Bowermaster’s Adventures: Deception Island, Antarctica

Deception Island, Antarctica — The black volcanic sand beach carries a heavy history, of an efficient if somewhat desperate past, in evidence from the cemetery where British whalers are buried to the abandoned and rusted pumps and storage tanks that line the shore, once filled with the oil of thousands of whales killed here each during a 25 year run.

From 1904 to 1931 this bay was home to one of the Southern Ocean’s boomtowns. As many as 15 big processing boats and another 35 “catcher” boats worked this beach at one time, most from Norway and the U.K.

With a sun rare for this island south of the South Shetlands lighting up the beach we moved up and down it, not with giant tools for skinning whales but giant cameras for documenting the falling down boomtown. Rusting tanks that once held whale oil, collapsed dormitories that once housed men and wooden whaleboats buried up to their gunnels by blown sand are the subject. It is rare today that a whale ventures into the caldera, but just before entering through Neptune’s Bellows a trio of humpbacks had blown in the near-distance.

One thing we know for certain is that the sun won’t last. My hope is to make a landing the next day on the exterior of the island, at a beach known as Baily Head. Though it is just around the corner from the interior of the caldera, and we could hike to it in two hours, the preference would be to land by Zodiac on its steep beach.

How steep? It typically shuts out three of four attempts … and those are in big robust, hard-bottomed Zodiacs, not the more pliable nine-footer we will use.

Dump the Zodiac as we land here, and there goes the film, on Day 2.It’s the confidence of my Kiwi compatriot Graham Charles, who knows the coastline of the Peninsula as well as anyone, that is our ace in the hole. Sent to scout the beach just after 7 a.m. he returned with a thumbs up — or maybe it was a shrug of the shoulders, it’s hard to tell when we’re all dressed in six layers — but his message was that right now, it was calm enough to land. The worst case was that we could land by shore and have to hike ourselves and gear to the other side to get off the island.

One, then two and three runs were made with success and during the next two hours as we assembled the 3D camera in a growing wind on the cusp of the beach, observed by several thousand chinstrap penguins, the seas rose quickly and were soon crashing onto the shore. If we’d arrived an hour later, we’d have never been able to land.

The reason to make the effort to reach Baily Head are those thousands of chinstraps that trudge up and down in a continuous file ten to twenty abreast from high in the amphitheater behind to plunge into the cold Southern Ocean for a day of feeding. They line up on the beach, assess the surf, count the sets and then — often hesitantly, sometimes with a stutter step — dive or are swept in.

Landing for them can be even trickier; from a distance you can see them coming — 40 to 100 at a time, porpoising out of the sea, headed for the beach — and then surfing, or being slammed, onto the black sand.

Leaning into the sensitive camera to keep it upright, wrapping it in space blankets and plastic sheeting to protect it from the wet, we watch the scene for several hours in the admittedly freezing wet and cold — 32 degrees with a wet blowing wind and cold spray off the ocean.

The hike with gear to the top of the 500-foot ridge in the now-grassy and muddy bowl that is home to nearly 200,000 birds was easier than we expected and after shooting atop the beautiful ridge for several more hours, by five p.m. we were clambering down the backside towards a small black sand beach.

As we hiked down, a single file line of dutiful penguins, their bellies stuffed with fish and krill, headed back to their nests, most now featuring two fuzzy gray chicks.

Snorkeling in the Galapagos

Snorkeling allows those of us who either can’t afford or are too scared to SCUBA dive to still experience the wonders of the ocean. That said, often the most awe-inspiring aquatic sites are hidden deep below the surface and hidden to those of us who don’t have an oxygen tank strapped to our backs. Thankfully, if you find yourself in the Galapagos Islands, the animals of the sea come looking for you. That makes it one of the most satisfying and rewarding places to snorkel.

I visited the islands a few months ago and strapped a ContourGPS HD video camera to my snorkel mask for a week of exploration. Every single time I entered the water, I swam with a creature that I’d only previously encountered at aquariums. Notice that I said “swam with.” It’s not an exaggeration to say that the sea lions frolicked with us, the penguins teased us and the sharks shared some close encounters with us. Unlike any other place that I have been, snorkeling in the Galapagos is very much an interactive wildlife experience and you don’t need to be a professional cameraperson to capture the action.

Of course, it’s not all fun and games with animals in the Galapagos. I learned a few things in the water. Did you know that penguins poop while swimming? It’s like a public pool over there!

Bowermaster’s Adventures — Live from Antarctica: part 6


Spied our first penguin chicks of the season today, on Petermann Island … fitting since it had been the home of both early explorers (Frenchman Charcot and his boat the Porquoi Pas camped here for two seasons one hundred years ago) and more recently researchers (the penguin counters from the Washington, D.C.-based Oceanites lived here in tents for five seasons, until 2008). The island is unique for the combination of breeding Gentoos and Adelies and blue-eyed shags, all living together, nest-to-nest, in a bird-world equivalent of very non-segregated housing.

The Adelies have been fleeing Petermann by more than ten percent a year and their numbers are down this year too, to just a few more than three hundred pairs … from five hundred a few seasons back. The Oceanites researchers predict they’ll all be gone from the island in another ten years. Why? Adelies love cold weather, and it simply isn’t staying cold enough, especially during the summer months. They love pack ice, and the sea isn’t staying frozen as long anymore. Meanwhile, the place is amuck with a booming population of Gentoos, a more temperate-loving bird, who are taking over the abandoned Adelies’ rock nests and booming in numbers.

Each season I ask my penguin-researching friends where they think the Adelies are off too and each season get a similar response: We’re not sure. It would be nice to think they’ve gotten the message that temperatures along the Peninsula are warming, are packing their bags and moving further south, where it’s colder. But that may be giving penguins too much credit. Some (many?) may simply be leaving here and not making it further south. It’s difficult to know because south of Petermann there are few scientists, very little regular monitoring. No one expects penguins to disappear from Antarctica — neither Adelie, Gentoo or Chinstrap, Emperor or King — but they are definitely on the move.

The chicks are about the size of a coffee cup, just two of them in the same nest. In the next week, ten days, the island will be covered with little squawkers. As I try to get a glance at the babies, I ask one of the researchers exactly how many penguins are on the continent. Same reply, No one really knows. Much of Antarctica is impossible to visit, so counting doesn’t take place. Aerial photographs don’t do the job. Estimates are there are about two-and-a-half-million Adelies alone; so let’s say there are somewhere upwards of five million of them scattered around.

The first penguin? It was a flightless bird of the Arctic sea, also known as the Great Auk, which was very similar to a penguin in anatomy, although from a different order of birds and was hunted to extinction in the 1600s. When later explorers discovered similar animals in the southern seas, they named them the same way. Penguin itself has muddy origins; it originally seemed to mean ‘fat one‘ in Spanish/Portuguese, and may come from either the Welsh ‘pen gwyn’ (white head), from the Latin ‘pinguis’ (fat) or from a corruption of ‘pin-wing’ (pinioned wings).

I spent most of the day on the island’s highpoint, hiking up through a slot in the granite hills to look south over a dark sea made more ominous by gathering storm clouds. Though it was cold, twenty-degrees with a gusting wind, and the skies grey I stood for several hours watching the ice move around the near sea, like a giant game of dominoes, the winds and currents faced off against each other, with no winner in sight.

Australia’s Macquarie Island

Have you ever had an obese, wild baby elephant seal drop its head in your lap and slobber nose love all over you? It melts a heart faster than a Snickers in a microwave, really.

Macquarie Island (pronounced mak-worry) is Australia’s southernmost point, a tiny spit of an island some 940 miles (1,500 km) southeast of Tasmania. For you mariners out there that’s a three-day sail from Hobart-past the roaring 40s and into the furious 50s. The island is only about twenty miles long and two miles across-a lonely scrap of sub-antarctic landscape consisting of pointed grassy slopes and rocky beaches where mist lingers all the day long.

Discovered in 1810 by wayward sealers, Macquarie was kept a secret in order that they get rich quick from the magnificent seal colonies living on the island. In 1811, the first ship to arrive in Sydney from Macquarie carried almost 57,000 seal skins. Today, the descendants of these piles of skins still tumble along the salt and pepper sand, bellowing out the unique throaty growl of the adult elephant seal. It’s quite a sight. Forget all your images of Australia’s man-eating crocodiles and creepy snakes and spiders. Here is a different kind of nature reserve where the local attraction grows to 20 feet long, weighs more than three tons, and spends most of the day sleeping on the beach.Macquarie is not your typical vacation destination–there is no permanent human population and there are no hotels or restaurants (though the chef at the Australian meteorological station bakes terrific scones). Also, it rains pretty much constantly and on most days, the wind blows hard enough to knock you down.

What Macquarie does have is wildlife and a lot of it. Thanks to extreme isolation, very little human contact and strict conservation rules, the animals on Macquarie harbor no fear of humans whatsoever. While guidelines instruct keeping at least 30 feet from any wild animal, the sheer abundance of living breathing cute cuddly things makes it impossible. You try hard not to touch or interfere, but if they come to you, then just let them. Sit down on the beach and the baby elephant seals will flop their way towards you, sniff you out, then curl up beside you begging to spoon. Likewise, brown fluffy balls of baby penguins come teetering up to check you out, then start screeching for mom and dad. The cuteness factor trumps a million sneezing panda vids.

Four kinds of penguin live on Macquarie. The largest and most vivid are the elegant King penguins who are the slightly smaller cousins to the iconic Emperor penguins (the ones you and your kids know and love from Happy Feet). As a self-certified, card-carrying member of the penguin craze, I went berserk on watching all the action that goes on in Macquarie’s penguin colony. Even more amusing were the royal penguins, who waddle to and from shore shaking their bushy yellow eyebrows. The species is only found on this island and number well over a million pairs.

We later traveled to Lusitania Bay, Australia’s largest protected penguin rookery. From out of the white fog, the shore appeared like a dream sequence. At first I saw nothing except a buzzing black and white screen beyond the mist. Suddenly our little boat lurched forward and the beach came into focus: not hundreds, not thousands, but a hundred thousand or more penguins. An unreal sight and an unreal sound, that of an infinite chorus of nasally seabirds calling out in almost-unison. Penguins were diving and swimming all around us as well, bulleting through the golden ripples of waves. I’ve never felt so outnumbered in my life.

In the distance, a pair of old-fashioned rusty steam cookers sat on the beach as an eerie reminder of the island’s exploitative past. Once upon a time, men gathered up penguins and threw them in the pot to boil up some penguin oil, used to make rope and twine back in the day. The penguins triumphed, thank goodness, and today the island is a vital breeding spot.

I sailed to Macquarie on the MV Orion, an Australian expedition ship which–in the spirit of Gadling’s motto, goes there–or in other words, goes to the places where few ships ever go. (If you’re going to travel to one of the least habitable islands in the world, it helps to be traveling on one of the world’s most habitable ships.) As tourist interest broadens, the government still limits visits to under twelve ships a year. Extraordinary bird life attracts all the gung ho bird nuts out there, while map nuts like me are eager to get to such a remote place and see what we can see.

I feel immensely lucky to have traveled to this forgotten map crumb of Australia. I loved the penguins and friendly elephant seals and the giant killer whales swimming in the shallows. The brown-green kelp and chunks of ice on the beach added an extra twinge of exoticism, however it was the island itself that attracted me-a rare and lonely place at the bottom of the world that few know and even fewer ever visit.%Gallery-79934%

The Best Places To View Penguins!

There is something about penguins that seem to capture our imaginations. Perhaps it’s the fact that these funny looking birds are flightless, and a bit awkward while moving on land, and yet so beautiful and graceful when floating through the water. Maybe it’s the fact that they’ve been the subject of so many Hollywood films over the past few years, but there is no doubt about it, we’re fascinated by penguins.

Many people have the misconception that the only place to really see these birds is in the Antarctic, a costly proposition for most. But, there are actually a variety of species of penguins, and they can be found in a variety of places as well. The National Geographic Intelligent Travel blog recently took a look at the top places around the world to see penguins in their natural habitat.

The article actually gives six great places around the globe to go to see these lovable birds. They include Chile and Ecuador in South America, as well as the Falkland Islands. Australia and New Zealand make the list as well, as does South Africa. Each location comes with an explanation as to what to expect there, including the species of penguin that inhabit the region. And if those international destinations are a bit too remote for your taste, the article also lists the best penguin colonies in American zoos as well.

If you should venture abroad however, each of these trips is environmentally safe, allowing humans to interact with the environment in a sustainable way, ensuring that the penguins will remains safe and protected for generations to come.