Saturday, 26 November 2016

The South Shetland Islands

Events of Friday, 25th November

Aitcho Island

Having entered the Drake Passage with benign weather conditions on Wednesday evening, we had spent the whole of Thursday continuing the crossing and the weather remained good. Around 6.30 a.m. on Friday, we started to see the South Shetland Island chain. We anchored in the English Strait in the Aitcho Island group at about 7.30 a.m. 'Aitcho’, we were told, stands for ‘H.O.’ or ‘Hydrographic Office’. A ‘wet landing’ was announced for 8.00 a.m. There was some confusion in calling groups to Reception on Deck 3 but, eventually, my group was boarded on one of the larger Zodiacs to be taken ashore with Peter Damisch driving. The sea was quite lively and there was a cold wind. Although Peter took a roundabout route to shore to minimise the spray, we received a fair soaking. Hans Peter took us on a conducted tour of the Gentoo and Chinstrap penguin breeding colonies.

Aitcho Island: A colony of Gentoo penguins. The pink guano indicates a diet of krill.

It was overcast and started to snow – “A typical day in Antarctica” commented Hans Peter. We saw Skuas patrolling between the penguin nests, looking for a chance to steal an egg. A little later, two inquisitive Skuas walked right up to our group, reminding us that they are quite large birds. We passed a time-lapse camera set up on a short pole in the one colony, part of an ongoing research project tracking changes in penguin numbers. Hans Peter then indicated an area we could explore freely (with the usual restrictions applicable to Antarctica) and we spent the rest of the time on shore as we wished, before returning by Zodiac to the ship for an early lunch whilst the ship re-positioned to Halfmoon Island which is also part of the South Shetland Islands.

Aitcho Island: Guests boarding a Zodiac to return to the ship, ignored by the wildlife.

Halfmoon Island

It had been hoped that we would reach Halfmoon Island by 1.00 p.m. but adverse wind meant it was around 1.30 p.m. when we dropped anchor and the start of disembarkation to shore was similarly delayed. A weak sun was shining and a fairly sheltered location meant that it was much more pleasant. Various walking routes had been identified with red flags.

Halfmoon Island: 'Silver Explorer' guests explore the island.

Most of the areas were covered with snow but, fortunately, it was not actually snowing. Deviating from the trodden path by even a few inches risked a wellington-booted foot sinking into the snow up to the top of the boot but I’d taken a trekking pole on this landing and that helped a lot. In places, our marked path crossed ‘penguin highways’ extending from the shore to the top of the adjacent hill and, at these locations, penguins had right of way.

Halfmoon Island: Chinstrap penguins using one of the 'penguin highways'.

The colonies were Chinstrap apart from a single Macaroni Penguin who, we were told, is an annual visitor. Near one of the beaches, a Weddell Seal (with the attractive, innocent face all Weddell’s seem to have) was relaxing on the shingle. When the Expedition Team suggested that we should make our way back to the landing site, I carefully complied and was ferried back to the ship by Zodiac. I was in time to enjoy tea with scones.

At 6.45 p.m. we had our usual recap and briefing. Plans for the following day were somewhat flexible because of uncertainties about the weather. Then, I enjoyed another splendid dinner in the company of an English couple and our knowledgeable Guide and Historian Peter Damisch.

Related Posts

Next post describing this trip: Visiting the Antarctic Peninsula (1).
All posts describing this trip (Chile, Antarctic, Argentina, Brazil): Chilean Fjords.
Just posts on the Antarctic segment: Antarctic Peninsula.

My pictures

Where necessary, clicking on an image above will display an 'uncropped' view or, alternately, my pictures from this (and earlier) trips may be selected, viewed or downloaded, in various sizes, from the albums listed:-

Aitcho Island 2016.
Halfmoon Island 2016.
All my pictures taken in Antarctica on both this visit and my earlier visit in 2008 are in the collection here.

[Links to pictures added, pictures added: 1-Feb-2017]