Carnage!

This entry is part 1 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

WARNING!

NOT FOR THE FAINT-HEARTED.

PLEASE DON’T CONTINUE READING

THIS POST IF YOU ARE AT ALL SQUEAMISH.

Giant Petrels scavenging
Giant Petrels scavenging on an Elephant Seal

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.

Covered in blood!

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.

Fighting for a place at the dinner table

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.

Giant Petrel Displaying
Tail Fanned in display

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.

Low Blow
Fighting besides the BBQ

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.

Angry prehistoric looking birds
Almost Velocoraptor like
They do it on the water to!
Brutal birds!

Majestic Petrels and Glaciers

This entry is part 43 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

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Technically I have left South Georgia but I am aware that I haven’t posted many blogs over the past few very busy weeks. So I will catch you up on my activities with a few blogs! The beginning of spring brings a series of fresh faced new British Antarctic Survey recruits eager to takeover from the old guard and ready to learn their new job.

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First on the long list of Kierans (the new me) new responsibilities was the Giant Petrels. Fortunate for us, these prehistoric birds have the a habit of nesting in areas of especially spectacular backdrops!
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Where ever there are Giant Petrels there are glaciers not too far away so its often harder to take pictures without glaciers in the background.

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There are colonies of Northern Petrels at Maiviken, Zenker Ridge and the Greene which nest approximately six weeks ahead of the Southerns which nest at Harpon and on the Greene.

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The latest trip was to check up on the Southerns which should have all laid by now. The Northerns, are starting to lay and will have chicks by now.

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Both sexes are very similar in appearance. However females tend to be smaller in size.

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Not only Giant Petrels enjoy the views
Not only Giant Petrels enjoy the views

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!!!

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

 

Gentoos are back!

This entry is part 39 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

What a few days!!!

Sunset at Maiviken watching the Gentoos return
Sunset at Maiviken watching the Gentoos return

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!

The beginning.... lep 1
The beginning …. lep 1
Sleepy leopard seal in front of base
Sleepy leopard seal in front of base

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!

It was initially to dark for good record shots but it soon brightened up
It was initially to dark for good record shots but it soon brightened up
Lep two at Grytviken
Lep two in front of South Georgia Museum and Mount Hodges at Grytviken

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.

Pharos alongside at King Edward Point
Pharos alongside at King Edward Point

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!

King Penguin fresh from the sea at St Andrews
King Penguin fresh from the sea at St Andrews

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.

Yellow Darvic on the leg of a Giant Petrel
Yellow Darvic on the leg of a Giant Petrel

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.

Soon the beaches will be covered in these monsters battling for hareems
Soon the beaches will be covered in these monsters, battling for harems
Trying to get some kip before the fighting begins
Trying to get some kip before the fighting begins
Elephant seal eating the jetboat
Elephant seal eating the jetboat!

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.

View through a wave
View through a wave

As we approached, all that was clear was that something was being thrown around in the water by a dark shadow.

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Swallowing some flesh
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A mouthful of king penguin

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.

The leopard seal shook the meat from the penguin
The leopard seal shook the meat from the penguin

 

Leopard seal and a king penguin
Leopard seal and a king penguin
Young Kelp gull bravely stealing some scraps
Young Kelp gull bravely stealing some scraps with the leopard seal lurking below

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.

Hound Bay Leopard Seal
Hound Bay Leopard Seal

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.

Paget Mountain towering above Hound Bay
Paget Mountain towering above Hound Bay

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!

Waves and waves of upto 50 returned until over 1000 had passed us on the beach
Waves and waves of up to 50 Gentoos returned until over 1000 had passed us on the beach

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.

Gentoos piling onto the beach
Gentoos piling onto the beach

Whilst the majority of the gentoos opted for the large open section of Tortula Beach, not all picked the same route

Making their way through the rocky shore
Making their way through the rocky shore
Not all pick the easiest beaches to land on
Not all pick the easiest beaches to land on

With last year being a spectacular breeding failure for the Gentoos, we are hoping for a more fruitful season this year.

Gentoo penguins making their way back to shore
Gentoo penguins making their way back to shore

St Andrews Bay… Best Holiday Ever

This entry is part 7 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey
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View of St Andrews Bay before we dropped down to the colony

I’m often asked how frequently we get let off South Georgia for holidays and to see family. The answer is never!

For an entire year, I am restricted to the island.

But we do get much more freedom than other Antarctic bases and have a very generous travel limit. And we do get ‘holidays’ – kind of – where we get to visit neighbouring peninsulas for a short period with the help of boating support.

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Waves of King Penguins in front of glaciers and mountains

After a hard and very long summer, I took a few days off to visit St Andrews Bay. This is somewhere I have always wanted to visit, since watching David Attenborough documentaries as a kid.

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King Penguin adults entering and exiting the sea

St Andrews Bay is a stretch of land lying at the foot of Mount Skittle on the Barff Peninsula. It stretches 3km from the mountain ranges at each end and 2km between the ocean and the glaciers located at either side.

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More Penguins and more mountains!
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Penguins in front of the Cook Glacier

More spectacular than the bay itself are its residents. St Andrews Bay is home to the largest breeding colony of King Penguins worldwide. Depending on who you talk to, the numbers of penguins residing here are between 400,000 and 600,000. And having visited the colony, I can now understand why there is such ambiguity.

Literally everywhere you look, there are King Penguins. Along the beaches, there is a constant conveyor belt of birds as adults either return to land to feed their chicks or head to sea to stock up on baby food.

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Penguins at dusk
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King Penguin chicks and adults at dawn

We were incredibly lucky to visit the colony at this time of year. Not only was it covered with a thick layer of snow, but also, amongst the adults, were chicks of all different sizes. Surprisingly, there were even a small number of adults still incubating eggs.

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Penguin chicks creching together

I wish St Andrews was on our doorstep but unfortunately not. In fact, in order to reach this spectacular phenomenom, we had to walk 20km across knee deep mountainous terrain in snow shoes. Upon arrival at our St Andrews Bay hut, myself and Robbie, exhausted from walking, ingested a kilogram of chocolate in seconds, which some philanthropist had kindly left for us in the hut.

Visibility wasn't always great which made navigating exciting!
Visibility wasn’t always great which made navigation exciting!
Just out of Hound Bay... Half way there
Just out of Hound Bay… Half way there
South Georgia doesnt do flat... Robbie coming around the back of Mount Skittle (1600ft)
South Georgia doesn’t do flat… Robbie coming around the back of Mount Skittle (1600ft)

Was it worth all the effort and exhaustion …? Well, you decide for yourself. As the saying goes, a picture paints a thousand words, so the rest of this post is silent …

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Icebergs, probably from the peninsula, drifting north past the islands

 

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Chick checking out his surroundings
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Hundreds and hundreds of metres of black and white blobs
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More waves of penguins
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Panoramic of half the colony!
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More penguins (sorry if this title is a little unimaginative!)
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No space on the beach
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Penguin reflections

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Slightly lost elephant seal, amongst all the penguins

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

Greene Bay Adventure

This entry is part 20 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

This week it was time to go and check my Southern Giant Petrel chicks. This involved an overnight trip to the Greene Peninsula and a quick hike to Harpon. I am sure you will be glad to know that both colonies seemed to be doing well. There are lots of healthy looking chicks around, many of which are so large they can now protect themselves  – which means they have kicked both adults off the nest to forage!

Large Southern Giant Petrel Chick on the Greene Peninsula, South Georgia
Large Southern Giant Petrel Chick on the Greene Peninsula, South Georgia

Because there is only ever one adult on the nest, you don’t necessarily see both parents. So I was delighted to find two more white morph Southern Giant Petrels on the Greene, taking the total up to three.

White Morph Giant Petrel in flight over the Greene Peninsula
White Morph Giant Petrel in flight over the Greene Peninsula

Incidentally, did you know that the word petrel comes from Peter from the story of St Peter, who walked on the water, and it refers to their take-off strategy which involves running across the surface of the water.

White Morph Giant Petrel in flight in front of adult and chick on the Greene
Another White Morph Giant Petrel in flight, this time in front of an adult and chick on the Greene

After an evening of monitoring, we headed back to our accommodation (a tent for me) to rest up, have some food and take in the spectacular moon rise.

Moonrise over the Greene Peninsula
Moonrise over the Greene Peninsula

We awoke with big ambitions for the day and with the weather gods apparently smiling down on us, we set off along Morraine Fjord to the second Greene Giant Petrel colony.

View out of Moraine Fjord over an Elephant Seals back
View out of Moraine Fjord over an Elephant Seal’s back

This is a much smaller colony (only 20 birds), although seemingly just as successful, and in my opinion, the birds should pay extra for the view since it’s situated with the stunning backdrop of the Harker and Hamburg Glaciers!

Southern Giant Petrel in front of the Harker Glacier
Southern Giant Petrel in front of the Harker Glacier

With the work complete, we set off on a bid to circumnavigate the entire Greene Peninsula. Our first big climb was long and up horrible scree slopes but every time you gained height and turned around, you got progressively better views of the spectacular glaciers. The need to take almost the same picture time and time again as we climbed meant that the going was often slow but we eventually made it.

View across to the Harker Glacier from the Greene
View across to the Harker Glacier from the Greene
You can understand why we had to stop for lots of pictures... Stunning view of both Hamburg and Harker Glacier
You can understand why we had to stop for lots of pictures… Stunning view of both Hamburg and Harker Glacier

Once over the saddle and onto the east of the island, we lost the views of the Harker and Hamburg but it wasn’t long before we had the Nordenskjold glacier in our sights. The sheer size of this thing is mind-blowing. Flows of ice span as far as you can see from the surrounding hills down over the sea.

First views of the Nordenskjold Glacier with some numpty stood in the way!
Glorious view of the Nordenskjold Glacier with some numpty standing in the way!

As we clambered down to its edges, its size and colours became more and more impressive and as the sun weaved through the clouds and reflected through the ice, shades of blue I didn’t even know existed started to appear! Then, to top the experience off, a pair of snow petrels circled overhead before heading up into the mountains. As clichéd as it may sound, “magical” is the best word I can think of to describe the experience.

View across the Nordenskjold glacier to the sea
View across the Nordenskjold glacier to the sea
Glacier as far as you can see over the South Georgian Mountains
Glacier as far as you can see over the South Georgian Mountains

Taking our time to absorb all of the landscape, we slowly made our way down past ice caves and rock slides to the glacier’s face. A selection of wildlife awaited in the sea for calving ice to disturb prey species and aid foraging. This included several more Snow Petrel although, as per usual, they sat just out of good photo range. I need to have a word with their agent!

View of some scree covered ice caves at the Glaciers edge
Although they look like rock, these are actually ice caves at the glacier’s edge. The ice here has a thin coating of rocks and scree
Shades of blue -looking across the face of the Nordenskold Glacier
Shades of blue  – looking across the face of the Nordenskold Glacier

The final third of the walk involved scrambling over pebble beaches away from the Nordenskjold. Beaches tend to have the highest congregations of wildlife on South Georgia, meaning there were lots of opportunities to practice taking the perfect South Georgia shot: wildlife, glaciers, sea and mountains all in the frame and no need to use Photoshop!

Elephant Seals on the Greene Peninsula in front of the Nordenskjold Glacier
Elephant Seals on the Greene Peninsula in front of the Nordenskjold Glacier
Group of King Penguins on the Greene beach in front of the Nordenskjold glacier
Group of King Penguins on the Greene beach in front of the Nordenskjold glacier

Sadly every beach you visit around South Georgia, you are constantly reminded of the devastation that man can cause. Coastlines are scattered with the remains of the whales and seals which were harvested until near extinction.

The remains of a once majestic animal on the Greene beach
The remains of a once majestic animal on the Greene beach

Not wanting to end the blog on a low note, the trip had one last surprise, well in fact five of them. These came in the form of very obliging chinstrap penguins resting at various points along the Greene coastline. As per usual with ‘cuddly’ penguins, fighting and scrapping was observed but sadly, despite their best efforts, no flying.

Displaying Chinstrap Penguin on Greene beach
Displaying Chinstrap Penguin on Greene beach
Close up of a pair of Chinstrap Penguins on the beach
Close up of a pair of Chinstrap Penguins on the beach
Chinstrap penguins fighting as per usual
Chinstrap penguins fighting as per usual
Chinstrap Penguin attempting to 'fly'
Chinstrap Penguin attempting to ‘fly’

The work wasn’t completed there fortunately. The morning after my return from the Greene, myself and Lewis, the fisheries biologist here, set off for the Giant Petrel colony at Harpon. Last time we made the trip in deep snow and with company it took 4.5 hours, so we were ready for a long trek; but apparently we are both getting fitter because we were drinking tea in Harpon Hut 1 hour 50 mins later.

The Harpon colony is made up of 25 birds, which so far have a healthy productivity.

View from Echo Pass to the Neumayer Glacier and Harpon
View from Echo Pass to the spectacular Neumayer Glacier and Harpon
Southern Giant Petrel chick in front of the Lyell Glacier
Southern Giant Petrel chick in front of the Lyell Glacier

Postcards By Royal Delivery

This entry is part 18 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

Well, the Pharos Fisheries Patrol Vessel made a visit this week and made two incredibly important deliveries to the base! First of all was Her Royal Highness, Princess Anne and her accompanying party of VIPs. A thoroughly enjoyable day was had by all and thanks to the planning of our Government Officers we managed to make it through without any mishaps! It is always very exciting to discuss the work we do here with people who are knowledgeable and interested.

Talking science with Princess Anne - Thanks to Jen Lee of South Georgia Government for picture
Talking science with HRH Princess Anne – thanks to Jen Lee of South Georgia Government for the picture

The second important “delivery” for me, though, came in the form of an amazing batch of handmade postcards from Wood Farm Primary School in Oxford. Firstly, thank you all for the remarkable effort you have put into the making of the postcards. I don’t know who you got to take the pictures but they must be very talented. Secondly, I hear you all had a very successful performance of Robin Hood over the Christmas period, so congratulations!

Collage of my recent delivery of postcards
Collage of my recent delivery of postcards

I will do my best to reply to your postcards when I can. But for now I decided to dedicate an entire blog post to you guys and your questions. I’d also like to compliment you all on your phenomenal handwriting and interesting questions. So here goes …

David, Neha, Zidane and Kaysian (Maid Marian) – How have you been doing in the Antarctic?

I am doing really well down here. It is very weird living on an island where the animals outnumber the humans by so many but I absolutely love it. I originally came down here to get away from my mum’s nagging to do the washing up but my base commander is just as persistant.

Poppy – How was your journey?

My journey down here was amazing. It was calm on the whole and we saw thousands of birds, including lots of Albatross.  We also saw dolphins and the blow of lots of whales.

A wandering albatross - I have wanted to see one of these since I was your age and now I have! -They have a wingspan of 3.5m!
A wandering albatross – I have wanted to see one of these since I was your age and now I have! they have a wingspan of 3.5m.

Alfie (archer) – Have you seen any whales, sharks or fish?

We have indeed. We saw a number of whale blows on the journey down here and have had humpback whales in the bay. Unfortunately, we don’t get any shark sightings down here but if you see later, I have uploaded a picture I took whilst in the Galapagos of a Hammerhead. The sea here is full of fish and as a result is home to one of the most sustainably run fisheries in the world.

Thomas – Did you see a baby seal come out of its egg?

Sorry, no, Thomas. The main reason for this is that seals are mammals and therefore give birth to live baby seals rather than laying eggs. Here is a short video I put together of the baby seals (only a few weeks old) practicing to swim in the shallow waters of Maiviken.

Billy – Do you take any breaks on the 14km walk to Maiviken?

Not always, but there is a lovely hut on the way which overlooks a lake and sometimes I stop there for a cup of tea and a chocolate bar!

 

My little hut where I stop for tea on my way to Maiviken (my study site)
My little hut where I stop for tea on my way to Maiviken (my study site)

Kenzie, George (the archer in the school play) and Liam – Have you seen any new animals?

Almost all of the animals I have seen here are new for me. I have always wanted to see a Wandering Albatross and now I have!

Danny – What is the weather like there?

The weather should be warm here now as it is summer. However this season, conditions have been poor with strong winds (70mph), heavy snow (nearly a foot in a day) and temperatures rarely making it above 0 degrees.

Kyle 2 (the singer not actor) – What is it like when you meet a blondie?

It’s great when you see a blondie. It is always great to see something rare and unexpected. Because they are so uncommon, you get to know each of their personalities.

A picture for Dajah – here is a baby elephant seal pup! Did you know that they are 1.3m and weigh 50kg when they are born? And after this they put on 4kg a day until they are 3 weeks old.
A picture for Dajah – here is a baby elephant seal pup. Did you know that they are 1.3m and weigh 50kg when they are born? And after this they put on 4kg a day until they are 3 weeks old. The adult males can weigh up to 4.5tonnes and are made up of 40% fat!

Blake – How cold is the water and can the animals feel it?

The water temperature varies between 0 and 5 degrees around the islands but a lot of the animals will go even further south and be feeding in -2 degrees. They have many adaptations that allow them to stay warm in the water such as thick fur or feathers and lots of fat. Large amounts of fat also make it easier for the animals to float making swimming easier.

Reece – Have there been any injuries yet?

There most definitely have! Unfortunately, we have had five medical evacuations so far this season (4 tourists, 1 staff). One suffered such a severe seal bite that the helicopter had to meet the boat to get the casualty back to hospital in time

Jenilsia – What is your favourite place and food?

My three favourite places in the world apart from here are the Farne Islands in Northumberland, The Galapagos, and The Pantanal in Brazil. My favourite food is Nutella!

A pair of Waved Albatross on one of my favourite places in the world, The Galapagos
A pair of Waved Albatross on one of my favourite places in the world, The Galapagos

Savannah – Which Part of Antarctica are you in?

I am on South Georgia, a Sub-Antarctic Island in the Southern Ocean.

Ayesha (soldier) Do common dolphins swim where you stay?

We have many species of marine mammals around the islands but common dolphins tend to be found in warmer waters, north of here. However, there may be some sightings in the Southern Ocean from time to time.

Maariah – Have you seen any Pandas?

Just like you, I love Pandas, and I wish there were some here. However, there is unfortunately no bamboo here for them to feed on. Pandas tend to live in the mountain ranges of Eastern Asia.

Eugenia – Do you like living there?

I love living here. It is very different from England. There is no traffic to wake you up in the morning (although the seals do just as good a job!)

As requested by Thomas, here is a picture of a baby penguin! Hope he is cute enough for you
As requested by Thomas, here is a picture of a baby penguin!

Poppy (narrator of the school play) – Have you seen Santa’s workshop?

I haven’t, I’m afraid. I haven’t been in touch with Santa recently but last I heard he was living in Lapland which is in the Arctic. I hear you were all very good and he brought you presents to school!

Ellie, Zidane, Danny, Elliot and Kieran– What is your favourite animal you have seen? And why?

Every day here, my favourite animal changes. I think that Snow Petrels are stunning birds and very mysterious in the way they appear out of nowhere and just as quickly vanish. But I love the personality and aggression of the Antarctic Fur Seals the most. Working with these guys every day is an absolute pleasure.

Fur Seal drying itself after a refreshing swim
Fur Seal drying itself after a refreshing swim

Kyle – Have you been doing anything exciting?

Every day I do something exciting here! My work is amazing, I get to be outdoors most of the time and see lots of really cool animals. And if I get bored of the animals, then I just start a snow fight! In the winter when I have more free time and there is more snow then I can ski right out from base.

Wuraola – Is there any food?

Fortunately, we have lots of food here. When we first arrived a huge ship came in full of lots of supplies for the year. We also get the Fisheries Patrol Vessel every 6 weeks which brings us supplies of fresh fruit and veg. We are however restricted to 3 chocolate bars a month and the milk is powdered so the tea tastes horrible!

Lleyton – Could you send me a picture of you next to a seal? – Could I have your autograph?

I will see if I can sort a postcard just for you mate!

As requested by Kieran here is a picture of a Dolphin. This is a Peale’s dolphin. These guys feed close to the shore and eat mainly fish squid and octopus
As requested by Kieran here is a picture of a Dolphin. This is a Peale’s dolphin. These guys feed close to the shore and eat mainly fish squid and octopus

Alexzandra – How many species of animal did you see in your entire life?

Too many to count. I have been very lucky to visit lots of incredible places for work and pleasure during my life and have encountered thousands of different species in Africa, Europe, Central and South America and now here.

Tanvir, Joel (one of the outlaws) and Kaysian (Maid Marian) – Have you found any interesting animals?

All the animals are interesting in their own right. When you work with animals every day, you see more and more interesting behaviours. Yesterday I spent almost 2 hours watching the fur seal pups chasing the Gentoo Penguins around the beach!

Another time, I spent an entire day in a Macaroni Penguin colony and don’t think I could get bored of watching these feisty penguins scrapping with each other!

 

Macaroni Penguins are so angry, they jumo at any excuse for a fight
Macaroni Penguins are so angry, they jump at any excuse for a fight

Kyle 2 (the singer not actor) – Can you  put a picture of a shark on your blog?

Here is a picture of a shark. It is not taken around South Georgia as we have very few species here and they are only found in the deep sea.  Also we can’t dive here, so we would have to catch them to see them.

 

No shark sightings here unfortunately. But I hope this picture of Hammerheads I took last year will do!
No shark sightings here unfortunately. But I hope this picture of Hammerheads I took last year will do!

Sumayah – Did you sail or fly on an aeroplane there?

To arrive here, I had to take a plane to the Falklands Islands before sailing for 5 days on a ship.

Charlene – What are you bursting to see next?

The animals I would love to see more than anything down here are Orcas and Leopard Seals. Sightings of both are much more frequent during the winter here so I have all my fingers and toes crossed that, before I leave, I will have seen these.

Eugenia, Aaliyah and Dajah –How many species of animal did you see during work?

I have seen three species of seal, four species of penguin, two species of dolphin, two of whale, four species of albatross and lots and lots of bird species.

Ayesha – Can you post a picture of a Leopard Seal?

Unfortunately, I have not seen a Leopard Seal yet. They tend to spend our winter around the islands feeding on penguins and young seals. During the summer, they breed on the main Antarctic Peninsula on the pack ice.

Elliot – Have you seen any icebergs yet?

Yes, although so far they have been small. By April, we should be seeing much larger bergs off the continent. Some of these are as wide as the island (40km) and can be seen from space.

A small Iceberg floating in Cumberland Bay
A small Iceberg floating in Cumberland Bay

Maariah – Are you home yet?

I am still on South Georgia but I will come and see you guys when I am back.

Liam – Have you seen any icebergs falling down?

I have been lucky enough to see glaciers falling down (or “calving”) here. It is a spectacular sight with so much noise.

Jenilsia – Do you really love penguins?

How could I not love penguins?! They are unbelievably agile and efficient in the water and so comical and aggressive out of it.

Macaroni Penguins playing in the water
Macaroni Penguins playing in the water

Poppy – What happened to the baby Elephant Seal?

We successfully managed to lift the rock and rubble from on top of the seal. It had a few scrapes but he was soon sitting happily back in the shallows.

Billy – When you go near the animals, do any of them run away?

It is extremely important that we don’t cause the animals to run away. At this time of year especially, when the animals are breeding, it is important that the animals don’t exert any more energy than is necessary. Animals are scared of us so we must not approach them too close unless we really have to (like with the baby elephant seal in Poppy’s question).

Kenzie – Is it really cold there because it doesn’t look like it in the pictures?

It is very cold, especially at night. I try not to take my camera out when the weather is really bad in case it breaks, and I take lots of pictures when the weather is nice. It is not uncommon in the winter for temperaturs to be below -15 degrees and it is very rare for winds to be calm, so far the strongwest winds I have experienced have been 70mph. If both of these happen at the same time the wind chill would reduce the temperature to below -35.

Not all my pictures are taken in the sun! Antarctic Fur Seals in the snow
Not all my pictures are taken in the sun! Antarctic Fur Seals in the snow – and this is in the middle of our summer!

 

More lovely summer weather on base, this time with King Penguins
More lovely summer weather on base, this time with King Penguins

Reece – Have you been chased by any animals?

Both the elephant seals and the Antarctic Fur seals have hareems, which they are very defensive of.  A hareem is a group of females that the male is in charge of protecting. In Antarcitic Fur Seals this is usually between 5-15. For Elephant Seals, the dominant male (AKA Beachmaster) can have up to 100 females in his hareem. Sometimes for my work, it is necessary for me to walk through the hareems and the males will often chase me out the other side!

Savannah – Have you seen many animals?

I have seen thousands of animals. The islands are very different to England, though. In England, you have high species diversity (lots of different species) with often low abundance (fewer individuals). In South Georgia, we have only a few species but we have thousands of them. There are approximately 4 million Antarctic Fur Seals alone here!

This picture is for Ellie whose favourite animals are the Blondie’s. Also for Sumayah who asks if I can send a picture of a baby Polar Bear? Unfortunately Polar Bears are only found in the Arctic but this isn’t far off!
This picture is for Ellie whose favourite animals are the Blondies. Also for Sumayah, who asks if I can send a picture of a baby Polar Bear? Unfortunately, Polar Bears are only found in the Arctic but this isn’t far off, is it?!

 Neha – Have you seen any interesting birds?

I have seen lots of amazing birds. Did you know that we only have one songbird (garden bird that sings) here? All of the others live most of the time at sea and only come to land to breed. Because the weather is very cold and windy here, all of the birds have to have lots of adaptations to help them survive The Brown Skuas in particular are extremely interesting. Everywhere you see them, they occupy a slightly different niche based on their surroundings. They are extremely intelligent animals.

Definately one of the most intelligent species we have here - Brown Skuas over a penguin chick
Definitely one of the most intelligent species we have here – Brown Skuas over a penguin chick

Kyle – Are you coming back for Christmas?

It takes me a long time to get any post (like your cards) here, so we’re way past Christmas now and, as you are probably aware, still down in the Antarctic. What is worse is that I had to work all through Christmas. Science never sleeps!

Wuraola – Where are you living at the moment?

If you look at my Life on Base blog, you can see what my base looks like. I am living on a small sub-Antarctic island in the middle of the Southern Ocean called South Georgia!

Aaliyah – Would you please put a picture up of you?

Since you asked so nicely!

Me in front of the Neumayer Glacier
Me in front of the Neumayer Glacier

Thank you again for all your interesting and thoughtful postcards. Reading them really has put a smile on everyone’s face here in the Antarctic. We would love to hear more from you guys! In the mean time keep on working hard and behaving for your teachers or you will end up on the naughty step …

Gentoo Penguin on the naughty step
Gentoo Penguin on the naughty step

Jamie

Rare Sightings, Penguin Census And Calving Glaciers

This entry is part 17 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

As life continues at King Edward Point, South Georgia, it seems some thing’s never change. The workload is still huge, it keeps on snowing and life is still awesome. We have had a few noteworthy and out of the ordinary sightings though. The first came in the form of a Weddels Seal. Although these do breed on the very south of the island, this is the north of their range so they are rare visitors to the station. As is often the case with rare animals turning up in the wrong place, this individual was a youngster.

Another suprise visitor - Weddels Seal
Suprise visitor –  A Weddels Seal with a snotty nose!

On top of this we had visits from two lost penguin species. First of all was a chinstrap penguin which spent the best part of 48 hours zipping around our jet boats in Cumberland Bay. The closest colonies for these are located on The South Sandwich Islands.

The second was found during the chick count of the Gentoo Penguins. Before we managed to start with the scientific work, we noticed a Macaroni penguin trying his best to blend in with the crowd. The Gentoo colony is located roughly 12km from the closest Macaroni so it was not that lost but more impressive is that the colony is located 2km inland, uphill from the nearest beach. So this guy made his long hike for no reason!

 

Suprise Macaroni penguin
Trying to blend in – a suprise Macaroni penguin in the Gentoo colony

The Gentoo count itself was a little depressing, as we had expected, with El Nino seemingly affecting the numbers of Krill in our waters. Having received news from Bird Island that several thousand Gentoo nesting attempts had been unsuccessful, we were not holding out much hope for our 800 eggs at Maiviken. During previous brief ventures into the colony, I had noted a number of deserted, unincubated eggs, suggesting that the food shortage is leading the Gentoos to terminate breeding attempts, and the Skuas’ nests are littered with debris from the colony. However, we were pleased to see that we still had 120 chicks remaining and looking, on the whole, healthy. And during the time we spent with the birds, adults were observed frequently regurgitating large amounts of Krill to their chicks.

Feeding time for the Gentoo chicks
Feeding time for the Gentoo chicks

Further bad news from the Penguins’ point of view is that both pairs of Brown Skua, adjacent to the breeding colony, now have hungry chicks to feed, meaning scenes like that captured in the last blog will become more and more frequent.

Proud Parents - Two Brown Skuas and their chick overlooking Maiviken
Proud Parents – Two Brown Skuas and their chick overlooking Maiviken

 

Hatching at exactly the wrong time for the penguins a brown skua chick
Hatching at exactly the wrong time for the penguins a brown skua chick

Sorry to keep mentioning it, but my job is incredible and has many, many perks. One of these is it allows me to get out and about, especially on boat trips to other peninsulas. On one of these trips last month to the Greene, we went via the Hamburg and Harker Glaciers for a bit of familiarisation (sightseeing). And we timed this trip to perfection since on our arrival, a chunk of ice the size of my house calved from the face. I don’t know what was more spectacular, the actual calving or the size of the wave that it caused.

Having enjoyed the calving from a close but ‘safe’ distance, we decided we were ok to sit still and face the oncoming wave. But as the wave continued to grow, eventually dwarfing the glacier from our view, we quickly realised this wasn’t the case and were ordered to ‘run away’!

One of the many receding glaciers here just starting to calve
One of the many receding glaciers here just starting to calve

 

Hamburg Glacier calving into the sea
Hamburg Glacier calving into the sea

 

The wave, following the calving of the glacier. The chunk of ice that fell would have dwarfed my house/
The wave, following the calving of the glacier. The chunk of ice that fell would have dwarfed my house

 

The moment we realised how big the wave was and that running away was the best decision
Just Before we decided that running away was the best decision!

Whist watching these spectacular structures calving, its hard to think that future generations will not get this chance. The effects of climate change are clear to see all over South Georgia with some Glaciers receding at over 1m a day. In fact, in the entire of South America there is only one Glacier that is not receding, the Perito Moreno glacier in Argentina and it is thought that within the near future, this will follow the same trend.

Imagine a world without these... Hamburg Glacier
Imagine a world without these… Hamburg Glacier

On top of the fact that glaciers are in their own right epic, another great thing about hanging around them is that you have a chance of seeing the majestic snow petrels. These are by far my favourite birds here although they do frustrate me by only turning up when I have a small lens on my camera, hence the slightly distant shot.

Definately my favourite birds here. They never appear when you have the right camera or lens.
Definitely my favourite birds here. They never appear when you have the right camera or lens.

On another of my scientific trips to around South Georgia, this time to check my Southern Giant Petrels at Harpon, I got to experience the Antarctic water temperatures for first time. I was in a dry suit, so not particularly brave!

Upon arriving in our rib to a steep shelving beach full of ice glacial debris, it was necessary to jump out in waist-height water and hold the boat whilst we unloaded all the gear. Just standing there for two minutes in a dry suit, my legs were quickly numbing and losing sensation. I have no idea how the seals do it for longer than this – to think that an Elephant Seal will dive to depths of 1500m and spend two hours completely submerged is unfathomable.

Elephant Seal sunning itself in glacial debris on Harpon beach
Molting Elephant Seal sunning itself in glacial debris on Harpon beach

As per usual, my visits to my seal colonies continued every other day. One particular visit sticks out as particularly ‘blondie’. Across my beaches, I noted six blonde pups, three blonde females and two blonde males. When you consider that, on average, 1 in every 800 fur seals is blonde, you should get an idea of how many seals make up my study site.

Ebony and Ivory - Antarctic Fur Seal Pups
Ebony and Ivory – Antarctic Fur Seal Pups

As I mentioned earlier, dumps of snow are almost weekly at the moment and the animals in front of base are starting to look less than impressed. Especially the King Penguins, which have picked this time of year (supposedly the warmest) to molt their feathers.

More molting king penguins in the snow
More moulting king penguins in the snow