Everyone wants to eat krill. Fish, birds, seals, whales, penguins and humans hunt the Antarctic waters for these five-centimetre, shrimp-like creatures. Krill are the foundation of the food web down here. You know penguins eat them because the red tint of their exoskeletons stains the ground everywhere.
Antarctica shows you up close how the food web works. We haven’t seen anything eat krill but the fact we’ve witnessed some incredible eat-and-be-eaten scenes between leopard seals and penguins and gull-like skua and penguins indicates someone is.
In all of this polar dining we can’t help but notice that the top predator has been removed, at least as far as marine mammals are concerned. We visited places where he once hunted, at Necko Harbour and Port Lockroy. I mean humans, of course. The first seal hunt began in 1819. Whales came later. Seals were extirpated within a couple of years. It took longer to drive the right, humpback and other whales to the brink.
Oil was southern gold. And it didn’t come only from whales. Penguins, another valuable source of the commodity, were slaughtered in the hundreds of thousands. They were herded along beaches and driven from rookeries up ramps and into caldrons where they were boiled alive.
Looking out over Necko Harbour from several hundred metres up, the opaque water was flat and strewn with chunks of ice that have fallen from the glaciers. Our ship was anchored not far from a massive grounded iceberg. The sky was low and fog and cloud obscured the mountaintops. We were there to count penguins and take snow samples and ice cores from the glacier (the latter required considerable effort to excavate two-metre deep pits; there is much more snow here this year due to increased precipitation, in part due to open water created by retreating sea ice).
The only sound we heard was the wind, the snow crunching beneath our feet and the shrieks of the students who descended the glacier by sliding. There were no traces left of the bloody history of this beautiful place. The top predator had ceded the ground (or sea) to the leopard seal.
A few hours away Port Lockroy, a former British research base turned into a museum, sits on tiny Goudier Island. Nearby is Jougla Point, another Gentoo penguin rookery (dubbed “Guanoland” by the students). A large whale skeleton lies on the rocks where penguin chicks use it for shelter from the driving rain and wind. It’s a lonely spot, or so it appears. But when we zodiac over to the museum, which is run by the British Antarctic Heritage Trust, one of the four female volunteers informs us that the place receives 12,000 visitors a year. The volunteers aren’t lonely even though they aren’t allowed off the island during the November to March season.
In fact, the Antarctic Peninsula is a busy place. We changed our route yesterday afternoon in order to avoid a Russian ship that was visiting our planned landing site. Ship captains and tour operators coordinate routes to give people the impression that they are the only ones here.
But tonight in Wilhelmina Bay, as the moon rose over the ice-capped mountains and a mother Humpback and her calf slid by the bow, we were sure we were the only humans around.
Footage of Cuverville Island, February 21st. Credit: Students on Ice