Although not the prettiest birds to grace the planet, if you ever get the chance to see giant petrels in the wild, they will command your respect like few others. There is nothing quite like watching the coming together of hundreds of these majestic giants at a recently deceased corpse.
With piranha-like efficiency, giant petrels can tear hundreds of kilograms of flesh from an elephant seal skeleton in hours, with powerful tube-nosed bills strong enough to crack open a seal skull. Plunging deep into the carcass, the heads and necks of these usually exquisitely preened birds quickly become coated with bright red blood and gore.
Equally as striking is the intraspecific competition for the optimal place at the carcass. The birds posture with wings spread and tails fanned, moving their heads from side to side whilst emitting their best war songs – unforgettable primitive guttural cries – to deter challengers.
If the deterrent is unsuccessful, the birds clash chest to chest, locking bills and slapping wings until one challenger concedes. It’s a spectacular display of carnage from this ultimate scavenger.
Because the males are larger than the females, gatherings such as this are usually between males whilst females tend to forage at sea where competition is less harsh.
I was recently approached by Will Harper-Penrose from Woodmansterne Primary School and Children’s Centre via the wonderful medium of Twitter. His year two pupils were learning about the Antarctic and exploration, and he got in touch to ask about the possibilities of doing a Q&A Skype session.
Unfortunately, South Georgia’s internet connection was not up to a Skype video so, on hearing that, Will came up with a much more imaginative way to ask the questions. Being a music teacher, he composed a song for his pupils to sing, asking questions like ‘Have you seen a penguin sliding on its belly?’ and ‘What do you eat in Antarctica?’
As you can see for yourself, the video, song and dance are awesome and put a smile on everyone’s face on base. Completely aware that this amazing video would outshine any video of mine, I used my surroundings on the island to assist me, featuring penguins, seals, icebergs and boating, here is a compilation of some of my footage from a year on South Georgia.
I hope that this will entertain the kids and hopefully inspire one or two to become polar scientists
Technically I have left South Georgia but I am aware that I haven’t posted many blogs over the past few very busy weeks. So I will catch you up on my activities with a few blogs! The beginning of spring brings a series of fresh faced new British Antarctic Survey recruits eager to takeover from the old guard and ready to learn their new job.
First on the long list of Kierans (the new me) new responsibilities was the Giant Petrels. Fortunate for us, these prehistoric birds have the a habit of nesting in areas of especially spectacular backdrops!
Where ever there are Giant Petrels there are glaciers not too far away so its often harder to take pictures without glaciers in the background.
There are colonies of Northern Petrels at Maiviken, Zenker Ridge and the Greene which nest approximately six weeks ahead of the Southerns which nest at Harpon and on the Greene.
The latest trip was to check up on the Southerns which should have all laid by now. The Northerns, are starting to lay and will have chicks by now.
Both sexes are very similar in appearance. However females tend to be smaller in size.
Last month I made the short voyage up the coast of South Georgia to The Bay Of Isles and Prion Island to check up on the Wandering Albatross. These are the world’s largest seabird and they nest in numerous colonies around the South Georgia coastline.
A few years back when I saw my first ever albatross on The Galapagos, I put ‘seeing wanderers on the nest’ top of my bucket list.
I didn’t think for a second that I would be able to cross it off so soon. To be allowed to get up close and personal with such incredible birds was a privilege and a pleasure, but now I need something else to take top spot …. maybe diving with leopard seals!
The trip was a success but with the weather window being very narrow, there was much concern that we may not manage to get the work done. However, after a dawn wake-up, we managed to get landed.
Of the birds present, when I last monitored Prion back in April, 100% had successfully made it through the winter and all should hopefully be fledging before the end of the year.
The island is also home to a number of other species which have been able to thrive without the presence of rats. Two colonies of Gentoo penguins were all sitting on freshly laid eggs, Giant Petrels were courting and laying, Pipit chicks were calling from nests all over the island, Light Mantled Albatross were sitting on nest bowls and White Chin Petrels were singing from their underground burrows. Also, the first few male Fur Seals were taking up residence on the beach.
Sadly my time on South Georgia is coming to a close. The time has absolutely flown by and I have well and truly fallen in love with the island and its incredible wildlife. With the breeding season and my workload starting to increase, I managed to wangle one last non-scientific holiday and made the long hike over to St Andrews Bay to one of the most incredible wildlife congregations this planet has to offer.
Having had an uncharacteristically warm September, I booked the time off with high hopes of easy hiking and blue skies. Sadly this wasn’t the case but when you come to South Georgia you can’t complain. The walk over was easy, certainly, with mild conditions allowing us to make it over in four hours and get into the colonies for the afternoon. Luckily we took advantage of this and enjoyed the only clear skies we were going to get for the week!
It was amazing to see such a massive change in the dynamic of the Bay. Hungry chicks dominated the main breeding colonies, magnificently outnumbering the few providing parents. The few gaps in the colonies were covered in unfortunate chicks that sadly didn’t make it through the harsh South Georgia Summer. The rivers and lakes which had run through the colony on my last visit were now melted and flowing.
The outskirts of the Bay were completely covered with non-breeding, moulting King Penguins – staying well away from the noise of the main colony. Many adults had ventured more than a mile inland to stand on the cool of the glaciers. By far the most significant change came along the beach front. Where months previously I had taken pictures of thousands of King Penguins lining the shore a much larger South Georgia native had now taken up residence there. More than 5,000 Elephant Seals covered the beach, obstructing the poor penguins’ route up to the higher breeding ground.
After a tip-off from our Doctor and Base Commander, who had visited a few weeks previously, we left the main colony for a rocky peninsula to the north of the Bay. As we passed the streams of clumsy Kings crossing the tidal pools going the opposite way to us, we noticed a number of injured penguins, suggesting that the tip-off had been good.
As we stepped out onto the rocks and peered down into the deep, we were greeted by a number of inquisitive eyes checking us out. In total, there were eight leopard seals all waiting close to the rocks and kelp, looking to ambush any passing King Penguins.
Within seconds of arriving, we spotted thrashing offshore as a hungry leopard seal tore apart an unfortunate King Penguin. In total, across the few hours spent at the point, I saw seven successful kills including three simultaneously. Nature, red in tooth and claw …
And the reason so many penguins manage to escape is because the leopard seals love to play with their food, often catching it several times and letting it go before finally killing it.
At one point, I was amazed to see a number of young Fur Seals cleaning themselves in the waters within a couple of metres of two big Leopard Seals and assumed that, with such abundant harmless prey in the form of King Penguins, the Leopard Seals didn’t bother the Fur Seals. However, it turned out the Fur Seals simply hadn’t spotted the Leopard Seals yet since they were soon making the 2 metre leap from the sea to the relative safety of the rocks.
As the light faded and the visibility reduced,we headed back to our hut for a dinner of military ration packs and an early night – the alarm was set for 05.30.
As I awoke, I was extremely happy to see bright white coming through the windows and eagerly got out of bed. I opened the door … to discover that what I thought was bright sunshine was actually a thick layer of snow! Still, since I was now up, I decided I may as well get my Antarctic Hero gear on and brave the conditions. Although the visibility wasn’t obviously bad, the fresh falling snow accompanied by the evaporation off the elephant seals backs obstructed any wide-shots I attempted, so I headed back to the Kings.
The winter is the hardest part of the season for the King chicks. Between April and October, some of the chicks will only be fed a couple of times, going as long as four months without a parental visit – Social Services would definitely not approve! It also means that it’s not uncommon to be followed around the colonies by a group of hungry chicks trying their luck. I managed to resist since I was running low on their preferred lantern fish.
You can’t blame the adults for making themselves scarce – the few chicks lucky enough to have parents around were extremely high maintenance, always begging for their next meal.
No matter what was going on on the beach, no matter what the weather was doing and no matter what dangerous obstacles needed passing, the stream of King adults kept coming, with numbers within the breeding colony increasing every day. Pretty impressive, all things considered.
In the last three days I have seen four more leopard seals, taken the RIB south to St Andrews Bay (where we watched a leopard seal tear apart a king penguin) and spent the night at Maiviken, where we watched at least 1000 Gentoo Penguins returning to South Georgia for the night …. Life is hard!
With news of a second lep sighting at Grytviken coming in the final minutes of light of the day, I set my alarm early and made my way over for first light hoping she hadn’t slugged off in the night in order to get more pictures for the rapidly growing leopard seal database.
Thankfully my efforts were not in vain!
I quickly headed back to base to complete my morning rounds and get ready for a day of boating – but not before taking a quick shot of the Pharos alongside before a patrol.
Next on the agenda was kitting up the boats and getting away, with St Andrews our next destination in order to re-supply the huts with food and medical gear. Unfortunately, the visit had to be very quick but, as regular readers will know, on South Georgia, a lot can happen in a short amount of time!
Upon landing we were greeted by a cloud of hungry Giant Petrels who are resident around the King Penguins. I caught a flash of yellow disappearing towards the sea and was able to get a couple of record shots of a yellow Darvic on the leg of a giant petrel, most probably from Bird Island.
Time didn’t allow me to reach the main King Penguin colony and check up on the chicks but there were a few Kings on the beach near where we landed, along with St Andrews latest occupants … Elephant Seals.
As we lifted the anchor, a very inquisitive leopard seal came to check us out. Unfortunately, my hands were full of anchor so no pictures were possible before it got bored of us and headed off. As we headed back to sea with Hound Bay our next destination, I clocked a congregation of Cape Petrels in the distance and headed towards it. Being in contact with our colleagues at Bird Island, I hear tales of leopard seal attacks and had subsequently added observing a kill, hopefully, to my bucket list.
As we approached, all that was clear was that something was being thrown around in the water by a dark shadow.
Unfortunately, the poor light and swell were enough to make focusing on the action very difficult, so the pictures aren’t much more than record shots but it was an incredible spectacle.
Due to a thick band of incoming fog, we couldn’t stay with the kill for long and were soon on our way north again to Hound Bay, where we were greeted by yet another leopard seal trying to hide itself amongst all the elephant seals.
We did get one last look at the South Georgia landscape before we were engulfed by fog for the duration of our trip back to Maiviken, where we were dropped off for the night.
Gentoo Penguins opt to return to the South Georgian shores every evening to roost, unlike other SG Penguins, even outside the breeding season. As we sat on the shore waiting for the sun to set, sipping mulled wine, we had hoped to see good numbers of Gentoos but we didn’t expect quite as many as we got!
For the first time this year, the Gentoos were observed making their way up past their usual roost site all the way up to their breeding colony, suggesting that we may well have an early breeding season this year.
Whilst the majority of the gentoos opted for the large open section of Tortula Beach, not all picked the same route
With last year being a spectacular breeding failure for the Gentoos, we are hoping for a more fruitful season this year.
Just a quick blog to say that the wildlife is slowly but surely returning to the South Georgian shores. The first few male Elephant Seals are making themselves back at home on the beaches, awaiting the return of the females. Hopefully, we should have the first females very soon, followed by the first pups and that should kick off the big fights between males for harems!
Along with the Elephant Seals have come increased numbers of Antarctic Fur Seals. Although breeding won’t start for these guys for a few months, it’s great to see them again and see them looking so healthy.
Antarctic Terns are increasing every day with a roost beside base reaching numbers of 150+ in the last few days. Birds can constantly be heard courting and seen displaying.
Our wintering residents are still here and I imagine will stick around in order to take advantage of the increased abundance of food! A peak of six leopard seals in a day vied for highlight of the month.
It’s not long now before the Gentoos will stop roosting close to the beaches and push on up to prospect their breeding colony for a year. With such a poor season observed last year, here’s hoping for better luck this time.
Giant Petrels are also increasing in numbers with the first Northern Giant Petrel observed on a nest already. Other seabirds are also increasing in the bay with more and more cape petrels close to base and also the first returning white chins. Hopefully, we should be seeing our first skuas in the next few days.
Male fur seals are already beginning to act territorially, meaning that I need to keep alert whilst patrolling the beaches.
It’s great to see these southern giants back around base, dwarfing the comparatively tiny fur seals on the beaches. They use the proboscis on their noses to project their calls, meaning on a still night, you are able to hear their roars from miles away.
Despite all this incredible fauna, probably the most exciting event in the last few weeks has been the return of bird song to the islands with South Georgia Pipits making themselves heard throughout the coastal areas.
South Georgia has been described by many visiting explorers over the years as the island of ice. It is clear to see why when you look at a map and see just how much of the island is made up of glaciers.
In the last few weeks I have been out on the boats a few times, not only to resupply the glacial ice on base to make the perfect G&T, but also for boat training and in order to get readings of how far the glaciers have receded.
When you hear figures of how quickly these majestic landmarks are receding, it’s easy to breeze over the figures and not fully comprehend the scale of withdrawal. Well to give you an idea, since I arrived in South Georgia nine months ago, the spectacular Neumayer glacier has receded by over a mile. It wasn’t until I looked at the navigation screen (still hundreds of metres from the face) and saw that I was apparently navigating several miles inland that the severity of this change struck me.
All along the face, it was clear to see more fragilities and cracks appearing and the moraine was full of titanic slabs of glacial debris that dwarfed both the boats.
It has been joked by geologists that this withdrawal of a glacier that runs the entire width of the island could result in the formation of North and South South Georgia islands. Realistically, there is most probably land lying beneath the glacier but it’s not inconceivable that these glaciers could be gone in the not too distant future.
A day later and we were back out on the boats, this time in Cumberland East to drop the boss off on his holidays. This gave us a great excuse to check out the Nordenskjold glacier, named after the expedition that identified Grytviken as a suitable location for South Georgia’s first whaling station in 1902.
There must be good quantities of small prey items in this area of the bay as large numbers of fur seals were lingering in the bay, not to mention South Georgia Shags and Antarctic Terns (see below).
It would be nice to think that all this will be preserved for future generations.
The BAS team based here has now dropped to 7 and it’s a long time since we last saw real people! To stop us going crazy, we have to keep ourselves entertained. As a marine biologist, my favourite pastime would be talking to the animals, but apart from the occasional seal, base is fairly barren of wildlife so we have to find other ways to keep busy.
Luckily, we have lots of snow at the moment so there are opportunities to get out on the hill and ski. Its not quite the same as your standard resort skiing since in order to ski down a hill, you must first ski up it because we have very few chairlifts. Well, none at all, actually.
Also there are no piste bashers to compact the snow, meaning that even on skis, it’s not uncommon to sink several inches beneath the surface, making falls frequent but landings comfy.
As well as talking to seals and ski-ing, we also we take it in turns every Saturday to provide food and sometimes entertainment for everyone on base. So far this month we have had a Glastonbury themed evening, where we dressed like hippies and watched the downloaded Glasto highlights. We have also had a pizza and quiz night.
Sometimes the entertainment isn’t thought up within station. Two weekends ago, we participated in the Antarctic 48 Hour Film Competition. This was first thought up by an American base and allows us to compete against all the other bases around the Antarctic continent.
The competition starts with an email on the Friday evening which contains a list of various items to incorporate into a 5 minute film. You then have until 0000 Sunday night to write, film, direct and edit your film, and , if you feel confident enough, to submit it for viewing around the Antarctic.
The film is then judged by your peers based on the acting, filmography and editing, and winners are announced. Having sat through 22 different entries, I was incredibly impressed by the overall standard and creativity, although that can’t be said about every entry! Ours this year was a soof 1970s cop show and was voted as second best overall. If you want to make your own follow this link …. 48 hour film link
We also have a very well equipped workshop and the experienced people here have been happy to show me around the machinery, meaning I have been able to improve both metalwork and woodwork skills.
We are also spending lots of time training ourselves on the use of the fine South Georgia fleet so that Russ, our boating officer, feels confident enough to go on holiday!
In other news, we had a 7.4 earthquake at the weekend. I am told that base shook considerably and it awoke several members of the team. But apparently, I am a very deep sleeper!
South Georgia is absolutely incredible for rich and diverse wildlife, this is something we all know. What makes it that little bit more special than other places of this nature is the breathtaking scenery all around you wherever you go. With wildlife sightings currently at their lowest around base, I took a bit of time to photograph the landscapes.
Almost as spectacular as the landscape are the skies now that the days are getting lighter again: sunset and sunrise are falling perfectly in time with the beginning and end of work. We have also been witness to some amazing lenticular cloud formations in recent weeks.
Even with wildlife sightings down around base, I am still making the weekly trips to Maiviken to see the few lingering Antarctic Fur Seals. Its very rare that I make the commute and don’t get my camera out, even if only my phone (like the two below). I must have a thousand pictures of my route by now, but it’s not one I ever want to forget!
Our numbers have recently dropped with the loss of our lead boatman, who has headed back to the equally as spectacular Essex. His loss means that there is a much greater demand for the rest of us to take out the boats.
An out of character spell of calm weather has allowed me to rack up some hours of training in recent weeks on board the Jet boats. I have been training at night time navigation – during the day! Our boating officer, Russ, used a very high tech training methodology of putting cardboard on all the windows and making me navigate only using the GPS equipment. When I eventually stepped outside, the day and the view was pretty stunning (see above).
We have also had lots of time training with our Fisheries Patrol vessel, practicing ‘at sea transfers’.
Finally, myself and another team member, took the short commute across to Grytviken, for a night away from base. The weather was too good to stay indoors so we headed out with a flask of mulled wine and watched the almost full moon rise over Mount Duse and the derelict remains of Grytviken whaling station.
After a bitterly cold night, we were woken by a nosy neighbour at the front door, trying to get in to steal our warmth. A snowy sheathbill was wading through the snow in order to check if we had left any scraps. Unfortunately, we disappointed!