January 18, 2014 – Pleneau Island, Petermann Island
Posted on January 21st, 2014
Temperature: 33° F
Wind speed: 20 knots
Cloud cover: 100%
Precipitation: Occasional snow showers
Under misty morning light and snowflakes, ‘Le Boreal’ approached the northern entrance to the legendary Lemaire Channel, often aptly referred to as “Kodak Alley” for its spectacular scenery. This seven-mile-long and one-mile-wide channel separates Booth Island from the Antarctic continent with towering snow-covered mountains lining the route on both sides. We bundled up for the wind on the outer decks and watched as the ship slipped through this narrow passage.
Waiting for us on the other side was Pleneau Island and the dense collection of grounded icebergs appropriately named “Iceberg Alley.” We boarded the Zodiacs and meandered in and out of the maze of ice, where every imaginable shape of iceberg could be found. Windy conditions, complete with white caps and sea spray, dominated the scene, and provided us with an appreciation for how harsh the conditions can be in Antarctica, even at the height of summer. We hid behind large icebergs for some shelter from the wind, spending time with crabeater seals that had been snoozing away on ice floes, completely unaffected by the wind.
A few leopard seals were in the area as well, including one in the water that had been stalking an unsuspecting blue-eyed shag. We watched as the seal seized the shag and thrashed it around, sending water spraying in all directions. The tremendous size of the seal along with its massive jaw and serpentine head were incredible and we watched in awe.
Our Zodiac cruise concluded with a surprise champagne toast, which we enjoyed before heading back to ‘Le Boreal’ in the lee of some amazing tabular icebergs. Back on the ship, we kept our warm clothes on for the barbeque lunch served out on deck. Snowflakes fell while the bar staff, dressed in penguin costumes, served drinks. It was a spectacular lunch with gorgeous Antarctic scenery all around.
In the afternoon, we boarded Zodiacs for Petermann Island, the site where a French expedition led by Charcot overwintered in 1909. The island was covered in a blanket of snow with bare rocky outcrops occupied by penguins. This is the southernmost breeding colony of gentoo penguins on the planet, and approximately 1,000 pairs of Adélie penguins breed here as well.
We wandered out to an old Argentine hut, as well as out to a rocky promontory where Adélie penguins nest among gentoos and a few blue eyed shags. The penguins surprised and delighted us once again: lying on their bellies, they propelled themselves across the snow with their feet and flippers in a movement known as “tobagganing.”
Back on ‘Le Boreal,’ we gathered for a recap during which historian Bob Burton answered a pressing question: who was the first to land on the Antarctic continent? Marine biologist Larry Hobbs also compared humpback whale and winter wren songs and ornithologist Patricia Silva introduced us to the little-known Red Jacket Albatrosses. We relaxed over dinner and stories of the day, later heading out on deck in a snowstorm to soak up some last looks at the remarkable White Continent.