The day we took our first steps in Antarctica and almost lost our toes!

Wednesday 11 January 2023

Day 5 – 06 January 2023

Our day started early at 06:30 am with marine mammal and seabird surveys. It was a very cold morning, probably the coldest yet. Sighting conditions were poor due to fog and we recorded no marine mammal sightings. Instead we had lots of comedic false sightings where we would shout “Oh! That looks like a blow… No, it’s just a wave”. The slight delirium from being awake so early plus the cold made us a little silly and it was laughs all round. This morning felt like how you would expect that the conditions at this latitude should feel: cold, windy and with hail, but it’s nothing we at St Andrews weren’t used to. My hands were icicles even with my thickest gloves on. Once people had managed a couple of effort periods we had a team meeting to plan our first landing in Antarctica. This was the moment we had all been waiting for!

Practicing with the minke whale model on deck – perhaps it will bring on the real whales….(photo by Sonja)

During our landing some of us were to have free time to explore while half the group were to observe penguins in their colony. We had devised a rough plan how we would collect data on penguin nesting behaviours such as aggression, nest checking and social interactions. Our meeting was cut short by an announcement calling our group (the Cape Petrels) to the landing much earlier than originally timetabled. In a split second everyone was on their feet and running (safely) down the stairs to collect their outer gear and equipment. I don’t think I have ever witnessed a group of people jump so fast into action and be ready in what felt like less than 2 mins. My heart was racing from the adrenaline. Soon we were in the zodiacs (inflatable crafts) that took us ashore at Damoy Point. We sat and swang our legs over the side of the zodiac and stepped ashore in Antarctica! There we hiked through deep snow to the penguin colonies further up the hill. Penguins are strange creatures – and all species (except emperor penguins) need to nest on snow-free areas. These tend to occur on exposed ridges and higher up the hills, so penguins face regular climbs when commuting from the sea (where they feed) to their nesting areas. Team penguin soon split into two groups to observe two different subsets of the colony. Watching the gentoo penguins up close and personal (but from the required distance of more than 10 m away) was such a surreal experience. I had never been this close to a penguin in the wild before and watching them go about their funny antics was simply amazing. There were a lot of wee dramas playing out in the colony – it was almost like watching a soap opera. Some penguins sat tightly on their nest, unbothered, while others were involved in regular spats with neighbours and passing penguins, sometimes stealing pebbles from each other and presenting them to their mate on the nest. I could have been there and watched them all day!

Penguins on Damoy Point with the Amundsen in the background (photo by Anjali)

Our allotted landing slot of 1 hour came to an end too soon and we made our way back to the landing site to return to the ship, but not before completing another ‘first’. Almost everyone from our St Andrews group did the polar plunge! This involved stripping down to our bathing costumes and throwing ourselves into the icy sea. It was crazy but made me feel alive, except for my toes which had gone completely numb. Getting dressed again was a real challenge but soon we were back on the ship. The polar plungers decided to head to the jacuzzi on the top deck to warm up. We’re on a cruise ship after all, so might as well make use of the amazing amenities…. Whilst we were soaking in the warm water surrounded by vistas of the most amazing icy scenery we were presented with some prosecco by the restaurant manager! This was by far the greatest way to warm up. For the rest of the day, we all were on such high energy, laughing and reminiscing of the day’s amazing activities which sat even higher hopes for the days to come. Today was the most fun -filled day so far, and I can’t wait to experience what more adventures Antarctica has in store for us.

written by Anjali

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