South Shetland Islands
The 2nd instalment in a photo-blog series taken from our Antarctica Small Ship Expedition. Part 2 is about the first days in the wildlife-rich, spectacular - yet often overlooked neighbour to the Antarctic Peninsula mainland - the volcanic South Shetland Islands
Antarctica at last… and is this really Antarctica?
So, after the couple of rolling days on the ‘Dreaded Drake’ we have reached our first landfall, in the South Shetland Islands. Looking out from the cabin window it certainly looks very Antarctic-like, with lots of snow and ice-covered mountains and floating bergy bits strewn from nearby glaciers. But since we have not reached the mainland yet, is this really ‘Antarctica proper’?
This archipelago of over twenty, impressive volcanic islands, separated from the Peninsula by the 100-km wide Bransfield Strait, offer a captivating first glimpse for most visitors into the wonders of the southernmost continent. Extending some 300 km in a north-easterly arc, the islands are governed by the Antarctic Treaty, just as for the rest of the continent – and all areas south of the 60th degree parallel. And since we have also crossed both the Antarctic convergence into the cold polar waters, we are very much in Antarctica!
The islands have what is a relatively mild climate for Antarctica and a very diverse breeding ground for many species, with the most notable being various species of seals and penguins. Among the most populous are the chinstrap penguins, with some colonies numbering in the hundreds of thousands. In addition to these, gentoo and Adélie penguins also nest on the islands. These penguins rely heavily on the krill populations in the surrounding waters for survival. Other important seabird species include various petrels, skuas, and sheathbills.
The South Shetland islands beckon with their raw and untouched beauty: jagged ice-clad peaks pierce the sky, colossal glaciers calving into the frigid sea, and pristine white landscapes stretch as far as the eye can see. Mount Friesland is the highest peak, located on Livingston Island and standing at about 1,700 meters (5,580 feet).
We have now arrived off Yankee Harbour, which lies between Glacier Bluff and Spit Point on the southwest side of Greenwich Island. This protected harbour is enclosed by a curved, stone and gravel bar and was known to American and British sealers as early as 1820. A tripot from early sealing activities can be seen on the spit, nowadays kept company by resting Southern elephant and fur seals. There are raised beach terraces located about 10 m 33 ft) above the landing site, which are occupied by up to 4000 breeding pairs of Gentoo penguins – some of whom we are about to meet!
This first landing day was marked by improving weather that rapidly opened up into sparkling sunshine. Preparations for landing commence straight after breakfast – a few announcements, and everyone quickly hauls themselves into outer jackets, over-pants, and rubber boots kindly provided by the ship. Trying not to forget life vests, everyone heads downstairs to the embarkation deck to and its short gangway platform. The setup on the Ocean Nova is really simple – with a firm handhold from the sailors it is a straightforward step into the Zodiacs, and then sit down on the rubber pontoon sides. These Zodiacs are truly the key to all Antarctica expeditions. Safe, stable and versatile, we will be using these craft for all our shore excursions, sightseeing cruises and whale watching to come. It is a really different perspective to see the ship from low down at water level. Our driver takes us ashore on a short ride and soon we hear the crunch of loose sand and pebbles at the shoreline.
After a briefing from the expedition leader, we step ashore – for many, a first-ever time ashore in Antarctica. The long spit of smooth pebbles stretches some hundrads of metres towards the main penguin colony and we can see already near us a few restless fur seals and wandering penguins. Distant, booming sounds from local calving glaciers can be heard.
Gorgeous Gentoo penguins definitely starred in our morning’s landing. Gentoos are a fascinating species of penguin recognizable by their bright orange-red bills and prominent white patches above their eyes. They are the third largest penguin species and with a distinctive, lengthy tail. When walking, the tail sweeps from side to side, giving the Gentoo a comical, waddling gait.
The most iconic aspect of a Gentoo is probably its distinctive call, used in courtship and mate recognition. This call is a loud, trumpeting noise rather like a donkey's bray. It often starts off low, then rises in pitch, and then falls back down again, usually lasting for several seconds. The bird will typically stretch its neck skyward, often waving its head from side to side during the call. It's worth noting that each penguin's call is unique, which allows members of a pair or a family to recognize each other amongst the large, noisy colonies. This seems almost incomprehensible when they are all calling at once!
At this end of summer, most of the penguins we saw here in Yankee Harbour were in their moulting phase, standing calmly or waddling along the pebbly beaches, exploring amongst the strewn brash ice. But many of the larger fluffy chicks are still chasing parents around for food. A few fur seals and several large huddles of massive, snorting elephant seals completed the setting, while skuas roamed overhead. These predatory south polar skuas are ever-present near penguin colonies, constantly circling in search of stray chicks, eggs or other food.
Our first penguin ‘fix’ and cameras on shutter overload for the morning, we head back to the ship for a well-earned lunch!
During the afternoon the ship moves a short distance over to Half Moon Island, a protected volcanic bay lined by orange lichen covered basaltic columns, with the majestic glacial backdrops of Livingstone and Greenwich Islands. This 2 km-long, crescent-shaped island is home to approximately 3300 breeding pairs of Chinstrap penguins. Antarctic terns, Skuas, Kelp gulls, Wilson’s storm petrels and Blue-eyed shags also breed at this site, nesting in rock crevices or beneath boulders. Lastly, the snow-white sheathbills - which are the only land birds native to Antarctica – are often seen scavenging around penguin colonies. Fur seals are often present on the beaches, along with the occasional presence of Weddell and Elephant seals. The Argentine Cámara Station is located on the southwest side of the island.
Once ashore, we take off for a gentle stroll over several hours to explore the surroundings. The Kayak group also heads off for their first excursion, as well as some keen hikers to the highest peaks. On the island in several places there are hundreds of chinstrap penguins, perched on high, volcanic outcrops. We enjoyed several hours gently ambling amongst the rocks and taking photographs. Whale bones scattered here and there are also a testimony to an exploited past. Several fur seals provide very photogenic scenes and even more so some very young elephant seals lying along the shore, with their enormous, glistening eyes. It is an amazing afternoon, in full sunshine and blue skies, with plenty of time to admire the penguins, glaciers and scenery. A true paradise. Nobody wants to return to the ship!
Once we are all finally onboard, there is is certainly a deal of excited talk in the lounge area and a recap of the day from the expedition team before dinner. Today we have really seen and experienced the real advantages of small ship expedition cruising! We have spent many hours ashore at two different landing sites – with no rush, no crowds, and no groups. After only one day of landings, it feels like everyone is already in routine – and very much in what I like to describe as a kind of Antarctic ‘bubble’ – with the rest of the world feeling distant and the only things that matter being the enjoyment of our encounters with the wildlife and environment of the polar regions.
Our first-day of landings were as described above, however all trips to Antarctica are different and the South Shetlands islands have many other landing sites with diverse experiences. King George Island, which is largest in the archipelago, is home to research stations from various countries. This island is of significant scientific interest due to the presence of the Fildes Peninsula, one of the most studied regions in Antarctica with its diverse geological and geomorphological features. The island also offers sights of Adelie and Gentoo penguins, various seals, and a range of Antarctic birds. Livingston Island, famous for Hannah Point, is another site that allows a close view of gentoo and chinstrap penguins, as well as elephant and fur seals. It also features large colonies of Antarctic petrels. There are many glaciers covering the island, and they are studied for changes indicating wider climate trends. The Aitcho Islands are another popular landing site known for its penguin colonies, elephant and Weddell seals.
The South Shetlands are comprised of several dormant and most famously, one active volcano, Deception Island, a collapsed volcanic caldera, with its fascinating geology, history, and wildlife. (Deception Island is the subject of a separate and more detailed blog to come!)
The whole archipelago is a volcanic island arc system, created by the subduction of the oceanic crust of the Pacific Plate beneath the continental crust of the South American Plate. During this process, the denser oceanic plate has been forced down into the earth’s mantle, melting due to high pressures and temperatures, forming magma and volcanic eruptions. Over millions of years, these volcanic islands have been sculpted and reshaped by erosional forces including glaciers. The islands' formation and ongoing geological activity offer valuable insights into plate tectonics and geothermal processes. They serve as an important research location for understanding the dynamics of Earth's geology and predicting potential future volcanic activity and its impact on the delicate Antarctic ecosystems.
Another unique aspect of the South Shetland Islands is its importance as an air-cruise hub. All the Antarctic Air-Cruises fly in here from Chile using the airstrip facilities at King George Island. Indeed, our own vessel Ocean Nova undertakes such expeditions for much of the season – flying straight into Antarctica and joining the ship and then flying home afterwards. For myself, I don’t mind the Drake Passage and even enjoy the time spent at sea to prepare for Antarctica – but there are no doubt some people very happy to skip the Drake Passage crossings.
During the evening and overnight, we cross the Bransfield Strait, the ship keeping a careful pace to avoid collisions with marine mammals and indeed, we are rewarded with several sightings of whales along the way. Tonight, most people might be dreaming about our next big goal… the mainland. What an exciting day it has been! Now that we have reached Antarctica and are truly ‘on expedition’… who knows what tomorrow will bring?
To be continued in Part 3…
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