Tuesday, January 10, 2012
We started today at Hercules Bay, a small inlet a little further clockwise around South Georgia from Stromness. The schedule is the norm now: wake at 6:30 with first landing at 8a. Hercules Bay affords only a few tiny beaches for landings so we learn a new method of touring: the zodiac cruise. In a zodiac cruise we tool along in a zodiac, perhaps only four or six of us, and go slowly enough to avoid getting any ocean splashes. So long as the wind is calm we can stay dry; a meter of rolling swell is easy to deal with. Zodiac cruising lets us get close to some of the rocky shores that we can’t land at or hike to, and it lets us see things in the water offshore.
The draw of Hercules Bay is Macaroni penguins. We have two tiny landing sites with Macaroni colonies at each, but the Macaroni penguins, similar in behavior and features to the Rockhoppers, live far up the rocky hills and out of our sight. Melinda and I make the first landing, amid many unhappy but generally lazy seals, and watch one or two Macaroni penguins waddle by. Macaronis are more nervous than Rockhoppers: if they come upon a seal or a human in their path they stop, look, and may just turn around and go back. The Rockhoppers would forge ahead.
I get some more photos of seals at this beach, but we don’t stay at the landing long because there’s really not much to see. We jump on the next zodiac, driven by Ted, and take a 40 minute cruise around the area. I have my DSLR in my dry bag, but it’s not all packed away, just loose inside, so it’s easy to retrieve. Our cruise takes us to the mouth of the Bay (Ted remarks that , beyond this mouth, the next land one would see would be Cape Town) and counter-clockwise up the coast a little ways. We see more Macaronis, these up-close, and we spy our first Chinstrap penguin. The sea has maybe 1m of swell and the waves rise and fall along the sloped rocky shores by several meters. We also see Antarctic Terns and some light-mantled sooty albatrosses. We wrap up the cruise at the second landing site, just a short distance from the first and from the ship.
The second landing site is a bit roomier than the first, and we find a group of maybe 30 Macaroni penguins on a rocky formation along the water. There’s a bunch of people here already, so we find a few seats among the upended sedimentary rock. (Now, at the end of the day, Melinda and I each discover small tears in our formerly-waterproof pants thanks to sitting on these rocks. Duct tape should be a sufficient fix – we need the legs to be waterproof more than the seat.) We watch behavior of penguins and see a lone King penguin here. The King has some scratches on its breast – perhaps seal teeth marks, or something else. They’re not bleeding but it has no feathers there, either, so it’s in an unhappy condition.
We plan to head back to the ship about now, but the next zodiac is heading for more cruising so we join it instead. We get about 20 feet from the second landing when we look into the water and see hundreds of tiny jelly fish, as well as a few 1-inch, 3-inch, or even 10-inch jellies. They’re mostly milky-transparent but for either four or 8 longitudinal lines, and these lines iridesce and change color as we watch them. I have no photos of them – it’d have been hopeless to try – but we enjoy the view. After some 10 minutes of looking at jellies we cross the Bay to visit another Macaroni colony that’s on a rocky shore that we couldn’t access by a landing. There’s a lone Chinstrap penguin here, and it appears it’s surrounded by a Macaroni exclusion zone – the Macs are closer together among themselves than any one is willing to approach the Chinstrap. We look high on the neighboring ridge and spot a pair of light-mantled sooty albatrosses, one flying large figure eights while the other looked on. It’s nearly noon so we head back to the ship and meet up with four other zodiacs coming home to roost. Aboard ship I look back at the Macaroni colony with binoculars and see that the Macs go up this steep slope at least 200’, though tussock grass and open hillside. They’re amazing climbers considering they have no hands to grip with.
While we lunch the ship repositions to Grytviken, the seat of the South Georgia population. All visitors to South Georgia are required to make a call here to process through customs. While customs is happening a staffer from the museum at Grytviken boards and tells us about the South Georgia Heritage Trust’s efforts to eradicate rats from the island. Rats eat bird eggs, and the population sizes of native birds on South Georgia have been slowly declining. The eradication plan is to set out rat poison basically over every square foot of the island. The glaciers presently isolate parts of the island’s rat populations but in a few years they will recede enough to let rats through, so SGHT is doing its work now. Melinda and I generally like rats, so it’s kind of sad to hear about a big rodent control effort, but these rats really don’t belong here and they’re causing grief for the native birds, which are more rare. So we don’t mind these efforts.
Grytviken has a Post Office, where we bought stamps and mailed postcards (which almost certainly will arrive after we’re back in San Francisco); a church, where we rang the bell; a museum, where we learned more about whaling and bought some souvenirs; many abandoned buildings and equipment; and a cemetery with the remains of Shackleton and Frank Wild. The Cheesemans have a tradition: drinking a toast to Shackleton and pouring a bit of the drink on his grave for him. So we do this tradition, and I look around the cemetery. It’s small, and a gate keeps the seals out. Nearly all the names are Norwegian except for Shackleton, Wild, and an Argentine from the Falklands War. Many of the people died aged between 18 and 30 years, sailors, sealers, and whalers trying to make money during the whaling heyday. Some stones have been replaced recently by better markers; apparently there’s a renewed interest in Norway for this part of their heritage, and children and grandchildren are tending to these things.
Melinda and I take one of the last zodiacs back to the ship; we’ve spent a lot of time in the museum, as is our wont. At 7:30p two of the researchers from the British Antarctic Survey come aboard and give a brief lecture on fisheries, predators, and life at King Edward Point BAS station. The talk is much like what Melinda and I are used to – a PowerPoint deck, slides with bullets, an outline slide, and pretty decent structure. I mentally note that this talk is in stark contrast to the lectures earlier on this trip, by the staff, that are nearly all given only over pictures, not text, and they’re given by flipping through pictures in a directory (eg, Hugh uses Picasa to give his presentation). I like the structure of this talk but I wonder if other passengers think it’s too academic or rigid. Dunno.
After the talk we head up to the helicopter deck for a barbeque dinner. It’s chilly outside, and unfortunately it’s misting just a little – enough to get all the tables and benches wet but not enough to reasonably want to eat inside. The pork ribs are tasty, as is the ceviche and tres leches dessert. I wear my rain pants (I haven’t learned about the rip yet) to deal with the wet bench and I bring up a towel to dry Melinda’s bench and anyone else’s that needs it (no one takes up my offer – they’re already sitting down). We talk a little bit with the BAS base commander, someone in his late 20s or early 30s. He’s two months in to a 12-month duty. I ask about how they keep up with current events from the rest of the world, and he admits they feel a bit insular there – they track major events but not a lot of little things. They get their internet by piggybacking on a satellite uplink UCSD needs for seismology station. It’s only 128kbps, but it’s free. They don’t use YouTube but there’s a fair bit of Facebook use, apparently.
We don’t dally at dinner (although I go back for seconds on the ceviche) because I’m surprisingly cold; we head in around 9p. We have the schedule for tomorrow but Ted doesn’t give his briefing because there’s no organized group at dinner. We’ll get a detailed briefing in the morning but the plan tomorrow is basically to spend the entire day at St. Andrews Bay; first zodiac in at 8a and last back to the ship at 6:30p. St. Andrew’s Bay is home to the biggest King Penguin colony in the world – 150,000 breeding pairs (and possibly more, apparently? I’ve heard lots of different numbers here) so the draw is to watch lots and lots of penguins. We’ll plan to eat lunch ashore, but we may return to the ship for a “picnic at home” should we want a break in the middle of the day. Lots of time in the field is fun, but I do like taking a break in the middle.