Our third day in Antarctica was another wonderful day with great weather! It was sunny, warm (about -5C maybe), there were icebergs everywhere, and we were on course for Halfmoon Island. We gathered for a morning meeting to go over our plans for the day and were informed by our leaders that we had lost one of our two propellers the day before. Some ice that we had broken through got pushed underneath the back of the boat and hit a propeller, knocking the shaft out of place. A bit of an expedition hiccup! We were assured that it was nothing to worry about as most ships travel with only one propeller, and our speed had only been reduced to about 8knots, a third of what it had been. The loss of the propeller meant loss of not only speed, but also maneuverability, which meant we had to change some of our travel plans. Though we were worried during the meeting with thoughts of “what if we lose our last propeller and end up stranded???”, that quickly disappeared and we had fun adapting to the new situation. It added to our expedition! The loss of our propeller may have been a good thing because later on it allowed us to see things that we would not have otherwise.
Right after our meeting we were told over the speakers to get our life jackets and backpacks in preparation for boarding the zodiacs. Everyone was ready very quickly; we were all looking forward to setting foot on land for the first time in six days. Before getting on the zodiacs, we had to line up and wash our boots in a sanitizing solution to prevent introducing foreign microorganisms to Antarctica. We got into the zodiacs and had a short cruise across the bay our ship had anchored in before we landed on the gravel shores of Halfmoon Island. I waited my turn to leave the zodiac, following the appropriate dismounting procedures our instructors had taught us, and walked for the first time on Antarctic ground.
The sound of the gravel crunching beneath my feet was soothing, and the world felt wonderfully still and solid. I did not suffer from sea-legs at all, maybe because I didn’t get them in the first place. Some other students staggered around a bit before they got used to land.
The Chinstrap Penguins were waiting on the shore to greet us; a nesting rookery of thousands covered the exposed rock of the island slopes. We had been told not to approach the penguins within 15feet, and 30feet minimum for seals, not to block any wildlife off from the water, not to cross the major penguin ‘highways’, and not to try touching any wildlife. We were warned to be constantly aware of our surroundings and to walk carefully. We were there to get a feel for the land and interact with the wildlife in the least disturbing way possible.
However, you were allowed to sit still and let the penguins approach you – even touch you – if they were so inclined.
Down the shore we could see an old abandoned Argentinian Research Station, and near to where we had landed a rotting old wooden-plank boat sat on the shore. It was a neat thing, surrounded in penguins with lichen growing on it.
The geology of the landscape was awe-inspiring! Rocks that had been carved out by glaciers, snow, water, and wind for thousands of years formed stark, sharply cut pillars across the island.
Lichens of different variety/colours grew on the exposed rock around the penguin rookery, likely getting nutrients from the plentiful guano. The low tide exposed a thick mat of many different species of seaweed on the shores. The abundance of plant-life was startling; when you think of Antarctica, you don’t think of plants.
In the tidal pools you could see swarms of krill, a keystone species in the Antarctic Oceans. It was neat seeing an animal that we had been learning so much about – they looked like tiny freshwater shrimp. In the tidal pool area a small iceberg had washed up on shore and was the subject of much attention by the students.
Not far from the tidal pool area Weddle Seals lolled on the beach with big smiles on their lips. It seemed as though they were sunbathing. It was warm (-2C or something close), warm enough that all of us had stripped off our layers and were staying comfortable in just a long-sleeved shirt or light sweater.
I spent a lot of time with the penguins, something I think most of us did. Walking around and watching them travel was highly amusing – they were very clumsy and walked leaning forward, wings are held straight back, feet lifted high for each step, and their heads tipped down to watch where they set their feet. Every once in a while they would trip and fall, struggling for a moment to get up before proceeding on down or up the highways.
The highways were clearly marked trails of orange guano heading from the rookery up the slopes to the water’s edge down below. Lines of penguins waddled up and down these paths, which were hard packed and easier for them to travel on.
If the penguins felt they were not travelling fast enough, they flopped on their bellies and pushed themselves to slide forward. This method of travel saves energy as well as time. Travelling on their bellies also meant that their feathers picked up guano and would often get disgustingly filthy.
Most of the penguins had nests, and we were lucky enough to see gray, fuzzy blobs of helpless fluff appear from underneath a roosting adult. Some were still sitting on eggs, though it was getting pretty late for that. One pair I watched were really behind the times, only just then doing the courtship ritual and mating! A few individuals were walking up to the rookery from the shoreline carrying rocks to line their nests with.
I spent a lot of time sitting beside one particular pair that had a nest near the edge of the exposed rocks. They sat like soldiers, looking so proud and straight. After a while the one sitting on the nest stood up and moved a couple of steps to the side, allowing the other parent to ceremoniously move forward for a turn at nest-sitting. I did not see any chicks, so I think they may still have been incubating an egg.
A few South Polar Skuas were perched on the rocky pillars in the area, keeping a vigilant eye out for exposed eggs and chicks. They are pirate birds, and are one of the penguins main predators in Antarctica. A couple of students told me that they had seen two of the skuas flying over, fighting over a chick one was carrying.
Sometimes Skuas will even gang up on a weak or injured penguin and kill it. We found evidence of that in a penguin skeleton laying on the outskirts of the rookery, with a penguin head nearby. It was too high up the slopes for any seal to be a suspect.
In Antarctica all creatures fight for survival. Penguins especially are a food item to many in the food chain. Though on land they appear helpless, clumsy, and cute, they are ‘remarkable’ animals that have to be incredibly tough and fit in order to survive both the predators and the climate. Everything in Antarctica walks a line that is so fine that tipping off just the slightest may result in death.
The Chinstrap Penguins in this rookery showed no sign of fear of us mainly because most of them have not seen people before, and others have experienced no reason to feel fear. When we sat and waited quietly, they would waddle and skip right up to us to check us out.
A couple of penguins fell asleep only a couple of meters away from where I sat, never giving me any notice. Other students experienced much closer encounters. One student had a penguin walk up carrying a rock, dropped the rock, pecked this students boot, then waddled away.
It was amazing to be able to spend this time with such amazing animals. Before the expedition I had no idea what my reaction to penguins would be; I took back home a new-found respect and personal connection to them.
Eventually after about three hours on the island, the time came to board the zodiacs and head back to the ship. We set a new course for Deception Island which we would reach later on in the day, and spent the afternoon out on deck watching for wildlife and attending presentations on whales and the Antarctic Treaty.
Deception Island is the place where Geoff Green typically takes SoI students swimming as there is a hot spring inside the volcanic bay. The bay is in the center of the island hidden from view (hence the name, ‘Deception Island’), and is accessible only through a small entrance on one side of the island. Entrance requires a highly maneuverable ship to avoid the rocks hidden beneath the water’s surface. This island is currently a dormant volcano but is expected to erupt again sometime in the next few decades. We did not go swimming here or even stop; a storm was moving in and our ships maneuverability was greatly reduced with the loss of the one propeller making it too risky to try going inside. We did a slow sail-by instead, looking at the ash-coated rocks, amazing geological features of the island, and the large swaths of lichens growing in the exposed areas.
We also saw a fishing vessel! One of three other ships we encountered while in Antarctica. It was truly amazing; no matter where you go you can find other people… even in the most isolated and untouched places in the world.
As Deception Island began to shrink in the distance, we set a course towards the Gerlache Strait which we would cross through the night and hopefully reach the Antarctic peninsula – the actual continent – in the morning. With ‘good karma’ and ‘inner Shackleton spirit’, we watched a breath-taking sunset and continued on our incredible expedition for a final day in Antarctica.
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