Summer Jolly in Antarctica
was past midnight when we cast away from the jetty and set out on our "summer
jolly" in two twelve foot fiberglass dinghies powered by 4 B.H.P.
Seagull outboard engines. Two men to each boat, each looking forward
to getting away from base for "a few days away from it all".
Despite the time, the sun was still visible low on the horizon between
two layers of dark stratus clouds, sending yellow streaks of light
over the loose pack ice and 'bergs. We maneuvered the boats slowly
through bands of loose brash ice that clogged the narrow passage of
Meek Channel and headed North towards Penola Strait.
Several Snow Petrels glided low over the boats, watching us intently, their
pure white plumage glistening in the gathering light and giving them an ethereal
quality. Their inquisitiveness sated, they flew on towards the mainland,
heading for their breeding grounds in the high mountain peaks and
Nunataks of the Antarctic Peninsula.
A stiff breeze began to blow, chilling the other driver and I, as we mostly
stood in order to keep a close eye out for brash ice, bergy bits or growlers.
These were varying sizes of floating ice, which constituted the main hazards
to our progress. Rock shoals were also present, but as these were static
and mostly charted, we knew how to avoid these danger areas, unlike the ice,
which seemed to have a mind of its own. Although relatively mild for the
time of year, the temperature was -11º Centigrade, with the wind chill
making it feel even colder.
After an hour and a half of cruising, we pulled into a small bay at the north
end of Irizar Island, idling the engines so that we could have a drink and
a bite to eat. This was the last shelter before heading out into Penola Strait
to cross the open water between us and our destination, Petermann Island,
a further two and a half hours away on a good day. As we got underway again,
I noticed a change in the water ahead. The ever increasing circles of calmer,
almost 'oily' water, growing in number and moving in one direction were the
tell-tale signs that there were whales moving below the surface.
As I motioned to the others to look in that direction, the surface
began to ripple and a dark shape surfaced with a loud blow, sending
a misty jet of fine spray two meters into the air. From the shape and
height of the spout and the sickle shaped dorsal fin I knew these were
minke whales, the smallest of the so-called baleen whales, reaching
a length of up to nine meters and weighing around ten tons. As we edged
closer and saw the paler brownish pattern on their flanks, this was
confirmed. The whales ambled around for a while before heading off
in the opposite direction to ours.
The remainder of the trip was relatively uneventful, but the scenery was
awe-inspiring. Ahead of us lay the Lemaire Channel, a narrow strip of water
between Booth Island and the Antarctic Peninsula. With peaks towering over
900 meters (3,000 ft.) from sea level, Mount Scott on the mainland was spectacular.
On it, hanging glaciers were lacerated with crevasses, and huge cornices
of snow overhung the vertical, obsidian-like cliffs.
Arrival at Petermann Island meant it was time for hard work, as we unloaded
our gear and carried it up to the refuge hut that was to be our 'luxury chalet'
for the next few days. Actually, it would not have looked out of place on
an allotment, a crude wooden shack with a rusty, corrugated sheet roof. The
gear stored, we hauled the boats onto dry land and secured them above the
high water mark (well above, I might add, due to the glaciers calving huge
blocks of ice into the sea across the strait and causing enormous waves at
times). Work over, we lit the stove and brewed a cuppa (cup of tea) before
crawling into our sleeping bags for a couple of hours sleep.
a breakfast of slicing sausage (sausage patties), tinned
bacon and powdered eggs, washed down with orange juice (re-hydrated
with freshly melted glacier ice!), we set off to explore
the island. Most of the lads were in Antarctica for the skiing
or climbing, I was there to see the wildlife, so after the
others left to follow their own interests, I walked over
to the Gentoo Penguin colony on the East shore to study their
By now, most of the birds were on nests and feeding small chicks
or incubating eggs that had yet to hatch. I settled down next to one
nest and started to sketch its occupants, a female with two chicks.
The chicks appeared to be four or five days old and covered in fine
downy feathers, silvery gray on their backs with dark heads and white
bellies. The adults were the ubiquitous black and white with bright
orange feet and beaks. Gentoo Penguins can be sexed by the size and
shape of their beaks. The males have longer, thicker beaks for catching
larger prey, such as fish, while the female's shorter, thinner beak
is more suited to catching krill, a type of crustacean. You can also
'age' gentoos by studying the pattern of white above their eyes. Birds
with an obvious dark gap between the top of the eye and the white markings
are one year olds, whereas birds showing white connecting the eye-line
are all adults.
Penguins also nested here. Smaller than the gentoos, but with a more
aggressive nature towards intruders, these birds would stand and face
you in a threatening posture (if you can imagine such a thing!) and
even go as far as to give you a slap with their flippers if you went
too close! The adelies were earlier nesters than the gentoos and their
chicks were therefore older and already gathered in small groups or
creches. When an adult came ashore and called, their offspring would
recognize the call and come racing out of the creche to greet it. The
adult would then proceed to run away with one or two loudly protesting
chicks close on its heels. Eventually the adult would stop and allow
the chicks to feed by regurgitating a 'soup' of partially digested
fish or krill. This would be the cue for the local sheathbills to spur
The sheathbills would fly at the penguins' heads, forcing them to
spill their catch and then quickly mop up the mess with apparent relish.
They are related to wading birds, all white in color with greenish
legs and beaks, but look more like a cross between a chicken and a
dodo and are "affectionately" called "Mutts" by
personnel at the base. If you consider this bad, try going to the toilet
with a flock of these little bu**ers following you (remember, there
are no public conveniences in the wilderness). I won't say any more
on that matter!
Other birds nesting nearby were South Polar Skuas, large, dark, predatory
sea birds that prey on penguin chicks and eggs, amongst other things. Also
present were small colonies of dainty little Antarctic terns, which dive
bomb intruders and peck your head, sometimes hard enough to draw blood! Along
the beaches, both weddell and crabeater seals were hauled out on the shore,
basking in the sunshine. Offshore, a lone leopard seal patrolled the entrance
to the cove, hoping to catch an unwary penguin unlucky enough to be off guard.
I spent the remainder of the day taking photographs, sketching or just taking
in the surrounding spectacle before returning to the hut. In the evening
we dined well on re-hydrated dried meat, dried onions and 'Smash' (powdered
mashed potatoes), with sledging biscuits for afters. We then sat outside
with a bottle of Chablis, chilled to perfection in the fridge (snow drift)
and watched the sun set behind the distant peaks of Cape Tuxen.
The following morning found us out in the boats and heading towards the Lemaire
Channel ... But that's another story altogether!
Oh well, back to the office.
Note: Dewi is returning to work in Antarctica this fall. We
look forward to hearing more from him!
Over Dutchess, October