Landfall and icebreaking

Penguin colony on Barrientos Island

14th January 2013

Yesterday we had our first, very welcome, chance to set foot on Antarctic soil.  The site inspection team (the other group of civvies on board) had a planned visit to Barrientos Island, one of our project sites sampled in the 2012 field season.  This gave us the valuable opportunity to revisit the site and take some further snow and water samples that can be used to improve our understanding of the isotopic composition of the source water the mosses use to grow (for more information on the science of isotopes, please see our project website).  It was also very useful for me to see the lie of the land and better understand the context of the samples that I will spend hours, days and months analysing over the coming year.

 Due to increasing winds gusting at around 25 – 30 knots, our time on the island was fairly limited.  We made sure we were ready and waiting with our boat suits on at the allotted time and one by one we swivelled ourselves off the side of the ship and climbed down the rope ladder to the small landing boat waiting below.  It’s maybe five metres down to the boat.  Yesterday it all went very smoothly but I can imagine in rougher waters this method of embarkation could get a little hairy!  To their endless credit though, the crew take our (and their own!) safety very seriously, which is mightily reassuring.

 Of course, the chance to see large groups of nesting Gentoo penguins on the island was also more than welcome!  Since this was both my first land-based Antarctic experience and close up penguin encounter, I had to keep reminding myself to focus on the moss!  Many of the penguins had extremely cute and fluffy chicks huddling in the warmth of their feathers, sheltered from the wind that whipped up and over the ridge line.  I was surprised at the exposed position many of the penguins had chosen for their nests; often they sat on their bellies face first into the wind as if to say “Wind?  Pah!  What wind!”

 From Barrientos, we left the South Shetland Islands and struck out in a south-easterly direction across Bransfield Strait over to Antarctic Sound.  Here, this morning, we encountered our first big concentrations of sea ice.  The scenery (also my first view of the true Antarctic continent) was out of this world.  It was a sunny morning, high clouds streaked across the sky and the water was like glass, reflecting the majestic peaks that tumbled down into the icy sea.  At first glance, it was a world of blue and white, but the colour variations on this spectrum are subtle yet stunning.  Add that to the vast scale of the landscape, it makes capturing photos that reflect the mind-blowing majesty of this place somewhat tricky.

 We spent a good couple of hours on deck this morning, mainly on the fo’c’sle, watching in awe as the ship ploughed through the ice, nudging large bergs out of the way, splitting many into pieces with a crushing, grating sound.  The funniest moment of the morning was undoubtedly when we found ourselves heading directly at a large berg, maybe 20 metres across that had three Adelie penguins sat on it relaxing the day away.  They didn’t seem to be in any hurry to get out of the way, so the bridge sounded the ship’s horn to try and jolt them into action, to no avail.  It was only when the ship was practically up against the iceberg that they seemed to suddenly realise they should move, scurrying across to the far side in that amusing waddle that penguins have and jumping graciously into the water to swim off and find another temporary home not in the way of a ship!

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