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Day 17 - Livingston Island and the Aitcho Island Group, South Shetland Islands, Antarctica

October 03, 2015  •  1 Comment

Our second morning on the Antarctic Peninsula and our second-to-last day of the Antarctic leg of the trip. It was sort of setting in that the trip was coming to an end. The mental and physical fatigue had also started to take its toll, as I struggled out of the leaba (Gaelic for "bed", pronounced lah-bah) to make sure I did not miss anything. The original plans for the day were changed over night due to an over-abundance of sea ice clogging up some of the bays we had planned to visit. This being due to the excess ice in Antarctica that winter and an excess shedding of ice from the glaciers there. It was a significant reminder of the effect mankind has had on our planet. Up on deck, assuming the position, there was Caniglia in his usual spot, wide-angle in hand with a look of disbelief and a smile on his face. Damo was very generous with his camera gear, and let me borrow his 17-40mm lens at times, which was great to get some really nice wide views. We were entering Halfmoon Bay of Halfmoon Island and heading for Livingston Island. The island was home to Gentoo and Chinstrap Penguins, as well as Antarctic Terns, South Polar Skua, Northern and Southern Giant Petrels and Snowy Sheathbills. The lack of variety and number of species was noticeable the more we sailed around the Antarctic continent. 

MC004872 (1) Chinstrap portraitMC004872 (1) Chinstrap portrait MC004876 (1) Chinstrap snoozingMC004876 (1) Chinstrap snoozing MC004881 (1) Chinstrap carrying stoneMC004881 (1) Chinstrap carrying stone MC004895 (1) Chinstrap portraitMC004895 (1) Chinstrap portrait MC004925 (1) Antarctic SkuaMC004925 (1) Antarctic Skua A Brown Skua keeping a watchful eye out for an easy meal.  MC004945 Antarctica Kelp GullMC004945 Antarctica Kelp Gull A pair of Kelp Gulls

MC004963 (1) Chinstrap groomingMC004963 (1) Chinstrap grooming

The Chinstrap Penguins were the first species we encountered on this island. They were nesting in dug out holes in the snow and ice, and making their way up the slope of the island to little nesting groups dotted about the ridges. The South Polar Skuas and Kelp Gulls were keeping a sharp lookout for any opportunity to nick in and steal an egg. We were too early for chicks. No doubt quite a few of those would be part of the daily takings of these top aerial predators. A lot of the Chinstraps, I noticed, when they came out of the sea, would eat some of the snow. Others would be carrying stones up the hill to their partner on the nest site. There was lots of grooming going on around the place. 

MC004967 (1) Weddell SealMC004967 (1) Weddell Seal A sleepy Weddell Seal having a scratch. Note the thick, short fur. 

MC__4836 ChinstrapMC__4836 Chinstrap MC__4845 Chinstrap Sea SpiritMC__4845 Chinstrap Sea Spirit The view from the nesting colony of Chinstrap Penguins. The M.V. Sea Spirit in the background.  MC__4853 Chinstrap SheathbillMC__4853 Chinstrap Sheathbill Can you spot the Snowy Sheathbill?

MC005008 (1) Screaming ChinstrapMC005008 (1) Screaming Chinstrap MC005020 (2) Screaming ChinstrapMC005020 (2) Screaming Chinstrap MC__4860 Chinstrap Sea SpiritMC__4860 Chinstrap Sea Spirit The view from the nesting colony of Chinstrap Penguins. The M.V. Sea Spirit in the background. 

MC__4869 VistaMC__4869 Vista

Walking up the slope from the landing zone, we were greeted by crying Chinstrap Penguins, arguing over space and robbing stones from each other's nests. It was quite good fun to watch. The Snowy Sheathbills were hanging around like the scavengers that they are, the Antarctic's own garbage collectors. South Polar Skua's patrolled vigilantly. A Weddell Seal or two were hauled out up the slopes, having a snooze and a scratch. The weather was changeable, with squally snow showers rushing through, making the temperatures drop below zero and freezing even further. Remnants of sea ice and icebergs were dotted along the shoreline of the island. But the vista these guys had from their nesting areas was stunning. It was getting to a point now where I did not know where to look. The birds were captivating, the scenery was jaw-dropping and the seals were just adorable. I was becoming emotionally drained at this stage. It was getting all a bit too much!

MC__4873 Jim Cierva CoveMC__4873 Jim Cierva Cove

Some people have asked did I hang around with Jim and Peter much when I was on board. Apart from a couple of drinks at the end of the day, and meeting at the coffee machine in the bar when we were motoring along to a new destination, I did not see much of the lads on a daily basis. They were busy working and I was busy standing on the deck freezing my proverbials off or wandering around on my own during the Zodiac landings. This was one of the few times I actually could take a photo of Jim working as I was usually off on a jaunt somewhere else, under guidance from Jim as to where to go on a landing. Having worked for the first time this summer past, I understand now how much time one does NOT have to spend taking photographs as one is far too busy looking after passengers and making sure nobody is straying beyond where they are supposed to be going. Still, I was delighted to catch this image of Jim just as he realised it was me pointing the camera at him.  

MC005120 (1) Antarctic TernMC005120 (1) Antarctic Tern Antarctic Tern riding the wind  MC__4881 PassengersMC__4881 Passengers

The squally showers did not deter my fellow yellow penguins from wandering around, following the marked-out route of luminous flags, which were clearly visible from some distance. There was a feeling and atmosphere of awe from everyone there. It was quite humbling to be stood there, talking it all in. The quietness and scale of the place is impossible to describe. So is the smell from the penguin colonies! The Argentinian base, Camp Livingston, is visible in the image below. Some grounded icebergs were also a treat to see. What was also quite a unique moment to witness was the wedding of a couple of guests! The Captain came ashore and officiated the exchange of vows, with Jim and Colin Baird being the witnesses. Colin insisted that he was best man while Jim was maid of honour! I got the impression that the Captain did not like being on terra firma...

MC__4883 Quark passengersMC__4883 Quark passengers The landing at Livingston Island, with the Argentinian base in the background. There are snow shoes laid out in rows at the landing site.  MC__4920 Cristina PaulMC__4920 Cristina Paul Cristina Mittermeier and Paul Nicklen - incredible people, photographers and conservationists  MC005158 (1) Chinstrap blizzardMC005158 (1) Chinstrap blizzard The squalls produced these rough conditions on the slopes, but the Chinstraps kept waddling along and not bothered by anything. 

MC__5015 Antarctic PassengersMC__5015 Antarctic Passengers

MC__4960 PassengersMC__4960 Passengers MC__5014 SandpiperMC__5014 Sandpiper Colin Baird, a.k.a Sandpiper, walking along the slopes of Livingstone Island, with the M.V. Sea Spirit moored off in the background.  MC__5017 Jim and MarlaMC__5017 Jim and Marla Marla and Jim trying to determine what the plan of action is. It was getting very cold now.    MC__5039 South Polar SkuaMC__5039 South Polar Skua South Polar Skua MC005250 (1) PintadoMC005250 (1) Pintado Pintado off the back of the M.V. Spirit on our return. Beautiful birds. MC005274 (1) EuropaMC005274 (1) Europa The Europa sailed past us on that day, while we were having lunch on the ship. The first time we saw another vessel since South Georgia.  MC__5064 IcebergMC__5064 Iceberg
With everyone safely aboard the ship, we had lunch on the open deck and headed back out into the Bransfield Strait. The Europa, a three-masted sailing ship built in 1911, sailed past us on the horizon. It was the first of only two ships we saw on our South Georgia/Antarctica leg of the trip. It was quite a strange feeling seeing another ship, a reminder of the world that I had left behind and a reminder that the feats of those who journeyed here over 100 years ago were very brave and adventurous souls. As we headed back out into the Bransfield Strait, icebergs began to increase in their size and different colours of white and blue. It was quite something to behold and there were times where I just started laughing, smiling and shaking my head in disbelief that I was actually here, in Antarctica. What was also in the back of my mind was that we were sailing on a stretch of water that was named after a man (Edward Bransfield) born less than 15 miles down the road from where I grew up! It is quite a small world we live in. 

MC005362 Gentoo Head onMC005362 Gentoo Head on MC__5100 Chinstrap colonyMC__5100 Chinstrap colony MC__5127 Chinstrap stoneMC__5127 Chinstrap stone MC__5135 ChinstrapMC__5135 Chinstrap MC__5138 Gentoo PenguinsMC__5138 Gentoo Penguins MC__5142 Chinstrap BWMC__5142 Chinstrap BW MC__5152 Antarctic GentooMC__5152 Antarctic Gentoo MC__5165 Sea Spirit and DaveMC__5165 Sea Spirit and Dave

As we sailed across the Strait to the Aitcho Island Group, we came across some small groups of Humpback Whales and the odd Antarctic Minke Whale or two. It was always exciting to see some blubber surfacing and sending out their plumes of breath. Black-bellied and Wilson's Storm Petrels had increased slightly than on previous days, with Northern and Southern Giant Petrels, Southern Fulmar, Pintado and both Brown and South Polar Skuas flying by the ship. When we approached Barrientos Island, Snowy Sheathbills flew out to the boat for a gander, while a couple of Snow Petrels also flew a couple of times around the ship. The Zodiacs were put down and the scouting party went out to set up the landing. The island hosted both Chinstrap and Gentoo Penguin colonies throughout the island. There were a few Elephant Seals beached up on the rocky shore at our landing site. We were allowed wander around the marked out path on the island for a few hours. So, off I went in search of wonder. 

MC__5186 Gentoo climbMC__5186 Gentoo climb

A Gentoo Penguin begins the trek up to its nesting site along a clearly marked out penguin highway on the snow MC__5199 Gentoos on whaleMC__5199 Gentoos on whale Gentoo Penguins perching on a the vertebrae of a long-deceased Fin or Blue Whale. 

MC__5203 ChinstrapMC__5203 Chinstrap

A Chinstrap Penguin making its way up the slope to its nesting site. A clearly marked highway is at the base of the image.

MC__5205 Gentoo Colony BarrientosMC__5205 Gentoo Colony Barrientos

The Gentoo Penguins nested on the rocky shore but the Chinstraps did not. The penguins lying down on the slope in the background are eating snow. 

MC005319 Gentoo face offMC005319 Gentoo face off MC005333 Chinstrap walkingMC005333 Chinstrap walking MC005394 Gentoo pairMC005394 Gentoo pair

The areas where the penguins were nesting were quickly becoming quite wet mud baths from the defrosted snow and ice, caused primarily by the body heat from the penguins. What was interesting to note was that those penguins that had buried into the snow and earth underneath, were now sitting in a pool of cold water trying to incubate what was probably a lost egg. It is quite remarkable how the feet of these guys don't freeze standing around in freezing mud and the harsh conditions. The colonies are quite independent as well. Any Chinstrap Penguin that decide to navigate through the Gentoo Penguin colony got a good nipping from those that it ran by. This could be become quite aggressive and no holds were barred on some occasions. 

MC005409 South Polar SkuaMC005409 South Polar Skua

A South Polar Skua looking for a unattended egg. 

MC005415 South Polar Skua huntingMC005415 South Polar Skua hunting MC005423 Gentoo cry tripleMC005423 Gentoo cry triple MC005432 South Polar Skua snowMC005432 South Polar Skua snow MC005511 Gentoo head portraitMC005511 Gentoo head portrait MC005597 Southern Giant PetrelMC005597 Southern Giant Petrel

A Southern Giant Petrel also looking for a free meal, flying against the snowy backdrop

The island was criss-crossed with compacted, shiny snow highways that were patted down by the countless journeys the penguins make too and from the sea. We were warned, quite vehemently, NEVER to stand on a penguins highway for fear of putting a big ugly footprint on it, thus creating a nasty hole that these guys could trip up in. I sat down on a slope looking down on a Gentoo Penguin colony for what must have been 30 minutes and just watched. I didn't take any photographs, didn't raise my binoculars, I just watched. It was nice to do that. There was a lot of courtship, bickering, stone carrying, stone stealing, egg laying, egg abandoning, egg stealing and snow eating going on all around me. South Polar and Brown Skuas were flying low overhead and Southern Giant Petrels soaring higher up. It was quite epic against the backdrop of snow-laden slopes and mountain tops. Once again, the only sound one could hear was the cry of the Gentoo and Chinstrap Penguins. It was quite something. 

After a few hours of walking around, we were all beckoned back to the Zodiacs. As always, I was on the last Zodiac back to the ship, my hands frozen solid, my bladder bursting (one is not allowed to relieve oneself when on Antarctica or any of the islands...AT ALL!), my camera batteries draining due to the cold and my mind blown by what my eyes were feasting upon. After dinner, a couple of bottles of beer in the bar with Jim and Peter, I went to bed with a somewhat heavy heart as I knew that the following day was my final day in Antarctica. 

 


Comments

1.Judes(non-registered)
Awesome Mark. Absolutely incredible images.
Lucky lucky you!
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