We stood in silence and in awe on a ridge of black volcanic rock. Behind us a wisp of steam rose from Mount Erebus, the southernmost active volcano on earth. In the distance an ice shelf in pure white stretched down to the Ross Sea where the water was an almost unbelievable deep blue. And then leaping out of the water and wobbling across the ice were the penguins.
We traveled to Cape Royds on Ross Island in Antarctica to see how the Adelie Penguin colony there is doing. But along the way we had a fascinating encounter with Antarctic history.
We stopped at the hut built by Irish polar explorer Ernest Shackleton in 1908. On the stove there was a cast iron skillet and a couple of big cooking pots. There were cans of preserved onions and pickled cabbage on the shelves, along with salt and candles. Hard to believe it was a century since Shackleton and his men were here.
Exploring Antarctica is a whole lot easier than it once was. We had climbed into a helicopter at McMurdo Station, the main U.S. science base in Antarctica for the 15 minute flight over to Cape Royds.
It was exactly 100 years ago, in February 1908, that Shackleton built his small hut. Although a century has passed the hut and everything in it is almost perfectly preserved … freeze dried by Antarctica's extremely cold and dry climate. It helps that at most only a few hundred people make it here every year.
The man who spends the most time at Cape Royds is David Ainley. He's been studying the Adelie penguin colony here for 12 years, spending much of the southern hemisphere summer in a tent. But Ainley has made it possible for millions of people to look in on the penguin colony here by a live camera feed to his Web site.
That Royds should be the location for such a technological advance is perhaps fitting. When Shackleton came here he brought the first automobile ever used in Antarctica. It didn't work very well over the difficult landscape. Ponies Shackleton hoped would help get him to the South Pole didn't do well either.
At Royds, for now at least, conditions for penguins are almost perfect. Ainley says penguins are amazingly resilient and the kind of changes they make to survive may suggest the kind of things humans will have to do as the earth warms.
While Ainley and other scientists working in Antarctica see plenty of evidence that global warming is real and happening quickly, on a day like this at Cape Royds it is hard to see anything but beauty. I can only hope that another traveler who comes this way a century from now will still be able to look out at ice and water and snow covered Mount Erebus. And I can only hope that a century from now everything in Shackleton's hut remains freeze dried.