Day 4 |
Jan 10, 2010

Antarctic Sound – Brown Bluff – Paulet Island

By Franz Bairlein, Ornithologist

Co-ordinates: Brown Bluff 63°32’S, 56°55’W

Weather: Calm but overcast; -4° C (24 °F) at 5 am, partly sunny

Co-ordinates: Paulet Island 63°35’S, 55°47’W

Weather: overcast partly sunny, almost no wind, thus very flat sea.

After sailing through the Antarctic Sound during the night and passing the first tabular icebergs, the Prince Albert II arrived at Brown Bluff at c. 5 am. The site is dominated by a towering rust-colored and ice-capped bluff.

After the scoutboat reported good landing conditions and after setting up the landing site and gear, we disembarked the first two groups of guests at almost flat sea c. 5:30 am. For most guests it was their first step on the Antarctic continent and for many it was their seventh continent they stepped on.

I was assigned to walk with the first group of guests ashore to the Adelie penguin rookery c. 300 m to the north of the landing site. While walking to the rookery, we passed three sites with breeding Gentoo penguins. Some of them have had chicks, but most were still very young, which indicates a late breeding season. This was confirmed when we arrived at the Adelie rookery. Although it appeared that quite a few chicks were around, most of middle age, but some very young, many other were still incubating. As compared to the number of Adelie penguins around and compared to other years, the productivity this season seems to be very low, likely due to the shortage of krill and a severe last winter. Anyhow, watching the behavior of the penguins, their courtship habits, or how they fight to defend their nest territories, was a great moment for the guests as well as for me. Kelp gulls were stealing eggs from the penguins, and I observed one Kelp gull lifting an egg c. 5 m above snow, letting the egg falling down and then eating the contents of the cracked egg. Surprisingly for me, only few Skuas were around the colony. A lonely immature Elephant seal was resting on the shore, surrounded by many waddling penguins.

After visiting the penguins, I joined some guests for a walk to the glacier. We flagged a trail due to some new snow, but mainly because of some melt water beneath the upper layer of snow. Walking across the glacier was a bit bumpy but by no means dangerous. The guests enjoyed the hike very much with beautiful icebergs in the bay below us. A few Giant petrels were resting on the snow, many Cape and a few Snow Petrels were flying around the cliffs, and some 40 Antarctic shags were posting on top of a near-shore rock.

The first group of guests was taken back to the Prince Albert II c. 7:30 am, and the other two groups were taken ashore. After David, our geology lecturer, gave an introduction to the particular geology of the site, I guided the last group of some 25 guests to the Gentoo breeding sites and the Adelie rookery. The weather was still beautiful, it had warmed up a little bit, though still overcast but partly sunny. This time, I joined the shore-party helping guests with their life-vests.

The last Zodiac with the expedition staff and the gear onboard returned to ship c. 10 am, and shortly after, the Prince Albert II departed to sail to Paulet Island.

While sailing through the Fridtjof Sound we passed many spectacular tabular icebergs, and floating sea-ice with quite a few Crabeater seals and a single Leopard seal resting on floating ice, beside many Adelie penguins. Quite a few Wilson’s storm-petrels were feeding in the waters between the floating sea-ice.

At 13:30 the Prince Albert II arrived at Paulet Island, our destination for this afternoon. The sea was calm, thus landing was no problem but the landing site was quite covered by ice. I was assigned to the shore-party, together with Marylou, and so we crashed ice and prepared a safe walk to the bins for the life-vests. Moreover, we flagged a walk along the beach on both sides of the landing site, and uphill to the remains of the historic hut of the Nordenskjöld Expedition and further on the melt lake.

The first two groups of guests were taken ashore c. 14:10 and groups changed c. 16:00. The last Zodiac returned to the Prince Albert II at c. 18:00.

Due to the many penguins and rather mild temperatures, the entire rookery and the area around were very muddy, and I will never forget the smell of the guano. Even far offshore at the Prince Albert II we smelled it.

The Adelie rookery was well occupied and some 250,000 penguins may have been around, but only very few Adelie penguins have had chicks. The food availability around the Peninsula seems even worse than around South Shetland. I observed only a few Snowy sheathbills, several skuas, few Giant petrels, and several Kelp gulls but quite a few Antarctic (Blue-eyed) shags that were breeding on a hill slope west to our landing site. According to a recent record, some 300 pairs of these shags nest here.

At c 18:30 the Prince Albert II lifted anchor to sail back to the South Shetlands and tomorrow’s destination: Half Moon Island.

For the today’s recap, I prepared some facts about the two penguin species that we observed today, but my presentation was skipped and postponed for tomorrow, because the Bridge discovered a lonely Emperor penguin standing on floating ice and reported it to The Theatre. We all went outside, and thanks to Captain Peter who turned the vessel, we got a very nice view of this lonely Emperor – another unexpected highlight of the day because Emperor penguins appear only very rarely in waters this far from the breeding colonies further south on the Antarctic continent.