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

December 21, 2012: Land ho!

After nearly two days at sea the excitement on board was reaching fever pitch.  We had listened to many presentations about the history of exploration in the Antarctic, Antarctic Wildlife, and our code of conduct according to the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO).  Melissa and I gave our presentation on Oceanites and the research the passengers would witness while on board.  But what we all really wanted to know was, “when are we going to make our first landing!?”  And that day was today.

Kate and Annie loading up for their first Antarctic
kayak excursion!
As the guests loaded into zodiacs to visit the Chinstrap penguin colony on Half Moon Island, Melissa and I were transported [by zodiac as well] to a site called Rugged Rocks about 2.5 nm (nautical miles) from Half Moon.  Though I had very much been looking forward to stretching my legs the steep ascent up Rugged Rocks, over snow, ice, and rock reminded me that I may very well live in one of the flattest places on Earth.  Melissa and I decided to divide and conquer the counting of Chinstrap penguin nests on this island and set to work. 

Though a small island, Rugged Rocks is home to 1,664 pairs of nesting Chinstrap penguins as well as nesting Blue-eyed Shags, Snowy Sheathbills, Antarctic Terns, Kelp Gulls, and Cape (Pintado) Petrels.  It took Melissa and I a little over an hour to count the nests, the topography playing a bit of a role in the amount of time we spent at this site. 

Rugged Rocks
In the afternoon we sailed south to Deception Island, one of the most popular stops on many Antarctic voyages.  As the guests headed towards Whaler’s Bay to hike, view the remnants of an old whaling operation, and mentally prepare for the polar plunge, Melissa and I got a ride back towards the entrance of Deception Island to count the nesting Chinstrap penguins at Entrance Point.  Deception Island is an active volcano, last erupting in 1969.  As we sailed through the entrance, referred to as Neptune’s Bellows we entered into the caldera of the volcano.  On cold days like today you can see steam rising from the beach; stick your hand down into the sand and you may nearly get burned.  It is a beautiful location, especially on days like today when the weather was beautiful—bright sunshine and calm seas.

I had been to Entrance Point on my first trip to the Antarctic three years ago.  The Chinstrap penguins nest high up on top of the ridge meaning we had quite the steep hike ahead of us.  Though the hike is not far to reach the penguin colony, it is extremely steep and the substrate is essentially sand.  Needless to say, for the second time today I was reminded that I live on the flat, coastal plain of North Carolina and should probably have gone hiking in the mountains a few more times before coming south.  While the walk up might not be incredibly enjoyable, the view from the top can’t be beat.  It took us about an hour and a half to count the 696 nesting pairs of Chinstrap penguins, about 10% of which had chicks (1-4 days old); we also found two adult Macaroni penguins attempting to fit into the colony as well.  There is a small colony of Macaroni penguins on the outside of the caldera that is where these birds likely came from.  I remembered seeing Macaroni penguins at this site in the past; they are not breeding and are likely young birds, perhaps trying out their nest building moves before settling down with a mate in their own colony.  Melissa and I did watch a pretty vicious battle as the Macaroni penguin attempted to fend off three Chinstrap penguins as they encroached upon his “nest”.  Being slightly larger and quite ferocious the Macaroni penguin came out on top of this scuffle.  I think we must have watched for 10 minutes, not able to tear ourselves away from this little soap opera.

View of Neptune's Bellows from the top of Entrance Point

With a little time to spare after completing our work we were able to relax and take some photos. We rarely get a chance to be still and watch the birds, so we took full advantage firing off shots of chicks and laughing as one very curious adult bird waddled over to give me the once over.  All in all, a fantastic first day of field work in the South Shetland Islands.

Chinstrap penguin and chick

Leopard seal

Smooth sailing on a Drake Lake (December 18-20, 2012)

The sea gods and goddesses heard my prayers, a Drake Lake it is!

So, what is the Drake Passage and why is it such a big deal?  The Drake Passage is the name of the body of water passing between the southern tip of South America and the Antarctic Peninsula.  With no landmasses to slow the flow of the water and wind as the Atlantic Ocean meets the Pacific Ocean, the conditions are notoriously rough and stormy. For the first night, we had smooth sailing as we passed through the Beagle Channel, with continued favorable conditions as we entered the open ocean around 3:00am on December 19.  The sudden, yet slow rocking of the ship often waking everyone from their slumber (only for most to fall back asleep as the rocking on the ship certainly lends to snoozing).  In this brief moment I sent out a little prayer to the sea gods and goddesses for a smooth crossing, or Drake Lake.  For it is no fun being stuck in one’s cabin seasick for two days.  Based on the weather reports we stood a great chance of having a calm crossing; with a storm brewing off of the southern coast of Chile just after we departed we were able to stay ahead of this weather system and ended up having a beautifully calm crossing with sunny skies to boot!
Profile of the Drake Passage (

Making our way through the unusually tame “Roaring 40os” and “Furious 50os” we were greeted by Black-browed Albatross, Pintado Petrels, Light-mantled Albatross, Southern Fulmars, Diving Petrels, Southern Giant Petrels, Antarctic Petrels, and a number of Prions darting about the bow of the ship.  Though the air temperature was about freezing, many of us spent time out on the deck watching and attempting to photograph these graceful fliers, many of which are only ever seen at sea. 

Light-mantled albatross

 Early in the morning on December 20 we crossed the Antarctic convergence (typically at about 60oS), the band of ocean that separates the Southern Ocean from the Atlantic and Pacific.  The Antarctic convergence is not necessarily something you can see (though at times is associated with a dense bank of fog), but you know you have crossed it based on a rapid drop in air and sea temperature as you enter the Southern Ocean.  In addition to a drop of a few degrees in water temperature, the ocean also becomes far more saline (saltier).  It is in this location that we leave behind the fauna and flora of the temperate part of the Southern Hemisphere and enter the realm of polar species.

Approaching the South Shetland Islands in the late afternoon we sail over the Hero Shelf/Shackleton Fracture Zone, a region of the open ocean known for abundant wildlife as shallower depths and upwelling bring increased productivity.  Increased productivity meaning more food!  It is here that we see our first humpback whales, far off in the distance, and pick up some of the largest flocks of Pintado Petrels I have ever seen, dancing on the water just behind the ship.  For surely that was a good omen as we sailed on to our first destination in the Antarctic Peninsula, Half Moon Island.
Just a few of the hundreds of Pintado (or Cape Petrels) following the ship this evening.