Flippers in the air, a group of penguins tobogganed down the icy slope like kids in a playground. “Weeeeee!” I could almost hear them cheer as they swooshed across my trail one after another. Once on land with their mates, they waddled clumsily back up to the top of the ridge again, for another round on the slope. I stopped in my tracks and laughed.
My first close encounter with a penguin, and I could barely keep a straight face.
After two full days of sailing across the notorious Drake Passage and rocking our way into the Gerlache Strait, we finally made it. Earlier that morning, I’d awoken to views of giant icebergs, crackling glaciers and jagged white mountains surrounding us. It was as if I’d entered the world of Narnia. I felt like a child on Christmas Day, excited to see the gift that I’d been waiting for all year.
My first view of Antarctica was fantastic — but my first step on Antarctica was even better.
We landed on the shore of Danco Island, a one-mile long isle in the Errera Channel off the Antarctic Peninsula. Covered in thick layers of snow, the island looked aloof and almost intimidating. It was easy to feel small and powerless in this vast and expansive landscape. We trudged through the white crystal powder, following a zigzag trail, up towards the top of the ridge where brown patches of snow were speckled with little black dots. Paradise Bay sprawled before us, the sea sparkling under the sunlight and aqua blue bergy bits dancing on the water.
Soon enough, just as I reached the top of the ridge, I could see the speckles of black dots clearly. There were over hundreds, if not thousands, of orange-beaked gentoo penguins. We were surrounded by rookeries upon rookeries of gentoo penguins. As we silently approached, I half expected them to all scatter in different directions; but to my surprise, they stayed calm and quiet, as if they couldn’t care less.
Some of them lay half-asleep buried in snow, some were humping like rabbits, while others just stood dreamily staring out to sea. As we sat on the snow, watching them in silence, a few of them actually tiptoed towards us, curiously sniffing us out.
According to the The International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) guidelines and the Antarctic Treaty, we are not allowed to touch any of the wildlife in Antarctica — in fact, we need to stay a good 15 feet (five meters) away from all animals at all times. But if they come to us, well, then we just let them. One of them came up to a few inches from me, perhaps attracted by the bright blue color of my parka. Just as I put down my camera, and stayed still, it scampered off in a rush. Perhaps he just wanted his photo taken.
Here’s a video of the first penguin rookery we saw, hope it gives you an idea of how I felt at that very moment.
Disclaimer: I traveled with G Adventures on the Antarctica Classic In Depth (XVAESX) trip as a part of the Wanderers In Residence program, but all opinions expressed here are entirely my own. Follow my journey through these blog posts, or on Twitter with the #WJAntarctica hashtag.