Thursday, January 25, 2007

East Side of the Antarctic Peninsula

Lookout Point, Danger Islands, Devil Island, Deception Island – Doesn’t sound like a very nice place does it. This week has defied these names. The weather has been spectacular. Very little wind and lots of sun. It was 50 degrees yesterday. It is Thomas Mueller’s, my Oceanites research partner, first visit to Antarctica and he is getting the “best of” tour. He hasn’t stopped smiling for a week and he probably shouldn’t come back as he will never be able to repeat this stretch of weather in a lifetime of visits and subsequent visits will pale in comparison.
Up until today, our visit has been confined to the Weddell Sea side of the peninsula, an area littered with large tabular ice bergs. We often maneuvered the ship through bits of brash ice and from our room it sounded like the inside of a slow turning Margarita blender as the ice rattles and scrapes down the hull of the ship.
Our visit to Heroina Island in the Danger Island group on January 23rd was unbelievable. Very few ships visit this island because of the usually surrounding ice (James Clark Ross named them the Danger Islands because they appeared so suddenly out of the ice). A rough estimate of 300,000 pairs of breeding Adelie Penguins occupy most of this island with more Snowy Sheathbills than I have ever seen at one place. The waters surrounding the island were filled with penguins – swimming, loafing on ice bergs, bathing at the surface. The life here was intense and the activity overwhelming and constant. Thomas and I climbed through the colony at the toe of the slope of the island and found and unoccupied gully to climb up to the top of the island. Once on top it was again an overwhelming sight. The whole top of the island was covered in breeding Adelie Penguins. We headed south across the top to where there are the most southeast breeding Gentoo Penguins on the Antarctic Peninsula. We were able to find those colonies and get counts of the chicks. The south end of the island was not blanketed by Adelies and we were able to find some discreet colonies to establish reference counts on. The view to the south was also interesting with the nearest two islands in the Danger Island group, Beagle and Platter islands also covered in the telltale pink stain of the guano of thousands of penguins. Nearby Darwin Island, named by Ross in 1842 for Charles Darwin (along with Beagle Island) is rimmed with cliffs and did not appear to have any penguins. Comb Island, another island in the group, appeared to also have a few penguins.
After Heroina, we visited Devil Island, tucked into the coast of Vega Island, and the Adelie penguin colony there on the 24th. Again the good weather continued. I find myself over-dressing and having to peel down once I get moving on the island. We were able to map the edges of the colonies here but the colony is too large for us to get a decent count. After Devil Island we continued west and while coming through Prince Gustav sound we encountered a very large patch of krill and attendant swarm of Adelie Penguins and Blue-eyed Shags. At one point a Minke Whale passed through the sound and the penguins hurriedly scattered away from the whale’s path. We landed that evening at Brown Bluff. Brown Bluff is on the Antarctic continent and the site sits at the base of a large reddish brown conglomerate cliff peppered with nesting Cape Petrels. At the base of the cliff there are Gentoo and Adelie Penguin colonies. This is also one place with easily accessible Snow Petrel nests and we observed two chicks at their nest site under the edge of a massive boulder perched on the slope below the cliff. We had to work hard at getting a count of the Gentoo chicks as they were well along in age and scattered in and amongst the boulders and across the beach outside of their colony area.
This morning we landed at Bailey Head on the outer edge of Deception Island. Bailey Head is and exceptional landing and one of the most difficult for the Lindblad staff because of the surf. The beach is exposed to the swells of Bransfield Strait. It is an acquired skill to be able to drive the zodiac into the beach with a load of passengers and deposit them on the beach and return to the ship without filling the zodiac with water or stranding it on the beach in these conditions. The landing went well and we were able to count a number of the reference colonies at this site. The Chinstrap Penguin colonies here are impressive. Not because of their size (although there are very many penguins here) but more so because of the location. The colonies occupy the better part of a large bowl with a jagged edge in the volcanic rim of the island. There is a small melt water stream the drains through the bowl and enters the sea at the landing. To get to the colonies you pass through a narrow pass where the melt water stream leaves the bowl. This is also one of the main paths for the Chinstraps to access the colony as well so there is constant movement of birds along this path, coming and going to feed their chicks. The Chinstrap Penguin colonies line the sides of the bowl in large colonies and isolated colonies can be observed on top of the highest points visible from where you stand at the bottom. The sound is… what is the next superlative I can use? It is surroundsound penguins as the braying and bugling cacophony of thousands of these birds, the loudest and most piercing sound of all the penguins, penetrates you from all around.
The Chinstraps here were difficult to count as they have not quite formed groups of young birds in the colonies, called crèches, which are easy to count. For some reason there are many adult birds in the colony and the chicks apparently have not had to gather together for protection from the skuas. It may be that there is plentiful krill near the island this year and foraging trips for the adults are quick, enabling them to spend more time at the colony. All the colonies we have visited this year so far have appeared quite healthy with little of the chick carnage I associate with this time of year in a penguin colony. We have also not observed many Leopard Seals this year and it may be that they are also taking advantage of the abundant krill and are not hungry for penguin.
We are currently sitting inside Deception Island at Port Foster, the site of an old whaling base, a place I have visited a number of times. There are no penguin colonies here so while the guests are visiting the whaling station and wandering across the steaming black sand inside this volcano, I have been able to catch up on my writing onboard the Endeavour. We will be heading south from here to drop Thomas off in a couple of days at Peterman Island, site of a summer field camp for Oceanites.

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