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02/11/2009

Penguin Island, Arctowski Station

During the early morning hours, the Minerva anchored off of Penguin Island, a small volcanic cone rising out of the sea off the southern coast of King George Island. Its name is still just as appropriate today as it was nearly 200 years ago, when British Captain Edward Bransfield christened the place Penguin Island. Chinstrap penguins were everywhere, and the whole scene was a grand introduction to the White Continent.

We swung our legs off the zodiac and carefully made our way up to the top of a boulder beach. There we were greeted by hundreds of Antarctic fur seals, which were just as interested in getting a look at us as we were at watching them. These fur seals were mostly young males, who had departed South Georgia Island within the past month to search out new beaches on which to practice setting up territories to defend. Fortunately, most of the seals recognized us as non-seals and allowed us to pass without too much more than whimper and a sideways glance.

Further along the beach, Historian David Wilson pointed out several southern giant-petrel nests, each replete with both a single fluffy chick and an adult guarding it. Giant-petrels often nest near penguin colonies, where an undefended egg or chick makes an excellent meal for their growing young. Just beyond were scattered whale bones, chilling reminders of the bloody harvest that took place in this area at the beginning of the last century.

Finally we reached the chinstrap penguin colony, where guano covered everything including all of the chicks. Having hatched in early December, the chicks were now several months old and were nearly done going through the molt of their downy juvenile plumage. They were also nearly as large as the adults, but having not strayed more than several meters from their nest, the guano had definitely piled up. It was a sloppy affair, and we had to imagine that the chicks must be looking forward to their first swim, which would give them a chance to wash off the stink.

Back on the ship, we ate a hearty lunch while Captain Giovanni Biasutti took the ship over towards the Polish research station known as Arctowski. The station is named for Henryk Arctowski, a Polish scientist onboard the Belgian Antarctic Expedition of 1897-1899. Due to a large swell, we were unable to land at the station’s usual landing spot, so Expedition Leader Suzana Machado D’Oliveira Harker searched for a secondary landing spot and found one behind a small protected spit of rocks. From there we walked to the station, where our hosts showed us around and answered some of our questions. Some of us proceeded further along the beach to a small wooden building where it was possible to buy some souvenirs, or even beyond that to some groups of molting elephant seals. Their powerful odor was only broken by the occasional snort from one of the lounging seals.

At the far end of a cobble beach were a few molting Adelie penguins. The chicks and the vast majority of the adults had already left the colony for the sea, but a scattered few had chosen to wait out the catastrophic molting of their feathers onshore rather than on the ice floes they are usually known to use. Adelie penguins nest further south than any other penguin, and as such are used to getting their breeding routine completed in a very short time, departing for the open sea much sooner than chinstraps or gentoos do. This was definitely the case at Arctowski, and we were glad that a few had remained behind so we could get a look at them.

After a hot shower, we headed to the Darwin Lounge for a cocktail and Recap with the Expedition Team. Penguins, volcanic rock, and fur seals dominated the conversation, and then we heard about our plans for tomorrow. After dinner, we hung our wet clothes up to dry and then headed off to sleep in anticipation of our morning landing at Halfmoon Island.
 

   

Landing at Penguin Island

Richard guards a sleeping Fur Seal as two Chinstrap Penguins return to their rookery.

Moulting Elephant Seals at Arctowski Base on King George Island

A Fur Seal scratching himself as the snow falls at Arctowski Base.

Our current version of the 'Guanomatic' in action


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