Antarctica Expedition, Western Peninsula - feature photo - snowy mountain and glacier scenery overlooking icy water near Danco Island

Antarctica Expedition Part 2 | Western Peninsula

For anyone who missed part 1, I was lucky enough to join a 2-week Antarctica expedition voyage through my work over New Year. I know, it’s still crazy that I got to do this! Go read the first post for all the details of what the trip entailed. Now, after four days of exploring the rocky islands and giant tabular icebergs of the Weddell Sea, we were heading into the second half of the trip. Sailing around the northern tip of the Antarctica peninsula, it was time to explore the western shores. The contrast here was immediately apparent, as the horizon filled up with huge mountains, covered in thick sheets of snow, glaciers carving down their sides. The weather had changed too, with moody, overcast skies and the occasional snowfall. We had three more days to explore the western side of the Antarctica peninsula!

Antarctica Expedition, Western Peninsulra - second feature photo - Gentoo penguin walking downhill through snow on Cuverville Island with icebergs in the bay behind

Day Five

Freud Passage Cruise

Our first morning in the Western Antarctica Peninsula got off to a false start. As happens on an expedition trip, our first plan got cancelled when the conditions at the landing site weren’t ideal. We’d resigned ourselves to another morning onboard, when they announced Plan B, a zodiac cruise down the Freud Passage. This was a little different to our previous cruises, because rather than the ship staying put, it would be sailing with us. Dropping us off in the zodiacs at one end of the passage, cruising past us all and waiting to collect us again at the other end.

It was an amazing first taster of the Western Antarctica peninsula, as the passage had vast mountains on both sides, so we sailed through this epic, snowy landscape, so different to the previous days! The sounds were incredible too, because while it was mostly quiet, the silence was interrupted by heaving groans and creaks. The sounds of enormous, ancient glaciers calving as they slowly glide towards the sea. We even got a couple of small avalanches, ice crashing down the cliff faces, turning to waterfalls for a moment before stopping again.

It wasn’t such a wildlife-focused cruise, with no icebergs in the passage for seals or birds to sit on. Although, a few Wilson’s storm petrels swopped around overhead. And we ticked off another penguin species when a couple of Chinstrap penguins came swimming by. Then towards, the end of the cruise, we spotted a handful of humpback whales and got to watch them for a while before time ran out. This gives you an idea of just how vast these landscapes are, when you see how tiny the whales look beneath the mountains!

All the Humpback Whales

The afternoon activity was a split cruise and landing, and as usual, I was on the cruise portion first. Our destination was Portal Point and the waters around it. Some of the first drivers out had reported a humpback whale sighting, so we whizzed across open waters in the general direction. Slowing to a halt when we reached our fellow zodiacs, she cut the engine and let us drift as a couple of whales bobbed up and down around the surface.

Even after a few humpback sightings already, nothing had prepared me for the next few minutes. We thought it was a handful of whales again, but more and more kept appearing. Fins, humps and flukes, straight ahead, to our left and to our right… A quick tally and there was between 15-20 whales at least! We’d positioned ourselves a suitable distance from the first few, but others ended up far closer to us. And they’re live, wild animals – they move. Many got so much closer to our zodiac than we’d ever experienced before! The kayak group were even luckier, ending up almost right on top of them by mistake!

I snapped plenty of photos and videos, but there’s only so many flukes and fins before they look the same. So I put the camera down and just watched. It was so calm and serene, observing these gentle giants surrounding us. I was completely in awe and this was rapidly becoming one of my favourite moments. And then I saw it. Without warning, a whale breached, leaping from the water, its whole body suspended momentarily in mid-air, before plunging back in sideways. I knew I’d be too slow to capture it, so I just enjoyed the moment. Breaching is rare, and no one is quite sure why they do it, so I hadn’t gotten my hopes up to see it happen at all. So to witness it made an already amazing trip even more magical!

Portal Point Landing

Then we still had our actual landing! We cruised through bright blue icebergs, hopping ashore for a walk out to the point and back. There was a thick layer of snow underfoot, another contrast to the rockier landings of the Weddell Sea. Our ice safety guide was on high alert, as she’d discovered a fairly big crevasse when scouting earlier, reminding us why it’s so important to stay on the trail. No one wants to fall in that! Trudging through the snow, I drank in the moody views; steely grey skies and ocean, broken up by the stark white of snow.

A sailing yacht was moored in the bay on the far side. My first thought was how there’s no way I would want to cross the Drake Passage in that! But it made a very photogenic addition to the landscape. A few Weddell seals lounged around on the rocks too. I think this was our first time seeing them not on ice sheets, which meant we could walk up a little closer. Still staying an appropriate distance away of course! As we were getting ready to leave, we actually saw one more emerge from the sea to clamber ashore. Which was a fantastic reminder of how unsuited they are for land, as it gracelessly heaved and flopped its way over the snow! It was really quite funny to watch.

It also started snowing, just to really hone in on that dramatic atmosphere. Sadly, I think the snow was the downfall of my camera, as the lens stopped working after this afternoon. Annoying for sure, but at least it happened later in the trip. I ended up getting a whole new lens once I returned to Vancouver and was relegated to my phone camera for the remaining few days!

Day Six

Enterprise Island

This morning we found ourselves near Foyn Harbour on Enterprise Island, ready to set out on a zodiac cruise. We’d be following the shoreline to see what wildlife we might spot, but our main destination was the Governoren shipwreck in the harbour. More on that in a second!

The cruise actually revealed way more wildlife than we’d been expecting. I was thinking the odd bird and we’d spent most of our time admiring the snowy mountains and the ship. But we quickly came across another Weddell seal, lounging atop a small hillock in the snow. The a group of Antarctic shags nesting on some exposed rocks. While beneath them, three Chinstrap penguins were hopping their way up the rocks like little mountain climbers! How they stayed balanced is beyond me. A skua flew overhead, and once we arrived at the shipwreck, we found it covered in tiny Arctic terns. Plus we saw a couple more humpback whales on our return to the ship!

The Governoren was a whaling ship which has remained in Foyn Harbour since 1915. At the end of the whaling season, the crew were celebrating when a lamp was knocked over and set the ship on fire. And when your ship is carrying thousands of gallons of whale oil… a recipe for disaster! The captain intentionally ran the ship aground, allowing the crew to safely escape – no lives were lost! But the oil and ship were. Its ghostly carcass sits half visible above the water, burnt out and now heavily rusted after a century exposed to the elements. The sounds of the terns perched upon it only adds the eeriness! It was certainly a unique location to visit, a reminder of the history of human expeditions to Antarctica. And very different again to our previous locations!

Cuverville Island

We sailed on through the Gerlache Strait, arriving at Cuverville Island this afternoon. Starting in the zodiac, we sailed around this large, mountainous island, which is a massive Gentoo penguin colony! First though, the bay around our landing site was an iceberg graveyard. After larger bergs slowly break apart over years, the remaining pieces have drifted closer to shore. Time and weather have carved them into all sorts of unusual shapes, as we weaved our way through their bright blue forms. We found a perfectly formed arch large enough to sail through, and something that resembles a fairytale castle, all ridges and turrets.

Onshore, the crew had marked out walking trails through the colony. As always, the penguins had right of way. They carve out their “penguin highways”, deep ridges in the snow almost as tall as them. Where our trails crossed, we had to stop and let them pass first, like crossing a road! Some trails were pretty steep too, scaling the mountainside, and the penguins certainly seemed more sure-footed than I felt. Although, every so often a penguin would slide by on its belly! The trails led us to points where we could view their nesting sites, mainly built on clusters of rock free of snow. The air was full of their squawks and caws, making for a noisy island indeed!

We also had our second leopard seal sighting of the trip. A few zodiacs were following it from a careful distance, while I was watching from onshore. It was lingering along the shoreline, looking for an opportunity to snatch up its lunch. I saw its head bob up several times, but it didn’t have any luck snagging a penguin, eventually disappearing from view around the corner. Still an exciting sighting anyways!

Goodbye Campers

Continuing south down the Western Antarctica Peninsula shores, we arrived in Paradise Bay. A beautiful name for the bay surrounding an island we jokingly nicknamed “Azkaban”. Because it was here that 60 of our passengers would be spending the night, not on the ship, but camping on this tiny island. Not in tents either – just bivvy bags on the snow and a bucket if you needed the bathroom. Nothing sounded less appealing to me and I was very glad the excursion was fully booked (60 is the max allowed) so I couldn’t join, no matter how many passengers asked if I would.

Instead, I grabbed a hot chocolate and headed up to the top decks of the Ocean Endeavour to wave them off. It was actually snowing again, and the wet, slushy kind, making me even more glad to be staying onboard. We watched the first couple of zodiacs depart, then hid indoors for a while, sticking our heads out again later to spy them all onshore once they’d set up camp. They had an early start in the morning too, to be brought back to the ship in time for breakfast and our day’s excursions. While many of them did came back cold, wet and sleep-deprived, the overall consensus was that they all enjoyed it in the end and were glad they did it. So I’m glad for them, but I still don’t regret missing this one.

Day Seven

Base Brown

Today was our final day on the Western Antarctica Peninsula before our return journey. Starting with our third landing on the peninsula mainland. The crew said it’s not common to get multiple mainland excursions so I felt extra lucky! I had the zodiac cruise first, where we visited a cliff face with a large Antarctic shag colony nesting beneath it. Many of them had chicks, which were hard to spot with their colour against the rock. And also, because the chicks were several months old and almost as large as their parents already!

Our landing site was Base Brown, an Argentinian station that was currently empty. We cruised around the side of the buildings, quickly noticing that the station was overrun with Gentoo penguins! Just as we approached the shore, we also got another humpback whale sighting. It spend a good amount of time gently cruising between our ship and the shore, so those already on land could watch it surface and fluke too.

We were a little short on time and were advised to either pick the uphill or lower trail. The uphill trail gave people the rare opportunity to slide down in the snow! Normally you aren’t allowed to sit, kneel or even crouch down in Antarctica. But the crew had determined this location wouldn’t disrupt any wildlife and it was safer to slide than walk down! I’m not a big fan of fast, downhill things though and I was curious to check out the station, so I stuck to the lower track. We couldn’t enter any of the buildings, but it was so funny seeing the penguins having taken over the place! They had nesting sites and highways all around the site, and were definitely in charge.

Danco Island

For the afternoon’s excursion, we got to land at one more Gentoo penguin colony, on Danco Island. Again, I had the zodiac cruise first, and it was a particularly peaceful one! I think maybe we were all soaking it in and being more present in the moment, knowing it was our last one. We drifted through another iceberg graveyard, spying penguins porpoising through the water and another humpback whale swimming nearby. Vast mountains of the mainland surrounded us, the noise of an avalanche crashing down one interrupting our silence. Believing we’d spied something on a small island, we streaked across the ice to check, going further from the ship than any other zodiac. Sure enough, a handful of Weddell seals were resting on shore, barely distinguishable from the rocks around them.

Having travelled this far around Danco Island already, our driver decided we had just enough time to circle the whole thing. Cranking up to top speed, we flew across the water, admiring the scenery around us. The water was calm and still enough that it cast stunning reflections of the mountains. It was really fun going so fast for a change, since the cruises are normally slow for wildlife spotting. But we got a little bit of everything on this one, making for a really special, serene final cruise!

Onshore, I delighted in watching the penguins again, as they go about their daily business. Shuttling along their highways between the nesting sites on rocks free of snow. Watching them sleeping or oiling their feathers or feeding themselves and their chicks. It wouldn’t matter how many penguin colonies we visited, I found them so fascinating and fun to watch everytime. And set against that moody background, of snow-covered mountains and stormy skies, it was a wonderful ending to the trip!

Return Drake Crossing

After returning to the ship that evening, I think there was a bittersweet feeling in the air. Everyone was still revelling in what incredible experiences we’d had but were sad that we were leaving Antarctica behind now. The seventh continent had one more surprise in store for us though! Many people had voiced their only disappointment was that we hadn’t seen any orcas. I was less bothered, having already seen a pod while whale-watching in Vancouver Island. But, as we pulled away from the Western Antarctica Peninsula to start our journey north, a pod of about 20-30 orcas appeared on the horizon! They swam alongside the ship, pretty far away still but close enough for us to watch them from the outer decks for a good long while. A perfect little dramatic finish to the expedition!

We also took our group photo on the bow of the ship that evening, all 200+ passengers and expedition crew squeezing in together. The return voyage on the Drake Passage was a fairly bumpy one, though not as bad as I know the Drake can be. Luckily my seasickness pills kept me functioning this time! I spent much of the time at my sales desk, but also got to see a few lectures and especially enjoyed the fundraiser auction and watching our expedition slideshow on the last night. We cruised through the Beagle Channel that night, approaching Ushuaia once more. Many of us spent some time out on the decks again, watching albatross swoop through the skies as the sun set over the mountains of Tierra del Fuego. 1877 Nautical miles later, our expedition was complete.

Antarctica Expedition – Final Thoughts

Antarctica will be a tough trip to beat for me now, because it’s unlike anywhere else in the world. It’s hard to put this place into words or to truly capture it in photos or videos. It’s a pristine continent, barely touched by human hands – although the stories of expeditions and the research bases still there are fascinating! But really, wildlife rules here, as nature is free to run its course, be it leopard seals hunting for penguins, snowy sheathbills stealing food from other birds, or gentle, giant whales calmly swimming past it all.

From dramatic mountains covered in immense sheets of snow on the Western peninsula under dramatic, grey, cloudy skies to the brilliant blues of icebergs in all shapes and sizes drifting on the calm waters of the Weddell Sea while the sunset paints the sky in pastel tones, every scene was breathtakingly beautiful. And that stillness and silence was constantly broken by the calls of the wildlife or the startling noise of ice, snow and glaciers. I found myself in a state of awe and wonder on a daily basis, pinching myself to check that I was really there. I really went to Antarctica and I’m so very lucky and privileged to have had this opportunity to experience this serene, magical, otherworldly place. An unforgettable trip indeed!