From the National Geographic Explorer in Antarctica
Dec 16, 2010 - National Geographic Explorer
Port Lockroy, Gerlache Strait and Orne Harbour
Although the seas were calm and I was really tired I could not sleep. We were heading south through the Neumayer Channel during the night, planning to arrive at Port Lockroy first thing in the morning. I had been invited for breakfast with the four young ladies that are running the museum and post office this season. For 8 of the past 15 summers, Port Lockroy had been my summer residence where I had been the station manager. My excitement about returning to this magical place and meeting the new people there had kept me awake.
Throughout the morning all of our guests came ashore to explore the wonders of tiny Goudier Island where the museum and post office is situated. This island is also the home of around 700 breeding pairs of Gentoo penguins. The penguins seemed to be oblivious to our comings and goings being more concerned with establishing their nests upon the rocks that were slowly appearing out of the unusually deep snow covering the island. I had shared a few stories regarding Port Lockroy with the guests the previous evening and it was clear that some of my enthusiasm for this famous old shed that was the first British scientific research station on the peninsula had rubbed off on them. Port Lockroy had also been the site of busy whaling industry almost a hundred years ago. Relics from that era still survive; chains that the ships tied to, parts of old wooden boats and enormous whale bones from the unfortunate victims, were clearly visible both at Lockroy and over at Jougla Point where we also explored during the morning. All too soon it was time to leave and start heading north.
As we made our way through the Gerlache Strait and were just north of Useful Island an extraordinary event developed in front of our ship. Sharp eyes on the bridge spotted the distinctive black pointed fins of killer whales ahead. Initially it appeared to be just a small family pod of the type B category, seal eaters; Identified by their large white eye patch. Soon after the initial spotting of the whales more and more killer whales appeared from all directions probably a fifty or more in total. This occurrence is rarely witnessed and was probably the start of the development of a super pod. What was probably happening was a number of distinct family units were coming together so that the mature females could select a mate from outside their family unit. This super pod is likely to stay together for only a few hours before dispersing once again into the family units. We had been lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time to witness this amazing event.
We had one more place to visit before we would have to head out into the Drake Passage, Orne Harbour another bay that the whalers used and also home for a hardy colony of chinstrap penguins that nest high up on a rocky ridge above the harbour. We joked that they have a healthy lifestyle, eating only fish and taking plenty of exercise as they make their way up and down to this exposed nesting site. The guests that chose to climb to the ridge reminded me of the gold prospectors making their way over the Chilkoot trail during the Yukon gold rush. We had the choice of landing and climbing up to the penguin colony or taking a Zodiac cruise. The weather cooperated for this last excursion and we enjoyed some of the most spectacular lighting effects that we had seen on our entire visit to the peninsula. Rays of low angle sun shine found their way under silvery grey, stratus cloud, reflecting off the icebergs out in the mirror calm bay. Distant snow covered mountains were glowing warm shades of orange and pink. The beauty of our surroundings stunned our souls to silence. What a way to remember our last excursion on the Antarctic Peninsula.