Elephant Island is a haven for penguins and seals

Leaving South Georgia and heading down to the Antarctic Peninsula is a major crossing. We had reports that we were likely to hit a storm and this would mean that we wouldn’t be attempting to land at the South Orkney Islands.  Instead we headed directly for Elephant Island.

antarctica adventures

Elephant Island was the place that Shackleton left the majority of his crew when he made the journey to South Georgia in search of rescue. Crossing the Scotia Sea brings home the hardship and enormity of the voyage they made in a rowing boat. For us weathering the storm was uncomfortable, but we still had all the creature comforts of the expedition ship.

Elephant Island is another haven for penguins and seals. Leopard seals bask on the rocks and we had a rare sighting of a group of fur seal pups (apparently this is not their normal breeding area). Chinstrap penguins can be seen swimming in the small bays and a group of Macaroni penguins have also made this their home for the season. Our zodiac cruise gave us the opportunity to get close to the wildlife both on land and in the sea.

Having lost almost a day due to the storm in the Scotia Sea crossing, the schedule is changed and instead of spending time on the South Shetland Islands we start to make our way south to the Antarctic Circle. Travelling through the Bransfield Strait we make land at Spert Island. This is a very small island on the edge of Trinity Island at the beginning of the Gerlache Strait.

Ice. And more Ice. Nothing is more beautiful than seeing an iceberg close up. Every single one is different. Different shapes, different colours, different density. Our zodiac cruise at Spert Island provided the most stunning opportunity to see icebergs from sea level and every angle. There is also a lot of bird life with cape petrels nesting in the cliffs and a few penguins balancing on the ice. The land also provided some stunning photographic opportunities with high mountains and snow covered peaks.

Portal Point is on the continent of Antarctica and our first actual landing on the continent itself. This landing saw us climbing up a fairly steep snow covered slope to a high point over the bay. The views are spectacular and from the top you can see down into two separate bays with numerous icebergs and also a glacier. Back at the landing area there is a rocky promontory where you can sit and watch the penguins and a few Weddell seals.

From here to the Circle via the Gerlache Strait there is more and more ice.  Lots of icebergs, including some immense tabular bergs and a great deal of smaller pieces and sea ice.   Actually crossing the Circle is an emotional moment with everyone on deck counting down until the moment the GPS gives the exact coordinates and the Captain blows the ships horn. For all of us this was one of the major achievements of the voyage.

And this was the point where a number of brave souls decided to take their ‘polar plunge’. This is simply throwing yourself off the disembarkation point of the ship into the icy waters of the Southern Ocean (zero degrees at this point)! The crew ties a harness round each person to ensure that there is no mishap. For everyone else who decides that it is not a smart move, there is a lot of encouragement for, and taking of photographs of, those who do.

With perfect weather we are able to make a stop at Pléneau Bay – known also as the iceberg grave yard. This is an area where very many icebergs either drift with the currents or are blown by the weather and become grounded. There are the most spectacular range of colours and shapes, from deep blues through to light greens, and many having intricate ‘carvings’ both inside and out. Our zodiac cruise also gives us the opportunity to get close to a Minke whale, many groups of swimming penguins and a couple of leopard seal lying on the ice. With the amazing backdrop of Pléneau Island’s snow covered mountains in the background this is a stunning area to spend time in.

The Lemaire Channel is one of those iconic Antarctic places. It is a very narrow channel with huge mountains on either side and icebergs floating in the middle. It is often completely frozen in and not navigable, but we have luck on our side and we are able to sail through stunning scenery and picture perfect weather.

Our next landing at Damoy Point is just around the bay from Port Lockroy. With the winds picking up the landing is more difficult than previous ones and with deep snow the hike up to the high point between the landing bay and Port Lockroy bay is challenging. Although it is possible to see the buildings at Port Lockroy (Penguin Post Office, small museum and shop which are only manned during summer months) it is frustrating for most of us that we haven’t been able to land there. This is one place where most people want to send postcards home and so it is arranged that our cards will be taken to the post office and we hope to see them at some time in the future!

At Damoy Point there are a large number of gentoo penguins in several colonies which are all easily accessible. This means that you can choose a colony and sit with them for a while without all the passengers being in the same place. The deep snow all around the area made walking difficult and sinking in, up to, or above, your knees is a regular problem. But it can be an even bigger problem for the penguins who don’t have the ability to get out of our ‘post holes’ if they fall in. This means that every time you sink deep into the snow you need to backfill the hole to protect the penguins. And this can be very slow going.

Arriving at the landing on Danco Island we were met by a strange sight.  Hundreds of small ‘bergy bits’, (chunks of ice which are not big enough to be ice bergs), which had been blown onto shore and become stuck when the tide went out. This gave us an amazing opportunity to get really close to some ice. There were also a number of penguins on the beach and we also spotted humpback whales in the bay.

The hike at this landing goes up to the top of the one kilometre wide island, giving a 360 degree view of the whole area. The route goes past a gentoo penguin colony (with one solitary adelie trying to make a nest!) and crosses two penguin highways. These are the routes the penguins take though the snow to get up and down between the sea and their nesting sites. It is possible to get very close to the penguins as they march up and down the hillside with extraordinary determination considering they really don’t appear to have the right body shape for the task in hand. But they certainly seemed to manage the climb far better than most of us in our heavy boots and many layers of clothing.

Our final landing on the continent is at Neko Harbour. This is the most perfect picture postcard setting. An almost enclosed bay with tide water glaciers, high mountains and icebergs. It was a difficult decision to leave the ship to go ashore as the landing site didn’t look as though it would provide anything more interesting than the view from the ship. How wrong can you be?

Several colonies of Gentoo penguins are within an easy walk of the landing site. They were all sitting on eggs since this is much further south than the colonies we had seen earlier in the voyage where the chicks had already hatched. There is a walk to a high point, but for the effort it took, it didn’t offer any better views than there were from the ship or along the shore line.

There is a long rocky beach giving the most spectacular views of the whole area, including the glacier which rumbles and often has avalanches or calvings, and also provides views of the penguins going into and returning from the sea.

This is an amazingly peaceful place. There is the opportunity to get away from fellow passengers for a while so you can take in the scenery and watch the antics of the penguins and the skuas trying to harass them on their nests. On the return to the ship we took a short zodiac cruise through the sea ice giving an opportunity to see into the many small inlets from the main bay.

Neko Harbour is exactly as you imagine Antarctica should look. It is the perfect place to see the final view of the continent and having been exceptionally lucky with almost clear blue skies this is the best memory to take away from the voyage.

Our final stops are at Deception Island.  The ship sails into the centre of a flooded caldera.  The entrance is through Neptune’s Bellows, a narrow gap in the outer cone of the volcano where the sea flooded in and a difficult transit for the ship’s Captain.

Telefon Bay at the furthest end from the entrance provides the opportunity to walk to the top of a cinder cone where the most recent volcanic activity took place in 1970. At the time there were several research stations within the caldera and these had to be evacuated during the eruption. Current research shows that there continues to be a great deal of seismic activity around the area.

There is a walk to a high point, mostly on a loose shale path, giving a view of the whole island. An extended walk then goes along part of the island and ends at the beach furthest away from the landing point. The beach has a number of chinstrap penguins but no obvious nesting sites. Additional interest is from the huge number of skuas which come onto the beach to pick up the Krill which has been washed up at high tide.

The bay nearest the entrance is Whalers Bay which as the name suggests used to be a major site for whalers and, at the height of the whaling era, there were many whaling boats which came ashore here to land and process their catches.  Later there was a whaling station, much of which still survives and it is possible to wander round the buildings which have now been derelict for many years and are the home to nesting Kelp gulls.

In good weather there is an extended hike from the beach up to a high point, this passes Neptune’s Window (a look out area where it is said the first ever view of the Antarctic Continent was made). This is a challenging hike and (certainly in poor visibility conditions) does not seem necessary except for the exercise, since there is plenty to see and do at beach level.

And finally we are back on the ship for the Drake Passage crossing. With fair weather and light winds this is a two day crossing. We hope to be able to take a slight detour and make our way via Cape Horn before finally reaching Ushuaia and the end of the most amazing voyage.

Photo Tips

Expect the unexpected on any landing or zodiac cruise.  On several occasions it didn’t seem as though wildlife was on the agenda yet it was often at the site.  Trying to be smart and leaving the telephoto or wide angle on board is bound to result in that lens being exactly what you want.

The variety of shapes, colours and size of the ice, whether that be in the form of glaciers, icebergs, bergy bits, or brash ice will keep you on your toes from a compositional perspective.  While on board ship a multitude of great compositions will come to mind.  Unless you are quick on the draw, however, the moving ship makes the composition impossible.  Think about using a longer focal length than might seem apparent at first.  Paradoxically, the vastness is harder to convey with a wide angle without getting the ship in the shot or, by virtue of how the ship needs to steer, without leaving the foreground blank and uninteresting.  A longer focal length (70mm or more) put s the viewer in the middle of the ice.

With icebergs, look for the details.  They are such fascinating objects that one could spend a day with one berg and not run out of possible shots.  The minutiae of intricate patterns within the ice, icicles hanging from the bergs, and the effects of waves washing over sections of the formation all create interesting pictures which help convey the beauty of these objects with greater effect than one which incorporates the whole iceberg.

Be aware of rapidly changing light conditions and clouds.  Mountains can be drenched in bright sunshine one minute, then partially covered by interesting cloud formations and shadows the next.  Two minutes later you could be forgiven for not knowing the mountain is even there.  If it looks interesting now, take the picture because five minutes from now the picture may not exist (although it can often be replaced by something equally as fascinating).

Accept that zodiac cruises are a complete luck of the draw in terms of where you get to sit, who the driver is, and who are your fellow companions.  One cruise seemed a complete write off as my field of view was less than 20 degrees and often blocked entirely by the ubiquitous yellow parka.  Despite being somewhat frustrated at not experiencing the glorious scenery to its full effect, upon reviewing the shots afterwards, however, some of the best pictures of icebergs and swimming penguins were obtained during that cruise.  It pays to persevere.  

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