A whale of a day

We saw whales yesterday! Most of us were greeted at 7 am by a wake-up announcement by the captain, who reported 2 humpbacks off the starboard. Fortunately, that is the side our cabin is on, so I was out of bed like a shot, jumped into my shoes, threw on a jacket, grabbed my camera, and went out onto our balcony. As it turned out, the whales were dozing, so it was kind of hard to spot them. They continued to hang out near the boat most of the morning.

Overnight, the ship sailed south through the Gerlache Strait, a stretch of water separating the Palmer Archipelago from the Antarctic Peninsula. The scenery is quite spectacular - magnificent ice (you don't hear those two words used together often) and lots of wildlife. Penguins are everywhere - in the water, leaping like dolphins, or on the ice floes. The morning's excursion - not a landing this time - was a Zodiac tour of the area. We started out by visiting the whales. This meant keeping the boats at least 15 meters away - humpbacks average a length of 45 feet and their flippers can be as long as 15 feet. We didn't see much of them except their backs and blowholes. They were quiet because they had had a really good feed during the night, and they were still digesting.

Apparently there had been some activity between breakfast and the first landing, as the photographer on the expedition team got a shot of one of the whales breaching. We missed that.

The tour continued around some beautiful icebergs, on one of which we saw a Weddell seal. We also stopped by a ship wreck. Back in 1915, a whaling ship carrying whale blubber and diesel caught fire. The cargo was worth more than the ship, so the crew sunk the ship to save the cargo. Today it is a home for nesting Antarctic terns (see photo).

Around lunchtime, the captain announced that a minke whale had been spotted off the stern of the ship, but by the time we got there, it was gone. We've learned, on this trip, to carry a pack wherever you go on the ship, so that we are always prepared for a photo opportunity. The pack contains camera, hat, gloves, and jacket, so if you have to go on deck, you won't freeze.

Yesterday afternoon, we visited a spot where we had the option of taking a strenuous hike or visiting a Gentoo penguin colony. Chris took the hike, I opted for the penguins. It's an enormous colony, and the Gentoos' breeding season was just beginning. I also got my first look at penguin highways. Yes, these are a thing. Rookeries are generally on higher ground, so penguins create pathways in the snow to get to and from the beach. It's hugely entertaining to watch these busy little birds going to and fro. Occasionally - usually if humans are too near the highways - penguins will detour across the snow, which can be tough going. I often saw them "tobogganing" - maneuvering across the snow using their flippers and feet. I tried to get video, but the penguins knew this and every time I started videoing a penguin doing this, it would promptly get up and start waddling.

Then, in the evening, we were visited by a dozen or so orcas. They were hunting for penguins in the waters around the ship (and someone got a photo of one with a penguin in its jaws). These we saw, and got some photos, and I got a glimpse of two orcas swimming perfectly synchronously just below the surface of the water.

Definitely an equal-opportunity day for the mammals.