“We will turn and go the long way to the other end of the Lemaire Channel. And tomorrow, we will see if the iceberg has taken a holiday somewhere else.”
But the next morning the iceberg had not moved on, thus canceling one of two scheduled landings on Day Six, a day that dawned as bleak as our collective mood became.
On expeditions however, as I mentioned, surprises happen.
So, the layers of gray clouds suddenly blew away to reveal another sunny day. Said the assistant expedition leader, Ina Schau Johansen: “If we get a third day like this, then don’t ever come back here, because we will never get it this good again.”
She wasn’t joking. On the voyage preceding ours, those passengers had had only two hours of sunlight during their four days of landings.
But on this, our sunny third day, in place of the cancelled small-boat cruise of the 7-mile-long Lemaire Channel, everyone could get a sightseeing trip in the craft among icebergs large and small.
A favorite image: a single Gentoo penguin on a sizable but flat-topped ’berg floating near the Fram. Although we had already viewed, photographed and videoed thousands of the little critters in our previous landings, just one Gentoo at sea was special.
When two boats had stopped for photos, then left, this penguin had wandered in their direction and dove into the water. Was it trying to follow the boats? Not likely: Penguins are seabirds, meaning they come to land only to breed, so this one most likely had just been resting while looking for a meal.
Because Antarctica wildlife is protected against harm, passengers were repeatedly told to keep at least five meters (almost 16 feet) away from the penguins and their “highways”— the narrow paths they created as they waddled between nest and sea.
Penguins won’t nest directly on snow, lest the cold prevent their eggs from hatching. Instead, the mature birds will even climb steep hills to find bare rock on which to create their nests.
Construction materials are pebbles and small rocks the male carries, one at a time, in his beak. The guy with the coolest rock nest gets the girl. After she lays an egg, they take turns sitting on it, while the other penguin goes to sea to feed.
The nesting penguin must guard the egg from the attacks of a chicken-sized bird named the skua. If they get the chance, skuas will peck at and break the egg, slurping up the contents. The penguins have no defense other than to continually stay atop the egg.
Once the chicks hatch, usually starting in January, the skuas will try to kill and chew on them — a scene the Fram passengers did not witness but which was clear in the BBC’s Frozen Planet series, which was looping on our cabin TVs.
Something they don’t mention in those wildlife documentaries is that cute as penguins are, their rookeries, or nesting colonies, stink. Nope, no other word for the smell.
The penguins’ chief food is a tiny creature named krill. But penguins only partially digest the krill and then poop wherever they happen to be.
During breeding and chick-rearing times, penguins spend most of their time in the rookeries. A whiff of that ammonia/rotten-fish smell is another instance in which Antarctica will take your breath away.
But deep snow to trudge (we often broke through the crust, going knee-deep), hills to climb, the stench — I even got dive-bombed by a skua being chased by another — are mere annoyances compared to the excitement of being near the rookeries.