Published: March 7th 2010January 19th 2010
This morning we awoke to views of Paulet Island from our porthole - after 3 days crossing the Scotia Sea we have made it to Antarctica. By 08:00 we are all on the narrow cobbled beach with 100,000 pairs of Adelie penguins, the whole island is covered with them (but it is only 1 mile in diameter). Its a hive of activity - there are so many penguins trundling between the sea and nest sites that its almost impossible to find space to walk along the beach. Penguins have priority here, if they are crossing the beach you have to stand and wait, then they stop to have a look at you so its stalemate and you just have to wait until they decide to move on. Once they reach the edge of the beach there's a bit of a hold up - leopard seals are patrolling the area, gliding stealthily along between the ice floes, occasionally raising their head to check on the penguins. Big groups of penguins are stomping purposefully up and down the beach to find a seal free launchpad. Every now and then they stop, survey one spot in detail then move on again, its never obvious
Approaching Paulet Island
the whole place is heaving with adelie penguins - all those little black and white speckles are penguins
why they rejected a particular spot. Eventually the mass of penguins at the edge is so big that a nudge from the back sends those at the front tumbling over the edge. Once the first few are safely in the rest start to launch themselves into the water but only for 10 seconds or so then they stop abruptly, have a quickly look around and move off to find another spot.
The beach is so densely packed with penguins we end up taking a zodiac cruise round to the other side of the island. Why? For the birders it was to see the colony of blue-eyed shags, for me it was to see the remains of a small stone hut - yes one of the ones built by members of the Nordenskjold expedition, specifically by the crew of the expedition ship after it sank on their return journey to pick up the overwintering party on Snow Hill (this will make sense to those of you who managed to persevere to the end of the last instalment). The penguins are quite happily nesting in and around the remains and also on the grave of the one member of the expedition
a rare bit of beach with no penguins on it.
who died - its rather sweet really, the penguins are carrying on life just as if man had never been there. Even without these highlights the zodiac cruise is really enjoyable; zipping in and out of the ice floes, getting up close to Weddell seals hauled out on ice floes who just raise a head to look at you for a few seconds then flop back down to carry on dozing, watching the adelies racing up and down the shore line looking for launch-sites then throwing themselves into the sea. But all of these highlights pale into insignificance when a sheath-bill decides to land on the head of one unfortunate passenger and stays there for a good 5 minutes. Its only when it actually starts pecking that somebody chases it off. Everyone seems to find it very amusing, even the zodiac driver and most serious birders are laughing but unfortunately a few people are composed enough to record the event for posterity!!
Back on the ship the rest of the day is spent outside soaking up the scenery and what superb scenery it is. We sail past Vega Island where the Hope Bay and Snow Hill contingents of Nordenskjold's
Paulet Island - penguins on the move
grubby penguins stomping along the beach searching for a suitable launch pad
expedition bumped into each other. We pass lots of fantastically shaped icebergs artistically dripping with icicles and in more shades of blue than you knew existed. We crash through more pack ice on our way to Duse Bay (named after a member of Nordenskjold's expedition - he was one of the 3 men dropped at Hope Bay who were supposed to sled to Snow Hill), on the eastern side of the Antarctic peninsula. Its completely filled with solid pack ice that has trapped towering icebergs within it, land is over 3 miles ways. Along the edge of the ice are great troops of adelie penguins marching along and the sea looks like its boiling there are so many penguins porpoising along. In amongst the swimming adelies are 2 emperor penguins, seeing them together you realise how much larger the emperors actually are. The surface of the sea keeps changing texture, at times it looks like its on the verge of freezing over with the thinnest layer of ice on its surface. Its almost too much to take it, its all so spectacular.
At Cape Burd steep rocky outcrops protrude between the long line of glaciers flowing down to the
frozen sea. At the base of one, where the pack ice stops there's a tiny, snow free, beach. The captain rams the ship into the solid ice to park it, we pile into the zodiacs and head for the beach where we get to set foot on the actual continent of Antarctica. There's lots of snowball throwing and making of snowmen to celebrate standing on the 7th continent. On the way back to the ship we stop to collect pieces of black ice - it so old and compacted there are no air bubbles left in it making it as clear as glass but it comes in the most wonderful sculptural shapes, it makes the perfect centre piece for the ship's BBQ. Everyone merrily parties the night away, dancing on the bow of the ship with the Russian crew.
So here we are at midnight standing on the bow of the ship, drinking G&T with thousands of years old ice in it, gazing out over solid pack ice with mountains in the distance and the occasional penguin wandering past all in gentle evening light - how can it get better than this?
There are more photos below