Life’s A Boat

This entry is part 35 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey
Humpback whale
Humpback whale off the coast of South Georgia
My view for the next two weeks.
I may have swapped rooms but my new window view is just as stunning

As you may be aware from my previous post, I have exchanged my South Georgian life for life at sea for three weeks. I am working on board a krill fishing vessel, researching by-catch (which is minimal) and also making whale and seabird observations to inform future conservation decisions.

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Seemingly, I am here at a good time of year since within seconds of leaving Cumberland Bay, we were seeing the first spouts as whales blew all around us with the sun setting.

Whale sightings were immediate, once out of Cumberland Bay
Humpback whale at the surface in front of the South Georgian shores

As we set about fishing, sightings continued, predominantly of Humpbacks, which were obviously exploiting the rich masses of krill 200m beneath the surface. When you see a distant whale blow, it’s easy to forget what is lying beneath. These Humpbacks can measure 16m and weigh up to 36 tonnes.

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Characteristic showing of the humpback’s flukes prior to a deep dive

As the days have progressed, the sightings are getting better and better with several species seen so far. Fin, minke, southern right, sperm and orca (not seen by me!) were all spotted, as well as thousands of seabirds, seals and penguins.

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Giant Petrel off the side of the boat
Giant Petrel off the side of the boat

South Georgia was the hub of whaling in the not too recent past and estimates suggest that numbers of baleen whales reduced by 90% as a result of it. So it’s absolutely incredible to see such high densities of whales in these waters.

Too close to photograph
Almost too close to photograph

The most frequent bird sightings involve the petrel species, with South Georgia Diving, Kerguelen, Great Winged, Antarctic, Cape and Giant Petrels all present in various numbers. Both Southern Fulmers and Antarctic Terns are also abundant with the occasional Wandering Albatross sightings.

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Southern Fulmar in flight
Humpback whale right besides the ship
Humpback whale right beside the ship
Wandering Albatross over the sea
Wandering Albatross over the sea

Conditions on the whole have remained calm and clear, allowing good sightings throughout the trip. With the boats moving at very slow speeds, animals tend to pay little attention to the vessel, allowing for up close sightings.

Pair of humpbacks feeding at the surface
Pair of humpbacks feeding at the surface

Humpback whales migrate south for summer to feed on the krill rich numbers. These animals will be on their way north back to their breeding grounds, where they will breed in August time.

Seabirds and seals in the waves
Seabirds and seals in the waves
Humpback blow - note the white pectoral fins beneath the surface
Humpback blow – note the white pectoral fins beneath the surface

Although it is the wrong time of year, I have seen several humpbacks displaying, launching their magnificent bodies out of the water. One of these was close enough for me to capture on camera!

Displaying humpback
Displaying humpback
Diving Humpback
Diving Humpback

As mentioned before, the birdlife has been almost as spectacular as the marine mammals. See my previous blog (feeding frenzy) for more bird pictures

Young antarctic tern
Young antarctic tern

Wandering Albatross

This entry is part 33 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

My latest South Georgian adventure involved a cruise up the coast on board our Fisheries Patrol Vessel to the Bay of Isles. More specifically to Prion Island, in order to see its feathery inhabitants.

Wanderer chick and my big red taxi
Wanderer chick and my big red taxi

Prion Island is home to a small population of the world’s largest seabird, the Wandering Albatross. With a spectacular wingspan of 3.7 metres, a large adult wanderer is roughly the same length as a small car.

Stretching its wings
Stretching its wings

Approximately 30 wanderers return to Prion Island every year in December.  They lay a single egg each which will eventually hatch and be cared for by both parents over the year, before hopefully fledging.  Because of the large investment needed to fledge a wandering albatross chick, parents breed monogamously, every two years. This means that the breeding population of the island is roughly 60 pairs.

Stunning wandering albatross chick on prion island
Stunning wandering albatross chick on prion island

My job, this visit, was simply to check up on the downy chicks as well as record a number of parameters, such as snow cover and fur seal disturbance, which may effect the success of these giants.

Wandering Albatross Family Portrait
Wandering Albatross Family Portrait

By the time chicks are this developed, both parents can leave the chick in order to forage so I was incredibly fortunate to see a number of adult birds on the colony..

Pair of monogamous adults renewing their vows
Pair of monogamous adults renewing their vows

Albatross species forage at sea and are often caught accidentally by long lining fishermen around the world. South Georgia has one of the most sustainable fisheries in the world, with vessels forced to use particular preventative practices that reduce the risk of bycatch of seabirds (seabird bycatch was 0 in 2015). However, as a result of their spectacular size and effortless flying abilities, Wandering Albatross forage for thousands of miles, meaning birds breeding on the islands will be affected by less well managed fisheries across the Southern Ocean. Sadly, as a result of this and also consuming plastic waste, Wandering Albatross populations are falling and they are considered to be vulnerable to extinction by the IUCN.

Chick begging for food
Chick begging for food
Still begging
Still begging!

Once chicks fledge at the end of the year, they will roam the southern oceans in search of cephalopods (squid), crustacean (krill) and small fish until they are old enough to breed, covering up to 120,000 km in a year.

Dinner time for the chick
Dinner time for the chick

The island is also home to breeding Giant Petrels and Gentoo penguins. With this year’s Giant Petrel fledglings still covering the island, next year’s breeders had already arrived and were already courting and building nests.

Pair of courting Giant Petrels
Pair of courting Giant Petrels
Giant petrel running in front of the happy couple
Giant petrel getting in the way of my Wandering Albatross picture

Gentoo penguins tend to return to their colonies every evening to roost rather than remaining at sea. As we awaited a pick up on the beach, I was able to put my GoPro in the water and get a glimpse of them in their more natural habitat.

Gentoo penguins
Gentoo penguins

Before rats were successfully eradicated from South Georgia, islands provided the only safe haven for South Georgian Pipits. These small areas of refuge allowed populations to survive allowing recolonisation of the mainland, post rats

South Georgia Pipit in the snow
South Georgia Pipit in the snow