After two days on the Drake Passage and a briefing on how to get in and out of the zodiacs, we are finally at Antarctica at the
South Shetland Islands. Our first stop on Feb 6th was Aitcho Island. This island had abundant wildlife and beautiful views, especially from the saddle on the hike to see the southern elephant seals. I had so many great photos I had a hard time selecting
those most representative of what I had seen, but I managed to narrow it down, so take a look at my Aitcho Island Photos. Aitcho Island has some of everything – birds, seals, whale bones, scenery – and was a fantastic way to get introduced to Antarctica. Of course the penguins and seals were the main attractions and I think everyone was taken with the adorable gentoo and chinstrap penguin chicks. The chicks are curious and if you sit still they may waddle up to you, nibble your gloves or jacket, and might even climb on you. The other thing that overwhelms you when you arrive is the fishy smell of penguin guano (which is pink due to their krill diet). The wildlife I saw there was:
*Gentoo Penguin
*Chinstrap Penguin
*Snowy Sheathbill
Brown Skua
Southern Giant Petrel (including the white morph)
*Leopard Seal
Fur Seal
*Southern Elephant Seal

We then sailed by Livingston Island on the way to Deception Island, which is an active volcano (last eruption was in the 1970s). We sailed into the main caldera via Neptune’s Bellows and had nice views of Whaler’s Bay, an old whaling station. Our destination was Telefon Bay, known for having volcanicly heated water and the possibility of swimming in warm water. There was no sign of warm water at Telefon Bay, but a signs of warm water nearby, so Cara, the expedition leader said if there was time, we would head to the other site for a warm polar plunge. Unfortunately the crane to launch the zodiacs broke and the Russian crew worked hard and fast to get it fixed and at one point I saw them take out a life boat (whether to test as an option to get us to shore or some other reason I’m not sure). After about 30 or 40 minutes they had the crane fixed and we were on our way to the shore. There is little wildlife at Deception Island, but the views of the snow covered lunar landscape are worth the trip (see my Deception Island Photos).
I took the hike up to the top of the most recent caldera as a light snow fell. Due to the crane problem, there was no time to go to a different site for a swim, so many of us (yes, me included) decided to take a polar plunge anyway in the cold (2 degree C) water – I figured I’d regret not doing it or regret doing it, so I had to decide which I would regret more. Insanely, I stripped down to my bathing suit, leaving my parka, snow pants, and clothes on the rocky beach and ran into the water. I dunked myself up to the neck and then ran back out of the water to a waiting towel to dry off and get dressed again. I was surprised at how invigorating it was and it wasn’t nearly as cold or unpleasant as I thought it would be and I’m really glad I did it (I just hope one of the other people on the cruise got a photo of me actually taking the plunge!). Cara and the ship’s doctor, Michael, duly noted that I had done the polar plunge and gave me a certificate stating I had suffered from temporary insanity and taken the polar plunge.

Once everyone was back on board the Lyubov Orlova, we headed towards the Antarctic Pennisula and an early morning (5:30 am) excursion to Cuverville Island. This was an extra excursion for the most active of us because the weather was so calm and nice. Watching sunrise surrounded by penguins and with views of mountains and icebergs was a real treat.

After breakfast we went to Danco Island. More gentoo penguins and some brazen snowy sheathbills entertained us. At one point I saw a snowy sheathbill pick up a paintbrush that Colin wasn’t using at the moment, so he had to quickly grab it back (apparently he had chosen a spot too near the sheathbill’s nest for the bird’s comfort). I also took a hike up to the top of the island’s glacier to admire the views.

We then headed over to Neko Harbor. More gentoo penguins greeted us as well as spectacular views of icebergs. The water was absolutely calm, so reflections of mountains and icebergs while taking zodiac tours was a real treat. The calm water also made it easy to see humpback whales and penguins in the water (I got a great photo of gentoo penguins porpoising). There were also weddell and crabeater seals, which I hadn’t seen before. Neko Harbor has an Argentine rescue shelter and I finally asked the expedition staff what the red coolers they bring ashore every excursion were. Turns out they are emergency supplies (blankets, food, etc) just in case weather gets too bad or there are equipment problems and we can’t get back to the boat. Apparently any shore excursion requires such supplies be provided. Before leaving Neko Harbor we had a BBQ dinner on the top deck (yes, outside in the snow!). The food was good and the mood festive, so everyone had fun.