Tag Archives: Port Charcot

Gen 2

Tuesday 27 February 2024 – Our luck with the Antarctic weather looked to be running out as we peered at the morning’s prospects from the cabin.

There was a stiff breeze (about 10 knots, we were told) and it was raining. The only redeeming feature, and it was only a marginal redemption, was that the temperature was above freezing – about 2°C.

We were parked in Salpetriere Bay, known as the “Iceberg Graveyard”, because the vagaries of prevailing wind and currents tend to shepherd passing icebergs into the bay such that they can’t then float out again.  Thus it seemed that a Zodiac cruise around the bay should give us some great icescapes.

It did.

It also gave us a great wildlife experience, one which I hadn’t expected and, indeed, one which even the guides found remarkable.

But first the scenery.  It was spectacular.

This was my favourite among the many scenes we enjoyed on the morning expedition.

We had been told that there were colonies of gentoo penguins in the bay, and so there were.

The ones above look quite neat and tidy in their back-and-white dinner suit outfits.  The colony as a whole

not so much.  The pinky-brown stuff is penguin shit.  And there’s a lot of it. Really, a lot.

The individual penguins are very penguinish.

Many of them are chicks or adults which are moulting and hence couldn’t go into the water.

Also on the wildlife front, I tried to capture a few shots of the birdlife around.  There were some shags on the rocks and several kelp gulls.  This one is an adult.

And a juvenile or two were flying around.

We also saw an Antarctic tern. We weren’t anywhere near its nest, so it wasn’t in attack mode.

Some of the penguins were in the water and were skipping about madly.

This tactic, called “porpoising”, is how they move at their fastest, some 35kph.  And we managed to catch sight of the reason why.

A leopard seal, the only seal species in these parts which eats penguins.  This was the unexpected treat for both us passengers and the guides.  These seals are solitary and elusive and some of the guides had rarely seen them.  This one was very curious about us

and came and played around our Zodiac, and the other ones that were in the same area as we were.  The water was clear enough that we could see it actually swimming around and under the boat, so we had several minutes in its company.

Extraordinarily, it was not the only leopard seal in the bay.  We came across another, basking on an ice floe,

which gave us a chance to see its snake-like, evil and Voldemortish head.

Amazingly, there was yet another, also basking,

which, like the others, was the centre of considerable attention.

Leopard seals are probably the most voracious of the seals, in that they prey on a huge variety of other creatures, including baby seals of other species, as well as penguins, fish and the ubiquitous krill.  To deal efficiently with the latter, they have evolved teeth of a special shape which close together to form a filter; the seals can take a mouthful of water and krill, and expend the water through clenched teeth, leaving just the krill to eat.

Crabeater seals (whose pups are prey for the leopard seals) also have this tooth configuration, as almost their entire diet is krill.  Leopard seals, on the other hand, have also got fearsome canines and strong jaws which allow them to catch and bite their other prey.  We were told not to put a hand in the water, as a bite from a leopard seal could actually take it off.

That was our wildlife treat for the morning, alongside the spectacular icescapes of the iceberg graveyard.  The afternoon had the possibility of a landing at a nearby site, reached after a short move by Hondius to a place called Port Charcot. Calling it a port rather overstates its extent.

On the top left you can just make out a cairn, which is a not to Jean Charcot, who was a Frenchman who made two noted expeditions mapping the Antarctic Peninsula in the early 20th century. He was part of the heroic age of Antarctic exploration between 1901 and 1920, during which thousands of kilometres of the coastline were mapped; the era included the Shackleton debacle and the Scott-Amundsen competition.

Those who were interested could walk up to the cairn; there was also a reasonably substantial colony of gentoo penguins on the island.  It was really quite windy and there was also a fair bit of rain in the air, moving more horizontally than vertically. On that basis, the visit to the cairn held few attractions for Jane and me, and we contented ourselves with stumbling and sliding our way to the penguins

across snow and ice which was lavishly decorated by algae, turning it green, and penguin shit, turning it also brown.

As is the norm with penguins, they were behaving in agreeably penguinish ways; I have video but internet bandwidth constraints mean it’s not practical to share it, I’m afraid.  There were adults feeding chicks;

penguins eating snow as a source of “fresh” water*,

which must be quite a test for their digestive system, I’d have thought; and several penguin highways, routes from the colony to the sea etched out by thousands of laborious penguin journeys.

The colonies tend to be high up because gentoos need rocks upon which to build nests (normally by stealing stones from their neighbours’ construction efforts), and the tops of hills is often where the snow is first cleared by the wind; hence the need for the journey from sea to colony.

The net effect is that the whole area is covered in penguin poo,

so being careful with one’s footing is very desirable.  You can’t avoid stepping in it, but you can at least try not to fall over in it, something that a couple of our landing party failed to do.

After a while of watching the penguins, we decided to head back down and go back to the boat.  The landing area was near one of the spots where the penguins entered the water

and we could see them porpoising around in the water close to the shore as they sought food (again, I have video, but blah blah).

It is impossible to walk there without getting one’s boots covered in penguin excrement, which is not something to be transported back to the boat: partly because that would possibly spread unwelcome biological material to where it shouldn’t be; and also because it stinks.  So the team take care to ensure that boots are well cleaned before you are allowed back on to a Zodiac.

Even so, clean as we were were on arrival to Hondius, there seemed to be a pervasive pong of penguin poo hanging around for a while afterwards.

That was it for the day’s excursions, but there was still some visual entertainment to come as Hondius was carefully steered up the narrow Lemaire Channel,

which, we were told, is one of the most dramatic and most-photographed pieces of coastline.  Obviously the best place to see the scenery from would be the bow of the ship.  But it was bloody freezing, raining and blowing a gale, so I, like other sensible souls, retired to the bridge to watch the scenery go by through windows which were obligingly cleaned by the large windscreen wipers there.

There were a few idiots hardy souls who braved the bow.  There always are.

The hour or so spent gingerly creeping along the channel was a perfect exemplar of the standard Walker holiday mantra: “it would have been better if it were clearer”.

It was obvious that the scenery was dramatic; I just wish we could have seen more of it.

It’s a very narrow channel, littered with ice

as you can see from the radar plot.

After a while the fog really came down and so I retired to the bar for a G&T and waited for the briefing for the morrow.  The destination, which is a fair bit north, is Mikkelsen Harbour at D’Hainaut Island, where can be found the remains of a whaling station and more gentoo penguins.  The weather prospects are less than stellar so it may well be that we will spurn the opportunity to get cold, wet and caked in penguin poo in favour of a calm and orderly morning. Time will tell.


* Gentoo penguins can drink salt water (just as well, really) and they have a special gland on their forehead through which they can excrete the salt. A tricky choice, I’d have said – which tastes better, ocean water or shitty snow?