Belated Birthday Blog!

This entry is part 28 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey
Birthday Leopard Seal
Birthday Leopard Seal

I thought being in South Georgia on my birthday was enough of a present. When you are living in paradise, it’s hard to wish for anything more than ‘normal’, which is pretty damn spectacular. However my birthday week proved to be especially eventful. Not only was it the best week of weather we’d had since I arrived, but I also saw two of the ocean’s most deadly predators and got to handle South Georgia’s answer to dinosaurs!

Leopard seal keeping a watchful eye on a brown skua
Leopard seal keeping a watchful eye on a brown skua

With the weather so incredibly calm and settled, we’d have been stupid not to take advantage and get out and about. Our travel limits allow us to get to other peninsulas for a holiday. It is necessary that all of us who are qualified to drive the boats are familiar with all the waters in our travel limits. On one of these familiarisation trips to Cumberland Bay West, we managed to get all the way to the base of the Neumayer Glacier.

Lewis and Tim on one of the ribs heading away from base
Lewis and Tim on one of the ribs heading away from base

It is always absolutely incredible to see the glaciers up close. This was the first time I’d been so close to the Neumayer. As I have mentioned before, the Neumayer is receding at 400+ metres a year – I appreciate the fact that this is an astoundingly high figure, but until I had driven over miles of ocean, still marked as land on our map, where the glacier had stood just a few years previously, I did not comprehend exactly what this meant.

The Neumayer glacier from 2 miles away where the glacier once sat
The Neumayer glacier from 2 miles away, where it once sat
Neumayer glacier and reflection in the sea
Neumayer glacier and reflection in the sea

As we travelled up the moraine, there was evidence of the glacier’s former size for miles around. The mountain sides were scoured with marks where the ice had once flowed, ripping rock apart. Remains of once full lakes dammed by the cosmic glacier at the foot of vast valleys were now freely draining into the sea.

Scouring on the mountainside above the glacier
Scouring on the mountainside above the glacier

It was clear to see that the glacier had been very active throughout the morning with huge ice flows present right out of the mouth of the moraine.

Couple of larger pieces of recently calved ice
A couple of larger pieces of recently calved ice

Even more exciting for me, the bird geek, were the thousands of Antarctic Terns feeding at the face. Seeing the diminutive birds feeding alongside such a colossal natural masterpiece was really special. Their continual high-pitched screeching took me back to when I worked on the Farne Islands!

Glacial rivers pour beneath the ice, absorbing organic material that eventually flows into the ocean at the face of the glacier. The terns feed on the small fish and invertebrates that are nourished by this organic matter.

Terns feeding at the foot of the glacier
Terns feeding at the foot of the glacier

It wasn’t just terns feeding amongst the glacial debris….

Cape Petrels and their reflections
Cape Petrels and their reflections

Apart from seeing all of the incredible breeding species South Georgia has to offer, I arrived with huge hopes of seeing Leopard Seals. With the first sightings for King Edward Point normally coming in April, I wouldn’t normally be disappointed with not having seen any at this point of the year but with sightings already being relatively frequent from cruise ships and other team members, I was beginning to think they might be deliberately hiding from me! Another important part of the work here is contributing photos for the Leopard Seal photo library but until last week I was drawing a blank. However, whilst on our way out of the Neumayer moraine, I finally came across two of these magnificent killing machines relaxing on glacial debris.

A brief glimpse of the teeth of the leopard seal
A brief glimpse of the teeth of the Leopard Seal
Leopard Seal chilling
Leopard Seal chilling 1
Leopard seal relaxing on the calved ice
Leopard Seal chilling 2 – on the calved ice

The pair both measured 2.5m in length and even from the security of the boat, my heart rate was through the roof. What made the experience even better was that it happened on my birthday!

Its a hard life, yawning leopard seal
It’s a hard life – yawning Leopard Seal
The second leopard seal before it slid into the water
The second Leopard Seal before it slid into the water

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It is always enjoyable to get hands-on experience with the wildlife in South Georgia but we try to keep this to a bare minimum in order to ensure our studies don’t affect the success of the animals. However, the growth and development studies involve weighing of both the Gentoo chicks and Antarctic Fur Seal pups; in addition, we also weigh and take biometrics from Giant Petrel chicks.

Matthew weighing a seal pup during the february pup weighing session
Matthew weighing a seal pup during the February session

Last week was the turn of the Northern Giant Petrel chicks and the Antarctic Fur Seals. Fortunately, the seal-weighing was uneventful for all involved and everyone had a great day, despite the large size of the pups and their canines. The Giant Petrels, however, have left me with a number of incredibly deep scratches and a coat reeking of their vomit, which no amount of washing will clean. Having said this, to get up and close with such an incredible, huge, prehistoric looking bird was something I will remember for the rest of my life!

Ready to fledge Giant Petrel chick
Ready to fledge Giant Petrel chick

On a final note, we had a very strange visitor to base this week in the form of a Blue-Eyed Shag Chick. I have no idea how this downy bird made it to us because the closest breeding colony is miles away. He did, however, look very happy and content relaxing in front of base.

Juvenile shag in front of base
Juvenile Shag in front of base

 

Snow!!!

This entry is part 13 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey
King Penguin in the snow
King Penguin in the snow

South Georgia is an island located north of the main Antarctic Peninsula and with it being in the southern hemisphere it should be spring now. I should be walking to my study site every other day, worrying about how badly the hole in the Ozone is going to fry my skin, but its been almost a week since we last saw even a spec of blue sky. Not only has it been cold, its been bloody snowy and blowing a gale. As I am writing this, the weather station is recording regular gusts of 70knot winds and the snow flakes coming down are bigger than the face of my watch.

King Edward Point research station in the snow
King Edward Point research station in the snow

With Christmas approaching, we are starting to think there may be a slight chance of a white Christmas. But, do I want it….? Well, it would be pretty cool (if the wind calms) but it doesn’t half make the round trip to my study site hard going, in knee deep snow, which I will have to complete on Christmas day and New Years. Its not all bad though as the longer I am out for the less I will need to help with the big Christmas cook!

My snowy tracks in the last snow we had. Its a long walk in knee deep snow!
My snowy tracks in the last snow we had. Its a long walk in knee deep snow!

With activities restricted as a result of the severe weather, the team took the time to practice their snowball throwing and also helped the museum staff decorate the church for visiting cruise ship tourists over Christmas. I would love to say we did this out of the kindness of our hearts but I’d be lying, we were lured across with the promise of mince pies and mulled wine! It also gave me the chance to take a couple shots of the various decommissioned ships around the whaling station at Grytviken in the snow

Two of the decommissioned ships at Grytviken whaling station
Two of the decommissioned ships at Grytviken whaling station

There is something very magical about being on an island with heavy snow during the brief intervals in the wind. But these intervals are very few and far between, so if you want to get out you better wrap up and prepare yourself for a battering. At times the snow was falling so quickly the wildlife was struggling to keep its self afloat!

King Penguins bracing from the wind in front of Grytviken
King Penguins bracing from the wind in front of Grytviken
The snow was heavy,even the elephant seals were struggling to stay uncovered
The snow was so heavy, even the elephant seals were struggling to stay uncovered

For the animals, they don’t have the luxury of batting down the hatches and turning on the central heating, the breeding season must go on! So I was very keen to get out and join them and see how the weather affected the wildlife. Even with us being so close to the Antarctic peninsula it is very rare for South Georgia to get this amount of snow during spring. And as a result there’s seldom the chance of seeing our native wildlife in the snow, especially during the breeding season. I was particularly impressed with the diminutive Antarctic Terns and Wilson’s Storm Petrels which were frequently observed flying against the wind and snow, successfully foraging.

Antarctic Tern fishing in the wake of an elephant seal
Antarctic Tern fishing in the wake of an elephant seal

The winds also left a group of King Penguins that had been moulting near the wharf heading through base to seek shelter. Problem is they didn’t stick to the pavements and they didn’t look left and right before crossing which made life difficult for all the South Georgia traffic (1 car)

Group of King Penguins Making their way through base
Group of King Penguins Making their way through base

It is a bad time for harsh weather conditions with so many animals reproducing across the islands. I was concerned for my study seals and penguins with the chicks and pups being especially susceptible to the elements. The cold wet weather means the young have to use high amounts of energy in order to maintain their body temperatures.

Antarctic Fur Seal pup calling for mum in the snow
Antarctic Fur Seal pup calling for mum in the snow
The fight for space on the colonies must continue even in these adverse conditions, Male, Antarctic Fur Seals
The fight for space on the colonies must continue even in these adverse conditions, Male, Antarctic Fur Seals

Inevitably there will be some casualties in these conditions, but one animals loss is another’s gain. With Southern Giant Petrel chicks about to hatch and Northern chicks growing rapidly, any meal is much appreciated.

Giant Petrel Taking off into the snow
Giant Petrel Taking off into the snow