Saturday (March 21st) provided two unique opportunities for a close-up, almost hands-on view of this extraordinary continent, its wildlife and the glacial sculptures that encase it from north to south and east to west. We arrived in Wilhelmina Bay (one for the Netherlands) just after breakfast and boarded the Zodiac boats for a two hour exploration (below is the satellite image from Google Earth).
It wasn’t long before we realised that this bay was teaming with life, not just above the surface but lurking below as well. It is one thing to see a humpback whale up close, but quite another to have it surface next to your boat and then dive underneath, with its vast shadowy outline visible in the water beneath you.
Whilst I was captivated by the marine life, I know that I have done a disservice to the vast array of bird life flying in and around the delicate columns of glacial ice that seem to be defying gravity in their bid to remain upright. My colleague in our social performance team in The Hague, who is a dedicated bird watcher, will no doubt be reminding me of this fact when I see him next.
On the subject of glaciers, rather than the birdlife that can be seen around them, words – at least the ones that I can bring to mind – cannot describe the majesty of these towering structures. Even my pictures struggle to capture the grandeur and scale that the visitor experiences in Wilhelmina Bay and much of the rest of the Antarctic Peninsula. On either side of a glacial flow, mountains literally soar out of the sea, reaching heights that repeatedly amaze as the clouds and mist part to reveal craggy peaks that force the neck to strain to see the very top of. No two glaciers are alike and the range of colours on show just within what we call “blue” is surreal. If all this wasn’t enough for one day, we then moved to another bay where the expedition stayed the night ashore. Although we ate on the ship (eating and cooking ashore requires another level of permitting under the Antarctic Treaty), we slept in tents at the base of a glacier with a Weddell seal (or leopard seal – the debate was endless) just metres away, torn between watching us and watching the penguins in hope of a next meal. Some chose to sleep outside the tents, so this meant a vigorous period of wall building for protection against the wind. By nightfall, the small peninsula on which we were sleeping looked sufficiently fortified to take on not just the wind but a small army as well. Here are some photos:
I somehow imagined a cold eerie silence would fill the night, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Every few minutes a boom filled the air as a piece of glacier collapsed into the sea somewhere across the bay. Despite this I slept well, to be awoken at dawn by a chorus of penguins reminding us that they are still here, despite the presence of both an expedition and a hungry seal. Sadly, many of the remaining penguins in this part of the Antarctic have missed the winter exodus so may well perish in the coming weeks as winter descends on the continent.