Arrival in Antarctica

I finally recovered from seasickness enough to stand my watch our very last night in the Drake. It was bitterly cold and pitch dark at at 1900 when I went on deck. A big swell was still running, so Europa was pitching and bouncing around. It is hard to take anything like a decent picture of the sea and ice on a moving ship at night, but here’s one I took later in the trip, with the sea looking rather calmer than it was as we approached the MacFarlane Strait between Greenwich and Livingstone Islands.

I went to the foredeck first by mistake and had just got comfortable, if lonely, when I was called aft, as the swell meant lookout was still being kept from the poop deck. I sat high on the windward side (to port at that moment, or on the left hand side of the ship as you face forward), clipped on, slipping a little every time we rocked to starboard. Hunkered down,  spent 30 seconds rubbing each hand in turn between my knees, before looking round for ten or fifteen seconds. In this way I passed 30 minutes, and when I stood up my back was white with snow.

Arriving was a glorious reward. Yankee Harbour is on the corner of Greenwich Island in the South Shetland Islands, the archipelago scattered to the west of the Peninsula’s tip. The harbour was known to both American and British sealers from as early as 1820 (remembering the continent was only discovered in 1819). It is a small bay made by a shingle spit left over from the wider glaciation of the last Ice Age, and while open to the south east makes a useful sheltered spot. It was certainly calm and restful for us.

The spit rises at one end to a line of sharp-toothed hills, the lower slopes of which are a breeding penguin colony so off-limits. Instead we roamed along the low-lying beach, a gentle start to the rigorous exploratory hikes ahead.  And what an introduction! My notes of the afternoon record my first impressions.

The spit is owned by fur seals and Gentoo penguins with a smattering of skuas and (today) one Weddell seal. Picked-clean fish and penguins litter the beach, where the skuas have feasted. Petrels saunter overhead and the occasional albatross swoops by.

The seals are everywhere, lying about, jousting, flapping their way to the water – where they transform into sinuous hunters. They hump towards you, grunting, their mouths wide open, teeth glowing and nostrils flared. If they come within about 10m, spread your arms and hiss. He hisses back. Growl and he will back off. All fur coat and no knickers! (But beware. They can and do bite.)

The seals don’t like someone between them and the water, or to have people on two sides of them. But otherwise they are unbothered.

The Gentoo penguins, maybe knee high, do that penguin thing of being adorable from any angle, doing absolutely anything: lying on rocks or waddling along, drinking snow or chatting to a pal. All good. Coming up to investigate you when you sit on a rock, so close she can peck your toes if she chooses. Or sliding into the sea to arc and fly. Gorgeous!

 The skuas are up and down, checking all options, leaving smears of blood on the snow. There are skeletons underfoot.

I was a bit excited. In 90 minutes I took over 60 pictures and then put my camera away so I could simply look. These were just my first of many, many pictures of super-cute Antarctic wildlife.

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