Start: February 2, Half Moon Island
Finish: February 2, Deception Island
Penguins Seen: Umpteen Million
Seal Species Seen: 3
Thickness of Ice in the Above Photo: 110 feet
Our first full day in Antarctica brought us to two more stop on the South Shetland Islands - Half Moon Island and Deception Island. We visit our first penguin colony and get a history lesson in the early exploitation of the Antarctic Peninsula.
The knowledge and environmental awareness of the cruise staff continue to impress. Many people feel that turning Antarctica into a popular tourist destination is a horrible idea considering it contains many of the last untouched frontiers on Earth. Roughly 35,000 tourists visit Antarctica every year. Fifty years ago that number was only a couple hundred.
Fortunately our guides are very much aware of this, and go out of their way to make sure we make as little impact as possible on the environment. Nothing is left or taken but footprints and photographs. Wildlife always has the right of way, and extreme measures are taken to ensure we do not change their natural behavior.
In the morning we're greeted with sunny skies and a view of our next destination from the back deck. Half Moon is a small crescent-shaped island that is home to a chinstrap penguin colony. From several hundred yards away we catch our first whiff of a smell that may haunt us forever: penguin guano, in massive quantities.
See that red stuff on the rocks? That ain't mud.
Chinstraps aren't true Antarctic penguins, they build their nests on rocks rather than on snow. The chicks in this colony are several weeks old. Young enough to still be fluffy, but old enough to be nearly the same size as their parents.
As we learn, and witness, penguin chicks have to grow up fast to keep from falling victim to predatory birds. Their size is their only defence. Once they are big enough they have nothing to fear from land-based predators.
The lack of predators and their unfamiliarity with humans leads them to be quite fearless in our presence. They line up, pose and are constantly walking up to check out the strange yellow-parka-clad invaders. We're under strict supervision from the staff, with orders to follow the trail, yield to crossing penguins and to stay at least five meters away at all times.
If we're approached we're supposed to stand still until the penguin moves out of range. This often means we're standing around for five or ten minutes while the little buggers go about their business.
The trail laid out for us to follow takes us across Half Moon Island. The going is slow due to the numerous penguin super-highways that must be crossed. Once we make it across the island we're greeted with our first up-close view of Antarctic Peninsula scenery complete with snow, mountains and walls of ice that exceed 100 feet in height and predate the Egyptians.
One of the best parts of our shore excursions is the opportunity to just sit down and soak up the scenery. We may have a set route to follow, but there are no guides shuttling us around. We're encourage to go at our own pace and find a place to take a break and just watch. During one of these time-outs, Jessica snaps a shot of a chinstrap gobbling snow. Some of our best photos are a result of just sitting and observing these guys doing their thing.
Having had our fill of penguins, more so because of the smell rather than their goofy antics, we head over to check out a few seals farther down the island. This is a fur seal, a member of the sea lion family. We're warned to keep our distance as these guys can be aggressively territorial and have been known to take a chunk out of an unsuspecting tourist.
We also stumble across a weddell seal taking a snooze on the beach. These cute balls of blubber pose no harm to visitors, we're told the only risk is tripping over one. This guy barely even acknowledges our presence.
Back at the loading area I catch this shot of two fur seals doing a little dance. A helpful marine biologist/expedition guide is standing on hand to illustrate that these guys aren't true seals because their pelvis isn't fixed. That means they can stand up and move on land fairly easily.
Our afternoon stop for the day was Deception Island, home to a historical whaling site from the early 20th century. The island is volcanic, which is evident from the mists that form near the surf. If you dig down several inches into the sand at the edge of the beach the water becomes unbearably hot.
On Deception Island we take a short guided tour along the beach and learn about the history of this island, long used as a sheltered port and base of operations for whaling and sealing companies. The coast is littered with barrel staves, used to pack rendered whale fat, and broken down wooden boats that were used to carry fresh water from the other end of the island.
At the end of our hike we reach Neptune's Window where legend has it the first explorer caught sight of the Antarctic continent. Click the above for a full panorama of the view of the bay.
Below Neptune's Window the staff spot a leopard seal lounging on the beach. These guys are gigantic, and given those chompers, we don't need to be told twice to keep our distance.
There are several huge tanks near our landing point on the island. These were used to store whale fat and water used to render the fat. The base was ruined and subsequently abandoned after volcanic activity killed many of its inhabitants. In 1944 the British established a base here and cut large holes in the tanks to keep the area from being used as a refueling stop for German uboats.
Up next: We go for a zodiac cruise through some sepectacularly blue icebergs, visit two more penguin colonies and witness an avalanche.