Monday, January 30, 2012

South Shetland Islands, Aitcho Island

On the voyage south across the Drake toward the Antarctic penninsula, the sighting of the first iceberg was a momentous event, marking our arrival to a world that people only suspected or imagined a little over a hundred or so years ago.   
First Iceberg !
It was a time of personal wonder and amazement.  Wonder at what lay ahead.  Amazement at all the things that somehow coalesced in my life and brought me from Weatherford, Texas, to the Antarctic.  I took just a moment to feel thankful for my luck and good fortune.

Soon, towering snow covered black volcanic mountains appeared off the bow.  The snow covered peaks form rivers of ice that flow slowly down to the ocean to calve, creating an endless parade of icebergs that eventually melt, their crystal clear fresh water evaporating into the air to form snow...
and the life of the mountains begin again...

The air is so perfectly clear, with no smoke, smog, or haze, that perspective as to distance or size becomes impossible.  An iceberg that appears to be small and just over there is actually kilometers away.  Taking a zodiac over to it's face takes a long time, as the berg gets bigger and bigger.. your zodiac becomes smaller and smaller... until it's dwarfed by 20m (70') of ice

We were advised that this would be a "wet landing", so we planned accordingly.  Long underwear, top and bottom.  Fleeces. Rubber pants.  Gum boots and parkas.  Time to suit up, layering on the clothing, hoping for the best, preparing for a sudden change in the weather that could bring on the worst in minutes.  We met aft  and bathed our gum boots and pants legs in Virkon, a disinfectant that kills bacteria, spores, fungi, and viruses.  These folks are adamant about protecting the environment, no effort too large or small.  Next, we boarded our zodiacs for the trip ashore...
Our ride's almost ready
We were bound for little Barrientos Island (Aitcho Island).  At a mere 1.5km long, has steep cliffs (70m) on one end and tapers gently to the sea on the "landing" end.  It featured colonies of Gentoo penguins with their chicks, Chinstrap penguins still on their eggs, giant petrels, the ever-present and always vicious and opportunistic skua gull, and finally, elephant seals laying around on the northern and western sides of the island.     
On the way to Aitcho Island

The cliffs on the left hardly look 70m tall, but they are!

One of the Gentoo colonies patiently watch and await our arrival.  I'm sure that they were all thinking that these "were the ugliest. yellow. birds. ever.  And it's simply comical... they way they toddle around.  And look!  They all look just alike!"

Strolling down to the beach to have lunch
Providing for the family
In the two previous images, the first gentoo is just waddling around.  Perhaps to go to the beach for lunch.  The second image shows one of the funnier traits of the gentoo.  Kleptomania.  They're compulsive thieves.  This one has just stolen a small pebble from a neighboring bird's rock nest (they will not nest on snow), and is taking it back to the family nest.  Pebbles and small rocks are penguin lucre.  Cash.  Moolah.  And on rocky Barrientos, it's easier to steal a rock than go find one.  All the good rocks have already been found, anyway.

The image below seems to represent a typical penguin nesting area here on the penninsula.  It consists of a rocky nest, with one of the parent penguins (they take turns), and one or two chicks. They are strategically placed, with great care, to allow 1) toddling room between nests, plus 2) enough room - maybe 1cm - to avoid getting pecked by the neighbors as you toddle through, and 3)  room to lift your cute little brushy tail... and squirt to your heart's content.
Gentoos with their chicks

Gentoo chicks have been described as ever-growing bags with a large opening at the top and a smaller, but equally busy, opening at the bottom.  The parents consume so much pink krill, and digest it so rapidly, that they don't even get complete food absorption.  Hence the pink penguin poo.  And the chicks... their diets until fledging?  Regurgitated krill.  Yep, kids, you're having that for breakfast AGAIN.  Eat up, it's good for you, and you'll grow up big, and strong enough to kick a skua's ass.

Barf.  It's what's for lunch today.

A gentoo gets all gussied-up
My favorite penguin is the Chinstrap Penguin.  Slightly smaller than a gentoo, but better looking.  Note that it's little wings are white underneath...
Cool Chinstrap Dude (Dudette?)
 This chinstrap's wings are pink...
Chinstrap hottie

A penguin has an outer coat of very tiny, but thick, oily feathers, that cover a down layer beneath.  Keeps it dry and warm.  Sometimes, a bit too warm when the temperature rises and hovers around -2C gasp, pant...  They react by dilating their vessels in their wings to rid them of excess heat.

and then... Cool Again.  Mmmmmm.
Joe Cool
As I mentioned earlier, gentoos and chinstrap penguins nest only on bare rock, making their nests with pebbles and small stones that they gather or (preferably) steal.  If no good nesting areas are found near the beach... they climb.  They really climb.  Damned near straight up.  Until they find a suitable area to build a nest.  So.  Those ugly big feet are good for something!

Check out how high these birds have climbed, one little hop at a time, to find suitable nesting...  The will to breed and multiply is strong.

These gentoos, having no nesting area on the beach (too close to predation) begin the hike up a snowy hill in the quest for nesting areas, leaving behind a prodigious pink penguin poo path that marks their progress.  POO.

The skua gull is Chief-in-Charge of Antarctic clean-up.
Skua - by land

Skua - by sea
It's omnivorous.  It's crafty and determined.  It only eats two kinds of food:  food that moves, and food that doesn't.  It's one of the major predators for penguin eggs and chicks.  
"Happily ever after" for penguins doesn't occur very often.  Less than half the time.  Much less, probably...

Another bird on the clean-up list is the Snowy Sheathbill.  A jack-of-all-trades, if you will.
Snowy Sheathbills
The Snowy Sheathbills are the only bird species in Antarctica that doesn't have webbed feet. They roost well up the cliff-sides out of harm's way... and oddly enough, usually on one foot.  Well adapted to the Antarctic, they eat anything.  Eggs, chicks, fish, dead stuff, yes..penguin poo, krill, and even algae.  Mmmm good.

All these thoughts of food were making me really hungry.  Lucky for me it was time to leave Aitcho and head for the ship.  And supper.  Ohhhh, I'm hoping that the chef will regurgitate something really tasty.  And kind of soupy.  And warm.  Mmmmmm.

On the way back, our zodiac took us by the cliffs on the end of the island to see some seals...
The word "coexist" came to mind...
...and and gave us a brief tour of the iceberg that Sea Spirit had dropped anchor near...

Even prettier close up and personal...
This was a free floating berg.  The water, at -1C is generally warmer than the air above, thus the berg slowly melts from below.  The ice gradually becomes lighter and floats higher in the water, producing the "age lines" seen above.

This evening, at the bar, I'm in a quiet, pensive mood.  I finally determined that I'm in a state of visual overload, unable to process all that I've seen.  One more sip, and off to dinner with those rowdy-assed Aussies.

Tomorrow, Half Moon Island and Yankee Harbour, South Shetlands.

No comments:

Post a Comment