Danko Island and Neko Harbour, Antarctica
So the now familiar “Good Morning ladies and gentlemen (pause) Good Morning.” from Mariano awakened me a 7:00 a.m. (I was really, really enjoying the dulcit sounds of Mariano’s oh so polite, slight Spanish accented wake-up call.) The plan for the morning was to head to Oreng Harbor north of our location from the previous day. However, we ended up passing by Oreng Harbor because ice flow was blocking the entrance. Plan B (and by the way there is always a Plan B and perhaps a Plan C because of the unpredictability of Mother Nature) was go around the point to Danco Island.
Ben found the kayak team at breakfast and advised us that the waters were a bit rough, (it was cloudy and rainy). He recommended that we kayak that morning, but we would stay close to shore, paddle around the many large icebergs and then visit the Gentoo penguin colony on the island. OK by me as well as the rest of the kayak team.
The paddle through the icebergs was really amazing. The beautiful blue hues in the icebergs never ceased to amaze me. As we paddled we saw a crabeater seal and then a fur seal popped up right in front of my kayak. The seal literally looked like it was posing for me in front of this beautiful blue iceberg. It was absolutely beautiful!
We bobbed and weaved around the ice flows and paused at a large iceberg where another fur seal was sleeping. At one point it opened its eyes, lifted its head and then literally dropped its head back on the ice and ignored us. OK then!
After a couple turns around the waters in front of Danco Island, we put the kayaks ashore and began a walk up the hill to a Gentoo penguin rookery overlooking the bay. The walk was a bit messy through mud, snow and penguin poop. And, as I mentioned before, the Gentoo penguins are a VERY smelly group. (A word of advice … if you ever find yourself in a Gentoo penguin colony, always stay in front of the penguin instead of behind. These birds have the most amazing ability to shoot poop out of their ends like its coming out of a cannon. Seriously. I missed being hit more than once by inches. Nevertheless, it was absolutely fascinating to wander among the penguins. It was near the end of the breeding season and there were still some newborns hiding under a parent (both penguins look after the baby so we had no idea whether it was mom or dad caring for the little one).
The bird expert on board, Wendy, was standing at about mid level up the hill as we hiked up. The view was amazing as we looked at over the cove below, but equally amazing was the hundreds of penguins standing, preening, running and generally living all around us. A handful of us stood and talked to Wendy, who has an impressive almost encyclopedic memory for all matters birds.
Wendy gave us a little summary of the penguin birth and migration cycle and then she took us on a little walk towards a nest where one penguin was protecting a young penguin chick in a nest as the other parent waddled back and forth with rocks and tail feathers in its beak as it continued to build the nest around the baby and parent. We watched spellbound as the penguin gently picked up a stone, waddle back to the nest, leaned down and slowly rolled the stone out of its beak and onto the growing nest. Periodically we would see the little gray ball of fur poke its head out from under the parent and then open its little beak for food, which the nesting parent obliged with some regurgitated matter.
By about 11, it was time to head back to the ship. As we boarded, we did the requisite boot cleaning, had our names checked off the onshore list (to ensure that all passengers who left boarded) and were handed a glass of mulled wine. YES! And thank you very much!!! Nothing like some mulled wine to warm you up.
Once on board, we set sail for Neko Harbour, which was the home to another Gentoo penguin colony as well as massive glacier that we were to hike. We were also warned that the glacier was an “active” glacier, with regular “calving” (giant pieces falling into the sea) so the kayakers were going to have to paddle away from the landing area in order to avoid potential tsunami waves from the falling glacier if a calving episode occured. YIKES! Uh say what??? I’d have to have a little chat with Ben before heading out in a kayak.
In the mean time, the ship cruised along in very calm waters. Right after lunch, Mariano announced on the speaker that there was a minke whale following the ship (a small whale that can serve as an appetizer for killer whales). I grabbed my camera, put on my heavy jacket and ran up the stairs to the outside deck. There was a small crowd gathered on one side of the ship, but all I could see was the telltale round circle left from the whale’s blow. I walked to the opposite side of the vessel and leaned against the railing and all of a sudden the minke appeared right below me in the water. My camera had been ready and I managed to snap an amazing shot of the mink
After all the minke excitement I sat in the Panorama lounge and watched for whales. I saw a few “blows”, but apparently missed the killer whales that a number of folks saw on the other side of the boat. Not long after, Neko Harbor came into view and I went to me room to get ready from the afternoon kayak. (I was now becoming proficient at putting on the gear although I still disliked pulling the suit over my head.)
The afternoon kayak team was a small one. Only five of us decided to particpate: me and Karina, Chris, Anna and Andy. And as it turned out the six us of made a very wise choice. Niko Harbor could not have been more calm. In fact, it was flat as glass. Not a ripple. Not a wave. Nothing.
Ruslan (my favorite zodiac driver) took us to the zodiac boat with Pernille and the kayaks. Ben decided that we would initially paddle along the shoreline (ignoring the looming glacier) to watch the Gentoo penguins bopping in and out the water and swimming all around us. And there is very little I can think of that is more entertaining than watching penguins swimming. Penguins dive into the water, swim under water out of sight for a bit, then come up to breath by literally flying through the air and diving back into the water. As we paddled along the shoreline, there were penguins literally “flying” all around us. (I am not sure why this penguins were more active swimmers in this area than they had been in the morning at Danco Island, but at Neko Harbour there were flying penguins everywhere.)
After hugging the coastline for a bit and watching the penguins, Ben set out down the bay and we followed. We initially paddled past a myriad of beautiful icebergs in a setting I can only describe as surreal. There was no sound except for the rhythmic paddling. There was no wind at all, and as a result there were no waves lapping at our kayaks.
Periodically, we would stop and just float along. As I looked around me, everything was white and gray and silent. At one point as we floated with the current we heard a huge thunderous sound in the distance, which Ben said was a “calving” from a glacier. (And no it was not the glacier above Niko Harbour). It was an amazing experience as we paddled through icebergs and past flying penguins down a long narrow channel. No words or pictures can accurately portray the setting. It close to perfection.
After about an hour and a half of paddling, Ben said that if we wanted to hike the glacier, we would need to head back. So we anchored beside the support zodiac, climbed aboard with Pernille and headed back to Niko Harbour. (Ben wanted to paddle back by himself and who can blame him.)
Once we reached Niko Harbour, the five of us met up with Nigel, one of the expedition members (he has over 20 years of experience in the Antarctica) and is a fountain of knowledge about everything Antarctica. And we were in for some luck. Nigel was going to climb with us to the top of the glacier. So off we set past the preening penguins and straight up the snow path to the top of the glacier. And talk about a hike. We went up, up, up, through soft snow and as we climbed the view became more and more magnificent. My legs and arms felt like led as we slogged through the heavy snow.
The path finally started to curve to my left and flatten out. We finished the last portion of the hike to the top just as it started to snow. And once at the top. Oh, my. What a view. We could see for miles with beautiful icebergs floating in the bay below. After the requisite pictures and attempt to burn the view into our memory banks, we started the much quicker hike down. At one point we reached this steep decline and all of us sat on our butts and slid down the hill as if we were on a toboggan. You are never too old to play in the snow.
As we neared the shore, we walked through the penguin colony towards the waiting zodiac for the ride back to the boat. The portion of the glacier hanging to my right over the bay looked ominous, but now safely ensconced in the zodiac there would be no tsunami issues for me. All in all, it had been a glorious day. And now it was time to leave the Antarctica Peninsula and head back towards the Shetland Islands.
That night as Mariano did our daily recap, we were advised that we would have a chance to do a polar plunge at Whaler’s Bay in the Shetland Islands the next day. Well never one to miss out on a challenge, I decided I was in. After speaking to my kayak partner, Karina, we decided to do it together. Hopefully I would not come to regret the decision. It should be an interesting final full day in the Antarctica.