The South Shetland Islands

Dec 21, 2019 - National Geographic Explorer


This morning the guests on board National Geographic Explorer truly woke up in Antarctica. The South Shetland Islands were the ship’s first destination, and our eyes were on the prize: Half Moon Island. These barrier islands were first discovered by William Smith in 1819. Within a few short years, sealing vessels had started routing here by the dozens, taking advantage of the fur seals that called the South Shetlands home. Within only two years, these animals had been exploited nearly to the point of extinction; though under strict marine mammal protection laws, they are now recovering.

Expedition options on land at the South Shetlands included a couple of choices: the intrepid long hikers went out for a 2.5-mile walk up a beautiful, but tough, snowy trail, for the reward of the view at the top. Then they would descend past the Argentine research base, Camara, and make their way to a penguin colony before returning to the ship. The short hikers spent more time at the penguin colony, enjoying the sights of gentoo and chinstrap penguins on eggs, nearly ready for their chicks to hatch. These animals arrive to land in the southern spring, sometime in early October. Upon arrival, nest building begins, and the familiar practice of incubation and nest protection takes place. The female and male will switch duties throughout this time, allowing one parent to go out to sea to feed while the other keeps the nest warm. They have great predators to be wary of, the skua being the most worrisome of all. During this time, their young are exclusively on land and directly under parental care. Skuas, rearing chicks of their own, are often seen gliding over the penguin colonies to look for an ill-placed nest, likely an outlier without protection from all sides. When the ideal nest is spotted, they may swoop down, grabbing an egg or even a chick while carefully avoiding an angry adult penguin who has just been tricked.

When guests were finished exploring colonies and viewpoints alike, all returned to the ship for a hearty lunch.

The afternoon had its own surprises in store, as wildlife is never predictable or guaranteed. A quick jaunt over to False Bay brought the guests their first fantastic whale sighting: humpbacks right off the ship’s bow! Humpbacks migrate to Antarctica to feed during the southern summer, while they spend the winter in warmer climates. These whales were likely from Central or South America, and they were an interesting mother-and-calf pair. The young animal, recently born, was likely about six months old, and was on its first migration south. During this time, it will follow its mother, learn the route, and next year be entirely on its own!

As the ship carefully navigated, the guests looked on as the mother fed and the calf showed us its fluke and tried to dive like mom. Though the calf will still be receiving milk from its mother, it’s certainly time for it to learn how to be an adult, independent whale. Similarly, the children on board were simultaneously learning new things. The gingerbread house construction team set up shop in the lounge, engaging everyone under 18 in a fun, holiday-themed, and delicious competition. 

After a wonderful first day in Antarctica, staff and crew delivered a beautiful cocktail hour, complete with evening Recap and briefing, and then joined the guests for a lovely dinner in the dining room.

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About the Author

Alyssa Adler

Undersea Specialist

Originally from Oregon, Alyssa has always had a strong relationship with nature and the outdoors. In search of a life full of adventure, she found her passion for the ocean while studying at Oregon State University. She graduated in 2012 with a B.Sc. in marine biology, a minor in chemistry, and a PADI divemaster certification. The year following graduation included extensive traveling and diver training, gaining experience in Greece’s Ionian Sea, the Caribbean waters of Honduras and Bonaire, and the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador.

About the Photographer

Lindblad Staff

Lindblad Staff

About the Videographer

Matthew Ritenour

Video Chronicler

Matthew grew up on the Gulf of Mexico, where a love of geography, culture and history were instilled at a young age. He studied anthropology at California State University, Chico, and soon began working at the Advanced Laboratory for Visual Anthropology (ALVA), a documentary production studio that focuses on sharing the results of anthropological research with the public. As a cinematographer and editor at ALVA, he documented research on everything from the effects of drought in California, to looted petroglyphs in the Sierra Nevada high desert, and the global trade in emeralds.

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