I got up around 6:30, which turned out to only be 15 minutes ahead of Stephen's early morning announcement. In the morning light, the staff had spotted a couple humpback whales out in front of the boat. I When I got out on deck, it was still really, really cold, but the wind had died down, and was tolerable. Even after spending 30 minutes yesterday chasing them around, this session was just as enthralling. They put on a pretty good show for about 20 minutes, then we steamed on ahead, down the Errera Channel. Again, the practical part of me was glad to see the change in direction, as my fingers were about ready to fall off.
We sat down for breakfast, and then had a briefing on our two landings for the day. Cuverville Island was our first destination, apparently home to some beautiful beaches, rock formations and a large colony of Gentoo penguins. Our second landing would be a place called Neko Harbor - our first actual continental landing, followed by a Zodiac cruise around the bay if the weather held out.
The landing at Cuverville Island was very good. A couple of the staff mentioned to me it was one of their favorite sites, and I could see why. The place was absolutely gorgeous, the large rock formations behind and around the island were imposing, many of them filled with glaciers pushing down toward the water. And there was no shortage of wildlife. This was by far the largest colony of penguins we'd seen. There were Gentoos everywhere - on the rocks and in the water. There were some fur seals on one corner of the island, and when we landed one of the staff said there were some leopard seals patrolling the area as well. They'd already seen one nab a penguin right off the beach.
It was a great spot, as Stephen had mentioned in the briefing, to just sit down and enjoy the experience. As I walked up the rocky path, the sky opened up even more, revealing a beautiful blue sky, and creating wonderful reflections in the water. I picked out a good rock to sit down on - one strategically near a penguin walking path.
As mentioned before, a lot of the Gentoos are still young and pretty curious. Many of them were down by the water practicing their swimming. Others were just walking around investigating things. If you sat in one spot long enough, and were still enough, there was a better than average chance they'd come over and check you out. I watched as a pair of younglings walked up to an older gentleman and looked to be questioning him. After about five minutes of resting on my rock, a visitor came calling.
I was sitting near one of the staff members, Shannon, who was standing on a large stone about ten feet away. A young Gentoo came waddling towards us, moving cautiously with his head high and his flippers back for balance. He was curious about Shannon's backpack, lying near the rock she was atop, which he walked up to and checked out with a few sniffs and pecks. After sufficiently inspecting it, he turned to me. I was sitting with my arms around my knees, trying to look a little more compact than I naturally am. He wandered over, testing the air and stepping gingerly. He stopped about a foot away, and leaned over - sniffing and bobbing his head, grazing my jacket with his beak a couple times. He stared and blinked and leaned toward me for two or three minutes. Then, apparently bored with these new arrivals, he wandered off down a little path. It was a really great experience. Something I won't forget anytime soon.
I walked around the beach a little, watching the penguins playing in the water along the beach. About 100 feet out in the water, a little pack of 4-5 seals was swimming parallel to the beach. Now fur seals really don't care about penguins. We've seen plenty of them on this trip already. They are relatively small, and most of the time are just lying around on the beach. We've seen penguins and fur seals walking around each other like people on a city street. Leopard seals, however, are pretty large and fast with a serpentine appearance. They think penguins taste like chicken. As I mentioned before, one of them even got a little lunch earlier during this landing. Apparently the quintet in the water were leopards, for as soon as the penguins saw the first glimpse of the pack, they were heading up the beach.
Soon it was again time to head back to the Zodiacs. I walked slowly back, investigating some old whale bones on the shore. Whale bones. Once in a while I'd stop to think about where I was and what I was seeing. I was in the Antarctic dodging penguins, watching seals swim around icebergs and examining whale bones. I couldn't help but smile to myself.
Due to my meandering and reluctance to leave, I was yet again in the last boat. We headed back toward the ship, gliding slowly by a beautiful white-blue iceberg floating between the shore and the boat. Someone spotted the head of a seal near in the shadow of the ice. Sonya, our Zodiac driver, is as excited about this stuff as we are, so she turned us around to investigate. About the same time, the leopard seal looked at us lazily and started swimming toward the boat. When we got to within 50 feet or so, slipped completely under the water. We stopped, floating near the ice - everyone searching the water.
We were about ready to give up. Sonya had even started turning the motor a bit. I was sitting on the right-hand side of the Zodiac, and was answering a question someone next to me had by pointing something out off in the distance to the right, when a streak of beige/grey leapt out of the water not three feet from my side of the boat, near my outstretched hand. "Holy Sh...
As with all things of this nature, I again entered "Matrix Time" as I tried to comprehend seeing this seal in the air next to me. First, he was freakin' huge. We learned in a lecture that they can get up to four meters long. This guy was probably pretty close to that. Second, he was a little too close for comfort. It's not like he was trying to hit the boat or aiming to bite my hand off, but he was pretty much close enough. Third, they can really jump - I should imagine he was a good 5-6 feet out of the water before flopping back down to the surface with a splash.
Time returned to normal, and I heard Sonya yelling to me in her German accent, "Watch your hands, watch your hands!" He succeeded in pretty much scaring the hell out of everyone on the boat - as I looked around to find gaping mouths, wide eyes, and half-frightened smiles on the faces of the rest of my passengers.
For the next five minutes or so, he played with us - surfacing on one side of the boat, then disappearing for 30 seconds before jumping out on the other side. It was a tremendous feeling. And tremendously hard to get a good picture. It wasn't like he thought we were food, or that he was trying to scare us away. He was really, actually playing. At one point, he started towards the left side of the Zodiac from a good distance out - going faster and faster, closing the gap quicker and quicker, then dipped under the water at the last second. We all turned to look for him on the other side. He never came. Then suddenly, he leapt out of the water on the same side he'd approached from, making a big splash. Everyone started laughing. "Oohh - he's a nasty one" Sonya said with a smile.
Back on board, we had lunch as the boat made its way to Neko Harbor. I went back up on deck to watch us pass by the beautiful rocks and ice. The weather was absolutely beautiful. The sun was shining strong, and there were only a few fluffy, white clouds in the sky. The water was almost perfectly calm as we came to a stop and dropped anchor, creating a mirror for the surrounding rock and glaciers. As I mentioned when I started writing about Antarctica - It's impossible to describe the scene. I'll never with a thousand words do it justice.
It was quite a moment for me as I swung my legs over the side of the Zodiac and set foot on the land. I was now standing on Antarctica. Not an island, or a nearby volcano; the actual continent itself. A few steps up the beach I slipped off my glove and knelt down to grab a handful of the sand on the shore. I let it fall slowly fall between my fingers, etching these moments in my mind.
The landing site was absolutely beautiful. Everything this morning's landing at Cuverville Island was and more. The shore was covered with smooth grey pebbles, and rose quickly into a rocky hill covered in snow. A small orange-colored Argentinean "safe house" was standing nearby on small plateau of stone near the shore. Tall peaks surrounded the entire area, home to innumerable glaciers. Large icebergs floated throughout the water as the sun created surreal reflections in the calm water between them. From time to time we could hear what sounded like thunder. Icebergs were calving off glaciers in the distance. It was incredible.
As would be expected, there were a large number of Gentoos all around us. They too seemed to be enjoying the good weather. Many of them were sitting up on rocks looking out into the bay.
We were free to walk around the majority of the shore, and even up the hill behind it. I climbed past the safe house, and up a little river of snow where some others had gone. Near the top of a little ridge was a large, sloped bank of pristine, untouched snow. I like everyone else, found a little spot in the snow and sat down. It was a perfect place to view the entire bay. We could see the Explorer out in the water, looking small against the scene. To the right a large glacier was gleaming blue and white in the bright sunlight. To the left, high peaks were covered with beautiful white snow. It was spectacular.
About 5 minutes later, we heard the crackling thunder of another glacier calving. This one was close - it was really loud, and just to our right. We whipped our heads and cameras around to the source, of course missing the actual calving, but seeing the resulting splashes and mist. It was still a very cool sight.
For the next few minutes, we all stared at the glacier, willing it to calve again so we could take some pictures, and see it happen. The Antarctic equivalent of staring at boiling water - nothing happened. However, turning my attention back to the display in front of me, it was truly wonderful just to sit there in the snow, watching the reflections in the harbor. This moment was truly one of the highlights of the entire trip.
Eventually, I headed back down toward the landing site. I was also pretty excited about the Zodiac cruise. A few people had already started - two or three Zodiacs visible in and around the icebergs. True to form, I was in the last group of people to go. There were just two boats remaining at the landing site, one of which was half-full of people already. Stephen was on shore, holding on to the empty boat while supervising the cleaning of boots. His wife, Heidi, was holding on to the other Zodiac as people hopped in.
I put my boots in to the "Guano-matic" and was walking near the second Zodiac when we heard the nearby glacier crack again. It happens so fast - we again missed the actual ice falling, but saw the resulting spray. It was so cool, and everyone was excited. All of us, including Stephen and Heidi, were staring at the glacier, waiting, hoping it would do it again.
Just as we were turning away, it complied. A huge chunk of ice gave a terrific crack and started sliding down the face of the glacier, taking more and more pieces with it.
It plunged into the water, creating an enormous explosion of misty white. It was truly awesome.
We were all smiles, excited faces all around. Then I saw the wave. A dark edge at the surface of the water near the glacier face rose around the site of the splashing. And it was getting bigger. You could see it moving quickly against the ice and rock in the distance.
Stephen and Heidi sprung into action - Heidi jumping into the Zodiac already filled with people. Stephen pushed her out into the water. At the same time, Stephen was yelling calmly, but sternly, to those of us on land: "Please move up the shore, please move up the shore!" The black ridge was getting closer. I could hear Heidi's engine start, and then saw them move into open water. Stephen then pushed on the front of the remaining boat and jumped in. He started his engine, and motored out a little way into the bay.
The five or six of us still on the land moved a few meters up the beach. Chunks of ice between us and the glacier were rising and dropping sharply as the wave got to them. The wave hit the land about 200 yards up the shore from us - the penguins still on the beach made a mad dash as the water came crashing in. A few of them got bounced around by the last of the wave. Seeing this, we all moved up a few more feet. But really, how big could it be? By the time it hit the shore in front of us, it had crested and turned over on itself, eating up a good 15-20 feet of land before receding. It certainly would have knocked us around on the rocks had we not moved. It was exhilarating.
The water calmed after a few minutes, and Stephen and Heidi returned to pick us up. We were all smiles, as was Stephen. After we jumped in and were on our way, I asked him if he'd ever seen anything like that before. He said yes, but not while in a Zodiac. He added in his Australian accent, "Just think what would happen if a big piece had fallen off!"
We then cruised around the harbor - buzzing around the calm water and zipping by 20-30 foot tall icebergs in our Zodiac. About five minutes into the cruise, Stephen spotted the dorsal fin of a Minke whale. We went to investigate. It surfaced several times, leading us on a little chase. In one of our lectures, we learned Minkes are notorious for being quite deceptive - able to hold their breath for long periods of time and prone to changing directions underwater. Our marine mammal specialist told us this made them especially tough to hunt during the whaling blitz in the early 20th century, and thusly they are in greater number than any other whale species in this area today.
Anyway, as you might expect, we lost our Minke, and were about to give up, when someone spotted two more in the distance. We pursued them, watching them surface, then diving, but fortunately moving pretty consistently in one direction. As we watched, two became three. Then five. About that time I looked back at Stephen, who was already looking over his shoulder. Right (and I mean - Directly) behind us was the Minke we had been following earlier. He was dead on us and would have run right into our propeller had he not arched his back into a dive right under our boat. Stephen yelled "Whoah!" It was fun to see him with an excited, surprised smile on his face.
By this time, our group of whales had grown to eight, then finally ten. They were all lined up right in front of us like they were swimming in formation. Truly amazing.
About 30 seconds later, the one that just buzzed us surfaced right in front of the line of ten. Eleven Minke whales in one pack. Awesome. Stephen admitted later he'd never seen anything like that himself. Then, living up to their reputation, they all dove and disappeared. We waited and waited, circling the entire area - incredibly, they never surfaced, never came back. I don't know how you can lose that many whales, but we did.
We cruised around the icebergs in the bay for another hour or so. It was spectacular (You'll have to forgive me - I realize I'm using a log of the same descriptors - I'm running out of words. I told you it would be tough). A call came over Stephen's hand held radio from another Zodiac asking if we could extend the cruise for a bit. We all agreed. Stephen just smiled and radioed all the boats that we'd push dinner back an extra half hour. Sweet. It was one of those moments you don't want to end.
The extra thirty minutes passed by in no time. I could have stayed in the boat for another two hours. However, we slowly headed back towards the Explorer. We'd motored around for a good while, and were now quite a distance out from it. Looking at the ship from this point made it seem so very, very small. A monstrous glacier loomed right behind our tiny boat, offering some perspective on our place in this wilderness. It was humbling to say the least.
Once on board, we were treated to hot chocolate with a little Bailey's and/or whiskey out on the back deck while watching the sun set over the bay. It was a wonderful moment - one that's impossible to put into words.