Tag Archives: Krill

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 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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Seal Attack

It’s been a busy couple of days in Antarctica with no time to blog! Yesterday we sailed away from the storm at Deception Island and into the sunshine and calm seas of the Antarctic Peninsula. Ice all around and seals lying like lumps of lard on every available space. Orcas were circling the seals and krill were swarming.

The ice stopped us from reaching our destination but provided the opportunity to cruise in some spectacular scenery … soon the zodiacs were launched and we were walking amidst the penguins and zipping in amongst the ice flows to see the seals. Crabeater seals yawned and blinked at the strange intrusion but the most excitement came from a lounging leopard seal I spotted. I pulled the zodiac up to the ice and watched with awe as the powerful beast examined the strange sight of a fully laden zodiac eyeballing it from a distance of five meters across the ice … and then decided to take a closer look.

In fact, the beast charged across until it was a mere meter away before the ice gave way and deposited the animal (in a rather ungraceful manner) in the water …but not before the seal bumped it’s head on the side of the boat! Pandemonium ensues with screaming passengers and people jumping onto the floor of the boat. Meanwhile the leopard seal circled underneath, nudged the side of the boat and then worked out we weren’t worth the effort. Five minuted later she gracefully leapt from the water and resumed her slumber on the same chunk of ice … back on the boat hearts still thumped and the grins were spread from ear to ear.

Then back to the mother ship, some spectacular whale sightings with humpbacks feeding off the bow of the ship and thumping their huge tails in a spray of spume against the backdrop of the snowy peaks of the peninsula.

A quick cruise to the next landing, and an impromptu decision to camp on the continent for the night saw us scrambling to get all our gear ready, and ultimately saw me leading a group of thirty nervous passengers on their first night on the ice. Portal Point offered panoramic views of the icy waters and was a wonderful place to sleep under the stars with a light flurry of snow settling on the slumbering shapes of the shore party. There is certainly no better bedroom than Antarctica!

Right now we have completed another day of landing in scenery that is staggering even after years of working in Antarctica, and are now heading into the Drake Passage and back to Ushuaia. The seas are calm and the whole ship is partying. It’s always a little sad to leave the ice .. but then again, I’ll be back in a few days!!

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Hotel Bravo

Whenever we see a humpback whale the call goes out on the radio that a “Hotel Bravo” has been spotted and today there were calls of this nature continuously. We pulled into Cierva Cove after a morning watching glaciers calving in Curtis Bay and immediately there where whales on all sides. We bided our time for the first hour or so watching the huge animals bubble net feeding off the side of the boat before finally slinging the zodiacs over the side to get amongst them … actually watching from the ship itself is pretty spectacular and you can see the bubbles emerging from the deep and the whales swim in synchrony towards the surface exhaling before lunging through the trapped krill with mouths agape. But being on the water with them in small boats is something special. The sound of a whale exhaling and the wet pungent whale snot settling on your amazed face is truly a special experience. It’s definitely getting towards the time of the season when whales are congregating so I look forward to more whale action over the next few trips. Always good to visit the Hotel Bravo.

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