I hadn’t expected to see orca. Somehow, they hadn’t come onto my radar, but there they were, two adults and a juvenile. The captain cut the ship’s engines and we drifted towards them until we came to a gentle stop. Every passenger was on deck within minutes, lining the rails with cameras clicking as these infamous ‘killer whales’ – which are in fact giant oceanic dolphins – circled the ship. Alas, as a member of the Expedition’s crew and the ship’s photographer-in-residence, I had to take a metaphorical back seat, watching on frustratedly as the punters got much better photos than me. With so many paying guests it was impossible to find a vantage point to get a clear shot. To say this was exasperating was putting it mildly. Little did I know then that we would see them frequently on our three-week cruise to the Antarctic peninsula.
We had left Ushuaia, South America’s southernmost city and capital of Tierra del Fuego, two days earlier and crossed the infamous Drake Passage, one of the roughest sea crossings in the world. Fortunately for us, it had been remarkably calm. This was down to more than just luck. It was due in large part to Alex, our expedition leader. It wasn’t that he could control the weather – but he could control where we went.
Leaving port two days earlier, he had explained the itinerary and planned route for the three-week cruise to the 135 guests on board. We were to leave Ushuaia and head east to the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas), then sail further east for 750 nautical miles to reach South Georgia. From there we’d head southwest to the Antarctic peninsula before finally returning north to get back to Ushuaia. The trip sounded great. I was as enthusiastic as everyone else on board to see the wildlife and landscapes of these distant islands and the great Southern Continent. Then Alex put up weather maps of the next few days. My enthusiasm immediately waned somewhat, as did everyone else’s in the room. Very serious gales and anti-cyclones were predicted for the next three to four days.
“Well,” said Alex, “that is the usual route we take, and the one I assume you were all expecting. But given the forecast, this time I propose we do the trip in reverse.” It was an unusual alteration to the schedule, and something that the ship had never done before. But there wasn’t a dissenting voice in the room. No-one fancied heading into a storm in this remote part of the South Atlantic Ocean.
Later, we had an expedition crew meeting, where Alex revealed the complications of changing the route. Though it seemed simple to just reverse the trip, it was in fact highly complex. Firstly, it meant changing all our landing days in Antarctica. This is no small matter. There are a limited number of suitable places where cruise ships can land guests and the landing days are meticulously coordinated so that no two ships are at the same location at the same time. In addition, the revised route meant we would use more fuel and therefore need to obtain extra supplies in the Falkland Islands. However, there was no guarantee that what we needed would be available when we got there. Needless to say, none of these logistical challenges were passed on to the guests.
Antarctica is a vast white continent covered in ice and snow, in places several kilometres deep. On most maps, the Antarctic peninsula appears to be just a small spit of land jutting out from the vast white continent. It points north like a frozen finger towards South America, yet it is longer than the length of Great Britain. It is also home to an abundance of wildlife.
As the ship slowly glided towards land, the snow-covered mountains and rocky shores of the continent loomed ever larger. We were soon surrounded by gleaming white islands. When the sun comes out the clarity of the air is almost breathtaking. There is no pollution, which enables you to see for miles.
Landfall for us was Dallmann Bay, where we encountered the orca. Each day we would lower the small rubber Zodiac boats at different locations and land half the guests, while the other half would cruise in the boats. Then they would swap, giving everyone the opportunity to see the same areas from both shore and sea. Landings were limited for all ships to 100 people at any one time. There was tight biosecurity, with clothes and camera bags checked for seeds and organic matter, so as not to introduce non-native species to the continent. We were not permitted to take any food whatsoever on shore, just a bottle of water. And forget any idea of having a pee – to do that we had to go back to the ship.
The croaking call of thousands of penguins along with the pungent smell of guano-covered rocks greeted us whenever we landed at a rookery. We were asked to keep a couple of metres away from any wildlife, but if the wildlife came to us, that was fair game. These birds frequently did, at times pecking our boots. It is funny to watch lines of waddling penguins hurry past you, very intent on getting either to their nests or back out to sea. In places they create penguin highways, indentations in the snow as they all follow the same ‘path’. Small groups would form on the edge of the ice where it bordered the sea, necks and heads twisting and craning in search of danger. And that danger was certainly out there, mostly in the form of leopard seals. Occasionally we would see one cruising the coastline in search of its prey. Eventually one bird would literally take the plunge in search of food and the others would follow suit, disappearing beneath the surface to whatever fate awaited them.
The crew of the Expedition regularly undertake research projects on their trips. Sat in our rubber Zodiac boat one day, taking water samples, checking for clarity and plankton levels, a juvenile leopard seal paid us a visit. It popped its head out of the water just a metre away, surveying this strange object full of humans. “Don’t you bite my boat,” Matt, our skipper warned, as it looked inquisitively at us. Leopard seals have a very serious set of teeth and have been known to bite Zodiacs and puncture them. Several guests looked quite concerned. “It’s okay,” Matt continued, “the boat has five independent chambers, so if it does puncture one, the others will keep us afloat. We would get wet though”. I was torn between grabbing my camera or my GoPro as it swam around us several times. After getting a few quick photos of it with my Nikon, I went for the GoPro, which I had fortunately put on a selfie stick. There was no way I was going to hold the GoPro underwater with that mouth full of teeth swimming around…
As a teen in the late 1970s, I had campaigned for the ‘Save the Whales’ movement, attending rallies and even a meeting of the international whaling committee in Brighton. You can imagine my feelings when the moratorium on whaling was finally passed in 1982. Thanks to that ban, whales, especially humpbacks, were almost a daily occurrence for us. I had hoped to see them but was really surprised at how many and often we saw these magnificent creatures.
On one occasion, again out in the Zodiac, we stopped to watch a couple of humpback whales bubble-feeding, just 50 metres away. Cutting the engine, we watched them scoop hundreds of fish into their massive mouths as they surfaced. The feast over, they slowly swam off, but one was coming straight at us. Its surprisingly tiny dorsal fin broke the surface just a few metres from the boat. I knew it would dive under the boat – I’d seen it often enough in wildlife films – but just for a moment my mind raced as I considered the consequences if it didn’t. This huge creature would hardly notice if it ran into a small rubber inflatable.
Leaving the peninsula, we set off across the Scotia Sea, arriving in South Georgia two days later. This sub-Antarctic island is famed for its wildlife and it wasn’t a disappointment. Landing at Stromness, a former whaling station, the beach was covered with fur seals. The juveniles are very inquisitive and at times waddled up to me, but I had to be cautious taking photos. Although they looked incredibly cute and almost dog-like, they have a very nasty bite. I watched as a southern giant petrel gorged on a dead seal, slowly creeping closer and closer to get photos. I remained very cautious. I didn’t want this bird with its two-metre wingspan to think I was after its meal. I know who would have come off worse, and it wasn’t the petrel. It was remarkable that all the wildlife we encountered seemed to have such little fear of us: we were the ones intruding in their environment and had to be careful. From inquisitive fur seal pups on beaches to giant petrels and the massive moulting elephant seals on South Georgia, all had to be treated with great respect and approached with caution, or more often avoided altogether when searching for a beach landing site.
St Andrew’s Bay was perhaps the most awe-inspiring experience of the whole trip. More than 300,000 king penguins nest on this beach, making it the biggest penguin rookery in the world. The misty day turned to snow shortly after we landed, creating an almost clichéd scene dusted with white flakes that proved ideal for photography. The sounds, and especially the smell, will stay with me forever. To see this profusion of wildlife in one of the last wildernesses that still exists on our planet was truly unforgettable.
Paul Glendell has been a professional photographer for more than thirty years. His pictures have appeared in several of the world’s leading publications, including Time and Life magazines. He undertakes commissions for nature charities and BBC News online, as well as work for photo agencies, consumer magazines and corporate clients. His images have been widely exhibited across Europe, with solo exhibitions in the UK, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania. Visit Paul's website at glendell.co.uk