Patience is a virtue and having blown in awful weather for 4 days our luck changed dramatically. Our first excursion off the ship and our run ashore was to be a landing on the Antarctic continent itself at Portal Point in Charlotte Sound. It was also to be our overnight campsite.
Camping in Antarctica | a night with the penguins
Of the people that travel to Antarctica, surprisingly, only a third of them choose to camp out for the night at the bottom of the world. Bragging rights aside, it fulfills one of my ultimate travel experiences.
Shallow pits were carved out of the snow and our bivvy bags and extra thick sleeping bags were laid in them ready for a good nights sleep. Before bedding down we spent time with some chinstrap and Adelie penguins who seemed as curious about us as we were of them. They are undoubtedly amongst my favourite three species of penguin (it’s difficult to choose just one!). With a stark white ring encircling their eyes, their petite height and cheeky nature to steal rocks from their neighbours, the Adelies set themselves apart from the other species – just. We were briefed to keep at least a 5 meter distance from the penguins – set up by IAATO an organisation founded to protect and promote environmentally responsible travel to Antarctica. These penguins had obviously missed the briefing that day. They waddled and hopped from each member of our group, inquisitive as to what kind of kit we had bought to camp for the night. After a short encounter and numerous photos being taken the Adelies wandered off, leaving us to the quiet of the white land.
The night was never really dark and sleep was sporadic but it was certainly a night to remember. Given the subzero climate, we weren’t as cold as I had expected to be. Our sleeping bags and bivvys combined provided quite a snug cocoon.
In the morning all holes were filled in so that we left very little sign of our being there. Albeit short lived, we had been given the privilege of experiencing life as the early explorers had. After a short ride on the zodiac we were back on-board and the breakfast room was buzzing as we ravenously tucked into a very full spread. Everyone was keen to hear of our camping experiences and somewhat regretful they hadn’t taken the opportunity to spend the night amongst the penguins also.
Sailing alongside killer whales
The morning’s transit was through a myriad of icebergs of incredible sizes, shapes and every hue of blue. Many were home to small groups of penguins and a few flat ones to seals. Within a few moments we had spotted a pod of orcas who were hunting a young humpback whale. We cut our engines and watched with baited breath. Seeing orcas is a privilege, seeing them hunt, I believed, was a privilege bestowed upon on the BBC camera crew. The group repeatedly dived on top of the calf to drown it and in no time at all there was blood in the water.
Having reaped the rewards of their chase, the orcas seemed to get bored and headed off away from the ship. Before we could turn away they decided the show hadn’t finished. This time they headed towards us in hot pursuit of some penguins who were porpoising and leaping ahead of them, shooting off in directions in an attempt to ‘shake their pursuers’.
It has to be said that despite them trying for a good 45 minutes we only actually saw them catch one definitely. One wee chinstrap penguin headed towards the ship with 75 people cheering him on as he porpoised with all his might – there are only 53 passengers on-board but many of the Russian crew had come out onto the decks to see the spectacle. I know you should not anthropomorphise but we could not help ourselves as he reached us we all cheered for the little fella.
However, I am not so sure about his fate after we left.