Soon after passing through the Lemaire Channel we arrive at Peterman Island. Peterman Island is a relatively low-lying, somewhat flattish granite island with scattered gentoo penguin (Pygoscelis papua) colonies and some small ponds. Rounded rocks along the edge of the island are awash with small waves, and I make my way to one attractive point away from the penguins (I have had enough of photographing penguins by this point) to make pictures of the water swirling ashore with peaks and clouds in the distance. I stand about thigh deep in the ocean water, but its not as cold as I expected – my boots and pants keep me dry.
After about 15 minutes, I hear a rustling behind me. A gentoo penguin has snuck up on me, standing on a ledge at my shoulder only about 3’ away, watching me and nosing my backpack lying next to him. We both stand still for a few moments, checking one another out. Is it making sure there is nothing to be fearful of? Perhaps. Eventually, the gentoo starts nibbling some clean white snow next to me. I go on with my picture taking. When I turn around a few minutes later, it is still there watching me, now joined by another gentoo. I set one of my cameras on the granite and put a self timer on it, and let it take a few photos of the two little birds (see next image). Soon they waddle down to the water and swim off.
Before returning by zodiac to the ship, I visit a lonely memorial to three BAS (British Antarctic Survey) scientists who were working at the small research hut on Peterman Island some years ago and trapped there by partially frozen seas with insufficient provisions. The ice conditions were such that the three BAS staff could not safely walk out, nor could a boat reach them. They waited weeks for help. Eventually a BAS ship reached Peterman Island, but instead of finding the researchers only a note was discovered. It is believed all three BAS scientists perished after attempting walk across the thin ice to another research station 9 miles away, likely falling into the strait through the thin ice. The memorial is a poignant reminder of the unforgiving nature of life on the Antarctic Peninsula.
Soon after leaving Port Lockroy in our wake, we arrive at the famous Lemaire Channel, noted for its narrow confines and spectacular cliffs rising on each side. About six miles long, the LeMaire Channel takes about one hour to navigate (depending on how much ice is in the channel). Conditions were – surprise! – very cloudy for our passage through the strait. It was nevertheless beautiful, with several sections filled with brash ice and small bergs. We did get a partial sense of the heights and dramatic peaks that rise almost vertically from the edges of the narrow strait but we clearly could not see all the walls and peaks the we knew were hanging above us in the mist. I’ll just have to cross my fingers that it is clear and sunny on my next visit, so I can really appreciate the LeMaire Channel.
Lemaire Channel: mountains, sea, ice and clouds,Antarctica. The Lemaire Channel, one of the most scenic places on the Antarctic Peninsula, is a straight 11 km long and only 1.6 km wide at its narrowest point. Image ID: 25602 Location: Lemaire Channel, Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica
Lemaire Channel: mountains, sea, ice and clouds,Antarctica. The Lemaire Channel, one of the most scenic places on the Antarctic Peninsula, is a straight 11 km long and only 1.6 km wide at its narrowest point. Image ID: 25614 Location: Lemaire Channel, Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica
It was quite early in the morning that our day began, traveling down the Neumayer Channel to tiny Goudier Island on which the Port Lockeroy base resides. The skies were heavily overcast, so we did not have an opportunity to see the magnificent surroundings that the Neumayer Channel is reputed to offer. (It looks like the weather will remain poor, so our chance to see the Lemaire Channel in all its glory later today is not looking good either.) Port Lockroy is a “living museum”, a former British base, once abandoned but restored in the 90’s by volunteers of the British Antarctic Survey and now tended by four keepers for this season. Port Lockroy offers a look back at what conditions were like for the Brits who manned this small building during World War II. It has never been revealed by the British Government exactly what they were doing on this tiny island during the war, but it is suspected that they were collecting weather data and making foreys through the area looking for enemy naval activity. I bought the girls a few souvenirs at the small gift shop and relaxed watching the penguins on their nests just a few feet from the small buildings that make up Port Lockroy.
Nearby is another tiny island — Wiencke Island — that we visit to see an old blue whale skeleton, surrounding by yet more penguin colonies. Actually, the skeleton is made up of bones of a number of whale species, including blue whales. Having seen many blue whales near San Diego from my boat, it was nice to walk about this skeleton and admire how large the bones are, especially the jaw bones which, I believe, are the largest bones in the entire animal kingdom. A few penguins walked idly through the assembled skeleton. Winds blew pretty hard and a little rain fell. This particular landing had more penguin aroma than any other in the past several days, and by the time I am done on Wiencke Island my boots were pretty nasty and needed a real cleaning in the ocean before I was able to hop aboard the zodiac for a ride back to the big boat.
We are gradually working our way south along the western flanks of the Antarctica Peninsula. This afternoon we reach Cuverville Island after a 60 mile transit through the Gerlache Straight from our morning’s visit to Cierva Cove. Cuverville Island hosts a colony of Gentoo Penguins (Pygoscelis papua) and our timing coincides with the Gentoos’ rearing of their chicks. Gentoo nests are made of small stones, and the adults will frequently (almost constantly) steal stones from one another’s nests. It is a humorous situation to watch but I realize the incessent watchfulness and robbery required of their species’ lifestyle must be tiresome for these small kleptomaniacs. Watching the chicks as they are tended by their parents is the highlight of my time on Cuverville Island. They are so tiny and yet incredibly hardy to survive in such bitterly cold and windy surroundings. A Gentoo penguin chick’s home is literally a small shallow ring of stones built on bare rock, exposed to harsh wind, rain, snow and mist from the nearby ocean, with only the bulk and warmth of its parent penguin to offer any meaningful protection from the elements. Brown skuas are constantly present nearby, awaiting an opportunity to swoop in quickly and attack an unprotected penguin chick. Life is difficult here.
Photos of Cierva Cove, Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica
We begin our morning today in Cierva Cove, directly south from yesterday’s landing at Bailey Head on Deception Island. Cierva Cove is said to be a good location to see marine mammals. However, this morning the skies are dark and the air is cold. Cierva Cove is choked with brash ice, and light rain has been falling on and off all morning. Some choose to remain aboard the Polar Star as it is anchored just offshore of the cove, enjoying coffee in the warm lounge on the top deck and watching the morning pass through the large windows. Not to be put off by a little weather, most of the folks on board hop in zodiacs and set off for some cruising and sightseeing amid the ice in Cierva Cove.
Brash ice and pack ice in Antarctica. Brash ices fills the ocean waters of Cierva Cove on the Antarctic Peninsula. The ice is a mix of sea ice that has floated near shore on the tide and chunks of ice that have fallen into the water from nearby land-bound glaciers. Image ID: 25531 Location: Cierva Cove, Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica
Moving about through the ice maze proves to be a bit difficult in the zodiacs and we take it slow, choosing our route carefully. Currents stir the waters in the cove, and the ice is constantly moving albeit slowly. At times, the narrow channels we use close soon after we pass through so that we cannot return the way we came, so we just proceed onward. It is fun going. There are three species of pinniped to be seen in Cierva Cove: leopard seal (Hydrurga leptonyx), Weddell seal (Leptonychotes Weddellii) and Crabeater seal (Lobodon carcinophagus), and soon we have seen them all. Of the three, the Weddell seals are my favorite, exhibiting beautiful spotted coats more attractive than any other seal species I have seen. It is difficult to keep the cameras dry as rain continues to fall, so I am glad I have weather covers for my gear.
Three glaciers flow into Cierva Cove, plowing down from the inland slopes above us with towering walls of ice leading the way. These glaciers shed enormous blocks of blue ice, frozen floating progeny that will soon drift away from the cove and disperse into the ocean. Occasionally we see ice break from the face of the glacier and fall, calving with loud cracking sounds that echo around the cove. When the blocks plunge into the water they create long rolling swells that generate low rumbling sounds as the bergs around us bump together. Argentina’s Primavera Research Station is located on an exposed rocky peninsula nearby, a group of small red buildings and several radio antennae. Given the weather we have today, the station looks like a very cold workplace indeed.
Eventually we leave the thick brash ice and motor about in the open water a mile or so offshore, in hopes of seeing a whale. Indeed, we soon come across a few minke whales, fast and sleek. They seem inquisitive and swim near our zodiac a few times, then disappear with nary a clue as to where they have gone. Other zodiacs see minkes throughout the morning. Soon a small group of humpback whales are spotted. Doug Cheeseman, who is driving our zodiac this morning, has had years of experience boating near whales and does a great job of predicting where the humpbacks will surface. For 30 minutes or so the whales simply surface and sink back under. Eventually, however, they begin raising their flukes as they dive, providing the photographers on our inflatable with great ops. After watching the whales for a long time, everyone on the zodiac is eventually chilled to the core and we head back to the M/V Polar Star to warm up and move to the afternoon’s landing at Cuverville Island. This morning offered our best views of marine mammals on the trip so far.
The forecast for this morning was not encouraging: winds up to 35 knots which would generate waves large enough to shut down our ability to land on this steep, exposed, black-sand beach. However, at 6am we found relatively calm seas and little wind at Deception Island, with a smallish swell that caused a little anxiety and some minor mishaps with the zodiacs due to the very steep beach but was not enough to keep us from landing ashore. Bailey Head is a large volcanic plug towering over a long, beautiful black sand beach. Cliffs run the length of the beach. Penguins occupy the edge of the beach for several hundred yards, a mass of black-and-white specks on a black expanse of sand. Seemingly endless columns of chinstrap penguins (Pygoscelis antarcticus) waddle back and forth between the beach and the rim of the volcano that comprises the island.
On the beach, chinstraps nervously gather together waiting for a moment when they can rush en masse down the slope to plunge into the water, swimming rapidly through the shallows to avoid a leopard seal that patrols the shore. What I am seeing is a fascinating spectacle. The sheer number of chinstrap penguins and the constant flow of animals between the heights above and the surf below is impressive. Light rain and some wind comes and goes during our four hours ashore. The light is flat, making for difficult photography. I shoot a few time lapse series, hoping to illustrate the nature of the movement of the many penguins, but it is not easy since we are constrained from going up on the hills above the penguin highway for a better look for fear of displacing the animals from their route. I also shoot some video which will probably be more appealing than the photos, since the video captures the cacophony of the birds and the sounds of the surf. By 11am I am back in a zodiac headed for the boat. I skipped the novelty visit to the hot springs after lunch due to the declining weather. Instead, we watched the hardier folks swimming in the mix of hot springs and icy ocean water, under falling snow and blowing wind. Hard core.
Our approach to Brown Bluff took us across a broad sound complete with blue sky and many scenic bergs, then into a thick fog bank as we left the sound and entered a narrower passage with clouds and cold air pouring down to the water from the glaciers on each side (glaciers make their own weather).
Brown Bluff, an aptly named large rock promontory situated between two glaciers, appeared before us as we approached through a clearing in the fog. Many small bergs were floating just offshore of the bluff, so the big boat was anchored a ways off and we accessed the bluff and its cobblestone beaches with a half mile zodiac run. Several types of penguins nest below the bluff, and are constantly leaving and arriving via the beach. I headed away from the penguins and people to a swath of beach that fronted a long, rolling edge of an ice field.
The 30’ ice field ended abruptly almost at the water, leaving a strip of about 50’ of cobblestone beach upon which to walk. The edge of the ice revealed horizontal striations about a foot apart. Were they created by seasonal accumulations of dark dirt blown on top of white snow, or where they perhaps picked from the soil below? I think this interesting “wave” of ice overhanging the beach was the edge of an icefield, rather than a glacier proper, but am not sure. I set about trying to photograph it with my widest lens, contrasting the undulating striations in the wall of ice against the more uniform dark of the beach and the water. It grew cloudy. Water dripped off the ice, wetting the cobbles that would otherwise be dry. I waded out into the water to inspect a few small bergs that had grounded on the shore. Penguins would occasionally swim by me, nearly bumping my legs as they zoomed through the shallows to exit the water onto the beach. Sometimes one would notice me and stop, sticking its head above water and giving me a look-over, swimming about my legs once before moving on its way. Curious little guys.
After scrambling over the rocks to get back to the landing site, I rejoined some others and looked about the bluff area to get a sense of all the different bird activity that was happening. Vic was lying down on the cobbles, allowing groups of penguins to pass him by as they walked along the beach. I joined him and soon had a group of 20 or so birds approach far too close for me to take any pictures. They chose a spot 3’ in front of me to make their mad dash into the water. I did not see any leopard seals so I think their concern – and their panicky group entrance into the ocean – was unwarranted, but they must use that method always out of habit or instinct.
Later we hopped in a zodiac with Hugh and cruised around among the bergs. This was the highlight of the day. Hugh managed to find a group of Adelie penguins (Pygoscelis adeliae) that were diving into the water from a sloping edge of a berg, and we got some nice shots. He then topped that with a group of 14 birds on an even-more-scenic berg, all of whom entered the water from a 5’ ledge. Some of the photos that others (with widers lenses than I) got in that instance were stunning, really suitable for fine art. I got a couple keepers too. Finally he drove our boat into the basin of a hand-shaped berg, with all five fingers protuding 10-20’ out of the water. A 50’ wide basin about 10’ deep was formed between the fingers, large enough for us to take the boat into and slowly maneuver. The whole thing glowed with that cool iceberg blue glow. It sounds simple and unremarkable but the colors were simply out of this world and everyone in our little group was moved by how stunning the color and shape of this berg was. By now the fog had returned and we could see neither beach, nor boat. We were zipping on grey water upon which no horizon could be discerned, between white and blue bergs. Eventually we found the big boat, and the landing, and reclaimed our stuff from the beach before returning to the big boat for dinner.
Arriving at Devil Island, the morning presented the most spectacular blue-sky weather we experienced during our entire voyage. Devil Island rose above us after we anchored, twin peaks about 800’ high framing a saddle about half that. On the slope of the island before us was a broad colony of penguins. Many grounded small bergs were nestled up against the side of the island, having become caught there at a previous low tide and remaining trapped. Some were cracking and breaking under their own weight as the tide dropped through the morning, producing occasional loud popping sounds following by waves radiating out from the busted up piece of ice.
I elected to hike to the summit of the Devil Island, foregoing any time in a zodiac, since I figured the view was too good to pass up and I wanted to bag a new peak. I shot some great video of the colony on the shoulder of the island, and then followed Ted, Ross, Markus and Jo up to the top. Many others got up there too. The view from the top of the right horn of the island was superb, a full 360 degrees including the channel separating Devil Island from the Antarctic continent on one side, and clear across the Gerlache Strait on the other side. Nothing but blue sky and sun, finally, after weeks of crap weather. It was warm, only the thinnest fleece was required, and sunglasses and sunscreen the order of the day. Not much to say beyond that. I spent as much time at the top as I could, watching the tiny zodiacs far below slowly circumnavigate Devil Island, dodging bergs as they did so. In many places, one could see down through the clear, still water to the ocean bottom below. This would definitely have been a good place to hop in the water with drysuit and camera housing for some u/w shots of bergs, but that will have to wait for next trip. About lunch time we left Devil Island in our wake, motoring further down the channel for our first step on the continent proper at Brown Bluff.
I was able to spend quite a bit of time sightseeing and photographing from a Zodiac (inflatable) while in Antarctica. These hours were some of the most special of the trip. In some ways, one has more freedom of movement while in a zodiac than one does on land in Antarctica. Certainly the perspective one gains, while moving about at the water’s edge, is appealing. After spending the day ashore at Paulet Island, I elected to join Hugh Rose and Patrick Endres in a zodiac that they were driving, to look for penguins on small icebergs and just enjoy the surroundings before we departed that evening. We came upon some beautiful small bergs that afternoon, the most interesting of which was this pockmarked chunk:
Iceberg with scalloped erosion. The eroded indentations on this iceberg were melted when this portion of the iceberg was underwater. As it melted, the iceberg grew topheavy, eventually flipping and exposing this interesting surface. Image ID: 24789 Location: Paulet Island, Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica
Later, we had the very good fortune to raft up alongside an iceberg that was carrying some inquisitive Adelie penguins, who immediately walked across the berg to meet us and seemed as if they wanted to hop in our boat! (See my blog entry about the penguin encounter.) The sun cleared some clouds and cast low, warm, flat light on the little birds, while the clouds in the distance remained dark — a photographer’s dream. I was able to shoot some fun images of them, including the one below as well as one that became the recent cover of Nature’s Best Magazine.
Patrick was keen on photographing the ice, so the rest of us in the boat took notice (at least I did) and made some photos too. It is just like photographing snowflakes, no two views are alike. I knew I was never going to be able to photograph even a tiny fraction of the beautiful Antarctic ice that surrounded us, and resigned myself to just trying to make a few good ones.
After we returned to the icebreaker M/V Polar Star, the captain took us on a long cruise through some nearby channels, offering us sunset views that I will never forget. I lashed one of my cameras to the ship’s wheel house and shot a cool timelapse of our sunset cruise.
We arrive early in the morning at Paulet Island, our first taste of the Antarctic Peninsula. As we navigate our approach through ice-filled channels around the island, large groups of Adelie penguins (Pygoscelis adeliae) are seen swimming in the water and gathered on the edges of bergs and fast ice. While the day dawns cloudy, it will clear periodically later today, with broken clouds and beautiful Antarctic weather on and off. Strong currents roil the waters about the Paulet Island, moving bergs and brash ice constantly. It takes the captain of the icebreaker M/V Polar Star some time to make a firm anchor.
When the boat is securely anchored, we venture out in zodiacs for some cruising among the ice. Adelie penguins abound. The island is literally covered with Adelies and their curious stone nests, while groups of them are found on the beautifully sculpted ice everywhere we look. When they leave their ice perches and take to the water, their porpoising across the glassy sea is marvelous to watch. They are like small speedy footballs leaping out of the water, only to disappear and reappear again every few seconds as their sturdy wings propel them forward. They are nearly impossible to photograph while porpoising, for me at least, and I resign myself to admiring them and trying to photograph the ones standing still on the ice. Simple photos for simple photographers.
After returning to the big boat, I gather my gear and take a second zodiac ride to land ashore on Paulet Island. It is still morning, but I decide in advance to skip lunch and just stay onshore all day, knowing that each hour with my feet on the ground in Antarctica is exceptionally valuable and is my motivation for making this journey. What a place, so much life here! A cacophony of penguin sounds fills the air, for the many hours that I am ashore. The colony sections themselves are so dense and vast that we stay along the perimeters, in the thin strip of ice- and boulder-covered beach the penguins traverse as they make their way between the ocean and their nests. In the colony itself, the birds are spaced in a highly-regular fashion, with their nests just a few feet apart from one another. I am struck by this aspect of the colony, having seen it earlier in the trip at the phenomenal black-browed albatross colony at Steeple Jason in the Falkland Islands. It seems that each member of the species has exactly the same tolerance for others of its kind, needs exactly the same room to maintain its sanity, leading to the spatial pattern before me that is repeated as far into the colony as one can see. Indeed, when viewed from the boat, the colony takes on an almost abstract look. Mother Nature employs her wonderful mathematics again, producing yet another example of regularity and order out of the chaos that is Life.
I move to the edge of the island to watch the penguins that are departing to forage at sea. They are not unlike a little river: birds constantly “flowing” from their nesting areas on the plateau above down into the water. Hanging over the cobblestone beach on which I sit is a small cliff of melting ice. Every 30 seconds or so a group of penguins approaches along the edge of this ice, using well-worn paths left behind by thousands of small feet, until they reach a gap in the ice cliff through which they can jump down onto the cobblestone. From there they gather at the water’s edge into nervous groups of 10 to 50 before rushing en masse into the water, strategically using their numbers to foil any predatory leopard seal that may be waiting underwater. I setup my camera and tripod in a location where I am sure the penguins will come by. I then move away, and wait. Soon a curious group gathers around the camera, looking at it inquisitively, clucking softly and gently pecking at it to discover what it might be. As they do so, I use my wireless trigger ($20 on Ebay) to take a few pictures of them — from 50′ away. The camera is set to operate as silently as possible to avoid startling the little birds, and the technique works great. When the penguins finally leave, I am able to go inspect my camera and see the images I got; a few look like keepers. I try my remote-cam technique a few more times and am happy with the results. Here are a couple examples; I could have been sipping a margarita in a beach chair while taking these, if it were not so cold:
As the day passes, I realize that the movement of the penguins here cannot be conveyed in a single image. So I spend my last two hours on shore arranging several time-lapse sequences, composed of hundreds of photos that together are arranged into a short movie. One never really knows how the result of a time-lapse effort will appear until the final product is finished on the computer. I did not finally see the result of these efforts until now, some six months after my day on Paulet Island: