The South Shetland Islands are the closest Antarctic landmass reachable from South America, and this will be our first chance to actually land in Antarctica and see penguins! Due to a rather kind Drake Passage, we were arriving a few hours early.
As National Geographic Explorer approached the small archipelago known as the Aitcho Islands, the visibility was quite reduced, with low clouds and fog. Undaunted, we pressed on, as the expedition leader was keen to make use of our extra time to have a look at a famous rock formation known as Edinburgh Hill. A few low clouds provided a gothic look to the scene, which seemed appropriate for the subject.
After lunch, we backtracked a bit to the small island of Barrientos, which is home to both gentoo and chinstrap penguins. It’s a busy place this time of year, with penguins commuting between their nests and the water. Overhead skus patrol, waiting for the perfect moment to swoop in and steal an egg or small chick from a poorly guarded nest.
On the shore, there was a male Antarctic fur seal, enjoying a nap. While not rare in the Sheltlands, it was a lucky find for our guests – perhaps the only fur seal we will see this week. Everyone had a great introduction to penguins and their nesting habitat. There were many very small chicks and still plenty of eggs waiting to hatch.
But the highlight of the day was the single emperor penguin, standing on some snow and towering over the chinstraps who passed. Emperors are the largest penguins, and are very rarely seen in the Shetland Islands.
What a great way to start our Antarctic adventure!