Shore Excursions

In the Antarctic region, there are two reasons to go ashore: to see a penguin colony or to see a spot of historical interest. Men and penguins look for the same thing for a settlement: early snow melt and some protection from the elements. Penguins also want a good food source, which the men did not always need; so one whaling station was devoid of the penguins, which were just over the hill on the more exposed slopes but nearer their food supply. However, in addition to being located in the center of an enormous flooded volcanic crater, the whaling station was very near a place with volcanic activity in the form of very hot water seeping into the bay. I don’t know how many of the whalers took advantage of the Antarctic spa, but we did. Those few of us willing to try anything wore our swim suits into shore, under warmer garb, stood in the steam, stripped and plopped our suddenly exposed bodies into three inches of tepid water long enough for a photograph. Two Brits with us even jumped into the unwarmed ocean water.

Spa Party

The excursions were very well organized. On a typical day, I waited in my cabin, partially dressed in long underwear, pants, waterproof rain pants and overshoes. Camera, binoculars, hat, gloves, water were in my pack. The call came over my cabin speaker: Julio, our program director, was ashore and the shore crew was ready, a site clear of wildlife had been found for our landing. Final suggestions were made for dress. When my group was called, I put on my fleece and red coat and hurried to the Deck 2 landing area before I got overheated. I donned my life jacket and let the crew move me down the metal stairs to the Zodiac platform. Strong hands grabbed me into the inflatable boat and off we went.

The boat nosed into the beach and Julio and his crew held the boat and guided us over the side. We stepped into ankle deep water and waded ashore. We got last minute instructions, were reminded of the last departure time, and were free to wander. Some sites had a vigorous hike available, other people took shorter ones, and the rest preferred just to hang around the landing site. There was something for everyone.

Landing Site and Adeles

Landing sites were carefully chosen so our activity would not disturb the penguins. This did not stop the penguins from marching through our midst, and we were allowed to wait to see if they might be curious about us. We all had seen pictures of people-penguin interactions, which raised our expectations that we would have one of our own, but few people did. Personally I felt as interesting as a rock to the penguins that did look in my direction.

We encountered many birds that were not penguins. Large, brown Skuas and white, dove-like Sheath Bills watched us closely for scavenging opportunities should we get too close to a nest and cause a parent to leave. I found just sitting and watching the penguins go about their business the most fascinating. Marching up and down hills, stealing rocks, greeting each other or calling out for whatever reason they had, or just resting patiently, waiting for the snow to melt, the egg to be laid, or the chick to hatch.

We were not there for the most frantic portion of parenting, feeding the growing chicks. We only saw recent hatches, but pictures during the lectures aboard ship show the chicks almost the size of their parents, covered with fine down and with gaping, begging mouths. It’s no wonder the parents leave altogether when the chicks are finished their molt in preparation to depart. The frazzled moms and dads need to feed them selves after raising their chicks to self-sufficiency.

One afternoon, we toured Paradise Harbour in the Zodiacs for a longer ride than most and a chance to get closer to the icebergs and another old research station. The resting seals we encountered were curious but unafraid. I was in the last Zodiac to leave the ship, and it had been pressed into service so there were enough to accommodate all the passengers at one time. The motor was loud and raspy, and in the middle of such pristine scenery, annoyed me. One friend who had visited before me had said she loved most the utter silence. I longed for that same experience, and finally asked for some time without the motor. Far from the ship, the driver obliged and we drifted quietly for several minutes, each of us in our own thoughts. I expected to be able to meditate and feel the solitude, in spite of the others in the boat, but I was disappointed. The distant birdcalls were soothing but I rediscover the tinnitus in my ears and found it difficult to focus. It is easier to appreciate the silence in retrospect and I now I can return there when I choose and construct what I wanted to experience in my mind.

When we continued with the tour, we found a leopard seal hanging around a strangely sculptured iceberg, eating krill off the bottom. We rounded his berg a couple of times, and he swam over to check us out for dinner possibilities each time. We flunked the test, fortunately. These seals are the penguin eaters. Many people have seen the filmed sequence where a leopard seal grabs a young penguin, and then thrashes it around in the water to remove the skin. It’s hard to watch, but leopard seals eat a lot of krill in addition to baby penguins.

Boot Washing Station

It is no secret when a seal or penguin has had a krill feast. The excrement is pink. Krill are the tiny shrimp-relatives that so many of the Antarctic animals and birds rely on for food, or they eat something that eats krill. Swarms of krill move up and down in the water as the day passes, and congregate on the undersides of ice. The more sheet ice there is, the higher the population of krill. In spite of the abundance of wildlife at the edge of Antarctica, the lack of variety makes them incredibly fragile. If anything should happen to the krill population, the rest of the wildlife would be devastated and recent increases in temperatures may be indicators of disaster ahead.