Union Jacks & Penguins...

Trip Start Oct 05, 2012
Trip End Apr 01, 2013

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Flag of Antarctica  , Antarctic Peninsula,
Monday, January 14, 2013

Mild headaches and bleary-eyes aside, the next morning started as always bright and early with our wake up call at 7.00am. The bay we had anchored in overnight was the location of an old British station called Port Lockroy, which has been restored by the Antarctic Heritage Trust and now functions as a museum and post office for the many ships which stop at it during their trips through Antarctica. The island is home to 4 volunteers working on behalf of the trust, 2 of whom joined us just after breakfast to introduce us to the history of the island and the work which they are undertaking during this summer season. It was really interesting to hear, especially as they are involved in a lot of hands-on conservation and restoration work along with a lot of the ongoing maintenance which is required due to the harsh climate.

After this introduction it was once again time to board the zodiacs and head to Port Lockroy itself. As well as the museum and volunteer accommodation, there was (just for a change!!) a gentoo penguin colony living around the buildings. It wasn't as dense as the one around the Chilean base, but there were a few more chicks here which was great to see. The funniest thing of all though was seeing the Union Jack flying proudly amidst a large number of penguins - not something you see very often at all!!

The real focus for the visit though was the museum and post office/shop. Most of us had written postcards (some of us rather hurriedly in the morning!!) which we could stamp with the special stamps and then post in the Royal Mail post box. There was also the opportunity to buy a whole host of souvenirs, especially as they luckily (or perhaps unluckily for me!!) accepted credit cards rather than the usual $US. I like to think that the money I spent went to supporting a good cause though...

I also spent quite a bit of time wandering around the museum and looking at the restored rooms. These included a kitchen, bathroom, common area, office, and finally the bedroom where they are currently uncovering painted pictures of 1950s pin ups such as Doris Day. It was fascinating seeing the work they do, and also talking in more depth with one of the volunteers about what life is like living on the island.

As only half of us were allowed on the island at any one time, the others had been taken to a neighbouring island where they had visited another penguin colony and an outdoor display of whale bones left over from the whaling days. Once we had finished on Port Lockroy itself, we swapped with the other group and had the opportunity to wander around the other island. First stop was the penguin colony, which also had a number of blue eyed cormorants nesting amidst them. There were again many chicks here, and it was during this that I saw the worst thing I saw during the whole trip. I had been snapping away at 2 adorable chicks sitting between one of their parents legs when I moved my attention to the cormorants. Something out the corner of my eye caught my attention and I turned back to see an evil skua (large brown bird) flying in and grabbing one of the little chicks. It then flew away with the little grey bundle hanging lifelessly from its foot. Some of the others watched as it killed and then ate the chick, but I couldn't. I know it's the circle of life and even skuas have to eat, but it was horrible to see it so close, especially as one of the guides felt it may have been because the parent was distracted by all of us...

Moving on to the whale bones, these made a really interesting display as they'd moved them into a position to assimilate the approximate size and sharp of a whale. All I can say is HUGE!! There also turned out to be a couple of sleeping seals near the whale bone display which was a bit of a surprise.

Pushing through the tiredness, the afternoon sailing to our next destination - the Melchior Islands - was one of the most stunning yet. Brilliant sunshine and the most amazing blue skies appeared shortly after we departed from Port Lockroy, and stayed with us for the rest of the day. As we sailed along it was hard to believe that we were actually there and we weren't part of some cleverly executed stage set. The landscape changed as we went through channels, past icebergs and saw islands with huge glaciers disappearing into hanging clouds. Luckily it was also quite a distance so we had plenty of time to enjoy the view from the decks and a fruitful afternoon for whale spotting. There were many around which we spotted by spurts as they travelled along, although it was difficult to tell which type they were. Everyone was hoping to see orcas though as the night watch early that morning had spotted some passing through.

The afternoon's activity was a zodiac cruise around the bays and coastline of the Melchior Islands. The sea was beautifully calm and the sun meant it was also possible to do away with my trusty tea-cosy hat. We cruised past some chinstrap penguins who were hitching a ride on an iceberg, then found a crab eater seal asleep on another, much bigger iceberg. We then went into some very small channels where we came under fire from some very aggresive Antarctic Terns who were protecting their nests. They were dive-bombing the boats and we thought at one point they were going to attack our heads...!!

The final section took us back along some of the open coastline and we came across a sleeping group of Weddell Seals and some stray Chinstrap penguins. We also got to have a very long distance look at the Drake Passage, which the islands also face onto. It looked very calm, but as our guides quickly told us this meant nothing as the weather can change in a matter of minutes...!!

So, a fairly perfect day all in all but little did we know that the best was yet to come after dinner!! Sarah and I were given advance warning by some of the waiters that whales had been spotted from the bridge so left our desserts and went upstairs. As we got there they made the announcement to the whole of the ship, following which the majority of people abandoned dinner and also headed up. The Captain had agreed to stop and allow us some viewing time as a large number of humpback whales had been spotted in the vicinity. I have no idea how many there were but different groups were visible from all sides of the boat. To the front - and very picturesquely located right in front of the setting sun - we had a group in the distance who's blow was clearly visible. But best of all, was a group of adults and one baby who were very close to the starboard side of the ship who started to engage in some playful dorsel fin slapping on the surface of the water. The sound as they brought their fins down was amazing - it echoed so loudly around the boat. This continued for quite a while and just watching it whilst being bathed in the glow of the setting Antarctic sun was truly special. In fact, it was so perfect that we spent a lot of time trying to guess which of the crew were actually in the 'whale costumes' and providing us with such a good show!!

The Captain eventually said we had to return to our original course as there was quite a distance to travel that night, and so we set off again with many people out on the decks still trying to spot the illusive Orca whales. Another perfect day...!!
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dishy on

Did u meet the girl from Fife who (in an article in the Fife Herald some time ago) was spending the summer in Port Lockyear post office?? Plenty of snow here but no penguins...yet!!

curlsandtales on

I didn't meet anyone who sounded like they were from Fife, but then again we all know accents can be deceiving ;-) shame about no penguins yet, I'm sure a gentoo or 2 would love to set up camp in Pitlair!! Xx

Pigwig on

Poor chick ; (

curlsandtales on

Yes, it was awful. I had words with a man who was gutted he missed it as a photo opportunity. Heartless and male went together in the same sentence... Xx

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