Last night was very restful; I awoke once in the middle of it and again only just before the 7:30a wake-up call. I’m more bright-eyed and bushy-tailed than Melinda is this morning, so I head out for breakfast and to check out the bridge a bit before she does.
This morning we’re ship-cruising into the Weddell Sea with the aim to reach the pack ice by mid-afternoon. We have a set of lectures lined up for the day because we’re expecting the transit to be long at times. This schedule proves unnecessary even before the first lecture at 9a. Around 8:40a someone spots humpback whales just ahead of us, and everyone rushes out (to the bridge, the bow, and the upper decks) to see them. I’m out with my camera, and Melinda soon joins with the binoculars. We’ve come across a group of … I think, 5? … humpbacks that are frolicking in the water. We slow down but maintain the heading, and the whales stick around with us. The water is so clear that it’s easy to see several feet down. The whales are near the surface, and at some point one is just alongside the bow about two feet below the surface. We can easily see the entire whale, reaching from the tip of the bow to the bridge – they’re big whales! When they blow you can hear the sound of air exhaled and sometimes the whale’s voice. Pretty amazing. Doug was scheduled for the 9a lecture, but we stick with these whales until about 10a instead, and out goes the lecture schedule. And it gets better. By around 11a we pick up another group of whales that are also just cavorting near the surface. By mid-afternoon we’ve seen about 30 orcas and about 40 humpback whales.
We’re not traveling to their breeding grounds, but we’re close enough that we ought to see some loner Emperor penguins. While admiring whales we’ve started an Emperor penguin watch, and there’s a prize (yet to be determined) to whoever sees one first. Around 11:45 Jim, one of the staff ornithologists, thinks he’s spotted one, so we turn the ship to circle around the berg it’s on and check it out. With great fortune the penguin stays on the berg during our maneuvering, we get close enough for a good look, and sure enough it is an Emperor penguin. It may be the only one we see on the trip, but at least it didn’t take long looking for it. We all make a joke that it’s great to see it now because it’s lunch time – we wouldn’t have wanted to skip lunch looking for the penguin. While circling for the penguin sighting and for a few other sightings today, the ship proved itself very maneuverable. It can turn quickly and with a small radius, although the captain did say to someone wanting a better view, “I cannot stop ship; is not Zodiac.”
We saw a few crabeater seals and other sea birds on the wildlife safari today, too. On one flow, two southern giant petrels and two skuas were lounging until we came along, our presence motivating them to fly off. Three of the four had no trouble; the last giant petrel did the expected running + flapping to gain lift but must have tripped because it rolled at the end, not quite off the flow, and sat down again. One could tell how many people on the bridge were watching this bird because we all laughed together looking through our binoculars. Adelie penguins, it also seems, are very skittish of the Ortelius. We’ve found Adelies on several floating bits of ice, but when we approach, they scatter, running around the ice for a bit before jumping into the seas.
With the success of the wildlife viewing, Ted changed our plans for the afternoon: we won’t head to pack ice, and instead we’ll head to Paulet Island this evening for a landing and zodiac cruising. Landing and cruising (pick one) at 4p, back for dinner at 7p, and cruising (only) again after dinner. Melinda and I pick landing, and we’re geared up and ready to go at 3:30. It’s colder outside here than it’s been at any other landing so I add more layers, but enough so that I don’t want to stay in the room waiting (because it’s heated), so Melinda and I join several other people in the landing party line. There’s a small bit of confusion about where to line up for landing vs. cruising, and Hugh comes by to tell us it’ll be 30 minutes before we can land, but the 20 of us now lined up are happy enough to stay where we are – we’re eager to get off the ship.
We launch 7 or 8 zodiacs to haul people to the shore and to begin cruising. Melinda and I are dropped at the shore of Paulet Island and are amazed by what we see. The island is small and conical, perhaps a few hundred feet tall. It’s all rocks and a bit of snow that’s melting, and it’s nearly entirely covered with Adelie penguins. At just the side of the island we visit there’s probably 200,000 breeding pairs of birds. There’s so many that the staff had to herd some of them off the shore to make room for the landing (just loose penguins, not any breeding pairs in a colony). While in the zodiac Hugh takes us around an extra minute or two and we can see up the hillside – it’s an undulating carpet of black and white, thousands of penguins making their way between sea and nest, with dots of black blinking to white and vice versa as penguins turn and make their way through the rocks. We’re altogether happy that we chose landing, not cruising.
Adelies are all black with a white front and a tiny bit of white around the eyes. The beak is dark, dull orange and the feet are pinkish, but from any distance these penguins are the canonical penguin-colored penguins. They’re closely related to Chinstraps and Gentoos, all being members of the “stiff-tailed” collection of penguin species. On Paulet they have nests, little rings made of small stones, and the nests are pretty closely together. Many breeding pairs have chicks, and many have two chicks. The chicks are grey and fluffy and 75% the height of their parents. They’re still being fed by the parents, and even still brooded (kept warm by the parents), but brooding is a ridiculous sight because of the relative sizes, and especially if the breeding pair has two chicks not just one.
With so many Adelies near this landing site we don’t stray far or wide, but we have plenty of opportunities to photograph and appreciate this collection of penguins. At some point I’ve crouched down to photograph a penguin maybe 15’ away and I hear a movement behind me. I’ve crouched along a penguin highway and a few Adelies are walking past behind me by about one foot. They don’t mind me too much, it seems, and I don’t move until they’re well past.
The notable feature of Adelie penguin colonies is the odor. The odor of other penguins is sort of musky, and it’s masked by the odor of seals, which can be musky or similar to horse manure. Adelie penguin guano smells like bird guano; it smells like a bird cage on the island. The scent isn’t terribly objectionable, but I’d be happier with it gone. The other issue is that anything that touches the guano, or even is in the air near it for a period of time, absorbs the odor and releases it for some time. Back on the Ortelius Melinda and I find that much of our outerwear smells like Adelie colony.
I’m beginning to run low on digital storage so I took more care in composing photos on this landing. Well, for that reason, and because I’d like to have better photos and not just a ton of penguin snapshots. I concentrate on a few subjects and resist my earlier urge to fire a ton of frames waiting for the composition to be right. I think it helps; at least, I feel I’m being more careful. One event I’d like to photograph is the penguins eliminating their waste. They do so famously with some high pressure. It’s pretty hard to get the timing right because there’s not a lot of lead-up activity to signal it’s coming. But it’s a thing to work on.
Back on ship Melinda and I don’t stow our gear entirely – we plan to cruise in zodiacs after dinner. During dinner, though, we learn that the post-dinner zodiac cruise is canceled on account of the weather – the winds have picked up and are predicted to reach 40 knots by sunset. With those winds and swell, zodiac cruising isn’t fun or easy. Instead, we take a ship cruise further south, in search of the pack ice and to see tabular icebergs at sunset (which happens around 10:30p). So our gear will get overnight to dry (though I expect it’ll smell like Adelie for much longer). The ship cruise proves nice – we see lots of big icebergs and I photograph several, trying to get nice evening light, although the sunset proved to be ordinary, not extraordinary, and the ship (sensibly) stays pretty far from most of the ice. We don’t reach pack ice and turn around about when we reach the northern edge of a bubble of clear ocean. We’ll anchor near Paulet and tomorrow at 3a Ted will decide whether we’ll try for another Paulet landing (on the other side of the island) or go to Devils Island instead. At dinner we didn’t get the usual information sheet – there’s so much uncertainty (and flexibility) in the schedule that there’s not much to say. We do know that breakfast is at 7a (back to landing-marathon schedule and no more sleeping in) and we’ll make about two landings tomorrow. Other than that, we’ll roll with the ocean.
I’m starting in on my third (of three) 32GB memory cards for my camera. I figured two would be enough and I brought a third in order to be excessive. Oops. I have a plan for getting more exposures: I’ll shoot this last card until it’s about one-third full, I’ll copy the images to my hard drive, then I’ll wipe the card and start over. I’d be pretty surprised if I shot more than 4,000 exposures here on the peninsula, but this plan should give me an extra 2,000 or more, just in case. In future I should bring a (physically) small external drive with me as photo storage. Even if I also leave the memory cards untouched, it’s nice to have a second copy should something happen to the cards. One of the professional photographers made a comment the other day that he shoots with smaller cards – 8GB – rather than the biggest he could find in order to reduce the pain should one card fail. Interesting point. Swapping cards isn’t a big deal and they’re all much less expensive than the camera or lenses that one would be using, anyway. He said he aims for a card that will hold about 100 exposures.
At dinner I asked Doug how we’re able to change our plans so easily. I knew that Cheesemans had to request, at the beginning of July, which landing dates they would have (these sites permit only one ship per landing site at a time). Doug said they can move around to unreserved dates and locations – there’re 20% fewer operators this season than previously, so they have this flexibility. Pretty convenient. They’ve also booked two landings at Bailey Head, which is apparently a very tricky landing but (presumably) very worthwhile, hence the double investment.