The Expedition of a Lifetime!

Encounter with the Emperors of Antarctica

All expeditions to the Polar Regions are magnificent and unforgettable, as will always be the first trip “Classic Antarctica”, which occupies a very special place among the polar memories. The experience of visiting the White Continent for the first time is unique. Although the years go by, it is impossible not to remember the day of the first embarkation with immense happiness. No matter how many times one may embark, these polar expeditions will always surprise us.

In this opportunity, we will tell you our experience in search of the Emperor Penguin, the most atypical and incredible Polar expedition we have made in our years of experience.

Lorena with the Icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov.-

 

This is a trip to the remote Snow Hill Island, located east of the Antarctic Peninsula in the Weddell Sea area. Very few expeditions visit this place because the sea freezes, making it difficult for ships to go through.

Although we had already sailed and flown over this area by helicopter in 2016, this time the trip was aboard the powerful Russian icebreaker, Kapitan Khlebnikov. In this way, we will be able to cross the sea ice up to one and a half meters thick and reach areas that other ships cannot reach.

Emperor Penguin family on Snow Hill.-

The goal: reaching the Snow Hill Emperor Penguin colony. The largest of all penguin species and the most difficult to find, since, although there are several colonies in different sectors of the continent, it is not possible to see them on any of the regular expeditions. Most of the colonies are located on sea ice, and a few kilometers away from the open sea, which makes them inaccessible.

Unlike other trips to Antarctica, for this trip, it is essential to have the support of two helicopters to transfer us from the ship to the proximity of the colony.

It took us two full days to cross the Drake Passage as it usually is in good weather, and two more days navigating the sea ice until we arrived. Just sailing on a 24,000-horsepower icebreaker is an adventure in itself. These days are made the most of by visiting the Bridge (the Captain and his crew’s place), from where there is an excellent view while the icebreaker makes its way. Also, during these days there are different lectures about safety on board. There is also a simulation of how to get on and off the aircraft so that everything goes perfectly at the moment of flying to the colony.

Already deep in the Weddell Sea and still on our way to the colony, we began to see the first Emperor penguins walking on the frozen sea. Taking advantage of the thickness of the ice layer, we had the incredible experience of getting off the ship and joining the penguins in a magnificent Ice Walk. Not only did we enjoy our first encounter with these adorable animals, but we suddenly found ourselves walking in the middle of the frozen sea. Here we could see a few adult penguins leaving the colony to feed, with the icebreaker in the background on the sea ice, giving us a memorable postcard.

The next day, we heard the wake-up call at 5.45 am, and the icebreaker was already positioned in an excellent spot to start the two Russian helicopters that accompanied us, and thus be able to access the colony.

It is a short overflight of about 10/15 minutes, which leaves us in a base camp from where we start a walk of about 45 minutes/1 hour to reach the colony because of course, we land at a prudent distance so as not to disturb the penguins.

The happiness you feel is indescribable. Before reaching the colony, you start to hear thousands of penguins in the distance, indicating that we are almost there, and the first adult penguins start to cross our path. The colony is located in the south of the island, and there are around 4,000 breeding pairs.

Emperor Penguin family on Snow Hill.-

Once you arrive at this incredible colony in Snow Hill, the long-awaited moment of seeing the adults with their beautiful little chicks between their legs arrives. Other chicks already start to leave the colony by themselves or with the adults, approaching humans: these creatures are very curious. We must respect a distance of 30 meters from this species of penguins, but if they approach us, we can enjoy this incredible moment and embrace the happiness.

Thanks to the hard work of all the staff, all the passengers (organized in small groups) were able to board the helicopters and visit the colony on the same day, for 3 consecutive days. The temperature ranged from -12 °C (10,4 °F) to -20 °C (-4 °F), so we had to be well prepared for such a hostile climate in this corner of the planet. The road to the colony can be covered with a few centimeters of snow, and some ice, which can be a bit slippery at times. The land is practically flat, but inclement weather may make the hike a bit difficult. Because the colony is on sea ice and not on dry land, the life jacket must be worn at all times and you should never leave the path marked by the guides.

During the 2018/19 Antarctic season, four of these unique expeditions were conducted aboard the Khlebnikov between October and November. We chose to embark on the first trip (October 7th-17th), to observe the penguin chicks before they grow too big. By that time, the youngest penguins are about two months old.

This particular adventure does not happen very often, and at the moment there is no schedule for this voyage in the future, although there are other very exclusive expeditions to see the Emperor Penguin.

We feel very privileged to be part of a relatively small number of lucky travellers, who have been to one of the most isolated destinations in the world, thus fulfilling one of our biggest dreams.

It was truly an epic trip, carried out with total professionalism thanks to the great experience of all the staff that made it possible. It is always a pleasure to travel with our friends from Quark!

Photos by Lorena Berutti