elephant seal

November - new arrivals & a big ellie fight by Jerry Gillham

November marks the real start of summer on South Georgia as it's when the bulk of the seasonal visitors arrive - the builders, museum team and this year just four new BAS staff; two technicians, boating officer and doctor taking over from those who were departing.

To celebrate 365 days on South Georgia we headed up to Deadman's pass with plastic cups and a bottle of cheap sparkling wine.

To celebrate 365 days on South Georgia we headed up to Deadman's pass with plastic cups and a bottle of cheap sparkling wine.

We were visited by cold water swimmer Lewis Pugh, raising awareness about the oceans. He swam one kilometre round the bay in just his little speedos. Read more about him in the  National Geographic article here . I like the first sentence: it's his most dangerous swim, but not his first. Just in case anyone was in doubt, if you've never swam before I don't think anyone would advise doing 1km in sub-Antarctic waters as your first attempt.   The most interesting thing for me was seeing how the cold water was affecting him, someone who has an almost supernatural ability to withstand cold water. Within a few hundred metres you could see his technique dropping off and toward the end it looked like he was more just flapping his arms than any recognisable stroke. I guess he was relying on will power and practice to carry him through where it appeared that his body just wanted to stop and rest.

We were visited by cold water swimmer Lewis Pugh, raising awareness about the oceans. He swam one kilometre round the bay in just his little speedos. Read more about him in the National Geographic article here. I like the first sentence: it's his most dangerous swim, but not his first. Just in case anyone was in doubt, if you've never swam before I don't think anyone would advise doing 1km in sub-Antarctic waters as your first attempt. 

The most interesting thing for me was seeing how the cold water was affecting him, someone who has an almost supernatural ability to withstand cold water. Within a few hundred metres you could see his technique dropping off and toward the end it looked like he was more just flapping his arms than any recognisable stroke. I guess he was relying on will power and practice to carry him through where it appeared that his body just wanted to stop and rest.

The weather wasn't great in November but we managed a trip up the ridge near to station, attempting to summit the taller peak behind Mt Duse. Unfortunately it was one of those that we looked at but decided against in the end.  A combination of loose rock, no proper kit and being quite far from the nearest emergency services meant that, although it looked do-able, the sensible option was definitely to give it a miss.

The weather wasn't great in November but we managed a trip up the ridge near to station, attempting to summit the taller peak behind Mt Duse. Unfortunately it was one of those that we looked at but decided against in the end.

A combination of loose rock, no proper kit and being quite far from the nearest emergency services meant that, although it looked do-able, the sensible option was definitely to give it a miss.

Shortly after we returned from our trip to St Andrews (see last months blog) I had one of the best wildlife days I've had on South Georgia. In the morning we'd been out in the boats, dropping people off over at Husvik for some field work. Dave and I had been in the RHIB and got some amazing close views of Humpback Whales as we turned off the engines and drifted for a while. 

Then that afternoon I was just chatting to Paula in the dining room when we both noticed these two big bull elephant seals facing off outside the window. Normally it's all an act with them, the smaller one quickly realises it's not worth getting involved in a scrap and backs off, but these two were pretty evenly matched and it became clear both were intent on claiming this patch of beach for themselves.

Then that afternoon I was just chatting to Paula in the dining room when we both noticed these two big bull elephant seals facing off outside the window. Normally it's all an act with them, the smaller one quickly realises it's not worth getting involved in a scrap and backs off, but these two were pretty evenly matched and it became clear both were intent on claiming this patch of beach for themselves.

They were fighting long enough for me to run to my room and get my camera, and then again to get a longer lens. Stood out on the veranda we were joined by Jamie and Josh, all just marvelling at the craziness of something like this happening right in front of our eyes.

They were fighting long enough for me to run to my room and get my camera, and then again to get a longer lens. Stood out on the veranda we were joined by Jamie and Josh, all just marvelling at the craziness of something like this happening right in front of our eyes.

They reared up facing each other, if they'd been on the shore they'd have towered well over me, then slammed into each other, trying to grab a mouthful of skin and blubber around the neck with which to pull their opponent down. The noise of them clashing as well as the redness of the blood (extremely high in haemoglobin for all those deep dives) on them and colouring the water was extremely visceral.

They reared up facing each other, if they'd been on the shore they'd have towered well over me, then slammed into each other, trying to grab a mouthful of skin and blubber around the neck with which to pull their opponent down. The noise of them clashing as well as the redness of the blood (extremely high in haemoglobin for all those deep dives) on them and colouring the water was extremely visceral.

The station is not on a major elephant seal breeding beach, I think we had about 100 pups out front this season so at best these guys would have a harem of 20-30 females. Not bad but considering some proper beachmasters have numbers into the hundreds it shows how strong the urge to mate is.

The station is not on a major elephant seal breeding beach, I think we had about 100 pups out front this season so at best these guys would have a harem of 20-30 females. Not bad but considering some proper beachmasters have numbers into the hundreds it shows how strong the urge to mate is.

Although it doesn't look like it from these photos the darker one was the eventual winner and we saw him, slowly recovering from his wounds, on the beach for the next fortnight. We didn't see him in any more scraps though occasionally a younger bull would approach his harem, he'd lift his head at which point the new arrival could presumably tell a hard bastard when he saw one and quickly retreat into the sea.

Although it doesn't look like it from these photos the darker one was the eventual winner and we saw him, slowly recovering from his wounds, on the beach for the next fortnight. We didn't see him in any more scraps though occasionally a younger bull would approach his harem, he'd lift his head at which point the new arrival could presumably tell a hard bastard when he saw one and quickly retreat into the sea.

October - another St Andrews trip by Jerry Gillham

I'm writing this 6 months after it all happened (bandwidth availability dropped massively over summer) so it probably won't be that wordy, just a few captions to illustrate the photos from October.

Early in the month I took part in the Antarctic cooking challenge; like the movie competition this involved using 5 dedicated ingredients, chosen across a few stations, to create a culinary masterpiece. Some stations took it very seriously, I went a bit mad trying to get three of the ingredients (sausages, rice and cornflakes) into one dish.   This is a tower of 'crispy risausages'.  1. Take frozen Quorn sausages down to the workshop. Wrap them in baking paper and put them in the vice. Using a CLEAN bit, drill a hole lengthways down the middle of them.  2. Make a nice bit of risotto, to suit yourself. Ensure it is not too liquid.  3. Funnel the risotto into the sausage holes. This is difficult and for some I ended up cutting them in two and then using the risotto to glue them back together again.  4. Use either some more sticky risotto, or egg, coat the sausages and cover them in cornflakes.  5. Cook them, I can't remember how long. About 30 mins at 180c probably.  6. They were quite nice, though I think it's very dependent on whether the risotto is any good.

Early in the month I took part in the Antarctic cooking challenge; like the movie competition this involved using 5 dedicated ingredients, chosen across a few stations, to create a culinary masterpiece. Some stations took it very seriously, I went a bit mad trying to get three of the ingredients (sausages, rice and cornflakes) into one dish. 

This is a tower of 'crispy risausages'.

1. Take frozen Quorn sausages down to the workshop. Wrap them in baking paper and put them in the vice. Using a CLEAN bit, drill a hole lengthways down the middle of them.

2. Make a nice bit of risotto, to suit yourself. Ensure it is not too liquid.

3. Funnel the risotto into the sausage holes. This is difficult and for some I ended up cutting them in two and then using the risotto to glue them back together again.

4. Use either some more sticky risotto, or egg, coat the sausages and cover them in cornflakes.

5. Cook them, I can't remember how long. About 30 mins at 180c probably.

6. They were quite nice, though I think it's very dependent on whether the risotto is any good.

Early in the month a lot of the snow had already disappeared. At least that, and the longer evenings, meant I could get out running a bit more. Brown Mountain was opened up as part of the single person travel limit - a great option to get you a bit further off station.

Early in the month a lot of the snow had already disappeared. At least that, and the longer evenings, meant I could get out running a bit more. Brown Mountain was opened up as part of the single person travel limit - a great option to get you a bit further off station.

Fraser and I had been planning a trip to the Barff peninsula for a while, partly to check and update medical supplies in the huts, but also as a late holiday. We had grand ideas of skiing between huts but, as seen in the above photo, nowhere near enough snow remained.

Instead we concentrated on having a good walking holiday, fitting in a few peaks as well as huts and bays. We were dropped off one wet mid-afternoon at Sorling hut and straight away took the 2 hour tramp over to Hound Bay. There we warmed up with a large helping of Steve's chilli, which we'd scrounged earlier in the day, appearing at his house apologising that we wouldn't be there for dinner but hopefully holding out tupperware boxes.

Heading from Hound Bay to St Andrews we headed straight up the hill and, as the weather was good, just kept going up Mount Fusilier. I think this is just below 800m, and is one of the largest peaks within our travel area. To do that straight from sea level is no mean feat but it was a relatively straightforward slog up, rewarding us with this great ridge along the top. You can just see Fraser on the peak, looking back towards the central spine of South Georgia's Allardyce Range.

Heading from Hound Bay to St Andrews we headed straight up the hill and, as the weather was good, just kept going up Mount Fusilier. I think this is just below 800m, and is one of the largest peaks within our travel area. To do that straight from sea level is no mean feat but it was a relatively straightforward slog up, rewarding us with this great ridge along the top. You can just see Fraser on the peak, looking back towards the central spine of South Georgia's Allardyce Range.

Looking the other way we were staring down on St Andrews bay. Tempting as it was we didn't just slide down a snow slope all the way onto the glacier, though couldn't help thinking what an amazing route down that would have been if we had brought skis.  Just where the river enters the ocean you can see a speck that is the Hans Hansson. There was a party on board of scientists and tourists. We showed them the hut and Dion, the skipper, kindly gave us a bottle of wine.

Looking the other way we were staring down on St Andrews bay. Tempting as it was we didn't just slide down a snow slope all the way onto the glacier, though couldn't help thinking what an amazing route down that would have been if we had brought skis.

Just where the river enters the ocean you can see a speck that is the Hans Hansson. There was a party on board of scientists and tourists. We showed them the hut and Dion, the skipper, kindly gave us a bottle of wine.

Most of the king penguin chicks were a comparable size to the adults, though still wearing their big, fluffy brown coats that shone gloriously in the late afternoon light.

Most of the king penguin chicks were a comparable size to the adults, though still wearing their big, fluffy brown coats that shone gloriously in the late afternoon light.

King penguins returning to the colony in the evening. It was really dry there so lots of dust, sand and feathers being kicked up which gave a strange, almost other-worldly, feel to the place (though will admit I have altered the colour balance in this photo to make it appear a bit more Martian).

King penguins returning to the colony in the evening. It was really dry there so lots of dust, sand and feathers being kicked up which gave a strange, almost other-worldly, feel to the place (though will admit I have altered the colour balance in this photo to make it appear a bit more Martian).

Unlike my last visit, this time we were spot on for the big bull elephant seals defending their territories.

Unlike my last visit, this time we were spot on for the big bull elephant seals defending their territories.

Sitting in one place for an extended amount of time I could start to pick out the boundaries of each bull's harem. They spent most of their time bellowing and sleeping but were actually very aware of what was going on. When another male approached slowly out of the sea, hoping to steal a chance at mating with one of the females in the harem it didn't take long for a good beachmaster to spot him and chase him away.   I didn't see too many fights, and none that went on too long, though wait for next months blog if that's what you're after.  Often the females would call out when a new male approached. I guess from an evolutionary point of view it's in her interest that the males fight, or at least square up, as the biggest and strongest will get to impregnate her. If she has a male pup from a dominant adult he'd have a better chance at growing up and passing on her genes. As something like only 1 in 100 (and I've seen 1 in 1,000 quoted elsewhere!) male elephant seals manage to breed successfully that's a lot of incentive to only mate with the best.

Sitting in one place for an extended amount of time I could start to pick out the boundaries of each bull's harem. They spent most of their time bellowing and sleeping but were actually very aware of what was going on. When another male approached slowly out of the sea, hoping to steal a chance at mating with one of the females in the harem it didn't take long for a good beachmaster to spot him and chase him away. 

I didn't see too many fights, and none that went on too long, though wait for next months blog if that's what you're after.

Often the females would call out when a new male approached. I guess from an evolutionary point of view it's in her interest that the males fight, or at least square up, as the biggest and strongest will get to impregnate her. If she has a male pup from a dominant adult he'd have a better chance at growing up and passing on her genes. As something like only 1 in 100 (and I've seen 1 in 1,000 quoted elsewhere!) male elephant seals manage to breed successfully that's a lot of incentive to only mate with the best.

As we were doing a few peaks and quite a lot of walking we'd packed light. That means dehydrated meals. Thankfully we have a pretty good selection, topped up with a few drops of tabasco, couple of cubes of cheese and a few olives or jalapenos they're all you need.

As we were doing a few peaks and quite a lot of walking we'd packed light. That means dehydrated meals. Thankfully we have a pretty good selection, topped up with a few drops of tabasco, couple of cubes of cheese and a few olives or jalapenos they're all you need.

As well as updating the medical kit I was on a mission to clear out old food from the huts. There were a few bits in the army ration packs going off; tins going a bit dodgy on the inside, Rolos leaking caramel all over the place, dehydrated mutton I can't see ever being used.  The garrison left in 2001 so some of this food is pretty old. In fact I found a few soups older than Kieran.

As well as updating the medical kit I was on a mission to clear out old food from the huts. There were a few bits in the army ration packs going off; tins going a bit dodgy on the inside, Rolos leaking caramel all over the place, dehydrated mutton I can't see ever being used.

The garrison left in 2001 so some of this food is pretty old. In fact I found a few soups older than Kieran.

Amongst the gems, an old-style Double Decker and my favourite type of chocolate bar, a Milk Chocolate.

Amongst the gems, an old-style Double Decker and my favourite type of chocolate bar, a Milk Chocolate.

After a morning amongst the seals and penguins we set off back for Sorling. It was a stunning day so we took a detour and went up the seldom visited Mt Skittle. This isn't a tall peak but was quite challenging in terms of scrambling and route-finding. It's off the main route and has probably only been climbed a handful of times.  Looking at this photo you can Mt Paget, the highest South Georgia peak, toward the left of the range. In front of it and a third the size is Mt Fusilier that we did the day before. Our route back is in between that mountain and the range cutting across from the right.

After a morning amongst the seals and penguins we set off back for Sorling. It was a stunning day so we took a detour and went up the seldom visited Mt Skittle. This isn't a tall peak but was quite challenging in terms of scrambling and route-finding. It's off the main route and has probably only been climbed a handful of times.

Looking at this photo you can Mt Paget, the highest South Georgia peak, toward the left of the range. In front of it and a third the size is Mt Fusilier that we did the day before. Our route back is in between that mountain and the range cutting across from the right.

This was a long afternoon; just over 20km, just shy of 1,000m ascent, just less than 5 1/2 hours. Upon reaching Hound Bay I couldn't be bothered walking up and down to find a shallow place to cross the river so just took my boots off and waded through.

This was a long afternoon; just over 20km, just shy of 1,000m ascent, just less than 5 1/2 hours. Upon reaching Hound Bay I couldn't be bothered walking up and down to find a shallow place to cross the river so just took my boots off and waded through.

We arrived at Sorling Hut as it was starting to get dark but still had enough time to sit in the sun and have a quick beer from the supply we'd stashed there on the way out. The next morning there was cloud sitting at about 400m. We headed for Ellerbeck, a peak we'd been told good stuff about but unfortunately the clouds never cleared. On reaching the lake and start of the ridge we decided it wasn't worth it as we wouldn't get any views and it would potentially get quite dangerous if we couldn't pick out a good route. So we dropped down toward the edge of the Nordenskjold glacier.

This glacier is huge, standing out on all the aerial shots of South Georgia. We didn't approach too close in case a chuck calved off on top of us or, more likely, making a huge wave to wash us away. I don't know how recent maps Strava uses but I was tracking us on this walk out of interest and at this point it put us 1,500m up the glacier. That's how much it's retreated but unfortunately I can't say in how long.

This glacier is huge, standing out on all the aerial shots of South Georgia. We didn't approach too close in case a chuck calved off on top of us or, more likely, making a huge wave to wash us away. I don't know how recent maps Strava uses but I was tracking us on this walk out of interest and at this point it put us 1,500m up the glacier. That's how much it's retreated but unfortunately I can't say in how long.

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.

Days out over Christmas by Jerry Gillham

A few photos from South Georgia taken over Christmas and New Year

Christmas Day was amazing. The weather was just unbelievable. We'd had a bit of a party the night before with a carol service at the old whaling station church, then a traditional meal with everyone enjoying themselves.

On the 25th three of us headed up Mount Duse, just behind the station (that you can see with the red roofs. To the right of the bay is Grytviken and the museum and post office were open that day as cruise ship Le Soleal was in, unloading passengers to look around the whaling station.

Fraser, Kieran and me on the top of Mt Duse.

No one really knows why Fraser was dressed as Neil Buchanan, but it did give us this excellent photo opportunity.

We returned in time for the builders' barbecue - a fabulous affair that went on all afternoon. The blue containers were dropped in to give shelter from the wind while the white container is a permanent fixture as it contains our sauna.

Boxing day wasn't quite as sunny but was still clear so this time we headed up Mt Hodges, detouring slightly to Orca on the way. Here Grytviken sits directly below us while King Edward Point is on the spit further out. The path over to Maiviken is on the left and the Gull Lake on the right powers out hydroelectricity generator.

The weather deteriorated slightly as we reached the top of Hodges. Again you can see a large cruise ship in the bay - it was a busy time of year for the museum and post office staff.

Coffee envy at the summit.

Part of the on-site training has been learning to crew and cox the RIBs and jet boat. There are two of each and the jets, seen here, are used primarily as the harbour launches. This day we'd picked up people from their holiday and were doing a bit of familiarisation around the local area. This included getting up to the Nordenskjold Glacier and taking GPS readings near the edge, tracking it's retreat.

With a bus weekend ahead Fraser and I headed out on a Friday to stretch our legs before more work took over. We didn't pick the nicest of days; what should have been amazing views were shrouded in cloud, but it did mean we occasionally stumbled across treasures, like this tiny glacier up near one of the cols (Glacier Col in fact).

Elephant Seals are forming their big wallows as they moult. Noisy, stinking places they are nevertheless very amusing to watch.

Following that slightly miserable day we awoke to several inches of fresh snow and glorious sunshine. It was so warm that by mid-afternoon there was barely any left.

The first bit of snow shovelling of the season to clear the walkway.

Matthew clearing the snow off the jet boats. That day we had a cruise ship, a ship bringing new people and cargo, and the auxillary fleet's Gold Rover who had personnel wanting to be ferried ashore. So there was plenty going on. The following day the HMS Portland was in, in atrocious weather, and he racked up over 60 nautical miles moving passengers between the ship and Grytviken.

First update from South Georgia by Jerry Gillham

After about three years on Bird Island I’ve moved on. Admittedly not very far - I’m now stationed a little further south at King Edward Point research station on the South Georgia mainland.

As is now tradition I left the UK in early November, travelling down to the Falklands on the MOD flight from Brize Norton via Ascension. We didn’t have long in Stanley this time and a few hours of that was spent meeting the government and getting me sworn in as a magistrate. That’s right, I now have an official piece of paper giving me (limited) magisterial powers. Part of the recognition of sovereignty claims relies on having a structured legal and judicial system so out on South Georgia the government officers double up as police and the station leader fulfils the role of magistrate.

We sailed across from Stanley to South Georgia on the fisheries patrol vessel; the government-funded ship that travels round the islands incognito in search of illegal fishing vessels. The ship and crew will be regular visitors during my year out here so it was good to get to know them early on.

I’s only about four months since I was on South Georgia so as we arrived into King Edward Point it felt like that time at home and in Cambridge had been the break from normal life rather than the return to it. The old team greeted us and were very welcoming, allowing a day off before getting down to the hurried hand over; attempting to pass over all their knowledge about the station and their jobs in just three weeks.

Toward the end of that period we had the RRS Ernest Shackleton arrive for relief, bringing all our food, fuel, building, science, medical, computing and domestic supplies. Unlike Bird Island, where all the cargo is manhandled across from the tender, down the jetty and into the buildings, here they were able to unload a few containers straight onto the wharf and from there we picked the crates and pallets up with the JCB. Everything coming in has to be fully biosecured to prevent invasive species; rats and mice are the obvious threats but insects and seeds are probably more likely so each piece of cargo has to be unpacked by hand in a secure room.

RRS Ernest Shackleton in Cumberland Bay, South Georgia.

We celebrated the end of relief and the last days of the old team with a big barbecue by the boat shed before waving them off.

The departing team all aboard the Shackleton.

Waving goodbye to the ship and the old team. The flare preceded a surprisingly incompetent Mexican wave.

King Edward Point is a significantly bigger and more complex station than Bird Island. There’s just eight British Antarctic Survey staff; two scientists, two boating officers, a mechanic, an electrician, a doctor and me. Alongside us we’ve two government officers, a postmaster, five museum staff working for South Georgia Heritage Trust and a team of six builders as well as a couple of visiting scientists. The base can hold a maximum of 50 people but we’ve maxed out at just over 30 so far. 

Our travel area is pretty big and includes some pretty gnarly peaks and ridges, I can’t wait to get out and explore it a bit more.

Ascending Mt Duse, just behind the station, the edge which is just about visible in the bottom right.

The views from the top of Mt Duse.

A few old staff, new staff, doctors, postmaster and visiting scientist atop Duse.

Jamie recreating one of the famous photographs Shackleton / Hurley from the Endurance expedition of 1914. Looking down on the whaling station at Grytviken and Gull Lake from an outcrop of Duse.

Marine scientist Vicki crossing Penguin River on route to monitor Giant Petrels.

The key wildlife differences between here and Bird Island are 1. no nesting albatrosses about (barring a few light-mantled on the cliffs) and 2. loads of elephant seals. As we pulled in to the bay Kieran, our new higher predator scientist, exclaimed in a high pitch voice ‘look at the size of them!’. Most of the big ones have departed now and the pups are independent for the first time. These weaners are forming their own little gangs, wallowing together in the shallows or mud, sleeping all cuddled up in a cacophony of burps, farts, snorts and growls.

Good size (but not enormous) bull Elephant Seal amongst the ice.

Elephant seal weaners relaxing around the remains of the old whaling station.

Discovery Point and a relatively recent shipwreck now populated by seals.

The death of one poor Elephant Seal put means a feast for the Giant Petrels.

Still my favourites, the Giant Petrels are so charismatic with their dinosaur / turkey / banshee poses, running and sounds.

Higher predator scientist Kieran and doctor Fraser counting chick-containg Gentoo Penguin nests over at the study site at Maiviken.

Healthy Gentoo chick - all belly with tiny head and wings at this age.

Albatrosses, rain and birthdays by Jerry

A few photos of the work we've been up to in the last couple of weeks before the ship call, particularly those days in between when we were expecting them and when they actually arrived (the weather was too rough to call so, with all the cargo being ready, I had a few relaxing days before starting all my post-call work).

Checking wandering albatross on the ridge. This pair were the last to lay and so the last ones to be checked for signs of hatching.

Making friends with the locals. This albatross is sat in particularly scenic spot and I already have plenty of photos of it, though not too many with me in too.

Black-browed albatross chicks, as mean-looking as their parents.

Grey=headed albatross chicks, slightly less angry-looking.

When the chicks yawn they open their mouths so wide you can almost see the squid in their bellies.

It's time of year to get ringing the chicks, unfortunately the first day we were defeated by wind and rain. It's not safe for us in the colonies and not good for the chicks who aren't as waterproof as the adults so really shouldn't be disturbed in the wet.

Poa annua is an invasive grass species that crops up on several sub-Antarctic islands. We're largely free of it, though Al found this patch this season. Removal is best done by spade, though I did pick the first day the ground froze to try it.

Young elephants seal apparently attacked by a sea monster,

Lucy, on her birthday, adopting a heroic pose under our first good icicles of the season.

The icicles didn't last too long, not least because they got broke off to make a birthday G&T extra special.

Jerry

Crazy spring work by Jerry

Crazy spring work

It’s a very exciting but very busy time of year with all the breeding species returning, so here’s a quick update on what’s going on on Bird Island.


Giant Petrels

As detailed a few entries back, working with the giant petrels is one of my main tasks. From 10th September I’ve been out every day walking back and forth over the study area, looking for new nests and recording information on the breeding birds. The northern geeps have almost all laid now, over 300 nests marked and pairs recorded, and the southerns are about to start.

Not my favourite nest location to check, though I can’t fault the view.

It’s great to see such a range of personalities in these birds; from nervous young ones who defend their patch with extreme aggression to calm old ones who tolerate your presence. Some of the latter are older than me while there’s a few new breeders who, although 6 to 8 years old, are on their first egg.

The advantage of nesting early is that the chicks will be born when food is at its most abundant as there will be plenty of vulnerable young seals and penguins. The disadvantage is that there can still be a bit of snow.

Checking all these birds has meant a few long days in the field, especially when I’ve a few other bits and pieces to do. Up to seven hours with only a brief lunch break and then two hours of data entry in the evenings is not unusual. That’s the nature of the job – when the work’s there you do it, when it’s not you try and relax a little.

A cold day on the geep round.


Penguins

Preparations for the return of the macaronis has focussed on setting up the weighbridge – the extremely clever system that weighs each and identifies each tagged individual on its way in and out of the colony. There’s a whole system of electronics that were taken in at the end of winter that needed to be reassembled and tested. After a few little issues that seems to be working and I’m excitedly waiting for the first birds due back this week.

Gentoos returning from the ocean to their breeding grounds.

The gentoos have been around in varying numbers all winter, often hanging round their nests and adding a few stones to it, but once the snow and ice disappeared they started building with real purpose. They collect as many pebbles as they can, supplemented by bits of bone and tussac and make a pile before pushing with their feet to hollow it out into a bowl in which they lay two large, white eggs. The first few are on eggs now and at two of the colonies I’ve mapped a combined 70 nests that I’ll follow the build up of. From this we’ll establish the peak laying date and hence when I need to do all the colony nest and chick counts.

Copulating pair of gentoos. There is a lot of bill-tapping and the male (on top) patting the female’s flanks with his wings.


Albatrosses

The wanderer chicks are very well developed, with many showing only the remnants of their downy chick feathers. They’re stretching their wings out and flapping hard and it’ll not be long before they’re jumping up in the strong winds, getting a bit of a lift before fledging properly in a month or two.


Cosy pair of grey-headed albatross.

The smaller albatrosses – the grey heads, black brows and light mantled sooties - are all back around their colonies too with the former already on eggs. Jess, the albatross assistant, has been out every day recording ring numbers of the birds and marking each of the nests.


White-chinned petrels

One of the joys has been the return of sound to Bird Island – the singing pipits, honking albatross and chattering petrels. While it’s great to see the white chins soaring around the colonies during the day it’s hearing them through the open window when I go to bed at night that’s the real treat.


Seals

Cian’s daily leopard seal round continues and although there’s only one regularly seen lep around at the moment he’s given us a lot of special moments. Not least recently when he made a spectacular meal out of a king penguin.

Gill thrashing an unfortunate king penguin.

While we’ll be waiting another month for the first seal puppy we’ve got our first baby in the form of an elephant seal pup. Several in fact. They’re not regular Bird Island breeders but we’re lucky enough to have one very close to the base. We noticed it almost as soon as it was born, before the hungry skuas noticed in fact and started hanging around, trying to pinch the placenta and afterbirth. In a day or two the pups have put on so much weight already it’s incredible.

Shortly after being born the first puppy screams for attention while skuas and a giant petrel wait for anything worth scavenging.

An elephant seal family? Or a mum and pup trying to get away from a huge, randy male?

There have been a handful of large male elephant seals hanging round the last few weeks and we’ve seen a few confrontations and short fights in the water. Seeing them rear up and bellow is an amazing sight. When they utter their deep, bass roar it reverberates off the hills and seems to shake the whole base.

Bellowing male elephant seal.


Visitors

The American ship the Nathaniel B. Palmer came by with a group installing a GPS station. This was on one of the wettest days of the year and they had to navigate round a huge male ellie seal that had taken up residence on the jetty. But everything went smoothly – we all pitched in with carrying scaffolding, batteries, electronics and tools up the hill. The route up, normally a stream, had turned into a bit of a torrent and despite the best efforts of our waterproofs there was no chance of staying dry. Those at the top did valiant work, staying up there all day until the job was done while we were able to show off a few penguins and albatrosses to the others.
Despite our initial reservations about talking to other people after seven months of the same three faces, communications proved easy and they were a very friendly bunch. They endeared themselves even more by bringing a few trays of fresh fruit, veg and eggs. Colourful, crunchy and tasty peppers, tomatoes and bananas! You know you’re missing out when celery is seen as a treat.

Jerry Gillham

Up above the clouds. by Jerry

Here's a few picture updates of what's been happening:

The Southern Giant Petrels are just starting to fledge.
The white morph was still there today but who knows about tomorrow.

Visitors from colder waters... the return of the Leopard Seals.

And visitors from warmer climes... a few lost Cattle Egrets.

More Elephant Seals hauled out.

Weird weather; low clouds rolling across the sea and engulfing the peaks and ridges.

A rare opportunity to get up above the clouds and look down on base.

May 4th be with us for Star Wars Day.
I attached this picture to a few emails to friends and have not heard from any of them since.

Jerry.





The wall by Jerry

6th December

I'm back on the ship and currently feeling okay. I saw the KEP doc and was given a couple of those magic little patches you stick behind your ears. I'll reserve my judgement on them until we get a bit further out into the true open ocean.

After extreme sun and lashing rain the first two days we got them alternating every few hours the next two. I spent my time exploring the old whaling station at Grytviken and the surrounding area. It was a good opportunity to experiment with new camera equipment and now I've time on the ship to edit photos and video I'll try and put something together.

Here's the result of that.

The highlight of my day was watching a young elephant seal climbing up onto a tiny wall, shuffling around and then getting down.





You can see it's moulting its fur so is probably all itchy and struggling to get comfortable. I went past it again about ten minutes later and it was back up on the wall.

Cumberland Bay, with Grytviken on the left and the BAS base on King Edward Point, the spit on the right.

Ellie rescue. by Jerry

3rd December

A complete contrast to yesterday weather-wise, as the rain and cloud made the place seem a lot more like being back on Bird Island. With good waterproofs on I set off for a walk anyway but soon got distracted just past Grytviken by a seal rescue team. A drainage ditch that runs around the cemetery had become a bit eroded with the rain and meltwater and an Elephant Seal had managed to fall in and get stuck. Not a small one, it was wallowing like an unhappy hippo when we got there. I joined Rod, Sue and Daniel in digging out a wide channel to act as a slipway for it to climb up and escape. What I thought might be a big job was fairly simple, for as soon as it could see a route out the ellie started trying to climb, desperate to get its weight on firm ground. It was rewarding to see this mud-covered monster shuffling its way down to the sea.

One unhappy elephant seal.
Team seal rescue.
One relieved seal.
I continued on my way past many more sleeping ellies and small groups of Fur Seals, several with small puppies. I was continually interested by the number and variety of whale bones strewn over the narrow stretch of pebbles. I find the old whaling stations, such as Grytviken, both fascinating and horrific and the casual way all these treasures were scattered along the shore only gives a small sense of the scale of such an industry. I can't help but contrast it to the excitement and happiness we felt when seeing a small group of possible Sperm Whales way out at sea from the cliffs of Bird Island.

A whale vertebra. A bit big and probably illegal to bring back, however good a Christmas present it would make for my mum.

Wet from the feet up from stepping in bogs, rather than top down from all the rain, I arrived at Penguin River in time to eat my lunch watching a group of King Penguins in different moult stages huddle together while around them more young Elephant Seals wrestled in the water and male Fur Seal chased their ladies around, trying to round them up into harems.

King Penguins moulting in the well-named Penguin River.



Over the hills and far away. by Jerry

2nd December

An absolutely gloriously sunny day and I had the good fortune to be invited out by Ella, the KEP boating officer who I met back in Cambridge, as she was showing Chris, here to run the museum, a great day-walk out over the mountains.

The terrain and landscape felt so much different from Bird Island. There when I go uphill it's almost all through tussac and mud, with seals hiding in the gaps. Here it was across scree slopes and up soft snow fields. None of them are easy walking but it's nice to have the variety. 



The views were just stunning; clear blue skies over turquoise waters, bisected by mountain ranges that, although not huge by the standards of continental ones, look as impressive and daunting as anywhere in the world. I've heard South Georgia described as a slice of the Alps chopped off and dumped in the ocean and that sounds pretty accurate to me.



As we sat eating our lunch beside a Papua Lake Ella was able to point out one of the glaciers in the distance and the alarming amount it has retreated in the last ten years. Recent enough that many of the maps still in use here are inaccurate for that area.


Near the lake we were berated by Terns, while on top of the ridges we had a few pristine Snow Petrels fly past us, but the place felt so quiet compared to Bird Island where Geeps whine and albatross mutter while there's a constant background throb and wail of Macaronis and seals.


It felt a priviledge to see such a place on such a day and, happy and sunburnt, I went out after dinner to watch the young Elephant Seals. It's been so nice to see so many little weiners; freshly moulted pups sleeping all over the shore, often lying alongside their buddies. The most fun to be had though is in watching the young ones play fighting in the shallows – raising themselves up then slamming into each others necks before one looks too far up, gets distracted by the sky and is then surprised by its combatant. It's a playful recreation of the brutal fights the males get themselves into when establishing dominance over a harem of females, except those guys stand taller than me and can do some real damage.




Jerry.

Last days of solitude. by Jerry

With about a week to go until the new staff arrive on Bird Island I thought I'd try and squeeze in a quick blog while our internet isn't too busy. With first call imminent we've been rushing round cleaning and tidying, making space for deliveries and packing up waste and recycling to go off. Rooms and kit have been prepared so the incoming guys can get straight up to speed and we're enjoying the last few days of just the four of us. Craig will have a two-day changeover with the new technician and then head off down to Rothera, so this really is time to enjoy on the island.

Typically this business coincides with my busiest few weeks of the whole year, although I have now managed to get a bit of breathing space. In the last week I have finished off the nesting count of Gentoo penguins – two or more of us have been out to all the different colonies and counted the number of active nests, that is those containing penguins sitting on eggs. There's some small sections which are quite simple, and some areas of several hundred where we've had to agree on imaginary bisecting lines to split them into more manageable chunks. Then repeatedly count the nests within until we agree on a figure.

Wading through mud and crap to count Gentoos at Square Pond.

The other penguins, the Macaronis, are back in full force and can be heard all over that side of the island, arguing away over nesting territories. We've been weighing individuals as they come ashore, a simple test of how well they've been feeding over the winter.

Sleek-looking Macaroni Penguin, fresh from the sea.

Observations being made by both parties.

Standard Bird Island weather - a million shades of grey with penguins as far as you can see.

My work with the Giant Petrels continues. The Northerns have all laid and the Southerns, who operate about a month behind them, are in the middle of doing so. I've met a few calm old birds who were ringed as chicks before I was born, which is always a little humbling.

There's two of these rare white-morph Southern Giant Petrels in my study area of around 140 pairs.

A more normal plumaged pair of Southern Giant Petrels with the female sitting proudly in her mossy nest.

Many of the smaller petrels have also started returning and I've started checking their burrows, looking for individuals who have been carrying tiny geolocator devices over the winter. These have been tracking the birds movements and will help identify key feeding areas, hopefully leading to greater protection for them.

While most White-chinned Petrels land and head straight for a burrow, this one sat up on the tussoc, calling away.

Retrieving a GLS from a returning White-chinned Petrel while trying to avoid it's ripping beak and tearing claws (Craig's photo).

Blue-eyed Shags are starting to build their nests so I've started keeping an eye on the small colony near base.

Very smart looking Blue-eyed Shag. Like shags in the UK that crest is only prominent at the beginning of the breeding season.

We've all been out helping Steph with some albatross surveys. First up was the ten-year census of the Grey-heads, which took us all over the island counting some huge and some tiny colonies of these beautiful birds. Soon we'll have to repeat our rounds of the areas counting the far more numerous Black-brows and the much rarer Light-mantled Sooties.

Black-browed Albatross colony on one of the more remote 

The Wandering Albatross chicks are close to fledging, with the best developed individuals now carrying very few downy chick feathers. I gave Steph a hand finishing off the ringing of them, barring a few left for the new albatross assistant.

Will this be the last time this Wandering Albatross family all see each other together?

The beaches are quickly becoming dangerous places to go as the male fur seals haul their way up and pick a spot where they will try and get a harem of females together. It's still early so there's been no fighting yet, just a few growls. The majority of the big guys are just sleeping, well aware that there are hard times coming up with a few scraps and little time for napping or feeding. Over on Landing Beach the two elephant seal pups are enjoying each others company as their mums head out to sea.

The younger Elephant Seal pup enthusiastically shouting in his neighbours ear.


Jerry.






Puppies and eggs – a sunny day in October. by Jerry

Craig had set off early to carry out some repair work on the little hut at the Seal Study Beach. Just as I was about to head out he called us on the radio with news that there was an Elephant Seal pup born on Landing Beach, so we all excitedly headed over there.



Huge numbers of Elephant Seals give birth and breed all over the beaches of South Georgia, but up on Bird Island we generally only get smaller, younger ones hauling out and only a few occasionally pupping. There's been a couple of big females on the beaches the last week or so though and we had our fingers crossed for a pup.



It was looking pretty healthy and calling to the mother, who was responding which is always a good sign, although it took it a long time to suckle.


The skuas have been looking pretty desperate for food recently, picking up scraps of old bone and feather and taking risks they wouldn't normally. There was a pair hanging round the pup, taking their chances to grab a bit of afterbirth or try and rip off a bit of umbilical cord. Understandably this was causing a little upset, and the mother was furiously shouting at the pesky birds.



Further up the beach the Gentoo Penguins are well underway with their nest building. Some have huge piles of stones with a nice little well in the centre to form a big bowl shape, some just have piles of stones, some have piles of bones and some just have a shallow scrape in the ground.





I headed off up the hill to check on the Giant Petrels. The Northerns have mostly all laid now but there was a few more nests to mark and a quick check on those already sat there. The Southerns haven't started laying yet but are on with mating, nest building and a bit of fighting.


Pair of Southern Geeps scrapping over nesting space...
... before splitting up and declaring themselves masters of their own space. They then moved a short distance apart and settled back down on their own nests.


The sun burnt off a lot of the mist by early afternoon so I sat and had a bite of lunch while watching the returned Grey-headed Albatrosses. Steph has been checking on the colonies daily and found the first egg a few days ago.





The Black-browed Albatrosses are back as well now, as are the Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses who are circling in pairs as part of their courtship.

Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses almost colliding.

A gloriously sunny day, looking over towards the South Georgia mainland and down to Jordan Cove with the base tucked in below La Roche.
With it now warm and sunny I dropped down to check on another penguin colony but despite some more impressive nests and a bit of copulation there were no eggs.




Not-so-happy neighbours.
Nest-building.


An hour or so later though Hannah walked past the same area on the Leopard Seal round and radioed back to let me know that there was a penguin that had done an egg, our first one for the year.

So a good day with loads happening.

Jerry.


Begin the spring by Jerry

As autumn draws on back home the days are getting longer on Bird Island. The last week has seen snow, rain, mist and blue skies, though with tremendous wind speeds we pass through each of them several times a day.

Brown Skua taking advantage of a warmer spell when the stream melted to have a good wash. The skuas have returned in their dozens in the last fortnight.

As the island wakes up from winter my main field-work begins again.  

With the ground still too frozen to build nests the Gentoos spend their time preening, resting and quarrelling. 
In my last blog I talked about the returning penguins. Large numbers of Gentoos are now regularly on the nesting beaches, but there has been relatively little nest-building activity. With temperatures still regularly below 0C they can't pick up pebbles, sticks or bones from the frozen mud so they've had to be satisfied with longer courtship rituals (mainly bowing to each other) and wandering around getting distracted by snow and each others tail feathers.

Northern Giant Petrel. The proud owner of a new egg.
The bulk of my work now is with the Giant Petrels, the Geeps. There's a study area over the Meadows and each day I have to wander around looking for new nests and checking for any failures. I mark each nest with a stake and give it a number and record the location on GPS so I can create a map later.  

Southern Giant Petrels trying to create their own egg.
I try and get ring numbers for the birds and ring any unringed individuals, depending on how calm they are – with a beak superbly well adapted for ripping up dead seals and cetaceans they can and have inflicted some serious cuts and bruises to my hands and arms. The best protection during this sort of encounter is the leg of a welly (with the boot cut off) slid over the arm to act as a makeshift gauntlet. The ringed birds give us all sorts of long-term data including population changes, survival rates, chick-rearing success and long-term fidelity. One of the new nesters today was ringed as a chick in 1979, making her older than me. The old birds are generally more calm and relaxed and it's a privilege to sit near them eating lunch and counting how much we have in common (not that much was my conclusion).

Wandering Albatross chick sporting that 'mutton chop' look.
 Meanwhile, over with the albatrosses...

With their adult feathers showing through the down the Wandering Albatross chicks are keen to feel the wind blowing through their wings, even though it'll be a bit of time before they can fly.
As Steph's work ringing all the Wanderer chicks nears completion the first of the mollymawks, the smaller albatrosses, have returned and daily counts of them, along with more ring checking, have begun. The Grey-heads were first, followed by the Black-brows and the Light-mantled Sooties won't be too far off.

One of the first Grey-headed Albatrosses back at the colony.

And the seals?

The smelliest bean-bag you've ever seen.
As the craziness of the Fur Seal pupping season approaches Hannah is still recording Leopard Seal activity and desperately hoping for an Elephant Seal pup on Bird Island. There's a handful of enormous males on the beaches and a couple of females. We've got our fingers crossed.

Count the chins.
The Elephant Seals are amazing. They look like the sort of thing that used to exist a hundred years ago, before the Victorians wiped them out so we could just look at poorly-drawn sketches and think 'nah... as if'. As they don't really breed here we're not going to get to see any of those spectacular fights between males but seeing the sheer size of them, and of their mouths when they're bellowing across the bay, gives the place a sense of pre-human wilderness.

Deserving the name elephant.
In the midst of the Leopard / Elephant / Fur Seal watching there was even more exciting seal action with a second Weddell of the season. And this one was hauled out on Main Bay, far from home but enjoying the bitter weather.

Lovely small-faced Weddell Seal
Longer days mean heading out earlier is possible, and getting work done quickly meant we could be done in time to create cakes and costumes for Hannah's birthday.

New superheroes and villains: Lord Caveman, Jesus riding an Orca, Dr Hogface and Super Binman.


Jerry.