Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The First Landing in Antarctica: Aitcho Island

(clicking on any of the pictures will enlarge them)

Let's see, where were we? Ahhh, right. We had just crossed the Drake Passage and were recovering from seasickness.

By the afternoon of November 22nd, we were finally in calmer waters and it was time for our first landing. How it worked was that we would all get off the ship in shifts and take zodiacs over to the shore in groups of 10 or 12. (I'll show pictures of the zodiacs in later posts.) Our initial taste of Antarctica was Aitcho Island. "Aitcho" is a phonetic spelling of "H.O.," which is what this group of islands had been called for so long that the name just stuck (H.O. stands for hydrographic office).

I have to say that it was quite a dramatic introduction to the White Continent. We explored the island for about 3 hours, and over every hill was a totally different breathtaking landscape. And the amount of penguins there did not disappoint... there were a few Weddell seals in the mix as well.

The rules are that you cannot come within 15 feet of the wildlife. However, the penguins often walk right by you, and if that happens, you are supposed to slowly drop down in the snow so that you are more at their level and don't scare them. They are pretty unbothered by humans... they're all on missions to build their nests with rocks, so they just march by you with rocks in their beaks and are undeterred if you are in their way.

As you may have gathered over the course of the time I've been writing my blogs, I am a big-time animal-lover. It is an indescribable feeling to see certain animals in their natural habitats. On my honeymoon in South Africa, when I saw a baby giraffe running through the bush, I literally started crying. I've seen many giraffes before, but to observe one running at full speed with no enclosure holding it back was amazing. While not quite as dramatic, it was very cool to be among hundreds of penguins with a vast snow-covered island laid out before them. To watch these little guys navigating up and down huge hills and jumping in and out of the water was well worth the queasiness we all suffered to get to that spot!

Above: A Gentoo penguin (larger white patches around its eyes) makes his way down a hill with our ship in the background.

Above: A chinstrap penguin (obviously easy to tell apart from the Gentoos) taking a rest.

Below: A skua with a stolen egg.

There would be one skua that would watch over each major group of penguin nests, waiting for an opportune time to swoop in and steal an egg. Anywhere we went for the rest of the trip, if there were penguins, there were also skuas.

Below: A Weddell sea in the typical seal position (on its back, sleeping or resting).

I'll end with a few pictures of the scenery, but these still can't convey the vastness and other-worldliness of the area. And it was only 30 degrees the entire time (and daylight all the time as well)! That's warmer than it's been here in Chicago now for weeks...

- e


Anonymous said...

Great pictures e......when I enlarged the first picture and scanned to the right of it....lo and behold, there was the little guy who starred in "Happy Feet" dancing his way up the hill to the crowd.....so cute. Auntie MA

Anonymous said...

Very cool!!!!

Wanders said...

I've always dreamt of going to Antartica, so I have loved your reports and photos!