Penguins and seals on Greenwich Island

November 7, 2019 • 10:45 am

We’ve arrived in Antarctica; the map below shows where we are this morning (our ship is circled): steaming between the Antarctic Peninsula itself and the islands that flank it to the west.  (Follow the progress on the map here.)

This morning we’ll get off the ship to watch the Roald Amundsen being christened (I hear with a piece of ice broken on the bow), which, it’s said, will be the first ever naming of a ship in Antarctic waters. We’ll be watching from the Expedition boats (inflatable Zodiacs).

And a view from the Panomax antenna camera of the ship, taken 20 minutes ago:

Yesterday I showed the maps of Greenwich Island, where we landed yesterday afternoon in Yankee Harbor. It was great to be on land again, even if it wasn’t formally the Antarctic continent (Greenwich is one of the South Shetland Islands. But it wasn’t a disappointment in the least: the island was teeming with seals and birds, especially flightless ones. PENGUINS AT LAST!

Yes, during our 2½ hour walk ashore (we stay on paths laid out by the expedition team), we saw hundreds of Gentoo Penguins (Pygoscelis papua), a small but handsome bird whose range is below. They breed on bare ground on the sub-Antarctic islands (I believe only Adelies and Emperors breed on Antarctic proper).

And, voilà, I’ve reduced the quality of my own pictures so I can post some here.

Here’s the cliff by which we landed, at whose base were patches of bare ground harboring the penguins:

My first panoramic photo with my Panasonic Lumix point-and-shoot. This shows Yankee Harbor on the left, a placid inlet surrounded by a thin ring of land, and a great place to land. The ship is to the right.

Here’s a view of the adjacent island, Livingston, with a couple of gentoos.

We immediately encountered three species of seals. I didn’t get a good picture of the leopard seal, who was resting far away, but here’s one of our “target animals” (I lecture on it): the Weddell Seal (Leptonychotes weddellii).

They’re big ‘uns: Wikipedia says, “Weddell seals measure about 2.5–3.5 m (8 ft 2 in–11 ft 6 in) long and weigh 400–600 kg (880–1,320 lb). Males weigh less than females, usually about 500 kg (1,100 lb) or less.” I don’t know the sex of this one.

This is the southernmost-living mammal in the world, and the only one to live on fast ice (ice connected to a continent). When on the ice, it chews a hole through to get access to the water, and keeps the hole open for fishing by repeatedly gnawing on the edges. This wears down its incisors and canines, and leads to abscesses that can shortens its life. (I can’t post or even access YouTube videos, but Greg Mayer has found the one I wanted to post and has embedded it at the bottom.)

I give a fair amount of my “adaptations of Antarctic animals” lecture on the Weddell, which has amazing abilities to dive (it can stay submerged for nearly an hour, and dive to almost 1000 meters!).

They’re said to look like cats, but to me the resemblance isn’t great. What do you think?

An female Southern Elephant seal (Mirounga leonina), nursing her pup.

On to the penguins: a splendid gentoo penguin, with size notations by Wikipedia:

Gentoos reach a height of 51 to 90 cm (20 to 35 in), making them the third-largest species of penguin after the emperor penguin and the king penguin. Males have a maximum weight of about 8.5 kg (19 lb) just before molting, and a minimum weight of about 4.9 kg (11 lb) just before mating. For females, the maximum weight is 8.2 kg (18 lb) just before molting, but their weight drops to as little as 4.5 kg (9.9 lb) when guarding the chicks in the nest.

Tobogganing (they sometimes walk and sometimes slide on their tummies):

Some slept on their bellies:

Penguin tracks; three toes forward:

And more photos of gentoos in situ:

A group of snoozers:

It’s too early in spring for these individuals to lay eggs, but they’re establishing places on the future rookeries, all on bare, stony ground. One passenger told me that he saw two gentoos “doing it” in this area, so eggs are nigh.

Beautiful scenery and fascinating animals:


From GCM: And here’s the Weddell seal gnawing the ice!

p.s. Internet on the ship has been dicey, and we’ve lost it several times. Communication may be sporadic over the next few days.

41 thoughts on “Penguins and seals on Greenwich Island

  1. The seals & flightless fowl are beautiful! At least you did not have to worry about Polar Bears! That was our biggest worry in Alaska when hunting with the Inuit for seals.

      1. I guess you’re there in the warm season! Looks like they are average temperatures for this time of year, now that I look into it further. Blows my idea that Artarctica is -40F/C all year round! -Rebecca

  2. Since the S American and Antarctic peninsulas / archipelagos point to each other, assume the sea bottom between them is relatively shallow. If that’s true, does that contribute to the rough seas there?

    Also, in your lecture on Antarctic adaptations in Weddell seals, assume you mention something about their hemoglobin. Also here.

    1. I just looked up the depth of the Drake Passage. Seems that it’s quite deep. But 41Myrs ago Antarctic was fused to S America and Earth was much warmer as a result.

  3. What beautiful birds these gentoos are!
    When thinkingpenguins emperors and kings come to mind, and for the smaller ones, the Adelie, Jackass (now ‘African), chinstrap and galapagos. But there appear to be more than a dozen species.
    Thank you for drawing attention to this beautiful bird.

  4. Great report. It’s amazing to think that those, once wolf like(?), animals adapted by losing their “hands” and getting fat! Darwin makes huge demands.

  5. So many memories are brought to the surface with these photos! Once, near McMurdo while on ice liberty, after the quaffing of the two beers bought for each crew by the Captain (wonderful man, the CG did the right thing by making him an admiral), I laughed my butt of while watching one of rednecks chase down a Weddell and then tag it. The seal rolled over and defecated. A Petty Officer ripped him a new orifice and cut his liberty short.

    I wandered over to the channel we had cut into the ice and there was a storekeeper squatting down next to it almost out of his mind with excitement. He had been watching a Minke whale up close. He threw me his camera and we waited and waited and finally he got his picture of him petting a whale once she came up to breath.

    Hopefully you get to have some up close time too with whatever species that deigns to allow you; it’s quite the experience.

  6. The diagram of the Gentoos’ range makes me wonder: Is there some reason why they don’t spread into the other hemisphere. Do they need the presence of a landmass like South America somewhere near the Antarctic landmass? Curious.

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