Get Closer to Wildlife on a Tall Ship
If you have been captivated by BBC Wildlife programmes like Frozen Planet, be prepared to be blown away by the boldness and sheer numbers of wild creatures that inhabit Antarctica and the rich seas that surround it. With modern digital cameras and wildlife that is totally unfazed and curious about humans, it is surprisingly easy to take wildlife photos as good as the professionals.
Bark Europa is not a big ship compared with modern expedition ships with only about 3m freeboard in the middle of the ship, so when a humpback whale pops his head up to look at you they are damn close and you can feel the spray. You could be sipping a cup of coffee when a fur seal does a back flip right next to you or a skua waddles down the deck looking for trouble.
See Antarctic Wildlife from Aloft
Being able to climb the rigging or go out on the bowsprit gives you a view from a different dimension. Look down on Weddle Seals resting on a slab of pack ice with shadows of the ships rigging cutting across the scene, or see whales diving under the ship to check out our barnacles. Whilst sailing at 3-8 knots you can see penguins in their natural element as they porpoise in and out the water, or killer whales as they glide effortlessly by like sleek submarines and overtake a 300 ton sailing ship at speed.
The experience is even better if there is enough room and wind to sail silently between ice floes, with nothing to disturb the wildlife other than our visual presence. Whales seem to have a strange affinity for Europa and often stop to play. I think it might be because there is no engine noise and the great white hull travels at a similar speed, unlike expedition cruise ships in open waters. From a mast platform vantage point it is hard to resist a cry of “Thar see blows, Captain” (and strangely pointless as Europa’s Captain’s have spent years scouring the horizon for cetaceans and are often first to spot whales, and identify what type from the blow characteristics). In the rigging is great for taking photos and you can see where the next whale, leopard seal or penguin is going to surface. The bowsprit is an easier vantage point if you dont have a head for heights.
Wildlife Guides and Ships Crew
On the Antarctic and South Georgia Sailing Expeditions including the long ocean voyage at the end of the Antarctic season Georgia, Bark Europa carries two specialist wildlife guides. On other voyages without specific wldlife guides you will find the ships professional crew and captains (Klaas, Eric and Harko) are very knowledgeable all will run lectures and training sessions on a wide range of topics too.
A Europa Wildlife Guide will also be an important member of the ships crew so you are just as likely to be pulling ropes with them in the middle of the night, as learning about save the Albatross programmes or humpback whale research in a lecture. They generally drive the zodiacs and plan all the shore landings and lecture programmes.
Zodiac Safaris and Beach Landings
It is not uncommon for Europa to have 2-3 beach landings in one day where there are special wildlife favourites to see. The Antarctic Treaty regulations limit ship visits to prime sites so it would be very rare to share an anchorage with another vessel, if you see another ship at all. Beach landings can be very entertaining with crowds of fur seals and penguins entering and leaving the surf around you. Europa’s wildlife guides will always brief you on what to see and how to behave around very curious animals ashore but it is still a pleasant shock when they come right up to you. (Penguins don’t read the rules).
Antarctica as an Ecosystem
Antarctica is one of the oldest continents on our planet, but humans have always been unable to live here because of its extremely cold climate. It is the last great wilderness on Earth. The wildlife is fearless of humans so you can end up incredibly close to creatures going about their daily lives in the frozen planet. There are rules for tourists on how to behave near the wildlife to maintain this happy state of affairs….but penguins and elephant seals have not read the rules!
All penguin species are restricted to the Southern Hemisphere, but the greatest concentrations are on Antarctic coasts and sub Antarctic islands; On the Peninsula Gentoo and Chinstrap Penguins are the most common. Near the colder Weddell Sea we also find Adelie and Emperor Penguins, although the Emperor penguin is seen more rarely.
On the island of South Georgia you will see King Penguins in their millions and Macaroni Penguins with the tufted crest. Check out our pages on South Georgia as the climate is warmer, the island is not completely surrounded by sea ice in winter and supports a broader range of wildlife and becomes the breeding ground for a large number Southern Ocean species of birds and mammals.
The Antarctic waters support a vast variety of seabirds. Only a few species are adapted to breed regularly on the continent. Skuas are widespread and prominent in the Antarctic. They prey heavily on the eggs and chicks of penguins and small petrels. Also prions, fulmars, and shearwaters are often seen, as well as terns, sheathbills, and two species of cormorants. Europa has to be very careful at night as the lights of the ship can attract birds which can stun or injure themselves in the rigging. In some anchorages we have to put the metal shutters on the deck house windows at night and rescue any surprised birds for re launch in the morning light.
Albatrosses are not found down around the Antarctic Peninsula but you will find them in the Drakes Passage and on the Falklands and South Georgia.
New Southern Ocean Wildlife Sanctuaries
In 2017 the first Antarctic Ocean Wildlife Sanctuary was created in the Ross Sea and pressure groups and sympathetic Governments are pressing for another in the Weddell Sea and around the Antarctic Peninsula. If you want to add your name to the campaign you can check out Greenpeace Antarctic Sanctuary Campaign
Fish and krill in the Antarctic are important components of the marine ecosystems. Factory size ships can hoover up krill in huge quantities in the Southern Ocean which can have a devastating effect on the whole ecosystem. Krill is a major prey for higher predators, including the baleen whales, as the Humpback, Minke and Fin Whale.
Whales and Dolphins
Antarctic in the Southern hemisphere summer is a rich feeding ground for whales. Humpbacks make a regular appearances with acrobatics and feeding frenzies. They also seem to like Europa and have great fun diving under the ship and coming up to eye ball you. and huge fin whales occasionally cruise on by. The Orca or Killer Whale tends to hunt and live in small pods and a sighting is a major highlight….although a bit scary if you are in an inflatable boat.