Gold Harbour

As much as it kills me to have left my work with the British Antarctic Survey, the new job has some pretty amazing perks. Working at King Edward Point allowed me to see a small part of South Georgia over a long period of time working immersed within incredible wildlife. However, life on board National Geographic Explorer has 5 star food every night, a masseuse and most importantly, access to much much more of the island than we were able to visit from base.

Gold Harbour home to Bertrab Glacier and a few penguins

One of my favourite new landings to visit this year is Gold Harbour. Not the largest king penguin colony on South Georgia but still spectacular.

Kings making their way to sea

One of the many things that make this site stunning is the Bertrab Glacier, which hangs over the colony.

King standing tall in front of the Bertrab Glacier
The sunrises at gold are ridiculous as are the frequent rainbows
More Kings

During spring the beaches are covered by harems of Elephant seals which push the colony back into the tussock.

Elephant seals in the morning sun
Young beachmaster checking out the competition – the weather can change within a second from snow to sun to rain.
Calm before the storm

The breeding season is a difficult time for these giants. Beachmasters will spend months on end starving on land, battling to defend their harems from competitors. During this time, the battles can be brutal and so moments of rest and recovery must be taken at every opportunity.

Battle of the giants
Sleeping beauty
Beach littered with elephant seals and penguins trying to navigate the maze

Not all the fights end in blood and gore; youngsters are always practising because they know that at some point it will be their turn to fight for real.

Not quite as dramatic when the youngsters fight
But seemingly just as exhausting

As the elephant seals head out to sea for a much needed foraging trip the beach opens up, allowing other wildlife some space to thrive.

Antarctic Fur Seals can be found on just about every South Georgia beach and Gold Harbour is no exception
Gentoo penguin trying to blend in with the crowd

Wherever there are penguins and seal colonies, predators and scavengers are never too far away

Brown skua looking for a space to land in the colony
Skua in the morning light
The beaches can be quite exposed and landings aren’t always easy for our Zodiac boats or the penguins

Although not in the same abundance, elephant seals can still be found here late in the season since they return to the South Georgia coast in order to moult. This process takes roughly a month. Several animals will lie in the same location for most of this process and the combination of their weight and excrement kills everything beneath them, leaving foul smelling wallows throughout the coastline.

If only you could smell them!

If the wildlife doesn’t quite do it for you, then you can keep your eyes above the seals and penguins and it still ain’t half bad.

Sunrise on the Bertrab glacier

Despite the 4 a.m. mornings there is very little that can spoil an experience like this. However, we did find one thing that did just this on our final landing of the season. A young Antarctic Fur Seal with fishing material wrapped around its neck.

Despite South Georgia’s isolated location, there is no escape from marine pollution. Ghost fishing and marine waste are a real problem here. During my time on South Georgia we freed, any number of animals entangled within fishing or packaging waste. And on a landing at King Haakon Bay, we even managed to retrieve a washed-up fridge from the beach, as well as numerous bottles and bags.

Young fur seal with fishing material around its neck

If you think about how little activity and fishing there is in sub antarctic waters in comparison to other areas further north then the impacts and effects this will be having is hard to fathom. Over 100,000 marine animals are harmed through pollution such as this every year.

Not to end on a negative note, here are a few time lapses from a day at Gold Harbour

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!!!

Twilight At St Andrews Bay

This entry is part 32 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

Final blog from my amazing trip to St Andrews Bay. We are so lucky to be able to spend days at the incredible places and therefore see them throughout the entire day. Here are a few pictures I took at dawn and dusk on holiday.

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Penguins coming to shore at dawn
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Masses of penguins at first light
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Passing yacht (500m away) alongside an iceberg (5miles away)
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Penguins in the surf
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Sunrise
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Penguin calling as it emerges from the sea
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Calling chick at dusk
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Displaying King Penguin in front of dusk lenticular cloud formations
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Penguin silhouettes
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First light

For more pictures from my visit to St Andrews, check out my gallery here

Predators at St Andrews

This entry is part 3 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey
Giant Petrel patrolling colony
Giant Petrel patrolling colony

St Andrews Bay is an absolutely incredible place for a number of reasons. Not only does it have hundreds of thousands of penguins, it is surrounded by stunning glaciers and mountains, it borders the sea and it is home to thousands of prehistoric predators.

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Where there are penguins on South Georgia, you are never too far from both Giant Petrels and Brown Skuas. These birds fill the dual role of top land predators and scavengers on the island. Both species are incredibly intelligent, tough and persistent, and make a good match for any of the penguin species here.

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It’s hard whilst walking around St Andrews, not just to look down at the masses of penguins, but if you glance up, the skies are alive with these majestic birds as they constantly, effortlessly patrol the colonies for gaps to land in.

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The giant petrels especially aren’t known for being spectacularly gracious landers but, once on the ground, they start causing havoc.

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Looking for a landing space
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Preparing to land

If you get to a high point above the colonies, you can see the roads that these guys create as they run through the colonies, looking for carrion or weak penguins to predate.


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With numbers of penguins being so astonishingly high, you would assume that pickings would be easy. But even once the predators have a penguin in their bill, they have to keep it there long enough to make the kill, all the time being attacked by other lucky penguin survivors.

Giant Petrel after a successful kill
Giant Petrel after a successful kill

Once the kill is made, it is a matter of consuming as much as they can as quickly as they can because it’s not long before more hungry eyes pick them out and they have to share their well-earned meal!

Displaying giant petrels
Displaying giant petrels
Fighting the way up the pecking order
Fighting their way up the pecking order

Giant petrels aren’t the only competition for food, with brown skuas and snowy sheathbills also abundant around the colony

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Brown Skua keeping a watchful eye over the colony
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Brown Skua coming into land in the colony

For more images from this incredible trip to St Andrews, check out my St Andrews Bay album

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

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

 

 

 

Snow!!!

This entry is part 13 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey
King Penguin in the snow
King Penguin in the snow

South Georgia is an island located north of the main Antarctic Peninsula and with it being in the southern hemisphere it should be spring now. I should be walking to my study site every other day, worrying about how badly the hole in the Ozone is going to fry my skin, but its been almost a week since we last saw even a spec of blue sky. Not only has it been cold, its been bloody snowy and blowing a gale. As I am writing this, the weather station is recording regular gusts of 70knot winds and the snow flakes coming down are bigger than the face of my watch.

King Edward Point research station in the snow
King Edward Point research station in the snow

With Christmas approaching, we are starting to think there may be a slight chance of a white Christmas. But, do I want it….? Well, it would be pretty cool (if the wind calms) but it doesn’t half make the round trip to my study site hard going, in knee deep snow, which I will have to complete on Christmas day and New Years. Its not all bad though as the longer I am out for the less I will need to help with the big Christmas cook!

My snowy tracks in the last snow we had. Its a long walk in knee deep snow!
My snowy tracks in the last snow we had. Its a long walk in knee deep snow!

With activities restricted as a result of the severe weather, the team took the time to practice their snowball throwing and also helped the museum staff decorate the church for visiting cruise ship tourists over Christmas. I would love to say we did this out of the kindness of our hearts but I’d be lying, we were lured across with the promise of mince pies and mulled wine! It also gave me the chance to take a couple shots of the various decommissioned ships around the whaling station at Grytviken in the snow

Two of the decommissioned ships at Grytviken whaling station
Two of the decommissioned ships at Grytviken whaling station

There is something very magical about being on an island with heavy snow during the brief intervals in the wind. But these intervals are very few and far between, so if you want to get out you better wrap up and prepare yourself for a battering. At times the snow was falling so quickly the wildlife was struggling to keep its self afloat!

King Penguins bracing from the wind in front of Grytviken
King Penguins bracing from the wind in front of Grytviken
The snow was heavy,even the elephant seals were struggling to stay uncovered
The snow was so heavy, even the elephant seals were struggling to stay uncovered

For the animals, they don’t have the luxury of batting down the hatches and turning on the central heating, the breeding season must go on! So I was very keen to get out and join them and see how the weather affected the wildlife. Even with us being so close to the Antarctic peninsula it is very rare for South Georgia to get this amount of snow during spring. And as a result there’s seldom the chance of seeing our native wildlife in the snow, especially during the breeding season. I was particularly impressed with the diminutive Antarctic Terns and Wilson’s Storm Petrels which were frequently observed flying against the wind and snow, successfully foraging.

Antarctic Tern fishing in the wake of an elephant seal
Antarctic Tern fishing in the wake of an elephant seal

The winds also left a group of King Penguins that had been moulting near the wharf heading through base to seek shelter. Problem is they didn’t stick to the pavements and they didn’t look left and right before crossing which made life difficult for all the South Georgia traffic (1 car)

Group of King Penguins Making their way through base
Group of King Penguins Making their way through base

It is a bad time for harsh weather conditions with so many animals reproducing across the islands. I was concerned for my study seals and penguins with the chicks and pups being especially susceptible to the elements. The cold wet weather means the young have to use high amounts of energy in order to maintain their body temperatures.

Antarctic Fur Seal pup calling for mum in the snow
Antarctic Fur Seal pup calling for mum in the snow
The fight for space on the colonies must continue even in these adverse conditions, Male, Antarctic Fur Seals
The fight for space on the colonies must continue even in these adverse conditions, Male, Antarctic Fur Seals

Inevitably there will be some casualties in these conditions, but one animals loss is another’s gain. With Southern Giant Petrel chicks about to hatch and Northern chicks growing rapidly, any meal is much appreciated.

Giant Petrel Taking off into the snow
Giant Petrel Taking off into the snow