During the night
we crossed the Bransfield Strait to the South Shetland Islands. Here we would
have a Christmas present from G.A.P. of an extra day of landings before the dreaded crossing of the Drake’s Passage
on our return home.
Our morning stop was at Half
Moon Island, so-named because of its crescent shape. This is a favorite stop for Antarctic tours, as much for its picturesque
scenery as for the large, noisy rookery of chinstrap penguins. Small rocky turrets
crown the ridge atop the island, providing a favored location for a few lucky chinstraps. Other chinstraps clustered their
nests on the slope below, keeping up a constant squawking as they warned off intruders or welcomed their kin. Some nesting
birds had tiny chicks tucked beneath them, but most were still incubating. The ever-watchful skuas circled overhead, and I
saw one skua finishing off an egg not far from the rookery.
Having seen enough
of penguins, I decided to follow the trail that led along the ridge to the right. The
snow was deep, and I had to step carefully to avoid sinking in above my boots, but I plodded on, intrigued by several brown
shapes sticking out of the snow down by the bay. I could not determine whether
they were rocks or seals, but I finally saw one shape spread its wings and knew that at least some of them were birds –
probably skuas. As I approached my binoculars revealed most of the other shapes to be rocks, but at least one was very questionable. A Swiss couple was right behind me, and I saw they had better binoculars.
“Are those seals or
rocks, I asked?”
“ Do you
want to see seals?” asked the Swiss gentleman. Tracks in the snow indicated that he had already been down the ridge. “Those are rocks, but I’ll show you seals.”
He broke a trail through
the snow, and as we crested a hilltop I saw five Weddell seals lying on the shore to the right, while one more lazed on the
opposite side, camouflaged amid the brown rocks.
As we trudged back to the
main group we found that a furious snowball battle had broken out between the younger passengers and expedition staff. No
one could approach the crest of the ridge without a pelting, but with the penguins hunkering down to protect their territory
from these raucous oversize invaders, it was time for us to move on.
Our buffet lunch that day
was a feast. The kitchen was outdoing itself with Christmas bounty. Maitre d’
hotel Olaf was carving generous slices of roast turkey while farther down the line we found tender beef filet, as well as
delicious entrees for the few vegetarians among us. Any calories we had lost in our escapades on Half-Moon were replaced several