Antarctica & South Georgia are best described as mind-blowing, awe-inspiring and breathtaking.
Antarctica’s spell captured my soul
While I traveled to Antarctica knowing that it would be unique and the trip of a lifetime, it captured my soul in a way I never expected. Although the colors, sounds and sights are describable, it’s hard to encapsulate just how striking the beauty and wildlife are. Antarctica’s spell took hold in such a way that it inspired me to resign from my medical device marketing career and chase a dream related to travel photography and writing.
Fearless wildlife will greet you
Landing in South Georgia and being greeted by adorable, wide-eyed fur seals was unexpected and delightful. Watching them scoot down the beach and into the water as the zodiac was approaching was hilarious. Interestingly, many of the fur seal pups would seemingly do a back-bend, checking you out from an upside down perspective, which I found so endearing.
The fur seals were just the beginning. When you are bending over taking pictures, curious penguin chicks will often waddle over and pull on your backpack straps, pant legs or shoelaces. My husband experienced this firsthand when he sat down in the snow to photograph. Once you get to eye level with a penguin, their fears melt away and they become inquisitive examiners of all things.
South Georgia’s white sand beaches & lush green grass
Letting my imagination run wild before the trip, I envisioned sailing past massive icebergs and shielding my eyes from the sun reflecting off untouched, bright, white snow. Landing in Salisbury Plain, South Georgia (a sub-Antarctic island), and encountering greenery was the last thing I expected, but it provided a stunning backdrop for photos. The greens and yellows accentuated the already photogenic King penguins and their beautiful color gradations.
And, while I expect white sand beaches on tropical islands, I was unprepared for it in the Falkland Islands. Photographing Gentoo penguins marching along the beach to head out for a morning swim was incredible against this backdrop. Wind pushing sand along the beach provided an ethereal feel for one of my favorite photos.
We opted to visit Antarctica in February/March in hopes of seeing a variety of whales. Despite expecting an unpleasant and nausea inducing ride through Drake’s Passage (the route from Argentina to Antarctica), we were unbelievably lucky.
Instead of the typical 30-40 foot waves in the passage (known as “Drake’s Shake”), we had calm, flat conditions that the crew called “Drake’s Lake.” Not only did that benefit our stomachs, but it also allowed the captain to scan the horizon for potential whales and deftly maneuver the ship. During our very first day, he positioned us perfectly to watch four orcas in their element. A phenomenal way to start the trip! Did you know:
- Orcas live in a matriarchal society, passing along their knowledge within their pods.
- Both male and female orcas stay with their mothers throughout their lives.
- Males have a tall, straight dorsal fin. Females have a shorter, curved fin.
- On average, orcas lives 30-50 years.
After seeing this amazing pod in the wild, I realized how happy I was that Sea World will phase out all killer whale shows by 2019. I can’t imagine living a solitary life in an aquarium – it would be like a person living his entire life in prison without committing a crime.
Bullying exists in the animal kingdom
During the trip we saw eight instances of “Blondie” fur seals. 1 in 1000 fur seals will be born as a blondie, with golden fur instead of brown fur. Sadly, from a very young age, they are picked on – often not surviving to adulthood. Observing a small blondie being harassed and chased by others while I sat on a beach broke my heart. I just wished they would leave her alone. It’s sad to think that even animals fear what’s different than them.
Penguins sound great but smell terrible
While I knew South Georgia was known for having large concentrations of King penguins, I was not prepared for the unbelievable sight of 250,000 King penguins on one beach. The cacophony of sound and smell is overwhelming at first (especially the smell). However, after the initial shock, your mouth drops open in awe as you realize the penguins extend for as far as the eye can see.
Hundreds of king penguin chicks = photo heaven
Since we were late in the season, we knew that penguin chicks would be scarce. However, we still hoped to see one baby penguin. Luckily, a friend spotted a three-week old chick with its parents. Watching the mom and baby interact for at least 30 minutes, we thought our trip wish list was complete.
Already thinking we were the luckiest people in the world, a couple came by and said, “Oh, if you like this, you should go around the corner as there are 100 babies.” I figured they were exaggerating, but sure enough, right around the corner were hundreds of king penguin chicks!! I died and went to photography heaven and went on to take 1000+ pictures in an hour. I might have a slight obsession with baby penguins….
Black and white dolphins
Before visiting Antarctica, I had neither seen nor heard of a Commerson’s Dolphin. They are gorgeous and incredibly unique! Standing on the beach, thinking that our eyes were playing tricks on us, we glimpsed these lovely creatures surfing the breaking waves. Once they noticed the zodiacs in the water, the dolphins shifted their play to the zodiac wake, escorting all of the lucky passengers back to the main ship.
The near eradication of whales
Visiting Grytviken in South Georgia was haunting. Operating from 1904 to 1964, this whaling station played a major role in the two million whales that were killed in Antarctica for oil, meat and soap in the 20th century. Wandering the grounds, it’s heartbreaking to think about how many whales were slaughtered.
While whale sightings in South Georgia are rare, we were fortunate to see Humpback, Southern Right, Orca and Bowhead whales in Antarctica. We even saw a Southern Right whale breaching! Sadly, this is an incredibly rare and lucky sighting as commercial whaling decimated their numbers. After 138 visits, our expedition leader had only seen three Southern Right whales.
Antarctica ice seems to glow from within
The glaciers and “bergy bits” are a stunning blue, giving off an other-worldly glow. When the light hits them just right, it will take your breath away. This brilliant hue is a result of the incredibly dense ice absorbing all colors in the spectrum except blue. Multi-layered gray skies further enhance this contrast. Did you know that when you see an iceberg, you are witnessing only a tiny portion as 90% of it is below the surface.
Juvenile king penguins are known as Oakum Boys
King penguins mature from chicks to the regal adults over a 13 month period. During this transitional time, they are called Oakum boys. Initially, when sailors encountered these juveniles, they thought they were a different species. While King penguins are cute as chicks and spectacular as adults, their awkward teenager years are not too attractive.
One in particular caught my attention. In the midst of losing his downy feathers and transitioning to an adult, he looked as if he had a tutu on. Hilarious! Prior to this trip, I mistakenly thought King penguin chicks looked the same as Emperor Penguin chicks. Nope, they definitely are not the same super cute, grey and black Emperor penguin chicks we all think of from March of the Penguins and Happy Feet. Though, I think this guy qualifies as so ugly, he’s cute.
Penguins are like lemmings
While at Salisbury Plain, we witnessed a hysterical entourage of penguins struggling to traipse through mud. Once one started the journey, many followed. After face-planting and shaking themselves off, they would continue on this suboptimal route. Why they didn’t opt for the slightly longer, easy, dry route just to their left is beyond me.