Last year on 5th November I waved goodbye to Ushuaia aboard the Ocean Endeavour. For the first time in my life I was Antarctica bound as a trainee guide with the Quark Academy, Quark Expeditions. I am fortunate to be working aboard the Ocean Endeavour again this year and the 5th of November will mark the first departure of the season for this vessel.
As I think back to that first voyage I can clearly remember the buzz and excitement that filled the air on board. I'm not sure who was more excited; Passengers and trainees on their maiden voyage to the last continent or the seasoned expedition team members and returning passengers eager to return to an untouched land. It felt like we were explorers. What would await us down south? Had the sea ice melted enough for us to conduct any landings? Had the penguins returned to mate?
Our Expedition Leader, Shane Evoy, kept us updated of our position and the conditions. On our second day at sea there were large clusters of sea ice with a few Antarctic sea lions on them. In the afternoon we had our first landing in the South Shetland Islands. There were plenty of penguins. Many pairs of Gentoo penguins and Chinstrap penguins were mating. Some were already starting to build their nests from the pebbles that were starting to become visible under the slowly melting snow. These were carefully positioned and the occasional tail feather was added.
Once alongside the peninsula, our schedule became a little more fluid due to the changing conditions and an abundance of sea ice. Shane remained calm and adaptable. Our changing plans added to the sense of adventure. Sometimes we were just fortunate. One morning we had intended to land at Danco Island to visit the Gentoo Penguin colony. Upon arrival there were only a handful of penguins to be found. The ship anchored and we had breakfast. During this time more than 100 Gentoo penguins arrived. The zodiacs were lowered and in no time we set off to explore! It's been nearly a year since this incident and I still remember it so vividly.
As we approached the shore the sea was teaming with Gentoo penguins. Our zodiacs were surrounded by porpoising penguins that propelled themselves out of the water and onto the shore. By the time we left their numbers were at least 200 strong and others were continuing to arrive. Many had already begun the steep trek uphill to where the snow would melt first and uncover the all important pebbles for nest building.
With it's untouched and pristine landscape and unimaginable ice formations, working in Antarctica is certainly a privilege. For me, one of the highlights is visiting penguin colonies throughout the season and being an observer of their life cycle. From mating and nest building, to the incubation of eggs and later the development of the chicks. All whilst living in one of the world's most hostile climates.
The 5th November is drawing closer and I for one can't wait to wave goodbye to Ushuaia again aboard the Endeavour. Am I more excited this time then last?
Yes, because I know the sort of adventure that's in store for us!