The remote Antarctic island of Diaz Rock was supposed to be deserted, but when penguin experts trained their binoculars on the rock, little eyes looked back. While guarding their ascetic stone nests, a completely undiscovered colony of chinstrap penguins emerged, the adorable little species that appears to have a King’s Guard bearskin belt tattooed on its face. The rocky refuge is Antarctica’s newest penguin colony discovered to date, and is close to Astrolabe Island and the terrifying volcanic outcrop of steep peaks known as the Dragon’s Teeth.
Boats passing between the stone prongs are said to have ‘whistled’ the island. Yet the new colony was discovered not by a dedicated scientific expedition or satellite imagery, but when the Viking Octantis cruise ship I was sailing on was forced to change course after a passenger became desperately ill.
The route was originally supposed to take us to Damoy Point, a former transfer station for the British Antarctic Survey, and to Mikkelsen Harbour, once a popular refuge for whalers caught out by the treacherous katabatic winds. But with a seriously ill patient on board the schedule was torn up and Captain Jorgen Cardestig rushed to the nearest airport on King George Island in the South Shetlands for an emergency evacuation to Chile.
The passenger was successfully airlifted to hospital, but as a day’s sailing was lost the voyage had to be diverted from the Gerlache Strait to the Weddell Sea, leaving the ship in waters unknown not only to the passengers, but also for most passengers. crew. This was an opportunity for some real exploration beyond the plan, and by a stroke of luck the ship had the penguin counters Hayley Charlton-Howard and Dr. Mairi Hilton of the Antarctic conservation group Oceanites on board.
Viking is known for its dedication to science, which has brought a host of researchers along on its voyages to Antarctica, and recently endowed it with a chair at the University of Cambridge.
Under the new route, the Octantis was now bound for Astrolabe Island, a three-mile-wide volcanic mass in the Bransfield Strait, home to a colony of chinstrap penguins that had not been surveyed since 1987.
About 1.6 million pairs of chinstraps are believed to live on the Antarctic Peninsula, but their numbers are declining by 1.1 percent per year, largely due to fewer krill – their main food source – due to climate change and the retreat of the sea ice.
Previous counts had found more than 3,000 nesting chinstrap penguins on Astrolabe, but the counters wanted to know how they were doing. So on a sunny January morning, with calm seas and azure skies, we put on our waterproofs and life jackets and took a rigid inflatable boat to the island.
Dozing Weddell seals on the coast opened one eye and lazily watched us before resuming their slumber. Storm petrels, skuas and snowy scabbard birds screeched overhead. And there, on the rocks, were thousands of chinstrap penguins, camping with their fluffy chicks on steep slopes, many of whom had climbed to vertiginous and seemingly uninhabitable cliff edges to nest.
The colony was bursting at the seams and seemed prosperous. But it wasn’t Astrolabe that caused excitement among the penguin counters, but nearby Diaz Rock. Penguins are often smelled before they are seen, but this time it was the pink hue of their guano, and not the stench, that alerted the Oceantisis team to a new location.
“We went around the back of the island to fly the drone and we thought it looks like it has suspicious pink spots on it,” said Dr. Hilton. “That’s a clear sign that penguins are nearby.
“When we first got there, we could only see cormorants, so we were a little disappointed. We grabbed the binoculars and took a closer look. And it turned out that there were indeed some chinstraps, we think between 40 and 50 nests of chinstrap penguins. So that is a brand new colony for us.”
She added: “Finding a penguin colony only happens every three or four years. So it’s a great privilege for us to be able to do that. That was a really good day.”
It is a theme of Antarctica that adversity and discovery often go hand in hand, with tragedy written into the landscape. We sailed close to Wiencke Island in the Strait of Gerlache, named in honor of Carl August Wiencke, a German sailor killed by Adrien de Gerlache during the Belgian Antarctic Expedition of 1897-1899.
We visited Paulet Island, another large penguin colony and where the Swedish Antarctic Expedition stranded for the winter in 1903. The remains of their stone hut are still visible, as well as a cairn built on the highest point to attract the attention of rescuers.
In 1915, Ernest Shackleton targeted the island after the Endurance sank in the Weddell Sea, hoping to use the stores left behind by the Swedish crew, but drifted too far east.
Not far away is Danco Island, in memory of Emile Danco who died of a heart condition after having to endure the long Antarctic winter trapped in the pack ice together with his Belgica crewmates. During that expedition, penguins were clubbed and eaten to prevent scurvy during the sunless months, kept on a leash as pets and even slung over the side of the Belgica like feathered fenders to prevent ice floes from scraping against the wooden hull.
Today, under the Antarctic Treaty, all 18 species of penguins are legally protected and it is illegal to hunt them, collect their eggs or interfere with the birds in any way.
On our trip alone we saw more than 300,000, with the seas often writhing in a moving penguin soup, as the animals veered in and out of the water in a manner known as porpoising, a behavior practiced by dolphins and whales, but curiously not porpoises.
In addition to chinstraps, two other species of penguins occur on the Antarctic Peninsula, including the easily startled Adélies, which often flee en masse like panicked maître-des. The donkeys project a more carefree appearance, except when their chicks are terrorized by marauding hunters, when they will crane their necks to the sky and scream in anger.
The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) insists on strict rules for landing parties, and every stray cat hair was plucked from our clothing before leaving the ship and we were thoroughly hosed down on return. Passengers are not allowed to sit or kneel on land and are instructed to keep a distance of five meters from the wildlife, a difficult request when so many curious penguins are eager to get up close.
It’s a far cry from the 1980s, when cruise passengers were encouraged to play golf and shoot clay pigeons next to cruise ships in Antarctica. But despite the measures, penguin numbers are still declining, and bird flu has now reached the region, leading to fears that tourist visits to Antarctica will only further spread the disease and worsen the decline.
The number of visitors to the continent now reaches 100,000 per year and there is an ongoing tension between conservation and tourism. Researchers on board the Viking ships are pragmatic about the influx. Doing science at the end of the world is expensive and difficult, and piggybacking is the only way for many of them to reach the area.
On board Octantis, scientists will have access to state-of-the-art wet labs and are repurposing the ship’s former Covid PCR testing lab to conduct genetic testing on phytoplankton to see if populations are changing as more freshwater flows into the area from the glaciers. melting.
Elsewhere, sonars are fitted to the ships so they can map the seabed, providing crucial data on past ice ages, while the Viking expedition ships are the only civilian ships in the world designated as official NOAA/National Weather Service weather balloon stations the United States. .
Viking is also the first cruise line in the world to publish a scientific paper, after submarine passengers spotted the rare giant phantom jellyfish – a bizarre 30-foot-long creature that resembles a giant ribbon attached to a flying saucer.
Viking Octantis Chief Scientist Jason Hayden said: “It’s amazing to have this opportunity to join Viking Cruises; the financing required for my laboratory to have its own research vessel is virtually impossible.
“When people say, ‘Hey, this is a pristine environment and you shouldn’t go there,’ I say it’s a baseline study, and if you don’t know what the baseline is, you don’t know if it’s ruined. or not.
“It has to be done in a responsible way, and that is what we do. Anyone who comes to Antarctica knows how special it is, and the more people find the place special, the better it will be protected.”
In such a remote location it is difficult to get a true picture of the number of penguins, and every extra eye helps. Just this week, the British Antarctic Survey announced that satellite images had shown four previously unknown breeding grounds for emperor penguins, including a site in Halley Bay that was thought to be abandoned. Without our cruise, the world wouldn’t know about the new chinstrap colony. Who knows what other colonies are waiting to be found in the next bay.
Viking (0800 319 6660; viking.com) offers a 13-day/12-night Antarctic Explorer cruise, including stops in: Buenos Aires and Ushuaia, from £10,095 per person for a November 2024 cruise, based on current availability.