Booth Island and the Vernadsky Station, Argentine Islands, Antarctic Peninsula
Instead of waking up to the indigo glow of a smart phone, rife with touchscreen features impossible to control after hours of torpor, we awoke to a gentle urge from the speaker on the wall to arise and enjoy early morning light in the Lemaire Channel. No matter how early you drag your stiff body out of bed, on a ship there’s always someone up earlier.
Passage of the Lemaire Channel completed, we hove-to at the south end of Booth Island for our morning activities. Setting out upon the slopes of the island, guests were able to watch all three species of brushtail penguins – Adelie, chinstrap, and gentoo – make their way to and from the frigid water. From our Zodiacs we gained a water-level look at the marine environment. Watching hundreds of penguins in a tight cluster and spotting Antarctic terns swooping to the water, we found a swarm of krill being fed upon en mass.
The krill are surprisingly fast but still easily captured by net for closer examination. Holding krill in your hand while at the same time watching penguins, terns, whales and seals feeding on krill is akin to holding the biological equivalent of gold. There could not be a more important animal here. It is the linchpin, the keystone, the core of this region. In less than one hour we were able to find at least eight leopard seals, a formidable predator of penguins but also a major krill-eater, within about a square mile; a testament to how productive this small region is. Without krill, we have no whales, no seals, no penguins, no skuas, and probably no interest in this continent. Would early explorers have still plied through icy waters had there been no seals or whales to exploit?
In the afternoon we made another stop at a nearby Ukrainian research station called Vernadsky Station, situated amongst the Argentine Islands. Here we toured the buildings but also the islands and massive icebergs grounded nearby. We encountered minke and humpback whales and several more leopard seals.
As we continue south, the sun slows its descent towards the horizon. Tonight the horizon will be defeated and the sun will press on, its glory not totally concealed. Tomorrow morning the early risers will have met their match because one day will melt into another, leaving some of us reaching a pillowy embrace very near the time others meet the new day.