After leaving Arctowski the night before, the early morning found Seabourn Quest on the other side of Bransfield Strait in Hope Bay (63º 24’ S; 057º 15’ W). The ship was just around the corner from the Argentinian station of Esperanza. Hope Bay is located at the northern tip of the Antarctic continent on the Antarctic Peninsula, on the southwest side of Antarctic Sound. This is the first landing site on Seabourn Quest’s itinerary that would allow the guests to land on Antarctica continent itself, as all previous landings had been on the South Shetland Islands.
The Argentines maintain Esperanza as a year round scientific station with about 150 personnel, and even more during the summer months when research teams come in to work. Staff serves at the base for two years with their families. With a year round population, the base is very large by Antarctic standards and has all the facilities of a small village, including a school for the children.
The original plan was for the guests to visit the base and have a tour of the facilities, but on arrival, we found that the landing was still frozen with fresh snow, and the remains of a sea ice margin that would be very difficult to land on.
Flexibility is the key to exploring in Antarctica, so the expedition team switched to an alternate plan, and as a cool wind blew down the bay with high clouds, we launched the Zodiacs into the calm waters of the bay for a tour of the penguin colonies that lie just down the shore from the base. The ship held position alternately pointing towards the nearby shore or towards Depot Glacier at the west end of the bay.
Starting at about 9 a.m., guests were taken for a beautiful Zodiac tour of an extensive colony of Adelie penguins totaling about 100,000 breeding pairs. The first group lucked out as one boat was closely followed by a curious Leopard seal that allowed them to photograph its big reptilian head as it surfaced and circled next to the boat. The Leopard seal was lurking in the waters off of the Adelie colony hoping to catch a penguin unaware. A big seal can catch and eat as many as two dozen penguins a day, but with hundreds of thousands of birds ashore, the odds still favor the Adelies.
My boat was lucky as we had Penny on board, a researcher that the ship picked up near Arctowski from the unlikely named Copacabana Field Camp. She studies the Adelie, Gentoo and Chinstrap penguin colonies in this area. We took the Zodiac close to the shoreline, which still has some sea ice and quite thick snow cover. The Adelies were moving up and down the shore on top of the snow looking for a low spot to jump into the water.
Penny gave a great description of the Adelie behavior, showing how the birds move up and down the shoreline right at the ice margin in quite large groups, waiting for the first bird to jump into the water before they all follow. This is a defensive mechanism, as leaving in a large group of penguins gives a better chance of survival for each individual should there be a Leopard seal prowling just off the shoreline. Adelies have a distinctive call that they use to identify their partners and chicks, and as the boat moved in the shallow water, we could hear the calls coming off the rookery on the slopes above, along with the distinctive smell of thousands of birds all packed in together. The rookeries covered the slopes and looked like a spotted pattern of round dots on the rock hillside. Looking through binoculars we could see that each circle was a small nest made of carefully collected pebbles, with a single bird sitting on an egg. The chicks should be hatching in just a couple of short weeks.
Every few minutes another group of porpoising penguins came in from the bay, returning from feeding on krill at sea. They milled in groups along the shore looking for a way up the snow banks so that they could rejoin their partners in the rookery. As the tide fell, flat plates of sea ice broke off and formed flat ramps right at the water level, and the incoming penguins jumped up on these as waddled inland. Other penguins coming down from the rookery slid on their tummies on the snow, tobogganing along the slope.
The tour was over all too quickly as the Zodiacs carried guests to and from the ship throughout the day. As the afternoon wore on, guests were treated to the true Antarctic experience as winds gusted off the glacier and whipped up a short chop in the bay. Snow squalls swept through and disappeared, the winds whipped up in short gusts and then fell away. By the end of seven hours, every guest who wanted had been taken out and returned to the ship. After winching in the boats, we left Hope Bay and set course for King George and the Chilean Presidente Frei Base on the South Shetland Islands.
~ Chris Srigley
Tags: Antarctic Dispatch