Antarctica Day 1: Half Moon Island & Chinstrap Penguins
“Who will buy this wonderful morning?
Such a sky you never did see.
Who will tie it up with a ribbon
And put it in a box for me?”
~ Lionel Bart, Who Will Buy?
I couldn’t believe the shades of blue. It was as if tablets of Easter egg dye were being dropped into the water, dissolving into the most luminous palette of sea tones. The spectrum kept changing with the light, looking sapphire one minute and aquamarine the next. Morning had broken, and we definitely weren’t in the Drake Passage anymore!
The Seabourn Quest had arrived in the South Shetland Islands, a group of Antarctic islands north of the Antarctic Peninsula. Our zodiac destination was Half Moon Island, home to an Argentine research station and a Chinstrap penguin colony of more than 3,000 pairs. Herb and I were assigned to the first group off the ship, and because of the Quest’s early arrival and favorable weather conditions, we were heading out a half-hour earlier than scheduled.
We gathered our gear and began getting ready: Four layers on top – a base layer, fleece layer, Seabourn puffy black jacket and waterproof orange parka; three layers on the bottom – a base layer, fleece layer and waterproof pants. Next came our neck gaiters, hats, life jackets and waterproof backpacks. We brought two pairs of socks – liners and heavy wool boot socks for the rental waterproof boots – and two pairs of gloves – liners that would be maneuverable for taking photos and bulky waterproof gloves. Finally, we slipped our IDs into our white color group arm bands, put sunscreen on our faces and grabbed sunglasses and cameras. We were ready for Antarctica!
The wind was calm, the sun was shining and the temperature felt surprisingly warm as our zodiac sped to Half Moon Island. The expedition team had scouted the area in advance, marking “penguin highway” boundaries with orange rope and placing yellow flags by skua nests and other off-limit sites. The rocky and gravely terrain was fairly easy to navigate, with some icy spots and snow at the bottom of the colony.
The Chinstrap penguins were as much fun to watch as their fellow Falkland Island Kings had been. At a little over two feet tall, they moved extremely quickly, challenging us with their speed as we tried to keep cameras in focus. They would deftly hobble over rocky surfaces, going back and forth from colony to water’s edge, cleaning themselves before returning to the group. And with their “chinstrapped” faces giving the appearance of a perpetual smile, it was hard not to be enchanted!
Half Moon Island offered a wonderful viewing spot for taking in the surrounding Antarctic scenery. The craggy lichen-covered rocks, an old whaling boat abandoned on the beach and the red buildings of the Argentine research station in the distance created a moody and fascinating backdrop for our first experience in Antarctica.
Before boarding the zodiac for the ride back to the ship, we stopped at the “guanomatic” stations positioned in shallow water, scrubbing our boots against stiff wooden brushes.
The return trip was a swift as smooth as our ride to the island. The view from the back of the zodiac offered incredible perspective of the sheer vastness and wonder of where we were. The word surreal kept coming to mind as the stunning shades of blue swirled around us. I was already in love with the place…and it was only day one.