In Search of the Emperor Penguins!

By Shae Aitken

My third trip down to Antarctica, I was extra excited about this trip, which we were in search of the Emperor Penguins in Snow Hill located in the Weddell sea which is located on the eastern side of the Antarctica peninsula.   Today, it is one of the most exclusive wildlife viewing experiences on the planet. Reaching Snow Hill Island is an expedition in itself, typically requiring specialized ice-strengthened vessels and helicopters for access due to the challenging ice conditions.

Setting Sail on the Ultramarine:

Picture this: A sleek ship, gliding through icy waters. The Ultramarine isn’t just a boat; it’s a floating paradise for those hungry for adventure. Packed with high-tech gear and fancy comforts, this ship is gearing up to be our cozy pad for the next 12 days. Get ready for an incredible journey on this awesome vessel! I’ve seen many Polar expeditions ships and this is definitely the most comfortable superior ship I’ve seen.

One of the most unique features of the Ultramarine is its ability to go beyond the typical reach of expedition ships.  I has not one, but two twin-engine helicopters ready to whisk us to a rare penguin hideout.  Zodiacs take us close to wildlife and ice formations, while helicopters also offer a bird’s-eye view of the vast Antarctic landscapes. The opportunity to land in otherwise inaccessible areas, such as the emperor penguin colony at Snow Hill, transforms the Ultramarine from a vessel to a gateway for extraordinary experiences.

We’ll touch down near this secret spot, and then, brace yourself, we’re walking on thick sea ice to get super close to the coolest penguins on Earth. Think “March of the Penguins” or scenes from BBC’s “Frozen Planet” penguins sliding on their bellies across the ice, heading towards the sea. It’s a wildlife spectacle that’s just too awesome for words! 🐧✨

The Ultramarine is like a floating home base for those brave enough to explore Antarctica. Imagine top-notch features like a wide lounge with panoramic views, a spa with a sauna and steam room for ultimate relaxation after a day of adventure, and a fancy restaurant serving gourmet meals – a luxurious surprise in the harshest place on Earth.

Usually, it can host up to 199 folks, but for our trip, it’s just 109 passengers. And here’s the cool part: the max they ever take to Snow Hill is 150, so we’re perfectly sized. That means we can hop on exciting excursions faster and make the most of our Antarctic adventure! 🚢❄️

You can also read more about Ultramarine from a past colleague’s trip to South Georgia where you can see King Penguins, please follow the link here- Penguin Safari: South Georgia and the Peninsula | Eclipse Travel

During the first few days of our expedition, we braved the legendary Drake Passage, where experts regaled us with tales of polar heroes and enriched our understanding of emperor penguins. Our journey into the Weddell Sea revealed a spectacle of colossal tabular icebergs, towering as high as 30 meters. Though capturing their immense size in photos posed a challenge, the experience added an unparalleled layer of awe to our adventure.

Snow Hill

The weather forecast wasn’t the best for us so when we first arrived, so we did have to wait for the cloud to move, as safety is the number one priority especially when operating helicopters in such a remote location. While we waited for the conditions to improve, we did a zodiac excursion around Snow Hill island and were lucky enough to see our first Emperors who were feeding and waddling back to the colonies, we also saw some seals and Adelie penguins which was a bonus.

Finally, the eagerly awaited day had arrived!  We woke up on the Tuesday morning with an early wake up call saying that the forecast looked good and we will start operations so we got all our gear ready to go on the adventure! For safety reasons you do have to wear a dry suit under your layers when travelling by helicopter in Antarctica.

Taking off on a helicopter from the back of the ship in Antarctica was simply incredible! The scenery below was breathtaking, with vast stretches of snow and ice. The 12-minute helicopter ride was a quick journey, and upon landing on the snow, the weather surprised us with brilliant sunshine. It got so warm that I had to shed my layers – a stark contrast to the chilly Antarctic air. While exploring the snowy terrain, the life jacket stayed on for safety, as we walked on the icy surface.

The Emperor penguin colony was about a 2km walk through the snow. The expedition team had paved out a track for us to get there, I took my own walking sticks but they had plenty of walking sticks to use to help you walk through the snow, I found it really helpful. Once arriving, we could put all our bags down on a big tarp as we weren’t allowed to put anything on the ground and then we had about 2 hours to freely explore.

WOW! It was truly amazing being so close to these incredible animals, especially considering the challenging winter they’ve just endured!

Emperor penguins are the tallest and heaviest of all penguin species. Adult emperor penguins typically stand around 1.15 to 1.3 meters (3.8 to 4.3 feet) tall. However, these measurements are for standing height; when they are swimming or moving around on land, their actual height can look shorter.

Being there in late November/Early December was a stroke of luck. Witnessing the Emperor penguins with their adorable babies felt like a scene from a real-life “Happy Feet” movie! Observing their tight-knit community, their caring for the young ones, and their quirky yet efficient way of body surfing across the ice was absolutely fascinating. Surprisingly, they showed no fear of us; in fact, some approached so fast that we had to step aside, always maintaining the required 5 meters of distance.

Emperor penguins are known for enduring some of the harshest conditions on Earth. They inhabit the coldest environment of any bird species, they brave extremely low temperatures, often dropping below -40 degrees Celsius and harsh winds in the winter. Their remarkable adaptations, including a thick layer of blubber, insulating feathers, and huddling behaviour, allow them to survive in these extreme conditions. The emperor penguins’ ability to thrive in such a hostile environment is a testament to their remarkable resilience and adaptation to the challenges of the Antarctic climate.

As the weather began to change, we had to make our way back to the helicopter site and depart. Although our time there was cut short, it became an unforgettable moment that will stay with me forever!

Spotting emperor penguins in Antarctica is tough though! These majestic birds (biggest of the penguin species) live in the hardest to reach places with extreme weather. Limited breeding spots, seasonal challenges, and conservation efforts make it even trickier. The journey is a real adventure, testing resilience and love for nature. Yet, for those who brave it, seeing these creatures in their frozen kingdom is a special and rewarding experience and I’m so grateful we got to see them. The helicopter expedition in search of the emperor colony might just be the adventure of a lifetime!

Contact our Polar Expedition experts to help you plan your perfect Antarctica trip today.