Yankee Harbor, South Shetland Islands

Dec 30, 2017 - National Geographic Explorer

After an incredibly calm and speedy Drake Passage crossing, we arrived in the South Shetland island group of Antarctica in the morning of our second day at sea. How exciting to see penguins and craggy peaks so soon into our voyage! The wind picked up throughout the morning however, and by the time our mandatory briefings and biosecurity sessions were complete, our expedition leader, Lucho Verdesoto and Captain Skog decided to change our afternoon landing site to a different and more protected one than previously planned.

We spent our first Antarctic afternoon at Yankee Harbor, a rocky cove on Greenwich Island that has a long, curved spit which provided protection to not only our Zodiacs but to the original discoverers of this site. The American sealer, Nathaniel Palmer, discovered and named Yankee Harbor in 1820 when he sailed his 47-foot-long vessel, Hero, around the South Shetland Islands in search of good beaches and harbors for his sealing fleet.

Yankee Harbor, with its long, natural gravel spit and wide, flat beach proved to be perfect for the sealing operation and its shores were used for cooking seal blubber down into oil in large pots called trypots. A broken trypot and a variety of whale bones from the later whaling era are modern-day visual clues to the history of this region.

Nowadays, Yankee Harbor is home to about 5,000 pairs of gentoo penguins, many of which had two very young chicks nestled snugly underneath them. The rocky beach is great for a long meander between colonies and there are even a few random chinstrap and Adélie penguins here and there. Brown skuas circled above the colonies looking for unprotected chicks and two of these scavengers even fought over one, splitting it in two.

Our first landing site was further enriched by a small group of juvenile elephant seals in the midst of their annual catastrophic molt. One particular elephant seal was quite far along in the process and lay near the landing site snorting, sneezing, and lazily scratching.

That wasn’t all…at the end of the gravel spit, several groups of guests had the treat of spotting a leopard seal on their ride back to the ship!  It was a spectacular start to this special end-of-2017 voyage to Antarctica!

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About the Author

Sheri Bluestein

Expedition Leader

Sheri has over 12 years of experience sharing the wonders of Alaska as a hiking guide, expedition leader, cultural interpreter, and naturalist. For 10 of those years, she made her home on the Kenai Peninsula where she spent her free time hiking, growing enormous vegetables, and successfully avoiding bears and moose on her way to the outhouse at night. 

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