Antarctica, Days 5 and 6: Kayaking and Cruising with Seals


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Months before Kate and I had even left for this trip, we got on the phone and discussed whether we wanted to kayak. It was an option that could be added on to our expedition for a pretty pricey fee and we didn’t want to start throwing even more money around than we already had. After initially deciding against it, we ultimately came to the conclusion that you’re only in Antarctica once (YOLO’s cousin YOAO), and we would probably regret not doing it more than we would ever regret doing it.

Neither of us was very experienced at kayaking, so this was a bit of a nerve-racking step for us to take. On Day 4 of the trip we had a kayaker’s meeting to discuss experience, concerns and what we could expect to see and do. Kate and I were both relieved to learn that a few of the other 14 or so kayakers had just as little background in it as we did. Our main concern was capsizing and being trapped under the ridiculously cold Antarctic water. Kurtis and Michele, our kayak guides, went through the procedure of what to do if that happened, while assuring us that it wouldn’t. Days later, as it turned out, fellow kayaker Lucas did indeed capsize while trying to adjust his foot pedals.

Kate and I had no such misfortune, though. After our failed attempt to get out on the water on Day 4, we got the all-clear on Day 5 and finally tried it out at the Fish Islands. My verdict… It was tough. It was three hours of paddling, with very few breaks for my scrawny little arms. But fun and rewarding nonetheless.

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After a quick meeting once we were in our kayaks, in which we pulled them all together and got the run-down from Kurtis of what not to do, how far not to go, and so on, we set out to find some seals. And it didn’t take long. After a short while of paddling we cruised up to an ice floe with an adorable Weddell seal hanging out and doing what seals do best – relaxing. It was pretty strange to see how nonchalant he was about being surrounded by some 15 long, bright yellow shapes with funny bodies protruding from them. He would occasionally pop his head up to see what was going on, then slump back down to resume his nap. It was then, while caught up in trying to get a photo of him with my phone, that I turned to discover an iceberg ramming straight into my head. Luckily I had the GoPro mounted to my head to capture the vicious iceberg attack:

The rest of the day was pretty laid back. After returning to the ship for lunch, we started sailing in a northeasterly direction up the Grandidier Channel along the Antarctic Peninsula. The sea ice was still unusually thick for this time of year – it normally thaws out more by mid-January – which gave us spectacular views of the thousands of floes as the shipped passed by. Some were populated with Weddell and crabeater seals, while others supported onlooking penguins.

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Since we had a bit of a distance to go until arriving at our next stop, there would be no afternoon land excursion. I was just about to have a nap when Paula, the ship’s massage therapist, knocked on the door to ask if I wanted to bump my Friday massage up to… now. It’s a rough life aboard these expedition ships. During my massage there was an announcement that the first Gentoo penguins had been spotted, to which Paula reassured me that we would be seeing thousands more in the days to come. There was no need for her reassurance, however; I wasn’t interested in getting up from that massage table for anything short of said penguins coming on board the ship to have a cocktail and shower us with hugs and kisses.

Day 5 also marked a beautiful, joyous moment in my life: the first day we were able to visit the 6th deck outdoor hot tub. Until that point the hot tub had been closed due to the rocking of the Drake Passage, followed by the couple of days required to heat up. If you ever go to Antarctica, make sure your ship has a hot tub, and that it’s on an upper deck so you have a view that looks something like this:

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The downside was getting out of it into -1°C, and having to put the lid back on before the roughly 30 second trek down the stairs and back into the warmth of the Akademik Ioffe. Brutal.

Day 6 was a lot more eventful. We followed up breakfast with a very cold, very wet zodiac cruise around the Yalour Islands. Our zodiac leader for the day, Chad, started off by pulling a giant, 3′ chunk of ice onto the boat to be used later that evening in our cocktails. I never found out why we ended up ditching it after just a few minutes – it may have been because we were just at the start of the excursion and Chad would later pick up another shortly before returning to the ship.

DSC_0789Chad carrying a piece of black ice onto our zodiac
DSC_0790Called black ice because of its black appearance when in the sea, it actually has a clear appearance once removed from the water.

Although a landing wasn’t possible, this was one of the most memorable excursions due to the numerous seals we spotted. It seemed as though every iceberg we came upon had a Weddell or crabeater camping out, doing his or her best to put on an adorable face for us. I knew I’d see seals on this trip, but I never dreamed I would see this many. At one point we watched a leopard seal very abruptly abandon the iceberg he was resting on to move in our direction. The urgency with which we were instructed to keep our arms and legs inside the zodiac gave me my first insight into just how aggressive and dangerous these seals can be. Apparently they’re not quite as docile as the lazy Weddells.

DSC_0185Crabeater seals often have severe scarring from being attacked by predatory leopard seals

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DSC_0677A couple of chinstrap penguins hanging out among the Adèlies

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DSC_0605Adèlie penguins enjoying the weather
DSC_1011A leopard seal shows off his teeth

Our afternoon zodiac cruise, this time through Waddington Bay, also had no landing but entailed more cuteness in the form of Weddell and crabeater seals. This time I ended up in Sunni’s boat, with warmer, drier weather. Although I didn’t mind the morning cold and snow (it actually made it seem a lot more authentically Antarctic), I was glad that I could at least take pictures without having to maneuver through layers of gloves and a plastic camera cover, only to end up with cold fingers and a wet camera anyway. It’s also extremely difficult to get good pictures in those kinds of conditions, since your eyes are constantly watering from the cold and wind, making it hard to focus on your subject. Not to mention that we were in a moving zodiac.

This time we had warmer digits, a distant view to gaze upon and more photogenic conditions overall. Sunni took us out farther into Waddington Bay than any of the staff had been before, giving us a feeling of being truly intrepid explorers. Until we spotted a man-made box on a hillside off in the distance, anyway. We were never able to figure out what it was or where it came from, but this was definitely a part of the world where not a soul would be wandering around alone for some arbitrary reason. Penguins waddled about, the icebergs were once again a deep, crystal blue color and a humpback whale popped its head up for a visit a couple hundred feet in the distance. Yet again, our collective breath was taken away.

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DSC_0254My first Gentoo sighting

That evening kicked off with another visit to the outer 6th deck, which at one point turned into a full-blown Antarctic hot tub party. Ian brought beers up from the 3rd deck, then and there officially earning himself the title of World’s Greatest Bartender. The night was capped off with a few more beers and games with the staff in the bar, and a realization shortly before my head hit the pillow that night that this experience was getting better every day.

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Facts about Day 5:
Latitude: 66°01,5’S, longitude: 65°35.0’W
Sunrise: 3:48 a.m., sunset: 11:20 p.m.
Air/water temperature: -1°C/30°F, +0.1°C/32°F
Wildlife spotted: penguins (Emperor, Gentoo, chinstrap, Adèlie); petrels (Southern Giant, Snow); Wilson’s storm petrels; Antarctic shags; South Polar skuas; kelp gulls; Antarctic terns; whales (humpback, Antarctic minke); seals (crabeater, Weddell)

Facts about Day 6:
Latitude: 65°17.6’S, longitude: 64°42.5’W
Sunrise: 4:00 a.m., sunset: 11:01 p.m.
Air/water temperature: -1°C/30°F, +0.1°C/32°F
Wildlife spotted: penguins (Gentoo, chinstrap); Southern giant petrels; Wilson’s storm petrels; Antarctic shags; South Polar skuas; kelp gulls; Antarctic terns; humpback whales; seals (crabeater, Weddell, leopard)

Categories: AntarcticaTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

2 comments

  1. Awesome pictures. Those crabeater and Weddell seals really know how to chill.

    It’s different seeing these pictures because while they typically would be part of a travel article about Antarctica, it’s actually someone I know who is behind the camera.

    • Thanks! It was a pretty amazing place, and as much as I tried, the pics didn’t do it justice. And yeah, the seals definitely know how to chill. We at least got some of them to look up and pose for us 🙂

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