Day 6: Wilhelmina Bay Fast Ice and Cuverville Island

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Gentoo Penguin nesting colony on Cuverville Island

December 23, 2016

This morning’s goal was to lodge the ship in some fast ice in Wilhelmina Bay.  Fast ice is sea ice that is attached (“fastened”) to the shoreline, and we found a great patch of this ice fairly early in the morning.  While the ship is not formally categorized as an icebreaker, it does have a reinforced bulbous bow which allows it to crash through weaker ice, especially if it is cracked in certain locations.  I managed to get out to the bow for a better view, just as the captain ran the ship into the fast ice.  Leaning over the bow as the ship crashed through the ice was quite the experience.

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The captain lodged the boat in the fast ice, and were allowed to get out on the ice and walk around.  The blue ice was covered with a layer of snowdrift around a foot and a half in thickness, so walking around was not the easiest task.   During this walk, though, we were finally able to get a good satellite link and make a live post via Facebook to National Geographic Adventure.  Mike Libecki, 2013 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year and a guest speaker during our expedition, was responsible for the posts.  He generously offered to interview me during the live feed, and we discussed the Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Program and my goals for the expedition.  The live posting on National Geographic Adventure got almost 30,000 views!

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Also on the ice, we encountered our first Leopard Seal of the trip.  As a predator, this seal is surpassed in the Antarctic only by the Killer Whale.  Its prey includes krill, squid, and fish, but also all species of penguins in the Antarctic and even other seals.  We kept our distance.

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After the morning ice walk, we all had the opportunity to actually jump into the water.  A true “polar plunge,” the temperature of the salt water was actually below the freezing point of water, truly some of the coldest water in the world (the salt content lowers the freezing point). I chose to complete this plunge in a penguin suit I had brought on the trip, which ended up being a very poor idea.  I have experienced very cold water before, but this was by far the coldest.  When I jumped in, my limbs immediately went numb, and I actually had trouble maneuvering back to the Zodiac to get out.  Also, when I surfaced, the head covering of the penguin suit covered my mouth, so I couldn’t immediately breathe.  Lastly, the penguin suit logged with water, so even after I got out of the water, I still felt as though I was submerged.  This was a very poor idea, all together.

Fortunately, the afternoon portion of the day was a bit tamer.  Our afternoon stop was at Cuverville Island, a small island north of Danco Island in the Errera Channel.  Cuverville is home to one of the largest Gentoo Penguin colonies on the Antarctic Peninsula.  On this island, I was once again amazed by the network of penguin highways running up the large cliffs even more intricately than on Danco Island.  At one point, while walking around on the island, I suddenly realized that I had taken a wrong turn off of the human trail and ended up on a penguin route.  It was very odd to suddenly discover this – I turned around and realized I was being followed solely by small Gentoo penguins.



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Also on Cuverville, I witnessed Brown Skuas attempting to steal eggs from penguin nests.  These birds would land near a penguin nesting colony and target nests that were more isolated.  The presence of skuas near nesting sites clearly irritated the penguins occupying the site, and aggressive confrontations between Gentoo Penguins and Brown Skuas were common.  Later, I observed a skua successfully steal an egg and feast on it in private, a chilling reminder of the sometimes ruthless nature of species interactions.

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When leaving Cuverville Island, amidst the hordes of Gentoo Penguins, I spotted a lone Adelie Penguin, the third species of brush-tail and our first of the trip.  Standing out with an entirely black face and strikingly white eye, this penguin seemed quite out of place in the masses of Gentoos.  I wondered whether it was lost, but according to Ian Strachan (naturalist), such misplacements are rather common in areas where the ranges of different penguin species overlap.

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Lone Adelie Penguin (center) in a nesting colony of Gentoo Penguins

Now back on the ship, we (Sam Northern, Randy French, and I) just finished writing the Daily Expedition Report.  These reports, normally crafted by the ship’s naturalists, are posted to the Lindblad Expeditions website as a chronicle of the expedition.  Ours can be viewed here, along with a video put together by trip videographer Dexter Sear.  Tomorrow, the plan is to visit a nesting colony of Adelies, all the way on the other side of the Peninsula at a location called Brown Bluff.  In the morning, we will be setting foot on the Antarctic Peninsula for the first time!

David Walker
Grosvenor Teacher Fellow

Antarctica Expedition
National Geographic Society
Lindblad Expeditions

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