Gray skies, winds and driving rain greet us for this first day of the new year. Off in the distance our first views of the South Shetlands, the gateway to Antarctica.
The first confirmed sighting of these islands was by William Smith in 1919; however, they may have been sighted by a Dutch captain in the late 1600s. In addition, it may have been sighted some time before Smith by the crew of the Spanish ship, the San Telmo, which may have been shipwrecked off the island now known as Livingston Island.
Our ship successfully navigates the tricky English Strait, between the islands of Robert and Livingston. As we sail through the strait, we see many penguins porpoising in the waters around the Aitcho archipelago, where many gentoo and chinstrap penguins breed. The islands are volcanic and many show impressive basalt columns.
After lunch, we brave the challenging elements and head for our first landing of the expedition, which is to be on Half Moon Island. Here, we are welcomed by a committee of chinstrap and some gentoo penguins. A short walk away and we are below the chinstrap colony and even though the wind is howling and snow flurries sting out eyes, we are delighted to be here and spend our time enjoying the different behaviours of these birds. It is also a chance to see kelp gulls, Antarctic terns, brown skuas patrolling the colony for an opportunity to snatch a meal and, the ubiquitous, snowy sheathbills.
After dinner, we sail along the coast of Deception Island, an active volcano, and soon we are sailing through Neptune’s Bellows, the narrow entrance to the caldera of this volcano. Once inside we spend time sailing around Whaler’s Bay, the location of the only shore-based whaling station in Antarctica. All around we can see the remains of the boilers, old floating dry dock parts, and of course, the giant tanks used to store blubber oil. This was also the location of a British base, which had to be abandoned after a major eruption in the early 1970’s. There were also eruptions in 1967 and 1969.
We then sail further into Port Foster and reach Pendulum Cove, where there was once a Uruguayan base, which was destroyed during the aforementioned eruptions. As we depart, we sail past the Spanish base which carries out important seismic and geological research on this active volcano.
It has been a great first day of a New Year, may it long continue.