Before coming South, whenever someone mentioned the Falklands, I would think of barren and windy islands with not much to offer. However, I was pleasantly surprised with the reality. Many of the guests on board the ship have the same mentality as I once did, seeing the Falklands simply as a convenience stop to stretch their legs before we get down to South Georgia and Antarctica. They most definitely are not anticipating the beauty of sites such as West Point Island and the densities of tame wildlife that these islands offer.
The Falklands are home to 60-70% of the world’s breeding black-browed albatross and host the largest albatross colony in the world at Steeple Jason. Seeing thousands of these birds proudly perched on their nest structures for as far as the eye can see is a breathtaking experience.
Many of the colonies are also home to thousands of rockhopper penguins early in the season and watching the entertaining relationships between these species is endless fun. The sounds that accompany these interspecific relations are also entertaining.
Both the rockhoppers and the black browed albatross tend to pick the most exposed areas of the islands to breed. The albatross are dependent on the wind in order to aid their takeoffs and the penguins use the exposed coasts in order to deter predators.
The islands are also home to magellanic, king and gentoo penguins and if you’re lucky you may also see macaronis hiding within the rockhoppers.
There is also some beautiful, if a little flat, hiking to be had over these islands and you’re never too far away from geese, raptors and songbirds (especially on the rat free islands).
And when you get onto the sea the wildlife doesn’t stop. There’s a healthy population of steamer ducks patrolling the coastline and both Peale’s and Commerson’s dolphins are often around and keen to play.
One final albatross picture, because they are awesome
This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Antarctica
Next to tick off the bucket list, the world’s top ocean predator – the killer whales. Having never seen these before, I travelled to Antarctica with very high expectations, knowing estimates of these animals in Antarctic waters to be somewhere in the region of 70-80,000.
On just our second day in Antarctic waters, we kept the schedule free and were instructed to get outside and look for big black and white animals. Within a few hours in the Weddell Sea, we were surrounded by several groups of Type B killer whales.
We were lucky to have killer whale scientists on board the ship and within a few minutes of the sighting, they were launching the Zodiac in order to get closer to these animals and collect their data.
The scientists, from the NOAA, were using drones to fly above the animals and take pictures, which give them accurate information about the size and health of the whales. This new technique of observation also allows them to see what the whales are getting up to beneath the water, observe new behaviours and also make more accurate counts of pods.
As you can see, the killer whales in the pictures have very brown colouring where stereotypical killer whales would be white. This is a result of the cold water temperature – the brown is actually diatoms (a type of single cell algae) living on the surface of the whales. Normally, killer whales would have a good blood flow to the skin, which would prevent this diatomaceous growth. However in cold waters, this would involve the loss of too much energy.
If you look closely at the images, you can see round circular scarring on the whales, these are from cookie cutter sharks, which are only found in the tropics, a bit bewildering considering these killer whales are seen in Antarctic waters all year round.
Also, it was strange that the same individuals, photographed on different days, often had high diatom growth followed by clean skin. The NOAA team previously put tags on these whales which showed that they make very rapid journeys to the tropics to get manicures before swimming all the way back south!
Next up were the Type A killer whales, which are much more like the killer whales seen in the northern hemisphere. These are larger and tend to be more black and white than the Bs and they feed on Minke whales and elephant seals.
Using a combination of the saddle patches, markings and fin shape it is possible to identify individuals using photos. We were lucky to see the same group of Type A killer whales near Ciervo Cove on both expeditions, as confirmed by photos.
There are two types of B killer whales. ‘Little’ Bs, which tend to dive deep and feed predominantly on fish, supplemented by the odd penguin! And ‘big’ Bs, which opt for washing seals (especially Weddells) off the ice to feed. Having seen the little Bs several times already, we pushed further into the Weddell sea into the thicker ice and, as we hoped for, we found a group of big Bs, giving us the “full house” for the area we had been.
Since conditions were calm, the ever eager scientists launched the Ribs and returned with some alarming images of the whales. The whales were not in particularly good health, with much of the skeletal features of the animals visible in the pictures. Possibly, this was a result of lower prey scarcity, with very few Weddell seals observed on the ice. However, at this stage the scientists could only hypothesise.
We also had a team from CBS on board who did a piece on these encounters, which you can see by following this link below…
Fortunately, the trip did not end on this low since sightings continued wherever we went. My season culminated with one of my favourite nature experiences ever, as a group of 40 little B’s passed straight across the bow of the vessel in the crystal clear Antarctic waters.
Clip showing footage from a couple of the Killer Whale encounters
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.
My adventure finally begins! First stop Brize Norton in order to catch a flight to the Falklands via Ascension Island. Didn’t really know what to expect on the flight, there were rumours of a 19.5 hours of discomfort without any in flight entertainment but fortunately this was not the case. In fact it was pretty standard if a little outdated, the only real difference was that we were brought food and drinks almost every hour, even throughout the night! Large calorie intake is necessary to keep up the RAF physique obviously!
We had a brief 2 hour stop at Ascension island where I was assured that I would easily add the endemic Ascension Frigatebird to my world list. However, it seems I was lied to!
When we finally arrived in the Falklands the weather was beautiful even though I was assured this most definitely would not be the case. For those not fortunate enough to have visited it, it’s very similar to the Western Isles. We didn’t really get much time to explore as we were into the Governor’s Office first thing the following morning in order for Roger, our Base Commander, to be made a magistrate of South Georgia. Shortly after, we were being whisked off to board the Pharos Fisheries Patrol Vessel to sail to South Georgia.
Our cruise to South Georgia took us 5 days and our only responsibilities were to eat and sleep, which gave us loads of time to sit up on the bridge and search for pelagic wildlife!
As we were waiting to leave harbour, we were able to see good numbers of King Shags, Skuas and Southern Giant Petrels, not a bad start! After a couple of small delays we were eventually escorted out of the harbour by our pilot vessel who herself was escorted by a group of 3 Commerson’s Dolphins.
As we left towards more open waters, both of our escorts left us, but luckily our sightings continued. Several small groups of the migratory Magellanic Penguins were observed logging (resting) on the surface before I got to see my first ever Gentoo Penguins, acting similarly. Conditions were absolutely perfect for wildlife watching with flat seas, no wind and blue skies and it wasn’t long before we were joined by our second species of dolphins. This time, there were three Peale’s Dolphins bow riding and performing for us.
As we continued away from Falkland waters after dinner, we were joined by good numbers of Cape Petrels, Black Browed Albatross’s, Atlantic Fulmers and more Southern Giant Petrels with small numbers of Wilson’s Petrel and Antarctic Prions also present. Not a bad haul for half a day at sea, buzzing is an understatement! As the sunset drew on and we congregated on deck to look for the illusive green flash* unsuccessfully, we were rewarded with the consolation of a distant whale blow and my first ever Wandering Albatross! They are flipping massive! What a day!
* see “green flash” in Wikipedia.
Close up shot of one of the many Black Browed Albatross that followed us for the day