Brown Bluff (63° 31’ S / 56° 51’ W)
In a nutshell today was unbelievable! We woke up anchored off Brown Bluff and made our first landing on the Antarctic Continent. Our group set out in three teams, one to count penguins, another pinnipeds and the last to monitor penguin behaviour. It was quite a surreal experience walking along a beach with the Adelie and Gentoo penguin traffic, having them less than a foot away while you dodge and step around Antarctic fur seals charging and barking. We surveyed the beaches and counted the seals and penguins and came up with a grand total of 450 Antarctic fur seals, 1,034 Gentoo, 78 Adelie and 2 chinstrap penguins. The big highlight for me was the two Weddell seals hauled out amongst the fur seals – absolutely fantastic animals.
After lunch back on the ship we resumed our routine observation positions on deck and continued with our sighting surveys. We spotted two humpback whales, some fur seals and two fine specimen of my favourite species, leopard seals, hauled out on some small ice floes. At this point I was over the moon with the day, but by far the best was yet to come. When anchored at Gourdin Island plans to do more land-based counts were changed. The coastline was shrouded in mist which created quite an eerie feeling. Soon the pungent fragrance of penguin guano whiffed across the water. We spotted some porpoising penguins, shortly followed by the surfacing of a leopard seal. The seal took a quick look at us, then dived before surfacing again in close proximity. The huge predator then passed about 3 feet under our little zodiac, just were Dominic and I were sitting. I was left speechless, too stunned by the size and confidence of the seal to even take a photo. This was easily one of my most incredible wildlife experiences ever. I couldn’t have asked for anymore. I was on cloud nine. We continued our zodiac tour and came closer to land where the rocky outcrops in the mist were dotted with the silhouettes of a few thousand penguins. Once close enough to land we spotted two Weddell seals hauled out – two amazing seal species just a few minutes apart!!! On the way back to the ship we spotted more porpoising and soon realised that three menacing-looking leopard seals were patrolling the sea. Soon enough one of the seals caught a penguin right in front of us and proceeded to skin and eat it in front of a captive audience of Students on Ice students and staff. I just couldn’t believe what I saw during the zodiac cruise. It still hasn’t settled in, I’m still in shock about being so close to the leopard seals and getting to see their sheer size and predatory behaviour.
Back on M/V Ushuaia Amy spotted two minke whales and we crossed paths with more fur seals and a humpback whale. After dinner the captain diverted the ship to sail by an enormous iceberg peppered with penguins (a few thousands or so…. We had stopped counting by then). As we approached, two humpbacks surfaced just in front of the vessel as did two fur seals. It was an incredible few minutes, seals, whales, penguins and a beautiful iceberg all at once. One humpback missed the vessel by no more than ten feet, definitely the closest I have come to any large whale. All in all, just an incredible day that I’ll never forget. The experience with the leopard seals was simply ineffable. Antarctica is a very special place!!!
Read the daily post on Students on Ice