Summer On Bird Island

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Bird Island
Light-Mantled Albatross over the South Georgia coastline
Young fur seal pups are inquisitive. The heaviest pup weighed this season was a whopping 19.2kg.
Black-Browed Albatross over the ocean
Gentoo penguin chick looking lighter than normal. Nearly ready to head out to sea
Grey-headed and black-browed albatross chicks look almost identical and have a habit of nesting in stunning locations
When the sun breaks through the cloud on Bird Island the colours are often stunning
Gentoo penguin chicks chasing one of their parents for their next meal. The chick that keeps up with the adult for the longest will get fed
Macaroni penguin looking majestic in front of a very blue Scotia Sea
This is Sleven. Upon my arrival on Bird Island I was told that its chances of fledging were very low. It took a while, but 2 months after the rest of the wandering albatross fledged it finally headed out to sea!
Macaroni Soup
Even against the towering mountains of South Georgia a wandering albatross’s 3.5m wingspan is impressive
A blonde fur seal pup coming to check out the camera
Bird island has had a conveyer- belt of ice drifting pass this season. I’m told these bergs have made it further North than the Falklands
Big and brave fur seal
Wandering albatross making a GIANT petrel look tiny
South Georgia Shag against an iceberg
Brown skuas are stunning and annoyingly intelligent. There are very few animals nesting on South Georgia they can’t outsmart in order to get a meal
Wandering albatross at sunset
Another spectacular piece of ice
Bird Island sits between South Georgia and the Willis Islands (pictured here)
As the ice grounds itself it gets battered by the waves and quickly breaks up
Fat Macaroni Penguin chick looking healthy in front of South Georgia’s stunning coastline
Not sure if the Light-Mantled chicks are more or less impressive than the adults
Macaroni Penguins making the daily commute back to shore after a day at sea
A lighter morph fur seal who loves the camera
Black-browed albatross are one of the smaller albatross with a wingspan of just over 2m. Still pretty impressive
The noise that is associated with this display is unforgettable!

A face that can’t be hated

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

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

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

 

Final Farewell!

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

Farewell South Georgia

Absolutely devastated to leave South Georgia after an incredible and life changing year. If anyone gets the chance to visit I would 150% recommend it! It has everything, landscape, wildlife, glaciers and very occasionally the sun also.

Wintering team plus postie!

It was an absolute pleasure spending the year with this team. One final BBQ in the snow as well as a final champagne toast and it was time to set sail on board the Shackleton.

Last views of Mount Duse for a while

One last picture of Grytviken and KEP

The Nordenskjold in the cloud

As to be expected the scenery on the way out was still magnificent and a few species of wildlife made the effort to come and see us off. 

Giant Petrel in front of SG coastline

Our ‘horse and carriage’

On our way North we passed several, huge icebergs which were obviously floating north from the continent

More Icebergs

Different view of the same Icebergs

Once within flying range of the Falklands a Hurricane made a flyby whilst carrying out a training exercise allowing great views for photographs

Flyby

Black Browed over flat seas

Sei Whale in the mist

 

Majestic Petrels and Glaciers

This entry is part 43 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

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Technically I have left South Georgia but I am aware that I haven’t posted many blogs over the past few very busy weeks. So I will catch you up on my activities with a few blogs! The beginning of spring brings a series of fresh faced new British Antarctic Survey recruits eager to takeover from the old guard and ready to learn their new job.

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First on the long list of Kierans (the new me) new responsibilities was the Giant Petrels. Fortunate for us, these prehistoric birds have the a habit of nesting in areas of especially spectacular backdrops!
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Where ever there are Giant Petrels there are glaciers not too far away so its often harder to take pictures without glaciers in the background.

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There are colonies of Northern Petrels at Maiviken, Zenker Ridge and the Greene which nest approximately six weeks ahead of the Southerns which nest at Harpon and on the Greene.

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The latest trip was to check up on the Southerns which should have all laid by now. The Northerns, are starting to lay and will have chicks by now.

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Both sexes are very similar in appearance. However females tend to be smaller in size.

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Not only Giant Petrels enjoy the views
Not only Giant Petrels enjoy the views

Giant Birds!

This entry is part 42 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

Wandering Albatross chick stretching its wings
Wandering Albatross chick stretching its wings

Last month I made the short voyage up the coast of South Georgia to The Bay Of Isles and Prion Island to check up on the Wandering Albatross. These are the world’s largest seabird and they nest in numerous colonies around the South Georgia coastline.

Sitting tight
Sitting tight

Working the vocal cords
Working the vocal cords

A few years back when I saw my first ever albatross on The Galapagos, I put ‘seeing wanderers on the nest’ top of my bucket list.

Bucket list complete!
Bucket list complete! – me for size comparison

I didn’t think for a second that I would be able to cross it off so soon. To be allowed to get up close and personal with such incredible birds was a privilege and a pleasure, but now I need something else to take top spot …. maybe diving with leopard seals!

At this stage of the development adults are both out foraging so we were very lucky to see this adult paying the island a brief visit
At this stage of the development, adults are both out foraging so we were very lucky to see this adult paying the island a brief visit

Begging chick
Begging chick

Bracing from the snow
Bracing from the snow

The trip was a success but with the weather window being very narrow, there was much concern that we may not manage to get the work done. However, after a dawn wake-up, we managed to get landed.

Prion at sunrise
Prion at sunrise

Of the birds present, when I last monitored Prion back in April, 100% had successfully made it through the winter and all should hopefully be fledging before the end of the year.

Albatross on the snow
Albatross on the snow

Huge wingspan
Huge wingspan

Stretching its wings
Stretching its wings

Another chick
Another chick

The island is also home to a number of other species which have been able to thrive without the presence of rats. Two colonies of Gentoo penguins were all sitting on freshly laid eggs, Giant Petrels were courting and laying, Pipit chicks were calling from nests all over the island, Light Mantled Albatross were sitting on nest bowls and White Chin Petrels were singing from their underground burrows. Also, the first few male Fur Seals were taking up residence on the beach.

Light Mantled Albatross sitting tight on a cliff
Light Mantled Albatross sitting tight on a cliff

Gentoo colony
Gentoo colony

Male Fur Seal on the Prion Island beach
Male Fur Seal on the Prion Island beach

Our big red taxi behind a nesting Giant Petrel
Our big red taxi behind a nesting Giant Petrel

 

Giants of St Andrews

This entry is part 41 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

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This second instalment from my latest incredible trip to St Andrews will involve fewer superlatives – because I used my quota up in the first instalment!

I have spent a year on this amazing island and over a quarter of my pictures have been taken in the two weeks spent at St Andrews Bay. This is no reflection on how ‘boring’ the rest of the island (it’s not) … but St Andrews Bay is flipping ridiculous!

Elephant seal bull relaxing in the snow
Elephant seal bull relaxing in the snow

Having a scratch
Having a scratch in the snow

Young male on the beach
Young male on the beach

As you’ll have seen from my previous blog, there are hundreds of thousands of breeding King Penguins resident here, but just as awesome are the majestic giants that span the entire shore front.

St Andrews Shore
St Andrews Shore

Where penguins meet steaming elephant seals
Where penguins meet steaming elephant seals

They are loud, they smell worse than the penguins and they very rarely move but when they do, the sheer power and strength on display commands your attention and respect.

Challenging bulls are frequent
Challenging bulls are frequent

Elephant Seal in one of the glacial lakes at St Andrews
Elephant Seal in one of the glacial lakes at St Andrews

Beachmasters will spend months on end within harems of hundreds of females, fighting off challenges and rivals in order for the chance to mate with the females once they have weaned their pups. The challengers are numerous and relentless, leaving the beachmasters little time to sleep and relax between bouts and duels.

New bull onto the beach checking out the competition
A new bull on the beach checks out the competition

There are considerable size differences amongst males and it is in the interest of both beachmaster and challenger not to waste energy/get injured in one-sided competitions. So, in order to prevent this from happening, males use their proboscis to amplify their roars, allowing competitors to calculate the size of their rivals and if a fight is worthwhile.

Steam from a bulls breathe as he roars out his battle cry
Steam from a bull’s breath as he roars out his battle cry

This means big fights only happen when there is an even match and, as a result, duels can last for tens of minutes as both rivals rear back and take turns to slam their bodies and teeth into each other.

Trying to get higher than your rival
Trying to get higher than your rival

Two evenly matched competitors
Two evenly matched competitors

Locked in battle
Locked in battle

The noise as each blow was made was insane
The noise as each blow was made was deafening

Sinking teeth into flesh
Sinking teeth into flesh

Blood is almost a guarantee and injuries are often haunting and sometimes even life-threatening.

Bull after a fight
Bull after a fight

Afterwards, the competitors are understandably exhausted and plaster themselves with cold stones or mud from the beach in order to help them cool off.

Mud mud glorious mud....
Mud, mud glorious mud ….

Cooling off
Cooling off

Our visit came during the peak pupping period and as a result, the beach was covered in new-borns suckling the fatty milk of their mothers. Born at approximately 40kg, these will reach 180kg by the time they wean just three weeks later.

Young pup begging for milk
Young pup begging for milk

Pup in the snow
Young pup in the snow

Weaned pups quickly move up the beach away from the busy harems
Weaned pups quickly move up the beach away from the busy harems

Saying goodbye was definitely very hard but I am very excited to say I’ll be back to St Andrews in January, this time on board the National Geographic Expedition ship!!!

St Andrews – Mark 2

This entry is part 40 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

Which chick is mine?
Which chick is mine?

Sadly my time on South Georgia is coming to a close. The time has absolutely flown by and I have well and truly fallen in love with the island and its incredible wildlife. With the breeding season and my workload starting to increase, I managed to wangle one last non-scientific holiday and made the long hike over to St Andrews Bay to one of the most incredible wildlife congregations this planet has to offer.

King Penguins of St Andrews
King Penguins of St Andrews

Having had an uncharacteristically warm September, I booked the time off with high hopes of easy hiking and blue skies. Sadly this wasn’t the case but when you come to South Georgia you can’t complain. The walk over was easy, certainly, with mild conditions allowing us to make it over in four hours and get into the colonies for the afternoon. Luckily we took advantage of this and enjoyed the only clear skies we were going to get for the week!

Chicks well and truly outnumbering adults in the colony
Chicks well and truly outnumbering adults in the colony

It was amazing to see such a massive change in the dynamic of the Bay. Hungry chicks dominated the main breeding colonies, magnificently outnumbering the few providing parents. The few gaps in the colonies were covered in unfortunate chicks that sadly didn’t make it through the harsh South Georgia Summer. The rivers and lakes which had run through the colony on my last visit were now melted and flowing.

King Penguins gracefully making their way across a tidal pool
King Penguins gracefully making their way across a tidal pool

The outskirts of the Bay were completely covered with non-breeding, moulting King Penguins – staying well away from the noise of the main colony. Many adults had ventured more than a mile inland to stand on the cool of the glaciers. By far the most significant change came along the beach front. Where months previously I had taken pictures of thousands of King Penguins lining the shore a much larger South Georgia native had now taken up residence there. More than 5,000 Elephant Seals covered the beach, obstructing the poor penguins’ route up to the higher breeding ground.

Lower beach, now dominated by elephant seals
Lower beach, now dominated by elephant seals

One of South Georgias latest residents taking advantage of the melted lakes
One of South Georgia’s latest residents taking advantage of the melted pools

After a tip-off from our Doctor and Base Commander, who had visited a few weeks previously, we left the main colony for a rocky peninsula to the north of the Bay. As we passed the streams of clumsy Kings crossing the tidal pools going the opposite way to us, we noticed a number of injured penguins, suggesting that the tip-off had been good.

Marginally better entrance
A marginally better water entrance.

As we stepped out onto the rocks and peered down into the deep, we were greeted by a number of inquisitive eyes checking us out. In total, there were eight leopard seals all waiting close to the rocks and kelp, looking to ambush any passing King Penguins.

Three of the Eight leopard seals present in the water.
Three of the Eight leopard seals present in the water.

Within seconds of arriving, we spotted thrashing offshore as a hungry leopard seal tore apart an unfortunate King Penguin. In total, across the few hours spent at the point, I saw seven successful kills including three simultaneously. Nature, red in tooth and claw …

Leopard seal with kill
Leopard seal with kill

And the reason so many penguins manage to escape is because the leopard seals love to play with their food, often catching it several times and letting it go before finally killing it.

Full leopard seal on the rocks
Full leopard seal on the rocks

At one point, I was amazed to see a number of young Fur Seals cleaning themselves in the waters within a couple of metres of two big Leopard Seals and assumed that, with such abundant harmless prey in the form of King Penguins, the Leopard Seals didn’t bother the Fur Seals. However, it turned out the Fur Seals simply hadn’t spotted the Leopard Seals yet since they were soon making the 2 metre leap from the sea to the relative safety of the rocks.

As the light faded and the visibility reduced,we headed back to our hut for a dinner of military ration packs and an early night – the alarm was set for 05.30.

Poor weather approaching
Poor weather approaching

As I awoke, I was extremely happy to see bright white coming through the windows and eagerly got out of bed. I opened the door … to discover that what I thought was bright sunshine was actually a thick layer of snow! Still, since I was now up, I decided I may as well get my Antarctic Hero gear on and brave the conditions. Although the visibility wasn’t obviously bad, the fresh falling snow accompanied by the evaporation off the elephant seals backs  obstructed any wide-shots I attempted, so I headed back to the Kings.

King Penguin chicks in the snow
King Penguin chicks in the snow

The winter is the hardest part of the season for the King chicks. Between April and October, some of the chicks will only be fed a couple of times, going as long as four months without a parental visit – Social Services would definitely not approve!  It also means that it’s not uncommon to be followed around the colonies by a group of hungry chicks trying their luck. I managed to resist since I was running low on their preferred lantern fish.

More kings penguins bracing against the snow
More King Penguins bracing against the snow

You can’t blame the adults for making themselves scarce – the few chicks lucky enough to have parents around were extremely high maintenance, always begging for their next meal.

Begging chick
Begging chick

Chick thinking about its next meal
Chick thinking about its next meal

No matter what was going on on the beach, no matter what the weather was doing and no matter what dangerous obstacles needed passing, the stream of King adults kept coming, with numbers within the breeding colony increasing every day. Pretty impressive, all things considered.

Making their way up the beach in the snow
Making their way up the beach in the snow

Small congregation on day 1
Small congregation on day two

Kings marching along the beach
Kings marching along the beach

Larger congregation on day 3
Larger congregation on day three