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.
Last month I made the short voyage up the coast of South Georgia to The Bay Of Isles and Prion Island to check up on the Wandering Albatross. These are the world’s largest seabird and they nest in numerous colonies around the South Georgia coastline.
A few years back when I saw my first ever albatross on The Galapagos, I put ‘seeing wanderers on the nest’ top of my bucket list.
I didn’t think for a second that I would be able to cross it off so soon. To be allowed to get up close and personal with such incredible birds was a privilege and a pleasure, but now I need something else to take top spot …. maybe diving with leopard seals!
The trip was a success but with the weather window being very narrow, there was much concern that we may not manage to get the work done. However, after a dawn wake-up, we managed to get landed.
Of the birds present, when I last monitored Prion back in April, 100% had successfully made it through the winter and all should hopefully be fledging before the end of the year.
The island is also home to a number of other species which have been able to thrive without the presence of rats. Two colonies of Gentoo penguins were all sitting on freshly laid eggs, Giant Petrels were courting and laying, Pipit chicks were calling from nests all over the island, Light Mantled Albatross were sitting on nest bowls and White Chin Petrels were singing from their underground burrows. Also, the first few male Fur Seals were taking up residence on the beach.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Blood is almost a guarantee and injuries are often haunting and sometimes even life-threatening.
Afterwards, the competitors are understandably exhausted and plaster themselves with cold stones or mud from the beach in order to help them cool 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.
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!!!
In the last three days I have seen four more leopard seals, taken the RIB south to St Andrews Bay (where we watched a leopard seal tear apart a king penguin) and spent the night at Maiviken, where we watched at least 1000 Gentoo Penguins returning to South Georgia for the night …. Life is hard!
With news of a second lep sighting at Grytviken coming in the final minutes of light of the day, I set my alarm early and made my way over for first light hoping she hadn’t slugged off in the night in order to get more pictures for the rapidly growing leopard seal database.
Thankfully my efforts were not in vain!
I quickly headed back to base to complete my morning rounds and get ready for a day of boating – but not before taking a quick shot of the Pharos alongside before a patrol.
Next on the agenda was kitting up the boats and getting away, with St Andrews our next destination in order to re-supply the huts with food and medical gear. Unfortunately, the visit had to be very quick but, as regular readers will know, on South Georgia, a lot can happen in a short amount of time!
Upon landing we were greeted by a cloud of hungry Giant Petrels who are resident around the King Penguins. I caught a flash of yellow disappearing towards the sea and was able to get a couple of record shots of a yellow Darvic on the leg of a giant petrel, most probably from Bird Island.
Time didn’t allow me to reach the main King Penguin colony and check up on the chicks but there were a few Kings on the beach near where we landed, along with St Andrews latest occupants … Elephant Seals.
As we lifted the anchor, a very inquisitive leopard seal came to check us out. Unfortunately, my hands were full of anchor so no pictures were possible before it got bored of us and headed off. As we headed back to sea with Hound Bay our next destination, I clocked a congregation of Cape Petrels in the distance and headed towards it. Being in contact with our colleagues at Bird Island, I hear tales of leopard seal attacks and had subsequently added observing a kill, hopefully, to my bucket list.
As we approached, all that was clear was that something was being thrown around in the water by a dark shadow.
Unfortunately, the poor light and swell were enough to make focusing on the action very difficult, so the pictures aren’t much more than record shots but it was an incredible spectacle.
Due to a thick band of incoming fog, we couldn’t stay with the kill for long and were soon on our way north again to Hound Bay, where we were greeted by yet another leopard seal trying to hide itself amongst all the elephant seals.
We did get one last look at the South Georgia landscape before we were engulfed by fog for the duration of our trip back to Maiviken, where we were dropped off for the night.
Gentoo Penguins opt to return to the South Georgian shores every evening to roost, unlike other SG Penguins, even outside the breeding season. As we sat on the shore waiting for the sun to set, sipping mulled wine, we had hoped to see good numbers of Gentoos but we didn’t expect quite as many as we got!
For the first time this year, the Gentoos were observed making their way up past their usual roost site all the way up to their breeding colony, suggesting that we may well have an early breeding season this year.
Whilst the majority of the gentoos opted for the large open section of Tortula Beach, not all picked the same route
With last year being a spectacular breeding failure for the Gentoos, we are hoping for a more fruitful season this year.
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.
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.
The BAS team based here has now dropped to 7 and it’s a long time since we last saw real people! To stop us going crazy, we have to keep ourselves entertained. As a marine biologist, my favourite pastime would be talking to the animals, but apart from the occasional seal, base is fairly barren of wildlife so we have to find other ways to keep busy.
Luckily, we have lots of snow at the moment so there are opportunities to get out on the hill and ski. Its not quite the same as your standard resort skiing since in order to ski down a hill, you must first ski up it because we have very few chairlifts. Well, none at all, actually.
Also there are no piste bashers to compact the snow, meaning that even on skis, it’s not uncommon to sink several inches beneath the surface, making falls frequent but landings comfy.
As well as talking to seals and ski-ing, we also we take it in turns every Saturday to provide food and sometimes entertainment for everyone on base. So far this month we have had a Glastonbury themed evening, where we dressed like hippies and watched the downloaded Glasto highlights. We have also had a pizza and quiz night.
Sometimes the entertainment isn’t thought up within station. Two weekends ago, we participated in the Antarctic 48 Hour Film Competition. This was first thought up by an American base and allows us to compete against all the other bases around the Antarctic continent.
The competition starts with an email on the Friday evening which contains a list of various items to incorporate into a 5 minute film. You then have until 0000 Sunday night to write, film, direct and edit your film, and , if you feel confident enough, to submit it for viewing around the Antarctic.
The film is then judged by your peers based on the acting, filmography and editing, and winners are announced. Having sat through 22 different entries, I was incredibly impressed by the overall standard and creativity, although that can’t be said about every entry! Ours this year was a soof 1970s cop show and was voted as second best overall. If you want to make your own follow this link …. 48 hour film link
We also have a very well equipped workshop and the experienced people here have been happy to show me around the machinery, meaning I have been able to improve both metalwork and woodwork skills.
We are also spending lots of time training ourselves on the use of the fine South Georgia fleet so that Russ, our boating officer, feels confident enough to go on holiday!
In other news, we had a 7.4 earthquake at the weekend. I am told that base shook considerably and it awoke several members of the team. But apparently, I am a very deep sleeper!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
As mentioned before, the birdlife has been almost as spectacular as the marine mammals. See my previous blog (feeding frenzy) for more bird pictures
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.
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.
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.
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.
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..
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Final blog from my amazing trip to St Andrews Bay. We are so lucky to be able to spend days at the incredible places and therefore see them throughout the entire day. Here are a few pictures I took at dawn and dusk on holiday.
For more pictures from my visit to St Andrews, check out my gallery here