Sunday, December 21, 2008

Penguin Royalty

When I arrived on the bridge of the ship early Thursday morning, December 18th, we were just arriving at Paulet Island. Paulet is a volcanic island located in the northwestern part of the Weddell Sea near the Antarctic Peninsula. It is not very large, but it is home to over 60,000 pairs of nesting Adelie Penguins. Even from well offshore you can see the colonies, light pink amoeba-like stains on the rocky slopes and beaches of the southeast side of the island. The usual landing spot was choked full of ice so we opted to land at a point further down the beach. The major concern when we arrived on shore was exactly where to land everyone. From the shoreline on the falling tide it was difficult to see the top of the cobble beach to determine if this was the only spot on that part of the beach where there was a gap in breeding penguins wide enough to allow guests access to the interior. It was.
Aileen and I were off soon after getting to the beach towards the usual landing site because that was where our work needed to get done. We threaded our way between the colonies to the spot where we needed to count the Blue-eyed Shag colony. The shag colony on Paulet is also one of the largest in the area and it rises above the beach on a steep scree slope above the beach. After completing that count we took some photos of the colony to double check our counting later on. We then headed towards an Adelie colony near the remains of a historical stone hut where Captain Larsen and 22 men over-wintered during the 1903 winter after loosing their ship to ice in Antarctic Sound. They subsisted almost entirely on penguins and it is a bit ironic that we are there to count the number of nesting Adelies at a relatively small Adelie colony near the remains of the hut. After completing that work we made our way between more nesting penguins on the slopes of a plateau rising above to a point overlooking many of the colonies where we took some reference photos. We then headed to the other end of the plateau, again weaving between the penguin colonies, overlooking the large flat beach area near the landing site where we took more reference photos of the colonies from high above. Our time on the island was up and we headed back to the landing beach and joined that last of the staff on the island in the last zodiac back to the ship.
Once we were all onboard the ship headed east even further into the Weddell Sea with plans to reach Snow Hill Island, a bit to the southeast of our position at Paulet. This portion of the Weddell Sea is littered with icebergs – more so than anywhere else on the peninsula. It also has very large tabular icebergs, remains of ancient ice shelves that cover portions of the ocean surrounding Antarctica. These flat-topped, steep sided, huge bergs are often well over 100 feet tall above the water with probably close to 900 feet ice hiding below the water. Some we observed may have been remains of the Larsen Ice Shelf which used to cover significant portions of the sea along the southeastern side of the Antarctic Peninsula but which has since mostly disintegrated or they may have drifted from the Ross Ice shelf on the other side of the continent. As we made our way through the ice I headed to the top of the bridge to try to get some more Snow Petrel photos. I was also looking hard to find an Emperor Penguin on the ice too. There is a small Emperor colony near Snow Hill Island and although they were done breeding by this time, there is always a chance to find one out on the ice in this area. I lasted for a while in the cold wind and then dropped down into the bridge. Almost as soon as I arrived I noticed a dark spot on a flat piece of ice off in the distance. I pointed it out to Richard White, perhaps the person with the most experience in the world with birds in the Antarctic Peninsula and the Drake Passage, having worked on Lindblad ship in Antarctica for the last 7 years, and he had just noticed it too. We watched for a bit and were pretty sure it was an Emperor. The Captain started moving the ship towards the bird and I headed out to the bow. We originally thought that is was a young bird, but as we got closer we realized it was an adult. It was preening at the ice edge and we moved slowly closer. Soon we were right at the edge of the ice and the bird was just off the bow of the ship. It was the best looks I have had of an Emperor and it was a great treat for the afternoon. However, soon after pulling away from the bird, the wind picked up considerably and the ice started to move. We had to scrap the plans for Snow Hill Island and make our way back towards the peninsula before the ice closed in on the ship. We spent the rest of the evening dodging ice and heading back through Antarctic Sound to the west side of the peninsula to get out of the wind.

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