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Penguin Island and the Polish Research Station

Part 9 (December 4-6, 2007)

By Kate Woodward


Dear All,

Although "school" (the enrichment lectures!) has been wonderful, we're nearing land again, and one big plus about getting to an expedition area is that we have no more lectures, which although they really were great, required a great deal of attention (and preferably not any visible napping in the front row!).  At the beginning of the trip, it took us a couple of days and discussion with fellow travellers to understand why, when we were not tired, we found we were "dropping off" so easily and frequently.  It turned out that the anti-sea-sickness pills we were taking as a preventative measure were knocking us all out.  Since the weather has remained remarkably kindly overall, we stopped the tablets and found our attention greatly improved.

I must begin, however, with one of the most thrilling sights of the trip, for me, anyway.  We were having dinner in the elegant dining room, the night before last, and were on about the 4th course when the captain made an announcement--that we would be able to see a huge iceberg on the port side, one that was 14 miles across, on the side we were approaching.  I was not the only one who couldn't contain herself and leaped up to find a window to see this. In fact, the dining room emptied on one side, and there it was, gleaming in the late afternoon sun (this was about 9PM--sunset last night was at 11:09PM--and sunrise at 3:10 AM--very little darkness here in the late spring/summer).  It was so mammoth, even the part that was above the water, that it was awe-inspiring.  Pat Abbott, our geologist/glaciologist, was glued to the same window I was, and HE was excited, which was telling.  He also reassured us that it was safe to be cruising so close (it felt as if we were close enough to reach out and touch it) because an iceberg of this size would have been a part of an Antarctic "shelf" that broke off cleanly (ie a nice, straight break), so we didn't need to worry about a protruding, dangerous bit underwater that could hole the ship (since 80-90% of an iceberg is under water, this can be a major problem).

The captain then announced that the probable weight of a berg this size was 100 million tons--a hundred million tons!--and said that a scientist who had been on the bridge when passing an iceberg this size on a previous cruise had said that it would require all the energy used in any form throughout the entire world during a 24-hour period to melt an iceberg this size iceberg. Amazing.  

We passed it all too quickly, and there would have been no point in rushing to get a camera, as it was way too big to photograph at such close quarters--it would have just been a screen full of white (with a turquoise stripe along the waterline).

That made my day!

Yesterday, we arrived at Penguin Island, a tiny island off the shore of King George Island, one of the South Shetlands Islands--considered to be "in Antarctica", although not the continent itself (which is of course the 7th, not the 6th, as I too hastily wrote in my last message, I think).  Our "Expedition Notes" for the day included the quote "It's just that there are some things women don't do. They don't become Pope or President or go down to the Antarctic." This came from Harry Darlington, chief pilot on Finn Ronne's 1946-48 Antarctic Research Expedition.  How times have changed!



Penguin Island is just a mile long and was first sighted in 1820 by a British expedition.  Its highest point, 170-meter high Deacon Peak, with its reddish cone (not red in the above photo because of the combination of snow and the flat, grey light) is easily identifiable; within the huge crater at the summit there is another internal cone.

The first ones out yesterday morning were people who planned to hike to the crater top--and if circumstances had been different, I'd have loved to try it. However, because we again lost time overnight by having to cut sailing speed in half because of fog and icebergs (which meant that we missed Elephant Island, the place where Shackleton's desperate crew took refuge after the crushing of Endurance in the pack ice, while he set off to find rescue on South Georgia.  The island has such poor anchorage that it hasn't been possible to establish any permanent settlement/bases there, and on top of that, winds can reach 100 mph there, so one needs to have tolerance of extreme cold to spend time there), we were only allowed 75 minutes for our landing.  No way I could make it up and back in that time, especially wearing oversized wellies--and I'm no longer the pretty fit mom I was 12 years ago when I took Adrian and Sebast to Bryce Canyon National Park and we hiked the 600-foot deep Devil's Loop in an hour. So my decision was made even before the scouting expedition returned, announcing that there was waist-deep snow on the crater climb.  Awk!

We later heard that the intrepid hikers had to make the first half of the climb (inthe deepest snow) on hands and knees because it was so deep they couldn't ever really get up, and many of them had to turn back without making it when half the time had elapsed.

Meanwhile, we were having our own excitement with snow as we made our way to visit a colony of chinstrap penguins in a protected area on the island.


 Roger, with unusual camera protective device.


To start things off as they were to go on, we had to disembark from the Zodiacs in water that was full of slippery medium- and small-sized rocks, with a bit of surf. There was a fair-sized stretch of "beach" with the same rocks, not only wet, but many of them unstable, with a fearsome wind blowing.  That explains Roger's balaclava--he needed it!  And what you see above his camera in the photo is the self-made camera-protector suggested by the photo instructor: a new use for a disposable shower cap to protect against spray!  This disembarkation was where the staff were particularly wonderful--the naturalists passing us along from steadying arm to arm for those of us who were feeling "tippy".  And I don't think I've mentioned before the Filipino staff in wetsuits, who stand in the thigh-deep--and sometimes waist-deep--water to a) help us get safely onto land, especially if there is deep water or surf, and to b) push the Zodiacs out ondeparture.  Troupers, all.



We thought we were taking an easy option, and it was indeed easier--but had its own challenges!  The snow was deep there, too (chest deep in places, as you can see from the photo), and as we were the first group out, there had been no path beaten down yet, so we were making our way over crusty snow that for some of us (Roger and me included) would break through suddenly, and one would find oneself knee- or hip-deep in snow.  Getting up/out was primarily challenging because if one tried to haul oneself up to the top by putting most weight on the other side, that foot would then break through.  I'm not sure how often I broke through, but enough to slow me down considerably (and give me some extra exercise!). We were not the only ones by any means, and the tough thing was trying to decide whether to accept help (or to offer it!), as the one helping often ended up sinking in as well.  

What made us feel less embarrassed was to see on the return a very petite fellow traveller, who is incredibly fit and must weigh about half what we do, who broke through and then could not get up. It turned out that she had not just broken through; when I offered to help her get up, she said that was not the problem--her wellie had stuck down in the deep snow and there was no way she could get it out.  One of the staff went over to assist, and after warming up with some tugging and unsuccessful hauling, she finally ended up chopping around it and actually digging it out of the snow.

Roger lost his wellie in similar circumstances, and also required a "dig out"--so our trip was a bit more adventurous than we'd anticipated, although we eventually found if we not only kept to better-trodden snow, but were careful to put each foot down flat, rather than heel or toe first, the odds for remaining upright and "on top" were improved!



Pebble-carrying male chinstrap trying to impress the females with his pebble-nest-building capabilities.


I mustn't forget to describe the lovely chin strap penguins we saw along the beach and in the snow--they have such cute "faces" with the black band going from "ear to ear", making it look as if they are holding on a black hat with a black elastic.  These are much, much smaller than the king penguins, and we any chicks, but the snow, the scenery and the penguins were certainly worth it. This was a nesting area, where male chinstraps were waddling back and forth with pebbles in their beaks for continuous nest repair, and there were several big brown skuas (big birds, see below, whose brown wings show a dramatic white diagonal stripe when they spread them) perched on small boulders that allowed them a good overview of this nesting area.


They are very fond of penguin eggs, and work in pairs.  Twice during our 20-minute stay there we saw a seemingly somnolent skua swoop in when a nesting penguin was distracted and moved, exposing its egg for a moment.  In a flash, the egg was in the skua's beak and was being carried away.  On both occasions, it was taken just outside the invisible "boundary" of the nesting area, which seemed particularly cruel, placed on the ground, and then the pair of skuas pecked and gobbled away. Patricia was with us and said that it depended on the amount of skuas which were on watch, but one could expect easily 30% of the eggs to disappear in this way.

So although the penguins and seals have been completely unafraid of us, as there are no land predators in the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic region (which includes South Georgia), there certainly is danger from the air and from the sea.


Skuas in the background with their stolen chinstrap egg.


After our morning visit, the ship was under way quickly to get to our afternoon destination, the Arctowski Polish Research Station set on Admiralty Bay on King George Island.  During lunch, while we were en route, there was a lot of talk about who broke through the snow crust and how many times--and eventually, it seemed that it ought not only to be how many times one "broke through" that counted, but how many people it took to haul one out!  But topping it all, I think, was the person who in the rush of getting out quickly for the crater hike, who by dint of immense effort actually made it to the crater's top (which many did not)--found once up there that there were no batteries in the camera.


Whether we were cold, tired, or frustrated, things looked infinitely better, even amusing, over hot, spicy bean soup, enchiladas, and empanadas (it was Mexican day at the restaurant), and by the time our turn came for the Research Station landing at 5:45 PM, our wet clothes had even had time to dry out, as the way things work is the first group out is the last group for the afternoon expedition, so we'd had 6 hours of drying time which, since our cabins are over-heated and the air is very dry, was just what our clothes needed.

We had the choice of visiting the research station, which was in one direction along the bay, or visiting a tiny, wood A-frame/one-room shop (no electricity, so more like a very nice shed) and then walking along the beach in the other direction, to see part of an Adelie colony that is in another protected area.  We could come up to the lower edge of it, but were not permitted beyond a certain point just a little ways up the hill, so could not see the full colony or nesting area which were up on a plateau, spilling over to the other side.


Flat yellow research building just visible on the left at the side of this view of Admiralty Bay, with Adelies coming to meet us.


Since it turned out the Polish staff were coming out to have dinner with us in the evening, we decided to go for the beach walk, and again, there was snow, although not as much that was difficult, as the other group had been there before us and had packed it down. The beach had smaller stones, and a fair amount of black volcanic gravel and sand, which in the suddenly bright sun looked stunning with the snow coming right up to it and the penguins against them both, in their plain black and white. These are the diminutive Adelies, whose white "fronts" have a wonderful, satiny glisten that has nothing to do with cleanliness, according to Patricia (although this morning's chinstraps were exceptionally muddy!); it is the nature of their front feathers and how they pick up the sun.

On our way there, we peeked into the shop, which was very basic.  It had two tables in it, with very expensive postcards and some very nice (and horrendously expensive) photographs.



I've been wearing a backpack on these expeditions, as we're not allowed to have anything in our hands for safety reasons when we embark or disembark from the Zodiac--which is very sensible as more than one of us has "sat down" unexpectedly when getting in and there is a sudden swell. So I did have a place to store any purchases, but this place only took Euros or US dollars, of which we had neither.

Our initial glittering weather changed, the sky covered over briefly and the light became very "flat" as we made our way along the black beach, enjoying the presence of a small number of penguins which had strayed from their peers.  Now and then, we would see what looked like a black stone in one of the snowfields, but when zoomed in on with a camera, it proved to be a little Adelie lying down, "resting" on its plump white tummy.  At the end of the beach walk, when we encountered snow (the well-packed variety), we made our way up a hill and although there was not anywhere near the volume of penguins we'd seen on other landings, we had some of the most enchanting views yet.

On the hill leading up to the plateau, the protected area where the huge nesting colony is located, were about a dozen little penguins not only toddling around, catching the emerging sun on their white bibs, but working their way up the hill then, just like kids, throwing themselves on their tummies and tobogganing down! Although Patricia insisted they were not "just having fun", it seemed to me, since several of them not only slid down but got up to make the climb and then go sailing past again, they must be enjoying it!



The time passed quickly, and once again, we found the return longer than we expected, because we had wanted to stay until the last minute looking at these little creatures who looked at us so trustingly and so curiously, so we had to struggle/rush to get back.

Back on board, we changed as fast as possible, as our usual evening "recap and briefing for the next day" at 7 had been pushed off to 7:30 to allow for our later departure/return in the afternoon, and the leader of the Polish expedition arrived breathlessly about 10 minutes later, having come on the last Zodiac and having had to run up multiple flights of stairs as he knew he was a bit late.



He spoke outstanding colloquial English and basically took questions about the base (see very low-lying yellow/grey buildings above) and the scientific team.  The first was from a woman in the front row, who asked about the quote I included from today's bulletin.  She was happy to hear that in their 12-strong summer staff at the research station, half of their researchers are women.

At 9:30, Roger went up to see who was in the bridge room and I stayed on to chat with our tablemate until the waitstaff were beginning to clear things away.  As I went down the many flights of stairs to our cabin (we are on B-deck, which is the lowest passenger deck and which entails climbing 48 stairs to get up to the Verandah dining area--very good for us!), I came across the group of tall, lithe, very handsome young men and women, all in black (our Polish scientists/guests), who were donning black hats and gloves preparatory to taking a Zodiac back to the research station--they looked amazingly James Bond-ish.


 Steam rises from geothermal springs, Deception Island.


This morning found us inside an incredible bay--at Deception Island, which is one of the most famous of the islands of the South Shetland archipelago. The captain made his way in through a narrow opening known as Neptune's Bellows because of the wind that howls through it.  For many years, it was thought that the island was simply a "ring" (the top of a volcanic crater piercing the surface of the ocean), with no way of reaching the inside, so many early mariners sailed right by it, without ever seeing the inner bay. Once discovered, the island became a center of whaling activity in the region precisely because of its large, sheltered harbor.

Russ, the wild-blond-haired Zodiac driver and naturalist (a former SAS type who led polar military training expeditions in the Arctic for years) told us as he was blasting us through the water towards the beach that the opening was originally discovered by a 21-year-old Yankee lad who was captaining a ship that had come down from Nantucket. When I exclaimed at his youth, Russ said that this young American had been running things through the British blockade at the age of 14--clearly one of his heroes!

The inner bay is actually the flooded caldera of the original volcano, and it is still active.  This was why there was the possibility of a "Polar swim" for anyone mad or brave enough to try it, as there are geothermal springs.

You'll see the sulphur-smelling vapors wisping along the edge of the beach in the photograph on page 85, the heat rising among the layers of sea ice that have been cast up upon the shore.  Although we had no intention of swimming (although unbeknownst to me, Roger had brought his bathing-suit on the trip, just in case!), we were encouraged to test the water by Patricia.  Roger elected to stand mid-calf deep in the bay water and found the water extremely (as in frigidly) cold.  I tried digging in the wet sand, as she had done, and was amazed to feel very warm water oozing up.  If one digs deeper, the water gets progressively hotter until it is scalding.

Once again, we opted for scenery over buildings, and turned right, towards Neptune's Window, a U-shaped opening in the mountains surrounding us, allowing those who made the hike to look out at the sea.  We bypassed the now empty (and hazardous) buildings that formerly housed an old whaling station.  In fact, during the '40's and '50's, the British, Argentines, and Chileans all built bases there. In 1967, a sizable volcanic eruption destroyed the Chilean base, and in '69 another eruption badly damaged a British base and partly buried the old whaling station in cinders and ash.  A third eruption in '70 produced a series of craters which are still visible.

We headed down the long expanse of beach, gazing at the sea ice which, in spite of the time of year, was still filling part of Whaler's Bay, which is a well-protected part of the inner waters of the island. On the beach, besides the sulphur vapor, were layers of sea ice in incredible lacy shapes, sometimes two "levels" deep (and several feet high)---thanks, Ken Hall, for this shot of us amid the ice.



A couple of penguins appeared, waddling along the snow field next to the black volcanic sand beach, which was strictly off limits to us--this area too is very carefully protected, so although we could take pictures of them as they peered around the two wooden shells of boats that were up on the snow field, we had to keep our distance.

Further on, we turned onto a path in the snow (the familiar red flags marking the permitted way) that led up to the quite steep ascent to "Neptune's Window". It was slow going up the slope (and potentially very slippery), and the wind at the top, coming in off the sea, was so fierce that it was almost impossible to stand upright to take pictures.  Since none of us fancied being blown over the edge to the sea far below, cameras mostly stayed shuttered.                                     

I tried to take a picture of Roger as he set off on the "slide" (packed by boots) to go down the steep part, but was afraid of losing my own footing and tumbling down after him, so I'm afraid you'll have to imagine it.  It certainly was a much quicker way of getting down the steep bit--which was lucky, as an urgent message was being passed along from staff member to staff member:

"Hurry, hurry! The captain says we must leave immediately, no more photos, the pack ice is closing in and may block the ship's path out of the caldera."



Although this did not involve the short, multiple blasts from the ship's whistle, which indicates emergency, we could see the change in the ice and hurried along the snow then the sand as quickly as possible.  We were all panting by the time we made it to our Zodiac, and were back on board just barely an hour after our departure, feeling very well exercised.

We stripped quickly and got into dry clothes and ran up to the Bridge Deck with our parkas and our cameras. The captain was turning the ship around, beginning to thread his way among the floes which were closing in--and although Neptune's Bellows looks like quite a wide opening, we remembered that we'd been told that there was a huge rock almost exactly in the middle of it, so there was that to consider as well as the ice.



As we went from one side of the boat to the other to look at the ice, it began to snow, and by the time we were safely through, looking at Deception Island from the outside, the snow was thick enough that photos have a very "grey" look, and there is the occasional "blotch" on the photo, where a snowflake hit the lens.

Now we are moving along as quickly as we can to the south. Tomorrow, we will actually set foot on the continent.  That will be our last day before we set sail for Ushuaia and Drake's Passage, sometime home of the world's wildest storms, which can be sickening, but which can also, with luck, be like a mill pond.


Till then--hugs and much love,




© 2008 Kate Woodward

PROMETHEUS, Internet Bulletin - News, Politics, Art and Science. Nr. 136, October 2008