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Zooming in Zodiacs

Part 5 (November 29, 2007)

By Kate Woodward





Dear All,

A curtailed message this evening as I must be back at the photo desk before 10PM to pick up my photo card or I won't be able to take any pictures tomorrow, which would be very sad!

I can't remember where I stopped yesterday, but am tired, and we're beginning to rock fairly considerably, which makes typing a bit less "natural" feeling, so I'll be brief (Later: or so I thought!).

Everyone on the ship has an ID card, as I think I've already mentioned, and we members of the Red Dot group (the German contingent has green) were first into the Zodiacs this morning, for our first landing on South Georgia.  Even though I'd asked for a wake-up call at 5:45, I was a bit worried that that might not be enough time to both have breakfast and get fully garbed in our multiple layers, and that concern may have been what woke Roger up at 3:30---so he was more than ready to get ready by the time I awakened at 5:30! While he was playing bridge with a new group last night, I'd tried to get all my layers organized, and was rather surprised how long it took me to find a relatively small amount of stuff in a very limited space! However, I soon had a big pile on the little two-seater sofa we have next to the desk against one of the internal walls, and I tried on various things to see whether I could still fit in all the layers--so far, so good!  


The ship is very comfortably heated in public spaces and positively hot in the staterooms, so after getting into my first two layers on top and two on the bottom plus (mistake!) the waterproof trousers, I decided I was going to collapse because of the heat, so folded everything up again, leaving suntan lotion on the top of my pile, as we'd been warned that with the hole in the ozone layer, it's possible to get severely burned with just 15 minutes exposure at this latitude.

Speaking of which, when we left the Falklands and were steaming south east towards South Georgia, we hit, at one point, the Antarctic Convergence, which is where the warmer waters from the Atlantic, moving down along the eastern coast of South America, meet the much colder Antarctic waters which are moving north. When they meet, there is a convergence, and the difference in temperatures often creates fog, which we experienced, although not for too long.  The main thing that happens is that the waters, rather than mixing and coming up with something lukewarm or less frigid immediately, actually continue their separate ways, with the cold ones dipping deeper and deeper and the warmer ones flowing along the top. The rather tumultuous result of the meeting of these two different "waters" creates an area between 20 and 30 miles wide which is extremely "productive", especially in terms of krill, the little shrimpy fellows which feed so much Antarctic marine wildlife.

According to Wikipedia, swarms of krill can reach a density of 10,000 to 30,000 individual animals per cubic meter; since the individual krill can grow up to 6 cm. in length--that's a lot of krill!  In fact, with roughly 500 million tons of krill in the oceans, it qualifies as the most successful animal on the planet.  These bountiful animals are an essential part of the diet not only of whales but also of seals, fish, birds, and squid--so we don't want a lot of man-made "uses" being discovered for them, unless there is a way substantially to multiply them, or we could put many hungry animals in jeopardy. Apologies for the divergence (now, the Antarctic Divergence is another story--for another time!).


So, having been warned at our pre-dinner meeting last night that we needed not only to be prepared on time (ON TIME!), we also needed to be prepared that if the fur seals were being too obstreperous, we might not be able to make the landing on Salisbury Plain after all, which has one of the largest settlements of king penguins in, I think, the world, as well as a burgeoning population of these so often pesky seals.

When we were dripping in our two layers (long johns plus corduroys on the bottom and a turtleneck and long-sleeved silk undershirt on top--tough to manage the 3 pairs of socks, in terms of stuffing them and the trouser legs into our Wellies--then pulling the legs of the waterproof trousers down over the boots), we still had plenty of time--to continue melting!  We did get the word that we would indeed be able to make the landing, and that we ought to follow carefully the path indicated by red flags that the staff would set out. They would stand there with long sticks to fend off any aggressive seals--but that as long as we paid attention to where we were going, we shouldn't worry!

We had seen the Zodiac entry technique of "the forearm grip" demonstrated the night before, and had packed our extra stuff in the backpacks given to us yesterday once we were far from any "land" that could conceivably cause pollution to South Georgia, in order to keep both hands free for "the grip", and lined up in our corridor (an advantage of being on "B" deck) to get ready for our first Zodiac experience.  


Jannie, ready to give each of us "the go" when our turn came


As we got to the exit, we had our ID card swiped, stepped into a "footbath" of pink bubbly boot disinfectant, in case the scrubbing our boots had had yesterday afternoon had missed anything, and one by one were given a last/repeat instruction about how to enter the Zodiac by Jannie, the South African tour director.  Only one person allowed on the landing platform at a time; only 3 on the external stairs leading down to it.  And when we arrived at the boat, we had to grip the forearms of two "able seamen" as Sally, our diminutive boat driver (she called herself that, not a pilot) called them on the platform, then, when the Zodiac was close to the level of the landing platform, step over to it, transferring our forearm grip to two able seamen in the boat who were helping with the transfers. Sit down where told (immediately!) and then slide along till we were next to the preceding passenger.  We were all very well behaved and entry into the boat went well!


Even though it was a bit choppy, there was no problem, and within a few minutes we were watching passengers in the Zodiac ahead of us trying to get out of the boat and onto the beach without getting too terribly wet.  Deciding when to swing one's legs around and over the side, timing it when there was not a sudden wave "surge", proved a bit challenging, but there was lots of help and no one fell completely over in the water--and the waterproof trousers and Wellies proved their worth!  

However, all that pales when thinking of what awaited us.  We had seen "Salisbury Plain" from the ship--what looked like a rather muddy beach which extended several hundred yards inland before sharp rocks and hills sprang up, covered with tussock grass, and we'd seen the many white "dots" from the ship that were, presumably, penguins--and the dark "splodges" that were fur seals.



What a difference to actually be in among them!  We were all quite timid when making our way through the fur seals, even though the staff had set up a route that gave them quite a wide berth, and then we began to get within several feet of a penguin here and there--and then several more, and more, and ohmigosh--there were hundreds of them.  And the noise! 


Note the disheartened performer left of center, head hanging


We'd been warned that it was critical not to disturb the animals in any way, and besides sudden movements, that included not making any noise, such as whooping "Yippee!" or "Hey, you've gotta see this!"  We were all communicating in hushed voices--until we realized that there was so much noise that we had to speak in at least normal tones to be heard by the person right next to us.

This is breeding time, in spite of the presence of many penguin chicks, because of the 18-month growing period of the chicks, and the male king penguins were exhibiting classic courtship behavior, which consisted not only of preening and stretching their necks to make them longer and taller, but producing incredible trumpeting to make their romantic case to their chosen one.  It was wild!

I wish that we'd had a microphone, because the "song" of the penguins was amazing--and we learned from Patricia that the male penguin's "call" has an additional couple of buzzy "notes" above and beyond that of the females. It was like thousands of kazoos being played all at once.

She pointed out a courting couple to us, the penguins standing very close together, with the male stretching his dazzling colored neck further and further, with his beautiful orange bill pointing at the sky as he reached his top "notes"--then the female penguin gave the equivalent of a dismissive sniff and turned away.  His height shrivelled as his beak and head sank.  

We heard that there are occasionally two males who are courting the same female, which can result in some scuffling, but didn't see that--or didn't realize that we were seeing it, as there were sooooo many penguins that it was rather overwhelming.



Imagine the zoo, with a few penguins in their little pond area.  Now, imagine dozens of football fields, filled with "trumpeting", the ground muddy, a fair amount of guano--and a hundred and fifty-eight thousand penguins.  Yes, 158,000!


They were not all on the plain--as you can see in the picture on the preceding page, thousands of them were on the hillside; and watching them, from much closer so one could actually follow one little fellow at a time, making its way up the incredibly steep slope, was something else.  They have a special sense of balance that allows them to "walk" uphill on steep terrain, without falling over backwards.

Before I have to run off to the photographer to pick up my memory card, I must more than just mention the chicks in a caption. When I hear "chicks", even knowing that it's penguins we're talking about, not little chickens, I think fluffy and small.  These were fluffy and huge!  It was hilarious to see them--almost as big as the adult penguins (and in fact these chicks are a year old and many are ready to moult), they are wearing what looks like a very big, very fluffy brown fur coat, and have the funniest little faces. They are so curious, and come up to one fearlessly--and are prone to exuberant flapping of their flippers/wings when they are excited (which helps their muscles develop to prepare for swimming)--they are fluff balls that are both endearing and very funny.

We were led into the crowd of penguins by Patricia, who wanted to show us a "nursery" where there are lots of chicks.



Brown "fur-coated" chicks among the adults, 10's of 1000's of each


Parents can drop their chick off at one of these nurseries while they go fishing, while several adults remain behind to keep an eye on the young ones. Forming a sort of triangle, with the point of it facing the sea (ie our direction), there were dozens of the fur balls there, and they too were making their own noises, which were much squeakier than those of the adults--I guess their cheeping is the equivalent of their voices not having broken yet.  Although I'd seen photos of vast crowds of penguins, it just wasn't at all the same as being right in the middle of them--and above all of hearing the incredible din they were making.  It was indescribable!

And yes, we did take some pictures of the fur seals, and even a few of an elephant seal nearly submerged in an enormous mud puddle,



 (see above), and we did make our way back without incident through the "safety trail" along the beach, away from the penguin hordes and among the seals--admiring the bold penguins which strutted among them in smaller numbers--and back we were in the Zodiacs, having gauged the swells well enough to scramble over the sides, and then we were back on Explorer--and it felt as if we'd had a whole day of incredible activity, and it was only 10 o'clock!

Speaking of which, I must go now so that I'll be able to click away tomorrow.

The ship sailed around South Georgia to its northernmost point where we made an afternoon trip (not landing this time--too many fur seals lining the coves and small beaches), but a fabulous 75 minutes cruising (and bouncing--it was quite bumpy in the Zodiacs as the waves got bigger, which made it difficult to get usable photographs) around the various coves, looking at different penguins in much smaller quantities: Macaronis, which have bold yellow feathers sticking out at an angle from their black heads, and gentoo penguins, which have a white triangle behind each ear, rather than the bold coloring of either the kings or the Macaronis--and elephant seals, fur seals galore (including some rare blond ones, which occur only once in every thousand--see below), hills of nesting albatrosses, and shadows cast by giant petrels.  What a day!






From Buenos Aires to Tierra del Fuego (Part 1)

Our First Day at Sea, then Wind! (Part 2)

Land Ho: The Falklands, by Kate Woodward (Part 3)

 Ice! and preparing for South Georgia, by Kate Woodward (Part 4)





PROMETHEUS, Internet Bulletin - News, Politics, Art and Science. Nr. 132, June 2008