And so finally we made it to what apparently is the highest, driest, coldest and windiest continent – Antarctica. And it isn’t difficult to add another superlative here – the most magical continent. One thing that truly was breath-taking (apart from the cold) was the huge scale which was almost impossible to capture in photographs. Just being there made you realise how largely insignificant we (humans) are: snow-capped mountains rose directly out of the icy water and there was so much space and peace. Obviously there aren’t that many visitors who have made it here – apparently in total there have only been about 140,000 visitors (including explorers, scientists and now tourists of course): that’s not that much when you consider the current world’s population currently stands at around 7.5 billion people.
But it’s not an uninhabited place of course. Here we met chinstrap penguins for the first time and reacquainted ourselves with gentoo penguins again. It was funny to watch these fellows nicking stones from each other: apparently this is part of their mating rituals – the males try to impress the females with their choice of stones (if you remind yourself that a diamond is a stone, perhaps we humans have something in common with gentoo penguins!).
Chinstrap penguins and chicks. R: Chinstraps throw their head up to the sky as part of their noisy mating signal.
Unfortunately due to ice blocking our route (a common hazard in these parts of the world!), we were unable to make it to Petermann Island where we had hoped to meet adelie penguins (who live only in the Antarctic region) and so (much like the macaroni penguins of South Georgia), these were a penguin species that got away from us. Never mind: maybe it provides us with a reason to return in the future? We knew that it was very unlikely that we would see any emperor penguins as they breed inland very far south in crazy weather conditions but still, all in all, we did get to see an awful lot of penguins on this trip.
Gentoo penguins and chicks. L: Warding off a potential attack by a skua; M: a careful selection of stones
As well as leopard seals, we saw crabeater seals and were treated to a fantastic display by a school of orca whales (also known as killer whales) who curiously approached our ship and played around it for about 20 minutes. The water was so clear that you could see them under the water as well as when they came up to the surface properly. A wonderful few minutes.
L: Crabeater seal; M: Leopard seal; R: Crabeater seal near the Antarctic Circle
Unlike the famous explorers before us, we were nowhere near the South Pole and stayed mainly on the South Shetland Islands and the Antarctic Peninsula although we did get as far south as the Antarctic circle (unsurprisingly there wasn’t a big red line in the ocean marking the spot, not least as this is a point that is always moving: apparently we had to travel 1.2 metres further south to reach the Antarctic Circle than we would have had to have done a month earlier). However, it was a cause for celebration on the boat and marked our most southerly point of the voyage.
L: The water became a lot icier once we were down by the Antarctic Circle; M & R: stunning iceberg formations off the Antarctic Peninsula