Sixty-Four Degrees South

We had seen God in His splendors, heard the text that Nature renders. We had reached the naked soul of man.

-Ernest Shackleton

It feels like a lifetime ago that I was sweating in the midday sun on the grounds of the Karnak Temple Complex in Luxor, Egypt. In fact it was only four years ago, but the world, and my life, has changed so much in those four years that it’s hard to even think of myself as the same person who walked three determined laps around an ancient scarab statue. I’d been told that circling the scarab would bring good luck, and three rotations would grant me the ability to make one wish. I’m not a superstitious person in the least, but I am more than happy to participate in touristy rituals when they’re presented to me, so I circled the statue. Once, twice, three times. I wasn’t sure there was much point in making a wish. Even if I believed in the wish-granting power of the scarab (call me skeptical), I didn’t have much on my mind to ask for. I stared that the granite statue, searching for any outrageous request. When it finally came to me, it seemed obvious. There was one crazy thing I’d wanted for for years, that I had relegated to the realm of fantasy. It was the perfect wish. I squeezed my eyes shut and thought it.

A little less than four years later, I stood shivering on deck eight of the Sapphire Princess as she approached the entrance to Charlotte Bay, our first glimpse of the Antarctic mainland. It seemed like a strange time to be thinking about that day in Egypt. Yellow sand had been traded for blue ice bergs, and intense desert heat for temperatures that hovered below freezing. The sculptures at the bottom of the world were’t carved by human hands, but instead by the forces of nature. And yet, as a spectacular, blue ice berg floated passed the ship, I thought of the wish I’d made that afternoon at the scarab.

I wish to go to Antarctica.

And there I was, on a ship surrounded by Antarctic ice. Whether you want to attribute it to the mystical powers of the scarab, or to a mixture of wanting it really badly and having friends and family who encourage my passion for travel (I’ll stick with the latter), it had finally happened.

Icebergs bigger than my house guarded the entrance to Charlotte Bay, and I noticed that the ship had stopped moving forward, a sign that the captain might be reconsidering his plan to enter the bay. At least we still had an amazing view while he and the ship’s ice spotters determined the water’s navigability. My attention, which had been fixed on a couple of particularly striking bergs all morning, was suddenly drawn to a disturbance on the surface of the water. I zoomed my camera’s lens in on the distant ripples that had broken the surface, and within moments, a few large mouths protruded from sea.

There was a whole pod of humpback whales out there, and presently they were busy feeding on krill. Over and over again, the whales broke the surface with their giant mouths, scooping up a truck load of water before filtering it back out through their baleen. This process would leave them with a mouth full of krill, which is arguably the single most important organism in the Antarctic food chain.

The pod continued to put on their show. In addition to the feeding behavior, we observed fluking, pec slapping, and even a breach as a whale leapt out of the water and landed again with a massive splash. I was shocked and delighted at how active the whales were. This was my first time seeing humpbacks, and no other whale species I’ve seen before had been this active.

I was so enraptured by the whales that I barely cared when the captain made an announcement that there was too much ice in the water for us to enter Charlotte Bay. His plan was now to move further south and attempt to visit Wilhelmina Bay instead. The ship slowly began to move away, but I stayed on deck looking out for wildlife and interesting ice as we sailed through the Gerlache Strait.

It didn’t take long to reach Wilhelmina Bay, where I decided to try out something new and grabbed a spot up on the sports deck instead of my usual place on deck eight. It was more crowded on the upper decks, and once I found some space along a railing, I had to stick with it. We entered the bay, sailing between fast moving icebergs that looked as though they had been intentionally sculpted into fantastic shapes.  A light snow wafted around us as we floated through inky, black water dotted with chunks of floating ice.

Wilhelmina Bay is affectionately referred to as Whale-mina Bay because it is one of the best places in the Antarctic to spot whales.  During the whaling period of Antarctic exploration, whalers described such an abundance of whales that one could walk across an entire bay on the backs of humpbacks.  Of course like so many stories, the whaling industry hunted these gentle creatures to the brink of extinction before protections were placed on them starting the 1960’s.  Now the whales are starting to make a comeback. Notably, a group of somewhere around a thousand fin whales was recently observed near Coronation Bay, a sight that hasn’t been witnessed in decades. 

While there definitely weren’t thousands of whales in Wilhelmina Bay while we were there, we only had to wait a few seconds between seeing humpbacks surface.  Our sightings started with a sleeping giant, floating just beneath the water’s surface a stone’s throw from the ship. Then I began to see spouts erupting from the water, followed by the signature humps of the whales’ backs. They were very active, fluking their tails and pec slapping, which is when they splash their pectoral fins against the surface of the water.  I loved their striking countershading, and we learned that individual whales can be identified by the patterns of their tails.  Much like a human thumbprint, the patterning of white of the bottom of a humpback’s tail is unique to each individual.

I was so excited about all of the whales that I nearly forgot to look around at the awesome scenery that surrounded us.  The peaceful atmosphere of the bay was only broken by the spouts and splashes of the whales, and floating ice contrasted spectacularly with the eerily calm seawater. Low clouds hung over mountain tops, and I noticed once again that the landscape seemed unnaturally quiet, even though there was plenty of human commotion happening aboard the ship.

The best way I can think to describe the feeling I had in Wilhelmina Bay, is that it was as though the landscape had been put on mute and slowed to half speed. Us humans, and the whales were playing at regular speed and volume, ephemeral beings against an ancient landscape that seemed to be holding its breath.

All-too-soon, it was time to leave Wilhelmina Bay, but there was still more to see even as we sailed back toward the Gerlache Strait. We passed by several icebergs containing penguin hitchhikers.  Most of these were gentoos, but a few straggling chinstraps were mixed among them.  From a distance, the penguins of the Antarctic are easily identified by the colors and patterning of their faces.  Gentoos, for example, have distinctively bright red bills, while chinstraps are completely black and white with a signature black band across their chins.

Icebergs provide a relatively safe place for penguins to rest while they are out hunting.  They spend a lot of time porpoising through the water hunting krill, and the contrast between their grace in the water and their awkward waddle on the ice was downright hilarious.  These are birds that are particularly well adapted for swimming, and their power and grace is unmatched until they’re faced with the task of walking on a solid surface.

Eventually, I had to to tear myself away from penguin watching to eat some food, and warm up for a bit, but Vince and I went back outside as soon as I felt like I could tolerate the cold again. The landscape in the Gerlache Strait was more distant, but still beautiful, particularly a snowing mountain that was being illuminated by the warm, bright light of the sun, which had finally decided to make a brief appearance.

Keeping in line with the whale-y theme of the day, we got to see a spectacular display of humpback whales breaching.  Every five to ten seconds a whale would leap out of the water, landing with a massive splash. 

We were back on deck eight now, along with the birders we’d met several times by now. One of them announced that they’d spotted a pod of orcas through their scope, and I abandoned the humpbacks in search of the orcas. Try as I might, I could not seem to find them, but I snapped several pictures of the general area where they’d been spotted. Later when I looked through my photos, I managed to pinpoint the pod by their tall dorsal fins and distinctive white eye patches. They were simply too far away for my 400mm zoom lens so the photo is laughably terrible, but I am still very excited to have been in the vicinity of orcas (a first for me).

Shortly after the orca sighting, we arrived at the Neumayer Channel, a waterway in the shape of an inverted S. Once inside the channel, we couldn’t see the entrance or exit points due to its unique shape, so we seemed to be walled in by tall cliffs. The landscape in the channel looked as though it had been desaturated.  Jagged mountain peaks rose from the sea, shrouded in low-hanging clouds, and everything was in stark shades of black and white, save for the occasional blue ice that served as a reminder that we hadn’t in fact stepped into a black and white film.

A harsh wind was picking up and the temperature dropped dramatically. I had to resort to performing silly dances to stay warm, since I didn’t want to go inside and miss even a second of the beautiful scenery. The clouds that hugged the mountain tops were now moving fast in the wind, creating a dramatic effect.

The strange half-dusk of the Antarctic summer was settling over the landscape by the time the Sapphire Princess exited the channel. This would be the southern-most point of our voyage; we’d reached a latitude of 64 degrees and 58 minutes South. By then I was hungry, tired, and most importantly, shivering out of control. It seemed like a good time to grab some dinner and a hot beverage, but Vince and I still wanted to be outside even though the weather was taking a sharp turn for the worse. After dinner, we were the only two people willing the brave the hot tub in the face of a coming storm.  Eventually the wind became so strong that we retreated indoors, but it was definitely a rare experience to be outside in our bathing suits as an Antarctic storm overtook us.

I slept well that night after a long and eventful day out in the cold. We still had two more days to spend in Antarctic waters, and the frozen continent would not let us leave before giving us a taste of how unpredictable and inhospitable it can truly be. As I spent the night dreaming of splashing whales, I had no way of knowing how the next day was going pan out, but for now, I was utterly and completely happy.


  1. Love your detailed and wonderful descriptions. Pam and I were on the trip to South Africa a few years ago and have many good memories of you and your group. Thanks for sharing with such vivid stories that make your words come alive.

    1. Thanks Jerry! The South Africa trip is still one of my favorites, hopefully we will see you and Pam again on another Percussive Tour sometime!

  2. Thank you, Kaiti, for your brilliantly told continuation of the Antarctic tour.
    I saw a BBC documentary and wrote about the altruistic personalities of humpback whales in my blog, and they do extraordinary things to help animals and even humans in danger.


    1. I just read your post, what remarkable stories of wildlife. I think those kinds of stories are so important to spread because they can help us humans gain compassion for wildlife as well. If we can see that animals have rich inner lives, maybe that can inspire people to protect them.

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