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

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

 

My role in South Georgia – Higher Predator Biologist

This entry is part 10 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

The currents and bathymetry (sea floor) of the seas surrounding South Georgia have resulted in large amounts of nutrients upwelling from the deeper oceans, causing an incredible richness in marine life. As with most rich biological resources around the world, there are great profits to be made from exploiting these. South Georgia has a history of extreme over-exploitation of these resources – especially sealing and later, whaling – from the beginning of the 20th century and Captain Cook first claimed it for Britain in 1775. After this, fish populations were heavily hit by overfishing during the 1970s.

Grytviken whaling station - the large metal vats are where the oil from the whales was stored
Grytviken whaling station – the large metal vats are where the oil from the whales was stored – gives you an idea of how many whales were being slaughtered

A large proportion of South Georgia’s income is still from fishing with its only other income coming from tourism so they have realised it is in their interest to ensure that that the fish populations are conserved.

Cold water species tend to have very long life cycles, grow slowly, have relatively low fecundity (the ability to produce large numbers of young) and reach sexual maturity very late. This means that fishing irresponsibly for one year could easily result in the loss of the fishery for the next 50 years, with recovery rates being very slow and sometimes irreversible.

In order to prevent this happening, the South Georgia Government have invested large amounts of money and research into the setting up of self-sustaining fishery, where the ecosystem is managed and researched as a whole, and where money made from the fishery is used to invest in the policing of fishing as well as research into the broader effects of fishing on the environment.

Food chains are extremely complex things and hard to fully understand. However, monitoring of key predators within them can give a good indication as to the health of lower levels in the same food chain. This is why, in South Georgia, the fisheries are researched and overseen, as well as the higher predators. This is  where I come in: I work intensively with the Antarctic Fur Seals and Gentoo Penguins because they feed almost exclusively on krill, which is at the centre of most Antarctic food chains. I also observe  the behaviour of giant petrel and albatross.

Gentoo Penguin adjusting eggs into brood pouch
Gentoo Penguin adjusting eggs into brood pouch

The main focus of my job is to work with these top predators at an area of the island called Maiviken. I have to visit my study site every other day during the summer period here and take pictures of the fur seal colonies. The aim of this is to allow us to understand more about the build up of the colonies during the breeding season and also understand how successful the colonies are.

Male Antarctic Fur seal at waters edge
Male Antarctic Fur seal at waters edge

On top of this, we also look closely at the development of the pups and chicks by weighing them at various stages because growth rates relate back to how successfully the adults are fishing, which in turn indicates the health of the ecosystem.

Pretty Cute.... An Antarctic Fur Seal pup peering through the tussock grass
Pretty Cute…. An Antarctic Fur Seal pup peering through the tussock grass

We also study the diet of these predators through analysing their scats (poo) as this gives us a good indication as to what species in the food chain are thriving and which species may be struggling. For example, if we only find adult krill in the seal’s scats then this suggests that there has been no recruitment of young krill into the population and that there could be a problem in the ecosystem.