Antarctica Tour: Tumbling Ice

By Jim Danzenbaker and Ann Nightingale

12 January 2012

Jim’s view: The weather wasn’t on our side this morning, so our intended 5 a.m. landing was postponed several times. It was a chance to get partially caught up on my sleep, update my journal, and attend several lectures. I took photos of the glaciers that plunged into a hidden lake behind a King Penguin-filled beach that was visible from the ship. 

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Southern Elephant Seal, aka "sausage people," carpeted the beach at Gold Harbour. (Photo by Jim Danzenbaker)

After lunch, the winds subsided and we were able to start the landing. I manned the King Penguin colony for several hours since many people wanted to study them in further detail. Although I couldn’t find any egg exchanges, it was a good opportunity to discuss King Penguin life with those present. Afterwards, I marveled at the “sausage people” aka Southern Elephant Seals. Their irregular snorts, innocent wide eyes, and massive girth make them one of the most memorable creatures on the shore. 

I stole a moment to climb up to several nesting Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses. The hike was an adventure unto itself because the ascension winds through tussock grass laden with growling Fur Seals of all sizes. Cute as pups, yes, cute as sub-adults and adults, not so much. On the hike back to the landing, I saw a spectacular ice fall from the glacier that hung over the southern end of Gold Harbour. On each trip, I hear many glacial cracks and groans but rarely do I see ice falls or calving. I was glad to see it—raw nature is a beautiful thing. On the Zodiac ride back to the ship we stopped several times to photograph the ever-changing light on the backdrop of snow-capped peaks. Gold Harbour is still one of my most favored places on Earth.  

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One percent of the Fur Seals are honey-blonde in color (Photo by Jim Danzenbaker)

Ann’s view: I awoke in the middle of the night to the extreme rocking of the ship. We had apparently been blown off our anchorage in St. Andrew’s Bay and were en route to our next destination, Gold Harbour, ahead of schedule. The harbor turned out to be a great place to shelter, but strong winds still kept us on board, despite plans for an early morning landing. 

The scenery was spectacular, with several glaciers and a beach full of penguins and elephant seals visible from the decks and bridge. We waited out the winds with a couple of unscheduled lectures on whaling and bird migration, and were ready to head to shore right after lunch. Two of the Zodiacs were punctured by something sharp on the gangway as the ship moved up and down with the swells. Good thing they brought along some spares! 

The landing put us on shore for our briefing, with the instruction to avoid being caught between an elephant seal and the water. Certainly, that was easier said than done, as the beach was littered with them. Fortunately, most of the elephant seals were content just wallowing in the puddles or giving themselves sand showers. Many were stacked side by side, making for giant carpets of seals. These animals are huge! 

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Penguins leave impressive sets of prints in the sand, only to see them erased away by the next wave. (Photo by Ann Nightingale)

Gold Harbour is also home to a colony of about 7,000 pairs of King Penguins, so those who hadn’t seen an egg exchange yesterday were quickly set on a pair with high exchange potential. Several hours later, there had been numerous false starts, but no successful exchange. Skuas were numerous and not content with pestering the penguins. Several passengers had their gear and even their boots inspected by these scavengers. Another scavenger, the Sheathbill, was more numerous here than any of our earlier landings. We’d been warned to keep our eyes on them as they are known to peck at the eyes of snoozing humans. 

Gentoo Penguins also have a small colony on this beach, and a couple of Chinstrap Penguins put in appearances. The unexpected sighting of the day, though, turned out to be an Adele Penguin, the first seen on this trip, and well north of their usual range. My favorite warning for the day had to be “watch out for seals in the tussocks.” I’d learned that seals in the tussocks was pretty much a given, and was faced with a daunting climb up a steep bank to see Light-mantled Sooty Albatross nests. After running the seal gauntlet at the bottom of the bank, the tussock-covered hillside seemed quiet, until all of a sudden I’d hear a growl or snort from just behind a clump of the grass. It was a little intimidating, but eventually I made it to the top. I contemplated whether there would be a market for seal bells, akin to the bear bells hikers wear while hiking in the Pacific Northwest. 

A short trek across a boggy field brought me to the edge of a cliff where I could see three albatrosses sitting on their nests. One of the three had a small chick that was seen by a few of the visitors. The hike back down the tussocks was easier, and brought its own surprise. A low rumbling in the distance took my eye to the glacier where I witnessed a small avalanche. That was cool enough, but within a few minutes a huge chunk of the glacier broke away and rained down the cliff. It took several seconds for the sound to catch up with the sight of the slide. South Georgia is an amazing place full of many different kinds of spectacles. It’s easy to lose track of the days and locations where events have taken place. Thank heavens for pixels. I’ve already taken more than 5000 pictures, and the trip is only half done!

1

I agree with your assessment on the Pillow Pet Penguin benomicg more popular due to the movie Mr. Popper’s Penguins. Even though that movie was a flop I am sure that the Penguin Pillow Pets are a little harder to find. Just like people buying puppies anytime there is a remake of 101 Dalmatians.

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