Penguin island: supermarket of the South Shetlands

There were several Penguin Islands scattered around the world in the days of sealing and whaling and long distance exploration by sail. The ship would turn up and take away thousands of eggs, and slaughter, salt down and stow hundreds of penguins. Calling a landfall Penguin Island was liking planting a big sign on the chart: here’s the supermarket! 

Today many have been renamed but there are still a few about. Our Penguin Island was back through the Antarctic Sound and then west to where it sits just inside the scimitar blade of King George Island. We anchored there in time for lunch and then went ashore for potentially our last landing south of 60°.

We landed on the rocky beach of a steep volcanic cone watched by fur seals who, here, are very accustomed to visitors. The relative ease of getting here and the abundant bird life make it a popular stop. Chinstrap and Adelie penguins and enormous giant petrels all nest here and of course the skuas and sheathbills are everywhere.

 

We also saw quite a bit of vegetation: mosses and lichens and tiny grasses, which were very exciting for being the first green we had seen since leaving Cape Horn 12 days earlier. In the glory of sunsets and the infinite shades of blue and white, it can be possible to overlook the pleasure of chlorophyll-using species.

At the fringes of the cones are small freshwater lakes very popular with the wildlife as drinking is always easier than eating snow. The chinstraps gather on the fringes, looking beautiful and ignoring the clicking cameras. Giant petrels soar overhead. Skuas squabble, hunched and bossy. It was quiet that day, compared to many places, because so few penguins are left, amplifying the raucous skua cries and the crunch of boots on volcanic grit.

 

Above the lakes the cone rises steeply. The grit is red and black and ochre and beige, all sorts of colours blending in a shag-pile-rich russet-brown. Slightly deeper than firm wet sand it is a pleasure to walk on, if noisy. Climbing the cone of Penguin Island, about 180m high, is not hard, though the last part is steep. At the top, the crater is magnificent with its flour-like inner cone and its one gummy tooth sticking from the rim. Some of the Europa crew, walking on the far side of the ridge, show that we stand in the giant’s maw.

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