Fluffy Emperor chicks and mountaineering Adelie Penguins at Capes Washington and Adare.

Christmas and Boxing Day pass in a bit of a blur. We get our first chance to walk on water (oh, ok, it’s fast sea ice – that mean’s it’s stuck to the land rather than floating freely in the ocean – but it’s still water, even if it is frozen!) at Cape Washington, where we have an awesome day with Emperor Penguins and their chicks. I’m very lucky to get pole position for penguin watching both on our morning excursion near the icebreaker, and also in the afternoon visit to the colony area, where we get a short helicopter flight across difficult ice conditions to just within a mile of the colony itself. (It’s actually not entirely luck – I was trying to predict where the penguins would move to and where I wouldn’t be with too many other folks, but got lucky that penguins came so close to me!).

Emperor Penguin on pack ice at Cape Washington, Ross Sea, Antarctica

Emperor Penguin on pack ice at Cape Washington, Ross Sea, Antarctica

The chicks are quite large now, they’re definitely moulting well in preparation for their forthcoming first swim in the sea, and their voices are a mix of squeaky whistly chicks and youthfull deeper trumpets. Fortunately it’s still early enough in the season that perhaps those which are still very downy and squeaky may mature enough to enjoy their first dip in the ocean before winter reasserts its icy grip once more.

The weather reverts to dull grey Antarctic type on Boxing Day, so we just have a helicopter sight-flight around the icebreaker, while it does icebreaking donuts in the pack ice. Despite an early morning snow-storm, and an abrupt finish to the next morning (at Cape Adare), as the Robinson’s beach shoreline gets closed to our zodiacs by fast-moving ice-floes; we get an expected second chance at Cape Adare – walking 1km over fast ice into Ridley beach. There’s more Adelie penguins than you could ever imagine here. Unexpectedly the Adelies turn out to be quite expert mountaineering penguins – the 250,000 strong colony extends some 350m high up the mountainous slopes of the Cape! We see numerous neighbourly squabbles – some over stone-thievery, some apparently to do with unwanted visits from “outsider” penguins, and some just perhaps from having been too close the neighbours while incubating eggs over the last month or so! There were also loads of very cute fluffy chicks being fed and even the occasional egg being turned, as well as several penguins still building nests (Nigel says they may be juveniles who haven’t yet figured out how to make an egg, or perhaps those who have lost a chick to the ever present skuas trying for a second go late in the season). Despite this being our longest shore-landing, and very unhurried compared to usual, all too soon it’s time to walk back over the pack ice in our last steps across the Antarctic continent.

For now we are off the the peri-Antarctic islands of Campbell and Enderby, where we should see a much greater variety of bird and marine life. Those folks whose ears don’t handle ocean motion too well aren’t looking forward to the Southern Ocean crossing though – mealtimes might be less busy for the next few days!