The Antarctic Circle, Booth Island and Paradise Harbour


South of the Antarctic Circle

Saturday, Feb 1st

We are woken by the announcement that we are 30 minutes away from crossing the Antarctic circle. This is not something they can do on every trip, only when the conditions are good enough can they get this far south. So we quickly put on some clothes and go up to the bridge to watch the GPS coordinates slowly tick up to 66 degrees and 33.7 minutes south, which is the current latitude of the Antarctic circle. (It changes by a small amount every year due to the slight wobble in the earth’s tilt.) Afterwards we have a quick breakfast and then get dressed warmly to stand outside. The weather is quite bad today, it is about 1 degree and snowing outside. We have now reached an area full of fairly dense floating sea ice. The National Geographic Explorer is not a fully fledged icebreaker, but it seems to have no problems cutting through these huge chunks of floating sea ice. It truly feels like we have reached the end of the world.

There are lots of seals lying on the sea ice, and when we reach the edge of the ice, we get a very excited announcement from the trip leader, that they have spotted an Emperor penguin ahead of us. This is something very special. Emperor penguins are usually found much further inland or out at sea, and it is very rare that you get to see one on these trips at this time of the year. The captain takes the ship right up against the sea ice wall in front of the penguin. He (I call him a he, but with penguins it’s impossible to tell the sex from afar) doesn’t seem to be too bothered by the huge ship full of people taking hundreds of pictures of him. He just walks around near the edge of the ice occasionally lying down and sliding along on his belly. We watch him for about half an hour before they turn the ship around and we go back up north through more dense floating sea ice.

Later that night in the daily wrap-up talk we are told again how lucky we are, as very few people in the world ever get to see an Emperor penguin in the wild. Along the way we see more seals and a few small Adelie penguins on the ice. Adelie and Emperor penguins are the only two true Antarctic species of penguins, meaning they live mainly inside the Antarctic circle on the mainland, and they nest on the ice, while all the other species nest on rocks or sand. We go north for a little while and then turn further south into Lallemand Fjord. We go as far as the edge of the sea ice lets us and reach the furthest southern point of our trip at 67 degrees 6.75min south.

In the afternoon we stop near an abandoned British research station on a small rocky island, called Detaille Island. One of the naturalists takes the Zodiac out to assess whether we can do a land outing, but it turned out that the snow was too deep for us to get out, so we continue going further up north.

We have a couple more interesting presentations in the afternoon, one on Antarctic oceanography by Paul Berkman, one on ice and glaciers, and a photography lecture by the two National Geographic photographers on board. In the evening and through the night we make our way back up north, going around the outside of Lavoisier and Renaud Island.


Pleneau Island and Booth Island

Sunday, Feb 2nd

A slightly earlier wake up call today, to tell us that there is a humpback whale right in front of the boat. He is very close to the boat but seems to be "logging" (which is the term used for whales sleeping). We only see his back and he is blowing out air every couple of minutes.

We are near Pleneau Island and Booth Island, next to the Lemaire Channel, and today we get off the boat again. We first go on a Zodiac cruise through an area they call the iceberg graveyard, because lots of very large icebergs from the mainland are blown into this bay and then get stuck on the seafloor. There are lots of seals, mostly crabeaters, lying on the icebergs.

                                An Ice Sphinx

After about an hour of Zodiac cruising we switch with the other group and go on land to another large Gentoo penguin colony. We walk up to the top of the rocks for a great view over the bay.

During lunch we pass through the Lemaire Channel again, this time from the southern side. There is a lot more floating ice in the channel now, than there was two days ago. As well, there is an abundance of wildlife, which makes it difficult to have lunch, since we have to jump up and take pictures or run outside every couple of minutes. There are lots of seals and penguins on the ice floes, and we see the backs of at least five minke whales.

                                                                                                                 Lemaire Channel

Paradise Harbour

In the afternoon the ship makes is way to Paradise Harbour. The captain anchors the ship right up against a rock wall. We go on a Zodiac cruise through Paradise Bay. In the steep rock wall we see lots of Antarctic shags nesting. There is also a Argentinean research station here. The Antarctic Peninsula is claimed by Britain, Argentina, and Chile. So, they all try to support their territorial claims by maintaining research stations here. 

This turns out to be a particularly exciting Zodiac cruise, because we get to see our first leopard seal, which is resting on an ice floe. It does not seem to be bothered by us, and we get some great shots of its huge head, and see its sharp teeth when it yawns. Leopard seals are the bad guys among the seals and after killer whales they are the top predator in Antarctica. Leopard seals eat penguins and other baby seals. In order to get rid of the penguin feathers before they eat them, they grab the penguin and shake it with such violent force that the penguin is literally turned inside out. (We see some gruesome pictures of that later in the evening during a lecture on leopard seals.)

We spend the whole evening after dinner on the bridge as we sail into a beautiful sunset (which happens around 11pm here) towards Port Lockroy.

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