We woke this morning to a bright dawn and a sea full of icebergs, glowing blue and white in the sunlight. Soon after breakfast, the first land was sighted: we had arrived in the South Shetland Islands, and our crossing of the Drake Passage was complete.
A favorable breeze let us sail through the narrow English Strait, with Robert and Greenwich Islands rising on either side and penguins porpoising through the water all around. Jagged rock formations mixed with upward-reaching shards of ice to immerse us in a wild and alien landscape.
After lunch a quick briefing, then it was time for our first landing. The voyage crew wrapped up warm and climbed into the zodiacs for their first taste of solid Antarctic ground. We went ashore on the south side of Barrientos Island and were met by a beach full of gentoo penguins tottering past a hauled-out elephant seal and fur seal. Down-covered gentoo chicks wandered across the pebbles, chasing their parents for food and flapping stubby wings. Further up the beach, the gentoos were joined by chinstrap penguins, solemnly picking up the ‘right’ stones and carrying them to their nests like precious treasures. Skuas and giant petrels soared overhead, and kelp gulls and Antarctic terns added to an overwhelming tumult of wildlife.
Soon the sunshine was replaced by freezing fog, the visibility dropped and Europa at anchor disappeared into a bank of white mist. Cooling down rapidly, we were glad to hear the buzz of zodiacs arriving to take us back to the ship and a hot dinner.
Having warmed up and filled up, we were ready for a second, evening landing, at the other end of Barrientos Island. The landing beach was scattered with whale bones, and our walk across the island took us past a pile of elephant seals snorting and bellowing below a sculpted rock formation. Comfortably plump gentoo penguins watched us with mild interest, then returned to the more important business of squabbling with their neighbours.
The skies closed and the rain set in, and Europa beckoned again. Our warm haven amidst a stark and striking wilderness is full this evening with noise and light and cheer.