Return of the wildlife

This entry is part 2 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey
First Male Elephant Seal back on the Maiviken beaches
First Male Elephant Seal back on the Maiviken beaches

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!

Fur Seal porpoising in the shallows
Fur Seal porpoising in the shallows

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 Tern in flight in front of the ship
Antarctic Tern in flight in front of the ship

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.

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Friendly leopard seal making use of the ice which had flown into the cove

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.

Gentoo penguins on maiviken beach
Gentoo penguins on Maiviken Beach

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.

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R&R in front of base
Giant Petrels are back and building nests
Giant Petrels are back and building nests

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.

Fur Seal shaking out his mane
Fur Seal shaking out his mane

Male fur seals are already beginning to act territorially, meaning that I need to keep alert whilst patrolling the beaches.

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Leopard seal trying to ignore the wind and snow
Another fur seal shaking it out
Another fur seal shaking it out
Elephant Seals are also back at Penguin River
Elephant Seals are also back at Penguin River

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.

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Leopard seal hiding behind a snowdrift on base! Easy to miss in a white out
Gentoo Penguins fighting in the snow
Gentoo Penguins fighting in the snow

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.

South Georgia pipits are mcuh more apprent now and have begun singing
South Georgia pipits are much more apparent now and have begun singing

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
Atlantic P
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!

Wandering Albatross

This entry is part 33 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

My latest South Georgian adventure involved a cruise up the coast on board our Fisheries Patrol Vessel to the Bay of Isles. More specifically to Prion Island, in order to see its feathery inhabitants.

Wanderer chick and my big red taxi
Wanderer chick and my big red taxi

Prion Island is home to a small population of the world’s largest seabird, the Wandering Albatross. With a spectacular wingspan of 3.7 metres, a large adult wanderer is roughly the same length as a small car.

Stretching its wings
Stretching its wings

Approximately 30 wanderers return to Prion Island every year in December.  They lay a single egg each which will eventually hatch and be cared for by both parents over the year, before hopefully fledging.  Because of the large investment needed to fledge a wandering albatross chick, parents breed monogamously, every two years. This means that the breeding population of the island is roughly 60 pairs.

Stunning wandering albatross chick on prion island
Stunning wandering albatross chick on prion island

My job, this visit, was simply to check up on the downy chicks as well as record a number of parameters, such as snow cover and fur seal disturbance, which may effect the success of these giants.

Wandering Albatross Family Portrait
Wandering Albatross Family Portrait

By the time chicks are this developed, both parents can leave the chick in order to forage so I was incredibly fortunate to see a number of adult birds on the colony..

Pair of monogamous adults renewing their vows
Pair of monogamous adults renewing their vows

Albatross species forage at sea and are often caught accidentally by long lining fishermen around the world. South Georgia has one of the most sustainable fisheries in the world, with vessels forced to use particular preventative practices that reduce the risk of bycatch of seabirds (seabird bycatch was 0 in 2015). However, as a result of their spectacular size and effortless flying abilities, Wandering Albatross forage for thousands of miles, meaning birds breeding on the islands will be affected by less well managed fisheries across the Southern Ocean. Sadly, as a result of this and also consuming plastic waste, Wandering Albatross populations are falling and they are considered to be vulnerable to extinction by the IUCN.

Chick begging for food
Chick begging for food
Still begging
Still begging!

Once chicks fledge at the end of the year, they will roam the southern oceans in search of cephalopods (squid), crustacean (krill) and small fish until they are old enough to breed, covering up to 120,000 km in a year.

Dinner time for the chick
Dinner time for the chick

The island is also home to breeding Giant Petrels and Gentoo penguins. With this year’s Giant Petrel fledglings still covering the island, next year’s breeders had already arrived and were already courting and building nests.

Pair of courting Giant Petrels
Pair of courting Giant Petrels
Giant petrel running in front of the happy couple
Giant petrel getting in the way of my Wandering Albatross picture

Gentoo penguins tend to return to their colonies every evening to roost rather than remaining at sea. As we awaited a pick up on the beach, I was able to put my GoPro in the water and get a glimpse of them in their more natural habitat.

Gentoo penguins
Gentoo penguins

Before rats were successfully eradicated from South Georgia, islands provided the only safe haven for South Georgian Pipits. These small areas of refuge allowed populations to survive allowing recolonisation of the mainland, post rats

South Georgia Pipit in the snow
South Georgia Pipit in the snow

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