Before coming South, whenever someone mentioned the Falklands, I would think of barren and windy islands with not much to offer. However, I was pleasantly surprised with the reality. Many of the guests on board the ship have the same mentality as I once did, seeing the Falklands simply as a convenience stop to stretch their legs before we get down to South Georgia and Antarctica. They most definitely are not anticipating the beauty of sites such as West Point Island and the densities of tame wildlife that these islands offer.
The Falklands are home to 60-70% of the world’s breeding black-browed albatross and host the largest albatross colony in the world at Steeple Jason. Seeing thousands of these birds proudly perched on their nest structures for as far as the eye can see is a breathtaking experience.
Many of the colonies are also home to thousands of rockhopper penguins early in the season and watching the entertaining relationships between these species is endless fun. The sounds that accompany these interspecific relations are also entertaining.
Both the rockhoppers and the black browed albatross tend to pick the most exposed areas of the islands to breed. The albatross are dependent on the wind in order to aid their takeoffs and the penguins use the exposed coasts in order to deter predators.
The islands are also home to magellanic, king and gentoo penguins and if you’re lucky you may also see macaronis hiding within the rockhoppers.
There is also some beautiful, if a little flat, hiking to be had over these islands and you’re never too far away from geese, raptors and songbirds (especially on the rat free islands).
And when you get onto the sea the wildlife doesn’t stop. There’s a healthy population of steamer ducks patrolling the coastline and both Peale’s and Commerson’s dolphins are often around and keen to play.
One final albatross picture, because they are awesome
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.
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.
One of the many things that make this site stunning is the Bertrab Glacier, which hangs over the colony.
During spring the beaches are covered by harems of Elephant seals which push the colony back into the tussock.
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.
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.
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.
Wherever there are penguins and seal colonies, predators and scavengers are never too far away
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 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
South Georgia has been described by many visiting explorers over the years as the island of ice. It is clear to see why when you look at a map and see just how much of the island is made up of glaciers.
In the last few weeks I have been out on the boats a few times, not only to resupply the glacial ice on base to make the perfect G&T, but also for boat training and in order to get readings of how far the glaciers have receded.
When you hear figures of how quickly these majestic landmarks are receding, it’s easy to breeze over the figures and not fully comprehend the scale of withdrawal. Well to give you an idea, since I arrived in South Georgia nine months ago, the spectacular Neumayer glacier has receded by over a mile. It wasn’t until I looked at the navigation screen (still hundreds of metres from the face) and saw that I was apparently navigating several miles inland that the severity of this change struck me.
All along the face, it was clear to see more fragilities and cracks appearing and the moraine was full of titanic slabs of glacial debris that dwarfed both the boats.
It has been joked by geologists that this withdrawal of a glacier that runs the entire width of the island could result in the formation of North and South South Georgia islands. Realistically, there is most probably land lying beneath the glacier but it’s not inconceivable that these glaciers could be gone in the not too distant future.
A day later and we were back out on the boats, this time in Cumberland East to drop the boss off on his holidays. This gave us a great excuse to check out the Nordenskjold glacier, named after the expedition that identified Grytviken as a suitable location for South Georgia’s first whaling station in 1902.
There must be good quantities of small prey items in this area of the bay as large numbers of fur seals were lingering in the bay, not to mention South Georgia Shags and Antarctic Terns (see below).
It would be nice to think that all this will be preserved for future generations.
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 you may be aware from my previous post, I have exchanged my South Georgian life for life at sea for three weeks. I am working on board a krill fishing vessel, researching by-catch (which is minimal) and also making whale and seabird observations to inform future conservation decisions.
Seemingly, I am here at a good time of year since within seconds of leaving Cumberland Bay, we were seeing the first spouts as whales blew all around us with the sun setting.
As we set about fishing, sightings continued, predominantly of Humpbacks, which were obviously exploiting the rich masses of krill 200m beneath the surface. When you see a distant whale blow, it’s easy to forget what is lying beneath. These Humpbacks can measure 16m and weigh up to 36 tonnes.
As the days have progressed, the sightings are getting better and better with several species seen so far. Fin, minke, southern right, sperm and orca (not seen by me!) were all spotted, as well as thousands of seabirds, seals and penguins.
South Georgia was the hub of whaling in the not too recent past and estimates suggest that numbers of baleen whales reduced by 90% as a result of it. So it’s absolutely incredible to see such high densities of whales in these waters.
The most frequent bird sightings involve the petrel species, with South Georgia Diving, Kerguelen, Great Winged, Antarctic, Cape and Giant Petrels all present in various numbers. Both Southern Fulmers and Antarctic Terns are also abundant with the occasional Wandering Albatross sightings.
Conditions on the whole have remained calm and clear, allowing good sightings throughout the trip. With the boats moving at very slow speeds, animals tend to pay little attention to the vessel, allowing for up close sightings.
Humpback whales migrate south for summer to feed on the krill rich numbers. These animals will be on their way north back to their breeding grounds, where they will breed in August time.
Although it is the wrong time of year, I have seen several humpbacks displaying, launching their magnificent bodies out of the water. One of these was close enough for me to capture on camera!
As mentioned before, the birdlife has been almost as spectacular as the marine mammals. See my previous blog (feeding frenzy) for more bird pictures
South Georgia hosts some of the most spectacular wildlife colonies in the world. People pay thousands of pounds and travel from all over the world to visit. Our most famous inhabitants are the penguins (4 species), seals (2 species) and albatross (4 species). There is an abundance of less ‘sexy’ wildlife utilising South Georgia for its breeding habitats and proximity to rich foraging grounds. Many of these species can be very elusive on the islands, breeding down burrows, visiting nesting sites in the dark and living predominantly over open ocean. This has meant sightings have been few and far between from base. I have spent the last two weeks on board a vessel in the southern ocean and this opportunity has allowed me time to see some of these scarcer pelagic species
Probably the most common of these pelagic species around boats are the cape petrels (seen above), often spotted cruising in the slipstream of ships in the southern hemisphere. As a result, I have a number of the same shots of capes in flight. However, it was a great surprise to see one diving and fishing alongside our ship. The bird must have unearthed a small quantity of krill since it wasn’t long before other species were investigating – like this Antarctic Petrel.
Finally it was the turn of the most elusive of them all, the Blue Petrel. I have spent hours on board ships trying to get pictures of these guys. Although common around boats, they tend to keep their distance. They also move incredibly quickly, meaning previous attempts have been limited to blurry distant unidentifiable specs. When this bird came in close to take advantage of the easy krill meal, I was thrilled. Unfortunately, the sun decided it was a good time to hide away but you can’t have everything!
I was recently lucky enough to go on holiday to the Barff Peninsula and revisit my angry friends, the Macaroni Penguins.
Before I even got close to the rookery, I spent a few hours down on the beach watching the conveyer belt of little penguins to-ing and fro-ing up the rocks.
Regular visitors to this blog won’t be surprised to hear that it wasn’t long before I was observing the first acts of aggression between these feisty penguins!
The colonies are very muddy places and so the first priority, once down, is to get clean.
Within the largest group of macaroni penguins, there were three stunning chinstrap penguins trying to make friends
The chinstraps shouldn’t feel too hard done by as the macs don’t discrimate. They are angry and aggressive towards everything!
Some of the macaroni penguins intentionally made for the sea. I observed various levels of ocean entrances, but considering the sea state, I was impressed that any of them made the plunge at all.
As I mentioned, penguins were both coming and going. Wave after wave was full of surfing penguins trying their hardest to dismount the wave at the perfect moment to avoid being smashed into the rocks below.
Once landed, it’s a matter of scrambling to your feet and away from the breaking waves, before starting the long scramble back up to the colony.
Having completed this very strenuous ordeal and successfully navigated to the rookery, the returning adults are greeted by these hungry, fluffy youngsters.
As life continues at King Edward Point, South Georgia, it seems some thing’s never change. The workload is still huge, it keeps on snowing and life is still awesome. We have had a few noteworthy and out of the ordinary sightings though. The first came in the form of a Weddels Seal. Although these do breed on the very south of the island, this is the north of their range so they are rare visitors to the station. As is often the case with rare animals turning up in the wrong place, this individual was a youngster.
On top of this we had visits from two lost penguin species. First of all was a chinstrap penguin which spent the best part of 48 hours zipping around our jet boats in Cumberland Bay. The closest colonies for these are located on The South Sandwich Islands.
The second was found during the chick count of the Gentoo Penguins. Before we managed to start with the scientific work, we noticed a Macaroni penguin trying his best to blend in with the crowd. The Gentoo colony is located roughly 12km from the closest Macaroni so it was not that lost but more impressive is that the colony is located 2km inland, uphill from the nearest beach. So this guy made his long hike for no reason!
The Gentoo count itself was a little depressing, as we had expected, with El Nino seemingly affecting the numbers of Krill in our waters. Having received news from Bird Island that several thousand Gentoo nesting attempts had been unsuccessful, we were not holding out much hope for our 800 eggs at Maiviken. During previous brief ventures into the colony, I had noted a number of deserted, unincubated eggs, suggesting that the food shortage is leading the Gentoos to terminate breeding attempts, and the Skuas’ nests are littered with debris from the colony. However, we were pleased to see that we still had 120 chicks remaining and looking, on the whole, healthy. And during the time we spent with the birds, adults were observed frequently regurgitating large amounts of Krill to their chicks.
Further bad news from the Penguins’ point of view is that both pairs of Brown Skua, adjacent to the breeding colony, now have hungry chicks to feed, meaning scenes like that captured in the last blog will become more and more frequent.
Sorry to keep mentioning it, but my job is incredible and has many, many perks. One of these is it allows me to get out and about, especially on boat trips to other peninsulas. On one of these trips last month to the Greene, we went via the Hamburg and Harker Glaciers for a bit of familiarisation (sightseeing). And we timed this trip to perfection since on our arrival, a chunk of ice the size of my house calved from the face. I don’t know what was more spectacular, the actual calving or the size of the wave that it caused.
Having enjoyed the calving from a close but ‘safe’ distance, we decided we were ok to sit still and face the oncoming wave. But as the wave continued to grow, eventually dwarfing the glacier from our view, we quickly realised this wasn’t the case and were ordered to ‘run away’!
Whist watching these spectacular structures calving, its hard to think that future generations will not get this chance. The effects of climate change are clear to see all over South Georgia with some Glaciers receding at over 1m a day. In fact, in the entire of South America there is only one Glacier that is not receding, the Perito Moreno glacier in Argentina and it is thought that within the near future, this will follow the same trend.
On top of the fact that glaciers are in their own right epic, another great thing about hanging around them is that you have a chance of seeing the majestic snow petrels. These are by far my favourite birds here although they do frustrate me by only turning up when I have a small lens on my camera, hence the slightly distant shot.
On another of my scientific trips to around South Georgia, this time to check my Southern Giant Petrels at Harpon, I got to experience the Antarctic water temperatures for first time. I was in a dry suit, so not particularly brave!
Upon arriving in our rib to a steep shelving beach full of ice glacial debris, it was necessary to jump out in waist-height water and hold the boat whilst we unloaded all the gear. Just standing there for two minutes in a dry suit, my legs were quickly numbing and losing sensation. I have no idea how the seals do it for longer than this – to think that an Elephant Seal will dive to depths of 1500m and spend two hours completely submerged is unfathomable.
As per usual, my visits to my seal colonies continued every other day. One particular visit sticks out as particularly ‘blondie’. Across my beaches, I noted six blonde pups, three blonde females and two blonde males. When you consider that, on average, 1 in every 800 fur seals is blonde, you should get an idea of how many seals make up my study site.
As I mentioned earlier, dumps of snow are almost weekly at the moment and the animals in front of base are starting to look less than impressed. Especially the King Penguins, which have picked this time of year (supposedly the warmest) to molt their feathers.