Seasons of Antarctica

Seasons of Antarctica


David McGonigal, Antarctic Veteran
At the South Pole there’s effectively just one day each year – there’s six months of daylight and six months of darkness. The Antarctic Peninsula is not so extreme but, even so, there are months of near darkness in winter and lots of midnight sun – or, at least, midnight light – in summer. 
Not surprisingly, the Antarctic visitor season is in the bright, warmer months of October to March. Effectively, that’s from when the sea ice has melted enough to let us near shore until the bays and inlets are freezing again for the approaching winter. Within those few short months a lot is packed in.
 
Of course, there’s a lot of generalisation in this summary. Some summers are cold and the ice and snow endures, causing problems for penguins seeking rocky nesting ground. Other summers are warm so everything is accessible early and the snow is largely gone before the penguins fledge.

Spring

The first voyage of the season is exploratory as each day gives a first glimpse of the snow and ice conditions. Indeed, the first few voyages are magical as there’s lots of pristine snow and may even still be some sea ice in sheltered bays.
 
It’s unlikely you’ll arrive before the all the penguins have returned from their winter fishing and they’ll be heading to any bare rocks when a nest can be constructed or stoically sitting in the snow to melt it down to the rocks below. 
 
At this time in South Georgia all the beachmaster elephant seal males are long gone but some stroppy male fur seals may still be around. The days are long and night is virtually non-existent. Indeed, passengers staying up late to photograph the sunset have encountered others up early to photograph the dawn. It’s the same photo.
Antarctica glacier

Summer

This is peak activity as penguins lay eggs then share parenting duties with the noisy changeover taking place when one adult returns from fishing to replace the other on the eggs. The arrival of the first chicks depends on how early eggs could be laid so there’s a lengthy cross over across even a single colony with chicks and eggs both visible. Expect to find chicks by Christmas.

It’s a very short childhood for a penguin chick. They have to have fledged into adult feathers and be ready to take to the sea before winter arrives. By mid-January the rapidly-growing chicks are teenagers, either hassling their parents for food (regurgitated directly down their throat) and hanging out in creches. The creches provide some protection against marauding skuas that are everpresent and waiting for a chick to stray too far from the crowd.
Antarctica summer

Autumn

By late January there’s a noticeable night. Humpback whales have been around since the start of summer but have been completely occupied with eating and putting on weight. By now they are satiated and perhaps even getting a bit bored so they are likely to view people in small boats as a welcome distraction. 
 
Whale watching in Antarctica is very special. It’s not just the backdrop and the chance for complete silence to hear their every breath. The sheer number of whales can result in each boat being approached by one or two whales who may spy hop to see who were are, do some “bubble netting” to catch krill, apparently oblivious to our presence, or simply swim around and under our vessel holding eye contact as it does so.
 
By now the penguin colonies are noticeably emptying. This is a trying time for penguins. The chicks go through embarrassing stage, the equivalent of human acne, where their down come out in tufts revealing the waterproof adult feathers underneath. Now the chicks can swim and feed themselves their parents must undertake their own moult, standing on the beach and starving as new feathers replace old – they too are not waterproof until the process is complete. 
Zodiacs in Antarctica
An oft-asked question is “when is the best time to go to Antarctica?” As you can see, it depends what you want to see. As to the weather, I’ve never been able to pick a month that has better weather than others. It’s brighter and snowier in spring and darker and colder in autumn but there can be snow storms, cloud and wind at any time and there can be weeks of perfectly stable bluebird days. Antarctica always has something for everyone.
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