Antarctica. The coldest, driest, windiest, most severe place on the face of the earth. It’s hard to imagine that any creature can exist in such a harsh environment. But the animals of Antarctica not only survive, they thrive, like the tiny krill, which float through the seas in great masses, providing a vital food source for the great ocean mammals. Others are more visible. Eight species of penguin call Antarctica home, as do 15 species of whale and six of seal. These are what I had come to see and I wasn’t disappointed. From the moment I set foot on the Antarctic continent, I was surrounded by penguins and seals.
But mammals aren’t the only animals in Antarctica. Every spring, more than 100 million seabirds breed along the rocky coastlines of the Waddell peninsula and on the myriad islands that surround it. Cormorants, Cape Petrels, Kelp Gulls, Skuas, and Albatross were just some of the feathered friends I spotted. One Snowy Sheathbill even hitched a ride on the deck of our ship.
One morning I climbed into the Zodiac rubber dinghy for a trip around Wilhelmina Bay. We’d barely left the ship behind when the captain cut the motor and pointed toward shore. “Humpback whale,” he said quietly. The only sound was of camera shutters clicking and whirring. Everyone wanted the classic shot of the tail of the whale, rising from the depths and sinking back down again.
Another evening the captain spotted Orca Whales dead ahead. Also known as Killer Whales, these sleek creatures with their distinctive black and white markings can live up to 80 years in the wild, grow up to 32 feet long, and weigh up to six tons. Orcas are a matriarchal species. The young often stay with their mothers for life and the oldest grandmother rules the pod. For nearly an hour the Orcas dove and surfaced repeatedly as they feasted on krill floating in the calm waters. Each massive black shadow lurking just below the surface meant a whale. Every steaming waterspout gave away the location of another. The naturalists onboard estimated that this pod numbered about three dozen. Most, as evidenced by their small fins, were female. But occasionally a tall triangular dorsal fin of a male would breach the surface.
Near the end of our cruise the captain navigated to the head of the Lemaire Channel, hoping that the sea ice had broken up enough to sail through the narrow passageway. Enormous chunks of ice sank beneath the ship, cracking in protest and setting off a tremor from bow to stern that I could feel as I stood on the deck. Eventually the ice became too dense. We were forced to turn around. I looked down at the bow, where one other intrepid photographer was still braving the frigid temperatures.
Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a movement on the ice below. A group of penguins stood on an ice floe with their backs to us, seemingly unaware that an enormous ship was bearing down on them. Just before we nudged the chunk of ice on which they were standing, the penguins turned en masse and looked up. They froze in place for a nano-second. Regaining their senses, some dove into the water, while others waddled across the ice, scampering from one chunk to another as they fled. I never knew penguins could move so fast.
I was sad when we headed back to Argentina, because I assumed my escapades with the animals of Antarctica were over. But then…barely into the Drake Passage, another announcement came over the PA. The captain had sighted a large pod of Humpback Whales and was slowing down to allow us a final sighting of these behemoths. Scores of them swam up and down the length of the ship, as curious about us as we were about them. Half a dozen swam directly beneath my cabin balcony. Over and over again, they surfaced with side fins spread wide, flipped their tails, and jetted steaming air through their blowholes. Compared to Orcas, the Humpbbacks were massive. They can grow to more than 60 feet in length and weigh up to 40 tons. An adult Humpback is larger than a school bus – little wonder they showed no fear of us.
And then, just as suddenly as they had appeared, they were gone. All the animals of Antarctica were a sight to behold, but none took my breath away like these Humpback whales. The memory of these gentle giants will be with me forever.