Day 3 |
Jan 31, 2010

Drake Passage, Just Northwest Of South Shetland Islands, Antarctica

By Peter W. Damisch – Historian, General Naturalist & Cartographer

Weather: Overcast with some light snow showers

Air Temperature: - 2o C (29o F)

Sea Temperature: - 1o C (30o F)

Pressure: 974 Hpa

Wind: 45 Km / hour

I took a quick look outside early this morning to confirm that overnight the Prince Albert II had crossed the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC).  This is the cold water boundary that biologically divides the Antarctic ecosystem from the rest of the world.  The ACC’s much colder water surrounds the continent and it is often the case that we encounter a bit of fog near this boundary as the relatively warmer air condenses slightly over the ocean. Perhaps one good analogy to this phenomenon is to breathe on the side of a glass of ice water where your warmer breath ‘fogs up’ the sides.

Another nice result of our new surroundings has been the appearance of many Cape Petrels soaring behind the ship. I could see literally dozens of these beautiful birds riding the air currents hour after hour. Another name for these lovely creatures is ‘Pintado’ which refers to the wonderful and varied white markings across the upper portion of their ‘painted’ wings.

Also on the agenda for the morning was our standard Antarctic bio-security check for everyone on board. This important task, also sometimes known as a ‘vacuuming party’, allows the Expedition Team to review all items going ashore in the Antarctic. In this manner we can ensure that we do not inadvertently carry any foreign material such as seeds, mud, etc. from any other biosphere to the pristine continent of Antarctica. I helped review and clean items for as long as I could before rushing up to The Theatre to set up for my morning presentation titled ‘Search for the Continent’.

There was a great turnout for this presentation, which reviewed some of the key people who worked so hard to begin exploration of the Southern Ocean and the Antarctic more than a century ago. Instead of focusing on specific dates, I try to provide some emotional context and linkages with the explorers of the past. In fact, the waters that we are sailing in are the exact same area and same time of year in which the South Shetland Islands were discovered almost exactly 191 years ago. As always, my presentations tend to have a bit of humor along with more than a few fun tales about the hidden ‘real stories of the normal history’.

My early visit outside for some bird watching also confirmed that the waves and seas had become much more calm in the Drake Passage than the day before as the ship was riding about as smoothly as I have ever seen. I wandered up to the Bridge to confirm what I had expected; the Captain had taken advantage of the smaller waves to increase the ship’s speed. Then the Captain and Expedition Leader further improved our opportunities by rearranging the ship’s schedule to permit an additional, unplanned landing for the afternoon. This flexibility is just one of the wonderful surprises that can come from expedition cruising.

The Expedition Team and ship’s crew, as always, responded quickly to the new plans and soon the Zodiacs were in the water and I was heading to shore in the scout boat. This type of reconnaissance is always done to evaluate the conditions and safety of each landing site in advance of any guests coming ashore.

Our surprise landing came on Barrientos Island in the Aitcho Islands, which are part of the South Shetland Islands just off the Antarctic Peninsula. I had the privilege to lead groups across the island, over a small hill or saddle and down to the other side while providing some interpretation of the new sights that we all had a chance to experience. Of course, the primary interest was initially the Gentoo and Chinstrap penguin colonies, as this site offers us the unique opportunity to observe two different penguin species on our first day in the Antarctic.

At this time of the year, the penguin chicks are getting quite large as well just beginning to waddle some distance away from their parents. However, the parents still continue to be on constant guard against skuas, a brown bird that preys primarily on penguin chicks.  In addition to discussing penguin breeding behavior, I was also able to point out Snowy Sheathbills as well as one Giant Petrel that was soaring overhead.

One additional surprise for all of us was the appearance of an Antarctic Fur Seal. Unfortunately they were exterminated in the Antarctic Peninsula back in the early 1800s and are now only very slowly starting to repopulate the area from colonies in South Georgia Island. Thus it is quite a treat to see one at one of our landing sites. We also were able to observe one Elephant Seal sleeping on a small patch of snow as well as one that swam along the beach before returning to the sea.

All in all it was a great day, especially as a result of being able to place an additional landing on our calendar. During the evening recap I previewed one of our planned landings for tomorrow by reviewing the Nordenskjold Expedition, which had part of their team trapped for a winter in a small stone hut. We hope to visit this hut in the morning after transiting the always beautiful and dramatic Antarctic South, which is filled with huge tabular icebergs.