Antarctica (Day 1), Paradise Bay (2019)
After a day spent crossing the Drake Passage toward Antarctica, we woke up on February 3 as the sun rose over a mountain peak in Paradise Bay on the Antarctic Peninsula. We rushed to grab the camera & put on enough clothes to step outside, but by that time the sun was already above the mountains.
The day was absolutely glorious, nothing better could be hoped for. Last time we were in Antarctica the weather was bad for all but one afternoon. You can see the first day in Antarctica in 2012 here:
If you wonder why whalers named this Paradise Harbor in the 1920’s (now more often called Paradise Bay) all you have to do is look around.
Wildlife was abundant in these waters. Humpback whales were surfacing and blowing their spouts all around the bay, then showing us their tails as the dove under again.
Penguins were in the water as well. They are strong swimmers, usually in groups. They use a technique called “porpoising,” in which they alternatively swim just under the water and leap into the air. Quite a show. These are Adelie penguins, the most widespread species in Antarctica. They were first spotted in 1840 by French explorer Jules D’Urville, who named them after his wife. They are identified by their all black heads and crazed looking white eyes.
We saw many icebergs floating in the water. A large percentage of the icebergs in Antarctica break off from ice sheets, so they tend to be large and flat, unlike the craggier ones you tend to see in Arctic waters. Although there are quite a few of the craggier ones here as well. Of course, most of an iceberg is under water, which gives you pause when you see one that is taller than the ship and as big as a small city (which we will, later).
We came to a large iceberg with a pool of water in the middle. It was full of Adelie penguins, along with a few Gentoos (white earmuffs across their heads from eye to eye), some bathing in the pool. To see the pool we had to climb up two decks from the lower promenade deck. The penguins watched as the captain turned the ship to the right to bring us as close as possible for a good look, then all of a sudden they turned tail and hightailed it to the other side of the iceberg, out of sight. Guess they thought we were going to ram them.
Yet more whales & more scenery.
Returning to our room, we spotted a zodiac from our balcony carrying three people, out among the whales. The whales came quite close; it must have been pretty exciting. We weren’t sure where such a small boat could have come from, but then we spied a Hurtigruten expedition ship in the shadow of a glacier. They are small enough to enable passengers to go ashore in zodiacs (inflatable boats); the limit is 100 passengers for ships to be allowed to disembark in Antarctica, we believe.
More scenery. You would think that would become tiresome, but it never did. As you probably know, icebergs are mostly under water, but if the water is clear and the iceberg close enough you can see some of the underwater portion looking like a luminous blue halo around the iceberg. The edges of the mainland where the glaciers break off as they reach the sea, leaves an infinite variety of beautiful, though temporary, patterns in the ice walls.
We came upon some leopard seals (we think) relaxing on an ice flow. The second largest seal species in Antarctica, these nasty guys eat penguins, among other things, and their only predator is the Orca. They grow up to 11.5 feet long and have been known to attack humans on rare occasions.
In an earlier episode we mentioned that Argentina and Chile both claim sovereignty over the Antarctic Peninsula, the location of Paradise Bay. They are two of the seven countries that have made claims to parts of Antarctica. But the Antarctic Treaty, signed in 1959 by all the nations with claims in Antarctica, suspended those claims and established an international system to preserve Antarctica for science and eliminate all military activity there. Today 54 nations are signatory to the treaty, most of which do not recognize any of the suspended claims, and some 30 of them have scientific stations in Antarctica. All told, there are some 45 year round stations and another 30 open only in the summer.
Argentina has a station in Paradise Bay named for Admiral William Brown, father of the Argentine navy. It was first built in 1951 as a naval base but in 1965 it was converted into a biology laboratory. In 1984 the station’s doctor burned down the entire facility because he was disgruntled at having been ordered to stay there for the winter! The personnel were all successfully evacuated to the U.S. Palmer Station. Argentina rebuilt the facility in the late 1990’s and since 2007 it has been open in summer only.
Excursion ships, like the Hurtigruten we saw earlier, often land their passengers here for a visit. They can climb up the hill behind the base and many then slide back down sitting in a sort of luge track worn in the snow. About 250 yards from the base is a refuge house built by the Argentine navy in 1956.
On a rocky outcropping near the station was a group of birds we thought were penguins. But on closer inspection it turned out they were not penguins, but probably Antarctic Shags (or cormorants).
We encountered a particularly beautiful glacier with a craggy ice wall sporting ice caves & peaks & crevices, all reflecting in the remarkably calm water.
More wildlife – there was so much of it! We saw much more wildlife the first morning than we did in the entire three days of our first visit to Antarctica. Here are some seals and swimming penguins.
We sailed past what we believe to be the entrance to Paradise Bay. The tall mountains peeking out from the clouds in the distance are probably part of Anvers Island. Pretty spectacular view.
Chile has a science station in Paradise Bay named after a former president, Gabriel Gonzalez Videla, who in the 1940’s became the first head of state of any country to visit Antarctica. Built in 1951, it was active until 1958 then again during the 1980’s. Today it is sometimes visited during the summer by tourists and Chilean delegations. A sailboat was moored nearby when we were there, so somebody must have been home.
Gonzales Videla Base sits on a small outcropping of land called Waterboat Point, which is an island at high tide. Its name came from a two man British party that spent a year here in 1921-1922 in a shelter made of an old whaling boat they found here.
The waterboat expedition generated the first scientific study of penguin breeding. Today the entire base is occupied by Gentoo penguins. Usually when you see a large colony of birds they all seem busy: building nests, caring for chicks, flying around looking for something to eat. But not penguins. They look like they are just standing around in fancy dress hanging out, like a crowd of theater goers waiting for the doors to open. There sure are a lot of them though!
One notable thing about large penguin colonies like this is that you can smell them before you actually see them. Not really just standing around, the penguins do eat and, like everybody else, they poop. And they do it right where they happen to be standing. When thousands of them are close together, that makes for quite a lot of excrement and the foul smell really carries. You may be sailing toward a picturesque crowd of penguins when, all of a sudden, the odor hits you like a brick wall. We wouldn’t want to live near them, but it is tolerable when on a ship that will soon be further away.
A group of penguins porpoised by, very close to the ship. We were able to look almost directly down on them and the water was clear enough that we could see them under the water as well as when they leaped out.
We passed more seals out on the ice and a large brown bird, probably an Antarctic skua.
We had a special wildlife encounter with a friendly whale. It swam by, rolled over to extend its fin in what looked like a greeting, then dove under the water.
We encountered one more large penguin colony today.
During the afternoon we saw a hillside covered with reddish snow. Since there were penguins around we thought it might be their poop. But it turns out this is called “watermelon snow,” and is caused by an algae. It reduces the amount of light reflected by the snow, which makes the snow warmer and promotes quicker melting. Some scientists are beginning to worry that this effect may spread and help speed up climate change. Not quite so pretty when you think about that!
We continued cruising for the rest of the afternoon, passing more mountains and icebergs and ice walls. Really, the beauty never stopped all day long. But being of a certain age, we eventually tired out and went inside until dinner time.
Although we remained inside during the evening, the wildlife did not stop. We saw whales and penguins through the window as we waited for our dinner table to be ready at 8:00. Not the best pictures because it was late & the window wasn’t very clean, but here they are anyway just because they were there. Finally, this was not only our first day in Antarctica, but also Super Bowl Sunday. The ship’s penguins were, as always, dressed for the occasion.
Thus ended a very long and unbelievably spectacular day. Is it possible to have a better day on a cruise ship in Antarctica? We think not. We had, in just the first day, seen everything we had been hoping to see and then some. A great beginning to our Antarctic adventure.