Antarctic Voyage Log 2011-2012

The story of my incredible experience in Antarctica in December 2011–January 2012 is now available as a PDF for download. It’s the  voyage log that I wrote much of, edited, designed, and laid out. This is what occupied me from February until it was completed in electronic format in May 2012. To my great joy, the printed version turned out beautifully and has been mailed out to voyage participants. It’s not available for purchase but it look stunning on screen, so please take a look.

Cover of the voyage log I compiled and designed for my first Antarctic expedition with Cheesemans' Ecology Safaris

Cover of the voyage log I compiled and designed for my first Antarctic expedition with Cheesemans’ Ecology Safaris


It was an amazing adventure being a naturalist staff member for Cheesemans’ Ecology Safaris in the Southern Ocean. I’m thrilled to be going back again on their special geology-focused trip this year, 12/27/12 to 1/20/13. We’ll be going again to the Falkland Islands, incredible South Georgia Island, and the exquisite land of ice, the Antarctic Peninsula. I’ll be doing the log again, too. The trip I’m on is full but they are doing an unusually long and in-depth Antarctic Peninsula only voyage, 12/30/12 to 1/17/13. If you’re thinking about visiting Antarctica, I highly recommend checking out this exceptional tour which will likely not happen again.

As I write this in early August, 2012 it’s high season for whale-watching in Monterey Bay, and I’m on the Monterey Bay Whale Watch boat almost every single day. We’re seeing humpback whales, blue whales, killer whales, and dolphins, and sharing them with visitors from all over the world. The voyage log was a huge project and once the whale-watching slows down a bit after summer I hope to have more time for drawing on the amazing images and inspirations from the Antarctic, and turning them into art for my sponsors and everyone.

Antarctica Was Incredible — Everything I’d Hoped

My 26-day voyage to Antarctica aboard the M/V Ortelius as tour staff with Cheesemans’ Ecology Safaris was AMAZING. I have returned to California with sketches of nesting albatrosses and penguins, small watercolors of glaciers and ocean cliffs, 6,300 photos of icebergs and every possible creature, a couple hours of delightful video, many new friends, and innumerable stories to share.

As I sift through it all I’ll be posting here, “back-blogging” or “retro-blogging.” It turned out to be nearly impossible to post regularly from the ship because of limited internet access but more importantly because our schedule of landings was so intense that catching a little sleep became more important.

It was all 100% worth it and I would turn around and do it again in a heartbeat. I hope you’ll stay tuned to live through the trip again with me.

I would like to warmly thank all my fantastic sponsors who literally helped keep me warm in the chilly Antarctic waters. I was properly outfitted for the elements and everything at home was shipshape while I was at sea, thanks to your support that flooded in when I was invited to sail on very short notice. It’s my genuine pleasure now to mold the experiences of the Antarctic into artwork for each of you.

Limited edition sponsorships are still availabe for anyone who didn’t sign up before the trip and who wants in on the first artistic results of this polar adventure. Sponsors who sign up now will help insure I can spend the coming weeks in my art studio, creating new works from the fresh store of inspiration I accumulated during the voyage. I have months’ worth of painting ideas!

Sponsor Kate’s studio time!

I also have the makings of a great multi-media presentation, so if you have a venue where you’d like me to give an illustrated talk about my Antarctic experience just drop me a line [intlink id=”15″ type=”page”]here[/intlink]. I’m looking forward to sharing all the amazing things I’ve seen in every way I can.

Blissed Out in Antarctica

Today was utterly amazing. I can’t even put into words how incredible everything was — the vast gravel plain below gorgeous glaciers with king penguins and fur seals literally everywhere, the rain that soaked almost everything, the wind that kicked up and really challenged our afternoon Zodiac landing on little Prion Island, and the giant wandering albatrosses nesting there literally 10 feet away from the boardwalk we climbed to reach them – also passing hundreds more fur seals, including tiny clumsy pups and males that charge but veer away if you touch their whiskers with a stick. I am completely blissed out. It’s amazing.

Sent to you over a satellite phone using GMN’s XGate software.


First Landing in South Georgia

The Falkland Islands were wonderful (Jan. 2-4, 2012), and now we’ve traversed over 800 miles of open ocean to reach remote, wild, stunning South Georgia Island. We’ll make our first landing this morning at famous Salisbury Plain on the island’s northeast coast. If you’ve seen photos of tens of thousands of King Penguins stretching up a hillside, they were taken here.

Salisbury is also a huge fur seal and elephant seal colony, and we all have to carry walking sticks or broom handles to keep any territorial fur seals at whisker-tickling distance. They do bite but if you stand your ground and rustle their sensitive whiskers with your stick they’ll back off. Many young fur seals are in the water all around our ship, looking up and twirling playfully in the clear blue. King penguins are visible by the thousands on the beach through binoculars and also swim alongside us, bathing with their white bellies skyward or just porpoising along.

There’s a sense of jollity on the ship as passengers take a leisurely breakfast down the hall. It’s drizzling and there’s not enough light for photography so although half the ship got up for 4:30 a.m. breakfast, our 5:30 landing has been postponed to 7:00. For most of us there’s no sense in going back to bed so we might as well enjoy the early morning. I had a cup of espresso about 4:30, from the wonderful automatic espresso machine up in the library. I can hear laughter and clinking cups from down the dining room down the passage.

Soon we’ll gear up for chilly drizzle and hiking in mud, but for now we’re cozy and warm inside the sturdy Ortelius.


Iceberg In Sight!

The first iceberg of our Antarctic voyage is in sight! It was spotted at 10:24 a.m. on our third day sailing from the Falkland Islands to South Georgia. It’s a beauty, too; towering, with gorgeous blue depths where waves crash over its submerged ledges. This is a chunk of the massive glaciers that pour off the edges of the Antarctic continent and it has drifted northwest over a thousand miles on the currents.

Early this morning, I was awakened by an loud knock on my door and a shout of, “Whales!” I pulled on some warm layers and hurried to the bridge to join a few folks identifying the blows of humpback whales to starboard. Over about fifteen minutes we counted probably 8 whales including a mother and calf pair.

Then in the far distance, the remote and forbidding Shag Rocks appeared on the horizon. The veteran staff say this was the best weather they’ve ever seen at this spot and the captain circled the islands. Blue-eyed shags (cormorants) flew close overhead on their way to and from their nests on the crags.

Just a few miles after Shag Rocks, we passed what was possibly the first Southern Right Whale this voyage has ever seen. I didn’t see the whale myself but from the photos of the flukes I’m certain it was not a humpback.

We are still excited about the rare whale sighting, and now there’s ice!

I’ve seen small icebergs off tidewater glaciers in Southeast Alaska but this lone berg is far bigger, and it’s not even that big by Antarctic standards.

I’m really in the Southern Ocean now.


Made It To Ushuaia! Dec. 29, 2011

Kate has made it to Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, “The Gateway to Antarctica!”

Here’s a fun video of my excitement and the beautiful mountains visible from the airport at “El Fin Del Mundo,” the End of the World.


I first drafted this post in the air above a snowy expanse in the Rocky Mountains on the first of three long flights on the way to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. I’m now in the Hotel Canal Beagle (Beagle Channel Hotel) surrounded by the Southern end of the Andes mountain chain, craggy and snowy even in the summer. It’s only 1000 kilometers to Antarctica!

I have glimpsed our ship, the M/V Ortelius, at the pier, have eaten Fuegian-style trout for dinner in a local art cafe, and at last have a secure internet connection. It’s time for some long-anticipated sleep in a real bed (including a late night packing, it’s been…64 hours with a few airplane naps), but first, I want to let everyone know I made it!

Flying from San Francisco to Atlanta with me were Doug and Gail Cheeseman, founders of Cheesemans’ Ecology Safaris, the company on whose Antarctic voyage I’ll be naturalist staff member number 15 for 90 world-traveling passengers.

In Atlanta another staff member and a few passengers joined our flight to Buenos Aires, and then in the BA airport we met up with over a dozen more. My last flight down the length of Argentina stopped briefly in Trelew, Chubut State, which took us low over beautiful Peninsula Valdes, where I had seen Southern Right Whales a few years ago. It’s been a beautiful mid-summer reunion with South America so far.

The Cheesemans group are now spread in two adjacent hotels right on the waterfront of gorgeous, mountainous, alpine-flavored Ushuaia. Tomorrow is a day for getting to know everyone as more people arrive and some go on field trips. On New Year’s Eve afternoon we set sail for Antarctica!

Read about the voyage itinerary and what we’re likely to see:

It’s been an incredible three weeks already since I said, “Yes, I’ll go!” and my flight was booked. The response to my requests for sponsorships has been more than I imagined, and just what I needed to be able to take off for a month with a clear mind. My most heartfelt thanks go to each of my generous sponsors, and I look forward to posting a page soon recognizing their contributions.

It’s not too late to sponsor me, by the way. Signing up now for the remaining special limited-edition prints from this artistic expedition will support studio time when I return and allow me to focus on interpreting the experience artistically, in color, in line, in words, and in whatever ways the Antarctic itself inspires me.

Sponsor Kate’s Antarctic Artistic Adventure Go here:

And keep watching this blog to hear about some of that inspiration as it happens. Best wishes from “Fin del Mundo!”

Kate’s Going to Antarctica!

Sometimes dreams come true when you least expect them!

On very short notice I’ve agreed to join the naturalist staff of Cheesemans’ Ecology Safaris‘ 26-day voyage to the Falkland Islands, South Georgia, and the Antarctic Peninsula — leaving in just two weeks!


I fly on December 28, 2011 to Ushuaia, Argentina, in Tierra del Fuego on the Beagle Channel, where we’ll set sail on New Year’s Eve aboard the M/V Ortelius. The itinerary is incredible: three days in the Falklands, six days on South Georgia, one day in the South Orkneys, and a full week on and around the Antarctic Peninsula.

I’ll be soaking up incredible scenery, amazing wildlife, and the power of the great Southern Ocean. I’ve sailed that heaving ocean before — and loved every minute — in a much larger ship, as far as Cape Horn and the eastern Falkland Islands. This time I am delighted and honored to be working on a small, ice-strengthened expedition vessel as part of a tour staff of 15 and only 95 passengers.

There is a lot to do between now and departure, and of course Christmas is right in the middle of it. I’m going over my foul weather gear, pondering portable art supplies, and getting everything taken care of on the home front. There’s location research, travel arrangements, and, these days, getting the digital equipment shipshape. It’s a bit overwhelming, but it will all be worth it when I see my first nesting albatross.

KateWithPenguins2959 KateAsPenguin2958


 Here’s me getting into the penguin spirit at a Magellanic penguin rookery near Punta Arenas, Chile. They sit like that for hours, then bend and preen just when you want to take a picture.

Sharing the Whales with the Local World

Kate’s Article on Whale Watching Appears in the Monterey County Weekly

I want local people in the Monterey Bay to know that the whales they’ve been hearing about this summer are still here, and that whale watching is not just for tourists. School is back in session and what better experiential learning opportunity is there than seeing the biggest animals ever to have lived on Earth, first-hand? My opinion piece inviting locals to venture onto the ocean appears in the “Local Spin” column in the August 26, 2010 issue of the Monterey County Weekly.

Mark Anderson, one of the editors of the Monterey County Weekly, was on my whale watch a few weeks ago. He knows me from my public poetry readings as Pacific Grove’s Poet in Residence back in 2004–2006 and was curious what I’d have to say about whales, beyond my usual narration on the boat.

Writing this piece required a difficult cognitive shift from the factual reporting and encouraging directing (“Look left!”) I do on the microphone. The audience for this free paper is broader than the self-selecting subset that pays to go on a marine excursion. My goal was to inspire people who might not normally consider whale watching to give it a try. I had to show the value of opening oneself to an unfamiliar experience, one that many people know can induce some very uncomfortable side-effects. Quoting actual happy guests from recent trips was the ticket.

I’m glad for the chance to share my point of view, and hope it brings some new kids, of all ages, out to marvel at the whales.

Read my piece, “More Than a Fluke: Big Lessons from Schooling with the Whales” on the Weekly site here.


More Than a Fluke

Big lessons from schooling with the whales in Monterey Bay.

By Kate Spencer

Thursday, August 26, 2010

One father of three from France said, “For you, this is everyday. For us, it is magic.” A woman from Sacramento nervously admitted she’d never been on the ocean before. Once she saw three blue whales, she was near tears with joy: “They’re so huge. I’m just soaking it up.”

Hundreds of people who never thought they would see a blue whale are fulfilling that lifelong dream daily after a short cruise on Monterey Bay’s whale watch fleet.

Blue whales and humpbacks summer here every year, but this season an unusually good krill bloom has brought a consistent group of blue whales feeding close to our shore. Widespread publicity has brought crowds of watchers from all over California and beyond since early July.

The whale-watching experience reveals a lot about our human selves. As one of the on-board marine naturalists for Monterey Bay Whale Watch (375-4650, with Nancy Black, I’ve witnessed the delight and even reverence of many who are seeing Earth’s most massive animal of all time. Whales impress almost everyone who’s old enough to understand that the 30-foot column of steam and the long, low back belong to an enormous submerged animal. Choruses of cheers ring out when the graceful humpbacks arch their tails up into the air. If a whale breaches or swims near the boat, the crowd goes wild.

Experienced nature-watchers stand out because they are dressed for the cold, are patient with the process of searching out sightings and seem content to watch whatever the animals are doing.

One common question indicates that a family has spent more time at zoos and Sea World than observing wildlife: “Why aren’t the whales (or dolphins) jumping?” While marine parks claim to be educating the public and inspiring conservation, there is an underlying message that the captive animals are happy and that their lives are enhanced by interactions with their trainers. People who’ve bought into that justification may take longer to realize that wild animals have rich lives of their own and are not there to perform for us. I like to explain that kids don’t do cartwheels all day long, and the whales need time to rest, eat and travel too.


Some visitors wrestle with the idea of humankind conquering nature. A man from Chicago once fumed that all we saw were a pod of killer whales, saying “I can see those in Orlando.” He wanted a humpback. While he clearly didn’t grasp the sheer wildness of free-living orcas – the ocean’s top predator, 10 times bigger than a polar bear – maybe he wanted to see something just too utterly large to tame.

The terrific video available these days also changes how people look at whales. Kids who have the greatest access to digital media have some of the shortest attention spans among whale watchers. YouTube now makes it possible to search for the most interesting 15 seconds of a breaching whale video, so why be bored? Teenagers sometimes retreat into their iPods or texting while the best action of the day is happening starboard.

There are some things you can’t get from even HD video, though. Boat-based whale-watching allows a true view of the size of the whales, a window into their unedited lives, and the possibility of experiencing our authentic relationship with the wild.

Connecting with nature is the best way to inspire children to grow up committed to conservation, according to educator David Sobel, author of Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education. It’s crucial to give children a chance to build a lasting, nourishing love of the wild before they are burdened with worries about overwhelming environmental problems. Observing nature can also help lengthen attention spans and combat digital addiction.

For adults, too, there is nothing like spending time in the wilderness beyond human artifice to restore awe. We need these glimpses of recovering endangered species to counteract the flood of negative information about climate change and the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster.

Now that we’ve stopped hunting whales in U.S. waters, whales even seek out interactions with us. Blue whales mostly ignore us, but humpbacks sometimes approach our boats and roll to look at the people. And in Baja California, some gray whales lead their calves over to small boats to be petted.

Bringing children and friends whale-watching might be one of the best things you can do to help humanity toward a more restored relationship with nature. When we see whales and dolphins in their native ocean, nursing their calves and negotiating their social lives, we know that some things are going right in the world. The big, ancient animals are still swimming.

KATE SPENCER is a marine life artist, naturalist, and former Pacific Grove poet-in-residence: For more photos and video from the summer’s whale trips, visit

Curious Whale Sprays Onlookers

We nicknamed the whale Propellor because there is a line of welts down its back and a gouge in its side, obviously from close contact with a small boat’s propellor. It’s all healed, and it certainly doesn’t deter this strong adult Humpback Whale from approaching large whale-watching boats and swimming around them repeatedly. It apparently just likes boats — that’s probably how it got that wound in the first place.

When Propellor showed up in Monterey Bay in July, there were several days where many whale watch tours were treated to exceptionally close encounters of the large kind. Here is a video I shot while narrating one of Propellor’s visits to the Sea Wolf II. I’m upstairs, looking down at the guests cramming the rail to get close to this amazing, sentient visitor. One person at the rail has a particularly large Canon lens. He’s Daniel Bianchetta, a local photographer who comes out often with Monterey Bay Whale Watch, the company I guide for. You can see some of his stunning photographs, including a Humpback Whale’s eye, at under Liquid Nature.