- Introduction to Antarctica
- 1. First Stop, Falkland Islands
- 2. Penguins
- 3. Crossing Drake Passage
- 4. A Foothold on Antarctica
- 5. First Steps on the Continent
- 6. Crossing Paths of Explorers
- 7. Penguins and More Penguins
- 8. Pink Poop and Adélie Thieves
- 9. Stormy Finale
- 10. Changing Times
Our naturalists educated us about penguins and their lives throughout our tour. After seeing the penguins’ behavior firsthand, and learning about their lives and habitats, I finally began to understand and appreciate the complexities of their lives and how they intertwine with the other wildlife. For one, they all depend on Antarctic krill, a necessary little creature in the sea’s food supply. When a seal or penguin gorges on the pink krill, the liquid excrement is pink. Whales feasting on krill can end up with red poop. At night, swarms of krill feed on the phytoplankton that live on the underside of icebergs. During the day, most of the krill swim down into the ocean to three hundred feet to avoid predators, though enough remain on the bottom of the ice for krill-feeders to find a good meal. The larger the ice sheet, the greater the population of krill. In spite of the abundance of wildlife at the edge of Antarctica, the lack of variety makes them all incredibly fragile.
Before my trip to Antarctica, I mentioned to a friend that I wanted to bring back rocks. She replied, “Oh, you can’t do that. There are so few rocks that the penguins steal them from each other.”
That wasn’t quite the case, as I witnessed on Paulet Island. The tightly packed Adélie penguin nests left only enough room between each personal bowl of rocks so that neighboring penguins could not conveniently steal the stones that kept the eggs and chicks off the wet ground. We walked around several old and unused nests constructed with the same size of stones as in the active nests, but the nesting penguins did not take any of those stones. They preferred to steal stones from nests in use, and seemed to take delight when the nest’s occupant objected to the pilfering. Maybe this gave the stolen stone higher value as a gift to the sitting parent.
To me, it seemed to be more like a proof of pairing, dare I say love, than something required for construction. One of our guides said that a female Adélie might seduce a neighboring male into having intercourse with her, and while he is distracted, she steals one of his rocks. Scientists have a number of theories for this behavior, but so far, there is no consensus.
Penguins living in tight quarters have to put up with getting hit by explosive excrement from a neighbor, which can shoot up to ten feet from the source. Nests are two-to-six-feet apart, so many penguins must sit for hours with white or pink streaks across their backs until their mate returns. Then they can go to the sea to bathe and eat. Early in the season when we visited, the pink dashes radiated out from each nest, making a Jackson Pollack-like design. People on their second or third tour of Antarctica told us that the patterns on the open space between the nests disappear as the guano builds to a pungent, knee-deep stew that stinks. Fortunately, we missed that stage. Some friends who had visited Antarctica later in the penguins’ nesting season said they could not get rid of the revolting odor from their rubber boots, so they left the boots on the ship when they disembarked. No wonder the ship had so many boots to lend the new arrivals.
Neko Harbor on the Antarctic Continent
Loose, brash, ice-filled Neko Harbor, was our second and last visit to the continent of Antarctica. Julio marveled that over the years, few tourists have even stepped foot on the shore of Neko Harbor, perhaps only “enough to fill a couple of football stadiums.” Most tourists have only visited the islands, as we had been doing, and the ones who come on the larger ships never even get off the ship to set foot on Antarctica.
Even though the shoreline looked like others we had seen, my feet tingled as I planted them on the thin, rocky strip of exposed rocks, the edge of the Antarctic continent. I felt connected to Shackleton and the other explorers, who could not have imagined that people like me would one day be able to make a comfortable tour to places explorers once considered their most challenging destinations.
My friend Sally and I carefully picked our way along the steep slope covered in dirty old snow, hard from months on the ground and the passage of hundreds of gentoo penguins. They marched to the sea for food, and then back to the nesting spots they used the previous year, even though we could only see the snow that covered them. Experienced parents use sites on higher ground where flooding is less likely as the snow melts. An egg laid on snow will freeze, so the older penguin couples know to wait until the snow melts before preparing their nests for eggs. When their nest of pebbles emerges from the snow, they spend days moving the pebbles around until every placement suits them. Then they go on with their breeding activities.
Younger pairs or newly paired older adults that have lost their mates are left with less desirable sites for their nests. They may need time to construct a new nest from unused stones. Their chicks are hatched later and have a higher mortality rate due to the possibility of the chick drowning in the low-lying nest.
Sally and I passed a small red hut peeking out from a snow bank, built and maintained by the Argentines for emergencies. A pair of Snowy Sheathbills stood on the roof and watched us walk by, their wings folded, curious, and seemingly unafraid. The snowy sheathbill is the only land bird native to Antarctica. These omnivorous birds eat everything possible, including broken eggs, bird feces, and afterbirth, along with weak babies. They are small enough not to threaten the penguins and they keep the penguin colony clean. Snowy sheathbills breed at the same time as the penguins in order to feed their chicks nutrient-rich regurgitated krill brought to the colonies by busy penguins. Visually, the snowy sheathbills are one of the few birds I would describe as ugly. Their naked warty faces and sheaths cover half of their top bills. The two we saw had faces that looked like a partially picked scab.
Julio had warned us about softening patches of snow and, sure enough, as we walked up the slope, Sally disappeared. One moment she was beside me and then she was gone. Well, not really. When she burst out laughing I looked down and saw her sprawled on the snow, one leg fully embraced by the icy crust. We managed to free her leg, but had to sacrifice her rubber boot for a moment. I dug it out while she balanced on her booted foot. The hole did seem just the right size to trap a small penguin, as Julio had warned. For example, an Adélie is 16” tall and 2.2 pounds, and it would just fill that hole, sentencing the unlucky bird to certain starvation. As Julio instructed, we filled in the hole by stomping on the surrounding crust and snow.
We continued our peaceful walk inland until the startling sound of a sharp crack startled us. We turned to see our ship, tiny across the bay, paused at the base of the immense face of Rudolf Glacier. With another crack, a gigantic piece of ice slipped off the side of the glacier and plunged into Neko Harbor. The ice chunk popped out of the water and then bobbed up and down several times. The wave it spawned jerked the ship side to side, which must have been a thrill for the people on board! The wave rolled across the bay into the cove near us.
It took a moment for me to catch my breath after that spectacle. The peace and quiet soon returned, and the bathing penguins did not miss a beat. For them, it’s just life on the beach.
Another astonishing event on this incredible continent!
Gentoos Bathing & on the Hunt
After our stroll inland, Sally and I returned to the shoreline where masses of gentoo penguins were bathing, much like robins do in a puddle. The penguins tossed upward sprays of water and fluttered their flippers. I picked my bird to watch. She floated on the surface and swished her tail with vigor to clean her nether regions. She lay on one side to swish and splash, her upward flipper high in the air, and then she turned to the other side for another good swish until she felt properly cleaned. She picked at stubborn stains on her belly and finished with a good preening, getting every feather in its proper alignment to capture the right amount of air needed for good buoyancy.
When my penguin finished her bathing, she slid underwater to swim as fast as a bird can fly. The extraordinarily clear water in the bay allowed me to easily watch her streaking among the others, and then, zipping away further out into the bay. She joined hundreds of penguins surfacing with a brief jump out of the sea to snatch some air, and then diving back down under the water. They stroked their flippers in both directions to give them momentum, like sculling. The gentoos almost looked as if they were normal birds flying through the air, exuding joy with each playful leap. There seemed to be no practical purpose to the antics other than just having some fun.
On further reflection, I realized that besides jumping out of the water for air, hunger drove the gentoos on their way to speedily reach their feeding grounds. I try not to anthropomorphize wildlife, but sometimes it’s impossible not to project my own excitement onto their exuberance that I interpret as playful fun.
Back on the ship, the crew served us a barbecue on the back deck. The protected harbor’s weather was relatively pleasant, and the sun, though not really warm, made it seem like a real picnic. After the meal, I moved to the foredeck to watch the landscape as we sailed out of Neko Harbor. A patch of churning water appeared ahead of our ship and as we drew closer, I made out leaping penguins causing the disturbance. These penguins looked like the ones I had seen from the shore, on their way to their feeding grounds at full speed. Penguins travel in large numbers as a safety measure to foil predators, similar to what migrating birds do. When moving fast in the open sea, hundreds of little bodies leaping out of the water create churning surface waters. From a distance, it appears to be boiling. It must also be confusing to a lurking leopard seal, which is the point, of course.
A Glimpse of the Most Scenic Place on Earth
The same day we visited Neko Harbor, our schedule included a cruise through Lemaire Channel, claimed by some to be the most scenic place on earth. At the south end of the Shetland Islands, a number of large and small islands form many channels. First, we passed through Neumayer Channel, a canyon of high cliffs partially obscured by fog. The ship’s bow pushed aside floating ice chunks until we broke out into a short section of ice-free water exposed to our right. A short distance ahead of us was Lemaire Channel.
I wanted the closest view possible of this channel because it would be our furthest point south. So, I suited up with every bit of warm clothing I had, including my fleece-lined cap with earflaps, in order to face the bitter winds. I joined a few other hardy people on the bow prepared to see the incredible beauty. Low clouds hung in this channel as well, but below the clouds, bright beams of sunlight beckoned to us from the far end, a mystical emanation of its own. The ship slowed as our patch of clear water ran out. Moving chunks of brash ice pressed tightly together, barring our passage. Whipped by the chilly wind, yet mesmerized by the sun that seemed just within reach, the handful of us on deck gloried at the sight, imperfect though it was.
Wind blows the big icebergs, the smaller “bergy bits,” and the slushy brash ice around the Antarctic continent. If the wind pushes the large pieces of floating ice together, the mass can freeze solid. This is called pack ice, which can form when the surface temperature of the water is near freezing, which it usually is in Antarctica. Another type of ice, called “fast ice” is similar, but it either grows from the shoreline or connects to the shore after forming on the surface of the seawater. In either case, if this happens when a ship is surrounded by the pack, the ship is immobilized. Ship captains are aware of the possibility of being trapped by the shifting ice, which is what happened to Clipper Adventurer two years before our trip. Fortunately, an icebreaker happened to be in the area and rescued the ship.
The loudspeaker startled me out of my trance. “This is Julio. I am so sorry to announce that we will not be moving any further south. We cannot risk the possibility of being frozen in this pack ice, so we will be heading back to shelter for the night.”
The captain of Clipper Adventurer put the ship in reverse and slowly turned around, leaving “the most scenic place on earth” behind us. He was not going to take any chances this time.
We on the bow agreed that it was a good decision. My disappointment at not experiencing the full impact of this legendary channel dissipated with relief as I considered the captain’s decision. My agenda for the trip did not include becoming ice-locked, even for a few days. I was reminded, yet again, that especially in wild and remote places, itineraries are only possibilities.
The warmth of the ship’s salon and a cup of cocoa called to me. I glanced back once more at the forbidden channel, awe struck by the raw magnificence and my great fortune to witness it. I am standing deep in the Antarctic, a place so unfriendly that most of this enormous continent has not been explored, seen, or exploited—and much of it never will.