Antarctica, Day 4: Yankee Harbor and our first encounter with penguins and seals

March 6, 2022 • 9:30 am

Yesterday we visited Yankee Harbor, a small inlet on Greenwich Island in the South Shetlands. It’s popular because it’s easy for a large ship to moor nearby, it’s calm and easy of access, and the shores and teeming with penguins and seals. It’s a good first stop for those who want to see penguins and sea mammals without too much walking.

I’ve been to this place twice before in 2019, and have a post on Yankee Harbor here and some maps of Greenwich Island here Be sure to look at those posts, too, for more photos.

Here’s Greenwich Island among the South Shetlands, shown on the inset map in the red square. They’re about 110 km north of the Antarctic Peninsula, which is considered Antarctica proper.

A similar map but with a scale to show distances. Note Elephant Island, where Shackleton’s men holed up for three months awaiting rescue after they were marooned by the loss of their large ship (the Endurance) and then their lifeboats.

This small inlet in Greenwich, visible in the top map, is Yankee Harbor, a peaceful small cove which happens to harbor animals.

The mighty MS Roald Amundsen, the first hybrid Antarctic ship, parked offshore to let passengers take the rubber Zodiac boats to Yankee Harbour. You can see a few fur seals in the foreground.

The two animal heroes of this post are the gentoo penguin and the Antarctic fur seal. The Gentoo penguin (Pygoscelis papua) has this range, living mostly on islands off Antarctica:

I love to see the Zodiacs bring the tourists to their first landing where they can see penguins. The penguins at Yankee Harbour are not shy at all, and will wander to within two or three feet of you. They’re also small, and it’s very heartwarming to see a tourist glimpse their first penguin in the wild. Here’s a boat arriving with two gentoos waiting to greet them. (Gentoos, by the way, are easily recognized by the white patch over their eye and their bright orange bill.

The Expedition staff stands for hours in the water wearing dry suits to help passengers land safely. These guys were standing in or by the water from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. I could never do that now, which is why I’m a lecturer rather than a naturalist/guide!

This is right near the landing. The penguins are waiting to go into the sea for food. We were told that the brown iron pot to the right is a very old remnant from the sealing and whaling days.

A confederacy of penguins:

Note eye patch, orange bill, and chunky orange feet with big claws. Remember, these are secondarily flightless birds: all penguins evolved from birds who could fly.

They make loud wonky noises, like someone blowing one of those expandable birthday horns that unfurls.

This one looks like a young bird, what with the down on the back of its head.

Formal portraits:

A pair:

Penguins have stiff, bristly tail feathers that they can use to prop themselves up. Wikipedia notes that it is “the most prominent tail of any penguin species.”

Years ago a friend gave me one that I still have; I sometimes give it to people and ask them what it is, and they never know. (It’s illegal, by the way, to remove so much as a rock from Antarctica; my feather was obtained legally.) I’m proud at how well the expedition staff keeps people a good distance away from the animals and respects the environment, so when we leave, everything is the same as before—save our footprints.

Penguin footprints: they have three big toes in front but, as you can see in the photos above, they have a smaller claw to the rear.

A headless penguin!

. . . and a napper.

Can you spot the penguin? There’s one here, but it’s pretty well camouflaged—not that adults have predators on land. Adult penguins are vulnerable to predation only in the sea (orcas, leopard seals, etc.)

Our second animal star, the Antarctic fur seal (Arctocephalus gazella).Here is their range, i.e,. Antarctica and nearby but nowhere else. But they are mostly found on subantarctic islands rather than the continent, which is where we saw them yesterday.

Three ways of looking at a fur seal:

Unlike elephant seals or Weddell seals, which tend to move by lying on their bellies and surging forward, Antarctic fur seals walk on their flippers. You can see that in the picture above and below.

Their fur is gorgeous, which is why they were hunted so ardently. By the 19th century the sealers had driven the species nearly to extinction, but now they’ve recovered in a big way: there are about six million of them, with 95% of the population living on the South Georgia Islands. And they’re protected everywhere. Notice its “hands”.

A view of another section of the island. The colors of Antarctica are blue, gray, black and white, save for the orange of a gentoo bill or the bright hues of the Emperor Penguin. It is this monochrome that makes it such an amazing place.

The Roald Amundsen parked offshore, with penguins in the foreground.

And my lunch at Fredheim, which was a lamb sausage on a bun with fries, and a blueberry milkshake for dessert. I was sufficiently full that I eschewed dinner and simply had an apple.


20 thoughts on “Antarctica, Day 4: Yankee Harbor and our first encounter with penguins and seals

  1. These penguins seem to be wiser than us, homo “sapiens”, who threaten each other with nuclear bombs…

  2. That lunch looks remarkably like a hot dog.
    The red stuff looks a lot like ketchup.
    I don’t actually have a dog in this particular race, but wouldn’t that be seen as a violation of basic human decency in certain circles?

  3. Lovely photos – thanks!

    “Can you spot the penguin?” – yes, but I wouldn’t have done if I hadn’t known it was in there somewhere.

  4. Two observations. Here in Houston the Moody Gardens aquarium has a “penguin encounter” that you can book. Spend 30 minutes or so with a couple of penguin residents. Main takeaways: Those wings are hard as hell. Get whapped with those things will leave a mark, even through a jacket! Second, penguins stink. You will smell like a penguin for weeks.

    The other observation is they had a seal skeleton on display. Looked just like a dog to me.

  5. So very interesting! Long ago, thru volunteer work, I was with a group given a behind-the-scenes tour of Sea World. And there we got to get up close and personal to a large penguin exhibit. The fishy smell was quite memorable. After dis-infecting, we were also allowed to touch a penguin, and I must say the oily-ness was not that pleasant.

      1. Many years ago, I met the very old father of an older friend who had gone to the Antarctic on one of Scott’s expeditions, and had eaten penguin. “What did they taste like?”, I asked. “Like chicken, only very fishy,” he replied. “It was horrible.”

  6. Thank you for posting the beautiful photos. I especially love the young penguin with the awkward little puff of down on his head. Your trip is turning into a highlight of my days.

  7. Jerry, you should ask if they have any tjørket kjutt or fenalår. This is a leg of lamb, salted and dried until it is better than beef jerky, much better. Little thin chewy slices of magic.

    1. Ah that’s a clever way to do that!

      if anyone wonders, copy/paste that into a ROT13 – or, “rotate by 13 letters” – translator.

  8. Recent Gentoo articles –

    Genetic diversity and structure of captive gentoo penguin populations in Japan

    Baseline Gene Expression Levels in Falkland-Malvinas Island Penguins: Towards a New Monitoring Paradigm

    Kinematics and hydrodynamics analyses of swimming penguins: wing bending improves propulsion performance

Leave a Reply