Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Day the Sun Never Set

Sometime in the early morning hours of December 14th we crossed the Antarctic Circle again. This time we were further east heading south on the outside of Adelaide Island. Later on in the morning we entered the northern end of Marguerite Bay and headed to Bongrain Point on Pourquoi-Pas Island, the site of a small Adelie Penguin colony. When we arrived we found a rather tall ice shelf at the landing with no way to get many of the passengers aboard the National Geographic Explorer onshore. While Matt Drennan, our expedition leader, regrouped and organized tours along the coastline in zodiacs, Aileen and I scrambled up the ice edge and started to count Adelie nests. It was snowing quite heavily off and on during the time we were onshore and although the colony looked fairly small from the shore, much of the colony was tucked up in and around some rock outcroppings where the cobble raised beach met the base of a large cliff and there were more nests that we had anticipated. We were able to count all the nests and complete what is probably the best estimate of the size of this colony. There have only been four visits to this colony by the Antarctic Site Inventory over the last 15 years and only rough guesses at the size before that. All the other visits took place later in the season (when ice usually relaxes enough to allow ships into this area) and were rather rough guesses at the population size. It felt good to get an accurate nest count at this location. There were also Snow Petrels nesting in the cliffs above the colonies and a small Blue-eyed Shag colony on a small island just off the point south of the landing area, with Kelp Gulls and South Polar Skuas also nesting in the cliffs and on the cobble plain. A couple of Snow Petrels were perched in the cliff just above the colony we began working at and when we were done I went back to try to get some photos before we had to get picked up but they were gone when I got there.
In the afternoon we headed further to the north and east of Pourquoi-Pas into Bourgeois Fjord where satellite imagery suggested some fast ice remained. As we proceeded up the fjord there was lots of fast ice scattered around with many Adelie penguins perched on the slabs. Approximately half or so of the birds were first year Adelies. Usually it is hard to tell the age or sex of an Adelie, but birds that are less than one full year old (or haven’t completed there first full molt) have a white chin, making them readily identifiable. They are rarely seen at colonies during the first year so it was really nice to find them hanging out in the fast ice. There were also large numbers of Crabeater Seals on the flows too and the depth finder suggested why – there was lots of plankton in the water, most probably krill.
We berthed the ship in the fast ice at the upper end of the fjord and lowered the side-gate and let everyone get out and walk on the ice. There was a nearby group of Crabeaters that we were able to approach observe for a while. We also attracted a number of the young penguins. I have had this happen before, but never to this extent. Apparently, to penguins, people walking on the ice in the distance are quite attractive. I am not sure, but I suspect we look like a lot like penguins – what else would walk upright on the ice? Small groups would spy us from the distance and toboggan across the ice from far away (1/2 mile or so) and then mingle in amongst all the people on the ice. It was quite entertaining to watch them come right up to people standing or sitting on the ice, inspect them and then head off to the next group of people.
After getting everyone back on board, we began heading north again.

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