Pacific Adventure

Blue waters of the Cook Islands

Its been a long time coming but I wanted to add a few pictures from my latest adventure. For the first time in a few years my work took me to sunnier climes and allowed me to get into the water somewhere warm. I was lucky enough to work on board the National Geographic Orion in the Pacific region. 

Inside the crater of Tahiti
Humpback whale coming to say hello in Mo’orea
Racoon Butterflyfish in Fakarava
National Geographic Orion in Mo’orea

Highlights real of my time in Fakarava with music by Eto performed on a moto off Taha’a

This is a spectacular region and over my stint here I was fortunate to visit French Polynesia, Cook Islands, Samoa, Wallis & Futuna and Samoa. My visit allowed me to explore lots of different islands and Motu’s and experience their different cultures as well as take in some spectacular wildlife. 

Bora Bora lagoon looking spectacular from above unfortunately much of the reef is dead
Rough-toothed dolphins in the Society Islands

Coming to the Pacific and especially French Polynesia, there were many places that I was itching to get to, such as Tahiti and Bora Bora. However in hindsight the most enjoyable islands were those I had never heard of, like Makatea and Toau. As a result of their lack of development, many of these had much more diverse and healthy ecosystems as well as more untouched and natural cultures on land. 

Paddleboarding and kayaking in the Bay of Isles, Fiji
Tie dying in Bora Bora

As mentioned earlier, one of my favourite locations was an island called Makatea in the Tuamotu Islands of French Polynesia. This is an uplifted coral island which as steep 80m cliffs, is covered in rich forest with several endemic species and is surrounded by crystal waters and healthy reefs.

Who said pigeons and doves are ugly?! Many of these islands have vibrant species of fruit dove. This is the Makatea Fruit Dove
The uplifted island of Makatea
Getting ashore wasn’t always easy but with our talented AB drivers we always made it

Lying at the heart of this island is it’s best secret a number of underground freshwater grottos which allow you to snorkel and free dive amongst stalactites and stalagmites. 

Freediving one of Makatea’s grottos. Photo taken by Michael S. Nolan. All rights reserved Worldwide.
Another picture of me poking around a grotto taken by taken by Michael S. Nolan. All rights reserved Worldwide.

There is not the densities of seabirds that you find in the colder regions as a result of these warmer waters being less nutrient rich. But there can still be some great seawatching. Boobies, noddies, tropicbirds and frigates are common as well as large numbers of petrel and shearwater species that are endemic to the region. 

Inquisitive red footed booby off the bow of the ship
Black winged petrel and mottled petrel were fairly common on route to Fiji
Black Noddy

It wasn’t just the birdlife that kept me entertained. I was lucky enough to tick several wildlife experiences off my bucket list in this beautiful region. Highlights included snorkelling with Humpbacks in Mo’orea, diving with Tigersharks in Tahiti and also night diving with the hunting reef sharks of Fakarava

Snorkeller and Humpback whale in front of the spectacular Mo’orea hills
One of 4 tiger sharks seen on two dives
This diving operation allows research to be carried out on the movements of these incredible 4m giants. They are all identifiable by markings in pictures and therefore photo catalogues have been created here
Another highlight involved sub winging with Spinner dolphins
Its not just the large wildlife I appreciate
Samoan Myzomela are one of many endemics across the region
A rare rainy day!
Sharks galore in Tahiti
Beautiful snapper schools
Sea krait hunting a reef in Futuna
Underwater with the humpback
Not the wildlife I expected to see at sea

Whilst we travelled the regions surrounding Fiji and Samoa we were treated to a number of different cultural experiences including war dances performed by both kids and adults.

Young warrior in the village of Waitabu, Fiji

Seranaded on the beaches of Fakarava

I shall finish with a travel tip of mine…. I highly recommend finding some locals to show you around wherever you find yourself in the world. You’ll meet some amazing people and have a way better time! Having spent 4 days on Tahiti in advance of my trip in the rain I was deeply disappointed. However I was lucky enough to meet two amazing people who showed me the time of my life before I departed; free diving with turtles, wake boarding in the sunset, tiger shark diving, watching the locals surf and sub winging with dolphins! 

I didn’t fancy giving it a go but was happy to watch from the shore
Tahiti hills
Wakeboarding inside the Tahiti lagoon (picture by Perrine Reidy)

On reflection, my summer wasn’t too bad at all!

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

And The Rest…..

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Antarctica
First Year Ice in the Weddel Sea

Something that surprised me about my recent visit to the Antarctic Peninsula was that the ice was equally as impressive as the Killer Whales, Leopard Seals and the Humpbacks.

Incredible Ice Statues
Sunset

Nothing can prepare you for the different shades of blue captured within these floating structures and the size of the slabs is simply staggering! 

50 Shades of blue
Drifting Iceberg
Icy reflections
Spectacular Glacier
Still seas approaching the Antarctic Circle
Inspecting the sea ice
Kelp Gulls at sunset
Recently rolled iceberg

Fortunately conditions allowed us to make it south past the Antarctic circle!

Sea ice thickening

And if the Ice isn’t enough the landscape and mountains ain’t half bad either!

Gentoos awaiting the incoming storm
Neko Harbour
Its not just blue you see
Antarctic Landscapes

Its been a while since I posted pictures of my penguin friends so here are a few of my favourites from the Peninsula where I was finally able to see the Holy Grail of Penguin species; The Emperor Penguin. As well as all three species of brush tail, magellanic and rockhopper.

Adelie Penguin taking in the views
Gentoo bracing against the storm with the National Geographic Explorer in the background
Chinstrap standing tall
Lonely Emperor Penguin

For more images check out my two Antarctic Galleries….

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Killer Whales

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Antarctica
Type B killer whales, 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.

Killer whales ahead

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.

Type B killer whale alongside vessel
In the ice
Young killer whale diving

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.

Killer whales were intrigued by the research Zodiac
Launching the drone

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.

Pod size can reach 80-100

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.

Scarring is from raking and/or scratching on ice
Youngster and adult
Heading right for the ship

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.

Circular scarring on the saddle patch – Type A killer whale

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!

Mother and calf

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.

Bull breaking the surface
Bull, mother and calf

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.

Big Bs
Weddell seal sensibly opting to rest on land rather than on the ice

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.

Too close to photograph
Just a few of the pod

Clip showing footage from a couple of the Killer Whale encounters

Humpback Whales

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Antarctica

 

Humpbacks Whales feeding

Another blog from my latest amazing trip to Antarctica, focussing on Humpback whales this time. You’ll be glad to know that there is less blood than in the previous post.

Humpback in front of a glacier

Having lived for a year on South Georgia, immersed in the depressing history of Antarctic whaling and the impact of humans on Baleen whales, it was amazing to sail through Antarctic waters and see first-hand how the whales are bouncing back. Sightings of baleen whales were frequent with the most common being  humpbacks: these majestic 36 tonne beasts were almost ubiquitous throughout, it was an absolute pleasure.

Fin whale over the continental shelf
Minke whale in the Weddell Sea

Almost without fail, by the time breakfast was served on board National Geographic Explorer, there had been a blow, or a sighting of the distinctive hump, or flukes of these animals.

Fluke and dorsal hump!

Possibly the best experience of my time on board came as the sun was setting on an already eventful day of killer whales and penguins. Stupidly thinking the excitement was over for the day, I retreated to my room in order to download a few photos, when the call of ‘feeding Humpbacks’ came out over the tannoy.

This is what I emerged on deck to see

As a kid, I read about bubble net feeding whales and had seen footage of it numerous times on David Attenborough documentaries. For those others who have seen this footage, you will understand why seeing this activity has been on my bucket list for years. However, travelling to Antarctica, I had no expectations of ticking this off the list, since it was my understanding that such behaviour had only been observed in Alaska!

Bubble net feeding is obviously a foraging method where the humpbacks blow clouds of bubbles around their prey at the surface. This traps the prey between the bubbles and the surface allowing the whales to swim up with their mouths open and take huge mouthfuls of prey. 

The video bwlow shows one of these events happening and you can see the bubbles at the surface before the humpbacks lunge through open-mouthed

Humpback whales that spend summers in the Antarctic, exploiting the rich cold waters, migrate north to spend the winters in the tropics around Costa Rica. Here, there is an overlap with the Northern Humpbacks that spend their summers in Alaska and migrate south also to Central American tropics. The hypothesis is that these Northern whales, having learnt and practiced the behaviour in Alaska, migrated south to Central America before continuing through to Antarctica.

More feeding

As a result, you now have whales practicing bubble net feeding in Antarctic waters. The humpbacks have uniquely marked flukes which allow them to be identified.

Markings on the flukes

Hopefully, the individuals we photographed in Antarctica will have been observed previously in the world and we will get a better understanding of how this behaviour has spread.

There were small groups of feeding whales all around

And when you get bored of the whales (as if!) the sunset and the ice aren’t too bad substitutes!

Sunset

Leopard Seal Vs Gentoo Penguin

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.

Leopard Seal vs Gentoo Penguin

My recent trip to Antarctica had many incredible highlights. I was lucky enough to see a ridiculous amount of wildlife with many memorable encounters.

National Geographic Explorer and a leopard seal during a zodiac cruise in Cierva Cove

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.

Very relaxed
Chilling

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.

Leopard seal relaxing

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.

Penguin on the menu

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.

Young Gentoos in the shallows

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.

Leopard seal checking out a potential meal

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 …

So close

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 seal with prey

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.

Leopard seal carnage at Brown Bluff
Once dismantling commenced, the penguin was consumed very quickly
Ripping the penguin apart
Dinner time

All for a bite of food

Mouthful of penguin
The carnage continues
Very efficient

Antarctica!

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Antarctica
National Geographic Explorer and a leopard seal during a zodiac cruise in Cierva Cove

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.

One of the spectacular ice structures that scatter the Antarctic Ocean

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.

Sunset on the ice
Explorer guests look on across the sea ice

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!

Majestic looking Adelie penguin

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!

The moment a leopard seal seizes a gentoo penguin off the coast of brown bluff
Not only were there hundreds of killer whales seen, there were the world’s leading scientists working on board
One of the hundreds of killer whale pictures I have taken during the past 3 weeks
Killer whale through the ocean

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!!!

More Leps

This entry is part 5 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey
Leopard Seal sightings through the winter
Leopard Seal sightings through the winter
Sightings occur all over the thatcher peninsula, this one was right in front of base
Sightings occur all over the Thatcher Peninsula, this one was right in front of base

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Leopard seal sights
Yawning for the camera

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Leopard seal hauled out on glacial ice in Maiviken
Leopard seal hauled out on glacial ice in Maiviken

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Unfortunately this individual was only seen offshore and I only had my small lens with me
Unfortunately, this individual was only seen offshore and I only had my small lens with me
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Not all individuals come out of the water to be photographed!

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This individual was observed in front of the Neumayer glacier hauled out on the ice
This individual was observed in front of the Neumayer glacier, hauled out on the ice

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The second of my birthday Neumayer Leps
The second of my birthday Neumayer Leps