Life’s A Boat

This entry is part 35 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey
Humpback whale
Humpback whale off the coast of South Georgia
My view for the next two weeks.
I may have swapped rooms but my new window view is just as stunning

As you may be aware from my previous post, I have exchanged my South Georgian life for life at sea for three weeks. I am working on board a krill fishing vessel, researching by-catch (which is minimal) and also making whale and seabird observations to inform future conservation decisions.

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Seemingly, I am here at a good time of year since within seconds of leaving Cumberland Bay, we were seeing the first spouts as whales blew all around us with the sun setting.

Whale sightings were immediate, once out of Cumberland Bay
Humpback whale at the surface in front of the South Georgian shores

As we set about fishing, sightings continued, predominantly of Humpbacks, which were obviously exploiting the rich masses of krill 200m beneath the surface. When you see a distant whale blow, it’s easy to forget what is lying beneath. These Humpbacks can measure 16m and weigh up to 36 tonnes.

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Characteristic showing of the humpback’s flukes prior to a deep dive

As the days have progressed, the sightings are getting better and better with several species seen so far. Fin, minke, southern right, sperm and orca (not seen by me!) were all spotted, as well as thousands of seabirds, seals and penguins.

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Giant Petrel off the side of the boat
Giant Petrel off the side of the boat

South Georgia was the hub of whaling in the not too recent past and estimates suggest that numbers of baleen whales reduced by 90% as a result of it. So it’s absolutely incredible to see such high densities of whales in these waters.

Too close to photograph
Almost too close to photograph

The most frequent bird sightings involve the petrel species, with South Georgia Diving, Kerguelen, Great Winged, Antarctic, Cape and Giant Petrels all present in various numbers. Both Southern Fulmers and Antarctic Terns are also abundant with the occasional Wandering Albatross sightings.

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Southern Fulmar in flight
Humpback whale right besides the ship
Humpback whale right beside the ship
Wandering Albatross over the sea
Wandering Albatross over the sea

Conditions on the whole have remained calm and clear, allowing good sightings throughout the trip. With the boats moving at very slow speeds, animals tend to pay little attention to the vessel, allowing for up close sightings.

Pair of humpbacks feeding at the surface
Pair of humpbacks feeding at the surface

Humpback whales migrate south for summer to feed on the krill rich numbers. These animals will be on their way north back to their breeding grounds, where they will breed in August time.

Seabirds and seals in the waves
Seabirds and seals in the waves
Humpback blow - note the white pectoral fins beneath the surface
Humpback blow – note the white pectoral fins beneath the surface

Although it is the wrong time of year, I have seen several humpbacks displaying, launching their magnificent bodies out of the water. One of these was close enough for me to capture on camera!

Displaying humpback
Displaying humpback
Diving Humpback
Diving Humpback

As mentioned before, the birdlife has been almost as spectacular as the marine mammals. See my previous blog (feeding frenzy) for more bird pictures

Young antarctic tern
Young antarctic tern

Feeding frenzy

This entry is part 34 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey
South Georgia seas brimming with pelagic birds
South Georgia seas brimming with pelagic birds

South Georgia hosts some of the most spectacular wildlife colonies in the world. People pay thousands of pounds and travel from all over the world to visit. Our most famous inhabitants are the penguins (4 species), seals (2 species) and albatross (4 species). There is an abundance of less ‘sexy’ wildlife utilising South Georgia for its breeding habitats and proximity to rich foraging grounds. Many of these species can be very elusive on the islands, breeding down burrows, visiting nesting sites in the dark and living predominantly over open ocean. This has meant sightings have been few and far between from base. I have spent the last two weeks on board a vessel in the southern ocean and this opportunity has allowed me time to see some of these scarcer pelagic species

Cape Petrel
Cape Petrel spots something
Cape Petrel
Cape Petrel – Target identified
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Diving initiated
Target acquired
Target acquired
Dive commenced
Back to the surface

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Heading off after a successful hunt
Heading off after a successful hunt

Probably the most common of these pelagic species around boats are the cape petrels (seen above), often spotted cruising in the slipstream of ships in the southern hemisphere. As a result, I have a number of the same shots of capes in flight. However, it was a great surprise to see one diving and fishing alongside our ship. The bird must have unearthed a small quantity of krill since it wasn’t long before other species were investigating – like this Antarctic Petrel.

Atlantic Petrel in flight
Antarctic Petrel in flight
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Antarctic Petrel coming into land
Atlantic Petrel takes a deep breath
Antarctic Petrel takes a deep breath
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Antarctic Petrel Diving
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Antarctic petrel still diving
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Antarctic petrel still diving
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Back up to the surface
Successfully on the sea, he gains his composure
After a successful pursuit it enjoys its meal

Finally it was the turn of the most elusive of them all, the Blue Petrel. I have spent hours on board ships trying to get pictures of these guys. Although common around boats, they tend to keep their distance. They also move incredibly quickly, meaning previous attempts have been limited to blurry distant unidentifiable specs. When this bird came in close to take advantage of the easy krill meal, I was thrilled. Unfortunately, the sun decided it was a good time to hide away but you can’t have everything!

Blue Petrel
Blue Petrel
Blue Petrel coming in for a meal
Blue Petrel coming in for a meal
Can you see it?
Can you see it?

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Heading back away from the boat
Off for more!

The Journey Begins…

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!

Giant Petrel passing over head in the Falklands
Giant Petrel passing over head in the Falklands

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.

Cape Petrel cruising behind our boat as we leave Falkland for South Georgia
Cape Petrel cruising behind our boat as we leave Falkland for 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.

One of three Peele's Dolphins Escorting us on our crossing
One of three Peele’s Dolphins escorting us on our crossing

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 dayClose up shot of one of the many Black Browed Albatross that followed us for the day