Day 9 (Tuesday 20th February): The Drake Passage, Southern Ocean then landing on Half Moon Island, South Shetland Islands
From now on you'll see the "Daily program" at the start of each day. This was usually posted the evening before and always subject to change (such is the nature of sailing in Antarctica). They are written by our expedition leader Greg.
"This morning, we are approaching the South Shetland Islands. Today you will see many dramatic changes as we close in on the South Shetlands. These are the Northern bastions of the Antarctic Peninsula".
08:00 - 09:00 Breakfast is served
09:00 - 10:30 Mandatory IAATO - guidelines for visitors mandatory before going on shore. Mandatory zodiac operations briefings
11:00 - 11:45 An Introduction to Seabirds and Penguins by Dr Mary-Ann Lea
12:00 - 13:00 Lunch
13:00 - 13:30 Cleaning of shore clothing and backpacks
Pictured on left: Dr Mary-Anne Lee. part of the HB leadership team (Science Program Co-coordinator)
Dr Mary Anne Lea www.utas.edu.au/profiles/staff/imas/mary-anne-lea is an associate professor and depute head of the ecology and biodiversity centre at the University of Tasmania, Australia. Mary Anne is an expert on Antarctic wildlife, specifically vertebrates (esp. seals) and how their ecology and environment affects them. What a great person to learn from. What surprised me is the effect of climate change recordings of long-term ecology population studies of penguins - some were moving into new territory further south (i.e. gentoo penguins) as their previous homes further North (i.e. the South Shetland Islands, where we were landing this afternoon) was no longer cold enough With this expansion of gentoo penguin colonies further South came the decline of more established colonies (i.e. Adelie). I guess most of us are pretty aware of climate change and it's impacts - but being so far from civilisation, amongst penguins which don't know humans are bad (a weird wildlife experience in itself) and yet realising that we've affected their life and entire population dynamics is really eye-opening.
Daily Program: "If the weather continues to be kind to us we expect to approach the South Shetlands by approximately 15:00. The islands are often eshrouded with fog and clouds but there is some chance that we will see our first icebergs. We plan to slip in between the islands along the McFarland Strait."
16:00 (approx.): Ashore on Half Moon Island
We can see land, arriving at the South Shetland Islands, in thick cloud and rain, we were happy to be out of the Drake Passage and anticipating what we would see on our first landing
Half moon island is crescent shaped and only 2 Km long, it lies in the entrance of Moon Bay on Livingston Island - which is part of the South Shetland Islands
Time to meet some of the continent residents - Antarctic wildlife section
Why are there no penguins in the Northern Hemisphere? Well penguins cannot survive in warm seawater - their extreme limit is when the mean annual air temp. is max 20C (surface waters warm accordingly).
Chinstrap penguins (Pygoscelis antarcticus) in height vary from around 68-77 cm and weigh around 4 kg; this makes them quite a bit smaller than Gentoo and Adélie penguins (we'll see them later). They are characterized by blue-black backs, white underneath and white cheeks and of course, their thin black line which runs under their chin and eyes - giving them their name. They eat mainly crustaceans, so this is largely krill - which they catch during diving in the sea. Chinstraps are mainly found in vast colonies on the islands, especially the South Shetland Islands (here), South Orkney Islands and South Sandwich Islands. They like climbing up rocks, so if they live in association with other penguins, their colony is normally up higher. They normally lay two eggs in November / December so when we visited, the chicks were pretty large and fully fledged (they usually fledge in 2 months). They go to sea when the adults start to moult (which was around when we visited). The second most abundant penguin species in the world - although sadly in decline.
Chinstrap penguins, South Polar Skua (bird bottom left), four Antarctic Fir Seals
South Polar Skuas (Catharacta maccormicki) have a wingspan of 50 cm they are also known as McCormick's Skua, named after Robert McCormick, the naturalist (and surgeon) who sailed with James Clark Ross. These are the most Southernly species of bird in the world and are circumpolar! South Polar Skuas are birds of prey, as well as being opportunistic feeders, they also eat sea fish (mostly Antarctic herring) and krill. They are enthusiastic hunters of penguins (picking on vulnerable chicks especially).
Antarctic Fur Seals (Arctocephalus gazella) were called sea bears by earlier mariners. Because they can deploy their hind flippers in forward or backwards fashion, they can walk and run on land as well as swim well - meaning that you have to give them a wide berth - I was surprised how quickly they can move! They also have some pretty sharp looking teeth. They mainly eat krill, fish, squid and sometime penguin - although the penguins next to this lot didn't seem so worried. They only exist South of the Convergence.
This well-preserved wooden boat has been here since 1961. When the vessel Lapataia which was damaged, 21 tourists used it as a landing craft and they were stranded on Half Moon Island for three days. It is against the Antarctic Treaty (more on that later) to remove anything from Antarctica - including artefacts, therefore often even derelict buildings or artefacts have been preserved by the climate and location.
A couple of gentoo penguins on the ice
Gentoo Penguins (Pygoscelis papua) are slightly larger than chinstrap penguins, ranging in height from 76-81 cm and 5.5 - 6 kg in weight. Apparently, they become smaller the further South they live. With a black head, they have white markings by both eyes and a bright orange bill. They also eat fish and krill, and breed on rocky, flat ground. They are seen less often in colonies and don't mind being only a few (as pictured above). These penguins hang around to be fed longer than other penguin species, often well into the moulting period for the adults - which is March - Gentoo chicks in later posts.
The Argentinean Navy operates a summer-only base here called Càmera Station- it was built in 1953. We were welcomed by the staff stationed there - they were exceptionally welcoming, with biscuits (cookies) and apple juice after our walk across the island (and around some fur seals).
20:00 Dinner is served
Dinner was always three courses: usually a bowl of soup followed by some kind of meat dish and some kind of pastry/cream desert.