Morning dawned cold with a gray overcast sky. The wind was fairly calm. I was a bit paranoid about being exposed to the elements again because I will be out for a day at Cuverville Island. I’d been given my clearance, but with a caveat – not to be out if it is exceptionally cold or very windy. On my way to the zodiacs, I kind of put my head down as I walked by expedition leaders, all of who knew my status. No one said anything, so I just kept walking and was loaded onto one of the first boats to go ashore.Cuverville Island is a dark, rocky island lying in Errera Channel between the Arctowski Peninsula and the northern part of Rongé Island, off the west coast of Graham Land in Antarctica. It is one of the largest Gentoo penguin rookeries in the region. 20 years ago there were around 3500 pairs nesting on the island. Today there are upwards of 9000 breeding pairs. Gentoos are the third-largest of the penguin species.Before actually getting to the island, our zodiac driver toured us around the iceberg choked inlet. This was an added bonus I wasn’t expecting. I’d lost an earlier opportunity to do this while stuck onboard, so I was feeling pretty good about it. The shapes, textures and other worldly colors of these bergs never ceases to amaze me. Our driver would find an interesting subject and circle around slowly. The low overcast skies had risen enough to brighten up the entire area. Moving around a berg like this really showcased how light transmitted through the ice. The only real difficulty comes when trying to compose an image. This isn’t the thoughtful contemplative process I normally try to employ. We are moving and bobbing all the time. At times we’d just drift, and the twisting motion of the zodiac would move me away from the right spot. I had to recognize something, compose, check exposure, shoot. That’s life on a boat though. I eventually learned it was best to not compose so tightly. I lost several potential images just because something got cut off or was too crooked. Rather, I would zoom out more than usual, knowing the image I wanted was in there somewhere. Later I could crop and straighten the image to more like what I wanted. I lose a little resolution, but gain a better image. Our driver eventually managed to pry me away from the final berg and we headed for the landing. As we skirted the rocky shore, I could already see Gentoos everywhere there wasn’t snow. These birds stand up to 3′ in hight, and they were everywhere. We watched from offshore as a group made ready to enter the water. It was a great way to observe their behavior when approaching a dive. They all walk up close, but none will jump in. They are waiting for someone else to go first. There are several predators lurking in the waters, so none of the penguins want to be the first to find out what is waiting for them underneath. Eventually one will dive and that signals the rest to get in quick. We moved further up the shore to a nice level area to make the landing. From there, support teams made paths in the snow that we were to keep to as much as possible. Part of being here means having as little impact as possible on the environment and wildlife. When people walk through the snow haphazardly, the deep impressions left are very difficult for penguins to navigate.The created paths moved right along several of the rookeries. I could step off the path if I wanted to linger in a spot for a while. The birds are remarkably tolerant of humans. While we were restricted to staying no less the 15 ft from them, if they decided to come closer, that was OK. Several did, but only to a point.My first reaction was something like, Oh wow, they are so cute!
My next reaction was, Holy crap, there’s a lot of them! After the initial rush of being here among these waddling creatures wore off a bit, I began to spend more time just watching their behavior. I stepped off the path near one of the “Penguin Highway’s” that connect the various rookeries to each other and to the water. Penguin Highway you ask? Turns out they do much the same thing we do. Create paths. They’re’s are a bit smoother though. From this vantage I could sit and make portraits of the birds as they marched past. I moved to a point closer to one of the rookeries and again sat down in the snow to watch. In this way I really got a sense of their behaviors. Often they would crow. Sometimes in syncopation with very elegant movements. Also in the rookeries, I could witness the constant struggle between penguin and predator. A number of South Polar Skuas – sort of a gull-like bird, were constantly harassing the penguins. Skuas are after eggs and chicks. They fly overhead trying to distract the penguins sitting on nests. They stand just out of reach which makes the penguins pull off the nest. Then the quicker skuas dart in and steal an egg or chick. Confrontations are common. Most often, the penguins are sitting on nests. Their mates are busy stealing rocks from other nests to put on theirs. When not looking for food, this seems to be the activity they do most. Another drawback to the heavier than normal lingering snow was that it delayed the start of the hatching period. There should have been far more eggs hatching by now. I did find one nest with chicks. Just a joy to watch the interaction.I walked up along our human path to get a vantage point for our surroundings. Just as I reached the top, a group of kayakers paddled around the bend. This was another outdoor activity arranged by management. I would have loved paddling around the icebergs, but that activity was not open to me. Being onshore was just fine with me though. I spent several hours walking up and down along the paths near the rookeries, but eventually it was time to get back.The trip back to ship was not a direct route. Again we moved in and around icebergs. This time however, our driver found wildlife basking on bergs. Several Crab Eater seals (they don’t actually eat crabs) were lounging about. We were escorted partway back by a flotilla of Gentoos, then finished up with a few more bergs.
Next post will be Dallman Fjords to Palmer Station.