On February 20, 2020, I embarked on a trip that has been on my bucket list for many years: Antarctica. With this trip under my belt, I have now set foot on all 7 continents. This has never been a goal so, in my wildest dreams, I never imagined that I would be saying that.
Along with 26 other southern Ontario photographers, I signed up for this trip through my good friend, James Cowie, and his company, Photo Tour Trekkers. Over the past 20+ years, James has hosted nearly 200 successful photo adventures around the world; however, this was his first Trekker tour to the Antarctic and I was very pleased to be part of the adventure. With James’ experience, attention to detail and his dedication to his ‘Trekkers’, I wasn’t disappointed.
First, a little information about Antarctica:
It is not a country, so it has no government. The continent is set aside as a scientific preserve and is governed internationally through the Antarctic Treaty, which was signed on December 1, 1959 by 12 nations: Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, UK, US and USSR. They control the continent’s tourism – number of ships, size of ships, number of people, etc., etc. I enjoyed this trip immensely and I’d go back in a heartbeat, but I couldn’t help but think that, despite the controls, we really do leave a huge footprint. I’d much rather see penguin footprints in the soft ice or snow than human footprints. Obviously, global warming is also leaving its footprint.
I guarantee you that, if you haven’t been there and you’re fortunate enough to experience it someday, you’ll feel some kinship with explorers like Roald Amundsen. You may not have been on an early exploration team, but you’ll definitely have your own thoughts about it and possibly discover something within yourself. It really is one of those life changing experiences; at least I think so.
But that’s enough of the philosophic stuff! On with the trip.
The first leg of the trip was with Air Canada to Santiago, Chile and, after a short stop for refuelling and cleaning, we continued on to Buenos Aires, where we spent the night in a downtown hotel.
We began the Antarctic part of the adventure the next day.
Unfortunately, although we had purchased an internet package for the entire voyage, the wifi signal wasn’t very strong on board, so I was able to post only a few photos during the trip and I wasn’t able to do a daily trip blog.
The big question: Are penguins birds?
Click on the Link Below to Enjoy a Very Entertaining Video from Hurtigruten
Hover Over the Photos to See the Title & Description
Click on the Photos for a Larger View & to Scroll Through
Day 3 & 4 – February 22 & 23: Buenos Aires – Ushuaia – At Sea
This is Day 3 of the trip and Day 1 of the Antarctic Adventure.
After breakfast at the hotel, we were bused to a smaller, domestic airport for the flight to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world and the capital of Tierra del Fuego, an Argentinian province. It is located in a wide bay on the southern coast of Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego, bounded on the north by the Martial mountain range and on the south by the Beagle Channel.
Upon arriving in Ushuaia, we were taken on a bus tour along the harbour, with a stop at the big Ushuaia sign. I was surprised to see that Ushuaia even has a casino along the harbour.
It was interesting to learn that Ushuaia, fin del mundo (end of the earth), was once a penal colony. The prison closed in 1947 and it is now a museum. People hired to clean the streets, parks, etc. dress in striped prisoner outfits. When we arrived in the city, we had an opportunity to walk around the streets, check out the shops and get some shots. A few of us stopped for a beer at a very friendly brew pub.
In the City
After a couple of hours, we boarded the bus again for the short drive to the ship, the MS Midnatsol, one of the ships in Norway’s Hurtigruten line. This was particularly fun for me, since I’ve been on the Midnatsol a couple of times cruising through northern Norway’s fjords between Stokmarknes and Stamsund, my home town in the Lofoten Islands. The ship’s passenger capacity is 970, but in the Antarctic, it is limited to 500.
My friend, Merle Cole, also from Oshawa, and I checked into cabin # 611, which was very handy to the exit to deck 6, which was open all around the ship. We wandered around the ship with one of our fellow Trekkers, Claude Gauthier, from Windsor.
At 7:00 PM, the ship headed out through the Beagle Channel toward the infamous Drake Passage. The sea was relatively calm so we were able to be out on the deck getting shots as we departed Ushuaia, the surrounding mountains and the birds following us, diving for food in the ship’s wake.
On Board the MS Midnatsol
The first order of business was for Merle and I to order the in-cabin wi-fi for the entire voyage. Next was to pick up our bright red waterproof and windproof jackets and, a little later, our rubber boots. To facilitate the cruising and landing logistics, all passengers were divided into different groups, designated by names of local wildlife; our group was ‘Wandering Albatross’, group 8. We attached a velcro patch showing the group name to our jacket arm.
Throughout the afternoon, all passengers had to sit through safety demonstrations and take part in a safety drill.
Later we gathered for dinner in the ship’s dining room. Throughout the trip, the Expedition Team members presented information in the theatre to inform us of upcoming activities.
Full disclosure: I get seasick! I’ve only ever thrown up on 1 trip, which was on calm water, but I sure do feel bad. I came equipped this time with a scopolamine seasick patch. I slept well during the night, but a few times I felt the ship go up and then come down with a smack, so it seemed to me that we were experiencing the ‘Drake Shake’ or ‘Drake Quake’, as opposed to the ‘Drake Lake’. I don’t know how high the swells were, but we were told they can reach up to 9 meters. I spent the next day, while at sea, in the cabin with the lights off, the drapes pulled over the porthole window and a pillow over my head.
Day 5 – February 24: At Sea – Deception Island (Neptune’s Bellows, Pendulum Cove)
Our south-bound Drake passage crossing is done … thank you, thank you, thank you! Mid-afternoon Merle came back to the cabin to report that birds were following the ship again and there was land in site … the first glimpse of the South Shetland Islands archipelago, off the northern end of the Antarctic Peninsula. By this time, the seas were quite calm, so I got up and ventured out on deck … the weather was fantastic. The South Shetlands have the safest harbours in the Antarctic and absolutely awesome mountain and glacier scenery.
South Shetland Islands
When we arrived at Deception Island, we sailed through Neptune’s Bellows, which led us into Port Foster and we anchored in the very tranquil Pendulum Cove. The cove forms part of an ‘Antarctic Specially Protected Area’. I really enjoyed photographing the island as we sailed in, particularly the zooming in to get shots of the mountain and snow graphics.
Neptune’s Bellows & Mountains of Deception Island
I watched the Expedition Team leave the ship in the Zodiacs to set up the landing site and prepare for the passengers to tour the island. A few Zodiacs went out before us; we made our first Zodiac landing of the trip under sunshine and a bright blue sky.
The island got its name because “… of its outward deceptive appearance as a normal island, when the narrow entrance of Neptune’s Bellows revealed it rather to be a ring around a flooded caldera.” of an active volcano. Eruptions seriously damaged the Chilean research station, Base Aguirre Cerda, in 1967 and 1969 and they are now designated a Historic Site, or Monument. We explored the ruins of the station and a few brave people took a polar plunge.
One of the shots below is of lichen, which is rare to see in the Antarctic. The Expedition Team member who was guiding us pointed out a couple of small patches, asked us to be very cautious and to walk around and not over them. When she was finished speaking and we were moving on to the next spot, one of the passengers in the group – not our group! – proceeded to walk on it. Duh!!!
Landing on Deception Island
Back on the ship, we gathered in the lounge before dinner and then caught the Expedition Team’s briefing for the next day’s activities, in the theatre.
On Board the MS Midnatsol
Day 6 – February 25: Errera Channel to Danco Island
Early this morning, we entered the Errera Channel, off the Gerlache Straight, under a beautiful sunrise and the most incredible scenery you could imagine – spectacular mountain and glacier reflections, giant icebergs and, just for good measure, Humpback and Minke whales in the distance and gentoo penguins stirring up the water for food, likely krill. It was warmer here than at home, in Ontario.
Mountains, Glaciers and Icebergs in the Morning
As we sailed to Danco Island, we had a bright blue sky, sunshine and still water, so the reflections were incredible. Throughout the morning, as I walked around the 6th and 9th decks, there were more photo opportunities than I could capture.
Reflections in the Errera Channel
During our morning landing, we saw quite a few Gentoo penguins on the Island. Always amusing!
While on the afternoon cruise, we also spotted the first Crabeater seal. I’ve since learned that they don’t eat crab…they eat krill. We saw quite a large Gentoo penguin colony on the rocks and diving into the water. It was very fun to watch – all dove in except for 1. He walked up to the edge of the rocks, looked in, turned around and walked back up the hill. There were several penguins porpoising through the water appearing to lead our Zodiac back to the ship. Unfortunately, no whale sightings today.
After returning to the ship, the stunning photo ops continued.
Early Evening Shots from the Deck
A few of us met in the lounge for a refreshment before moving to the dining room for an excellent buffet dinner. Later, we got the next day’s activity update from the Expedition Crew.
Day 7 – February 26: Dorion Bay, Wiencke Island, Damoy Point and Port Lockroy
Another great day exploring the Antarctic with James Cowie and my 26 fellow Photo Tour Trekkers! Another day of great weather!
This morning we sailed through the Neumayer Channel, with it’s snow/glacier covered mountains and icebergs, into Dorion Bay. It was the Wandering Albatross’ turn to be one of the early landing groups today. We landed on Wiencke Island, with it’s majestic mountains and glaciers and the view down to the Damoy Point beach. This is where we first experienced pink snow, referred to as ‘watermelon snow’. This is caused by a combination of 2 things: algae and penguin poop, which is pink from the krill that they eat. During the Antarctic summer, from November to March, the weather is warmer causing algae to grow and turn the snow pink, sometimes green. Don’t eat the pink, or green, snow!!
In the afternoon, we cruised around the bay at Port Lockroy and the British Research Station A, an outpost run by the British Heritage Association. They live there for 5 months at a time, maintain the station and entertain visitors from ships stopping at the point.
While cruising, some of our group in another Zodiac saw a leopard seal catch, kill and eat a penguin. One of the guys, Dave Huffman, got a great series of shots of the event. I’m jealous!
The station personnel came onboard the ship later on and set up tables to sell souvenirs to raise money for the base – I, the big spender, bought a fridge magnet – and talked about what they do at the station, what day-to-day life is like for the 5 months they live there. Also, there is no running water at the station, so the opportunity for showers comes only when ships stop and they can come on board. After a shower, they were also able to enjoy dinner on the ship
At least 2 Zodiac loads of Midnatsol passengers camped overnight at Damoy Point. I’m not jealous!
Day 8 – February 27: Paradise Bay, Gonzales Videla Chilean Base
This morning, after the campers had returned to the ship, we sailed on to Paradise Bay Our voyage through the Gerlache Straight presented us with unlimited opportunities to photograph the mountains, glaciers and icebergs. It was overcast, but the morning light was spectacular! I loved the great black & white photography opportunities it presented. We sailed through several passages and had to change course due to ice blocking the channel.
Approaching Paradise Bay
The Mountains, Glaciers & Icebergs of the Gerlache Strait
Today we were scheduled to do a mid-afternoon Zodiac cruise and a landing late in the afternoon. During the morning cruise, several humpback whales put on an excellent show, with deep dives and tails in the air. We also came across Weddell seals on icebergs and in the water. Marco Pollo (pronounced Poyo … Spanish for chicken) had his first Zodiac ride and was awestruck by the penguins; he saw his first Humpback whale.
Up until today, we have landed on islands, but when we stopped at the Gonzalez Videla (Chilean airforce Base) this afternoon, it was our first continental landing. Personnel are stationed there from November to the end of March to perform search and rescue operations.
Last night, during a presentation in the theatre, we were warned that the Gentoo penguins are everywhere and that there is no way we can follow the 5 meter rule – stay 5 meters away from the penguins – because they don’t know the rules. Another thing about the penguins that I haven’t mentioned yet, is that this is molting season for penguins. The photos show them at various stages from just starting to completed. They’re continuously picking out feathers and scratching themselves with their beaks. Some look like they’re wearing scruffy sweaters. Until the feathers are gone and their waterproof feathers are revealed, they don’t go in the water; otherwise, they’d quickly be waterlogged. The young chicks can’t go in the water until they get their adult feathers. We also saw several juvenile penguins chasing their mothers for food, but the experts told us that the mothers do it to give their young ones some exercise. The Gentoo, Adélie and Chinstrap penguins are collectively known as ‘brush-tailed penguins’.
What a welcoming committee! The Gentoos were running around all over, not minding us at all. Chicks were chasing their mothers for food, some were napping and they were all squawking. They sure didn’t stop for us, be we were expected to stop for them as they crossed the pathways in front of us. The base personnel pointed our Pepo (aka Isabelle), an all white, leucitic gentoo penguin that serves as the unofficial mascot of the base. She is not albino, but was born without the black pigment gene.
Late Afternoon Landing
The penguins also poop on each other … projectile pooping! Mona Turnbull, an excellent photographer in our group, shot a great video clip of one penguin doing exactly that and it looked intentional. Click on the green link below to watch the video and watch for the little guy in the bottom left corner. Very funny! Thanks a lot, Mona.
Day 9 – February 28: Lemaire Channel – Yalour Islands & Petermann Island
It was overcast this morning, which is perfect for photography here. Today was all about the whales and the penguins, but the scenery during the early morning crossing of the very narrow Lemaire Channel was stunning.
When we reached the Yalour Islands and we loaded into the Zodiacs to cruise around the islands, we saw our first Adélie penguins and were able to get some good shots of them from the water, as well as the whales performing for us.
After returning to the ship from the morning cruise, Merle and I went up to the 9th deck to enjoy the hot tub for a while. Back in the cabin, we found that a crab had broken in and accosted Marco … that’s just not right!
One of the highlights, while having lunch, was meeting up with another Hurtigruten ship, the MS Fram and we were bow-to-bow for a few minutes. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a shot of the 2 ships together, but I did get one as we separated. One of my Norwegian cousins and his wife were here in November aboard the Fram. Looking forward to the afternoon landing.
This afternoon our landing was on Petermann Island. We walked on the glacier, photographed more amusing penguins and a few skuas, as well as the picturesque bay below us and the never-ending mountain scenery around us.
Back on the ship, just when we thought the magic was over for the day, the skies cleared and we had beautiful light on the mountains, while sailing away from Petermann and the beautiful Lemaire Channel. We relaxed in the lounge with a refreshment and watched the icebergs go by; the show continued through dinner. Later in the evening, we were back in the theatre enjoying stories about early exploration in Antarctica presented by one of the Expedition Crew.
It was yet another fantastic day of landing, cruising and sailing, topped off with an amazing sunset.
Day 10 – February 29: Charlotte Bay, Portal Point
This is our 2nd last great day in the Antarctic paradise! Today we sailed into Charlotte Bay and had our 2nd mainland landing at Portal Point. It was an incredible day! We experienced the expected Antarctic weather, with a good snowfall, quite heavy in the afternoon. Actually, it was quite welcome as it made for some great photography, with the large flakes and misty background.
Up until today, the Zodiac groups were staggered for cruising and landing, but today all groups went cruising in the morning and landings in the afternoon. During the morning cruise, we saw seals and whales – lots of whale flukes and a few heads, but not full breaching – and we were able to get close to some spectacular icebergs.
On land late in the afternoon, we saw penguins, but they were quite far away and we had to stay within the pylons and away from the edge of the glacier, so nothing in the way of penguin photography. On the other hand, we experienced another surprise highlight: an orca searching for penguin food in the bay! By this time, the snowfall was heavy and it was getting quite slippery at the landing site. The Expedition Team had our safety in mind, so no problem, but our stop here was a little shorter than usual because of the conditions.
Orca Video – Click on the Link Below
Time for another trip to the hot tub, but this time Marco joined us. Back in the cabin, after getting rid of the crab, we found a penguin had somehow appeared.
One thing I haven’t mentioned is that an Antarctic sailing itinerary is totally dependent on weather conditions, so it’s set on a daily basis. The Captain and the Expedition Crew work together to decide on suitable, safe landing points. Regardless of the decisions made and actions taken behind the scenes, the continuous show of incredible landscapes, seascapes and wildlife guaranteed that we were never disappointed, whether we were taking photographs or just staring and soaking it all in. I, and I’m sure the others, had to continuously remind ourselves to get the cameras away from our faces and take some time to absorb what we were experiencing. This may be our only chance….but I sure hope not.
Day 11 – March 1: Georges Point, Rongè Island…our last day!
This was an epic day! We saw several whales, fur seals up close and personal, Chinstrap penguins and, of course, many more Gentoo penguins. We were also lucky to witness penguins feeding up close. The misty atmosphere and the cold wind gave an authentic Antarctic vibe to the day and the scenery, as we sailed through the Errera Channel to Rongè Island, was stunning. Cruising around the bay photographing the random shapes of the spectacular bright blue icebergs, watching the whales dive and roll, and then landing on the island welcomed by the squawking penguins and barking fur seals was a photographer’s dream. In a word, EPIC!
As you look at the photos from the landing, you’ll see some interesting, and pathetic looking, creatures, many of them Gentoo chicks. This is when the awwww factor kicks in. There’s no lack of penguin poop around and, yes, the ice is soft, so it results in a shitty mess. Keep in mind, though, that it was late summer. Also, penguins don’t nest in the snow; they go to rocky areas to collect stones to build their nests – sorry guys, but you have 1 less small stone – and they get dirty in the process. Laying down for a nap anywhere and anytime certainly doesn’t help. For some reason, at least in my photos, it’s the Gentoos that are especially dirty; the Chinstraps look quite clean. Regardless, all it takes is a swim and they’re clean again.
Here’s one more very interesting story. One of the MS Midnatsol passengers was 93 year-old Hazel, from northern Scotland. It has been a life long dream of hers to visit Antarctica. Her great grandfather was Fridtjof Wedel-Jarlsberg Nansen, the Norwegian explorer. Hazel was accompanied by her friend Katherine, who can be seen in the background of the image.
Later in the evening, several members of the Expedition Team made presentations in the theatre. The ship’s photographers reported that, throughout the trip, there were 58 individual whale sightings (whales are identified by their tails) – Humpbacks, Minke and 1 Orca – and 72 sightings in total. Wow!!
The rest of the trip was the return home. I understand that the Drake Passage crossing was quite tame, but I wouldn’t know … I spent most of it in the cabin with the lights off, the curtains drawn and a pillow over my head.
I hope you’ve enjoyed the photos and the narratives. Thanks again to James Cowie and the rest of the Trekker Team photographers for a fantastic trip.
The Last Word
Last but far from least, I have to thank Bonnie for this amazing gift; it would be so great to have shared this experience with her. As we recently sat in the house self-isolating our way through the COVID-19 pandemic, I suggested to her that we join James for his next trip to the Antarctic, which he has already booked with Hurtigruten, for February 2022, aboard one their 2 newest hybrid ships, the ‘MS Fridtjof Nansen’, named after Hazel’s great grandfather (wouldn’t it have been great if she could have been on that ship?). She agreed and James has added us to the list. Check out the ship here: Hurtigruten
This pandemic and today, April 13, 2020, having received word that a good friend of Bonnie’s passed away this morning – we do not know if it was from the virus, but we sure hope not – has us thinking, once again, that we shouldn’t put off doing things. As the saying goes, “You only regret the things you don’t do.”
Stay tuned for our travel blog in 2022!
Oh, I almost forgot … yes, penguins are birds!