Cuverville Island and its Gentoo Penguins are nestled close to the Antarctic Peninsula, on the southern side of the Arctowski Peninsula. It is sheltered by Ronge Island on the edge of the Gerlache Strait, with Anders and Brabant Islands offshore. The Gerlache Strait is frequented by the majority of cruise ships visiting the Antarctic Peninsula, as is Cuverville Island. From the shoreline the gentle snow-covered slopes meet with majestic rock faces that jut upwards to form a dome. Apart from being known for its Gentoo penguin colonies, Cuverville Island is also known for its plant life. With the rock faces and many surfaces heavily populated with a number of moss and lichen species.
Cuverville Island is very small Island off the Antarctic Peninsula that supports large Gentoo Penguin colonies on its northern shores. Its shores have shallow crystal-clear waters with rocky seabeds that add a visual texture to the landscape. On the morning we arrived the winds were just within the safe limits to allow a zodiac landing. The weather was quite bleak, with overcast skies, mist and the threat of snow, which eventually did fall. In addition, the shores of Cuverville Island are renown for being littered with ice and icebergs. And this day did not disappoint as our landing point had a litany of blocks of ice accumulated along the shoreline.
This was my first experience of seeing large colonies of penguins. Gentoos are the third largest of the penguin species behind emperor and king penguins. They stand between 50 and 90 centimetres tall. Gentoos have a formidable trumpeting call, that is emitted by throwing their heads back. They navigate their way from the shore to their rookeries via Krill stained ‘penguin highways’. These highways need to be carefully stepped over, so as not to disturb the movement of the Gentoos.
Therefore, my first landing on the Antarctic Peninsula at Cuverville Island was to a degree disorientating and an assault on the senses. I had to navigate the soft sometimes knee-deep snow, stay five metres from the penguins and not crush their highways. Although the five-metre rule could be broken by the penguins, if they chose to walk towards you. And there were a number of occasions that the penguins choose to break this rule. On top of this was the intensity of their constant calls on my ear drums.
Penguins aren’t always white
I was initially struck by the fact that the Gentoos create their nests from small rocks, on rocky out crops. They are also well known for stealing these small rocks from each other’s nests to build and fortify their own. In actual fact they spend a significant amount of time stealing from others, while they steal from them. So it was quite fun to sit and watch as they go about this custom.
Within their rookeries the Gentoos are surrounded by, and covered in guano, or in other words penguin poop. Which is stained a dark red from the Krill, small shrimp, and is the mainstay of their diet. As a result, they are not the pristine white chested birds we are used to seeing on television or in our Zoos. The penguin rookeries also smell really bad, if you have ever visited a seal colony, the experience is very similar.
I moved from watching them in their rookeries to the shoreline to watch the Gentoos navigating their way in and out of the water. It was here that I and discovered their ritual of washing. Just offshore, in the rocky shallows, were groups of penguins rolling on the water’s surface, rinsing and washing themselves. At this point, I sat myself down in the soft snow to watch this ritual, as they transformed themselves. In amongst this ceremony others where darting through the water like black and white torpedoes. Although they are very uncoordinated on land, they are extremely agile and fast in the water. Gentoo penguins can top speeds of 36 kilometres per hour, they are the fastest of the penguin species.
As I moved to the next rookery, I spotted a number of Brown Skuas circling above. As I watch them, they occasionally dived toward the rookeries, causing a great commotion amongst the Gentoos. The Brown Skuas are large brown and white birds, which have a wingspan between 126 -160 centimetres. They are not a direct threat to adult Gentoos, but they regularly kill the chicks and steal eggs. And as some Gentoos were starting to sit on eggs, food was potentially on offer for these large predators.
Penguins at Play
On a lighter note I enjoyed a number ‘Happy Feet’ moments just offshore with two Gentoos. I spotted two Gentoos hopping on and off a slice of ice. After each leap they gave themselves a bit of a head scratch using one of their brightly coloured feet. Capturing this moment in time you can imagine them having a little dance as they did in the Movie ‘Happy Feet’. Just watching these little guys at play just brought me absolute joy. And the voyage had only just begun.
For more images of Antarctica check out my gallery here
If you want to see the first part in this journey, check out my previous post here
If you want some tips on what gear to take, check out my previous post here