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02/22/2008

Cuverville Island and the Gerlache Strait

During the early morning hours, we arrived at Cuverville Island, a dome-shaped island which is one of the most verdant places in all of Antarctica. The slopes are covered with mosses and lichen, as well as small patches of Antarctic hair grass, one of only two flowering plants in Antarctica. We landed on a cobble beach and made our way to an overlook above large numbers of nesting gentoo penguins. The guano was thick below our feet, and the sky cleared over our heads revealing stunning glaciers and mountains in all directions. A leopard seal patrolled the shoreline as penguins lounged and made their way to and from the sea.

At the overlook, we could make out the deteriorated remains of the stone nests constructed by the nesting gentoos back in November. The chicks were nearly full grown and hardly in danger of predation by South Polar skuas, though they quickly reassembled back into their tightly grouped crèches when a low-flying skua cruised overhead. We also came across the largest terrestrial herbivore in the Great White South: the Antarctic springtail. Only 2 millimeters long, the springtail is quite a comparison to the largest terrestrial herbivore in the Arctic, the enormous musk oxen. These plant-eating arthropods could be seen gathered together on the surface of small puddles.

Many of us spent much of the landing just sitting and watching life at this gentoo penguin colony LITERALLY stroll by. The gentoos at Cuverville have received a lot of visitors over the years, so the nearly 5000 breeding pairs tend to be downright welcoming and quite the opposite of skittish. Many of them approached us as we sat, occasionally picking at our boots or nibbling on our parkas. Others lay sprawled out on their bellies, taking a siesta or perhaps attempting to dissipate some body heat through their feet and flippers on this sunny morning.

There was time for a zodiac tour in the relatively shallow waters between Cuverville and Rongé Islands, so we took full advantage. In addition to stunning grounded icebergs, leopard seals were spotted and a pair of humpback whales traveled through the area, their explosive exhales clearly audible from the zodiacs.

By the time we arrived back on the Explorer II, the sun was dominating the sky as well as the pool deck. Chef Michael Wiesner arranged a little PRE-lunch out on deck, so we sat out and ate while soaking in the sun and surroundings. Captain Giovanni then took the ship up the Gerlache Strait, another Antarctic locale named during the Belgica expedition. The strait is quite wide, and is frequented by humpback whales, attracted here by the surplus of food found here during the summer months. We saw several distant blows during lunch, and right before afternoon tea, Captain Giovanni maneuvered the Explorer II to get amazing looks at a cow/calf pair. The most interesting part of the sighting was that the calf’s tail was deformed and curled up on the right side. The staff had never seen anything like it, and Marine Mammalogist Mark Deakos speculated that fishing gear entanglement when it was very young likely was the cause of the bizarre tail fluke.

After a nap, we gathered in the Main Lounge to hear former British Antarctic Survey base commander Russ Manning give an account of his time spent working at an Antarctic research station. His talk, entitled “Living and working in Antarctica”, was a fascinating look into life in the one of the most extreme places on earth.

Before dinner, we gathered for a Recap in the Main Lounge, and after dinner we found ourselves in the Main Lounge once again, this time for the Explorer II crew show. The talent that took the stage blew us away, and standing ovations were the norm for this very special show. It was the perfect end to a glorious day.

   

Last dance with the Guanomatic

A big Leopard Seal visits us in our zodiacs

Iceberg panoramic behind Cuverville Island

Iceberg cruise at Cuverville Island

On deck for another delicious alfresco treat from our Chefs


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