The Bus2Antarctica journey continues, as Andrew Evans unpacks his bags and downloads the infinite videos he took while traveling on board the National Geographic Explorer. Today’s topic of interest: Seals.
I used to be one of those kids at the zoo with my face pressed against the glass, gazing underwater at the seals twisting and soaring and flying, wanting so much to dive right in there with them and swim and play. It didn’t matter if my family or teacher tried to persuade me to move on–I was stuck with the seals.
I don’t think I’m alone on this one. Seals are so incredibly playful–I learned that much from the zoo–and it’s not different in the wild. Everywhere we went in Antarctica, I saw seals engage in the very behavior that epitomizes the verb “frolic.” And as a human who loves water, I so wanted to frolic with them.
I think the very first seals I ever saw in the wild were far away on the west coast of Scotland. Scotland is about as far away from Antarctica as you can get, and yet so much of Antarctica is named after Scotland (e.g. the South Shetland and the South Orkney Islands). It’s no surprise, really, given the fact that some of the first explorers to Antarctica were Scottish and English explorers who noticed a vague geographic resemblance to home: the barren mountains, the windswept slopes and the rocky cliffs that fall straight to the sea–also, a whole lot of seals.
Even before the explorers came the sealers–men (usually) who sailed all over the world in search of bounteous hunting grounds. They often kept their southerly finds a secret, even made fake maps to mislead other sealers and protect their newfound wealth.
Times have since changed–hunting any kind of seal is prohibited by the Antarctic Treaty and after penguins, seals were the most common animal I saw in Antarctica–we saw so many different species up close: Weddel seals, leopard seals, Antarctic fur seals, and elephant seals. Each behaved so differently; all were highly entertaining.
After a day of sailing past the giant white mountains of the South Shetland Islands, our ship moved onward across the open sea to the South Orkneys–the last little scattering of rock and glacier that signifies the final gasp of land and the end of Antarctica. Animals love it and the seals seemed to own the place.
Our ship anchored at Coronation Island, named for the coronation of George IV, King of England way back in 1820. That we were visiting an island that was only discovered in 1820 was already amazing. That we got to zip around in a zodiac, past the baby blue icebergs and right into the seals’ world was unforgettable.
I lucked out in that I was seated in a zodiac driven by Tom Ritchie, an experienced Lindblad naturalist who is both fun and passionate. The thing I like about Tom is that he knows everything about everything but never acts like it–he just answers your question.
I’ve learned never to rank one experience over another when traveling–but of all my zodiac rides in Antarctica, this was the really, really fun one. Within minutes, our boat was surrounded by inquisitive seals, many of them jumping up and touching the backs our coats with their whiskery noses. Then they slipped back into the water and did their underwater seal dance–tracing infinity symbols into the water with their flippers and then zipping off pretending not to care, then popping back up again to make certain that you were watching them. My fellow travelers and I spent about two hours laughing at the show before us–this was no zoo, there were no trainers or planned shows every hour–this was simply the joyful show of nature undisturbed all around us. I think we all reverted to the kids stuck against the glass at the zoo, refusing to move on or go back.
Except this time, there was no glass. To have cold rosy cheeks and to be dwarfed by the surrounding glaciers–to be outnumbered five hundred to one by hyperactive seals and to hear nothing except for their crazy calls and mumbles and throaty whimpers–that alone made every long bus ride worth it. Honestly, I would do it all again to spend two more hours with the seals of the South Orkney Islands.