Tag Archives: Chinstrap Penguin

Summers End

The past few days in Antarctica have seen some dramatic changes. Just ten days ago we were basking in sunlight and calm days. Ever since land reared out from a turgid sea on this trip we have been accosted by strong winds, steel grey skies and a constant mix of drizzle and sleet. The penguin colonies and mires of mud and guano with only a hand full of penguins standing miserably in a pile of feather as they shed the bedraggled growth of the last year in preparation for the comming winter. The gloomy conditions are relieved by huge numbers of humpback whales congregating to mop up the last of the summers krill, and also by the fat looking leopard seals and orcas rilled to bursting on the easy snacks made from young penguins taking to the water for the first time. With season turning all around us we are also fleeing the approaching winter also and we are now bound for the North with only two more days before we leave the frozen continent to it’s seasons slumber. There are still many exciting excersions ahead but there is definitely a feeling of farewell upon us at present.

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The best zodiac cruise ever

Today we started out with a glorious landing at Orne Harbour – a steep climb up to a chinstrap penguin colony 90 m above a mirror calm ocean reflecting a perfectly clear blue sky and the white capped peaks all around. Resting amidst the clamour of the penguins, it was hard to contemplate that the day could get better….

…until we launched the zodiacs in Wilhelmina Bay. After lunch the clouds had drawn in to cast the bay in steel grey light but immediately upon nosing the boat into the brash ice lining the bay the deep bass bellow of humpback whale blows resounded from the glaciers and we watched avidly as two whales crashed through the jumble of ice before making their way into deeper water. Leaving these leviathans to watch a basking leopard seal we were soon diverted by a pair of dwarf minke whales which played around the zodiac for 15 minutes and swam below us in the clear water looking up as they pondered these odd visitors to their domain.

But the minke whales where simply the warm up. Ten minutes later we found two more humpback whales that were fascinated by our cruise ship. They circled the ship for what seemed an age spy-hopping to gain a better view of what must seem a rather strange apparition in these icy waters. At one point they pushed their noses out of the water and seemed to be seriously contemplating mounting the gangway to get the tour of the inside as well!

But this time there was a cluster of zodiacs around the action and before long these gently giants shifted their curiosity to the smaller black zodiacs. What ensued was two hours that will be etched into my memory forever. As we drifted with a gentle breeze the whales moved from zodiac to zodiac paying each of us a visit and giving us all a thorough inspection. The whales lay on their sides gazing up at us from 3o cm below the water with their pectoral fins waiving above us. They pushed their nose above the water to eye level and gazed at us from the air to see if we made more sense above the water than below. They scratched their back on the bottom of our boats, they pushed against the side of the boat as if requesting a scratch, and they thoroughly covered all the spectators in a thick coating of whale snot as they sent jets of water towards us accompanied by the deep sound of a whale blow at close quarters.

After many years of working in Antarctica this was an experience that will redefine the “zodiac cruise”. It is hard to imagine it could get better!

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White Christmas

It has been a few days since I last wrote which has been packed with Christmas festivity, icy fun and wildlife frenzy. In the days before the holiday we were treated to the most spectacular Orca experience I have ever witnessed. We were watching a pod of six Orcas attack a Minke Whale when the whales were distracted by a passing chinstrap penguin … a morsel which was clearly too tasty to pass up not (not to mention easier to tackle than a whale!). We were then treated to a spectacular 30 minute show as the pod of Orcas proceeded to train the young calf in their midst how to persecute a penguin. The penguin, clearly somewhat disturbed by the sudden turn of fortune, rapidly made for our ship which was the closest approximation to shelter … what unfolded was a spectacular game of chase the penguin as the killers used team work to corral the bird between the adult members, but always with the calf in the middle of the throng to observe. While, they clipped the penguin several times, it really appeared that the intent was never to actually catch it, and indeed for the penguin lovers out there, you’ll be relieved to hear that ultimately the poor penguin escaped … short of breath but apparently none the worse for wear.

We spent Christmas day in the South Shetland Islands with much Christmas cheer, though it’s always a little hard being away from family and loved ones at these moments. The jagged mountains and precipitous ice cliffs take on a slightly sinister aspect at times and it is possible to feel truly isolated in this icy continent. But then again, the sun might suddenly find a gap in the clouds and an ominous grey landscape can be instantly transformed into the most uplifting and awe-inspiring setting on the planet. Throw in a few humpback whales, some seals lounging on the ice and penguins porpoising through the water … and the doubts are dispelled.

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The cold

I love Antarctica. Its a wondrous place with abundant wildlife, stunning scenery and a feeling that etches itself into my soul whenever I find myself at the edge of the known world. It’s a heady mix of adrenalin, amazement and awe … but despite all this, standing in the freezing rain for several hours can get rather tiring. The energy levels slowly subside in proportion to one’s core temperature until you find yourself gazing listlessly at the array of breeding penguins that spread out over the slopes and raise a clamor as they squabble amongst themselves over the precious stones that are the building blocks of the castles they raise each year to keep their eggs from the snow. Even the daring raids of skuas diving into the black and white throng to steal away with an egg fails to raise the excitement it should when the extremities are a mere memory. And in light of that… I believe I will end this blog abruptly and jump into a warm shower.

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The Volcano

At present we are anchored in the caldera of an active volcano in the South Shetland Islands. Deception Island was named after the fact that it took them a few times of sailing around the island before they discovered that through a narrow entrance named Neptunes bellows, you could sail into the empathy expanse of water that is, in fact, the crater of an active volcano. It could equally have been named for the fact that while the island seemed like a sleeping giant it was, in fact, rather a light sleeper. In just 30 years ago the island awoke and spewed pumice and ash all over the various scientific bases that have taken over from the whaling stations that set up shop here in the early 1900’s causing panic and the evacuation of all personnel.

The glacial record of ash deposits in the region suggests that this volcano does actually erupt every 30 years and the fact that the last catastrophic eruption was in the early 1970s is some cause for concern, but right now, it is a sheltered anchorage and a place to catch up on sleep after a very bust first day in the Antarctic.

We awoke at 6:00 for a early landing at Barrientos Island in the Aitcho group where we walked upon the fresh snow of the season amidst Chinstrap and Gentoo penguins with a few Weddell Seals thrown in for good measure. The landscape here is absorbing and I could spend hours immersed in the jagged rocky peaks, glaciers and icecaps if it wasn’t for the thousands of penguins constantly passing to and fro as they establishing their nests for the season… and it looks like it will be a great season as the gentoos are already proudly defending their eggs  which last year at this time were merely a glint in the eye with many penguins being punished by heavy snowfalls and thus not laying until much later. However, this year the season looks good, and at our second landing of the day we were again greeted by hordes of chinstrap penguins getting ready for a busy season of raising chicks. A busy season ahead for me as well as I prepare for several months sailing around Antarctica, but a few moments amidst the grand scenery, vibrant life and strong smells (penguin colonies smell like ..well… guano) reminds me that this really is paradise.

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Another trips end

Once again we are bidding farewell to Antarctica – at least for another five days until we are back again. Today greeted us with gusty winds and a high probability of no landings at all, but we managed to find a sheltered anchorage at Half Moon Island and got ashore for the morning. It’s an incredibly different place at the South Shetland Islands right now. The snow has been cast aside at the end of summer to reveal the rock of the islands. The landscape has been transformed from one of icy blues and whites to one of brown rock and rivers of red mud. Red of course because the mud is comprised of penguin guano which is, in turn, comprised of digested krill. Needless to say the whole place is a little on the nose. Definitely a feeling that the season is at its end now though as the breeding season is at an end and the only penguins onshore for the most part is molting chicks gaining their adult plumage before taking to the water. Being on land with nothing to do makes these little fellows incredibly curious and if your not paying attention you’ll be surprised by a gang of youths busily pecking at your knees and slapping your shins with their flippers. As they are in the process of shedding their your feathers they really have a disheveled look that brings to mind a gang of miscreant youths. The feathers are falling everywhere and drifts of cast aside plumage blow about your feet like the snow that was here but weeks ago.

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Today we started with a quick landing at Useful Island which is a small island in the Gerlache Strait that is home to Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins – there are leopard seals patrolling the beach and big fat Weddell seals lounging on the snow and over all it is a pretty relaxed landing with a view of the spectacular scenery surrounding the Gerlache Strait. After that it was into Paradise Harbour, which is very aptly named given the fantastic scenery and rugged glaciers, and finally a BBQ with dance and music on the back deck with just a dusting of snow to remind us where we are: the coolest place on Earth.

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Rainy day in the South Shetlands

We arrived in the South Shetland Islands today and began the day with a landing in pretty windy conditions blowing rain into our eyes as we zipped between land and the ship in the zodiacs. But when we got ashore I noticed something odd. Halfmoon Island, where we landed, is normally a pretty riotous affair due to the chinstrap penguin colony. Chinstraps are an agro bunch and are normally busily picking fights with their neighbours in a noisome squabbling fray. But today the colony was strangely subdued. On closer inspection the reason was apparent. The first chinstrap chicks of the season had appeared the last night and the parents were busily tending to their tiny fragile charges, with the small grey chicks waking into a wet cold world and meeting the Antarctic weather for the first time.

Meanwhile back on the ship we were doing quite the opposite and changing the atmosphere from subdued to festive. With Bing Crosby blaring over the speakers we decked the decks with Christmas cheer and prepared for the merry season by setting up Christmas trees and introducing some season’s cheer to the Akademik Ioffe.

Right now I am preparing to fall into an exhausted sleep after another landing in Deception Island in the rain. Immediately afterwards we spent an hour lugging garbage and fuel between our vessel and another passing ship as a favour and now I am pleasantly exhausted while I sip a pint of Guinness and prepare to say goodnight to the world.

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24 November 2010

Woke at the crack of dawn.. but dawn is less of a crack and more of a gaping chasm here in Antarctica and lasts for hours …despite this I caught at least the first half of dawn when I dragged myself out of bed at 4:00 to jump in a small rubber boat to charge around icebergs. Minutes later I’m hanging from a crane 25m above the water and descending into the cold ice waters with seals, penguins and whales on my mind.

The first stop was Orne Harbour where I cruised past chinstrap penguins and leopard seal…then a quick dash up to Cuverville Island to see the largest Adelie penguin colony on the Antarctic Peninsula, and finally a landing and hike at Neko Harbour. The last is a particular favorite of mine with a churning glacier descending into a tranquil Bay populated by Gentoo penguins. The Glacier is fast and furious …by glacial standards, and drops icebergs frequently. Today a HUGE carving happened that sent a wave right up over the beach. I was onshore and though I avoided the worst we lost a bit of gear and I spent the rest of the landing wet up to my waist. Still …a great landing. I blazed the trail for the long walk up to

the ridge and then to the next bay where there were about seven Weddel seal asleep. I managed top get 20 minutes sitting alone on the beach listening to the Weddels sing in thier sleep accompanied by the trumpetting of Gentoo penguins.

A beautiful place to be working.

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