My Money’s on the Leopard Seal.

Shetland Islands, Antarctica

We were awakened at 7:00 a.m. by dulcit tones of Mariano advising us we would be heading into Neptune’s Bellows around 8:30 a.m. in advance of arrival at Whaler’s Bay and Deception Island in the Shetland Islands. (We had now left the Antarctica Peninsula.) The passage was rather narrow and featured some magnificent cliffs so Mariano recommended everyone head to the lounge and deck 5 for some fabulous views after breakfast. (Have I mentioned how much I love waking up to Mariano’s “Good morning ladies and gentlemen …. Good Morning”? … I know, I know … a few times. But, what I may have neglected to mention is how much I do not like waking up to DRY EVERYTHING … skin, mouth, nose etc. OH. MY. GOD. The Antarctic is like someone sucked out all the moisture. I constantly have dry mouth and my poor skin feels like sandpaper. YUCK.)

Anyway, I digress. Ben did his usual breakfast rounds, but advised us that it was probably going to be a bit choppy in Whaler’s Bay and as a result, we may wish to bypass kayaking in the morning in favor of the zodiac beach landing. He said he would keep an eye on the weather (which at this point was really quite nice with some blue skies and sun albeit with a bit of a stiff breeze) and let us know before 9 if kayaking was an option.

Passing through Neptune’s Bellows

After breakfast, I walked up to deck 5 for a peak at Neptune’s Bellows. And true to Mariano’s word, the views were indeed magnificent as we sailed past huge cliffs into Whaler’s Bay and towards Deception Island. Now Deception Island was at one time a British whaling station. However, the station was built at the base of a volcano and after a series of eruptions destroyed the buildings (and the newly rebuilt buildings), the Brits threw in the towel and abandoned the station. The remnants of the buildings remain for us to explore as well as a healthy fur seal population and a good hiking trail that leads to a fabulous viewpoint towards the Bransfield Straight and back over to Neptune’s Bellows.

At 9, Ben called a meeting and the kayak group elected to forgo kayaking in the morning. We had done 6 kayak trips, which is apparently a pretty significant number because it is rare to have the weather conditions to permit kayaking twice a day each day.

So with that decision made, I bypassed the drysuit, put on a pair of shorts and a t-shirt (for the polar plunge), thermals, a heavy coat and the rubber boots I was issued back in Punta Arenas and headed for the zodiac boarding area for the quick trip to the beach landing area. (And this was a true sandy beach with very little rocks.)

Deception Island buried by lava

Ben provided the kayak team with some recommendations on where to go and what to see on the island and with that, I headed off towards the abandoned silos and dilapidated buildings. It was rather interesting to see old wooden buildings completely filled with volcanic rock and sediment and left as they were at the time of the eruptions. And the buildings certainly made for some dramatic pictures against the backdrop of the volcano and snow covered mountains.

Fur seals at Deception Island (they appear to like the boat)

I walked over a number of little stream that were flowing from the hillsides into Whaler’s Bay and as I walked, I noticed four large lumps on the sand. As I walked closer, I could see that there were four fur seals lazing on the sand. The seals did not appear to give a fiddle about me standing there staring at them. At one point, one of them lifted its head, let out a bark and flopped back on the sand. Wow. That was too much excitement.

After the requisite pictures, I headed back in the direction I had just come and toward the hiking area. Walking along the sand was quite the experience because there was a small little area of steam rising from the water which signaled the area where the water was actually warmer than the surrounding area. (Apparently there was some kind of volcanic activity directly under the sand because the sand was very warm and the steam gave off a sulpher odor.

Abandoned boats on Deception Island

Once through the steam, I wandered by some abandoned wooden boat relics and whale bones before reaching another group of fur seals. This group was a little more active, larger in number and spread out over a considerable area. I stood and watched a group of three play for a bit before heading up the hiking path towards the top for a view out across Bransfield Straight.

The hike was not too arduous and as I walked up the hillside over the volcanic rock. Once at the top, I met up with Bob (our geologist on board) who gave me a little history about the volcanic activity in the area. I took a quick peak at the view, but was not allowed to get to close to the edge for a better look because the winds at the top were pretty stiff.

Hiking the volcano on Deception Island

From the viewpoint, I started the climb back down the opposite side towards Wendy who was going to show me the “forest”. Once I reached Wendy, she walked with me over to a three inch by three inch patch of grass (seriously). Because the area receives little sun and not a lot of warmth, green patches are rarity so any green was a big deal. Wendy explained a bit about the type of grass then showed me a couple flowering plants (also green) before I headed back to the shore and the (drumroll) polar plunge!

The expedition team had the site all set up complete with shots of vodka to be handed to those who took the plunge and thick blue towels to dry off. The first few hard soles took to the water while I waited for Karina to arrive. Not ten minutes later Karina appeared and she and I proceeded to strip down to bathing suit (Karina) and shorts and t-shirt for me (I had left my swim suit in my luggage I left in Santiago because I did not know about the “plunge”.)

Polar Plunge at Whaler’s Bay in Antarctica

So with nothing but a mere 50 feet between us and the frigid waters, Karina and I took off running. Karina dived in and I just kept running straight into the water. There are not enough expletives to describe how cold that water was. Unfortunately, I did not realize there was a fast drop off just a few feet from shore and before I knew it, I had no ground under my feet and I actually had to swim back to solid ground. Once I had land under my feet I ran out of that water, cursing the whole time, grabbed the shot of vodka from Mariano and high fived Karina.

After a couple minutes, standing in soaking wet clothes and temperatures around freezing (with a bit of a breeze and muted sunshine) I started to warm up (no idea why). I managed to pull on my thermals, coat and boots over my wet clothes and was hustled back to the zodiac where Ruslan (my favorite zodiac driver) highfived me and motored me at top speed back to the boat for a very hot shower. And it wasn’t until I was in the shower that I realized how really cold I was. The hot water literally pricked my skin when it first hit my body. (And it hurt.) After a few minutes though I warmed up and it was all good. (And I even have a t-shirt to prove my “mettle”.)

At lunch, Ben came by to find out who wanted to kayak. The whole team was in in except for Chris, who was not feeling good and Amy who had only been doing one paddle a day. The plan was to paddle around Hannah Point, our destination for the day and home to gentoo and chinstrap penguins and then take it from there.

The weather was cooperating at Hannah Point with lots of sunshine although the winds were a little stiff making the bay around Hannah Point rather rough. We started out with a little paddle towards the shore to get a look at the gentoo and chinstrap penguins, but the waters proved a little too rough as we fought to stay off the rocks near the coastline.

Kayaking at Hanna Point
Kayaking at Hanna Point

Ben finally led us away from the coastline and towards the open Bransfield Straight. The paddle towards the open water was incredibly tough as the Hannah Point, was shaped a bit like a “C” so the water was bouncing back and forth off the shoreline creating this nonstop up and down and back and forth wave action. Karina and I fought to keep the kayak straight ahead.

At one point we were so exhausted from battling the waves that I said out loud “where the f is Ben taking us”. It must have been louder than I thought, because Pernille, who was trailing us in the zodiac began to shout encouragement to us. Eventually we paddled past the end of the point and took a sweeping turn to the left. Once beyond the point and the crashing waves, the water calmed down and the paddle became much easier. At one point we stopped paddling and let the waves take us towards the shore where some elephant seals and gentoo and chinstrap penguins were basking in the sun.

Gentoo and chinstrap penguins (and some elephant seals) at Hanna Point
Gentoo and chinstrap penguins (and some elephant seals) at Hanna Point

By now we had been paddling around for about an hour and a half. Ben suggested it was probably time to tie up the kayaks, jump in the zodiac and head back to Hannah Point if we wanted to have time to visit the penguin colonies on land as well as the large number of elephant seals.

The mighty kayak team on our last trip

Just as we were heading out to the zodiac, we heard the now oh so familiar “Ben, Ben, Ben, Pernille”. Apparently a leopard seal had been spotted near the rocks in front of the penguin colony so we hustled up, got in the zodiac and headed towards the area.

Leopard Seal

As we neared the rocks in front of the colony, the leopard seal was spotted in front of us with a penguin in its mouth. As the drama played out in front of us, there were giant petrels flying low over the scene. As we watched the leopard seal suddenly flew out of the water and thrashed the penguin around trying to tear the meat away from the skin. (Sorry to be so graphic, but hey its mother nature.) We all gasped at what we saw. It was ruthless, but real. (Even Pernille was impressed who told us it was the first time she had seen a leopard seal in “action”.)

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Leopard seal with dinner (pic courtesy of Karina)

The leopard seal came up two more times as it appeared to have finished off its meal and then disappeared for a final time. Yowza! What a way to end our time in the kayaks.

Anyway, Pernille let us off near the shore line and we climbed out of the zodiac in our dry suits for the last time. All of the expedition team was scattered around the hillside to answer any questions we had. This landing was particularly unique because there was no huge glaciers or icebergs to stare at as we climbed the hillside. Instead there was a lot of sandy beach and the occasional patch of dirty snow. (Because we were in the South Shetland Islands now, which as north of the Antarctica Peninsula, the area tends to have far less snow and ice at this time of year.)
Me and some chinstrap penguins (no little guy you cannot fly)

Anyway, once out of the zodiac, our little group began the hike up the rock hillside past gentoo and chinstrap penguins. We were given the option to hike all the way to the end of the beach a path that would take us to the top of the hill for a bird’s eye view of the area we had just paddled and then along the coast line to the beach where the zodiac would pick us up. Three of the guys just wanted to hike, others wanted to just wander around the penguin colonies, and me … I wanted to do both. So while the group of three hustled along the pathway, I wandered around the colony as I continued to climb up to the high point where Nigel was stationed.

I reached Wendy half way up and as I approached her she pointed out towards the water where there were a large number of petrels hovering over the water. Apparently, the leopard seal had struck again! Wendy and I stood and watched for a bit and as the birds flew away, I continued my climb.

Gentoo and chinstrap penguins at Hanna Point
Gentoo and chinstrap penguins at Hanna Point

Once I reached Nigel, I marveled at the number of penguins all over the hillside. Way down below I could see numerous elephant seals on the beach so I began the decent down the hillside following the red flags the expedition team had placed over the hillside to ensure that the tourists did not stray into protected areas. (The red flags were used by the expedition team at every land based visit to ensure that we did not stray into dangerous areas where crevasses were known to exist or stray into protected areas.)

Penguins and elephant seals at Hanna Point

Once I was closer to the beach I got a magnificent view of the huge seals, which really did look like elephants. Huh! Who know. I followed the shoreline for at least a mile and finally ended the last part of the trek walking on the beach and weaving around a number of penguins.

As I arrived, Mariano told me to take a walk across a small runoff on the beach and have a look at some petrified stones. Never one to miss out, I did as Mariano suggested, but returned just as the zodiac was taking off with the other three. The only folks left were me, Mariano, Wendy and of course Ruslan, our trusty zodiac driver. So … I would be the last on the ship.

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Ruslan coming to pick me up

It took a bit of doing to get into the zodiac as the sea was rather rough. Once in, Ruslan put the zodiac in high gear and we bounced high on the water. (I asked Ruslan at lunch one day why he didn’t join us kayaking and he told me (insert Russian accent) “I only ride boats with motors. Kayak too slow and doesn’t make noise”. Seriously!)  After two passes at the ship, we finally got the zodiac close enough to the ship to pull it in and allow us back on the ship. Our time in the Antarctica was coming to a close …. or so I thought.

Once back on the ship, I learned that they did not know when there would be a fly-in window the next day. I had built in a couple extra days as a precaution before my trip to Easter Island, as we had been warned that weather may delay the flight in or out of Antarctica. We had been lucky at the front end that there had been no delay, but it looked like the back end might present some problems. So maybe I was headed back to Santiago the next day … or maybe is want’s. Mariano told us we would just have to wait and see. In the mean time, there was still lots of fun to be had with the kayak team and others in the ship’s bar!

Author: lawyerchick92

I am a lawyer by trade, but long to be a full time traveller. My life changed for the better when my brother donated a kidney to me on October 14, 2002.

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