Day 4 |
Dec 15, 2011

Edge of pack ice, vicinity of Snow Hill Island, Weddell Sea, Antarctica 

By Luciano Bernacchi, Naturalist, Birder, Glacier Guide

Co-ordinates: 64º30 S 056º59.8 W
Weather: No wind, clear skies, sunshine most of the day
Air Temperature: 6ºC
Pressure: 1006 hPa

Today will stay in the memory of many Expedition Team members, and of course many of our guests. A special day when Silver Explorer sailed for the first time into the Weddell Sea, to the edge of the Pack Ice, near Snow Hill Island. Captain Alexander and Expedition Leader Robin had agreed to go and look for Emperor Penguins, as some other ships from the IAATO fleet had done in the previous days in search of Emperors.

I woke up early and went out on deck; we were sailing south already in the Weddell Sea, passing Seymour Island and the Argentina station, Marimba, and heading towards Snow Hill Island. All the Expedition Team member were out on deck, binoculars in hand, scanning for Emperors. Lots of Adelies on ice floes, calm water, and beautiful weather… it was the beginning of a great day.

Soon afterwards, the first Emperor was sighted and announced: one individual swimming and floating with the bulk of its body out of the water. A quick glimpse was enough to confirm identity. More and more guests packed the outer decks. We opened deck 4 forward, and slowly approached what seemed to be the edge of the pack ice, slightly east of the ice-cap-covered Snow Hill Island.

A few penguins were seen on the ice and the Captain slowly approached. Emperor-mania began as, very slowly, the Silver Explorer’s bow got close to the penguins. The general excitement was felt; there were lots of smiles and a million photographs must have been shot as the undisturbed emperor penguins posed for all of us.

We pulled back and I had to run and get changed for driving a Zodiac. We were going to offer Zodiac cruising along the edge of the ice to get better views of penguins and enjoy the spectacular weather, as it was getting better and better throughout the morning.

Two 75-minute Zodiac cruises were more than enough to get some more views of emperors, leopard seals, crab-eater seals, Weddell Seals, and to feel the magic of slowly moving around the pack ice and big icebergs. It was amazing to take in this part of the world with all our senses.

I passed on some information to the guests in my Zodiac about ice, seals, and of course the Emperors. The scattered individuals we saw came from a recently discovered colony at the south of Snow Hill Island, some 12 miles over the pack ice from where we are today. In 2005 a breeding group of about 4,000 was found here, in what is the northern-most breeding colony of Emperor Penguins. Getting to this area is totally dependent on sea ice conditions, and weather.

On occasion, a vagrant Emperor Penguin may be seen further north near Antarctic Sound, but guests aboard the vast majority of trips to the Peninsula never even dream of getting a view of the world’s largest penguin.

After the Zodiac operation was over it was time to hoist the boats and get some lunch. The weather was still great, and during lunch we repositioned to a nearby area with large, compact, ice floes. The Captain pushed through it, in order to “park” the Silver Explorer into sea ice. We were watching as the hull of the ship pushed into the ice, and right after finishing lunch we lowered a few boats to go and explore the surrounding ice. After testing the safety, we set a perimeter on the ice, and the plan was to allow our guests the experience of walking onto sea ice.

The windless and sunny day was perfect for something that is only rarely possible. In various groups and after a very short Zodiac ride, we “landed” on sea-ice. The guests walked around, took photos of the nearby Silver Explorer, and even enjoyed the visit of some friendly Adelie penguins. When standing on ice, one pauses to think there is open water under one’s feet, and it is a curious feeling. I radioed the Bridge to ask for the exact depth under the keel, and the reply came soon “157 metres”, about 450 feet.

At about 1600 hs, I was one of the last to leave the ice and return to the comfort on board Silver Explorer. It was time to sail away and head back into Antarctic Sound. The day however was still not over. Robin West decided to cancel Recap & Briefing because of the excellent weather. Instead, the Captain positioned the vessel very close to some large tabular icebergs. So many things today, such amazing weather and great sightings, so of course that’s what we talked about during dinner. An early start is planned for tomorrow so early to bed tonight.