Antarctica: Chiriguano Bay

After our first morning’s expedition to Cuverville Island everyone on the ship was pumped for our afternoon expidition – Chiriguano Bay. Chiriguano Bay (64°28′S 62°31′W)  is in the Palmer Archipelago. The bay was surveyed and named “Bahia Chiriguano” by the Argentine Antarctic Expedition, 1948–49, after the Argentine tugboat Chiriguano which took part in the survey.

Most of our expeditions during our voyage were in and around the Anvers Island area, as this is where the WWF were conducting their whale research.

Standby for whales….

The ship had repositioned during lunch and our standby call for the afternoon expedition was 2pm. My photo group was first out, as usual, but Di’s mudroom group was also one of the first out. While we were waiting to gear up and the zodiacs were being readied we headed out on deck to check out our new location.

The dramatic landscape did not disappoint.

Humpback spotting…

We were out just after 2pm and our photo zodiacs immediately spotted some humpback whales, so we went off to investigate while there were not many other zodiacs in the water.

The humpback was happy to play with us, challenging us to get some photos of it surfacing. In the still afternoon it was easy to hear their call.

The lack of wind made for a beautiful and calm zodiac cruise. It was hard to know which camera to be pointing where – the beautiful snow covered mountains and glaciers, or the whale playing with our zodiac. There was definitely a lot juggling of cameras!

The kayakers were also in the water and were getting some up close time with the whales.

Amazing ice….

Once we’d had plenty of time with our whale we left her to go play with other zodiacs and headed out further into the bay in search of other widlife and some interesting ice. The pieces of ice floating around were often interesting shapes and the textures in the glaciers were beautiful.

Even after a few days in Antarctica I hadn’t yet gotten used to the amazing blue colour of the ice and sheer vastness of the landscape.

In search of seals…..

On the shot list for the day was a request for seals. We’d all seen Antarctic fur seals in the morning expedition but we’d been assured there were likely to be plenty of other seals on the ice within Chiriguano Bay. Sure enough we found our first Weddell Seal on an ice float pretty quickly.

Weddell seals are large, with both males and females at around 3m long and 400 to 500kg. They quickly became my favourite seal, with their cute puppy like faces and big eyes. Weddell seals main predators are killer whales and leopard seals, but this one was not the least bit worried about the zodiac of photographers cruising around observing him.

Who can resist that cute face! Of course we had to be at least 5 metres away at all times and as cute as these guys look I was not going to be giving one a pat.

Yes that is our Weddell seal just laying in middle of the ice out in the beautiful bay. What a view for your sunny afternoon nap!

….. and then a leopard seal!

We left our cute Weddell friend and pretty quickly found a Leopard seal on another piece of ice nearby. With no other zodiac there yet we took the opportunity to get some photos of sleeping Leopard seal.

We then spotted a leopard seal in the water swimming near our zodiac, so alternated between watching it cruising around, and keeping an eye on our sunbathing friend on a nearby ice float.

Leopard seals (in my opinion) are way less cute than Weddell seals, but still pretty big at 2.8 to 3 and 320 to 370kg. They have some pretty ferocious teeth on them though and their only natural predator is the Killer whale. Leopard seals hunt Weddell seals.

They are also solitary animals so seeing 2 in close proximity was lucky.

With 2 zodiacs for the photography groups we stuck close to each other but took it in turns to shoot the same animals. By now we were all used to the protocol of one side of the zodiac taking a knee to shoot low and the other side standing. Our guides would then reposition the zodiac around the animals so we could swap position and angles.

This Leopard seal likely had an infection, leading to the white marks around his eyes and nose. Our photo guides (and the crew in general) were amazingly knowledgeable about the animals and birds and could answer nearly all our questions off-hand.

The Leopard seals have a very reptilian face but still acted a bit like a cat sunbaking in a window, just hanging out watching us cruise around.

The patterns on their fur are very pretty up close. It was interesting seeing how their fur looks so soft and glossy out of the water and then entirely different once they are wet.

There were no shortage of seals around. As you can see in the above photo here is one we were shooting and another zodiac in the background has another seal on a separate ice shelf in front of them. They would seemingly find their own patch of ice for the day and lay around while these strange humans in bright coloured jackets took photos of them!

Entirely unfussed by our presence the seals would just rotate around in the sun, warming themselves up like a lazy cat and giving us plenty of great options for shots from different angles.

When our photo guides had told us in our first 2 days of lectures we’d get plenty of opportunities for amazing seal and penguin photos, I was just hoping for a couple of good close ups but sure enough we had so many great photo opportunities, and were challenged to think about our lighting and angles to get some interesting shots.

Seals in action….

A little video of a couple of the seals we saw today. They really do hang out on those ice shelves sunbaking.

Zodiac breakdown and mid-ocean transfers…..

While we were cruising between patches of ice taking endless photos of seals the zodiac my group was on ended up with a broken tiller arm. This meant we weren’t able to steer well or move at any speed. Too distracted by the seals we hadn’t worried. Everyone voted that we weren’t going back in just yet.
The decision was made that we’d tie our zodiac (captained by Andrew) to the other photo group’s zodiac (captained by Simon). A few carabiners and some rope and we were cruising together for a bit.

The kayakers were out playing with whales and we slowly cruised around the bay getting some dramatic landscape shots.

It was decided the 2 zodiacs tied together wasn’t that great. Other groups had now started heading back to the ship so a spare zodiac was sent out to us. We tied our zodiac to the replacement, and all had to get ourselves and all our camera gear over to the new one, in the middle of a freezing ocean. No one got wet and no camera gear was harmed! The 2 zodiac drivers did have to do a simultaneous switch so neither of the zodiac was unmanned, which caused some hilarity but it was all rather painless. I did think it was lucky Di wasn’t in my broken zodiac as she probably wouldn’t have appreciated the mid-ocean switch!

Late afternoon light…..

With it now well after 4pm we were getting some amazing light out in the bay and no one wanted to go back to that ship! It was cold but much more pleasant than the mornings temperatures so we decided to stay out until the very last call and were rewarded with more seals.

We could see the zodiacs being put back on the hook and loaded onto the Ocean Endeavour as groups returned from their zodiac cruise.

Our replacement zodiac came with a giant ice ball. The zodiac pilots collect the clean ice that gets used for drinks. Only in Antarctica!

Our last Leopard seal of the day was enjoying her late afternoon sunshine. Oblivious to the attention. Meanwhile we were all cursing that the light was now this good and we were on our very last bit of time.

Andrew and Simon would always try and keep us out until the last minute if we were happy. Not a single person wanted to go back when it looked this good!

Zodiac cruising….

A little video from our cruise back to the ship. Oh it is so beautiful!

Farewell Chiriguano Bay….

At 4.45pm we reluctantly headed back to the ship. An amazing afternoon in Antarctica. All a little cold but noone caring one bit. Our photo groups were first out and last back (along with the kayakers, who had by all accounts had the best paddle ever). Well over 2.5 hours out on that zodiac and I would have sworn it was 15 minutes.

Once I warmed up with coffee it was up to the lounge to download the photos and grab a drink and listen to the daily recap and what was in store for the next day.

Everyone was buzzing from the amazing day we’d had. Cuverville Island in the morning and then Chiriguano Bay in the afternoon. Penguins, whales, seals and amazing landscapes. It was going to be hard to beat.

I did have to duck out on the back deck and take in those last views as we headed off for our next spot. Farewell Chiriguano Bay, you were spectacular!

Up next….

Our fourth day in Antarctica and second expedition day was a corker. Danco Island was our first stop, complete with more Gentoo penguins you could poke a stick (or camera lens) at and the cutest penguin antics ever! Not to be out done by another spectacular Antarctic landscape.

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