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Rediscovering Ross Island 2012: Penguins in the Wind

Written by Glenn Gaetani.

We (Ken, Phil, Paul, Erin, Dan, and I) left McMurdo Station to spend four days at Cape Bird sampling lavas erupted from Mount Bird, a 5900 foot shield volcano that makes up the northern part of Ross Island (see blog 1 for a map). The flight from McMurdo to Cape Bird took about thirty minutes. It was my first helicopter flight, and the views were spectacular! Cape Bird was named for Lieutenant Edward J. Bird, of the HMS Erebus, and that name seems especially appropriate given that it hosts the second largest Adélie penguin rookery on Ross Island – home to approximately 30,000 breeding pairs (Plate 1).

Plate 1: Cape Bird Penguin Rookery. This photo shows only a small section of the expansive rookery. Photo by Glenn Gaetani.

Penguins seem to be constantly busy, and watching them kept us very entertained. Many of their adventures were narrated by Ken, using his special “penguin voice” (Plate 2).

Plate 2: Howling Penguins. Photo by Ken Sims.

We were based at the Cape Bird hut, but three members of our group (Ken, Phil, and Dan) set up tents because they preferred to sleep outside. The original plan called for us to spend two days sampling the summit of Mount Bird, using helicopters coming from McMurdo Station to ferry us to different points around the volcano.  The Antarctic weather refused to cooperate, however. The winds picked up during the second and third days – so that helicopters couldn’t fly – and by the fourth day we were stranded in a full-blown “Herbie”, which is a “particularly powerful and dangerous storm that affect the US McMurdo base coming from the South, through “Herbie Alley”, winds can be in excess of 100 knots” (http://www.coolantarctica.com/Community/antarctic_slang.htm) (Plate 3).

Plate 3: Penguins hunkering down during “Herbie”. Photo by Dan Rasmussen.

The winds were so strong that two of our tents were leveled, and we had to spend an additional day at Cape Bird waiting for the weather to clear (Plate 4). By the time the storm was over, much of the sea ice had broken up and floated away, leaving beautiful open water.  Despite the storm, we were able to sample a number of important lava flows along the beach, but without helicopter support we weren’t able to reach the summit. Fortunately, today the weather is spectacular and we were able to fly to the summit of Mount Bird and collect some key samples.

Plate 4: Ken’s tent during the peak of the “Herbie” with sustained 60 knot plus winds. Both Phil’s and Dan’s tents were leveled by this storm. Note that the tents were setup on permafrost and/or on top of lava flows so we had to rely on large boulders to stake out the tents. Ken used bigger rocks which is maybe why his tent survived. Photo by Paul Wallace.


  1. Babby660
    United States
    April 22, 2014, 3:58 pm

    too bad they can’t move north

  2. melissa
    mullen-hall elementary
    November 26, 2012, 9:15 pm

    What a unique experience! We are currently in our geology unit and I am so excited to show students the opportunities a geologist has in the ‘real world’. Thank you for sharing!

  3. shirley
    hangzhou zhejiang china
    November 21, 2012, 7:05 am

    when l saw the picture3 “Penguins hunkering down during “Herbie”. ” l shocked, because l can feel the hardship that animals live in nature.

  4. cherry alanguilan
    Manila, Philippines
    November 21, 2012, 3:59 am

    Plate 3 is absolutely haunting and exquisite!

  5. Prasad
    Coimbatore, India.
    November 21, 2012, 3:57 am

    I envy you guys….Great and safe time

  6. Laramie Montessori School
    November 20, 2012, 4:47 pm


  7. Diana Tallman
    Prince George, BC, Canada
    November 19, 2012, 5:19 pm

    Absolutely amazing!