Tag Archives: Gentoo Penguin

The march of the penguins

Today we stepped ashore at Peterman Island which is the furthest south I have made it this summer. The island was fringed by drifts of pack ice through which penguins porpoised on their way to land. The interesting thing to note was which penguins were swimming by as we battled through the ice to make the shore. On the island there are over 3000 pairs of Gentoo Penguins, and around 500 pairs of Adelie Penguins. But these number are shifting at a rate equivalent to the ice flowing past the rocky shores on which they nest.

It seems that on this particular island we are witnessing a shift from a system, dominated by Adelie’s towards a system dominated by Gentoo penguins, and each year the proportion of Gentoo’s increases and the Adelie’s declines. Bear in mind that this is the furthest South that Gentoo penguins are known to breed. The shift seems very much like the staging point for a southward invasion of Gentoo’s … and the reason? Well it has everything to do with climate.

The Antarctic Peninsula is experiencing a significant increase in average temperature .. not enough to be appreciable to the casual visitor, but certainly enough to affect the yearly extent of sea ice .. but certainly not enough to bother a penguin surely? Well, the answer is found in the explosive emissions from a penguin’s rear end. As one watched these spectacular spurts one notices that rather than the rich red colour that transpired from a full belly of krill, many of the penguins on the island are shooting spouts of white. White, as it turns out, shows that the penguins are eating squid or fish, rather than the krill which represent the mainstay of the Antarctic food web.

So what is happening? It seems that the prey that penguins feed upon are much more susceptible to  temperature changes than the penguins themselves and as fish species thrive is slightly warmer temperatures while krill struggle in the face of disappearing sea ice, the penguins are finding the menu a little different from the norm. It seems Gentoo’s are pretty eclectic in their diet while Adelie’s have a penchant for krill, krill and more krill.

In the face of this culinary shift we are now witnessing the triumph of the junk food diet over that of the fussy feeder … sound familiar? Well watch this space!

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Contrasts and Carnage

Today we spent the day in the Antarctic Sound with a spectacular sunrise heralding a clear morning that seemed to erase the memory of the furious winds we were battling yesterday. The crisp brown rocks of Brown Bluff stood starkly on a field of white snow and glaciers and beckoned us to touch ground again finally after three days at sea with wind and waves preventing us from reaching any landings.

Once onshore, we were greeted by hordes of Adelie penguins with a good number of Gentoo penguins thrown in for good measure. After walking around the colony for a few minutes we were greeted with the sight of the first chicks of the season. Of course everyone love the cute chicks peeking out from the nests and receiving their regular dose of regurgitated krill from their parents …but even more exciting is the fact that we were seeing the next generation of leopard seal food!

Prowling around the beach were at least three leopard seals waiting for the chance to pounce on an unwary penguin. One study has shown that just two leopard seals can consume as many as 15.000 penguins over a 15 month period! At Brown bluff we saw these statistics heading toward fruition with at least two separate penguin kills observed – watching a seal thrashing a penguin on the surface to remove the delicate flesh from the unpalatable skin and feathers is not everyone’s cup of tea but it is certainly thrilling to watch the drama of life in Antarctica play out to the ultimate (and bloody) end. Even more surprising was the chance to watch a full grown leopard seal devour a young weddell seal that was about half the length of the predator. More carnage again but the feast was attended by clouds of cape petrels and Wilson’s storm petrels picking up the scraps –  the ecological system here is all interconnected and while one feels compelled to barrack for the underdog, the penguins are certainly a serious part of the life cycle of all the other animals that make up the system.

A glorious morning onshore was followed by raising winds and swell that drove us out of any further landings, but after several hours on shore watching nature in its most raw form there were no complaints from anyone. It’s a land of contrasts and occasional carnage but one thing is certain – Antarctica never fails to deliver excitement!

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South Georgia

Today we awoke at anchor off the northwest coast of South Georgia with the waves beating off the jagged black rocks and white snow caped mountains stretching for the heavens. The wind was whipping foam off the waves but we dropped the zodiacs anyway and ran for cover into the sheltered bay named Elsehul. Once in the bay we were greeted by King Penguins, macaroni penguins and Gentoo penguins …. And of course the clamour of thousands of male fur seals vying for space on the beaches and the honour of taking a harem of female seals for the seasons mating.

Following a fun cruise in the zodiacs in the surge of southern ocean swell driving into the bay we upped anchor and sailed to Salisbury Plains where we spent the remainder of the evening with the second largest colony of king penguins on the island. Apart from the overwhelming aroma of digested fish, the second landing offered a kaleidoscope of colour as the kings paraded in their sunset orange plumage over the green grass, and many surges of adrenalin as we dodged the angry fur seals thronging on the beach.

Now we are again at anchor off Fortuna bay where we will embark upon the last leg of Shackleton’s walk tomorrow. So early to bed tonight to prepare for another big day!

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Beyond shag rocks

The past few days we have had a whirlwind of exploration with fantastic sailing along the north coast of the Falkland Islands accompanied by countless Commerson dolphins and a myriad of sea birds. We visited immense colonies of black browed albatross at west point island, watched the rockhoppers hop over the rocky cliffs and trekked through the rolling hills of the islands watching the diverse birdlife flutter though the tussock grass.

It’s always easy to forget how amazing the Falkland Islands is when en route to South Georgia (probably the most amazing place on earth), but when you arrive on the sandy beaches populated by throngs of Gentoo and magelanic penguins it is easy to spend hours in awe of this far flung land.

Now the Falkland’s lie in our wake, we have past the isolated rocky outcrop of shag rocks with its resident shags and seals, and the jagged snow-clad cliffs of South Georgia will greet me tomorrow when I wake. This thought provides excitement enough to fuel my dreams tonight … and the good news … then I awake the dream of spectacular wildlife and picture book scenery will be a reality!

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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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The turn of the season

This is the last trip of the season and we have reached our most southerly point at Stonington Island south of the Antarctic Circle. This means that we are now working our way slowly north up the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula, and ultimately I’ll continue North all the way to Europe. I look forward to some sunshine in a way but it’s always sad saying goodbye to the Antarctic continent. This white icy land has a magnetism that is already drawing me back even though I have not yet left. Then again, there are signs all around to indicate that the season is over. The weather is shifting with strong winds and blizzards, the penguins have fled the shore leaving just a handful of miserable looking molting individuals on the barren rock now denuded of it’s white carpet of snow. The whales are still here but they are bust feeding up before they too turn North and flee the teeth of winter. It is definitely time to go, but still every moment in this wilderness is a gift and now that I will soon leave it in my wake I am relishing every moment.

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How do you get away from all the birds?

Today we arrived in the Falkland Islands and had two stops where birds where definitely the main feature. The first stop was Saunders Island with nesting black brow albatross, Magellanic penguins and gentoo penguins, all attended by their attendant crown of hungry scavenger including Striated Caracaras and Turkey Vultures – an amazing sight with some stunning wildlife and behaviours to observe, but for me the highlight was Carcass Island. Not as spectacular in terms of piles of wildlife, but here you sit on the beach and are literally harassed by the birds. The cheeky tussock birds flit around the strand line on the beach and will sit on your knee with a curious expression wondering what kind of strange apparition you are. The birds here are pretty unique as the island is cat and rat free which means these guileless birds are safe for now, whilst in much of their previous range they have disappeared. And it is not surprising – today on sat in the palm of my hand briefly. They have absolutely no fear, which does not bode well in the face of introduced predators. Not that the island doesn’t have it’s own predators… well scavengers really. When the tussock birds aren’t stealing the show, the striated caracaras are always happy to perform. One particular opportunistic individual spent several minutes trying to tear my gumboot apart (with my foot inside) while others hovered only feet above wondering if I presented a meal opportunity. It is really splendid to see a host of animals that are absolutely fearless of humans.

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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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What a way to start the New Year! This morning we pulled into the North West islands of the Falkland group and got ashore to wander amidst the fantastic avifauna of the Falklands set amidst rolling green hill and intense aqua blue water that is crystal clear and inviting despite being just a tad to cool for a swim. The first stop was a pretty spectacular location – Saunders Island. Here we see Gentoo Penguins with well-grown chicks nesting on grass with Striated Caracaras and Turkey Vultures prowling around looking for a free meal. Kind of strange seeing the penguins on a green backdrop after a month of seeing them on the clean white blanket of Antarctic snow …  well clean except for the deposits of pink guano. After a while looking at the Gentoos we were then free to roam around the shore amidst the Magellanic Penguin burrows towards the cliffs where the Rockhopper Penguins have staked their territory just next door the Black-browed Albatross nests. The Falklands is the largest and most important breeding site for both these species, with the albatross in particular representing 80% of the global population. Just stunning to watch these majestic animals glide in and then greet their mate and chick with delicate mutual preening displays and calls. And that was just the morning! In the evening we landed at Carcass Island and managed to stretch our legs while walking through the tussock grass to the local homestead where we were plied with home cooked cake and tea in the best English tradition. All up we saw 28 species of birds including two endemic species, the Cobb’s Wren and the Falkland Steamer Duck which are both found no where else on the Earth and former are becoming hard to find even here due to the introduced rats, cats and mice that make an easy meal of these incredibly trusting creatures. My favourite bird for the day is the Tussock Bird, which is happy to sit on your toes and twitter at you … no wonder the cats have a liking for them! And talking of twittering… after the silence of the Antarctic it is pretty special to hear the song of birds flitting around the trees on New Years. Very sweet music to greet 2011.

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White Christmas

Christmas in Antarctica is always a blast… but not much time for a lazy day sipping beer with friends and family. Up early for blast around Danco Island to play with Gentoo penguins and to work up an appetite for Christmas lunch by scaling the peak of the island to chill with the penguins which have also decided to scale the height on their short stumpy legs … actually there is a reason for that – the snow high up melts early and allows the penguins to lay their eggs at the first possible moment. Seems absurd to see the penguins climbing so high but mother nature always has a cunning plan! After Danco we did more cruising and a walk around Dorian Bay where the Minke whales came to visit … and while we were all out in the boats the ship crew were preparing the Christmas BBQ on board which finished the night with revelry, fun and much good cheer in the form of various beverages…

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