Whales, seals, and penguins, Oh my!

We’ve spent the past five wonderful days cruising around the Antarctic peninsula looking for the best places to see the amazing and diverse wildlife Antarctica has to offer. Some notable sightings have included a pod of killer whales, leopard seals, snow petrels (for all you birders out there), elephant seals, and as you can imagine, tons of penguins. It’s been a fantastic experience getting up close and person to these animals as many of them are not shy towards humans and will let you approach them to within a few feet. Occasionally, the curious ones will even approach you if you are sitting still enough. I was fortunate when I spent about an hour off on my own by one of the penguin colonies and three young,  inquisitive chicks came up to me, admiring me as if I were some alien from half the world away.  

Yesterday our course led us through a lot of ice, which was really entertaining as our ship smashed its way through the frozen channel. It was fun, at least, until the captain reported later that night that we had damaged the ship’s hull and were taking on water. This was the first time in this ship’s history that its hull had been broken, so I was rather amused. I watched as divers frantically gathered welding equipment and plunged into the freezing Antarctic waters as they attempted to repair the side walls. It only took about two hours to patch everything up and get moving again, which was a relief because in my opinion, the best part of the trip is still ahead (South Georgia)!

Today we actually LANDED on elephant island. This is a monumental occasion – our expedition leader, who has been to Antarctica 98 times now, has only landed here three times in the past! The weather conditions here are often horrendous, and because this island is the farthest north in the Shetland Island chain, it tends to get battered by the strong winds and waves that burden the Drake Passage (the roughest passage of sea in the world, which extends between the southern tip of South America to the Antarctic peninsula). We were extremely fortunate, however, to have blue skies and calm seas as we set sail today, which permitted us to make a landing on elephant island! It was exciting if not for the wildlife then for the history that surrounds this island, which played a significant role in Shakelton’s amazing story of endurance and survival.

Today we set sail yet again, heading north towards South Georgia Island. This, for me, will be the highlight of the trip as we will get to experience the king penguins, which number by the thousands along the shoreline. But now, a two day steam through the eastern part of the Drake – I’m keeping my fingers crossed for good weather and flat seas!

Although forty foot waves and 50mph winds do make for quite an adventure….[gallery]