Wednesday, January 30, 2013

December 28, 2012: The Falkland Islands

Throughout all of my travels, there have been very few instances in which I have been overcome by emotion upon visiting a new place—today was one of those days.  Our first stop in the Falklands Islands was West Point Island in the west Falklands.  I knew there would be a large breeding colony of black-browed albatross that we would be visiting and I was incredibly excited as this is one of my favorite birds.  Arriving on West Point, we hiked about 1km over a ridge (spotting kelp and upland geese, long-tailed meadow larks, a grass wren, black faced ground tyrants, and black-chinned siskins) to reach the breeding colony.  As soon as I reached the top of the ridge, I was overcome with emotion, tears streamed down my face (even writing about it now, days later, it still gets to me).  There they were, within inches, 100’s of nesting black-browed albatross amidst 100’s of nesting rockhopper penguins.  Maybe 1000's of each now that I think about....either way, there were a lot of birds!

Blackbrowed albatross

Unconcerned with our presence the albatross went about their daily routine of feeding their chicks, preening their mates, and flying out to sea to feed.  With an 8 foot wing span, landing in a busy colony is a less than graceful event; taking off also requiring some maneuvering to get into a position in which their large wings will catch the wind.  This being the reason albatross often nest high on cliffs or ridges.  I spent nearly three hours sitting near the colony, taking photographs, and enjoying one of the most stunning moments I have ever had in all of my travels.

Left: Rockhopper penguin, Center: Blackbrowed albatross reigning over the Rockhopper penguins, Right: Rockhopper penguin disagreement

Left: Gentoo from the Falklands, Right: Gentoo from the
Antarctic Peninsula
But the fun did not end there!  In the afternoon we sailed north to Saunders Island, home to 5 species of breeding penguins (well to be fair, there was just one Macaroni penguin).  Magellanic penguins, striated caracaras, and Falkland Island Steamer ducks (of the flighted variety) greeted us on the beach.  Moving towards the center of the island we found several Gentoo penguin colonies, most with large chicks that looked to be 3-4 weeks old.  Used to seeing Gentoo penguins in Antarctica, these Gentoos immediately looked different to me.  Their beaks and feet were bright orange rather than the reddish-orange typical of Gentoo penguins in Antarctica which suggests a diet that contains less krill than their Antarctic counterparts (the krill providing the red pigments—think Flamingoes and their pink plumage).  The Gentoo penguins in the Falklands also have more, white spotting across their nape, behind their eyes, and down their necks while the Gentoos further south have a complete white band from eye to eye with little to no spotting on the black head and neck.  Further on we came to a small group of king penguins, the first I have ever seen, and then a large rockhopper penguin and imperial shag colony high on a cliff.

Falkland Island Steamer ducks

Gentoo penguins, Saunders Island

The waters in this bay are crystalline blue and turquoise, almost as if they should be in the Caribbean somewhere--making seeing penguins swimming about seem out of place.  Though I will say the contrasting black and white of the penguins with the turquoise background was simply stunning and from what I heard from some brave waders, the clear waters here should not be mistaken for the warm seas of the Caribbean.  It was hard to drag everyone off of that beach to return to the ship, especially knowing that this was our last landing.  Tomorrow morning we are to arrive in Port Stanley, on the eastern side of the Falklands, to disembark.  It is here in Port Stanley that I will wait with two other staff members from One Ocean for the Vavilov to arrive on December 31.  For then it is on to what may be the best adventure yet…South Georgia!!!

Magellanic penguins coming ashore

December 25, 2012: Antarctica, where one always gets a white Christmas

Every year people ask me if I “miss Christmas” since I travel to the Antarctic over the holidays.  It is a simple question of course, but for me, travelling over the holidays for the past 3 years, it is a bit more complex.  On the simplest level, I couldn’t miss Christmas if I tried--December 25 arrives in the south polar region too!  Santa even made his way down via zodiac on Christmas morning!  Of course this is not what people mean when they ask if I miss Christmas, Christmas is more than a date on the calendar.  It is about spending time with your friends and family, laughing, eating, reminiscing, eating….

I am fortunate in that I have two families with whom I can celebrate Christmas, my ship family and my family back home in the U.S.  This year my ship family included a big part of my Wilmington family in having Kate, Mark, and their daughter Annie on board.  This year our ship Christmas was quite festive.  A few days before Christmas we all gathered in the lounge one night to decorate; we made snowflakes, strings of popcorn (well, that was the idea though I am pretty sure the only place popcorn went was in our bellies), strung up lights, and stuck cloves into oranges filling the lounge with the smells of the holidays.  On Christmas Eve, during happy hour, we sang Christmas carols, with many of us wearing festive Christmas attire.  The staff all gathered together for a secret Santa gift exchange, it was great fun and felt like spending the holiday with my extended family.

Christmas day began with Santa arriving on the starboard side of the ship to take passengers out on a zodiac cruise through about 12 nautical miles of ice packed around Elephant Island.  This was one of the best zodiac cruises I have ever been on.  The ice was just incredible.  After a few hours and few frozen toes later we returned to the ship for a Christmas BBQ on the stern deck.  And like any good BBQ on a bright sunny day, it quickly segued into a stern deck dance party.  A dance party being the perfect solution to getting blood flowing to those frozen toes and fingers.  We toasted the Antarctic just before setting sail for the Falkland Islands for the last adventures on this trip. 

Left: zodiac cruising through ice. Center: Crabeater seal. Right: Chinstrap penguin

So to answer the question, no, I do not miss Christmas—I am lucky enough to have three Christmases this year.  I had one very special celebration before I left and will celebrate with my family when I return on January 16.  In between those I had a wonderful, white Christmas with a fantastic group of friends aboard the Ioffe.  After all, how many people can say they had a BBQ dance party on a ship in the Antarctic for Christmas?

Christmas BBQ and dance party on the stern deck of the ship

Saturday, December 29, 2012

December 23, 2012: A truly Antarctic day at Brown Bluff

Having had fantastic weather conditions over the past few days, it only seemed appropriate that the guests get a real taste of “summer” in the Antarctic Peninsula.  Melissa and I headed out on the first boat to begin our counting at Brown Bluff.  Brown Bluff is home to ~20,000 pairs of Adélie penguins and ~600 pairs of Gentoo penguins. Well, to be more specific, 598 pairs according to our count.  We counted the Gentoo nests in about an hour and a half, but did not attempt to count the Adélies.  Counting 20,000 nests would take days and as these birds nest over large portions of the island, counting is typically done using satellite imagery.  As we finished up our count of Gentoo nests, finding several nests with small chicks (1-3 days old), the weather began to turn.

Kate and I not letting little snow storm stop us from
counting Gentoo penguin nests
The snow was blowing horizontal and gusting up to 30 knots.  The snowfall was beautiful with large, soft flakes falling silently between gusts of wind completely changing the landscape we were part of just moments ago.   Within minutes the penguins sitting on their nests began to disappear into their surroundings.  Penguins that were on nests hunkered down ensuring the eggs or chicks underneath stayed nice and warm, not minding the blowing wind or sheet of snow slowly accumulating on their backs.

Despite the cold, many of us stayed out at the penguin colony for nearly 3 hours.  Watching these birds is such a treat and is something that I do not always have the time to do as counting typically takes much longer.  Today was a perfect reminder of how quickly conditions in the Antarctic can change...and that Christmas is only 2 days away!  

Melissa and I counting high in the colony during the snow storm.
Can you spot us?

Gentoo penguins weathering the storm

March of the Adelie penguins

December 22, 2012: Sailing the Antarctic Sound

Gourdin Island
Adelie penguin

Today was a really cool day as I visited two sites that I had never been to before.  This morning Melissa and I landed at Gourdin Island which is home to over 16,000 breeding pairs of Adélie penguins, ~1,000 pairs of Chinstrap penguins, and ~600 pairs of Gentoo penguins.  This is one of few sites in the Antarctic where all three species of Pygoscelis (or brush-tailed) penguins breed sympatrically.  Due to the large number of nesting birds spread across a vast landscape, Melissa and I decided to count the large colony of Chinstrap penguins close to our landing site.  The wind was blowing at about 20 knots and the few beaches we could land on seemed to be clogged with ice.  After cruising around for 10-15 minutes, we settled on a rocky outcrop where we could scuttle up over the snow bank with relative ease.  I am always grateful to have Melissa as my partner in situations like this as she has much more field experience and is an all around logistics queen.

We had about an hour to complete our work and decided the best use of our time would be for Melissa to create a GPS tracklog around the Chinstrap penguin colony while I counted all of the birds inside of the colony.  This type of census helps inform our colleagues back in the United States who use satellite imagery to count large penguin colonies.  The tracklog that we created can be overlaid on a satellite image to map the location of a given species, in this case Chinstrap penguins, among the abutting Adélie penguin colonies.  Counting the number of nesting pairs in the field helps the researchers double check that what they counted as nesting birds in the photograph matches what we saw in the field. 

As monitoring penguin populations via satellite imagery is a rapidly growing technique, it is import to continue the field work.  The type of work we did today serves as a means of “ground truthing” in that someone counting from a photo can learn to recognize differences among species (after all, they are all little black and white birds) as well as the difference between nesting birds and those that are just perhaps taking a mid-day snooze.  While counting from satellite imagery may be more accurate in some ways as the counter can “check off” nests they already counted (which is not possible in the field), counting in the field also has its merits in that we can use behavioral cues to alert us to nests and to determine which birds are “posers”.  And yes, “poser” is a scientific term for a bird pretending to be on a nest and in so messing up your count as three-quarters of the way through they get up and leave.

In the afternoon we sailed east to visit Esperanza station, an Argentinian research base in the Antarctic Sound.  Established in the early 1900’s Esperanza not only functions as a scientific research station, but is also a well-studied community populated by approximately 140 people each year.  Individuals and families (including small children) arrive at Esperanza from all over Argentina volunteering  to spend 10 months living and working together.  There are small homes with satellite TV and internet, a school, church, infirmary, and scientific labs.  While getting a tour of the station Melissa and I managed to find two of the Argentinian field biologists; with 205,000 nesting pairs of Adélie penguins and 300-500 pairs of Gentoo penguins, there is certainly plenty of opportunity to for penguin research.  The two women we met had arrived about a month ago and were studying oxidative stress and diet in penguins, while other researchers were monitoring reproductive success and chick growth in the birds nesting near the base. With all parties using their best English, Spanish, and Spanglish we all really enjoyed learning how we run our respective scientific programs.  It is always a treat to meet other women, especially young women, conducting Antarctic field work given that Antarctic science has historically been a male-dominated field.  These women have taken the passion and commitment one step further by dedicating 10 months out of the next year to complete their research project.  Girl power!

Esperanza Station, Hope Bay

Oceanites and penguin biologists from Esperanza Station