Day 4 |
Feb 12, 2010

Barrientos Island In The Aitcho Group And The Bransfield Strait

By Will Wagstaff, Ornithologist

Weather: Calm and overcast to start day but clearing to a beautiful sunny day by early afternoon.

Our original plans for the day took a slightly different turn during the night as the Prince Albert II encountered some heavy pack ice in the Bransfield Strait, which meant that we could not continue into Antarctic Sound as planned. So, very early in the morning, whilst we were sleeping, the Captain and Expedition Leader Robin had to reschedule our day.

The result was that just before breakfast we were heading for a landing on Barrientos Island in the Aitcho group in the South Shetland Islands. Announcements were made informing all about our new plans and before long we were on our way in the scout boat.

Zodiac groups one and two followed shortly afterwards with three and four later in the morning. I led the first group up off the beach on our first penguin encounter where the familiar smell of an active penguin colony soon became evident. The Gentoo penguins, with their distinctive white blaze across the top of their heads, were the most apparent as they gathered in groups at the top of the beach. Some had come ashore to moult at the end of the season before heading out to sea for the winter whilst others were crèches of young birds that were waiting for their parents to come back with more food.

It was around the latter that the skuas, giant petrels and gulls could be seen, with the Snowy Sheathbills wandering here and there on the lookout for a tasty titbit. In with the Southern Giant Petrels gathered on the beach was one of the small percentage that are nearly totally white in colour. A little later we saw it in flight, looking like a ghost as it flew by, although getting airborne was not easy for these amazing fliers today, as it was too calm for their normal gliding flight.

As we walked, we started to encounter more and more Chinstrap penguins on their way up the slope to their breeding grounds. A few were still displaying, shaking their heads and calling whilst waving their flippers slowly back and fore, but most were looking after the chicks that seemed to be continually begging for food.

The young Gentoo penguins were often involved in ‘food chases’ as they scampered after their parent until away from the colony where they would be fed. It was worth standing quietly for a moment or two to listen to the variety of noises coming from these active colonies. From the loud squawks of the adults, to the high-pitched calls of the young penguins, to the more guttural noises of the skuas as they roamed around the colonies on the lookout for food.

Mammals were not forgotten with two Antarctic Fur Seals asleep on the moss bank and a further two coming ashore on the far beach. Some Elephant Seals were hauled out on the beach of a nearby island and two Minke Whales put in a brief appearance near the ship.

Once everyone was back aboard we set sail out into the Bransfield Strait through some rather pretty sunlit snow scenery on our way to look for some tabular icebergs.

In mid-afternoon we approached the pack ice that had halted us in the night but in the daytime it was a spectacular sight with some large tabular bergs amid a mass of sea ice. The Captain took the ship in close for us to get a view of one such tabular berg where very unusually a flock of Antarctic Petrels were roosting high on the slopes. In the bright sunshine it seemed everything could be an amazing photograph. We slowly left this area nudging some of the sea ice out of the way as we headed back to open water. As we did so we came across an Antarctic Fur Seal hauled out on a small floe that eventually realised we were there before lumbering to the far side of the ice and swimming off now that its afternoon siesta had been disturbed. In the further distance we also saw another Fur Seal and an equally hard-to-see Crabeater Seal.

On the way to the pack ice we had glimpsed some distant whale blows but one of the two Humpback Whales we found as we left the ice showed very well as it slowly cruised in front of the ship. After showing its tail flukes a few times it decided that it would give us a show by breaching three times in succession very close to the bow to the delight of all those one the foredeck.

As we left the area we cruised up to a slightly smaller berg that had a group of Chinstrap and Gentoo Penguins roosting on top. As we arrived, they swam in and delighted all by showing how they leapt out of the water and managed to get a grip before joining the others on top. However, to top it all, within thirty minutes the Captain had taken us to be bow-on to another massive iceberg, again with a small flock of penguins roosting on its lower slopes. This berg was a mass of blue and white stripes of varying hues making it a spectacular sight in such calm seas and well worth delaying our Recap & Briefing until we had our fill of this magnificent scene.

Following Robin’s introduction to our plans for the morrow the Captain told us about his ‘Open Bridge’ policy and to welcome us to visit his work place. Kara then gave us an introduction to the Great Whales of the Antarctica before Stefan summarised the volcanic geology we had seen this morning on Barrientos Islands. It was then time for dinner watching the sunset giving the large icebergs a lovely pink glow as the evening progressed.