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

Gold Harbour

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.

Gold Harbour home to Bertrab Glacier and a few penguins

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.

Kings making their way to sea

One of the many things that make this site stunning is the Bertrab Glacier, which hangs over the colony.

King standing tall in front of the Bertrab Glacier
The sunrises at gold are ridiculous as are the frequent rainbows
More Kings

During spring the beaches are covered by harems of Elephant seals which push the colony back into the tussock.

Elephant seals in the morning sun
Young beachmaster checking out the competition – the weather can change within a second from snow to sun to rain.
Calm before the storm

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.

Battle of the giants
Sleeping beauty
Beach littered with elephant seals and penguins trying to navigate the maze

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.

Not quite as dramatic when the youngsters fight
But seemingly just as exhausting

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.

Antarctic Fur Seals can be found on just about every South Georgia beach and Gold Harbour is no exception
Gentoo penguin trying to blend in with the crowd

Wherever there are penguins and seal colonies, predators and scavengers are never too far away

Brown skua looking for a space to land in the colony
Skua in the morning light
The beaches can be quite exposed and landings aren’t always easy for our Zodiac boats or the penguins

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 only you could smell them!

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.

Sunrise on the Bertrab glacier

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.

Young fur seal with fishing material around its neck

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

Salisbury Plain

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.

Not a bad sight to wake up to. First light uncovered a snow-coated Salisbury Plain. At dawn, King Penguins already spanned from the shore all the way up the hillside. As the day progressed waves of adults joined the colony from the Southern Ocean.
View of the ship from the landing
Thousands of King Penguins covering Salisbury Plain

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. 

All four seasons were experienced throughout the landing with brief spells of snow followed by beautiful sunshine.
Warming up after the snow
Early travellers thought that these woolly penguins AKA Oakum Boys, were a completely different species than the adults

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.

Adult leading its chick through the snow in search of shelter
The snow got worse before it got better
Chicks were left covered in snow when the sun came out again
Covered in snow
Bracing from the snow
Sun shining on the colony within a few minutes of a blizzard

The cold was obviously too much for this penguin who couldn’t stop sneezing! 

Creching for shelter
Chicks without parents huddled together in order keep warm

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.

The majority of the chicks on the colony to have made it this far were looking in good condition and will soon be melting into their juvenile coat
Fat and ready to moult
Basking in the brief moment of sunshine
As the snow came down again and the feeling in my hands finally disappeared completely, we headed back to the ship

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! 

View of the colony from the warmth of the ship
Albatross over the ocean as we navigated out of the Bay Of Isles around the stunning South Georgia coastline

The island is home to millions of birds including ten of thousands of Black Browed Albatross which thrive in these windy conditions.

Black Browed Albatross soaring close to the ocean in a localised patch of calm

San Pedro and Bolivian Salt Flats

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Travelling South America
Salt flats covered in water

If you ever get the chance to visit here, DO! 

Luna Valley, San Pedro

Having taken a 23 hour bus from Santiago to San Pedro, I arrived as the sunset over the Atacama desert. Even with the lights of San Pedro, the sky was filled with stars. 

Moonlit sky over San Pedro

San Pedro isn’t the cheapest place to stay because it is located in the middle of the desert and  surrounded by so many tourist attractions, hostels can afford to up their prices. However, whatever you pay, the cost is worth it. The town in very small and basic, with the majority of the buildings in the centre used by the 40+ tour agencies selling exactly the same trips. Although this choice of agencies can be slightly frustrating, it does present a great opportunity for haggling. 

Mountains rising above the ‘main’ street

San Pedro is one of the starting towns for the expeditions across the Bolivian Salt flats. The other options involve starting in Uyuni or Tupiza. The Tupiza option involves a lot of additional driving.

With the surrounding environment of San Pedro being very similar to that over the Bolivian borders. Many of the San Pedro day trips, visit very similar sites to those included in the Salt flat tour. Whilst in San Pedro, I opted for the Valle De Luna tour which takes you to several different stunning landscapes on the Chilean salt flats before finishing at Luna Valley for sunset. 

Las tres Marias
Licancabur volcano
Moulded by the wind over the years

Other trips offered in San Oedro include various astronomy tours to view the spectacular night skies, early morning visits to the worlds largest Geyser field, Sandboarding, and trips into the Atacama desert to see its lakes and weird geological formations. 

Geyser

Whilst the Atacama desert will wow you, the Bolivian Salt flats will absolutely blow you away. The tour involves a lot of time within the car, but stops are frequent and each is as spectacular as the next. 

James flamingos at Laguna Colorada

The three day/two night salt flat tour includes a visit to a small geyser field with magma pools as well as a number of weird and wonderful rock formations located in the vast desert. 

Geothermal pools
Valle de rocas
Laguna Negra
Camel Rock

Another stunning location is the Anaconda Valley, which offers vast views over a small canyon which hosts a slithering green river.

Anaconda Valley

There are also great opportunities to get up close and personal with the local Lamas and, if you’re lucky, they will have been dressed up by locals. Don’t get too close though, the farmers may get angry and the lamas may spit!

Lama fancy dress

The tour includes stops at various multicoloured lakes. These are coloured as a result of the minerals and sometimes bacteria found within them.

Laguna Blanca
Laguna Verde
Laguna Colorada
Flamingo on Laguna Colorada

Most spectacular of all comes on the final day when you make it to the true salt flats, for sunrise. I was lucky enough to time my visit in early April meaning that there was residual water from the wet season. This meant I had the chance for the sky, reflection pictures that everyone wants.

Pre sunrise
Pre sunrise reflections
Reflections on the salt flats
Sunrise
Stunning pastel colours
Almost as awesome in daylight

The rainy season on the flats comes in February and March, so views like this are almost guarenteed at this time of year. However, if there is too much water, many vehicles struggle to make it through the flats to other promised destinations. By timing your trip for the end of the wet season is you get the best of both! Wet ones allowing for reflection pictures and dry ones allowing for the also cliche perspective pictures.

Crushed by a giant foot
Dry salt flats

Before the tour drops you off in Uyuni ready for a warm shower, there is time for visits to a Salt museum, Artisanal market and the train graveyard. 

National flags outside the salt museum
One of the more modern looking trains at the train graveyard (courtesy of graffiti)
Old car at the artisanal market

If you’re interested, I paid 95,000 Chilean pesos for a 3 day trip which included all food and accommodation (one night in a salt hostel), local guide (only spoke Spanish). I also opted to pay the 5,000 extra so that I could pay by credit card. This means if there were any problems I could withdraw the payment. 

Morning silhouettes

For anyone taking this trip I would recommend taking something to protect your face from the dust which, even with the windows closed, can be brutal at times. Also pack lots of warm clothes as early starts expose you to sub zero temperatures before the desert warms up for the day!

Kick about at one of the lunch stops

For more images from the Bolivian Salt Flats check out my album

no images were found

And The Rest…..

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Antarctica
First Year Ice in the Weddel Sea

Something that surprised me about my recent visit to the Antarctic Peninsula was that the ice was equally as impressive as the Killer Whales, Leopard Seals and the Humpbacks.

Incredible Ice Statues
Sunset

Nothing can prepare you for the different shades of blue captured within these floating structures and the size of the slabs is simply staggering! 

50 Shades of blue
Drifting Iceberg
Icy reflections
Spectacular Glacier
Still seas approaching the Antarctic Circle
Inspecting the sea ice
Kelp Gulls at sunset
Recently rolled iceberg

Fortunately conditions allowed us to make it south past the Antarctic circle!

Sea ice thickening

And if the Ice isn’t enough the landscape and mountains ain’t half bad either!

Gentoos awaiting the incoming storm
Neko Harbour
Its not just blue you see
Antarctic Landscapes

Its been a while since I posted pictures of my penguin friends so here are a few of my favourites from the Peninsula where I was finally able to see the Holy Grail of Penguin species; The Emperor Penguin. As well as all three species of brush tail, magellanic and rockhopper.

Adelie Penguin taking in the views
Gentoo bracing against the storm with the National Geographic Explorer in the background
Chinstrap standing tall
Lonely Emperor Penguin

For more images check out my two Antarctic Galleries….

no images were found

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

Leopard Seal Vs Gentoo Penguin

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Antarctica

CAUTION: “Nature red in tooth and claw” warning.

This post contains graphic pictures which some readers may find disturbing.

Leopard Seal vs Gentoo Penguin

My recent trip to Antarctica had many incredible highlights. I was lucky enough to see a ridiculous amount of wildlife with many memorable encounters.

National Geographic Explorer and a leopard seal during a zodiac cruise in Cierva Cove

Leopard seals are number two in the Antarctic food chain, second only to killer whales. The majority of sightings are very relaxed with these seemingly lazy animals apparently spending most of their lives hauled out on ice flows, relaxing and sleeping.

Very relaxed
Chilling

These sightings are great because they give you an opportunity to see clearly the markings which make each individual distinctive and identifiable; they also allow you to see the size of the animal, which can often be difficult when they are in the water.

Leopard seal relaxing

Female leopard seals can reach 5 metres in length. They are generalist predators and will feed on whatever is locally abundant, including krill, other species of seals and penguins. I visited Brown Bluff on the Antarctic continent twice within the space of 10 days. During my first visit, the few leopard seals we encountered had been feeding on krill, 10 days later the story was very different.

Penguin on the menu

With Gentoo and Adelie penguin chicks both beginning to explore the shallow waters, local leopard seal observations were much higher as they were sighted patrolling ice floes and shallows for penguins.

Young Gentoos in the shallows

From ashore, it was incredible to see these animals pursue penguins through the shallows at great speeds for their next meal. The amount of kills and hunts observed by all on board was staggering.

Leopard seal checking out a potential meal

As we headed back to the ship in the Zodiac, we came across a hunting leopard seal and decided it would be rude not to see what happened next …

So close

The attack, although spectacular and very interesting, was very depressing to watch as the leopard seal played with its prey for a considerable amount of time before finally opting to eat,

Leopard seal with prey

Leopard seals use the friction of throwing animals against the water to open up their prey and rip bite-sized chunks of meat off the penguin.

Leopard seal carnage at Brown Bluff
Once dismantling commenced, the penguin was consumed very quickly
Ripping the penguin apart
Dinner time

All for a bite of food

Mouthful of penguin
The carnage continues
Very efficient

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

Carnage!

This entry is part 1 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

WARNING!

NOT FOR THE FAINT-HEARTED.

PLEASE DON’T CONTINUE READING

THIS POST IF YOU ARE AT ALL SQUEAMISH.

Giant Petrels scavenging
Giant Petrels scavenging on an Elephant Seal

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.

Covered in blood!

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.

Fighting for a place at the dinner table

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.

Giant Petrel Displaying
Tail Fanned in display

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.

Low Blow
Fighting besides the BBQ

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.

Angry prehistoric looking birds
Almost Velocoraptor like
They do it on the water to!
Brutal birds!

South Georgia for Kids!!!!

This entry is part 44 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

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