Day 3 |
Feb 21, 2012

Barrientos Island, South Shetland Islands

By Robin Aiello, Marine Biologist lecturer

Co-ordinates: 62º 43’ S, 058º 39’ W
Weather: Bright sunshine
Air Temperature: 0ºC

Our day started off with a really fantastic event – the sighting of several Fin whales off the bow of the ship. Conrad Combrink, our Expedition Leader, made an announcement in the middle of breakfast to call everyone out to the outer decks to see these magnificent whales. The entire Restaurant cleared out as people rushed to get their parkas and cameras.

These whales are really magnificent – they are about 27 meters long and weigh 80 tons, making them the second largest animal to ever live on this planet (the largest, of course, is the Blue whale at 33m and 200 tons).

We were fortunate that two of the fin whales remained close to the ship, casually swimming along and allowing us fantastic views and great photo opportunities. After about half an hour, the Captain changed direction and we said good-bye to the whales, as we had to continue on our way to make our next destination in time to do a landing in the afternoon.

The late morning was dedicated to BioHazard Security checks. This is a required activity by IAATO standards. Basically, it is the best way we know how to try to minimize the introduction of any plant material into the Antarctic. It entails the close inspection of every guest’s outer clothing, camera bags and accessories (e.g. gloves and hats). We are looking for any grass seeds or other debris. If there is anything suspicious, we vacuum the clothing. This is why we, the Expedition Team, refer to this event as the Vacuum Party!!

As soon as we completed the BioHazard checks the ship conducted a crew drill – these are carried out regularly to ensure the proper training of all our crew in the event of an emergency. Guests do not participate – this is only for the crew.

Immediately after the drill, Conrad made an announcement calling all guests to The Theatre for an important briefing – the announcement that we had made great time across the Drake Passage and in fact, had gained enough time that we could make a landing at Aitcho! Great news – I personally love this site. It is home to large numbers of nesting gentoo and chinstrap penguins.

Sure enough, the afternoon landing was fantastic. The sun was shining which made the glaciers and snow patches glisten brightly. Most of the penguin chicks are nearly fully-grown and starting to molt their ‘baby’ down for their first adult feathers. But although they look almost like the adults, they still act like chicks – very curious and a bit silly. They see you and hurry over to you – only to stop a foot or so away and stare at you. They will gradually start to come closer and lean out to reach you with their beaks, taking small little bites to see exactly what you are. Once one chick comes over to investigate, others will follow, and if you are patient enough, and still enough, you can get as many as 4 to 5 chicks all gathered around you looking intently at you – almost as if they are seeing if you have food for them. Very cute!!!

As I walked with my group up and over the ridge to the other side, we stopped frequently so that I could point out the many behaviors of these birds. We saw parents regurgitate-feeding the chicks, we saw them sky-pointing and bickering amongst themselves, and funniest of all we saw the famous food-chases where the chicks run full speed after their mother/father crying out loudly begging for food. These chases can cover great distances, and usually entails either the chick, or the adult, or both, tripping and tumbling in the fast pursuit.

Overhead we had a lot of skuas flying over the rookeries, looking for anything they could find to eat, and also giant petrels soared slowly past with no obvious pursuit in mind at all.

At one point a young male fur seal clambered up the beach slope to our group and came to within a few meters before stopping and barking at us. Not sure what he wanted, but after a short while he seemed to lose interest and head off back the way he came. These seals were nearly hunted to extinction for their thick fur, but now the population is well recovered, and they are a frequent sight on the Antarctic beaches.

It was a great day!!! Wonderful weather, beautiful scenery, and entertaining wildlife – a great start to our Antarctic adventure!!!