South Shetland Islands: Half Moon Bay

Our first landfall was in the South Shetland Islands, just off the very northern tip of Antarctica.  You can imagine our excitement at arriving at this point.   To preserve the very pristine enviornment of Antarctica, the travel company had us vacuum our clothes before getting ready to go ashore for the very first time.  We suited up in our red parkas, Gore-tex pants and knee high rubber boots, with warm layers underneath, although the temperature on any given day we were there was probably in the 40’s Farenheit.  (I had packed for below zero temperatures!)  Before getting off the ship and into a zodiac (an inflatable rubber raft developed by the French for military use) we had to walk through a long container of disinfectant so that we would not take anything infectious ashore.   Since we would visit colonies of penguins at most of our stops, we had to reverse the process coming back onto the ship.  In addition we had to scrub down our boots with disinfectant as we re-boarded the ship, since we would inevitably step in penguin guano.  Where there are penguins, there is guano!  The certainly didn’t want us tracking that stuff through the ship!

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IMG_0173IMG_0176Most of the penguins at Half Moon Bay were called “Chin Strap Penguins”, which have a black line below the beak that looks like a smile.  There were also fur seals and some terns in the area, and white sheathbill gulls, who are scavengers, picking up any food the penguins drop.  None of the animals seem to have any fear of humans.  The penguins are especially friendly and very curious, coming up to visitors and cocking their head from side to side, as if to ask, “What are you?”  “What are you doing here?

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You will notice a rather unseaworthy boat in the background of one of these shots.  It’s left over from whaling days, when there was a lot of intense activity in this part of the world.  Since the climate is so dry and cold, things get preserved very well.

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IMG_0188IMG_0200Although most of the penguins we saw at Half Moon Bay were Chinstraps, there were also a few Gentoo Penguins, which have a white stripe across their heads.  They were friendly, too.  The waters in this part of the world are very rich in krill, which is the base of the penguins’ diet.  Parents go out into the water and swallow a lot of krill, then come back to shore, find their chicks and regurgitate the krill, which the chick will eat out of the parent’s beak. You can see in the photo of the chicks ( the ones who still have their fluffy down) who have obviously just fed, that they have krill spilled down the front of their white bibs.    It may seem a bit gross to us, but for penguins, it works!

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