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Penguin Island and Turret Point. Start sailing towards Elephant Island

Right away after our evening landing at Ardley Island, Europa starts her way along the Southern coast of King George Island towards the spot were we plan tomorrow’s activities, the volcano called Penguin Island. Getting off Maxwell Bay under S by E breeze of between 8 and 10kn, we start our engines and make our way overnight, during which, we encounter variable winds and long swell. Like this, by breakfast time the ship is already dropping anchor and getting all ready for disembarkation. The S-ly swell seems to have been abating along the NE shores of Penguin Island, that offers a relatively good shelter as the landing spot is located on the NE of the island. As usual, and to be sure about the conditions, a scout zodiac is sent to the beach, and soon we have the news that the situation is acceptable for a landfall. It doesn’t take much to realize that Penguin Island is of volcanic origin and might have better named “Volcano Island”. Located at the Southern shores of the large King George Island, the almost circular Penguin is just 1.6kn in diameter. As many other places in the area its discovery dates from the early sealing times in 1820, when a British Expedition under the command of Edward Bransfield visited and named it after seeing many penguins occupying its shores. Along with Deception Volcano and Bridgeman Volcano (which is located at 35 km east of King George Island) Penguin Island may be still active. These three volcanoes and others below the sea level lie along the Bransfield Riff, a fault-bounded valley in which the earth’s crust is extending. When we all made it to the rocky shores, sharing the coastal areas with countless Fur seals, first we hike the short distance that bring us to the so called “Crater Lake” or “Petrel Crater”. Its beautiful crater lay hidden from our view until reaching its rim, where just little space free of vegetation and nesting petrels is available to have a look inside. The floor of its large and steep sided crater is filled up with snow earlier in the season and now, once melted, it contains a sort of lagoon. It lacks the well-developed cone usually associated with volcanoes, on that case it can be classifies as maar, which blew out a lot of fragmental material with a lot of steam (a phreatomagmatic eruption), perhaps as recently as 100 years ago. Here in that zone of Penguin Island large carpets of many moss and lichen species grow on the volcanic and basaltic rocks, but also both of the vascular plant species are profusely present. On our surroundings and enclosed into protected areas but nevertheless visible form our position, the hairgrass Deschampsia antarctica shares the ground with the pearlwort Colobanthus chitensis. Feeling like walking further, and with still lot of time to spend in this fantastic spot, we join the path that leads to the highest point of the island. Called Deacon Peak, it has the shape of a classic, symmetrical cinder cone, although it includes layers of basaltic lava as well as beds of ash.  The summit of crater is 350m in diameter and 75m deep, and there we climbed, to be welcomed by a second central cone of red brown, and black coriaceous lava.  A gray basal plug occupies the bottom of the main crater, and several volcanic dikes cut the western side of the cone. A long apron produced by basalt flow extends from Deacon Peak to the north tip of the island toward Turret Point on King George Island, which is probably related to the same volcanic episodes as Penguin Island. Up the top, 170 above the sea level, we follow its round rim, walking on top of the precipitous rusty colored cliffs of its Southern side. Down below lays the so called Katsui Strait, the narrow channel between Penguin and King George Islands. Further back, the massive glaciers of the later catch the sunlight peering through the high clouds. On the way back, we follow the same path until diverting towards a Chinstrap penguin colony close to shore. Some time is spent there enjoying probably our last chance to see this penguin species during the trip. Many of them have already finished nursing their chicks and are already moulting, others are still taking care of their almost fledge
offspring. They must hurry before winter comes. Closeby some Skuas are busy feeding with their chicks too. To return to the landingsite we chose to walk along the boulder beach, crowded with groups of young Elephant and Fur seals. Between them a rare leucistic individual stands up, easy to spot due to his yellow fur. But just around the corner a great surprise waits for us, multitude of Giant
petrels feast on the dead body of what seems to be a Southern bottlenose whale stranded ashore. Its large body lays between the rocks, brought here by the swells and tides. It represents a great chance for scavengers to find good source of food now when most needed, to finish feeding their youngsters and get ready to fly away from Antarctica before the cold and snow becomes unbearable during winter time. Along the beach, and on the way to the landingsite, heaps of whale and seal bones remain as witness of the large-scale hunting activities conducted in the area from the mid 19th Century to the beginning of the 20th. In time for lunch we are back on board, while our guides think on the chance for a second landing in the afternoon. The closeby Turret Point lays just half mile from our anchorage, offering a good opportunity for it. But before that, just after our meal, a continuous rig of our bell and the shouts from the wheelhouse announce a Man Overboard Drill. Efficiently performed by the crew, soon we are called to get ready for our afternoon activity. After an adventurous boat ride over the shallows and swells, our guides and crew safely put us ashore at the rocky beach of Turret Point, framed by conspicuous high rock stacks. This seldom visited peninsula forms the East limit of King George Bay on the South coast of King George Island. Good and sunny weather, tough suffering quite cold temperatures, made for a nice couple of hours ashore while our guides took us for a small tour around. The length of the hike wasn’t too much, due to the large amount of resting Fur seals, that seems to have here a preferred spot. Amongst them young Elephant seals snooze in small clutches, while lots of Giant petrels also seem to chill out on the flat area behind the beach. Next to where it was possible to land, the Skuas offer great photo opportunities, feeding on a dead penguin. Most interesting, this area seems to have been a center for early whaling and sealing. Many whalebones dispersed all over appear to be a clear indication, but the finding of whalers and sealers vestiges of their typical huts give more certainty. Tucked against rocky outcrops for shelter, they show flattened ground and remains of rock walls, together with whale vertebrae used as stools and whale ribs used to stretch canvas as a sort of roof. During the early hunting era on the 19th Century, crew used to be left ashore in small groups here and there, just the necessary days to render the oil, do all the killing and prepare the seal skins before the ships made the round and pick everybody up together with the precious cargo. Interiorising the beauty of the place and the gruelling historical events that occur here in the past, we come back on board with time enough to prepare the ship for the overnight sailing off King George Island and head towards the 120nm distant Elephant Island. Topsails are unfurled together with the Lower Staysails, Spanker and Inner Jib, anchor is hoisted and to begin with, engines help our progress on the light 8 to 10kn S by E breeze. Light winds that increase during the night. And soon sure they did, blowing up to 25kn while we clue down the Fore Course. The day ends with the Europa sailing on 50º course at a good speed of 6.5kn, leaving behind Cape Melville, the Eastmost point of King George Island.

Written by:
Jordi Plana Morales | Guide

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