Jan 09, 2019 - National Geographic Explorer
Aided by exceptionally calm seas and low winds in the Drake Passage, we made landfall in the South Shetland Islands less than 36 hours after departing Ushuaia, Argentina. We spotted our first iceberg at 4:41 a.m., and by breakfast, the excitement for our first landing in Antarctica was radiating through the ship.
We were so lucky to have unusually nice weather for these locations and were soon ashore on Robert Point, Robert Island, where a welcoming committee of molting elephant seals greeted us on the beach. Some guests hiked to the top of the ridge for dramatic views of ice, snow, and sea. Both gentoo and chinstrap penguins nest here, as well as some of those living off the chaotic production of the penguin colonies—brown skuas and giant petrels. A small rookery of Antarctic shags (cormorants) dotted the seaward rocks. Lichens, mosses, hair grass, and prasiola (algae) made for a surprisingly colorful patchwork landscape amid the snow and rock.
We took a short cruise over to Half Moon Island during lunch, landing on the pebble beaches of the island for either a long hike up the ridge and around the western shore or a direct walk to a chinstrap penguin colony. Those on the hike had exceptional views of the 3,000-foot mountains and tumbling ice of Livingston Island as well as Weddell seals and an aging blue whale jawbone on the southern beach. Chinstrap chicks were well along in their growth rush to fledging size and, like adolescents everywhere, were preoccupied with begging their parents for more food and just a little bit of their own personal space. Come on, mom!
New and wonderful things weren’t limited just to the daytime. After dinner, we approached and transited the southern edge of iceberg A57a. A giant tabular berg as can only be seen in Antarctic waters, A57a is more than 12 miles long and 5 miles wide, and separated from the Filchner- Ronne Ice Shelf, 960 nautical miles away, in 2008. In dusky evening twilight, we headed toward the Weddell Sea, barely able to digest what we saw and excited for what’s to come.
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