Postcards By Royal Delivery

This entry is part 18 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

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.

Talking science with Princess Anne - Thanks to Jen Lee of South Georgia Government for picture
Talking science with HRH Princess Anne – thanks to Jen Lee of South Georgia Government for the picture

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!

Collage of my recent delivery of postcards
Collage of my recent delivery of postcards

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.

A wandering albatross - I have wanted to see one of these since I was your age and now I have! -They have a wingspan of 3.5m!
A wandering albatross – I have wanted to see one of these since I was your age and now I have! they have a wingspan of 3.5m.

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!


My little hut where I stop for tea on my way to Maiviken (my study site)
My little hut where I stop for tea on my way to Maiviken (my study site)

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.

A picture for Dajah – here is a baby elephant seal pup! Did you know that they are 1.3m and weigh 50kg when they are born? And after this they put on 4kg a day until they are 3 weeks old.
A picture for Dajah – here is a baby elephant seal pup. Did you know that they are 1.3m and weigh 50kg when they are born? And after this they put on 4kg a day until they are 3 weeks old. The adult males can weigh up to 4.5tonnes and are made up of 40% fat!

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!

A pair of Waved Albatross on one of my favourite places in the world, The Galapagos
A pair of Waved Albatross on one of my favourite places in the world, The Galapagos

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!)

As requested by Thomas, here is a picture of a baby penguin! Hope he is cute enough for you
As requested by Thomas, here is a picture of a baby penguin!

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.

Fur Seal drying itself after a refreshing swim
Fur Seal drying itself after a refreshing swim

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!

As requested by Kieran here is a picture of a Dolphin. This is a Peale’s dolphin. These guys feed close to the shore and eat mainly fish squid and octopus
As requested by Kieran here is a picture of a Dolphin. This is a Peale’s dolphin. These guys feed close to the shore and eat mainly fish squid and octopus

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!


Macaroni Penguins are so angry, they jumo at any excuse for a fight
Macaroni Penguins are so angry, they jump at any excuse for a fight

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.


No shark sightings here unfortunately. But I hope this picture of Hammerheads I took last year will do!
No shark sightings here unfortunately. But I hope this picture of Hammerheads I took last year will do!

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.

A small Iceberg floating in Cumberland Bay
A small Iceberg floating in Cumberland Bay

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.

Macaroni Penguins playing in the water
Macaroni Penguins playing in the water

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.

Not all my pictures are taken in the sun! Antarctic Fur Seals in the snow
Not all my pictures are taken in the sun! Antarctic Fur Seals in the snow – and this is in the middle of our summer!


More lovely summer weather on base, this time with King Penguins
More lovely summer weather on base, this time with King Penguins

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!

This picture is for Ellie whose favourite animals are the Blondie’s. Also for Sumayah who asks if I can send a picture of a baby Polar Bear? Unfortunately Polar Bears are only found in the Arctic but this isn’t far off!
This picture is for Ellie whose favourite animals are the Blondies. Also for Sumayah, who asks if I can send a picture of a baby Polar Bear? Unfortunately, Polar Bears are only found in the Arctic but this isn’t far off, is it?!

 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.

Definately one of the most intelligent species we have here - Brown Skuas over a penguin chick
Definitely one of the most intelligent species we have here – Brown Skuas over a penguin chick

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!

Me in front of the Neumayer Glacier
Me in front of the Neumayer Glacier

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 …

Gentoo Penguin on the naughty step
Gentoo Penguin on the naughty step


Galapagos – The Best Bits

This entry is part 9 of 11 in the series Booking a Trip to the Galapagos

Best Island


After a long overnight cruise we arrived at one of the most northern islands, Genovesa. This island is ridiculous. Everywhere you look there is wildlife, before we even landed we had seen Galapagos Sea Lions loafing on exposed rocks, endemic swallow tailed gulls fighting over scraps of unlucky crustacean and three species of boobies surveying the coastal waters for fish. The island itself is unbelievable, it is absolutely covered in nesting seabirds. Unique to this island are the red footed boobies and the Genovesa mockingbird but the supporting cast of breeding, masked and blue footed boobies, frigate birds, Short eared owls, tropic birds and Galapagos storm petrels weren’t half bad either.

The east side of this island is absolutely swarming with storm petrels. You could spend hours here watching the tropic birds trying desparately to navigate safe passage through the awaiting frigatebirds to their nests. Whilst I was doing just this, we were lucky enough to see a Short Eared Owl grab a Galapagos storm petrel out of the sky with so much agility and ease. What made this even more spectacular was when this owl set about devouring its prey it was clear to see that it only had one eye.

After returning to the boat we had a quick turn around before getting into the sea for our first snorkel. Unlike many of the worlds most famous diving sites, visibility around the islands is frustratingly turbid at times. When you focus on what is causing this turbidity you realise that its not sand or pollution but billions of tiny organisms called plankton. This plankton is here as a result of oceanographic systems and is responsible for feeding the incredible diversity of life that is found both in and out of the water around the islands. Highlights on our first snorkelling trip included, a shoal of golden cownose rays, hammerhead sharks, and a single Galapagos shark.

For the afternoon we moved around to Darwin bay for more of the same. Highlights of the landing trip were white morph red footed boobies and their prehistoric chicks, baby sea lions and also a couple of very obliging night herons. The snorkel was slightly less uneventful although a number of white tip reef sharks were cruising within the bay.

Red Footed Booby, Genovesa

Best Dive

The best dive site I visited was Gordon Rocks. I had four dives here in total and saw hammerheads on three of these including 46 on one dive. I also had breaching Mola Mola around the boat during a surface interval and two sightings in the water. Other highlights included a Sea Lion eating a barracuda, Galapagos and White Tip Reef Sharks,

Sunfish, Gordon Rocks
Sunfish, Gordon Rocks

Best Snorkel

Be prepared to be overwhelmed! The diversity and the abundance of animals is absolutely breathtaking. There are two snorkelling sites I would recommend one for this diversity and the other for a particular species. The first of these is Kicker Rock which is situated off San Cristobel. Here you will see crazy numbers of turtles, sharks, rays and bait fish but with the water here being deeper and more exposed, visibility can vary greatly. The second snorkelling experience for me was at Sante Fe Islet, with the Sea Lions. Here, you anchor in a sheltered cove where hundreds of sea lions haul out. When you approach in the water the inquisitive ones are quick to surround you for a play.

Hammerhead Sharks, Gordon Rocks
Hammerhead Sharks, Gordon Rocks

Best Wildlife experience

Espanola is very similar to Genovesa in that it is used by large densities of breeding seabirds. I went to the Galapagos preying for my first good views of Albatross but was told that the very best I could hope for was maybe flight views of any recently fledged individuals still lingering in the wider area. During the peak breeding season Espanola is home to 25-30 thousand breeding pairs of waved albatross. However this was mid January after the last birds should have fledged.

The island was still great with huge numbers of Nascar Boobies some with chicks born that day as well as mockingbirds, blue footed boobies and a Galapagos Hawk. When we reached the island top I was shocked to see a fat still, partially downy, Albatross chick looking at me, right beside the pathway. I then went on further to see a pair of incredible adults performing their courting bill tapping behaviour. What the hell these guys were still doing here, I don’t know but I don’t care! It was more than I could ever have hoped for, and to top it off, when we returned to the yacht, we were followed back to Santa Cruz by another adult.

Waved Albatross, Espanola Island, Galapagos
Waved Albatross, Espanola Island, Galapagos


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When to Visit The Galapagos

This entry is part 3 of 11 in the series Booking a Trip to the Galapagos

This is something you need to consider strongly. Some people don’t have the luxury of being able to pick a particular time for their visit. The wildlife at the Galapagos Islands is incredible all year round and I guarantee you will love it whenever you visit. However, if you are flexible, there may be specific species you wish to encounter depending on your interests and you may wish to time your trip to coincide with these species. I thought it would be helpful to put all this information together.

Species Best Time Best Island To See Them  
Waved Albatross Apr-Dec Espanola
Red Footed Booby No Set breeding season Genovesa
Blue Footed Booby July-December All around but breed on Genovesa, North Seymour, Daphne, San Cristobel, Isabela
Nascar Booby Aug-Nov (tower island) Nov-Feb (Espanola) Genovesa, Espanola
Galapagos Hawk All year Most Islands
Galapagos Penguin All year West Galapagos although small colonies also at Bartolome, Pinzon and Floreana
Flightless Cormorant All year Fernandina
Magnificent and Great Frigatebirds All Year North Seymour, Genovesa
Swallow Tailed Gull All Year Most Islands inc, Genovesa, Isabela, Espanola
Tropicbirds All Year Breed in small numbers around most Islands -Genovesa, South Plaza
Galapagos Fur Seal All year (Breeding Aug-Dec) All Over
Galapagos Sea Lion All year (Breeding July-Dec) All Over
Hammerhead Sharks Present year round but peak season Dec-May Can be seen all over however best chance at Gordon Rocks diving, and Kicker Rock snorkelling Best place is on liveaboard dive vessel to Darwin and Wolf
Sun Fish June- Dec Gordon Rocks, Punta Vi cente Roja
Sea Turtles Most numerous when mating (Dec) and Nesting (Jan-May)
Whale Shark June-November peak season sightings throughout year at darwin and wolf,
Manta Ray December-May Isabella, gordon rocks, Seymour, Kicker Rock
Tortoises Lay eggs early year Most Islands, Farms on Santa Cruz Very good
Fur Seal underwater
Fur Seal underwater

Other dates to be aware of are that the best visibility tends to be between January and March. The Dry Season is June – December. And the water temperatures are warmest  between February and April.


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Diving The Galapagos

This entry is part 8 of 11 in the series Booking a Trip to the Galapagos

If you are an experienced diver and love megafauna then this offers some of the best diving in the world.

Hammerhead Shark, Gordon Rocks
Hammerhead Shark, Gordon Rocks

First thing you need to know is that at present tour cruises are not allowed to offer diving as part of their service. If you want to dive you have two options Cruise on the Specific Dive Liveaboards or Dive on day trips from San Cristobel or Santa Cruz.

Dive liveaboards are the only vessels that are allowed to visit the famous Darwin and Wolf islands. These offer magnificent diving with a huge array of species including mega shoals of 100-200 hammerheads, manta rays and also whale sharks. However by choosing a diving trip you are sacrificing the landing aspect of your cruises since you will spend the majority of your time around Darwin and Wolf which prohibit landing.

It is possible to dive from Santa Cruz and also San Cristobel. This offers much of the same quality diving just to a slightly lesser extent, depending on which trips you opt for. I dived with Academy Bay Dive Centre, in Puerto Ayora, and had an incredible diving experience. Day packages included a safety check dive prior to two dives with lunch and snorkelling during the dive interval.

If you are diving from Santa Cruz, I would recommend diving Gordon rocks. Even though decent in the currents was slightly tricky conditions at the bottom were calm. I completed 4 dives here with highlights including 46 Hammerheads on one dive, 2 sunfish (outside of season), sealions, manta and spotted eagle rays, white tip and Galapagos shark as well as good numbers of large silver fish (tuna and amberjack) and bait fish.

Other popular dive sites are Floreana for its seals and seahorses and North Seymour for its White tip reef sharks and rays.

As a result of strong currents, cold waters and variable visibility, diving around The Galapagos can be very technical and hard work at times. To anyone who hasn’t dived in a while, I would recommend a refresher before you visit The Galapagos, to re-familiarise yourself with everything and to remove any cobwebs/nerves.

Due to the location of the islands, temperatures fluctuate massively between sites, as a result of different oceanographic currents. On average water temperatures are approximately 15 degrees centigrade. So for those of you used to diving in the tropics, be prepared to be a little cold!


Sunfish, Gordon Rocks
Sunfish, Gordon Rocks

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