Antarctica 2017

AntarcticaAntarctica - the coldest, windiest and driest continent on Earth.  And the most unspoiled. One big block of ice. This was where we were heading on a photo expedition with Wildphoto in November 2017. Fifty photographers from several countries; Norway, Sweden, UK, France, Spain, Switzerland, Italy, USA, Australia, China, India and Malaysia. A multicultural journey to the end of the World on our expedition wessel M/S Polar Pioneer.  We were all sharing the same interest - nature photography and exploring remote places on Earth.

I was travelling with my good friend and fellow nature photographer Ragnvald and our mutual Danish friend Hans Christian, who had joined us twice to Svalbard, was also on board. We have been planning the trip for more than two years. Would we have success?  Would we encounter penguins, seals, whales and huge table-shaped icebergs? Would we observe signs of the ice melting due to climate change, which is so obvious in the Arctic? Crossing the Drake could be a challenge.  It was an excited gang that left Puerto Williams in southern Chile on the late afternoon of November 9th heading out the Beagle Channel and into the Drake Passage, the roughest waters there are...


Polar Pioneer
The Drake
Wanderers of The Drake
Landf in sight
Elephant Point
Voyage Map
Briefly on the Antarctic ecosystem
Giant icebergs
Brown Bluff
White-outs at Mikkelsen Harbour
Useful Island
Dawn in Antarctica
Cuverville Island
Georges Point
Port Lockroy
Neumayer Channel
Neko Harbour
Zodiac cruise at Hydrirga Rocks
Astrolabe Island
Gourdin Island
Kinnes Cove
Penguin Island
Leopard kill
Turret Point, King George Island


Polar Pioneer
Our expedition vessel was Polar Pioneer, a 235 feet (71.6 meters) long ice-strengthened vessel built in Finland in 1982 and fully refurbished in 2000.  Carrying only 54 passengers it is an ideal ship to cruise the Antarctica seen from a photographer's point of view as one is allowed maximum landing time of up to 4 hours per landing.  Larger ships, carrying 100 passengers or more, are usually not allowed landings at all. A fleet of five zodiacs would be used to put us safely ashore and spacious observation decks allowed for great view of the Antarctic landscape and wildlife from the vessel itself.

Martin Enckell

Our expedition leader was the very experienced Martin Enckell who has spent more than 10 summers in the Antarctic and was recently chosen as an expedition leader for the Blue Planet 2 project.  Read more about Martin HERE. Roy Mangersnes, Audun Lie Dahl and Eirik Grønningsæter were three of Wildphoto's photographic leaders on this trip. Check out more about them HERE.

We left from Puerto Williams, a small port based on Isla Navarino facing the Beagle Channel. Although it is the capital of the Chilean Antarctic Province with a population of a little less than 3 000 people, it is not a town that you want to visit for days. A messy port in the middle of nowhere, but an important outpost for ships leaving for Antarctica.  We were happy and excited when Polar Pioneer finally set course out the Beagle Channel heading for Antarctica late in the afternoon...

Polar Pioneer

Puerto Williams facing towards the Beagle Channel

Drake passage mapThe Drake
The 800 kilometer long passage known as "The Drake" connects the Pacific and the Atlantic and extends into the Southern Ocean. The name originates from the English privateer Sir Francis Drake who's only remaining ship drifted far south in September 1578 and led to the discover of a connection between the two oceans. The passage was first crossed in 1616 by the Dutch navigator Willem Schouten, who then named Cape Horn. Until 41 million years ago the Drake was closed and the Antarctica was warm. When the passage opened up, the Antarctic Circumpolar Current was formed and the continent cooled.

Profile of the Drake
Profile of The Drake (Wikimedia Commons)

The depth in The Drake is between 3000 and 5 000 meters with a variation in temperature of about 7 degrees C and about 2 ppt with respect to salinity. The Antarctic Circum polar Current carries an enormous amount of water through the Passage, roughly 1,3*10^8 cubic meters per second, and in combination with strong winds huge waves can build up. 10-15 meters waves are relatively common, but calm days occur. 20 000 sailors have lost their lives exploring these waters and we can only imagine what it was like to sail these waters with sail ships without engines. 

Although many fear the rough seas, crossing "The drake" is a life-time experience and a great part of a journey to Antarctica.

Crossing The Drake on a relatively calm day with "only" 7-8 meters waves


southern royal albatross
Southern Royal Albatross (click for larger version)

Wanderers of the Drake
Crossing the Drake gave us the possibilities to photograph the albatrosses and other tubenoses (birds in the order Pelicaniformes) that commonly accompany ships on their soutwards journeis towards Antarctica. 22 species of Albatrosses exist, three of which are critically endangered. Today albatrosses are found only in the Southern Ocean and the North Pacific (except for the not found in the Waved Albatross, Phoebastria irrorata, that nests primarily on Espanola Island in the Galpagos) from Antarctica to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and South America. They are missing from the North Atlantic.

As the weather was calm, we gathered on the deck with our long lenses ready to "shoot" the wanderers as they passed the ship curiously looking at us like saying: "what the h... are you doing here?". I managed to photograph three species; Southern Royal Albatross (Diomedea epomophora), Grey-headed Albatross (Thalassarche chrysostoma) and Black-browed Albatross (Thalassarche melanophrys). The Wandering Albatross (Diomedea exulans), which is the largest of the albatross species reaching a wingspan of more than 3.5 meters, was observed but not photographed.

Black-browed Albatross

Grey-headed Albatross

southern giant petrel
Southern Giant Petrel (click for larger version)

The Southern Giant Petrel (Macronectes giganteus) was a commonly seen bird during the entire trip, also in the Drake.  It is far stockier than the albatrosses and show a large variation in plumage, from almost entirely dark brown to white. A dark and white colour morph are recognized. The dark morph resembles the Northern Giant Petrel (Macronectes halli), which can be seen in the Drake, but is far less common than the Southern Giant Petrel. Like the albatrosses it feeds on krill and squid, but it also takes carrion and offal in coastal waters and can even attack other sea birds. The breeding population is estimated to be about        97 000 pairs (2007), but decreasing.

southern giant petrel white morph
Southern Giant Petrel, white morph (click for larger version)

One of the most common sea birds in the Drake is the Southern Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialoides).  The species is rar in the Beagle Channel, but occurs frequently in Antarctica. We saw this species on the entire trip and could photograph it regularly. It was especially numerous near its breeding cliffs in ice-free areas where the birds arrive in October to nest.

Just as common, both in the Drake and along the Antarctic Peninsula, was the Cape Petrel (Daption capense), the only member of its genus. The birds dive to feed on crustaceans (mainly krill), fish and squid. Cape Petrels commonly follow ships to benefit from carcasses thrown overboard.

 Southern Fulmar

Cape Petrel

Land in sight
We were followed by Cape Petrels along our entire route. The sea continued to be calm as we crossed the Drake. At 11 AM on Thursday 16th November, we spotted land at Snow Hill Island, the southernmost island in the South Shetland group. We were of course welcomed by a group of Cape Petrels.

Cape Petrels welcoming us as we reach Snow Hill Island in the South Shetland group.

The calm weather in The Drake caused us to reach South Shetland Island several hours ahead of schedule.  This led to a bonus landing at Elephant Point (site #2), a small predominantly ice-free promontory projecting two km into Bransfield Strait at the south extremity of the west half of Livingston Island, which was the first land discovered south of 60° south latitude in 1819. Everybody was excited!  After a long travel from distant countries and then two days at sea, we were finally ready to set foot on land and start exploring the wildlife of Antarctica.

Elephant Point
Elephant Point, Livingston Island (click for larger version)

At Elephant Point there were Elephant Seals, huge Elephant Seals and lots of them! These were the southern Elephant Seal (Mirouga leonia).  A huge male controlls a harem of females and fight desperately to keep in control. The female southern elephant seal typically weighs 400 to 900 kg and reaches 2.6 to 3 meters in length, while the much larger bull typically weigh 2 200 to 4 000 kg and measure from 4.2 to 5.8 m long. To move tons of blubber requires a lot of energy and when the males fight or even just move up the beach, they soon have to rest to gain strength for another battle. During the period of defending its harem and territory, the male Elephant Seal does not eat for months and rely on its blubber storage for survival. The beach was now a place of loud roars and intense fights.

southern elephant seal
A harem of one male, four females and three cubs and an intruding male in the background. (Click for a larger version)

The large seals had no fear for us and did hardly react when we approached, but of course one should be careful among a bunch of these gigantic animals. On the beach there were also a lot of new born. Newborns weigh about 40 kg at birth, and reach 120 to 130 kg by the time they are weaned. The mother loses significant weight during this time.

We were not to see Elephant Seals again until we returned to South Shetland Islands on the very last day of our expedition.

Southern Elephant Seal, mother and cub

Gentoo penguin distribution (Wikimedia Commons)

The other dominating organism at Elephant Point was the Gentoo Penguin (Pygoscelis papua).  The species has a very wide distribution in the southern seas. The total breeding population is estimated to 300 000 pairs. In the Antarctic Peninsula the population has increased, while it has decreased in other locations, e.g. in South Georgia. 

We were to meet this species of penguin on every location we visited. As we visited Antarctica in November, this were in the middle of the breeding season for penguins. The Gentoos were nesting everywhere we landed. They build their colonies on ice-free surfaces, near the shore or inland quite a bit distance from the water. The nests in Antarctica were often build of small rocks, the only material available on land for building nests.  However, when we saw the same species later in the Falkland Island, we observed that their nests here were built of grass. An opurtunistic behaviorist, utilise what is available.

gentoo penguin
Pair of Gentoo Penguins nesting at Elephant Point.

Voyage Map
It is now appropriate to show you reades where our expedition headed and where our landing sites were.  Elephant Point was our first landing, a bonus landing on a spectacular site. We did actually not intend to set foot here.  During our 10 days to come we were to explore 19 more sites, 14 landing sites (some even visited twice) and 5 locations explored either from the deck of Polar Pioneer or from the zodiacs. Click on the map to see a larger version on our route and landing sites.

In this article it is not possible to cover all sites in detail. I shal focus on what I personally think was the most interesting and spectacular event.  Please do not hesitate to contact me if you need more information on what happened on this expedition.

Briefly on the Antarctic Ecosystem and its food web
We reached approximately 65 degrees south on our voyage. We had hoped to be able to sail through the Lemaire Channel (site #10 on the map), but unfortunately the location was blocked by ice. Actually this is just what the ice map downloaded from Forcasting Division of Northern Norway in Tromsø said (see the map HERE), we were not going to come further south than this.

At 65 degrees south we are on the same latitude as Børgefjell National Park in the county of Nordland, Norway.  In summer time this areas is green and rich in vegetation. Although there can be snow and ice on the highest peaks, the park is green and warm - thanks to the Gulf Stream.  On 65 degrees south on the other hand, everything is white, covered in glaciers, ice and snow.  Still! 

The Antarctic Peninsula close to Lemaire Channel in November (click for larger version)

What strikes you when you visit the Antarctica for the first time is how few species there are on land. 3-4 species of penguins (depending on how far south you get), some species of seals and a few species of other sea birds than penguins, that's it!  All these are strongly linked to the ocean as this is where they mainly feed. The frozen conditions and lack of plants do simply not allow a terrestrial diversity to evolve.

Light fuels almost every ecosystem. In Antarctica the producers are forund in the sea, not on land.

Antarctic Pearlwort
Wikimedia Commons, Liam Quinn. (Click for larger version)

In fact there are only two specie of flowering plans found in Antarctica. Antarctic hair grass (Deschamsia antarctica) grows primarily in the Antarctic Peninsula in small, concentrated tufts throughout rocky areas, while the Antarctic pearlwort (Colobanthus quitensis) has a more cushion-like appearance and can grow up to a whopping five centimeters in height! It is most commonly found in rocky areas in the coastal regions.

None flowering, none vascular plants are, however, much more abundant. Antarctica alone contains 100 species of mosses, 25-30 species of liverworts, 250 species of lichens, and over 700 species of algae! Hardy extremists that have managed to adapt to the harsh conditions in Antarctica.

Orange Elegant Sunburst Lichen (Xanthoria elegans) from
Penguin Island, South Shetland (click for larger version)

Many of these plants are found in rocky intertidal and moist habitats, especially on sub-Antarctic islands, where climate and habitat are a bit more forgiving. Lichen is a colourful organism that actually is a symbiotic relationship between algae and fungi. In Antarctica they grow extreemly slowly, as little as 1 cm in 100 years or less. The orange Elegant Sunburst Lichen (Xanthoria elegans) has a broad, circumpolar distribution and is found on every continent except Australia. It is common in Antarctica. In the photo left it grows on a rock at Penguin Island together with an unidentified yellow species. Colourful organisms on a white scene!

To fuel the Antarctic ecosystem, the large and small carnivorus animals and birds are totally depending on the primary producers that grow in the sea.  Phytoplankton and algae.  To discover the biodiversity of the Antarctica, one have to dive or at least take a look below the surface. 

I took the photo below when we were ashore at "Brown Bluff" in the Antarctic Sound.  In this tiny area in very shallow water (< 0.2 m depth) we can clearly see red and brow leafy algae (the red is possibly a Palmaria sp.), red calcareous algae, limpets and not least thousands of tiny copepods (the arrows point to three of the bigger once). Life flourish just like in other coastal areas. The copepods are relatives to "krill", a key organism in the Antarctic food web (see drawing of food web below).

Litoral diversity at "Brown Bluff" (click for larger version)
Antarctic Krill (Wikimedia Commons, Uwe Kils)

The Antarctic Krill (Euphausia superba) support nearly all life in Antarctica. This tiny crustaceans grows to a length of 6 cm and weighs less than 2 grams, but is extreemly abundant and can be found in densities of 10 000 - 30 000 specimens per cubic meter.

It feeds on phytoplankton and therefore supports nearly all life in Antarctica.  It is eaten by six species of whales, 20 species of squids, over 100 species of fish, 35 species of birds and seven species of seals ("The Liquid Earth", 2013).  This tiny organism holds a major role in the balance of the Antarctic ecosystem, also for the few species partly living on land.  If the population of krill were to decrease, the complete food web could collapse with fatal consequences for life in Antarctica.

Antarctic food web (click for larger version)

Unlike in the Arctic there are no top predators living on land in Antarctica.  The predators on top of the food web are all living in the orca, sperm whale, leopard seal and some other large seals being predators feeding on larger prey. The majority of the big whales feed on krill and/or plankton.  Today commercial fishing of krill has started, which from my point of view is a scary business. Harvest too much of this crustacean and we risk losing one of the most delicate ecosystem we have.

The benthic ecosystem of Antarctica is poorly known. We do know that the ecosystem has a high biodiversity. And just like in the cold waters of the north, some species show polar gigantism. Species that are tiny in tropical coastal waters tend to grow huge here. Copepods that are several centimeters long are common and ribbon worms amnd sea spiders grow gigantic. Scientists have just started to explore the deep water ecosystems of Antarctica and here they have revealed a magnificen diversity of invertebrates on the deep, cold ocean floor.

Brown and calcareous algae, large anemones and other inverte-
brates in the Lemaire Channel (2008). (Click for larger version)
Giant Ribbon worm (Parbolasia corrugatus), Lemaire Channel.
(Click for larger version)

Giant icebergs
One of my personal goals was to see the giaant, table shaped icebergs that are icons of the Antarctic.  These are best found in the Weddell Sea, which is east of the Antarctic Peninsula, an area that in November normally will be blocked with ice and therefore unaccessable.  However, the Antarctic Sound (site #5 and #19) and Fridtjof Sound (site #4) that leads into the Weddell Sea can be relative ice free in November, which luckily was the case this year. We were to visit these locations twice on our expedition, one the way down in the beginning og the tour and also on the way back before setting sail for South Shetland and the Drake on the last day. On our way down we combined a ship cruice in the Antarctic Sound with a landing at Brown Bluff (site #3).  The icebergs came and they were huge!

Table-shaped iceberg in the Antarctic Sound (click for larger version)

On our first visit to the area we were lucky and had some fog mixing sun and a little wind. Giant Petrells and other sea birds were flying around the ship, a great scenery for great photography. I am very pleased with the photo below, an exporsure that I think had capured the "Antarctic feeling" just right....

Giant Petrell and Giant Iceberg (click for larger version)

Lately an iceberg twice the size of Luxembourg, 5 800 sq km, broke off from the Larsen C ice shelf situated on tyhe eastern side of the Antarctic Peninsula. Larsen C is the fourth largest ice shelf in Antarctica, but is decreased with 12% in size after the iceberg broke loose. Reade more HERE. The record-holding iceberg was twice the size as this, breaking loose from The Roos ice shelf in the year 2000. The newly calved iceberg could last for decades, depending on whether it enters warmer waters or bumps into other icebergs or ice shelves.

"Brown Bluff" is a basalt, flat-topped, steep-sided volcano (known as a "tuya") that formed in the past one million years. The name points to its steep slopes and the blackish-brown Hyaloclastite, a volcanic accumulation  consisting of glass fragments formed by quench fragmentation of lava flow surfaces during submarine extrusion. In other words.... we landed on the site created by volcano that erupted under water some one million years ago and then thought to have been 12-15 km wide. Today the site is home to large colonies of Gentoo and Adelie Penguins. Off shore huge icebergs drift.

Brown Bluff (click for larger version)
Adelie penguin (click for larger version)

Adelie penguins were one of the three species of penguins we were to see in Antarctic. Later on, when reaching the Falklands, we should see four more species, ending up with seven penguin species all together on this trip - not bad!

Adélie penguin (Pygoscelis adeliae) are only found in Antarctica and is common along the entire Antarctic coast. They are among the most southerly distributed of all seabirds.

Based on a 2014 analysis of fresh guano-discolored coastal areas, 3.79 million breeding pairs of Adélie penguins are in 251 breeding colonies (IUCN red list), a 53% increase over a census completed 20 years earlier. The Adélie penguin is known to feed mainly on Antarctic krill, ice krill, Antarctic silverfish, sea krill, and glacial squid during the chick-rearing season. 

At Brown Bluff we could observe them nesting in nests built of small rocks as well as heading in groups into the icy-cold Antarctic waters when they needed to feed.

Adelie penguins preparing for a dive (click for larger version)

Adelie penguins going for a feeding trip (click for larger version)

Adelie penguin (click for larger version)

When we returned to the Arctic Sound a good week later, the sea was totally flat, the sky was grey and there was a lone Adelie penguin on a drifting iceberg....

Alone (click for larger version)

White-outs at Mikkelsen Harbour (site #6)
Mikkelsen Harbour (site #6) is a small bay on the south side of Trinity Island in the Palmer Archipelago on the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula. The site was discovered in The Sweedish Antarctic Expedition led by Otto Nordenskjöld and Anton Larsen in 1901-1904. Today there is a small, Argentinian station at the site and thousands of Gentoo penguins nest here. We landed here in the morning of Saturday November 18th. The sky was grey and there was a light snow fall in the air, which was great. Sunny skies are good for sunbathing, but not for nature photography. We wanted a bit of snow and grey sky. 

Mikkelsen Harbour
White-out histogram

The site was good for taking "white-out" shots.  This means that you photograph an object, like a Gentoo penguin, against a white background and let the white almost saturate the background, but not completely. You do need to have some data present even in the whitest white. Doing white-out photography, it is important to check the histogram carefully. Do not let the white column touch the right vertical axis at all. Push it towards the axis, but not all the way. Too far, and the background will be burned out and cannot be saved in processing later on.

The histogram to the left is that of the white-out photo below.  There is a small "bump" in the dark area of the diagram representing the dark colours on the penguin's back. The small "bump" left of the large column points to the light grey and nearly white colours in the penguin's chest, while the large column to the right shows the data for the background. Almost, but not completely white! Not burned out.

As you can tell from the histogram, it is possible to adjust levels to push the white column even further to the right, which will cause an even whiter background.

 White-out Gentoo (click for larger version)

Weddell Seal (click for larger version)

Gentoo in the wind (click for larger version)

Gentoo against blue ice (click for larger version)

Useful Island (site #7)
We landed at site #7, Useful island, on Saturday evening the 18th November. This small island west of Ronge Island was discovered by the Belgian Antarctic Expedition (1897-1899) that sailed with a Norwegian-built whaling ship Patricia, (but renamed to RV Belgica). The expedition had a multinational crew that included Roald Amundsen, the first person to reach the South Pole in December 1911.

We, who arrived here 118 years later, did find the island to be very useful indeed!  The sunset was spectacular shining its evening light on the colonies of Chinstrap penguins nesting on top of the island. The large colonies of Gentoos closer to the shore were already in the shadow. Great scenes in beautiful Antarctic evening light.

View from the top of Useful Island looking south-west towards Ronge Island and the Arctowski Peninsula.
Do note the many Gentoo colonies (click for larger version)

View from the top of Useful Island looking south-east during sunset (click for larger version)

The Chinstrap penguin (Pygoscelis antarcticus) is a species of penguin which inhabits a variety of islands and shores in the Southern Pacific and the Antarctic Ocean. Its name derives from the narrow black band under its head. This was our third penguin species recorded so far. Chinstrap penguins have a circumpolar distribution and feed almost exclusively on krill. They breed in Antarctica, Argentina, Bouvet Island, Chile, the Falkland Islands, the French Southern Territories, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. Vagrant individuals have been found in New Zealand, the islands of Saint Helena, Tristan da Cunha, and South Africa. Global population is estimated at least 8 million, (IUCN, 2013). 

Chinstrap penguins

Chinstrap penguins displaying in evening light (click for larger version)

To view the colonies in good light, we had to rapidly climb the island, a much needed exercise after days on deck, in the bar and in the zodiacs. The view from the top of the island was spectacular. Sunset in north-west and soft red glaciers and snowy hills in south-east.

Sunset from Useful Island (click for larger version)

Dawn in Antarctica
We anchored close to Useful Island Saturday night.  I was becoming late as we stayed as long as possible ashore.  The weather stayed clear and calm and the scene lay open for a spectacular and cold sunrise. A few hours sleep and I was back on deck at 3.30.  The sky was purple reflecting in the calm water. The mountains that surrounded Gerlacha Streight where blueish white, it all looked like a fairy tail. A few Gentoo penguins jumped in and out of the water and in the distance we saw a glimpse of a Humpback Whale. The few of us that got up early certainly experiences a magical Antarctic dawn!  The sun hit the highest peaks and made them glow....

Dawn and a Gentoo (click for larger version)

Sunrize at 3:30 am (click for larger version)

Dawn (click for larger version)

Panorama composed of 18 images (click for larger version)

Cuverville Island (site #8)
On Sunday afternoon we landed at Cuverville Island.  The weather was absolutly stunningly good.  Totally calm and sunny. Not so good for photography, but fantastic for relaxing on the rocky beach and for sunbathing.  Cuverville Island is a  rocky island lying in Errera Channel between Arctowski Peninsula and the northern part of Rongé Island. It was discovered by the Belgian Antarctic Expedition (1897–1899) under Adrien de Gerlache, who named it for J.M.A. Cavelier de Cuverville (1834–1912), a vice admiral of the French Navy.

The island is a major bird site as it supports a breeding colony of about 6 500 pairs of Gentoo penguins, the largest population for this species on the Antarctic Peninsula. Other birds nesting at the site include Southern Giant Petrels and Antarctic shags. For this reason part of the site is restricted to visitors.

 Landing at Cuverville Island (click for larger version)

The beach was rocky with a huge rim of snow and ice lying about one and a half meter above the beach.  This gave great oppurtunities for photographing penguins against the white background and get some more "white-outs".  I spent the whole afternoon just walking and sitting on the beach enjoying the magic scenery of Antarctica in full sunshine and taking white-outs and photos of Gentoos as they arrived on the beach after a catch.

Large Gentoo colonies and huge mountains framed the area and made the scene beautifully dramatic!

Gentoo colonies at Cuverville Island (clck for larger version)

 Large Gentoo colony just off the beach (click for larger version)

 Gentoo colonies at Cuverville Island (click for larger version)

White-out Gentoos (click for larger version)

The Brown Skua (Catharacta lonnbergi) is a large bird with wingspan of up to 160 cm. It is common in Antarctica and typically found around Gentoo colonies where it feeds on chicks and eggs from the Gentoos. It also take other smaller birds like Wilson's Storm Petrels. Skuas also chase Kelp Gulls and Shags until they relinquish their prey. They are real bullies and top predators of Antarctica! Cuverville was no exception. Brown skuas lay on the beach and looked lazy, there was plenty of food around. A few of them took a walk on the snow and I could do more white-outs.

Brown Skua

Before we returned to the ship, we did a small zodiac cruise and took a closer look at the artistic icebergs and ice formations that were scattered all around the bay of Cuverville Island. The shape and colours of the Antarctic ice seem to be unlimited.

Blue ice cave (click for larger version)

Dancing Gentoo (click for larger version)

Georges Point (site #9)
The weather continued to stay clear and calm for the rest of the day.  In the evening we landed at Georges Point, which is the northern tip of Rongé Island situated off the west coast of Graham Land. This was a new landing site for Wildphoto and Audubn and the other vguys had checked it out while we were at land at Cuverville Island and had great hope for a spectacular sunset and magic light in the late evening. Ronge Island is home to more than 1 700 pairs of Gentoo penguins, many of which nests at Georges Point together with a number of Chinstrap penguins. 

We landed late and the sun was already close to the horizon in north-west. The mountains turned blue and the sky turned yellow.  The snow almost seemed blueish too. A magic light wads about to happen, in fact this turned out to be a fantastic photographic event when the sun was down.

Landing at Georges Point

 Blue Gentoo (click for larger version)

When the clock turned half passed ten, the very best light appeared. Red sky towards the eastern horizon and blueish-grey above the red. Hundreds of Gentoos in the foreground and icebergs and snowy mountains in the background. It was essential to manually underexposed the photos to bring out the magic colours.

Gentoos in the evening (click for larger version)

Antarctic evening (click for larger version)

Old couple (click for larger version)

Port Lockroy Station A (click for larger version)

Port Lockroy (site #11)
Port Lockroy is situated on the north-western shore of Wiencke Island in the Palmer Archipelago.The bay, which is a natural harbour, was discovered in 1904 and named after Edouard Lockroy, a French politician,  who assisted Jean-Baptiste Charcot in obtaining government funding for his French Antarctic Expedition. The harbour was used for whaling between 1911 and 1931. During World War II, the British military Operation Tabarin established the Port Lockroy Station A on tiny Goudier Island in the bay, which continued to operate as a British research station until January 1962.   


Port Lockroy stamp (click for larger version)

The base at Port Lockroy was renovated in 1996 and is now a museum and post office run by the United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage Trust.  In fact it is the southernmost post office in the World.  Port Lockroy is a very popular tourist site and the staff of four typically process 70 000 pieces of mail sent by 18 000 visitors that arrive during the five month Antarctic cruise season. You can also get your passport stamped at the station. This was were we landed on November 21st and met with the staff that was going to stay here for a few months.

Port Lockroy is full of birds.  Gentoo penguins nest in numbers even at the doorstep of the museum and a large colony of Antarctic Shags (Phalacrocorax bransfieldensis) nest on a nearby islet. The Antarctic Shags is only found in the Antarctic Peninsula including South Orkney and South Sandwich Islands, but is, however, sometimes regarded as a race of the Imperial Shag (P. atriceps), which is distributed along the southern coast of Chile and Argentina and on the Falkland Islands. 

In any case at Port Lockroy we could photograph the shags as they returned to their nesting sites with the bacon full of sea weed, which they use as nesting material. As land plants are totally missing here, the shags must use other material for nest building, and here they dived for sea weed on a shallow area one kilometer away. The large birds came flying directly towards us with their catch.  Great scenery for flying bird photography.  I use my Nikon D500 and 200-400mm lens and got some great shots.

Antarctic Shag with sea weed (click for larger version)


Neumayer Channel (site #12)
Neumayer Channel is a 26 km long channel that runs in a NW-SW direction separating Anvers Island from Wiencke and Doumer Islands. We sailed slowely through the channel on the afternoon of Monday 20th November. The sky was partly cloudy and the clouds were low covering the mountain peaks that surrounded the channel.  Here and there the sky cleared and dramatic scenes appeared.  I played with the wide angle images in Photoshop when I got back home trying to increase the dramatic effects...

Neumayer Channel (click for larger version)

Neumayer Channel in B&W (click for larger version)

After a couple of hours enjoying the sceneries of the Neumayer Channel, we passed a large iceberg with an extraordinary shape. All sorts of figures appeared in the bluish ice.  Polar Pioneer circled the iceberg three times until everyone had finished their photographic needs.

Huge snowberg (click for larger version)

Our friend Hans Christian that joined us on this trip, is not only a clever photographer but also a native Greenlander who has grown up among icebergs, frozer fjords and snowy mountains.  He commented that this was actually a "snowberg", not an iceberg as the consistence of the ice were porous and soft rather than hard. The snowberg was breaking apart and a large block dropped into the sea as we circled the formation.

Madonna in ice

Neko Harbour (site #14)
On the morning of Tuesday 21st November, we anchored in Neko Harbour, an inlet of the Peninsula on Andvord Bay on the west coast of Graham Land. Gentoos were plentiful as always. Even better than the gentoos were the hike to a viewpoint about 60 meters above the surface wher we had a spectacular overview of the site.  As I stood there, two orcas patrolled the harbor. i rushed down, but missed them only just!

Tina and Gary overlook the beautiful Neko Harbour (click for larger version)

Zodiak cruise at Hydrurga rocks (site #15)
We were now heading north. We were going home.  A few spectacular days were still to come befor we once more should cross the Drake. The Hydrurga Rocks are a group of rocks lying east of Two Hummock Island, in the Palmer Archipelago. The site is in fact named after the Leopard Seal, Hydrurga leptonyx, by the UK Antarctic Place Name Committee.   We arrived here about eight o'clock in the evening and immediately entered the zodiacs for a cruise in the evening light. The sky was still clear and the sea was flat.

Zodiac cruise at Hydrurga Rocks

Wildlife was plentiful here. We spotted the Antarctic Fur Seal (Arctocephalus gazella), a species that is relatively uncommon on the Peninsula compared to e.g. in South Shetland Islands.  Gentoos and Chinstraps were nesting along with large colonies of Antarctic Shags.  One zodiac, unfortunately not the one that we were in, had two Humpback Whales very close and got some spectacular shots!  When the sun set the light again turned spectacular red and grey.

Antarctic Fur Seal

Roy and the guys are enjoying Antarctica (click for larger version)

Astrolabe Island (site #16)
Polar Pioneer continued to sail northwards along the Antarctic Peninsula on Wednesday 22nd November. The weather was still magnificent, much too good from a photographic point of view.

We arrived at the well known Astrolabe Island (left) around three o'clock in the afternoon. Astrolabe Island is a five km long island in the Bransfield Strait. It was discovered by the French expedition, 1837–40, under Captain Jules Dumont d'Urville, and named by him for his chief expedition ship, the Astrolabe.

Again we had to do a zodiac cruise as it is not allowed to land at the island. The site was full of spectacular iceberg formations and there was also a number of Weddell seals lying around. Chinstrap penguins nested in numbers on the steep cliffs while Antarctic Shags had occupied the top of a small islet where they had built their nests. The guys with UW GoPros tried to get underwater footage of the seals.

Zodiac cruise at Astrolabe island (click for larger version)

Icebergs at Astrolabe Island (click for larger version)

Iceberg at Astrolabe Island (click for larger version)

Weddell Seal and icicles (click for larger version)

Gourdin Island (site #17)
We arrived at Gourdin Island at three o'clock in the afternoon on Thursday 23rd November. Two days to go before leaving Antarctica and heading towards Cape Horn.  Gourdin Island is the largest island in a group of islands and islets north of Prime Head, the very northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula.  It was discovered by a French expedition in 1837-1840. The island holds about 14 000 pairs of Adelie penguins and more than 500 pairs of Gentoos. Chinstraps are also present here.

Landing at Gourdin Island (click for larger version)

We did two landings here. One in the afternoon and one in the evening. I choose to go on the second landing in hope for good light at dusk, but the sky stayed grey this evening.  The site was an interesting one as the rim of ice lied a couple of meters above the surface, consequently the Adelie- and Gentoo penguins had to jump onto land, which gave great but difficult photo oppurtunities. I did get one single shot that was OK..

Jumping onto land


Adelie penguins

At Gourdin Island I could photograph all three species of penguins that we met in Antarctica.  I have taken the opportunity to compose a photo comparing the species; Gentoo, Chinstrap and Adelie. There are all stunningly beautiful and well adapted to the Antarctic ecosystem. Sad to think that soon we should have to leave the penguins of Antarctica and fly home to the opposite side of the World where no penguins live.

The three species of penguins we met on the Antarctic continent and nearby islands (clisk for a larger version)

Large nesting colony of Adelie Penguins at Gourdin Island (click for larger version)

Kinnes Cove, Joinville Island (site #18)
Kinnes Cove lies between Cape Kinnes and Madder Cliffs on Joinville Island, the largest island of the Joinville Island group, lying off the northeastern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, from which it is separated by the Antarctic Sound. Joinville Island was discovered and charted in 1838 by a French expedition commanded by Captain Jules Dumont d'Urville, who named it for Prince François, Prince of Joinville. Here Polar Pioneer dropped anchor and launched the zodiacs. We were off for our very last zodiac cruise on this trip.

Polar Pioneer at Kinnes Cove (click for larger version)

Kinnes Cove was loaded with Adelie Penguins and we spent much of the cruise following a large group of them getting ready to jump into the cold sea to feed.  They wandered back and forth on the ice shelf and we followed slowly and quietly with the zodiac.  In the background were the huge icebergs of the Antarctic Sound.

Adelie penguins at Kinnes Cove (click for larger version)

After a couple of hours waiting and observing the penguin's behavior they finally decided to go for it. One individual bird jumped and the rest followed rapidly.  We got the magic scene from the front and although a sideways view would have been far better from a photographic point of view, this was an event that should just be enjoyed regardless of photographic angel. Ice cold water, snow and ice, huge icebergs and a bunch of diving Adelie penguins - a typical scenery for the Antarctic Peninsula.

Diving Adelie penguins (click for larger version)

Penguin Island (site #20)
The last day in Antarctica. Being here has been like being in the World before human appeared on the planet. Cold silence and untouched nature. Almost. Snowy mountains where no humans have ever set foot. And we had only seen a tiny fraction of this huge continent. Let us hope that it can stay like it is today without the humans exploiting its resources and creating imbalance in the fragile Antarctic ecosystem.

Friday morning 24th November came with wind and snow.  Finally some really interesting conditions for nature photography! We filled up the zodiacs and set off for a fantastic landing at penguin island.  This small ice-free and oval shaped island off the  south coast of the larger King George Island (which we were to visit this afternoon) supports a lot of penguins and a colony of more than 600 breeding pairs of Southern Giant Petrels. The many penguins gave rise to the island's name in 1820 when Edward Bransfield, leading a British expedition to the area, first sighted the island.

The most prominent feature on Penguin Island is, however, Deacon Peak, a basaltic scoria cone with a 350m wide  and well preserved summit crater that forms the 180 meters high summit on the SW side of the island.  Due to the snowy weather, the crater was hidden as we set foot on the shores of Penguin Island.

Photographers at Penguin Island (click for larger version)

The conditions were totally different from those we have had on our previous landings. I emmediately spotted a group of Chinstrap penguins struggeling in the wind and snow to climb a tiny slope. One penguin has settled down, turned its back to the wind and was covered in snow. A few Gentoos also struggled to keep up with the blowing conditions. Great motivs!

Chinstrap against the wind (click for larger version)

Snowy Chinstrap (click for larger version)

Walking away from it all (click for larger version)

Gentoos (click for larger version)

Other chinstrap poenguins were on their way to the rocky shore. They wanted to jump into water and go feeding.  I froze just by thinking of getting into these waters!  The chinstraps bent forward before jumping from rock to rock. Adventually they reached the shore, got splashed by the waves but managed to get off anyway.  Once in the sea, their rather clumsy behaviour disappeared, penguins are like fish in water. The gentoos stood watching...

Off to the shore (click for larger version)

Into the right element (click for larger version)

Gentoo on the watch (click for larger version)

The rocky beach of Penguin Island was also the resting place for a group ogf Elephant Seals.  These colossal seals seem to be found several places in South Shetland Island, probably the best place to spot them in Antarctica. Young males were fighting. Elephant Seals do never seem to stop fighting.  In many ways they are just like us...

Elephant seals at Penguin Island (click for larger version)



Leopard kill
It was our new friend and fellow nature photographer, the Aussie girl Bronwyn, who first spotted the Leopard Seal.  I accidently turned my head and saw Bronwyn gesticulating and pointed to the sea.  Out there, 50 meters from the shore, a large Leopard Seal was killing a Chinstrap Penguin. A Leopard kill, the predator and prey, just like in Maasai Mara.

The Leopard Seal (Hydrurga leptonyx) is, next to the Orca, the top predator in Antarctica.  It belongs on top of the food web. It is a large seal that can weigh up to 600 kilos and reach 3.5 meters in length. Females are usually a bit larger than males. The species is found all around Antarctica, including South Shetland Island.  Leopard Seals are strongly linked to pack icy environments where they hunt for krill, squid, fish when they are young, but switch to hunting penguins and juvenile seals when they reach adulthood.

Leopard Seal photographed at Gourdin Island. (Photo: Ragnvald Andersen, click for larger version)

On safari in Africa, photographing a "kill" is one out of many highlights!  I must admit that I had hoped to see a Leopard Seal killing its prey on this trip, but did not think that it would actually happen.  Luckily I had my D500, which is a DX model, and my 200-400mm lens. This gave me 600mm full frame, which was just right for the situation.  ISO 400, f5 and EV=+1 gave 1/4000 sec. 9 frames a second became very useful now. 

The seal threw the poor penguin back and forth to kill it. Again and again. In the beginning the Chinstrap was clearly alive and it must have taken several minutes to kill it.  In fact it lasted 30 minutes from my first frame till the last when the Leopard Seal has eaten the prey. The photo sequence below show the behavior (starting upper left moving to lower right, click for larger versions):


This is how the seal's feeding behaviour is described on Seals World's web site: They kill penguins and small seals by grabbing them with their feet. Then they will thrash them back and forth against the ground until they are dead. In the water they are able to swallow fish or to tear off large portions of big prey they find in there.

Are Leopard Seals dangerous to humans?  Probably not, but great care should be taken when diving or snorkeling among this predator. Only one fatal attack on humans is known. It happened in 2003 when a leopard seal dragged snorkeling biologist Kirsty Brown of the British Antarctic Survey 61 meters underwater to her death (Owen, 2003).

Our Leopard Seal mstayed around for yet an hour or so. It was happy, it has got his meal for today. Happy seal, dead penguin....


Turret Point, King George Island (site #21)
Our very last landing was on Turrett Point, forming the east limit of Kin George Bay on the southern side of King George Island, the largest island in the South Shetland group. The island was discovered in 1819 and does today contain several research stations.  We landed here in the afternoon. The weather was still grey and windy and the wind was increasing. When getting ashore on the icy shoreline, I finally felt like being in a polar country.

Elephant Seals did welcome us to the beach. The same did a bunch of Antarctic Comorants that were nesting on a small, stony hill at the end of the beach. A pair of young male seals was fighting in an icy pool inshore. The wind was blowing and carried snow.  Large icy boulders drifted in the water and were thrown up on the rocky beach. Our leaders looked like they were freezing.

Turret Point at King George Island (click for larger version)

Antarctic Comorant (click for larger version)

Elephant Seals (click for larger version)

A call was made from the ship. The waves increased. We had to bore the zodiacs and get back to the ship. Three meters waves in zodiacs reminded me of fishing back home.  Polar Pioneer had lifted anchor and gave shelter to the zodiacs. We all got on board safely.

Leaving Antarctica (click for larger version)

It was all over. A magic expedition to the icy continent in the south has ended. We set sail for the Drake and headed for Cape Horn. Now Rangvald and I were looking forward to the Falklands where we would meet the penguins again.



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