There is no lack of penguins in Antarctica, they are a constant feature for any visitor. But one day in particular stands out when I think about these cute Antarctic residents. The ship anchored in the quiet bay of Orne Island early in the morning, an unusually clear and sunny day. As soon as the Zodiac boat landed on shore I could hear them, the high pitched chirping of what could only be hundreds of penguins. After a vertical hike to the top of the island, the source of the sound immediately came into focus. They were everywhere, young and old, sleeping and active: we had arrived into the middle of a chinstrap penguin colony. Movies and TV shows don’t do penguins justice. That is to say, they whitewash the experience. Being around that many penguins is a smelly and dirty experience, and I’ll just leave it there. Add to the natural waste a copious amount of sticky mud, and the day quickly turned into the dirtiest I experienced while in Antarctica. Even as gross and smelly as it was, to be inches away in some cases from penguin families as they went about their daily lives was an experience I’ll never forget. We were lucky, the chicks were still around and the parents were busy feeding them as much as they could. I spent hours up there, juts observing the penguins and their comical habits, entranced by their every movement. That’s why for me more than any other photo of a penguin in Antarctica, this one is the most special.
I love this photo for a couple of reasons. First, it perfectly captures the moody weather that morning. We had been told that few ships are able to visit the Chilean Antarctic Base O’Higgins Station because of ice flows and high winds. For some reason the weather gods smiled on us that morning though and in spite of some spectacularly icy waters, we were able to visit the intrepid souls who call this remote station home. Even gloomy days in Antarctica are beautiful and I think I appreciated them far more than when the sun was shining brightly. There’s just something about the diffusion of light through dark and foreboding clouds that adds a certain drama and excitement to the day. What’s even more incredible to imagine is that this picture was taken during the Austral Summer – just imagine what winter must be like.
Weather changes fast in Antarctica, but I was lucky enough to enjoy a few sunny days while cruising around the continent. The shockingly clear skies and glassy water are piercing in their beauty. The haze of a city or milky sunsets of the Caribbean don’t belong here; instead the exactness of the colors and hues set sunsets in Antarctica apart from the rest of the world. In February when I visited the sun set around 10pm or so, but the show began much earlier. Bundled up in my coat and hat I sat on the deck of the ship and watched as blues turned into reds and purples and as penguins on icebergs floated off into the sunset. I was alone, but not lonely, content in witnessing a nightly spectacle so few get to enjoy.
Intellectually I knew that there was a lot of ice in Antarctica, but that knowledge never prepared me for the first time I saw a massive iceberg in person. I woke up on my first morning, looked out of my cabin window and there were dozens of enormous icebergs floating gently past. During the week sailing around they became constant features of the expedition and I began to appreciate their different forms and even colors. The deep blues of oxygen rich icebergs and the flat tops of tabular mountains of ice were each beautiful in very different ways. My favorite though was this one we happened to find one day while looking for whales. The arch of ice mesmerized me and I found myself quickly entranced. I’m not sure why I love it so much, maybe it’s the unexpected natural architecture, but it came to exemplify the continent for me.
It’s easy to forget that even a place as isolated and inhospitable as Antarctica has a history of human settlement, albeit a short one. Deception Island was one such settlement, once a base of operations for whalers who patrolled the surrounding waters. Their life was hard and full of risk and many never returned home from their voyages south. This lonely tombstone on the island is a reminder of all those who tried to brave the elements in Antarctica, succumbing in one way or another. Like many whalers he was from Norway, a place so distant yet oddly reminiscent of snowy Deception Island. It must be a strange feeling to be so far from home and yet surrounded by natural features that are homey and probably even comforting. Antarctica is a hard place to tame, and even as a tourist we have to always respect its fickle and violent nature.
I was in Antarctica thanks to a partnership with Adventure Life, the adventure tour company.