Carnage!

This entry is part 1 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

WARNING!

NOT FOR THE FAINT-HEARTED.

PLEASE DON’T CONTINUE READING

THIS POST IF YOU ARE AT ALL SQUEAMISH.

Giant Petrels scavenging
Giant Petrels scavenging on an Elephant Seal

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.

Covered in blood!

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.

Fighting for a place at the dinner table

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.

Giant Petrel Displaying
Tail Fanned in display

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.

Low Blow
Fighting besides the BBQ

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.

Angry prehistoric looking birds
Almost Velocoraptor like
They do it on the water to!
Brutal birds!

Return of the wildlife

This entry is part 2 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey
First Male Elephant Seal back on the Maiviken beaches
First Male Elephant Seal back on the Maiviken beaches

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!

Fur Seal porpoising in the shallows
Fur Seal porpoising in the shallows

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 Tern in flight in front of the ship
Antarctic Tern in flight in front of the ship

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.

IMG_2358
Friendly leopard seal making use of the ice which had flown into the cove

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.

Gentoo penguins on maiviken beach
Gentoo penguins on Maiviken Beach

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.

IMG_2116
R&R in front of base
Giant Petrels are back and building nests
Giant Petrels are back and building nests

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.

Fur Seal shaking out his mane
Fur Seal shaking out his mane

Male fur seals are already beginning to act territorially, meaning that I need to keep alert whilst patrolling the beaches.

IMG_1806
Leopard seal trying to ignore the wind and snow
Another fur seal shaking it out
Another fur seal shaking it out
Elephant Seals are also back at Penguin River
Elephant Seals are also back at Penguin River

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.

IMG_2865-HDR
Leopard seal hiding behind a snowdrift on base! Easy to miss in a white out
Gentoo Penguins fighting in the snow
Gentoo Penguins fighting in the snow

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 pipits are mcuh more apprent now and have begun singing
South Georgia pipits are much more apparent now and have begun singing

Predators at St Andrews

This entry is part 3 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey
Giant Petrel patrolling colony
Giant Petrel patrolling colony

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.

IMG_8317

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.

IMG_8312

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.

IMG_8293

The giant petrels especially aren’t known for being spectacularly gracious landers but, once on the ground, they start causing havoc.

IMG_8861
Looking for a landing space
IMG_8866
Preparing to land

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.


IMG_8685

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.

Giant Petrel after a successful kill
Giant Petrel after a successful kill

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!

Displaying giant petrels
Displaying giant petrels
Fighting the way up the pecking order
Fighting their way up the pecking order

Giant petrels aren’t the only competition for food, with brown skuas and snowy sheathbills also abundant around the colony

IMG_8614
Brown Skua keeping a watchful eye over the colony
IMG_8264
Brown Skua coming into land in the colony

For more images from this incredible trip to St Andrews, check out my St Andrews Bay album

South Georgia’s Glaciers

This entry is part 4 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey
The receding Neumayer Glacier
South Georgia’s Glaciers

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.

Our rib 'Mollie' heading to the Neumayer
Our rib ‘Mollie’ heading to the Neumayer

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.

Neumayer glacier is receding at an incredible rate
Neumayer glacier is receding at an incredible rate

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.

GPS clearly locating the boat to be ontop of the glacier
GPS clearly locating the boat to be on top of the glacier

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.

Crack appearing in the face of the Neumayer
Crack appearing in the face of the Neumayer
A slab of glacial ice from the face of the Neumayer
A slab of glacial ice from the face of the Neumayer

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.

Sun trying to push through the cloud on South Georgia
Sun trying to push through the cloud on South Georgia
Molly looking small in front of the Neumayer
Molly looking small in front of the Neumayer

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.

More boating and more glaciers - Nordenskjold Glacier out of the cloud
More boating and more glaciers – Nordenskjold Glacier out of the cloud

 

Nordenskjold face spans greater than 4km
Nordenskjold face spans greater than 4km

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.

South Georgia Shags rafting on some ice in front of the Nordenskjold
South Georgia Shags rafting on some ice in front of the Nordenskjold

More Leps

This entry is part 5 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey
Leopard Seal sightings through the winter
Leopard Seal sightings through the winter
Sightings occur all over the thatcher peninsula, this one was right in front of base
Sightings occur all over the Thatcher Peninsula, this one was right in front of base

IMG_9735

Leopard seal sights
Yawning for the camera

IMG_9764-2

Leopard seal hauled out on glacial ice in Maiviken
Leopard seal hauled out on glacial ice in Maiviken

IMG_2898-HDR

Unfortunately this individual was only seen offshore and I only had my small lens with me
Unfortunately, this individual was only seen offshore and I only had my small lens with me
IMG_3269
Not all individuals come out of the water to be photographed!

IMG_3216-2

IMG_3215

IMG_3075

IMG_5962

This individual was observed in front of the Neumayer glacier hauled out on the ice
This individual was observed in front of the Neumayer glacier, hauled out on the ice

IMG_5790

The second of my birthday Neumayer Leps
The second of my birthday Neumayer Leps

New Job With The British Antarctic Survey

This entry is part 6 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

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!

St Andrews Bay… Best Holiday Ever

This entry is part 7 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey
IMG_8453
View of St Andrews Bay before we dropped down to the colony

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.

IMG_8742
Waves of King Penguins in front of glaciers and mountains

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.

IMG_0448
King Penguin adults entering and exiting the sea

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.

IMG_8573-HDR
More Penguins and more mountains!
IMG_0212
Penguins in front of the Cook Glacier

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.

IMG_0098
Penguins at dusk
IMG_8867-HDR
King Penguin chicks and adults at dawn

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.

IMG_9166
Penguin chicks creching together

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.

Visibility wasn't always great which made navigating exciting!
Visibility wasn’t always great which made navigation exciting!
Just out of Hound Bay... Half way there
Just out of Hound Bay… Half way there
South Georgia doesnt do flat... Robbie coming around the back of Mount Skittle (1600ft)
South Georgia doesn’t do flat… Robbie coming around the back of Mount Skittle (1600ft)

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 …

IMG_9105
Icebergs, probably from the peninsula, drifting north past the islands

 

IMG_9095
Chick checking out his surroundings
IMG_9800
Hundreds and hundreds of metres of black and white blobs
IMG_9764
More waves of penguins
IMG_9716-HDR-Pano
Panoramic of half the colony!
IMG_9623-Pano
More penguins (sorry if this title is a little unimaginative!)
IMG_9012
No space on the beach
IMG_8973-Pano
Penguin reflections

IMG_8720

 

IMG_8199

 

IMG_8247
Slightly lost elephant seal, amongst all the penguins

First Day At BAS

This entry is part 7 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

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!

Pre Deployment Training

This entry is part 8 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

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.

British Antarctic Survey Winterers Conference team
British Antarctic Survey Winterers Conference team

 

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.

Deployment of booms during oil spill response training
Deployment of booms during oil spill response training

 

 

 

Our Station Commander extinguishing a fire during training
Our Station Commander extinguishing a fire during training

 

Training In Edinburgh With British Geological Survey

This entry is part 8 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey
National and Nelson's Monuments, Edinburgh
National and Nelson’s Monuments at night, Edinburgh

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.

National and Nelson's Monuments, Edinburgh
National and Nelson’s Monuments at sunset, Edinburgh

 

Dugald Stewart Monument at Sunset with cranes
Dugald Stewart Monument at Sunset with cranes
Edinburghs Dugald Stewart monument and castle at night
Edinburghs Dugald Stewart monument and castle at night

Link To My Edinburgh Gallery

no images were found