Our First Shore Landing!
Aitcho Islands, Barrientos Island, South Shetlands Islands.
Lat: 62° 27’ S, Long: 59° 34’ W
Wind: 8 Knt E, Temp: 0° C (6 PM)
What a wonderful day we had today! It was definitely a day of many “firsts” for me. We started bright and early with informational meetings…we needed some preparation for where our first landing would be this afternoon. It was our first trip to shore on this expedition, my first time on an Antarctic island, first time in a zodiac in the Southern Ocean of Antarctica, and first time seeing elephant seals in Antarctica.
Justine, one of the Homeward Bound science faculty members on board, talked with us about “invasion biology.” This means that a species that is not normally found in one area is introduced whether by accident or on purpose. In this region, it is easy to bring in non-native species…on your dirty boots, in the Velcro of your clothing, in your pockets, and even in your backpack. The Madrid Protocol (1988) explicitly points out that no non-native species are allowed in Antarctica. This is the reason why sled dogs are no longer used in Antarctica. The treaty helps protect the biodiversity of this pristine wilderness, and helps to minimize changes to ecosystem and evolutionary processes. Eradication (getting rid of) unintended “guests” can be very expensive.
To ensure that unintended human introduction of species does not happen, anyone from our Homeward Bound group who was going to wear used clothing/gear or carry a previously used backpack HAD to vacuum out these items. Believe it or not, Justine told us about random times they put a sock on the end of the vacuum and when they examined the contents they found 88 different types of seeds and plant material. With over 50,000 tourists a year visiting Antarctica, most of those visiting the Antarctic Peninsula, the crew of this ship (and others) makes it mandatory to take precautions.
Luckily one of the things that has saved Antarctica from more non-native species has been the fact that it is really expensive to travel here, so it’s not visited as much as other places around the world. We’d all like to keep it just as it is…to protect the native species and protect this amazing continent for the future.
We finally met the Captain of our ship! He’s been busy getting us through the Drake Passage (we officially left the Drake Passage today). His response when someone asked him why he wanted to be a ship captain, “You have to be a little crazy and also have a strong feeling of running away from home.” It’s obvious he loves his job and is great at it, but he is away from home a lot, so there’s a trade-off. He mentioned that the most amazing thing he’s seen would be the whales. The biggest change he’s seen in the many years he’s been a ship captain…the loss of ice in the Arctic and also when a large portion of the Larson Ice Shelf broke off a few years back. One thing I found quite funny was that he admitted that he does sometime still get seasick. The biggest swell he’s sailed in…11 meters in the Southern Ocean. We didn’t even have 1 meter swells while crossing the Drake Passage. We were SO lucky!
Since our Homeward Bound group has been talking about leadership and courage, someone asked the Captain what courage meant to him. His answer, “You go ahead even when you are afraid or don’t know about the future.” When asked about his role as a leader, “You must function as a team.” Smart words from the leader of our voyage!
Mary-Anne, another Homeward Bound science faculty member met with us after lunch, to talk about some of the wildlife we can expect to see in the coming weeks. Of course, everyone was ready to hear about (and see) penguins. The species we will most likely see: Gentoo, Chinstrap, Adelie; others that could be spotted: Magellanic, King, Emperor, Rockhopper, and Macaroni. These penguins are all terrestrial (land) breeders and lay 1-2 eggs (depending on the species). Their diet consists of krill (tiny, very important shrimp-like creatures that are the foundation for the Southern Ocean food webs), and possibly fish.
Below: a Chinstrap penguin (see the black line on its chin? It makes this penguin look like he/she is smiling! Also, note the black beak and pink-ish feet). Distinguishing characteristics are important to watch out for! I’m learning more about the various features of each penguin every day!
Below: Gentoo penguins sitting on their nests made from small rocks. Note the orange beak. They also have orange-ish feet.
Seals are also well distributed in this region, including the southern elephant seal, Antarctic fur seal, leopard seal, Weddell seal, crabeater seal (which actually eats krill, not crab), and the Ross seal.
Below: a southern elephant seal lounging on the beach in the Southern Ocean.
It is critically important for all people coming to this region to remember that WE are the visitors, and any harmful interference is prohibited. When near animals the best plan is to walk slowly and quietly, sit and let penguins come near you, do not feed/touch/or handle wild animals, and give the animal the “right of way,” which means do not block their movement or change it in any way. Pay attention to how an animal looks, and note when that behavior is changing. When an animal changes its behavior, you are disturbing it and should back away immediately. The general idea is to stay 5 meters (15 feet) away.
One of our filmmakers, Dale, was lucky to have this Chinstrap penguin waddle right up to him to check him out. It looks like Dale and this Chinstrap are having a private conversation!
During lunch time, the fascination shifted to our first ICEBERG! Yay!
Also of interest, the beautiful large and brown-ish Giant petrel and the Cape petrel. Both were gently gliding through the air alongside of our ship. The Giant petrel is…well, very large. The Cape petrel is black and white and has distinctive markings on its back and wings. Both are quite graceful.
As we ate our lunch, we continued our approach to the English Strait, which signified the end of the Drake Passage. Our expedition leader, Greg Mortimer, gave information about wearing layers, our life jackets (different type than the ones we’d use if we had to exit the ship because of a problem), and how to safely get in and out of the rubber zodiacs we’ll be using for all landings. The zodiacs will be launched from the stern (back) of the ship, and we’ll step into them off a small platform. His final words, “Today is about just this place, enjoying it and taking it all in.” We all couldn’t wait to get started.
Off to Barrientos Island to see PENGUINS and seals!
The landing spot on the beach was FULL of penguins…both Chinstrap and Gentoos. About eight giant elephant seals were lounging on the beach. We had to be careful to avoid them, not stress them out, or disturb them. The snorts and other sounds coming from them were hilarious. They were in a big blob, lying next to or partially on top of one another. The males are not very cute! They have a large nose and when stressed they open their mouths wide and look a bit frightening. It’s pretty comical to see the penguins waddling around these huge seals, who seem not to even notice.
Check out the folds of skin on this elephant seal. The penguins look so small compared to these giants!
Below: a Chinstrap penguin on its nest made of rocks.
This Gentoo is on a mission to…who knows!
Here’s a Chinstrap penguin on the “go!” The penguins are always so busy. If they aren’t stealing rocks for their mate on the nest, they are popping into the water for a swim or popping out to join their pals. Whatever the case, they were waddling all over the beach and island. It’s crazy fun to watch them.
We spent lots of time exploring Barrientos Island. As we hiked the snowy path to the hill, we were treated with another beach on the opposite side of our landing. Thousands of penguins were nesting everywhere. It was a bit smelly but the most amazing thing is to stop and listen to the sounds! Penguins are noisy, raucous birds! They are fighting off other penguins trying to steal rocks, making announcements (of I don’t know what!), and generally just squawking and making a huge racket. Everywhere I looked there were busy penguins! Views were spectacular and I thoroughly enjoyed the field trip.
It’s hard to stop taking photos when you have such willing subjects!
Kathleen and I near the penguins and seals on the beach used for our landing.
The Gentoo on the left is sitting on an egg, while the one to its right is trying to steal rocks from the nest. It was an on-going battle. I loved watching their “battle” over small rocks. It was a noisy battle!
Look carefully below…there’s an egg under that Gentoo. The brood patch (a bare spot of skin under the penguin’s feathers) helps keep the egg warm until the chick can hatch. The egg is kept balanced on the penguin’s feet.
I love to zoom in on specific body parts no matter what animal I’m observing. The adaptations help us understand how the animal lives and moves, keeps itself warm, or even how it gets its food.
Public enemy #1…the skua. It tries hard to steal eggs (and later small chicks) from penguins’ nests. We actually saw one successfully snatch an egg today, which is sad, but it is a food chain/web in action. All animals need to eat to survive, and the skua is no exception.
After about three hours on shore, it was time to head back to our ship, the Ushuaia. Once back on board, we had to thoroughly clean our boots, just in case we had mud/dirt on them. Remember, we have to follow strict protocol to keep from transferring non-native species from one place to another.
What an amazing field trip. I’ll leave you with a couple more photos, and a video at the end. Enjoy!
Enjoy this video and listen for the sound of penguins! There is definitely an attempt at some rock stealing in progress.