Sunday 29 January 2012

Paulet Island and Brown Bluff

Adelie Penguins on Nodenskjöld hut, Paulet Island
Photo © A. Wenzel
Antarctic Fur Seal Paulet Island,        Photo © A. Wenzel
We had yet another fantastic day.  The sky was overcast as we zipped ashore in the Polar Cirkle boats at 09:00.  The ride took all of two minutes and then, there we were, standing on the shore of Paulet Island, the home of 100,000 breeding pairs of Adelie Penguins.  But that really doesn’t describe the numbers accurately nor does it give you a good idea of the scenario.  100,000 breeding pairs does not include the chicks, or the sexually immature birds, or the singles and divorcées.  Of course many of the adults are out feeding and will return later to feed their chicks. So how many birds were there when we were there?  It is difficult to say.  A lot.  How many could be there at one time?  Probably somewhere around 300,000 on the entire island.  That’s a lot of penguins.  Needless to say, it is a busy place.
A short walk of about 150 metres brought us to an historic hut where 19 men from the Nordenskjøld expedition were forced to stay over the winter.  The word hut is somewhat boastful in this case.  The walls are barely over a metre high and the roof is long gone.  Penguins now nest and roost along its historic walls.
About another 150 metres further inshore, lying in a natural amphitheatre is a small beautiful green lake, green because of the dense algae flourishing in its waters.  A chorus of calling Adelies line the walls of the concert bowl. The sound is rather impressive.

Brown Bluff. Gentoo and Adelie Penguin colonies.
Photo © A. Wenzel
Paulet Island, Adelie Penguin colony, fresh water lake.
Photo © A. Wenzel
If you walked the landing in a large loop you would complete the circuit at a large colony of Antarctic Shags.  They are handsome black and white birds closely related to cormorants.  When they are in peak breeding season they have a large crest and beautiful bright blue eyes.  Close to the shags was a young male Antarctic Fur Seal, the first of many that will arrive in the next few weeks.  In fact in a month’s time there will be several hundred of these handsome animals scattered along the beach and throughout the landing area.
By 13:00 everyone was back on board Fram.  The dining room was filled with the chatter of happy people relating their experiences to one another over a very welcome and hearty lunch.
On the glacier at Brown Bluff,       Photo © A. Wenzel
After lunch there was lots of time to rest or admire the scenery as we weren’t due to arrive at Brown Bluff until 16:00.  Just before 16:00 we dropped the anchor and headed to shore.  Once again we had perfect conditions for a landing! The sky was now hazy overcast with large regions of clear blue sky poking through.  The sea was flat calm.
When we arrived on shore the Expedition Leader Karin briefed us on our options. We had lots of choices.  We could hike to the left and trek up the glacier with Karin.  We could hike to the left and head on up the moraine where there was a fantastic view with Andy, or we could hike to the right where there were thousands of nesting Adelie and Gentoo penguins, or we could do any combination as long as we were back at the landing site at the prescribed time.
Sunset on the Weddell Sea,           Photo © A. Wenzel
Whatever we chose to do we could not go wrong.  En route to the glacier a Leopard Seal was snoozing on a large ice floe and just behind the Leopard was a similarly somnambulant Crabeater Seal.  And another 15 metres past those pinnipeds were a couple of Antarctic Fur Seals on the beach.  High up on the moraine with Andy were a pair of skuas with two chicks.  
About midway through the landing a huge piece of ice calved off of the glacier face sending an impressive wave racing to shore.  As a safety precaution, the Expedition Team cleared everyone off the beach.
Humpback Whale.
Two fantastic landings in one day.  But the perfect ending to a perfect day was yet to come.  At about 21:15 we encountered three humpback whales.  There was no wind.  The sea was flat calm.  The sunset was inspiring. We stayed with the three whales for about a half hour.  We could clearly hear them breathing each time they came up for air.  The experience was humbling.