Introduction to Bird Island

As I have mentioned before (and you can probably guess from the name) there are a few birds calling this place home!

There may not be a huge amount of diversity here but the species and sheer numbers of birds present are spectacular.

We don’t get many sunsets here but when we do …!

The island is quite large (4km long) but there isn’t a huge number of birds obvious on the ground; that’s because most prefer to nest under it, thanks to the high density of predatory birds above.

Giant Petrels at battle over food

To live and work on this island has been my dream for years, but the real pulling factor for coming back to South Georgia wasn’t, believe it or not, the penguins …

… as great as penguins are!

Nope. It was the chance of working with Antarctic Fur Seals again. Well, that, and living in a Wandering Albatross colony.

A plateau of wandering albatross

Sadly, I won’t be here for the entire year, which means I won’t get to see the entire breeding cycle of the Wandering Albatross, since they can take 13 months from laying to fledging.

These majestic birds can take 13 months from laying to fledging …

So, unlike most species which were here at the beginning of the breeding season when we arrived, the Wandering Albatross were finishing up. The fledglings were beginning to leave the island, having spent the entire winter on the nest alone, only being visited by their parents to be fed before they disappear back on another several thousand km foraging trip.

When the parents come back, the chicks can be pretty persistent in their begging

Not all birds lay on the same day obviously and thus it follows, just as obviously, that not all were the same age.

Still fluffy!

When they are approaching the right age, they actually weigh more than their parents and just before fledging, they regurgitate all the hard parts of there diet (squid beaks, fish bones and sometimes plastic) and head for sea.

First flights aren’t always graceful!
But if at first you don’t succeed …

Wandering albatross breed every other year so, despite the fact that last year’s birds were fledging, the new birds were also beginning to arrive, ready for the present breeding season.

Not a bad place to set up for the year

Whilst the wandering albatross can be found over the meadows higher up on the island, the beaches are covered by fur seals (or “furries”).

Full of furries

Considering that a hundred years ago, these animals were hunted to economical extinction on the island, it’s mind-blowing to consider their numbers are now in the region of 4 million.

About 1 in 800 fur seals are born blonde and given the imaginative nickname of “blondies”
And where there are blonde adults …

There aren’t many success stories like this that I can think of but seemingly Humpbacks and Southern Right Whales are on a similar path, based on the quantity of animals being seen from shore this year.

I may or may have not taken this in Antarctica last February

Unfortunately, food was less plentiful this winter and the seals are paying for it. From looking at the diets of the seals throughout the year, we can see how well they are eating and what prey items are available. After poor winters, breeding numbers are often low.

Apparently fur seals like the taste of rock! Who knew?

However, even in poor seasons, the beaches are absolutely covered in fur seals. From looking at the diets of those that have bred this year, we can see that the krill have returned and as a result, the pups are fat and doing well.

Grumpy but content

Nevertheless, I couldn’t write a blog from South Georgia without a penguin picture or two. One of the many great things about Bird Island is how accessible the wildlife is and with a Gentoo Penguin colony just a few hundred metres from base, it’s been easy to keep tabs on how they are doing.

Just hatching

A few weeks after arrival, the eggs were cracking and the gentoo siblings were emerging.

Gentoo chick already begging
Siblings waiting to be fed

A little further away (but also a little more spectacular) is Big Mac, home to 80,000 Macaroni penguins. These are obligate reducers, meaning they lay two eggs but only one will hatch – and that’s what they are starting to do!

Fat macaronis making their way back to the chicks

In other news, molliemawks (grey-headed and black-browed albatross) and Giant Petrels have fat chicks.

Black-browed albatross taking off
Grey headed albatross are truly stunning specimens
Northern Giant Petrel Chicks are also well on their way, having started earlier than most breeders.

That’ll have to do for this weeks photo fix… Hope you enjoyed

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!

British Antarctic Survey Mark II

Southern Rockhopper Penguins

Its been a long while since I wrote a blog but now that I am back settled in colder climes I think it’s about time that I update this website.

I am back in my favourite part of the world living on a small island 500m North West of South Georgia. It’s aptly named Bird Island since its home to hundreds of thousands of seabirds and penguins. So dense is the wildlife here that there is either a seabird or seal every 1.5m2. 

Big Mac is the largest colony on the island and is used by 40,000 pairs of Macaroni penguins 

As with all travel in the Southern Ocean, ‘Plan A’ very rarely comes to fruition. I set off from home via RAF flight to the Falklands where I had a couple days to explore the rich wildlife the islands have to offer. Having been to the Falklands several times now I am still amazed by what’s on show here. With it being located north of the subantarctic convergence the species found here are slightly different and there were great opportunities to see Southern Sea Lions, Rockhopper Penguins and Imperial Cormorants.

The Falklands will literally blow you away with wind and rain almost as predictable as beautiful wildlife!

Thousands of Rockhopper Penguins breed along the cliff tops of the Falklands
Two headed Cormorant

Bull Seal Lions are formidable animals weighing 350kg

I then headed south on board the Naval patrol ship, HMS Clyde. My next destination was Bird Island. 3 days sailing away. As we made our way South on the unusually flat calm seas we were treated to views of fin whales, right whale dolphins, Peale’s dolphins and Humpback whales as well as lots of seabirds. 

Humpback whale alongside the ship close to shore
First of many Wandering Albatross over a flat sea
Giant Petrel over a less flat sea

As I woke up on the 3rdmorning, just north of Shag Rocks, ready for my 5am ice watch on the bridge, we were greeted by a 2 by 3 mile iceberg which had a couple of smaller bergs which had broken off. Fortulately the captain was up on the bridge and suggested we position the ship so that when the sun rises it comes up directly behind the ice berg. And this was carried out to perfection!

HMS Clyde making her way to the Iceberg
Sunrising behind the iceberg
Decent sized chunk of ice!

Unfortunately the next step of the plan worked out less perfectly as we approached Bird Island which is very exposed to the prevailing winds and swell. The decision was made to not even attempt landing meaning we would reposition to my old home at King Edward Point and wait patiently for a different lift. 

Sunsetting over my first views of South Georgia this season
Heading towards Cumberland Bay down a snowy coastline
It amazing to see how many whales there are around South Georgia this year. These are only the second Humpbacks I have ever seen inside Cumberland Bay.
Grey Headed Albatross over the South Georgia mountains
The Nordenskjold glacier still looks as spectacular as ever
Back to my old home, King Edward Point! Temporarily!

There are definitely worst places to be stationed on standby. Read my next blog here

Pacific Adventure

Blue waters of the Cook Islands

Its been a long time coming but I wanted to add a few pictures from my latest adventure. For the first time in a few years my work took me to sunnier climes and allowed me to get into the water somewhere warm. I was lucky enough to work on board the National Geographic Orion in the Pacific region. 

Inside the crater of Tahiti

Humpback whale coming to say hello in Mo’orea

Racoon Butterflyfish in Fakarava

National Geographic Orion in Mo’orea

Highlights real of my time in Fakarava with music by Eto performed on a moto off Taha’a

This is a spectacular region and over my stint here I was fortunate to visit French Polynesia, Cook Islands, Samoa, Wallis & Futuna and Samoa. My visit allowed me to explore lots of different islands and Motu’s and experience their different cultures as well as take in some spectacular wildlife. 

Bora Bora lagoon looking spectacular from above unfortunately much of the reef is dead

Rough-toothed dolphins in the Society Islands

Coming to the Pacific and especially French Polynesia, there were many places that I was itching to get to, such as Tahiti and Bora Bora. However in hindsight the most enjoyable islands were those I had never heard of, like Makatea and Toau. As a result of their lack of development, many of these had much more diverse and healthy ecosystems as well as more untouched and natural cultures on land. 

Paddleboarding and kayaking in the Bay of Isles, Fiji

Tie dying in Bora Bora

As mentioned earlier, one of my favourite locations was an island called Makatea in the Tuamotu Islands of French Polynesia. This is an uplifted coral island which as steep 80m cliffs, is covered in rich forest with several endemic species and is surrounded by crystal waters and healthy reefs.

Who said pigeons and doves are ugly?! Many of these islands have vibrant species of fruit dove. This is the Makatea Fruit Dove

The uplifted island of Makatea

Getting ashore wasn’t always easy but with our talented AB drivers we always made it

Lying at the heart of this island is it’s best secret a number of underground freshwater grottos which allow you to snorkel and free dive amongst stalactites and stalagmites. 

Freediving one of Makatea’s grottos. Photo taken by Michael S. Nolan. All rights reserved Worldwide.

Another picture of me poking around a grotto taken by taken by Michael S. Nolan. All rights reserved Worldwide.

There is not the densities of seabirds that you find in the colder regions as a result of these warmer waters being less nutrient rich. But there can still be some great seawatching. Boobies, noddies, tropicbirds and frigates are common as well as large numbers of petrel and shearwater species that are endemic to the region. 

Inquisitive red footed booby off the bow of the ship

Black winged petrel and mottled petrel were fairly common on route to Fiji

Black Noddy

It wasn’t just the birdlife that kept me entertained. I was lucky enough to tick several wildlife experiences off my bucket list in this beautiful region. Highlights included snorkelling with Humpbacks in Mo’orea, diving with Tigersharks in Tahiti and also night diving with the hunting reef sharks of Fakarava

Snorkeller and Humpback whale in front of the spectacular Mo’orea hills

One of 4 tiger sharks seen on two dives

This diving operation allows research to be carried out on the movements of these incredible 4m giants. They are all identifiable by markings in pictures and therefore photo catalogues have been created here

Another highlight involved sub winging with Spinner dolphins

Its not just the large wildlife I appreciate

Samoan Myzomela are one of many endemics across the region

A rare rainy day!

Sharks galore in Tahiti

Beautiful snapper schools

Sea krait hunting a reef in Futuna

Underwater with the humpback

Not the wildlife I expected to see at sea

Whilst we travelled the regions surrounding Fiji and Samoa we were treated to a number of different cultural experiences including war dances performed by both kids and adults.

Young warrior in the village of Waitabu, Fiji

Seranaded on the beaches of Fakarava

I shall finish with a travel tip of mine…. I highly recommend finding some locals to show you around wherever you find yourself in the world. You’ll meet some amazing people and have a way better time! Having spent 4 days on Tahiti in advance of my trip in the rain I was deeply disappointed. However I was lucky enough to meet two amazing people who showed me the time of my life before I departed; free diving with turtles, wake boarding in the sunset, tiger shark diving, watching the locals surf and sub winging with dolphins! 

I didn’t fancy giving it a go but was happy to watch from the shore

Tahiti hills

Wakeboarding inside the Tahiti lagoon (picture by Perrine Reidy)

On reflection, my summer wasn’t too bad at all!

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