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  • Dawnelle Salant

The Seventh Continent

Updated: Jan 20, 2020

We woke up to a message this morning saying Welcome to Antarctica. We passed the 60th latitude and are officially in Antarctic waters. We cheered. This still doesn't seem real.

After attending a lecture on whales and marine mammals that we might encounter, hopes are high for whale spotting today. After lunch, we see our first humpbacks. They are frolicking off the bow of the ship and everyone crowds around for a better view. Over the course of the day, we spot about 13 humpbacks. It is mind blowing. We also see land for the first time since leaving Ushuaia and our first iceberg appears that afternoon. Gentoo penguins also make their first appearance - I didn’t expect to see any penguins until we ventured onto land, but these little guys are porpoising in the water around the ship, right by the whales. They are far away and tiny, but our first penguin sighting is exhilarating. I had no idea that they jumped out of the water like that while they’re foraging for food.

Something really interesting happened today with one lady’s camera. When she went to use it, everything was upside down. They came to me for help and I had never heard of it and had no idea what would cause that. One of the guides googled it and the answer was to put a magnet near the camera. We think it might have had something to do with the magnetic south pole….. mind blowing.

I’m fairly certain I won’t sleep tonight - we have our first excursion tomorrow to the shore. We are surrounded by land now and the ship hardly feels like its moving. We have survived the Drake Passage and we have glass coffee mugs and real wine glasses at dinner. This is actually happening. Tomorrow I will step foot on my seventh continent.


Cuverville Island


I wake up to Cuverville Island looming on the horizon. It’s big - there are glaciers and dark spots where the mountains peek through the snow. But what is even more exciting is the humpback whale that is sleeping outside our porthole. When whales sleep, they hover near the surface, breathing through their blowholes. They only use half their brain to breathe, and the other half is given a break. The whale sleeps near the ship until we are all ready to load into the zodiacs for our first excursion to shore.

My heart is pounding, I’m both nervous and probably the most excited I have ever been in my life. Before we get into the zodiac, we have to wash our boots in a special solution. There are strict laws about bringing non-native species into Antarctica. We had to vacuum any backpacks or outerwear that had been in contact with the ground anywhere besides here. Velcro is particularly bad for holding onto vegetation etc.

When we arrive at the shore, with penguins who have followed us all the way, we step out into the water, and boom, just like that, I have been to all seven continents. I don’t even have time to take this in - the scenery and the amount of penguins practically have my jumping up and down. Our guide briefs us on where we can and can not go. We have to stay 15 feet away from any wildlife and follow the marked paths, staying off the penguin highways. We climb up slippery rocks to a penguin rookery, the smell leading the way. Cuverville Island has the biggest Gentoo Penguin rookery on the peninsula. There are hundreds, possibly thousands, of penguins and I don’t even know where to look. We see penguins walking and slipping on the rocks. Female penguins guard nests and we are lucky enough to see several chicks. We watch one female feed her babies and I can’t believe that I am lucky enough witness this in the wild.

Behind the rookery is a huge mountain, dark against the fog and mist that is rolling in. It’s warm, I don’t even have my gloves or hat on. We are told the temperature is about 3 degrees Celsius. I climb the snowy hill to get a better view of the bay and I’m roasting inside my Shackleton jacket. I did not expect to be hot on this portion of my trip! But we have to have layers because the weather can change drastically at any moment.

From the top of the hill, I can see the bay filled with gorgeous blue icebergs. They crack and calve and I see several huge ice chunks break off into the ocean. It sounds like rifle shots, or a big car crash. A skua flies into the rookery I am looking down on and the penguins go crazy trying to protect their chicks. But I am pretty sure that I see the skua take off with something small and dark in its mouth. I know this is a part of the food chain, and a natural part of life here, but it makes me sad.

I spend about 3 hours on shore and it is even better than I imagined. It doesn’t seem possible that I am finally here, and it’s paradise for me. The penguins are everywhere, they walk right in front of you, they climb the hill, slipping and sliding everywhere. I could spent hours watching them walk. I came to Antarctica mainly for the wildlife, and I didn’t expect the scenery to be so incredible. The blue of the icebergs is stunning, and I am sure that even my photos and videos will not do this place justice.

On the way back to the ship we take a zodiac cruise and see a crabeater seal, Antarctic terns and a leopard seal. We also spot several chinstrap penguins. Glaciers are cracking and groaning all around us. I have found a different kind of paradise here in Antarctica. The wildest place on Earth.

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