Of particular note will be the marvelous bird life that typifies Antarctic environments. As we transit by ship across the Drake Passage and enter the Antarctic Shelf waters we may encounter snowy albatross, or perhaps even the giant wandering albatross with its wingspan of 12 feet and a capability to soar for days at a time over extremely long distances.
Along the Antarctic Peninsula live a variety of penguins, including the chinstrap, adelie, and gentoo. While we will arrive at Palmer Station just a bit too late to see the penguin chicks with their parents, there may be a few stragglers still shedding their juvenile feathers (fledgings) on the neighboring islands that surround our station. Their parents will be busy catching krill (little shrimp) and fish for their offspring.
If we are lucky we may also encounter a humpback whale or two that has yet to depart for the warmer waters before the onset of winter. Or perhaps we will come upon a pod of killer whales swimming along the shore in search of their penguin prey, just as we have seen so many times when visiting McMurdo Sound in past years.
Our destination is also very rich habitat for seals, with abundant elephant seals, Antarctic fur seals, perhaps an occasional crab eater seal, and definitely the biggest and fiercest seal of them all, the infamous leopard seal! These ferocious predators can attain a length of 15 feet and prey on other seals and penguins.
There is little doubt that our diving activities at Palmer Station will involve sighting leopard seals on a variety of occasions. The general rule of thumb is to get out of the water when one is seen in the area! An Antarctic diver was once threatened aggressively by one of these seals, and one cannot be too careful around them. I remember vividly the day we encountered a leopard seal on the ice edge in the early 1990s in McMurdo Sound. It was an experience not easily forgotten!
All told, the Antarctic Peninsula is promising to be a wildlife extravaganza, and I am thrilled to be heading south once again to take it all in while we continue our exciting research on the chemical ecology of Antarctic marine organisms.