Think You Know Your Highway Code?

Liz Stagg

20 Dec 2017

NWS Client Liz's Antarctic Voyage

“You might be interested in this trip” said Lorna casually. Having travelled to Svalbard in 2016 with NWS I was up for travelling in a cold climate – she knew that. Although the itinerary was deliberately vague – it’s weather dependent after all - I was hooked.

Many moons ago I had trekked in Patagonia’s national parks of Torres del Paine and Los Glaciares and I’d loved it. Antarctica could only be even better.

Joining the Akademik Ioffe in Ushuaia in a blizzard was a taste of things to come.

As I settled in and began to find my way around the ship we cruised gently down the Beagle Channel. We had no idea what lay ahead. As we entered the exposed waters of the Drake Passage, the force nine gale was upon us and there was ‘no soup’ (we quickly learned that ‘no soup’ was a portent of rough seas).

Waves several metres high driving spindrift over our heads provided exhilarating conditions for the light-mantled sooty, the royal and the great albatross and the acrobatic ‘Pintados’ or Cape petrels who follow the ship.

After the storm we were able to pick up some speed to head to our first sighting of land in over 600 miles of ocean, and the ‘convergence’ which creates lumpy seas all by itself.

Penguins only ‘fly’ in and out of the water; on land they waddle up and down their highways and us humans have to obey their rules, waiting on the edge of the highway before we can cross at a pace so as not to disturb the local residents. We are well versed in the rules of the road – no crossing when a penguin is using his highway, no stopping halfway across because there’s a cute photo opportunity, no disrupting penguin traffic, they have the right of way and, whilst we are curious about them, we have to let them approach us if they choose to, not the other way around.

The raucous cries of the gentoo, territorial battles over a bit of ground, the gentle look of the adelie and the comical appearance of the chinstraps all accompany our landings on the ‘great white continent’.

I ran out of superlatives – awesome, superb, sublime and just wow were words which were always on my lips.

We encountered every kind of weather, from sunny days with blue skies to stormy grey clouds scudding above the ocean to severe blizzards driving the snow into camera lenses and any tiny gap in layers of protective clothing. Did it stop us? No way. We were a tough lot; even our Canadian Expedition Leader Danny was surprised by our determination to savour every moment, out on deck in the howling winds and slippery snow, taking to zodiacs in a blizzard and staying out on a landing when others, less hardy, would have stayed in the warm bosom of the ship.

What were the highlights? There were so many:

  • witnessing the majestic albatross gliding over the ocean with effortless grace
  • watching the blows of two humpback whales caught in the backlight of the setting sun in the Gerlache Strait
  • seeing my first nest-building behaviour, a penguin gathering rocks from his favourite gully and carrying them back to his mate, adding them to the spartan collection of stones which comprise a nest
  • feeling like a voyeur as two penguins performed their ritual dance, necks reaching for the sky, their movements echoing one another and then doing ‘the cloacal kiss’ in front of me, oblivious to the presence of an audience on the sidelines.  They nest all in a group, just out of reach of the next penguin nest, on the highest ground where the snow melts first.
  • the excitement of watching a penguin lifting its body, gently turning its eggs and settling back down, positioning the brood pouch over the eggs again
  • watching as a Weddell seal woke from its snooze, scratched its face and settled down for more shuteye
  • coming back on the last zodiac, the spray cascading over the bow and splashing my face
  • withstanding a blizzard on a landing and loving it
  • just observing, putting my camera down and savouring the moments, watching life as it is lived ‘in the harshest conditions’, in awe
  • thinking about those who went before, on voyages of discovery, to unknown lands and who endured the toughest journeys of body and soul

I now know my Penguin Highway Code and I have enormous respect for the comical little guys who travel great distances to feed themselves and their chicks against harsh conditions and the thieving skua, in the toughest habitat on earth. My conclusion - there ought to be new collective nouns introduced for penguins – a ‘waddle’ for them when they are on the move and a ‘huddle’ for them when they turn their backs to the blizzard. 

The only frustration – that my words and my photos can’t begin to impart the beauty, the immensity, the majesty and the harshness of the place.


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