We started this morning at Baily Head on the mouth of Port Foster at Deception Island. Expedition staff has been telling us about Baily Head since the first day – how it’s an amazing landing site (they say that about many of the sites, though) but also the most difficult – winds and swell can swamp a zodiac, and their attempted landing two years sent Ted under the water three times. So today we can finally see this location ourselves.
The weather is pretty calm, and it proves to be a pretty benign landing. The beach doesn’t extend far into the sea, so even mild swell turns into steep waves that break on the beach. The staff marshals us concisely, and we unload the zodiac quickly and without incident. We’ve been asked to pack lightly for the day so there’s less gear to move around, and I bring only my camera – no spare lens and no backpack. We’d initially planned for a hike at this site, but they scrubbed the hike before breakfast in order to make time in the schedule for a landing this afternoon. I gather that Ted had expected to land at Hannah Point after dinner but the Captain said that we must leave the South Shetlands and head for the Drake by then. So, no hike. Instead, we enjoyed seeing a sprawling suburb of Chinstrap penguins, perhaps 100,000 breeding pairs. The chicks are pretty large, nearly as large as the adults, but still wearing only their initial down and still dependent on their parents for food. The colony covers a valley and a bit of ridge line and is made up of many islands of penguins along this surface. Deception Island is a caldera, and there’s little flora growing here but some lichen and moss, so the islands of penguins are pretty clear. Through the middle of the valley runs a penguin superhighway – perhaps a hundred penguins wide, the highway conducts penguins from all parts of this metropolis to the sea, with penguins following the British system and walking on the left. As soon as we land on the beach we see the terminus of this system, at the ocean, and watch as penguins dive into the water in groups or shoot back out of the surf in an attempt to beat the waves onto shore and head to a nest.
We follow the cliff face to our left and into the valley. We avoid disrupting the penguin highway, both because it would disrupt the penguins and because there’re enough of them that they’d just run us over. The human walkway we pick out runs about 30 feet up the valley wall on the left and provides a good vantage point over islands in this colony. We see lots of interesting behavior here; I spend perhaps 30 minutes here and Melinda more than an hour. We see a chick running through the colony being picked on by passing adults and one or two chasing adults. Any penguin on a nest will nip at passersby, but chicks don’t yet know how to avoid these repercussions. The picking on looks sort of brutal – the chick loses some feathers in the process. Guess that’s how it learns. We see a lone Macaroni penguin in this island, in stark contrast to the usual sight of one Chinstrap penguin in a Gentoo or Adelie or Macaroni colony. Melinda reports that the Macaroni penguin displays at some passing Chinstraps and even occasionally gets some interest in return, but nothing ever sticks. We see two penguins copulating near the human path, and many humans watch with interest. Chinstraps here nest in pits scratched out into the earth and lined with stones. Several penguins, adults and chicks alike, spend our entire visit just sitting in their nests.
I let Melinda continue to watch the Macaroni penguin as I head to a distant ridge; I see other people there, and I’ve heard there’s a good view from up there. The walk is maybe 10 minutes and requires crossing the penguin highway but at its headwaters where fewer penguins are bustling. Crossing it isn’t too hard. The Chinstraps stop for humans in their path and wait for the people to move. The polite thing for a visitor to do is to wait for a break in the penguins then sally forth to get out of the way (but, not going too fast). At the end of the valley the caldera wall rises up about 30 degrees to the ridge, and I march my way up. The top rewards us who are up there with a view of the ocean over the other side and with a view down a pretty steep wall on that side, too. And, more penguins. The penguins up here aren’t moving quite as much as those lower in the valley, but they are moving – penguins fresh from the sea are arriving and penguins off their nest shift departing. I get a GPS fix (62 deg. 58.139’ S by 60 deg. 30.168’ W) and take some photos. The penguins extend way up on this ridge, too, and some are trudging up a slope one wouldn’t have guessed penguins could scale. Melinda joins me after a bit, and we head out as the staff sweeps up all the leftover people on the way back to the landing site.
On and off today, and for the past few days, the weather’s been mostly good but with occasional light snow. The weather _looks_ much like it might in San Francisco or Seattle – overcast skies and a bit chilly – so it’s been a surprise to me each time that the “light rain” that occasionally develops falls as snow. It hasn’t accumulated yet on our landings, but it’s been enough to send my camera under a hat or into my jacket for protection.
Before leaving Deception Island the boat sails in to the caldera, through Neptune’s Bellows, for an important ritual: swimming in the Antarctic waters where the geothermal upwelling heats the waters. Melinda and I didn’t pack for this excursion, but Melinda makes do with some fast-drying light hiking wear we did bring; I stay dry and take pictures. About 20 people from the ship take part, heading to the shore, splashing around in the water along the beach, then hurriedly toweling off in the 33F air. The water is very warm – parts of the beach under the water are uncomfortable for bare feet, apparently. The only issue is that the beach is a fine black sand, and the sand sticks to everything. Even now Melinda’s improvised swimwear, left hanging to dry in our room, is lightly coated with the tiny sand. It should be easy to shake it all out when it’s fully dry.
Food aboard the ship has been occasionally good but disappointing on average. Lunch today hit a rock bottom because the kitchen ran out of food before Melinda and I got there. My lunch ended up being a piece of bread with a pat of butter, a square of hazelnut cake, and a PowerBar that I brought with me from San Francisco. The breakfast spreads are often tasty but never timed well for me. It’s too bad I can’t just have leftovers from breakfast as lunch.