Pléneau Bay, Antarctica
Welcome back to another edition of this surreal journey through a small part of Antarctica, the southernmost and most remote continent in the world. Earlier this week, we cruised through the Lemaire Channel, a striking and narrow body of water marked by towering, steep-rising, snow-capped peaks, restfully still waters, and bits and pieces of floating sea ice.
Our final activity of our second full day in Antarctica capped off a wildlife-filled day that began with an intimate series of whale-spotting encounters in Neko Harbor. Unlike our other excursions thus far, this would not be a landing + cruise. Instead, we would set out on our Zodiac rafts to skim along the calm waters of the bay, admiring the wildlife and the wild floating ice towers that congregated around this area. This was fair, given that we had participated in a group "event" as we cruised through the Lemaire. And any lingering disappointment over the lack of an afternoon landing was quickly erased once we got on the water and started motoring around.
Almost as soon as we touched the water, we immediately headed southward from the Ocean Diamond, toward what I think might have been Pléneau Island itself. There, we witnessed a sight that had been given away by its odor well before we had ever neared the land. Thousands of gentoo penguins stood clustered along the rocks and the shoreline, forming a massive colony that was even larger than any we had seen thusfar. They seemed to be littered across the rocks--black and white interruptions of an otherwise beige and grey geology, covered up by hazy, white snow a little higher up.
We cruised along the coast of the island for five or ten minutes, but since we weren't landing, there wasn't necessarily a significant amount of interest to just stay there and observe the silly birds. Instead, we headed out toward the middle of the bay, in hopes of spotting other wildlife. Fortune was with us, as our expedition guide overheard another calling out a seal sighting over the radio. Excited, we quickly gathered speed toward a different section of the bay.
We slowed engines as we approached the expected sight of the seals. The icebergs here were clustered more densely together, and navigating them required a little extra attention. Fortunately, after we wound our way past a few shielding bergs, we finally came a couple of seals lying on a flat patch of floating ice, taking in an afternoon nap and "sunning" themselves--as much as they could on this cloud day.
Multiple Zodiacs joined us as we cut our engines and just floated there, appreciating the intimacy with nature. Most of us snapped plenty of photos, happy to be so close to a species in its wild habitat. It didn't hurt that these seals seemed particularly adorable, at least with their lazy expressions and puppy eyes.
We would actually have a seal encounter a second time on this Pléneau Bay cruise, but the bulk of our hour on the water was spent chugging along, moving from massive floating ice to massive floating ice. As monumental as they looked, we also needed to make sure we stayed clear of the iceberg for safety reasons. Though icebergs may seem stable, they are constantly shifting and tilting as they float through the water. Occasionally, this can result in calving off a berg that effectively generates a tsunami that could overturn our boat. Keeping several heights away from the iceberg was essential to maintain a secure voyage. And in a place nicknamed the "Iceberg Cemetery," we wanted to make sure the only casualties of Pléneau would be the icebergs themselves--ultimately.
Fortunately, it did not take being up close and next to an iceberg to appreciate their scale and grandeur. The various geometries, jagged profiles, and carved patterns presented a series of mesmerizing and organic works of art by Mother Nature herself.
At times, we would silence the engine and just peacefully float through a field of smaller icebergs that posed much less of a threat. Hearing only the lapping water against ice and the cool whisper of the wind against the spartan mountaintops was sublime. These moments really reinforced the remoteness of our adventure. We were thousands of miles away from any city, and even settled, human-occupied outposts were few and far between. This was the wilderness--ragged and wild, and yet exquisite and heavenly at the same time. The delicacy of some of the ice textures mixed with the brute direction of the peaks surrounding us provided a wondrous juxtaposition. They represented the ever-unpredictable extremes of the world we had plunged ourselves into.
Pléneau Bay marked the southernmost point we would reach on our Quark Expedition journey: 65°06’S. From here, we would turn around and sail back up the Lemaire Channel while enjoying an outdoor barbecue on the deck of the Ocean Diamond. With delicious food, a party atmosphere, and such mammoth landscape literally enveloping us, it was hard to imagine a more impressive setting.
So concluded our second full day in Antarctica. By this point, we were past the halfway mark of our journey, though we still had two more full days and four more sites to go. By this time on my trip, I had fallen pretty solidly into the grips of a viral infection that had been spreading around the closed quarters of the cruise ship. I was by no means comfortable, and though the weather wasn't cold by Antarctica standards, I felt like I was full on experiencing a rocking cold.
And yet, in spite of that, the experience and the sights were so rousing and inspiring that they motivated me to power through and push aside the hacking coughs and rustling chills. This was a once-in-a-lifetime trip, and I would carry my determination to enjoy my time into full day three.
Architect. Photographer. Disney nerd. Haunt enthusiast. Travel bugged. Concert fiend. Asian.