8 Penguins Boil Down to 2 Gallons of Oil

6,000 Elephant Seals yielded 2,000 tons of quality oil per year.

Not just whales were harvested for oil used in margarine, transmission fluid, or for lamp fuel. This puts the disturbing abuse of natural resources for energy into perspective. Most of the hunted penguins were the animated Gentoo, with their cherry red beaks right out of a Max Factor makeup commercial.


But a single whale produced 120 gallons of oil and therein was the bigger prize. All whales were taken, but the sperm whale produced an extraordinary high grade wax from the brain cavity that was worth three to five times more than any other oil.

Can we justify what our ancestors did? “They didn’t know the impact on the environment,” or “They didn’t have energy options.” Stop a moment and consider what  we may be accused of in the future, with excuses made to keep dirty or dangerous fuels?

Stromness and Leith were South Georgia whaling stations, now silent testimony of the bloody past . Imagine the stench in this place as whales were hauled by chains from the water and  dragged up the flat plain for processing. The area would have been slick with blood and smelled of excrement and rotting carcases. The lonely graveyards are testament of dangerous working conditions.

Fur seals were almost eradicated by 1910, but their numbers have rebounded. I think it’s poetic justice that the men are gone,but these hunted mammals populate the rusting ghost towns. (notice the blonde pup? Only 1 in 1,000 are born this color)

In 1916, Shackleton struggled to reach Stromness after enduring a hurricane in a rowboat and landing on the wrong side of this mountainous island that had never been circumvented before.  Hiking up, they reached an immense glacier and took a leap of faith by sliding down the icy precipice-the quickest way to their destination. Without survival gear, ropes,  or crampons, this was a huge risk. Falling into a crevasse would have meant death. But nothing was safe about Shackleton’s expedition from the first moment the Endurance got trapped in the ice.

What fortitude did it take to survive against such horrible odds?

Look back at Scott’s 1900-1904 expedition when Shackleton hired on as a third lieutenant. These two men were different breeds. Shackleton was every man’s friend and a merchant marine. Scott was elite Royal Navy and led a privileged life.  This expedition was a life of hard knocks for them both. Neither skied and both were inexperienced handling dog sledges.  Still, they went further south than ever before. When Shackleton collapsed with scurry and all the dogs died, it’s believed the rift between the two men exploded. Did Scott blame Shackleton, never letting him forget that he was a liability? Did Shackleton not respect Scott’s methods of authority?

Feeling himself the underdog,  Shackleton would have understood what it took to be a good commander.  This helps explain his unbending will to protect his men at all costs. He’d already walked in their shoes.

We also followed the last miles of The Bosses self-rescue, ducking screetching Antarctic Tern’s and visiting the station where the emergency rescue for his men began. It took Shackleton four tries and four months before conquering the ice and finding his team alive on Elephant Island. He’s not remembered for failing in life or his exploration bids. He’s honored for conquering insurmountable odds to become a hero and save lives.

Leith is close to Stromness and Japan used the facility through the 1960’s, long after baleen from whales wasn’t used for ladies umbrellas, corset stays, or riding whips.

In 2015, Japan agreed to stop hunting in Antarctica, after it was ruled illegal by the international court. But they found a loophole and harvested 333 minke whales for a “scientific program” that ended up on the dinner plate. Considering the overall amount of seafood harvested by Japan, this small quantity indicates lower consumer demand. Norway, Iceland, and Russia also have commercial whaling operations.

To play devil’s advocate, in our culture baby cows are killed as veal. Unless you are vegetarian, you eat mammals. Some cultures see whales as fish and a food source, while others see the emotional character from “Free Willy.”

The watchdog of populations and health of whales is the responsibility of the International Whaling Commission, which is a voluntary organization laying down bans.

Japan has stated they will resume harvesting whales in Antarctica. Personally, I don’t think ANY country should take ANY resources from this wilderness. This is our last pristine place, balanced in a delicate ecosystem. There are other places for controlled harvest (Example: around Norway and Iceland where historically whaling is part of the culture.)

What can you do, if you oppose harvesting of whales? Research your perfume, cosmetics, soaps and glue to be sure whale parts aren’t used. Let those companies know that you don’t support them and why. Support the International Whaling Commission and organizations that research these mammals and when you travel, do not eat whale meat. If companies don’t make money killing whales, the harvesting will stop.

Pictures below: Sei Whale, Humpback Whale and Minke. I cannot describe my excitement at being next to these giant creatures in a small zodiac boat.




South Georgia landings at Right Whale Bay and Salisbury Plain

We were supposed to land in the morning at Elsehul, on the NW of South Georgia Island but conditions weren’t favorable. This is part of traveling in this part of the world. One must be flexible. Patient.

Instead, Shane took a look at Right Whale Bay for our morning cruise. We couldn’t hike, because the beach was full of testy male fur seals making landing impossible but the cruise was fantastic.

After lunch, we headed to Salisbury Plain. Historically, this was a favorite hunting ground for sealers (both fur and elephant) in the 19th century. Easy access and landing sites with huge numbers of animals made harvesting quick. Today, Salisbury has the second largest King Penguin colony with up to 250,000 individuals during the molting period. We were able to cruise and hike.  It was an amazing experience, being in the minority and having the privilege of stepping into this animal kingdom.





Colorful Stanley, Falkland Islands

On April 2, 1982 the residents of Stanley awoke to an invasion of Argentine troops who landed in the dark at beautiful York Bay. Today, that beach and the water nearby is dangerous with land mines set by the invaders.


I don’t understand why the government didn’t insist that those who set the destructive hardware (and lost the war) weren’t held accountable for cleaning up the mess? Governments really need more mothers  for logical discipline!

The penguins in the picture above don’t weight enough to detonate the mines, but the approximately 2,050 residents cannot use this beautiful natural resource–a whopping 35 years later. Storms continue to stir up the mines with  occasional explosions.

Paula and I went on a guided coastal walk, seeing flightless ducks,  Kelp and Upland geese, Magellanic penguins, and my favorite Megallanic Oystercatchers.

We passed ships like the Elizabeth, rusting in the harbor. this tells the tale of those hunting fur seals and whales from long ago. (Photo courtesy of Paula Hillier because I only had my long zoom lens that day.)


Our expert guide, Geoff Pring, offered us a buffet of edible plants, which we munched on like hungry kids. We tasted lemony scurvy grass which cured the sailor’s disease. We nibbled on diddle-dee berries, and sniffed vanilla daisy. It was a trek requiring fine tuning of all senses.

I loved the balsam bog pictured below, over a hundred years old and a quirky relative of the carrot family.  The gum from this plant is used by herbalists.


I’m going to have to go back for another visit because we didn’t have much time to search the town for the gnome or the whale bone garden. But I did capture a perfect shot of the church with the whale bone arch and pictures from the ship as we sailed away.

Stanley, and the Falkland Islands held many pleasant surprises in diversity (and happiness) of her residents, in architecture, as well as the natural world.

Where in the world are you going?

My friends often ask me this question and it makes me chuckle. It means that I’m not the  usual type of traveler. I like living outside of the pack.

Twenty years ago, I read the “Endurance” and vowed that I’d experience wild, untamed Antarctica and follow in Shackleton’s  heroic footsteps. It took two decades, but my number one bucket list trip never diminished in my mind.

My planning included picking a ship that would let me follow Shackleton’s late 1914-1915 expedition . I wanted to experience his last miles traversing South Georgia, seeking rescue at the Stromness whaling station. I picked a journey with a historian onboard ( the outstanding David “Woody” Wood) with hopes of landing at Elephant island, even though I’d been warned that only one ship out of nine would ever be able to navigate the rough water there.

I’m searching for answers about the psychological components that doomed Scott but saved Shackleton.Consider that Shackleton failed at most everything in his lifetime, but when his men were in jeopardy, he refused to let them die. He surmounted unbelievable hardships where he should have perished many times over. But he didn’t. He brought all of the men safely home to their wives and mothers. He had a backbone of metal.

Always in love with the ice, he died of a heart attack on his last expedition in 1922 at the Grytviken whaling station on South Georgia. I felt honored, standing by his graveside to toast his life with a wee dram of scotch. I poured some onto his grave, sharing with the “boss”. I think he would have liked that.IMG_0938.JPG


Shackleton isn’t the only reason Antarctica is so hot on my mind. As a kid, I never missed reading National Geographic and still continue to love the magazine that takes me on spectacular journeys from my couch.

I wanted to walk where few have gone– into the Antarctic wilderness– and walk amongst penguins, seals, and nesting albatross. I dreamed of soaring icebergs rimmed in glowing blue and so many glaciers that many are not named. In my mind, I imagined jumbled packs of sea ice forming endless geometric patterns with the rising or setting sun as a backdrop.

Follow along with me, because Quark and the expedition team led by Shane Evey gave me all of those visions and so many more.




Westpoint and Saunders Island Landings

Two days out of Ushuaia, Argentina enroute to the West Falkland weren’t spent sleeping, starting with 7:45 a.m. wake-up calls. The Marine animal specialist, Annie, did presentations on seals and whales while our ornithologist, Adrian, helped us identify birds of the Falklands and South Georgia Islands. Acacia, our photography guide taught us how to capture the perfect photo. Woody presented the history of the Falkland islands.

They tried to prepare us for the amazing experience on our morning landing at Westpoint Island and the afternoon landing at Saunders, which was quite the task. Westpoint has a booming summer population of four people and black-browed nesting Albatross and Rockhopper penguins by the thousands along the cliffs. We had to be careful walking to not step on these smallest (but most noisy) penguins or the endangered albatross that mate for life with their partners.

In the afternoon, the ship sailed to Saunders Island, site of the first English settlement in 1765. It is now home to 11,000 breeding pairs of black-browed albatross and five penguin species. The way I keep them straight:

Rockhopper–noisy and yellow brows

Gentoo–look like they have red lipstick and they are quite funny to watch as they steal rocks from other nests. They are quite animated.

Megellanic–live in burrows and bray like a donkey

Macaroni–Have a Donald Trump hairstyle and other mannerisms of the Trumpster.

King–tallest penguin in the Falklands (only the emperor is bigger) with orange markings. Juveniles are fluffy brown and must molt before they can enter the water to eat. Some of them are larger than their parents. Apparently, molting is a miserable experience as they seem to be shunned or perhaps depressed.


We also saw whale bones above the beach and two predators–the Skua looking so sweet with the baby chick (but they are quite vicious) and the Striated Caracara just waiting for a baby penguin left alone.