Antarctica: Wilhelmina Bay

After our wild and adventurous morning in Orne Harbour, our third expedition day continued to be full of adventure. Our afternoon expedition location was Wilhelmina Bay.

Wilhelmina Bay is a bay 24 km wide along the west coast of Graham Land, on the Antarctic Peninsula. It spans between the Reclus Peninsula to the northeast and Cape Anna to the southwest. It was discovered by the Belgian Antarctic Expedition of 1897–99 led by Adrien de Gerlache. Wilhelmina Bay was named after a young Dutch Queen,and the bay is known for it’s sheer ice cliffs and is sheltered, usually enabling Zodiac cruises between the islands and icebergs. The waters of Wilhelmina Bay are filled with krill which makes it an excellent place to spot whales. With the WWF whale researchers on board we were planning an afternoon of whale spotting.

After the crazy winds of the morning, our afternoon excursion was changed to be a ship cruise through the Bay, as it was going to be a bit rough for a zodiac cruise or landing. We were in luck though, once we arrived in Wilhelmina Bay it was much calmer than expected.

The enormous icebergs and the hazy skies were serene and mesmerising!

With the improved weather a zodiac cruise was back on the program! Normally the photo groups are out first, but there were several mudroom groups that didn’t get out in the morning due to the poor weather. This meant they were out first (including Di’s mudroom group) and our photo group got to hang on the ship for a later mudroom call.

Watching the zodiac dance…..

This did give us the chance to watch the zodiacs being dropped down and loaded one by one. Something our group doesn’t normally get to see as we are in the first group out.

It was a fascinating process watching them lower each zodiac and transfer crew members around, ready to head to the side gates and fill them with expeditioners.

It was grey and snowing, and the zodiacs with their crew in red jackets stood out very well against the matte skies. It was a well practiced and very efficient process, as they quickly lowered each zodiac and moved the waiting crew between them.

Filled with passengers, each zodiac then departed the ship in pairs, off to explore Wilhelmina Bay.

Cruising the snow and icebergs…..

After watching the loading protocol for half an hour, it was time to go gear up and head to the mudroom for our standby. By 3.30pm we were out on the water, in the cloudy and wet, ready to hopefully see some whales.

I was again in a zodiac with Bruno for the afternoon expedition, and while the conditions weren’t ideal, they were much improved on the horrid winds of the morning. As we buddied up with the other zodiac of photo group students (being driven by Simon), we decided to go look for some whales. We heard over the radios that were plenty in the area.

Wilhelmina Bay was known for it’s icebergs and glacial cliffs and there were indeed some magnificent and enormous icebergs around.

It was snowy and cold but there was plenty of amazing ice textures to get our cameras working, while we located some whales.

Humpbacks ahoy….

Given the number of whales in the area, it was pretty easy to find some humpbacks and soon we had a mother and calf hanging out on the surface, wanting to see what we were up to.

The mum and calf were spending plenty of time just sitting on the surface and showing us their dorsal fins, and slowly cruising around our zodiacs. They did not seem keen on breaching, despite us all waiting patiently with our cameras. It was again amazing to be so close to such giant creatures, who were fascinated by our presence and not the least bit scared of us.

There were plenty of zodiacs just drifting and watching whales. Wilhelmina Bay was living up to it’s reputation as a whale hot-spot as there were quite a large number, meaning many zodiacs had their own private whale viewing!

Finally our whale decided to put her nose up and say hello, then just as quickly, head back under again.

It was continuing to snow and be grey and misty, but it was much more pleasant photography conditions than the morning, and easier to calmly float in the zodiac, watching the whales.

It was like the mum and calf knew what we wanted them to do, and they were stubbornly refusing! Luckily we had plenty of patience. They eventually both stuck their heads up again, but we weren’t going to get a breach or a tail fluke shot from these two…..

Whale tagging with WWF….

We decided to leave our mummy whale and her calf to cruise off to another zodiac and head off to the see what the nearby zodiac with WWF crew were up to.

We were lucky enough to get to watch the WWF crew undertake some whale tagging. While we had to keep a reasonable distance (thank you long lenses) it was fascinating to see the whole thing live. We were getting nightly updates on the whale research the WWF were undertaking during the cruise, and they had managed to tag and follow a number of whales throughout the past few days.

We got to see a successful tagging. We were assured that it doesn’t hurt the whales, and the whale in question, didn’t even seem fussed enough to swim off. Our zodiac decided we might cruise off, however, to see if we could find some seals or penguins in the area as it was going to soon be time to head back to the ship.

Weddell wonderland…

We quickly found not one, but two, very cute Weddell seals hanging out on some ice. Both our photo group zodiacs had a slow cruise around them to get a chance to get some great close up shots.

Weddell seals are my favourite seals, with their extremely cute puppy-like faces. These two were more than happy to pose for us. Well, one of them was, the other was mostly just sleeping, completely unfazed.

The markings on their fur look beautiful against the ice, and their big black eyes and cute little faces are hard to resist. Even if you definitely wouldn’t want to actually pat one!

Apparently it’s hard work being a seal, they are very much like cats in the sun…… check out what is happening then back to sleep.

We had a chance to cruise around the ice float and get our seals from different directions. Giving everyone a chance to be in the front down low or standing and up higher, for different angles.

Ice magic…

Our time out on the water was almost up but despite the overscast conditions and constant snow flurries, we saw some amazing scenery. The scale of the icebergs and colours and textures of the ice was amazing.

The WWF were still tagging as we were being called back in, but Wilhelmina Bay had been fascinating, and again very different to each of the other expeditions, to date.

From those giant icebergs, many stories tall, to the tiny little bits of ice floating in the sea, we’d seen plenty of fabulous scenery yet again.

The Polar Plunge….

We were being hurried back onto the ship as it was time for the much anticipated ‘Polar Plunge’. Why stay on a warm ship, drinking afternoon cocktails, when you can strip to your swimmers and jump in water that’s below zero? Well at least half the ship thought they’d take the plunge.

I am not a fan of cold water so wasn’t planning on plunging, but almost got talked into it by many new friends. Di had originally suggested she might plunge, so I headed off to see if she was actually going to go through with it. Apparently, she was not! The photo group plungers were then being called down to the side gates so I decided I’d stay clothed and go and take some shots of their heroics.

There were a variety of styles of plunging, from those who jumped straight in, those who gently lowered and some who did crazy poses.

It was fun watching all the different attempts and yes it was cold. Apparently the water temperature was minus 1 (that is without the windchill). The plungers were quickly dragged out and greeted with a bathrobe and a shot of vodka handed out by a giant penguin (or crew dressed as penguins at least!). If I had of known that I might have been convinced 🙂

More than half the ship ended up plunging, a might fine effort! I’ll just have to go back to Antarctica so I can give it a go next time. I struggle with getting in a cold pool, so I might have to work up to it, but definitely an experience to remember according to all those who plunged.

The end up of another amazing day…..

The half the ship who had plunged were now frozen to death and mostly drunk from all the vodka, so the nights BBQ dinner was certainly an interesting experience! There was of course plenty of food and chatting about our crazy day and amazing scenery and animal encounters.

We also had our nightly briefing, which included plenty of facts about La Niña, the size of Antarctic mountains – the highest is over 4km tall (and no we hadn’t seen that). We did however see the 600m high peaks in Neko Harbour the previous day, and had trudged up a whole 174m of them! We also got some facts about the crazy winds in Antarctica. The morning in Orne Harbour had shown us how Antarctic Antarctica can feel, and apparently you can indeed ‘see’ wind when it’s fast enough. The 70 knot winds of the morning gave us a good dose of that. You could definitely see the wind coming. Crazy!

We had one day of expeditions left and everyone was excited to hear what was in store for our final outings. Paradise Bay and Danco Island were to be our next two stops and plenty more wildlife was in store. Every single expedition had been unique and day 4 was going to be no different.

Up next….

Paradise Bay was our morning adventure and it was indeed paradise. A glorious sunrise, glassy water, beautiful mountains and gorgeous penguins. Antarctica just kept on delivering!

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