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

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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

 

Life On Base

This entry is part 16 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

For those of you who were wondering what base is like here at King Edward Point, I am going to take you on a small tour of what we have here.

I think that it’s only right that we start in the most social (and definitely most important) place … the bar!

This is home to a fine range of spirits, wines and beers, which are all drunk responsibly, of course. It’s also where most things happen: there’s a projector, so we have bi-weekly film nights; a darts board, which we use to compete against other Antarctic bases, and it’s also the venue for quizzes and other team activities.

Scene of quiz nights, film nights and all social occasions
Scene of quiz nights, film nights and all social occasions

Next up is my lab, which I share with the fisheries biologist. This is where I carry out my diet analysis studies and dissections . I’m pretty sure there aren’t many labs in the world with a view like ours. Highlights from the window include both elephant seal and Antarctic fur seal fights, the king penguin roost and  the occasional snow petrel.

Note the view, can't be many labs with better!
Note the view – can’t be many labs with better!

We then have the scientist’s office: note once again the incredible view (which is the same as from my bedroom)! If I am not out in the field, here and the lab are where I spend most of my time, with brief breaks for sleep, tea and food!

Not the cleanest but an insight into a king edward point biologist's office
Not the cleanest or tidiest room in the world but a sneak view into a King Edward Point biologist’s office!

With the nature of the work we carry out here, it is necessary that we have marine transport. This comes in the form of two jet boats and a two RIBs, which stands for Rigid-hulled Inflatable Boats. In a working capacity, they enable us to carry out science in areas of the island which aren’t accessible by foot.

On top of this they are used by the two Government Officers here at King Edward Point to ferry them to visiting tourist and fishing vessels in order to check they are meeting all the strict guidelines necessary to use these waters. Most importantly, the boats allow us to explore other peninsulas during our holidays. One such place, which I am hoping to visit in March, is St Andrews Bay, which is home to 500,000 King Penguins.

Our two ribs on the left and two jet boats in the water on the right.
Our two RIBs on the left and two jet boats in the water on the right.

Finally, we have a sauna for warming us up after our midwinter’s swim. And the boat shed doubles up as just about everything you can imagine. It has a table tennis table, gym and badminton court, hosts great parties and also has a chippy and metal workshop.

So, although we are very isolated we aren’t that hard done by. We even have a football pitch, although half of it is a swamp! The only thing missing that would make this place perfect is a bath!

King Edward Point boat shed prepped for a round of team circuits
King Edward Point boat shed prepped for a round of team circuits