Antarctica – 12/21 – Aitcho Island & Half Moon Island: South Shetland Islands

Gentoo penguin nests

Our first day in Antarctica and for Miki and I it was the 6th continent we’ve been to (we still haven’t been to Europe).  The first island we went to was Aitcho which had a large colony of Gentoo penguins.  To our surprise, Aitcho island was very green.  This was the last piece of green land we would see for the rest of the trip.

Gentoo penguin going for a run

We then travelled from Aitcho Island to Half Moon island we had our first humpback whale sightings.

Humpback whale tale

Pano from one side of Half Moon island.

Pano from the other side of Half Moon Island

Here is the Daily expedition report by Justin Hofman

With winds pushing us from behind all night and a calm sea state to boot, the National Geographic Explorer made fantastic time crossing the Drake Passage. As we rubbed the sleep from our eyes this morning, the ship’s crew brought us within sight of land for the first time since leaving South America. Rising like a dragon’s back from a tempestuous sea, the South Shetland Islands were our first landfall on this Antarctic voyage.
Named after the British Admiralty Hydrographic Office, Aitcho Island is the phonetic interpretation of ‘H.O.’ Aitcho Island was virtually snow-free this morning, making for easy passage as we walked amongst chinstrap and gentoo penguin breeding colonies. Having the freedom to stop and sit amongst these wild animals, we being to appreciate their daily struggles. We watched the chinstrap penguins work themselves up into a musical frenzy, heads held high and rolling from side to side, wings rhythmically flapping at a slow pace, their display a high-pitched chirp/scream. The gentoos with their chests puffed up to capacity, pulsing with exuberant exhalations, followed by quick, wheezy inhalations, all of it resonating with a nasally timbre. Whether it was clean penguins returning from sea with crops full of food or the dirty penguins defending their eggs and chicks from marauding brown skuas, all the animals here had a job to do: Ensure the survival of my genes by raising a chick. Good luck pied friends.
To be denied a glimpse of the sun on the summer solstice sounds like a cruel joke. Luckily for us, the weather around the South Shetland Islands broke open and cast beautiful light onto several rather relaxed humpback whales. The combination of clear skies and stark white pectoral flippers meant that we could watch the whales beneath the surface. Steadily moving along and traveling just beneath the surface, our first whale encounter was a beautiful one. Eventually we left our sea-bound brethren and were greeted with fantastic light upon the glaciers surrounding Half Moon Island, the sight of our afternoon’s activities. We watched Weddell seals lazily rolling in freezing cold water or dozing right on the snow itself. Chinstrap penguins slid by like self-propelled toboggans on their downhill commute to the sea. As the clouds once again began to fall into rank and the sun was shut out into a global diffuse light, we steadily, yet reluctantly returned to our ship. By now our bodies are telling us to seek out rest, our heads are buzzing with enthusiasm and our stomachs are demanding satisfaction. Tonight we head north, then east for the Weddell Sea, what we will encounter no one knows for sure. I do know this: there will be penguins and they will be working hard.

by Justin Hofman

Some more of our favorite pics from Aitcho and Half Moon Island.

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