Snow Hill Island & Cockburn Island

Dec 22, 2018 - National Geographic Explorer

After several days of atmospheric mist, fog and snow, we awoke on National Geographic Explorer to sunlight sparkling off the waves, icebergs, and distant mountains. In the space of only a few hours, Antarctica transformed itself again before our eyes, all of which are directed outwards looking for something very special, Emperor penguins. Yet despite considerable ocular effort, we finally had to admit that the penguins were proving elusive, and the ice proving a little too packed, so our valiant expedition leader Jonathan implemented Plan B. We turned from our original destination of Snow Hill Island towards Cockburn Island, an entirely volcanic formation, known as a moberg or tuya.

While some looked at this fascinating, extinct, under-ice volcano, others looked at its fascinating wildlife. Our guests split into two groups, one enjoying the peaceful serenity of small canoes, the others gliding over crystal clear waters in Zodiacs. Snow petrels wheeled above the highest points of the island; blue-eyed shags busied themselves carrying seaweed back to their nests; kelp gulls stood watchful guard over their own nests; Adélie penguins marched back and forth along the shoreline, and leopard seals patrolled the surrounding waters looking for a black and white meal. The air was alive with flying birds while the water surface was equally alive with leaping penguins (and the dark shapes of hunting seals). With large, mostly grounded icebergs scattered around, the entire place felt prehistoric, and when our guests stepped briefly onto shore they were probably the first people to have ever walked upon it.

Before lunch, one last task awaited the more intrepid explorers, the infamous polar plunge! The idea of leaping, barely clothed into the frigid waters of the Weddell Sea might not appeal to everyone, but about a third of our guests (and half the expedition staff!) took leave of their senses and immersed themselves in sub-zero water. For most, the experience was fleeting but memorable.

After lunch we were treated to a presentation by Will Steger, a veteran explorer of both the Arctic and Antarctic, having reached both poles with a small team of resilient humans and dogs. Hearing of his experiences in minus 70 Fahrenheit storms travelling the longest route across the continent made the polar plunge feel positively balmy by comparison.

We finished the afternoon eating hot dogs and drinking beer on the sun deck, surrounded by the mists that were closing in as we headed north out of the Weddell Sea and towards the Antarctic Sound.

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About the Author

Adam Britton

Naturalist/Certified Photo Instructor

Adam is a British-born zoologist who has lived and worked in northern Australia since 1997. Before arriving in Darwin, Adam gained a Ph.D. on the flight performance and echolocation of insectivorous bats, but his passion has always been large predators and the relationship that different cultures have toward them.

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