Drake Passage (59° 53′ S / 59° 45′ W)

Friday 18 February 2011

7:30 in the morning, somewhere more than half-way between Cape Horn and the Antarctic Peninsula. Our enthusiastic expedition leader, Geoff, wakes us up with a “Good morning Students on Ice”. The first thing we see through the window: rain. This is not a good sign, but here we are, what can we do? Dress up and have a nice breakfast.
After a lecture about how the penguins survive these long, cold days on the ice and a bit of their biology, we start our observation duties. The first survey group faces rolling waves, cold wind and grey clouds. Fortunately, the sea birds are always around the vessel to keep us entertained, and every hour we count them. This is a difficult task for us bird novices, but with a bit of practice and the help of the resident ornithologist, Santiago, we are learning to identify Cape petrels, White-chin petrels and various albatross species (or at least some of us do).
After nearly two hours without a blow, suddenly, I spot a head, a big rounded head in the waves, followed by back and fin. A Southern bottlenose whale (Hyperoodon planifrons)! Like with a fire alarm, everyone gets spurred into action, we record the distance and angle to the animal, the group size, behaviour, bearing… We are so happy to finally find a marine mammal in this vast ocean!
The sun appears for a short while after lunch, and everyone (even if not on observation duty) is out on deck scanning the horizon for blows and bodies. And we find them as we approach the continental shelf of the South Shetland Islands! We log four groups of fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus) and many Antarctic fur seals (Arctocephalus gazella) porpoising around the vessel. We also spot our first chinstrap penguins in the water.
While we’re having dinner, the sun finally re-appears and with it, the first outline of land: King George Island, and also our first iceberg! Most of the Students on Ice group get out on deck. Everyone is now excited to spot whales, seals and penguins.
We can all feel it, here we are, getting closer to our destination, to a place where none of us could ever imagine we would be, to the last continent!

Saludos! Raquel (MRes MMS)

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