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Tag Archives: Weddell Seal
Early this morning we delicately twisted the huge hunk of steel that is our ship through the narrow and twisting leads in the ice that stretched across the narrow Lemaire Channel that separates the mainland of Antarctica from Booth Island. On either side the 800 meter channel the rock rises steeply in sheer cliffs and stretched before us was a tumbling array of sea ice and floating icebergs that taunted us in our ambition of driving further south for the day.
Eventually we made it through the channel only to be stopped by an impenetrable barrier of ice. One we had assessed our chances of proceeding we submitted to the power of the ice and checked our southerly passage for a morning of exploring the ice in zodiacs. Right now my left arm (the arm I drive with) is like jelly after having spent hours at the helm pushing the zodiac in amongst the bergs to discover seals and penguins hidden in the labyrinthine maze of leads and piled up ice.
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….
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!
At present we are anchored in the caldera of an active volcano in the South Shetland Islands. Deception Island was named after the fact that it took them a few times of sailing around the island before they discovered that through a narrow entrance named Neptunes bellows, you could sail into the empathy expanse of water that is, in fact, the crater of an active volcano. It could equally have been named for the fact that while the island seemed like a sleeping giant it was, in fact, rather a light sleeper. In just 30 years ago the island awoke and spewed pumice and ash all over the various scientific bases that have taken over from the whaling stations that set up shop here in the early 1900’s causing panic and the evacuation of all personnel.
The glacial record of ash deposits in the region suggests that this volcano does actually erupt every 30 years and the fact that the last catastrophic eruption was in the early 1970s is some cause for concern, but right now, it is a sheltered anchorage and a place to catch up on sleep after a very bust first day in the Antarctic.
We awoke at 6:00 for a early landing at Barrientos Island in the Aitcho group where we walked upon the fresh snow of the season amidst Chinstrap and Gentoo penguins with a few Weddell Seals thrown in for good measure. The landscape here is absorbing and I could spend hours immersed in the jagged rocky peaks, glaciers and icecaps if it wasn’t for the thousands of penguins constantly passing to and fro as they establishing their nests for the season… and it looks like it will be a great season as the gentoos are already proudly defending their eggs which last year at this time were merely a glint in the eye with many penguins being punished by heavy snowfalls and thus not laying until much later. However, this year the season looks good, and at our second landing of the day we were again greeted by hordes of chinstrap penguins getting ready for a busy season of raising chicks. A busy season ahead for me as well as I prepare for several months sailing around Antarctica, but a few moments amidst the grand scenery, vibrant life and strong smells (penguin colonies smell like ..well… guano) reminds me that this really is paradise.
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.
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.
Today I woke up early to prepare for a landing in Deception Island – the very alive volcano that is now about 5 years overdue for its somewhat regular 30-year eruption cycle. Unfortunately a peek out the porthole showed not the rocky crags and cliffs I was expecting but snow being blown in sheets across the water by strong winds. Looks like a landing was out of the question! Instead we turned tail and fled before the growing gale until we found shelter at Mikkelson Harbour on the southern side of Trinity Island. As soon as we jumped in the Zodiacs the weather turned crystal clear and the clouds pealed back to expose blue sky over the glorious white ice of the Antarctic. Thus we had a long landing amidst gentoo penguins and a veritable slumber party of Weddell Seals all lazing on the snow banks happily digesting fish with only an occasional pause to scratch an itch. All up …not a bad day.
Just 5 days since we were last in Antartcica but it is a different world. Where last time it was grey windy and waves crashed on the black shore this time the sky is a vivid blue dome covering a crystal clear sea – the ice is a brilliant white suffused with every shade of blue ever conceived. Days like these make Antarctica splendid. The highlight? Today it had to be lying on my stomach in the snow with the sun beating upon my back while I watched carving glaciers crash into the sea over the Weddel seals on the ice in front of me… or maybe cruising through a million sculpted icebergs in Cierva Cove … the down side? Well, I won’t complain too much about sunburn …
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.