Snow!!!

This entry is part 13 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey
King Penguin in the snow
King Penguin in the snow

South Georgia is an island located north of the main Antarctic Peninsula and with it being in the southern hemisphere it should be spring now. I should be walking to my study site every other day, worrying about how badly the hole in the Ozone is going to fry my skin, but its been almost a week since we last saw even a spec of blue sky. Not only has it been cold, its been bloody snowy and blowing a gale. As I am writing this, the weather station is recording regular gusts of 70knot winds and the snow flakes coming down are bigger than the face of my watch.

King Edward Point research station in the snow
King Edward Point research station in the snow

With Christmas approaching, we are starting to think there may be a slight chance of a white Christmas. But, do I want it….? Well, it would be pretty cool (if the wind calms) but it doesn’t half make the round trip to my study site hard going, in knee deep snow, which I will have to complete on Christmas day and New Years. Its not all bad though as the longer I am out for the less I will need to help with the big Christmas cook!

My snowy tracks in the last snow we had. Its a long walk in knee deep snow!
My snowy tracks in the last snow we had. Its a long walk in knee deep snow!

With activities restricted as a result of the severe weather, the team took the time to practice their snowball throwing and also helped the museum staff decorate the church for visiting cruise ship tourists over Christmas. I would love to say we did this out of the kindness of our hearts but I’d be lying, we were lured across with the promise of mince pies and mulled wine! It also gave me the chance to take a couple shots of the various decommissioned ships around the whaling station at Grytviken in the snow

Two of the decommissioned ships at Grytviken whaling station
Two of the decommissioned ships at Grytviken whaling station

There is something very magical about being on an island with heavy snow during the brief intervals in the wind. But these intervals are very few and far between, so if you want to get out you better wrap up and prepare yourself for a battering. At times the snow was falling so quickly the wildlife was struggling to keep its self afloat!

King Penguins bracing from the wind in front of Grytviken
King Penguins bracing from the wind in front of Grytviken
The snow was heavy,even the elephant seals were struggling to stay uncovered
The snow was so heavy, even the elephant seals were struggling to stay uncovered

For the animals, they don’t have the luxury of batting down the hatches and turning on the central heating, the breeding season must go on! So I was very keen to get out and join them and see how the weather affected the wildlife. Even with us being so close to the Antarctic peninsula it is very rare for South Georgia to get this amount of snow during spring. And as a result there’s seldom the chance of seeing our native wildlife in the snow, especially during the breeding season. I was particularly impressed with the diminutive Antarctic Terns and Wilson’s Storm Petrels which were frequently observed flying against the wind and snow, successfully foraging.

Antarctic Tern fishing in the wake of an elephant seal
Antarctic Tern fishing in the wake of an elephant seal

The winds also left a group of King Penguins that had been moulting near the wharf heading through base to seek shelter. Problem is they didn’t stick to the pavements and they didn’t look left and right before crossing which made life difficult for all the South Georgia traffic (1 car)

Group of King Penguins Making their way through base
Group of King Penguins Making their way through base

It is a bad time for harsh weather conditions with so many animals reproducing across the islands. I was concerned for my study seals and penguins with the chicks and pups being especially susceptible to the elements. The cold wet weather means the young have to use high amounts of energy in order to maintain their body temperatures.

Antarctic Fur Seal pup calling for mum in the snow
Antarctic Fur Seal pup calling for mum in the snow
The fight for space on the colonies must continue even in these adverse conditions, Male, Antarctic Fur Seals
The fight for space on the colonies must continue even in these adverse conditions, Male, Antarctic Fur Seals

Inevitably there will be some casualties in these conditions, but one animals loss is another’s gain. With Southern Giant Petrel chicks about to hatch and Northern chicks growing rapidly, any meal is much appreciated.

Giant Petrel Taking off into the snow
Giant Petrel Taking off into the snow

 

Arriving at my new home

With winds picking up over night and approaching 50 knots the boat began to role and with it, me in my bed! So I was almost thankful to see first light outside and hear the alarm at 4 o’clock! As we approached South Georgia and Shag Rocks to the north I hoped that wildlife sightings would increase.

Unfortunately the weatherman decided to scupper my plans! I arrived on the bridge to force 9 seas and visibility of about 200m. Although the winds were now subsiding, the chance of wildlife sightings was remote at best. Still, I persevered unsuccessfully until breakfast! If the food wasn’t so good on the ship I may have been disheartened but when you’re at most four hours from a three course meal its hard feel aggrieved!

As unfavorable conditions continued I returned to my room to sort through the hundreds of pictures I’d taken the previous days. I did forex outside a few times and see a couple of fur seals and another Grey Headed Albatross but the most exciting part of my day was probably trying to aim in the toilet, whilst standing in a rolling force 9 sea.

Giant Petrel
First glimpse of South Georgia with a Giant Petrel in the foreground

Fortunately the weather had cleared by the following morning allowing us, not only better views of the wildlife, but also our first glimpses of South Georgia. We travelled south along the eastern side of the island with incredible views of snow covered mountains and blue glaciers before navigating towards King Edward Point through Cumberland bay.

Black Browed Albatross

A Black Browed Albatross pruning in flight in front of my new home

I would be lying if I said I hadn’t been slightly worried about the crossing, with the Southern Atlantic notorious for some of the biggest seas in the world. Here, force 12 seas are far more frequent than flat calm days. But all my worrying was put in to perspective when we encountered a tiny yacht departing from South Georgia ready to venture back to civilization! If they can do it, it is and was a breeze for the my vessel; this time!

Cumberland Bay

Small yacht leaving Cumberland Bay, South Georgia navigating through the glacial debris

Although the skies were blue the winds were far from calm and it needed some great skippering in order to park us safely alongside my new home.

King Edward Point

King Edward Point, my new base with Antarctic Fur Seals and Elephant seals awaiting our arrival

South Georgia is unique for its incredible richness and diversity in both flora and fauna . But travelers, tourists and whalers, over the years have brought their share of non-native species to the islands, many of which have had large scale detrimental affects. The South Georgian Government are doing an incredible job aiding the return of the ecosystem back to its former strength with successful eradications of Rats and Reindeer both completed over the recent history. In order to prevent any more of these accidental introductions, before I was able to meet my new colleagues I had to stop of at the bio shed to thoroughly search and clean myself and my belongings.