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Monday, 11 March 2013

A Killer Encounter in Antarctica

Written by  David Camp
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11_Image_namePlanetHop! loves a good challenge and, when it comes to travel, there's no greater challenge than a trip to Antarctica. When we say challenging, we're not necessarily talking about something physical or mental, but more from a lifestyle point of view. Just getting down to the "bottom of the world" is a huge commitment of time and money and not something to be taken lightly. However, it also offers a travel experience that is absolutely unequalled in the world today. Imagine walking in the footsteps of such famous Antarctic explorers as Shackleton and Mawson, who carved out a trail through the tundra straight into the annals of history. A visit to Antarctica will place you in perhaps the most elite travel club of all, as only about 100,000 people have ever visited this remote and pristine continent. And to be perfectly honest, checking off that elusive continent #7 is only something the most die-hard PlanetHopper! will ever do. So, if you're up to the challenge, read on...

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The reinforced hull of the icebreaker, Academic Ioffe, slowly made its way through the fragmented pack ice that marked the entrance to one of Antarctica's most famous destinations – the Lemaire Channel. My wife, Kathy and I had made the ultimate honeymoon journey to the bottom of the earth, determined to check off continent number 7 from our respective 'bucket lists'. Just getting to his point had been an adventure in itself, requiring an entire day on a plane, 2 more crossing the infamous Drake Passage (between South America and Antarctica), and nearly another week sailing along the southern continents ice-incrusted shoreline. But now it was payback time, as we were poised to enter one of Antarctic's (not to mention the world's) true wonders - the channel universally referred to as "the Kodak Crack". And with a full arsenal of cameras and video equipment, we were more than prepared to document the entire experience.2_Image_name

The Lemaire Channel is one of those unique places that seemingly has everything going for it. It is stunningly beautiful, with rock monoliths spanning both shores for virtually its entire 11km (just under 7 miles) length. These rock sentinels cascade down into water that is laden with pack ice that provides a home for an awesome variety of wildlife, ranging from seals, to penguins and any number of other unique creatures in between. But perhaps its greatest virtue is its location, perched comfortably within the Kiev Peninsula; the only part of Antarctica that is relatively accessible from any of the world's other major continents. All of these virtues have made it a permanent fixture on every Antarctic tour brochure in existence. Talk about a place that literally has everything going for it!

The Academic Ioffe continued to break through the pack-ice to the steady accompaniment of my wife's SLR, as the solid layer of ice reluctantly surrendered to the unrelenting power of the icebreaker. Kathy looked up with a smile and said, ""Come on, Spielberg, times a wasting."

In response I dutifully pulled out the video camera and started to film. Who was to know that before this tape was done, I would end up capturing one of the most amazing and bizarre scenes that you could ever hope to film in the wild.

I slowly scanned across the bow of the ship until I caught sight of a long, black form lying on the ice several hundred feet in the distance. I zoomed in the camera and saw that it was a seal, but not your run-of-the-mill SeaWorld variety. This seal had a wide, wedge-shaped head and an impressive set of teeth that it was currently using to rip apart what appeared to be a penguin. I watched it for several minutes until there was nothing remaining of its victim. It then slowly stretched out its 3 meter long body and proceeded to slide back into the water without making a ripple.

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Leopard seal

"Did you see that?" I asked.

"This is almost as good as Africa," Kathy said in response and, coming from someone who had spent several years as a tour guide on the continent renown for it's wildlife, this was quite a compliment indeed.

The next two or so hours progressed in similar fashion as an impressive array of wildlife continued to play out the never-ending drama of hunter and prey before our very eyes. We witnessed penguins playing through the water, jumping from ice floe to ice floe in a seemingly continuous game of tag. Several Wendell seals (of a much more docile variety than their leopard cousins) also made an appearance, climbing small icebergs that bobbed and rolled wildly, sending them sliding back into the water with a mighty splash. It was only after about the dozenth time that I finally realized that they were actually enjoying it. But the real star of the show was the landscape, which was like nothing (too date) I had ever seen before.

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Wendell seal lounging...

The Lemaire Channel gives the impression of being quite confining, even though it actually never narrows to less than about 1,600 meters (4,000 feet). With sheer cliff walls that tower hundreds of meters into the air, it feels like you're being squeezed between two immovable objects, an illusion that can give you more than a twinge of vertigo if you're susceptible to such things. Due to the thickly-packed ice, it's rare for even an icebreaker to move at more than a few miles per hour, so you're guaranteed more than enough chance to drink in the scenery and snap photos to your heart's content. It's also important to note that it's hard to take a bad photo here, as we found out when we arrived home. I guess that explains the nickname of "Kodak Crack".

By the time we had travelled the entire length of the channel we were ready for a break to refuel the engines and enjoyed a barbeque lunch with the other passengers and crew on the ship's aft deck. The decision to come to Antarctica for our honeymoon had been a long and difficult one. The trip is – simply put – bloody expensive. To put this into context, we literally spent the money we could have put down as a house deposit. However, as die-hard PlanetHoppers!, the thought of settling down and missing out on the experience of "the final continent" was something we never really seriously considered. In the end, we decided to throw all caution to the wind and tackle the issue of buying a home after we got back to Australia!

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The honeymooners!

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After deciding where we wanted to go, the choice of how to get there was fairly straightforward. There are really only a few options when it comes to traveling to Antarctica, with two very distinct categories to choose from. The first is more along the lines of your traditional cruise. The benefit of this option is that it's a little less expensive, but there's a heck of a lot more people (several hundred to nearly 1,000 on some tours). The second category caters more to the individual, in that they run smaller tours (usually less than 100) and usually conduct the tours in a smaller ship, many of which are converted scientific icebreakers. This allows the tours to visit small, more remote areas that the larger ships simply can't access. Everything in life is a trade-off, but for our hard-earned dollar we decided to spend a bit more in the hopes that we would gain this back through a more intimate experience.

This decision led us to a company called Peregrine, an Australian company that is at the forefront of the world's blossoming adventure tourist industry. After weeks of careful deliberation, we chose their 11 night Antarctic Explorer package in a double room with its own bathroom. The tour both started and ended in Ushuaia, a small town at the southernmost tip of Argentina, at the head of the famous Beagle Channel. In total, the tour cost of US$9,990 per person and included everything from the time you left the mainland, till the time you returned. There's no denying that it's a lot of money to spend for 11 nights, but considering the fact that there are only a few thousand (if that) people in the entire world who have actually set foot on the Antarctic continent, we decided it was money well spent. As an aside, when the crew found out that it was our honeymoon, they upgraded us to a deluxe suite at no additional cost. In summary, Peregrine is a very classy organization and well worth considering. Full details of the tour are included in Additional Info.6_Image_name

Antarctic Explorer Itinerary

Day 1-2: Ushuaia and the Beagle Channel

Day 3-4: Cross the Drake Passage

Day 5-8: The Antarctic Peninsula

Day 9-10: The Drake Passage

Day 11: Ushuaia

After lunch, the crew informed us that due to the exceptional conditions (the sun was actually shining, which is rare for Antarctica) they decided to add an extra Zodiac excursion to the itinerary. These trips are without a doubt the single biggest highlight of any Antarctic adventure. The Zodiacs are inflatable boats that can hold approximately 10 passengers and 1 pilot, who operates the on-board motor. These are lowered from the ships storage areas and allow passengers to explore away from the ship in a way that truly opens up the continent's more secluded wonders. In our case, it was also the mechanism through which we experienced one of the most amazing travel experiences that I'm likely to ever have.

We were amongst the first of the Zodiacs to disembark from the ship and proceeded to explore a glacier formation that started several kilometres from where we had exited the Lemaire Channel. Most people automatically think of icebergs as being white, but in fact they come in a bizarre medley of colors that span the blue spectrum, from sky to indigo, as a result of the levels of oxygen present in the ice when freezing. This is what we encountered as we travelled along the edge of the glacier, peering into the melting crevices that speckled its length. Periodically we would hear a symphony of "cracks" as the sun's rays melted the ice and placed enormous pressure throughout the structure. At one point our pilot went so far as to slam on the accelerator and hightail it away from the glacier at break neck speed. None of us knew what was occurring until the subtle "crack" became an enormous "CRACK" and a part of the glacier fell or "calved" off into the water, resulting in a mini tsunami that would have capsized the Zodiac if our pilot hadn't successfully translated the warning signs!

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Gorgeous blues!

With hearts pumping, we continued our explorations down another wide channel that ran perpendicular to the glacier. We continued down this passage for several hundred meters before our pilot eased off on the motor and pointed off to the right side of the Zodiac. Everyone followed his signal and found a large sheet of ice with a sleek black form lounging casually on its center.

"Looks like a leopard," said the pilot, "But let's go in for a closer look." He eased the Zodiac to within about 20 meters of the ice sheet and then killed the engine. "This is probably close enough. Don't want to piss him off."

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During the trip through the Lemaire Channel I had spent several minutes viewing one of these monsters through the video camera view finder. Well, let me tell you that there's quite a difference between seeing one this way and witnessing one up close and personal from a dozen meters away. If there was ever a design that was perfectly conducive to hunting the dark, freezing waters at the bottom of the world, then the leopard seal was definitely the prototype.

The seal lounged casually on the ice sheet, but there was no mistaking the fact that he knew exactly where we were. At one point, he opened his mouth in a wide yawn, exposing a set of razor sharp teeth that were the equal of any land-based leopard found in Africa. This was truly one of Antarctic's apex predators.

"What would happen if someone fell into the water?" asked one of our fellow passengers.8_Image_name

The pilot grinned and replied, "You get eaten and I get fired, so make sure you hold on!"

There was a round of uneasy laughter as we turned back toward the seal. It was at this point, almost as if on cue, that a full grown killer whale spy-hopped (lifted its head) out of the water. It's hard to say who was more surprised, those in the boat or the seal. Actually, it's not too hard to answer this, especially when you consider that the seal literally jumped a meter into the air and yelped loud enough to be heard a country mile away.

In that instant, I felt something that I've only ever experienced once in my entire life. It had been about two years earlier in Botswana's Okavango Delta, when I had witnessed a pack of lions take down a full grown water buffalo. This was the life and death struggle that most of us in our living rooms at home never get to see. Well, for good or bad, it appeared that we all had a front row seat for whatever was to come as two of Antarctica's apex predators prepared to face off.

However, it didn't take long for any of us to realize that the poor leopard seal (yes, I used the word poor) was terribly out-numbered, as in quick succession another 8 killer whales popped their heads out of the water on all sides of the iceberg. The most interesting thing was the at least 3 of these were noticeably smaller – no more than juveniles who were obviously being taught to hunt. It was one of these "juveniles" who first noticed the Zodiac and immediately seemed to lose interest in his potential "snack" and swam over to the boat.

"Hold on everyone," warned our pilot in a hushed voice. "Don't make a sound!"

All three juveniles quickly swam over to the Zodiac, accompanied by a single large adult, and preceded to spy-hop out of the water on both sides of the boat. It's hard to describe the feeling of fear and elation that you feel when you come face to face with creatures such as these – especially in their natural environment. The young whales ranged in size from about 2 to 2.5 metres and were seemingly overcome with excitement at their new discovery. But it was the adult that elicited the most interest and apprehension from my fellow PlanetHoppers! It was simply gigantic. At one point it swam directly under the Zodiac and spanned the boat's length – making it easily 7-8 meters in length. The force of its passing sent the boat bobbing up and down, clearly attesting to the fact that if it had wanted to tip us over, it could have with little to no effort.

After a few minutes of playful interaction it was fairly obvious that the whales didn't mean us any harm. They continued to romp and frolic around the Zodiac until the large adult abruptly put an end to things by sweeping its tail along the surface of the water and creating a wave that sent the boat rocking. This seemed to be a clear signal to the youngsters, who immediately dived down and out of sight.

It was only then that we turned back to see the that the leopard seal was dealing with a similar wave of its own, except for the fact that the one directed at the seal was about 5x as large and generated by half a dozen adult killer whales. The seal did its best to keep its perch, but in the end, it was knocked from the safety of the ice and into the water. It was at least 30 seconds before the ice steadied and the seal was able to jump back out of the water. It immediately spun around in obvious terror, trying to catch sight of the whales that were no longer visible below the dark waters of the strait.9_Image_name

Everything remained quiet for several long moments until once again the family of whales began to spy-hop around the ice sheet. In response, the seal barked in terror. The whales had obviously decided to ramp things up because, almost without pause, they spun around in the water as a coordinated pack and swam off in several different directions. When they had retreated far enough away from the ice sheet, they turned back around and literally charged the stranded seal. This resulted in an enormous wave that washed the leopard seal clean off of the ice sheet. Once again the seal disappeared below the dark surface of the water.

The seal remained out of sight for a long moment before once more hopping back on top of the ice. The only difference this time was that a long stain of bright crimson followed in its wake from a long gouge down its flank. The whale's strategy quickly became apparent. This marked the beginning of the end for the seal.

Over course of the next 15 minutes, the killer whales utilized the same strategy to repeatedly knock the seal from the relatively safety of the ice sheet. Each time the young juveniles would nip and harass the seal until it was torn and battered within an inch of its life. In the end, the seal lay in a pool of its own blood, unable to lift itself from the ice. This marked the closing chapter, as with a last effort, the whales sent it hurtling once more to disappear for the final time. I guess even apex predators sometimes meet their match.

"Did you get all of that?" asked Kathy, breathless.

"I think so," I replied. "I just hope I wasn't shaking too much!"

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Everyone continued to scan the dark waters, trying to catch another glimpse of the magnificent family of killer whales. Bud sadly, they had moved on as quietly as they had appeared – like a force of nature. Gone, but definitely never to be forgotten by the small group of lucky PlanetHoppers! who had been privileged enough to live through a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The short return trip to the Academic Ioffe was conducted in almost complete silence as each of us tried to come to terms with what we had just witnessed.

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Stalking the sea lion...

While I'd never make the claim that everyone who makes a trip to Antarctica will have a similar experience; I will guarantee that you will come face-to-face with a range of wildlife that you simply can't see anywhere else in the world. Before making the trip, Kathy and I never would have imagined that we would see anything that could compare to the famous game parks of Africa. But we did, and it was an experience that will live with us for the rest of our lives.

After returning home, we invariably told all of our friends and family about our unique experience, and I could instantly see the small degree of skepticism in their eyes. It wasn't like they thought we were lying, just perhaps embellishing the truth a bit. But this only lasts until I pull out the video.

All I can say is that it has to be seen to be believed.

In closing, Antarctica is truly the last undiscovered country and, if you ever have the opportunity to visit, don't miss it!

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Penguins at sunset


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Make sure to click on the Additional Info and Related Video tabs for more details...

Wow! Can there be any greater travel experience than coming face-to-face with a pod of killer whales on the hunt? Stay tuned for the video, which will hopefully be posted on PlanetHop! in the near future. Bringing this type of experience to life is exactly what PlanetHop! was created for and we'd like to thank David for sharing it with us!

David is President and Co-Founder of PlanetHop! and has spent much of the past 15 years traveling the world for business and pleasure. The following article has been adapted from the travel journal that he kept during his trip to South America and Antarctica.

Who (will enjoy)

Perfect for adults seeking the adventure of a lifetime. However, it's probably not the ideal trip for kids under 16. Crossing the Drake Passage probably isn't something you want to subject younger children to.out in the Middle East. However, it's probably not the best option for younger children.

What (to do)Explore the Lemaire Channel and any number of other isolated islands scattered across the Kiev Peninsula, where you'll encounter some of the most amazing wildlife to be found anywhere in the world.
When (should I visit)

The best (and really only) time to visit is during the Southern Hemisphere summer, between December – February.

Where (to stay)

All accommodations are on the boat, with a range of options available from 4-berth cabins, to twin-share cabins with ensuite.

How (much will it cost)

Peregrine's Antarctic Explorer 11-night package costs approximately US$8,670 per person, twin share. For up-to-date prices, visit the Peregrine website at: http://www.peregrineadventures.com


Lemaire Channel (aka Kodak Alley) - Antarctic
David Camp

David Camp

Dave is President and Co-Founder of PlanetHop! and has spent much of the past 15 years traveling the world for business and pleasure. His longest journey was a two year romp around the world!