Written By: Adventures of a Couchsurfer
We started out the morning with 30 knot winds, gusting up to 53, so kayaking was not an option for Half Moon Island. The staff wasn’t even sure if they would be able to launch the zodiacs. We walked the deck to get a feel for the weather and with our back to the wind we were literally being pushed forward! Luckily for us, though delayed, the captain was finally able to anchor the boat, the zodiacs got launched, and we got a choppy ride to shore.
To help with the shuttling process of 100 passengers and to comply with restrictions pertaining to how many people could be on land at a time at certain sites, generally we were separated into three smaller groups the Adelie, Chinstraps, and Gentoos (types of Penguins) and the groups rotated in order of first, second and third. The Adelie’s were the first off the boat while the winds were higher, and we watched a few of them get drenched as waves crashed at the bow of their zodiacs. Nicole and I were in the Gentoo group and enjoyed much calmer seas.
While our yellow parkas remained dry from ocean spray, upon landing we walked through a fine mist. The lens on my camera was the only item unhappy with this weather. Otherwise, without the wind blowing, it wasn’t particularly cold. I think I was unzipping my parka and wishing I could shed layers after walking around a bit.
Speaking of walking around, we followed marked paths to different penguin colonies always giving way to the penguin, of course. In certain places, two flags marked a penguin highway. All humans had to stop if penguins were in the “highway” area, as this was their path from their colony to the sea. Half Moon Island is home to a Chinstrap breeding colony. It is one of two places to view a good Chinstrap colony in the Antarctic. During breeding season, the penguins lay two eggs, and if they survive they obviously have two chicks with grey feathers.
It seemed like most of the eggs had hatched and the mothers were watching their two chicks on their rocky nests. The penguins use rocks to build there nests so that melting snow water will drain through the nests and not drown or freeze their eggs. While they waddle back and forth to retrieve rocks, they also steel from one another. Obviously, the nest building was completed several weeks ago as these chicks, I believe were a few weeks old, though it doesn’t stop the penguins from picking up rocks once in a while.
They were pretty fun to watch, and they didn’t seem to concerned with humans. In fact, many times they walked right by us; though, I suspect if we got too close to their nest, they would honk and flap their wings, more than they already were.
While other bird predators might want to get close to the nesting area to snatch a chick, the stench of the penguin poo kept us from staying in one spot too long! Since the moms had to stay on their nests to protect their young until they grew larger, they could not wash off in the frigid water. Many had a white belly stained a reddish, brown hue. Beware of picture of a perfectly black and white penguin that is not right by the water…it has probably been photo shopped!!!
We did spot a few porpoising penguins as well, but given the young age of the chicks, most of the Chinstrap penguins were near their colonies. We were also able to spot a few Gentoo penguins, though we will be visiting large Gentoo colonies further south, so we expect to see many more, also with their chicks.
Several shore birds soared overhead and a few landed nearby, including a cormorant, a Great Skua that was picking on an unlucky penguin, a Kelp Gull, a Snowy Sheathbill, and an Antarctic Tern to name a few, but admittedly, I was more taken by the birds who have evolved to not fly! I’m told being in the Gentoo group, we arrived too late to see some seals…maybe next time!
The wind continued to blow for the afternoon, so kayaking was cancelled for the day, but it didn’t keep us from joining the land-dwellers, also known as the “Beautiful People” in yellow jackets, as our kayak leader Val liked to say at Whalers Bay on Deception Island. Home to a deserted whaling station and the caldera of an active volcano, this island was so eerie, it looked like a scene to a horror film, as fog hung overhead.
Glaciers towered behind the whaling station which operated from 1906 to 1931 and was home to approximately 200 hundred men and 13 factory ships. The station did not process whale blubber, this was completed on the ship, but boiled the whale carcasses to extract additional oil which was stored in large iron tanks. It was abandoned when it was no longer economical and the whale supply was exhausted.
In the 1940’s and 1950’s, both the British and the Chileans established scientific bases (including an airstrip and hanger by the Chileans) on the island, but they were destroyed by volcanic activity in the 1960’s as was the island’s cemetery. In addition, a portion of the side of one cliff has fallen away, now called Neptune’s Window.
After checking out an old row boat, digging up six inches of volcanic ash to feel 90 degree water rush into our hands, and inspecting some whale bones, we hiked up to the “window” to see the bay on the other side. We also got a good view of the town, old metal shacks, and scattered wooden debris.
On our way back down, we had to stop an enjoy the tiny bit of green, mossy growth on a rock before we wandered through the entire town. We passed by the rusted tanks tagged with graffiti as well as the boilers on our way to some living quarters.
We splashed through some melting glacial water on our way past two graves, the British Scientific station house and the Chilean aircraft hanger, before following the shore back to admire a lovely female, leopard seal resting on land and counting on one hand all the penguins! Our two stops today were so different from each other…one nature galore, the nature deprived…but both very interesting.
Our evening included a quiz of random questions by the staff…Val led the event. Our Team Deceptors, which included our Canadian friends, got five out of twelve! Not so bad, as the highest score was eight! It has been great fun so far. The staff has been fantastic…very knowledgable and very fun…until tomorrow. ETB