Christmas Day below the Antarctic Circle began with a special delivery by Santa: an emperor penguin. A rarity to see at this time of year, this largest of the penguin family was a good omen for the day that was to follow.

Soon after, the ship arrived at Barlas Channel surrounded by ferocious glaciers and choked with ice. Braving sub-freezing temperatures and light snow, guests boarded Zodiacs and began exploring the inlets coves in search of wildlife. And they were rewarded: many boats found a group of chinstrap penguins in an incredibly scenic spot beneath walls of ice. There were also crabeater and Weddell seals lying on the ice floes, lifting their heads and opening their eyes to the cheers of onlookers. Snow petrels darted around overhead, difficult to distinguish in a world of white. Guests returned to the ship ready for lunch.

Directly prior to lunch being served, the Captain put the National Geographic Endurance to the test with a thrilling trip down the east channel of “The Gullet,” a narrow passage filled with staggering beautiful ice and walled by steep cliffs of white. The ship plowed through, the hull thundering as it deflected the frozen maze, past icebergs towering above the upper deck. Staff, crew, and passengers all stayed firmly focused in silence as the Endurance easily cruised through the frozen landscape reminding all of the expeditions of old, including that other Shackleton and her name shake ship, the original Endurance.

As passengers capped off lunch with carrot cake dessert, the Endurance continued north through a thick grey fog, so different than an hour earlier. A penguin talk by naturalist Ben was dramatically interrupted with a sighting from the bridge: killer whales. Pack ice killer whales Type B to be exact! A calm pandemonium ensued, and guests were treated to a small pod of killer whales directly in front of the ship. The show continued when a pair of humpback whales were also sighted, and the clatter of camera shutters could be heard as the whales “fluked,” showing their tails. At one point, the pair surfaced right next to the ship, so close that you could see the white mass of the creatures under the surface and hear the whoosh of air as they breached.

Under a veil of fog and a gentle rocking from the swell, guests enjoyed a krill talk by naturalist Chelsea, followed by a lively cocktail hour. The day’s recap saw a rock presentation by Serguei, some top-quality photos by National Geographic photographer Jeff, a visit undersea with James, and Penguin Watch by Jen and Catie, and whales by Ben. Many thanks to all staff and crew for making Christmas Day special for all of us!