This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Antarctica
CAUTION: “Nature red in tooth and claw” warning.
This post contains graphic pictures which some readers may find disturbing.
My recent trip to Antarctica had many incredible highlights. I was lucky enough to see a ridiculous amount of wildlife with many memorable encounters.
Leopard seals are number two in the Antarctic food chain, second only to killer whales. The majority of sightings are very relaxed with these seemingly lazy animals apparently spending most of their lives hauled out on ice flows, relaxing and sleeping.
These sightings are great because they give you an opportunity to see clearly the markings which make each individual distinctive and identifiable; they also allow you to see the size of the animal, which can often be difficult when they are in the water.
Female leopard seals can reach 5 metres in length. They are generalist predators and will feed on whatever is locally abundant, including krill, other species of seals and penguins. I visited Brown Bluff on the Antarctic continent twice within the space of 10 days. During my first visit, the few leopard seals we encountered had been feeding on krill, 10 days later the story was very different.
With Gentoo and Adelie penguin chicks both beginning to explore the shallow waters, local leopard seal observations were much higher as they were sighted patrolling ice floes and shallows for penguins.
From ashore, it was incredible to see these animals pursue penguins through the shallows at great speeds for their next meal. The amount of kills and hunts observed by all on board was staggering.
As we headed back to the ship in the Zodiac, we came across a hunting leopard seal and decided it would be rude not to see what happened next …
The attack, although spectacular and very interesting, was very depressing to watch as the leopard seal played with its prey for a considerable amount of time before finally opting to eat,
Leopard seals use the friction of throwing animals against the water to open up their prey and rip bite-sized chunks of meat off the penguin.
This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Antarctica
Just a quck update from my latest travels. I am currently working as a Naturalist for National Geographic Expeditions. It has been my job to guide lucky passengers on board the National Geographic Explorer around the Antarctic wildlife.
During the past few weeks, I have been lucky enough to share the very best wildlife watching experiences in the world with these passengers as we navigate from South America, south through the Drake Passage as far as the Antarctic circle.
Highlights have been too numerous to list but amongst the latest to be ticked off the bucket list are seeing killer whales and emperor penguins, as well as watching humpback whales bubble feeding. On top of this, there were lots of penguins and stunning scenery – plus ca change!
When I return to better internet, I will endeavour to update my blog with more images and stories from these latest travels but for now, here is a selection of images so far!
I was recently approached by Will Harper-Penrose from Woodmansterne Primary School and Children’s Centre via the wonderful medium of Twitter. His year two pupils were learning about the Antarctic and exploration, and he got in touch to ask about the possibilities of doing a Q&A Skype session.
Unfortunately, South Georgia’s internet connection was not up to a Skype video so, on hearing that, Will came up with a much more imaginative way to ask the questions. Being a music teacher, he composed a song for his pupils to sing, asking questions like ‘Have you seen a penguin sliding on its belly?’ and ‘What do you eat in Antarctica?’
As you can see for yourself, the video, song and dance are awesome and put a smile on everyone’s face on base. Completely aware that this amazing video would outshine any video of mine, I used my surroundings on the island to assist me, featuring penguins, seals, icebergs and boating, here is a compilation of some of my footage from a year on South Georgia.
I hope that this will entertain the kids and hopefully inspire one or two to become polar scientists
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.
In the last three days I have seen four more leopard seals, taken the RIB south to St Andrews Bay (where we watched a leopard seal tear apart a king penguin) and spent the night at Maiviken, where we watched at least 1000 Gentoo Penguins returning to South Georgia for the night …. Life is hard!
With news of a second lep sighting at Grytviken coming in the final minutes of light of the day, I set my alarm early and made my way over for first light hoping she hadn’t slugged off in the night in order to get more pictures for the rapidly growing leopard seal database.
Thankfully my efforts were not in vain!
I quickly headed back to base to complete my morning rounds and get ready for a day of boating – but not before taking a quick shot of the Pharos alongside before a patrol.
Next on the agenda was kitting up the boats and getting away, with St Andrews our next destination in order to re-supply the huts with food and medical gear. Unfortunately, the visit had to be very quick but, as regular readers will know, on South Georgia, a lot can happen in a short amount of time!
Upon landing we were greeted by a cloud of hungry Giant Petrels who are resident around the King Penguins. I caught a flash of yellow disappearing towards the sea and was able to get a couple of record shots of a yellow Darvic on the leg of a giant petrel, most probably from Bird Island.
Time didn’t allow me to reach the main King Penguin colony and check up on the chicks but there were a few Kings on the beach near where we landed, along with St Andrews latest occupants … Elephant Seals.
As we lifted the anchor, a very inquisitive leopard seal came to check us out. Unfortunately, my hands were full of anchor so no pictures were possible before it got bored of us and headed off. As we headed back to sea with Hound Bay our next destination, I clocked a congregation of Cape Petrels in the distance and headed towards it. Being in contact with our colleagues at Bird Island, I hear tales of leopard seal attacks and had subsequently added observing a kill, hopefully, to my bucket list.
As we approached, all that was clear was that something was being thrown around in the water by a dark shadow.
Unfortunately, the poor light and swell were enough to make focusing on the action very difficult, so the pictures aren’t much more than record shots but it was an incredible spectacle.
Due to a thick band of incoming fog, we couldn’t stay with the kill for long and were soon on our way north again to Hound Bay, where we were greeted by yet another leopard seal trying to hide itself amongst all the elephant seals.
We did get one last look at the South Georgia landscape before we were engulfed by fog for the duration of our trip back to Maiviken, where we were dropped off for the night.
Gentoo Penguins opt to return to the South Georgian shores every evening to roost, unlike other SG Penguins, even outside the breeding season. As we sat on the shore waiting for the sun to set, sipping mulled wine, we had hoped to see good numbers of Gentoos but we didn’t expect quite as many as we got!
For the first time this year, the Gentoos were observed making their way up past their usual roost site all the way up to their breeding colony, suggesting that we may well have an early breeding season this year.
Whilst the majority of the gentoos opted for the large open section of Tortula Beach, not all picked the same route
With last year being a spectacular breeding failure for the Gentoos, we are hoping for a more fruitful season this year.
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!
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Male fur seals are already beginning to act territorially, meaning that I need to keep alert whilst patrolling the beaches.
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.
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.
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!
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.
I thought being in South Georgia on my birthday was enough of a present. When you are living in paradise, it’s hard to wish for anything more than ‘normal’, which is pretty damn spectacular. However my birthday week proved to be especially eventful. Not only was it the best week of weather we’d had since I arrived, but I also saw two of the ocean’s most deadly predators and got to handle South Georgia’s answer to dinosaurs!
With the weather so incredibly calm and settled, we’d have been stupid not to take advantage and get out and about. Our travel limits allow us to get to other peninsulas for a holiday. It is necessary that all of us who are qualified to drive the boats are familiar with all the waters in our travel limits. On one of these familiarisation trips to Cumberland Bay West, we managed to get all the way to the base of the Neumayer Glacier.
It is always absolutely incredible to see the glaciers up close. This was the first time I’d been so close to the Neumayer. As I have mentioned before, the Neumayer is receding at 400+ metres a year – I appreciate the fact that this is an astoundingly high figure, but until I had driven over miles of ocean, still marked as land on our map, where the glacier had stood just a few years previously, I did not comprehend exactly what this meant.
As we travelled up the moraine, there was evidence of the glacier’s former size for miles around. The mountain sides were scoured with marks where the ice had once flowed, ripping rock apart. Remains of once full lakes dammed by the cosmic glacier at the foot of vast valleys were now freely draining into the sea.
It was clear to see that the glacier had been very active throughout the morning with huge ice flows present right out of the mouth of the moraine.
Even more exciting for me, the bird geek, were the thousands of Antarctic Terns feeding at the face. Seeing the diminutive birds feeding alongside such a colossal natural masterpiece was really special. Their continual high-pitched screeching took me back to when I worked on the Farne Islands!
Glacial rivers pour beneath the ice, absorbing organic material that eventually flows into the ocean at the face of the glacier. The terns feed on the small fish and invertebrates that are nourished by this organic matter.
It wasn’t just terns feeding amongst the glacial debris….
Apart from seeing all of the incredible breeding species South Georgia has to offer, I arrived with huge hopes of seeing Leopard Seals. With the first sightings for King Edward Point normally coming in April, I wouldn’t normally be disappointed with not having seen any at this point of the year but with sightings already being relatively frequent from cruise ships and other team members, I was beginning to think they might be deliberately hiding from me! Another important part of the work here is contributing photos for the Leopard Seal photo library but until last week I was drawing a blank. However, whilst on our way out of the Neumayer moraine, I finally came across two of these magnificent killing machines relaxing on glacial debris.
The pair both measured 2.5m in length and even from the security of the boat, my heart rate was through the roof. What made the experience even better was that it happened on my birthday!
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It is always enjoyable to get hands-on experience with the wildlife in South Georgia but we try to keep this to a bare minimum in order to ensure our studies don’t affect the success of the animals. However, the growth and development studies involve weighing of both the Gentoo chicks and Antarctic Fur Seal pups; in addition, we also weigh and take biometrics from Giant Petrel chicks.
Last week was the turn of the Northern Giant Petrel chicks and the Antarctic Fur Seals. Fortunately, the seal-weighing was uneventful for all involved and everyone had a great day, despite the large size of the pups and their canines. The Giant Petrels, however, have left me with a number of incredibly deep scratches and a coat reeking of their vomit, which no amount of washing will clean. Having said this, to get up and close with such an incredible, huge, prehistoric looking bird was something I will remember for the rest of my life!
On a final note, we had a very strange visitor to base this week in the form of a Blue-Eyed Shag Chick. I have no idea how this downy bird made it to us because the closest breeding colony is miles away. He did, however, look very happy and content relaxing in front of base.