Around 11:30p last night we arrived at New Island in the Falklands; Melinda and I then went to bed. Our landing this morning was at 8a, which meant an early rise (breakfast at 7). But we both noticed that the engines stopped and the ship stopped rocking. I wonder if it was also at that time that the toilet ceased working (it’s still out; fortunately, we can use the shared washroom).
We’re dressed for breakfast (eggs over easy, bread, cold cuts, bacon) and dressed further for the zodiac trip to the landing site. We queue up at 8 as told, but more than half the passengers are already ahead of us. I guess we’re all eager to make our first stop. It’s a pleasant day in the Falklands – in the 60s, sunny, and a modest wind – so Melinda and I dress only little more than for Seattle: jeans, waterproof pants, long-sleeved shirt, fleece, waterproof jacket, waterproof gloves, knit hat. All the waterproof gear is for the zodiac ride between the ship and land. It’s only a couple of minutes, but the sea does splash all the riders. We’re also wearing waterproof boots. Although we each brought our own, Melinda yesterday decided to switch to a pair the company provided that was a little taller: waterproof in deeper water. We walk down a gangway from the 4th deck to the water, board the zodiac, enjoy a short ride to the beach, and disembark in about 8” of water. It’s rather liberating to be able to step into 8” of water without any concern that one’s feet will be wet and one’s shoes will be soaked through. I’ve also packed all my day items in a dry bag, per advice from the organizers. I’ve purchased the second-biggest one I could find at REI and thought it was rather crazy big, but it was not quite big enough for all the things I wanted to bring: camera, spare lens, binoculars, hiking shoes. With a bit of shuffling (Melinda carrying the binocs) we manage. But turns out my bag is the smallest one among those we see in the line! Everyone else has a bag that’s the size of a large carry-on luggage, complete with shoulder straps. Many of the passengers fancy themselves as semi-professional photographers so there’s a lot of expensive, heavy, and bulky camera kit going ashore. For future trips I would get a bigger dry bag and one with shoulder straps, but something no bigger than the REI Trail 25 backpack would suffice.
The plan for today is to land at one location, visit a colony of black-browed albatross and a colony of Gentoo penguins; hike 4.5 miles south on New Island to a second landing site and observe black-browed albatrosses and rockhoppers there; and return to the ship. The hike was optional, but nearly everyone took it, rather than return to the ship as it repositioned for the second landing. Lunch was provided before the hike, and it was the best sandwich ever (everything is the best ever when you’re hungry). When we came ashore we could leave anything we wanted to at the landing site, including the dry bag, and the leaders moved it all over to the second landing site later, so we didn’t need to carry everything on the hike. I took advantage of this feature to bring my hiking shoes, wearing them rather than the knee-high Muck Boots for a 90 minute hike. It proved a great move as the island is dry, the shoes are more comfortable than the boots, and at the second landing there’s a steep hill and rocky shore scramble that was much easier to do in hiking boots than the waterproof things.
The first penguins we saw were some magellanics that were watching us next to our pull-out point on the beach. Magellanics burrow, so their nests tend to be further from each other than those in a rockhopper rookery, for instance. I snapped some photos but I resisted spending hours there because _much better_ sightings were to be had elsewhere on the island. I changed into my hiking boots, repacked my dry bag for its independent travel, and Melinda and I headed off up the hill.
Our first stop was the black-browed albatross colony. The noise at these bird colonies you couldn’t believe. If you’ve been around a dozen sea gulls you know what racket they can make. The colonies we saw had several types of birds (magellanic, Gentoo, and rockhopper penguins, black-browed albatross, comorants, caracaras, and a few others), each with their own pitch, and we didn’t see dozens of birds, we saw hundreds. Perhaps thousands. Perhaps more. The pictures I’l l post when I return will show just how big these rookeries are. And many of the birds are making noises: I want to eat; I’m regurgitating food; stay away from me; don’t land on me. It’s the very definition of a cacophony.
Another surprise was that this colony, and all that we saw today, are a mix of birds from several species. They may squawk as another walks by too closely but they’re content to have nests within 18 inches of each other. At the black-browed albatross colonies we stopped at, we found albatross, rockhoppers, and imperial shags, with the occasional magellanic penguin.
Along the way to the albatross colony we passed by several magellanic penguins on their burrows. They’re not close to the ocean – some of these burrows were upwards of a mile inland, and up an incline. The penguins look out of place among the green grasses, sitting in their burrows. They’re like prairie dogs, except they’re penguins.
We spent perhaps an hour at the albatross colony then left to see gentoos that were reportedly nearby. Walking up the hill we knew we were close when someone pointed to us that the bumps along the top of the ridge were gentoos, not rocks. We crested the ridge to see hundreds of gentoos in two or three clusters. Unlike the penguins on the nest, which are mostly stationary, these gentoos were ambling about, in the characteristic adorable fashion that penguins amble. The clusters flanked a wide field that permitted our easy passage down to another beach. Some gentoos, and some magellanics, were on the beach, contemplating entering the water but never seemed to have done so. We even saw a pair of king penguins on the beach, but they were just lying there, much like a seal or sea lion might do. Lazy penguins. We’ll see more king penguins later in the trip.
Back to the meet-up point for lunch and to begin the hike. The hike was just to follow a jeep track that takes us to the settlement on the island, and it’s easy to follow. We’re told it’s 4.5 miles, and we finish it in 90 minutes. We pause several times to photograph johnny rooks, skuas, magellanics, or the landscape. We pass by a few huts from decades ago; emergency shelters? Maybe. Emergency shelters are common in the Antarctic but we’re not there yet.
The settlement is just a few houses and a refurbished historical building that sells some books and Falkland Island postage stamps. We catch our breath for a short time; the last leg of the hike is up and down a 400’ hill in short order. Then we head to another albatross / mixed species colony, this one mostly rockhappers and albatross. We’ve never been the first people to arrive at any location and that’s fine with me – easier to know what’s good by looking where the long lenses are pointing. We observe several rockhoppers nearby and then I wander toward the gully. The gully is home to another rockhopper colony and is the best viewing of rockhoppers in the Falklands (and on the trip), apparently. It’s a steep descent but the tough tussock grass and large rocks offer plenty of footholds. I descend and scramble over many large boulders toward the sea. The reward is to watch rockhoppers in action, rather than just on the nest. There’s nests in the hills above the gully and a penguin “highway” from those to the sea. Along the highway groups of 5 – 15 penguins march, heading to the sea with empty bellies, filling them in the waters, and returning to feed their young. We’re asked to not block or linger on the highway and to cross quickly. Down at the water, the rockhoppers are entering or leaving the water, but plenty are just sunning or standing around. It’s very fun to watch the rockhoppers travel. They’ll waddle-walk on level land and hop, with both feet at once, from rock to rock. I never once saw a penguin miss its jump. Impressive.
Watching the penguins leave the water is neat, too. They’ll travel in groups, not solo, and 20-30 seconds before they exit the water they’ll start to “porpoise” – breaching the water from about two waves out from the edge. They’ll dive and breach as the wave moves closer to the land and eventually crashes there, ideally (for the penguin) timed with when the rockhopper has breached just one final time. The effect ends up looking like the penguins are flying through the air just above the water; I have some pictures to post when I get home.
I spend about an hour in the gully and meet up with Melinda at the top; she’s spent the past hour watching the rookeries adjacent to and at the top of the cliff. We linger for a little while more but decided to head back to the ship. I know we’re not maximizing our shore time but we _have_ been looking at penguins and other sea birds for the past seven hours, and I’m a little saturated for one day (who knew I’d reach that point in just seven hours?). We head back to the landing point (near the historic building), exchange our dry-land gear for zodiac gear, and board the next zodiac back to the ship. Again, embarking a zodiac with tall waterproof boots is so much easier than worrying whether one is stepping in any water with sneakers. Very nice.
For the day I’ve shot about 12GB of images and a few movies, and Melinda 1GB or less (she’s using my small digital camera, I’m using the Canon 60D). Between memory cards and laptop storage we have 170GB available, and there’s about 25 landings scheduled (although some may be canceled depending on weather). We’re over our daily budget but that’s to be expected for the first day of the trip. I’m sure I’ll be less shutter-happy later on. Nearly every exposure I took today was made three to five times, not just once, just to be sure I had a decent shot. I used both the 75-200 and the 17-85 zoom lenses and exchanged them in the field frequently. The case for the longer lens has a strong Velcro attachment that I affixed to my pack front strap so I could change lenses without taking my pack off. It worked pretty well; I think I have a system that for the trip going forward. A 300mm lens would have been nice but I’m unsure I’d have been happy with a lot more weight. The Canon has enough pixels on the imager that even a 200mm lens gives enough detail with the DSLR.
We boarded the ship about two hours before last-call on the beach; what I didn’t realize is that perhaps 80% of the passengers will wait for last call. I’m curious how long that’ll last, if it’s a first-day thing or not. In those two hours I reset all my equipment (charged a camera battery, cleaned lens filters covered in sea salt), got a GPS fix on my phone (takes about three minutes in full visibility of the sky), and checked on the room repairs (shower has hot water, the toilet is slow to be ready to flush again but serviceable). Over dinner we talked a little about the day’s exploits and a lot about Google, the Cloud, and Google+ with two people; conversation with more people at a time in the dining room is nigh impossible given the noise. One person, Robert, is a Google+ user and has thousands of followers because he’s a photographer. The other, whose name I didn’t catch, is a solo traveler, second time to the Antarctic but the first time with the Cheesemans. She’s kind of worried about the power of the Cloud to permit bad things to happen quickly (eg, if someone gets your password). She also learned that a 10MB internet plan gets burned up quickly if one visits iGoogle. 8(
I’m pretty content after this day. We saw more penguins than most people ever will in their entire lifetime, and it’s just the first day. We hiked 90 minutes in the Falklands under beautiful weather (blue sky with wispy clouds; I got a bit of a sunburn, despite using sunscreen and a hat). We enjoyed the luxury of just sitting and observing the birds, not needing to photograph them rapidly because we would be there only for 45 minutes – 11 hours onshore is kind of decadent. In fact I kind of wish we had a half-day tomorrow, not a full day, so I could digest today’s experiences. But no such luck.
Tomorrow’s plan is to make two landings, the first at West Point Island and the second at Carcass Island. West Point will be a dry landing: we’ll use zodiacs but they pull in to a dock, not a beach. So it’ll be hiking boots again tomorrow morning for me. We return to the ship three hours later, eat lunch while we sail to Carcass Island, and land (wet) at a magellanic colony and spend five hours ashore. We’ll see more of the same tomorrow as we did today – the same species, at least. Carcass Island is said to be the best place to see Magellanic penguins this trip, so I’m looking forward to that. Also, tomorrow is earlier still than today – wake-up call is 6a. Which means I need to head to bed pretty quick now.