(This blog is in an unconventional format: The dates displayed are actual trip dates - not post dates.)

Monday, January 3, 2011

Welcome to Antarctica

January 24, 2010
62°36″S, 59°55″W

There was something subtly different about the deck. After a day and a half of moving around like it were a bull at a rodeo, it was now a simple matter of choosing a direction to walk and going - no more of that brownian motion stuff. After reaching the front of the top deck in record time, I could see a huge mass of cloud was welling up over the peaks of Livingstone island in front of us, spilling down towards our first landing site - Half Moon island. I was nervous like a child who's anticipated day at the park was about to be disrupted by rain. As the island drew closer over the next thirty minutes, the sky mercifully cleared.

Half Moon Island is a relatively flat platform of rock and shale pebble cradled in the arms of the huge, glacier covered Livingstone. On the eastern side of the island some small craggy hills sit above the remaining snow, but they are so vastly overshadowed by the mountains of Livingstone behind them that they look completely insignificant. Sweeping around to the west, an Argintine base, with its characteristic red buildings and flag-coloured tin roofs, stands on one of the flatter parts of the island.

I remember the ship Historian taking my arm in a sailor's grip as I stepped down from the landing boat, he said to me: "Welcome to Antarctica". I took a few careful steps up a litterheap of stones and pebbles and stopped. I'd like to say I took a deep breath of the pristine, untainted air, but instead there was a hint of fish on the nose. I looked over to the right, and standing not too far away, a similar distance from the shore was a solitary Chinstrap Penguin - like me, contemplating the walk up to the higher part of the island.

Looking the other direction a few more chinstraps were waddling from stone to stone, occasionally stopping to measure up a hop to the next. They moved up and around a wrecked whaler's boat lying above the tideline - a relic of late 19th / early 20th century, before the invention of the harpoon. Following the lead I moved up the incline in a somewhat less waddle-like gait.

I say less waddle-like, because I'd taken a risk and chosen not to dress like the Michelin Man - a decision that made me feel a little less like I'd just gotten off a boat full of tourists. Sometimes the thought of being in Antarctica can work a sense of stupidity into your thinking when it comes to temperature - and it was, after-all, a warm 5 degrees. I remembered taunting a colleague who was travelling to Chicago at the same time of year, and smiled. I was wearing a set of themals under my thin water-proof pants, two thin layers of Merino Fiber on top, gloves & beanie, and finally my ship-issue wind & waterproof blue jacket. This was, at times, overkill.

At the top of my ascent, I stopped at the foot of the first penguin rookery. It was a red-coloured craggy rock jutting up from the surrounding snow and pebble, covered in fat, roosting Chinstrap Penguins. You might initially think the deep redness comes from the iron content of the rock, but on closer inspection it is in fact piles of penguin faeces that have built up in these spots in small incremental squirts over the passing millenia. And it stinks. But even such smell is overcome by the amazing sight of these fat flightless birds tending their chicks and fighting over personal space.

Staying a careful distance behind a penguin who was running along a penguin highway (and was occasionally stopping to curiously eye the huge blue penguin following) I made my way around the island, and up a rocky passage between two crags. Convoys of Chinstraps made their way through the narrow pass, bound for their own special piece of shit-covered rock. 
One of the key rules here is that you always give way to penguins. With several thousand constantly re-gifting belly-loads of krill into the demanding mouths of the youngsters, as you might imagine, there was a bit of a traffic jam. And those that walk up from the water aren't fast either. They're carrying a good few kilos of seafood buffet, which is a mighty proportion of their normal bodywieght. Standing fifty or so centimetres tall, they have the perfect fat-man run, complete with stop-suddenly-to-catch-some-breath. Its not unusual to see a penguin sleeping halfway up the climb.

I reached the other side and found myself sitting on a large rock - high enough to be out of reach for a penguin, and thus a distinctly undecorated seat. It was perched at the edge of a long slope of snow, covered with the tiny imprints of penguin feet. Take the time to examine the colour of the slope - yes, that's right, snow is not that colour. A lot of what you can see was, until recently, fish. As it is so easy to do here, I lost track of time. Chinstraps came in numbers up the slope, paying little attention to me silently watching from my rock only meters away.

A short walk along the beach on the far side of the island, and a climb up some jaggered rocks delivered me right to the heart of a large penguin rookery with three-hundred and sixty degree views of the island. Within meters in every direction I was surrounded by Chinstrap penguins in their hundreds, most with two chicks nestled right at their feet, some sleeping, some fighting with their sibilings for a share of the fish chowder. This is, after all, what these penguins are here to do. The food is so abundant in these waters that it is a perfect place to provide these fat, hapless furballs the truckloads of food they require to stay alive. It's still early in the season, and these chicks are still extremely small and immobile. In amongst the rabble a single maccaroni penguin stood silently and majestically, far from home, like it was in a bar full of strangers and their noisy children.

I looked at my watch, and turned for what would soon become an all too familiar run back to the landing site.

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