Antarctica Tour: Baily Head, Deception Is. and Hannah Pt.

By Jim Danzenbaker and Ann Nightingale

22 January 2012

Jim’s View: Wow, it was hard to believe that this was our last day in Antarctica! We had plans to use every available minute. News was good for the morning – not much of a swell and light wind so the intended landing at the most difficult beach on the itinerary was on. 

We have a love/hate relationship with Baily Head. We love it for the 100,000s Chinstrap Penguins which call the area home and we hate it because of the large swells that make landings at times difficult. We were relieved to land the staff without incident and then, one by one, all the clients with relative ease. A few got wet but that’s to be expected at this location. 


The opportunity to see and photograph this spectacular assemblage of Chinstrap Penguins is the payoff for the often challenging landing at Baily Head. (Photo by Ann Nightingale)

What awaited all was a beach oozing with Chinstrap Penguins, made even more striking by the volcanic black sand beach. At any given time, 5,000+ Chinstraps were on the beach – either preparing for entry into the water or gearing up for the long walk to their inland nest. They are such beautiful birds and all seemed to have particular purpose to their march which gave them a businesslike look. Such an incredible experience to see such biomass–another highlight on a trip which offers never-ending highlights! 


A Sheathbill won't win any beauty contests, but we couldn't resist the chance for pictures. This species plays an important role in removing debris from colonies. (Photo by Ann Nightingale)

Photographers were also snapping photos of nesting Sheathbills near the landing site. Since the wind had picked up and a low cloud bank had settled over the upper terrain, plans to hike from Bailey Head to Whaler’s Bay were scratched. Three hours later, we were making plans for our return to the ship. Marlene Planck briefed folks on proper Zodiac quick entry methods and it thankfully went off without a hitch.  

We pulled anchor and headed around the head and past Neptune’s Window with its nesting Pintado Petrels and through Neptune’s Bellows to Whaler’s Bay and our appointment with craziness. Those that wanted a challenge donned their swimming attire and full Antarctic gear and went ashore for a brief but soul-satisfying swim in the caldera warmed waters interspersed with cold dips in the Antarctic water. For some reason, the voice inside of me telling me not to do was falling on deaf ears. I ended up going into the cold water three times– perhaps trying to freeze my cold. Whatever the reason, I enjoyed it but returned to the ship with cold symptoms intact. 

We left the bay and headed north for our final landing of this fantastic voyage–Hannah Point with its Gentoo and Chinstrap Penguins, Southern Giant Petrels and wallowing Elephant Seals. The weather held for us and we managed to successfully complete our visit to Hannah Point. A brilliant place for a last landing since Hannah Point holds a little of everything that makes Antarctica special and it has one penguin behavior that all were pleased to see – chick chases. Seemingly everywhere there were full sized downy Gentoo Penguin chicks chasing adults for food – such a charming and funny thing to see. You’d have to be a rock not to enjoy to it. Chick chases result in more exercise for the chicks and recognition by the adult that it is feeding its own chick. 

This landing provided a last chance to revisit  Chinstrap Penguins. The smaller colonies here are much easier to digest visually. Southern Giant Petrels were nesting on the ridges although it was difficult to catch glimpses of their snow white downy young. Unfortunately, the nesting site where we usually study them at leisure had been adversely affected by previous visitors. 


Fortunately, this photo doesn't convey the odor of shedding Elephant Seals. (Photo by Ann Nightingale)

Lastly, wallowing Elephant Seals left us with a lasting impression of Antarctica–a solid aroma of shedding seal that has to be experienced to be believed. The last call for Zodiacs back to the ship was made and we bade a fond farewell to this land of penguins, ice, whales, and scenic landscapes that stretch from horizon to horizon. We charted a northbound course to the infamous Drake Passage–famous for its tumultuous seas.

Ann's View: The schedule was fluid today, with many changes as the trip progressed. The original plan was to spend the morning at Baily Head on Deception Island, with a group making a three-hour hike across to Whaler’s Cove on the inside of this active volcano caldera. Others could take the ship through Neptune’s Bellows into the crater. A swim was planned for those brave (or foolish) enough to do so, and a historical visit to the buildings on shore was available as well. 


Iron colors the entrance of "Neptune’s Bellows"—giving the volcanic caldera on Deception Island a rusty red hue.

However, at breakfast we were told that the hike, swimming , and landing inside the caldera were cancelled. Instead, everyone who wanted to go ashore one last time could do so at Hannah Point, the only spot on this trip where we could see the entire complement of flowering plants in Antarctica: a grass and Pearly Wort. A small mutiny was mounted, and soon the plans for a short stop for a swim was reinstated. 

The Baily Head landing was described as our most difficult, and not suitable for less agile passengers. Although the seas appeared relatively calm, the beach is bashed by the surf, which we would ride ashore. Smoothed pebbles of volcanic origin make up the beach, so footing—especially in the water—can be tricky. I heard that only a couple of people actually fell and got soaked this year. At this site, we saw something we haven’t seen for a long time: a green hillside! 

Once ashore, the risk was clearly worth it! We were on the edge of a penguin superhighway, with hundreds of Chinstrap Penguins making their way to and from colonies near and far. The hilltops of Baily Head, some which appeared to be at least a couple of miles away, each held a Chinstrap colony. What a lot of work to get to and from the nests and chicks! This site holds at least 100,000 pairs of Chinstraps, most with one or two chicks. 


Chinstrap Penguin family with two chicks. (Photo by Jim Danzenbaker). 

The geology of the area tells of the volcanic history; layers of ash are trapped in the glaciers, and the rocky cliffs show the signs of great upheaval. Boulders litter the edges of the cliffs, making me feel a little nervous about the potential for earthquakes, especially since a 6.7 hit nearby while we’ve been on this expedition.  I climbed a steep bank to get a view from above one of the colonies, and found a single empty nest at the top. It was a great vantage point for a few pictures. When I turned around after a few minutes, though, there was a penguin coming up the path. I scrambled a little higher, and it walked right past me and settled into the nest. 

Since most of the chicks in this colony were almost grown, I suspect she may have lost hers to the ever present skuas or perhaps an accidental fall, but she still was defending the territory. A second penguin came up the slope to the nest. The two had “words”, and the new penguin turned around and left.  On returning to the beach, I was lucky enough to see two Sheathbill nests among the boulders. With no trees around, twigs are not easy to find, so birds who like to have twigs in their nests resort to using bones or feather quills. It makes for a creepy kind of nest for a bird with a creepy kind of face.  

The scenery on the way into the caldera was volcanically rugged. Steep cliffs showing the rust color of iron ore rose above us. Inside, we could see steam rising from some of the beaches. At Whalers’ Cove, some 27 of us chose to take the plunge, while a few wannabes came ashore to document the event. The first thing I noticed as we got ashore was the pungent odor of sulphur. Of course, this made sense, but I hadn’t considered it. 


Here's Jim perched atop the caldera at Deception Island during a previous tour. (Photo supplied by Jim Danzenbaker)

I had been told various stories about swimming here. First, was that the water was warm. Second, was that it was 0 C. But I was committed to doing it, so I was going in. The surprise was that Jim arrived ready to swim, too! He’d told me that he’d been there, done that, so didn’t need to do it again. Apparently, he’d had a change of heart. As we headed in, the water near the shore was definitely warm, but out about 10 feet, it dropped off sharply—both in temperature and in attitude. Ready or not, I was swimming! Thankfully, though, we could get back to the shore and wallow, like multi-colored Elephant Seals, in the heated sand and surf at the edge of Whalers’ Cove. 


Shoreline steam and remains of settlement buildings mark the spot chosen for the Cheeseman’s Ecology Safari 2012 Polar Plunge. (Photo by Ann Nightingale)

Lured by promises of chocolate, we headed back to the ship and on to our final landing. Hannah Point, on Livingston Island, offer the greatest biodiversity of any of our landing sites on the Antarctic Peninsula. Colonies of Gentoo and Chinstrap Penguins exist side by side with Elephant Seal wallows, while above us Southern Giant Petrels and Sheathbills have their nests. The Gentoo chicks here are the largest and most advanced of those we’ve seen. We were greatly entertained watching them down the adults returning from the sea with food. Think about penguins running and tumbling through the colonies. It has comedy written all over it. 


Although penguins were not hunted for economic reasons, their guano was mined for fertilizer. This Chinstrap colony at Hannah Point gives an indication of just how abundant the guano is.

At this point, I’d like to share a dirty little secret about penguins with you. Don't be misled the wonderful photographs you’ve seen of pristine parents with downy chicks. Those are the exceptions, not the rule. Penguin colonies are filled with guano covered adults and chicks. 

The birds have about a three to five foot range when they “go”, and with tens of thousands in one place, there’s a whole lot of “going”. The ground looks like a tapestry of poo. I think the Treaty rule of remaining at least five meters from the wildlife is to protect us and our gear as much as it is to protect the wildlife. 

The three hours onshore passed very quickly, and you could tell that the passengers were reluctant to call an end to this journey. Almost everyone showed up on time for the “last” Zodiac back to the ship. Once we were all onboard the Ortelius the anchor was raised and our travel past the South Shetland Island and out into the Drake Passage got underway. 


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