JAN 19: Deception Island and Hannah Point

Thursday, January 19, 2017
Deception Island, South Shetland Islands, Antarctica

Jan 19th, 2017: Deception Island (Whaler's Bay) and Livingston Island (Hannah Point) in the South Shetland Islands

The first authenticated sighting of Deception Island was by the British sealers William Smith and Edward Bransfield from the brig Williams in January 1820; it was first visited and explored by the American sealer Nathaniel Palmer on the sloop Hero the following summer. Palmer remained for two days, exploring the central bay and was the first to name the island "Deception". It is located in the South Shetlands archipelago just north of the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula and has one of the "safest" harbors in Antarctica... except for the fact that the island is the caldera of an active volcano; eruptions in 1967 and 1969 caused serious damage to a whaling station at the time, but also to several local scientific research stations. But it is still a scientific outpost, with research bases currently being run by Spain and Argentina. Geologists are expecting another eruption to occur anytime within the next few years. Fortunately no eruption occurred during our visit, although it would have been pretty amazing to experience such an event... if we lived to tell about it. While we were touring around the bay, a Spanish research team arrived and started measuring geothermal expansion of the dome at the bottom of the bay.

Whaler's Bay:
ON THIS SPECTACULAR DAY we passed through Neptune's Bellows, the entrance to Deception Island's Whaler's Bay: Sunny, almost no wind, and nearly flat calm. Almost diametrically opposite from the weather we had yesterday on Elephant Island.

This place has lots of dilapidated old whaling buildings, boilers and other machinery to render the oil out of the blubber, old whale bones scattered all around the beach, and lots of Gentoo penguins that go out to sea to catch krill for themselves and their chicks... then they CLIMB... up, up, up... sometimes 300-400 ft up a very steep slope to return to their rookeries, well out of the way of leopard seal predators. I don't understand how the net gain in energy could possibly be worth it! I guess the net gain is staying ALIVE... almost forgot about that! Cute little buggers tho.

Gentoos were common at Decption Island. Erin, the cute 10 yr old daughter of Conrad Field the naturalist always tagged along with us to shore and often would commune with the penguins... We wonder what she will end up doing in life?! And then there's the youngster Gentoos who throw temper tantrums whenever they don't get what they want!


Our kayaking group went out again today and we paddled right along the steep cliffs surrounding the entrance of the bay out into what is the typically rough open water area of the channel. So TOTALLY different than our first kayaking experience... and just amazingly beautiful!  Several of the most experienced naturalists were as thrilled as we were since in the dozens of previous trips they had been on down to this area they had never experienced sufficiently calm enough seas to exit the bay.


We are now steaming further down toward the Antarctic Peninsula (not there yet) and will stop at Livingston Island to see more Gentoo penguins, Chinstrap penguins, Southern elephant seals and nesting Southern giant petrels.

Livingston Island:
Back into the Zodiacs and off to Hannah Point which is a narrow peninsula undulating upward to knife-edged ridges and vertical cliffs rising 30-50 meters above sea level. There tends to be a high concentration of wildlife at Hannah Point, including Gentoo penguins, Chinstrap penguins, Southern elephant seals and nesting Southern giant petrels.

We were "blessed" with a geological briefing on the shoreline by Tom Sharpe and shown a few fossil rocks with ferns and other plants that were over 30 million years old. One of the big points Tom kept stressing is how Antarctica used to be part of Gondwanaland some 50-60 million years ago… he LOVES to lecture about the most intimate details of the Antarctic geology, which often is pretty fascinating.

SOUTHERN ELEPHANT SEALS: We hiked along the sandy, gravel beach for a bit and watched a few Southern elephant seals sleeping and throwing sand on their backs to keep themselves cooler. These giant slug-like seals are some 10-15' long and weigh in excess of a ton. Elephant seals are among the deepest diving mammals, reaching depths of 3,000m (yes, that's meters) in the open ocean. They are thought to be primarily visually-based predators on deep living squid and fish and their very large saucer shaped flat black eyes are a prominent feature in their big fleshy face, although there is little to no light below about 300 ft depth. Most of them seem to sleep very soundly and we were able to get within 10’ before our guides encouraged us to move further off. It is relatively warm today and as is typical under those conditions, the elephant seals lying on the beach throw cool sand on their backs by digging it up with their flexible fore flippers and whipping into the air over their head and back. A substantial amount of sand ends up in their mouth, nose, and eyes but they don’t seem to mind.

GENTOO PENGUINS:  With flamboyant red-orange beaks, white-feather caps, and peach-colored feet, Gentoo penguins stand out against their drab, rock-strewn Antarctic habitat. These charismatic waddlers, who populate the Antarctic Peninsula and numerous islands around the frozen continent, are the penguin world’s third largest members, reaching a height of 30 inches (76 centimeters) and a weight of 12 pounds (5.5 kilograms). Gentoos are partial to ice-free areas, including coastal plains, sheltered valleys, and cliffs. They gather in colonies of breeding pairs that can number from a few dozen to many thousands.

Gentoo parents, which often form long-lasting bonds, are highly nurturing. At breeding time, both parents will work to build a circular nest of stones, grass, moss, and feathers. The stones are used primarily to make sure their nests drain off water so the chick will have a warm and dry nest. To gather the stones, they are constantly trying to steal stones from adjacent neighbors nests and it’s really quite amusing to watch one bird stealing from a neighbor while another neighbor is stealing from their nest, and sometimes they waddle all the way over to the other side of the colony to steal a single pebble, waddle all the way back, and deposit into their mate's nest. Below is a URL link to a video of the stone gathering process... If the video doesn't appear by clicking on it, then copy and paste this link into the URL line in your Browser. Then press Return. Hope it works!   Enjoy... {And Thank You, Paul & Laura!}

"Stealing pebbles"...


Both parents incubate the eggs by laying their feather-less brood patch over the eggs to impart their body warmth to the developing chick. It seems likely that this feather-less area would be a significant thermoregulatory problem for the birds as they forage at sea, but obviously they have adapted to this in some way. Both parents also take turns provisioning the chicks by swimming 10 or more miles offshore to grab small fish, squid and krill. The mother then deposits two spherical, white eggs, which both parents take turns incubating for more than a month. Hatchlings remain in the nest for up to a month, and the parents alternate foraging and brooding duties.

Like all penguins, Gentoos are awkward on land. But they’re pure grace underwater. They have streamlined bodies and strong, paddle-shaped flippers that propel them up to 22 miles an hour (36 kilometers an hour), faster than any other diving bird. Adults spend the entire day hunting, usually close to shore, but occasionally ranging as far as 16 miles (26 kilometers) out. When pursuing prey, which includes fish, squid, and krill, they can remain below for up to seven minutes and dive as deep as 655 feet (200 meters).

Gentoos are a favored menu item of the Leopard seals, Sea lions, and Orcas that patrol the waters around their colonies. On land, adults have no natural predators other than humans, who harvest them for their oil and skin. Gentoo eggs and chicks, however, are vulnerable to birds of prey, like Skuas and Caracaras. Gentoo numbers are increasing on the Antarctic Peninsula but have plummeted in some of their island enclaves, possibly due to local pollution or disrupted fisheries. They are protected by the Antarctic Treaty of 1959 and received near threatened status on the IUCN Red List in 2007.



Chinstrap penguins are hilarious… The adults go to sea and bring back krill to feed their babies, which is temporarily stored in their crop and/or stomach. When they return to the colony, they find their chick (this species typically lays 2 eggs, so some have one chick and some have two), and that’s when the fun begins. Chicks peck at the parent’s bill, which stimulates the parent to regurgitate the krill for them to eat.

However, the adult also wants to make sure the chicks are healthy and strong enough to be able to feed on their own. So for awhile they resist the chick’s pestering for food. Instead, they often make the chick chase them around the entire colony begging for food, making sure the chick builds up stamina and will have a higher likelihood to survive on its own. The chase becomes intense until they are literally running through the colony, up and down hills, over rocks, and running into other nests where the parent of that nest starts attacking the poor chick whose only trying to catch its mother for food. Finally, after several minutes of this frivolity, the parent barfs up a bolus of krill and feeds the chick, which sticks nearly its entire head into the parent’s throat to wring out every krill morsel the parent can provide. Watching the chase, the overall commotion created in the colony, and the ungainly galloping of the elegant tuxedoed adult and the bulbous downy covered chick is simply hilarious. Below is a link to a video of the chase by some Gentoo penguins, but both species do it... If it doesn't run when you click on the link, you should be able to copy and paste this link into the URL line in your Browser. Then press Return. Hope you Enjoy... {And Thank You, Paul & Laura!}

"The Chase"


 As we cruised between areas on this trip we regularly saw Chinstraps and Gentoos racing along besides the ship shooting 1 or 2 body lengths out of the water as they zoomed along. We were told they can travel over 20 mph, make up to 450 dives per day, dive to 200 meters depth and stay submerged for 3 minutes or more. At the end of the chick rearing season, the adults as well as the chicks molt all their feathers and put on new waterproof ones to carry them through the upcoming winter, using an oil gland at the base of their tail to coat their feathers.


Thank You Julia for these images!

Chinstrap penguins are more warm adapted than Gentoos, and as another impact of increasing temperatures associated with climate change, they have started replacing Gentoos in several of the breeding sites in Antarctica.


• The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914-17):

May 19, 1917:
After a 10-day period of rest and recuperation from their harrowing 16 day ordeal from Elephant Island, rather than risk putting to sea again to reach the whaling stations on the northern side of the island, Shackleton starts his land crossing of the island. Although it is likely that Norwegian whalers had previously crossed at other points on skis, no one had attempted this particular route before. For their journey, the survivors were only equipped with boots they had pushed screws into to act as climbing boots, a carpenter's adze, and 50 feet of rope.
Driven to succeed, Shackleton takes two of the other five companions with him from the lifeboat on their trek over the mountain on South Georgia Island to reach a whaling station. When the march begins, Shackleton, as always, breaks the trail for the other men, trudging through soft, knee-deep snow and across fields of ice. Without flashlights, the darkness hides the deadly crevasses until they are just upon them. Several times the men grow hopeful that they are almost there, only to realize they have gone the wrong way, forcing them to gloomily retrace their steps. For 36 sleepless hours the men march in search of the whaling stations, stopping only for meals.....

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Laura Pasik

This was one of my favorite days of the expedition, and you captured it beautifully! Thanks again for the incredibly detailed descriptions and great photos. I think anyone who has ever had teenage offspring will be able to relate to those poor beleaguered penguin parents! "Will you just fledge already!?! You're eating us out of nest and home!"

Susan Williams

WOW! It's hard to beat what I'm seeing underwater in Indonesia, but your trip is incredible and might inspire me to leave the tropics.
Stay warm and safe- Susan

Kieronski, Roberta-

Love the stories, pictures and details! Thanks for sharing.

McClanahan, Pamela

Love the adventures of the gentoo and chinstrap penguins! Feeling blessed to enjoy the highlights of this trip in my 65°F home. Apparently this is not really cold!

Ogden, John (and Nancy)

Thank you Tom and Roger for your persistence in getting your blog to your eager readers. I enjoyed it very much, especially the corroboration of our experiences and reactions on our trip to the South Shetland Is. and the Peninsula in 2004 with WWF on the Lindblad ship Endeavor. It is indeed a magnificent wilderness and yet so vulnerable. So what is next for you intrepid adventurers? Best wishes.