We’re motoring now to Fortuna Bay, having spent the day in the Bay of Isles. It was a day of wind, rain, sun, sleet, mass camera failures, and the world’s biggest albatrosses. So, a good day in all.
Melinda and I woke at 4:15 per our plan to catch the extra-early zodiac to Salisbury Plain. That plan was scrubbed by a message on the white board in reception: the 5:30 landing is delayed until 7a due to low cloud ceiling and visibility. Okay. We’re up and showered already anyway, so we eat breakfast, I visit the library for about 20 minutes, then return to the cabin to join Melinda in napping until the delayed landing time. When 7a arrives we don our gear and head to the zodiac queue.
The weather is much like a Seattle winter morning. The cloud ceiling is low, it’s 38F, and it’s raining. Melinda and I turn up a notch our layers: I begin wearing my thermal pants (they and lightweight hiking pants now replacing jeans) and a cross-country skiing shirt (long-sleeved, replacing a T-shirt), and Melinda adds a layer of wool long underwear and a turtleneck. We don’t want to use everything we have now because we want to feel we have a little left yet for the Antarctic peninsula. We have our typical outermost layers: rain and wind pants and jacket, knit hat, and Goretex gloves. I’m wearing my backpack between my fleece and jacket and carrying a dry bag with my camera and extra lens. My backpack has my adventuring hat, a towel, and miscellaneous useful items (camera battery, SD card, protein bar, and other items) in a smaller pocket in front.
This landing site is the first one where we’ll encounter seals- elephant and fur seals to be specific. The elephant seals leave us alone if we give them berth, but the fur seals can be aggressive and charge a passerby. Like with a dog defending its territory, the right reaction is to hold one’s ground; the wrong reaction is to run away, as that only encourages the chase instinct. The fur seals are surprisingly fast on the open ground – they’ll hobble-hop at more than a brisk walk. If holding one’s ground alone doesn’t stop the seal, the advice we’re given is to brush its whiskers with a tripod leg or walking stick. We brought neither with us, but there are 5’ 1.5” diameter fence poles available at the landing site for the same use. We pick up one for the two of us when we land.
The zodiac trip is uneventful, and we’re deposited on a stretch of beach about half a mile from the highlight of this landing site: the King penguin colony. At every landing a staffer gives us a briefing just after we step ashore: here’s where the dry bags go, here’s where you can go, here’s where you can’t go, and here are the rules particular to this location. We get some orientation for where the colony is, and we pick up our fur seal defense.
The weather this morning is pretty sour for wildlife photography: overcast, drizzly, and a tiny bit of wind. That doesn’t stop any of us from getting out our gear. I transform my zodiac-ready kit into my hiking-ready kit: empty the dry bag into my backpack; backpack moves from beneath to outside the rain jacket; camera moves to over my head and shoulder. The rain is coming down enough that I leave my extra lens at the landing site, in my dry bag, and I find a way to wear my camera bag to protect my camera when not in use. It’s awkward, but it’ll serve its purpose.
We’re already surrounded by fur seals, adults and pups, and handfuls of King penguins. The seal pups are adorable: they’re the size of a housecat, they’re dark brown with maybe 0.75” long fur, and they’re curious. They’ll hobble up to you if you’re nearby, but a stick, or even a stern “No,” will hold them back. They may also growl at you if you’re walking by – it’s like a small dog defending its territory, not acknowledging that it couldn’t actually hold back any intruder. The growl coming from them is surprisingly deep for such a small animal. The adult cows are harmless – they lounge in place and occasionally nurse young. The adult bulls are trouble: several that we walk by move to meet us. I use the seal defense stick, tickle their whiskers when they’re close, and that’s enough to stop them. But even still, walking along the plains is much like walking through a mine field (although, here we know where the mines are). We pick our path carefully in order to avoid the wildlife and find the least-squares path between all the adult seal control points.
Along the way we encounter penguins, too. The King penguins are curious about us and, as suggested, when we kneel on the ground the penguins are willing to waddle over to us. I’m not sure kneeling is all that important – on several occasions we found penguins approaching us even when we were standing at full height. But still. Melinda and I take several photos.
Our gear is getting wetter and wetter – the rain continues and doesn’t let up. There was a hike up a hill to see the colony from above but we choose to not do it – my leg feels odd (just a sore muscle) and, with the rain, we’re pretty happy with this decision. But with the wetness I’m getting a little concerned for my camera. It _is_ getting pretty thoroughly drenched, despite my efforts to stash it in the camera bag when not in use. In super light rain this regimen would be fine; in today’s rain it’s kind of hopeless. I eventually put the camera bag in my backpack to give an added layer of protection.
Melinda and I pick our way to the edge of the penguin colony and spend half and our watching all the behavior we can see. We’d stay longer but it’s kind of miserable standing there. We see adults on eggs, adults waddling about, chicks standing in place, and many penguins moulting. A penguin waddles up to see us in the tussock grass where we’re hiding, and Melinda and it exchange flipper-flapping displays. We get several good close-up photos of it.
We head back to the ship because we’re about as wet and cold as we’d like to get. We travel in a group with other guest,s and I remark that our behavior is much like the penguins’: we have safety in numbers and feel safer knowing other individuals are with us. The penguins agree – at some point I turn around, looking if there’s a seal nearby, and am startled because there’s a King penguin not two feet behind me. We both stop for a moment and inspect one another, and he soon goes his own way. I guess he wanted to be part of our flock.
We pick our way through the fur seals and come upon an especially aggressive one. I tickle its whiskers with my stick, but instead of stopping it rolls its head and charges toward me. I’m at a loss – my only defense is not working, and this angry fur seal is less than five feet from me! Fortunately, seemingly out of nowhere, Dag (one of the staff) appears and repels the seal with more whisker-tweaking, some stern Norwegian, and a few gentle taps to the head and chest. We begin walking further but the seal charges again – I think it’s full of fighting spirit and testosterone because there’s a collection of other tussling male seals about. We do move on, and I’m grateful that Dag showed up when he did. Melinda and I, and a few other people, follow Dag the rest of the way back to the landing site.
The Plains has a fair number of penguin and seal carcasses – animals that just didn’t make it – and plenty of scavengers to consume them. And, there’s many skeletons and bones along our path. I always assumed that anything that looked like a seagull ate only fish; that assumption is simply not true. Many of these larger birds (eg, the petrels) are scavengers and are happy to tear apart anything that remains of a seal that dies. We watch a few such scenes along the beach.
Melinda and I return to the ship after perhaps two hours on shore but we’re not the first ones back – plenty of other people have returned already, too. We’re soaked and set about hanging up to dry all our gear. We have plenty of space and hangers for our gear so I’m confident it’ll dry, although there’s a landing in the afternoon, just three short hours away, that is going to be tight. I turn up the air circulation in the cabin, prop open the door, and hope for the best.
I unpack my camera and it’s wet all over. I towel it off and know enough to not power it on immediately. I remove the lens and lens filter and let all the pieces begin to air dry. I remove all the water on the surface but the real issue is the moisture already inside – in the warm cabin it condenses on the cold camera surfaces. The worst of it is on one of the lenses – water condenses on the inside of the lens, where I can’t remove it. Well, shoot. I expect it’ll dry out on its own so I leave it to air dry, and I just hope. I head up to the library to find Melinda and I run in to several other people who’ve also had camera issues. Seems perhaps 20% of the DSLRs on the trip are out of commission as a result of this landing. We expect they’ll be back in service in a couple of days after drying, or less, but that’s a lot of cameras out. Fortunately for me, about two hours of drying were enough to remove all the condensation in the lens, and the lens and camera seem to work just fine now.
Melinda and I find enough space in our cabin for our wet things to dry, but not everyone has this much space (or this little gear). A hand-rail runs the length of the corridor and it now holds dozens of wet articles drip-drying. It looks like a rummage sale for winter gear.
The last people are aboard the ship before the last-call zodiac, which is unusual (well, unusual in the norm but makes sense given the weather). We have everyone on board, but we spot two people still walking the length of the beach. Hugh runs a zodiac out to them but can’t get their attention. We watch them with binoculars (turns out, my 10x30 IS binoculars are the best binoculars aboard the ship), and they don’t seem to be making a mad rush to the landing site, so they probably aren’t our passengers, but it takes the leaders maybe 15 minutes to convince themselves it’s okay to leave them. Ordinarily, there wouldn’t be anyone else at our landing sites, so seeing anyone here is unusual.
The talk over lunch is mostly about fogged up cameras, and if not that it’s about all the wet gear. People who’ve taken this trip before bemoan the missing wet room, which the Polar Star had. Repeat passengers spend a lot of time comparing the Ortelius to the Polar Star. I don’t think they realize those comparisons are uninteresting to we who’ve never been on the Polar Star. 8)
South Georgia will be a marathon of landings for us. In the afternoon we go to Prion Island, one of only a few nesting sites for the Wandering Albatross. The island is tiny and the environment sensitive, so we can land only 50 people at a time. Melinda and I are in the first batch, which gives us less time to dry our gear, but the dry air on the ship is making fast work of it already, and the hairdryer is helping with the especially wet things. Prion Island is in the same bay as Salisbury Plains, so we don’t need to move the ship very far. The rain is mostly stopped, but now a stiff wind has picked up – 40 knots with gusts to 50. We suit up for the zodiac ride, but we’re waved off for 45 minutes as the ship repositions to get in the lee of the island. The lee doesn’t help much with the wind, but it reduces the swell substantially. When Melinda and I do board the zodiac, the swell is less than 1m, but the wind is really strong. It’s a wet ride with sleet as we head to the shore. When we do reach shore, just as we pull up on the beach, a Gentoo pops out from in front of the zodiac. Poor guy was almost run over by our rubber raft.
Because the conditions are going to be wet, and because I’d like everything to dry completely, I take only the small camera on this landing. Our landing site is a small beach covered in seals, but the staff actively keeps the landing site clear. Without a backpack (still wet) and camera bag (still wet) or camera (drying out, just to be sure) I’m pretty unencumbered.
Besides the passenger limit on Prion Island there’s a rule that one must stick to the installed boardwalk to see the birds. We head up the boardwalk, chasing away fur seals as we do so, and taking some pictures. The wind is fierce but the precipitation is gone; we’re getting sun breaks now. It’s odd to see the seals on this island, and at Salisbury Plains, because they violate all my understanding of seals. They’re on grassland or tussock grass, sometimes quite far up the hillside, not the beach, and the little pups growl, not just squeak or make tiny noises.
The highlight of this island is the wandering albatrosses, and we see several of them nesting nearby. One is nesting less than 10’ from the boardwalk, so we get a very close view of it. We’re in for a special treat – while we’re in front of it, its mate flaps in and the pair spend 5-10 minutes in courtship behavior. There’s a lot of sky pointing, wing opening (they have an 11’ wingspan), beak-clacking, and making other noises. I shot some video that’ll show some of this but it’s pretty poor video – I was watching the birds, not the video. I’d have been happy with a better camera, but this one let me enjoy watching the scene. The birds are very affectionate with their mates.
We spend what seems like a short time on the island, but it’s more than an hour off-ship. Back on ship we recommence drying our gear and settling in for the evening. I chat briefly with some people, including Pablo (who works at Microsoft on Bing, on its external API) who took some pictures of Melinda and me with a penguin. He’ll share those sometime convenient; there are lots of thumb drives on this ship.
We haul anchor (we’d set two anchors at Prion Island because with only one, the anchor was dragging around on the bottom) and set sail for just a few miles down the coast, to Fortuna Bay. We’re here now, in fact; it’s a fast transit. At Fortuna we find King Penguins and reindeer (the latter introduced by the whalers for food and sport). The plan is to spend four hours on shore here, back to the ship for launch, and back to shore for a hike from here to Stromness Harbor following (approximately) Shackleton’s path. Tomorrow begins at 6:30 with a wake-up call; not as early as this morning but still only 8 hours from now. I’m not sure what tomorrow will bring yet. The bay is enclosed so there’s less wind, but there is still some wind, and it’s snowing outside now. We’ll see tomorrow what the weather and the day holds.