Brent Stephenson is an ornithologist who spent years studying the breeding biology of Australasian gannets in New Zealand. He co-re-discovered the "extinct" New Zealand storm-petrel in 2003, and has traveled virtually everywhere, from the Arctic to the Antarctic, Australia, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, French Polynesia, China, the Americas, and Africa.
Antarctica and its surrounding region are visited for many different reasons. If you’re planning a trip to these destinations, you might be asked, "Why are you going there?” You may even get the old, “Are you going to visit family?”…if you’re a penguin! And there, perhaps, is one of the main reasons you might be going to the Antarctic. Forget the scenic grandeur, the sense of isolation, the history of gallant, adventurous men and women who often met with untimely endings; it is the wildlife that is almost certainly drawing you to the ends of the Earth.
Visiting Antarctica, seeing and being amongst the incredible bounty of wildlife is truly a special experience, and for many a life-changing one. To be in a place like St. Andrews Bay, South Georgia, with close to 500,000 king penguins; or Cuverville Island with 13,000 gentoo penguins, is truly something to behold. Your senses will be overloaded with the sight of all the movement and sheer numbers, the sound of all those penguins calling to their chicks or mates, and of course, the smell!
Being this close to wildlife brings with it certain considerations. First and foremost, it is important to respect the fact that we are visitors to what is the largest wilderness area left on the planet. We are witnesses to this pristine, beautiful landscape, and the last thing we want to do is have an impact; treading carefully, especially around wildlife, is important.
As such, we uphold and abide by a set of guidelines put together by the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), of which Zegrahm is a founding member. These guidelines, among other things, provide a basis for our behavior and activities around wildlife. In general we move slowly, deliberately, and quietly, whether on land, in the Zodiacs, or even on the ship. Brash noises, bangs, and loud human voices not only cause disturbance to the animals, but remember—our fellow travelers came here for the ambience and serenity of this wilderness, also. On land, we will have some incredible encounters with wildlife, and we should always maintain a 15ft (roughly 5m) minimum distance. This is especially important when approaching the edge of penguin colonies where birds are breeding and disturbances could cause predation by skuas, or eggs and chicks could become chilled if adults move away. It is also important around roosting or molting birds, or around birds who are coming and going to the colonies. There will often be tracks or paths through the snow and ice which penguins have forged; we call these penguin highways, and we always try to keep clear so we don’t leave holes that can make penguins struggle, or delay birds returning to feed their hungry chicks.
The best way to get up close and personal with a penguin is on their terms. We can’t approach closer than 15ft—but they don’t know the rules! If you sit down quietly somewhere, I can almost guarantee that you will have a penguin (or penguins) approach you, and perhaps even give your boot a curious peck! Antarctica is not a place to rush—sit, enjoy, take in the beauty, and let the wildlife approach you. That said, when you have a captive audience of penguins surrounding you, don’t suddenly stand up and cause a panic; wait for them to back off a little and slowly withdraw. We will see other bird species on land, such as giant petrels, skuas, Antarctic terns, and perhaps different species of albatross if you visit South Georgia or the Falkland Islands. Distances should always be at least 15ft, and with some species we suggest at least 35-80+ feet. This might seem excessive when other species are so tame, but some birds are more susceptible to disturbance than others.
Learn more about Antarctica here: The Ultimate Antarctica Travel Guide
As with penguins, we maintain at least 15ft proximity from seals, including both true (like Weddell and elephant seals), as well as the ‘eared seals’ (like fur seals and sea lions), when on land. Some seals, such as the slug-like Weddell seal, are very calm and will often be curious enough to come closer if you sit down, and may even ‘sing’ to you! Elephant seal pups, or weaners, are also renowned for being curious and approaching visitors, but any close approach must only be made on the animals’ terms. This means keeping hands to ourselves, savouring the moment, and not interacting in a way that could affect the animals’ behavior. Fur seals and sea lions are much more unpredictable, mobile, and can, at certain times of the year, be aggressive, so we generally maintain larger distances from them, usually 50ft (15m) where possible. Worth noting is with all of these distances, whether it be penguins, albatross, or seals, if their behavior changes as you approach, they start to act nervous or aggressive, then you are too close. It is time to back off, and observe and photograph from further away.
Your expedition staff are there for further guidance, and have, as part of their annual preparation for working in the Antarctic or South Georgia, undergone revision and assessment of these guidelines for operating within the region. Remember, the staff are there to enhance your visit, so make use of them every step of the way, especially asking questions about wildlife, watching the way they approach wildlife, and perhaps making the most of their ability to anticipate certain behavior in order to capture that special image. If you are uncertain about the appropriate way to do something, just ask! Our passionate and knowledgeable staff are one of the things that sets Zegrahm apart from other companies, and they are always willing to share.
As a traveler to the Antarctic, you will come back with lots of incredible memories, a lot of amazing photos and/or videos—remember, videos capture the sound also!—and hopefully, you will have left no trace behind other than a few small footprints in snow, ice, or penguin poop. But more importantly, you will come back as an Antarctic Ambassador, somebody who has been there, experienced the wonder, and now understands what all the fuss is about. You will understand why we need to protect this last great wilderness, to make it a place safe from exploitation and keep it for science and natural wonder. There is a lot of great information online about the Antarctic, including resources on the IAATO website, and be sure to check out the Antarctic Ambassadors Facebook page.
But most of all, enjoy a destination that is so fascinating and unique, expedition staff (especially me!) LOVE to be! And of course, I’m sure when you return home, you’ll be able to tell your friend who asked that question exactly why you traveled to the Antarctic region!