Trip Planning Article by


Emperor penguin chick toddles after its parent amidst their colony on Snow Hill Island in Antarctica — Photo courtesy of Anne Chalfant

It’s a pricey gamble to book an Antarctica voyage in hopes of reaching Emperor penguins. 

But wouldn’t it be thrilling to see penguins as tall as a kindergartener strutting around in their native habitat? And fuzzy gray penguin chicks toddling around and sliding on their bellies?! 

Where others have failed

Could our ship reach the colony of Emperor penguins on Antarctica’s Snow Hill Island when other expeditions had failed since 2013? — Photo courtesy of Anne Chalfant

Reaching the northernmost Emperor penguin colony in Antarctica was a dream I shared with 105 other passengers sailing m/v Ortelius in November 2017. That’s springtime in the reversed seasons of the Southern Hemisphere.

The ship was equipped for the journey, loaded with two helicopters that could take us over sea ice. Our captain and expedition team plotted our route to the Snow Hill Island Emperor penguin colony in Antarctica’s Weddell Sea.

It’s a daunting task to reach these penguins; no ship had been successful since 2013. And in 2011, a mighty icebreaker ship got trapped in Weddell Sea ice.

Ice is lord and master there. Large sheets – sometimes miles long – sail along in the wind, and huge icebergs appear out of nowhere. Then there’s Antarctic weather, quick to scuttle bright blue skies for dark gray amplified with hellion winds and ship-kicking waves.

Only ships with ice-strengthened hulls dare brave the Weddell Sea, southeast of the Antarctic Peninsula.

We’re gonna make it

An ice-strengthened hull allows m/v Ortelius to plow through some sea ice — Photo courtesy of Anne Chalfant

Passengers on m/v Ortelius hailed from 17 nations, but we chatted in English at dinner and in the bar.

“We will see the Emperor penguin colony on Snow Hill Island,” we told one another.

Or at least those of us still standing expressed that belief. A third of the passengers disappeared into cabins as the ship rocked and rolled through the Drake Passage. This 600-mile wave-whipped passage must be endured by all ships sailing to and from Antarctica. 

Day three of the sail, woozy passengers rejoined us for a mandatory helicopter drill.

If the ship could possibly make it through ice to Snow Hill Island, the rest of the journey was left to helicopters that would transport us a few miles – or possibly many – over treacherous, crevasse-laced sea ice to the site of the penguin colony. 

Helicopter lands on m/v Ortelius. Helicopters are essential for flying over sea ice to reach the Emperor penguin colony — Photo courtesy of Jerry Andersen

White continent

Now we were in Antarctica, and the scenery consisted of snowy mountains and floating chunks of ice.

Suddenly, a lone Emperor penguin appeared on an ice floe. He padded close to the edge for a better look at the ship, then dove in and swam to us, twirling as if in greeting.

Was this little guy lonely, so far from his colony? The expedition team reassured us that Emperor penguins go fishing hundreds of miles from the colony and still find their way home.

A lone Emperor penguin sails by on an ice floe. Even if we don’t reach the colony on Snow Hill Island, we have now seen an Emperor penguin — Photo courtesy of Anne Chalfant

So close

The m/v Ortelius crunched through soft sea ice, and that afternoon we cheered to learn we were near Snow Hill Island.

Later on, our expedition leader returned exuberant from a scouting helicopter flight – yes, they had located the colony. All systems were go for our grand penguin visit the following day.

The excitement was electric.

M/v Ortelius drops anchor by Snow Hill Island – sea ice stretches ahead — Photo courtesy of Anne Chalfant

But Antarctic winds seized our tomorrow, blasting us with gusts up to 70 mph. No helicopters would fly and we were left in suspense.

Day of the Emperor

Finally, winds died down and the day of the Emperor dawned. The expedition team set up a base camp equipped with medical and emergency supplies in case a sudden storm prevented a group from returning to the ship. 

Base camp for the Emperor penguin visit held medical and emergency supplies. A sudden weather shift could lead to an overnight stay for some — Photo courtesy of Anne Chalfant

We took turns visiting the penguin colony; only a small number were allowed at one time. Environmental regulations also required maintaining a 50-foot perimeter between ourselves and the birds.

We visited the Emperor penguin colony in small groups, and the helicopters landed behind an iceberg so the colony would not be disturbed — Photo courtesy of Anne Chalfant

But no one had explained regulations and perimeters to the penguins. One waddled to join us. He stood still, giving one of us a long stare, than moved along to stare at another. The bird watched a photographer intently for several minutes as the man stared equally intently through his telephoto lens. 

A penguin regards a photographer with as much intensity as the man behind the lens puts into photographing the colony — Photo courtesy of Anne Chalfant

Double bonanza

Happily, weather allowed us to return that afternoon for another precious hour with the colony.  It was so entertaining to watch some 7,000 birds and listen to them talking – not squawking – their chatter accented with penguin hoots.

But it was penguin chicks – cuddly-looking and playful, so graceless as they stumbled through snow – that made everyone smile.

Six-month-old penguin chicks will head to the sea soon for the first time. They’ll be fishing for their own dinner — Photo courtesy of Anne Chalfant

Scurrying penguins

Skies of brightest blue treated us to another glorious penguin day, this time on Half Moon Island, South Shetland Islands.

Some of us did an “Antarctica Jump,” leaping into the air for joy.

Lin Lin of Paris leaps into the air in celebration of our Antarctic journey — Photo courtesy of Anne Chalfant

Half Moon Island was alive with comical little chinstrap penguins dashing around in perpetual haste, tripping and sliding as they hurry for whatever it is that makes chinstraps run. 

Always in a hurry, chinstrap penguins scurry on Half Moon Island in the South Shetland Islands — Photo courtesy of Anne Chalfant

Brrr, that’s cold 

Before leaving the island, our expedition guide announced “Polar Plunge,” a traditional leap into icy Antarctic waters. 

A number of passengers stripped to swimsuits and took the dip.

This dash into Antarctic waters is the traditional Polar Plunge. The rite of Antarctic passage was held on Half Moon Island — Photo courtesy of Jerry Andersen

Then it was back to m/v Ortelius, and as we sailed homeward, we were lambasted by a storm in the Drake Passage so violent and extreme, the ship was tossed like a toy.

But the trip was so, so worth it.

You might also like More from author

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.