An igneous paradise: Franklin Island

by Nicole Smoot Blog

Franklin Island is located in the Ross Sea. It's not just a pile of volcanic rubble, but actually remnants of a shield volcano. Read on and learn more.

Regions: Antarctica

Destinations: Ross Sea

An igneous paradise: Franklin Island

In the most desolate reach of seas on Earth all those adventurous enough to journey on the Ortelius to the Ross Sea excitedly hopped onto zodiacs in the southernmost corner of the Pacific Ocean.

Today’s agenda? Franklin Island.

Franklin Island is more than a mere pile of volcanic rubble anchored in the Ross Sea, it's actually remnants of a shield volcano. Not until 1841 did Sir James C. Ross discover the island off the coast of Victoria Land, on his attempt to reach the south magnetic pole. Ross ultimately decided to name the island in honor of the Arctic explorer and governor or Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania): John Franklin.

Adélie penguins hopping rock to rock, Weddell seals yawning and perfectly iced volcanic rocks under an eerie Antarctic sky welcomed us as we cruised between rocky outcroppings near the southern extremities of Franklin Island.

But like hitting a brick wall as we rounded the corner we hit the stench of guano. A scent that'll make your nose hairs curl, a combination of all smells putrid that'll wake you up quicker than 10 shots of espresso. With watering eyes we were approaching the large Adélie colony on the southern beach of Franklin Island.

With nasal passages adjusting to the unpleasantness in the air everyone couldn't help but be taken aback by the looming Bernacchi Head.

The Bernacchi Head was named after Louis Bernacchi, a physicist and astronomer best known for his involvement in explorations of Antarctica.

One passenger even said the sight of the Bernacchi Head as we approached brought tears to her eyes. No, not guano-induced tears, but tears brought on by the unmeasurable stark beauty of the remote island.

A Franklin Island welcome

Upon stepping foot on the deep black rocky shores of Franklin Island we were immediately met by the guttural barks of a variety of seal and the squawking of the remaining penguins in one of the largest Adelie rookeries in existence. 

As we arrived in the reaches of the Antarctic Circle in late February many of the penguins had left the rookeries for the season. But not to worry, Franklin Island was anything but desolate. It was teaming with life and sound from the late moulting Adélie penguin chicks.

The Carcasses among us

As we walked around past penguin after penguin of the rookery we all couldn't help but notice how many carcasses of young penguin chicks lie across the stark landscape of Franklin Island. At first glance many questioned what was going on here and if this was a sign of the changing climate or an illness run rampant.

The reason for the mind boggling death toll? Nature typically allows for parents to bring two chicks into the world, but takes one back before the change of season especially in times when food is scarce. Only the strongest of the pair of chicks will usually survive in times of hardship. It's a complicated life out here for the spastic social penguins.

The moult

Little Adélies hopped all along the beach at Franklin Island, some in full-blown moult.

Penguins are forced to remain on land until their mount has come and gone. With the loss of their feathers goes the loss of their waterproofing. In order to build up fat reserves to keep them alive through the time of fasting while stuck on land, penguins will gorge on food in the weeks leading up to a moult.

The march of the Adelies

After roughly an hour of exploring the strange volcanic landscapes of Franklin Island it was time to return back to the Ortelius to continue further into the southernmost reaches of the Ross Sea, McMurdo Sound. But not before a 'March of the Adelie Penguins' took place right in front of us on the very beach we would take the Zodiacs back to the Ortelius from.

For many of us aboard this would be the very first time we visited a penguin rookery. Nothing compares to your first time and Franklin Island left everyone anything but disappointed.

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