South Shetland Islands, Antarctica
01/02/2018 - 01/02/2018
Last night, we headed back for open water in order to get closer to the South Shetlland Islands and our stops for today. I could definitely feel the boat rocking much more than it has been since the first night, but everybody seemed more used to it and I wasn't as unstable on my feet.
As usual, I was the first person up and in the lounge, even after showering and doing a bit more laundry. Around 7, the sea view turned into land, and the boat seemed to be slowing a bit and rocking slightly less.
In the distance, I could see what appeared to be shear whitish cliffs. Either they're snow-covered rock, or dirty ice, I'm not sure.
The sea was rougher than it's been so far, but calmer than they expected it to be.
They dropped us off on the beach, pretty much right in the midst of a pile of seals. That's why its called Elephant Point, because there are tons (literally) of elephant seals.
According to the marine biologist, most of the seals were juvenile males. Generally, they were taking in sun on the beach. The biologist's term "rock sausages" was pretty apt. However, periodically, some would lump along the beach, moving to another location. Their movements reminded me of a breakdancer doing the worm more than anything else. Execpt that these are huge blubbery animals, so mentally, I was say "galump galump" in my head whenever they moved.
The noises they made sounded much more like farts. The whole beach was full of these sounds, occasionally punctuated by some yelling that sounded somewhat like Chewbacca.
Some of the yelling happened when they were practicing their fighting. Two next to each other would stick their heads up and sort of smash their necks together, like a couple who couldn't quite figure out how to cuddle properly. Then, they'd go back to chilling peacefully like nothing happened.
The seals mostly left each other space, but some would pile up on top of each other, maybe for warmth. However, for the little ones, this is apparently dangerous. We saw several baby seal skeletons rotting away on the beach. The biologist suggested that they were probably squished to death by bigger seals.
We also saw a penguin skeleton. Elephant seals do not eat penguins, so there was actually a penguin colony right up the beach from the seals. Sometimes, the penguins would waddle through a bunch of sunbathing seals, paying no more attention to the seals than if they were rocks. The seals ignored the penguins in turn.
In addition to the remnants of animals we could see, there were several whale bone pieces scattered about. The spine bones could easily be mistaken for a fossilized log. One of the rib bones stretched about 5 meters along the beach and made a reasonable bench. These bones were all so huge. They probably arrived to the beach long ago, when this was a whaling station. The only real remnants of the actual station are a pile of ribs in a pile of stones that used to form the walls of a shelter. But the whaling legacy is scattered about the whole beach.
Sections of the beach were scattered with small feathers, as well as the bones I previously mentioned. This is because several non-penguin birds also make this island their home. Or it might be from the penguins, I'm not sure. The flying birds flew overhead, looking for food, zooming in and out of eyesight. One species sort of looked like a pteradactl . Another looked like tiny seals with wings.
This island also contained some interesting plant-life. I think these are lichens or spores or mold or moss of some kind.
On the way back to the ship, our kodiak driver noticed a bunch of Wilson Kestrels (tiny little black and white birds) skimming the tops of the waves in a certain area. He drove use over to see what they were all excited about.
it turned out to be a leopard seal eating a baby seal of another species, and the kestrels were gathering around like vultures, grabbing whatever scraps they could. We watched the sea surface and descend for a while, before returning to the ship.
I have to say that I'm pretty impressed by this crew. They all have their specialties, but they also all have a wide variety of knowledge outside their specialty. Our driver was Cam, the geologist, but he knew enough about bird behavior to find us the leopard seal. I've heard history questions answered by the biologists, animal questions answered by the mountain guides, and Ali, the leader, seems to just know everything about everything. And of course, they all can drive the zodaks, give lectures on their topics, and take amazing pictures with their arms-length telephoto lenses.
For this afternoon's activity, we split into 2 groups. There is a rule about how many people can be at a site at a time, and Ali has done a great job of managing that. Usually, there are some people out in kayaks, some who stay aboard, and then the people on land get staggered timing or sent to different sites so that we stay within the limits. This afternoon, there was only one option, so we went in two groups.
While we waited for the first group to come back, we watched a documentary about the Extreme Ice Project and packed. I can't believe that our time here is almost up. That's so sad. I certainly don't feel like I missed out on anything, but I also could totally see more.
We got into the zodiaks and approached the point. About halfway there, the smell of guano already started to hit us. This island is home to over 100,000 Chinstrap Penguins. That's a lot of guano.
We landed, and quickly got away from the zodiaks, as there was some amount of waves here, and nobody wanted to fall in. The beach was filled with penguins. To the side of the landing site was a penguin super-highway filled with thousands of penguins making their ways to the sea for food or making their way back to their nests to feed their babies. This was not a foot-wide track in the snow with intermittent usage like some of the ones we'd seen. This was meters wide, and constantly in use in both directions. (Penguins drive on the American side of the road, not the British, at least here.)
Just sitting on the beach and watching the penguin traffic would have been a sufficiently entertaining and exhilarating activity, but we got to go on a hike.
This island is more north than some of the others we saw, and it is covered in guano, so it was actually quite green. Tiny little moss-like plants covered a lot of the rocks here. And apparently it grows fast enough that we are allowed to hike through it a bit. The green gives the island a completely different feel from everywhere else we'd been so far. And because the island was somewhat bowl-shaped, we had a great view up the sides to see the thousands upon thousands of penguins everywhere. Wherever you looked, the green and gray hills were spotted with the black and white of penguins. This was nature as mother nature intended. This is what the first people to and here must have seen. This is just amazing.
In addition to the endless penguins, skuas and perhaps other penguin-predator birds (I'm not so great at bird identification) swirled the air, just waiting to pick off a momentarily unprotected egg or baby. We saw a lot of chicks, so they just needed patience and a good eye, and I'm sure they got good meals.
After the hike with breathtaking views, we slowly made our way back to the beach, just amused by all of the penguin antiics and waddling.
At the beach, we got into our lines to load up the zodiaks, and a few curious penguins approached us. While there are legal distances that we must keep away from the wildlife, and the crew stresses that and reminds us, if we are still and the animals come to us, that is allowed (at least for penguins). We stood still enough that one penguin came within 2 meters of us. We could see the texture of the feathers, all of the drops of water, the unique shape of its feet. It was just so unreal.
Then, it was time to load up the boats and return to the ship.
The last visit for the day was an on-boat visit to Deception Island, an active volcano caldera. The volcano did not erupt while we were in there.
We did see all of the historical items left behind from whaling and more modern days though. It conntains an abandoned airplane hangar amongst other buildings. And off course there were a few seals on shore as well.
And that was the last site. There were some evening activities that recapped our trip and thanked the crew, but the rest of the time, we would travel back to the pickup point. The views were still stunning though. Just watching the ice flow past the ship was amazing. Just that scenery alone makes the trip worth it.
Really, it does. This place is true pristine nature. People frequently ask me where is the prettiest place I've ever been. Move over Flam (Norway), you're a distant second now. People frequently ask me where is the most unique/different place I've ever been. Move over Kotzebue, Alaska, you're no longer number one. People often ask me what is the most fun thing I've ever done on a trip. While I'll always fondly remember that time we hiked the Great Wall, the hikes here are just something else. When people ask for trip recommendations, this is it. Everything here has been utterly amazing and indescribable, although I've tried my best to bring it to you.
Seriously, if you have the option, come! This travel group was a lot of adult families.
But there really is no upper age limit, just a slight physical limit. If you can walk short distances over uneven terrain (or a rocking boat), and can board/get out of the zodiak once, you can do this trip, but stay on the boat, and see the most amazing scenery of your lifetime. (Zodiak boarding involves stepping through water to sit on the side of the zodiak and swing your legs over. Then, at the boat you have to stand on a stair, on the side of the boat, and then onto ganglan that is moving relative to the boat. But, at all times, regardless of your mobility, people are holding on to you an helping you. At least one person on this trip uses a cane for distances, but was able to do this the once it took to get on the boat.) If you can get into and out of the zodiaks multiple times per day, you can also see the most amazing wildlife, even if you can't walk far from the beaches. Seriously, at many of our landing sites, if you set up a camera on a rock and just randomly took pictures every so often, you would still end up with amazing wildlife photos, the areas are just so packed with it. And of course, if you can handle the zodiaks, and walk (however slowly) for a few km and up some small inclines, you can see everything and have the most amazing trip ever.
There is however, a lower limit. While the trip is certainly fun for kids, they have to be of an age where they can respect rules without always pushing them and have to be able to control themselves. One family on this trip had 4 kids ranging from about 10 to 16, and some may have been a bit too young. This is not a place where "kids can be kids" all of the time. Constantly singing to yourself or making loud noises and scaring away the wildlife is not ok. It stresses, them, but also takes away from other people's experiences. Getting too close to the wildlife can also stress it, especially if you're standing where they want to be and blocking them from getting to their food source. Nobody wants to be the reason a penguin doesn't eat and dies. Plus, there are sensitive places where they tell us not to go, either for our own safety or the safety of nature. Of course, it wasn't just the kids that sometimes struggled with boundaries.
In any case, you might make sure that your kids are quiet and mature before you bring them on this kind of trip.