Drake Passage and Barrientos

Dec 13, 2019 - National Geographic Orion

We awoke to a calm Drake Passage – so calm you could almost call it the Drake Lake. National Geographic Orion was sailing at a full speed of almost 13.5 knots toward the South Shetland Islands. Above were pintado petrels, southern fulmars, and Antarctic petrels flew passed in rapid speed, sometimes diving down to grab goodies churned up in the ship’s wake. There was an energetic buzz throughout the ship as we anticipated our first landing. First, however, there were a few presentations to get through to help us acclimate to the ecology around us.

First a presentation on penguins led by myself and then an informative talk from our naturalist Ella Potts concerning the whales of the Southern Ocean. After lunch, we learned tips and tricks from resident National Geographic photographer Nick Cobbing. Many of us were out at deck, taking in the first icebergs of the trip – then the landscape of the South Shetlands appeared from the fog.

Finally, by late afternoon we had arrived at the Aitcho Islands, in the South Shetlands, where we made our very first landing. Chinstrap and gentoo penguins were everywhere in loose colonies all around the island. We spent quite some time watching a brown skua made strides to clear a gentoo off its nest, but the gentoo held fast and was able to protect the two incubating eggs. Other gentoos were bathing in the water and chinstraps making their way up the hill: testament to why they’re called the mountaineers of the species. National Geographic Orion dropped us off and made her way around the other side of the bay, where she intercepted us, whereafter we all happily made our way to a late dinner. We are left full and satisfied after a glorious first day in Antarctica!

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About the Author

Karen Velas


Karen Velas cares deeply about protecting the environment and its wildlife.  Over the last 15 years, she has been involved with numerous conservation projects, including working as the Lead Project Coordinator on the California Condor Project with The National Audubon Society, managing projects in the flooded rice fields of California’s Central Valley with The Nature Conservancy and surveying the distant cliffs of Iceland to aid in puffin recovery with the South Iceland Research Centre.

About the Videographer

Julio Rodriguez

Video Chronicler

Born and raised in Ecuador, the son of Spanish and American parents, Julio developed a passion for storytelling and environmental conservation at an early age. After majoring in History at Carleton College (Minnesota), with a thesis on the Basque anti-Franco movement, he taught English in Spain and made short promotional films for an energy efficiency company in India and two environmental conservation NGOs in Greece and Galapagos. 

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