Finally, Antarctica proper. Time for penguins!
Our first landfall in Antarctica was at Half Moon Island, a crescent-shaped, rocky island with chinstrap penguin colonies and a small Argentinian research station. (Technically Half Moon Island is part of the South Shetland Islands, not the Antarctic Peninsula, but there was ice and there were penguins, so I’m not going to be a stickler.) When we arrived, Half Moon Island was covered by an unseasonable blanket of snow that reached all the way to the beach.
In fact, we encountered these conditions throughout our trip: warming temperatures on the Antarctic Peninsula are generating greater amounts of precipitation that fall as snow. And that extra snow is making it difficult for the penguin colonies to find the exposed, dry rock needed to build their nests. Even–and especially–in this wild and remote place, the effects of climate change are throwing a wrench in the historical breeding cycles and feeding habits of local wildlife. Interestingly, there are both winners and losers in this scenario. Due to the reduction in sea ice cover in the Antarctic Peninsula, Chinstrap penguin colonies have expanded in recent years even as Adelie penguin colonies, which are generally located further south, have shrunk.
Here are the three types of penguins that we encountered on our Antarctic journey:
For the next five days, as we cruised through the islands surrounding the Antarctic Peninsula, we settled into a routine of two excursions a day consisting of landings by zodiac (those black inflatable boats) or outings on the water. Usually our excursions lasted a little over three hours. That meant that when we landed, we had plenty of time to wander around, watch the wildlife, and contemplate the scenery in solitude.
One nice aspect of Antarctica is that there are no land based predators that pose a threat to humans (i.e. no polar bears), so after a briefing to point out sensitive, off-limit areas, we were free to wander as we wished. During the water outings, most of the ship’s passengers piled into zodiacs for some intimate face time with the ice bergs. Meanwhile, a small 6-person group of us had the opportunity to break off and explore by kayak. I’ll post more pictures from our kayaking excursions in a future blog entry, but for now, here are some excerpts from my journal on our first few days in Antarctica . . .
January 1, 2010
Yesterday we spotted our first land! It was like a miracle. After two days of empty ocean, with only the albatross to keep us company, we were suddenly surrounded by ice, snow, and glacier-covered mountains. Little “bergy bits” floated by our porthole. Everyone on board went wild.
Here’s a video showing the gorgeous 360 view from our boat:
The whole day prior had been spent in a frenzy of preparation: boots! zodiac orientation! vacuuming our clothes! preparation of kayak gear! And then, our first landfall, where we visited a chinstrap penguin rookery on Half Moon Island.
The penguins were a marvel–squawking and waddling purposefully along on their worn penguin highways. Clusters of them nested in colony outposts throughout the island. The best part is that the penguins just went about their business as usual and didn’t seem to notice us standing there staring at them.
. . .
That night we regrouped for dinner, and then a champagne New Year’s toast at 10 pm for those who wanted to go to bed early. The rest of us stayed up and partied. Dan and Jan had smuggled in Veuve Clicquot from their room, the staff and sailors joined the celebration, and the less inhibited passengers danced in the lounge. Meanwhile, we were cruising through fields of brash ice, through walls of glaciated snow, and past hulking icebergs. Occasionally we would be distracted from our New Year’s festivities by calls of “whale!” and we’d run to the windows to see if we could spot them. It was surreal, and utterly satisfying. If only every New Year’s eve could be this singular.
The next morning (today) we had just finished breakfast when the PA mentioned that more whales had been spotted. They were feeding humpbacks, creating bubble curtains to herd krill and then lunging with their gigantic maws to filter the krill from the water. It was an awe-inspiring sight, and interesting for me since I had seen their more leisurely side while swimming with them in Tonga. In contrast, their behavior here seemed more purposeful. And the whales were going at the krill like gangbusters. We saw four or five groups all feeding, lunging up with their beak-like open mouths. No breaching or lolling about for these guys. They were obviously hungry!
. . . [For more on our experience kayaking with these feeding whales, stay tuned for my future blog post, Looking for Captain Hook.]
This afternoon, we visited a gentoo penguin rookery on Cuverville Island. I hiked up a steep snow slope to sit for a while by myself, watching and listening to a small colony of gentoos perched on a snow-free patch of dirt and rocks, with the backdrop of a huge glacier behind them. I watched one persistent guy fetch rock after rock. Another (maybe more experienced?) couple just watched from the comfort of their completed, snug nest. Spats broke out among the skuas who patrolled the air above the colonies while small clusters of penguins–stretching their necks upwards like trumpet horns–would break out into their trademark caws.
I put together a short video of the Gentoo penguin rookery at Cuverville Island:
On our Cuverville visit, I got to hold a surprisingly heavy penguin egg (it had been stolen and then lost by a skua, so there was no way to return it to its nest). Curiously, its color was the blue of the surrounding glaciers.
Scattered in the bay below us were icebergs of every shape. In this arresting backdrop, our ship rested in the harbor while gnat-sized Zodiacs buzzed back and forth from shore to ship. I decided to keep hanging out with the penguins, filming and photographing and just plain watching. The penguins are a delight to watch: comical-looking, but serious in intent. By the way, I think the smell factor is overrated. Yes it smells, but not as bad as some farms I’ve known . . . What’s kind of surprising though is how brown all the snow gets. Partially, it’s penguin poo. But it’s also the fact that these guys are spending their entire day lying on piles of mud and rocks. The mud is red, like the the penguin poo, so it’s hard to tell what is what. I just make sure I don’t sit down or set my bag down in it.
It was an amazing outing, and only the first of four days. Tonight our boat is also anchored in Paradise Bay, which means that I can relax and not worry about missing the scenery as we cruise by.
As I’m writing this, the light in Paradise Bay is magical . . . the water is dark, flat and as reflective as a mirror. Josh and I wandered around the ship taking photos at around 9:30 pm. At this time of year this far south, the sun never really goes away. But for now, a foggy twilight has settled in until morning.
January 2, 2011
A few thoughts: drying my hair as icebergs float by; eating breakfast with feeding humpback whales; I see glaciers when I close my eyes.
. . .
Best day yet! Landfall at Neko harbor. Greeted at beach by two big orcas. Their dorsal fins cut through the water directly towards our zodiac like they were going to slice us up for supper. As they approached, the orcas’ bodies rose up in front of us, dived, and were gone . . . leaving the crowd on shore chattering and clicking their cameras in excitement. At Neko, I stayed close to shore–three hours on the beach with the penguins, watching them waddle and preen. There was less bickering away from their nests. At the beach, they’d enter and exit the water in small groups. Then they’d stand, looking absentminded and staring off into space or preening, until without warning they’d waddle off in another direction. I tried submerging my underwater mini video cam that I mounted on a monopod. I probably should have practiced at home, but I may have a few seconds of usable footage. Further down the beach, across the water, a gigantic glacier was rumbling with occasional spouts of ice tumbling from its face. We were supposed to be prepared to run for the high ground if a large piece of it calved into the water.
At the very end of our three hour shore landing, Josh and I took the polar challenge: swimming in the ice cold, 28 degree F water. I didn’t want to think about or consider the proposition of swimming. I just ran into the water and plunged my head in. The cold was shocking, but it didn’t really feel as bad as walking slowly into the cold Pacific ocean in California! Go figure. The crazy part was how icy cold my toes were by the time I walked out of the water. The heat was sucked right out of my bare feet in a matter of seconds, and I literally couldn’t feel anything in my toes. After my swim, I was left with two overwhelming thoughts: first, the water is absolutely pristine and clear, and second, the water looks so much warmer when you watch the penguins casually floating face down in it. The swim was cold, but worth it–getting in the water was yet another visceral way to experience this place . . .
A quick dip in Antarctic Waters
. . .
For more stories and photos, stay tuned for my next post, Kayaking in Antarctica.
In the meantime, check out the complete set of my Antarctica photos on Flickr!