Drake Passage and Penguin Island

Jan 10, 2020 - National Geographic Explorer


We awoke to the gentle rolling swell of the Drake this morning. Seabirds in flight and nothing but sea; everyone was chitchatting about when we would encounter our first true iceberg and when exactly we would see land.

A presentation by former astronaut Kathy Sullivan brought our minds and curiosity into space as she spoke about her experiences on the International Space Station and what it was truly like to eat, sleep, exercise, work, and live in a place few have ever been.

Soon it was time to explore our own new world—the polar regions of Antarctica! Gorgeous land and ice came into view as we motored toward the South Shetland Islands. King George Island is the largest in this chain and just next to it was our ice-free landing, Penguin Island. True to its name, as we came to our anchorage, gentoo and chinstrap penguins porpoised all around us, showing off their effortless ability to maneuver in the water.

Upon arriving ashore, we were greeted by some of Antarctica’s finest. We encountered multiple gentoo and chinstrap penguins preening themselves on the rocks and hopping over large volcanic cobbles. Preening is a very important activity for a bird that spends up to 80 percent of its life in the sea. By removing dirt and oils, and rearranging its feathers, penguins can maintain soft fluffy down near their skin, which traps air, and sleek contour feathers on the outside that help keep them waterproof while diving.

We also marveled at a hefty elephant seal resting its blubbery body on the shore, barely taking notice of our existence.

To take in Penguin Island as a whole, we walked atop the upper 600 feet of a partially submerged volcano. Its last eruption was in 1905 and it is part of the South Shetland Islands subduction zone. A large cinder cone rose up and provided fantastic views on Penguin Island.

The cinder cone itself was formed by a massive lava fountain that spewed gaseous lava into the air. These little bits of lava cooled and rained down, creating the cone. It is so very rare to encounter such a perfect volcano in Antarctica, and what an amazing experience it was!

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About the Author

Emily Newton

Naturalist/Expedition Diver

Emily was raised by two veterinarians in the mountains of Central Oregon, where she spent much of her time on the back of a horse dreaming about the sea. Her fascination was solidified by visits to the Oregon Coast Aquarium and summers spent gazing into tide pools and listening for killer whales off the coast of British Colombia.  

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