December 24, 2016
This morning, we were well within the Antarctic Sound, wrapping around the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. Our plan was to go as far south as we can on the eastern side of the Peninsula. A great find early in the day was a large pod of killer whales, the first I have ever seen in the wild! While observing these whales from the bow of the ship, I learned from Dr. Conor Ryan that there are four major types of killer whales (orcas) – types A, B, C, and D – that differ in genotype, phenotype, diet, and habitat. The taxonomy of killer whales is in need of an update, yet scientists are still not in agreement as to whether these different types represent different races, sub-species, or entirely different species. This morning, we were looking at Type B2 killer whales, the second largest type, which live near ice pack and prey primarily on seals and penguins. Compared to the killer whales I had seen on video, these Type B2 whales appeared much more yellow/brown, especially on their white parts. I learned from Dr. Ryan that this yellow/brown coloration is due to sea ice diatoms. Apparently, whales of the B and C types collect these diatoms when near sea ice in the Antarctic, lose them later in the season when they migrate to warmer waters in South America, and then regain them when they return.
Another amazing feature of the Antarctic Sound was the frequent presence of extremely large, tabular (table-like) icebergs. Apparently, many of the icebergs we saw this morning were over one mile in length on the top! It was difficult to full comprehend their size without a sense of scale; this was much easier later in the day, when we more frequently saw penguins on the ice, appearing as tiny specks on a large white background.
Our major stop today was at a location called Brown Bluff, located northeast tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. As we neared this location, I was first stricken by the strange geology of the area. This area was created by a geologically recent basaltic volcano (Pleistocene, less than 1 million years old), and the landscape was quite austere, consisting solely of igneous rock and ash. To the east of the landing site was a large glacier, which stood out in stark contrast with the volcanic landscape of the Bluff.
The biology of this area is also extremely unique. Brown Bluff is home to an Adelie Penguin nesting colony with over 20,000 pairs, the largest colony we’ll be seeing on this trip (but definitely not as large as these colonies can get!).
The area is also an important nesting site of Gentoo Penguins, South Polar Skuas, Kelp Gulls, Cape Petrels, and most excitingly, Snow Petrels! The Snow Petrel is one of the hardest birds to see in the world, as of all birds, it has the most southerly breeding distribution. While flocks are often seen on icebergs, the Snow Petrel nests in tall cliffs, sometimes near the sea, sometimes far inland. This landing represented my best chance of seeing this rare bird.
Before landing on the mainland, I got the chance to ride around the area with Doug Gualtieri, the naturalist on the boat who knew the most about birds. This was extremely fortunate for my quest to see the Snow Petrel. These birds ended up being fairly easy to see here, as they were clearly nesting very high up on the cliffs of the Bluff. However, the initial looks I got at these nesting birds were quite poor. The cliffs were very high, and even through binoculars, I could only see small white specks flitting back and forth amongst the rocks.
Just about to head to the mainland, though, we passed a large iceberg. Suddenly a white bird flew from the iceberg and soared right in front of our Zodiac, less than 10 feet from my face. “Snow Petrel!” shouted Doug. I got my binoculars on the bird for a good look, then immediately snapped as many photos as I could. Looking at them later, all were completely blurry except for one, quite possible the luckiest photo of my life.
We then progressed to the mainland of Brown Bluff, and I set foot on the actual Antarctic Peninsula for the first time. The sheer size and density of the Adelie Penguin colony on this island was overwhelming. There were also quite a few Gentoo Penguins about, and in many nests, newly hatched chicks bobbed up and down, huddled close to their parents. Penguins feed their chicks via regurgitation of previously acquired food, and I was able to directly observe this on multiple occasions.
Also on the mainland, I saw my first “definite” South Polar Skuas. These birds are quite difficult to define from the closely related Brown Skua – in general, the South Polar Skua is a smaller bird overall, with a more slender neck, smaller head, and lighter wash on the neck. If you look carefully, the South Polar Skua has a white spot at the base of the bill that is diagnostic.
A last task on the mainland was to follow through on a dare from students in my Planet Earth class – namely, to walk with penguins in my penguin suit. Fortunately, Sam Northern was around to get this on video!
Back on the ship in the mid-afternoon, we progressed further south in an attempt to reach Devil Island, part of the larger James Ross Island cluster off the eastern coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. However, we soon got stuck (literally) in the ice and couldn’t continue. We stopped at this point awhile to look around, as it was possible we might see wandering Emperor Penguins here (these large penguins nest further inland). Although we ended up not sighting any Emperors, this was an incredibly peaceful location. Almost completely silent, the sense of isolation here was remarkable. The ice seemed to continue endlessly in all directions; the few small clusters of penguins stood out like tiny specks of black dust against this backdrop.
We were forced to turn around and head back in the direction from which we came. Overnight, the plan was to return around the tip of the Peninsula to the western side.
Currently, I’m sitting in my cabin, fully recognizing that it’s Christmas Eve. This is the first Christmas that I’ve spent away from my family. I couldn’t imagine a more unique place to spend it.
Grosvenor Teacher Fellow
National Geographic Society