Antarctica’s Enterprise Island might be named such for the opportunists who sailed here and capitalized on the area's big draw: whales.
I, like the whalers who came before, was also attracted to the area for its marine life — and even took care to visit late in the summer season, in March, which is considered the best time to spot whales in Antarctica. However, I did not have any untoward plans, except for trying to keep up with my fellow group of kayakers participating in Aurora Expeditions’ multiday sea kayaking program.
Minutes into a kayaking presentation the day before, I realized the advantages of joining this exclusive cohort: The program is capped at around 20 participants, with four guides who often split into smaller groups, allowing for a more intimate experience with the surroundings and wildlife. While Aurora’s Zodiac tours are great, kayaks can squeeze into even tighter spots and navigating, positioning and stopping is totally up to you.
Within minutes of boarding our kayaks for the first time, we were handsomely rewarded with a humpback whale arching in front of us, showing off its bumpy tail. Our guide explained that it was exhibiting feeding behavior. Overwhelmed with joy, our group giggled in unison.
Many on my trip chose to sail with Aurora because of its exclusive kayaking program which offered, on average, two kayaking excursions a day, along with dedicated guides and all necessary gear — from double kayaks and spray skirts to life jackets and pogies (insulated mittens that attached to our paddles). The program’s added fee ranges from $1,260 to $1,470 per person and ensured that only those who truly wanted to kayak every day, and often for several hours, joined.
We had seen countless minkes and humpbacks that day while sailing Wilhelmina Bay (aka “Whale-mina Bay), but none so quietly and shared with so few. While observing the many Arctic terns circling overhead, I heard a rumble from the group. Miraculously, another whale swam underneath a fellow kayaker, within feet of me, and popped out on the other side.
Toby Story, the head kayaking guide on our Aurora trip, tried his best to temper our future expectations.
“This doesn’t always happen,” he said, laughing — knowing full well that we were already spoiled for the remainder of the trip.
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As the whales swam off, we paddled away, while our guides regaled us with a bit of history. We were in Foyn Harbor, which changed drastically after the Norwegian whaler Svend Hoyn perfected a harpoon cannon that, according to our guides, could kill 1,000 whales in one go. Considered a pivotal moment in whaling, the creation of the unfortunate tool also made the bed for the area’s whalers, who eventually left due to — you guessed it — a dwindling cetacean population. The whalers left behind plenty of relics of their time here, now left unbothered and untouched as artifacts of a dark part of Antarctica’s history.
While animal spotting might have been my main reason for visiting Antarctica, each subsequent port would reveal a surprising history of human behavior.
We saw several boats, barrels and an old anchor at different sites around the bay, giving us a glimpse of what life was like for the whalers in the early 1900s. We also kayaked through waters that revealed old whale bones before spotting a tin hut, now abandoned.
It began to rain, which according to our guides, is a bit of rarity; because Antarctica is usually at or below freezing, precipitation typically takes the form of snowfall. But we were visiting during a summer that recorded some of the hottest days ever in the continent, so the cold droplets — a consequence of a warming planet — were the latest reminder that civilization could do better to preserve this wonderous place.
Fortunately, though, the days of unsustainably hunting Antarctica’s marine mammals are behind us. Though in my case, they were right before my very eyes.
Story had led us to the wreckage site of the Governoren, which met its end in January 1915 — just days after pack ice caused explorer Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance to meet its untimely end some 800 miles away.
The bow area of the Governoren — roughly the size of Greg Mortimer, our Aurora Expeditions ship — still floats above water. Now completely rusted and encircled by ice, the former factory ship once manufactured whale blubber into oil. The story goes that a party onboard turned rowdy and a lantern was knocked over in the revelry, quickly incinerating the slick ship. The captain rammed the ship onto land, saving all 85 members of his crew.
While animal spotting might have been my main reason for visiting Antarctica, each subsequent port would reveal a surprising history of human behavior. It was only our first kayaking excursion in the frozen continent, but I had already learned one important lesson: In Antarctica, my expectations were no match for reality.