Ship's Route:
6
Friday, 23/11/2001
Penguin Island
Noon navigation report from the bridge:
Location:Bransfield Strait
Latitude:62°11'S
Longitude:058°02'W
Speed:13.5 Knots
Air Temperature:4°C/38°F
Sea Temperature:0°C/32°F
Wind Speed/Direction:  Force 6/South West

Having been "couped up" on the ship for two whole days we leaped at the opportunity to climb down into a zodiac and splash our way through the choppy water to land! Penguin Island is little more than a low volcano with broad shoulders, which made for a nice beach on which to land, and an easy hike up to the summit. The land heading up to the beach is covered by snow and ice for most of the year, but amazingly there were lichens and mosses thriving here, and casting a green haze across the landscape. As we walked up from the beach and over the slope leading to the cinder cone at the center of the island we made a slight detour around a fur seal who, after opening an eye to gaze at us for a moment, slept through our entire visit.

While the weather was chill and blustery, the hike was exhilarating, and we quickly made the volcano's summit and hiked around the caldera, gazing out at the expanse of white, blue and grey. These colors would dominate our lives for the next week, and yet I never grew tired of them. There was a nearly infinite variety of shades in each of these three colors, and when combined in the scenes that unfolded before us made for a captivating experience. The other colors, such as the pale greens of lichens, or pale reddish pink volcanic ash and rocks, which would seem muted and dull in any other setting, stood out like beckons against the grey/blue backdrop. I do not recall being happier anyplace else in the world than in Antarctica, and at least part of that feeling came from the seemingly stark colors that surrounded us.

Reluctantly we climbed back down to the beach and waded into a congregation of penguins (Chinstraps, which are easily identified by their unique chin-strap marking beneath their beaks, and a few Adelie), juvenile sea elephants, and a small collection of fur seals and a Weddell seal.
Chinstraps and an Adelie with elephant seals in the background to the right, and a Weddell seal to the left
Nesting Chinstraps
As we had already witnessed firsthand, the fur seals were friendly and usually unconcerned about our presence, but the Weddell seal kept glaring at us and barking, and even charged menacingly part way along the beach toward us. On a more benign encounter a curious fur seal waddled up the beach and came right up to a pair of guests who waited by the pile of life jackets and watched the nearby penguins rather than make the hike up the cinder cone. The seal approached quietly and actually rested his head upon the life jackets, right next to the two stunned people. He remained there until Julio came over from a zodiac, when he then retreated a short way down the beach and watched us all until we left.

The Chinstraps were actively making nests from piles of small stones and exhibiting courtship behavior. Pebble selection was obviously a high priority, but finding just the right stone from amidst an entire island of available resources appeared to be a daunting task. We witnessed many a theft of pebbles from one pair's nest to line another's (and more often as not the same pebble being taken back to the original nest) while piles of seemingly identical pebbles lay untouched just a short distance away.

We finally pulled away from Penguin Island and continued down the Bransfield Strait, passing by islands of grey rock covered, in increasingly larger proportions, by bluish snow and ice. We remained on the observation deck entranced by the views as the ship sailed ever southward, and after a brief (or for some of us, not so brief) lunch, we came back out and watched as our next destination came into view.

Gallery


Chinstraps and an Adelie

Elephant seal Fur seal

Through the Bransfield Straight

Ship's Route:
7
Half Moon Island

We landed on the eastern tip of Half Moon Island for our second excursion of the day. By this time the sun was out and the sky was a deep blue between the passing clouds, which provided a subtle contrast with the slate blue water. Across the Bransfield Straight was Livingstone Island, who's majestic peaks provided a magnificent backdrop to our afternoon adventure. Most of the islands extending out with the Antarctic Peninsula have been used over the centuries by whaling ships, and Half Moon was no different. On the shore we found the abandoned remains of a water tender -- a small boat used to retrieve ice for the ship's water supply. While the elements had left the mark on this vessel, it was still in surprisingly good shape, considering it had lain here exposed for nearly a century.

A lonely pair of Gentoo penguins
The ever present Chinstrap penguins appeared to be attracted to the tender, and for the length of our stay there would always be a small party of penguins patrolling the part of the nearby. All of Half Moon Island was literally covered with Chinstraps: Chinstraps marching to and from the sea in little groups, Chinstraps carrying (or stealing) pebbles for their nests, mated pairs of Chinstraps displaying to one another, Chinstraps crying up into the air, and Chinstraps pooping vast quantities of red excrement -- the result of a primarily krill based diet. Among the scores of Chinstraps was a single pair of Gentoo penguins, which had somehow arrived at the wrong island to nest, but were making a brave show of it (and the Chinstraps didn't appear to mind their presence). A sole Weddell seal rested further down the beach, and thankfully ignored us.

Half Moon is also the home of nesting Arctic terns, a slender silver-white bird with a fluttering flight. The terns would fly down to the water and pluck at the water, feeding upon the plankton that lived at the surface. There were a number of kelp gulls on the rocky outcrops, and settled in among the penguins, and their nests were surrounded with messy rings of regurgitated limpet shells.

Skuas, "the deep brown predator of all things penguin" (according to Simon), were also present and on the lookout for any opportunity for a meal. We were extra careful on this stop and intentionally steered far away from both penguin and tern nesting sites to reduce the risk of a parent leaving the nest and the skuas making a quick raid on the contents.

We walked inland and upward along a low ridge, which looked out across the tern and penguin nesting areas to the sea and surrounding islands beyond. While the wind was stiff and cold, the views were grand a worth a few shivers. As usual we were among the first to hike up and last to finally leave, we made our way slowly back down to the beach, where we paused and watched the nearby Chinstraps go about their business of finding the perfect stones to proudly present to their mates waiting back on the nest.

At last we donned our life vests and climbed into an awaiting zodiac as Ignacio gunned the engine and took us back to the ship. Sensing our reluctance for the excursion to end, Ignacio took a longer, looping path back to the Adventurer, giving us an extended view of the spectacular landscape that surrounded us.

Soon we were back aboard and enjoying dinner as we discussed all that we had seen that day with our fellow passengers. Later that evening in the forward lounge our expedition staff, in dramatic production they performed as the Polar Players, presented the Nordenskjold Story at Re-cap to (in theory) prepare us for the following day when we would visit the locations where the story unfolded for real. Have we mentioned yet how much we enjoyed this trip?

Gallery

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