Orne Harbor, Antarctica
Folks, we’re getting close to the end of this now-yearlong saga. Exactly one year ago yesterday, I embarked on the adventure of a lifetime when I set sail from Ushuaia, bound toward the southern polar regions to visit a continent that few are ever fortunate enough to visit. Over the next nine days, my cruise with Quark Expeditions would take me to exotic destinations all over the western coast of the Antarctic peninsula. Over the past year, I’ve been slowly writing about it through these series of trip reports, and now, this adventure reaches its last chapters—with my intention to complete the series by the one year anniversary of the end of the trip.
When we last left off on Thursday, we had finished up our third full day in Antarctica and departed Port Lockroy. We pick up at the start of our fourth and final full day around the 7th Continent, before we would be turning around to sail back across the Drake Passage and return to our port of origin in Argentina.
The previous evening and ended with a brilliant sunset after an incredible blue sky, sunny day. But as was constantly the case in Antarctica, the weather shifted quickly, and the morning that greeted us was gray and rather somber. This didn’t take away from the incredible landscape that surrounded us, but the peaks and ice pack admittedly didn’t glisten quite as brightly as they would under the sunshine.
This morning’s expedition found us in Orne Harbor, a small cove located a little north of our previous morning’s visit, Cuverville Island, as well as our first full day’s morning visit, Danco Island. Unlike those treks, however, this visit would not merely feature an island landing. It would be our third and final time setting foot on the actual Antarctic continent!
As with the other three mornings, our group drew the Zodiac cruise first for our Ocean Diamond departure, and after preparations we readied, we quickly set out from our lovely cruise ship in search of wildlife in the water. We saw a few seals and some waterfowl, but our attention was quickly drawn to a cluster of penguins gathered along the bank of a massive iceberg floating in the middle of the bay. And it would be this scene that would prove to amusingly hold our attention for much of the next near-hour.
I’ve written before that throughout each of our excursions, something uniquely memorable seemed to always unfold, providing a new and fresh experience different from the one before. Be it our first encounter with penguins at Danco, some very intimate encounters with humpback whales at Neko Harbor, the incredible overnight camping experience at Leith Cove, the sublime “iceberg graveyard” of Pléneau Bay, or more, every trip seemed to involve a unique, unforgettable highlight.
In the case of Orne Harbor, even though the highlight in question involved sights we had certainly seen before (Gentoo penguins), the way this particular observation unfolded left us tickled with entertainment and yet another manner of appreciating how quirky these adorable Antarctic tuxedo birds could be.
As you probably know, penguins are… pretty darn awkward and clumsy on land. Waddling along, as though constantly fighting the threat of off-balance, these birds are much less adept on terrain than they are in water, where they are sleek, elegant, fast-moving pocket torpedoes in the sea. Popping up onto land, however, is a pretty cool sight. From our view line several hundred feet away, we would see penguins simply appear out of the water, rocketing up into a nice little hop onto the ice, before a slightly more floppy series of hops got them high enough to avoid sliding back into the water.
Oh, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t miscalculations. Every once in a while, we’d see a penguin shoot up through the water, into the air, and positively face plant (beak plant?) into the ice, then comically slide back into the water, like splot being squeegeed off a windshield. Other times, they would almost stick the landing—making contact with their feet at least, instead of their heads, only to helplessly slide back in as gravity and minimal coefficient of friction conspired to betray their grip.
Then, there was also the matter of entering the water for those penguins who chose to do it voluntarily. We caught a hint of this on previous days from places like Cuverville Island. For a penguin, with limited jumping ability and apparently not the greatest apparent depth perception on land, diving into the water isn’t as simple as bustling over to the edge of the ice berg and hopping in. Instead, an entry always seems to involve a hesitant sidestep, almost crab-waddling over to the waterline, inching along like a novice skier nervously navigating a steeper-than-expected slope at an oblique angle to avoid sliding downhill to quickly. Apprehension always seems to seize the little bird right before the moment of no return, but their instincts usually commit them to contorting their bodies into the slightest of dives right before they actually reach the water.
Words and photos don’t really do this justice, though. Time and time again, we would watch this balance ballet play out, rooting for penguins to make a smooth entry back into the water, and laugh-groaning when they sometimes mistimed things.
One might thing that some form of penguin observation fatigue would kick in after a while, but once again, one would be wrong. Especially given the information relay by our expedition guide that seeing penguins gathered on the banks of icebergs was actually a relatively rare sighting, we remained giddy and excited over this adorably clumsy manner of penguin/water salutations.
We floated around this particular scene for at least 20 minutes, taking up probably half our total allotted cruise time. But we couldn’t help it! The penguins were so adorable, and it was just do entertaining to watch them struggle with their water exits and entries, when from an evolutionary standpoint, they should be quite adept at such transitions!
Ultimately, we did turn away to look for other sights. Unlike previous days, there were no whales to be found. Instead, we spotted more penguins enjoying their mornings cutting through the water or resting on the ice. One Gentoo deep in solitude seemed to evoke sympathy in particular, as it appeared to be completely alone and separated from any and all companions. Our espy of this guy waddling away over the ice couldn’t help but remind me of Lou Ferrigno’s Bruce Banner walking off into the highway distance in the finale of the 1970s Incredible Hulk series… complete with sad piano music.
We eventually turned our attentions coastward, toward the continent. We still had some time before our actual continental landing, and we spent it cruising alongside the rocky coast and observing the various wild bird life to be found there.
Here, again, we found penguins! Hundreds of them, clustered on the rocks and gathered at the water. Unlike the iceberg variety, these were not Gentoo penguins. Instead, they were Chinstraps, a species we hadn’t seen much of since our first Antarctic destination four days earlier at Deception Island. Like all penguins, taking advantage of the relatively warm summer season, these “Chinnies” often took to the shore to feed, diving into the water for krill and other nutrients to bring back to their young.
Unlike the Gentoos, the Chinstrap penguins seemed more sure-footed along the rocky coast. The less slipper nature of the surface probably helped a lot, and we witnessed better coordinated but less entertaining dives into the water.
High above, on rocky outcroppings, we also saw a variety of Antarctic seabirds roosting in elevated nests. Antarctic cormorants were prevalent, nursing their fuzzy chicks. We also caught glimpses of several different species of petrels, including the Southern giant petrel and Cape petrel. In one particular moment of witness to Mother Nature’s unforgiving reality, a swooping giant petrel dove from out of nowhere, grabbing an isolated cormorant chick and practically eviscerated it into halves in a rapid clutch before soaring away with a piece of food.
Eventually, it was time to go ashore, and that in turn brought about a bittersweet emotion. On this, our eight excursion and fourth full day (our first arrival at Deception Island was a half day “in Antarctica”), we were to set foot on the continent for the third and final time. Not only that, this would be our final landing period, as our afternoon destination would be a cruise only. So here, at Orne Harbor, we would savor our final time on true Antarctic land.
Naturally, there was an uphill hike. Every landing we had made, with the exception of the previous day’s Port Lockroy visit, had involved a trek up a snowy hillside, up to a gorgeous overview. And though previous landings had provided a variety of paths for us to take, I had always gone for the high road. No doubt I would aim for the same now!
There was just a slight complicating factor. Over the previous few days, I had caught a viral respiratory infection that turned out to have been circulating around the boat. I first felt symptoms during my overnight camping experience at Leith Cove, but I had chalked up those feelings to maybe being under-insulated while camping (even though some other campers had been so warm that they had slept in only their thermal underwear). By the following day, however, I was feeling fully under the weather, to the point where our dinner barbecue outdoors on the promenade decks of the Ocean Diamond, sailing back through the Lemaire Channel wasn’t really that enjoyable.
Sheer will and adrenaline had kept me going through our hikes afterward, and it once again pushed me up toward the overlook of Orne Harbor. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say that this was by far the most challenging uphill climb for me. Though the smoothness of the Zodiac cruise had enabled me to manage my comfort well enough, the burning snow hike winded me early and had me struggling up what was really not that difficult of an ascent. Looking back, I could tell that I was definitely having trouble when I counted how many photos I actually took going up—very little. That was the classic sign that I was in very sub-optimum shape!
The sights from the top were worth it, though, once I did make it. The craggy peaks and snowy slopes held an especially rugged feel here, and whereas many other continental peaks we had previously spotted seemed mostly whited out, the diversity in the geological texture imparted a more global feel. This felt like Antarctica and the Alps and Patagonia, all rolled into one!
Those of us at the top spent a decent amount of time there, trying to freeze (pun intended) our last moments on Antarctica itself in our minds. Realistically, for most (perhaps all) of us, this would be our only time ever visiting this sublime land. We endeavored to etch each and every last detail into our memory banks… to relish this blessing of an experience.
Off to the side, a few penguins (of course) kept us company. Most of us took selfies to catalog our final continental moments. But then, all too soon, it was time trudge downhill again.
I lingered and lagged as much as I was allowed. Years of photographing late nights at Disneyland had instilled a habit of “closing out” things—i.e. being the last person to leave. That moment of having a place all to myself is magical enough at the Magic Kingdom. But in this frozen kingdom of harsh, raw, unrefined nature? It was emotionally cleansing. A wash of the spirit and a catch of serenity—if only for that brief moment.
Reluctantly, we boarded the final Zodiacs back to our Quark home ship. Seeing our boat—though not a huge ocean liner, but still a pretty large vessel—dwarfed against the immensity of the Antarctic topography brought about another pang of clarity… a moment of understanding that human beings, for all of our greatness and achievements throughout history, are still but a blip in the grand chronology of this planet.
Lunch awaited us back at the ship, as did our afternoon and final excursion. But first, we also had a bit of fun insanity in which to partake or observe. This was something the expedition crew had been promising would happen at some point the past few days. Finally, on our fourth and final full day, we would be commencing the Polar Plunge!
But not until the next installment…
Architect. Photographer. Disney nerd. Haunt enthusiast. Travel bugged. Concert fiend. Asian.