From the National Geographic Explorer in Antarctica
Dec 1, 2012 - National Geographic Explorer
Aitcho Island and Lindblad Cove
What a crossing! Calm seas and prevailing winds nudged us towards the Antarctic Peninsula in record time. Achieving a morning landing in the South Shetland islands after a mere 36-hour transit of the Drake Passage is unheard of. National Geographic Explorer made incredible speed yesterday and has afforded us an extra day to play with on the planet’s biggest playground.
By 7 a.m. this morning land was in sight and a calm, wildlife-rich approach to the Antarctic’s northernmost limit was witnessed from every vantage point of the ship. The South Shetlands are a volcanic chain of islands running S.W. to N.E. and lie 60 miles north of the Antarctic Peninsula proper. While not a part of the continent itself, they share a similar climate, biodiversity and stark beauty that was a perfect precursor to the main event.
First landfall was made on the northern end of Aitcho Island, a small, weather-beaten chunk of basalt that, despite its ruggedness, seems to be quite the draw for penguins. Unfazed by the fractured coastline that hints at all manner of wave-induced abuse, several hundred nesting pairs of gentoo and chinstrap penguins alike call this island home. Stepping ashore was like walking into an ornithological soap opera. Isolated colonies of gentoo and chinstraps were busy going about their equally harried or placid lives. Some were busy nest-building by finding (or stealing) marble-sized stones while others sat calmly atop eggs, waiting for their partners to return for their allotted incubation shift. Those not engaging in the above activities were busy doing the next best thing – mating. Between mating, squawking, rock stealing, nest building, neighbor pecking or brown skua defense (a large bird of prey who feeds on penguin eggs) there was no lack of drama on the snow-covered island of Aitcho.
Leaving the South Shetlands astern of us, we spent the afternoon motoring south towards the peninsula proper and our evening’s destination, Lindblad Cove. During our 60-mile transit we motored in and out of snowstorms, through flocks of cape petrels and past large icebergs dotted with resting penguins. The wind picked up as we approached the Antarctic Peninsula proper but this ushered in a new chapter of our expedition – the chapter to be filled with stories of a windblown world trapped in a perpetual ice age. Lindblad Cove is the perfect embodiment of the peninsula and as we pulled into its ice-choked amphitheater and gazed across its rim of glaciated peaks we knew we were not only in a new place but a new millennium – 19,000 years ago, when the majority of our planet looked like this and the chewing and gnawing of ice over rock was in the process of creating our most prized geologic features. It makes one wonder what geologic marvels the Antarctic’s glaciated surface is preparing for the future!?