Our boat, The Hebridean Sky headed off from the Gerlache Straights into Wilhelmina Bay, where we found ourselves surrounded by tall snowy peaks and dramatic glaciers flowing down to the water’s edge. A large collection of windblown icebergs, caught up in the sea ice, had started to crack and melt into crazy shapes and different blue, green and white patterns.
The anchor was lowered, casting a ripple over the glass-like surface, sending the reflection spreading out over the bay. Small channels round the flat mini islands of snow and ice, had formed, creating the perfect spot for animals to rest and sunbathe. The snow flurries were disappearing and the mist was lifting off the surrounding glaciated peaks.
We eagerly put on our dry suits and tugged tight on the life jacket straps and headed out in the zodiac with our row of duckling kayaks bobbing along behind. We found an area of open water and slid into our kayaks, slipped over the watertight skirt and paddled off to see a couple of penguins perched on an iceberg. Today was going to be penguin heaven, we saw Adelie, Gentoo and Chinstrap in little clusters on the ice flows, preening and cleaning their silver-white bellies.
The joy of being out in a kayak is there is no sound apart from the gentle tinkling of the water on the bow of the canoe, you feel part of nature and can hear everything.
Then while floating along and looking out for seals on the ice, we heard the incredible whoosh of a whale expelling air deep from inside its belly. We all stopped and looked at each other, trying to ascertain which direction the noise had come from. We worked out in our small group of 10 kayakers, that the sound had come from some distance away so we sat quietly…..waiting. Then the whoosh again and we saw a plume of spray rising between 2 mini icebergs. We paddled off to see if we could get closer and work out the whale type. There were 2 humpbacks, logging, they lie on the surface sleeping, closing off half of their brain. As we approached less than 100 metres away, they blew and then dived heading straight for our kayak. You could see the barnacle-encrusted tail, swirling under the canoe, then they rose in tandem, expelling air and finally we were graced with the V-shaped tail, disappearing into the sea.
We paddled past a leopard seal, relaxing in the sun, as we passed it yawned and showed off its razor-sharp teeth.
Heading back to the ship, canoeing through pancake ice to clearer water we suddenly spotted what looked like a giant penguin. As we floated closer our guide said she could not believe what she was seeing as it was indeed a large penguin – an Emperor Penguin. This is the largest penguin in the world and should not be on this side of the Antarctic Peninsula, it should be in the Weddell Sea. Our kayak guide had never seen an Emperor Penguin, nor had the boat hotel manager (who was on her 17th season), in these southern polar waters – so we were unbelievably lucky! We floated up to it just 20 feet away, while the bird preened and looked very happy with himself. The sun came out and we took some great photos and video of the lone and very off course penguin.
We re-joined the main ship and as we sailed out of the mirror flat Wilhelmina Bay, we had 5 minke whales swim on one side of the boat and three very sleek Fin whales on the other side. Finally, we witnessed the carving off, from the tongue of a glacier, a huge chunk of ice, the same size as our boat, the sound of crashing and roaring ice reverberated around the bay.
What an unbelievable morning show Antarctica had put on for us, leaving lasting memories of an inhospitable yet magical snow-capped world with unique wildlife experiences.