In the Eye of the Emperor – Quark’s Return to Snow Hill | Polarjournal
The colony of Snow Hill with its approximately 11’000 – 12’000 emperor penguins is not a coherent colony, but consists of different sectors, each somewhat apart from the other. Since emperor penguins do not build nests, the birds can simply be seen lying or standing on the ice, Image: Michael Wenger

What the polar bear is to tourists in the Arctic, the emperor penguin is in Antarctica: the number one animal to see. But observing the world’s largest penguin species in its natural environment is a major challenge. For one thing, the animals breed in the most remote and difficult-to-reach places around Antarctica. Second, the window of opportunity for visitors to find penguins in large numbers at their breeding sites on the Antarctic fast ice is small. But there is one place where the opportunities for nature and expedition enthusiasts are quite favorable: Snow Hill Island.

When the rediscovery of an emperor penguin colony near the east coast of the Antarctic Peninsula was announced some 18 years ago, it was great news for the burgeoning polar tourism industry. Because it meant that guests could be offered the opportunity to see the penguin species, which weighs up to 36 kilos and is around 120 cm tall, together with its chicks. The colony of emperor penguins had been first described by scientists south of Snow Hill Island in 1997, but had not been visited thereafter.

“We were the first people to encounter the emperor penguins at this site again and this time even from the ground.”

Thomas Lennartz, Vice President Sales Quark Expeditions

The rediscovery of the colony was achieved by the US-Canadian Polar operator Quark Expeditions with the help of the Russian icebreaker Kapitan Klebnikov on November 9, 2004. “We were just following a hunch and clues at the time and found the colony thanks to the spirit of adventure and exploration that Quark Expeditions has been about from the beginning,” Thomas Lennartz, vice president of sales at Quark Expeditions, explained in an interview with PolarJournal. “We were the first people to encounter the emperor penguins at this site again and this time even from the ground.” Counts of the chicks and an estimate of the population size showed about 3,900 chicks and 8,000 – 8,400 adults. The results of the find were published in the journal Marine Ornithology.

The emperor penguin colony south of Snow Hill Island includes about 8,000 adults and between 3,800 and 4,000 chicks each year. The colony was first discovered from the air in 1997, but was not visited on the ground until 2004 by Quark Expeditions. (Photo: Dr Michael Wenger)

The same spirit that inspired Quark Expeditions at the time to visit the colony and thus write polar history has now prompted the operator to want to look the emperor penguins of Snow Hill Island in the eye again and offer guests one of the last true polar expedition destinations along the Antarctic Peninsula. “For over 30 years, Quark Expeditions has been known for offering unique polar expeditions, and that’s exactly what we’re aiming to do with our two trips to Snow Hill Island,” says Thomas Lennartz. “We want to get back to the roots of one of the greatest and most beautiful successes in Quark Expeditions’ history, and we want to take our guests with us.” Beginning in mid-November 2023, two 14-day voyages will revisit the emperor penguins of Snow Hill Island.

Instead of using the Russian icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov, Quark Expeditions will rely on its own ship Ultramarine, built specifically for such expeditions. The key to success here is meticulous planning and the two state-of-the-art on-board helicopters. Image: Quark Expeditions

Already in 2018, the provider had conducted several trips to Snow Hill Island aboard the Kapitan Khlebnikov, repeating the success of 2004 to 2009. So does the new offer mean a resurgence of the original expedition? “No, we will take the journey into the past with the advantages of the future,” laughs Thomas Lennartz. “Our latest ship Ultramarine will take our guests to Antarctica comfortably, safely and more sustainably. That’s because she was built with these very principles in mind, and with all of our decades of experience in the polar regions.” The Ultramarine, which has been in service since last season has all aspects necessary for such an expedition: four environmentally friendly diesel-electric engines provide a total of 12,000 hp, but are enormously quiet and fuel-efficient; the ice class PC6 (1A+) is the highest possible class for a polar passenger ship; two state-of-the-art and powerful Airbus helicopters provide a greater range than was possible with the old Russian helicopters of theKhlebnikov helicopters; two helidecks allow fast and expeditious operation with the helicopters. And last but not least, a large, highly experienced expedition team ensures that all of the 150 guests are provided with all information around the clock, both on board and at the landing sites.

The ship will provide guests with a comfortable platform for the journey, which will begin in Buenos Aires. All guests will then be flown from the Argentine capital to Ushuaia on a Quark-organised charter flight, where the ship will be “Cast off!” in the late afternoon. The next stop will be the Weddell Sea, where the Ultramarine can show its ice class and maneuverability. The pack ice in particular presents a special challenge and had caused difficulties in the past for other operators to get close enough to Snow Hill Island to then be able to use the helicopters. In the case of the Ultramarine, however, Quark sees Airbus’ two on-board helicopters as a game changer. “The helicopters are real game changers, as they can safely cover longer distances and thus increase the ship’s range enormously,” Thomas Lennartz is convinced. “We were able to test these capabilities in the Antarctic last season, not least because of the waiting times caused by the pandemic. So the pilots and also our expedition teams know the capabilities and possibilities of the helicopters very well.” A total of five days are planned for the time at Snow Hill, in order to be able to counter any weather changes. “We want to ensure that every guest has at least one opportunity to observe the majestic penguins at the colony. That’s why the focus is clearly on achieving this goal.”

Quark has planned this expedition very carefully over the past few years, bringing all the experience of 30 years of polar expeditions to bear and also providing scientific support. Ice and weather maps of the past years were closely examined and expert opinions were obtained to ensure the greatest possible planning reliability. But as the saying goes, “A true friend always comes by with vodka and a plan B,” and Quark is a very good friend. In addition to the popular lecture program by the experts on board, the ship is also equipped with numerous facilities to make life as pleasant as possible during the voyage: From the excellent restaurant to the very well-stocked bar and lounge (where you can enjoy more than just vodka), to the fitness and wellness area and the spacious outdoor platforms for observing the Antarctic environment, the range of choices is enormous.

The emperor penguins fascinate young and old. That’s why they are at the top of many people’s wish list of animals to see. A visit leaves no one cold. (Photo: Dr Michael Wenger)

“We leave no stone unturned to be able to show our guests the world of the emperor penguins,” says Quark Expeditions. “But it’s clear that we don’t make any guarantees, because the nature of Antarctica determines our trip in the end. That’s why we have a plan B.” And the expedition’s Plan B, if all else fails and Antarctica closes the doors to Snow Hill, includes the best and most fascinating that this part of the Weddell Sea has to offer. Whether it’s the huge penguin colonies on Paulet Island, Brown Bluff or Devil Island, or the historic sites of the fabled Nordenskjöld expedition, or the Antarctic world from above on a scenic flight, there’s something for everyone. And it is not unlikely that in the end the emperor will also drop by to have an eye on the guests in its frozen empire.

This sponsored article appeared as part of the partnership between PolarJournal and Quark Expeditions

More information about the trip

If you want to know more about the planned “Expedition Snow Hill”, you can find all the necessary information on the following websites;
German: Polar-Kreuzfahrten
English: Quark Expeditions

More about Snow Hill and emperor penguins

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