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

48 Hour Film

This entry is part 38 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

The BAS team based here has now dropped to 7 and it’s a long time since we last saw real people! To stop us going crazy, we have to keep ourselves entertained. As a marine biologist, my favourite pastime would be talking to the animals, but apart from the occasional seal, base is fairly barren of wildlife so we have to find other ways to keep busy.

Not a particularly chatty fur seal on the beach
One of the remaining fur seals for me to talk to. Unfortunately, their conversation is mostly limited to fish.

Luckily, we have lots of snow at the moment so there are opportunities to get out on the hill and ski. Its not quite the same as your standard resort skiing since in order to ski down a hill, you must first ski up it because we have very few chairlifts. Well, none at all, actually.

Skiing above Grytviken
Skiing above Grytviken

Also there are no piste bashers to compact the snow, meaning that even on skis, it’s not uncommon to sink several inches beneath the surface, making falls frequent but landings comfy.

Skiing over Grytviken
Russ skiing around Grytviken

As well as talking to seals and ski-ing, we also we take it in turns every Saturday to provide food and sometimes entertainment for everyone on base. So far this month we have had a Glastonbury themed evening, where we dressed like hippies and watched the downloaded Glasto highlights. We have also had a pizza and quiz night.

Glastonbury stage on King Edward Point
Glastonbury stage on King Edward Point – Photo credit Lewis Cowie

Sometimes the entertainment isn’t thought up within station. Two weekends ago, we participated in the Antarctic 48 Hour Film Competition. This was first thought up by an American base and allows us to compete against all the other bases around the Antarctic continent.

Filming of our 48 film
Filming of our 48 film

The competition starts with an email on the Friday evening which contains a list of various items to incorporate into a 5 minute film. You then have until 0000 Sunday night to write, film, direct and edit your film, and , if you feel confident enough, to submit it for viewing around the Antarctic.

Our entry included daring stunts
Our entry included daring stunts

The film is then judged by your peers based on the acting, filmography and editing, and winners are announced. Having sat through 22 different entries, I was incredibly impressed by the overall standard and creativity, although that can’t be said about every entry! Ours this year was a soof 1970s cop show and was voted as second best overall. If you want to make your own follow this link ….
48 hour film link

Our 48 Hour Film Entry - KEP COP SQUAD
Our 48 Hour Film Entry – KEP COP SQUAD

We also have a very well equipped workshop and the experienced people here have been happy to show me around the machinery, meaning I have been able to improve both metalwork and woodwork skills.

Turning wood in order to make a pen
Turning wood on the lathe
Pen almost complete
Pen almost complete
Grinding Steel
Grinding Steel
Cutting steel
Cutting steel to make a knife

We are also spending lots of time training ourselves on the use of the fine South Georgia fleet so that Russ, our boating officer, feels confident enough to go on holiday!

Anchoring practice of the Jetboat
Anchoring practice of the Jetboat
Driving the ribs is bloody cold at this time of year
Driving the ribs is bloody cold at this time of year
Pride of the KEP fleet, dotty - photo credit Becky Taylor
Pride of the KEP fleet, Dotty – photo credit Becky Taylor

In other news, we had a 7.4 earthquake at the weekend. I am told that base shook considerably and it awoke several members of the team. But apparently, I am a very deep sleeper!

Seismic readings of the earthquake from the British Geological Survey
Seismic readings of the earthquake from the British Geological Survey


Belated Birthday Blog!

This entry is part 28 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey
Birthday Leopard Seal
Birthday Leopard Seal

I thought being in South Georgia on my birthday was enough of a present. When you are living in paradise, it’s hard to wish for anything more than ‘normal’, which is pretty damn spectacular. However my birthday week proved to be especially eventful. Not only was it the best week of weather we’d had since I arrived, but I also saw two of the ocean’s most deadly predators and got to handle South Georgia’s answer to dinosaurs!

Leopard seal keeping a watchful eye on a brown skua
Leopard seal keeping a watchful eye on a brown skua

With the weather so incredibly calm and settled, we’d have been stupid not to take advantage and get out and about. Our travel limits allow us to get to other peninsulas for a holiday. It is necessary that all of us who are qualified to drive the boats are familiar with all the waters in our travel limits. On one of these familiarisation trips to Cumberland Bay West, we managed to get all the way to the base of the Neumayer Glacier.

Lewis and Tim on one of the ribs heading away from base
Lewis and Tim on one of the ribs heading away from base

It is always absolutely incredible to see the glaciers up close. This was the first time I’d been so close to the Neumayer. As I have mentioned before, the Neumayer is receding at 400+ metres a year – I appreciate the fact that this is an astoundingly high figure, but until I had driven over miles of ocean, still marked as land on our map, where the glacier had stood just a few years previously, I did not comprehend exactly what this meant.

The Neumayer glacier from 2 miles away where the glacier once sat
The Neumayer glacier from 2 miles away, where it once sat
Neumayer glacier and reflection in the sea
Neumayer glacier and reflection in the sea

As we travelled up the moraine, there was evidence of the glacier’s former size for miles around. The mountain sides were scoured with marks where the ice had once flowed, ripping rock apart. Remains of once full lakes dammed by the cosmic glacier at the foot of vast valleys were now freely draining into the sea.

Scouring on the mountainside above the glacier
Scouring on the mountainside above the glacier

It was clear to see that the glacier had been very active throughout the morning with huge ice flows present right out of the mouth of the moraine.

Couple of larger pieces of recently calved ice
A couple of larger pieces of recently calved ice

Even more exciting for me, the bird geek, were the thousands of Antarctic Terns feeding at the face. Seeing the diminutive birds feeding alongside such a colossal natural masterpiece was really special. Their continual high-pitched screeching took me back to when I worked on the Farne Islands!

Glacial rivers pour beneath the ice, absorbing organic material that eventually flows into the ocean at the face of the glacier. The terns feed on the small fish and invertebrates that are nourished by this organic matter.

Terns feeding at the foot of the glacier
Terns feeding at the foot of the glacier

It wasn’t just terns feeding amongst the glacial debris….

Cape Petrels and their reflections
Cape Petrels and their reflections

Apart from seeing all of the incredible breeding species South Georgia has to offer, I arrived with huge hopes of seeing Leopard Seals. With the first sightings for King Edward Point normally coming in April, I wouldn’t normally be disappointed with not having seen any at this point of the year but with sightings already being relatively frequent from cruise ships and other team members, I was beginning to think they might be deliberately hiding from me! Another important part of the work here is contributing photos for the Leopard Seal photo library but until last week I was drawing a blank. However, whilst on our way out of the Neumayer moraine, I finally came across two of these magnificent killing machines relaxing on glacial debris.

A brief glimpse of the teeth of the leopard seal
A brief glimpse of the teeth of the Leopard Seal
Leopard Seal chilling
Leopard Seal chilling 1
Leopard seal relaxing on the calved ice
Leopard Seal chilling 2 – on the calved ice

The pair both measured 2.5m in length and even from the security of the boat, my heart rate was through the roof. What made the experience even better was that it happened on my birthday!

Its a hard life, yawning leopard seal
It’s a hard life – yawning Leopard Seal
The second leopard seal before it slid into the water
The second Leopard Seal before it slid into the water

*    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

It is always enjoyable to get hands-on experience with the wildlife in South Georgia but we try to keep this to a bare minimum in order to ensure our studies don’t affect the success of the animals. However, the growth and development studies involve weighing of both the Gentoo chicks and Antarctic Fur Seal pups; in addition, we also weigh and take biometrics from Giant Petrel chicks.

Matthew weighing a seal pup during the february pup weighing session
Matthew weighing a seal pup during the February session

Last week was the turn of the Northern Giant Petrel chicks and the Antarctic Fur Seals. Fortunately, the seal-weighing was uneventful for all involved and everyone had a great day, despite the large size of the pups and their canines. The Giant Petrels, however, have left me with a number of incredibly deep scratches and a coat reeking of their vomit, which no amount of washing will clean. Having said this, to get up and close with such an incredible, huge, prehistoric looking bird was something I will remember for the rest of my life!

Ready to fledge Giant Petrel chick
Ready to fledge Giant Petrel chick

On a final note, we had a very strange visitor to base this week in the form of a Blue-Eyed Shag Chick. I have no idea how this downy bird made it to us because the closest breeding colony is miles away. He did, however, look very happy and content relaxing in front of base.

Juvenile shag in front of base
Juvenile Shag in front of base