leopard seal

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.

July part 2 - skiing & leopard seals by Jerry Gillham

One of my key reasons for coming to KEP was the opportunity to get out on skis. There's no lifts or skidoos to get you uphill so you have to do all the hard work yourself, you have to earn your turns. It's a long time since I've done anything but downhill skiing so I spent quite a lot of time and money investing in new boots, bindings and skis when I was last back in the UK.

This was the first day I headed out on skis. It's just in our local, single-person travel area where I've been loads of times before but the feeling of being out exploring was such a good one.

A nice patch of rock-free snow is a bit of a rarity. This is where we practiced ice-axe arrests a month or so ago so I knew it'd be pretty smooth and a good angle, worth the detour to get there.

One of the first bigger trips was when Fraser and I headed up to the VHF repeater on the ridge behind station. It's about 500m ascent and was an exciting bit of route-finding both going up and down. I was pleased I'd followed the advice about not spending a huge amount on the skis themselves as I picked up a fair few scrapes and scratches.

This is taken just beneath the final push, you can see the antennae on the skyline. It was a narrow chute to come down, especially for the first descent of the day. 

Fraser's photo from the same place as the above but looking the other way toward Mt Hodges and the interior of the island.

Fraser, Neil and I headed out for a planned longer trip up one of the peaks. As it turned out we got as far as Glacier Col and found the peaks had been blown bare. Still, we got a good descent back through a few little gullies. Though with some unexpectedly deep drifts we also fell over a few times.

I'll hopefully fit in a skiing holiday later in the winter, possibly hauling our kit by pulk. So on a slightly crappy but snowy day I decided to put in some practice by taking some food over to stock up the tsunami shelter. I learned that it's not as simple as it seems, especially the steep uphills and almost every downhill.

It's been a good month for leopard seals. Only three sightings, which is fewer than we'd get in a day sometimes on Bird Island, but they were all great ones and I didn't have the pressure of trying to get specific photographs of them.

The first was off down Moraine Fjord when we were in the rib, and kept lifting itself high out of the water, spy-hopping to get a better view of us.

The second was as Paddy and I were bringing the government officer and post master back from a fishing vessel. It was hanging around near a belt of sea-ice and as we slipped past came to investigate us, repeatedly swimming underneath the boat in the crystal clear water.

The third was probably the best yet. Paddy and Bob were working down on the boat when they heard a loud snort behind them. This lep kept poking it's head up through holes in the ice, staring at them for a few seconds then dropping back underwater and coming back up at another ice hole. This continued for the best part of an hour. It wasn't aggressive or nervous, just curious the whole time.

It seemed like an effort to push up through the ice at times.

Leopard seals can be identified by their unique markings. This one has a spot roughly in the shape of Africa just below his bottom lip. I've compared it to a few photos of other leps that have been about but it doesn't seem like a regular visitor.

When he was a good 10m away I slowly slid my GoPro under the ice on the end of a long pole. I got a whole load of video of him distant and disinterested but was rewarded with this one quick look straight into the camera.

Easy to get caught looking the wrong way... Bob and Paddy less on the ball than Vicki.

July saw Matthew's departure after his fourth year here. One of the things he brought down this year was a higher class of pizza, with two proper stones for the oven and a paddle. On his last week he hosted a pizza-making class so we can continue with the technique if not quite the high standard for the rest of the year.

Dave putting the finishing touches to his pizza, while the queue builds up.

Getting into character with the wig and especially dodgy facial hair.

Captain Phillips / any sort of maritime theme leaving party. I was dressed as what I imagine the captain of the Costa Concordia looks like. Top prize went to Fraser for his cryptic crossword style cap-tin (of pineapple slices) phillips (head screwdriver).

Dave showing Matt the appropriate respect.

Seeing sea mammals by Jerry Gillham

We've had a good week for wildlife, with spectacular visits from whales and seals.

Southern Right Whale

Early Monday evening we were raised over the radio by James declaring he had a whale in the entrance to the bay. Quickly throwing on insulated boiler suit, jacket, boots, hat and gloves (I've learned from experience that it's far better to be a minute later and prepared than the first one there who has to leave after a few minutes to put on more layers) we rushed out to join him.

We'd had a couple of whales close in the previous few days so weren't too surprised, until we saw it blow from just behind the rocky point in front of base. This one was close in. Taking advantage of the low tide we scrambled out across the rocks until we were on one side of the narrow entrance to the bay, the other side less than 30 meters away. In between us this whale repeatedly raised it's head then dropped below the surface.

That day there had been huge numbers of gulls, terns, duck and petrels feeding in the shallows. In places you could see the pink mist where krill and other marine crustaceans had washed up close. I guess a current had a brought a swarm our direction and those that depend on it, including this whale, had followed.

It seemed such a small space for it to be feeding it we were a little worried it had swum in and got caught as the tide dropped, and were even considering what we would do if we found it lying on one of the beaches the following day.

Leopard Seal

It has been a good winter for leopard seals with several familiar individuals returning, some of them after long absences, and a number of new records. Most of the sightings have been of animals sleeping in the water, just nostrils above the surface. When we're lucky they haul out on the beaches and occasionally we see them feeding.

A leopard seal eating is one of the most exciting wildlife spectacles I have witnessed. We never see them catch their prey but if you're lucky you catch them at the point when they're pushing a penguin or small seal round on the surface, after the kill but before the feed.

Again we were alerted by James, running across the beach to where he'd seen a gathering of scavengers - skuas, gulls, giant petrels - all hovering over one point, then a big splash in the water as the thrashing began.

Leopard seals grip their prey, in this case an unfortunate fur seal, in their incredible teeth then whip them through the air, slamming them down against the sea surface. This flaying is reminiscent of the way crocodiles throw their prey around. It's brutal but compelling and an impressive show of strength.