Dec 01, 2019 - National Geographic Explorer
Antarctica! After a benign crossing of the Drake Passage, we woke to the inspiring sight of our first iceberg, a giant ice pavlova presaging the approach to the South Shetlands.
Barrientos was our first landfall, an unexpected bonus to our anticipated arrival, and the conditions were beautiful. To set foot ashore on this volcanic island was to be immediately enchanted by penguins–everywhere were the colonies of gentoos and chinstraps, recumbent on their stony nests, protecting those precious twin eggs, or waddling back and forth to shore to wash and feed. Sporadic snowy sheathbills perkily searched for the next morsel, while skuas patroled overhead, always on the lookout for the opportunity to snatch an egg. Occasionally a blue-eyed shag with shining black-and-white plumage came ashore.
Up and over the low saddle, and down below, a beach stretched into the distance, thronging with life. The snow slope in between was furrowed with penguin highways, where birds made their way upslope in orderly procession. We were careful not to impinge on these paths and to always give way to the local residents.
In the water, penguins were cavorting, spinning off the day’s grime or porpoising effortlessly at speed along the surface. Scattered along the shore, however, were the reminders of a less tranquil time in the early years of the 20th century, when whalers came in ships from northern Europe to hunt the great whales in the thousands. Century-old vertebrae and ribs now provide shelter for generations of penguins as they nest in their lee.
All too soon it was time to go back to the ship, but lunch and a quick reposition brought us to Half Moon Island, a narrow rocky crescent, 1.25 miles long, between the larger Greenwich Island to the north and Livingston Island to the south, where there is a small Argentinian seasonal station, Cámara Base.
The weather continued to brighten, and our first Antarctic afternoon was a most un-polar one of blue skies and warm sunshine. Is this global warming or just an exceptionally fortunate Antarctic day?
Those on the long walk plodded valiantly uphill through the snow to the top of Gabriel Hill on Saddleback Ridge to be greeted with stupendous views of the surrounding seascape.
Meanwhile, at the southeast end of the island, chinstrap penguins went about their business, although not in the numbers of past years. Occasionally, a solitary fur seal or Weddell seal was glimpsed. Off to one side, a rocky basalt outcrop provided nesting sites for Antarctic terns, brown skuas, and kelp gulls.
Our introduction to Antarctica was a day of exquisite delights in the South Shetlands. Tomorrow, we look for ice!
Join us for updates, insider reports & special offers.