Barrientos Island, South Shetland Islands, Antarctica

Jan 29, 2015 - National Geographic Orion

Barrientos Island, South Shetland Islands, Antarctica
Gentoo Penguin with whale bone.

Early risers this morning found our ship shrouded in dense fog, but in mercifully calm seas. Those anxious about the dreaded Drake Passage were grateful for an easy passage.  It was so easy, in fact, that the chances for an afternoon landing were good.

But first, Tim Soper, our expedition leader, briefed us on landing procedures, and everyone passed through a thorough bio-security check to prevent any invasive species being introduced to Antarctica. Just as that process finished, a nice pod of fin whales was spotted, and the ship stopped so we could watch them feeding on the local krill.

So many of us had been dreaming of this day for so long, and after lunch the moment finally arrived—the first time setting foot on Antarctica, the continent of mystery, misery, and the crucible of the heroic age of exploration. A gloomy, dark drizzle has no hope of dashing our enthusiasm, and with giddy anticipation we load into the Zodiacs for a very short trip to the landing. What a delight it is to discover that the penguins seem to have organized a welcoming party to greet us!  Even though we have been told how unafraid the penguins will be, it is startling to find wild creatures that are so relaxed by our visit.

Barrientos is a tiny yet somehow crowded island, at times so busy with penguins that one could argue for a crossing guard along the south beach. Gentoo and chinstrap penguins share this place, with rookeries of one species sometimes just meters from the other. A spirit of cooperation prevails, and everyone seems to mind his own business. The rain and snow melt has turned the colony into a gooey, muddy morass that is all at once slippery, sticky, and stinky. Month old chicks appear miserable in mud-covered down as they huddle next to the adult who will feed them until relieved by their mate. Just down the beach, a few elephant seals huddle together just above the high tide line. They too are quite undisturbed by our presence.

The Natural Geographic Orion sails south, down the English Strait and into the Bransfield Strait. As if to put an exclamation point on this day, we sail past our first iceberg, an enormous piece of ice that dwarfs our ship. So far, Antarctica is even better than we had imagined.

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About the Author

Doug Gould

Expedition Leader

Travel and adventure were an integral part of Doug’s upbringing in a small town on the south shore of Long Island, New York. Growing up on the Great South Bay, his family claims Doug learned to sail before he learned to walk. Whether it was camping, sailing, birding, traveling across country or spending most of fifth grade living in Europe, Doug’s formative years left him with a love of wildlife, the outdoors, and a desire to keep moving. 

About the Photographer

Tim Laman

National Geographic Photographer

Wildlife photojournalist, filmmaker, and field biologist Tim Laman uses his cameras as tools for telling the stories of rare and endangered wildlife, and revealing some of Earth’s wildest places. He has published more than 20 feature stories in National Geographic magazine and worked on films for the National Geographic Channel, BBC, and Netflix. Since earning his Ph.D. from Harvard for pioneering research in Borneo’s rainforest canopy, Tim often spends many months a year on expeditions to study and photograph the biodiversity of Earth’s richest realms–from working in extreme environments such as the rainforest canopy in Borneo to the coral reefs of Papua, and from mountain peaks in New Guinea to the seas of Antarctica.

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