notes from the field

No. 2 - Connecticut Suburbs

For the next couple of days we will be working at a place called Cape Shirreff, a thumb-shaped rocky headland jutting into Drakes Passage from the north side of Livingston Island - one of an archipelago called the South Shetland Islands that lay along the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula. Livingston, like all of the major islands in this group, has a thick snow and ice cap drained by glaciers that fall down 300-foot rock cliffs to the water's edge. The glaciers end, however, at the base of the thumb leaving the Cape free of permanent ice. In the late spring and summer huge swarms of krill drift through the South Shetlands heading for deeper water to spawn. Their passage is slowed by eddies in the ocean currents north of the Cape creating an ideal place for breeding colonies of birds and seal rookeries - ice-free ground and a ready supply of fat, juicy krill weighted down with eggs. Two years ago we found this place when exploring the islands for an alternative to our Seal Island site and last year we built a camp here.

If Seal Island is the Calcutta of breeding colonies, Cape Shirreff is the Connecticut suburbs. Rock outcrops are separated by rolling hills and glacier-gouged valleys, penguin colonies are spread out and smaller (ranging in size from 100 to several hundred parental units), and there are places where one can walk without slipping in a quagmire of mud and guano. Even the predators are more polite: skuas and giant petrels will swoop down from their high perches and drag an unprotected chick some distance away, rather than wait at the edge of the colony for an opportunity to eviscerate a chick in front of its helpless parent. Most remarkable are the numerous small bays with rocky beaches and tide pools - perfect for raising fur seal pups. About 5,000 were born this year at the Cape. The passing seas also dump whale carcasses and the shores are littered with their bones.

And like all first class suburbs on the water, the Cape has its own marina. Rock reefs fringe the coast making access dangerous if not impossible, but there is a gap in the reef that leads up to the shore and provides protection while landing a boat in all but due easterly winds. It can be a bit hairy trying to find the hole in fog and a standing sea, but the approach is much preferable to landing though the surf at Seal Island. All in all an enchanted place, and much more hospitable to humans than Seal Island.


next episode: King George Island.