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!