Unforgettable, Rugged and Raw: Gourdin Island, Antarctica

February 16, 2017

 

By Daven Hafey

Fog can do funny things.  Especially at sea.  It can disorient sailors.  It can obscure icebergs fifty meters tall.  It can be illuminating.

We were at anchor off of Gourdin Island, a small rocky outpost at the northernmost fringes of the Antarctic Peninsula.  An area exposed to the Southern Ocean and all her stormy moods.  Her swells and wind waves, her confused seas, her ice.  The early morning fog was heavy, blanketing us and everything around us with a dense layer of gray and a dull glow in the direction of the sun.

The Sea Adventurer in ice-choked Antarctic waters.
Sea Adventurer in Antarctic waters

A few dozen of us had come to the outer decks of the Sea Adventurer to enjoy the morning air.  As fog tends to do, it made all the sounds and smells more vivid.  A half dozen penguins porpoised near the ship, creating a gentle rhythm of splashes as they surfaced for air.  Distant squawking of three neighboring penguin colonies traveled across the water to the ship, confirming the thousands of birds expressing their territory.  An occasional gentle ocean swell lapped against the rocky shoreline of Gourdin Island.

As the morning progressed, the fog eased its iron grip and revealed towering sights that reminded us of just where we were.  To our bow, three tabular icebergs, each easily three times as large as the Sea Adventurer, loomed casually.  They’d been here a while and had no plans to leave soon.  Stalwarts in this corner of the Southern Ocean.  Giants with total indifference to our arrival.  To our stern, the West Antarctic ice sheet slowly cascaded down the Peninsula, reaching the ocean as far as the eye could see along the continental coastline.  And the dark rocky shores of Gourdin Island slowly crept out from under the fog, offering us glimpses of our morning objective.

Gourdin Island wildlife is unique, as this island is home of at least three species of breeding penguins: Adelie, Gentoo, and chinstrap.  Each species gathers here in the thousands, using Gourdin as a homebase for their summertime breeding grounds, and the jumping off point to the happy hunting grounds where krill, fish, and squid abound.  Yet due to its location, its potential for ice, and its full-on exposure to some of the mightiest seas on earth, Gourdin Island can be a challenge to access.  Today we were lucky.  The seas were flat, the winds were calm, and the ice offered us free passage to a safe landing site.

Chinstrap penguins toddle along an incline, delighting Quark passengers in Antarctica

Chinstrap penguins

The fog slowly burned off, and we made the decision to board the zodiacs and head for shore.  Experienced drivers with trusty GPS units and reliable communications with the ship made the decision an easy one.  The first five boats landed on shore, giving the rare opportunity for passengers to spend an hour amongst thousands of nesting Adelies, Gentoos, and chinstraps – all three species together in one place.  The next five boats stayed on the water, cruising around a nearby arrangement of masterfully ocean-carved icebergs and searching the shallows for seals.

We chose to take the boats to a nearby cove that looked promising.  The cove was small, no more than three hundred meters east to west, and two hundred meters north to south.  Yet it was alive.  Hundreds of Adelies gathered on the rocks, scanning the water for predators and making calculated decisions on when to take the leap.  Three leopard seals patrolled the shoreline, capitalizing on the summertime bounty of penguins gathered in clusters.  Southern giant petrels, Wilsons storm petrels, kelp gulls, and brown skuas ranged overhead.  And beautifully blue icebergs and bergy bits.

After just a few minutes amongst the icebergs, we spotted action in the water.  A leopard seal had just caught a penguin.  It’s a gruesome sight when a leopard seal makes a kill, as they literally turn their prey inside out before they eat them.  Thrashing around in the water, this leopard was doing what it was born to do: preparing and devouring its meal.  We carefully motored over to the seal as it kept up its work, turning the penguin inside out and into a meal of digestible pieces.  A mixed bag of emotions for everyone. 

A leopard seal drags an unfortunate penguin into the Antarctic waters.

Leopard Seal - Photo Courtesy: Liz Teague

On the one hand, it was gory and horrific and uncomfortable.  Seeing an animal that was alive and well ten minutes prior literally turned into bite-sized pieces and consumed by another animal.  An event that made many of us contemplate our own position in the circle of life.  Yet at the same moment, it was humbling and beautiful.  We were in the presence of something healthy.  Something raw and wild and real, functioning as it has for thousands of years.  Functioning as it should.  Life begetting life.  The transfer of energy.  The animal kingdom, entirely unaffected by humans, playing out its daily dramas.  We weren’t voyeurs.  We were witnesses to something timeless, something universal.  Something big.

A leopard seal makes a meal of a penguin in Antarctica.

Leopard Seal- Photo Courtesy: Liz Teague

These are the things we come to Antarctica to experience.  These profound moments.  The power of the Southern Ocean.  Isolated islands surrounded by icebergs, providing shelter for seemingly endless life.  Glimpses into the timeless battles within the food web, the enormous spectacle of life that reminds us how big the world is.

The leopard seals continued the hard work of feeding themselves all morning, giving the passengers in the zodiacs the opportunity to exchange places with those who had been on shore and amongst the penguin colonies for the previous hour, and those on shore the opportunity to see the seals.  Returning to the cove with a fresh set of eyes, we witnessed a similar scene two more times.  Penguins scanning the horizon for predators, making the leap into the water by the dozens.  Leopard seals awaiting the incoming birds and making sure they didn’t miss any opportunities to capitalize on the seasonal bounty of food.  The struggle, the beauty.  The healthy and rich Antarctic.

Back on the ship later that day, there was a buzz in the air.  Some people talked about it, others didn’t.  But we all knew.  We all knew that we experienced Antarctica that morning, experienced something we will all take with us for the rest of our lives.  A moment in time that will be relived and retold in living rooms and corner bars for the next several decades, from Seattle to London, Toronto to Sydney.  A moment when the fog of Gourdin Island illuminated the raw beauty of Antarctica and let us into its most intimate dramas for a morning.

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