Antarctica Tour: Cuverville Island and Neko Harbour

By Jim Danzenbaker and Ann Nightingale 

18 January 2012

Jim’s View: Cierva Cove is one of those places that I equate to the quintessential Antarctic experience – icebergs everywhere, penguins in the water, glaciers feeding the sea, seals on ice, and snow-capped mountains in almost every direction. Zodiac cruising through this can be an awesome experience. However, cruising can only happen when conditions are right. This morning, unfortunately, there was a swell and wind chop so loading Zodiacs and comfortable cruising were not possible. Although a disappointment, I knew that we would have another opportunity to cruise here so it was onwards and southwards to hopefully calmer seas. 

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The fearsome gape of a Leopard Seal...not a happy place if you are a penguin. (Photo by Ann Nightingale)

The scenery in this part of the world is stunning and words and photographs really can’t portray the sheer beauty. A smooth Gerlache with a backdrop of glaciers, snow capped mountains and beautiful alternating dark gray and light clouds made lighting change from one minute to the next. Occasional snow showers added another dimension to this wonderland of ice. Joan Boothe, author of The Storied Ice – a history of this part of the world, was on the bridge and she shared her knowledge of the different locations that we were passing with names like Spigot Point, Port Circumcision, Icarus Point, and Useful Island. Unfortunately, the Gerlache, which we had affectionately called “Whale Alley” for the large number of Minke and Humpback Whales that we usually encounter on this stretch, didn’t produce this year. 

We spotted just a few Humpbacks – were they all in the Weddell Sea this year? One breaching Humpback near our destination, Cuverville Island, seemed to be welcoming us back after our two year absence. Cuverville Island, home to a flourishing Gentoo Penguin colony, skua club (sub-adult non-breeding South Polar Skuas), Antarctic Shags, and ice was on schedule for the afternoon. These Gentoos had very young chicks – maybe a week old – the youngest chicks that we would see. Very cute – old enough to beg for food but nowhere near big enough to be away from parental warmth. 

Zodiac cruising in the area led to a snoozing Leopard Seal on ice and several Weddell and Crabeater Seals. Calling Kelp Gulls and Antarctic Terns against a backdrop of stark dark cliffs provided a surreal sensation that I had truly arrived in a land that few folks had previously visited. What a joy!    Afterwards, we continued south to Neko Harbor, my favorite place on the entire Antarctic Peninsula. Neko is surrounded by glaciers and hosts a small pebbly landing beach frequented by a colony of Gentoo Penguins. 

Once we landed, we were warned of occasional glacier calving and the very real possibility of tsunamis. Much to my surprise, I saw a large chunk of ice fall from a glacier at the toe of the harbor which created a meter-high wave that radiated outward along the shoreline. The penguins immediately knew to head for higher ground. We stood there and started video and point and shoot cameras to capture the moment. One minute later, the drama was over and a tranquil Neko returned. 

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Our virtual tour guides Jim and Ann make a happy landfall (especially for Ann) on the planet's most southerly continent. (Photo provided by Ann Nightingale)

A stroll down the beach led to two beautifully marked Weddell Seals – very fat after meals of Antarctic cod but an endearingly cute face. The Weddell Seal is one of my favorite Antarctic mammals. Many clients marked their arrival on shore with portrait photos and spontaneous celebrations. Neko is a continental landing and many from the Ortelius were checking off their seventh and final continent. What do you do for an encore? The landing came to an end soon since it was already 10 p.m. and the day had started early.

Ann's View: We passed two planned landing sites today due to rough weather. I am both grateful and surprised that I have not suffered during this latest round of high seas. Perhaps the drugs the doctor gave me are finally kicking in! So we continued south, putting us a day or so ahead of schedule, with plans to pick up the missed locations on the way north again in a couple of days. 

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Postage stamp sized Cuverville Island gets lost in the distant view of the vast Antarctic Peninsula (above) and is barely visible even when one enlarges the satellite image (below). (Images sourced online at: http://maps.google.com)

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Our first stop today finally materialized after lunch at Cuverville Island. We had an option to land first or Zodiac cruise, and I chose to do the latter. The seas were still too rough for comfortable iceberg photography, but we made the best of it. We were only a few minutes offshore when water started pouring out of the iceberg we were watching. Someone onboard realized what that meant—the iceberg was about to flip over! We hurried out of the way and warned the next Zodiac which was approaching, giving us an incredible and close view of the berg doing a flip. 

The sea was filled with Gentoo and Chinstrap Penguins porpoising gracefully through the water, cutting paths between the bergs, but our minds were on another target—a Leopard Seal. Soon, one of the Zodiac drivers had located one and we all converged on the floe to take pictures of this huge predator. Its mouth forms a kind of creepy smile that would work very well in a horror flick.  On shore, others were waiting impatiently for their turns in the Zodiacs, so we had to return. The seas had calmed considerably by then, so they probably got the nicer ride. But they didn’t get to see an iceberg flip! 

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Gentoo Penguin and chick. (Photo by Jim Danzenbaker)

The Gentoo colonies on the island were doing well, with many nests containing two chicks. There were also an awful lot of dead penguins at this site. Every site has had its share, but they were much more numerous here. It wasn’t clear why, but it’s possible that a weather event may have been a factor. Those who had visited this colony on earlier trips noticed that the chicks were younger than the last time they had been here at the same time of year, so a late spring or too much snow may have played a role. 

Not content to do just one landing today, we continued southward during the afternoon and early evening. After dinner, we went ashore at Neko Harbour, a beautiful ice-filled bay. A glacier reaches the ocean here, and shortly after we set foot on shore—our only continental landing—a large ice chunk fell into the sea from the glacier face. It was big enough to cause a small tsunami, causing us—and the penguins at the water’s edge—to head for higher ground. By the time it reached us, it was probably only about a two-foot surge, but that was impressive enough. The water here is clear enough that you can watch the penguins swimming along the shoreline. This Gentoo colony also had young chicks in the nests. Two Weddell Seals rounded out the entertainment for the evening. Tomorrow, we’ll start the day here with some Zodiac cruising.

1

Hi jim.
i saw your photograps of antarctica they r incredible i like too much it thanks.

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There are some unque persons whom soul enrich by natural beauty.
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I cannot get over how goorgeus the landscape is in the photos. The colours are stunning! Who would have thought there were so many hues in the wintery south. Incredible. I would have freaked out to be THAT close to humpback whales! It’s a dream of mine to see them in their natural habitat. I’m going to Hawaii next year to do a whale watching tour :) Although, now I am seriously contemplating Antarctica! :) Thanks for sharing your adventure. I’ve loved reading about it.Courtney Jones recently posted..

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