"Gooood Morning shipmates! It is beautiful day outside. There is a huge penguin highway running inland from the beach. The penguins are going to work in good formation, even using opposing lanes to go in each direction." we heard through our cabin PA speaker.
We were anchored off the shore of Baily Head Beach of Deception Island. Ted Cheeseman, our expedition leader, was giving us his usual cheerful morning wake-up call over the ship's PA system. Deception Island is in the South Shetland Islands, the northernmost part of Antarctica. As such, the Shetland Islands have a more temperate climate. Its islands even have a bit of greenery to them. There are only the only flowering plant species found in Antarctica, both found mostly in the Shetland Islands. Later that same day, our ship would journey over to another South Shetland Island called Livingston Island. This which would be our last stop before heading north through the turbulent Drake's Passage back to Ushuaia, Argentina.
Deception Island has one of the few active volcanoes in Antarctica. In some points in the area near where we went ashore, molten magma has found its way to the surface in recent years. The island is one of the more heavily visited by tourists to Antarctica. It has the largest Chinstrap Penguin Colony on the Antarctic Peninsula, with about 100,000 pairs of birds. Bailey's Head is shaped like a giant natural amphitheater. It has a deep, black sand covered beach with a very large and active penguin highway. Inland from the beach, sections of some of the many hills are covered in a green moss. Green was a color that had been mostly or completely absent in the landscapes of our journey in the Antarctic Peninsula. I thought it was one of the prettiest islands we visited.
While on the island, we were able to see up close some of the interesting behaviors of the Chinstrap Penguins. One of them is the greeting rituals of a penguin couple that have been separated for a bit. In this ritual, the two penguins come towards each other face to face. Then as you can see in the accompanying photos here, the two will stretch their heads out towards one side of its partner, and then sort of bob their outstretched heads back and forth while calling out loudly at the same time. It is pretty interesting to watch and a commonly seen behavior.
I also saw a penguin fight—a real knock down fight actually. It was hard to see what the fight was about. But it sure looked familiar to anyone who remembers a schoolyard brawl as a child. The fight included "punching" between the two combatant penguins who used their wings as weapons (while one penguin was dragging the other by the beak). After it ended, there was a shows of triumph by the winner, who puffs out its chest and calls out loudly while marching triumphantly back to its nesting area. The loser then comes nearby the winner and acts defiant, like a child who lost a schoolyard fight and is showing it is ready for more. The whole episode was quite dramatically comical (see video for this at bottom of this page).
Later that afternoon, our group did its last shore landing in Antarctica, at a spot called Hannah Point on Livingston Island. Hannah Point is apparently one of the most popular sites visited by tourists on Antarctic cruises. I assume this is because it is convenient to get to, being one of the closest points in Antarctica to Southern Argentina. There are some breeding Gentoo Penguins on the island, as well as other birds, and some Elephant Seals. However, the island definitely has its highlights.
One of the highlights is watching the comical and almost ridiculous feeding ritual between a baby Gentoo Penguin and a parent. We were visiting at a time when there were many fairly recently born Gentoo Penguins, so our timing for this was good. Apparently, Gentoo Penguins have a hard time recognizing which of the many baby/juvenile penguins is theirs. So, to get fed, a baby Gentoo penguin has to "convince" its parent that it really is its child. This is done by the baby penguin persistently bothering the supposed parent for food. The adult penguin might then run away without feeding the baby, whereby the baby has to chase the adult around the penguin colony without giving up. If the baby pursues long enough, the adult is apparently convinced that it is indeed its baby and will stop and feed the pursuing chick. Sometimes two babies will chase a parent around. One will be pretending to be the parent's baby and is trying to get a free meal. So, the theory here is that the "real" baby of the parent will be the one that chases the longest, without giving up.
This very strange ritual played out continuously for the short time that we were at Hannah Point. There was a continuous parade of chase scenes of nagging baby penguins scampering after adults, zigzagging through the nesting areas in the colony. It was quite delightful. A short video of this is included at the bottom of this story, below the fighting penguin video.
Another interesting thing on Hannah Point is the archaeological sites. There is a small outdoor exhibit down from the landing point that has fossils of ancient plant and tree life. Some of the fossils in the exhibit are of petrified wood. One can clearly see the grains in the rocklike pieces of several of the petrified wood samples (a photo of this is on the last page of the Antarctica Gallery of this website). Other fossils displayed are of leaf imprints from a type of ancient Redwood tree (shown here in the accompanying photo). Other specimens show fossilized traces of a type of Horsetail plant. All of these, of course, date back to a time when Antarctica was a much warmer place than it is today.
We stayed on Hannah Point for a couple of hours. Our group had come there late afternoon and had to leave the island by 7 pm to start the journey back to Argentina. For me, the last half hour on the island was a bittersweet time. I walked by myself along the pretty black sand beach, looking out at our ship anchored in the water a ways offshore. I had waited so long to do this trip. I had started planning for it years ago when I first had begun the long set of travels for my Disappearing World project. And now, this 26 day journey to the sub-Antarctic of the Falkland Islands and South Georgia Island, and then onto Antarctica, was over.
It had been absolutely spectacular.