The very last spot in South America leads to a massive body of water. On the other side is the Antarctic continent. Drake’s Passage is like a rite of passage one must endure to get to Antarctica. This passage is 400 miles of furious seas. It lies on a latitude where there is no land to slow the sea tides, so they collide with frightening force, combining with the freezing temperatures to make the most intimidating sea passage in the world. The only expectations I had were of icebergs and penguins. I didn’t have any idea of what else to expect. I didn’t know much about the land’s geography, politics, nor imposing power.
As we sailed to Antarctica, Drake?s Passage didn?t live up to its terrible reputation. On the sail home, the Passage lived up to its evil reputation. Our first morning in Antarctica was calm, but gray and dreary.
We didn?t see the ice until after we?d see tall, hazy grey-brown mountains in the distance. Tiny ice chunks floated around the boat, bobbing in the water. Thankful for the red expedition parka that I had been issued upon arrival, I zipped it up as I grabbed my camera and dashed into the icy air.
When we were not listening to and watching the slide lectures of the naturalists on board, we were running out to take pictures of leaping whales and dolphins, or to gaze at penguins despite the lowering skies and gun-metal sea. We had high expectations setting off in the small raft, putting the mother ship to our stern and closely approaching the bobbing chunks of ice. We approached a small rocky island covered in ice and saw penguins standing about on the shore, debating about getting wet.
We were surrounded by hundreds of penguins, from all sides. Bedraggled, little gentoo penguins occupied this outcropping of land in Paradise Harbor with a team of researchers. The penguins made their way to the shore all over the island. Their movements purposeful and committed. Some of the penguins seemed to enjoy watching us as much as we were enjoying watching them. The majority of the penguin parents had left their chicks to be self-sufficient. Some of the penguin chicks were not accepting this situation readily. At this point in their lives they are usually provided with a down covered sack of krill – food that their parents catch and then regurgitate into their chick’s mouth until they are old enough to hunt on their own.
Some of them were also at various stages int he process of losing their feathers – also known as molting. During the molting, most of the baby coat had been replaced by sleek feathers. But in some spots, the grey down remained and the birds looked like they had on earmuffs and hats. Some just looked like they?d gone to a very bad barber. As we returned to our ship, we navigated around ice drifting in the bay. A seal was gorgeously posing atop a small berg. He gave us a giant tongue-filled yawn; maybe he was telling us how boring we were to see.
The penguins were completely and utterly charming, and every bit as irresistible as their pictures made them seem. Penguins and their waddle belies their gawky nature. Or maybe it’s the way their black and white tuxedos clash so terribly with their bright orange, webbed feet. Because these islands were less dirt and more rock or ice, the penguins tended to be very clean and neat looking. They appear to have chubby cheeks because of a thin black line under their chins.
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