Antarctica Day 3: Cuverville Island and Neko Harbor
|Written by Jared on March 20, 2013|
Start: February 3, Cuverville Island
Our second full day in the Antarctic brings us to two penguin colonies and our first landing on the continent proper. We spend the morning zodiac cruising around an iceberg field and then head to shore to catch a whiff of what is becoming an all too familiar smell: penguin poo.
In the afternoon we're off to Neko Harbor where we visit yet another penguin colony and hike up to a viewpoint and soak in the amazing scenery. In the process we witness an avalanche, a spectacular ice calving and slide back down the hill on our butts through the snow. It's an eventful and exhausting day, and proves to be the most scenic day of our journey to the ice continent.
We start off the morning cruising around an iceberg field in the zodiacs. Ten yellow-jacket-clad people and one guide to a boat. The weather is a bit moody, but so far it stays precipitation free and gives us the opportunity to take some amazing photos of blue icebergs contrasting with a gray sky.
Penguins and seals abound both in the water and on icebergs. This Gentoo penguin stops to take a breather before sliding back into the water in search of krill.
This photo, taken from our landing spot in Cuverville Island, pretty much sums up the experience. There's no set tour path in this ever-changing environment, it's just us on the boat surrounded by blue ice cubes that range in size from a small car too a large office building.
Why is the ice blue? It's so dense that it traps all but the thinnest of wavelengths of light, which happens to be blue. As ice ages and is exposed to air it becomes more white, making it easy to spot the youngest bergs and the places on glaciers where they've recently broken free.
The shapes, sizes and various formations of the ice are unbelievable. Arches, windows, ice castles, towers, we see it all within the first hour. The guides are careful not to get too close, the rule of thumb is to not come within twice the height of the ice. Icebergs very often flip and change position, which is often caused by as little as a baseball-sized chunk of ice breaking free under the water.
We spot our fourth species of seal, a crabeater, taking a snooze and warming up on the ice. Yep, I said warming. The water is a frigid 1 degree Celsius, and the air temperature is a comfortable 6 degrees.
Another benefit of zodiac cruising is being able to snag pieces of ice to take back to the bar for cocktails. Apparently the clear pieces are best and a quick rinse of fresh water removes the salt.
After an hour of cruising the bergs we head to the island to check out an Gentoo penguin colony. There are plenty of fluffy chicks in this colony, but they aren't very photogenic while covered in reddish-brown penguin poo.
The scenery is unbelievable. Penguins and snow-covered peaks. Penguins and icebergs. Penguins and glaciers. Lots and lots of penguins, so much so that it's difficult to move around without disturbing them. That's the reason we started the morning cruising on the zodiacs - to minimize the number of people on land at one time and keep from swamping the little guys with camera-clicking tourists.
Molting penguins are another reason we were divided into groups. They hole up on land once a year and sit in the same place until the process is completed. They can't enter the frigid water with half of their feathers missing and thus don't eat. We keep our distance and don't disturb them so they expend as little energy as possible during this stressful time.
Back on board for lunch we spot a couple humpback whales cruising around the island. They surface two or three times to breathe and then make a deep dive, flashing their tail above the water.
After a short reposition we head to Neko Harbor where we visit another Gentoo penguin colony. This time the chicks are a bit less poo-covered and much more photogenic. These chicks will molt their fluffy juvenile feathers in several weeks and grow an adult set which is warm enough to allow them to hit the water and start fending for themselves.
To escape the pervasive smell of penguin guano I follow most of the passengers on a hike to the top of a lookout above the glacier-lined cove. Click the above for a full panorama.
While soaking in the view at the top of Neko Harbor we start to hear the deep rumblings of avalanches in the surrounding mountains and the sharp crack of snapping ice in the glaciers below. After thirty minutes of waiting, I caught this shot of a calving event: the birth of a new iceberg.
Above is a time lapse video that captures both the avalanche and ice calving event.
From the top of the hill we're invited to slide a hundred feet or so down the mountain. After watching a few dozen Chinese passengers wipe out close to the bottom, I decide to give it a shot. The only casualty was my cabin room key which was I unintelligently kept in my back pocket. Wheeee!
After boarding the zodiacs to return to the ship our guide gets a radio message that humpback whales have been spotted nearby. We head over just in time to catch a shot of one heading down for a dive, maybe 50 feet from our little boat.
Up Next: We spend a night camped on the Antarctic snow and visit a historic British research station.