We were scheduled to cruise 'Iceberg Alley' this morning, in two separate sessions. Luckily, I was in one of the second zodiacs and the fog had begun to lift a little by then, so, although the pictures don't look great, I was able to enjoy close-up viewings of a phenomenal array of these enormous pieces of ice. Their surfaces varied so much: some had single, hard flat faces while others seemed to have been chiseled into a mass of small smooth areas; some fitted the traditional sharp pointed berg image, while others had a 'smashed' look about them; some had the appearance of having been sculpted into beautiful or bizarre forms: we made comparisons with the Sphinx, Sydney Opera House, and a large duck, among others. Our dinghy pulled in right beside them, enabling us to inspect them more closely, and to really appreciate the unpredictable forms of, and beautiful aqua-marine colour created by, their submerged areas.
Marcos, our guide, pointed out some huge chunks of 'black ice' around us, too: this is the oldest ice in the area and has been compressed so much it has altered colour - it appears 'black' in the water, but when he and the boat driver landed a chunk I could see it was actually transparent and faceted, almost like fine crystal. I would never have believed ice could have so many hues and tones as I have seen, this far south.
We scored big on the wildlife front, observing at close range a leopard seal lying lazily on a small 'berg. He had just eaten a penguin and also just had a major toilet event, so he was lying in red krill-coloured excrement - yuk! Remember the evil seal who tries to make Mumble his dinner in 'Happy Feet'? At the time, I had assumed they were playing him up for dramatic effect in the film, but when I saw this leopard I realised there had been no exaggeration- these guys are big, ugly and very, very mean. No wonder the penguins ran en-masse from the water, that afternoon when they
saw a lounging leopard stretch and pop his head up. More distantly we watched a group of fur seals on a large 'berg, while overhead a skua (the birds who also fancied Mumble for a meal!) circled... and then another... and then another... Marcos said there was obviously food to be had, and seconds later skua number one swooped down and rose again with a penguin's detached head in his beak, following which a tussle ensued as the now five skuas fought over it. It seems the choosy seals enjoy the tasty breast but discard the rest, leaving a tasty snack for the greedy skuas.
We had now been in the zodiac for an hour and a half, and despite my onion-style layering system, the lack of body movement had left me desperately cold. You know that sharp headpain you get when you eat icecream too fast? Well, my head was full of it, so I had to resort to pulling my buff up to cover my entire face, while I tried to make out the view through the fine fabric, like a Saudi woman! I was never so pleased to get on a boat in my life as I was on reboarding the 'Ushuaia', with its heated cabins!
The weather had improved dramatically by afternoon, giving us patches of stunning blue sky and dazzling white mountains, as we landed on Peterman Island. The usual gentoos were present but, also, among them, plenty of young Adelie penguins, identified by their all-black heads. But before we went in search of this smaller, shier species, I had to introduce the island's inhabitants to a new creature: Mick the roo had finally woken from hibernation in my backpack and it seemed only fair to take him on-shore for some fresh air... We had been
instructed not to intrude closely on penguin territory, but to keep our distance and let their natural curiosity bring them closer to investigate us... and this is exactly what they did when this previously unknown creature appeared on their rocks! Within a couple of minutes I had a nosy Gentoo making a bee-line for Mick, and while he stood, leaning forward to examine the newcomer, one of his mates moved around the back to check out the tail area, while another came in from the side and had a tentative peck at the roo leg. It was a wonderful encounter, and I crouched there, enjoying their interest for several minutes, until the cramp in my legs forced me up and they fled at the unexpected movement. Penguin meets kangaroo... a first in Antarctica, I believe! And he survived, neither being deflated by a sharp beak, nor airlifted by the Antarctic winds.
Roaming the rocks, I snapped shots of the wildlife and the stunning scenery: from the bay down below, up the the rocky mounds which looked out over the water and the surprisingly mountainous terrain on neighbouring islands, coated with thick snow and ice. I relished the silence, only disturbed by the sounds of the birds calling and the flapping of wings, a silence which only emphasised the immensity and isolation of our location. The peace was broken by some of the guys calling out to come and see a chase, and, stumbling to the top of a stony lookout
point, I saw the object of their excitement: down in the water below, a leopard seal had caught a gentoo and was swimming around, playing with it before dinner, as a cat would with a mouse, flinging it from side to side in the waves, for a good twenty minutes, as he worked on freeing the juicy breast. It was a Discovery Channel documentary, being played out right before us,... absolutely spellbinding.
Fog greeted us on the sixth morning of the voyage: heavy fog, all around us, dramatically limiting visibility. I stood on deck, in the eerie misty light, picking out the faint shapes of icebergs, with the impression I was on a ghost ship in a parallel world. There was no running out on deck for a whale alert during breakfast today- we could have been surrounded without noticing them.