Day 2 – February 1 – Paradise Bay and Neko Harbour
The day began with clear skies, flat seas, and reasonably warm weather. Our morning stop on this day was the Almirante Brown Station, a scientific research station built by the government of Argentina. The station had been mostly abandoned for a time due to fiscal problems and appeared uninhabited, although there were signs that repairs were being made to some of the buildings. Gentoo penguins were nesting in the areas around the buildings and allowed close observation of the nesting areas along the trail up the hill. I was surprised to find a Sheathbill, a.k.a Antarctic Chicken, a land based bird that is an opportunistic feeder, stealing krill and fish from penguins, eating their eggs and whatever insects they can find. Surprisingly, we were told they also eat penguin poop.
After enduring the rough weather of the Drake Passage and the previous night’s snow and high winds, the blue skies and reflections of mountains, glaciers and icebergs was a welcome sight. The views were stunning. We walked up the trail to the top of one hill to find the trail up another hill. We probably should have climbed that hill also but the view from even this lower elevation was plenty scenic and in any case, the sooner we returned to the shore, the sooner we would get out in a zodiac to cruise Paradise Bay looking for Antarctic shags (similar to cormorants) , whales and seals.
One of the adventure activities offered on the Vavilov is sea kayaking. There were about a dozen passengers who had signed up for this activity, and this was their first outing. They had to wear dry suits so that if they tipped over, which they did on purpose this morning, they would be dry and float until their safety zodiac driver could retrieve them.
We cruised the edge of the bay past a shag colony on the side of a cliff, on our way to cruise the bay looking for whales, seals, and any birds that may be there. This is where we found Sophie, one of the enthusiastic kayak guides; a shag had landed on the bow of her kayak and used it as a platform to search for fish in the water. It stayed with her for quite some time and eventually she had to quickly paddle away when it went in after a fish.
We found several leopard seals sunning on small icebergs. I say small, but leopard seals are 9 to 12 feet long, and can weigh up to 1300 pounds, so the chunk of ice needed to carry animal is substantial. We also stopped to observe and photograph Weddell seals.
Our afternoon stop was Neko Harbor on Andvord Bay, and to get there we cruised by a small peninsula in the Aguirre Channel where Chile’s Gonzalez Videla Base is located. There are several buildings there but it is now considered inactive. However, there are fuel stores and supplies in storage for emergency use, or in the event that the base is reactivated in the future.
We landed on a rocky beach with large colonies of Gentoo penguins at either end. The Oceanites census takers reported 2200 Gentoo chicks here. With so many penguins entering and leaving the water, this was the only site on the trip where I was able to capture penguins porpoising; jumping out of the water to catch a breath as they are swimming underwater. There were many penguin families with two chicks, alternately eating and sleeping, and we observed male penguins collecting stones for their mate’s nest even though it was well past mating season.
The Neko Harbor area was a great place to photograph Gentoo Penguins, but with the clear blue skies and no wind, the scenery was fantastic to view and photograph. With the great light and more floating ice to be found, the occurrence of “blue ice” became more frequent. Blue ice is created as snow accumulates on the ice caps, the weight of which compresses the layers of snow below to form ice, and as the pressure builds forces the air out of the ice, the size of the ice crystals increases making it dense and clear. Water, and ice for that matter, absorbs red and yellow light resulting in its blue color. The surface of ice and snow will typically reflect the full spectra of light, appearing white, but when light is transmitted through the ice, it will appear blue. As evening approached, the skies became cloudy with a few gaps that allowed the last of the sun to light small sections of the landscape.
The rough seas were mostly forgotten.