The noise is deafening, the smell overpowering, but at least they are all smartly dressed. This is one of the world’s largest gatherings of penguins, and it takes place on a tiny island 1100 miles (1800km) east of the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula.
Zavadovski Island, one of the South Sandwich Islands, is dominated by the volcanic cone of Mount Asphyxia. The island measures hardly 4 miles (6km) across, yet each spring some 14 million pairs of chinstrap penguins arrive there to nest in the volcanic ash. The thigh-high birds, named for the black band under their chins, are joined by yellow-plumed macaroni penguins.
Chinstrap penguins seem to be increasing in number. Their main food, the shrimp-like krill, is in lavish supply. Baleen whales, which also eat krill, are declining in number, and the penguins may be multiplying on surplus.
Island Close To Antarctica Dry Valleys
As you fly over Antarctica towards McMurdo Sound, endless white wastes give way suddenly to the browns and blacks of land completely free of snow. Sunk into this unexpected, ice-free area are the Dry Valleys – three massive, steep-sided basins gouged out by long-gone glaciers.
Although ice covers almost all of Antarctica, most of the continent has very low snowfall – the ice accumulated over millions of years. In the Sry Valleys – Taylor, Wright and Victoria – snow equivalent to barely 1in (25mm) of rainfall each year, and the ground is kept free of even this meagre covering by dry winds which blow the snow away, and by the heat that the dark, exposed rocks absorb from the sun.
Each valley has a few curious salty lakes. The largest, Lake Vanda, is more than 200ft (60m) deep and topped by a layer of ice 13ft (4m) thick. Yet the temperature at the bottom of the lake is 25°C (77°F) because the ice acts like a greenhouse and warms the water.]
Mummified seal carcasses are scattered over the Dry Valleys. In the cold, dry air decay is extremely slow, and some of the seals may have found their way to the valleys and died hundreds, or even thousands, of years ago.