A blog and video of one of our Antarctic Cruises

It is always good to have a different view of the cruises that we do. We (expedition guides) love the places that we travel and we love to share that passion with people with a similar interest. Here is a link to the blog of a cinematographer who was on the ship with us on our trip to the Antarctic peninsula from 12-22 December 2014. There is a link to a short video in which Clouds is also featured. The work of Chris Stanley is truly exceptional.

Blog post: http://amberpacificstudios.com/2014/01/12/antarctica-expedition/Direct

Video Link: http://vimeo.com/83960502

Ralph Grizzle was also onboard and he is a travel journalist with his own blog. I am pasting a link here to his summary and at the bottom of the page are links to his day by day descriptions of our voyage. He describes the trip so eloquently, if you ever want to know what it is like from a guest perspective, read his blog. I am pasting the link below:


In Ralph’s words “No matter how high the cost or how low the mercury dips or how you choose to cross the Drake, get yourself to Antarctica to experience the world’s largest and most pristine wilderness area. Doing so may change your life. At 56 years old, the only life change I experience is whether to have red wine or white wine with dinner each evening (I usually go for red). Seriously, no matter what your age, you will not come away from Antarctica unaffected by what you have seen and experienced”

Antarctica is a very special place and I am extremely priviledged to be able to travel there and get paid for it.

Cheers for now




Having a Whale of a time

We are in the privileged position to see numerous whale species during our expeditions and here is one encounter. Humpback Whales had been doing amazing displays. We have had the opportunity of seeing plenty of humpbacks and they show their flukes when they dive, they have been breaching (leaping out of the water) spy hopping (sticking their head out of the water to look around) flipper flapping (splashing their 5m long flippers on the water), as well as bubble netting (this is where they swim in tight circles and blow bubbles which corral the fish and krill into a tight group and then the whale comes up with its mouth open and collects all of the food.) We were asked how the krill reacted to bubble netting. The expedition team in their brilliance answered “Bubbles, flee for your lives, flee!” of course we cannot actually tell the guests this but we do walk around going “Bubbles, flee, flee”

Humpback whale fluking

Humpback Whale Tail Flapping

Humpback whale lying on its back flipper flapping

Crossing the Drake

We have to travel through the Drake passage from Ushuaia, the most Southern City in the world to get to the Antarctic Peninsula, this is the shortest distance to the Antarctic and is the body of water between South America and the Antarctic. It is where we have to cross the Antarctic circumpolar current, which is 5 times stronger than the Gulf Stream and contains 5000 times more water than the Amazon. This current goes around the Antarctic with no land mass to slow it down, when it reaches the Drake passage, however, it is
squashed between two continents and this bottleneck causes any waves or swell to be compressed and increase in height, leading to this being one of the worst sea crossings in the world. Many passengers are terrified of crossing the Drake as the waves can be as much as 15 or 20m high, although we try to avoid such big seas.

The Drake Passage is between South America and Antarctica

On the last trip we were close to the Antarctic and we had to take in the stabiliser fins in as we were now in an area where we could encounter icebergs. Without stabilisers it means that the ship tends to roll greatly from one side to another. Well, we hit a massive low pressure system with winds of 55knots (1 knot is 1 nautical mile per hour which is 1,852km per hour (so about 102km/h) this ranks as a force 11 on the Beaufort scale which is a 12 point scale. The waves were about 10m high and we were getting hammered. The beds have straps (like seat belts) but the beds themselves were not chained down, this meant that people would strap themselves into bed but then would roll to one side and the whole bed would flip on top of them (This happened to 3 passengers). The Grand Piano flipped over, it broke off its one leg which was bolted to the floor and came crashing down (fortunately nobody was injured). The ship was listing badly to the starboard side and the waves were crashing against deck 4 leaving some of the cabins flooded. So we had an exciting time.

What was good before it became that rough was that we had over 15 Royal and Wandering Albatrosses following the ship. These birds are huge, the Wandering Albatross has a wingspan of 3.5 m making it the bird with the widest wingspan in the world. They  were flying mere metres away from the ship. Here is an exercise for you. Get a piece of string and measure out 3,5m and you will have a real idea of its size. Get a longer piece off string and measure out 15m and that is the length of the average humpback whale, double that to 30m and you have the length of a Blue whale.

Young Wandering Albatross (He is still dark in colouring)

The Drake Passage may be notorious, but it is only one in 10 times where we hit such bad seas. It is the place, though, where we encounter the magnificent Albatrosses and Giant Petrels, and get our first taste of Antarctic Wildlife.

Does it get cold down there?

Isn’t it cold? This is a questions asked so often and the simple answer is yes! Only it would be a lot colder in winter. We are travelling around the Antarctic peninsula which is colloquially what is termed the Banana belt, because it is so warm (comparatively speaking). On average the temperature is around 0 degrees Celcius (32 F), but will often drop to 5 or 10 degrees below. This of course doesn’t take into account the windchill factor which can cause the temperature to drop to -15C. Wind is our greatest enemy down here as we cannot operate the zodiacs in winds greater than 35 knots (1knot = 1 nautical mile per hour and 1 Nautical mile =1.852 km. So anything over 65km/h means that we have to stop our operations, even if the sky is clear. We will operate in any other weather  conditions, snow, rain etc.

Zodiac cruising in great weather

People often ask me what we wear, and as it is not very cold we wear layers which are normally reasonably thin. So on an average day, I will wear a pair of thin fleecy long thermal underwear, warm trousers and waterproof pants, my top layer will include a T shirt, thin fleecy thermal layer, a thicker fleece and either a waterproof shell or a float coat (this is a coat with a layer of foam that acts as a life jacket but is warm and waterproof). I always wear a scarf and buff as well as a warm hat. We wear heavy neoprene wellies (gumboots) as we are getting out into water and water sometimes gets into the zodiac. If it is very cold out, then we add another layer of thermals to the mix.

Sometimes when we take passengers out on zodiac cruises and we are driving for 4 hours, sometime in the rain and snow, our gloves get soaked and we freeze. I have had occasion in the Arctic to be so cold that I could barely pull myself up the pilot ladder after a
particularly cold zodiac cruise.

Does this sound like fun? It is! But we need to be prepared. As Roald Amundsen (The first man to the South Pole) said “Adventure is just bad planning”

A regular day in my office

Although I have many different jobs (I am the environmental manager for the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO), teach medical courses, work as an operational paramedic and work on ships as a climatologist/geologist/ornithologist(Birder) as well as zodiac driver and medic. My official title is lecturer, zodiac driver  and medic (I lecture in climatology and ornithology, and sometimes do a bit of geology, as my  background is in physical geography, and I have 25 years experience birding). We are all part of the expedition team (there are 10 of us), we have an expedition leader and assistant expedition leader and then a mix of lecturers, usually an historian, birder, geologist, marine biologist, sometimes photographers, and then one or two people who can lecture on different topics, depending on their specialty. We all drive boats and for me to get this job I had to get my skippers ticket (Boat drivers licence) to drive boats offshore.

Clouds driving the big MK6 Zodiac

When I am working on the ship I only need to think about a few of these jobs, but our job requires us to be very multi talented. Most of us drive zodiacs (inflated rubber boats), we guide people ashore, we lecture and I then am the medic as well!

Our standard day will start at about 7:30am when we lower the zodiacs by crane onto the water (on some ships it is really fun as the crane is lowered to deck 4, where there is a little gate where we climb into the boat and then we get lowered about 20m and hope that nothing happens to the crane as you hang there). We will then pick up the guests and shuttle them to the landing site.

Being lifted up by the crane when recovering the boats from the water

We split the driving, so 3 will drive and 4 will be onshore, those onshore guide the passengers and interpret what they are seeing. So effectively we are like Polar field guides, thus, even though my speciality is climate, I am expected to be able to talk in detail about the geology, seals, birds, penguins, history and ecosystem. Each landing lasts about 3,5 to 4.5 hours and we will head back to the ship at around 12pm where we have lunch and get the chance to have a micro nap (less than half an hour). We are back out on the boats again at 2pm for our second landing at a different site and will normally finish this one at about 5pm. By the time we have lifted the boats it is usually closer to 5:45. We have a chance to have a shower and prepare our recaps for the day. These are short snippets that we have to present on something that happened during the day, for example I may talk about a particular flight pattern of the albatross which allows them to fly without flapping, or the behaviour or breeding biology of a bird we have seen. Our recap starts at 6:45pm for 45minutes and we then have a quick meeting and head off to eat dinner with the  passengers (we are expected to socialise with the guests). I don’t normally get out of the dining room much before 9:30pm and then our time is our own to try and check emails (when we have satellite internet), download and process photographs from the day. We seldom get to bed before 11pm. On sea days or half sea days we have to give 1hour lectures on our area of expertise and we are expected to have a very high level of knowledge of this area, hence most of us have the minimum of a Masters degree. Working on ships is tough because you never have a day off, we have a few hours on turnaround day, when we disembark one group of passengers and embark the next group. This is the time we go shopping and call home. I normally work 2 month contracts, sometimes longer, but then one gets very tired.

Can you think of a better job to have? If you love the outdoors (and being with people), being a guide is a fantastic job!

Too white or too black – different coloured penguins

Something we see occasionally is odd coloured penguins. Penguins are normally black on the back and white on the front, but odd variations cause them to look washed out or completely black.

Leucistic (white) Adelie Penguin. Look at the penguins next to it for comparison.

 One trip in the 2011/12 season was very special because we had the opportunity to see 2(!) Leucistic Gentoo penguins. Leucism is a genetic abnormality where the melanin in the body does not deposit on the feathers, so they are beige where they should be black, but their bare parts, including feet, bill and eye are their normal colour. In an albino the body does not produce any melanin at all, so the eyes are red (from the blood supply) and the bare parts are a pale pink. The opposite of albinism is melanism, where the body produces too much melanin and deposits it on the feathers, causing the white feathers to be black. Only 1 in 40 000 Gentoo penguins and 1 in 80 000 Adelie penguins are recorded as being leucistic. Interestingly, both the penguins we saw (and they must be related as they both occur on the same island), had normally coloured chicks, so being a different colour, doesn’t affect their ability to find a mate, and it shows that this is a recessive gene.

Melanistic (Black in front) Gentoo Chick