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.
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.
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.
The cold was obviously too much for this penguin who couldn’t stop sneezing!
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.
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!
The island is home to millions of birds including ten of thousands of Black Browed Albatross which thrive in these windy conditions.
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
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.
In the last three days I have seen four more leopard seals, taken the RIB south to St Andrews Bay (where we watched a leopard seal tear apart a king penguin) and spent the night at Maiviken, where we watched at least 1000 Gentoo Penguins returning to South Georgia for the night …. Life is hard!
With news of a second lep sighting at Grytviken coming in the final minutes of light of the day, I set my alarm early and made my way over for first light hoping she hadn’t slugged off in the night in order to get more pictures for the rapidly growing leopard seal database.
Thankfully my efforts were not in vain!
I quickly headed back to base to complete my morning rounds and get ready for a day of boating – but not before taking a quick shot of the Pharos alongside before a patrol.
Next on the agenda was kitting up the boats and getting away, with St Andrews our next destination in order to re-supply the huts with food and medical gear. Unfortunately, the visit had to be very quick but, as regular readers will know, on South Georgia, a lot can happen in a short amount of time!
Upon landing we were greeted by a cloud of hungry Giant Petrels who are resident around the King Penguins. I caught a flash of yellow disappearing towards the sea and was able to get a couple of record shots of a yellow Darvic on the leg of a giant petrel, most probably from Bird Island.
Time didn’t allow me to reach the main King Penguin colony and check up on the chicks but there were a few Kings on the beach near where we landed, along with St Andrews latest occupants … Elephant Seals.
As we lifted the anchor, a very inquisitive leopard seal came to check us out. Unfortunately, my hands were full of anchor so no pictures were possible before it got bored of us and headed off. As we headed back to sea with Hound Bay our next destination, I clocked a congregation of Cape Petrels in the distance and headed towards it. Being in contact with our colleagues at Bird Island, I hear tales of leopard seal attacks and had subsequently added observing a kill, hopefully, to my bucket list.
As we approached, all that was clear was that something was being thrown around in the water by a dark shadow.
Unfortunately, the poor light and swell were enough to make focusing on the action very difficult, so the pictures aren’t much more than record shots but it was an incredible spectacle.
Due to a thick band of incoming fog, we couldn’t stay with the kill for long and were soon on our way north again to Hound Bay, where we were greeted by yet another leopard seal trying to hide itself amongst all the elephant seals.
We did get one last look at the South Georgia landscape before we were engulfed by fog for the duration of our trip back to Maiviken, where we were dropped off for the night.
Gentoo Penguins opt to return to the South Georgian shores every evening to roost, unlike other SG Penguins, even outside the breeding season. As we sat on the shore waiting for the sun to set, sipping mulled wine, we had hoped to see good numbers of Gentoos but we didn’t expect quite as many as we got!
For the first time this year, the Gentoos were observed making their way up past their usual roost site all the way up to their breeding colony, suggesting that we may well have an early breeding season this year.
Whilst the majority of the gentoos opted for the large open section of Tortula Beach, not all picked the same route
With last year being a spectacular breeding failure for the Gentoos, we are hoping for a more fruitful season this year.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This time, checking on the King Penguin colony at Hound Bay, assisting the government checking for presence of rats and Southern Giant Petrel Fledgling counts….
The King Penguins at Hound Bay have historically been the subject of many tracking projects. This is mainly due to its easy access and manageable colony size. It is difficult carrying out studies like this in larger colonies like St Andrews (600,000 king penguins) and Salisbury Plain (50,000) since finding the same penguins and retrieving the equipment can be incredibly difficult.
This season a total of 68 King Chicks were counted with a number of fledglings also present around the colony, suggesting continued success here. This information is really important as it means, hopefully, the tracking studies can continue.
Hound Bay is the most accessible of the successful King Colonies from King Edward Point. It is still a 16km round trip, meaning I had a great excuse for a night off base. This also meant I got to see Hound Bay at both sunset and sunrise!
Walking on South Georgia is rarely simple but when you are walking alongside incredible scenery like this it is easy to forget about the terrain. The Nordenskjold is 3km wide and worryingly, like all the southern hemisphere’s glaciers, it is receding at an alarming rate, meaning the generations after us won’t get to see such spectacular sights.
More spectacular South Georgian scenery on the Barff Peninsula …
On the way back from Hound, I helped the South Georgia Government checking wax tags. These are posts which have peanut butter flavoured wax blocks on them and which smell and taste great to rats – when a rat nibbles on them, it leaves tooth prints. We have thankfully, successfully eradicated rats on South Georgia but we have to be ever-vigilant for any signs of their return and it is vital to monitor for presence in order to ensure any accidental re-introductions can be dealt with swiftly.
It was then time to weigh all the fledgling southern giant petrel chicks before they headed to sea for the winter. Many of the birds were still showing downy feathers, meaning that they are now competing in a race against time, with much poorer, colder conditions already starting to batter the islands
Giant Petrels may not be the most beautiful birds but they are incredible. Seeing these prehistoric birds up close is an absolute privilege. Unfortunately, they don’t feel the same about us, and their bills and claws provide sufficient tools for making handling difficult and sometimes painful!
Out of the 120 Giant Petrels we monitored we had two white morph ‘spirit’ Giant Petrels. Its hard not to discriminate when they look so amazing!
Welcome to another week in the life of a British Antarctic Survey scientist! This week’s events include Oil Spill and X Ray training and, with it being an international weekend in the football calendar, I have news from the South Georgian national team’s latest outing.
Living in South Georgia involves all sorts of weird and wonderful training. Part of living in such a small team in such an isolated location involves being prepared for everything, including tsunamis, shipwrecks and fires.
We also play an important role as first responders to any spillages of potentially hazardous chemicals within a manageable size. Obviously, it is necessary for all the team to be familiar with the Emergency Action Plan and know how to deploy all the equipment. So, this month we rolled out all the equipment in order to first control and then clear up a mock oil spill around the King Edward Point wharf.
We are lucky to have a doctor and surgery here on South Georgia. However, there is only so much that Doc can do alone so it is therefore necessary that we are all trained with some level of medical care in order to assist her or, God forbid, treat her if she hurts herself.
This involves intensive training in the UK before deployment, followed by weekly Doc School once down south. On this week’s agenda was X-Raying. Equipment is limited here so our X Ray machine uses film and we must be able to develop the pictures. Our subject for this practice is an old, frozen Gentoo Penguin from the freezer! You’ll be glad to know it had no broken bones.
The final piece of training for this month also involved a Major Incident Drill for which the Royal Navy provided the mock, unco-operative casualties. The scenario was a shipwrecked fishing vessel full of conveniently non-English speaking fisherman.
After we had saved the lives of all the people worth saving, we took advantage of the good weather to have another game of football.
The game was strongly contended and this Navy team represented a much greater challenge than previous games. Meteorological conditions were perfect in contrast to the pitch, which is made up of mire, bog and rock. This didn’t affect the level of the play, though, with both teams doing what only the true greats can do by adapting their style of play to the conditions.
With the wind behind them, the home side settled into the conditions more quickly and were soon peppering the Navy goal with shots. Fortunately for the away team, their keeper possessed many cat-like qualities, pulling out some blinding saves for the cameras.
Tackles were flying in all over the pitch, some timed to perfection but mostly horribly late. Less out of maliciousness but more as a result of the bobbly terrain and low fitness levels.
Not even The Cat in goal could put a stop to the “tica taca” passing which lead to the opening goal. The home team’s passing, which can only be compared to Barcelona, tore through the away defence with Cowie eventually finishing the move and slotting the ball under the helpless keeper.
With the first half approaching its climax, the game was interrupted by an almighty scream. Many dived for cover, concluding that the only possible cause of a scream like that could be a shooting and that maybe we were under attack. However, we eventually discovered this wasn’t the case, but it was almost as bad – the away team’s right back had been tackled by a tuft of grass.
With the casualty carried off, the half drew to an uneventful close, allowing the away team to compose themselves.
Revitalised by their half time oranges and cigarettes, the away team came out a changed team and with the help of the wind, restricted South Georgia to their own half. So relaxed was The Cat about the threat to his goal, after a few minutes he opted to have a cuppa. With the help of some valiant defending and some truly abysmal finishing, the home team hung on and seemed to be heading for an unlikely victory.
But with the clock ticking away, the home team did what British Teams do so well and crumbled. With what can only be described as a howler by the keeper (who had been kindly donated by the Navy due to uneven numbers) gifting the equaliser to the Navy by fumbling a shot, which probably wouldn’t have reached the goal, to the feet of their striker to tap in.
With only seconds left, the Navy sensed blood. No sooner had the game kicked off again, the ball was rolling out for an away corner. The Navy piled men forward and after an overhit corner was caught wickedly by the wind and thrown on to the crossbar, it dropped into the six yard box. Tired from their intrepid second-half efforts, South Georgia were slow to react and the ball was scrambled into the net.
It is always good fun to see people from the outside world even when they beat you at football. The HMS Clyde team were no exception to this and we were happy to invite them into the bar for drinks after the big game.
We look forward to their next visit and hopefully a rematch!
What a few weeks! As per usual they have been hectic, but amazing. We were incredibly lucky to be visited by members of the Royal Marines and Navy, who were part of the Antarctic Endurance Expedition team retracing Sir Ernest Shackleton’s footsteps through South Georgia and the Antarctic in 1914-17.
By the time the team reached us, they were on the final leg of their journey, having just completed the four day hike across South Georgia, which Shackleton had crossed 100 years previously to get help for his crew, who were stranded. They had travelled over 3000 miles across some of the most dangerous seas in the world.
The team immediately clocked our football pitch on arrival and challenged us to a game at the world famous South Georgia National Football Stadium, an incredibly brave move, considering that we have never lost a match here (we’ve only played one!)
Having been soaked through to the skin by a well-timed South Georgian shower during the national anthems, the game eventually kicked off with the away team kicking down into the bog. With the tempo and quality of play reaching levels never seen before on this famous footballing island, the bog provided players with much appreciated rests.
The spectators, all two of them, were so taken away with what they were seeing, they had to remove themselves from the stadium before they got too carried away! I would like to say that when a game of such beauty and skill as this takes place, the score doesn’t matter, only football is the winner and lots of other clichés, but it’s not every day you get to smash Her Majesty’s finest 6-0 on your your home ground!
Although maybe not footballers, our opponents comprised a group of incredible people and it’s no wonder their mission had been so successful.
With the breeding season winding down now, my time has freed up fractionally, meaning I have had a few hours around work to spend time with and appreciate the amazing wildlife and landscape on our front door.
With the king penguins around base now having completed their moult, they are beginning to look quite spectacular. On a rare, bright, still evening, I got myself out with my camera onto the beach and spent a bit of time observing a small group. Every now and then it really hits me how ridiculously privileged I am to be here!
The group had two pairs amongst them who were posturing and calling to each other – I could have watched these majestic animals for hours. However, just because the sun was out, it doesn’t mean it was warm and it wasn’t long before my hands had turned blue and the kettle was calling.
With scientific work easing slightly, I have also had more time to crew and cox our RIBs and jet boats. Having spent a lot of time on board powerboats before the RIB training, they weren’t too much of a challenge but getting my head around jet boats is another completely different challenge. A challenge which I am loving, I have to say, since it means I get to see more of the island and spend time at sea.
And when you’re on board either sort of boat, you’re never too far from beautiful scenery…
Incidentally, we do have a small breeding colony of King Penguins accessible to us by foot near King Edward Point at the aptly named Penguin River. Due to the small size of the colony, breeding isn’t often successful, unfortunately. However, on a visit this week, I was happy to find eight new chicks ready to give it a go.
All the chicks and their parents seemed healthy and were in full voice throughout my visit despite the poor conditions and I was incredibly happy to see the adults regularly feeding their demanding chicks.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
Day two of my sailing on board the Pharos Ship from The Falklands to my new home. The Pharos is the South Georgian Fisheries Patrol Vessel in charge of enforcing the very strict fishing regulations in these waters. It was originally built for and used in the relatively sheltered inland lochs of the western isles. As a result of this design, the vessel has a very unique motion in swell which the ruthless Southern Atlantic is incredibly good at amplifying. This unique motion has a knack like very few others (so I am told) for causing sea sickness so the calm seas to this point were much appreciated!
I was assured by the ship’s crew and frequenters of the route that this would be the quiet segment of the cruise. We were too far from both The Falklands and South Georgia for many birds and lacking in any interesting seabed features to attract many Marine mammals.
Although the number of birds did decrease slightly, the vessel continued to be followed by a steady stream of pelagic bird species. This included several more Wandering Albatross, which seemed to be enjoying the slightly stronger wind conditions. Both Atlantic Petrel and Grey Headed Albatross were gratefully added to the trip list during this passage. We also saw a few whale blows but unfortunately were unable to distinguish the species, although one slightly closer sighting was probably a humpback.
Throughout days two and three, we were followed by a stunning white morph Southern Giant Petrel. The bird was subject to a lot of attention from my camera, but rarely ventured within range of a decent photograph. I did manage to get a couple of snaps though.
Day 3 brought much of the same, numbers of Sooty Shearwaters and White Chinned Petrel increased with day two’s chop subsiding once again. My persistence on deck was rewarded with my 4th species of Albatross, this time Lightly Mantled Sooty Albatross, absolutely stunning birds. This species is presently struggling around South Georgia with many monitored pairs showing regular breeding failure.
The day didn’t bring much in terms of Cetacean sightings. However I was amazed to see my first King Penguins 302km away from South Georgia. Think of the amount of fish these guys must have to eat in order to make a trip that big worthwhile! They will shortly be following me back to South Georgia to moult and then breed.