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Exploring the South Shetland Islands

Land ho! After crossing the Drake Passage, we finally reach the South Shetland Islands and all the amazing wildlife that calls it home. Jomi shares what it’s like going out on your first excursion (a zodiac cruise or landing) and some of the most memorable sightings he has had there. Think: playful seals, newborn gentoo penguin chicks, and some gnarly interactions between nesting penguins and predatory skuas. Read below to learn all about it.

 


 

There’s always a buzz on the ship on approach to the South Shetland Islands. Having spent over two days at sea, most people are restless and excited to see land. The approach to the islands—truly the first Antarctic landforms most people see—is usually accentuated by an abundance of wildlife that is drawn to the area by the healthy population of krill caused by the upwelling of cooler water from below. 


Currents and the bathymetry of the oceans cause the cooler, more nutritious water to be pushed towards the surface where it easily mixes with the already cold surface water and distributes nutrients in the form of phosphates and nitrates. These nutrients, in combination with the well-lit euphotic upper surface layer of the ocean, facilitate massive phytoplankton blooms which in turn allow krill numbers to flourish. 

Upwelling

Krill is arguably the most important flagship species group in Antarctica. Virtually all animals in the terrestrial environment and many from the marine environment rely on it directly or indirectly. As soon as you reach the continental shelf of the Shetlands, there are great opportunities to find Fin and Humpback whales, various penguin species out on foraging trips, and a number of pinnipeds or seal species. 


Above: A fin whale surfacing

 

Though the weather in the Shetlands is often decidedly murky, with wind and sleet being the two main contributors to the day-to-day weather, eventually someone will call out ‘land-ho’ and then regardless of the weather, everyone heads out onto the outer decks to see the approach to land.

 

The Shetlands are almost as remote and desolate as Antarctica and for most people on the ship, it’s as far south as they’ve ever been. Seeing the jagged rocks sticking up out of the ocean and the mostly glaciated islands is as magnificent as it is jarring. 

 

The second chapter of any Antarctic adventure truly gets underway the first time the ship is left behind and you head out on your first excursion. The guides are first to head out. Zodiacs, which are inflatable and highly mobile vessels suitable to operating in a variety of conditions and environments, are dispatched from the ship via crane. The guides perform their safety checks, which include their own gear, the zodiacs, and the environmental conditions and then the guests disembark the ship next.

 

Zodiac

Stepping onto the pontoon of a zodiac and cruising around in the frigid waters for the first time is a unique feeling. It’s overwhelming just being in that environment and when you start encountering wildlife you start to realize that you’ve really arrived.

 

Situated about 80 miles north of the most northern point of the Antarctic peninsula, the Shetlands have more rocky slopes exposed earlier in the season, which means that early summer visits here can provide incredible scenery and wildlife. Most of the bird’s breeding seasons are well underway by late October due to suitable nesting sites becoming ice-free earlier than on the Antarctic continent.

Chinstrap Penguin Regurgitating

Above: A chinstrap penguin regurgitates for its chick


Getting off the zodiac on the beach and setting foot on land here to walk amongst seals and penguins is a sensory experience of note. The thing that stands out first and foremost is the noise in the colonies. Penguins are vocal creatures that primarily find each other by vocalising and the chatter and palaver at the breeding sites is significant and maybe only trumped by the formidable smell. You can imagine that several thousand birds simultaneously colonising the same exact spot of land every year creates a serious stench.

 

Above: Chinstrap Penguin colony

 

The circle of life truly unfolds before your eyes as you sometimes observe mating behaviour, egg-laying, egg-hatching, egg-stealing and nest pillaging, chicks being fed by their parents, and the endless drama of nest-building and nest maintenance…all while standing in one spot on the South Shetland Islands.

 

While the penguins are usually the centre of attention, various other birds deserve a mention here too. Skuas are the egg-stealing and nest-pillaging culprits. They’re true penguin pirates and have gotten extremely adept at separating a penguin parent from its egg. They often operate in pairs, with one individual distracting the penguin from the front while a second then goes to its back and tugs on the tailfeathers, dragging a squawking, fiercely protesting penguin from its nest while the skua at the front then nabs the egg, walks a short distance away, and beings jabbing into it with its beak. It’s brutal and can be hard to watch but highlights the harsh reality of the circle of life in Antarctica.


Above: A Skua runs off after a successful egg-snatch from a nest

 

Also present are snowy sheathbills, a comical, primitive looking bird—neither pigeon, nor chicken, nor dodo but with a similar demeanor and swagger. They are far more innocuous in their approach of penguin nests and usually get whatever scraps of food fall onto the ground when a penguin parent regurgitates for its chick. Sheathbills also have a nasty coprophagic habit: they feed on the penguins’ guano (poo).

 

Above: A sheathbill & gentoo penguin, Photo taken by Sura Ark

 

An extraordinary spot in the Shetlands that we sometimes visit is called Deception Island. It’s actually a large volcanic caldera which from a distance appears to be an island but has a very narrow opening that the ships can sail through, called Neptune’s Bellows.

 

The caldera is almost 8 miles across and the volcanic island is geographically as interesting as it is historically having once been a major whaling station due to its interior being well protected from the outer swell and elements. Zodiac cruising here is great fun; there are often Antarctic fur seals here and luckily the current generation of seals has all but forgotten the dark sealing history of the early 19th century. Adolescent groups especially seem to love interacting with the zodiacs, curiously trying to outdo one another in seeing how close they can get before zooming off into the shallows to reconvene. 



Going for a hike on the volcanic island is equally as impressive as cruising through Neptune’s Bellows. It’s an active volcano that has beautiful vistas and offers the opportunity to really go on a proper walk and stretch the legs. Landing sites in these regions are often quite restrictive in how far you can move as the glaciers and crevassing need to be respected but Deception Island is largely ice free.

 

Above: Hiking Telefon Bay on Deception Island

 

Next week, we’ll be heading south to the continent and the Antarctic Peninsula, please join us again as we talk about more action-packed sightings! 


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