Thursday, November 6, 2008

The first attempt

Isla Terhalten and Sesambre

This morning we got an early start out of Puerto Williams, heading through the eastern end of the Beagle Channel. The flat calm waters this morning are a huge change from the white out and windy conditions of yesterday, and will hopefully allow us to reach Isla Terhaltenshortly after lunch. This clear, perfect morning was great for bird watching and we saw large numbers of black browed albatrosses, juvenile giant petrels, South American terns and southern fulmars.

A black browed albatross:

A group of southern fulmars

As we came to the end of the Beagle Channel, the island of Cape Horn, or "Cabo de Hornos" in Spanish, was visible in the distance as jagged, snow covered peak. Passing in between Isla Navarino and Isla Lennox, we left the Beagle and entered into the open waters that is the beginning of the Drake Passage to Antarctica. Soon, two small islands emerged on the horizon. In this photo you can see Isla Terhalten on the right and the smaller island of Sesambre on the left:

I have seen many pictures of southern rockhopper colonies, but nothing prepared me for the severity of the landscape I was about to see. Isla Terhalten and the neighboring island of Sesambre look like something out of a prehistoric dinosaur movie. Steep, sharp cliffs tower straight out of the ocean and are met with hills of dense tussock grasses and low, twisted bushes. Hundreds of birds soar around the island on their way to and from foraging trips. Flying around the island there were large groups of imperial and rock cormorants, South American terns, and snowy sheathbills; as well as a large number of striated caracara, an endangered species in the falcon family, circling over the tussock grass looking for any exposed nests to raid.

By the time the Chonos had dropped anchor in between Terhalten and Sesambre, the wind had again started to pick up. We were finally here and ready to make our first attempt at landing on Isla Terhalten. Looking at these islands it becomes very clear why few people have been able to get actual counts of the colonies and instead have relied on estimations gathered from circling an island on board a boat. There are no beaches or smooth, shallow areas to land on, only jagged rocks covered with razor sharp barnacles and the constant pounding surf. The Feather Link research team has been one of the only groups able to get onto these formidable islands and obtain accurate counts of penguin breeding colonies. Getting on to the islands is a matter of finding a landing site where the swells are less intense along with a section of low, flat rocks to jump to. We were about to find out how difficult that task is.

While the crew lowered the small zodiac into the water, those of us going ashore changed into our rubber boots and waterproof gear. A nervous excitement came over me as I watched the first group go out in the zodiac. It was at least 20 minutes before they located an area to attempt a landing. By the way, to call it a "landing" is a bit misleading since it is really more like jumping ship than landing the zodiac on a nice sandy beach. When the zodiac pulls up to the rocky shoreline you must literally jump from the bow of the boat onto the slippery rocks. For this reason, finding the best possible landing site is key as any mistakes can end in broken bones, and we are miles from any hospital. Because the wind had picked up when we arrived, this landing was extremely difficult and once the first launch was ashore the decision was made to cancel any additional landing attempts. The first team of David, Manuel and Alejandro will have to collect the blood and feather samples alone. These samples will be analyzed in a lab once we have returned home and will help to check the overall health of the colony. Unfortunately for me I will have to wait another day to get my chance in the colony. Luckily, it was a clear, sunny day despite the wind and I was able to spend the rest of the afternoon watching the birds flying around the island and the southern sea lions sunbathing on the rocky shoreline.

After a tricky retrieval, the first team returned to the Chonos. It would be too dangerous to stay the night in the open waters surrounding Isla Terhalten and Sesambre, so tonight we head back towards the Beagle Channel and the shelter of Isla Lennox. Tomorrow we will hopefully return to the penguins.


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