At midnight on New Year’s Eve of 2005, in the half-light of an Antarctic midsummer’s night, we stood on the deck of a converted Russian research vessel with forty other international passengers and a dozen crew, watching an Antarctic tern flying along the ice cliffs and fjords of the Antarctic Peninsula. Last bird of 2005, first of 2006.
To be precise, we and the ship’s naturalist were watching the tern. No-one else was; they (like us not too many minutes before) were dancing and drinking and singing. We were the only birders on the trip, much to Nigel, the naturalist’s, pleasure: the previous two sailings had had no birders at all. On the previous trip he’d seen a King penguin floating on a piece of ice, hundreds of miles out of its range, and no-one had been interested. We were envious.
This was my husband’s 50th birthday trip, taken over the two weeks of a teacher’s Christmas holidays, the perfect time for an Antarctic trip. To get here, we’d flown from Toronto to Buenos Aires, then from Buenos Aires to Ushuia, on Tierra del Fuego, and boarded the small boat at the harbour there.
We had spent a night in Buenos Aires, with most of a day to kill until our next flight; luckily, Buenos Aires has a wonderful bird reserve downtown – but that’s a story for another time. We arrived in Ushuia with another day before the tour officially began, so we rented a car and drove out to Tierra del Fuego National Park, where, among other things, we hiked a few feet into Chile: the border was marked, but the trail continued, even though signs told hikers to honour the border. (Would I do that now? Probably not. Surveillance is so very different now.)
We were hiking in forest of Antarctic Beech (Nothofagus antarctica), populated by a large rabbit population and the silliest-looking woodpecker in the world, the Magellanic Woodpecker. Not dissimilar to the Pileated of North America, the Magellanic has a topknot that wobbles back and forth as it drums against a tree, making it look like the cartoon woodpecker Woody. But what we really noticed here, in this temperate southern forest, was that just about everything was almost-but-not-quite the same as things in the temperate northern forest. There were niche analogues – species that fit the same ecological niche but differ (usually) in both genus and species and sometimes family – for just about every temperate northern species we could think of. Charles Darwin walked these forests, in his years as the Beagle’s naturalist. Surely he saw what we saw; how much of his theory of evolution had its beginnings here?
We finished that day with magnificent views of Andean Condors soaring over the cliffs near the coast, our first look at that huge, awe-inspiring bird. The next day, we sailed to Antarctica.
The crossing was easy. The Drake Passage is the worst water in the world, where the Atlantic and Pacific meet, but we had a smooth sail over to the peninsula. Albatross glided alongside the boat; southern and northern Royal albatross, wandering, grey-headed, black-browed, light sooty-mantled, joined by petrels: the beautiful brown-and-white Cape petrel, southern and northern giants, blue petrels, white-chinned petrel. On the second day the first penguin swam by: a Magellanic, all alone. Next was a Chinstrap penguin, floating by on a chunk of ice. Wilson’s storm-petrels danced on the waves; tiny Antarctic prions flew by.
And then we were at the Antarctic Peninsula, going ashore for the first time, onto a rock-strewn beach, home to a colony of Gentoo penguins. Who cared not a whit that we were there; our job was to stay out of their way, as they waddled downhill, pink with guano and regurgitated fish, out into the ocean, to return in graceful undulations, clean and with gullets full, to feed their grey and fuzzy chicks.
Blue-eyed shags nested on the rocks, too, evoking one of the best questions of the trip: “How do I tell a shag from a penguin?” Nigel’s answer: “If it flies, it’s a shag.” In among the gentoos were one lone and lonely Macaroni penguin, and one terribly cute but also lonely Adele penguin. How had they got to the wrong nesting beach?
There is far more to write about from the Antarctic trip than I can put in one blog entry. This was only the first few days of the trip, a trip that I could have never conceived I could have taken, to a place that had held a fascination since earliest childhood. I grew up knowing who Robert Falcon Scott was; one of my aunts used to read to his widow in her old age. Ernest Shackleton remains to this day one of my few heroes. And here I was, an at-the-time forty-seven year-old Canadian teacher, standing where they had stood. Unbelievable, and yet, there I was, almost at the ends of the earth, surrounded by penguins and bathed in the light of sun that would never quite set.