Day 3 |
Dec 23, 2009

West Point Island

By Rich Kirchner, General Naturalist

Co-ordinates: 51˚20.7’S 60˚40.3W & 51˚18.8’S 60˚14.4’W

Weather: Sunny and very warm, calm conditions

5:45 am, time to get up and prepare for the morning activities. After having a quick coffee and a little fruit for breakfast, I went to my room to change into the proper attire for my morning duty, driving Zodiac. Soon I was sitting at the console of a Mark 6 Zodiac, waiting to load the first group of guests, and then head to shore at West Point Island.

It was a perfect morning and the conditions were great for our landing: sunny and warm! The Expedition Team led groups of about thirty guests from the settlement area, over to the other side of the island, to the main attraction, a mixed Black-browed albatross and Rockhopper penguin colony. It was an up-close and personal look at these two amazing species of birds. There were also rides available on Land Rovers for those that did not want to walk for part or all of the trek.

After getting back to the settlement, there were all kinds of cookies and other baked goods available from our hosts, as well as coffee and tea. I think that my personal intake of sugar cookies might have set a record for one sitting! It was also a great time to get to talk to our hosts, and look a little into their lives on this remote island in the Southern Ocean.

Soon it was time to go, and I continued to shuttle guests back to the Prince Albert II. Finally, everybody was back on board, including myself and the rest of the Expedition Team, and we headed off to our next planned landing: Saunders Island. Even after all those great treats we had onshore, most everyone went to lunch.

Right after lunch the ship arrived at our anchorage, and the “E” Team again prepared to head to shore and get everything ready for the afternoon landing. I personally was very excited – my photo travels in the 90s had taken me to the “Neck” on Saunders twice, where I spent a total of two weeks living in the little cabin that the owners have there for guests. It was a real homecoming for me, and I knew the guests and staff would love it there! 

We had an unexpected greeting party at the landing site; sure the owners met us there, but so did several Commerson’s dolphins. They stayed close to the Zodiacs, and greeted every group of guests that came to shore. This was just the beginning of our wildlife encounters for the afternoon.

Soon it was my turn to lead a group of guests through this magical area. First were the Gentoo penguins, group after group was nesting on this sandy, low-lying part of the island. We were shocked and amazed, as right before our eyes, a Striated Caracara grabbed a Gentoo chick and tried to make off with it! One of the parents came to its rescue, and got the little-one away from the bird’s grasp, keeping it at bay, until it finally gave up and went looking for other prey. It was a real wildlife drama unfolding in front of our eyes!

We continued on to our next stop, a small colony of King penguins. This is probably the northernmost breeding colony of Kings in the world. Even in this small group of birds, we saw the staggered breeding cycle of the Kings. There were nearly fledged chicks, as well as mating behavior, and several birds on eggs.

Next, it was on to the Rockhopper penguin and cormorant colony. There were a lot of penguin chicks, but the cormorants seemed to be late nesting this particular season. After talking to Dave, the owner of the island, it seems like it has been a very bad year for the cormorants.

I was slowly losing my followers, as one after another settled in at different points to watch the birds closely, and take massive amounts of photos! However, some of the original group were still following along, and we ended up at the next stop, Black-browed albatross. There are several small colonies of these birds in a row, along the windy hillside. It was fabulous to see them flying over the colony and over our heads. Most of the nests had small chicks, and the proud parents would show them off from time-to-time.

One last stop that I knew everyone would enjoy, the beach, and landing area of the Rockhoppers. These little penguins come ashore in the pounding surf, and then head up the rocks toward their nests. There were also thousands of both Gentoo and Magellanic penguins staged in groups on the beach.

Finally, it was time for me to head back to the landing site to help load Zodiacs and launch them back toward the ship. Soon the last of the guests left the shore, and the Expedition Team headed back with the rest of the gear after saying farewell to our hosts!

Four species of penguins, Black-browed albatross and cormorants, along with incredible scenery and great weather; what a day!