Introduction to Bird Island

As I have mentioned before (and you can probably guess from the name) there are a few birds calling this place home!

There may not be a huge amount of diversity here but the species and sheer numbers of birds present are spectacular.

We don’t get many sunsets here but when we do …!

The island is quite large (4km long) but there isn’t a huge number of birds obvious on the ground; that’s because most prefer to nest under it, thanks to the high density of predatory birds above.

Giant Petrels at battle over food

To live and work on this island has been my dream for years, but the real pulling factor for coming back to South Georgia wasn’t, believe it or not, the penguins …

… as great as penguins are!

Nope. It was the chance of working with Antarctic Fur Seals again. Well, that, and living in a Wandering Albatross colony.

A plateau of wandering albatross

Sadly, I won’t be here for the entire year, which means I won’t get to see the entire breeding cycle of the Wandering Albatross, since they can take 13 months from laying to fledging.

These majestic birds can take 13 months from laying to fledging …

So, unlike most species which were here at the beginning of the breeding season when we arrived, the Wandering Albatross were finishing up. The fledglings were beginning to leave the island, having spent the entire winter on the nest alone, only being visited by their parents to be fed before they disappear back on another several thousand km foraging trip.

When the parents come back, the chicks can be pretty persistent in their begging

Not all birds lay on the same day obviously and thus it follows, just as obviously, that not all were the same age.

Still fluffy!

When they are approaching the right age, they actually weigh more than their parents and just before fledging, they regurgitate all the hard parts of there diet (squid beaks, fish bones and sometimes plastic) and head for sea.

First flights aren’t always graceful!
But if at first you don’t succeed …

Wandering albatross breed every other year so, despite the fact that last year’s birds were fledging, the new birds were also beginning to arrive, ready for the present breeding season.

Not a bad place to set up for the year

Whilst the wandering albatross can be found over the meadows higher up on the island, the beaches are covered by fur seals (or “furries”).

Full of furries

Considering that a hundred years ago, these animals were hunted to economical extinction on the island, it’s mind-blowing to consider their numbers are now in the region of 4 million.

About 1 in 800 fur seals are born blonde and given the imaginative nickname of “blondies”
And where there are blonde adults …

There aren’t many success stories like this that I can think of but seemingly Humpbacks and Southern Right Whales are on a similar path, based on the quantity of animals being seen from shore this year.

I may or may have not taken this in Antarctica last February

Unfortunately, food was less plentiful this winter and the seals are paying for it. From looking at the diets of the seals throughout the year, we can see how well they are eating and what prey items are available. After poor winters, breeding numbers are often low.

Apparently fur seals like the taste of rock! Who knew?

However, even in poor seasons, the beaches are absolutely covered in fur seals. From looking at the diets of those that have bred this year, we can see that the krill have returned and as a result, the pups are fat and doing well.

Grumpy but content

Nevertheless, I couldn’t write a blog from South Georgia without a penguin picture or two. One of the many great things about Bird Island is how accessible the wildlife is and with a Gentoo Penguin colony just a few hundred metres from base, it’s been easy to keep tabs on how they are doing.

Just hatching

A few weeks after arrival, the eggs were cracking and the gentoo siblings were emerging.

Gentoo chick already begging
Siblings waiting to be fed

A little further away (but also a little more spectacular) is Big Mac, home to 80,000 Macaroni penguins. These are obligate reducers, meaning they lay two eggs but only one will hatch – and that’s what they are starting to do!

Fat macaronis making their way back to the chicks

In other news, molliemawks (grey-headed and black-browed albatross) and Giant Petrels have fat chicks.

Black-browed albatross taking off
Grey headed albatross are truly stunning specimens
Northern Giant Petrel Chicks are also well on their way, having started earlier than most breeders.

That’ll have to do for this weeks photo fix… Hope you enjoyed

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

Salisbury Plain

It’s been a while but I thought it was about time that I wrote a blog about a typical day as a Naturalist on board the National Geographic Explorer. And what better location to do so than from Salibury Plain. The second largest king penguin colony on the island, Salisbury Plain lies within the Bay Of Isles towards the North of South Georgia. 

After a blustery night anchored in the Bay of Isles, guests awoke expecting poor conditions but were pleasantly surprised to see flat seas and a fresh coat of snow covering the bay. Just five days previously, when we were last in the bay, there was barely any snow on the near mountains.

Not a bad sight to wake up to. First light uncovered a snow-coated Salisbury Plain. At dawn, King Penguins already spanned from the shore all the way up the hillside. As the day progressed waves of adults joined the colony from the Southern Ocean.

View of the ship from the landing

Thousands of King Penguins covering Salisbury Plain

Its been a hard year for these King Penguin chicks, after the eggs were laid a year ago they have been stuck on this beach through the harsh South Georgia winter. Some of the chicks will have gone months between feeds shrinking up to 50% in weight during these periods. 

All four seasons were experienced throughout the landing with brief spells of snow followed by beautiful sunshine.

Warming up after the snow

Early travellers thought that these woolly penguins AKA Oakum Boys, were a completely different species than the adults

The landing did not disappoint, a natural path through the colony allowed guests to get their best views of the “Oakum Boys” yet. Despite the cold temperatures, the light was stunning and guests used every second on shore to get their shots.

Adult leading its chick through the snow in search of shelter

The snow got worse before it got better

Chicks were left covered in snow when the sun came out again

Covered in snow

Bracing from the snow

Sun shining on the colony within a few minutes of a blizzard

The cold was obviously too much for this penguin who couldn’t stop sneezing! 

Creching for shelter

Chicks without parents huddled together in order keep warm

By this stage of the breeding season, the weakest chicks will have perished, so those remaining all looked in good health. After more than a year of development these chicks will soon loose this downy coat in favour of their waterproof juvenile coat.

The majority of the chicks on the colony to have made it this far were looking in good condition and will soon be melting into their juvenile coat

Fat and ready to moult

Basking in the brief moment of sunshine

As the snow came down again and the feeling in my hands finally disappeared completely, we headed back to the ship

After a long but spectacular morning on the colony we headed back to the ship for hot drinks and tasty food, a luxury which the British Antarctic Survey never provided! 

View of the colony from the warmth of the ship

Albatross over the ocean as we navigated out of the Bay Of Isles around the stunning South Georgia coastline

The island is home to millions of birds including ten of thousands of Black Browed Albatross which thrive in these windy conditions.

Black Browed Albatross soaring close to the ocean in a localised patch of calm

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

Carnage!

This entry is part 1 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

WARNING!

NOT FOR THE FAINT-HEARTED.

PLEASE DON’T CONTINUE READING

THIS POST IF YOU ARE AT ALL SQUEAMISH.

Giant Petrels scavenging
Giant Petrels scavenging on an Elephant Seal

Although not the prettiest birds to grace the planet, if you ever get the chance to see giant petrels in the wild, they will command your respect like few others. There is nothing quite like watching the coming together of hundreds of these majestic giants at a recently deceased corpse.

Covered in blood!

With piranha-like efficiency, giant petrels can tear hundreds of kilograms of flesh from an elephant seal skeleton in hours, with powerful tube-nosed bills strong enough to crack open a seal skull. Plunging deep into the carcass, the heads and necks of these usually exquisitely preened birds quickly become coated with bright red blood and gore.

Fighting for a place at the dinner table

Equally as striking is the intraspecific competition for the optimal place at the carcass. The birds posture with wings spread and tails fanned, moving their heads from side to side whilst emitting their best war songs – unforgettable primitive guttural cries – to deter challengers.

Giant Petrel Displaying

Tail Fanned in display

If the deterrent is unsuccessful, the birds clash chest to chest, locking bills and slapping wings until one challenger concedes. It’s a spectacular display of carnage from this ultimate scavenger.

Low Blow

Fighting besides the BBQ

Because the males are larger than the females, gatherings such as this are usually between males whilst females tend to forage at sea where competition is less harsh.

Angry prehistoric looking birds

Almost Velocoraptor like

They do it on the water to!

Brutal birds!

South Georgia for Kids!!!!

This entry is part 44 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

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