Day 6: Drake Passage and Antarctica(!)

“When will you ever be able to say ‘I had dinner and watched penguins jump through the water’?” Shannon asked that question at our table next to the windows where, outside in the Bransfield Straight, penguins skipped up and down through the surface.

Thanks to a strong tailwind that moved us quickly through the Drake Passage and the English Straight, we arrived early to the South Shetland Islands around dinnertime. Most of our day was spent in anticipation of what we’d see when we arrived. Lectures continued as scheduled; starting with a history lesson by Chris Gilbert (there are two Chrises… thus the last name), then penguins by Heidi, and finally seals by Shannon.

In between we read books, swapped stories, and compared sightings of oceanic wildlife whenever we were outside. This latter activity was an important part of the ship sociology – the GAP team constantly encouraged us to be outside on deck to look for birds flying, whales passing, and the occasional penguin swimming by the boat. A number of times we’d hear one of them announce over the intercom, “Ladies and gentlemen we have some lovely albatross flying about the aft of the ship. Come join us out on deck and take in all of this beautiful birdlife!” We’d drag our feet a bit since being outside required multiple layers of warm weather gear and the probability of numb fingers (it was cold out there!), but often the guilt of missing culture overrode our aversion to frostbite.

Antarctic Landings and Fashion
Before the big landing we were given a detailed briefing about procedures on the Zodiak (board this way, sit that way, etc), boot-cleaning process (more on that later), and – my favorite – steps for fending off a defensive thousand-pound seal. The latter involved standing ones’ ground and sticking a boot out toward the seal, with the potential of rock throwing as a last resort.

Once the briefing was over we started the process of layering up for our first close-up view of Antarctica. It was the austral summer which put us at a relatively comfortable 35-40 degrees, but we’d been warned that the weather in Antarctica changed quickly. We dressed in layers with multiple thermal shirts, leggings, waterproof insulated trousers (ski pants), two pair of socks, gumboots, fleeces, waterproof jackets (ski shell), hats, windsock covers, and hand and foot warmers if needed. Suiting up for these excursions was no small effort.

Shannon all bundled up in our little cabin
Landing at the Aitcho Islands
We climbed into our zodiacs and zipped across the water to one of the Aitcho Islands (pronounced H-O) – a collection in the South Shetland Islands group. We were immediately greeted by two things: one was the hundreds of penguins dotting the shoreline and surrounding hills. The other was the stench of penguin guano (poo!). Heidi said we’d get used to the smell by the end of the week but it was sooo strong. Having said that, the moment the first chinstrap penguin waddled by all other inconveniences were forgotten.

Shannon in her zodiak
On the top of the hill there were actually two different colonies of penguins. On the right were the chinstraps – a very noisy bunch who, as Heidi said, “Like to discuss everything loud and often”. If you turned to your left was a colony of gentoo penguins with a number of fuzzy, molting chicks still in the nest.

Gentoo Penguin family

Chinstrap colony on the other side

Huge skuas flew above the colonies, looking for unguarded chicks on which to prey. At one particularly close sweep a number of the fuzzy chicks immediately gathered together in a mass, making it harder for the skua to hone in on just one. Next to me Heidi cheered their instinctive smarts, “Good job, little guys!” Another time, two skuas landed on the ground in an attempt to steal a chick from a nest but the parent penguins rallied and eventually the skuas left.

Annoying skua wanted lunch


On the other side of the hill were more penguins and a few elephant seals who lay on the shoreline, molting.

Gentoo penguins with elephant seals in the background

It’s a lot of work, all this molting

We wandered, took pictures, and laughed at the various penguin dialects – chinstraps were more of a screech while the gentoos had more of a brogue. Apparently the empire penguins made famous by “March of the Penguins” (but all of which had left the area for the season) make a very dignified trumpet.

Molting chinstrap chick

More islands in the distance and heaps of penguins in the foreground

Within the an hour and a half we spent on Aitcho we saw the weather change from slightly foggy and cool to really really foggy and much colder. Our fingers and toes started stinging from the bite and we decided it was time to go in. There was guilt, there. Because why would we voluntarily leave this fabulous place after we’d traveled so long to get there? But you have to call it quits sometime so we bid the chicks goodbye and wandered down to our landing site.

The De-Guano Process
Boot cleaning is serious business. The Antarctic ecology is a delicate one and the tour operators are very conscientious about tracking mud/seeds/other from one landing site to the next. The gum boots (Wellingtons) we all wore had to be completely cleaned of mud and guano before we could leave the site. The goal, of course, being the complete prevention of transporting alien growth between the landing sights and therefore disturbing the ecologies. To accomplish this the crew had created an elaborate boot cleaning mechanism that involved a few broom brushes and a metal frame that was submerged in the water and we stood against it, scrubbing and scrubbing and scrubbing to get every last millimeter of (surprisingly resilient) penguin guano out of our treads.

Val (in blue) cleans her boots while Dolder holds the scrub brushes ready
Dolder teased as I scrubbed, “You call that scrubbing? Get in there!” It really did require energy and “elbow grease”. As a final effort at perfectly pristine gumboots we’d use the little scrub brushes to get those hard-to-reach places. This included scrubbing anything we may have gotten on our trousers or parkas too. No microorganisms were allowed to leave the area other than us.

Dolder de-guanos Val’s treads
Once we were sparkly clean we climbed aboard the zodiacs and we were wisked back to the boat, where we stepped through a bucket of disinfectant as a final wash. As much as this all sounds like a hassle, I have to say that it’s good to feel like we’re making efforts to maintain the ecology and environment. After years of diving and seeing the effects of over-tourism on the reefs it’s good to be part of an organization that takes convservation very, very seriously. We should all be this conscientious in everything we do, but I’ll leave that soapbox for another time. 🙂

On a totally side note, we launched at 7:30PM and were out until about 9:30PM. All the photos above were taken late in the evening, but still completely light out. You’ve got to love austal summer. Back on the boat the sun set with a stunning burst of colors over one of the islands. At 11PM.

Mindy, me and the sunset (pic by Shannon)

Sunset over the South Shetland Islands (pic by Shannon)