Salisbury Plain

It’s been a while but I thought it was about time that I wrote a blog about a typical day as a Naturalist on board the National Geographic Explorer. And what better location to do so than from Salibury Plain. The second largest king penguin colony on the island, Salisbury Plain lies within the Bay Of Isles towards the North of South Georgia. 

After a blustery night anchored in the Bay of Isles, guests awoke expecting poor conditions but were pleasantly surprised to see flat seas and a fresh coat of snow covering the bay. Just five days previously, when we were last in the bay, there was barely any snow on the near mountains.

Not a bad sight to wake up to. First light uncovered a snow-coated Salisbury Plain. At dawn, King Penguins already spanned from the shore all the way up the hillside. As the day progressed waves of adults joined the colony from the Southern Ocean.
View of the ship from the landing
Thousands of King Penguins covering Salisbury Plain

Its been a hard year for these King Penguin chicks, after the eggs were laid a year ago they have been stuck on this beach through the harsh South Georgia winter. Some of the chicks will have gone months between feeds shrinking up to 50% in weight during these periods. 

All four seasons were experienced throughout the landing with brief spells of snow followed by beautiful sunshine.
Warming up after the snow
Early travellers thought that these woolly penguins AKA Oakum Boys, were a completely different species than the adults

The landing did not disappoint, a natural path through the colony allowed guests to get their best views of the “Oakum Boys” yet. Despite the cold temperatures, the light was stunning and guests used every second on shore to get their shots.

Adult leading its chick through the snow in search of shelter
The snow got worse before it got better
Chicks were left covered in snow when the sun came out again
Covered in snow
Bracing from the snow
Sun shining on the colony within a few minutes of a blizzard

The cold was obviously too much for this penguin who couldn’t stop sneezing! 

Creching for shelter
Chicks without parents huddled together in order keep warm

By this stage of the breeding season, the weakest chicks will have perished, so those remaining all looked in good health. After more than a year of development these chicks will soon loose this downy coat in favour of their waterproof juvenile coat.

The majority of the chicks on the colony to have made it this far were looking in good condition and will soon be melting into their juvenile coat
Fat and ready to moult
Basking in the brief moment of sunshine
As the snow came down again and the feeling in my hands finally disappeared completely, we headed back to the ship

After a long but spectacular morning on the colony we headed back to the ship for hot drinks and tasty food, a luxury which the British Antarctic Survey never provided! 

View of the colony from the warmth of the ship
Albatross over the ocean as we navigated out of the Bay Of Isles around the stunning South Georgia coastline

The island is home to millions of birds including ten of thousands of Black Browed Albatross which thrive in these windy conditions.

Black Browed Albatross soaring close to the ocean in a localised patch of calm

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

 

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!!!

Gentoos are back!

This entry is part 39 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

What a few days!!!

Sunset at Maiviken watching the Gentoos return
Sunset at Maiviken watching the Gentoos return

In the last three days I have seen four more leopard seals, taken the RIB south to St Andrews Bay (where we watched a leopard seal tear apart a king penguin) and spent the night at Maiviken, where we watched at least 1000 Gentoo Penguins returning to South Georgia for the night …. Life is hard!

The beginning.... lep 1
The beginning …. lep 1
Sleepy leopard seal in front of base
Sleepy leopard seal in front of base

With news of a second lep sighting at Grytviken coming in the final minutes of light of the day, I set my alarm early and made my way over for first light hoping she hadn’t slugged off in the night in order to get more pictures for the rapidly growing leopard seal database.

Thankfully my efforts were not in vain!

It was initially to dark for good record shots but it soon brightened up
It was initially to dark for good record shots but it soon brightened up
Lep two at Grytviken
Lep two in front of South Georgia Museum and Mount Hodges at Grytviken

I quickly headed back to base to complete my morning rounds and get ready for a day of boating – but not before taking a quick shot of the Pharos alongside before a patrol.

Pharos alongside at King Edward Point
Pharos alongside at King Edward Point

Next on the agenda was kitting up the boats and getting away, with St Andrews our next destination in order to re-supply the huts with food and medical gear. Unfortunately, the visit had to be very quick but, as regular readers will know, on South Georgia, a lot can happen in a short amount of time!

King Penguin fresh from the sea at St Andrews
King Penguin fresh from the sea at St Andrews

Upon landing we were greeted by a cloud of hungry Giant Petrels who are resident around the King Penguins. I caught a flash of yellow disappearing towards the sea and was able to get a couple of record shots of a yellow Darvic on the leg of a giant petrel, most probably from Bird Island.

Yellow Darvic on the leg of a Giant Petrel
Yellow Darvic on the leg of a Giant Petrel

Time didn’t allow me to reach the main King Penguin colony and check up on the chicks but there were a few Kings on the beach near where we landed, along with St Andrews latest occupants … Elephant Seals.

Soon the beaches will be covered in these monsters battling for hareems
Soon the beaches will be covered in these monsters, battling for harems
Trying to get some kip before the fighting begins
Trying to get some kip before the fighting begins
Elephant seal eating the jetboat
Elephant seal eating the jetboat!

As we lifted the anchor, a very inquisitive leopard seal came to check us out. Unfortunately, my hands were full of anchor so no pictures were possible before it got bored of us and headed off. As we headed back to sea with Hound Bay our next destination, I clocked a congregation of Cape Petrels in the distance and headed towards it. Being in contact with our colleagues at Bird Island, I hear tales of leopard seal attacks and had subsequently added observing a kill, hopefully, to my bucket list.

View through a wave
View through a wave

As we approached, all that was clear was that something was being thrown around in the water by a dark shadow.

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Swallowing some flesh
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A mouthful of king penguin

Unfortunately, the poor light and swell were enough to make focusing on the action very difficult, so the pictures aren’t much more than record shots but it was an incredible spectacle.

The leopard seal shook the meat from the penguin
The leopard seal shook the meat from the penguin

 

Leopard seal and a king penguin
Leopard seal and a king penguin
Young Kelp gull bravely stealing some scraps
Young Kelp gull bravely stealing some scraps with the leopard seal lurking below

Due to a thick band of incoming fog, we couldn’t stay with the kill for long and were soon on our way north again to Hound Bay, where we were greeted by yet another leopard seal trying to hide itself amongst all the elephant seals.

Hound Bay Leopard Seal
Hound Bay Leopard Seal

We did get one last look at the South Georgia landscape before we were engulfed by fog for the duration of our trip back to Maiviken, where we were dropped off for the night.

Paget Mountain towering above Hound Bay
Paget Mountain towering above Hound Bay

Gentoo Penguins opt to return to the South Georgian shores every evening to roost, unlike other SG Penguins, even outside the breeding season. As we sat on the shore waiting for the sun to set, sipping mulled wine, we had hoped to see good numbers of Gentoos but we didn’t expect quite as many as we got!

Waves and waves of upto 50 returned until over 1000 had passed us on the beach
Waves and waves of up to 50 Gentoos returned until over 1000 had passed us on the beach

For the first time this year, the Gentoos were observed making their way up past their usual roost site all the way up to their breeding colony, suggesting that we may well have an early breeding season this year.

Gentoos piling onto the beach
Gentoos piling onto the beach

Whilst the majority of the gentoos opted for the large open section of Tortula Beach, not all picked the same route

Making their way through the rocky shore
Making their way through the rocky shore
Not all pick the easiest beaches to land on
Not all pick the easiest beaches to land on

With last year being a spectacular breeding failure for the Gentoos, we are hoping for a more fruitful season this year.

Gentoo penguins making their way back to shore
Gentoo penguins making their way back to shore

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

Scenery

This entry is part 37 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

South Georgia is absolutely incredible for rich and diverse wildlife, this is something we all know. What makes it that little bit more special than other places of this nature is the breathtaking scenery all around you wherever you go. With wildlife sightings currently at their lowest around base, I took a bit of time to photograph the landscapes.

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Sunset in Cumberland Bay

Almost as spectacular as the landscape are the skies now that the days are getting lighter again: sunset and sunrise are falling perfectly in time with the beginning and end of work. We have also been witness to some amazing lenticular cloud formations in recent weeks.

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Lenticular clouds at sunset over King Edward Point Research Station

Even with wildlife sightings down around base, I am still making the weekly trips to Maiviken to see the few lingering Antarctic Fur Seals. Its very rare that I make the commute and don’t get my camera out, even if only my phone (like the two below). I must have a thousand pictures of my route by now, but it’s not one I ever want to forget!

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Phone shot of the commute back from work

Our numbers have recently dropped with the loss of our lead boatman, who has headed back to the equally as spectacular Essex. His loss means that there is a much greater demand for the rest of us to take out the boats.

'Three Brothers' mountains behind the Neumayer glacier
‘Three Brothers mountains behind the Neumayer glacier

An out of character spell of calm weather has allowed me to rack up some hours of training in recent weeks on board the Jet boats. I have been training at night time navigation – during the day! Our boating officer, Russ, used a very high tech training methodology of putting cardboard on all the windows and making me navigate only using the GPS equipment. When I eventually stepped outside, the day and the view was pretty stunning (see above).

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Big old chunk of blue ice

We have also had lots of time training with our Fisheries Patrol vessel, practicing ‘at sea transfers’.

Coming alongside the fisheries patrol vessel in the jetboat
Coming alongside the fisheries patrol vessel in the jetboat

 

Finally, myself and another team member, took the short commute across to Grytviken, for a night away from base. The weather was too good to stay indoors so we headed out with a flask of mulled wine and watched the almost full moon rise over Mount Duse and the derelict remains of Grytviken whaling station.

Camping trip to Grytviken
Camping trip to Grytviken
Moon Rising over the old Whaling ship 'Diaz
Moon Rising over the old Whaling ship ‘Diaz
Petrel Whaling Ship in the mooinlight
Petrel Whaling Ship in the moonlight

IMG_3322After a bitterly cold night, we were woken by a nosy neighbour at the front door, trying to get in to steal our warmth. A snowy sheathbill was wading through the snow in order to check if we had left any scraps. Unfortunately, we disappointed!

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Snowy Sheathbill in front of our tent in the morning
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Snowy Sheathbill in the snow

Onwards….

This entry is part 36 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey
View from base
View from base

As winter progresses, so does the work. Trips to Maiviken have become less frequent but are still necessary. Conditions  can be challenging with the temperatures dropping, snow levels increasing and the wind ever present. But once you get there, it is always worth it.

Wind blowing the snow
Wind blowing the snow over Deadmans Pass

With it being winter now, much of the wildlife around base has dispersed and I have to go much further afield to get my wildlife fix. My weekly Maiviken trips offer the perfect opportunity to do this. With summer densities of wildlife at Maiviken being so ridiculously high, even with a dramatic decrease of numbers, there is plenty to keep me on my toes.

Snowy Sheathbill on an icy Maiviken beach
Snowy Sheathbill on an icy Maiviken beach
Snow shoeing to Maiviken
Snow shoeing to Maiviken

Walking conditions are much more challenging now and snow shoes or skis are necessary for most trips. I also have to be aware of the snow/avalanche conditions, whilst walking across steep heavily loaded slopes. Seemingly, there isn’t enough tea in the world to keep my hands warm but that’s life!

More windy mountains
More windy mountains

Although fur seals can sleep at sea, Maiviken beaches provide the perfect place for additional R&R for small groups of seals. Calving of the Neumayer Glacier is apparently quite high at the moment with many of the beaches covered in blocks of glacial ice.

Fur seals 'chilling' on the beaches covered in glacial ice
Fur seals ‘chilling’ on the beaches covered in glacial ice
Fur Seal on a snow covered Maiviken beach
Fur Seal on a snow covered Maiviken beach

Its very rare that you get a still day on South Georgia, so when the snow isn’t falling from the sky, you’re not necessarily safe.

Maiviken hills being swept free of snow
Maiviken hills being swept free of snow

Gentoo penguins will rarely fish overnight and will usually return to rookeries before dusk before heading back out again at dawn. This means that if I get to Maiviken early enough, I get my penguin fix as well.

Gentoo Penguin in the Maiviken tussoc grass
Gentoo Penguin in the Maiviken tussoc grass

Winter time is peak fishing time down here. All boats have to come into the bay so that the Government Officers can inspect the vessels and ensure that they meet the high standards required to fish in these seas. It is also a busy time for our Fisheries Patrol Vessel, Pharos SG, which carries out at sea boardings and is constantly patrolling for illegal fishing.

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Fishing Vessels in Cumberland Bay
Pharos alongside at King Edward Point
Contrast: derelict remains of Grytviken whaling station, an exploitative and destructive fishing industry, in front of King Edward Point, now proudly home to one of the most sustainable and successfully run fisheries, worldwide.

Wherever you go at the moment, you are not too far from pipits. It’s amazing to see how quickly these guys are recovering after the rat eradication. Just as impressive is how such a diminutive bird is able to survive in such extreme conditions. Birds have resorted to foraging on the tidal line, where the sea melts any snow, and roosting in any pockets free of vegetation they can find.

South Georgia Pipit, fluffed up inside a cave
South Georgia Pipit, fluffed up inside a cave, keeping me company on a tea stop
Looking for food
Looking for food
SG Pipit grubbing around rockpools
SG Pipit grubbing around rockpools
Foraging on the ice
Foraging on the ice