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Penguins, seals, lots of penguins

Posted: 2015-07-13 21:45:00, Categories: Travel, Antarctica, Sailing, 875 words (permalink)

Our first view of the land at the South Shetland Islands.
Our first view of the land at the South Shetland Islands.
When we woke up and climbed up on the deck on the sixth day after leaving Ushuaia, we saw a landscape of rock, snow and ice with a row of penguins at the nearest shore. It was the Yankee Harbor at South Shetland islands, where we had arrived late previous night when it was already dark. We were at anchor and there were almost no waves so our seasickness was quickly gone. After breakfast and a short briefing by our guides Jordi and Eduardo, the zodiacs were launched and we were ready for our first landing.

Fur seals and gentoo penguins at Yankee Harbor.
Fur seals and gentoo penguins at Yankee Harbor.
As soon as we stepped on land, we were surrounded by more animals we had ever seen in any zoo — and here they were all in their natural surroundings. One of our first tasks was to learn how to deal with slightly aggressive fur seals. Here's the tactic: don't run, stop and raise your hands, try to look as big and dangerous as possible. That was enough to stop the attacks, after all the seals just wanted to guard their own space on the beach and were not otherwise interested in us. Most of the seals were calmly scratching themselves, sleeping or busy with other activities.

A gentoo penguin has just come up from a swim.
A gentoo penguin has just come up from a swim.
We enjoyed watching gentoo penguins going in and out of water, marching around and lying in the snow in various positions. It was late in the season and many had already left the colony, but there were still many adults and almost grown up chicks around. We also saw one chinstrap penguin in the middle of all the gentoos, a leopard seal and a Weddell seal. The cruel side of nature was also present: some penguins had not made it and were lying dead and frozen on the ground. Two skuas were having a feast on one of the bodies.

Two skuas having a feast on a dead penguin.
Two skuas having a feast on a dead penguin.
We came back to the ship for lunch, carefully cleaning and desinfecting our boots which was the standard procedure before and after each landing. The aim was to avoid introducing any foreign organic material in the Antarctic, and to avoid spreading diseases between different landing sites. During our lunch, the captain turned on the engines to move the ship to Fort Point, the site of our second landing of the day.

A nunatak behind the shore at Fort Point.
A nunatak behind the shore at Fort Point.
At Fort Point there were again lots of wildlife, mostly gentoo penguins and fur seals but also some chinstrap penguins and one solitary macaroni penguin. Our guides told us that Fort Point was one of the less frequented landing sites, perhaps therefore the penguins were coming even closer to us than at Yankee Harbor. As a general rule we were instructed to keep 5 meters distance to all animals, but sometimes they came closer to us. We climbed up the hill away from the shore to a "nunatak" a steep and high rock with a glacier flowing around it. From the nunatak we had a gorgeous view down to the peninsula. On one side of it, countless ice pieces were being washed to the shore, a clear indication that the water temperature was very close to the freezing point.

Hills behind a lake on the Deception Island.
Hills behind a lake on the Deception Island.
The following day we visited Deception island, which is actually the remains of a large ancient volcano. In a big eruption the main crater collapsed and sank, so the the island is like a giant horse shoe with a narrow entrance to the big sheltered bay in the middle. Some fresh snow had recently fallen on the dark volcanic ash, which made the landscape full of different patterns of black and white. During our first landing we walked around one of the side craters and admired the views. Unfortunately the weather was cloudy, on a sunny day the scenery would have been even more spectacular.

Thousands of penguins at Baily Head, Deception Island.
Thousands of penguins at Baily Head, Deception Island.
The second landing was a few kilometers walk over the rim to a point called Baily Head. On the top of the ridge we could see the shape of the island and the entrance through which we had entered the caldera. On the other side of the ridge near the sea, the snowy slopes were looking like they were dirty.
Chinstrap penguins moulting.
Chinstrap penguins moulting.
As we came closer it became apparent that the "dirt" was tens of thousands of chinstrap penguins. Many of them were moulting, renewing their fur which they do every year. We spent quite a while watching and listening to the constant chatter of the penguins before heading back the same way we came. Thanks to Jordi we had a chance to take a look at the penguins through a 600 mm lens, 960 mm film equivalent when mounted to our camera.

Before returning to the ship we still had time to visit the ruins of an old whaling station, consisting of slowly rusting big tanks which had been used to store whale oil and a group of more or less collapsed wooden houses. After that it was time for dinner and a special evening activity, which will be described in the next post.

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