Now for the reason most people come to Antarctica — the wild life…
Yes, I expected an abundance, but maybe not this much. There are rules that you must stay 15 feet from the wildlife, but that is not always possible with curious penguins and their fledglings coming up and pecking at your pants legs. We saw Gentoo, Adelie, and Chinstrap penguins, all with their chicks that were so heavily populated it was hard to walk at times. We were cautioned to stay out of their “raceway,” as the rookeries were often on hills, so they would slide down them, oftentimes on their bellies, like a ski slope. Penguins make their nests from rocks found on the ground, which is why it is so important to “take only photos.”
Learning how to tell the difference between sea lions and seals was interesting – sea lions have ears, long functional flippers, and tail fin that has three claws, whereas the seals only have slits for ears, and their tail flippers are smaller, and covered with fur. And a Fur Seal is not a seal at all, but a sea lion.
Weddle seals, Elephant seals, Fur Seals, Crab-eater seals were sighted in packs of 20 at a time. But the only really aggressive one was the Leopard Seal. The rule for this bad boy is 50 feet of distance. They would often chase the zodiacs for half an hour until it was time to go back to the ship, and then they would follow us! I was never sure whether they were trying to play, or chase us out of their territory. The zodiac drivers made a few “donuts” to lose them, which made us all laugh as if it were a puppy that they were trying to send home!
The shoe was on the other foot with the whales, however – us always chasing them rather than them chasing us. Considering their size, that was a good thing, because we wouldn’t have gotten far! On one trip out, our two zodiacs were less than 50 feet apart, when all of a sudden one of the whales surfaced right in between us. He was so close I could look into the holes of the barnacles on his back!
I have never been much of a “birder,” but I learned a whole new appreciation for the Wandering Albatross who can fly up to 15 million miles in one lifetime, never stopping on land except to nest. I had never considered that they lived out on the sea and never came on land. It was interesting, learning about their extra “kidney” and how it filtered out the saline from their water, which runs down their noses through a special a drip channel.
I always assumed that the saying “The albatross around my neck” meant the albatross itself was bad luck. But in fact, albatrosses were often regarded as the souls of lost sailors, so it was the killing of the albatross, or finding a dead bird on deck that was viewed as bringing bad luck.
So yes, the wildlife was every bit as incredible as you would expect, and more so. It was lots of fun measuring the proportions of the numbers of animals to the length of the telephoto lenses, as I would step up and snap the photo with my $100 point and shoot.
“If you march your winter journeys you will have your reward, so long as all you want is a penguin’s egg.”
― Apsley Cherry-Garrard