Hope Bay (Esperanza Station) - Sunday, January 2, 2005
Long: 63° 24,03 S
Lat: 57° 01,76 W
Temp: 0 C°
Water Temp: 0 C°
Wind: 25 Knts
Wind Direction: N
Photo ci contre : Leopard Seal at Esperanza (by Colin Baird)
Our Little Red Ship anchored in Hope Bay in the early afternoon and glacier views and hundreds of thousands of Adélie penguins immediately surrounded us. After a windy Zodiac ride around the point, we were welcomed ashore at Esperanza Station. The Argentinean base of Esperanza was established here in 1951 and has been a focal point for the Argentine sovereignty claim to the Peninsula area. In the late 1970s, they began bringing women and children to live here year round and the first Antarctic birth was recorded here in 1978. The base consists of a series of low, orange-coloured buildings including a school, community centre, post office, and chapel as well as laboratories. Base staff members gave us tours that included the periphery of the massive Adélie rookery, a small museum, and an old stone hut. This small hut was built by three men from Nordenskjöld's 1903 Swedish South Polar Expedition who spent a gruelling winter marooned here surviving on nothing but seal meat, penguin stew, and a single bottle of Aquavit. We could see a small Uruguayan station on the hill nearby, a recent gift from the British. Formerly it was known as Base D or Trinity House. It was here in 1952 that Esperanza members fired machine guns at the British as they returned to the base for a new season. The base commander was recalled to Buenos Aires for his recklessness and obvious lack of détente. The base was very hospitable to us however and offered us coffee and souvenirs and the use of their telephones to call home.
We took out time coming back to the ship in our Zodiacs. The bay was full of small, sculpted bergs, many of them with penguins lounging or shooting straight out of the water and landing upright. The ice itself seemed to glow in impossible shades of blue. There were two leopard seals snoring the afternoon away on different floes. Often described as 'serpentine' or 'dinosaurian', they can grow to 3.8 metres and up to 500 kilograms. Leopard seals can be identified by their dark grey backs and lighter, mottled bellies. When their mouths are closed they appear to have a straight smile in their large heads. When their mouths are open one can see rows of penguin-killing teeth. Preferring solitude, leopard seals are almost always found alone on a floe. Some boats were lucky enough to see a lone Weddell seal as well. Captain James Weddell caught the first examples of his eponymous seal on a voyage in 1823 into his equally eponymous sea. Not to be confused with leopard seals, Weddells have been called sea leopards because of their spotted tummies. Dark grey above and much lighter below, Weddell seals are actually covered in distinctive spots and patches. Not as slender (to be polite) as crabeaters or leopards, a Weddell seal can grow to 3.3 metres and commonly weighs 450 kilograms. The most southerly of all mammals, in winter males keep breathing holes open in the ice by scraping with their teeth. Over time, typically twenty years, their teeth are worn down and they are no longer able to feed. Mating occurs in the water and pups are born directly onto the ice in late winter or spring - almost certainly a shock to the system to go from a 37°C womb to a sub-zero ice-bound cradle! Weddell seals feed on Antarctic cod and other fishes as well as squid and krill. They are supreme divers with records of 600 metres and 73 minutes. Two crabeater seals were seen as well, at first swimming around and peeking their heads out of the water looking for a place to haul out. Once they found a comfortable floe, they came out of the water for a rest. Crabeater seals, despite their name, eat krill and lots of it. They have interlocking teeth with which they strain krill in the manner of a baleen whale. The name probably derives from either a mistaken examination of their feces or from a bastardization of 'krill-eater'. Crabeater seals are the most numerous pinniped on earth although previous population estimates of 40 million individuals now appear to have been high. The 1999-2000 Antarctic Pack Ice Seal Survey puts the number at under 15 million. Growing 2-2.5 metres and weighing 200-300 kilograms, they can be distinguished by their slim (for a seal) outline, dog-like faces, cream-coloured coat, and ubiquitous scars. They scars may be a product of predation by leopard seals or even orca or may be caused during aggressive mating behaviour.
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