Gentoo Penguins at Hydrurga Rocks

Antarctica, the Last Continent (Day 4) – A Date with Penguins

The alarm rings sharp at 6 am & I dismiss it. I’m still tired & sleepy & another 20 mins flash by before my eyes open. I have no choice but to drag myself out of bed else run the risk of getting late for the shore landing. No early morning videos & good mornings to the world today! There will be a chance for that later.

After a shower & some laundry I reach the dining hall by 7.15 am for breakfast.

Over night the ship has sailed from Livingston Island to the Two Hummock Island.

Two Hummock Islands, Antarctica
Two Hummock Islands, Antarctica

Two Hummock Island is an ice-covered island, 9.4 kilometres (6 mi) long in a north-south direction, conspicuous for its two rocky summits Buache Peak and Modev Peak 670 metres (2,198 feet) high, lying in the Palmer Archipelago.

Here is a more detailed map of the area.

We have a shore landing planned & the turn of even cabin numbers is at 9.15 am. After breakfast I head to the deck to get an orientation on the area & see the pristine white Two Hummock Island.

Meanwhile, a group of ice chunks free floating in the clear waters of the Gerlache Strait made for a pretty picture.

With no more time to spare I return to my room & start getting dressed up, astronaut style, having to put on multiple layers of clothing. I have figured out that what I wore yesterday would be adequate for a shore landing where there isn’t a very long speedboat ride involved (& hence the reduced wind chill factor) but should put on an extra 4th layer for the zodiac cruises.

All line up at the gangway, eagerly looking forward to the first shore landing

 

And the embarkation point for the zodiacs

I’m the first one down amongst my group & get a front seat in the zodiac. The phone has been put away in a waterproof pouch for use on land & for the ride I intend using the Go Pro. Excited as hell, we set off.

The landing is planned at Hydrurga Rocks.

The Hydrurga Rocks are a group of rocks lying east of Two Hummock Island, in the Palmer Archipelago, Antarctica. They were named by the UK Antarctic Place-Names Committee in 1960 after Hydrurga leptonyx, the leopard seal.

It’s a small landing site at the northern entrance of the Gerlache Strait. The ride is lovely & we start seeing the first penguins the moment we approach the site. It already feels like money well spent! We are assisted in disembarking with some apprehensions in stepping into the icy cold waters but the rubber boots hold their ground. The area which is open for us to walk around & see the wildlife has already been marked with red flags.

The Hydrurga Rocks house a colony of Chinstrap penguins & I see thousands of them congregated in different rookeries all over. It’s a sight to behold & everyone goes camera crazy. I manage to get some lovely shots & videos. Here are some of them.

 

A rookery atop a rocky knoll

 

A Chinstrap in a contemplative posture

 

 

Honestly, that was more penguins than I had thought that I’d see!

We also see some juvenile Fur Seals & bigger Weddell seals & are hurriedly  reminded to maintain at least a 15 mtrs distance from them when I & a few more unknowingly venture a little closer for their comfort inviting loud, angry grunts from them. A particularly aggressive one even made a show of charging at us making us retreat hastily!

A juvenile Fur Seal
A juvenile Fur Seal basking in the sun

 

The penguins, with their particular gait, sure made for some funny videos. Here’s another one in which two of them appear to approach each other as if in a boxing rink with a white Sheatbill standing by as a referee 🙂

Our guide Juan wants to open a new walking track to another side of the rocks but this route lies along three seals who have taken up a resting position there.

Seals blocking the new intended route

Juan ventures closer to them with a long stick making one of them withdraw. After assuring that the route was safe, Juan signals us to follow him.

With Juan, the Deputy Expedition Leader

We are led to another colony of penguins & I take some more pics & make videos. This area is also full of nests of the huge condor like birds called Cormorants. To give them company are also present some small white birds called Kelp Gulls & the Sheatbills.

A family of penguins framed against the Two Hummock Islands

 

A Cormorant makes a majestic landing at its nest

 

With Julia the guide

A little later I got a chance to capture another interesting video of some Chinstraps negotiating a climb on a little hill of rocks 🙂

After having had my fill of penguins for the day I return to the disembarkation point & board a waiting zodiac back to the ship. The rubber boots have to be scrubbed clean at the beach & also once again at the ship to avoid any ship to shore or reverse contamination.

Lunch is served at 12 during which some passengers suddenly get up & watch out of the windows excitedly – its probably some whales around the ship!

Meanwhile, the ship has started making its way to the next halt. I return to my room & start changing into rest clothes when the loudspeaker comes alive with the announcement that there are some whales around the ship. I hurriedly put on my outdoor gear & shoes back again & rush to the topmost deck & soon sight the first Humpback whales (well, any kinds of whales!) of my life. They oblige us rather teasingly, playing hide & seek with our cameras.

The wind is too strong & cold to hold out any longer without protection. Besides, I need to get some rest now before the next activity.

The next activity, the cruise at Cierva Cove is planned at 4.30 pm. I get some sleep & wake up to the alarm at 3.45 pm & am down at the gangway by 4.10 pm. There are a few people ahead of me & I’m lucky again to get a front seat on the zodiac. Good to shoot videos & take pics from there.

Today’s zodiac is being piloted by Maxi & we have Martin on board as our guide.

The Cierva Cove lies at the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula in the northern entrance of the Gerlache Strait. This incredible area is the site of a glacial face that regularly calves ice, resulting not only in stunning icy spectacles but also in conditions that support a habitat for hardy mammals and penguins. Cierva Cove’s beauty can be credited to glacier calving, the shedding of ice from the front of a glacier into the sea, creating icebergs and brash ice (fragments of floating ice less than two meters in diameter).

What a spectacular evening it turned out to be! Just a short distance away from the ship the zodiac runs into sea ice – pieces of ice which have broken away from the main iceberg & are now freely floating in the sea.

Sea ice at Cierva Cove
Sea ice at Cierva Cove

It looks impossible but Maxi steers the zodiac adeptly through this ice minefield  into an area surrounded by beautiful glaciers carved into exotic shapes by the shrill wind & temperature.

The passage through fragments of sea ice presented a fantastic opportunity to test my Go Pro’s underwater shooting capabilities, check its robustness & have some fun 🙂

We also came across this Leopard Seal resting on a chunk of ice, probably enjoying a post-lunch siesta. It only moved to lazily look up at the commotion around it before deciding that we were not worth any more of its attention!

Making our way through the sea ice which seemed to be everywhere we see the Argentine research station Primavera. We go around & make our way to a different location in the hope of spotting Minky whales but don’t.

An enterprising fellow zodiacer pulled out a piece of ice crystal from the water which, as per Maxi could have been anything from a few hundred to a few thousand years old!

Sea Ice appeared to be everywhere! One couldn’t help but admire the skill of our boatsmen & the robustness of zodiac boats as they deftly negotiated this icy minefield, almost trying to follow in the wake of the preceding boat.

The extra 4th layer of clothing (my rain jacket which acted as a windcheater) turned out to be a good idea & I feel comfortable on this cruise except for the feet which still feel cold in spite of wearing two layers of socks including a pair of Merino wools. From tomorrow I must begin to use the sole warmers, I reckon.

Its almost 6 pm. Time has flashed by as we all were lost in the beauty of this icy wonderland. We head back to the Ushuaia & are privileged to witness this beautiful spectacle as if nature had saved its best for the last!

Dinner is announced at 7 pm as usual.

Post dinner Pablo & Juan brief us on the next day’s activities. We are asked to be prepared with our cameras around 7 am tomorrow as the ship would pass through the very scenic Lemaire Channel.

Pablo points out the beautiful half moon visible over the neighbouring islands & ends the briefing. I rush outside, take a couple of quick shots & rush back in. Can’t afford to fall ill.

A zoomed view of a beautiful half moon lighting up the Antarctican landscape

That brings a fruitful day to a close.

6 Comments

  1. Really great Sudeep, you have lived ur life to the fullest….exploring and experiencing every moment of it. Very beautifully narrated ur experience and the pics and videos are really great. Wish you many more adventurous trips. Catch you soon. Take care.

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