Photographer Kristen Honig of Los Alamos poses with emperor penguins during her recent trip to Antarctica. Courtesy/Kristen Honig
The main colony consists of thousands of adult and juvenile emperor penguins. Photo by Kristen Honig
By KRISTEN HONIG
Ever since my first trip to Antarctica in 2018, I’ve been dreaming of a return.
In part, because the wildlife is simply amazing, in part to see the uniquely sculpted ice, but mostly to see the elusive emperor penguin that I missed the first time around. After several years of waiting for adventure ships to return to the White Continent, I discovered the perfect trip to see the emperors at Snowhill Island.
Our ship, the M/V Ortelius, was a refurbished Russian research vessel specifically designed to withstand the harsh conditions of the Arctic. It was equipped to carry approximately 100 passengers and half as many crew. To reach Snowhill Island, we would need to navigate through heavy pack ice in the Weddell Sea getting as close as possible, with helicopters carrying passengers the final distance.
The trip advertised a less than 50 percent success rate of seeing these majestic creatures, but after researching ice charts and weather forecasts and adding into consideration that the trip was successful the previous 3 consecutive years before COVID, I was convinced that estimate was conservative.
We dodged several storms as we raced across the Drake Passage, arriving at the southern portion of the Antarctic Peninsula by the morning of the third day. What was supposed to be a 4:30 a.m. wake-up call for a continental landing at Brown Bluff was preempted by a notification from the bridge that a record 99 knot (113 mph) wind gust had been observed (quite possibly higher since the meter only measured double digits) and our first landing was cancelled. Though this first stop was not to see the emperors, it did not bode well for the rest of our trip!
We relocated the ship later that afternoon and were treated to a scenic helicopter flight over the Erebus and Terror Gulf, where we spotted emperors and seals hauled out on the ice. Though it was only a few sightings from far away, we were encouraged that we were getting close to the colony.
The following morning we awoke to the announcement we‘d all been waiting for…a break in the winds allowed the staff to launch helicopter operations earlier that morning. They had located the colony, identified a landing zone, and would begin ferrying passengers within the hour. Since my cabin was the last to fly out the day before, it was the first to go out this morning.
The flight took about 20 minutes to reach the landing zone, and another 15 minutes of hiking over sea-ice to reach the colony. Though it was along flat ground, it was a moderate hike as the melting sea ice would give way numerous times along the path, causing you to sink thigh deep into the snow and slush.
About halfway to the main colony, we were greeted by a dozen adult emperors who had come to check out their new visitors—not seen in several years. They were curious critters, gliding along their bellies to within a few feet of us before standing up to their full height of about 4 feet. Continuing to the main colony, we were treated to thousands of adult and juvenile emperor penguins against the backdrop of colossal icebergs. Some of the babies were collocated within crèches while their parents were out fishing. Other babies were alongside their parents begging for food. It was noisy and busy, but such a delight to watch in person. It was like being in your own wildlife documentary.
With 3 helicopters and 89 passengers to rotate through, and forecasted winds picking up in the afternoon, we only had about 45 minutes with the emperor penguins. Even so, about halfway through the operation, helicopters were temporarily grounded with more than 50 people stranded on the ice (admittedly I was a bit disappointed I wasn‘t one of them!). Our guides were of course prepared for this, with two large tents and rations to weather-over for several days if necessary. As they hunkered down in the tents, several penguins wandered over to base camp to check out the helicopters. Hours later, air operations resumed and everyone was onboard before dinner time.
It turns out I misjudged all the variables that go into a successful landing at Snowhill Island. It‘s not just navigating the sea ice to get close enough to the colony. Too much wind, too little visibility, precipitation, and insufficient sea ice thickness to support the weight of helicopters can all cancel a trip. In fact, I found out at the end of our adventure that the probability of success was actually more like 30 percent. How lucky we were!!!
The rest of the trip was less successful with only a few additional landings, as we endured sustained winds of 45-50 knots most of the duration. I‘ve been told that the severity and frequency of these storms have increased dramatically over just the last 4-5 years. At the same time, temperatures at Snowhill Island the day of our landing were higher (37 °F) than Los Alamos (32 °F)! If the polar regions are indeed the “canary in the coal mine” regarding climate change impacts on our planet, we‘d be wise to pay attention to these significant changes.
An adult and juvenile emperor penguin. Photo by Kristen Honig
A group of playful and curious adult emperor penguins gliding around on their bellies to greet the new visitors. Photo by Kristen Honig
One of the three helicopters used during Kristen Honig’s trip in Antarctica. Photo by Kristen Honig
BaseCamp in Antarctica. Photo by Kristen Honig
A large iceberg in Antarctica. Photo by Kristen Honig
Adult and juvenile emperor penguins in Antarctica. Photo by Kristen Honig