An Antarctic Dream

Standing on crunchy white snow, looking up at the brilliant blue expanse of a vast sky stretching overhead uninterrupted in all directions. I close my eyes and just listen. There is no sound, the silence is deafening and perfect. Nothing can be seen for miles all around, just blinding white snow and ice. Beyond the white expanse, sheer cliffs of ice rise from the shelf, sculpted by the wind into the most beautiful reliefs. There are mountains here; the black rock striking against the brilliant white. It would not matter whether the sky was blue, or brooding with dark wind-blown clouds, it would not matter whether the seas around were calm as a millpond, sparkling in iridescent blues and greens that catch the sunlight, or whipped into glittering white horses atop dark, ominous waves. Simply being in Antarctica is a wildlife watchers dream.

How would Antarctica compare to the Arctic?

In the summer months colonies of penguins gather to breed. Adelie, Chinstrap and Gentoo. Oh to see noisy colonies of hundreds to penguins, nesting against that backdrop of mountain, snow and ice. To hear the noise and smell the smells…. To watch as they waddle and jump across rocks, wings flapping at their sides, slip and slide over ice and snow, leap from steps of ice and dive into clear, cold water. Adults in their striking black and white plumage, all dressed up for dinner. Small grey, fluffy chicks, eager to receive the bounty of regurgitated fish and krill from their parents. To watch juveniles learning to swim, paddling in the shallows, looking all pleased with themselves, only to go hurtling back as a group as a wave comes in. Then there are the Emperors who breed in the depths of winter, with days of no sunlight and temperatures dropping to -50°c and biting cold winds reaching 124 mph. Here huddling against the savage conditions, heads down, and eggs protected on their feet, the males wait it out. Summer human visitors are more likely to encounter them gathering to head out to sea to feed. Oh to stand, clad in my warmest of gear despite being summer, surrounded by hundreds of Emperor penguins, upright and regal. Waddling, clumsy perhaps on land, but coming into their own in water. ‘Flying’ underwater, sleek, supple, manoeuvrable, quick. Diving through the dark depths, cruising past underwater icebergs, bubbles trailing away.

Perhaps we would encounter seals too. Weddell Seals, lovers of snow and ice, lounging on inland fast ice. Southern elephant seals, gathering on beaches to breed in numbers so extraordinary they often end up on top of each other; a dangerous place for seal pups to be. Harems of females, defended by embattled males, tiny pups, all crammed together on the beach. Then there are Antarctic fur seals, with females who unlike other seals actively hunting for fish during the breeding season and not relying on only milk to sustain pups. The crabeater seal the most numerous large mammal on the planet! The Ross Seal, smallest of the Antarctic seals, solitary, small distribution on the densest of pack ice. And then, the Leopard Seal. Where the Arctic has Polar Bears, the Antarctic has Leopard Seals. A top predator they will eat anything and are consummate ambush predators taking a liking to grabbing penguins in particular by the feet! With an almost reptilian look about them and a fearless attitude, they have a fearsome reputation. But in a surprising twist their molars are interlocking enabling to them to filter krill.

Leaving the land and heading onto the water; kayak or zodiac, it wouldn’t matter. Slowly drifting amongst floes of ice. Giant pieces tower above the small boat. Walls of brilliant white with shimmering hues of blues and greens. Some are blocks, carved into wonderful shapes by the elements, others are huge, breath-taking caverns more beautiful than any cathedral. Below the surface the mass plunges into the depths, gleaming for the first few metres then disappearing into the darkness. In the waters surrounding these behemoths are hundreds of smaller icebergs, raised chunks and floating platforms.

I would watch for tell-tale signs that over 10 years of wildlife watching have honed. A ripple on the water, the splash of white water, the sound of a breath. It might lead me to that first passion of mine. Cetaceans. It might be Antarctic minke whales, surfacing amongst the ice floes; these amongst the smallest of the baleen whales and yet who produce some of the most incredible sounds underwater. Just who do you think has been producing the mysterious duck like quacks recorded over the last 50 years? It could be the wonderful humpback whale, gorging on the abundant fish in the ice free waters, stocking up ready for migrating to warmer climes to breed. Out in the more open waters off Antarctica it could be sei, fin, right, sperm or even blue whale, the biggest animal to ever live on our planet. It could be any number of oceanic dolphin species, hourglass, southern rightwhale, peales, surfing breaking waves out at sea.

Humpback Whale

No doubt I would brave the deck or a viewing platform on any vessel even as it crossed the notorious Drakes Passage. Then again it could be that species (or species’) that has caught a hold on my heart, the Orca or killer whale. I would scan in anticipation, the open waters and those quietly swirling amongst the ice floes, hoping and wishing. Four Types of killer whale live in Antarctic waters, each with their own distinct look and prey specialisation. Type A hunting those minke whales, Type B’s or Pack Ice Orca searching for seals hauled out on loose ice (oh to watch orcas wash seals off ice floes by creating a wave with their tails and bodies!), Type C’s with their brownish yellow appearance (due to diatoms) and small, sweeping back eyepatch, scouring the penguin colonies and finally Type D’s. Small, elusive, very rarely seen, with a tiny eye patch, roaming Subantarctic waters for fish, and thought to be a different species so genetically different are they….

As the vessel sails to, from and around Antarctica I watch for birds. I keep a keen eye for the distinctive, large shape of that magnificent flyer the Wandering Albatross. A legend among birds, a graceful master of stormy seas. There are of course other albatross and petrels, large and small, skua’s, gulls, terns, shearwaters, fulmars and even an Imperial Shag. A multitude to keep me busy for a lifetime.

Magnificent Wandering Albatross

So there it is my Antarctic Dream. Stunning, sweeping wilderness, towering icebergs taller than a buildings, whales, seals, penguins and seabirds. No I have never been, but maybe one day that might change with ???

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