My 20 Favorite Antarctic Wildlife Encounters

The 20/20 Countdown continues with just 12 days to go. As my last few top 20s have been light on the photos, I thought I’d make up for that here.

20. Emperor Penguins. Yes, they’re down at number 20, and you know what? They’re only on the list so I can say yes, I saw them. Big deal. Don’t let Morgan Freeman and “Happy Feet” fool you. Most. Boring. Animals. On. The Planet. All they do is stand around like old men waiting for a kids’ baseball to come their way so they can shout “you kids get off my lawn!”

Penguins and people. This is actually the second time I saw Emperors. The first was just too frightfully dull to feature here.

19. My first Weddell seal. You never forget your first Weddell. It was a windy, snowy day and I was out on a boondoggle (see #14) when I saw what looked like a giant bratwurst doing an imitation of a caterpillar. It was quite a ways off on the sea ice and visibility was poor, but it was a thrill to see my first Antarctic animal.

Bratwurst on Ice, November 2011

18. The Weddells I didn’t see. I never got around to posting this photo back in April when I took it, but on one of my walks down to Hut Point, in the twilight of what had been a bright, sunny day, I saw two perfect imprints of where seals had been lazing on the ice, melting it beneath them.

Seal imprints in sea ice near Hut Point, April 2012

17. Ringing in the New Year with an angry skua. The galley MidRats crew ran outside to celebrate the arrival of 2011 by banging pots and generally frightening away anyone within earshot…except for an angry skua who paced behind us shrieking as if to say “you kids get off my lawn!” (Yes, irritable animals are somewhat of a theme.)

Note angry skua in left background.

16. Penguin tracks! When several Adelies were molting out at Hut Point, a few of them left crazy tracks all around Discovery Hut.

Penguin Tracks, Hut Point, February 2011

15. This is kind of a sad one, so get out the Kleenex. About a month ago, as we were opening a bag of frozen veg, we found a bug. It was obvious that the bug (some kind of beetle) had been nibbling on the corn when it was picked, somehow missed in the processing, frozen, shipped down here, stored in a warehouse for years and then pulled and put in the galley freezer. We all gathered around it. I remember saying “he looks so peaceful.” And we all went, “awwww,” then had a moment of silence for the beetle before giving him a burial in food waste bin. For me, it was something about the irony of a little bug just going about his buggy business and then ending up in Antarctica, as well as just the sight of a (once) living thing that was not one of the 153 people wintering at McMurdo, that touched me.

14. Yanking sea urchins from their home so others might forcibly breed them and kill their offspring. It’s okay. It was all in the name of science. My first boondoggle, back in 2010, was to accompany a marine biologist out to a dive hut on the sea ice, where divers had left a netted bag of sea urchins hanging in the water. I got to put the urchins in a cooler that we transported back to the lab so that the urchins’ offspring could be harvested and placed in sea water tanks of varying degrees of acidity, replicating possible future ocean conditions, to determine at which point a change in the sea water’s composition would adversely affect organisms fairly low on the food chain. I was kind of disturbed about being party to animal testing, but the biologist assured me that, after the experiment, the urchins would live out their days on a farm upstate…

Urchins enslaved in the name of science. Science!

13. On my first walk to Hut Point after arriving for my second winter, I was divebombed by several skua. It felt like coming home.

I personally love the unintentionally artsy composition of the divebombers. Hut Point, April 2012.

12. Whales! I saw whales! From quite a long distance away, yes, but I saw them in McMurdo Sound shortly after arriving for the winter season just a few months ago.

11. Crary Lab touch tank. In summer, in addition to harvesting sea creatures for various experiments, the divers also bring up an assortment of Stuff That Lives In McMurdo Sound, and put several specimens in a small aquarium tank where members of the community get to see and, yes, touch them. Although most of them felt like old kitchen sponges or pudding skin, I feel so fortunate simply to have had the chance to find that out for myself.

Poking an annoyed sea spider, Crary Lab Touch Tank, October 2011

10. When I came face to face with an emerald cod in a Crary Lab catch tank. The cod enjoy hanging out at the surface of the tank with their faces out of the water, possibly because it’s a novelty for them. In the wild, they live their entire lives beneath sea ice.

Hellllloooooo, sailor! Oh my cod, is he flirting with me?

9. Okay, so, the second time I saw Emperor penguins they were still super boring but they made for a great foreground in one of my favorite photos of Antarctica. I just love how surreal the background looks. And the good thing with Emperors is you never have to worry about a blurry shot because they don’t move.

Penguins or lawn ornaments? You decide. Ross Ice Shelf, January 2011

8. When walking Hut Ridge Loop in summer, I happened on a skua sitting right on the trail. I couldn’t get past him and maintain the required distance, so I thought I’d wait for him to move. He did. Sort of. Showing me exactly, at :36, what he thought of my filmmaking skills. That is so skua.

7. The morning of my departure from the Ice last October, I spent my last few hours on the Ice sitting out at Hut Point watching heavily pregnant Weddell seals waiting to pup.

Bratwurst on Ice revisited, October 2011

6. I will never forget the first time I saw seals at Hut Point close enough to hear their heavy, huffy breaths.

The seal swimming near center of photo was just hanging out between dives, its breath so loud it reminded me of sleeping with my big old Rhodesian Ridgeback, Kosmo

5. The time three molting Adelies seemed to be ready to perform some kind of synchronized penguin routine right in front of me.

If you think that was cute, watch what they did next (my battery froze so I had to switch cameras…from the wind noise alone I think you can tell it was pretty brutal out there.)

4. Seeing a seal and her pup close-up while touring pressure ridges.

3. My leopard seal sighting. I’m still not sure it was a leopard seal, but, if it wasn’t then it was a pretty weird-looking, ornery Weddell seal. (Probably) seeing one in the wild–and, it must be said, it seeing me and clearly thinking “sausage!”–was breath-taking.

Leopard seal (maybe) in profile, April 2012.

2. My first Adelie penguin sighting. He waddled and wobbled and won my heart.

By the way, if you’re wondering why this guy is so skinny compared with the fatties in the videos, this is pre-molt. The chubby pengies are molting. They gorge themselves on fish for weeks and get super-chunky, then hang out on land for a couple weeks while they molt last year’s feathers and grow new ones. During the molt, the penguins are not waterproof and can’t go in the water (and therefore can’t hunt).

1. Was it a seal? Was it a curious colossel squid? While I still feel bad that I might have kicked a poor seal in the head, being several feet underwater in McMurdo Sound during this year’s Polar Plunge and feeling my foot hit something smooth (not rough ice) is a wildlife encounter of some kind that I won’t soon forget.

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