Antarctica Tour: Nature's Gifts of Wind and Rain

By Jim Danzenbaker and Ann Nightingale

8 January 2012


The first order of business upon landing at Salisbury Plain is navigating the gauntlet of fur seals that carpet the beach. (Photo by Jim Danzenbaker)

Jim’s view: The alarm clock rang early today, but our morning landing was thwarted by overcast skies and rain, which postponed it by an hour and a half. Regardless, Salisbury Plain is a special place and an opportunity to observe a huge colony of King Penguins and my first encounter of the trip with a seemingly endless supply of Fur Seals. I had colony duty, so after landing I was off to the edge of the incredible throng of life. Stately adult King Penguins were everywhere, some with an egg on their feet, concealed by a fold of skin, others courting, mating, or molting. "Oakum boys," the young of last year’s second cycle, stood in irregular lines of brown which skirted the colony. Oakums (last year’s first cycle young) readying for their first plunge into the sea  busied themselves by whistling, flapping and intermittently running along the edge of the colony. It's always humorous watching them catch raindrops, nature’s gift to this penguin colony. 

It was sensory overload—so much life to see in one place and I consider myself lucky to see it. Although the experience is like no other, the rain kept coming and I had no difficulty in sweeping folks to the landing site for a wet Zodiac ride back to the ship. A heated cabin never felt so good.  The rain stopped shortly after our return to the ship, but that was okay since I was drenched from head to foot. After lunch, I suited up yet again for a much anticipated visit to Prion Island to hold court with the magnificent Wandering Albatrosses. 

As we made preparations for the landing, the wind continued to intensify. The initial 15 mph breeze grew to a sustained 30 knots.  Continued strengthening seemed a real possibility. However, we had our prize in mind, and after repositioning the ship at a more favorable anchorage, we loaded Zodiacs and we were on our way. 

It wasn’t surprising to be met at the small beach by hundreds of Fur Seals. It was a relief that it didn’t take long to coax them into opening a pathway for us to get to the boardwalk and access to higher ground. Prion Island is a grand place. One of the many islets in the Bay of Isles, it contains a healthy population of nesting seabirds. This is due in large part to the lack of Norway rats, which have populated the main islands since whaling days. 


The South Georgia Pipit is the only passerine on Prion Island. (Photo by Jim Danzenbaker)

In addition to the albatrosses, the island’s other claim to fame is the endemic South Georgia Pipit, the only passerine on South Georgia. Ground-nesting pipits are highly susceptible to rat predation, thus this species has essentially been eliminated as a breeder on the main island. I was immediately encouraged after seeing several pipits land on the boardwalk ahead of me as I walked along to my appointment with the great albatrosses.  

Upon reaching the top of the island, the wind grew fierce, but that was okay since that was albatross weather. I was elated to see several Wanderers close to the boardwalk, as it made the wet Zodiac ride to the island worthwhile. One female sat near a bend at the end of the boardwalk, her elegance revealed in her pristine black and white plumage, pink bill and dark eyes. She perched serenely on her mound of tussock grass and mud and stared ahead. A male was nearby, which gave me hope being able show our clients their mating behavior. 


Wandering Albatrosses engage in their courtship dance atop windswept Prion Island on a nicer day than we enjoyed during our 2012 visit. (Photo by Jim Danzenbaker)

I escorted groups of twelve people up the boardwalk. Cameras clicking at everything in sight made me feel like a tour guide in a zoo, which was an odd thought given the grandeur of the area. The wind, which nearly overpowered us at the end of the boardwalk, is nature’s gift to the albatrosses, whose massive wingspan make them utterly dependent on wind shear as they glide about. Several times, these immense birds courted before me, bill clicking, wing raising and grunt calling—spectacular moments. I returned to the ship after detouring around the Fur Seals and penguins on the beach—an end to a brilliant day.  

Ann’s view: A 4:30 a.m. breakfast and 5:30 am departure to the Salisbury Plain were the first items on today’s agenda, but Ted Cheeseman came to the dining room with the news that the Zodiacs wouldn’t be leaving until 7 a.m. due to poor weather conditions. Many of the passengers headed straight back to bed, but those of us with extra adrenalin or caffeine pumping through our systems found other things to occupy us until we could launch. 

Despite a light drizzle, the landing on the beach of the Salisbury Plain will be one of those moments I will never forget. The plain was packed with Fur Seals, Elephant Seals and too many King Penguins to count. One of the people on the Zodiac commented on the welcoming party of penguins and seals, and that is exactly what it looked like. A small crowd of about a dozen King Penguins stood right on the water’s edge, as if waiting for us to come ashore. Seals bounded all around the Zodiac like they were greeting long lost friends. The sight honestly brought tears to my eyes. 


The Salisbury Plain is highlighted by a massive "river" of King Penguins. (Photo by Ann Nightingale)

Once ashore, the panorama was overwhelming. All around the landing site were thousands of King Penguins, young and old, molting and courting, loafing and swimming. A few hundred yards away was the breeding colony, extending high up the hillside. It looked like a living river of penguins flowing out to the sea. To get to the colony, we had to walk a gauntlet of Fur Seals. The pups, females and older males watched us and occasionally snorted, but the young males saw us as potential playmates and frequently ran towards us. We all carried walking sticks which we were instructed to keep between us and the rambunctious males. They looked so disappointed as we put an end to their games merely by pointing the sticks in their direction. 

Elephant seals mostly just lay about the beach and plains, although some of the males were definitely in an amorous mood. The females didn’t seem particularly interested. Giant Petrels squabbled over the rotting remains of dead seals, oblivious to our presence. I even spotted the trip’s first Chinstrap Penguin near the landing site.  

It would have been a perfect morning, except for one thing. The rain kept coming and got heavier as time progressed. Binoculars and scopes were pretty much useless but unharmed by the wet conditions. The same can’t be said for the cameras. It was beyond tempting to pull out a camera as unforgettable scenes popped up at every turn. So, despite knowing better, many of us tried to get at least a few shots. Within two hours, my camera refused to focus. Later in the Ortelius bar, people were comparing notes on their “patients”—cameras at various stages of drying out, with the owners praying that they would return to a functional state. I’m happy to say that mine made a reasonably quick recovery!  

After lunch, we were divided into two groups for trips to Prion Island to see nesting Wandering Albatrosses. This is the only place that these endangered birds can be seen on their nests. The rain had stopped, but in its place was a fierce wind. The ship had to be moved to a second anchorage for us to even attempt the landing. Expedition staff were called into duty as ballast, meaning they had to make the crossing several times. I was in the first Zodiac of passengers to make the run for the island. The ride was an adventure in itself! Every bounce of the Zodiac brought a wave of seawater over the heads of everyone on board. It was the Antarctic version of waterboarding! We held the perimeter rope with one hand and held our hats and hoods over our heads with the other. Keeping our heads down, we relied on the skill of the driver to get us safely to shore. After an incident with kelp getting tangled in the motor, and a bang against some hidden rocks, we were finally on the beach, which was squirming with Fur Seals. 

We were quickly directed up a boardwalk that had been specifically constructed to allow viewing of the albatrosses with minimal disruption to them. The steep climb did not disappoint. Several nests were within a few feet of the boardwalk, giving us an up close and personal look at the birds. At this distance, we could truly appreciate their size. The Wandering Albatross’s wingspan is almost double the Black-browed we’d been looking at on earlier stops. Our time was short at this small colony, as only 50 people are allowed on the island at a time. Each group had to return to the ship so that another Zodiac load could come ashore. On the descent, I got a fleeting view and heard the song of the only passerine species on the island, the South Georgian Pipit. There were a few moments before launching to snap some quick shots of the Fur Seals. The pups are especially precious. On my return to the ship, I concluded that this was probably the best natural history day of my life!


OMG- I did not even rzlaiee those were elephant seals in the first few photos- they looked so huge I thought they were rocks! I would love to see them up-close!


Or mulberry outlet do not need to understand, because they do not the same people of the world. Day policy camp has appeared in sight, mercenary embattled, without the slightest malaise is not following simple defense staggered during the District number baizhang the distance, I do not know the surprise trip, or a death march. Without wasting mulberry outlet to this was. The "Amherst Act finally spoke, the first sentence is to praise the enemy. Three hundred eligible thieves on horseback, see mercenary can only rear junction array to be only one person alone in front, and his heart laughed, single-handedly to resist the 300 horses in the open heaven’s I was just kidding!.
Mulberry Sale 2014

Post a Comment

Name Valid Error
Email Valid Error