Back to Half Moon Island—and the penguins

November 17, 2019 • 8:00 am

The ship’s map (the Roald Amundsen is circled, but the circle doesn’t quite enclose the ship) shows us well inside the channel between the “maritime antarctic” islands and and the Antarctic Peninsula itself:

Zoomed out:

And the Panomax live shipcam shows what I see outside my cabin window: a scene of fog and gloom, with no land visible.

Today we’re returning to Orne Harbor on the mainland, where we had the steep climb to the chinstrap rookery. It’s a beautiful place, and you can see my earlier photos here.

There may be ice in the harbor, though, which would prevent our landing. That would be a bummer, as a day without penguins (or seals) is a day without sunshine. The alternative is an hour-long Zodiac cruise around the island to look for swimming penguins or seals, but there’s no substitute for a stiff hike to a noisy rookery!

This evening the well-heeled passengers might also get a chance at what they call “Amundsen night”: they spend the night on the ice, digging their own tent platform and setting up the tent (with help from the Explorer Team). It’s not cheap—around 625 Euros per person—but some people like to say they spent the night on the continent. Most people don’t sleep much because of the cold, the excitement, and, if it’s clear, the view of the stars, which is said to be fantastic. One downside: you don’t get to go to the bathroom, as it’s illegal to excrete on the continent. I think you get a bottle for urine, but you can’t defecate! Or so I’m told. This is not a trip for those with the trots.

So here are my new photos from Half Moon Island, which we visited on my last trip. The photos are highly degraded to get them through the ship’s Internet. Half Moon is a good place to get an introduction to chinstrap penguins without having to exert oneself very much.

First, a review of where the island is: a tiny crescent of land about 1.7 km², harboring the Argentine research station Cámara Base, which we can’t approach.

And a view I posted before: Half Moon is the small crescent-shaped island in the foreground, with Greenwich Island in the background. The photo is taken from a mountain on Livingston Island (not my photo!):

Some views of the surrounding landscape:

The continent and surrounding islands are places of incessant change. Every alteration of light and cloud creates a new and different view, many of them stunning and magical:

It was overcast in the morning but by afternoon the sunlight was brilliant. I was back on the boat by then, but took some photos that I’ll post tomorrow. Note the blue of the Antarctic glacier ice:

An iceberg and two Kelp gulls (Larus dominicanus):

Thanks to two readers (see comments) the bird below is identified as a Southern Giant Petrel (Macronectes giganteus), also known as the “stinker” or “stinkpot”.  And no wonder: it’s a nasty piece of avian work. Wikipedia says this:

This petrel will feed on fish, krill, squid, offal and waste from vessels in coastal and pelagicwaters, where they often follow fishing boats and cruise ships. Unlike most other Procellariiformes, this bird will eat carrion. The Southern Giant petrel is an extremely aggressive predator and will kill other seabirds (usually penguin chicks, sick or injured adult penguins and the chicks of other seabirds). It has been seen preying on the adult Australasian gannet by holding it underwater and drowning it. These birds have also been observed drowning yellow-nosed and black-browed albatrosses. The males exclude females from the carcasses that they are feeding on

And my old friends the chinstrap penguins (Pygoscelis antarcticus). They were making a lot of noise this time, with the males raising their heads and making raucous calls as courtship stimuli (I have movies but can’t post them until I return). They are very handsome penguins despite their tendency to soil their white bellies by tobogganing or resting on dirty, poop-covered snow. (Make no mistake, penguin colonies are smelly places!)

Part of the rookery in a rocky area (I think only emperor penguins lay eggs on the snow, and even then they keep the eggs balanced on their feet and covered with a warm flap of skin).


A lovely chinstrap (only penguins can tell males from females), but its bib is dirty:

Another bad boy with a soiled shirt front:

This dirty one (same individual as above) appears to be dancing. I’m quite fond of this photo. They are clumsy on land, frequently falling over or tripping, but that’s compensated for by their amazing agility in the water.

Two prone penguins, resting on the snow:

A couple of chinstraps with an omnivore: a snowy sheathbill (Chionis albus). It’s the only landbird native to the Antarctic continent, and an an opportunistic forager. As I added in my last post Wikipedia notes 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.

The expedition team most often sees the bird eating penguin poop. To each their own.

There’s a “penguin highway” running from the rookery to the sea, which the penguins traverse to get fish. We weren’t allowed to get too close to it so we wouldn’t disrupt their daily routine, but it was a hoot to sit nearby on the snow for a while and watch the birds climb up and down. There was frequent falling and tobogganing:

The terminus of the penguin highway: the sea, aka Penguin Buffet (they eat fish, krill, and squid). Wikipedia says they can swim up to 80 km offshore each day to get food.

The penguin highway was busy yesterday afternoon:

When one chinstrap got off the highway, the passengers were told to create a gap to let it get through to the rookery. (Despite their tameness, they don’t like to come too close to people when they’re going out for food or coming home.)

A lone chinstrap getting its closeup from a lot of passengers:

The most photogenic part of the rookery:

Chinstraps with a mountain on Greenwich Island in the background.

A chinstrap by the shore with a relatively clean tuxedo front (I’m a stickler for well-groomed penguins):

A lone gentoo penguin (Pygoscelis papua) by the shore. There are a few of these on the island, as we saw last time. I think they’re just hanging out, as there is no gentoo rookery on Half Moon Island.

Its head and distinctive eye patch:

In about two hours, after breakfast, we’re supposed to head to Orne Harbor and climb to the rookery. That is, we will if there is no ice blocking the landing. Wish us luck. (I also need these stiff climbs to burn off the copious food we get!)

17 thoughts on “Back to Half Moon Island—and the penguins

  1. Breathtaking pictures! This is an amazing journey, and you have captured it beautifully with your words and images. Thanks for sharing them with us!

    1. Particularly like the shot of the huge peak covered by clouds, just above ‘an iceberg and two Kelp gulls’. Majestical, to quote Sam Neill in Hunt For The Wilderpeople.

  2. REMEMBER! THIS IS LATE SPRING IN ANTARTICA! Brrr! Wonder photos and record of events. Thank you SO MUCH for sharing your adventure.

  3. Hi Jerry,

    Last night I was enjoying an Attenborough narrated episode titled “Birds” on the Life series, and there was a scene of Chinstrap penguins traveling to and fro on Deception Island. Simultaneously looking up the location of the island and the Roald Amundsen, remarkably showed you to be immediately to the southeast of the island. That gave me a smile. Perhaps you may enjoy viewing that episode when you return from seafaring life. Those Chinstraps are indeed industrious and resilient little birds.

  4. Great picture set. My favorites are landscape-5, dark on the right, bright on the left…and seaside-chinstrap-1 which shows the pink feet!

  5. “One downside: you don’t get to go to the bathroom, as it’s illegal to excrete on the continent. I think you get a bottle for urine, but you can’t defecate! Or so I’m told.”

    Adult diapers might be a solution to this problem. Also, there are brands of underpants with built in padding that would work. My optometrist found out about these from a fellow pilgrim while on a pilgrimage with insufficient facilities.

    1. It’s not exactly a new problem. The solution today is the same as in Scott & Shackelton and Norgay and Scott’s (no relation) day, with the improvement that today you don’t need to chip the turd off the inside of the bag once it has frozen – you can just carry the bag to the boat and keep a roll of bags in your rucksack.
      I recall seeing a statistic fairly recently (of uncertain quality, but credible), that the sales of adult nappies in Japan exceeds that of infant-sizes. Something to think about for the manufacturers.

      1. Unfortunately, my knowledge of these expeditions is almost nonexistent; particularly in regards to the issue we’re discussing. I hadn’t thought about the difficulties of dealing with frozen poop.

        I had read about the sales of adult diapers in Japan exceeding those for infants. It wouldn’t surprise me if the situation in the U.S. weren’t much the same.

        1. Given the sacralisation of reproduction and the denigration of aging, I doubt you’d get a diaper company to admit to the fact. Or they’d have hived the two markets off to two divisions, brand names etc. It would make a difficult conversation for a “bright young thing” in the Marketing Department to have to address the opposite ends of life simultaneously.

    1. I hadn’t thought of the relationship to Shackleton’s five rowing to South Georgia to later rescue the rest of his crew. Specifically, assuming these guys here do it, I’ll bet something about currents and winds would make any return trip very very much harder, if not impossible. We had conjectured that South Georgia rather than Cape Horn was Shackleton’s choice for that reason. I seem to recall something about some crew repeating Shackleton’s rowing voyage. I’ll bet their boat was an order of magnitude better.

  6. a day without penguins (or seals) is a day without sunshine.

    I, for one, welcome our new Weather Gods!

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