When you look around outside it is white for as far as the eye can see. There is no grass, no trees, no insects, there is no green. It is a place of extremes; 24-hour sunlight in summer then 24-hour darkness in the winter. Warm weather is just above or below 0, but even in these warmer months the weather can turn and be so bitterly cold that you want to hide every bit of exposed skin. Take today for instance, while it is now moderately warm (-4 degrees Celsius) the wind has been howling, blowing snow making you turn your back shield your face from the wind. It is days like this that makes it hard to imagine that any life survives here at all.
My first encounter with Antarctica’s wildlife was with the weddell seals (Leptonychotes weddellii). About a month ago these ginormous slugs started to appear on the ice. At first it was just one and then it quickly grew to be around twenty slugs. During the day they would magically appear, you never saw them moving you would just look out the window and there would be more, then by late evening they would be gone again. After a couple of weeks mini slugs appeared beside the larger ones. The first of the seal pups had been born! Lucky for us, the seals hang out on the pressure ridges, a mere ten minutes’ walk away. You can actually see them from the Scott Base windows. Unlike some other seals, Weddell seals are what New Zealanders would call ‘chill’. You can get relatively close without bothering them, they just continue to slumber the day away on the ice. There was one evening in particular that I had an incredible encounter with a seal and its pup. The base had been pretty busy and the day was calm and clear meaning that everyone was wanting to get out after work and walk around the pressure ridges. Wanting to avoid the ‘crowds’ my walking buddy and I waited until late evening before going out. The sun was no longer setting but the light at this time of evening was a lot softer. No one else was out and the cloud that had been hanging around that evening had disappeared. Seems we struck it lucky all round. We headed to a spot where we knew there were pups and as I lay on the snow photographing a pup and it’s mum the pup decided it was play time. The pup rolled around and tried to climb on mumma seal who, while once or twice checked on her new born, for the most continued to snooze. We spent about half an hour watching this gorgeous pup entertain itself. It was such a special experience and one of those moments I will treasure.
My second wildlife experience was seeing a bird. Yes I know that doesn’t sound that exciting but after a month and a bit of seeing no birds and hardly any wildlife, it’s funny what you get excited about. This day I was in the kitchen doing my normal routine when I saw the bird flying past the window. I was so excited I begun calling to the chef “bird, there’s a bird”. He didn’t believe me, but sure enough it flew by again and I was able to point it out. These birds are called skua and they are kind of like dirty sea gulls. Is it mean to call it a dirty sea gull? Anyway, they turn up around the time the seals have pups and are known to gorge on things associated with sea birth and I’ll leave the detail at that. For the most they keep their distance and until recently I had only a glimpse of them here and there. However, one stormy day I came across one sitting in the middle of the road at McMurdo (the American base). Not wanting to fly in the gusty wind the skua was patiently waiting on the weather to calm while keeping a wary eye on the people passing by.
Perhaps, though, my most treasured wildlife encounter so far was with the Emperor penguins (Aptenodytes forsteri). On this day we were heading out to Cape Evans on a fam trip. I had so desperately wanted to see the Emperors after seeing some photos from our field trainers. They looked so beautiful, so majestic, I couldn’t wait to experience that for myself. I had already been out a few times with no luck, while other fam trips had found them. So, while deep down I was hoping we saw them, I didn’t want to get too excited about the possibility. About 40 minutes into the trip Chris, our hag driver stopped, looked at me and smiled…. There were penguins ahead. The girls in the back screamed with delight. We scrambled out of the hag piling on our layers and grabbing our cameras. Three penguins were making a bee line for us. These were not the Emperors however, they were Adelie penguins (Pygoscelis adeliae) but this was still very exciting. The penguins ran up close to us with their funny waddle, sticking one wing out and then the other. After a quick investigation of us they were off again. We were obviously not interesting enough for them to stick around for long. When I compare the Adelies to the Emperor penguins I describe them as penguins on speed. They are the ADHD penguins of the family. They run here and there, never pausing for long. They seem forever in a rush. After the Adelies had left us in their dust we piled back into the hag and carried on towards our destination.
A short time later Chris stopped again, this time asking to borrow my camera. Off in the distance was a small black clump. A photograph of this clump and then zooming in on it revealed it to be a group of Emperor penguins. I couldn’t believe my luck. We headed towards the penguins stopping the hag a few hundred meters away from them. As soon as the penguins saw the hag they started heading towards it. We lay on the ground 50 meters or so from them and waited for them to come. At first the waddled then they slid along on their bellies, clearly a quicker more efficient means of travel. As they came closer they popped up one by one. You didn’t even notice them rise, they stand up with such grace. There was one penguin that was clearly bolder than the rest and led the charge. He waddled up to our group inspecting this strange group of orange and black blobs lying on the ice. Then we just watched each other. They were in no rush and neither were we. Everyone was busy clicking away, absorbing what they were seeing. At one point Mr bold decided that he was going to walk through the middle of our group. On the other side he squawked and called to his mates but no one else was game enough to follow. Eventually, Mr bold gave up and warily passed back through our group, coming so close to me I could have touched him. After we had frozen our butts off and could no longer bare the cold we headed back to the hag and the penguins marched on. It was an unforgettable experience, a truly special encounter with one of the most beautiful creatures that I have ever met.
That pretty much sums up my wildlife experiences so far. Although, the Observation tube is worth a mention. It’s a test tube like structure that is inserted into the ice so that you can sit below the ice and view the underwater world. I have only had one chance to get in the tube so far. It is an amazing experience to be able to view under the ice like that. I only saw some tiny fish when I went down but I hope to get down again soon and see if there is anything new to see. Hopefully, I will be able to write a blog on this one a bit later.