Wow, wow, wow...

Trip Start Jul 21, 2009
Trip End Apr 28, 2010

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Really, I´m not leaving that boat

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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Early Morning: The Kodak Gap

Our first ´"activity" of the day was an early morning before-sunrise passage of our ship through the Lemaire Strait -- otherwise known as The Kodak Gap.  This scenic narrow channel is about seven miles long, with Booth Island on one side and the peninsula on the other side.  At the narrowest point, it´s under a mile wide (which still sounds very wide, but doesn´t feel like it when you´re on a boat with mountains on each side).  It got the nickname Kodak Gap due to it´s extremely photogenic scenery.  
It took us almost a half hour to pass through, and it was indeed scenic, with mountains, glaciers, iceburgs and even brief glimpses of penguins and whales in the water.  At least in my camera, though, it didn´t quite live up to it´s name -- I´ve taken more pictures elsewhere!

Morning: Petermann Island

Our landing for today was at a place called Petermand Island.  It´s a small island, of historic value because Charcot (an explorer) spent a winter here once, and there´s now a small red hut on the island as a result.  It also happens to be home to a colony of gentoo penguins (are you surprised?) and home to some nice views.  But of course, none of those are the reason why we were here. Also on this island is a small colony of Adélie penguins -- a type which we hadn´t seen yet.

Compared to Gentoo penguins, Adélie penguins start and end their breeding season earlier, and the bulk of them are at this point already gone for the winter.  On the last expedition, there were 8 left, so we kept our fingers crossed that they hadn´t packed their bags and moved on quite yet.

To get to where the Adélies have their colony, we had to hike to the corner of the island.  It was a short and easy hike, but the landscape was amazingly desolate -- rocky rolling hills, covered with six inches of fresh snow, a cold light snow blowing from the sky, and mountains and iceburgs looming in the background -- it definately felt like we had reached the end of the world.  (As a sidenote, I learned later that this is one of the more popular landing sites, and can see up to 11,000 visitors each year.  But it sure didn´t feel that way!)

As we approached the far side of the island, a single Adélie penguin poked it´s head up over a hill.  She ducked and hid behind a rock, popped up one more time, then dissappeared.  Our guide went to look, and we eventually saw her -- quite a ways away, and making a mad dash for the ocean.  And just like that, our first (and possibly only) Adélie penguin was gone. 

Never ones to give up quickly, we continued our hike, hoping to find another Adélie mixed in amongst the Gentoos.  Eventually, someone with binoculars spotted one way off in the distance, laying in the snow, with a third nearby.  Although I could see them when they moved, I couldn´t even figure out what dark fleck in my photo was supposed to be the penguin.  Our total was up to three, but numbers two and three were "just barely".  As we were shifting around trying to get a better look, someone exclaimed "look" and pointed behind us.

Coming straight at the group, at close range, was an Adélie penguin!  Sucess!  Cameras snapped like crazy as the penguin waddled past us to a set of rocks by the sea.  As the penguin reached the rocks, the group closed in in a semi-circle for a closer look, while the penguin looked at the sea.  For a few minutes, it appeared that he was going to jump in, but after the first few false attempts, he backed off, and turned arround.  Behind him, however, was a group of tourists with cameras, so he turned back to the sea.  And almost jumped.  This went on for about 10 or 15 minutes:  the penguin wavering between the decision to jump or not to jump.  Every time a wave splashed him, he backed off, and you could almost see him psyching himself out of jumping into the cold water.  Finally, though, he jumped in, and everyone on shore sighed -- no more pictures!

Quite satisified with our penguin viewing, John and I left the group and started to head back, planning to explore the other side of the island.  As we were walking back, though, someone pointed to the right -- a fifth penguin!  Not only that, but this one was coming our way, and it stopped to stare:  we were in the way.  Seeing that it wanted to cross our path, I took several large steps back to make space, and immediately the penguin waddled out into the path.  And then it stopped.  Perhaps 10 feet away, it simply stopped and stared at me.  After a few pictures, I took a 20 second video of the bird checking me out, and it still didn´t move.  It contemplated me for a bit longer, then finally ran away, continuing in it´s original direction.  In fact, it was headed towards where the rest of the group was and continued to put on quite a show over there, too.

Now we were quite happy with our penguins, so John and I continued to the other side of the island.  Walking through a short pass, then turning left and walking the length of a glacier, we arrived at the top of a small hill.  There we sat down and joined a group watching iceburgs and, on an island in the distance, four fur seals.  Two of the seals were fighting, so this was good entertainment for a while. 

After a few minutes of watching the seals fight, our guide pointed out that there was another seal approaching behind us, if we wanted to see.  So of course, everyone turned, and sure enough, a male fur seal was climbing up the snowy hill towards us.  And further up the hill.  And closer.. and closer... eventually the guide realized the seal was going to get waaayyy too close, and he needed to go down.  So, standing about 10-15 feet below us, at the bottom of the little hill, he starts waving his arms, and having a chat with the seal;  something to the effect of "go away, we were here first!"  As the seal continuted to approach, the chat picked up in volume and arm-waving intensity, and finally the seal (now within about 8-10 feet of the guide) made a few hissing noises, then turned to chase some penguins.  The penguins ran away, but the seal wasn´t detered -- he continued a bit further on, scared away a few more penguins, and eventually made his way back to the sea. 

On our walk back across the glacier, we encountered one sad, lost looking Gentoo penguin.  He was headed the opposite direction as us, and he looked near to death.  He was molting, and walking rather pitifully, falling over every few steps.  Compared to his size and state, the glacier looked depressingly long, windy and baren, and I couldn´t help but wonder if he would make it.  It´s amazing the conditions that these little guys live in -- you have to be impressed that any of them make it at all!

Afternoon:  Shades of Blue

Our afternoon activity was another zodiac cruise.  In a light snow, we set out through the bay just south of Booth Island to check out iceburgs.  This area is particularly shallow, so iceburgs get stuck here, and there´s a great collection of shapes and sizes.  Most of them were quite large, somewhere between the size of a small house or a medium grocery store.  They varied from smooth, wave-like looks, sculpted by the wind, to layered or finned or irregular shapes.  Depending on their look, age, density and such, they had varying colors from white to clear to many, many shades of blue -- overall they were quite pretty!

We even stopped to touch one, although there´s nothing major to report there -- it was cold, as you would expect.

There was relatively little wildlife in this area, and the "only" thing we saw was a group of Gentoo penguins swimming and jumping in the water.

As we returned to the ship, and the other group went out to cruise, there was a break in the clouds, and the setting sun could be seen behind the bay of iceburgs -- a beautiful end to the day!

Late Afternoon:  Lemaire Strait

Did I say end of the day?  I forgot about our final activity for the day:  another transit through the Lemaire Channel, this time from the south to north.  In the afternoon light, the strait was even more beautiful, and the iceburgs, glaciers and mountains were spectacular.  The mountains, in many places, were too steep for snow, yet wedged into the crevaces between them were impossibly steep glaciers -- fantastic!

This was followed by a nice sunset, then a beautiful moon, and that was the end of the day. 
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vivacious09 on

Wow. Looking forward to seeing that video of the penguin checking you out!

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