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From the National Geographic Explorer in Antarctica

Jan 11, 2013 - National Geographic Explorer

Isabelline gentoo penguin

Neko Harbor and Port Lockroy

Our day began with a landing on the Antarctic Continent at Neko Harbor. A beautiful snow slope rose above the landing beach, beckoning us to its summit, where we enjoyed wonderful views of the mountains and glaciers surrounding Anvord Bay. All morning long we could hear distant thunderous roars as great icebergs calved from the faces of the glaciers and giant overhanging cornices broke loose from the high ridges of the mountains and crashed into the sweeping cirques below. More than once we were able to look across the fiord and see the swirling cloud of ice dust rising from such an avalanche to fill the beautiful circular glacial valleys.

Many of us also chose to quietly absorb the beautiful day and amazing scenery from water level in the kayaks. Conditions were absolutely perfect; there was not a breath of wind, the seas were glassy calm and mirror bright, reflecting the mountains and the floating ice all around us.

After a short cruise in the early afternoon, we dropped anchor again in the protected bay of Port Lockroy, a historic British scientific station that is now run as a museum by the United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage Trust. Rick has spent many seasons there, restoring the base and painstakingly transforming it into a multi-roomed exhibit that provided us an intimate glimpse into the lives of the men who worked here in the 1940s and 50s. We also enjoyed the small gift shop very much and certainly did our part to support the Trust with our purchases. Gentoo penguins were nesting all around the base and because they are very much used to visitors they gave us many opportunities for excellent close-up photos. We visited more gentoos at their nesting sites on nearby Jugla Point, where we were also able to have close looks at the enormous whale bones that had been bleaching on the rocky shore there since the early days of Antarctic whaling, nearly a century ago.

Even after all this, the highlight of the day for some was a sighting of a very rare isabelline gentoo penguin. Sometimes referred to as leucistic birds, isabelline individuals have a rare mutation, found in only about one out of 100,000 penguins, that leaves their black feathers a dirty grayish yellow color, rather than the pure white of truly leucistic birds. The color itself is named isabelline, from the story of Isabella, the Archduchess of Austria who pledged that she would not change her undergarments until her husband the Archduke returned victorious from the Siege of Ostend. Unfortunately, the siege lasted not a few days but over three years and by the end of that time, so the story goes, the Archduchess’ undies had taken on the yellow-grey color that now bears her name. Despite the off-color (!) story, it was very exciting to encounter this rare and really quite beautiful bird.