The smell was thing I wasn’t quite prepared for. I didn’t realize Antarctica would smell like the end of a fishing pier, where gulls spend their days fighting over rotting fish guts as clouds of seal breath waft up from the water below. Although, I should have expected it. Penguins are not much different from gulls. If their biology allowed it, I’m sure they would be perfectly happy to be trash birds. They certainly don’t mind wallowing in their poop.
And there were so many of them. Before going ashore at Paulet Island on the edge of the Weddell Sea, we were briefed on the rules of conduct laid out by the Antarctic treaty. We were to approach no closer than 15 feet to any penguin.
It became clear immediately after our landing on the rocky beach that this would be a challenge. Imagine a sea made up of little Adélie penguin bodies and their fuzzy chicks, sitting on their nests made up of small, well-chosen (or well-stolen) pebbles and, well, lots and lots of poop. It was a penguin metropolis, with tightly packed nesting quarters, bordered by penguin highways. There were penguins up on the hills as far as we could see. Penguin parents took turns making their way to the ocean where they could fish, and, if they’re lucky, sunbathe a bit on an iceberg before trekking back up the beach (and possibly, a mountainside) to their nests where they would trade off with their partners for time with the little ones.
How they don’t get lost is beyond me. Imagine trying to find your family in a crowd of thousands at a concert arena (before the era of cell phones). I suppose we find a way to do it. We tell our people not to move, then make our way to the food truck. Most of the time, we find our way back, as long as the crowd hasn’t shifted much while we were gone.
While the penguin colony was the highlight of our day, the passage to Paulet Island, through the Antarctic Sound, was no less impressive. As ice shelves collapse in the Weddell Sea, large chunks make their way clockwise around the edge of the Sea, and some of them end up in the sound. It’s so hard to grasp how large these things can be: as long as a mile or more across, and 200-300 feet high. Think of a 15-20 storied building. Imagine an entire block of Manhattan turned into a solid block of ice.
I wondered if any of the icebergs we were seeing were once part of the Larsen Ice Shelf on the east side of the Antarctic Peninsula. Bits of that shelf have been disintegrating piece by piece since the mid-90’s. In January 2002, a chunk of Larsen B the size of Rhode Island fell apart in six weeks.
Even as we sailed close to these icebergs, it was hard to believe that they were towering a hundred of feet above our ship, and that what we can see only represents about one-tenth of what we would see underwater. Open blue skies and endless water and ice has a way of warping your sense of scale.
When everything is grand, it becomes difficult to compare to anything commonplace.
I began to see how these icebergs could be treacherous for sailors looking for a landing point. We visited on January 4th, and I imagined Ernest Shackleton and his crew, on this same day more than 100 years ago, further out in the Weddell Sea hoping the ice would shift so they would stand a chance of reaching Paulet Island. There are remnants of a stone shelter on Paulet, now completely covered in penguins and their poop. A Swedish expedition was stranded here in 1903 when their ship was crushed by ice just offshore. Years later, Shackleton was hoping they would be able to land here to access the stores left behind but the ice where he and his crew were camped drifted too far east.
When we got back to the ship, we spent considerable time scrubbing the poop from our boots and pants. ‘Do no harm’ is the motto in Antarctica, and one of the ways we try to prevent environmental contamination is by washing our boots before and after landings. Penguin poop is sticky. And no matter how clean you make your shoes, the smell stays with you for some time. Two days later, I reached for the buff that I wore around my neck that day and got a whiff of penguin. The only thing you can really take from Antarctica without a pile of research permits is the smell.
If you’ve made it this far and want more, I encourage you to read my friend Colleen’s blog post about Paulet Island. In addition to more cute Adélie photos, she shares much more about the professional development work that we did on the day we visited Paulet.