A voyage of discovery in Antarctica

Sailing to the pristine White Continent is a privilege. So how about giving something back? We embark on a trip that combines a mind-blowing Antarctic expedition with a bit of citizen science…

7 mins

Like a rehabilitated Captain Ahab, Daniel Zitterbart led his scientists into the sort of supranatural stillness only Antarctica can deliver. I followed them in an inflatable Zodiac, cold snapping at my fingers, squinting at glossy icebergs fissured with stilton-blue veins, heading towards the spouts of vapour we could see suspended in Paradise Harbour’s frigid dawn.

There she blows, as Captain Ahab would say. Next to brash ice that glinted like rough-cut diamonds, two distant dark lines revealed themselves to be slumbering humpback whales, fat from gorging krill. Forty tonnes of rorqual, happily recovering since the 1986 ban on commercial whaling, before which they were slaughtered to near extinction by Ahab’s ilk.

There was no harpoon in Daniel’s hand, just a hi-tech $10,000 whale tag on a long carbon-fibre pole. His Zodiac manoeuvred alongside and he leaned out and slapped one of the humpbacks with the suction-cupped device (it would release after several hours). The whale started, arched and then dived, rocking the Zodiac as it went.

“It can be a little bit terrifying,” Daniel admitted later, “when these giant creatures are beneath your flimsy boat.”

Yet all went smoothly. Over the next few hours the scientists followed the tagged humpback around the ice-choked Southern Ocean bay on a quest to learn more about these secretive denizens of the deep.

On a mission

Humpback whales (Shutterstock)

Humpback whales (Shutterstock)

Having previously visited Antarctica, I vowed I’d only return if I had a greater purpose. As demand grows (Covid-19 aside), the number of cruises heading to this pristine wilderness is projected to increase. Can Antarctica sustain higher levels of tourism? I wasn’t sure.

Attempting to add value to my voyage, I joined an Antarctic Whale Safari led by Hayley Shephard, a Wanderlust World Guide Award medallist, and operated by Polar Latitudes, a company committed to supporting scientific research. The 14-day small ship expedition aboard the Hebridean Sky was my opportunity to participate in citizen science projects that further the understanding of Antarctica’s ecology and changing environment. It was also a chance to observe German scientist Daniel and his colleagues from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts investigating humpbacks.

“This is an investigation into how baleen whales find food, with a hypothesis that it might be by chemical smell,” explained Daniel. Antarctic humpbacks feed on krill, tiny crustaceans that swarm in countless millions. Krill feed on phytoplankton, a process that results in the release of the gas dimethyl sulfide (DMS). It’s very preliminary research as to whether humpbacks can sense this DMS,” Daniel said. The aim of our journey was to gather more data.

Thus on a mission, we left Ushuaia, on Argentina’s end-of-the-world Tierra del Fuego archipelago, and sailed some 1,000km towards the Antarctic Peninsula, a swan-necked isthmus protruding northwards from the seventh continent. Easily reachable by expedition vessel, the peninsula is Antarctica’s entry-level destination, popular with first timers.

The first two days of our voyage involved crossing the rumbustious Drake Passage, beyond Cape Horn, where mountainous seas can leave you green around the gills. Ukrainian Captain Andrey Rudenko promised “not too much rock ’n’ roll”, but the three-metre swell was boisterous enough to leave me reeling between the decks like a drunken sailor.

Regardless, our citizen science programme began immediately. We analysed seawater for temperature and salinity, contributing to an ongoing study into ocean warming and increased freshwater melt. A seabird survey took place astern – it wasn’t long before albatrosses were trailing the ship, swaying side to side like kites – while cloud observations were collected for input into a NASA database.

Passengers were also encouraged to photograph the tailfins of whales and submit the pictures to happywhale.org. “Each humpback has a unique fluke pattern so they can be identified,” said Annette Bombosch, our onboard marine mammal expert. One humpback, she told us, was recorded to have travelled 8,904km from Antarctica to Tonga. But is citizen science really valuable to scientists? “For sure,” Annette reassured. “They benefit from this data because they cannot always be in Antarctica due to its remoteness and cost.”

A land beyond imagination

Young Gentoo penguins (Shutterstock)

Young Gentoo penguins (Shutterstock)

It was around 4am when we finally crossed the Gerlache Strait, the channel separating the offshore islands of the Palmer Archipelago from the Antarctic Peninsula itself. Dawn was a fuzzy half-flight when I grabbed a coffee, shrugged against the chill and joined fellow passengers on deck, wide-eyed with wonder.

Within a bay of dark volcanic peaks that poked above amphitheatrical glaciers and snowfields, the tide was sluggish, congested by a graveyard of house-sized icebergs. I found myself trying to describe their shapes; Frank Worsley, Shackleton’s legendary navigator, saw ‘gondolas steered by giraffes’ and ‘ducks sailing on crocodile heads’. They can be whatever your imagination allows – although I was shaken from my own imaginings by a gunshot-like crack: a glacier calving in a slow-motion concertina, triggering avalanches upslope.

Little can prepare you for this, Antarctica’s frosted monochromatic world; its overwhelming coalescence of cold, beauty, purity and stillness. But then there are the bluebird days, when the continent’s unpredictable weather yields sunshine, and everything is blue except your mood: the sky, the ocean, the diaphanous ice refracting the colours above. However, seven years on from my previous visit, the snowscape was now washed with more red and green algae, symptomatic of warmer melting days. Only the week before I arrived, the peninsula hit record summer highs of 20°C.

We spent seven days exploring this fractured landscape, with twice-daily excursions, either landing on pebbled beaches or taking Zodiac cruises. One day we disembarked at Port Lockroy to visit Bransfield House, home to the world’s most southerly post office. Lauren Elliot, a volunteer from Portsmouth, said they’d franked a record 65,000 postcards from 14,000 visitors this summer. It was March, late in the tourist season.

And late for penguins too – most juveniles had already fledged. However, just outside the post office a few moulting gentoos regurgitated smelly krill-infused paste to their late hatchlings beneath a Union Flag. Danger lurked offshore for these youngsters. As I watched an adolescent gentoo honing its swimming, a stealthy leopard seal ghosted into the shallows, snatched it up and repeatedly smashed it on the water to remove its feathers. Kelp gulls swept down to gather flying guts mid-air while Wilson’s storm petrels hopped daintily on the water’s surface, supping the fatty film. Amid the kerfuffle I barely noticed a fast-swimming minke whale barrelling through the icy waters.

In paradise

A breaching humpback whale in Antarctic waters (Shutterstock)

A breaching humpback whale in Antarctic waters (Shutterstock)

Yet it was humpback whales that stole the show and held me in utter rapture. It started the next day, in Cuverville Bay. Their slow, deliberate, arching dives and the loud exhalations from their double blowholes had us rushing from port to starboard and back with excitement.

Daniel and his team tagged the first of five whales they were licensed to sample. A second Zodiac was driven by bioacoustician Professor Joe Warren, who monitored krill density by echolocation and sampled seawater for DMS via a complex device way beyond my comprehension. By mapping the tagged humpbacks’ movements and syncing the data with krill and DMS densities the scientists can begin to theorise if any relationship exists between the two.

“We got very little data,” Daniel said later, during an alfresco lunch on the upper deck in glorious sunshine. “The whale we tagged was fat and healthy and spent much of its time sleeping. We needed it to dive and feed, but it made little effort before the tag came off.” He suggested the whale was in peak condition to make the epic migration north to tropical calving grounds off South America’s coasts.

Over the following few days, it was showtime. Anchored at breakfast in Paradise Harbour, we watched humpbacks breach like space rockets, exploding from the deep, corkscrewing backwards, hanging momentarily in the air and then crashing back down, sending icy pearls of spray skywards. “Researchers have recorded this behaviour when another group is some distance away and conditions are windy so their vocalisation undersea cannot be heard but splashing can,” said Kylie Owen, our humpback expert.

Breaches occurred throughout the morning as Paradise Harbour lived up to its name. We also marvelled at blue-eyed shags skimming by blinding-white tidewater glaciers and at seals hauled out on ice pedestals: South Georgia fur seals, Weddell seals, crabeater seals. Minke whales crashed the party again, hurtling along like turbo-charged dolphins.

Three days beyond the Lemaire Channel, we emerged into Wilhelmina Bay. Here, humpbacks spy-hopped through floating brash ice. I watched one whale circumnavigate the ship, its large barnacled head bobbing out of the ocean, full of curiosity at this metal intrusion into its world. “Textbooks say they do not swim in brash ice, but these are,” Kylie shrugged. “There’s so much we still don’t know about them.”

With livelier whales around, the scientists recorded better data. Their final four tagged whales repeatedly dived while spikes of krill DMS were detected. Data taken from the tags’ accelerometers proved feeding was taking place as it showed the whales accelerating and then decelerating on their dives – the huge baleen plates, which they open to feed, act like a handbrake, causing them to slow.

Our own citizen science efforts included sampling phytoplankton during Zodiac cruises for the FjordPhyto survey run by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Microscopic phytoplankton obtain energy through photosynthesis and are recognised to be an important source of carbon capture in global oceans. With cold hands I collected samples, plunging test tubes into the seawater. The data contributes towards a project examining how phytoplankton flourish in changing ocean temperatures. Back onboard we analysed the organisms under microscopes, which revealed science-fiction-looking critters from a parallel Lilliputian world.

Full steam ahead

SS Guvernoren, a ship wreck in Wilhelmina Bay, Antarctica (Shutterstock)

SS Guvernoren, a ship wreck in Wilhelmina Bay, Antarctica (Shutterstock)

The irony of seeing so many humpbacks in Wilhelmina Bay wasn’t lost for we also saw former Norwegian whaling vessel the SS Guvernøren here, rusting on the glaciated shore. Her bow and bridge poked above water. “In 1915 it caught fire and the captain beached it to save the cargo of 3,500 tonnes of whale oil,” said our ship historian, Pablo Brandeman.

Throughout this voyage the beaches lay scattered with whalebone reminders of Antarctica’s darker past. Before whaling was banned here, the scale of slaughter was horrific. Humpbacks were targeted because they swim close to the surface, but whalers also turned their attention to blue whales, which were pushed almost to extinction. Now, humpbacks may be back to 95% of their pre-whaling population, while recently 55 blue whales were recorded in a survey off South Georgia.

The world’s second-largest species, the fin whale, accompanied the Hebridean Sky as we finally left the peninsula for the South Shetland Islands. The scientists were content with their tagging and data although, in his last lecture, Daniel reiterated that the study had a long way to go to prove anything. If humpbacks do possess chemical smell it may only be useful over hundreds of metres, which doesn’t explain how they migrate thousands of kilometres to find krill. “Only when we understand how whales hunt can we consider issues like how climate change may affect their prey distribution,” he concluded.

We made one final landing, at Robert Point, a stony beach inside the wall of an ancient volcano. It wriggled with life: young fur seals jousted and chinstrap penguins hurried between the sea and their nests as predatory skuas harassed their chicks. Obesely blubbery elephant seals reared their heads only to yawn, which seemed to require great effort. It was a parting reminder of how alive the extraordinary Antarctic ecosystem is. And, while the spectacle of wildlife-watching had been enthralling, I felt true satisfaction being part of a broader effort to better understand the region.

The Drake Passage lay ahead. A world in the grip of a pandemic beyond it. Distant blowholes accompanied our journey north, the humpbacks beginning the long migration to their calving grounds without the hinderance of Captain Ahab, just a vast expanse of open ocean.


Icebergs near Cuverville island, Antarctica (Shutterstock)

Icebergs near Cuverville island, Antarctica (Shutterstock)

The trip: The author travelled with Audley Travel. Audley Travel offers 15-night, tailor-made citizen-science adventure trips to Antarctica operated by expedition experts Polar Latitudes, including 12 nights aboard an expedition vessel on a full board basis, two nights in Buenos Aires and one night in Ushuaia (both on a B&B basis), all flights and transfers.

When to go: The heart of Antarctica experiences some of the most extreme conditions on earth – the lowest temperature recoded at Vostok Research Station is -89°C. The Antarctic Peninsula is milder due to its proximity to South America.
November Tourist season begins, running to March; milder temperatures and ice-free bays. January is usually the warmest month (averaging 1-2°C) although February 2020 recorded a record 20°C.
Late December-mid-February Three species of penguins (gentoo, Adélie, chinstrap) rear chicks in large colonies.
February-March Ideal time to watch whales feeding before they migrate; many seals hauled out on ice.
April-October Antarctica off-limits to most visitors except overwintering scientists; temperature can drop to -50°C.

Getting there & around: LATAM flies from London to Ushuaia via São Paolo or Buenos Aires. Flight time is around 24 hours, including stops. Allow two nights in Ushuaia pre-cruise to safeguard against flight cancellations. Most visitors travel to Antarctica via expedition cruise from Ushuaia. Excursions are made by inflatable Zodiacs.

Accommodation Arakur Resort & Spa is a hilltop property set above Ushuaia, with sensational views down the Beagle Channel. 

Related Articles