The gentoos of Cuverville Island

November 22, 2019 • 8:15 am

Trigger warning: If pictures of penguins harm or offend you, skip this post.

Today we’re heading toward the Falklands, as the ship’s map shows, but I was told we’d be going by (and glimpsing) Elephant Island today, which of course is famous as the place where, in 1916, British expedition leader Ernest Shackleton left 22 of his men before heading toward South Georgia Island with five others in an open lifeboat, seeking rescue. (Shackleton ship, the Endurance, had been crushed in pack ice.)

This daunting journey was successful: Shackleton and his handful of men successfully navigated to South Georgia 1300 km (800 miles) away. But help, in the form of a whaling station, was on the other side of the island, over a mountain massif. Shackleton and two others made a perilous climb over the mountain, reached the station, and arranged rescued of the three men on the other side of South Georgia. Shackleton eventually got transport to Punta Arenas, Chile (where our own voyage ends), returning to Elephant Island with a tugboat four months after they’d left. Not a man was lost (those on Elephant Island survived on penguins and seals). It is perhaps the most amazing feat of leadership and endurance in Antarctic history.

Here’s a photo of all but two of the 22 men who lived four months on Elephant Island, bunking down in two overturned lifeboats. You can see how grubby they are!

[JAC: We’ve just had a closeup view of the island, which is fantastic. Pictures tomorrow.]

As I write this, we’re just south of Elephant Island, at the tip of the island chain off the Antarctic Peninsula, and heading for the Falklands. Here are two views from the ship’s real-time map:

We’re not landing at Elephant Island (the landing there is nearly impossible from a ship like this), but the the ship’s Panomax antennacam (photo below) shows islands with snow-covered mountains. I was just told at Reception that we’ll cruise around Elephant island to have a butcher’s, but it’s early (6:30 a.m.) and we seem to be close. (They won’t make announcements this early.) I went out on deck in a tee-shirt to take photos, just in case. [JAC: as I wrote above, the ship hove to for an hour near the site where Shackleton’s men were marooned for four months. There’s a statue there depicting the tugboat captain who rescued them, but more on that tomorrow.]

Yesterday the weather in the morning was dire: overcast, -7° C (about 19° F), with very heavy winds, which made the moderate cold into frostbite weather. But nothing was going to keep me from bill time with my penguins, and because cold was our only obstacle, we landed in Zodiacs on Cuverville Island. Here’s a bit of what Wikipedia says about it:

Cuverville Island or Île de Cavelier de Cuverville is a dark, rocky island lying in Errera Channel between Arctowski Peninsula and the northern part of Rongé Island, off the west coast of Graham Land in Antarctica. [JAC: it’s only 2 X 2.5 km] Cuverville Island was discovered by the Belgian Antarctic Expedition (1897–1899) under Adrien de Gerlache, who named it for J.M.A. Cavelier de Cuverville (1834–1912), a vice admiral of the French Navy.

The island has been identified as an Important Bird Area (IBA) by BirdLife International because it supports a breeding colonyof about 6500 pairs of gentoo penguins, the largest for this species on the Antarctic Peninsula. Other birds nesting at the site include southern giant petrels and Antarctic shags

Here’s an island I photographed on Wednesday evening. It’s not Cuvervill, but it’s pretty. In the second photo you can see another expedition ship.

Here’s where Cuverville is on Google maps; it’s a tiny island in the inlet marked below:

And a bigger map from The Secretariat of the Antarctic Treaty site. Note the “landing site” (where we landed) and the adjacent gentoo penguin colonies, most of which are off limits. But there are plenty of gentoos you can visit, as you’ll see below. I saw colonies to both the north and south, walking up the cliff until we were prohibited from going further.

And a photo of Cuverville Island—not mine, but taken from the site Alli’s Excellent Adventures!:

Ice on the Zodiac trip to Cuverville. It was freezing, exacerbated by the strong winds in a fast-moving Zodiac.

And the landing site near the cliff. Even when far away, I started getting really excited when I saw the black specks against the snow that indicate PENGUINS!

The bay by the island was full of weirdly-shaped icebergs:

And penguins were wandering by. Here’s a lone one, but there were thousands (remember, Wikipedia says there are about 13,000 gentoos on Cuverville Island).

More penguins on the shore. Many were sleeping in the rookeries, or perhaps were just lying prone because that reduces exposure to the wind. The latter hypothesis is supported by photos below showing that most penguins in rookeries tend to lie in the same direction.

A proud gentoo:

It was freezing in the morning, with the snow blowing hard. I froze my hands every time I took off my gloves to take a picture, which was often. Because I was so excited, I wasn’t aware of how cold I was getting. When I got back to the ship, my hands were useless from cold and I couldn’t unsnap my life jacket. I would shiver sporadically for an hour afterwards. But of course it was worth it.

One of several rookeries we saw. I could spend hours watching something like this, so long as I don’t freeze to death. But our visit was limited to just two hours. (Antarctic tourism regulations mandate that no more than 100 visitors be ashore at one time, and our ship currently has four times that number.)

A proud gentoo, full frontal view. Lovely pinkish-orange feet, no?

Notice that most of the prone penguins are facing northeast. I didn’t keep track of the wind direction, but I’m sure this is no accident.

One prone and one erect:

A penguin waddling toward me. Contrary to what many people think (e.g., when they imitate penguins), these birds don’t flap their flippers while walking but keep them extended away from their bodies, surely for balance. They are awkward walkers for sure, but much better on their bellies and the epitome of grace in the water.

Two rear views:


More penguins in their rookeries:

Again, the prone ones are mostly facing in the same direction:

Here 1/3 of them are facing in the wrong direction:

A rookery with the prone penguins again mostly facing left:

These guys (or girls) kept trying to hop up on this iceberg near shore but kept slipping off. It was funny, but I’m not sure why they were doing it.

A view of a rookery with the Roald Amundsen in the background:

Rookery and glaciers:

Two penguins lying in the right direction:

Scenic view of a rookery. The overcast weather made for nice pictures, reducing the contrast and showing that the palette of colors in this area is pretty much limited to white, blue, black, gray, and, on the penguins, orange and pink:

A proud gentoo overlooks its domain.


Our ship in the background:

The desserts at lunch included mocha mousse tarte and Norwegian success cake, or “suksesskake”, which is apparently baked on all kinds of celebratory occasions. It contains layers of buttercream and cake made with chopped almonds. I partook, as I was hugely successful in having the best Penguin Day of my life!


34 thoughts on “The gentoos of Cuverville Island

  1. Great stuff Jerry! Thanks!

    I froze my hands every time I took off my gloves to take a picture, which was often. Because I was so excited, I wasn’t aware of how cold I was getting. When I got back to the ship, my hands were useless from cold and I couldn’t unsnap my life jacket. I would shiver sporadically for an hour afterwards.

    Your were clearly suffering from hypothermia! Please be careful Jerry! (I’ve been there myself.) Best remedy I’ve found is: Ingesting hot liquids. Can you carry a thermos on these side trips? 🙂

      1. Yikes! That’s harsh! Do they carry a portable receptacle in case it becomes urgent? Can you pee from the zodiac (that’s dangerous of course)?

        I suppose you just have to plan ahead, go on the ship, and then not drink much.

        I can see the food restriction. Hot water would be good though, for rewarming (effective if not tasty)!

      2. Douglas Adams – both because he wrote about a planet where measuring waste like this was a thing and because he was into wildlife preservation – would have found this amusing.

  2. This looks (to me, obvs) like something a professional penguin scientist might publish – are there particular restrictions for voyagers on this trip? Or can anyone in general book a trip? It is astonishing to think PCC(E) was within eye contact of 100’s of penguins – the ducks of Botany Pond might get jealous!

    1. “You two are such a disappointing pair. I prayed so hard for you both. It saddens and hurts me that the two young men whom I raised to believe in the Ten Commandments have returned to me as two thieves with filthy mouths, disgusting lies, and bad attitudes. Get out! And don’t come back… until you’ve redeemed yourselves!!!”

  3. Hard to imagine being on one of those old sailing vessels attempting to navigate the islands and icebergs with no heat and poor food. At that time I would rather be a penguin.

  4. Not a man was lost (those on Elephant Island survived on penguins and seals).

    Bet it took a while after their rescue for the 22 hearty souls stranded for four months during the Shackleton expedition to work up an appetite for penguin or seal again. 🙂

    1. I knew an old man, when I was younger, who went to the Antarctic with Scott (I think it was Scott’s Discovery expedition of 1901 and 1904). He told me he had eaten penguin. I asked him what it tasted like, and he said, “Like chicken, with a fishy flavor.” He said he wouldn’t eat it again.

    2. A good friend of mine is very active in sea kayaking. He learned to build skin/frame boats modeled on Inuit kayaks. He also got to know some Greenland Inuit at various kayaking gatherings.

      He was invited by the Greenlanders to visit them in a remote location (Baffin Bay/Davis Straight area, IIRC) and, remarkably, help them pass on kayaking knowledge to a younger generation. I’m not even sure if that location was a village, it may have been as outpost or campsite.

      It was a great experience; but the problem was the food. Which consisted mainly of seal blubber — raw. Even cooked it wasn’t very good. He brought a small stash of food from home; but it was soon exhausted. He lost a lot of weight.

      (He is a very adventurous eater. Raw oysters, stinky cheese, weird textures, whatever. But seal blubber: Seems you have to be brought up with it.)

  5. The photo of the explorers is very expressive – Look at those pipes – I can’t imagine what it was like – something worse than when I was a kid playing in the snow for 2 hours straight plus tobacco smoke – and onions – and diesel exhaust..?… they must have hand gasoline or diesel engines…

    1. You have to keep a safe distance from the animals, but if you’re sitting there and watching them, and a penguin decides to walk over you, or nuzzle you, you’ve committed no crime. But I wouldn’t pet or touch the penguin. You let them come to you, though I haven’t seen that happen. (And if an elephant seal came towards me, I’d run like hell!). But when I was in the Galapagos, which has basically the same rules, a seal pup came up to me and put its head in my lap. That was a “spiritual experience” if there was one, but it wasn’t illegal. I just let it do what it wanted and didn’t pet it.

      1. Ah, yes, when it comes to “spiritual” experiences, ordinary laws and injunctions are suspended. I don’t think that should obtain but if a penguin wanted to put its head in my lap, and it was ok because it was a “spiritual experience,” I wouldn’t quibble.

        However, I wouldn’t be so welcoming of an Adelie penguin nuzzling me.

  6. I can see an opportunity for you to rectify the paucity of science books on the NYT lists: ‘Travels with Jerry to Antarctica’. With the photos, maps and commentary, you could ‘science it up’ by including your lectures.

  7. Thanks for all these fascinating posts about your great adventure,Jerry. Like everyone else, I’m bursting with envy!

  8. “Trigger warning: If pictures of penguins harm or offend you, skip this post.”

    Unfortunately, not just the pictures but the word ‘penguin’ harms and offends me, so the warning came too late. Fortunately you used ‘penguins’, the plural form, so I’m okay. I have very fine-tuned triggers. 🙂

    Seriously, I love the photos! I am reminded of one time at an aquarium in Pittsburgh and as the penguin show was just starting, at least 50 children started shouting “Penguin! Penguin!” in unison. It was charming.

    Penguins- evolution at its finest. 🙂

  9. So there are a number of species of penguins in Antarctica, all occupying more or less the same habitat, but different species occupy different islands – is that more or less correct?

    And if so, then different islands provide slightly different niches (recalling that the chinstrap island seemed rocky from the pix)?

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