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Day 3 - February 1, 2012 - Will Wagstaff, Ornithologist 

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Co-ordinates: 64 24 S, 59 44 W
Weather: A largely sunny day with very light winds with thin high cloud in late afternoon
Air Temperature: 5C
Pressure: 979 hPa
Wind: Westerly force 1


The Drake had continued to be kind to us overnight so we had made good speed in very calm conditions. Following a quick breakfast in The Restaurant I was soon out on deck six watching the snow-capped hills of the South Shetland Islands approaching on the horizon far earlier than I had anticipated

The white splashes made by the penguins as they porpoised through the water on their way out to fish, stood out very well against the very calm blue sea we were passing through. Of those that came near enough to identify we could see the white throats of the Chinstrap, which were most numerous, and the dark heads with white flashes of the slightly larger Gentoo Penguins.

There were other bird species in the area although as we neared the islands we left behind the Wandering and Black-browed Albatrosses. Two of the guests mentioned that they had seen a Grey-headed Albatross a few minutes earlier and with that it flew by again across the bow. This species is never very numerous in the Drake so was a welcome addition to our growing wildlife list. The Southern Giant Petrels were still with the Silver Explorer as they had been since we left the Beagle Channel.

Probably the most attractive, and most photographed were the Cape Petrels that were wheeling around the ship from time to time. These beautiful black and white checkerboard patterned birds seemed to delight in flying past the starboard side of deck six at just the right height to be photographed.

A distant iceberg seemed to glow in the early morning sun and away in the distance we could see some blows from a small group of Humpback Whales as I left the open deck to get ready for the bio-security check.

All the expedition staff were soon set up with vacuum cleaners ready and tables out for checking everyone’s outer layers. The announcements called all the guests to the reception and mud room areas with the outer layers of the clothing they would be taking ashore with them in Antarctica. New gear was exempt but anything that had been worn elsewhere in the world was inspected and if any seeds or vegetation were found it was brought to us in the mudroom to be cleaned so that we could enter the great white continent clear in the knowledge that we would not be bringing with us any foreign plant species.

No sooner had we finished than it was time to land. The calm crossing had enabled us to make very good time and our Expedition Leader, Robin, announced that we were going to be landing on Los Barrientos Island in the Aitcho group of islands in the South Shetland Islands.

Once the anchor had dropped we were away in the staff Zodiac to make sure the landing was OK, and before long the first guests were coming to the shore. Having marked out the route shortly after landing, I then led the first group along the main beach before climbing slightly to the far beach. This meant we could get good views and photographs of both the Chinstrap and Gentoo Penguin colonies. Many chicks were present indicating they were doing well this year. As is often the case, the Gentoo chicks were particularly curious about our gear and if one sat down they would come and inspect our boots and were fascinated by any bright colours on our clothing.

There was plenty of activity in both species of penguin and with the expected array of scavengers also present. Most obvious amongst there were the Southern Giant Petrels including one of the scarce white form. We also saw a good number of Brown Skua and Snowy Sheathbills on the lookout for any stray morsel and in the case of the Sheathbills bumping the heads of the feeding penguins to try to get them to drop the food when passing it to their young as once it hits the ground the penguins will not touch it, so leaving it for the Sheathbills.

The visit seemed to go very quickly so that I was soon back at the landing point meeting and then taking another group along to see what we could in this amazing first landing. Eventually, by mid-afternoon, we were all done and it was time to set sail for the Peninsula.

Juan Carlos was getting ready to give his lecture in the Theatre entitled ‘Ice Rocks’ where he talks about the various types of glaciers, their features and where to find them in the world. However, there was an announcement from Robin, our Expedition Leader, to say that two Humpback Whales were ahead of us. For the next half an hour or so the Captain maneuvered the Silver Explorer so that we had amazing views of these enormous mammals a short distance from us. Once we had taken many more photos it was time to move on and let Juan get started with his lecture.

We met again later in The Theatre for Recap & Briefing where Robin gave details of what we were planning for tomorrow and what the weather was likely to be before I began recap by talking about some of the birds we had seen on land today. I was followed by Robin Aiello who talked about the biology of the Humpback Whales we had just been seeing before Peter told us about the discovery of the islands we had landed on, and why they were called the Aitcho Islands after the initials of the Hydrographic Office in London many years ago. Recap finished with the Captain coming up and telling us about the open bridge policy on Silver Explorer before wishing us bon appétit before dinner.

This was not to be the end of things, which made it a true expedition day, as during dinner there was another announcement from Robin, this time saying that a large pod of Orca were ahead of us. Having grabbed our cold weather gear, we reached the Bridge and outer decks to find that not only were there Orca but also Humpback Whales, a Fur Seal and a few penguins in the area. We spent a while following this group of Orca, some of which did seem to be hunting the seal with a steady determination and the occasional flurry of speed. As we did not want to disturb them for too long, once we had our fill of watching them we continued course and dinner. An amazing end to the day.

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