Monday, 30 January 2012

"There's whales everywhere!" - The perfect Antarctic Christmas present

Within just a day of arriving at the Antarctic Peninsula, we’d glimpsed our first sightings of whales in the distance, the unmistakable tails of humpbacks breaching gracefully in the distance. Frantically attempting to take photos, we were all too aware of the infrequency and unreliability of sightings. When we were alerted to a Minke the following day, following the boat at a cautious distance before swimming off, we thought ourselves very lucky. Until Christmas day, that was.

After a lovely landing in the morning following a festive meal the evening before, we were out on deck, amazed to be spending a truly white Christmas in such an incredible place. Suddenly, the shout went out that there were Minkes playing around the boat. We dashed over, and were greeted by a group of whales, swimming and playing directly below us. They dove in and out of the water, breaking the surface before flipping over and crashing down, then repeating it all over again. Merely metres away, we watched, mesmerised, as they put on a show. The water was so clear that we watched them gliding under the surface, then angle upwards before emerging, heads high, to breathe. I was freezing cold, my bare hands turning from white, to blue, to a burning red, but I couldn’t tear myself away for a second. They played for a long time before eventually drifting past, leaving us full of adrenalin, hearts racing, and hoping for a couple of good photos to show for the experience.

After an afternoon zodiac cruise even more Minkes came out to play, and sitting down to dinner, we were reflecting on our fantastic Christmas when the voice of one of our expedition leaders erupted over the tannoy.

“There’s whales everywhere!”.

Barely a moment passed and we were out of our seats, scrambling for the door, food abandoned. We reached the deck (F very kindly making a detour for some coats – and gloves – along with the camera) to find the descending sun casting a brilliant orange ‘sunset’ across the water and surrounding land, and, within the pool of light, humpback whales, very close to the boat.

They swam in and out of the orange-bathed water, not fast and playful like the minkes, but slow and graceful, their tails fanning in the air, water cascading down, before softly sliding back below. At one point, a whale swam up to the boat, directly underneath where I was standing, its head gently emerging for air. After the recognisable ‘pfff’ of the blowhole, it swam down and away, but not before I’d seen the barnacles clinging to its back as I stared down in awe. It was one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen. We stayed out there for the longest time, reluctant to go back inside, peering through the glowing water for ripples and tails. Only once the whales had swam further away did we finally leave, amazed by the whole day and the best possible Christmas present.

The perfect day? Well, the only possible downside I can think of is that we’d missed dessert…

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