Diary of my journey to the Antarctic Peninsula

Together with some of the world’s best wildlife photographers and filmmakers, penguin expert Rodolfo Werner is on a mission to protect the vibrant waters around the Antarctic Peninsula. In this first dispatch from aboard the Hans Hansson, Rodolfo discovers the love of an elephant seal and walks in the footsteps of Antarctica’s intrepid explorers.

February 7th – Chilean Station Frei: I write from my cabin on the Hans Hansson. It’s a small ship, just 26 metres long. We are a crew of 15 people. Our team includes wildlife photographers and filmmakers, including Paul Nicklen and Cristina Mittermeier, and cutting edge drone operators and virtual reality specialists. Our mission is to highlight the need to protect my favourite place in the world – the Antarctic Peninsula.

My job? I’m the penguin and krill expert. Today I gave the crew a presentation about krill and the body responsible for the conservation of Antarctic waters and its marine life, CCAMLR. The crew were inspired and excited about their role in this global conservation project. Ultimately, we want to protect the Antarctic Peninsula as part of a network of marine protection areas around Antarctica.

February 8th – Penguin island: We made it to Penguin Island late during the day. Keith and Ian took amazing pictures of skuas feeding on dead penguins. The virtual reality (VR) video team, Ignacio and Frederic started testing their equipment. We were so excited to finally be in the Antarctic region that we stayed ashore until darkness forced us back to the ship.

Dr Rodolfo Werner on the Antarctic Peninsula.

February 9th – Gourdin Island, Antarctic sound: It’s foggy and rainy. We went ashore to scout for wildlife. I found one elephant seal weaner (a juvenile sea that is no longer being fed by its mother) and it proved to be very curious. It came all the way up to me and started smelling my boots and pants. It was the first time I’ve had such a close encounter with an elephant seal in Antarctica. When I left, it started following me back to the zodiac.

Jeff tried flying a small drone but the humidity was bad and the lenses were getting fogged. So instead Paul, Andy, Shane and Cristina went diving to film leopard seals. This is one of the best places to see Adélie penguins and leopards in the Antarctic Peninsula, but you have to be aware of potential leopard seals hunting for penguins. As the juvenile Adélie penguins get their adult feathers they begin entering the ocean and they become easy prey for the leopard seals.

Just as they finished, a group of Adélie penguins returned from the ocean and jumped onto an iceberg next to the zodiac. The dive team jumped back into the water and starting filming them. Shortly thereafter three leopard seals showed up and started catching penguins. This went for more than an hour after which everybody went back to the ship.

Now, the Hans Hansson is again rolling…time to lay down for a bit.

February 11thGourdin Island, Antarctic sound: 6am start. The fog has cleared but there is a big swell. The Hans Hansson is constantly rolling which is very uncomfortable.

Andy filmed me talking about the unusual increase in rain in the Antarctic Peninsula and its impact on penguin chicks. When their down feathers get wet, they lose their capacity for insulation and the chicks freeze and die.

Gentoo penguin snoozing. Penguin chicks are at risk of freezing if their down feathers get wet from the rain.

At one point, it started to snow and it was incredible seeing all the penguins raise their beaks to the sky to drink the falling snow.

We traveled during the rest of the afternoon until we reached Paulet Island. The view was amazing. We encountered large numbers of Adélie penguins on the pack ice. We dropped the anchor and stayed overnight constantly checking for drifting ice. This is a dangerous place to stay. Massive icebergs are constantly moving through the area and a collision with the ship can be fatal.

February 12th – Paulet Island:  Today we walked to Larsen hut, the heritage site of one of the world’s most remarkable survival stories.

The story begins in 1902. Larsen was captain of the Antarctic and the expedition aimed to explore the Antarctic Peninsula region. Nordenskjold and five other men were dropped off at Snow Hill Island to overwinter in a pre-fabricated wooden hut. The Antarctic left them and navigated north to the Falkland Islands where Larsen and the rest of the crew spent the winter. When summer approached, Larsen and 22 men navigated the Antarctic back to pick up Nordenskjold’s team. However, the heavy sea-ice prevented them from ever reaching them.

Larsen decided to drop three men in Hope Bay on the Antarctic continent to walk all the way to Snow Hill on a rescue mission and reach Nordenskjold. Paradoxically, they could not reach them because now there was not enough sea ice to cross from the continent to Snow Hill. This second team was forced to overwinter where they were.

Meanwhile, the Antarctic had been trapped in the sea ice. All the remaining 19 crew were forced to flee the ship before it was crushed by the sea-ice.

Larsen and his men walked to Paulet Island where they built a hut with stones, sails and seal skins. They killed 1,000 penguins to survive the winter. After winter, Andersson and the two men met Nordenskjold, who was walking towards Hope Bay with a companion. At first, they didn’t recognise each other; they were totally covered in black penguin oil. Meanwhile, Larsen walked with one of the sailors to Hope Bay where they found a note left by Andersson.

After that second winter, the vessel Uruguay came on a rescue mission. Amazingly, everybody went back safe except for one young sailor that died of a heart attack on Paulet Island.

Craig, Juliette and I visited the remains of Larsen hut on Paulet Island. We got an incredible view and one side of the hill was covered by nesting blue-eye shags.

In the afternoon, we stopped next to some huge tabular icebergs and Peter and Shane got into the water with the VR cameras.

Next, we are heading to the Gerlach Strait and the Le Maire Channel to film krill, humpback whales, orcas and penguins. Hopefully we’ll be allowed on board the krill fishing boats Antarctic Sea and Saga Sea.

February 14th – Trinity Island: We traveled south and set anchor at Trinity Island at 5am. During most of the traveling, we were exposed to a strong swell so the Hans Hansson was rolling badly, which made sleeping a challenge. We got up around 7am, but the weather was so bad, with 30-knot winds and snow, we could not do anything. This was good for the Hans Hansson crew, who were exhausted from the intense activities of previous days and the short nights. So, here we are rolling constantly and waiting to see what is next. Stay tuned.

Dr. Rodolfo Werner is a marine biologist and wildlife conservationist who has devoted his professional career to the study and conservation of the Patagonian Sea, the Southern Ocean, and Antarctica. He provides science and policy advice the
Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition and its Antarctic Ocean Alliance project.