Travel Our ‘Frozen Planet’ to Snow Hill in Sir David Attenborough’s Footsteps

November 1, 2017

Guest post by Shane Evoy, Operations Leader

Shane is an experienced leader with over 125 expeditions and seventeen years under his belt. He has led trips for the past twelve years and has also included the remote islands of the south pacific to his travel log. Shane’s objective on any trip is to make sure you have the “Trip of a Lifetime”.

Emperor penguins seen on Antarctic expedition. Photo: Dr. Tom Hart, Penguin Watch

Emperor penguins seen on Antarctic expedition. Photo: Dr. Tom Hart, Penguin Watch.

Like the wildly popular March of the Penguins before it, Sir David Attenborough’s critically acclaimed BBC mini-series Frozen Planetgave viewers worldwide an unprecedented, never-before-seen glimpse of life in the polar regions. Over the course of nine visually stunning episodes, we were guided on a deep dive into life in the polar regions, as experienced by rarely seen wildlife inhabitants.

Quark’s Frozen Planet odyssey began much earlier than the 2011 series release date. Like many researchers, scientists and academics, Attenborough and his team turned to us for safe, comfortable passage to the Arctic and Antarctica. The Frozen Planet team traveled aboard the powerhouse icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov, enabling them to reach some of the least visited places on earth.

One of those fascinating, rarely reached destinations is Snow Hill, a snow-capped island 33km (20 miles) long and 12km (7 miles) wide in Graham Land, off the east coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. Back in 2004, Quark conducted its first ground visit to this extremely isolated realm of the Emperor penguin, near Snow Hill in the Weddell Sea. Two hundred and sixty-three hectares of sea ice adjacent to the coast have been identified as an Important Bird Area (IBA) by BirdLife International because of this colony.

As an Expedition Leader, I had the great pleasure of visiting Snow Hill 15 times before the Kapitan Khlebnikov was retired from service and am thrilled to share exciting news with you:

In the 2018.19 Antarctic season, you’ll have four brand new opportunities to visit this exceptional Emperor penguin colony aboard the Kapitan Khlebnikov!

Like the BBC and Discovery Channel crews and only a handful of others, you could have the opportunity to witness the spectacle of an Emperor penguin rookery thousands strong in one of the least accessible places on the planet.

The Making of Frozen Planet: Unparalleled Access, Expert Guidance

It was executive producer Alastair Fothergill whose fascination with the polar regions gave rise to the Frozen Planet concept. He and Attenborough had worked together since 1988 at the BBC’s Natural History Unit, the largest wildlife documentary production house in the world. Fothergill left his position as the head of the documentary unit to make The Blue Planet (2001) and Planet Earth(2006), which went on to become the bestselling non-fiction DVD ever produced, worldwide. Fothergill also produced Attenborough’s 1993 miniseries Life in the Freezer, a six-part exploration of the natural history of Antarctica.

As you can imagine, we were thrilled when this documentary team contacted us to inquire about joining our expeditions for transport to the polar regions. We were the only travel company at that time exclusively offering expeditions in the polar regions, and had both the equipment and expert expedition staff needed for an undertaking of this magnitude.

“I had a wonderful season in 2008 working with Quark Expeditions on board their fabulous icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov in the Weddell Sea, Ross Sea and sub-Antarctic.” - Sue Flood. Photo credit: Sue Flood Photography

“I had a wonderful season in 2008 working with Quark Expeditions on board their fabulous icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov in the Weddell Sea, Ross Sea and sub-Antarctic.” – Sue Flood.
Photo credit:
Sue Flood Photography

The scenery is breathtaking. The last time I was there, this northernmost Emperor penguin colony was nestled into the shore of Snow Hill Island, with icebergs scattered around it. We landed 1.5 nautical miles (2.4km) away from the colony and walked in over the sea ice.

What Makes Snow Hill Island Emperor Penguins Unique

The Snow Hill Emperor colony has been hard for researchers to track because they’re transient and won’t stay within range of a motion-sensitive camera.

For most people, including our own Scientist-in-Residence Dr. Tom Hart, leader of Oxford University’s Penguin Watch program, the prospect of reaching this mysterious, little-visited colony is one of the most exciting aspects of his upcoming Antarctic travels.

“Emperor penguins breed on ice, which makes them totally out of sync with every other penguin species,” Dr. Hart explains. “Snow Hill is the furthest colony north and therefore the closest to Tierra del Fuego in South America, but is only accessible by icebreaker. We’re really looking forward to reaching this colony of approximately 4,000 breeding pairs of Emperors, who will have laid and hatched eggs by the time we get there.”

Emperor penguins and chicks near Snow Hill Island on the frozen Weddell Sea. Photo credit: Andy Stringer, Snow Hill Safari expedition (2009).

Emperor penguins and chicks near Snow Hill Island on the frozen Weddell Sea. Photo credit: Andy Stringer, Snow Hill Safari expedition (2009).

Hart will travel with passengers on the second Snow Hill voyage in 2018, in order to collect penguin dropping samples for DNA testing. “We want to know what diseases they carry and whether they’re the same as nearby populations outside of the Weddell Sea, or whether being further north shaped their evolution.”

Antarctic wildlife are thrilling to see in their natural environment, although sightings don’t always go as you might expect. Frozen Planet producer Vanessa Berlowitz shared her own comedic story of managed expectations with Entertainment Weekly:

“In the Southern Ocean, near Antarctica, you get these congregations of krill, which are like shrimp, and that attracts all of the marine wildlife. You can get thousands of whales — blue whales, minke whales, fin whales, humpback whales — seals, penguins, in this kind of huge feeding frenzy. We tried to time some of our penguin and orca shoots to be there at the right time and go through the areas that we thought it might happen. It never quite did. Although I think one of the most frustrating texts that I ever got was from a scientist friend of Alastair [Fothergill], our boss, who was on a fishing vessel doing science work. This fuzzy picture came through, I looked at it and said, ‘What is that?’ I started to realize it was a picture of thousands of whales. You can see fins right to the horizon. The note underneath it was, ‘Is this what you were looking for?’ (Laughs).”

We are always at the whims of the weather in Antarctica, and you should always expect the unexpected—especially when trying to reach a destination as inaccessible as Snow Hill. With that said, the return of the Kapitan Khlebnikov and its onboard helicopters gives us the best chance there is to get into that area and visit this fascinating Emperor penguin colony.

March to the Emperor Penguins in 2018

It was Alastair Fothergill who said, “The scenery in the polar regions is unmatched anywhere else on our planet… in the south, the stars are the penguins.”

The highly anticipated relaunch of this iconic polar trip guides passengers to witness one of the most captivating and rarely experienced wildlife events in Antarctica. On these four exclusive Legendary Snow Hill: March to the Emperor Penguins voyages in 2018, you’ll crush through ice, then fly high overhead by helicopter before trekking the rest of the way to the rookery on foot.

It’s an authentic polar exploration experience that brings you closer to the action than any wildlife documentary ever could.


Emperor penguin chicks at Snow Hill

Emperor penguin chicks at Snow Hill. Photo credit: Sue Flood Photography

The world’s rarely visited, most challenging destinations make for the greatest and most memorable adventures, don’t they? Snow Hill has definitely earned its reputation as one of the toughest places on earth to reach, but you’ll have 4 exciting opportunities to make it happen in 2018!

Our exclusive Legendary Snow Hill: March to the Emperor Penguins expedition guides you right into the heart of the isolated realm of the world’s northernmost Emperor colony. Visit the secluded rookery made famous by the BBC documentary ‘Frozen Planet,’ filmed in 2009 when famed natural historian Sir David Attenborough and his crew traveled to Antarctica with Quark.

Visit One of the Most Isolated Penguin Rookeries on Earth

Antarctica’s estimated 595,000 Emperor penguins have a huge range and are found on the ice or in the waters surrounding Antarctica. The largest of the penguin species, an adult Emperor tips the scales at 30kg (66 lbs), twice as much as the next-heaviest King penguin.

About 4,000 breeding pairs live on the sea ice just off of Snow Hill, in the Weddell Sea. It’s one of the hardest colonies to reach, but also the closest in proximity to South America and the furthest north. This has made for a fascinating mystery for penguin scientists, who want to understand how this colony has evolved so far north, and how we can help protect them from the effects of climate change.

  • Notoriously tough, Emperor penguins are  built to survive -60°C (-76°F) lows and blizzards of 200 km/h (124 mph)
  • 4 layers of scale-like feathers provide waterproofing and protection from harsh winds
  • Emperors can dive deeper than any other bird, to depths of 565 m (1,850 ft.), to hunt for fish, krill and squid
  • They’re the largest of the 17 penguin species at 1.15 m (45 in.) tall
  • Unlike other penguin species, Emperors breed on ice; females go hunt while males incubate eggs in their brood pouch
  • Approximately 4,000 breeding pairs reside on the ice near Snow Hill in the northernmost Emperor rookery in the world, surrounded by thick sea ice — you’ll need an icebreaker to get there!

The only way to reach this colony is by powering through thick sea ice aboard our passenger-favorite icebreaker, Kapitan Khlebnikov. You’ll soar over the dramatic, spellbinding icescape by helicopter, then trek the rest of the way over a marked ice path on foot to avoid disturbing the colony in the midst of its breeding season.

Legendary Snow Hill: March to the Emperor Penguins is your opportunity to become one of only a handful of people on earth to have witnessed the spectacle of this colony of thousands of Emperors in its icy, typically inaccessible natural environment.

Emperors are notoriously tough and have adapted to survive -60°C (-76°F) lows and blizzards of 200 km/h (124 mph). They have 4 layers of scale-like feathers, which provide waterproofing and protection from the harsh winds. Their short, sturdy tail feathers provide stability and support as they rock back on their tails while incubating an egg in the punishing conditions.

Unlike other penguin species, Emperors breed on ice and it’s the adult male who is responsible for protecting the egg until it hatches. Emperors will raise one chick per year and while the female of the pair heads off to hunt, the male tucks the single egg into a flap of abdominal skin called his brood pouch. The male adults huddle together, their ample layers of body fat and communal body heat the only thing standing between their precious eggs and the most frigid conditions on the planet. They take turns on the inside of the pack, trying to ensure the survival of the group.

It’s a life fraught with danger; the group must stay watchful for leopard seals and killer whales, who love to make a meal of an adult Emperor. Skuas swoop overhead, constantly on the lookout for a tasty, untended egg.

Emperors can dive deeper than any other bird, to depths of 565 m (1,850 ft.) to hunt for fish, krill and squid. Their unique aerodynamic build makes them fast in the water, and adaptations in the way their body handles oxygen allows them to stay underwater for up to 22 minutes.

An adult Emperor penguin stands surrounded by hatchlings just preparing to moult at Snow Hill, Antarctica.

An adult Emperor penguin stands surrounded by hatchlings just preparing to moult at Snow Hill, Antarctica.

The mother returns only once the chicks have hatched, where she’ll regurgitate food for the hatchlings to eat. Her partner, who’s gone through most of his body’s food stores by now, can finally return to the sea to fish.

As spring approaches in Antarctica, chicks huddle in crèches to stay warm. Their parents head to the sea to fish, in an effort to build fat stores that will provide the energy needed for their annual moult. December brings warmer weather and the breaking up of the outer ice, which brings the sea closer to the Emperors’ breeding grounds. Nearly finished moulting, the juvenile penguins are ready to try swimming and fishing on their own. Their parents will hang back, as their moult only begins once their young have headed off to sea. While they’re in the process of replacing their feathers, the adults lack waterproofing and are unable to fish.

By January, new plumage has grown in and the adult penguins are ravenous, more than ready to head to sea and hunt once again.

Trek to Snow Hill’s Emperor Penguins with Antarctic Experts

Early season Antarctica offers opportunities to spot 10-12 species of birds, some of them unique. I spoke with one of our expedition team members, ornithologist Fabrice Genevois, about what excites him most about the opportunity to visit Snow Hill. For him, it’s all about the birds. The journey to Snow Hill offers an exciting opportunity to see not only Emperor penguins, but snow petrels and Antarctic petrels, he said, which you can’t see anywhere else in the world.

Trek to the Snow Hill Emperor Penguins by icebreaker, helicopter and on foot.

Trek to the Snow Hill Emperor Penguins by icebreaker, helicopter and on foot.

“It was many years ago that I saw my first Emperor penguin–I was just a student!–but it was a highlight in my ornithology career that I remember to this day,” Fabrice said. “The Emperor penguin is to Antarctica what the polar bear is to the Arctic. It’s that iconic animal that just takes your breath away when you get to see it in its natural habitat.”

Fabrice joins a skilled and experienced team in leading passengers on this exclusive journey to the iconic Emperor penguin rookery. You’ll travel with Operation and Expedition Leaders (ELs) Solan Jensen* , who was raised in the Alaskan wilderness and now calls the polar regions home, and Shane Evoy* , a Quark veteran who’s led 125 expeditions and been to Snow Hill 15 times, more than any other EL.

You’ll have the opportunity to travel alongside and hear lectures from Expedition Team memberswith rich and diverse backgrounds in sciences, naturalism, conservation and exploration. Depending on your departure date, your expedition might also include special guest experts like:

Power Through Thick Weddell Sea Ice on the Kapitan Khlebnikov

Traveling aboard the 24,000 horsepower Kapitan Khlebnikov is an exceptional adventure in its own right. Just ask retired Canadian schoolteacher Kerry Peters, who’s taken expeditions on this iconic icebreaker eight times!

Kapitan Khlebhnikov

Each of Kapitan Khlebnikov’s hulls is 1.75 metres thick at the ice skirt. Water moves at 74 tonnes per minute between hulls; a polymer paint coating on the ice skirt preventing friction and a system to force pressurized air from above the keel to halfway down the ship also assist in ice-breaking.

Kerry has traveled with Quark a dozen times and was excited to hear that the Kapitan Khlebnikovwill journey to Snow Hill once again. He shared some advice for travelers in a recent guest post on the Quark Blog. “Spend time on the fly bridge, especially outside on the bridge deck. That feeling of standing over this powerhouse as you crush your way through sea ice is indescribable. There’s nothing I love more than being at the front of that ship, up top or on the wings, taking it all in.”

You’ll have a variety of incredible vantage points from which to take in the Kapitan Khlebnikov’s immense ice-breaking power, from the sights and sounds of the bridge and bow, to the mesmerizing aerial views from the flightseeing helicopters. This was the first ship to bring Quark passengers to Snow Hill Island and is the only ship to have circumnavigated Antarctica twice.

It’s piloted by experts, too. The captain’s team includes dedicated professionals with advanced training in ice and hydrology, who conduct ice reconnaissance to evaluate ice density and conditions ahead of your off-ship excursions.

Become Part of a Polar Wildlife Experience No Documentary Could Match

Witness thousands of adult Emperor penguins and their chicks in their sea ice rookery near Snow Hill in the Weddell Sea. Photo credit: Sue Flood Photography

Witness thousands of adult Emperor penguins and their chicks in their sea ice rookery near Snow Hill in the Weddell Sea.
Photo credit:
Sue Flood Photography

Emperor penguins somehow thrive in conditions few species could tolerate, and this colony near the northern tip of Antarctica is even more a mystery than most. The window of opportunity for sighting this geographically inaccessible rookery is so slim that scientists and researchers are joining passengers on select Legendary Snow Hill: March to the Emperor Penguins departures. They’re seizing this remarkable opportunity to gather penguin DNA and learn more about this colony’s evolution in the warmer, more northern part of the Antarctic region. You can read more about what Dr. Tom Hart and his Penguin Watch researchers hope to accomplish here.

Four exclusive departures from October 6th to November 11th 2018 take you through the iconic Drake Passage crossing and right into the action at this remote Emperor rookery. Want to learn more?