Antarctic Sound & Brown Bluff
The morning broke with our ship holding position in the relatively ice free Antarctic Sound. A body of water situated between the eastern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula and three islands lying off to the east. With anticipation of making our first landing in Antarctica at Brown Bluff this morning all eyes on the bridge were closely watching the wind and ice conditions as we approached the landing site. After having our first scheduled landing the day before called off due to deteriorating wind conditions, the air of excitement was palpable.
Brown Bluff is an imposing geological feature composed of volcanic deposits that tower over the surrounding glacial complexes and looms above the shoreline. After having reached our anchorage it was determined by our expedition leader and captain that the landing and conditions were more than suitable to proceed. It is here that we’d get our first chance to step foot on the continent and be surrounded by the wildlife that calls Antarctica home. The most numerous, and possibly charismatic, of these inhabitants would have to be the Adelie Penguins (Pygoscelis adeliae). Numbering in the thousands, they come to this site in early spring to begin the breeding season.
With Zodiacs in the water and the landing site scouted by our staff, it was time to share what this amazing continent has to offer. All of our travelling companions would have the ability to explore this locale both by foot and by Zodiac. After having brought the first groups ashore, with the hordes of commuting Adelies, the remainder of the guests set out by Zodiac to take in the sights and sounds. An uncontrollable urge sets in upon one’s first contact with the upright walking waddling black-and-white symbols of the Antarctic. That urge being to stop dead in your tracks and either snap countless photos or simply smile in pure joy at their very existence. Whichever reaction befalls you, you never forget that first penguin, or in this case first dozens of penguins.
Some of our folks, after having taken in that first glimpse, chose to set out on a bit of a leg-stretching hike to get a view of the surrounding landscape. After all, we have been at sea for nearly three days now and a little exercise in this environment couldn’t hurt. Others set out to soak in the sights, sounds, and smells of a bustling colony of penguins. It’s not just penguins that choose to call this area home for the summer season. Several other species of seabirds also choose to nest at this sight. The Brown Skua (Catharacta lonnbergi), being one of the more dynamic members of this ecosystem. The calls and swooping predatory maneuvers over the colony of these birds are a constant reminder to all that this is an intact and thriving system where predator and prey alike must struggle daily to survive and reproduce. With the Adelie chicks nearly at the end of their early development they are in the creching stage in where they are left unattended by the adults as both now have to forage to feed the nearly full grown chicks. For the less-developed or near-starved, they often meet their end at the skuas hand, or bill, a harsh fact of life but never the less a necessary one.
The perspective from a Zodiac of such a scene can never be underestimated. With scores of icebergs littering the bay and near shore area adding to the already surreal sense of place, one could easily get hung up taking in the wonder of the ice habitat alone. Sure enough that is exactly what we did. These floating refuges for nearly all the bird life as well as most of the seal species here provide excellent opportunities to get glimpses of animals at rest. One species of bird in particular was noticeably present on and around the icebergs today, that being the Southern Giant-petrel (Macronectes giganteus). Aptly named, this bird has a wingspan of over 6 feet and like the skuas seeks any and all opportunity to scavenge or prey on penguin colonies. With the penguin breeding season drawing to a close these birds are looking to maximize their chances at gathering food before the long winter on the open sea. Seeing them by the dozens roosting on the massive bergs and at times taking flight in an awkward but effective manner instills one with the fact that life is a balance of tradeoffs and gains.
Having the ability to bring the Zodiacs very close to shore to view the events unfolding in the colony afforded us with a “fly on the wall” perspective. Most of the Adelie chicks have nearly molted all their fluffy down and were gathered together on the shore or chasing their parents down to eek one more meal from their gullets. Many had already taken to the water and were very near the end of receiving the care and protection of their parents. It is this type of scene, one in which thousands of animals are feverishly going about their business that portrays the Antarctic as bountiful and priceless environment to be preserved and cherished for generations to come.
To round out the day exploring this region of the peninsula we would stretch the limits of navigable waters around the opening to the Weddell Sea. For the entire season the northern Weddell Sea has been chalk-a-block full of multiyear ice and impassable. Today however we would see just how far we could make way into this icy labyrinth. Taking the narrow passage of Fridtjof Sound to the northern opening of Erebus and Terror Gulf in the Weddell Sea where we met an impenetrable wall of ice. Here though we could observe a few seals hauled out and hundreds of Adelie Penguins gathered about on the ice. Looking out over the expanse of ice in the very location famous expeditions of Antarctic exploration met more serious fates made one reflect on just how very unique and hardy those men were. It also instilled a sense of exploration and wonder even in today’s technologically burdened world.