Friday, December 26, 2008

We woke up today to brilliant sunshine. We were in Gold Harbour, which was full of not only sunshine, but also hanging glaciers, icebergs, and a beach full of penguins and elephant seals (and few if any fur seals). It also seemed to be about 60 degrees outside, with no wind. Alas, as we were going to breakfast, we could see clouds roll in from the ocean, and fog roll in from the mountains. So until we left on the zodiac, we were wondering how much the situation would deteriorate.

The weather ended up being very good. There were a few drops just before we loaded the zodiacs, and a couple drops shortly after we came on shore, but that was it. On the shore, we had a much easier time than the last couple of days. There were hardly any fur seals, so we could more or less walk around in peace. Instead of fur seals, there were a ton of elephant seals, which are more friendly and more fun to watch. For the first time, we saw some males - juveniles most likely. Male elephant seals have huge noses that protrude something like an elephant trunk, hence the name. All of the elephant seals - male and female - were continually fighting with one another. Elephant seals don't usually group up like we saw them, but this was the moulting season, so they were huddled up together for warmth.


As with our previous excursions, there were thousands of king penguins. Unlike our previous excursions, though, there were a lot going into and coming out of the ocean. There were several groups swimming around like ducks, right near the shore. Our guides explained they were waiting for the rest of their hunting group to come out, and at that point they would all go out as a group - safety in numbers. In addition to the king penguins and the elephant seals, there were also gentoo penguins, fur seals, kelp gulls, and blue-eyed shags. The fur seals were so dispersed, however, that we didn't have much trouble finding a walking path.

Near one end of the beach, there was a large hanging glaciers that was dropping ice chunks here and there - we never caught them on film or video, though. There were also icebergs in the bay. Near the southern tip of South Georgia there are quite a few icebergs, most likely blown up from Antarctica until they get stuck in shallow water.

Justin walked all of the way down the beach, and near the far end there was a nice interior bay. It was very quiet and peaceful back there. On the main part of the beach, the surf was very loud, making it hard to hear much of anything. In this back area, though, you could easily hear all of the penguins and seals. Many of the king penguins were moulting, and they huddled around the edge of the interior bay, making a border.


Getting back onto the ship was an adventure. There were swells out where the ship was docked, and the zodiac had a difficult time being tied to the gangway. Several people almost fell out at one point, and we just leaned inwards, so that if we fell it would be onto the floor of the zodiac. Eventually we all made it back on the ship without incident.

At lunch, people kept looking out the port holes, and we finally took a look - there were dozens of large icebergs not far from the ship. As we neared Cooper Bay (middle arrow above, Gold Harbour is the top arrow), there were dozens, and some so large that penguins were lying on them.

The afernoon excursion was split into two groups (to minimize any impact on the wildlife), and we were in the second group. It was very nice outside, and we hoped that the weather would keep long enough for our group. While waiting our turn, we watched macaroni and chinstrap penguins, plus seals, swim around in the crystal clear blue water. It was extremely easy to see the penguins and seals swimming underneath the surface, but it was still difficult to get photos of them porpoising. There were also penguins trying to hop on to, or jump off of, one of the icebergs. One poor guy tried about a dozen times before he finally succeeded in jumping onto the iceberg.


The weather was still good when it was our turn. At the landing site, it was full of fur seals, so again we walked in a single-file line up the hill - much like we had done in Fortuna Bay a couple of days earlier. The hike was not very long at all, but it went straight uphill through the tussock grass. When we got to the first area where the slope was not as steep, we walked over a bit to a Macaroni penguin rookery. They were interspersed with the tussock - not out in the open like the gentoos at Stromness or the Rockhoppers at West Point. Beacuse of this, we had to be very careful not to step on them, or to run into fur seals that might have come up this high. Some of the other passengers were not very cognizant of the penguins personal space, which really agitated some of the penguins. Since they were guarding eggs or chicks, however, they couldn't move away, so they just made pecking gestures at the people.


The macaroni penguins were nice - we had not seen a group of them before, but many of us were just watching the icebergs in Cooper Bay. While we were in the mist, they were in brilliant sunshine. We tried to get shots of the penguins with the icebergs in the background, but it was not possible because 1) the penguins were lower than the tussock grass was tall, and even if that were not a problem, 2) the icebergs were so bright there would be no light to illuminate the penguins properly. The best we could do was try the same with a small gentoo rookery nearby.


On zodiac ride back, we went by floating icebergs that had penguins on them. The icebergs were even bigger up close, and had several dozen gentoo and chinstrap penguins (just little dots in this picture). These were the first chinstrap penguins we had seen - this was about as "warm" an area that they live in.

Right after we got back onto the ship, we went outside, because the ship had started navigating past some even larger icebergs, and we were on our way into the Drygalski fjord. The crew and guides served us hot chocolate (with rum if you wanted it), and we just stood outside enjoying the scenery. It was bright and sunny, there were icebergs, mountains, and glaciers all around, and the temperature was warm enough to not even require gloves. The whole situation is hard to put into words, and photos and video do not do justice either. It was 360 degree immersion - being surrounded by the scenery, both side to side and up and down. Suffice it to say, this day has been the highlight of the trip so far. Three great excursions, many things we had not seen before on the trip, and the first sort of inkling that we were truly in Antarctica.