Friday, November 19, 2010

ON BOARD PLANCIUS: November 17 - 18, 2010

Howdy, Birders,

Our polar expedition continued overnight, finding us in the northeast
Antarctic Peninsula region at daybreak. This is where tabular icebergs
roam. In some years, the Erebus and Terror Gulf are chock a block full
with ice. This region will have the most spectacular icebergs that we
are likely to encounter on the entire voyage. Huge tabulars break from
the Larsen, Ronne and Filchner ice shelves to the south, and combine
with one year old and multi-year sea ice to produce a floating,
undulating panorama of rugged ice scenery. The Erebus and Terror Gulf
and the Weddell Sea represent the center of the Peninsula's Adelie
Penguin populations. The worldwide breeding population of Adelies is
estimated to be a minimum of 2 to 3 million pairs. Data collected
through 1993 suggests a minimum breeding population of about 295,000
pairs in the Northeast Peninsula region.
A howling wind caused streaks of white across the sea. Nevertheless, we
landed at Paulet Island at 8 am. This small island in the northwestern
Weddell Sea lies three miles southeast of Dundee Island. It is home to
100,000 or more breeding pairs of Adelie Penguins. From November through
January the island teems with tuxedo-clad Adelies, crowding the upper
slopes and beaches. This is exactly what greeted us on the cobble beach
where we landed. Despite the howling wind, we managed to enjoy the
penguins on a relatively warm day, nearly 40F! There was a nonstop
penguin parade along the beach, a few penguins carrying rocks for
nesting, and quite a few penguins sitting on eggs which could be seen
whenever they stretched. Along the beaches, many Weddell Seals with
their charming faces, were hauled out. Derrick and Jeanette found their
spot on the beach, watching all of the wildlife activity. Later, Derrick
told me that he saw WILSON'S STORM-PETRELS, going in and out of the
scree slopes where they nest. Due to the winds, we were unable to see or
reach the remains of the Nordenskjold Expedition hut. The wicked and
fickle wind kept changing unpredictably. So, our landing was cut short
by an hour or so. Still, we all felt as though it was a giant success.
This would be our best stop for observing Adelie Penguins! Surely, it is
one of the most incredible of all incredible places in Antarctic. If
penguins were an indigenous people, they would have declared Paulet
Island a "holy" place, eons ago.

During lunch, we headed toward the eastern side of the Antarctic
Peninsula via Antarctic Sound. The sound is 30 miles long and 7 to 12
miles wide. It connects the Bransfield Strait with Erebus and Terror
Gulf, and separates Joinville Island from the northeastern end of the
Peninsula. Brown Bluff, our next destination, is a promontory on the
Tabarin Peninsula. However, the winds were far too high, reaching gale
force now, for us to make a safe landing at Brown Bluff. This region
teems with vibrant exploration history. The most bizarre of these tales
involves the wandering, missed connections and surprises connected with
Nordenskjold's Swedish Antarctic Expedition of 1901-04. Chris recounted,
in brief, this expedition at our evening recap. We celebrated Jeanette's
birthday this evening!

Morning of November 18th, we were scheduled to land at Half Moon Island,
in the South Shetland Islands. The ice cliffs and mountains of the South
Shetland Islands are separated from the Antarctic Peninsula by the
Bransfield Strait. Because these islands are so close (about 40 hour's
crossing in the Drake Passage) to the rest of humankind, they are the
most heavily visited part of the Peninsula. More than 45% of all
Peninsula landings occur here. The Shetlands are a great contrast to
many visitors' black and white and gray notions of how Antarctica might
appear. This is the warmest, wettest and most colorful part of the
continent. When the penguin breeding season is in full blossom, the
guano adds a large pink mass to this palate. Again, this is a region of
great history and exploration. But, for us today, the object was landing
at Half Moon Island which we successfully accomplished.

Half Moon is a 1.25 mile long, crescent-shaped island that lies in the
entrance to Moon Bay between Greenwich and Livingston Islands. The
island was known to sealers as early as 1821. The Argentine Camara
Station is located on the southwestern side of the island. We could see
the brightly colored, orange buildings. At the landing beach on the
northeastern shore, buried in snow, was a rotting dory. Upon landing, we
donned some high tech snow shoes! Environmentally, this was a great idea
as we did not leave behind any of the deep holes that occur without snow
shoes, thereby causing penguins to fall inside of them. Instead, we
walked uphill, effortlessly, on the snow, up to three feet deep. It was
sunny, with little wind, and temperatures about 30F. This was to be our
best view of CHINSTRAP PENGUINS on this polar expedition. Wherever the
snow had revealed exposed rocks, chinstraps had taken up residency,
setting up their nests, some already on eggs. Hiking along the marked
path to the eastern spit, we saw KELP GULLS, ANTARCTIC TERNS and BROWN
SKUAS. But, the Chinstraps were the real attention getters. Quarrelsome
and boisterous, stealing rocks, eating snow, tobogining and mating—
their many behaviors engaged our attention. The scenery was breathtaking
and truly glorious. Sitting on one of the rocks at the top of the hill,
overlooking all of this, Carol said to me, "You are right— there really
are no words to describe all of this!" True, this is a place that one
must experience, more than any other place on Earth. Words,
superlatives, they are no good at the bottom of the world.

Back on board the ship, hot lunch awaited us as we headed for the grand
Deception Island. Deception Island is ring shaped and 9.2 miles in
diameter, enclosing the large harbor of Port Foster. Deception is the
largest of recent volcanic centers in the South Shetlands. It has
erupted most recently as 1970. Our skillful Captain Alexander Pruss
carefully navigated the ship through a very narrow opening called
Neptune's Bellows. Whaler's Bay is the small bay first encountered to
starboard after passing through a narrow opening called Neptune's
Bellows. The French explorer, Jean-Baptiste Charcot named the bay
because of its heavy use by whalers at the turn of the 20th century. The
rusting boilers and dilapidated buildings date from shore-based whaling
operations that began here in 1910 and ended in 1931.

It was an easy landing on the black cinder beach, strewn with whalebones
and other debris from the whaling and research groups that once operated
here. A single WEDDELL SEAL was on the beach. Soon, we notice boiled
krill at the water's edge. Steam rising from hot springs along the
shoreline was responsible for this. In years past, expedition passengers
would soak in the hot springs, but this is no longer permitted. Some
folks hiked to Neptune's Window, while others wandered around the old
whaling station and cemetery. A "club" of bachelor skuas hung out at the
pond. Here, we saw mostly BROWN (SUB-ANTARCTIC) SKUAS, but two SOUTH
POLAR SKUAS were also photographed. Hybrid skuas also occur here. A few
GENTOO PENGUINS were along the shore, but no penguins of any sort breed
here. In fact, it is an area with very little wildlife. Thus, we
returned to our shipboard home in a light snow, ending another polar
expedition day.

Debi Shearwater
On board Plancius; Falkland Islands, South Georgia & Antarctic Peninsula

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