Antarctica: Neko Harbour

Continuing our adventures on the 6th of March, our 4th day in Antarctica, we were to spend the afternoon in Neko Harbour. This was one of the most fabulous places, a truly magical experience, with some epic photos.

Our morning expedition had been Danco Island, full of amazing penguins and some impressive scenery. You can catch up on all the photos here.

Our afternoon standby call was supposed to be 3pm, and I was rather tired from another early morning out on deck trying to catch the perfect Antarctic sunrise (and not succeeding), and the morning expedition to Danco. With a couple of hours to go until our next expedition I head out on deck to check out the view as we were moving around to our new landing spot before contemplating a nap.

A stormy afternoon…..

It was looking a bit stormy, but as always the icebergs were impressive. The wind was blowing but we were cruising along taking in the scenery.

I did end up having a rest back in my cabin, as we rolled through the waves on our way to Neko Harbour. Di and I met up on deck around 2.30pm, feeling a bit better for a rest. The ship was still moving to our expedition site, as apparently ice was blocking the channel into Neko Harbour and the captain had to go the long way around! This meant our standby was extended until 4pm so more time to watch the scenery and warm up with some coffees.

Finally, we were inside Neko Harbour and off to the mudroom to gear up. Photo group was out first, so I bid farewell to mum and hoped to cross paths during our landing if our groups were both on land at the same time.

Zodiac cruising Neko….

Our photo group was again split into 2 zodiacs, and this afternoon I was with Simon. We were now well and truly used to the protocol of getting on and off the ship and into the zodiac. We were quickly out cruising with our gear out, ready for some amazing shots.

Half the expeditioners were going straight to a landing, while we would cruise for the first hour and then do our landing and hike. The expedition crew are always out first on the landing sites, marking the trails and setting up the landing site. As we cruised past we could see them all hiking up, marking our paths as the penguins waddled up their highways, crossing the hiking paths. A very unique view, and only in Antarctica!

The penguins complete disregard for the brightly coloured humans never ceased to fascinate me. They would just go about their penguin business while we moved amongst them.

Porpoising penguins….

As the Ocean Endeavour sat anchored off in the distance, our zodiac voted for a little penguin action. A request had been put in to find some porpoising penguins, to see if we could capture some shots of them in action. Within a few minutes of being out on the water, sure enough some Gentoo penguins came zipping past, so off we went trying to capture them in action.

Yes these are the same fluffy creatures that waddle slowly on land! In the water they are sleek and fast. Not only did we have one Gentoo showing off, we had 2! They were amazing to watch but so fast and hard to capture. I was pretty pleased with these though…

Neko Harbour (64°50′S 62°33′W) is an inlet of the Antarctic Peninsula, situated on the west coast of Graham Land. Neko Harbour was discovered by Belgian explorer Adrien de Gerlache during the early 20th century. It was named for a Scottish whaling boat, the Neko, which operated in the area between 1911 and 1924

Neko Harbour is surrounded by glaciers so we had the perfect backdrop of mountains with glaciers and a bay full of icebergs to cruise around.

Glaciers and icebergs…..

We were sticking close to our zodiac of fellow photographers and all cruising slowly through the icy water, taking in the sights.

Spy hopped by a Minke!

We had word that Minke whales had been spotted nearby by the CNN media zodiac. Our photo zodiacs went out to see if we could locate them, and it didn’t take long before we were indeed located by a Minke. Here started one of the most amazing experiences…….

We could hear the the whale as we were drifting amongst the ice and knew she was close. Then up she came to check out the zodiac with the fellow photographers, right between our 2 zodiacs. Yes that is a Minke whale saying hello!

We were all totally in awe. ‘Is this really happening’ was what was coming out of everyone’s mouth, while we frantically checked our cameras and video to see if we were capturing what we were seeing. Of course the group in the other zodiac mostly had their long lenses on, and were struggling to get far enough away to get clear shots of the whale within centimetres of them. At 3 metres away we had the perfect view of both the whale and the look on their faces as she kept coming up and down, spy-hopping them.

Yep this was really happening! She was more than happy to come up and say hello a few times, giving the zodiac a good look. There was the question of what happens if she goes under the zodiac and tips us. We all get wet was the answer! No one was worried though we were all in awe of this amazing creature just hanging out with us. Even our photo guides said this does not normally happen and we were extremely privledged.

Bruno, the guide on the other photo boat had a go pro in the water right next to the Minke as she was continuing to hang out with us, she certainly wasn’t shy!

After about 4 mintues she decided to swim off (and apparently go and investigate one of the media boats). We were all madly checking our camera screens and thumbing through our shots and video trying to work out if we got it. All meanwhile grinning like Cheshire cats. How lucky were we to get that experience. Even if we saw nothing for the rest of the trip, it was going to be hard to be disappointed.

Neko Harbour magic hour

We definitely weren’t going to be disappointed though, as the next 2 hours were a different kind of magical. The light had started to change and oh my goodness the harbour was beautiful!

The colour of the water and the ice dotted amongst the calm lagoon in the soft afternoon light, made for a great time with the camera! It was so peaceful and beautiful.

As we circled around the landing site, we could see our fellow expeditioners who were currently on land, circling up the hiking trail to take in the views over the harbour.

Glaciers, tsunamis and penguins

Neko Harbour is known for the surrounding glaciers that regularly ‘calve’. The expedition staff had told us that every time they visited the site the glaciers calved at least once. The calvings could cause tsunamis. Sometimes the calvings are small other times, not so much. As part of the pre-landing briefing for this expedition we were told that at all times we must remain ‘above the tsunami line’! I was definitely happy to stay well away from tsunamis at all times.

The beautiful blue of the glacier was often punctuated by the crashing sound of a calving. We heard at least 2 while we were out cruising, thankfully only small ones.

Gentoo penguins were again aplenty on the rocky outcrops. Looking very much the Antarctic postcard with penguins waddling amongst the white snow and blue glaciers.

Setting foot on the Antarctic mainland…

We had cruised for over 80 minutes, taking in the beauty of Neko Harbour from the water. It was now time for our landing. This was to be the first time we’d set foot on the Antarctic mainland during this trip. Our landings to date had been on islands off the mainland continent. While I didn’t particularly care about this fact, it was a big deal for some guests and many gave up the option of kayaking to set foot on the continent.

Due to the tsunami ‘issue’ the landing camp was set up a little higher than normal and we had to quickly make our way from the zodiacs up to higher ground before setting our gear up. Just as we were getting out of the zodiac there was another almighty crash and a few scurrying people, but only some gentle waves followed.

In short order we were off to watch the many Gentoo penguins waddling along their highways.

When you are a penguin you can just happily sleep in some snow, it would appear! Or at least rest before continuing your waddle up the highway.

Antarctic Skuas

The Antarctic Skuas were plentiful at Neko Harbour. They were hanging out hoping to get a penguin feast. While they look fairly innocuous on land, they were very graceful birds in the air.

This guys was circling in front of the glacier, trying to find some baby penguins that were isolated or in trouble.

The Skuas did seem to leave the adult penguins alone, they were not an easy target like a baby penguin.

Penguin parade

Around the landing site base camp there were plenty of penguins to observe, again all Gentoo penguins today. But not complaining as Gentoos are rather cute. The expedition staff had marked out a trail up the steep slope, cutting across penguin highways that would give us views of the harbour.

I headed off up the trail, watching this little guy waddle off. It was like he was saying ‘I’m done with today, off I go!’

Expedition staff man the marked trails to make sure no one wanders off, they also stand at all penguin highway crossings, acting as a ‘crossing guard’. Penguins always get right of way. There were several penguin crossings on today’s trail, and they are never in a hurry, so I spent a considerable amount of time waiting for a penguin to amble past. Often one would pass and you’d have to wait for the next and the one after, waiting for a gap in traffic. A very unique experience.

Penguins just slip-sliding away down the hill and waddling themselves back up! They are definitely full of character.

Up the hill we go….

The trail marked out to the viewing spot was approximately 650-700m long (1.4km return) as it wound it’s way up the snow and ice. As we ascended the views got better and better, and the penguins were plentiful. Unfortunately, it was at times steep and slippery, not as easy to navigate when you aren’t a penguin!

We passed plenty of penguin rookeries and some rather cute bigger babies hanging out with their parents.

From up the hill we could experience the soft afternoon light as the sun was starting to lower in the sky against the bright blue of the glacier, which had loudly calved off another 2 times as we were hiking up. I’d later found out Di had been down on the shore line for one of them and had to make a dash back up above the tsunami line.

On top of the world…

The top viewing spot was 127m elevation from the base camp, a reasonable hike up in a short distance, but definitely the feeling of being on top of the world, from the end of the earth.

As we trudged up the views got better and better, definitely worth the effort to get here, both physical and metaphorical…..

With some of my fellow photographers we were taking in the breathtaking surroundings and making sure we got some photos of ourselves in this very special spot.

It was now 6.30pm and the sun was low in the sky, and the water and snow was all sorts of magical. So very few people ever get to experience this place and on such a glorious day. A very special experience!

At this point the allocated time for the expedition had well and truly expired, but we could hear all the staff on the radios confirming that no one was keen on going back and giving up this light and these views, so the crew had okayed an extension of time and we could stay put a little bit longer……

The penguins didn’t disagree that this is a rather special spot!

Golden light and magnificent mountains…..

I was in one of the last groups at the top viewing spot, and while we had been granted extra time we did eventually (reluctantly) have to make our way down to the landing site. The light was utterly perfect, so a slow wander (or in some cases slide) down the hill was in order while taking in the changing colours on the surrounding mountains.

My penguin friends were still making good use of their highways, and again on the way down I had a bit of time waiting for them to cross our trail.

Penguin vs Skua

Remember those pretty but pesky skua’s? Well on the way back down I spotted a group feasting on penguin. Part of the Antarctic circle of life.

The larger moulting penguins were tucking in for the night, telling us, like the expedition staff, that it was almost time to head back for the night.

Farewell Neko Harbour

It was hard to leave this place. Yes I was a bit cold and getting a little hungry, and didn’t fancy sleeping in the snow, but what an amazing spot and amazing light. Another glacier calved just as I was heading back to the zodiac but no tsunami to worry about so farewell it was. Ready for the cruise back to the ship, watching the sun drift down below those mountains.

The dinner time had been repeatedly been pushed back due to everyone being firmly planted in Neko Harbour. Finally at 7.15pm I was on my way back to the Ocean Endeavour, definitely having made the best of an amazing afternoon.

Dinner had been pushed back to almost 8pm, so we dined watching the sunset. Everyone having had an amazing afternoon. That Minke whale, the amazing views, the light, the penguins, so much to talk about and the dining room was buzzing with excitement and exhilaration.

Our nightly briefing was rather late that night. No one complained though as it had been a truly magical day and we were all ready to hear about what was to come the next day.

I don’t think many of the photographers got to bed early that night, we had too many photos and videos to look through. Who had good shots of the Minke whale, who had fabulous photos over Neko Harbour. There were plenty of us in the lounges sharing photos and videos and wondering how we could top today.

I eventually called it a night and managed to get an internet connection to work long enough to send a quick message to Anto and the kids, rather late at night for me and while the kids were at school. I was now almost halfway through the trip and missing them lots but very grateful for all that I was getting to experience.

Up next….

Expedition day 3 was a spicy one. Orne Harbour was our next adventure and let’s just say that we got the full Antarctic experience. Seals, finally some Chinstrap penguins and an exhilarting zodiac ride in 50 knot winds. It was a morning alright!

Leave a Reply