Summer On Bird Island

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Bird Island
Light-Mantled Albatross over the South Georgia coastline
Young fur seal pups are inquisitive. The heaviest pup weighed this season was a whopping 19.2kg.
Black-Browed Albatross over the ocean
Gentoo penguin chick looking lighter than normal. Nearly ready to head out to sea
Grey-headed and black-browed albatross chicks look almost identical and have a habit of nesting in stunning locations
When the sun breaks through the cloud on Bird Island the colours are often stunning
Gentoo penguin chicks chasing one of their parents for their next meal. The chick that keeps up with the adult for the longest will get fed
Macaroni penguin looking majestic in front of a very blue Scotia Sea
This is Sleven. Upon my arrival on Bird Island I was told that its chances of fledging were very low. It took a while, but 2 months after the rest of the wandering albatross fledged it finally headed out to sea!
Macaroni Soup
Even against the towering mountains of South Georgia a wandering albatross’s 3.5m wingspan is impressive
A blonde fur seal pup coming to check out the camera
Bird island has had a conveyer- belt of ice drifting pass this season. I’m told these bergs have made it further North than the Falklands
Big and brave fur seal
Wandering albatross making a GIANT petrel look tiny
South Georgia Shag against an iceberg
Brown skuas are stunning and annoyingly intelligent. There are very few animals nesting on South Georgia they can’t outsmart in order to get a meal
Wandering albatross at sunset
Another spectacular piece of ice
Bird Island sits between South Georgia and the Willis Islands (pictured here)
As the ice grounds itself it gets battered by the waves and quickly breaks up
Fat Macaroni Penguin chick looking healthy in front of South Georgia’s stunning coastline
Not sure if the Light-Mantled chicks are more or less impressive than the adults
Macaroni Penguins making the daily commute back to shore after a day at sea
A lighter morph fur seal who loves the camera
Black-browed albatross are one of the smaller albatross with a wingspan of just over 2m. Still pretty impressive
The noise that is associated with this display is unforgettable!

A face that can’t be hated

BIRD ISLAND…FINALLY!

Bird Island Wahoo!

After 10days at King Edward Point I was well and truly ready to set sail for Bird Island on my transport mark II, the Pharos Fisheries Patrol Vessel. As we headed North past the almighty snow covered scenery we were accompanied by some of South Georgia’s smaller breeders Cape Petrels and White Chinned Petrels.

Leaving Cumberland Bay
White Chinned Petrel against a snowy South Georgia
Cape Petrel in the bay of isles

With the weather still and flat we were confident of getting ashore but as we approached Bird Island visibility came in and engulfed our new home making launching conditions unsafe. 

Bird Island emerging from the fog finally!

It did eventually disappear and finally we made it ashore and it proved to be everything I had hoped for. In my first week as we frantically prepared for the arrival of a years worth of stock I managed to make it around the island in search of one of the islands most beautiful breeders, the light mantled albatross. I also got out to weigh and measure last years wandering albatross chicks as they made it to the 260 day year old mark and approached fledging age. 

Wandering Albatross chick strengthening its wings
Grounded iceberg offshore during the light mantled albatross survey

Here is a preview of my new amazing home and a taster of what is to come over the next few months

Its not often we get clear skies and sunsets so we have to get out and make use of them even if the sunsets after 2300
Gentoo penguin colonies can be found all over the island
We arrived just before the first fur seal pups but even without them the males left very little space for us on the beaches as they held their territories
View across to the Willis Islands from above the Big Mac, Macaroni colony
I have always wanted to see Grey Headed albatross on the nest and now I live on an island with thousands of them.
Brown Skuas are a predator and scavenger on the island but its hard not to respect these intelligent hunters
View down over base from Tonk. The peak in the top left is La Roche, the land in the top right is South Georgia which is separated from Bird Island by Bird Sound, the green buildings are my home and the black dots all over the beaches are Fur Seals!
There are four species of albatross that call this island home. Wandering, Grey Headed, Black Browed and Light Mantled
We didn’t have to wait long for our first Fur Seal pups and OMG they are ridiculously cute!

Leaving South Georgia 2 years ago there was a lot that I was worried about leaving behind but the thought of not seeing Antarctic fur seal pups was genuinely depressing so I am thrilled to be working with these charismatic mammals again!

Absolutely stunning birds! Light Mantled Albatross in the tussock grass

King Edward Point – Temporary Home

There are definitely worse places to be left in than Cumberland Bay, South Georgia and although we were all itching to make it to Bird Island, I was also keen to take advantage of being back in Cumberland Bay. Given its location on the Leigh side of South Georgia, the weather is much kinder to Kind Edward Point than Bird Island, so I made sure to take advantage of the clear blue skies during the day and night.

View of Grytviken from base at night
Snowy reflections

The travel limit at this station is huge and this means there are always hills to climb; we headed up Mount Duse equipped with crampons and ice axes (which we didn’t actually use) attempting to get a view of Cumberland Bay from above.

The flats beneath Duse
Laura enjoying a plateau above base
Steep climb up Duse
Top of the first climb
Foggy view over Cumberland Bay

Unfortunately, as you can see from the photo, the visibility wasn’t great on Duse but it improved for visits to my old study colonies at Maiviken, which in my humble opinion is one of the best places in the world.

Great to get back and see my old study Gentoo colony. Good numbers back to breed this year
Gentoo Penguin at Maiviken

Another easy hike from base is along to Penguin River, which is always a good place to catch up with Light Mantled Albatross

Light Mantled Albatross over the South Georgia mountains

One thing I won’t see a huge amount of on Bird Island is Elephant Seals. So I was keen to spend a little time with these beautiful beasts. So cute and useless when they’re born, they triple in weight in just three weeks by which time they are left by their mothers and become weaners, which are equally cute and useless – just a little fatter! 

Young elephant seal, unimpressed by its first water experience
Young elephant seal in front of Mount Duse
These big eyes, which are what make everyone love young elephant seals, allow them to pick up light from its bioluminescent prey and find its way in the dark depths of the Southern Ocean
Weaner in the snow

Eventually they will grow into 800kg females or 4 tonne males and return in their thousands to South Georgia to breed. The males will be 50% fat in optimal condition and spend nine months a year at sea-diving to 2400+m in search of their favourite food, squid. 

Two bull seals of different species in one harem of elephant seals

Even in sunny Cumberland Bay, it’s never too long before the next blizzard or snow fall.

Fur Seal bulls take a territory three weeks or so before the females. They will stay here and go without foraging for months in a bid to breed.
Just a week or so old but plenty of fat to keep it warm
Fur Seal in the snow
Skuas in the snow

One final Elephant Seal picture since I can’t imagine there will be many more for a while!

Ciao!

Falkland Islands – Surprise wildlife package

Before coming South, whenever someone mentioned the Falklands, I would think of barren and windy islands with not much to offer. However, I was pleasantly surprised with the reality. Many of the guests on board the ship have the same mentality as I once did, seeing the Falklands simply as a convenience stop to stretch their legs before we get down to South Georgia and Antarctica. They most definitely are not anticipating the beauty of sites such as West Point Island and the densities of tame wildlife that these islands offer.

A Falklands beach – not what you’d expect

Black browed albatross chicks at West Point

The Falklands are home to 60-70% of the world’s breeding black-browed albatross and host the largest albatross colony in the world at Steeple Jason. Seeing thousands of these birds proudly perched on their nest structures for as far as the eye can see is a breathtaking experience.

Black browed adult cruising over the heads of grounded chicks

Adult and chick

There are several hundred thousand birds breeding on the island

Many of the colonies are also home to thousands of rockhopper penguins early in the season and watching the entertaining relationships between these species is endless fun. The sounds that accompany these interspecific relations are also entertaining.

The two species can often be seen disagreeing with each other

And if it’s not the black browed albatross the problem is with, then it’s their neighbours

Both the rockhoppers and the black browed albatross tend to pick the most exposed areas of the islands to breed. The albatross are dependent on the wind in order to aid their takeoffs and the penguins use the exposed coasts in order to deter predators.

Black browed in flight over Steeple Jason

The wind helps both with taking off and landing

The islands are also home to magellanic, king and gentoo penguins and if you’re lucky you may also see macaronis hiding within the rockhoppers.

Magellanic Penguin on carcass island. These are burrow nesting penguins and so are never too far from their holes

Gentoo penguin playing in the surf at Bull Point

There is also some beautiful, if a little flat, hiking to be had over these islands and you’re never too far away from geese, raptors and songbirds (especially on the rat free islands).

Ruddy headed goose in the tussock

Long tailed meadowlark or military starling are always a bright highlight

Upland geese in flight

Variable hawk overhead on Carcass Island

Cobb’s wren are a Falkland’s endemic and are only found on the islands that are rat free

Jonny rook or striated caracara are part of the falcon family. These are never too far from breeding colonies on the islands

And when you get onto the sea the wildlife doesn’t stop. There’s a healthy population of steamer ducks patrolling the coastline and both Peale’s and Commerson’s dolphins are often around and keen to play.

Commerson’s dolphins off the shore of Saunder’s

Falkland steamer ducks are very territorial and can sometimes kill each other in disputes

Peale’s off the bow

Fin and Sei whales are frequently seen fishing in the rich waters surrounding the islands

One final albatross picture, because they are awesome

Adult and chick

 

Link to previous blog. Gold Harbour, South Georgia

Few images from St Andrews Bay, South Georgia

Gold Harbour

As much as it kills me to have left my work with the British Antarctic Survey, the new job has some pretty amazing perks. Working at King Edward Point allowed me to see a small part of South Georgia over a long period of time working immersed within incredible wildlife. However, life on board National Geographic Explorer has 5 star food every night, a masseuse and most importantly, access to much much more of the island than we were able to visit from base.

Gold Harbour home to Bertrab Glacier and a few penguins

One of my favourite new landings to visit this year is Gold Harbour. Not the largest king penguin colony on South Georgia but still spectacular.

Kings making their way to sea

One of the many things that make this site stunning is the Bertrab Glacier, which hangs over the colony.

King standing tall in front of the Bertrab Glacier

The sunrises at gold are ridiculous as are the frequent rainbows

More Kings

During spring the beaches are covered by harems of Elephant seals which push the colony back into the tussock.

Elephant seals in the morning sun

Young beachmaster checking out the competition – the weather can change within a second from snow to sun to rain.

Calm before the storm

The breeding season is a difficult time for these giants. Beachmasters will spend months on end starving on land, battling to defend their harems from competitors. During this time, the battles can be brutal and so moments of rest and recovery must be taken at every opportunity.

Battle of the giants

Sleeping beauty

Beach littered with elephant seals and penguins trying to navigate the maze

Not all the fights end in blood and gore; youngsters are always practising because they know that at some point it will be their turn to fight for real.

Not quite as dramatic when the youngsters fight

But seemingly just as exhausting

As the elephant seals head out to sea for a much needed foraging trip the beach opens up, allowing other wildlife some space to thrive.

Antarctic Fur Seals can be found on just about every South Georgia beach and Gold Harbour is no exception

Gentoo penguin trying to blend in with the crowd

Wherever there are penguins and seal colonies, predators and scavengers are never too far away

Brown skua looking for a space to land in the colony

Skua in the morning light

The beaches can be quite exposed and landings aren’t always easy for our Zodiac boats or the penguins

Although not in the same abundance, elephant seals can still be found here late in the season since they return to the South Georgia coast in order to moult. This process takes roughly a month. Several animals will lie in the same location for most of this process and the combination of their weight and excrement kills everything beneath them, leaving foul smelling wallows throughout the coastline.

If only you could smell them!

If the wildlife doesn’t quite do it for you, then you can keep your eyes above the seals and penguins and it still ain’t half bad.

Sunrise on the Bertrab glacier

Despite the 4 a.m. mornings there is very little that can spoil an experience like this. However, we did find one thing that did just this on our final landing of the season. A young Antarctic Fur Seal with fishing material wrapped around its neck.

Despite South Georgia’s isolated location, there is no escape from marine pollution. Ghost fishing and marine waste are a real problem here. During my time on South Georgia we freed, any number of animals entangled within fishing or packaging waste. And on a landing at King Haakon Bay, we even managed to retrieve a washed-up fridge from the beach, as well as numerous bottles and bags.

Young fur seal with fishing material around its neck

If you think about how little activity and fishing there is in sub antarctic waters in comparison to other areas further north then the impacts and effects this will be having is hard to fathom. Over 100,000 marine animals are harmed through pollution such as this every year.

Not to end on a negative note, here are a few time lapses from a day at Gold Harbour

Salisbury Plain

It’s been a while but I thought it was about time that I wrote a blog about a typical day as a Naturalist on board the National Geographic Explorer. And what better location to do so than from Salibury Plain. The second largest king penguin colony on the island, Salisbury Plain lies within the Bay Of Isles towards the North of South Georgia. 

After a blustery night anchored in the Bay of Isles, guests awoke expecting poor conditions but were pleasantly surprised to see flat seas and a fresh coat of snow covering the bay. Just five days previously, when we were last in the bay, there was barely any snow on the near mountains.

Not a bad sight to wake up to. First light uncovered a snow-coated Salisbury Plain. At dawn, King Penguins already spanned from the shore all the way up the hillside. As the day progressed waves of adults joined the colony from the Southern Ocean.

View of the ship from the landing

Thousands of King Penguins covering Salisbury Plain

Its been a hard year for these King Penguin chicks, after the eggs were laid a year ago they have been stuck on this beach through the harsh South Georgia winter. Some of the chicks will have gone months between feeds shrinking up to 50% in weight during these periods. 

All four seasons were experienced throughout the landing with brief spells of snow followed by beautiful sunshine.

Warming up after the snow

Early travellers thought that these woolly penguins AKA Oakum Boys, were a completely different species than the adults

The landing did not disappoint, a natural path through the colony allowed guests to get their best views of the “Oakum Boys” yet. Despite the cold temperatures, the light was stunning and guests used every second on shore to get their shots.

Adult leading its chick through the snow in search of shelter

The snow got worse before it got better

Chicks were left covered in snow when the sun came out again

Covered in snow

Bracing from the snow

Sun shining on the colony within a few minutes of a blizzard

The cold was obviously too much for this penguin who couldn’t stop sneezing! 

Creching for shelter

Chicks without parents huddled together in order keep warm

By this stage of the breeding season, the weakest chicks will have perished, so those remaining all looked in good health. After more than a year of development these chicks will soon loose this downy coat in favour of their waterproof juvenile coat.

The majority of the chicks on the colony to have made it this far were looking in good condition and will soon be melting into their juvenile coat

Fat and ready to moult

Basking in the brief moment of sunshine

As the snow came down again and the feeling in my hands finally disappeared completely, we headed back to the ship

After a long but spectacular morning on the colony we headed back to the ship for hot drinks and tasty food, a luxury which the British Antarctic Survey never provided! 

View of the colony from the warmth of the ship

Albatross over the ocean as we navigated out of the Bay Of Isles around the stunning South Georgia coastline

The island is home to millions of birds including ten of thousands of Black Browed Albatross which thrive in these windy conditions.

Black Browed Albatross soaring close to the ocean in a localised patch of calm

And The Rest…..

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Antarctica

First Year Ice in the Weddel Sea

Something that surprised me about my recent visit to the Antarctic Peninsula was that the ice was equally as impressive as the Killer Whales, Leopard Seals and the Humpbacks.

Incredible Ice Statues

Sunset

Nothing can prepare you for the different shades of blue captured within these floating structures and the size of the slabs is simply staggering! 

50 Shades of blue

Drifting Iceberg

Icy reflections

Spectacular Glacier

Still seas approaching the Antarctic Circle

Inspecting the sea ice

Kelp Gulls at sunset

Recently rolled iceberg

Fortunately conditions allowed us to make it south past the Antarctic circle!

Sea ice thickening

And if the Ice isn’t enough the landscape and mountains ain’t half bad either!

Gentoos awaiting the incoming storm

Neko Harbour

Its not just blue you see

Antarctic Landscapes

Its been a while since I posted pictures of my penguin friends so here are a few of my favourites from the Peninsula where I was finally able to see the Holy Grail of Penguin species; The Emperor Penguin. As well as all three species of brush tail, magellanic and rockhopper.

Adelie Penguin taking in the views

Gentoo bracing against the storm with the National Geographic Explorer in the background

Chinstrap standing tall

Lonely Emperor Penguin

For more images check out my two Antarctic Galleries….

Killer Whales

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Antarctica

Type B killer whales, Antarctica

Next to tick off the bucket list, the world’s top ocean predator – the killer whales. Having never seen these before, I travelled to Antarctica with very high expectations, knowing estimates of these animals in Antarctic waters to be somewhere in the region of 70-80,000.

Killer whales ahead

On just our second day in Antarctic waters, we kept the schedule free and were instructed to get outside and look for big black and white animals. Within a few hours in the Weddell Sea, we were surrounded by several groups of Type B killer whales.

Type B killer whale alongside vessel

In the ice

Young killer whale diving

We were lucky to have killer whale scientists on board the ship and within a few minutes of the sighting, they were launching the Zodiac in order to get closer to these animals and collect their data.

Killer whales were intrigued by the research Zodiac

Launching the drone

The scientists, from the NOAA, were using drones to fly above the animals and take pictures, which give them accurate information about the size and health of the whales. This new technique of observation also allows them to see what the whales are getting up to beneath the water, observe new behaviours and also make more accurate counts of pods.

Pod size can reach 80-100

As you can see, the killer whales in the pictures have very brown colouring where stereotypical killer whales would be white. This is a result of the cold water temperature – the brown is actually diatoms (a type of single cell algae) living on the surface of the whales. Normally, killer whales would have a good blood flow to the skin, which would prevent this diatomaceous growth. However in cold waters, this would involve the loss of too much energy.

Scarring is from raking and/or scratching on ice

Youngster and adult

Heading right for the ship

If you look closely at the images, you can see round circular scarring on the whales, these are from cookie cutter sharks, which are only found in the tropics, a bit bewildering considering these killer whales are seen in Antarctic waters all year round.

Circular scarring on the saddle patch – Type A killer whale

Also, it was strange that the same individuals, photographed on different days, often had high diatom growth followed by clean skin. The NOAA team previously put tags on these whales which showed that they make very rapid journeys to the tropics to get manicures before swimming all the way back south!

Mother and calf

Next up were the Type A killer whales, which are much more like the killer whales seen in the northern hemisphere. These are larger and tend to be more black and white than the Bs and they feed on Minke whales and elephant seals.

Bull breaking the surface

Bull, mother and calf

Using a combination of the saddle patches, markings and fin shape it is possible to identify individuals using photos. We were lucky to see the same group of Type A killer whales near Ciervo Cove on both expeditions, as confirmed by photos.

There are two types of B killer whales. ‘Little’ Bs, which tend to dive deep and feed predominantly on fish, supplemented by the odd penguin! And ‘big’ Bs, which opt for washing seals (especially Weddells) off the ice to feed. Having seen the little Bs several times already, we pushed further into the Weddell sea into the thicker ice and, as we hoped for, we found a group of big Bs, giving us the “full house” for the area we had been.

Big Bs

Weddell seal sensibly opting to rest on land rather than on the ice

Since conditions were calm, the ever eager scientists launched the Ribs and returned with some alarming images of the whales. The whales were not in particularly good health, with much of the skeletal features of the animals visible in the pictures. Possibly, this was a result of lower prey scarcity, with very few Weddell seals observed on the ice. However, at this stage the scientists could only hypothesise.

We also had a team from CBS on board who did a piece on these encounters, which you can see by following this link below…

Fortunately, the trip did not end on this low since sightings continued wherever we went. My season culminated with one of my favourite nature experiences ever, as a group of 40 little B’s passed straight across the bow of the vessel in the crystal clear Antarctic waters.

Too close to photograph

Just a few of the pod

Clip showing footage from a couple of the Killer Whale encounters

Humpback Whales

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Antarctica

 

Humpbacks Whales feeding

Another blog from my latest amazing trip to Antarctica, focussing on Humpback whales this time. You’ll be glad to know that there is less blood than in the previous post.

Humpback in front of a glacier

Having lived for a year on South Georgia, immersed in the depressing history of Antarctic whaling and the impact of humans on Baleen whales, it was amazing to sail through Antarctic waters and see first-hand how the whales are bouncing back. Sightings of baleen whales were frequent with the most common being  humpbacks: these majestic 36 tonne beasts were almost ubiquitous throughout, it was an absolute pleasure.

Fin whale over the continental shelf

Minke whale in the Weddell Sea

Almost without fail, by the time breakfast was served on board National Geographic Explorer, there had been a blow, or a sighting of the distinctive hump, or flukes of these animals.

Fluke and dorsal hump!

Possibly the best experience of my time on board came as the sun was setting on an already eventful day of killer whales and penguins. Stupidly thinking the excitement was over for the day, I retreated to my room in order to download a few photos, when the call of ‘feeding Humpbacks’ came out over the tannoy.

This is what I emerged on deck to see

As a kid, I read about bubble net feeding whales and had seen footage of it numerous times on David Attenborough documentaries. For those others who have seen this footage, you will understand why seeing this activity has been on my bucket list for years. However, travelling to Antarctica, I had no expectations of ticking this off the list, since it was my understanding that such behaviour had only been observed in Alaska!

Bubble net feeding is obviously a foraging method where the humpbacks blow clouds of bubbles around their prey at the surface. This traps the prey between the bubbles and the surface allowing the whales to swim up with their mouths open and take huge mouthfuls of prey. 

The video bwlow shows one of these events happening and you can see the bubbles at the surface before the humpbacks lunge through open-mouthed

Humpback whales that spend summers in the Antarctic, exploiting the rich cold waters, migrate north to spend the winters in the tropics around Costa Rica. Here, there is an overlap with the Northern Humpbacks that spend their summers in Alaska and migrate south also to Central American tropics. The hypothesis is that these Northern whales, having learnt and practiced the behaviour in Alaska, migrated south to Central America before continuing through to Antarctica.

More feeding

As a result, you now have whales practicing bubble net feeding in Antarctic waters. The humpbacks have uniquely marked flukes which allow them to be identified.

Markings on the flukes

Hopefully, the individuals we photographed in Antarctica will have been observed previously in the world and we will get a better understanding of how this behaviour has spread.

There were small groups of feeding whales all around

And when you get bored of the whales (as if!) the sunset and the ice aren’t too bad substitutes!

Sunset