Day 8 |
Dec 19, 2011

Deception Island – Whalers Bay & Bailey Head

By Liz Bradfield, Naturalist

Co-ordinates: S 62˚53, W 61˚38’
Weather: light breeze, mist, clear
Air Temperature: 1.2˚ C

What a day. What a morning. I woke up well before our scheduled landing, wanting to see the dramatic entrance to Deception Island. Neptune’s Bellows never disappoints. Mist clung to the brown pillars of rock, penguins porpoised through the sea, and turquoise water surged among the shoreline.

The whole of Whalers Bay, a protected cove inside Deception Island, was steaming. It was low tide, and the geothermal activity of this old caldera was revealed. For the past few days, we’d been sailing through landscapes of dramatic white glaciers, but now the shore was black. When we stuck our fingers into the loose sand, the warm water tingled and sulphur tinged the air in a pleasant, mineral-spa kind of way. We were in another world.

I walked the shoreside with a group toward Neptune’s Window, where the American sealer Nathanial Palmer first saw (in theory) the Antarctic Continent. We couldn’t see much beyond the rocks themselves, but I am always thrilled by the chittering calls of cape petrels as they fly in and out of their nesting crevices. One of my favorite phrases in the bird books is “mostly silent at sea”—you see this in description after description of pelagic birds. But here, on land, the petrels were anything but silent.

At the landing site, almost thirty guests took the polar plunge. Some with shrieks, some rolling and lolling in the warmer shallows. It was a perfect day for a dip in the Southern Ocean’s waters—not too windy, not too chilly.

Our afternoon plan was to head for Half Moon Island where there’s a rookery of chinstrap penguins. However, when we left Whaler’s Bay, the sea seemed calm. On the Bridge, I scouted the shore ahead with the Captain, Expedition Leader, and others. Was it calm enough? We could see hordes of chinstraps marching along the shore at Bailey Head, Antarctica’s largest rookery of these most wonderful of flightless birds. Maybe it was calm enough. Maybe. Robin, our Expedition Leader, headed toward shore in a Zodiac to check it out. Yes, the answer came back. We could land.

So, instead of a casual lunch and an easy afternoon, we scrambled into boats in true expedition style. The luck of this fantastic voyage continues—there are only a few times a year that conditions permit us to land at Bailey Head. We headed in. The shoreside was dramatic, with large swells rushing up the steep, black sand, but it was doable. On the beach, hordes of penguins marched along, surfed in, dashed out, and generally milled.

Bailey Head not only offered us about 100,000 breeding pairs of chinstrap penguins today, but also one lone macaroni penguin. A macaroni! First emperors, now this. Each group of guests that came ashore was able to pick out the bright orange/yellow brow of this oddball. Of course, to see one misplaced macaroni was not our goal… we walked in to the amphitheater of rocks and found there chinstraps bending low to feed their fuzzy, funny, odd-winged newly-hatched chicks. Other adults were huddled over eggs about to hatch, and still others were crowing and calling and raising their beaks to marauding skuas. It was overwhelming.

Unfortunately, we could not stay all day. The window of calm-ish weather was passing, the Drake Passage lay ahead of us, and we needed to move on. Back aboard the Silver Explorer, I settled in for a couple of days at sea, looking forward to perhaps seeing some more wandering albatross in the great winds of the circumpolar current, but Antarctica had another surprise ahead of us.

As our evening recap was winding down, word came from the Bridge that a couple of humpback whales were traveling slowly along. Whales! I rushed down for my jacket, binoculars, and camera, then back up to look. The two whales were not in any hurry. They shifted to and fro, rolling and offering a pectoral flipper to the sky just as our interest waned. I was able to get a photograph of one whale’s fluke that will hopefully be of use to the researchers who maintain the Antarctic Humpback Whale Catalogue. Meanwhile, gray-headed and light-mantled sooty albatrosses kept distracting me from my cetacean observations. I can’t even pretend that I was annoyed, because seeing a duet of sooties flying over the bow is something no one can fail to appreciate.

At last, we needed to continue on. But what an afternoon! What a day! I’m sure that each of us has our favorite moments, but for me, to be able to see and document humpbacks in the southern hemisphere really steals the show. If our observations today can be of help in understanding the worldwide movements and habits of large baleen whales, then our journey has been not only personally meaningful for each of us, but perhaps a piece in a greater puzzle. I can’t imagine what more we could ask for.