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Journey to the Ross Sea #8

We have been making our way through the sea ice for the last few days as we head across the Amundsen Sea. Adelie and Emperor penguins continue to float past on ice floes like extras in the latest Wallace and Gromit movie. Our progress is slow – just 5 knots – as the ship’s crew navigate the single year ice – one metre in thickness – and the more challenging multi-year ice which can be up to five metres thick.

Just before dinner the Bridge announces a surfacing minke whale about a kilometre ahead. As we slowly approach it soon becomes apparent that this is a large minke gathering – the largest I have ever seen that’s for sure – totalling about 30 whales. The Sonar Sounder on the Bridge showed huge amounts of krill just below the surface which would explain the feeding frenzy going on around us.

We have had a lot of sea days on this trip but every time we come across sea ice we make the most of the opportunity and launch the zodiacs to cruise amongst the whales, penguins and seals that are so at home at the ice edge.

For many passengers one of the highlights of the trip would be an attempted landing on the isolated outpost of Peter I Island which is a notoriously hard place to visit. Peter I features highly on an exclusive internet travel club where its members compete with each other to visit the most remote spots on the planet. Apparently, more people have been into Space than have ever landed here. After a few days of wind and low cloud we were all anxious to see what the weather had in store for us. Fortunately, at our 5am wake up call we were informed that the day had dawned clear and calm. Landing by zodiac is practically impossible so the decision was made to use the helicopters to fly us high up on to the island’s plateau.

With 84 passengers to mobilise, helicopter operations can take a long time so as we waited for the call to the muster station we broke out the cameras again to photograph the humpback mother and calf slowly circling the ship. Over the course of the morning we must have spotted 8 mother-calf pairs working the inshore waters of the island. The calves were most likely born many months ago in the warm waters off Ecuador and then followed their mothers down to Antarctica – an ancient migration – to gorge on the huge amounts of krill found here in the polar seas. Recent studies have shown that some humpbacks actually cross the Equator and head to Costa Rica for calving and nursing. Researchers hypothesise this may have something to do with more favourable water temperatures. Cetaceans usually migrate within their hemispheres and so this journey from Antarctica to the northern hemisphere and back is one of the longest of any marine mammal and is further than the previously thought record-breaking annual migration of gray whales from the lagoons of Mexico to the Bering and Chukchi Seas.

Keeping a respectful distance, our helicopter pilot flew over some of the whales as we made our way towards the impenetrable ice fortress that is Peter I. All the ship’s passengers managed to land on the island’s stunning frozen plateau and stare up at the active volcano in the centre of the island. Most of Peter I’s volcano actually lies under the ocean where its base is 4km below us on the seabed.

The mood on the ship that evening was ecstatic as very few ships ever make it out this far let alone have the weather window to actually land. The island baggers in particular were overjoyed as they ticked off the island and no doubt moved up a few pegs in the league table.