Giants of St Andrews

This entry is part 41 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

img_2373-2

This second instalment from my latest incredible trip to St Andrews will involve fewer superlatives – because I used my quota up in the first instalment!

I have spent a year on this amazing island and over a quarter of my pictures have been taken in the two weeks spent at St Andrews Bay. This is no reflection on how ‘boring’ the rest of the island (it’s not) … but St Andrews Bay is flipping ridiculous!

Elephant seal bull relaxing in the snow
Elephant seal bull relaxing in the snow
Having a scratch
Having a scratch in the snow
Young male on the beach
Young male on the beach

As you’ll have seen from my previous blog, there are hundreds of thousands of breeding King Penguins resident here, but just as awesome are the majestic giants that span the entire shore front.

St Andrews Shore
St Andrews Shore
Where penguins meet steaming elephant seals
Where penguins meet steaming elephant seals

They are loud, they smell worse than the penguins and they very rarely move but when they do, the sheer power and strength on display commands your attention and respect.

Challenging bulls are frequent
Challenging bulls are frequent
Elephant Seal in one of the glacial lakes at St Andrews
Elephant Seal in one of the glacial lakes at St Andrews

Beachmasters will spend months on end within harems of hundreds of females, fighting off challenges and rivals in order for the chance to mate with the females once they have weaned their pups. The challengers are numerous and relentless, leaving the beachmasters little time to sleep and relax between bouts and duels.

New bull onto the beach checking out the competition
A new bull on the beach checks out the competition

There are considerable size differences amongst males and it is in the interest of both beachmaster and challenger not to waste energy/get injured in one-sided competitions. So, in order to prevent this from happening, males use their proboscis to amplify their roars, allowing competitors to calculate the size of their rivals and if a fight is worthwhile.

Steam from a bulls breathe as he roars out his battle cry
Steam from a bull’s breath as he roars out his battle cry

This means big fights only happen when there is an even match and, as a result, duels can last for tens of minutes as both rivals rear back and take turns to slam their bodies and teeth into each other.

Trying to get higher than your rival
Trying to get higher than your rival
Two evenly matched competitors
Two evenly matched competitors
Locked in battle
Locked in battle
The noise as each blow was made was insane
The noise as each blow was made was deafening
Sinking teeth into flesh
Sinking teeth into flesh

Blood is almost a guarantee and injuries are often haunting and sometimes even life-threatening.

Bull after a fight
Bull after a fight

Afterwards, the competitors are understandably exhausted and plaster themselves with cold stones or mud from the beach in order to help them cool off.

Mud mud glorious mud....
Mud, mud glorious mud ….
Cooling off
Cooling off

Our visit came during the peak pupping period and as a result, the beach was covered in new-borns suckling the fatty milk of their mothers. Born at approximately 40kg, these will reach 180kg by the time they wean just three weeks later.

Young pup begging for milk
Young pup begging for milk
Pup in the snow
Young pup in the snow
Weaned pups quickly move up the beach away from the busy harems
Weaned pups quickly move up the beach away from the busy harems

Saying goodbye was definitely very hard but I am very excited to say I’ll be back to St Andrews in January, this time on board the National Geographic Expedition ship!!!

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

Scenery

This entry is part 37 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

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.

IMG_3819
Sunset in Cumberland Bay

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.

IMG_3870-HDR
Lenticular clouds at sunset over King Edward Point Research Station

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!

IMG_0025
Phone shot of the commute back from work

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.

'Three Brothers' mountains behind the Neumayer glacier
‘Three Brothers mountains behind the Neumayer glacier

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).

IMG_3550
Big old chunk of blue ice

We have also had lots of time training with our Fisheries Patrol vessel, practicing ‘at sea transfers’.

Coming alongside the fisheries patrol vessel in the jetboat
Coming alongside the fisheries patrol vessel in the jetboat

 

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.

Camping trip to Grytviken
Camping trip to Grytviken
Moon Rising over the old Whaling ship 'Diaz
Moon Rising over the old Whaling ship ‘Diaz
Petrel Whaling Ship in the mooinlight
Petrel Whaling Ship in the moonlight

IMG_3322After 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!

IMG_3390
Snowy Sheathbill in front of our tent in the morning
IMG_3465
Snowy Sheathbill in the snow

Holiday Part 1 – Macaroni Penguins!

This entry is part 21 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

I was recently lucky enough to go on holiday to the Barff Peninsula and revisit my angry friends, the Macaroni Penguins.

Macaroni penguins from the beach
Macaroni penguins on the Barff

Before I even got close to the rookery, I spent a few hours down on the beach watching the conveyer belt of  little penguins to-ing and fro-ing up the rocks.

Macaroni Penguins making there way down from the colonies to the waters edge
Macaroni Penguins making their way down from the colonies to the water

Regular visitors to this blog won’t be surprised to hear that it wasn’t long before I was observing the first acts of aggression between these feisty penguins!

It wasnt long before I was observing the first acts of aggression between these guys
Dirty mac on his way out of the colonies, displaying at a clean mac on his way in.
Territorial macaroni penguin shouting at the locals
Territorial macaroni penguin sorts out the locals

The colonies are very muddy places and so the first priority, once down, is to get clean.

They are even aggressive in the bath
They are even aggressive in the bath!

Within the largest group of macaroni penguins, there were three stunning chinstrap penguins trying to make friends

Seem to have chinstrap penguin observations everywhere at the moment. One of three trying to blend in with the macaroni penguins
We seem to have chinstrap penguins popping up everywhere at the moment. One of three trying to blend in with the macaroni penguins
It didnt take long for the Macaroni Penguins to find and 'welcome' the chinstraps
It didnt take long for the Macaroni Penguins to find and ‘welcome’ the chinstraps
And they were soon running away in search of refuge - just like watching baywatch
And they were soon running away in search of a safe haven – just like watching Baywatch
Unfortunately this only took them closer to the water which swept them back out to sea - taking a good number of macaroni penguins with them.
Unfortunately, this only took them closer to the breaking surf and they were swept out – taking a good number of macaroni penguins with them.

The chinstraps shouldn’t feel too hard done by as the macs don’t discrimate. They are angry and aggressive towards everything!

Small packages of angry penguin. This one is chasing away an inquisitive Giant Petrel
Small packages of aggression. This one is chasing away a hungry, inquisitive Giant Petrel

Some of the macaroni penguins intentionally made for the sea. I observed various levels of ocean entrances, but considering the sea state, I was impressed that any of them made the plunge at all.

Tom Daley would be proud - macaroni penguins diving into the surf and heading out to sea
Tom Daley would be proud – macaroni penguins diving into the surf and heading out to sea
Three macs, opting to wait for the surf to sweep them out
Three macs, opting to wait for the surf to sweep them out having attempted to dive into a puddle!

As I mentioned, penguins were both coming and going. Wave after wave was full of surfing penguins trying their hardest to dismount the wave at the perfect moment to avoid being smashed into the rocks below.

Penguin Surfing
Several penguins surfing the white water into the rocks
Penguins surfing the breaking waves into shore
Penguins within the waves
Penguin Surfing 2
Bottom left shows how it should be done and top right shows a penguin dismounting from a substantial height

Once landed, it’s a matter of scrambling to your feet and away from the breaking waves, before starting the long scramble back up to the colony.

Successfully out of the surf, the penguins make a made dash up the shore before the next wave breaks
Successfully out of the surf, the penguins make a mad dash up the shore before the next wave breaks
Macaronis belong to the rockhopper family and are incredible over rocks. This one landed safely and headed up to the colonies
Macaronis belong to the rockhopper family and are incredible over rocks. This one landed safely and headed up to the colonies

Having completed this very strenuous ordeal and successfully navigated to the rookery, the returning adults are greeted by these hungry, fluffy youngsters.

Couple of macaroni chicks waiting for their parents in the colony
All that effort for these guys! Mac chicks