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Day 9 - December 18, 2009 - Aitcho Island Group, Barrientos Island

By Victoria Salem, Historian

Co-ordinates: 62°24’S, 59°47’W
Weather: Calm but overcast at first; sun breaking through, then fog later

We arrived at the Aitcho group of islands (originally “HO”, from “Hydrographic Office”) around 7am.  Our chosen landing site for this, our final day in Antarctica, was Barrientos Island - an impressive vision of ice and jagged rock fingers. I was responsible for the side gate this morning and was pleased to receive positive news about our landing site’s accessibility from the shore party.  This meant that we could begin on time with disembarkation for Groups 4 and 1 at 7.30am; hopefully they had grabbed an early continental breakfast from the Panorama Lounge as I had done!

Despite the relatively early hour, there was lots of chat at the side gate.  This was to be our first chance to see chinstrap penguins on their nests and expectations were high of seeing some more elephant seals too. Conrad was giving us two hours each to enjoy the wildlife and scenery to the full.

I stayed on board in order to call Groups 2 and 3 for their turn at 9.30am.  Rumours were now flying that there was a special surprise in store for us…I disembarked with the last Zodiac and on our arrival on the beach at Barrientos Island found staff and guests alike in high spirits. 

This was hardly surprising as today’s landing had something for everyone.  We stepped out of the Zodiac onto a wide beach covered in nesting gentoo penguins – some of them living among whale bones left from early 20th century whaling activities.  We followed the flagged path across the beach to the snow ridge behind the penguin rookery.  Turning right, we made our way along the nest perimeters; half way along we came across a group of enormous elephant seals sleeping off their last meal.  The individuals were different colours and a couple were clearly moulting.  From time to time they snorted, waved their flippers about casually and even raised their heads to stare around.  However, most of the time they just lay there digesting, surrounded by gentoo activity!

I climbed up the ridge and looked down the slope to the beach at the other side of the island.  I was accompanied by both red-parkaed “guest” penguins and cute little chinstrap penguins, hurrying back to their nests to change shifts. Chinstraps (so aptly named) are absolutely delightful – slightly smaller and cuter than the red-billed gentoos.

Descending the gentle slope towards many satellite penguin rookeries arranged in clusters, it was interesting to pick out the gentoos from the chinstraps.  Suddenly, at the far point of our flagged range I could see what the excitement was about.  There was one solitary king penguin standing there, tall and proud!  This was interesting as he had definitely not been there on our last visit; however, I had seen a king penguin in the same place on a number of occasions last season.  Most likely he had originally come from distant South Georgia and lost his way, deciding to make a new home in the South Shetland Islands – luckily for us!

It was great getting a photo of three types of penguin (gentoo, chinstrap and king) in one shot.  This rookery was surrounded by green algae, which had immediately sprung to life by photosynthesis as soon as the snow melted.  The sun was breaking through at about this time, showing off Barrientos Island’s vivid black, white and green.  As the haze lifted we could glimpse snow-covered mountain peaks in the distance and a number of Aitcho’s jagged rock formations, an amazing sight.  There were seals lying on a distant beach too, at least one of which may have been a leopard seal, identifiable from its reptilian-shaped head.

There was yet another treat in store for those of us who lingered until last Zodiac at 11.40am.  Two skuas on our landing beach were putting considerable pressure on a small group of nesting gentoos at the edge of the rookery and after a number of onslaughts, one managed to knock an egg from an unsuspecting bird’s nest.  It lay there for a while, but the penguin did not seem to recognize it and settled down again on its remaining egg.  Sure enough, within minutes the skua returned to retrieve its prize and sat down to enjoy its feast quite near us.  This was sad for the gentoo, but skuas need to eat too…

The last Zodiac reached the Prince Albert II at 11.45am and we raised anchor and headed north.  We were able to enjoy lunch before we entered the Drake Passage around 2pm. 

At 2.30pm Michaela Mayer distracted us from the rolling sensation we were already experiencing with her talk on “Sea Life beneath the Surface.”  In this lecture Michaela explained how the sea creatures’ lives are intimately linked to ice conditions and showed us some great pictures that scientists have taken of Antarctic sea life at various levels of the ocean.  A scientist herself, Michaela was able to give us an idea of what it was like to be involved in scientific research in Antarctica. 

After a break in which we indulged with tea in the Panorama Lounge, I set up for our final lecture of today  - an “Introduction to Glaciology”, by Luciano Bernacchi.  Lucqi talked about all kinds of fresh water ice, even quoting from Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” to illustrate how literature and science interconnect. We learned about the features and forms of glaciers, ice sheets, ice shelves and icebergs and took a close look at how they change the face of the landscape.

At 6.45pm we held our final Recap & Briefing.  Conrad briefed us on what to expect of our Drake crossing: it seems that we are to expect so-so conditions tomorrow and are trying to outrun an approaching front from the Chilean coast on our final day!  I caught everyone up on some history associated with our landings at Port Lockroy and Petermann  Island, telling the tale of Jean-Baptiste Charcot, “the gentleman of the Pole”, a French explorer with expeditions to survey and chart the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula in 1904 and 1910.  Rich talked of whale migration patterns and identification techniques and Marylou showed us the “ice core” she had collected as a study aid to the children on board (this ice was returned to the sea before we left Antarctica).  Finally, Claudia showed us a comic video clip about the search for the Antarctic “chicken that laid golden eggs” by Albert Ross; albatrosses are wonderful birds, but this particular claim was false…

Tonight was Karaoke Night!  This was an opportunity for guests to demonstrate their star quality with microphone in hand and turned Lou into a DJ rather than a pianist, at least for a few hours after dinner.  Thus ended our final day in Antarctica and we headed north into the (light) night.

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