Giants of St Andrews

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

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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!!!

Brown Skuas Versus Gentoo Penguin

This entry is part 15 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey
For some reason a Gentoo Penguin and its chick became isolated from the colony and it wasn't long before a Brown Skua found the pair
For some reason a Gentoo Penguin and its chick became isolated from the colony and it wasn’t long before a Brown Skua found them
The Brown Skua tried to aggressively force the adult penguin away from its chick
The Brown Skua tried to aggressively force the adult penguin away from its chick
The Gentoo Penguin stands firm, warning off the Brown Skua with its own threats
The Gentoo Penguin stands firm, warning off the Brown Skua
Unfortunately this does not deter the Brown Skua and it persists
Unfortunately this doesn’t deter the Brown Skua and it persists
The Brown Skua switches technique, opting to hop side to side over the penguin in order to move the Gentoo and create space to take the chick
The Brown Skua switches technique, opting to hop side to side over the Gentoo Penguin in order to move it and create space to take the chick
The Gentoo continues to sit tight over its chick
The Gentoo continues to sit tight over its chick
The skua calls in for help from its mate who duely arrives
The Skua calls in for help from its mate who duly arrives

 

Second skua moves in for assistance
One Skua continues to hop over the adult  Gentoo and lure it away from its chick, whilst the other Skua sits waiting for an opening
Skuas persist with the hopping tactics alternating between the pair
The Skuas persist alternating the hopping tactics between the Gentoo and chick
Gentoo stands strong over his chick, fending off the skuas attacks.
The Gentoo stands strong over his chick, fending off the Skuas’ attacks.
The Gentoo's bill is a powerful form of defense which has the potential to severely injure the Skuas
The Gentoo’s bill is a powerful form of defence which has the potential to severely injure the Skuas

 

Eventually the Skua's patience pays off and a gap opens which one of the pair is quick to exploit
Eventually, the Skuas’ patience pays off and a gap opens which one of the pair is quick to exploit
The Gentoo is quick to react and turns to save his chick
But the Gentoo is quick to react and turns to save his chick
Gentoo managed to make a last gasp grab of the skua making him drop the chick and injuring the skuas leg
Fortunately, the Gentoo managed to make a last gasp grab of the Skua, making him drop the chick and injuring the Skua’s leg. The sorry Skua limps back to its chicks empty-handed, whilst the Gentoo chick lives on to fight another day.