Saturday, December 29, 2012

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

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