Although not the prettiest birds to grace the planet, if you ever get the chance to see giant petrels in the wild, they will command your respect like few others. There is nothing quite like watching the coming together of hundreds of these majestic giants at a recently deceased corpse.
With piranha-like efficiency, giant petrels can tear hundreds of kilograms of flesh from an elephant seal skeleton in hours, with powerful tube-nosed bills strong enough to crack open a seal skull. Plunging deep into the carcass, the heads and necks of these usually exquisitely preened birds quickly become coated with bright red blood and gore.
Equally as striking is the intraspecific competition for the optimal place at the carcass. The birds posture with wings spread and tails fanned, moving their heads from side to side whilst emitting their best war songs – unforgettable primitive guttural cries – to deter challengers.
If the deterrent is unsuccessful, the birds clash chest to chest, locking bills and slapping wings until one challenger concedes. It’s a spectacular display of carnage from this ultimate scavenger.
Because the males are larger than the females, gatherings such as this are usually between males whilst females tend to forage at sea where competition is less harsh.
Absolutely devastated to leave South Georgia after an incredible and life changing year. If anyone gets the chance to visit I would 150% recommend it! It has everything, landscape, wildlife, glaciers and very occasionally the sun also.
It was an absolute pleasure spending the year with this team. One final BBQ in the snow as well as a final champagne toast and it was time to set sail on board the Shackleton.
As to be expected the scenery on the way out was still magnificent and a few species of wildlife made the effort to come and see us off.
On our way North we passed several, huge icebergs which were obviously floating north from the continent
Once within flying range of the Falklands a Hurricane made a flyby whilst carrying out a training exercise allowing great views for photographs
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 …
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The BAS team based here has now dropped to 7 and it’s a long time since we last saw real people! To stop us going crazy, we have to keep ourselves entertained. As a marine biologist, my favourite pastime would be talking to the animals, but apart from the occasional seal, base is fairly barren of wildlife so we have to find other ways to keep busy.
Luckily, we have lots of snow at the moment so there are opportunities to get out on the hill and ski. Its not quite the same as your standard resort skiing since in order to ski down a hill, you must first ski up it because we have very few chairlifts. Well, none at all, actually.
Also there are no piste bashers to compact the snow, meaning that even on skis, it’s not uncommon to sink several inches beneath the surface, making falls frequent but landings comfy.
As well as talking to seals and ski-ing, we also we take it in turns every Saturday to provide food and sometimes entertainment for everyone on base. So far this month we have had a Glastonbury themed evening, where we dressed like hippies and watched the downloaded Glasto highlights. We have also had a pizza and quiz night.
Sometimes the entertainment isn’t thought up within station. Two weekends ago, we participated in the Antarctic 48 Hour Film Competition. This was first thought up by an American base and allows us to compete against all the other bases around the Antarctic continent.
The competition starts with an email on the Friday evening which contains a list of various items to incorporate into a 5 minute film. You then have until 0000 Sunday night to write, film, direct and edit your film, and , if you feel confident enough, to submit it for viewing around the Antarctic.
The film is then judged by your peers based on the acting, filmography and editing, and winners are announced. Having sat through 22 different entries, I was incredibly impressed by the overall standard and creativity, although that can’t be said about every entry! Ours this year was a soof 1970s cop show and was voted as second best overall. If you want to make your own follow this link …. 48 hour film link
We also have a very well equipped workshop and the experienced people here have been happy to show me around the machinery, meaning I have been able to improve both metalwork and woodwork skills.
We are also spending lots of time training ourselves on the use of the fine South Georgia fleet so that Russ, our boating officer, feels confident enough to go on holiday!
In other news, we had a 7.4 earthquake at the weekend. I am told that base shook considerably and it awoke several members of the team. But apparently, I am a very deep sleeper!
South Georgia is absolutely incredible for rich and diverse wildlife, this is something we all know. What makes it that little bit more special than other places of this nature is the breathtaking scenery all around you wherever you go. With wildlife sightings currently at their lowest around base, I took a bit of time to photograph the landscapes.
Almost as spectacular as the landscape are the skies now that the days are getting lighter again: sunset and sunrise are falling perfectly in time with the beginning and end of work. We have also been witness to some amazing lenticular cloud formations in recent weeks.
Even with wildlife sightings down around base, I am still making the weekly trips to Maiviken to see the few lingering Antarctic Fur Seals. Its very rare that I make the commute and don’t get my camera out, even if only my phone (like the two below). I must have a thousand pictures of my route by now, but it’s not one I ever want to forget!
Our numbers have recently dropped with the loss of our lead boatman, who has headed back to the equally as spectacular Essex. His loss means that there is a much greater demand for the rest of us to take out the boats.
An out of character spell of calm weather has allowed me to rack up some hours of training in recent weeks on board the Jet boats. I have been training at night time navigation – during the day! Our boating officer, Russ, used a very high tech training methodology of putting cardboard on all the windows and making me navigate only using the GPS equipment. When I eventually stepped outside, the day and the view was pretty stunning (see above).
We have also had lots of time training with our Fisheries Patrol vessel, practicing ‘at sea transfers’.
Finally, myself and another team member, took the short commute across to Grytviken, for a night away from base. The weather was too good to stay indoors so we headed out with a flask of mulled wine and watched the almost full moon rise over Mount Duse and the derelict remains of Grytviken whaling station.
After a bitterly cold night, we were woken by a nosy neighbour at the front door, trying to get in to steal our warmth. A snowy sheathbill was wading through the snow in order to check if we had left any scraps. Unfortunately, we disappointed!
As winter progresses, so does the work. Trips to Maiviken have become less frequent but are still necessary. Conditions can be challenging with the temperatures dropping, snow levels increasing and the wind ever present. But once you get there, it is always worth it.
With it being winter now, much of the wildlife around base has dispersed and I have to go much further afield to get my wildlife fix. My weekly Maiviken trips offer the perfect opportunity to do this. With summer densities of wildlife at Maiviken being so ridiculously high, even with a dramatic decrease of numbers, there is plenty to keep me on my toes.
Walking conditions are much more challenging now and snow shoes or skis are necessary for most trips. I also have to be aware of the snow/avalanche conditions, whilst walking across steep heavily loaded slopes. Seemingly, there isn’t enough tea in the world to keep my hands warm but that’s life!
Although fur seals can sleep at sea, Maiviken beaches provide the perfect place for additional R&R for small groups of seals. Calving of the Neumayer Glacier is apparently quite high at the moment with many of the beaches covered in blocks of glacial ice.
Its very rare that you get a still day on South Georgia, so when the snow isn’t falling from the sky, you’re not necessarily safe.
Gentoo penguins will rarely fish overnight and will usually return to rookeries before dusk before heading back out again at dawn. This means that if I get to Maiviken early enough, I get my penguin fix as well.
Winter time is peak fishing time down here. All boats have to come into the bay so that the Government Officers can inspect the vessels and ensure that they meet the high standards required to fish in these seas. It is also a busy time for our Fisheries Patrol Vessel, Pharos SG, which carries out at sea boardings and is constantly patrolling for illegal fishing.
Wherever you go at the moment, you are not too far from pipits. It’s amazing to see how quickly these guys are recovering after the rat eradication. Just as impressive is how such a diminutive bird is able to survive in such extreme conditions. Birds have resorted to foraging on the tidal line, where the sea melts any snow, and roosting in any pockets free of vegetation they can find.
Welcome to another week in the life of a British Antarctic Survey scientist! This week’s events include Oil Spill and X Ray training and, with it being an international weekend in the football calendar, I have news from the South Georgian national team’s latest outing.
Living in South Georgia involves all sorts of weird and wonderful training. Part of living in such a small team in such an isolated location involves being prepared for everything, including tsunamis, shipwrecks and fires.
We also play an important role as first responders to any spillages of potentially hazardous chemicals within a manageable size. Obviously, it is necessary for all the team to be familiar with the Emergency Action Plan and know how to deploy all the equipment. So, this month we rolled out all the equipment in order to first control and then clear up a mock oil spill around the King Edward Point wharf.
We are lucky to have a doctor and surgery here on South Georgia. However, there is only so much that Doc can do alone so it is therefore necessary that we are all trained with some level of medical care in order to assist her or, God forbid, treat her if she hurts herself.
This involves intensive training in the UK before deployment, followed by weekly Doc School once down south. On this week’s agenda was X-Raying. Equipment is limited here so our X Ray machine uses film and we must be able to develop the pictures. Our subject for this practice is an old, frozen Gentoo Penguin from the freezer! You’ll be glad to know it had no broken bones.
The final piece of training for this month also involved a Major Incident Drill for which the Royal Navy provided the mock, unco-operative casualties. The scenario was a shipwrecked fishing vessel full of conveniently non-English speaking fisherman.
After we had saved the lives of all the people worth saving, we took advantage of the good weather to have another game of football.
The game was strongly contended and this Navy team represented a much greater challenge than previous games. Meteorological conditions were perfect in contrast to the pitch, which is made up of mire, bog and rock. This didn’t affect the level of the play, though, with both teams doing what only the true greats can do by adapting their style of play to the conditions.
With the wind behind them, the home side settled into the conditions more quickly and were soon peppering the Navy goal with shots. Fortunately for the away team, their keeper possessed many cat-like qualities, pulling out some blinding saves for the cameras.
Tackles were flying in all over the pitch, some timed to perfection but mostly horribly late. Less out of maliciousness but more as a result of the bobbly terrain and low fitness levels.
Not even The Cat in goal could put a stop to the “tica taca” passing which lead to the opening goal. The home team’s passing, which can only be compared to Barcelona, tore through the away defence with Cowie eventually finishing the move and slotting the ball under the helpless keeper.
With the first half approaching its climax, the game was interrupted by an almighty scream. Many dived for cover, concluding that the only possible cause of a scream like that could be a shooting and that maybe we were under attack. However, we eventually discovered this wasn’t the case, but it was almost as bad – the away team’s right back had been tackled by a tuft of grass.
With the casualty carried off, the half drew to an uneventful close, allowing the away team to compose themselves.
Revitalised by their half time oranges and cigarettes, the away team came out a changed team and with the help of the wind, restricted South Georgia to their own half. So relaxed was The Cat about the threat to his goal, after a few minutes he opted to have a cuppa. With the help of some valiant defending and some truly abysmal finishing, the home team hung on and seemed to be heading for an unlikely victory.
But with the clock ticking away, the home team did what British Teams do so well and crumbled. With what can only be described as a howler by the keeper (who had been kindly donated by the Navy due to uneven numbers) gifting the equaliser to the Navy by fumbling a shot, which probably wouldn’t have reached the goal, to the feet of their striker to tap in.
With only seconds left, the Navy sensed blood. No sooner had the game kicked off again, the ball was rolling out for an away corner. The Navy piled men forward and after an overhit corner was caught wickedly by the wind and thrown on to the crossbar, it dropped into the six yard box. Tired from their intrepid second-half efforts, South Georgia were slow to react and the ball was scrambled into the net.
It is always good fun to see people from the outside world even when they beat you at football. The HMS Clyde team were no exception to this and we were happy to invite them into the bar for drinks after the big game.
We look forward to their next visit and hopefully a rematch!
For those of you who were wondering what base is like here at King Edward Point, I am going to take you on a small tour of what we have here.
I think that it’s only right that we start in the most social (and definitely most important) place … the bar!
This is home to a fine range of spirits, wines and beers, which are all drunk responsibly, of course. It’s also where most things happen: there’s a projector, so we have bi-weekly film nights; a darts board, which we use to compete against other Antarctic bases, and it’s also the venue for quizzes and other team activities.
Next up is my lab, which I share with the fisheries biologist. This is where I carry out my diet analysis studies and dissections . I’m pretty sure there aren’t many labs in the world with a view like ours. Highlights from the window include both elephant seal and Antarctic fur seal fights, the king penguin roost and the occasional snow petrel.
We then have the scientist’s office: note once again the incredible view (which is the same as from my bedroom)! If I am not out in the field, here and the lab are where I spend most of my time, with brief breaks for sleep, tea and food!
With the nature of the work we carry out here, it is necessary that we have marine transport. This comes in the form of two jet boats and a two RIBs, which stands for Rigid-hulled Inflatable Boats. In a working capacity, they enable us to carry out science in areas of the island which aren’t accessible by foot.
On top of this they are used by the two Government Officers here at King Edward Point to ferry them to visiting tourist and fishing vessels in order to check they are meeting all the strict guidelines necessary to use these waters. Most importantly, the boats allow us to explore other peninsulas during our holidays. One such place, which I am hoping to visit in March, is St Andrews Bay, which is home to 500,000 King Penguins.
Finally, we have a sauna for warming us up after our midwinter’s swim. And the boat shed doubles up as just about everything you can imagine. It has a table tennis table, gym and badminton court, hosts great parties and also has a chippy and metal workshop.
So, although we are very isolated we aren’t that hard done by. We even have a football pitch, although half of it is a swamp! The only thing missing that would make this place perfect is a bath!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.