Gavin Francis spent a winter at an extremely remote research station on the Caird Coast of Antarctica. While he was there he picked up a few techniques for spotting wildlife. He shares them with you below.
To see whales in the Southern Ocean,and plenty of them, there’s no substitute for standing out on deck, hour after hour, whatever the weather. If you’re travelling by sea you’ll likely leave from either New Zealand, Tierra del Fuego, or the Falkland Islands. The Antarctic Convergence, a line like a child’s wobbly drawing of a circle, runs a circuit of the Southern Ocean south of these departure points, between about 50 and 60 degrees of latitude. It’s where frigid polar waters meet the warm temperate oceans, and fish and krill well up to the surface. It teems with minke whales, humpbacks, orcas and even fin whales. Ask your Captain what time your ship will be crossing it, and be out on deck! At the Convergence the air is also thick with the astonishing wandering albatrosses…
Many of the sub Antarctic islands you’ll pass on your way south are home to these maniac creatures. A big bull weighs over 150kg and their saliva contains special enzymes to prevent wounds from healing. If you’re going ashore on a beach where fur seals are breeding, carry a stick. If a territorial male charges at you, beat it on the nose – they’re most sensitive there.
The alpha-predator of the Antarctic food chain, leopard seals live for the most part on the smaller penguins; the gentoos, chinstraps and adelies. You might be lucky to spot one relaxing on an ice floe, but the best place to see them is lounging in the shallows near one of the penguin colonies. The penguins are unsteady and vulnerable in the shallows between the safety of the high ground and the freedom of the ocean, and the leopards know it.
Coming from the north, these are often the first penguin species you’ll come across. There are colonies of them on the Falkland Islands, as well as the South Orkneys, South Shetlands, and on the Antarctic Peninsula. Underwater, they have a beautiful grace to their movement, the fastest penguins alive, reaching speeds of over 20mph. They’ll allow you to approach inches from their nests but watch out – a lift of the tail and they’ll squirt guano right in your eye…
For many visitors to the Antarctic, the search to find an emperor is something of a pilgrimage, and the finding of one akin to a religious experience. Emperors survive temperatures and windspeeds that no other creature can contemplate, they winter further south than any species other than man. You maybe lucky to catch a glimpse of one in the brief summer season. But to see them through their winter, as the males incubate their eggs through a four-month fast in temperatures down to -60ºC, or in early spring, as the females return and the chicks hatch, you’re going to have to get a job with one of the national Antarctic research programmes. That’s what I did, and was in the astonishing position of being paid to winter with emperor penguins. And that’s the best open secret of all.
Gavin Francis' account of his time in Antarctica, Empire Antarctica – Ice, Silence & Emperor Penguins, has been described by Paul Theroux as ‘the embodiment of everything I admire in travel writing'.
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