Polar and Falkland Islands specialist Conor Powell was wowed by the epic scale and pristine beauty of the White Continent
A zodiac boat in Fournier Bay, Antarctica
The last day of my expedition cruise was gorgeously clear. We spent the morning trailing a pod of humpback whales, intelligent creatures that liked nothing more than playing cat and mouse with our little Zodiac boats. As we sat and watched three whales dive in the distance, there was suddenly an almighty roar just behind us. A mother and calf had surfaced so close that I almost fell out of the boat with surprise! The mother quickly dived again but the three-ton calf bobbed around on the surface for a minute or so, allowing me to get this picture. It was an incredible experience.
One of my favourite stops was the ‘Iceberg Graveyard’. This is a huge, relatively shallow enclosed bay, not far from the Lemaire Channel. Ocean currents push huge icebergs into the bay, where they become beached, and form skyscrapers of ice. Each one is wonderfully unique and, rather like looking at clouds, the brain soon starts to recognise familiar shapes. I was also fascinated by the colours – I never knew there were so many shades of blue! While cruising through the graveyard we did have to be careful not to get too close. Not all the icebergs were beached, and we saw several roll over in dramatic fashion, as the underwater ice melted. Nothing in Antarctica is still for long!
You can’t talk about Antarctica without talking about penguins. They are the iconic inhabitants of the continent, and I saw plenty of gentoos, chinstraps and Adélies during my trip. However, my favourite was the rockhopper, a resident of the Falkland Islands (which is visited by some expedition cruises). Whereas the more common gentoos could be shy and retiring, the rockhoppers were fearless and full of character, which allowed me to get some excellent close-up shots. I quickly learned that if you got down on your stomach and waited, the inquisitive birds would soon wander over to check you out. You had to be careful not to startle them as you moved away though, otherwise you might end up being viciously pecked!
Finding a sense of scale
For me, this picture captures something of the immense scale of Antarctica. The expedition vessel in the foreground was my home for ten days, and felt quite large (despite having only 80 passengers). However, it was soon dwarfed by the mountains and icebergs of the White Continent. I lost count of the times that I would see what looked to be a huge peak, only to have the clouds clear and reveal it was only a foothill! This was probably the most lasting impression of my trip: everything was larger, whiter and more impressive than I had expected.