Paddle among penguins on an Antarctic kayaking tour : Travel Weekly
On a sunny morning in Antarctica, I boarded a tandem kayak and headed for the highway.
About 75 minutes later, after taking what was an intentionally circuitous route, my group of about 20 people arrived at their destination. Only this highway, at an Antarctic Peninsula landing site called Errera on Andvord Bay, had no asphalt, no striped lanes and no exhaust-emitting automobiles. Instead, as we kayakers gazed a few meters out to sea, dozens of gentoo penguins made their way through its snowy lanes, weaving their way from the relative safety of a hillside by the coast to the sea. .
A few days earlier, Danny Johnston, the expedition leader of the Scenic Eclipse cruise ship I was sailing on, had informed passengers of these bird highways and warned us not to cross them so as not to disturb the penguins when they move between nesting sites and hunting grounds in the water.
Penguins have carved out a network of trails or highways at the Errera landing site on the Antarctic Peninsula. Photo credit: TW photo by Robert Silk
Now here I was, seeing in person what until then had seemed like a quirky, almost amusing concept. Antarctic penguins do have highways, it occurred to me, although I think the lanes should more aptly be called penguin sidewalks, given their rather modest width and lack of traffic automobile.
This particular penguin sighting was the highlight of my kayaking trip that morning, an excursion included in the price of my sailing. But that was far from the only highlight. After experiencing mostly cloudy weather during my first three days of exploring Antarctica by land and sea as a guest onboard the Eclipse, today’s morning fog had lifted just before my group hit the water for about two hours. The deep blue skies that followed offered clear views of the surrounding glaciers and snow-capped peaks.
The flat water was another treat, especially after wind and waves forced the Eclipse team to alter and delay the excursion route the day before as the ship sought sheltered conditions.
For 15 years while living in the Florida Keys, I regularly paddled the bays and waterways that make up the southern portion of the Everglades ecosystem. That day, despite the markedly different landscape and temperature, the calm water reminded me of the conditions that were so common in my old Florida home.
We paddled leisurely through the bay, carefully navigating around ubiquitous chunks of floating ice and stopping frequently to take photos or just to experience the moment. Only the periodic noise of the Eclipse’s helicopter rides, especially during the first part of the paddle, disturbed the tranquility.
The crystalline appearance of this block of ice is proof that it is thousands of years old. Photo credit: TW photo by Robert Silk
About that ice: it doesn’t grab the headlines like penguins, seals and whales on the mainland. But, at least for me, it’s almost as fascinating. Positioned in a kayak, so close to the surface of the water, it’s especially easy to see just how distinct each block of ice is. Texture, color, shape and size vary, just like life-size icebergs. On one occasion during my trip, guide Sean Bodden caught a football-sized block of ice in the water that looked as clear and beautiful as crystal. Its clarity, he explained, is proof that the block of ice is thousands of years old. Over time, the weight of the ice squeezed out all the oxygen.
Conversely, the deep blue icebergs that can sometimes be seen here have this color because they have just broken off from a glacier and therefore snow and temperature changes have not still had time to blanch them.
The Wonders of Antarctica with Scenic Cruises
On this morning paddle the penguins were my favorite animal, although a few other people on the tour did spot an Antarctic minke whale. The penguins, however, weren’t just at the Errera landing site. They could also be seen swimming through the water like porpoises, a technique I learned is actually known as “porpoising”.
Fur seals like this are just a few of the wildlife an Antarctic kayaker might spot. Photo credit: TW photo by Robert Silk
Other kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding trips during this 11-day Eclipse sail resulted in multiple whale sightings as well as long stares at seals of various species resting on the ice. of sea.
However, at the end of my kayaking tour, it was the penguins on these highways that caught my attention. Sometimes the birds would waddle in small groups to a point on the rocks, then dive together for a short swim, before emerging, also in unison, to awkwardly climb out of the water. Other penguins crossed the highway apparently heading for a swim, before changing their minds and turning back.
With the Antarctic sun warming our faces (seriously), we sat pretty much in place for maybe 20 minutes watching this wondrous scene before heading back to the ship. But as the guides began loading paddlers into the waiting Zodiac boat for us, I made sure my kayak was last. I just wanted to enjoy those few extra moments on the water.