Hi All, we are under way now to see Drygalski Fjord before we leave South Georgia (still amazed that I'd never even heard of the island before this trip) for the Antarctic Peninsula, our final destination. We have had 3 expeditions since I last wrote, so I'll update you now before we reach the fjord.
Yesterday, which was... Saturday? December 1st? I've completely lost track of time now, which is rather nice, in a way!
We had another outing to a beach...with fur seals (grrr... they were even feistier than the last ones, and at the recap last night, Charley Wheatley, the seal specialist, said that he hoped we passengers had not realized the ulcers the staff were developing, trying to keep those pests at a safe distance). And of course there were penguins!
Elegant welcoming committee, at St. Andrew's Bay.
We went out to St. Andrew's Bay yesterday morning--it had been an uncertainty the night before because of high winds, and since the bay is two miles long and very open/exposed, the staff were already making alternative plans. However, when we awoke to the "ding-dong" time-to-get-dressed call, the sky was once again a dazzling blue and although there were whitecaps, the wind was only at 20 knots and it was a miraculous 9C. (48F), so we risked just wearing a fleece and rain pants over our long johns, carrying hats and gloves in our backpacks. We were given individual water bottles as we left, which was nice, as we'd all gotten thirsty the day before. Before we left the ship, I went out on the Verandah deck to test the air temperature and almost staggered back against the glass door--never have I been hit with such a strong smell. Guano. We'd been warned about it, been told it was something we would never forget, but for some reason we never smelled much of anything at Salisbury Plain, the first huge colony of kings. And here we were way out in the bay. Yikes--what would it be like when we were in the middle of it?
As the Zodiacs took us in, we could see a long beach with lots of seals near the water, stretching all the way along it--fur seals again. We all have a very healthy respect for them now. Then, strung out along the 2 miles, more penguins. Once again, we were urged to hurry past all the seals until we got to the higher part of the beach; we were encouraged to climb a knoll then go up the hill beyond it, following the familiar red flags that the staff had planted on their early morning scouting trip. And yes, we could expect to see more penguins.
No elaboration was made on the word "more", except that they were also of the "king" variety, with the orange lower part of the bill and the orange "patches" on either side of their heads. I must confess that even though it was very impressive to see all the penguins on Salisbury Plain, our first day, I was not feeling any thrill about seeing more of them, but it was a beautiful morning, and it was very nice to be out in the midst of such beautiful scenery (again, South Georgian alpine peaks shooting up practically right out of the water)- and the guano smell was not nearly as strong on land as on deck, for some odd reason. So we followed the red flags, much more comfortably than the day before, as the beach was sand and very flat, rounded stones that would be amazing for skipping, up the beach then up the first hill. There were penguins at the top of it, looking out into the "fold" of beach/land between the first hill and the next, higher one. At the top of the next hill, it was like coming across the massed legions of the Roman army... filling a space below us with a turbulent greyish river running down the middle of it, were tens of thousands of penguins, and at least half of them were the brown fluffy fur-balls that were juveniles.
As Susanna, our Uruguayan guide, said, you must consider that each of those penguin chicks has two parents, which means that the numbers are about a third again as much as one sees, as the mothers are out fishing to feed their chicks, which have waited without food through the long, icy winter for their parents to return when the fish are running again, since they are not ready to go to sea themselves until they are 14-18 months old. Staggering.
There are about 200,000 penguins in this king colony, which I think is one of the biggest anywhere. Looking down on them (from about 30 feet above them) gave a wonderful perspective, especially as there were lots of chicks that were trying to climb up the steep side of the hill below our feet. There were already some at the top and they were toddling around, looking up at us curiously, and forming little clusters. With the sun beaming from the bay, they were surrounded in a halo of golden fur at the edges--lovely!
For some reason, the crowds were densest at the edge of the river, which was tumbling over rocks, flowing fast with snowmelt from the mountains at the back of the beach. Every now and then, a chick fell (or was pushed!) in, and there was frantic flapping and paddling trying not to be swept away. From above, it looked very funny, although it may have been frightening for the chicks. However, as we were watching, all the ones that fell in managed to get to shore within 15 to 20 feet, looking considerably thinner and bedraggled, and somehow scrambled out, even though the crowd was packed shoulder to shoulder, fur coat to fur coat, along the water's edge.
We sat and watched the penguins, chicks and adults, the mountains with glaciers glittering in the sun, and the swoop of giant petrels overhead for about 40 minutes, the marvels of the scene cancelling out the sharpness of the rocks we were perched on as well as the smell of guano which was not as bad as out on the ship's deck, but which definitely grew stronger once we reached the top of the hill.
It was a wonderfully peaceful scene, and we found that we were actually ten minutes late getting back for our Zodiac return, simply because it was so nice up there. We wondered how on earth the parents could recognize their very own chick, to be sure to deliver the food to the right hopeful bill, and were told that each bird has its own variation of the call, which explains the cacophony--each one is trying to make its call heard over another 200,000 or so!
We also heard about the incredible distance albatrosses are prepared to go to get food for their young. They are so skilled at riding the wind currents (and have such enormous wings) that if need be, they will glide to Buenos Aires (a thousand miles away?) from South Georgia to get food, making the round trip journey without a stop. Real dedication "built in" to the parental drive. Not all creatures are the same, however; since male seals are not at all sure which offspring are their own, they very casually kill (and sometimes eat) the young pups if they get in the way. Nature is beautiful--and can be very hard.
The afternoon plan was to visit by Zodiac (having a boat tour rather than getting out) a place called Godthul, but that, as always, was dependent on weather conditions. If that didn't work out, there was another place nearby that we could visit instead.
As we were having a particularly good lunch in the dining room, watching the occasional big iceberg float by, also watching the waves get bigger, an announcement was made that we had reached a force 12 gale (68 mph--apparently when the wind hits 65, that's considered hurricane force). Because of that, we were going to bypass Godthul and try the other place--and passengers were recommended to stay indoors for safety; if they felt they absolutely had to get out on deck, they should use the doors at the stern of the ship because if they used the side doors, they could be ripped off by the wind.
When we reached our next possible destination, it was still too windy to maneuver into that particular bay, so we went on to West Cumberland Bay and our Zodiac driver, Uruguayan Patricia, said she was very excited, as they had not visited this bay before. Ice... ice...dirty glaciers with "cleaner" cliff-like edges where huge chunks had calved and fallen into the bay. And as we drew nearer, more and more icebergs, some the size of the ship, some smaller, but basically big and BLUE! We'd seen bluish tints on some bergs, but most of the ones out in the open sea appeared primarily white.
But these were all shades of turquoise. Apparently the variations of color depend on the different way the ice crystals have formed and their different sizes, which, when light shines through them, only shows up the color blue.
It was just amazing to be sailing among these huge, absolutely gorgeous shapes, many of them filled with enormous holes, some of them floating on their sides with dark lines running through them showing where there had been a layer of stones in the glacier before the big block sheared off.
As one of the Zodiacs before us threaded its way among the bergs ahead, the radio on Patricia's lapel (below) crackled and after a "Wow" and "Okay", she told us that a section of the big berg right next to fellow driver, Stephanie, had calved right in front of them, so she recommended keeping a bit more distance. We then learned that some icebergs begin to melt more substantially sub-surface, so that eventually the uneven balance of weight means that an iceberg can entirely "flip", so that the bottom is then facing the sky.
After half an hour of touring the ice field, we headed toward a bit of less steep land part-way back where the "dots" that had looked like sheep from a distance proved to be cream-colored reindeer.
We heard that although in one way it had been a success introduc- ing them to South Georgia (one of the main things to overcome was the season for breeding, but after 2 years, they were breeding in November, which is spring here--remarkable), in another, there is a potentially serious problem. They eat grass, which is in short supply--and in eating it, they are destroying birds' nesting areas.
We then turned into Carlita, a small bay, sheltered from the wind, where we saw a little reddish hut which was tied to the ground by ropes from all four corners, as though it had been a tent.
This is used by BAS (British Antarctic Survey) personnel if they are on site for research--very tiny looking, but also very "tight" and secure seeming. As we made our way out of that small bay, and the waves began tossing us again, Patricia got very excited as she was seeing White Chinned Albatrosses--very rare and there was a whole flock of them circling; when we looked at the cliffs, we could see that some were nesting. The wind was wild, we were slapped by spray (stuffing the camera away after every shot to protect it), and although those of us near the front of the Zodiac got pretty soaked, it was fabulous. That kind of scenery is what I came for!
Then this morning, we were all awakened at 3:30 AM for the first Zodiacs into Gold Harbour. We went up on deck to shoot the sunrise, even though our group was not leaving until 6, hoping camera technology would compensate for our feeling half asleep. The pink cloud against indigo sky was lovely, even though we did not feel that the glaciers and mountains were "gilded", as the harbor's name implies. It was still worth crawling out from under our duvets, and there were coffee, tea, and cocoa available when we went inside to think about whether we wanted to go back to bed for an hour or so.
I must confess that I had a bit of temptation to skip this landing, because of it being more penguins, but I was very glad that I didn't. The beach was lined, from one end to the other, with seals, some glossy with water, others dull from flipping wet sand over them-selves. BUT, these were not fur seals but elephant seals, and although the full grown (up to 5-ton) males can be very dangerous, as they simply steam-roller along, flattening anyone (human or seal pup) in their way, basically, they are non-threatening to people.
Gold Harbor beach, "littered" with elephant seals.
We found the pups amazingly cute. They may have weighed 400 pounds a week or so ago, when their mothers abandoned them to make it or not make it on their own, while they went back to the sea to replenish themselves (they only nurse the pups, with milk that is 22% fat and 28% protein, for about 23 days). I think up to half of these weaners will not make it, and since they'd had nothing to eat for over a week when we got there this morning (and will be unable to enter the sea for another 5 weeks, by which time they may have lost 100 or 150 lbs., as well as their pup coats and will have grown another one), they not only wiggled their way up to people, but if one stayed very still, some tried to suckle on wellies.
This idea had some appeal, as they are beguiling, if something that size can be called that, but we'd also heard that they would cover our boots/rainproof pants with snot (with nasal mites, probably not transferable to humans?), and that they could "blast" 10 feet away from the other end, so unless we really wanted such an involved close encounter, it was probably best to keep a bit of distance.
Besides photographing some of the young ones, we snapped several males which were facing off, making very deep growling roars as well as rearing up as high as they could then rocking themselves forward to thump the other one, using their long fangs.
Then, we went up into the tussock grass to see the gentoo penguins (smaller, just grey and white) that had a nesting colony there--and we were lucky enough to see a few tiny, scrawny heads peeking out beneath the incubating parent, little beaks opening hopefully. Other gentoos wandered around among the tussocks, seeming to make little "stops" at other nests in the grasses, being quickly sent off by the nest occupiers. It seems the lazier ones try to steal bits of nest material rather than going out and collecting more to improve their own, so there's a lot of moving of grass bunches back and forth, so some penguins find their nest diminished, if it was left unguarded, when they get back from gathering more nesting material. Male and female gentoos share the duty of sitting on the nest.
And now, here we are, entering Drygalski Fjord, off the extreme southeastern tip of South Georgia. While I've been writing, I've been occasionally looking over my shoulder at the view outside, and have seen more and more icebergs, some of them absolutely huge--and much closer than we've seen them out at sea.
My camera card showed "full" just before we left Gold Harbour this morning, so I was glad to see Roger pass by a moment ago with his camera in hand, wearing his red parka. He'd been out a few moments before without it and was almost blown off his feet. We'll be at sea for a couple of days now en route to the Southern Shetlands and the Antarctic Peninsula. Suddenly, what seemed like a very long trip is two thirds over, the end practically in sight.
Pat Abbot is describing how the glacier formed this beautiful gorge (photo by Roger), so I will close sending you all hugs so I can listen.
P.S. Incredible color change in the water as we neared the reindeer area&emdash;the bay was a deep turquoise&emdash;and the water running in from a small river, which was fresh, was a greenish color, and remained that color for a surprisingly long distance in the bay, before the fresh and salt waters eventually mixed.
PREVIOUS INSTALLMENTS: JOURNEY TO ANTARCTICA
From Buenos Aires to Tierra del Fuego (Part 1)
Our First Day at Sea, then Wind! (Part 2)
Land Ho: The Falklands, (Part 3)
Ice! and preparing for South Georgia, (Part 4)
Zooming in Zodiacs, (Part 5)
Stromness and Grytviken: Swamp, Streams, and Sea, (Part 6)
© Kate Woodward 2008
PROMETHEUS, Internet Bulletin - News, Politics, Art and Science. Nr. 134, August, 2008