Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Nescit Cedere! (Nov. 17)

Today was our penultimate day in South Georgia, and it was as action packed as any we've had so far.
The plan for the morning was to use the zodiacs to view several otherwise inaccessible areas. We arrived in a little fjord called Hercules Bay very early this morning. The walls of the bay rise straight from the ocean to form a vertical amphitheater of black rock, unbroken except for a few areas where the hardy tussock grass has been able to colonize the slopes. Our main reasons for visiting this little corner of South Georgia were the other residents of the steep slopes -- Macaroni Penguins. Macaronis, affectionately known as "Macs", are by far the most abundant penguin on South Georgia, but visitors seldom see them because they choose to nest on steep cliffs with heavy surf. We were fortunate enough to visit the colony in Hercules Bay at close range from our zodiacs.
The Macs are a lot of fun to watch. Because they have inaccessible homes, even they have a hard time reaching them. Imagine the last time you got out of a pool. Chances are you weren't especially graceful. Now let's add two feet of swell and make the edge of the pool an algae covered rock with an almost vertical face. Still feeling confident? Just one more thing -- you can't use your arms because you don't have any arms because you're a Macaroni Penguin. That's what your commute home from work is like. The good news is that you can make it to work very quickly. All you have to do is lose your balance, and you'll be at your office as soon as you roll and fall down the rocks and into the icy water.
These amazing animals are just as beautiful as they are crazy. We watched them come and go from the water, swimming straight up through the water to burst out and fly through the air for the briefest of moments before occasionally making a successful landing on the rocky shore and usually slipping hopelessly back into the sea to try again. If that kind of a morning doesn't make it a good day, I don't know what does.

Macaroni Penguins going home.

Oh, the hotel manager decided it was a good idea to serve hot chocolate to us on our boat cruise.  Unfortunately, the gentleman in front of me had a hard time keeping his in the cup.

Hot Chocolate all over my face.  You should've seen my camera!
The plan for the afternoon was to sail to St. Andrews Bay, the site of the largest King Penguin colony on South Georgia. It is home to 250,000 breeding PAIRS of birds - and they have chicks, lots of them, so the conservative count runs near three quarters of a million animals. If that's not enough, there are elephant seals, fur seals, and even a few (introduced) reindeer to watch. This is the sort of amazing place we've come to expect from South Georgia, but the scale of St. Andrews blew me away. I think I scared everyone on the bridge when I spontaneously blurted out, "whoah!" while we were approaching the bay. I had just noticed that the whole coastline was covered with penguins. Surprisingly enough, the penguins were upstaged this afternoon. The weather stole the show as a storm kept trying to blow in over the mountains and down the two glaciers that feed the bay. The storm never came in, but catabatic winds blew a cold wind off the glaciers carrying particles of ice and dust and whipping the sea up into foam and spray. We had to stand into the wind, and after a little while, the captain called us back on board. By this time the wind was blowing a consistent 55 knots and gusted to over 70. The crew and the zodiac drivers (our naturalists and professional photographers) got everyone back on board quickly and safely, but the zodiac ride in was... Energetic.

The St. Andrews king penguin colony with a storm coming in.

Greg, with the rest of the penguin colony.

What struck me as I was riding back in the zodiac while I was soaked by the spray and pelted by the wind were a few little sea birds no bigger than a swallow. The storm-petrels were riding the punishing wind as though it were a gentle breeze. They were truly at home, wheeling just above the waves and plucking tiny bits of food out of the foam as spray blew from the tops of the waves. At that moment, I realized just how out of place I am in the great Southern Ocean and just how tough you have to be to live here. That's why James Edward Oglethorpe was so struck by the persistence of these little seabirds on his crossing from England to found the colony of Georgia long before this island was on the map. His fascination with this bird led my alma mater, Oglethorpe University, to name their mascot the Stormy Petrels. We also use his motto, "Nescit cedere," the Latin for "He doesn't know how to give up," as our motto. It applies to the petrel as it does to the Macaroni Penguin and all who survive in the Antarctic, especially the heroes of Antarctic exploration like Shackleton, as Greg reminded us yesterday. It's an inspiration to all of us to strive hard and never, never give up.
So we braved the weather, entered our comfortable, heated ship for a hot shower, and continued on for the evening to cruise Drygalski Fjord. We're still in the fjord as I write and sit and listen to one of our naturalists and another guest play mellow tunes from Hendrix and the Beatles after dinner. It's all just another day on board the Explorer!

Drygalski Fjord.

Until tomorrow, friends, and nescit cedere.

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