Today’s the day! After sailing through the Drake Passage, we finally made our first “landing” just after 12pm at Barrientos Island in the South Shetland Islands. We spent the morning learning about the Antarctic Treaty (signed in 1959; went into effect in 1961), an international treaty that declares, among other things, that Antarctica will be used “for peaceful purposes only” with an emphasis on “freedom of scientific investigation and cooperation”. Because of various provisions of that treaty, tourism in Antarctica is highly regulated to ensure that any human visitors have minimal impact on the unique and fragile ecosystems that thrive on the continent.
In order to protect the delicate biodiversity of Antarctica, we disinfected all items that had previously been used elsewhere (i.e. boots, camera tripods, backpacks, winter clothing) prior to landing. Each time we land and return to the ship, we will repeat this process – stepping in disinfecting fluid with our boots and waterproof pants – to ensure that we don’t introduce a species that could potentially be invasive in an area where it doesn’t belong.
We left the ship around 1:30pm in zodiacs (small rubber boats) and headed toward Barrientos Island. Within seconds of pulling away from the ship, the smell of the island was overpowering, and I immediately recognized the scent from the Penguin House at the Bronx Zoo. We were smelling lots and lots and lots of guano (otherwise known as penguin poop). The island is home to two species of penguin – Gentoo and Chinstrap – and they are everywhere! As visitors to their home, we aimed to stay 15 feet or more away from the penguins at any given time. However, the penguins didn’t go to the briefing we attended, so they weren’t aware of the rule. The other two GTF teachers and I sat down on the ground. (Side note: You might be wondering about the guano that I mentioned was everywhere. Yes, there was guano everywhere, so yes, although we tried our best to avoid it, we had to sit in the penguin poop – how often are you in Antarctica, right? Plus, we each have to wash our own pants every time we return to the ship as part of the protocol!) When we sat down to take photos and record audio at the ground level, the penguins walked right up to us and began pecking at our boots. We were careful to stay very still to avoid disturbing them or making any movement toward them, as we wanted to maintain a respectful distance. It was absolutely surreal to be eye level with a Gentoo penguin as he (or she?) waddled by on an Antarctic beach. Definitely worth a little extra cleaning when we got back!
After dinner this evening, the Expedition Leader made an announcement over the intercom inviting everyone to come to an outer deck as we passed Deception Island. Unfortunately, he forgot to mention the 50 knot (approximately 60 mph) winds outside. So, I, along with my fellow GTF teachers, trekked out to the top decks of the ship, clinging to the railings as we attempted to get a good view of Deception Island and the abandoned human stations nearby while also aiming to stay upright. I also attempted to film the experience for my students (see photo below).
Tomorrow, we have a full day – Paradise Bay in the morning and Danco Island in the afternoon. I just checked the monitors inside the ship’s Bridge and learned that we’re currently at a latitude of 62.5d degrees S. It’s also 11:30pm and still as bright as a cloudy CT afternoon. We’ve had to close the porthole in our cabin each night to block out the daylight and remind our bodies that it’s time to go to sleep. Off to Paradise Bay in the morning!