The Southern Ocean

Feb 18, 2019 - National Geographic Explorer

For a few, the day began very early. Guests, excited as we approached our first landfall, congregated on the open decks or the bridge. Conditions were overcast and the swell had increased from the night before. At first, we spotted only a few seabirds—occasional black-browed albatross and one black-bellied storm petrel.

But as the saying goes, “the early bird catches the worm,” and more birds appeared as well as the first whale blows off in the distance. The blows were from fin whales actively feeding. More birds were spotted: the first pintado petrels, the beautiful light-mantled albatross, and a solitary wandering albatross. And then a little later, we could see land and icebergs clear in the distance.

The air temperature hovered just below freezing and with the brisk wind, it was bitterly cold out on the decks. Those brave enough to venture out were soon back inside to warm up and enjoy a hot drink. Guest chatter became more and more animated as we spotted penguins porpoising on their way back from foraging trips.

Then we sailed through the English Narrows, with its characteristically strong currents and impressive basalt column cliffs. Once through, we made our way into Bransfield Strait and headed toward a gigantic iceberg. Directly ahead of the ship, a thin line could be discerned. We could hardly believe it was the gigantic iceberg—it looked more like a sizeable island. Known as A57a, the iceberg is a true giant—more than 20 km. long, 9 km. wide, and 44 m. high—and had calved off the Ronne Ice Shelf in 2008 then drifted more than 1,100 nautical miles to its current location.

Up close, the layers of ice—just like rings on a tree—were clear and the iceberg’s dimensions, in all honesty, were impossible to comprehend. The staff did some quick calculations and we learned that its size was equivalent to 70 trillion imperial pints of beer! As these ice giants slowly drift about, they generate upwellings of nutrients that attract seabirds, seals, and whales. Nearby, we spotted many fulmars, pintado petrels, Antarctic fur seals, and a couple of humpback whales. As the ship turned to sail along the iceberg’s width, we came across a large area dotted with chunks of ice and realized there had been a recent calving event. As we sailed toward our afternoon destination, we were humbled by the enormity of this incredible iceberg which is but an infinitesimal part of Antarctica.

In no time at all, the trusted Zodiacs were speeding across the calm waters to our landing site and its welcoming committee of gentoo penguins. What joy it brought us to see the penguins! We won’t forget the sight of parent penguins being chased around by their frantic chicks trying to get some food. After a short walk, we came across a chinstrap penguin colony. Those of us sitting quietly were approached by inquisitive chicks that came right up and began gently pecking our boots and pants. 

After this excellent first adventure of our expedition, we headed back to the mothership to freshen up for our welcome dinner and reception.

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About the Author

Edward Shaw


Edward Shaw has travelled widely as a naturalist and guide. For the past 29 years he has lived with his family in northwestern Patagonia, initially working as a teacher and subsequently working in community projects before returning to expedition ships. Edward is deeply committed to the principles behind sustainable development. He is happily married and the father of five children.

About the Videographer

Annie Griffiths

National Geographic Photographer

One of the first women photographers to work for National Geographic, Griffiths has photographed in more than a hundred countries during her illustrious career.  She has worked on dozens of magazine and book projects for the National Geographic Society, including stories on Lawrence of Arabia, Baja California, Galilee, Petra, Sydney, New Zealand, and Jerusalem.

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