In the past two days, I’ve shot 2100 exposures, probably two-thirds of that today. We were at St. Andrews Bay today, and although the weather started poor, by mid-morning the skies were blue and the sun was out, and the King Penguins numbered into the hundreds of thousands.
I woke up around 4a as the ship hauled anchor and set sail; we spent the night at Grytviken because it’s a protected harbor for the ship. I rolled over for more sleep and awoke just as my alarm went off at 6:30, which was then followed by Ted’s wake-up call. We’re in St. Andrew’s Bay, but the skies are overcast, and it’s only 34F outside. Melinda and I do our morning thing and head out to the zodiacs. No one’s going to repeat the Salisbury Plains rain fiasco – lots of cameras are wearing rain sleeves, professionally made or fashioned from zip-loc bags. I have all my gear but plan to leave it in the dry bag should conditions be poor.
The zodiac trip is easy, but the landing is rough. Their usual landing site no longer provides access to the King penguin colony because the glacial melt-water river has shifted course and is impassable by foot (it’s 3’ deep and the current is strong). We make a different landing, but the waves crash hard along the sand-and-pebble beach. Melinda and I go in separate zodiacs (8 heads per craft and it happens to split us up). Hugh is my driver and explains the plan and reasoning and says that in the landing, the zodiac motors hard up onto the beach, but the waves will hit the transom and knock us about. That’s exactly what happens, along with the wave sending water crashing over the last two people in the boat (including myself). Good thing for all this wet-weather gear! No big issue, and we’re both at the landing site, and I unpack the gear.
My first impression upon landing is that there’re a lot of King Penguins here! The beach is speckled with them where we land – the staff had to herd them out of the way for the landing site. A few fur seals are scattered about, and elephant seals have a wallow or two off the beach into the grass, but the obviously dominant animals are the penguins. And there are a lot of them. The beach extends about a mile from where we are, and no 25’ circle could be drawn without including a penguin. And this is just the start.
The skies are overcast but dry so I unpack the camera but keep the dry bag with me just in case (ordinarily I’d leave the dry bag at the landing site and leave my camera padding and gloves). We head toward a ridge that overlooks the King colony, following a line of other passengers doing the same. Within 10 minutes of leaving the beach, though, it starts to sprinkle lightly. I cover my camera with my hands for a while but the sprinkles build up and I stash everything in the dry bag in the backpack. Soon the sprinkles turn to hail – I’m glad I’ve stashed everything. We continue on our walk, though – we’d previously agreed that we’d just enjoy it in person if we couldn’t photograph anything. And, I do take some photos with the snap camera, despite the rain.
The big surprise of the day is that the hail and rain lasted only a few minutes, and the skies gradually parted, first to expose some thinner clouds, and eventually to be clear and blue with some friendly cumulus clouds and sunny. The conditions turned out to be amazing – great bright light, occasional shadows, temperate, and dry. I reinstall all my camera gear and return to photographing everything I could see.
St. Andrews Bay is home to the largest colony of King Penguins in the world. I’ve heard various estimates of the number of breeding pairs here, between 250,000 and 500,000. I couldn’t judge for myself but the delta and plains where the penguins nest is expansive and completely covered with penguins. So many penguins! You couldn’t draw a 2’ circle without overlapping a penguin. The penguins are in a few stages of breeding. Some adults are sitting on eggs, exchanging incubation duties during an “egg exchange.” Penguin chicks born last year wear brown down coats while their King-colored plumage fills in. Some adult penguins are molting now and will breed in several weeks. The chicks congregate in crèches in the colony which make for patches and lines of brown among the black and white pips in the sea of penguins. A purpose-built viewing platform for the colony wouldn’t have been better than the ridge we walk to from which we can see the expanse of the penguins.
At the ridge Jim, one of the staff ornithologists, spots a few penguin couples who are likely to have an egg exchange very soon. He spots three couples while I’m there, and the first two exchange their eggs pretty readily, but the third takes more than an hour to work out a plan and the courage to do so. I watch the proceedings for about 30 minutes but do give up because I want to look at other things. Melinda stays on and monitors these penguins. She later reported to me that the couple did eventually complete the egg exchange and everyone on the ridge cheered.
One neat place Melinda and I walked to was a lake at the foot of Buxton Glacier. A small sandbar extends into the lake (the lake is perhaps 150ft in diameter) and a few score penguins are standing on it. We walk to the edge, then walk through the water to the sandbar (I do like having waterproof footwear) to visit these penguins. Only a few other people are out here, mostly the fancy-pants photographers, and there’s lots of good behavior to watch and photo compositions possible. Melinda and I also end up just sitting and watching the birds for a bit. It’s past noon and we’re hungry, but the sun’s out, the weather’s warming up, and there’s a lot of scenery to take in. Some penguins visit Melinda and me while we sit, coming up pretty close. I get some very close-up shots of them and we enjoy an eye-to-eye look-see.
We head back to the landing site around noon-thirty and meet Hugh early along the way. Hugh will be an expedition leader next year on an Antarctica-only trip with Cheesemans, again on the Ortelius. Apparently they go further down the peninsula, on the west side, and into the Antarctic circle. Could be fun.
We find sandwiches at the landing site, but they’re running low – not everyone who took a lunch signed up for one. We get ours, though. The staff is lounging on zodiacs, pulled all the way out of the water. Bringing in any zodiac needs 4-6 people, so they need many hands on the beach, I guess. Just as Melinda and I begin to eat a wind picks up, and within 90 seconds it’s gusting very stiffly, maybe 30 knots. On the beach it kicks up sand and grit terribly; Melinda and I face away from the wind and put up our jacket hoods to protect ourselves (it works). This is the katabatic wind we were warned of. St. Andrews Bay is a bowl surrounded by three glaciers. As the air in the bowl heats up, the colder air on the glaciers is pulled down by gravity into the bowl at a surprisingly high rate. The winds gust for perhaps 30 minutes, long enough that many people return to the landing site (we were asked to do so should winds pick up, as the winds can reach 100mph during these storms. Such happened to Cheesemans in 1998, and 21 passengers and 7 staff had to take shelter in a BAS hut for several hours). Ted lounges in a chair near the zodiacs during this time, seemingly napping. There’s not a lot to do while they’re gusting, and the wind isn’t bad enough that we’re going to leave the site. The winds do calm down after a bit, and we disperse again. The gusts come and go for the rest of the afternoon, but the landing isn’t cut short.
After lunch and after the winds, Melinda returns to the ridge to watch penguins, and I head out on Tom Murphy’s photo composition walk. The group has a dozen people and after spending 30 minutes at the first stop, where Tom explains simple technical concepts to several people, I break off from the group. Tom did say several times this walk was about composition, not technical issues, but the questions about depth of field and aperture just kept coming. I’ll catch up with the lessons later; Tom said there’ll be another couple of these during the trip. The first one I missed entirely, but it was a mix of questions about tripods (really?!) and basic questions about how to operate one’s camera. So, yeah, there’s a long ways to progress here.
I meet up with Melinda again, finding her on the ridge talking with Doug about teaching biology. Doug previously had taught biology and related subjects at DeAnza College; he retired to running ecology safaris. They’re having a great conversation; I don’t dull it by talking about what I do. 8) I head to the river that separates us from the colony, take some photos, and Melinda and I lounge on the top of the hill near the ridge for about 20 minutes enjoying the scene. It’s still sunny and warm, and we could stay here for another 90 minutes before the last zodiac, but after a bit we decide to make our way back to the ship. We pick our way through the scattered penguins and occasional seals, pack up the gear, and take the next zodiac to the ship.
The day closes with dinner and the daily Christmas Present that is the next day’s schedule. The skies remain clear, but there’s a rumor of a storm tomorrow; we shall see. I’ll check the barometer on the bridge before I turn in, just to see for myself. Tomorrow we’ll be at Gold Harbor, and there’s a 5:30a landing. Melinda and I plan to sleep in and make the 8a landing instead; Gold Harbor has more of the same as we’ve been seeing so we don’t feel it so necessary to be there so early. We’ll be at Gold Harbor all day; last zodiac back is at 7p, so there’ll be plenty of time even starting from an 8a landing. This event would also be the first landing opportunity we “miss” in a way – we’ve been at the first landing at all the other times so far (as has 90% of the ship). A show of hands at dinner showed only 60% of the group will make the early landing tomorrow; the comment on the first day, that we didn’t need to make all the landings, is starting to set in.
P.S. I visited the bridge just now – the barometer fell 20mmHg in the afternoon during the windy period. It’s bounced back 10mmHg. I met Katie and Pablo in the library which is one of two social areas and often home to people sorting or viewing photos on their laptops. Pablo showed a video he shot with his “Hero” video camera, by GoPro(?). It’s a small, self-contained camera that he sets out on the beach at landings to shoot for a few minutes at a time. It’s inexpensive so he’s not worried he’ll lose something valuable if a fur seal eats it. The video he showed was of a fur seal pup looking closely at the camera – too cute. Both he and Katie review all their images each day and delete the ones that are out of focus or are duplicates. I plan to review and edit my photos after I return; I’m spending those two hours each night blogging and mentally reviewing the day, instead.