Day 5 – Sunday March 23rd 2014 At Sea & Barrientos Island, South Shetlands, Antarctica

During the night the weather became stormy again. The wind picked up to 80 knots and the ship rolled heavily. Most of us got very little sleep, so we were tired by the time breakfast arrived. But the good news was the night’s storm had passed and conditions were quickly settling down as we approached the South Shetland Islands. In the morning it was Albert’s turn to take to the stage and he gave us a lecture all about the Penguin research he used to do on Elephant Island.

Today there were a lot of tall, columnar spouts seen. Most were too far away for us to glimpse the whales themselves but some of us on the top deck were lucky and saw Fin Whales, the second largest species of whale after blues. The first Antarctic penguins were seen as well – Chinstraps, of which we would see more later on. As the ship approached the English Strait two birds, surprisingly, were found aboard – a Southern Fulmar and an injured Antarctic Petrel. Both were picked up from the deck and flew strongly away.

As lunch time approached we were nearly at the entrance to the English Strait, a channel between the islands of the South Shetlands. The ship therefore slowed to allow us to finish lunch before the dramatic entrance of the channel. The channel is bounded by several rocky islands and towers all made of the volcanic rock basalt. These islands are collectively known as Aicho Islands and we were heading to land on Barrientos Island. Aitcho takes its name from the British Admiralty’s Hydrographic Office (HO). After three days at sea we were all very glad to board the zodiacs and get off the ship. On the beach there were many penguins both chinstraps and gentoo penguins. There were also many whale bones, that had been recently un-earthed from the sands on the beach. It looked as if the recent storm had reorganised the beach completely; moving cobbles and digging into the sand. We landed at the eastern end of the island and in order to pass to the western si de of the island, we divided into groups and were guided around areas where sensitive mosses were growing. On the western side of the island were two very impressive columns of rock. These columns were clearly made from basalt and one had columnar cooling structures. On the beach James explained that these features have been interpreted by others as volcanic plugs, ‘the vents of volcanoes’. James however thought they may just be sea stacks formed from the erosive action of the sea even though the rock itself is indeed made from solidified lava flows. Also of interest on this western side of the island were more penguins, several Antarctic fur seals and a female elephant seal. There was also a huge tabular iceberg wedged near to the shore. It was explained how this iceberg would have had its origins further south on the Antarctic mainland and had probably calved off a floating ice shelf.

Once back on board there was time for a recap before dinner, and the ship started to make its way south across the Bransfield strait to the Antarctic Peninsula and Antarctic Sound.

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