Drake Passage to Penguin Island in the South Shetlands

Well that was interesting. The ship that followed us through the Beagle Channel from Ushaia to sail across the Drake Passage didn’t make it out of the Channel due to the storm. Our captain managed this by pretty much going as fast as was safely possible to get ahead of the storm by and then by first following a more westerly course. This meant that the large swell produced courtesy of the storm was almost coming at our ship from the stern once the course was changed to a more south easterly direction, and the stabilizers could be at their most effective. Plus we just about surf the 8 to 10 meter swell southwards.

The upshot of all this was that we got to King George Island about half a day earlier than scheduled and by rounding it on the North East end we got to some more protected waters to the leeward side. We got there so early actually that we were able to make landfall in the Zodiacs for the first time at Penguin Island. This is actually classed as an active volcano due to it still having fumaroles at times and emitting heat. There is very little snow. Now to the bit where we start to run out of superlatives.

After landing we walked carefully past the fur seals, who occasionally like to express their grumpy territorial nature. By turning right just before the Chinstrap penguins we were able to climb up to the highest point on the island on the rim of the volcano, and then able to walk right around the rim of the caldera. The ground was covered mostly by red and dark grey scoria with a few chunks of more solid rock, which I think was Rhyolite. There was a larger outcrop of this just inside the rim of the caldera. Once the top was reached a magnificent panorama was revealed. The shallow bays were full of stranded icebergs, which were a stark contrast to the blue of the sky, red of the ship and the red and black colours of the scoria we were walking on. The seals and penguins were just an added bonus.

Making landfall or just trying to get on or off a Zodiac in a reasonable swell from the ship can be a challenge. A gangway is attached to the side of the ship from one of the doorways or hatches leading to the mudroom (room for storing and drying all the wet gear and boots) at the rear of the ship. When the Zodiac pulls up to this the relative position between the ship and Zodiac can vary by over a meter within a few seconds as a wave lifts or drops the Zodiac. Timing is crucial as what you are about to step on may not be there anymore by the time you take your step if you get it wrong. There are helping hands usually.



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