On the voyage south across the Drake toward the Antarctic penninsula, the sighting of the first iceberg was a momentous event, marking our arrival to a world that people only suspected or imagined a little over a hundred or so years ago.
|First Iceberg !|
It was a time of personal wonder and amazement. Wonder at what lay ahead. Amazement at all the things that somehow coalesced in my life and brought me from Weatherford, Texas, to the Antarctic. I took just a moment to feel thankful for my luck and good fortune.
Soon, towering snow covered black volcanic mountains appeared off the bow. The snow covered peaks form rivers of ice that flow slowly down to the ocean to calve, creating an endless parade of icebergs that eventually melt, their crystal clear fresh water evaporating into the air to form snow...
and the life of the mountains begin again...
The air is so perfectly clear, with no smoke, smog, or haze, that perspective as to distance or size becomes impossible. An iceberg that appears to be small and just over there is actually kilometers away. Taking a zodiac over to it's face takes a long time, as the berg gets bigger and bigger.. your zodiac becomes smaller and smaller... until it's dwarfed by 20m (70') of ice
We were advised that this would be a "wet landing", so we planned accordingly. Long underwear, top and bottom. Fleeces. Rubber pants. Gum boots and parkas. Time to suit up, layering on the clothing, hoping for the best, preparing for a sudden change in the weather that could bring on the worst in minutes. We met aft and bathed our gum boots and pants legs in Virkon, a disinfectant that kills bacteria, spores, fungi, and viruses. These folks are adamant about protecting the environment, no effort too large or small. Next, we boarded our zodiacs for the trip ashore...
|Our ride's almost ready|
We were bound for little Barrientos Island (Aitcho Island). At a mere 1.5km long, has steep cliffs (70m) on one end and tapers gently to the sea on the "landing" end. It featured colonies of Gentoo penguins with their chicks, Chinstrap penguins still on their eggs, giant petrels, the ever-present and always vicious and opportunistic skua gull, and finally, elephant seals laying around on the northern and western sides of the island.
|On the way to Aitcho Island|
One of the Gentoo colonies patiently watch and await our arrival. I'm sure that they were all thinking that these "were the ugliest. yellow. birds. ever. And it's simply comical... they way they toddle around. And look! They all look just alike!"
|Strolling down to the beach to have lunch|
|Providing for the family|
The image below seems to represent a typical penguin nesting area here on the penninsula. It consists of a rocky nest, with one of the parent penguins (they take turns), and one or two chicks. They are strategically placed, with great care, to allow 1) toddling room between nests, plus 2) enough room - maybe 1cm - to avoid getting pecked by the neighbors as you toddle through, and 3) room to lift your cute little brushy tail... and squirt to your heart's content.
|Gentoos with their chicks|
Gentoo chicks have been described as ever-growing bags with a large opening at the top and a smaller, but equally busy, opening at the bottom. The parents consume so much pink krill, and digest it so rapidly, that they don't even get complete food absorption. Hence the pink penguin poo. And the chicks... their diets until fledging? Regurgitated krill. Yep, kids, you're having that for breakfast AGAIN. Eat up, it's good for you, and you'll grow up big, and strong enough to kick a skua's ass.
|Barf. It's what's for lunch today.|
|A gentoo gets all gussied-up|
|Cool Chinstrap Dude (Dudette?)|
A penguin has an outer coat of very tiny, but thick, oily feathers, that cover a down layer beneath. Keeps it dry and warm. Sometimes, a bit too warm when the temperature rises and hovers around -2C gasp, pant... They react by dilating their vessels in their wings to rid them of excess heat.
and then... Cool Again. Mmmmmm.
As I mentioned earlier, gentoos and chinstrap penguins nest only on bare rock, making their nests with pebbles and small stones that they gather or (preferably) steal. If no good nesting areas are found near the beach... they climb. They really climb. Damned near straight up. Until they find a suitable area to build a nest. So. Those ugly big feet are good for something!
The skua gull is Chief-in-Charge of Antarctic clean-up.
|Skua - by land|
|Skua - by sea|
Another bird on the clean-up list is the Snowy Sheathbill. A jack-of-all-trades, if you will.
All these thoughts of food were making me really hungry. Lucky for me it was time to leave Aitcho and head for the ship. And supper. Ohhhh, I'm hoping that the chef will regurgitate something really tasty. And kind of soupy. And warm. Mmmmmm.
On the way back, our zodiac took us by the cliffs on the end of the island to see some seals...
|The word "coexist" came to mind...|
Even prettier close up and personal...
This evening, at the bar, I'm in a quiet, pensive mood. I finally determined that I'm in a state of visual overload, unable to process all that I've seen. One more sip, and off to dinner with those rowdy-assed Aussies.
Tomorrow, Half Moon Island and Yankee Harbour, South Shetlands.