Antarctic

It's hard to find the right way to share a personal experience that only the privilege of a comfortable life can bring. But when the passengers, self included, stepped aboard the MV Sylvia Earle earlier this year for an adventure to Antarctica, we pledged to do what we could to raise awareness of the breathtaking majesty and perilous circumstances affecting the continent. My way is to share some images and thoughts, most stark among which is the statistic that the average temperature in the Antarctic Peninsula has risen nearly 3 degrees centigrade since I was twelve years old.

Breathless Dawn

First light touches our vessel as it noses through the brash ice between Adelaide Island and continental Antarctica. My first reaction is one of speechless wonder at the majesty and seemingly timeless beauty of the place. However, time is a deceptive commodity.

Gerlache Orcas

Type B2 Killer Whales feed mainly on penguins and are often seen in the waters off the West Coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. How strange to see seals relaxed and swimming close by. Discoloured by diatoms on their skin, these dolphins (rather than whales) are apex predators and although adaptable and smart, are not immune to environmental impacts.

dawn breaks over the Antarctic Peninsula
dawn breaks over the Antarctic Peninsula
Gerlache Orcas
Gerlache Orcas
Hansen Island, Gunnel Channel
Hansen Island, Gunnel Channel
Neumann Peak, Hansen Island

This imposing profile guards the entrance to the rarely navigated Gunnel Channel, north of the Gullet. Our fortune is to make the passage on our way to unlock some of the treasures of the region.

Adélie Penguin at Horseshoe Island

Reducing sea ice is driving the resident populations of Adélie Penguins south. Their primary food is krill, which relies on diminishing ice cover for over-wintering habitat. Gentoo penguins are displacing them, able to survive on a greater variety of food sources.

Glaciation at Prospect Point

2023 has been a bad year for snow and glacier melt with fifteen to twenty percent more melt time than normal.

Gentoo in moult
Gentoo in moult
Catastrophic moult - Gentoo Penguin

This breeding season was delayed by storms. Many adults and chicks were still in moult at the time of our expedition. Significant numbers of young birds will not survive the onset of winter because their plumage will not be water-tight in time. Climate change is driving increased storm activity especially around the western seaboard of the peninsula.

Weddell Seal

Weddell seals rely on sea ice for their pupping. During this period they are a main prey species for Orca. Reduced extent and duration of sea ice is driving them ashore to give birth, and this affects the hunting success of Orca.

Chinstrap Penguin

Population decline of this species is now up to 70 percent in recent decades due to multiple factors associated with climate change and fishing.

Weddell Seal
Weddell Seal
Chinstrap Penguin
Chinstrap Penguin
Humpback whale fluke
Humpback whale fluke
Humpback Whale in Recess Cove

Although a conservation success story since the end of commercial whaling, the return of the humpback whale is ultimately dependent on food availability. Their main prey species is krill. Declining sea ice and commercial fishing threaten the entire food cycle.

Black-browed albatross

Overfishing in the antarctic is a chronic problem. Currently, long-line fishing of Antarctic Toothfish is driving this long lived and slow to reproduce fish species to extinction. Many seabirds, particularly albatrosses, are suffering high mortality as a bycatch from this wanton exploitation.

Southern Rockhopper Penguin

The population of rockhopper penguins has declined 25% in thirty years as a result of environmental changes and reduction in availability of food species.

Black browed albatross
Black browed albatross
Southern Rockhopper Penguin
Southern Rockhopper Penguin
King Penguins Gold Harbour
King Penguins Gold Harbour
King Penguins - a real success story

Since the end of commercial 'harvesting' in 1969, the population of King Penguins has increased. There are now in excess of two million pairs, many on South Georgia in places like this at Gold Harbour.

Leopard Seal - competitor and prey

These ferocious predators are generalists, but they rest up on ice flows from where they patrol beaches to prey on incautious penguins. They are finding themselves in the unusual position of becoming prey for Orca as the number of more docile Weddell seals and their pups drops through habitat reduction.

Southern Elephant Seals - rebounding

Once the persecution of this species was brought to an end, their numbers rebounded significantly. They are still subject to unnatural risks such as entanglement in fishing gear and competition for food. This is most acute when considering the overfishing of Antarctic Toothfish, a prey species favoured by the seals.

Leopard seal at Brown Bluff
Leopard seal at Brown Bluff
Elephant seal Gold Harbour
Elephant seal Gold Harbour
Magellanic Penguin Falkland Islands
Magellanic Penguin Falkland Islands
Magellanic Penguins - habitat destruction

These burrowing penguins are losing out on many fronts. They migrate long distances and are often fouled by oil discharged in sea lanes, their preferred diet of anchovies is becoming scarce through over-fishing and their colonies are under threat as a result of competition for space.

Retreating Ice

According to the British Antarctic Survey, 'since the 1950s, a total of 25,000 km2 of ice shelf has been lost from around the Antarctic Peninsula. In volume, this is the equivalent of the UK domestic water requirement for around 1,000 years.'

Temperature records

The highest temperature ever recorded on the mainland of Antarctica was experienced here at the Esperanza base at the tip of the peninsula in February 2020. Observed at 18.3 degrees Centigrade, it was warmer than a typical March day in Auckland.

Glacier calving Brown Bluff
Glacier calving Brown Bluff
Esperanza base
Esperanza base
King Penguins Gold Harbour
King Penguins Gold Harbour
H5N1 Avian Flu

No matter how hard we try not to contaminate, and we tried a lot, the current bird flu epidemic is just a short hop away from Antarctica. Already killing great numbers of sea birds and seals in South America, it will decimate crowded colonies and the astonishingly close packed rookeries of Antarctica and the sub-Antarctic Islands.

Many of the heritage locations I was lucky enough to visit are managed by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust. You can find them here:

The New Zealand Antarctic Society is an active group that brings together people interested in sharing knowledge and getting involved in conservation efforts. You can find them here:

If you are interested in the existence, provisions and workings of the Antarctic Treaty, you can find it all here:

If you are interested in the travel operator I chose, there is a clue in the title text. Their operations are governed by the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators, and you can find details of how member companies have come together to enhance and protect this near-pristine wilderness here:

Useful links