Tag Archives: Leopard Seal

Summers End

The past few days in Antarctica have seen some dramatic changes. Just ten days ago we were basking in sunlight and calm days. Ever since land reared out from a turgid sea on this trip we have been accosted by strong winds, steel grey skies and a constant mix of drizzle and sleet. The penguin colonies and mires of mud and guano with only a hand full of penguins standing miserably in a pile of feather as they shed the bedraggled growth of the last year in preparation for the comming winter. The gloomy conditions are relieved by huge numbers of humpback whales congregating to mop up the last of the summers krill, and also by the fat looking leopard seals and orcas rilled to bursting on the easy snacks made from young penguins taking to the water for the first time. With season turning all around us we are also fleeing the approaching winter also and we are now bound for the North with only two more days before we leave the frozen continent to it’s seasons slumber. There are still many exciting excersions ahead but there is definitely a feeling of farewell upon us at present.

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The best zodiac cruise ever

Today we started out with a glorious landing at Orne Harbour – a steep climb up to a chinstrap penguin colony 90 m above a mirror calm ocean reflecting a perfectly clear blue sky and the white capped peaks all around. Resting amidst the clamour of the penguins, it was hard to contemplate that the day could get better….

…until we launched the zodiacs in Wilhelmina Bay. After lunch the clouds had drawn in to cast the bay in steel grey light but immediately upon nosing the boat into the brash ice lining the bay the deep bass bellow of humpback whale blows resounded from the glaciers and we watched avidly as two whales crashed through the jumble of ice before making their way into deeper water. Leaving these leviathans to watch a basking leopard seal we were soon diverted by a pair of dwarf minke whales which played around the zodiac for 15 minutes and swam below us in the clear water looking up as they pondered these odd visitors to their domain.

But the minke whales where simply the warm up. Ten minutes later we found two more humpback whales that were fascinated by our cruise ship. They circled the ship for what seemed an age spy-hopping to gain a better view of what must seem a rather strange apparition in these icy waters. At one point they pushed their noses out of the water and seemed to be seriously contemplating mounting the gangway to get the tour of the inside as well!

But this time there was a cluster of zodiacs around the action and before long these gently giants shifted their curiosity to the smaller black zodiacs. What ensued was two hours that will be etched into my memory forever. As we drifted with a gentle breeze the whales moved from zodiac to zodiac paying each of us a visit and giving us all a thorough inspection. The whales lay on their sides gazing up at us from 3o cm below the water with their pectoral fins waiving above us. They pushed their nose above the water to eye level and gazed at us from the air to see if we made more sense above the water than below. They scratched their back on the bottom of our boats, they pushed against the side of the boat as if requesting a scratch, and they thoroughly covered all the spectators in a thick coating of whale snot as they sent jets of water towards us accompanied by the deep sound of a whale blow at close quarters.

After many years of working in Antarctica this was an experience that will redefine the “zodiac cruise”. It is hard to imagine it could get better!

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Paradise Harbor

Today we had a glorious day in Antarctica with blue skies and white ice cradled in a mirror like sea that reflected  the peaks surrounding Paradise Harbor. The bay was filled with sea ice and I spent hours weaving in and out of the dense ice flows and circling the chunks of ice to view the lounging leopard seals that seemed to be parked on every second flat piece of ice. The glacier in Skontorp Cove was shedding ice regularly in spectacular crashes that sent chunks of ice the size of houses rolling into the calm seas and breaking the mirrored surface in rolling waves that spread out to us just in time to awake us from the awed stupor that witnessing the birth of bergs imparts. The highlight of the day though, was certainly a pod of Orca that slipped through the still waters of the Errera Channel and casually inspected the zodiac before swimming beneath and disappearing with the sure certainty that we were not food. Another fantastic day!

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The full monty

The highlight of today was a zodiac cruise in Cierva Cove. Started off in windy weather with a decent surge and I admit that it looked to be an uninspiring cruise with no wildlife despite the amazing scenery of glaciers and sheer cliffs covered with moss (a feature which has warranted special area status for the region).

But within ten minutes of leaving the ship I discovered a humpback whale cruising amidst the iceberg. What followed was 15 minutes of excitement as the whale breached and played within 15 meters of the zodiac. Pretty heady stuff, but eventually I decided to leave the whale to its own devises and find out what else the area had to  offer. Ten minutes later I was sidled up to a leopard seal pup on an ice flow and watched as it yawned and slipped silently into the mess of brash ice covering the water. Apparently the pup was a little concerned by the ominous black zodiac checking it out and communicated the fact to his mum who promptly turned up and put on a show as she circled the zodiac and swam beneath us to see exactly what was threatening her young pup, Absolutely amazing to see these graceful predators up close and see the elegance of these killers swimming through the icy waters.

These highlights were followed with more fantastic Antarctic wildlife. Penguins porpoising and flying rocketing out of the water to land on icebergs … or occasionally to miss their mark and ricochet of the ice and back into the water. Groups of crabeater and weddell seals lounging on icebergs. Wilsons storm petrels skimming small crustaceans off the surface of the water … and many more of the sights that make the Antarctic one on the most spectacular wildernesses on the planet.

Definitely a good day….

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Contrasts and Carnage

Today we spent the day in the Antarctic Sound with a spectacular sunrise heralding a clear morning that seemed to erase the memory of the furious winds we were battling yesterday. The crisp brown rocks of Brown Bluff stood starkly on a field of white snow and glaciers and beckoned us to touch ground again finally after three days at sea with wind and waves preventing us from reaching any landings.

Once onshore, we were greeted by hordes of Adelie penguins with a good number of Gentoo penguins thrown in for good measure. After walking around the colony for a few minutes we were greeted with the sight of the first chicks of the season. Of course everyone love the cute chicks peeking out from the nests and receiving their regular dose of regurgitated krill from their parents …but even more exciting is the fact that we were seeing the next generation of leopard seal food!

Prowling around the beach were at least three leopard seals waiting for the chance to pounce on an unwary penguin. One study has shown that just two leopard seals can consume as many as 15.000 penguins over a 15 month period! At Brown bluff we saw these statistics heading toward fruition with at least two separate penguin kills observed – watching a seal thrashing a penguin on the surface to remove the delicate flesh from the unpalatable skin and feathers is not everyone’s cup of tea but it is certainly thrilling to watch the drama of life in Antarctica play out to the ultimate (and bloody) end. Even more surprising was the chance to watch a full grown leopard seal devour a young weddell seal that was about half the length of the predator. More carnage again but the feast was attended by clouds of cape petrels and Wilson’s storm petrels picking up the scraps –  the ecological system here is all interconnected and while one feels compelled to barrack for the underdog, the penguins are certainly a serious part of the life cycle of all the other animals that make up the system.

A glorious morning onshore was followed by raising winds and swell that drove us out of any further landings, but after several hours on shore watching nature in its most raw form there were no complaints from anyone. It’s a land of contrasts and occasional carnage but one thing is certain – Antarctica never fails to deliver excitement!

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Seal Attack

It’s been a busy couple of days in Antarctica with no time to blog! Yesterday we sailed away from the storm at Deception Island and into the sunshine and calm seas of the Antarctic Peninsula. Ice all around and seals lying like lumps of lard on every available space. Orcas were circling the seals and krill were swarming.

The ice stopped us from reaching our destination but provided the opportunity to cruise in some spectacular scenery … soon the zodiacs were launched and we were walking amidst the penguins and zipping in amongst the ice flows to see the seals. Crabeater seals yawned and blinked at the strange intrusion but the most excitement came from a lounging leopard seal I spotted. I pulled the zodiac up to the ice and watched with awe as the powerful beast examined the strange sight of a fully laden zodiac eyeballing it from a distance of five meters across the ice … and then decided to take a closer look.

In fact, the beast charged across until it was a mere meter away before the ice gave way and deposited the animal (in a rather ungraceful manner) in the water …but not before the seal bumped it’s head on the side of the boat! Pandemonium ensues with screaming passengers and people jumping onto the floor of the boat. Meanwhile the leopard seal circled underneath, nudged the side of the boat and then worked out we weren’t worth the effort. Five minuted later she gracefully leapt from the water and resumed her slumber on the same chunk of ice … back on the boat hearts still thumped and the grins were spread from ear to ear.

Then back to the mother ship, some spectacular whale sightings with humpbacks feeding off the bow of the ship and thumping their huge tails in a spray of spume against the backdrop of the snowy peaks of the peninsula.

A quick cruise to the next landing, and an impromptu decision to camp on the continent for the night saw us scrambling to get all our gear ready, and ultimately saw me leading a group of thirty nervous passengers on their first night on the ice. Portal Point offered panoramic views of the icy waters and was a wonderful place to sleep under the stars with a light flurry of snow settling on the slumbering shapes of the shore party. There is certainly no better bedroom than Antarctica!

Right now we have completed another day of landing in scenery that is staggering even after years of working in Antarctica, and are now heading into the Drake Passage and back to Ushuaia. The seas are calm and the whole ship is partying. It’s always a little sad to leave the ice .. but then again, I’ll be back in a few days!!

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Today we started with a quick landing at Useful Island which is a small island in the Gerlache Strait that is home to Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins – there are leopard seals patrolling the beach and big fat Weddell seals lounging on the snow and over all it is a pretty relaxed landing with a view of the spectacular scenery surrounding the Gerlache Strait. After that it was into Paradise Harbour, which is very aptly named given the fantastic scenery and rugged glaciers, and finally a BBQ with dance and music on the back deck with just a dusting of snow to remind us where we are: the coolest place on Earth.

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Sunstroke in the coldest continent

It has been a blazing hot day here in Antarctica with melt water streaming off glaciers and the sun beating relentlessly on our poor Antarctic suntans (i.e. white skin).We started the day in the Argentine Islands which are a complex maze of twisting passages and islands that are spectacular fun to drive through on a zodiac… and on the way there are several seasoned yachties with their yachts parked in out of the way coves amidst ice flows and piles of crabeater seals. Doubtlessly they have converged on the spot to sample the home distilled vodka of the nearby Vernadsky Station run by the Ukrainians. How I long to be down here on a day like this in Widdershins with Léonie by my side! But I guess being down here at all is not so bad at all! We finished the day with a long cruise on our little rubber boats in amidst the icebergs of Plenau Bay with elephant seals and Weddel seals on the beach and every ice flow crowded with crab eater seals and the occasional sinister form of a leopard seal contemplating which of the crabeaters will be its next meal. Now its time for my own meal but its hard to drag yourself away from the spectacular scenery passing by.

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24 November 2010

Woke at the crack of dawn.. but dawn is less of a crack and more of a gaping chasm here in Antarctica and lasts for hours …despite this I caught at least the first half of dawn when I dragged myself out of bed at 4:00 to jump in a small rubber boat to charge around icebergs. Minutes later I’m hanging from a crane 25m above the water and descending into the cold ice waters with seals, penguins and whales on my mind.

The first stop was Orne Harbour where I cruised past chinstrap penguins and leopard seal…then a quick dash up to Cuverville Island to see the largest Adelie penguin colony on the Antarctic Peninsula, and finally a landing and hike at Neko Harbour. The last is a particular favorite of mine with a churning glacier descending into a tranquil Bay populated by Gentoo penguins. The Glacier is fast and furious …by glacial standards, and drops icebergs frequently. Today a HUGE carving happened that sent a wave right up over the beach. I was onshore and though I avoided the worst we lost a bit of gear and I spent the rest of the landing wet up to my waist. Still …a great landing. I blazed the trail for the long walk up to

the ridge and then to the next bay where there were about seven Weddel seal asleep. I managed top get 20 minutes sitting alone on the beach listening to the Weddels sing in thier sleep accompanied by the trumpetting of Gentoo penguins.

A beautiful place to be working.

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