We woke up this morning to find ourselves enveloped in fog. Out on deck, the fog horn sounded every few minutes, adding to the eerie feeling. Despite having to slow a little, we were still able to continue our good progress, and just after lunch we arrived at our first destination, the South Shetland Islands. I suspect I’m one of few people in the world who can say that they’ve been to both the Shetlands and the South Shetlands within less than two months.
Although the fog didn’t lift before we arrived, the signs that we were approaching our goal were there… the first Cape Petrel sighting, and most exciting of all, countless penguins porpoising alongside our ship.
Full of anticipation we streamed downstairs to the mud room, to get ready. Ski pants, thermals, fleece, parka, waterproof trousers and wellies. Within minutes we were all beginning to sweat in the hot mud room, as we waited in the zodiac queue as patiently as we could manage. Finally we were shunted into a zodiac and were zooming towards land.
With the fog, we could only see the land as we drew quite close, but the sounds and smell of the penguin colonies had already been brought to us on the wind. My previous trip was in November, spring time, and the difference was immediately obvious. Instead of pristine snow, and penguins building nests and courting, we were greeted by rocks, mud, penguin poo, and fuzzy chicks.
I headed over to the other side of the island, where I thought it might be a bit quieter, and quickly rediscovered one of my favourite pastimes from the previous trip – photographing jumping penguins. Barrientos Island is home to two species of penguin, Chinstraps and Gentoos.
In addition to the penguins, there was also a large group of Southern Giant Petrels and some Skuas, arguing over penguin carcasses. Unfortunately, the fog made it a little difficult for photography, but I had so much fun just watching the penguins, and listening to all the different vocalisations they make.
One of the most entertaining things to watch was the chicks racing after the adults, calling out for food, whether it was their own parent or not. They’re certainly greedy little fellows. The adults returning from the sea were beautifully clean, but some of the chicks were spectacularly filthy. Some were still soft and downy, and others were already partway through their moult, and development of adult feathers.
Heading back towards the zodiacs to return to the ship, I had one final treat in store. As I sat photographing a pair of chicks snuggled up together, a small downy Gentoo chick came to check me out. It nibbled my finger, allowing me to get a bird’s eye view of the inside of its bill. What a magical way to end our first landing in Antarctica.