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.
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.
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.
The cold was obviously too much for this penguin who couldn’t stop sneezing!
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.
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!
The island is home to millions of birds including ten of thousands of Black Browed Albatross which thrive in these windy conditions.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Both sexes are very similar in appearance. However females tend to be smaller in size.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Blood is almost a guarantee and injuries are often haunting and sometimes even life-threatening.
Afterwards, the competitors are understandably exhausted and plaster themselves with cold stones or mud from the beach in order to help them cool 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.
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!!!
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!
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
As we approached, all that was clear was that something was being thrown around in the water by a dark shadow.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Whilst the majority of the gentoos opted for the large open section of Tortula Beach, not all picked the same route
With last year being a spectacular breeding failure for the Gentoos, we are hoping for a more fruitful season this year.
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!
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Male fur seals are already beginning to act territorially, meaning that I need to keep alert whilst patrolling the beaches.
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.
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 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.
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.
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!
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.
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).
We have also had lots of time training with our Fisheries Patrol vessel, practicing ‘at sea transfers’.
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.
After 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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.