Pacific Adventure

Blue waters of the Cook Islands

Its been a long time coming but I wanted to add a few pictures from my latest adventure. For the first time in a few years my work took me to sunnier climes and allowed me to get into the water somewhere warm. I was lucky enough to work on board the National Geographic Orion in the Pacific region. 

Inside the crater of Tahiti
Humpback whale coming to say hello in Mo’orea
Racoon Butterflyfish in Fakarava
National Geographic Orion in Mo’orea

Highlights real of my time in Fakarava with music by Eto performed on a moto off Taha’a

This is a spectacular region and over my stint here I was fortunate to visit French Polynesia, Cook Islands, Samoa, Wallis & Futuna and Samoa. My visit allowed me to explore lots of different islands and Motu’s and experience their different cultures as well as take in some spectacular wildlife. 

Bora Bora lagoon looking spectacular from above unfortunately much of the reef is dead
Rough-toothed dolphins in the Society Islands

Coming to the Pacific and especially French Polynesia, there were many places that I was itching to get to, such as Tahiti and Bora Bora. However in hindsight the most enjoyable islands were those I had never heard of, like Makatea and Toau. As a result of their lack of development, many of these had much more diverse and healthy ecosystems as well as more untouched and natural cultures on land. 

Paddleboarding and kayaking in the Bay of Isles, Fiji
Tie dying in Bora Bora

As mentioned earlier, one of my favourite locations was an island called Makatea in the Tuamotu Islands of French Polynesia. This is an uplifted coral island which as steep 80m cliffs, is covered in rich forest with several endemic species and is surrounded by crystal waters and healthy reefs.

Who said pigeons and doves are ugly?! Many of these islands have vibrant species of fruit dove. This is the Makatea Fruit Dove
The uplifted island of Makatea
Getting ashore wasn’t always easy but with our talented AB drivers we always made it

Lying at the heart of this island is it’s best secret a number of underground freshwater grottos which allow you to snorkel and free dive amongst stalactites and stalagmites. 

Freediving one of Makatea’s grottos. Photo taken by Michael S. Nolan. All rights reserved Worldwide.
Another picture of me poking around a grotto taken by taken by Michael S. Nolan. All rights reserved Worldwide.

There is not the densities of seabirds that you find in the colder regions as a result of these warmer waters being less nutrient rich. But there can still be some great seawatching. Boobies, noddies, tropicbirds and frigates are common as well as large numbers of petrel and shearwater species that are endemic to the region. 

Inquisitive red footed booby off the bow of the ship
Black winged petrel and mottled petrel were fairly common on route to Fiji
Black Noddy

It wasn’t just the birdlife that kept me entertained. I was lucky enough to tick several wildlife experiences off my bucket list in this beautiful region. Highlights included snorkelling with Humpbacks in Mo’orea, diving with Tigersharks in Tahiti and also night diving with the hunting reef sharks of Fakarava

Snorkeller and Humpback whale in front of the spectacular Mo’orea hills
One of 4 tiger sharks seen on two dives
This diving operation allows research to be carried out on the movements of these incredible 4m giants. They are all identifiable by markings in pictures and therefore photo catalogues have been created here
Another highlight involved sub winging with Spinner dolphins
Its not just the large wildlife I appreciate
Samoan Myzomela are one of many endemics across the region
A rare rainy day!
Sharks galore in Tahiti
Beautiful snapper schools
Sea krait hunting a reef in Futuna
Underwater with the humpback
Not the wildlife I expected to see at sea

Whilst we travelled the regions surrounding Fiji and Samoa we were treated to a number of different cultural experiences including war dances performed by both kids and adults.

Young warrior in the village of Waitabu, Fiji

Seranaded on the beaches of Fakarava

I shall finish with a travel tip of mine…. I highly recommend finding some locals to show you around wherever you find yourself in the world. You’ll meet some amazing people and have a way better time! Having spent 4 days on Tahiti in advance of my trip in the rain I was deeply disappointed. However I was lucky enough to meet two amazing people who showed me the time of my life before I departed; free diving with turtles, wake boarding in the sunset, tiger shark diving, watching the locals surf and sub winging with dolphins! 

I didn’t fancy giving it a go but was happy to watch from the shore
Tahiti hills
Wakeboarding inside the Tahiti lagoon (picture by Perrine Reidy)

On reflection, my summer wasn’t too bad at all!

Falkland Islands – Surprise wildlife package

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.

A Falklands beach – not what you’d expect
Black browed albatross chicks at West Point

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.

Black browed adult cruising over the heads of grounded chicks
Adult and chick
There are several hundred thousand birds breeding on the island

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.

The two species can often be seen disagreeing with each other
And if it’s not the black browed albatross the problem is with, then it’s their neighbours

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.

Black browed in flight over Steeple Jason
The wind helps both with taking off and landing

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.

Magellanic Penguin on carcass island. These are burrow nesting penguins and so are never too far from their holes
Gentoo penguin playing in the surf at Bull Point

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).

Ruddy headed goose in the tussock
Long tailed meadowlark or military starling are always a bright highlight
Upland geese in flight
Variable hawk overhead on Carcass Island
Cobb’s wren are a Falkland’s endemic and are only found on the islands that are rat free
Jonny rook or striated caracara are part of the falcon family. These are never too far from breeding colonies on the 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.

Commerson’s dolphins off the shore of Saunder’s
Falkland steamer ducks are very territorial and can sometimes kill each other in disputes
Peale’s off the bow
Fin and Sei whales are frequently seen fishing in the rich waters surrounding the islands

One final albatross picture, because they are awesome

Adult and chick

 

Link to previous blog. Gold Harbour, South Georgia

Few images from St Andrews Bay, South Georgia

no images were found

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

Humpback Whales

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Antarctica

 

Humpbacks Whales feeding

Another blog from my latest amazing trip to Antarctica, focussing on Humpback whales this time. You’ll be glad to know that there is less blood than in the previous post.

Humpback in front of a glacier

Having lived for a year on South Georgia, immersed in the depressing history of Antarctic whaling and the impact of humans on Baleen whales, it was amazing to sail through Antarctic waters and see first-hand how the whales are bouncing back. Sightings of baleen whales were frequent with the most common being  humpbacks: these majestic 36 tonne beasts were almost ubiquitous throughout, it was an absolute pleasure.

Fin whale over the continental shelf
Minke whale in the Weddell Sea

Almost without fail, by the time breakfast was served on board National Geographic Explorer, there had been a blow, or a sighting of the distinctive hump, or flukes of these animals.

Fluke and dorsal hump!

Possibly the best experience of my time on board came as the sun was setting on an already eventful day of killer whales and penguins. Stupidly thinking the excitement was over for the day, I retreated to my room in order to download a few photos, when the call of ‘feeding Humpbacks’ came out over the tannoy.

This is what I emerged on deck to see

As a kid, I read about bubble net feeding whales and had seen footage of it numerous times on David Attenborough documentaries. For those others who have seen this footage, you will understand why seeing this activity has been on my bucket list for years. However, travelling to Antarctica, I had no expectations of ticking this off the list, since it was my understanding that such behaviour had only been observed in Alaska!

Bubble net feeding is obviously a foraging method where the humpbacks blow clouds of bubbles around their prey at the surface. This traps the prey between the bubbles and the surface allowing the whales to swim up with their mouths open and take huge mouthfuls of prey. 

The video bwlow shows one of these events happening and you can see the bubbles at the surface before the humpbacks lunge through open-mouthed

Humpback whales that spend summers in the Antarctic, exploiting the rich cold waters, migrate north to spend the winters in the tropics around Costa Rica. Here, there is an overlap with the Northern Humpbacks that spend their summers in Alaska and migrate south also to Central American tropics. The hypothesis is that these Northern whales, having learnt and practiced the behaviour in Alaska, migrated south to Central America before continuing through to Antarctica.

More feeding

As a result, you now have whales practicing bubble net feeding in Antarctic waters. The humpbacks have uniquely marked flukes which allow them to be identified.

Markings on the flukes

Hopefully, the individuals we photographed in Antarctica will have been observed previously in the world and we will get a better understanding of how this behaviour has spread.

There were small groups of feeding whales all around

And when you get bored of the whales (as if!) the sunset and the ice aren’t too bad substitutes!

Sunset

Antarctica!

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Antarctica
National Geographic Explorer and a leopard seal during a zodiac cruise in Cierva Cove

Just a quck update from my latest travels. I am currently working as a Naturalist for National Geographic Expeditions. It has been my job to guide lucky passengers on board the National Geographic Explorer around the Antarctic wildlife.

One of the spectacular ice structures that scatter the Antarctic Ocean

During the past few weeks, I have been lucky enough to share the very best wildlife watching experiences in the world with these passengers as we navigate from South America, south through the Drake Passage as far as the Antarctic circle.

Sunset on the ice
Explorer guests look on across the sea ice

Highlights have been too numerous to list but amongst the latest to be ticked off the bucket list are seeing killer whales and emperor penguins, as well as watching humpback whales bubble feeding. On top of this, there were lots of penguins and stunning scenery – plus ca change!

Majestic looking Adelie penguin

When I return to better internet, I will endeavour to update my blog with more images and stories from these latest travels but for now, here is a selection of images so far!

The moment a leopard seal seizes a gentoo penguin off the coast of brown bluff
Not only were there hundreds of killer whales seen, there were the world’s leading scientists working on board
One of the hundreds of killer whale pictures I have taken during the past 3 weeks
Killer whale through the ocean

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

 

Greene Bay Adventure

This entry is part 20 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

This week it was time to go and check my Southern Giant Petrel chicks. This involved an overnight trip to the Greene Peninsula and a quick hike to Harpon. I am sure you will be glad to know that both colonies seemed to be doing well. There are lots of healthy looking chicks around, many of which are so large they can now protect themselves  – which means they have kicked both adults off the nest to forage!

Large Southern Giant Petrel Chick on the Greene Peninsula, South Georgia
Large Southern Giant Petrel Chick on the Greene Peninsula, South Georgia

Because there is only ever one adult on the nest, you don’t necessarily see both parents. So I was delighted to find two more white morph Southern Giant Petrels on the Greene, taking the total up to three.

White Morph Giant Petrel in flight over the Greene Peninsula
White Morph Giant Petrel in flight over the Greene Peninsula

Incidentally, did you know that the word petrel comes from Peter from the story of St Peter, who walked on the water, and it refers to their take-off strategy which involves running across the surface of the water.

White Morph Giant Petrel in flight in front of adult and chick on the Greene
Another White Morph Giant Petrel in flight, this time in front of an adult and chick on the Greene

After an evening of monitoring, we headed back to our accommodation (a tent for me) to rest up, have some food and take in the spectacular moon rise.

Moonrise over the Greene Peninsula
Moonrise over the Greene Peninsula

We awoke with big ambitions for the day and with the weather gods apparently smiling down on us, we set off along Morraine Fjord to the second Greene Giant Petrel colony.

View out of Moraine Fjord over an Elephant Seals back
View out of Moraine Fjord over an Elephant Seal’s back

This is a much smaller colony (only 20 birds), although seemingly just as successful, and in my opinion, the birds should pay extra for the view since it’s situated with the stunning backdrop of the Harker and Hamburg Glaciers!

Southern Giant Petrel in front of the Harker Glacier
Southern Giant Petrel in front of the Harker Glacier

With the work complete, we set off on a bid to circumnavigate the entire Greene Peninsula. Our first big climb was long and up horrible scree slopes but every time you gained height and turned around, you got progressively better views of the spectacular glaciers. The need to take almost the same picture time and time again as we climbed meant that the going was often slow but we eventually made it.

View across to the Harker Glacier from the Greene
View across to the Harker Glacier from the Greene
You can understand why we had to stop for lots of pictures... Stunning view of both Hamburg and Harker Glacier
You can understand why we had to stop for lots of pictures… Stunning view of both Hamburg and Harker Glacier

Once over the saddle and onto the east of the island, we lost the views of the Harker and Hamburg but it wasn’t long before we had the Nordenskjold glacier in our sights. The sheer size of this thing is mind-blowing. Flows of ice span as far as you can see from the surrounding hills down over the sea.

First views of the Nordenskjold Glacier with some numpty stood in the way!
Glorious view of the Nordenskjold Glacier with some numpty standing in the way!

As we clambered down to its edges, its size and colours became more and more impressive and as the sun weaved through the clouds and reflected through the ice, shades of blue I didn’t even know existed started to appear! Then, to top the experience off, a pair of snow petrels circled overhead before heading up into the mountains. As clichéd as it may sound, “magical” is the best word I can think of to describe the experience.

View across the Nordenskjold glacier to the sea
View across the Nordenskjold glacier to the sea
Glacier as far as you can see over the South Georgian Mountains
Glacier as far as you can see over the South Georgian Mountains

Taking our time to absorb all of the landscape, we slowly made our way down past ice caves and rock slides to the glacier’s face. A selection of wildlife awaited in the sea for calving ice to disturb prey species and aid foraging. This included several more Snow Petrel although, as per usual, they sat just out of good photo range. I need to have a word with their agent!

View of some scree covered ice caves at the Glaciers edge
Although they look like rock, these are actually ice caves at the glacier’s edge. The ice here has a thin coating of rocks and scree
Shades of blue -looking across the face of the Nordenskold Glacier
Shades of blue  – looking across the face of the Nordenskold Glacier

The final third of the walk involved scrambling over pebble beaches away from the Nordenskjold. Beaches tend to have the highest congregations of wildlife on South Georgia, meaning there were lots of opportunities to practice taking the perfect South Georgia shot: wildlife, glaciers, sea and mountains all in the frame and no need to use Photoshop!

Elephant Seals on the Greene Peninsula in front of the Nordenskjold Glacier
Elephant Seals on the Greene Peninsula in front of the Nordenskjold Glacier
Group of King Penguins on the Greene beach in front of the Nordenskjold glacier
Group of King Penguins on the Greene beach in front of the Nordenskjold glacier

Sadly every beach you visit around South Georgia, you are constantly reminded of the devastation that man can cause. Coastlines are scattered with the remains of the whales and seals which were harvested until near extinction.

The remains of a once majestic animal on the Greene beach
The remains of a once majestic animal on the Greene beach

Not wanting to end the blog on a low note, the trip had one last surprise, well in fact five of them. These came in the form of very obliging chinstrap penguins resting at various points along the Greene coastline. As per usual with ‘cuddly’ penguins, fighting and scrapping was observed but sadly, despite their best efforts, no flying.

Displaying Chinstrap Penguin on Greene beach
Displaying Chinstrap Penguin on Greene beach
Close up of a pair of Chinstrap Penguins on the beach
Close up of a pair of Chinstrap Penguins on the beach
Chinstrap penguins fighting as per usual
Chinstrap penguins fighting as per usual
Chinstrap Penguin attempting to 'fly'
Chinstrap Penguin attempting to ‘fly’

The work wasn’t completed there fortunately. The morning after my return from the Greene, myself and Lewis, the fisheries biologist here, set off for the Giant Petrel colony at Harpon. Last time we made the trip in deep snow and with company it took 4.5 hours, so we were ready for a long trek; but apparently we are both getting fitter because we were drinking tea in Harpon Hut 1 hour 50 mins later.

The Harpon colony is made up of 25 birds, which so far have a healthy productivity.

View from Echo Pass to the Neumayer Glacier and Harpon
View from Echo Pass to the spectacular Neumayer Glacier and Harpon
Southern Giant Petrel chick in front of the Lyell Glacier
Southern Giant Petrel chick in front of the Lyell Glacier