The trip was planned in such a way that we reached our southernmost latitude (65°10’S, 64°07’W) on Christmas Day. After breakfast most passengers went on deck to watch as we passed through the narrow Lemaire Channel. We set off in Zodiacs to explore the Penola Strait. We saw a hauled-out Weddel Seal, cruised around the numerous icebergs, including a massive tabular one, observed the many penguins enjoying their swims, came close to languorous Crabeater Seals and to top it all off one Zodiac heard the eerie sounds of Humpback Whales. Why these could be heard above the surface is unknown, perhaps the sound was transmitted through the zodiac’s floor or through the walls of the gigantic, glacial amphitheatre. Unfortunately, by the time my Zodiac arrived it had ceased. Each Zodiac had a different experience and lunch was as noisy as a rookery as each table shared their sightings.
After donning our many layers once more, we headed for Petermann Island. Here we saw nesting Adélie and Gentoo penguins and Blue-eyed Shags. It was our first sighting of newly-hatched chicks (quite apt it being Christmas Day). The chick plunges its beak and indeed most of its head down its parent’s throat and the adult duly obliges by regurgitating. It was fun to watch the chicks jostling with its sibling for better position and shrieking at their parents to get their attention. The penguin chicks were well sheltered under the brood fold of their parent. So well sheltered that it is hard to understand how they were not squashed or suffocated!
We returned to the ship and began to make our way northward along the Lemaire Channel. To our delight it began to snow – particularly that of myself and two young Aussie girls. When there was sufficient snow we initiated a snow fight on the foredeck and built a snow whale. Perhaps it was a portent because no sooner had we finished than the call came - `Orcas at 11 o´clock´. We were soon joined on deck by the majority of the other passengers. The expedition staff always alerted everyone to sightings using the P.A. system. This was great as no-one missed anything. For the next few hours, dinner and conversations were regularly interrupted as numerous pods of Orcas appeared close-by in quick succession.
The staff’s reaction to the sightings amused me. Despite being veterans of polar expeditions they were not jaded by their experience. You could hear the excitement in Chris’ voice as he announced yet another sighting. Indeed, the staff were to the forefront of the throng rushing out to witness each event. The night’s entertainment reached its peak when it culminated in a hunt. A pod of more than a dozen Orcas were pursuing a Fin Whale. It was magnificent to watch and the Captain even turned the ship around to prolong our enjoyment of the spectacle. At one point two Orcas rose vertically out of the water with the Fin Whale pinned between them. If only I had a camera with a telephoto lens – my mobile while good wasn’t up for the task. There were several seabirds circling but they were ultimately to be disappointed. There was no kill so perhaps the mature bulls were just imparting their hunting techniques to the calves. For the remainder of the night, and well into the early hours, we calmed down in the bar. I can think of no fitting superlative which describes this day. Quite simply, despite having no friends or family around, it was my best Christmas Day ever. Surely nothing could surpass this...