Our First Antarctic Landing

We continued sailing through the Drake Passage last night – the shaking subsided to a gentler lull and we were able to brave the shower. Showering with one hand while holding onto the rail is a fine art! After breakfast, our expedition leader called everyone together for a mandatory presentation and zodiac briefing.

The presentation explained what to expect for the Antarctic landings. They started with an overview of the IAATO – the International Antarctic Association of Tour Operators. IAATO is an international group that gets together to agree on how to manage and protect tourism in the Antarctic. IAATO sets limits on how many people can be at any one site at a time, how tour operators will coordinate with each other for landings, etc.

Antarctica is covered in ice and ice sheets and mountains and rocks – as a result it isn’t possible to land a zodiac (the sturdy inflatable boats that transport you from the ship to land) in very many places. The islands are a more common landing spot since there is less of an ice pack on the islands and more opportunity to land. The international agreements limit most landing sites to 100 people or less at a time and some landing spots have even smaller restrictions to limit the impact on wildlife.

After the IAATO introduction, the expedition leader walked us through what to expect for shore landings. Excitement was building as this meant we were getting closer! There’s a process to go through for landing:

  • The zodiacs hold 8-10 people each and act as a shuttle service for people from the ship to shore. When your group is called, you gear up with your parka, waterproof pants, scarves, gloves, life jacket, etc. and line up by the exit door.
  • By the designated exit door is a tag board with numbers and each person is given a number. As you walk out the door, you flip your number on the tag board to indicate that you’ve left the ship.
  • From there, you walk out on deck to get your boots. Our tour company provided boots for us and they keep them in bins on deck. They put out chairs for you to sit on, you tell them your room number, and they bring out your boots and help you put them on.
  • And then you get in line to get on the zodiac. They have some kind of pink disinfectant solution you have to step into as you board the zodiac to ensure that you don’t have any contaminants on your shoes that you bring to land.
  • At the zodiac, we were to board one at a time. If boarding from the ship onto the zodiac, they have a little step that they put out and you literally just walk down the steps and into the zodiac. When boarding from land, you sit you butt on the zodiac and swing your legs over into the boat.

After the expedition briefing we went to lunch and prepared ourselves for the afternoon lecture on Antarctic geology and wildlife viewing from the deck. But then just after lunch our expedition leader came on the intercom to say that we had arrived in the South Shetland Islands earlier than expected and that the captain had agreed we could take advantage of that and make our first shore landing!!

The landing spot they chose was an island called Aitcho Island which is part of the South Shetland Islands. When I first told a friend of mine that we were landing in the South Shetlands he told me to fire the navigator – confusing them with the Shetland Islands off the coast of Scotland. According to Wikipedia, the islands were originally called “New South Britain” but were renamed to South Shetlands in reference to the Scottish Shetland Islands.

We were all sent to our rooms to prepare for the shore excursion so we started the process of getting dressed – donning snow pants, wool socks, warm under layer, fleece top, parka, sunglasses, wool/fleece hat, life jacket and neck buff. We threw the gloves and glove liners in our pockets, slipped on some crocs or other shoes and waited to be called for landing.

With the gear on you get hot really fast on the boat so we opted to sit on our balcony while waiting to be called. We watched the crew use the crane on top of the boat to lift the zodiacs from the top of the ship down into the water. Once they were in the water, the crew set off to prepare the landing site for the passengers. As we watched them head away from the ship we saw fish jumping in the water and got excited, our first active wildlife other than birds. But after a minute or two we realized they weren’t fish – they were penguins swimming through the water!! I’m quite sure there was a lot of squealing coming from the ship. Our first penguin sighting and we were in awe.

Penguins do something called ‘porpoising’ to propel themselves through the water – “Porpoising is the act of leaping in and out of the water in a rapid series of short, shallow arcs while swimming, creating an undulating or wave-like path.” It takes more energy from what our guides told us but it allows the penguins to breathe more regularly without stopping their swimming, allowing them to swim longer distances at greater speeds. As we watched, we saw several groups of penguins swimming this way through the water. It was quite unique – I’m sure I’ve seen them do something similar at Sea World or other places before, but in those places they didn’t have the open water to be on full display.

We watched the penguins until our group was called to go ashore and then hurried down to disembark. We turned our numbers on the tag board, put on our boots, disinfected them and boarded the zodiac. Five minutes later we were on Aitcho Island. The expedition crew had gone to shore earlier to lay out a path for us – they marked which areas we could walk in, which areas were off limits, and which areas were ‘penguin highways’ and needed to be passed through quickly.

The area where we landed was full of penguins and this far north the penguin chicks had mostly already hatched so there were babies in about 80% of the nests! We saw Gentoo penguins, Chinstrap penguins, and one single Adelie penguin that was a bit out of place. There are rules about how close you can get to the penguins and we tried to keep a respectful distance but the penguins weren’t bothered by us at all. They walked right past us and went about their business with very little concern for the red-coated intruders. If you were standing on the trails that they normally used (the penguin highway) then they would stop a few feet from you and sit patiently until you figured it out and got out of their way and then they would trot on by.

We spent about an hour on Aitcho island – watching the penguins come in from the ocean and find their nests, watching the parents feed the chicks, watching them steal rocks from each other’s nests to build up their own, and watching them squak as birds came in to try to steal the eggs and bother the chicks. There are no words to describe it, we were all in awe. There were literally thousands of penguins on the island and so much activity it was hard to take it all in. And the smell! Penguin guano (penguin poop) everywhere and in abundance.

When it was time to leave we loaded back on the zodiacs to head back to the boat. The return process is mostly the reverse of the disembarkation except that when you return to the ship there’s an added step of cleaning your boots. After you get off the zodiac, you stand in line and a crew member with a pressure hose washes the tops of your boots then has you stand on one leg to clean the bottom of the first boot and then you switch feet so he can get the other one. Then you step back in the disinfectant and go upstairs to take off your boots, turn your number on the tag board so they know you’re back on the boat, and start to remove your layers of gear. Our crew members were amazingly thoughtful and always had warm towels and cups of tea or soup for us as we got back onto the boat.

I fully expected to see penguins in Antarctica, but I didn’t realize we would see that many all at once, that many species all at once, and that we would be able to comfortably walk among them and observe. It was a perfect perfect perfect day.

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