Humpback Whales

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Antarctica

 

Humpbacks Whales feeding

Another blog from my latest amazing trip to Antarctica, focussing on Humpback whales this time. You’ll be glad to know that there is less blood than in the previous post.

Humpback in front of a glacier

Having lived for a year on South Georgia, immersed in the depressing history of Antarctic whaling and the impact of humans on Baleen whales, it was amazing to sail through Antarctic waters and see first-hand how the whales are bouncing back. Sightings of baleen whales were frequent with the most common being  humpbacks: these majestic 36 tonne beasts were almost ubiquitous throughout, it was an absolute pleasure.

Fin whale over the continental shelf
Minke whale in the Weddell Sea

Almost without fail, by the time breakfast was served on board National Geographic Explorer, there had been a blow, or a sighting of the distinctive hump, or flukes of these animals.

Fluke and dorsal hump!

Possibly the best experience of my time on board came as the sun was setting on an already eventful day of killer whales and penguins. Stupidly thinking the excitement was over for the day, I retreated to my room in order to download a few photos, when the call of ‘feeding Humpbacks’ came out over the tannoy.

This is what I emerged on deck to see

As a kid, I read about bubble net feeding whales and had seen footage of it numerous times on David Attenborough documentaries. For those others who have seen this footage, you will understand why seeing this activity has been on my bucket list for years. However, travelling to Antarctica, I had no expectations of ticking this off the list, since it was my understanding that such behaviour had only been observed in Alaska!

Bubble net feeding is obviously a foraging method where the humpbacks blow clouds of bubbles around their prey at the surface. This traps the prey between the bubbles and the surface allowing the whales to swim up with their mouths open and take huge mouthfuls of prey. 

The video bwlow shows one of these events happening and you can see the bubbles at the surface before the humpbacks lunge through open-mouthed

Humpback whales that spend summers in the Antarctic, exploiting the rich cold waters, migrate north to spend the winters in the tropics around Costa Rica. Here, there is an overlap with the Northern Humpbacks that spend their summers in Alaska and migrate south also to Central American tropics. The hypothesis is that these Northern whales, having learnt and practiced the behaviour in Alaska, migrated south to Central America before continuing through to Antarctica.

More feeding

As a result, you now have whales practicing bubble net feeding in Antarctic waters. The humpbacks have uniquely marked flukes which allow them to be identified.

Markings on the flukes

Hopefully, the individuals we photographed in Antarctica will have been observed previously in the world and we will get a better understanding of how this behaviour has spread.

There were small groups of feeding whales all around

And when you get bored of the whales (as if!) the sunset and the ice aren’t too bad substitutes!

Sunset

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

 

Feeding frenzy

This entry is part 34 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey
South Georgia seas brimming with pelagic birds
South Georgia seas brimming with pelagic birds

South Georgia hosts some of the most spectacular wildlife colonies in the world. People pay thousands of pounds and travel from all over the world to visit. Our most famous inhabitants are the penguins (4 species), seals (2 species) and albatross (4 species). There is an abundance of less ‘sexy’ wildlife utilising South Georgia for its breeding habitats and proximity to rich foraging grounds. Many of these species can be very elusive on the islands, breeding down burrows, visiting nesting sites in the dark and living predominantly over open ocean. This has meant sightings have been few and far between from base. I have spent the last two weeks on board a vessel in the southern ocean and this opportunity has allowed me time to see some of these scarcer pelagic species

Cape Petrel
Cape Petrel spots something
Cape Petrel
Cape Petrel – Target identified
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Diving initiated
Target acquired
Target acquired
Dive commenced
Back to the surface

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Heading off after a successful hunt
Heading off after a successful hunt

Probably the most common of these pelagic species around boats are the cape petrels (seen above), often spotted cruising in the slipstream of ships in the southern hemisphere. As a result, I have a number of the same shots of capes in flight. However, it was a great surprise to see one diving and fishing alongside our ship. The bird must have unearthed a small quantity of krill since it wasn’t long before other species were investigating – like this Antarctic Petrel.

Atlantic Petrel in flight
Antarctic Petrel in flight
Atlantic P
Antarctic Petrel coming into land
Atlantic Petrel takes a deep breath
Antarctic Petrel takes a deep breath
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Antarctic Petrel Diving
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Antarctic petrel still diving
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Antarctic petrel still diving
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Back up to the surface
Successfully on the sea, he gains his composure
After a successful pursuit it enjoys its meal

Finally it was the turn of the most elusive of them all, the Blue Petrel. I have spent hours on board ships trying to get pictures of these guys. Although common around boats, they tend to keep their distance. They also move incredibly quickly, meaning previous attempts have been limited to blurry distant unidentifiable specs. When this bird came in close to take advantage of the easy krill meal, I was thrilled. Unfortunately, the sun decided it was a good time to hide away but you can’t have everything!

Blue Petrel
Blue Petrel
Blue Petrel coming in for a meal
Blue Petrel coming in for a meal
Can you see it?
Can you see it?

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Heading back away from the boat
Off for more!