Tag Archives: Antarctica

Antarctica – Day 5 – Cierva Cove, Mikkelsen Harbour

Cierva Cove

Super-early wake-up call today for an early-morning zodiac around Cierva Cove.  

Cierva Cove - Antarctica

Dawn coming into Cierva Cove

This Cove houses a colony of Chinstrap Penguins, which, to date, we’d only seen swimming in the Drake passage.  These penguins are named (obviously) for their white chinstrap, and for me at least, are the most attractive of the penguins we’ve seen so far.    It was a beautifully calm morning as we motored around the rocks for great views of the penguin colony.   

Chinstrap Penguins at Cierva Cove - Antarctica

This is also the site of the Argentinean-owned “Primavera Base”, from which they conduct scientific studies of the lichen in the Antarctic Peninsula.

Primavera Station - Antarctica

We pootled around in the Zodiacs for about 2 hours then headed back to the Vavilov via some pretty cool icebergs for a late breakfast.

Icebergs around Cierva Cove - Antarctica



Mikkelsen Harbour

An hour after leaving Cierva Cove we arrived at the gorgeous Mikkelsen Harbour and another Gentoo penguin colony. 

Gentoo Colony - Mikkelsen Harbour - Antarctica

View over part of the Gentoo Colony at Mikkelsen Harbour

This day it happened to be guarded by 2 Weddell seals, and the One Ocean staff set out poles to indicate safe “paths” for us to stick to in order to avoid the seals (though they are one of the most placid types) and the worst of the deep snow.

Weddell Seal - Mikkelsen Harbour - Antarctica

As with the Leopard seals and the Crabeater seals, it amazes me how soft their muzzle looks … not that I’m going to get close enough to see whether it is soft in reality!

Weddell Seal - Mikkelsen Harbour - Antarctica

Enjoyed walking about as well as sitting and just watching the penguins do their thing.  They really are funny little birds – you could watch them for hours!  And yes, the colonies really smell, but you get used to it after a bit 🙂

Gentoo Penguin - Mikkelsen Harbour - Antarctica

I find I have to keep reminding myself that I’m actually in Antarctica, and to stop and enjoy the wider views as well, not just the animals.

Mikkelsen Harbour - Antarctica

Walked around past the seals along the beach to discover more amazing views of Mikkelsen Harbour

Antarctica – Day 4 – Wilhelmina Bay

The morning of Day 4 saw us exploring the Gentoo Penguin colony at Cuverville Island and, over lunch, the Vavilov re-positioned to Wilhelmina Bay for our second excursion of the day (yes, they planned to keep us busy)!    

This time it was a zodiac cruise to look for Antarctic mammals – particularly pertinent after Derek’s Cetaceans talk in the Vomitorium the day before!   We ran the Vavilov into the fast ice (ice that is attached to the continent) to come to a halt, which revealed the red algae that lives under the ice and provides food for the krill, which in turn provides food for the other marine mammals.

Algae from under the ice - Wilhelmina Bay - Antarctica

Having driven the Vavilov into the pack ice, we could see the algae that blooms below it. This is what the krill feed on, which in turn feeds all of the Antarctic wildlife

First sighting was more Gentoo penguins, which we must have almost run over as we crashed into the ice!

Gentoos and the Vavilov - Wilhelmina Bay - Antarctica

I love this image! The Gentoos seems to be saying “what the hell is this bloody great thing that just crashed into our home?”

Then we started playing with the Humpback whales (or perhaps they were playing with us?).   Lots of humps against stunning backdrops.

Humpback whale - Wilhelmina Bay - Antarctica

Humpback whale arcing in Wilhelmina Bay

Lots and lots of “logging”, where they just lie on the surface and rest.

Humpback whale - Wilhelmina Bay - Antarctica

Humpback whale “logging” in Wilhelmina Bay

And finally, a couple of occasions where they popped their heads up to see what was going on and what we were up to.   This was really spectacular!

Humpback Whale and kayakers - Wilhelmina Bay - Antarctica

Humpback whale checking out the kayakers in Wilhelmina Bay

They were beautiful to watch and we followed them for ages!

We then moved around the bay to see what else we could see, and came across some Crabeater seals resting up on the ice.

Crabeater Seals - Wilhelmina Bay - Antarctica

Notice the 2 long gashes on the Crabeater Seal in front. Such scars are one of the distinguishing features of this species of seal

The way you distinguish individual Crabeater seals is by their scars from where Orcas have had a go at them while they were pups.   They are thought to be the most numerous large mammals on earth after humans and to have some of the most highly specialised teeth in any animal – specifically for eating krill (no, they don’t eat crabs).

Crabeater Seal - Wilhelmina Bay - Antarctica

A little later, there was a report of a Leopard seal (all the zodiac drivers communicate via walkie-talkie) so we motored over there for a look.

Leopard Seal - Wilhelmina Bay - Antarctica

Leopard Seal relaxing on the ice

Leopard seals, so called because of their spotted fur and long sleek body, are one of the most dangerous seal types, and quite capable of killing a human.  They have a very varied diet and hunt by stealth from the ice, meaning that they do not dive for as long as some of the other seals.

We actually got to see a bunch of Gentoo penguins fleeing for their lives in the water – chased closely by a couple of Leopard seals.   The seals didn’t manage to get their meal, and they ended up on the edge of the ice … which promptly broke underneath them 🙂

Leopard seals hunting Gentoos - Wilhelmina Bay - Antarctica

The ice collapsed under these Leopard Seals that were stalking the Gentoo Penguins

We found a few confused Adelie penguins (characterised by the white ring around their eye) that were hanging out with the Gentoos (remember, orange beaks and white eye patch). 

Gentoo Penguin and Adelie Penguin - Wilhelmina Bay - Antarctica

The differences between the Adelie Penguin (left) and Gentoo Penguin (right) are quite easy to spot

Penguins are such indecisive birds – they waddle down to the edge of the ice, think about jumping in, change their mind and waddle back, return, think about it again, etc, etc, until one finally decides go for it – at which point they all immediately follow in the wake of the brave leader.

Penguins diving off ice - Wilhelmina Bay - Antarctica

Very typical sight – penguins diving off ice into the ocean

Final stop for the zodiac cruise was the “Café on Ice”, where the One Ocean crew had set up a hot chocolate station that we zodiaced in to.   However, having just witnessed the edge of the ice dumping the leopard seals that were chasing the penguins … we drank quickly and got back in the boat!

The Ice Cafe - Wilhelmina Bay - Antarctica

The “Ice Cafe” at Wilhelmina Bay

Back on board the Vavilov – it’s always interesting to watch the loading (or unloading) of the zodiacs and kayaks (the video is sped up 1.25x)


Which we followed up with the first dip in the hot-tub 🙂   I actually went in a little later (around 9pm) to watch the gorgeous light as the sun veeeeeeery slowly, and very briefly sets in this part of the world at this time of year. 

Hottub on the Vavilov - Wilhelmina Bay - Antarctica

Best place to be after the second excursion of the day – the Vavilov Hottub. Yes, Simon (the bird expert on the expedition) is wearing a penguin hat!

I have to admit, it could have been warmer in the tub (turns out you have to get in just when the cover is removed, it cools down pretty quickly after that), but the view was incredible!

Wilhelmina Bay - Antarctica

Antarctica – Day 4 – Cuverville Island

We’ve arrived at Antarctica!   Not surprisingly – it is absolutely beautiful, even with heavily overcast skies!  The great thing though – no wind and little swell!  Two excursions today and the first time actually stepping onto the Antarctic Peninsula!

Antarctic Peninsula Excursion Points

For the first excursion, they recommended that we put on lots of layers so we could get a bit of a feel for how many we would need as a minimum.   For me that included:

  • 2 pairs of socks
  • ¾ length exercise tights
  • Merino wool thermal bottoms
  • Hiking pants
  • Outerwear waterproof pants
  • T-shirt
  • Merino wool thermal top
  • Merino wool mid-layer
  • Windstopper jacket
  • Outerwear waterproof jacket
  • Buff
  • Beanie
  • Gloves

Plus, I had the drysack backpack with my camera gear in it.   I felt very much like the Michelin Man and everyone looked very awkward in our first outing with all this stuff on.

Suited up for Antarctica

Suited up for Antarctica and in the Zodiac on the way to our first landing on the Antarctic Peninsula

Our first landing was at Cuverville Island with a pebble beach and one of the largest Gentoo Penguin colonies in the area. 

Landing at Cuverville Island

Our first landing on the Antarctica Peninsula – Cuverville Island. We would use the Zodiacs to get from the Vavilov to the shore.

We were free to spend the 3 hours ashore as we wanted, so long as we stuck to the “visitor paths”, avoided the “penguin highways” and stayed at least 5m away from any penguin.

Penguin Highways - Cuverville Island - Antarctica

Penguins use “highways” to get from one part of the colony to another. They don’t just walk around willy-nilly

I started off by doing a short hike up the hill to the top of the penguin colony.  It was great to do a bit of exercise (I was boiling by the time I got to the top given all the clothes I was wearing), as it offered a stunning view of the bay, and it was a fantastic place to watch a group of Gentoo penguins interacting.  Although the trek up through the snow might seem like a chore for the penguins this early in the season, these guys actually have the best spot in the colony.  Being higher than everyone else means that they get the jump on the others with their nesting and they have fewer drainage issues for their nests.

Gentoo Penguin nests in Colony -Cuverville Island - Antarctica

Gentoos Penguin nests in the highest point of this particular colony on Colony -Cuverville Island

Gentoo penguins build nests of rocks for their eggs, so that as the snow melts it drains easily and the egg remains dry.   The nests are located just out of beak-reach of their neighbour, but that doesn’t stop large-scale pilfering of rocks from each other. 

Gentoo Penguin stealing rocks for next

Gentoo Penguin nests are far enough apart that it is difficult to just reach over and steal the neighbour’s rocks. But that doesn’t stop the pilfering!

It was highly comical watching as one penguin in particular was beset by two others stealing rocks from opposite ends of the nest – just as the sitting penguin would swing around to deter one penguin, the other would reach in from the other side … and on it went, with a great deal of swarking.

Gentoo Penguin nests - Antarctica

Gentoo Penguin nests are far enough apart that it is difficult to just reach over and steal the neighbour’s rocks. But a good swark also helps!

Having watched for a while, I think it’s a no-sum-game with the rock stealing.  It would be very interesting to paint one of the rocks and then watch it move around the colony (my inner researcher coming out) 🙂

We even caught a glimpse of some of the eggs they were protecting.  Both male and female penguins sit on the eggs, taking turns while the other goes off to feed.

Gentoo Penguin nest and egg - Cuverville Island - Antarctica

We were there just at the right time to see the Gentoo Penguins sitting on their eggs.

Skuas were never far away and would even land amongst the penguins (greeted by an even greater escalation in the general amount of squawking going on) to try their chances at snatching an egg from an inattentive penguin.

Skua - Cuverville Island - Antarctica

Skuas were never far away from the Gentoo Penguin nests – waiting for their opportunity to steal an egg or two

Just a little further along, there was another wonderful view down a side passage towards the Antarctic Continent.

Cuverville Island - Antarctica

View from top of the hike we did on Cuverville Island

And coming back down there were great views across the whole Gentoo colony.

Gentoo colony - Cuverville Island - Antarctica

Looking across to other areas of the Gentoo Colony on Cuverville Island

Wandered out to the other parts of the colony and sat on the pebble beach watching the penguins come in and out of the water for quite a while.  They fell over about every 3rd step (but then again, I was doing the same thing) and it was great fun just to watch them.  If you sat still long enough, they would even come quite close to you to check out what was going on.

Gentoo Penguins entering the water - Cuverville Island - Antarctica

Sitting on the beach at Cuverville Island watching the Gentoo Penguins head out for food

They are fascinating birds, with barbed tongues, and stiff flippers and tails.   The Gentoos are characterised by the orange beaks and white patch above the eye, and are the “Climate Change Winners” according to the penguin scientists we had on board the Vavilov.  Their colonies are expanding dramatically at the minute, while the other penguin species (the Adelies and Chinstraps – we’ll meet them later) are in quite serious decline.   It is thought this is likely caused by the dramatic warming of the Antarctic Peninsula and its effect on the amount of sea-ice available for the krill population.  Gentoos are less fussy in what they eat than the other penguin types and therefore theirs are the only populations that are expanding.

Gentoo Penguin features - Cuverville Island - Antarctica

Gentoo Penguin features – identified by red beak and white eye patch

3 hours absolutely flew by and we all agreed we could have stayed much longer.  But it was a brilliant first excursion finished off by cruising through some cool ice sculptures on the way back to the boat and lunch.

Cruising the ice - Gentoo Penguin features - Cuverville Island - Antarctica

Cruising the icebergs around Cuverville Island

Antarctica – Days 1-3 – Drake Passage

Suddenly having 6 extra weeks in South America, I was considering what to do.   Then one of my friends (thanks Alain!) suggested that if I had the money – Antarctica was the best trip he’d ever done.   Ohhhhhh – now that was a good idea!  And surprisingly, not one that I’d thought of at all.

So emailed quite a few companies with my dates looking for last minute deals and ended up going through Freestyle Adventure Tours on the 12 day,  Antarctica & Falkland Islands: Sea Birds and Penguins trip by One Ocean Expeditions on the ship: Akademik Sergei Vavilov.   There were quite a few reasons I was super-excited about this particular trip:

  1. It was a relatively small ship, with a maximum of 96 passengers (you can only land 100 passengers on Antarctica at any one time)
  2. It was a science ship that would actually have scientists on board with us who were going to Antarctica to do their research (penguin counts)
  3. It was not doing the regular trip to Antarctica: across the Drake Passage, down the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula and the back again. This one was going across the Drake Passage, up the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula, across to the Weddell Sea on the eastern side of the Antarctic Peninsula, over to Elephant Island, and up to the Falkland Islands before flying back to Punta Arenas in Chile. Weather and ice permitting of course!
Antarctic Peninsula and Falkland Islands Excursion Points

This is actually the final set of excursion points that we achieved rather than the initial plan. Good news though – it didn’t change.

The Antarctic trip started with a Pizza Party organised by Freestyle Adventure Tours at the Irish Pub in Ushuaia, an opportunity to get to know other passengers and receive our Antarctic bird guide, One Ocean buff and luggage tags.   Then we all met the next day at 3:30pm at the super-fancy Hotel Albatross to hand in our passports and head to the ship.

Gifts from Freestyle Adventures

Gifts from Freestyle Adventures – a guide to the wildlife of Antarctica, luggage tag and a buff (not pictured)

Turns out there was only 50 passengers on the trip and it was a surprisingly young crowd! Usually I would have been one of the younger passengers, but this time I was one of the older ones!  There was almost one staff member for ever 2 passengers on the boat, as well as a few scientists and a film crew on board.   Got shown to our cabins – I’m sharing mine with Assa from Sweden – and then explored the ship while waiting to cast off.

Exploring the Akademic Sergey Vavilov

The view from the top deck while still at port in Ushuaia (top left), mine and Assa’s cabin (top right), the bridge (mid left), the multimedia room (mid right) and the bar, otherwise known as the Vavilounge (bottom)

Had a lifeboat drill before casting off, in which our side of the ship (the starboard side) came second (hmmm…. there are only 2 sides on a ship…)

Lifeboat Vavilov

Getting to know the Vavilov’s lifeboats

Cast off was at about 6pm and we headed off up the Beagle Channel on our way to the Drake Passage.

Casting off the Vavilov at Ushuaia - OneOcean

Nice and calm going down the Beagle Channel with a great “Welcome Aboard” Party in the Bar (so much good food!) and a beautiful sunset to accompany. 

Beagle Channel

Sunset as we headed away from Ushuaia and up the Beagle Channel

Dinner was great as well (I can see us all leaving here a kilo or two heavier 🙂 ) and we all hung out in the bar for several hours afterwards before heading to bed.

I don’t think anyone slept well that first night – partially excitement and partially because we entered the Drake Passage, which decided to give us an abrupt introduction to sea-sickness.   Gale-force winds and 5-metre swells brought the majority of the passengers on the ship down, and most didn’t appear at all for the first day.

Doc Walter (an Aussie from Brisbane) was run off his feet dispensing sea-sickness patches and pills, and even with that most people stayed in bed (sea sickness abates somewhat if you are lying down).    I wasn’t doing too bad without drugs, though couldn’t finish watching the talks in the “Vomitorium” – the presentation room that is down in the bottom of the ship.  I had to get out of there … but I wasn’t the only one!

Akademic Sergey Vavilov - OneOcean - Vomitorium on the way through the Drake Passage

The “Vomitorium” down in the bowels of the Vavilov. This was actually the 2nd day of the Drake crossing when it was far less rough

Ended up hanging out on the bridge for quite a while (they have an open-bridge policy) – very impressive to see the bow of the boat crashing through the swells.  Apparently, it was a slightly worse than normal crossing.

Drake Passage - Vavilov - OneOcean

Our rough first day crossing the Drake Passage. These waves and the swell were incredible and kept the majority of the passengers in bed. View from the bridge

Also spent lots of time hanging out in the bar (the Vavilounge) – very impressed by the musical prowess of several of the staff.  These guys were awesome!

OneOcean - Vavilov - concert

The Expedition Leader (centre), Expedition Photographer (right) and assistant Hotel Manager (left) could often be found jamming in the bar of the Vavilov. They are incredible musicians!

Went down for lunch, ate, and then threw up 🙁  Good thing the staff put out a multitude of sick-bags in all corridors and stairwells – I guess they knew what to expect!

Vomit bags

The crew knew the Drake Passage! Sick bags were everywhere around the ship while we made the crossing.

Went to sleep for a couple of hours (still trying to catch up from lack of sleep coming back from Easter Island) then decided to cave in and see Doc Walter for a sea-sickness pill at 5pm – after all, I wanted to keep dinner down!   Seemed to work 🙂

Day 2 crossing the Drake Passage was a lot better!  Only 5 knot winds and not much of a swell – lots more people out and about today!   Spent a lot of time up on the bridge again as there is always a staff member up there – and usually one who knows the different birds we are seeing.   Lots and lots of Cape Petrels, and Sooty Shearwaters, plus Black-browed Albatross, Southern Fulmars, Chinstrap Penguins porpoising and some Fin Whales (and possibly some Minke whales) blowing and cresting.

Drake Passage bird sightings

Some of the wildlife we saw crossing the Drake Passage – Cape Petrel (top left), Sooty Shearwater (top right), Southern Fulmar (mid left), Black-browed Albatross (mid right), Chinstrap Penguins, and whales.

Also got shown how to find out where the ship was currently located in the map room near the bridge – love these maps!

Vavilov Maproom

The maproom in the Akademic Sergey Vavilov was right behind the bridge. You could learn how to read the instruments and maps to discover where exactly you were at any given time

Every day, the schedule is posted on a number of noticeboards around the ship.   The One Ocean guys are awesome and great fun, so these tend to have a little information, a little humour, the schedule, and the “Russian word for the day” – after all, we are on a Russian ship (it is actually owned by the Russian Institute for Science) and the ship’s crew are all Russian.

Ocean Notes - OneOcean - Vavilov

Ocean Notes were posted all around the ship to remind us of our adventures the previous day, tell us what was happening when on this day and a few other bits and pieces.

Went to the talks that were on today, but the main activity was preparing for our first landing on the Antarctic Peninsula.   This started with trying on all our outerwear to make sure it fit, and swapping it if it didn’t.   Followed by a “Vacuum Partyyyyyyyy”, which is where we had to take all our outerwear, boots, bags and anything that we were going to carry with us on shore landings to the Mud Room to go over it with a fine-tooth comb (and vacuum cleaner) to ensure that there was no soil, grass seeds or anything that could contaminate the Antarctic environment.

Vacuum Party before landing on Antarctica

The “Vacuum Partyyyyyyyy”. Getting ready to make our first landing on Antarctica

Our preparations finished with a briefing about IAATO (the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators), how to maneuver getting into and out of the zodiacs and etiquette whilst aboard, and the plan for our current landing itinerary, along with some super-scary-looking weather forecasts!

Ice Chart - Antarctica

This is an ice chart for the Antarctic Peninsula just as we left Ushuaia. Some of it didn’t look too promising!