated to a true spectacle—a pod of orcas had spotted a mother and calf humpback! Searching for protection, the humpbacks came close to our ship, weaving back and forth between the port and starboard sides, with many of us running to and fro on the bow. All of this before lunch!

In the afternoon we visited Port Lockroy, where we were able to send postcards and get an Antarctic stamp in our passports, and Jougla Point, gaining our first penguin colony! We appreciated the sights, sounds, and smells of the friendly gentoos, who were happy to come up and give us a sniff as long as we stood still. We observed mothers feeding their chicks, followed shortly by mothers running away from their chicks into the water. 

After dinner onboard, we discovered our day wasn’t yet over—next up, a slow sunset cruise through the Lemaire Channel. Tom narrated the sites for us, pointing out Una’s…Peaks, as well as important glaciers. We cheers-ed with Bailey’s and hot chocolate, as we stood in shock, realizing this incredible day had been just that—one day.

Friday, February 27 - Crossing the Antarctic Circle: We awoke with an earlier wake-up call today, as our fearless expedition leader, Russ Evans, was demanding we get up and watch the stunning sunrise. We crept through brash ice and bergs, marveled at snow and southern giant petrels, and the occasional fur seal, and before we knew it, our goal had been achieved—we crossed the Antarctic Circle! With mimosas out on deck and a sign declaring our achievement, we cheers-ed as we crossed 66 º33’45, something only a few hundred people do a year.

We had hoped to include a landing or Zodiac cruise later in the day, but our incredible morning had turned into a choppy sea. Instead, we were regaled with the story of Shackleton by Ingrid Nixon, enjoyed more Frozen Planet in the lounge, and learned about Polar Photography with Sam Crimmin. After recap and dinner, we enjoyed a treat of crepe Suzette in the club.

Saturday, February 28 - Neko Harbour / Paradise Bay: We awoke this morning with views of icebergs, minke whales, and land—we were in Neko Harbour. As our kayakers had a later start to their excursion, the rest of us headed off for our second continental landing. While a Weddell seal slept peacefully nearby, gentoo penguins waddled all over the place. There was a hike that gave us breathtaking views of the surrounding area, the water completely still under the gray clouds—wonderful photo opportunities.

After our group photo and a fantastic barbeque lunch on deck, we bundled up for Paradise Bay. Several of us went on another shorter, but far steeper hike, leaving us all wishing we were penguins and could simply slide down the hill on our bellies! Most of us enjoyed a Zodiac cruise along the bay, spotting several crabeater seals, a few leopard seals, and some lucky souls got to see a humpback family.

Back on board, it was time for the ominous polar plunge! A hardy 18 of us took the dive, with whales observing in the background.

During recap, Russ informed us our plans for the following day had once again changed due to the weather. With trust in our expedition team, we looked forward to another fantastic day off the ship, wherever we went.

Sunday, March 1 - Petermann Island / Charcott / Pleneau: After an early morning wake-up call and a quick continental breakfast, we were off to Petermann Island. We explored some incredible views of the bay, and found our trifecta all in one place—gentoo, Adelie, and chinstrap penguins! There were also fur seals playing alongside and predatory skuas flying above.

Once we returned to the ship, we enjoyed a leisurely brunch before heading out once more. The kayakers disembarked in calm waters and blinding sunshine, and the rest of us set out for Charcott. We observed even more molting gentoos, a fascinating magnetic hut, and even some wood that appeared to be from an early 20th-century ship.

We came back to the Sea Spirit for a brief respite before our Zodiac cruise through Pleneau where we saw countless gentoos porpoising in the water; crabeater, leopard, and Weddell seals on ice floes; and phenomenal icebergs floating around. There were a few particularly friendly leopard seals—some of the Zodiacs had minor chase scenes! And, our expedition team treated us with a warming Bailey’s and hot chocolate as we cruised in the cold.

An early dinner enabled us to cruise, once again, through the Lemaire Channel at sunset, before prepping for our final day in Antarctica.

Monday, March 2 - Enterprise Island: While our morning plans were changed, we can all agree that no one expected a day like today. The weather at Cuverville Island was rough, so we went straight through Wilhelmina Channel to look for whales—and whales we found! We lowered the Zodiacs in the falling snow and headed out, each boat getting their own private show with a pod of playful, feeding, humpback whales. Being so close to one of the world’s largest mammals, and watching them feed, was absolutely mind-blowing.

After brunch and time to warm up, we went back for our last Zodiac cruise in Antarctica. On our way to Enterprise Island, we saw blue-eyed and Antarctic cormorants, playful fur seals, kelp gulls, and Antarctic terns. We got to see the remains of water boats, as well as the Guvernoren, the largest whaling ship working in the area prior to World War I. Some of us got an even closer look at more humpback whales on our way back to the ship.

Back onboard, we enjoyed a cocktail party hosted by Zegrahm, celebrating our Antarctic voyage. After explorer Tom Biggs read us a lovely poem about our time down south, we headed down to dinner.

Tuesday & Wednesday, March 3 & 4 - Drake Passage / Ushuaia, Argentina: As we awoke to two days crossing the Drake Passage, we came across something we weren’t quite prepared for—sun! Tuesday was a beautiful morning to be on deck, searching for light-mantled sooty, gray-headed, and wandering albatross, along with southern giant and Wilson’s storm petrels, brown skuas, and Antarctic prions.

Conrad gave a riveting lecture on the whaling industry before showing us a collection of his own homemade scrimshaw. His detailing is exceptional, and though he encouraged us all to try it ourselves, we likely won’t be quite at his level anytime soon. Tom then gave his lecture, On Gondwana’s Edge: the Geology of the Antarctic Peninsula.

After guests returned rented gear, most of us enjoyed a beautiful lunch on deck, watching a soaring albatross come very close to our ship. Jim then give his timely lecture, The Albatross, followed by Rick Price’s presentation regarding his time spent living and working in Antarctica.

The next morning proved just as lovely, with sun peeking through the clouds. After breakfast we were treated to Carmen’s lecture, Spineless Wonders of the Southern Ocean, followed by Ingrid’s riveting tale of The Race to the Pole, about Roald Amundsen’s and Robert F. Scott’s respective explorations.

After lunch on deck, observing Magellanic penguins and blue-eyed cormorants swimming and flying about, we had an exceptional treat—a massive pod of dolphins came and swam alongside our ship! There must have been hundreds, porpoising about next to us for a good thirty minutes. A wonderful spectacle as we cruised through the Beagle Channel.

The kayakers returned their gear and we were treated to a first—our final recap took place on the Lido Deck in the bright sunshine! We heard the highlights of the expedition from each staff member, and a memorable poem from Kevin Clement, before viewing a delightful slideshow of our expedition, created by Jim and Sam.

There was time to pack before the captain’s farewell cocktails and a fantastic sushi spread. Our final dinner was served alongside in Ushuaia; several of us took the opportunity to explore the nightlife before our final sleep onboard.

Thursday, March 5 - Ushuaia / Disembark: Our morning began early, with the sun streaming into our cabins. We all checked our luggage before breakfast and a visit to the Fin del Mundo Museum, followed by a traditional Argentinean barbeque lunch at a local restaurant. Soon it was time to head to the airport. A few weeks ago we were strangers, but we had certainly all become friends with a shared, once-in-a-lifetime experience. We said our farewells, but not goodbyes, as we headed off once more.

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