The sea days to and from Antarctica can be a wildlife extravaganza. Albatross and whales are the main drawcards. Even your first morning at sea is likely to reveal the elegant wandering albatross, the world’s largest flying bird, as well as giant petrels and, with luck, grey-headed or light-mantled albatross and almost certainly black-browed albatross. Prions and petrels abound on the open water, too. The smallest birds you’ll see in Antarctica are the storm petrels elegantly flitting above the waves delicately picking food off the water.
At one point in crossing the Drake Passage you’ll pass through the Antarctic Convergence where you move from the South Atlantic Ocean to the much-colder Southern Ocean and this sometimes misty area can provide some great sightings.
Of course, there has to be a challenge and, being Antarctica, it’s identifying which white bird is which.
When the weather gets rough it’s the best chance to see one of the most beautiful birds in the world: the pure white snow petrel. Sometimes you just see the black of their eyes and feet against an iceberg backdrop. In “The Worst Journey in the World” Apsley Cherry-Garrard, Antarctica’s most lyrical explorer, wrote that they are “nearest to the fairies than anything else on earth”. If there’s any ice around keep your eyes peeled.
Perversely, the other all-white bird in Antarctica is one that only a mother could love. Snowy sheathbills, the only bird in Antarctica without webbed feet, are mostly found scavenging around the colony. Unkind expeditioners have been known to say that they rather resemble what would be the world’s ugliest chicken.
Nor does their job description disappoint. Without webbed feet they have to fly non-stop from South America to Antarctica at the start of summer. Once there, their main task is eating penguin poo around the penguin colonies. Well, you take work where you can get it.