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.
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.
St Andrews Bay is an absolutely incredible place for a number of reasons. Not only does it have hundreds of thousands of penguins, it is surrounded by stunning glaciers and mountains, it borders the sea and it is home to thousands of prehistoric predators.
Where there are penguins on South Georgia, you are never too far from both Giant Petrels and Brown Skuas. These birds fill the dual role of top land predators and scavengers on the island. Both species are incredibly intelligent, tough and persistent, and make a good match for any of the penguin species here.
It’s hard whilst walking around St Andrews, not just to look down at the masses of penguins, but if you glance up, the skies are alive with these majestic birds as they constantly, effortlessly patrol the colonies for gaps to land in.
The giant petrels especially aren’t known for being spectacularly gracious landers but, once on the ground, they start causing havoc.
If you get to a high point above the colonies, you can see the roads that these guys create as they run through the colonies, looking for carrion or weak penguins to predate.
With numbers of penguins being so astonishingly high, you would assume that pickings would be easy. But even once the predators have a penguin in their bill, they have to keep it there long enough to make the kill, all the time being attacked by other lucky penguin survivors.
Once the kill is made, it is a matter of consuming as much as they can as quickly as they can because it’s not long before more hungry eyes pick them out and they have to share their well-earned meal!
Giant petrels aren’t the only competition for food, with brown skuas and snowy sheathbills also abundant around the colony
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.
I am delighted to say that I will be the new higher predator scientist for the British Antarctic Survey in South Georgia working at King Edward Point! It is an absolutely incredible opportunity, I will be working amongst the seal and penguin colonies mostly but also doing some fisheries, albatross and giant petrel work as well if all goes to plan.
I was very late to receive the news of the position and as a result, planning and organisation for my trip south has been fairly mental. Although I will be flying down to the Falklands, a large part of my luggage has gone already in a ‘P’ box. This is a box of personal belongings that is shipped down upon BAS’s research vessel. I had very little time to buy things for this box, before the boat departed, so settled on sweets predominantly as I am told these will make good bargaining tools once south. There was also a little room for fancy dress which is also a necessity apparently!
In order to get the most out of my experience as possible when I head south, I have invested in some fairly expensive equipment. This includes some skis and bindings, ski boots, some outdoor gear and a new camera and lens. One of the most frustrating things I have found since getting the news is that once I have brought these I have not been able to play with them and especially with the skis, its unlikely I will get a chance to until winter. Sounds stupid but when I get a new toy I want to play with it.
Getting the job is an absolute dream. However it does come with sacrifices, life in the Antarctic is a very long way from the people I love and have grown to rely on! And without a doubt I am sure there is going to be some brief spells of homesickness!
I’m often asked how frequently we get let off South Georgia for holidays and to see family. The answer is never!
For an entire year, I am restricted to the island.
But we do get much more freedom than other Antarctic bases and have a very generous travel limit. And we do get ‘holidays’ – kind of – where we get to visit neighbouring peninsulas for a short period with the help of boating support.
After a hard and very long summer, I took a few days off to visit St Andrews Bay. This is somewhere I have always wanted to visit, since watching David Attenborough documentaries as a kid.
St Andrews Bay is a stretch of land lying at the foot of Mount Skittle on the Barff Peninsula. It stretches 3km from the mountain ranges at each end and 2km between the ocean and the glaciers located at either side.
More spectacular than the bay itself are its residents. St Andrews Bay is home to the largest breeding colony of King Penguins worldwide. Depending on who you talk to, the numbers of penguins residing here are between 400,000 and 600,000. And having visited the colony, I can now understand why there is such ambiguity.
Literally everywhere you look, there are King Penguins. Along the beaches, there is a constant conveyor belt of birds as adults either return to land to feed their chicks or head to sea to stock up on baby food.
We were incredibly lucky to visit the colony at this time of year. Not only was it covered with a thick layer of snow, but also, amongst the adults, were chicks of all different sizes. Surprisingly, there were even a small number of adults still incubating eggs.
I wish St Andrews was on our doorstep but unfortunately not. In fact, in order to reach this spectacular phenomenom, we had to walk 20km across knee deep mountainous terrain in snow shoes. Upon arrival at our St Andrews Bay hut, myself and Robbie, exhausted from walking, ingested a kilogram of chocolate in seconds, which some philanthropist had kindly left for us in the hut.
Was it worth all the effort and exhaustion …? Well, you decide for yourself. As the saying goes, a picture paints a thousand words, so the rest of this post is silent …
Having successfully managed to get the P box sorted it was time for my first day. I was told that an important part of this was getting to know people that I would be working with down south and also the support staff in Cambridge. So much of my first day was spent drinking coffee and looking over spectacular images of staff who have been lucky to visit King Edward Point in the past.
On one of my brief breaks from a tea break I was given some useful reading for heading south. The first three titles read ‘Working with seals’, ‘working with penguins’ and ‘Giant Petrel Monitoring’. What a job!
However probably, even better than this reading was being sent down to the kit room. I was given a huge branded BAS bag full of gear for me to try on! I don’t think I really believed that I was actually going until I got on my big orange BAS jumpsuit and looked in the mirror. Also provided were some walking boots, thermals, work trousers, hat, gloves, fleeces, wellies and sunglasses!
Before the British Antarctic Survey allow me to go to South Georgia; I have an intensive schedule of courses in just about every corner of the country to attend.
First up was conference, in Cambridge, which involved a series of lectures and workshops ran by British Antarctic Survey personnel. This aimed to give us a better idea of what to expect when we get down south and also allow us to better understand the breadth of work carried out by the British Antarctic Survey. It was great to meet the 8 people that are going to be stuck with me in South Georgia and also talk to people that have been their previously and hear about how incredible it is.
Since there is such a small group of us going and we will be working in very isolated conditions, as well as our designated job roles we have a number of other responsibilities whilst we are south which we need to be trained for. As a result conference also involved Oil Spill Response Training, First Aid Training and Fire Training.
Another of my responsibilities upon arrival in South Georgia will be regular recordings of the Earth Magnetic Fields for the British Geological Survey. This data will be used to ensure that the data that they are collecting remotely is all correct. In order to do this I visited the offices of the British Geological Survey in Edinburgh where I met some of the team and was trained to use a Magnetometer (the equipment I will be using in South Georgia).
Once I had the technique nailed, I had a bit of time to wonder around the beautiful city and take a few snaps. For anyone hoping to take in the sunset here, I would recommend heading to Calton Hill. This high vantage point gives you incredible views of various monuments (Dugald Stewart, national, and Nelson’s) , the castle, Arthur’s Seat, the island of Inchkeith and Princess Street.