Cruise Report: Antarctica

Aitcho Island & South Shetland Island Group

From the National Geographic Endeavour in Antarctica

Group of Gentoos on Aitcho Island
Group of Gentoos on Aitcho Island

Our second day across the fabled Drake Passage drew us ever closer to the promised land of ice, rock and penguin. The high winds and seas continued and yet we pushed on towards the relative shelter of the outer islands of Antarctica, The South Shetlands.

These very young volcanic islands were formed over the past couple of million years and form a barrier for the mainland to the mighty storms of the Drake. After learning about penguins from Dr. Steve MacLean, photography hints from Sisse Brimberg and Cotton Coulson, and then later about the Antarctic Treaty Organizations and what they suggest we wear outdoors from our Expedition Leader Tim, it was time to put all that newfound knowledge to good use.

Our speed over the past two days and nights gave us the chance for a landing on one of the smallest of islands, Aitcho. Originally called H.O. for the Hydrographic Office, it is one of the groups of islands that were found some 190 years ago and very quickly thereafter exploited by sealers for years to come. Even today the Antarctic fur seal has not fully recovered from the hunting done at that time.

Our reason to go ashore was twofold: to get off the ship and touch land again, and to see what many of us had come for – penguins! There were four species in all. Two dominated: the gentoo and the chinstrap, both in the toil of protecting their precious eggs and/or chicks. There was a brief sighting of an Adelie on one beach and towards the end of our visit, a real find, the King. This regal bird is the second largest penguin in the world and quite a bit larger than all the other birds ashore. Many of us had the chance to see this lonely bird tower over the others.

Upon returning to the ship, we were officially welcomed aboard by Captain Olaf. Some toasted with drink, others without, but we all knew that welcomed surprises lay ahead in our journey to The Ice.

— Jason Kelley, Naturalist, National Geographic Endeavour

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