St Andrews – Mark 2

This entry is part 40 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey
Which chick is mine?
Which chick is mine?

Sadly my time on South Georgia is coming to a close. The time has absolutely flown by and I have well and truly fallen in love with the island and its incredible wildlife. With the breeding season and my workload starting to increase, I managed to wangle one last non-scientific holiday and made the long hike over to St Andrews Bay to one of the most incredible wildlife congregations this planet has to offer.

King Penguins of St Andrews
King Penguins of St Andrews

Having had an uncharacteristically warm September, I booked the time off with high hopes of easy hiking and blue skies. Sadly this wasn’t the case but when you come to South Georgia you can’t complain. The walk over was easy, certainly, with mild conditions allowing us to make it over in four hours and get into the colonies for the afternoon. Luckily we took advantage of this and enjoyed the only clear skies we were going to get for the week!

Chicks well and truly outnumbering adults in the colony
Chicks well and truly outnumbering adults in the colony

It was amazing to see such a massive change in the dynamic of the Bay. Hungry chicks dominated the main breeding colonies, magnificently outnumbering the few providing parents. The few gaps in the colonies were covered in unfortunate chicks that sadly didn’t make it through the harsh South Georgia Summer. The rivers and lakes which had run through the colony on my last visit were now melted and flowing.

King Penguins gracefully making their way across a tidal pool
King Penguins gracefully making their way across a tidal pool

The outskirts of the Bay were completely covered with non-breeding, moulting King Penguins – staying well away from the noise of the main colony. Many adults had ventured more than a mile inland to stand on the cool of the glaciers. By far the most significant change came along the beach front. Where months previously I had taken pictures of thousands of King Penguins lining the shore a much larger South Georgia native had now taken up residence there. More than 5,000 Elephant Seals covered the beach, obstructing the poor penguins’ route up to the higher breeding ground.

Lower beach, now dominated by elephant seals
Lower beach, now dominated by elephant seals
One of South Georgias latest residents taking advantage of the melted lakes
One of South Georgia’s latest residents taking advantage of the melted pools

After a tip-off from our Doctor and Base Commander, who had visited a few weeks previously, we left the main colony for a rocky peninsula to the north of the Bay. As we passed the streams of clumsy Kings crossing the tidal pools going the opposite way to us, we noticed a number of injured penguins, suggesting that the tip-off had been good.

Marginally better entrance
A marginally better water entrance.

As we stepped out onto the rocks and peered down into the deep, we were greeted by a number of inquisitive eyes checking us out. In total, there were eight leopard seals all waiting close to the rocks and kelp, looking to ambush any passing King Penguins.

Three of the Eight leopard seals present in the water.
Three of the Eight leopard seals present in the water.

Within seconds of arriving, we spotted thrashing offshore as a hungry leopard seal tore apart an unfortunate King Penguin. In total, across the few hours spent at the point, I saw seven successful kills including three simultaneously. Nature, red in tooth and claw …

Leopard seal with kill
Leopard seal with kill

And the reason so many penguins manage to escape is because the leopard seals love to play with their food, often catching it several times and letting it go before finally killing it.

Full leopard seal on the rocks
Full leopard seal on the rocks

At one point, I was amazed to see a number of young Fur Seals cleaning themselves in the waters within a couple of metres of two big Leopard Seals and assumed that, with such abundant harmless prey in the form of King Penguins, the Leopard Seals didn’t bother the Fur Seals. However, it turned out the Fur Seals simply hadn’t spotted the Leopard Seals yet since they were soon making the 2 metre leap from the sea to the relative safety of the rocks.

As the light faded and the visibility reduced,we headed back to our hut for a dinner of military ration packs and an early night – the alarm was set for 05.30.

Poor weather approaching
Poor weather approaching

As I awoke, I was extremely happy to see bright white coming through the windows and eagerly got out of bed. I opened the door … to discover that what I thought was bright sunshine was actually a thick layer of snow! Still, since I was now up, I decided I may as well get my Antarctic Hero gear on and brave the conditions. Although the visibility wasn’t obviously bad, the fresh falling snow accompanied by the evaporation off the elephant seals backs  obstructed any wide-shots I attempted, so I headed back to the Kings.

King Penguin chicks in the snow
King Penguin chicks in the snow

The winter is the hardest part of the season for the King chicks. Between April and October, some of the chicks will only be fed a couple of times, going as long as four months without a parental visit – Social Services would definitely not approve!  It also means that it’s not uncommon to be followed around the colonies by a group of hungry chicks trying their luck. I managed to resist since I was running low on their preferred lantern fish.

More kings penguins bracing against the snow
More King Penguins bracing against the snow

You can’t blame the adults for making themselves scarce – the few chicks lucky enough to have parents around were extremely high maintenance, always begging for their next meal.

Begging chick
Begging chick
Chick thinking about its next meal
Chick thinking about its next meal

No matter what was going on on the beach, no matter what the weather was doing and no matter what dangerous obstacles needed passing, the stream of King adults kept coming, with numbers within the breeding colony increasing every day. Pretty impressive, all things considered.

Making their way up the beach in the snow
Making their way up the beach in the snow
Small congregation on day 1
Small congregation on day two
Kings marching along the beach
Kings marching along the beach
Larger congregation on day 3
Larger congregation on day three

 

Belated Birthday Blog!

This entry is part 28 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey
Birthday Leopard Seal
Birthday Leopard Seal

I thought being in South Georgia on my birthday was enough of a present. When you are living in paradise, it’s hard to wish for anything more than ‘normal’, which is pretty damn spectacular. However my birthday week proved to be especially eventful. Not only was it the best week of weather we’d had since I arrived, but I also saw two of the ocean’s most deadly predators and got to handle South Georgia’s answer to dinosaurs!

Leopard seal keeping a watchful eye on a brown skua
Leopard seal keeping a watchful eye on a brown skua

With the weather so incredibly calm and settled, we’d have been stupid not to take advantage and get out and about. Our travel limits allow us to get to other peninsulas for a holiday. It is necessary that all of us who are qualified to drive the boats are familiar with all the waters in our travel limits. On one of these familiarisation trips to Cumberland Bay West, we managed to get all the way to the base of the Neumayer Glacier.

Lewis and Tim on one of the ribs heading away from base
Lewis and Tim on one of the ribs heading away from base

It is always absolutely incredible to see the glaciers up close. This was the first time I’d been so close to the Neumayer. As I have mentioned before, the Neumayer is receding at 400+ metres a year – I appreciate the fact that this is an astoundingly high figure, but until I had driven over miles of ocean, still marked as land on our map, where the glacier had stood just a few years previously, I did not comprehend exactly what this meant.

The Neumayer glacier from 2 miles away where the glacier once sat
The Neumayer glacier from 2 miles away, where it once sat
Neumayer glacier and reflection in the sea
Neumayer glacier and reflection in the sea

As we travelled up the moraine, there was evidence of the glacier’s former size for miles around. The mountain sides were scoured with marks where the ice had once flowed, ripping rock apart. Remains of once full lakes dammed by the cosmic glacier at the foot of vast valleys were now freely draining into the sea.

Scouring on the mountainside above the glacier
Scouring on the mountainside above the glacier

It was clear to see that the glacier had been very active throughout the morning with huge ice flows present right out of the mouth of the moraine.

Couple of larger pieces of recently calved ice
A couple of larger pieces of recently calved ice

Even more exciting for me, the bird geek, were the thousands of Antarctic Terns feeding at the face. Seeing the diminutive birds feeding alongside such a colossal natural masterpiece was really special. Their continual high-pitched screeching took me back to when I worked on the Farne Islands!

Glacial rivers pour beneath the ice, absorbing organic material that eventually flows into the ocean at the face of the glacier. The terns feed on the small fish and invertebrates that are nourished by this organic matter.

Terns feeding at the foot of the glacier
Terns feeding at the foot of the glacier

It wasn’t just terns feeding amongst the glacial debris….

Cape Petrels and their reflections
Cape Petrels and their reflections

Apart from seeing all of the incredible breeding species South Georgia has to offer, I arrived with huge hopes of seeing Leopard Seals. With the first sightings for King Edward Point normally coming in April, I wouldn’t normally be disappointed with not having seen any at this point of the year but with sightings already being relatively frequent from cruise ships and other team members, I was beginning to think they might be deliberately hiding from me! Another important part of the work here is contributing photos for the Leopard Seal photo library but until last week I was drawing a blank. However, whilst on our way out of the Neumayer moraine, I finally came across two of these magnificent killing machines relaxing on glacial debris.

A brief glimpse of the teeth of the leopard seal
A brief glimpse of the teeth of the Leopard Seal
Leopard Seal chilling
Leopard Seal chilling 1
Leopard seal relaxing on the calved ice
Leopard Seal chilling 2 – on the calved ice

The pair both measured 2.5m in length and even from the security of the boat, my heart rate was through the roof. What made the experience even better was that it happened on my birthday!

Its a hard life, yawning leopard seal
It’s a hard life – yawning Leopard Seal
The second leopard seal before it slid into the water
The second Leopard Seal before it slid into the water

*    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

It is always enjoyable to get hands-on experience with the wildlife in South Georgia but we try to keep this to a bare minimum in order to ensure our studies don’t affect the success of the animals. However, the growth and development studies involve weighing of both the Gentoo chicks and Antarctic Fur Seal pups; in addition, we also weigh and take biometrics from Giant Petrel chicks.

Matthew weighing a seal pup during the february pup weighing session
Matthew weighing a seal pup during the February session

Last week was the turn of the Northern Giant Petrel chicks and the Antarctic Fur Seals. Fortunately, the seal-weighing was uneventful for all involved and everyone had a great day, despite the large size of the pups and their canines. The Giant Petrels, however, have left me with a number of incredibly deep scratches and a coat reeking of their vomit, which no amount of washing will clean. Having said this, to get up and close with such an incredible, huge, prehistoric looking bird was something I will remember for the rest of my life!

Ready to fledge Giant Petrel chick
Ready to fledge Giant Petrel chick

On a final note, we had a very strange visitor to base this week in the form of a Blue-Eyed Shag Chick. I have no idea how this downy bird made it to us because the closest breeding colony is miles away. He did, however, look very happy and content relaxing in front of base.

Juvenile shag in front of base
Juvenile Shag in front of base

 

Royal Marines and King Penguin Chicks!

This entry is part 25 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey
Rainbow at penguin river
Rainbow at Penguin River

What a few weeks! As per usual they have been hectic, but amazing. We were incredibly lucky to be visited by members of the Royal Marines and Navy, who were part of the Antarctic Endurance Expedition team retracing Sir Ernest Shackleton’s footsteps through South Georgia and the Antarctic in 1914-17.

By the time the team reached us, they were on the final leg of their journey, having just completed the four day hike across South Georgia, which Shackleton had crossed 100 years previously to get help for his crew, who were stranded. They had travelled over 3000 miles across some of the most dangerous seas in the world.

Xplore - the yacht used by the team of Royal Marines and Navy personnel
Xplore – the yacht used by the team of Royal Marines and Navy personnel

The team immediately clocked our football pitch on arrival and challenged us to a game at the world famous South Georgia National Football Stadium, an incredibly brave move, considering that we have never lost a match here (we’ve only played one!)

Having been soaked through to the skin by a well-timed South Georgian shower during the national anthems, the game eventually kicked off with the away team kicking down into the bog. With the tempo and quality of play reaching levels never seen before on this famous footballing island, the bog provided players with much appreciated rests.

The spectators, all two of them, were so taken away with what they were seeing, they had to remove themselves from the stadium before they got too carried away! I would like to say that when a game of such beauty and skill as this takes place, the score doesn’t matter, only football is the winner and lots of other clichés, but it’s not every day you get to smash Her Majesty’s finest 6-0 on your your home ground!

 

South Georgia National Football Stadium
South Georgia National Football Stadium – don’t let the appearance of the pitch/players fool you, the standard was sometimes comparable with Brazil (Picture by Sub Lieutenant Emily Kutarski)

Although maybe not footballers, our opponents comprised a group of incredible people and it’s no wonder their mission had been so successful.

 

With the breeding season winding down now, my time has freed up fractionally, meaning I have had a few hours around work to spend time with and appreciate the amazing wildlife and landscape on our front door.

South Georgia Sunrise
South Georgia sunrise from my window

With the king penguins around base now having completed their moult, they are beginning to look quite spectacular. On a rare, bright, still evening, I got myself out with my camera onto the beach and spent a bit of time observing a small group. Every now and then it really hits me how ridiculously privileged I am to be here!

The group had two pairs amongst them who were posturing and calling to each other – I could have watched these majestic animals for hours. However, just because the sun was out, it doesn’t mean it was warm and it wasn’t long before my hands had turned blue and the kettle was calling.

King Penguins posturing in to each other in front of base
King Penguins posturing to each other in front of base
Group of king penguins in front of the South Georgia mountains
Group of king penguins in front of the South Georgia mountains

With scientific work easing slightly, I have also had more time to crew and cox our RIBs and jet boats. Having spent a lot of time on board powerboats before the RIB training, they weren’t too much of a challenge but getting my head around jet boats is another completely different challenge. A challenge which I am loving, I have to say, since it means I get to see more of the island and spend time at sea.

And when you’re on board either sort of boat, you’re never too far from beautiful scenery…

Lyelly glacier from the jet boat during boating activities
Lyelly glacier from the jet boat

 

Neumayer glacier from the jet boat
Neumayer glacier from the jet boat

Incidentally, we do have a small breeding colony of King Penguins accessible to us by foot near King Edward Point at the aptly named Penguin River. Due to the small size of the colony, breeding isn’t often successful, unfortunately. However, on a visit this week, I was happy to find eight new chicks ready to give it a go.

First king penguin chicks at penguin river
First king penguin chicks at Penguin River

All the chicks and their parents seemed healthy and were in full voice throughout my visit despite the poor conditions and I was incredibly happy to see the adults regularly feeding their demanding chicks.

King penguin chicks are being fed well
King penguin chicks are being fed well

 

 

Holiday Part 3 – More Albatross

This entry is part 24 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

After covering a lot of distance in our first 24 hours, we decided to spend a day close to the hut within Coral Bay and the adjacent Sandebugten. Relaxing at South Georgia is almost impossible. There are so many opportunities and things to do here, you feel guilty doing nothing. I fought the urge to get up early, however, and managed to resist the wildlife until heading out at 07.30. First stop as per usual on the Barff were the Light Mantled Sooty Albatross again, since all the nesting attempts on my peninsula had failed before I even arrived.

Head shot of a Light Mantled Sooty Albatross
Head shot of a Light Mantled Sooty Albatross

I spent a long time sitting along the cliff top with a pair of displaying birds just metres away. The light was perfect and so I was able to get an image literally of a birds eye view of Coral Bay.

Pair of displaying Light Mantled Sooty Albatross
Pair of displaying Light Mantled Sooty Albatross
Birds Eye View of Coral Bay
Birds Eye View of Coral Bay

I could have spent the day sitting with these majestic animals. However, I wanted to get down and do some filming of the seals. I was doing exactly that soon enough, seated above a plunge pool, observing the Antarctic fur seal pups fighting and learning to swim. As these guys get older and bolder, their personalities seem to grow. It is impossible to spend time with the pups without smiling! Even if they are trying to chase you and maul your legs!

Antarctic Fur Seal pup guarding the waterfall
Antarctic Fur Seal pup guarding the waterfall

Having had my fill of the feisty Fur Seals, I weaved my way back amongst them and the putrid smelling Elephant Seals to the hut for a brew and a bacon butty!

One of the hundreds of Elephant seals at coral
One of the hundreds of Elephant Seals at Coral – completely unaware of how bad they smell!

In need of a stretch of legs, I decided to clamber along the coastline to the next bay, where I was surprised with incredible views of the Nordenskjold glacier.

View of the Nordenskjold from the Barff Peninsula
View of the Nordenskjold from the Barff Peninsula

Completely taken aback by the view, it took me some time to notice the yapping noise coming from my feet where a Giant Petrel chick was laying. I have spent loads of time working with these birds but not long enough properly watching them, so with time on my hands, I made myself comfortable. It wasn’t long before an adult bird was landing on the cliff and slowly making its way towards the chick.

Giant Petrel chick and parent on the Barff
Giant Petrel chick and parent on the Barff

Both birds started to display at each other, making me think that possibly the adult had got the wrong nest. The adult bird continued making its way towards the chick before making a noise I had never heard before, apparently aiding the regurgitation of the chick’s next meal. It wasn’t long before the chick was happily tucking in. This behaviour alone was an absolute privilege to observe. When you add the awe-inspiring backdrop of the Nordenskjold to the picture, it’s easy to see why South Georgia is on so many bucket lists!

Giant petrels and the Nordenskjold Glacier
Giant petrels and the Nordenskjold Glacier

 

Southern Giant Petrel adult feeding its chick in front of the Nordenskjold
Southern Giant Petrel adult feeding its chick in front of the Nordenskjold