St Andrews Holiday / by Jerry Gillham

It's not too long now until the end of winter. It's only a couple of weeks until the first boatload of summer staff arrives. We've all been trying to fit in holidays before that, so early September Kieran (the higher predator scientist) and I headed off to St Andrews Bay for a few days. We were due to head out Monday to Friday but the long range forecast for the end of the week wasn't good, so we packed up quickly and the others were kind enough to drop us at Sorling Hut on the Saturday.

That afternoon we hiked over to Hound Bay and spent the night there. Sunday morning greeted us with rain, as Bob had warned us the night before, but it wasn't due to last so after we'd packed up early we sat around the hut waiting for it to pass. It did soon enough but left some low-lying clouds that gradually cleared in dramatic ways as we pushed up to the col. The melting snow had left the ground underfoot rather unpleasant; the grassy bits weren't too bad but above about 200m the vegetation ran out and we found ourselves hopping between big rocks to avoid the sticky mud. It was a relief when we hit the snow another 100m further up.

The view down on St Andrews Bay from a peak just a little further up from the col. The Heaney Glacier is the biggest of the three that flow down towards the beach, you can see the previous moraine lines it has left outlined by the snow. The penguin colony is the small (from this perspective) dark patch beside the beach, just this side of the frozen lake.

Kieran celebrating reaching the col. Though the descent wasn't easy we knew we weren't far from dropping our bags and getting a cup of tea at the hut.

One of reasons we'd come was to catch the elephant seals fighting over territory. Although there were several big old males around there weren't any ladies for them and they were happy waiting on their patches of beach, exerting energy only in throwing sand over themselves to stay cool.

When I'd visited with Paddy in April there had been a whole range of penguin chick sizes, this time there was a bit more uniform with very few small or nearly fledged ones. King Penguins have a strange 18 month breeding cycle so every three years (if they're successful) they'll lay eggs at the start of winter. Chicks hatched then have a real challenge growing up during the cold months and many don't make it, so these were pretty much all chicks from eggs laid the best part of a year ago. They were grouped together in a series of creches for warmth and protection, looking from this outcrop like a badly organised army batallion.

Adults returning to a creche have to push through hundreds of chicks in search of their own. They call out and I'm sure they're using other senses to locate them as the chicks don't mind who they get food off and will often chance their wing on any returning adult.

St Andrews faces east so it's always worth getting up for sunrise. Not only is the light right for more spectacular photographs but the penguins start their journey down to the sea at first light. Mind you they then stand there for hours staring at the sea, some walking back and forth along the beach all day.

They often seem reluctant to enter the water, almost like the ones at the front of the crowd are pushed in as the scrum gets too much. There is safety to be had in entering the water in numbers, though it's not unusual for a group to swim out then turn round and come back in on the next wave.

The beach is quite dynamic with wave action and rivers of meltwater altering it each day, so the penguins are always having to find new routes. I was waiting at the bottom of this bank on my own, looking out to sea when I felt the sand move behind me and turned round to see this procession marching down the slope.

Although cold that first full day we had was absolutely stunning weather. I spent my time heading into the colony for a few hours then going back to the hut for a warm drinks.

The hut warmed up nicely with the Tilley lamp going. In the evenings we ate dinner rapidly, reviewed our days photos and had a laugh over a few drams. I also got a fair bit of reading done - having thrown my kindle in my bag I got through three short stories by Philip K Dick, Philip Pullman and JG Ballard. 

The next day was overcast, windier and significantly colder. I didn't go as far from the hut and returned more frequently for warm drinks. I consequently spent more time on the rocks at the end of the beach and was able to enjoy the morning traffic jam of penguins at a different spot.

From here I could watch them jump into the water as a crowd and then, moments later, explode out in a mass of flapping and splashing as they crossed a little channel.

On this particular rocky outcrop there was no single place they'd emerge so I was waiting for long periods while they'd come up somewhere else. But my patience was rewarded when one huge group came out of the water right next to me, completely oblivious to my presence in the chaos of their own making.

The king penguins aren't great climbers unlike the macaronis for instance, that have large claws for gripping the rock and strong legs for jumping uphill. It's not uncommon to see the kings using their beak as a climbing tool, hooking it over any thing spot they can get a grip. They also use it as an extra limb to help push when standing up. It's always a little surprising to see as you think of them being quite delicate parts of the anatomy, if not the beak itself then the face anyway.

One of the reasons the penguins were so hesitant to enter the water and so keen to emerge in a big group. I saw at least two leopard seals hanging round this patch.

Some of the leopard seals are pretty fearless and equally curious. This one spent a few minutes checking me out from different angles before apparently deciding I wasn't food or going to steal its food and therefore of no interest. Even through I was quite safe on the rocks there's something thrilling about being evaluated by an apex predator.

The penguins weren't as safe as me though and we saw a few being thrown about as the leps had a good feed. Always looking for a meal, the giant petrels weren't far off, in fact at times they looked like mere centimetres from the lunging leopard seals huge mouths.

Having had two and a half excellent days at St Andrews, and with the weather due to turn we decided to pack up and depart, eager to get back to station before the wind picked up and stopped the boats coming out. Instead of stopping half way at Hound Bay we thought we'd push all the way through to Sorling so we'd be ready from that afternoon or early the next morning.

We decided on a different route back to avoid the steepest, iciest, potentially avalanchey slope. Crossing this one wasn't simple though, especially with the gusts blowing through, catching your big rucksack and knocking off balance.

It took 4hr 40min to get back, not too bad given the conditions but it wasn't a pleasant walk. We were heading into the wind the whole way so as well as carrying a big rucksack it felt like someone was in front, pushing you back with every step. Still, there was relief as we reached Sorling Hut and were able to sit down with a warm drink and some food.

That warm food was my last veggie ration pack. In the next couple of hours the sea refused to die down so we realised we were there for the night. Time to search through the stock of hut food to find what was on the menu. I made do with a packet of 'fresh' pasta (from 2011) supplemented with a couple of cup-a-soups. We were picked up the next morning, back for a shower and fresh bread.