Return of the wildlife

This entry is part 2 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey
First Male Elephant Seal back on the Maiviken beaches
First Male Elephant Seal back on the Maiviken beaches

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!

Fur Seal porpoising in the shallows
Fur Seal porpoising in the shallows

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 Tern in flight in front of the ship
Antarctic Tern in flight in front of the ship

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.

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Friendly leopard seal making use of the ice which had flown into the cove

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.

Gentoo penguins on maiviken beach
Gentoo penguins on Maiviken Beach

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.

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R&R in front of base
Giant Petrels are back and building nests
Giant Petrels are back and building nests

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.

Fur Seal shaking out his mane
Fur Seal shaking out his mane

Male fur seals are already beginning to act territorially, meaning that I need to keep alert whilst patrolling the beaches.

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Leopard seal trying to ignore the wind and snow
Another fur seal shaking it out
Another fur seal shaking it out
Elephant Seals are also back at Penguin River
Elephant Seals are also back at Penguin River

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.

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Leopard seal hiding behind a snowdrift on base! Easy to miss in a white out
Gentoo Penguins fighting in the snow
Gentoo Penguins fighting in the snow

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 pipits are mcuh more apprent now and have begun singing
South Georgia pipits are much more apparent now and have begun singing

Life’s A Boat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Too close to photograph
Almost too close to photograph

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Displaying humpback
Displaying humpback
Diving Humpback
Diving Humpback

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

Young antarctic tern
Young antarctic tern

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
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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!

My role in South Georgia – Higher Predator Biologist

This entry is part 10 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

The currents and bathymetry (sea floor) of the seas surrounding South Georgia have resulted in large amounts of nutrients upwelling from the deeper oceans, causing an incredible richness in marine life. As with most rich biological resources around the world, there are great profits to be made from exploiting these. South Georgia has a history of extreme over-exploitation of these resources – especially sealing and later, whaling – from the beginning of the 20th century and Captain Cook first claimed it for Britain in 1775. After this, fish populations were heavily hit by overfishing during the 1970s.

Grytviken whaling station - the large metal vats are where the oil from the whales was stored
Grytviken whaling station – the large metal vats are where the oil from the whales was stored – gives you an idea of how many whales were being slaughtered

A large proportion of South Georgia’s income is still from fishing with its only other income coming from tourism so they have realised it is in their interest to ensure that that the fish populations are conserved.

Cold water species tend to have very long life cycles, grow slowly, have relatively low fecundity (the ability to produce large numbers of young) and reach sexual maturity very late. This means that fishing irresponsibly for one year could easily result in the loss of the fishery for the next 50 years, with recovery rates being very slow and sometimes irreversible.

In order to prevent this happening, the South Georgia Government have invested large amounts of money and research into the setting up of self-sustaining fishery, where the ecosystem is managed and researched as a whole, and where money made from the fishery is used to invest in the policing of fishing as well as research into the broader effects of fishing on the environment.

Food chains are extremely complex things and hard to fully understand. However, monitoring of key predators within them can give a good indication as to the health of lower levels in the same food chain. This is why, in South Georgia, the fisheries are researched and overseen, as well as the higher predators. This is  where I come in: I work intensively with the Antarctic Fur Seals and Gentoo Penguins because they feed almost exclusively on krill, which is at the centre of most Antarctic food chains. I also observe  the behaviour of giant petrel and albatross.

Gentoo Penguin adjusting eggs into brood pouch
Gentoo Penguin adjusting eggs into brood pouch

The main focus of my job is to work with these top predators at an area of the island called Maiviken. I have to visit my study site every other day during the summer period here and take pictures of the fur seal colonies. The aim of this is to allow us to understand more about the build up of the colonies during the breeding season and also understand how successful the colonies are.

Male Antarctic Fur seal at waters edge
Male Antarctic Fur seal at waters edge

On top of this, we also look closely at the development of the pups and chicks by weighing them at various stages because growth rates relate back to how successfully the adults are fishing, which in turn indicates the health of the ecosystem.

Pretty Cute.... An Antarctic Fur Seal pup peering through the tussock grass
Pretty Cute…. An Antarctic Fur Seal pup peering through the tussock grass

We also study the diet of these predators through analysing their scats (poo) as this gives us a good indication as to what species in the food chain are thriving and which species may be struggling. For example, if we only find adult krill in the seal’s scats then this suggests that there has been no recruitment of young krill into the population and that there could be a problem in the ecosystem.