Penguins and other seabirds on Half Moon Island

November 10, 2019 • 9:45 am

It’s a dreary Sunday in the Drake Passage—it’s almost always dreary here—as we make the two-day trip back to southern Chile.

We are halfway through the passage according to the ship’s real-time map, and may land in Punto Arenas a bit early. Passengers from this first trip are scheduled to debark on the 12th, with the ship turning around to start its second voyage to Antarctica, and then the Falklands (with me along), the same day.

The ship’s antenna camera shows a gray expanse of water (the rolling horizon must be an artifact of the system). The waves were quite strong last night, with the deck rolling so vigorously that one walked like a drunken sailor, and one speaker had to hold onto the podium.

Below is tiny Half Moon Island, which I described yesterday morning.  It’s tiny, but often visited by tourists for its seabirds and easily-accessible chinstrap penguin rookery. Here’s a photo from Wikipedia, describing it as “Half Moon Island from Kuzman KnollLivingston Island, with Greenwich Island in the background”. (Greenwich Island was our first stop, where we visited a gentoo penguin colony.)

It looks like two islands, but is really one connected by a narrow neck of land:

We had a two-hour walk on the island, constantly encountering chinstrap penguins at the rookery as well as some gentoos which hung out by the beach.

Here’s my photo of part of the lagoon, showing the  Argentine Cámara Base, a research and meteorological station (remember that I’ve degraded every image by at least 70% to be able to post them):

On the way to landing, we passed a fantastically-shaped iceberg:

There are more than penguins on the island. Resident birds include the South Polar Skua (Stercorarius maccormicki). This one was resting on the snow. It makes its living by harassing other birds, forcing them to drop the fish they caught.  It’s also a bit carnivorous, eating other birds, and will even scavange carcasses.

A Kelp gull (Larus dominicanus); there are five subspecies distributed widely in the Southern Hemisphere.

The bird below, a snowy sheathbill (Chionis albus), isn’t often seen on the island. Wikipedia describes it as “the only landbird native to the Antarctic continent.” It’s an opportunistic forager; Wikipedia adds this:

[It’s] an omnivore, a scavenger, and a kleptoparasite and will eat nearly anything. It steals regurgitated krill and fish from penguins when feeding their chicks and will eat their eggs and chicks if given the opportunity. Sheathbills also eat carrion, animal feces, and, where available, human waste. It has been known to eat tapeworms that have been living in a chinstrap penguin’s intestine.

Yuck! Pretty bird, though.

A gentoo penguin (Pygoscelis papua) who greeted us when we came ashore. I took videos of these penguins (as well as chinstraps) walking, falling, tobogganing, and preening, but can’t post them until I return to Chicago. Bummer.

Part of rookery of chinstrap penguins (Pygoscelis antarcticus). The males were courting females and emitting constant cacophonous calls from their upraised beaks.

Chinstrap rookery, main section:

Snoozing chinstrap:

Chinstrap eating snow. One of the naturalists told us that they do this not only to hydrate, but to cool off.

More snow-nomming:

Chinstrap, head-on view. They’re adorable, aren’t they?

Another view of the rookery:

Three ways of looking at a gentoo:

Note the serrated bill, useful for holding onto fish.

Leopard seals, the biggest predators of penguins, inflict tremendous damage on the birds. We were told that an adult leopard seal eats 6-7 penguins per day. This has led to the phenomenon of a “scape penguin”, in which a group of fearful penguins, ready to jump into the water to fish, hesitates because there might be a leopard seal below. One penguin then gets pushed into the water by the others, and if it’s not eaten the others jump in.

The Antarctic landscape is, I think, at its most magical when slightly overcast, or at sunset. After being here, I can better understand the “Antarctic fever” that grips people who visit again and again—or the explorers like Scott and Amundsen who, besides “conquering” the continent, admired its austere beauty.

Finally, a stalwart group of passengers, mostly Europeans, took the “polar plunge”, in which they jumped into subfreezing water (-2°C), just to say that they’d done it.  Most people ran in and then immediately jumped out (the penguins nearby were puzzled at these large quadrupeds), but one woman actually did a lap around the bay. I probably would have immersed myself, too, but I forgot to bring a bathing suit (also useful for the jazuzzi and heated pool on deck!). I was even more regretful when I learned that you get an official certificate, giving location and water temperature, if you take the polar plunge.

And so it’s back to Chile tomorrow. But I will return in a few days, and have a chance to see even more of Antarctica, as we spend a longer time there.


26 thoughts on “Penguins and other seabirds on Half Moon Island

  1. Great pictures. Better degraded pictures than none at all. Thanks for posting.

    The “scape” penguin is interesting. One would think the penguins would hold back from the edge so as not to be the victim. I am guessing the victim is often a younger, less experienced penguin.

    I have been assuming the rolling horizon is due to the rocking of the Roald Amundsen in heavy seas.

    1. Maybe the camera takes a series of snaps, then stitches them together. Thus, the period of the exposures matches some wave periodicity to give the effect. Or not.

      1. The boat uses a Panomax 360° Roundshot Livecam D2-gen.3 system [the top one in the link]. Panomax is just the integrator of the various standard elements including Canon EF-S optics & a mechanical turntable that permits the taking of stills that can be stitched in Linux into a panorama. The full kit has a stills cam & a video cam below it [see link], but I think Hurtigruten have only bought the stills cam option.

        A fresh panorama is created every 10 minutes in daylight hours – or at whatever frequency [or variable frequency depending on time or lighting] the user chooses in the software. The system seems absurd for shipboard use given that it costs $7k for everything & then a rental of the remote Panomax server to upload to [approx $1k/yr per installation I recall from last week] along with GPS location.


        I am guessing that for that amount of cash a simultaneous 360° panorama is possible using say four ‘fixed’ cams, instead of one rotating cam. The 4-camera setup could be set up to take four simul-snaps when closest to being in the horizontal plane or it could use the globe cam multi-cam system further down the page perhaps which can be levelled in software at any time. I assume the last option has inferior smartphone style cams, but I doubt that matters, because what we see at the Panomax site is way below the potential resolution for the hardware used. Or possibly the cams could be on a gyro-levelled platform that comes into play when pitching, rolling & yawing exceeds some value.

        1. The $7k is just what they charge a single customer, so I guess they don’t pay too much attention to costs. But, I do like the idea of designing a simpler system. With gimbals for cameras being easily available now, I doubt it would be difficult to put together a nice package for a few hundred dollars. You and I should address this marketing opportunity. We could make a fortune and retire early. 😎

          1. Look at this 6-cam GoPro Omni:


            And the server end is a nice profit centre – Hurtigruten paying to have their name top left when it’s a Hurtigruten cam being viewed. There’s nearly 500 active cams on the Panomax server site for ships, hotels, safari, ski resorts etc. That’s a terrible take-up rate [only 5 in Australia for example].

      2. I’d say the camera is scanning slowly from one side to the other and the ‘waviness’ is an artefact of the ship pitching. In the dim and distant past school photographers used to use a scanning camera to take photos of the entire school roll, all lined up (and little boys used to run from one end behind the crowd to the other, thus appearing twice).

        In the more recent past I’ve taken a number of stills (where my camera wasn’t wide-enough angle) and ‘stitched’ them together with software (‘Hugin’ on Linux – it was elaborate to use but did a remarkably good job, far superior to the freebie ‘stitching’ software that came bundled with the camera).

        In the realm of (near-)360 degree coverage, obviously Google Streetview uses some pretty sophisticated algorithms to process its coverage. Not perfect, but given the extent of their data and the speed with which it does it, it’s remarkable.


        1. One thing I don’t like about Google Streetview is, it smudges some areas of the image. Oddly, the smudges often end up on people’s faces. 😉

          1. That’s deliberate, for privacy purposes.
            They also blur car number plates, IIRC. (“Mr Chairman, why was your car parked outside Mandy’s Love Emporium when the Googlemobile went past?”) Used to be the algorithm would often blur signposts too, but it’s got steadily better at not-blurring signposts.


  2. “..they jumped into subfreezing water (-2°C), just to say that they’d done it. Most people ran in and then immediately jumped out..”

    A related indication of the big effects of ocean currents:
    That neg 2 temperature sounds very unpleasant, for me for sure. And it’s easily well outside the Antarctic Circle. But along the coast of northern Norway, even 300km. north of the Arctic Circle, it can be perfectly fine, especially well into a fjord, to take advantage of the Gulf Stream, and have a lengthy video of swimming (more-or-less) in the Arctic Sea.

    That was even true over 49 years ago when we drove to Nordkapp. These days it’s presumably an even slightly warmer ocean. A worry is the possibility of global warming completely killing the Gulf Stream, or so I’m told.

  3. For several days I’ve had the webcam on in a separate tab, so I could check in whenever I felt like it, and I noticed the wavy horizon a few days ago. I couldn’t figure it out but assumed some expert would chime in with an explanation before I showed my ignorance and asked what was happening.

    As I write this, the horizon looks normal on the webcam. I’d like to see the change as it happens.

    1. Yikes, is right. In addition to the treachery from their peers, they even get the ignominy of a special name – “scape penguins”.

      Nature, red in tooth and claw and betrayal.

  4. Some wonderful pictures, as always. Looking forward to the full-bandwidth ones!

    If you cropped that head-on pic of a chinstrap, I bet a lot of people (apart from those on this site, natch) would struggle to tell what it was!

  5. Wonderful pictures! Thanks for these fascinating posts.

    “but one woman actually did a lap around the bay”

    –Nice to know there’s at least one German on the trip!

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