The guests all rushed to the bow of the ship just in time to watch groups of penguins swimming in the cerulean waters next to us. Everywhere we looked we spotted their little tuxedos hopping through the water in search of krill or other sustenance that would fill their bellies and prepare them to go back to their nests and take over egg incubation duty.
We anchored near Half Moon Island around noon today. Just before lunch we had our mandatory shore briefing in which we learned about all of the precautions we must take before setting foot on the continent. To ensure that we would not accidentally introduce any invasive or non-native species to the ecosystem by way of our boots, outerwear, or backpacks, we would have to disinfect our gear before boarding the zodiacs (motorized inflatable boats used to taxi us to and from the ship).
Giddy with anticipation, Jenn, Mariam, Nina (our Grosvenor Teacher Fellow program manager), and I rushed to our rooms donning layer upon layer of artic winter wear. For our first landing we would have the option of taking a four mile hike up to a penguin colony or the shorter route of less than a mile directly to the colony. They opted for the hike, and I chose to spend my entire time watching penguins. We disinfected our gear, boarded the zodiacs, and we were off!
Half Moon Island is home to a large chinstrap penguin colony. The name gives away their unmistakable feature – a thin black line that runs side to side across their faces below their beaks. One look and I was hooked on these little guys.
Right now penguins are laying eggs and hatching chicks. I sat for hours watching groups of penguins sitting on their eggs, building nests and rotating their eggs, courting each other, warning each other of approaching predators (the skua is always hunting for penguin eggs), and playing on the penguin highways on this hill.
Penguins are monogamous birds as it takes two to raise their chicks. Males court females by attracting their attention through dance and flamboyant pursuit. Females select males carefully based on the male’s ability to help build a safe and clean nest for their chicks. I recorded some great footage of a male bringing a female various rocks – one at a time – while the female sat on the egg, tucking the rocks around her to keep their egg safe and warm. Often, the penguins would throw their heads back and let out loud calls when one of them saw a predator, to alert the colony to be ready to defend their eggs should a skua decide to dive into the colony.
While their partner is sitting on the eggs, the other partner goes out to sea to feast on krill and fish. Their bellies full, they come back and trade places, letting the partner go out to sea to feast. This continues until the chicks hatch and grow big enough to be on their own, at which time the parents disappear back at sea and do not return until breeding season starts again.
The experience of observing penguins in their natural environment was captivating. Everywhere I looked, I saw penguins coming and going, often hopping through the snow or sliding along their bellies to get where they wanted to go. We had been instructed to maintain at least a 15 foot distance from them and to stay out of their way as they meandered around. We were not allowed to interfere in any possible way with their natural behavior. As I sat very still, I watched them walk right by me en route to their mates or to the penguin highway.
The penguin highway is the path that is left when penguins continue on the same course day in and day out. Highways were all over coming up the hill from the beach toward the various sites of colonies and nests. It was really fun to watch penguins slide down the hills on their bellies toward the sea.
After our visit to the penguin colony, we attended the Captain’s Reception and then dinner celebrating our official first landing in Antarctica. There we learned that the weather was permitting us to enter into the caldera of Deception Island.
Deception Island is actually an active sunken volcano. It is shaped like a “c” with an opening about a mile across. The ring of mountains reaches upwards of 1,500 feet and the interior is about six miles across. The floor is so deep we were able to bring the ship very close to the interior shore where we watched penguins roam about an abandoned whaling station.
Having spent a little time at Deception Island, we retreated and are on our way to our next destination. Weather-permitting, we might get to kayak tomorrow. Everything depends on the weather here since it is very unpredictable.
Since I have been burning the candle at both ends these days, I am off to get a good night’s sleep so I can be up bright and early again tomorrow morning.