January 2, 2015, Near Paulet Island, Antarctica — This morning I spent two hours driving a zodiac full of 10 people around Gourdin Island. Just off the very tip of the Antarctic Peninsula more than 16,000 pairs of Adelie Penguins nest alongside several thousand pairs of Chinstrap and Gentoo Penguins. The Adelies were new for my year list, as was a Black-bellied Storm-Petrel, but the colony and landscape overwhelmed any sense of checkmarks. What a crazy place! The rocks around Gourdin Island are full of narrow channels, just wide enough to permit a zodiac to slide through, all of them lined with curious throngs of penguins. At times I wondered who was watching who.
In the afternoon the wind suddenly kicked up to a steady 43 knots, and our planned afternoon excursion to an Argentinian base (Esperanza Station) was called off. Instead, the Akademik Ioffe sailed south out of the Antarctic Sound into the frothy Weddell Sea. In mid-afternoon we reached the edge of the pack ice—the same ice that trapped Shackleton and his men here exactly 100 years ago this month—and, as the wind died down again, the ship cruised slowly along the edge for several hours. I spent most of the rest of the day perched on the ship’s bridge, scanning the ice floes, hoping to spot an Emperor Penguin. No luck there, but the sunset was spectacular just before 11 p.m., and I did see several dozen Snow Petrels—my third new year bird today, for a grand total of 15 species during the first two days of 2015. There aren’t many other places in the world where you could spend two full days birding and only see 15 species, but then, there aren’t many places like Antarctica!