Jan 29, 2015 - National Geographic Orion
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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