Sadly my time on South Georgia is coming to a close. The time has absolutely flown by and I have well and truly fallen in love with the island and its incredible wildlife. With the breeding season and my workload starting to increase, I managed to wangle one last non-scientific holiday and made the long hike over to St Andrews Bay to one of the most incredible wildlife congregations this planet has to offer.
Having had an uncharacteristically warm September, I booked the time off with high hopes of easy hiking and blue skies. Sadly this wasn’t the case but when you come to South Georgia you can’t complain. The walk over was easy, certainly, with mild conditions allowing us to make it over in four hours and get into the colonies for the afternoon. Luckily we took advantage of this and enjoyed the only clear skies we were going to get for the week!
It was amazing to see such a massive change in the dynamic of the Bay. Hungry chicks dominated the main breeding colonies, magnificently outnumbering the few providing parents. The few gaps in the colonies were covered in unfortunate chicks that sadly didn’t make it through the harsh South Georgia Summer. The rivers and lakes which had run through the colony on my last visit were now melted and flowing.
The outskirts of the Bay were completely covered with non-breeding, moulting King Penguins – staying well away from the noise of the main colony. Many adults had ventured more than a mile inland to stand on the cool of the glaciers. By far the most significant change came along the beach front. Where months previously I had taken pictures of thousands of King Penguins lining the shore a much larger South Georgia native had now taken up residence there. More than 5,000 Elephant Seals covered the beach, obstructing the poor penguins’ route up to the higher breeding ground.
After a tip-off from our Doctor and Base Commander, who had visited a few weeks previously, we left the main colony for a rocky peninsula to the north of the Bay. As we passed the streams of clumsy Kings crossing the tidal pools going the opposite way to us, we noticed a number of injured penguins, suggesting that the tip-off had been good.
As we stepped out onto the rocks and peered down into the deep, we were greeted by a number of inquisitive eyes checking us out. In total, there were eight leopard seals all waiting close to the rocks and kelp, looking to ambush any passing King Penguins.
Within seconds of arriving, we spotted thrashing offshore as a hungry leopard seal tore apart an unfortunate King Penguin. In total, across the few hours spent at the point, I saw seven successful kills including three simultaneously. Nature, red in tooth and claw …
And the reason so many penguins manage to escape is because the leopard seals love to play with their food, often catching it several times and letting it go before finally killing it.
At one point, I was amazed to see a number of young Fur Seals cleaning themselves in the waters within a couple of metres of two big Leopard Seals and assumed that, with such abundant harmless prey in the form of King Penguins, the Leopard Seals didn’t bother the Fur Seals. However, it turned out the Fur Seals simply hadn’t spotted the Leopard Seals yet since they were soon making the 2 metre leap from the sea to the relative safety of the rocks.
As the light faded and the visibility reduced,we headed back to our hut for a dinner of military ration packs and an early night – the alarm was set for 05.30.
As I awoke, I was extremely happy to see bright white coming through the windows and eagerly got out of bed. I opened the door … to discover that what I thought was bright sunshine was actually a thick layer of snow! Still, since I was now up, I decided I may as well get my Antarctic Hero gear on and brave the conditions. Although the visibility wasn’t obviously bad, the fresh falling snow accompanied by the evaporation off the elephant seals backs obstructed any wide-shots I attempted, so I headed back to the Kings.
The winter is the hardest part of the season for the King chicks. Between April and October, some of the chicks will only be fed a couple of times, going as long as four months without a parental visit – Social Services would definitely not approve! It also means that it’s not uncommon to be followed around the colonies by a group of hungry chicks trying their luck. I managed to resist since I was running low on their preferred lantern fish.
You can’t blame the adults for making themselves scarce – the few chicks lucky enough to have parents around were extremely high maintenance, always begging for their next meal.
No matter what was going on on the beach, no matter what the weather was doing and no matter what dangerous obstacles needed passing, the stream of King adults kept coming, with numbers within the breeding colony increasing every day. Pretty impressive, all things considered.
The BAS team based here has now dropped to 7 and it’s a long time since we last saw real people! To stop us going crazy, we have to keep ourselves entertained. As a marine biologist, my favourite pastime would be talking to the animals, but apart from the occasional seal, base is fairly barren of wildlife so we have to find other ways to keep busy.
Luckily, we have lots of snow at the moment so there are opportunities to get out on the hill and ski. Its not quite the same as your standard resort skiing since in order to ski down a hill, you must first ski up it because we have very few chairlifts. Well, none at all, actually.
Also there are no piste bashers to compact the snow, meaning that even on skis, it’s not uncommon to sink several inches beneath the surface, making falls frequent but landings comfy.
As well as talking to seals and ski-ing, we also we take it in turns every Saturday to provide food and sometimes entertainment for everyone on base. So far this month we have had a Glastonbury themed evening, where we dressed like hippies and watched the downloaded Glasto highlights. We have also had a pizza and quiz night.
Sometimes the entertainment isn’t thought up within station. Two weekends ago, we participated in the Antarctic 48 Hour Film Competition. This was first thought up by an American base and allows us to compete against all the other bases around the Antarctic continent.
The competition starts with an email on the Friday evening which contains a list of various items to incorporate into a 5 minute film. You then have until 0000 Sunday night to write, film, direct and edit your film, and , if you feel confident enough, to submit it for viewing around the Antarctic.
The film is then judged by your peers based on the acting, filmography and editing, and winners are announced. Having sat through 22 different entries, I was incredibly impressed by the overall standard and creativity, although that can’t be said about every entry! Ours this year was a soof 1970s cop show and was voted as second best overall. If you want to make your own follow this link …. 48 hour film link
We also have a very well equipped workshop and the experienced people here have been happy to show me around the machinery, meaning I have been able to improve both metalwork and woodwork skills.
We are also spending lots of time training ourselves on the use of the fine South Georgia fleet so that Russ, our boating officer, feels confident enough to go on holiday!
In other news, we had a 7.4 earthquake at the weekend. I am told that base shook considerably and it awoke several members of the team. But apparently, I am a very deep sleeper!
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
Well, the Pharos Fisheries Patrol Vessel made a visit this week and made two incredibly important deliveries to the base! First of all was Her Royal Highness, Princess Anne and her accompanying party of VIPs. A thoroughly enjoyable day was had by all and thanks to the planning of our Government Officers we managed to make it through without any mishaps! It is always very exciting to discuss the work we do here with people who are knowledgeable and interested.
The second important “delivery” for me, though, came in the form of an amazing batch of handmade postcards from Wood Farm Primary School in Oxford. Firstly, thank you all for the remarkable effort you have put into the making of the postcards. I don’t know who you got to take the pictures but they must be very talented. Secondly, I hear you all had a very successful performance of Robin Hood over the Christmas period, so congratulations!
I will do my best to reply to your postcards when I can. But for now I decided to dedicate an entire blog post to you guys and your questions. I’d also like to compliment you all on your phenomenal handwriting and interesting questions. So here goes …
David, Neha, Zidane and Kaysian (Maid Marian) – How have you been doing in the Antarctic?
I am doing really well down here. It is very weird living on an island where the animals outnumber the humans by so many but I absolutely love it. I originally came down here to get away from my mum’s nagging to do the washing up but my base commander is just as persistant.
Poppy – How was your journey?
My journey down here was amazing. It was calm on the whole and we saw thousands of birds, including lots of Albatross. We also saw dolphins and the blow of lots of whales.
Alfie (archer) – Have you seen any whales, sharks or fish?
We have indeed. We saw a number of whale blows on the journey down here and have had humpback whales in the bay. Unfortunately, we don’t get any shark sightings down here but if you see later, I have uploaded a picture I took whilst in the Galapagos of a Hammerhead. The sea here is full of fish and as a result is home to one of the most sustainably run fisheries in the world.
Thomas – Did you see a baby seal come out of its egg?
Sorry, no, Thomas. The main reason for this is that seals are mammals and therefore give birth to live baby seals rather than laying eggs. Here is a short video I put together of the baby seals (only a few weeks old) practicing to swim in the shallow waters of Maiviken.
Billy – Do you take any breaks on the 14km walk to Maiviken?
Not always, but there is a lovely hut on the way which overlooks a lake and sometimes I stop there for a cup of tea and a chocolate bar!
Kenzie, George (the archer in the school play) and Liam – Have you seen any new animals?
Almost all of the animals I have seen here are new for me. I have always wanted to see a Wandering Albatross and now I have!
Danny – What is the weather like there?
The weather should be warm here now as it is summer. However this season, conditions have been poor with strong winds (70mph), heavy snow (nearly a foot in a day) and temperatures rarely making it above 0 degrees.
Kyle 2 (the singer not actor) – What is it like when you meet a blondie?
It’s great when you see a blondie. It is always great to see something rare and unexpected. Because they are so uncommon, you get to know each of their personalities.
Blake – How cold is the water and can the animals feel it?
The water temperature varies between 0 and 5 degrees around the islands but a lot of the animals will go even further south and be feeding in -2 degrees. They have many adaptations that allow them to stay warm in the water such as thick fur or feathers and lots of fat. Large amounts of fat also make it easier for the animals to float making swimming easier.
Reece – Have there been any injuries yet?
There most definitely have! Unfortunately, we have had five medical evacuations so far this season (4 tourists, 1 staff). One suffered such a severe seal bite that the helicopter had to meet the boat to get the casualty back to hospital in time
Jenilsia– What is your favourite place and food?
My three favourite places in the world apart from here are the Farne Islands in Northumberland, The Galapagos, and The Pantanal in Brazil. My favourite food is Nutella!
Savannah– Which Part of Antarctica are you in?
I am on South Georgia, a Sub-Antarctic Island in the Southern Ocean.
Ayesha (soldier) – Do common dolphins swim where you stay?
We have many species of marine mammals around the islands but common dolphins tend to be found in warmer waters, north of here. However, there may be some sightings in the Southern Ocean from time to time.
Maariah– Have you seen any Pandas?
Just like you, I love Pandas, and I wish there were some here. However, there is unfortunately no bamboo here for them to feed on. Pandas tend to live in the mountain ranges of Eastern Asia.
Eugenia– Do you like living there?
I love living here. It is very different from England. There is no traffic to wake you up in the morning (although the seals do just as good a job!)
Poppy (narrator of the school play) – Have you seen Santa’s workshop?
I haven’t, I’m afraid. I haven’t been in touch with Santa recently but last I heard he was living in Lapland which is in the Arctic. I hear you were all very good and he brought you presents to school!
Ellie, Zidane, Danny, Elliot and Kieran– What is your favourite animal you have seen? And why?
Every day here, my favourite animal changes. I think that Snow Petrels are stunning birds and very mysterious in the way they appear out of nowhere and just as quickly vanish. But I love the personality and aggression of the Antarctic Fur Seals the most. Working with these guys every day is an absolute pleasure.
Kyle – Have you been doing anything exciting?
Every day I do something exciting here! My work is amazing, I get to be outdoors most of the time and see lots of really cool animals. And if I get bored of the animals, then I just start a snow fight! In the winter when I have more free time and there is more snow then I can ski right out from base.
Wuraola– Is there any food?
Fortunately, we have lots of food here. When we first arrived a huge ship came in full of lots of supplies for the year. We also get the Fisheries Patrol Vessel every 6 weeks which brings us supplies of fresh fruit and veg. We are however restricted to 3 chocolate bars a month and the milk is powdered so the tea tastes horrible!
Lleyton– Could you send me a picture of you next to a seal? – Could I have your autograph?
I will see if I can sort a postcard just for you mate!
Alexzandra – How many species of animal did you see in your entire life?
Too many to count. I have been very lucky to visit lots of incredible places for work and pleasure during my life and have encountered thousands of different species in Africa, Europe, Central and South America and now here.
Tanvir, Joel (one of the outlaws) and Kaysian (Maid Marian)– Have you found any interesting animals?
All the animals are interesting in their own right. When you work with animals every day, you see more and more interesting behaviours. Yesterday I spent almost 2 hours watching the fur seal pups chasing the Gentoo Penguins around the beach!
Another time, I spent an entire day in a Macaroni Penguin colony and don’t think I could get bored of watching these feisty penguins scrapping with each other!
Kyle 2 (the singer not actor)– Can you put a picture of a shark on your blog?
Here is a picture of a shark. It is not taken around South Georgia as we have very few species here and they are only found in the deep sea. Also we can’t dive here, so we would have to catch them to see them.
Sumayah – Did you sail or fly on an aeroplane there?
To arrive here, I had to take a plane to the Falklands Islands before sailing for 5 days on a ship.
Charlene– What are you bursting to see next?
The animals I would love to see more than anything down here are Orcas and Leopard Seals. Sightings of both are much more frequent during the winter here so I have all my fingers and toes crossed that, before I leave, I will have seen these.
Eugenia, Aaliyah and Dajah–How many species of animal did you see during work?
I have seen three species of seal, four species of penguin, two species of dolphin, two of whale, four species of albatross and lots and lots of bird species.
Ayesha– Can you post a picture of a Leopard Seal?
Unfortunately, I have not seen a Leopard Seal yet. They tend to spend our winter around the islands feeding on penguins and young seals. During the summer, they breed on the main Antarctic Peninsula on the pack ice.
Elliot – Have you seen any icebergs yet?
Yes, although so far they have been small. By April, we should be seeing much larger bergs off the continent. Some of these are as wide as the island (40km) and can be seen from space.
Maariah– Are you home yet?
I am still on South Georgia but I will come and see you guys when I am back.
Liam – Have you seen any icebergs falling down?
I have been lucky enough to see glaciers falling down (or “calving”) here. It is a spectacular sight with so much noise.
Jenilsia– Do you really love penguins?
How could I not love penguins?! They are unbelievably agile and efficient in the water and so comical and aggressive out of it.
Poppy – What happened to the baby Elephant Seal?
We successfully managed to lift the rock and rubble from on top of the seal. It had a few scrapes but he was soon sitting happily back in the shallows.
Billy – When you go near the animals, do any of them run away?
It is extremely important that we don’t cause the animals to run away. At this time of year especially, when the animals are breeding, it is important that the animals don’t exert any more energy than is necessary. Animals are scared of us so we must not approach them too close unless we really have to (like with the baby elephant seal in Poppy’s question).
Kenzie – Is it really cold there because it doesn’t look like it in the pictures?
It is very cold, especially at night. I try not to take my camera out when the weather is really bad in case it breaks, and I take lots of pictures when the weather is nice. It is not uncommon in the winter for temperaturs to be below -15 degrees and it is very rare for winds to be calm, so far the strongwest winds I have experienced have been 70mph. If both of these happen at the same time the wind chill would reduce the temperature to below -35.
Reece– Have you been chased by any animals?
Both the elephant seals and the Antarctic Fur seals have hareems, which they are very defensive of. A hareem is a group of females that the male is in charge of protecting. In Antarcitic Fur Seals this is usually between 5-15. For Elephant Seals, the dominant male (AKA Beachmaster) can have up to 100 females in his hareem. Sometimes for my work, it is necessary for me to walk through the hareems and the males will often chase me out the other side!
Savannah– Have you seen many animals?
I have seen thousands of animals. The islands are very different to England, though. In England, you have high species diversity (lots of different species) with often low abundance (fewer individuals). In South Georgia, we have only a few species but we have thousands of them. There are approximately 4 million Antarctic Fur Seals alone here!
Neha– Have you seen any interesting birds?
I have seen lots of amazing birds. Did you know that we only have one songbird (garden bird that sings) here? All of the others live most of the time at sea and only come to land to breed. Because the weather is very cold and windy here, all of the birds have to have lots of adaptations to help them survive The Brown Skuas in particular are extremely interesting. Everywhere you see them, they occupy a slightly different niche based on their surroundings. They are extremely intelligent animals.
Kyle – Are you coming back for Christmas?
It takes me a long time to get any post (like your cards) here, so we’re way past Christmas now and, as you are probably aware, still down in the Antarctic. What is worse is that I had to work all through Christmas. Science never sleeps!
Wuraola – Where are you living at the moment?
If you look at my Life on Base blog, you can see what my base looks like. I am living on a small sub-Antarctic island in the middle of the Southern Ocean called South Georgia!
Aaliyah– Would you please put a picture up of you?
Since you asked so nicely!
Thank you again for all your interesting and thoughtful postcards. Reading them really has put a smile on everyone’s face here in the Antarctic. We would love to hear more from you guys! In the mean time keep on working hard and behaving for your teachers or you will end up on the naughty step …
Wardens spend the last 3 months of the year immersed within the seal colonies. Since the last visitors land on the islands at the end of September, some might consider that this gives wardens a degree of freedom. However the departure of the last visitor boats coincides with the more extreme seas and as a result the small speedboats belonging to us are limited to small sheltered trips between islands, leaving wardens cut off from the mainland. Wardens rely on larger boats to drop off supplies of, drinking water and gas and utilise every day of flat sea to pick up supplies and grab a quick shower. It is not uncommon that these flat sea days are separated by weeks. Unfortunately these showerless spells overlap with the most intense and physically demanding workload and as a result the seals must cope with smelly wardens.
The grey seal population on the Farne Islands is the longest studied in the world. Wardens enter the colonies, which are mainly spread around the outer group of islands, in order to study population trends and pup survival rate. Every time we enter the colony, we spray the back fins of the newly born seals with a coloured dye, taking note of how many we have sprayed. We then return with a different colour, a few days later, and note how many newborns there are, whilst also counting how many of the first coloured pups are remaining. Since the pups moult their fur prior to entering the sea for the first time, the dye does not affect these animals.
Sounds simple! Seals breed across the outer groups at very high densities with over 1500 pups been born annually. It is necessary to get very close to animals when spraying them in order to ensure only the hind fins are sprayed. Along with the fact that female seals can be very protective of their pups this makes life very tricky for wardens. It is especially important that great care is taken during this work for many reasons. Firstly if you fall or a seal bites you and the weather is bad you’re going to need the help of the RNLI to get you back to mainland. As well as the obvious risks of being bitten by seals (it really hurts), seals carry a form of bacteria in their mouths which can be very harmful to human flesh, causing it to rot. Historically the treatment for seal finger was amputation. It is now much easier to treat but still much better to avoid.
Close Up Picture Of A Bull Seal
Another part of our work which wardens would rather not have to carry out is the removal of marine debris from these incredible animals. With all the animals coming up onto the tops of the islands you start to notice various items caught around the necks of the seals. Such examples are, fishing line which people have cut loose, lobster pots that fishermen have cut lose and marine debris such as the millions of balloons that are released annually ending up in the seas. It is especially important with growing animals (young seals and pregnant cows) that this is removed as soon as possible in order to prevent suffocation and reduce the damage to skin. See below for one unfortunate young seal whom had managed to get caught with a balloon and its associated ribbon around its neck. Fortunately, with the help of the SMRU, we were able to catch this individual remove the balloon and release it successfully but not all these stories have happy endings.