A night of detours around thick bands of pack ice brought us this morning to the southern shores of Joinville Island.
A characteristic rocky headland sticks out of the ice cap that covers most of it. Amongst vertical glacier fronts Tay Head peninsula offers a more friendly terrain for both, the numerous nesting Adelie penguins and for a scarce number of visitors that try to land here.
Upon arrival in the early morning, we find the waters surrounding the area being home to numerous icebergs stranded on the numerous rocky shallows that pop up from the uneven sea bottom. The wide channel where the ship maneuvers is the Firth of Tay. 2 miles long and 6 wide, extending in a NW-SE direction between the NE side of Dundee Island and the E portion of Joinville Island. It merges to the NW with Active Sound with which it completes the separation between the islands. It was discovered in 1892-93 by Capt. Thomas Robertson of the Dundee whaling expedition was named by him after the Firth of Tay of Scotland.
Joinville archipelago counts several major islands and islets, the largest one being Joinville itself which is 40 miles long and 12 wide. First sighted and roughly charted in 1838 by a French expedition under Capt. Jules Dumont d'Urville, who named it for François Ferdinand Philippe Louis Marie, Prince de Joinville (1818-1900), the third son of the Duc d'Orléans.
It is the first time for the ship and our guides to attempt a landfall here, and it is not easy to find a proper spot in the conditions where to drop anchor and launch the zodiacs. Nevertheless, right after breakfast, it is already all prepared to start our morning visit to such a great and unknown place for us.
Glaciers surround a wide plane. Adelie penguins seem like the harsh conditions of the area and nest on the rocky outcrops of this peninsula. Sea ice and icebergs fill up its coasts, and on land still, some snow fields hold. Amongst all of those numerous Weddell seals rest. Giant petrels feed on dead Fur seals that have been trapped in the frozen snow since last season and now, with the summer thawing, represent a good source of nourishment.
The overcast skies and snow showers that pass over us will be the general weather expected for the whole day. A journey to combine landings, short hikes, and large amounts of wildlife with ice navigation on the calm through berg and sea ice-filled waters surrounding the area and the Antarctic Sound.
We leave the place after a couple of hours, with time enough to arrive after lunch at Paulet Island.
This volcano, despite the low clouds and hazy horizons, can be seen from miles away with its characteristic cone-shaped peak.
James Clark Ross named the island when he sailed here on his 1839-43 voyage, honoring Captain George Paulet of the Royal Navy. But Paulet gained worldwide recognition after being the sport where the main party of the ship Antarctic marooned during the Swedish Antarctic Expedition of 1901-04.
If there are a handful of words to describe our landing here, they would be: overwhelming, crowded, alienating. The smell of the area is something to remember, the vast amount of penguins breeding here seems endless to the view and the feeling of being just curious and careful visitors to their world is always present.
Most of the island is declared a protected area with only one allowed path to walk, and today it was not even possible to finish the loop that it traces over the rocky scenery due to the thousands upon thousands of penguins all over. More than 100.000 pairs strong. And it's not just them, but also a large colony of breeding Antarctic shags climb up some of the steep slopes. Snow and Wilson’s storm petrels nest here too, amongst the red-coloured volcanic rocks. Walking amongst them all, Snowy Sheathbills take care of the cleaning. Along the beach Weeded seals snooze.
Besides the staggering amount of wildlife present on the island, Paulet stands up too as a Historical Antarctic Site and Monument.
Nordenskjold’s ship, the Antarctic under the command of the legendary Carl Anton Larsen, was crushed by the ice and sunk 25 miles east of Paulet on the 12th of February 1903. After 14 nights camping on ice floes, and a six-hour row, the 20 crew reached the island safely. The party set about over-wintering by building a rock hut with an abundant volcanic slate, insulated by guano and mud, sailcloth, and seal skins. Its structure is still clearly evident with the separate sleeping and kitchen areas, and one can appreciate their dimensions: Sleep room = 7.3. x 6.7m; 2.4m high in the center and 1.2m at the sides; kitchen = 3 x 3.7m. No longer home to humans, several penguins have made the remains their nesting ground.
Just around the corner from the derelict hut, a beautiful lagoon fills up a crater. Still frozen with some open water channels it hosted yet more Adele penguins that seem to use it to take a freshwater bath and a rest from their busy lives at the neighbor rookeries.
The only casualty of the group during the over-wintering was Ole Wennersgard, aged 22. He is buried in a raised grave just visible between the Adelie nests.
Not being able to continue with a longer hike without disturbing all the wildlife around, we made our way back on board from there.
A busy night of hard navigation through dense ice-packed waters was to follow. The Antarctic Sound lay ahead and judging its looks it will present a challenge for the crew to sail through and reach tomorrow’s planned destination at the western shores of Joinville Island.