We were just on the edge of the Weddell Sea, heading to the south side of Snow Hill Island...
...in search of penguins. Again.
But not just any old penguins. While we'd been thrilled to see literally thousands upon thousands of chinstraps, gentoos, and a few adelies, this time we were looking for the biggest and most iconic penguin of them all, the elusive emperor penguins.
There is only one known colony of emperors in this part of Antarctica, and the hope was that if we were extremely lucky we might spot one or two.
The area is filled with tabular icebergs, so called because they are flat like tables on top. The Explorer slowly cruised just to the south of Snow Hill Island, a vast desolate area that is part of this colony of emperor penguins' domain.
We'd get excited to see black specks on the shoreline, only to discover when we got closer...
...that it was a false alarm. They were "just" adelies.
As I type that, I can't help but smile. We had, in a few short days, become penguin snobs.
Adelies and the others are cute and fun to watch, but we were on a mission now.
Emperors or Bust.
The whole ship was buzzing with excitement when we saw our first emperor penguin!
Seemingly all alone...
...but unmistakably an emperor.
The ship stopped for a few minutes so we could all get a photo, but the ice kept us from getting any closer so we moved on.
If there was one, surely there would be more!
A snow petrel followed along our ship for several minutes...
...long enough for me to finally get a nice shot of one in flight.
Massive tabular icebergs everywhere...
No. Just more adelies...
Mid-afternoon, our ship hit the jackpot, stopping in front of a group of 9 emperors!
WOW!!! We stood in awe. This is what we had come to Antarctica to witness!
Emperor penguins are (in the words of my bird-loving grandson Abram) "as big as a kindergartener." They are the biggest of all penguin species.
After a few moments, they slipped into the icy waters and swam a little distance away. We are quite likely the only ship and humans these birds have ever seen!
They came ashore a short distance away, but quite a ways farther from the ship's reach.
And joined another small group. So there were definitely more to be found!
And then, as our ship was stopped facing Snow Hill Island, this majestic birds appeared seemingly out of nowhere!
He stood directly in front of our ship and we all crowded along the bow railing to watch him watch us.
He struck a few poses for our clicking cameras, seeming to enjoy being in the spotlight.
And every minute or so he would loudly call out. Our naturalists were so excited to record those sounds of the emperors communicating with others in the colony that we couldn't even see.
Taking a bow for his adoring audience.
We sat there with him for a long time, neither of us wanting to be the first to leave. But we eventually did, slowly pulling away from shore as he continued his periodic calling.
Overwhelmed with joy at such a wonderful sighting of this iconic bird, I turned to Kim and said, "This is a dream come true!"
I had NO IDEA that it could and would get even BETTER than this!!!
About 4:30 that afternoon, our Expedition Leader Lucho announced excitedly over the ship's intercom for us to quickly prepare to go out in the zodiacs. A group of emperors were very close to shore and we would be taking the zodiacs and landing nearby.
As we threw on our parkas and boots, I felt sure that by the time we all got there the penguins would be gone.
But I was wrong. Never have I been so happy to be WRONG!!! As we got off the zodiacs, this is what we saw!
We were literally on the Antarctic ice just 20 feet or so from emperor penguins!
And as we stood there, as quietly and still as a group of 60 excited people can be walking through a foot of slushy ice, they approached us.
Abram was right. They are a big as a kindergartener. A BIG kindergartener!
The details on these birds is incredibly beautiful!
A small part of our group...
Forgive me as I just couldn't stop taking photos...this was a magical moment for us!
After looking at us for a few moments, they waddled past us and slowly made their way towards the sea.
We thought for sure they were going to slide into the water and that would be the last we saw of them.
And then, surprisingly, they turned back around and came back to us!
One came within touching distance of this naturalist! I took a video of their close encounter and gave to her. She was thrilled beyond belief!
A few more photo opps and then they slowly moved away, this time for good.
Our guide Santiago was absolutely giddy with excitement! In all his years of leading Antarctic expeditions, this encounter was one-of-a-kind for him.
What a thrilling and magical way to end our time in Antarctica!
Chillin' with the emperors.