I got up early again, this time for two reasons: First, I was hoping for a glimpse of the sunrise, which by the look of the view out my window didn't look very promising. Second, today is our last day of adventure. The last day of landings. The last time I'll ever be in a Zodiac. I wanted to make as much of it as I could.
I made my way up on deck, and found the weather to be as cloudy, gray and windy as any day so far. It didn't look good for any activity this morning. We found out just after breakfast that it was indeed too rough to make our morning landing. We'd instead have a couple lectures while we steamed to our final destination.
I spent the majority of the morning up on deck watching a couple of humpbacks who seemed happy to be around the boat. They hung around us for a good 20 to 30 minutes. I was actually glad to see them go, as the weather really wasn't very nice at all. The misty clouds were unkind to my camera, and it was cold enough to make your face hurt. I retreated to the second deck and took a quick look at the bridge of the ship. It was quite the sight; filled with all the requisite knobs and dials you'd expect on a large ship. However, I was amused by the mixture of new and old - the new tools of the trade, GPS systems and satellite phones right next to the tried and true pencils and paper charts.
After lunch, we set anchor in the calmer waters near Half Moon Island. I went downstairs and geared up for my last landing in the Antarctic. It was honestly a little sad. This grand adventure was coming to an end. An event planned and anticipated for over a year essentially over in four or five days. I remember descending the gangway slowly - stepping into the Zodiac deliberately and with purpose, trying to remember everything.
We sped toward our landing site through the thick gray afternoon. The wind had calmed some since the morning, but the water was still pretty rough - the Zodiac bounced over the swells, giving us a little spray every now and then. It was raining, but the kind of rain that's just annoying. Not real drops, just a constant dreary spray. Just enough to make the lens of your camera wet.
We were greeted by Stephen on a long, curved and relatively flat beach ornamented with tall, angular columns of dark gray rock. The ground was covered with smooth, round egg-shaped stones, the majority of which were various shades of gray, accompanied by a random assortment of burnt orange. Long ravaged by the elements, some of them had cracked and splintered in interesting ways. Just to the left of the landing site was a long-forgotten whaling boat, broken and rotting, but somehow appearing normal on this beach.
It didn't take long to notice the island was home to a large colony of chinstrap penguins. They stood atop many of the stone columns, and seemed to love jumping around on the rocks. As I followed one of our staff members leading a group to the left side of the island, we passed many a convoy of hopping tuxedos. We all stopped just to watch them un-gracefully bounce around on the wet stone.
The left side of the island was dominated by a massive rock formation towering above us, the high peak dulled by the mist, its flat façade caked with a rusty orange. To the left of the tower was a colony of 14 or 15 yawning, barking fur seals lying lazily on the beach. From time to time they'd get up long enough to duel with one another, establishing their territory, as well as themselves in the hierarchy of the colony.
There were a lot of Skuas around - scavenger birds who look for pretty much anything to eat. They especially like penguin eggs, but will settle for the occasional unfortunate penguin, of which there were a significant number on this island for whatever reason.
I walked back toward the other side of the island, dodging a few penguin trains on the way. I couldn't take my eyes off of them. After being around them for these few days, it's easy to see why Hollywood has embraced them. They seem to have attitude and personality. At times the whole colony seems to be a little city, its well-dressed citizens walking busy streets, headed to or from work, or running the errands for the day. Everyone has some purpose only they know. Again I was mesmerized by it.
As I entered another area of the beach, the scenery seemed right out of a Hollywood set. The mist covered the tops of the rock formations and gave an almost eerie feel to the entire landscape. Nearby, a colony of Gentoo penguins played in the water, apparently practicing their swimming in preparation to head out to sea for the winter.
I found our ship historian, Chris Gilbert near the area and talked to him for a bit. We stood near a couple of seemingly fat and happy fur seals as we chatted. Soon, Stephen came by, and we walked over to a large set of whale bones lying on the shore. One bone was incredibly large - probably close to 15 feet in length. I of course asked the experts what they thought it was. "Probably a jaw bone from a Blue," Stephen said. Holy crap. I knew Blue Whales were big, but as I stood next to it, it was hard to comprehend - only the jaw. To actually see a Blue Whale must be an extraordinary experience.
I walked around the remainder of the island. I stopped to watch a group of penguins jumping (or trying to jump) on a piece of ice floating near the shore. It was comical. A group of penguins were in the water, circling the ice. They would swim around it, look for a good spot, and leap out of the water to try to land on top. Many times they would pick a very high edge, and get denied in their leap, bouncing off the side and back into the water. If they did make it up to the top, they'd stand there for a while, apparently admiring the view for 20 or 30 seconds, then jump back in the water. Funny how something as simple as penguins jumping on ice can make you stare and laugh.
I crossed two small ridges of the grey and orange rock, heading towards an Argentinean research base which was apparently vacant for the winter. Our rides were waiting on the beach. Many had already returned, and I was characteristically one of the last ones on the beach. I hung out as long as possible, examining every rock, following every bird, savoring every second. As I reluctantly neared the black boats, saw several groups of Gentoo penguins swimming very near the Zodiacs. Teams of three or four would zip right up the boat, or even your legs, then change direction at the last second and fire back out. As ungraceful as their motion seems on land, they more than make up for in the water.
I put my feet in the Guano-matic for the last time, and swung my legs over the sides of Zodiac 13. The ride back to the Explorer was quick, and before I knew it, I was done. I was up on the gangway, and in the hallway of the main deck, standing in my waterproof boots and thick winter jacket, knowing my adventure on the White Continent was over.
We had a quick re-cap of our landing, and then an early dinner. Unfortunately, with our landings over, we were heading back into the Drake Passage tonight. Talk about kicking a man when he's down.