Continuing our crossing into the Southern Ocean, National Geographic Orion awoke to calm seas and wonderfully misty surroundings. Well south of the 60 degrees latitude and the Antarctic Polar Front, the fading foggy horizon beckoned us towards our first landing at the South Shetland Islands. After a presentation about penguins by naturalist Rich Kirchner, we donned our best boots and waterproof gear to head ashore at Barrientos Island and meet our first Antarctic locals. Wandering among nesting chinstrap and gentoo penguins, we enjoyed views of young chicks, predatory flying birds and penguins waddling to and from the cold waters.
Cruising past dramatic geology, glaciers and landscapes, the skies parted here and there to reveal beautiful pockets of light on the water as we sailed towards the Antarctic Peninsula. Naturalist Andreas Madsen shared stories of the geological history of Antarctica and National Geographic photographer Phil Schermeister presented about expert photography tips, while we cruised past our first large ice bergs. To round out our first day in Antarctica, we were treated to absolutely spectacular views of a young humpback whale breaching continuously near the ship. The bow and outer decks packed out as quickly as everyone could put on at least a minimal layer for warmth to enjoy the show. Considering that this species was driven to near extinction barely 100 years ago, and has now recovered to pre-whaling numbers, this sighting today was a great testament to the ability for life to thrive if we give it a chance.