A Cape Royds Walk-Around

Penguin on volcanic rock, Cape Royds
Off the beaten track: Most of the penguins hang out in the penguin colony, but a few wander further afield.

On Dec. 9th, I went via helicopter with Evan Miller (the mountaineer you met in previous blog posts) to the Adelie penguin colony at Cape Royds. At the Royds field camp, you are between Mt. Erebus and the Ross Sea. It’s a short hop via helicopter from McMurdo, about 15 minutes, but a completely different landscape. For one thing, McMurdo is still iced in with a thick layer of sea ice but Royds is beyond the sea ice edge, so there’s open water (which is typical for this time of year, though the sea ice broke out here before mid-November, which is on the early side).  Erebus still looms in the distance, and you have more the feeling of being on the lower slopes of a volcano, since there are hills covered with black gravel and rounded stone formations they call volcanic pillows. The “pillows” have rounded protrusions so uniform in size it looks like an archaeological site where some ancient civilization had built stone walls by piling stones, but of course that’s not the case at all. Some of the structures that look like a wall made of a pile of stones are in face, one big rock.

Evan walks through a typical landscape around here, filled with black volcanic rock.

Evan was sent to accompany me for the first 24 hours to explore the site so I knew where I could orient myself so I could walk safely on my own for the rest of my stay. So on that very windy afternoon when we arrived, after lunch we set off on a walk toward the small lakes to the north and then looped back along a ridge that overlooks the coastline. The penguin colony itself we decided to save for the next day, since that’s terrain that I would not need the know-how of an experienced mountaineer to explore.

Right now there are two women working here, field camp manager and outreach educator Jean Pennycook and wildlife biologist Katie Dugger. Katie is leaving in the next few days, and her colleague David Ainley, the scientist who established this study, will take over her daily monitoring of the penguins. Jean makes sure the camp is supplied and is busy with outreach activities, making Skype calls to classrooms all over the world from the colony via her iPad, communicating with schoolteachers and updating the Cape Royds penguin project’s fabulous web site at penguinscience.com, which I highly recommend if you have any interest in learning more about penguins. There is information there for any level of education, from kindergarten to college. If you have kids, show them the site and tell their teacher about it! You’re probably saying, all right already, enough with the exposition, let’s see some penguins! So, even though this is out of order, here’s a quick peek. I promise more penguins up close and personal in the next post.

Penguin colony, Cape Royds
A portion of the main penguin colony at Cape Royds with scattered remains of one of Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton’s structures. One of his huts is here, and as with all the early explorers’ huts, any debris that is scattered around the grounds, even broken glass or bits of bones from their dinner, is left undisturbed and you are not supposed to touch it. Why is the ground tan? As Jean put it, “That’s about 10,000 years of penguin poop.”



Evan and I found the larger lakes:

Cape Royds, frozen lake
Clear Lake, one of the frozen inland lakes.

…and smaller  ponds:

Cape Royds inland pond
The penguin folks call this one Skua Lake, since skuas often hang out here. You can see Inaccessible Island out in the Ross Sea in the distance on the right.


And volcanic rocks worn by the wind, called ventifacts:

Ventifact, Cape Royds
The vocabulary word of the day is “ventifacts.” These are rocks eroded by the wind into unusual and striking shapes.


Marker at Cape Royds
Evan and I also encountered this post on our walk. Jean didn’t recognize it. Maybe it’s a marker from a previous study. Anybody know what it is? Click image to enlarge it.

As we walked, Evan and I happened upon a nesting skua, sitting on an egg. She hyah-hyah-hyahed at us to warn us off for a while, and then stepped off the nest and took a few steps toward us as if to say, “Hey, I mean it, get the hell out!” So we made a big circle and ended up at a distance from the other side of the nest. Evidently that was good enough for her, and she walked back to her nest and settled back in, but we got a quick glimpse of the egg (photos below).

Skua on nest
If you know what’s good for you, you’ll leave me and my egg alone!
Skua returning to nest
Good, they’re going away! Don’t worry, little egg, Mommy’s back to keep you warm.

We had, it turns out, inadvertently walked into a major skua nesting area. We kept seeing nesting pairs. Most either ignored us or squawked a little as we walked by but suddenly Evan was being dive bombed by a skua, who kept swooping down within a few feet of his head. Why it went after him and not me, who knows? Maybe because he was taller? But we walked faster and got out of there.



Coming over the ridge we saw the sea. The open water was a contrast to the unending vista of flat sea ice from McMurdo:

Cape Royds view of sea
Our first day at Cape Royds, the wind was blowing from the south and beyond the pressure ridge was clear open water. See the pressure ridge formation a little to the right of center, where there’s a rectangular chunk with a hole in it and another piece with a little stalk to its right? Now look at the photo below from 24 hours later, after the winds had shifted.
Pressure ridge and floating ice, Cape Royds
What a difference a day makes: 24 hours later, the winds had shifted, blowing in sea ice. See the formations from the previous photo, now on the left in the foreground? Notice all the ice that’s come in behind them.




Cape Royds Camp
That’s my tent in the center, Jean’s on the left, and the main hut on the right, one roughly 9 x 15 foot room where we do all our cooking, working at our laptops, store the non-refrigerated food (a large picnic cooler set in the great outdoors serves as the camp “freezer”) and warm up if necessary — there’s a propane heater in the hut. The sleeping bags and fleece liners they gave us are incredibly warm and believe it or not, I’m completely comfortable sleeping in the tent in same short-sleeved PJs I wear at home, even though the tent is unheated and outdoors it’s probably been in the 20s with wind chill. An eyeshade is a must, though, as the bright yellow tent lets in the sunlight 24 hours a day.

The winds were blowing stiffly from the south all day. We kept waiting for them to calm down in order to set up my tent, but that wasn’t happening. So I got a one-on-one lesson from a certified National Outdoor Leadership instructor on best practices for setting it up in the wind.





Penguin, Cape Royds campsite
A penguin stopped by while I was putting my belongings in my tent. Now there’s a sentence I’ve never written before.


However, Katie assured us that the forecast called for the winds to die down and shift direction after midnight. The next day we were surprised to see that indeed they had, and the sound had filled with sea ice blown in by the winds coming from the north. Giant slabs of ice were moving briskly along.


Sea ice, Cape Royds
C the ICC: Another view of the sea ice that blew in overnight. Everything that’s clean and white beyond the dark ridge wasn’t there the day before.






Earlier on the second day that we were here, when the above photo was taken, I also took one looking south. It was a nice sunny day and you could see the sea ice edge, and the very same iceberg I photographed on the excursion several days ago that I spoke about in an earlier post:

Inaccessible Island from Cape Royds
The sea ice edge, Inaccessible Island, and the iceberg I photographed several days before were visible in the distance from Cape Royds.

On that second day’s walk, we also walked down the steep slope to a black sand beach. We encountered the lone penguin you see in the first picture in this blog post. Walking along the beach are interesting snow and ice formations, big and small. I’ll end this post with a couple more:

Cape Royds
Looking up from the black sand beach.
Pressure ridge, Cape Royds
I never get tired of pressure ridges! Across the sound are the mountains.
Mt. Erebus from Cape Royds campsite
The view I wake up to: lava pillows and Erebus. It’s an austere place, but a wonderfully peaceful one.



3 thoughts on “A Cape Royds Walk-Around”

  1. Helen. I just continue to love the photos and your descriptions. So makes me wish I was there (except that part about camping in a tent!) Every picture of ice I see I say “Make a3d model of that!” Thanks for this gift.

    1. Thanks Roy! Actually the tent is working out well. I’m surprised by that, but it is. They give you an Ensolite pad and a ThermaRest pad to put underneath your sleeping bag, and the sleeping bag is rated for 20 below AND they provide a polar fleece liner, which is very cozy. At these temperatures, at least, hovering around the upper 20s to about 33, it’s fine. Also the sun never sets, and inside the tent the air stays warmer than outside. You’d be just fine :-).

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