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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Blood is almost a guarantee and injuries are often haunting and sometimes even life-threatening.
Afterwards, the competitors are understandably exhausted and plaster themselves with cold stones or mud from the beach in order to help them cool 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.
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!!!
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.