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.

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.

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.

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.

Enter the Ice by Jerry

15th and 16th November

We hit the ice on 15th November. There were a few large 'bergs around the previous evening so many of us were up on deck early, excited at the increasing number and variety of sizes and shapes. Huge, flat-topped blocks, smaller amorphous chunks and the most dramatic ones with spires and turrets rising like something from a gothic fairy tale, evidence of where they'd been eroded by the waves and then rolled over. Dotted amongst these were the first bits of land we'd seen in three days. Bleak, dark islands. Just rocks in the ocean, perilously steep and ice-covered with emotive names like Inaccessible Island.

On the horizon what looked at first like a silvery line, possibly a reflection of the distant sun, resolved itself as the edge of the brash sea ice. It was a very definite line, before which there was open ocean carrying ice fragments and after which was compacted ice fragments with the occasional stretch of open water. There was tremendous excitement on deck as we all crowded round either the bow or the top deck viewing platform to enjoy the moment, around 11am, when we heard the first crunch of ice being pushed against ice as we edged our way into this new domain.

Irregularly shaped blocks of ice measuring ten to thirty meters across, standing just fifty centimetres clear of the water, dominated the surface. The gaps where they don't tessellate being filled in with the broken fragments that have been sheared off when they grind against each other. It's the gaps we want to aim for, slipping between the big blocks rather than trying to break them apart. As we got further in the gaps got smaller and the big blocks closer together. Progress slowed and by the afternoon it wasn't unusual for us to be stopping, reversing slightly and altering direction by a few degrees before pushing forward again. In our wake the open water marking the route we'd taken quickly closed up as the ice spread itself out again, possibly in smaller fragments carrying a little red paint.

An unanticipated but pleasing aspect to being in the ice is how smooth the journey feels. Gone are the nausea-inducing rolling seas, replaced by a smooth, slow glide interrupted by jolts that rock the ship like airplane turbulence. We made a maximum three knots through this, compared to the twelve we can do in open water.

The last hour in open water gave us our first views of whales on this trip. Distant spouts of, we think, minkes. Leaping clear alongside the ship, travelling in small groups were a few penguins; gentoos, chinstraps and, once we got into the ice, adelies. We saw more of them standing in small groups on the larger bergs or moving through the ice field like trains of ants crossing a particularly broken up patio. Dotted around too were crabeater seals, sleeping peacefully or putting their heads up to see this big red monster carving through their domain.

Twenty four hours later we broke free, back into open water. The way the ice has these very definite boundaries, controlled by wind and ocean currents, seems bizarre. There's no gradual change, it's an instant jump from one world to another.

The cloud-covered peaks of Coronation Island had been visible for some time but as we drew closer to Signy, our first port of call, the mountains seemed to get bigger as the cloud got heavier. Eventually we pulled up within reach of our destination, surrounded by spectacular steep slopes and glaciers plunging into the sea.

One of the first really spectacular icebergs.

A line of white on the horizon slowly resolving itself into the edge of the ice.

Eerie towers rising through the broken surface.

Pushing its way slowly through the ice, the RRS James Clark Ross.

Crabeater Seal.

Adelie penguins, pushing themselves along on their bellies.

Snow, reducing the visibility until it was nearly complete white.

Meanwhile... inside the ship.

While the cracks are useful for us to push our way through on the ship for some of the residents they provide more of an obstacle to a smooth journey.

The mountains of the South Orkneys near Signy. Spot the crabeater seal on the nearest ice.

Some of the 'bergs were large enough to have little lumps and valleys to hide in.

Looking over the pointy end of the ship to where it was breaking through the ice.

Adelie penguins, up to no good.

Love those little white rings around the eyes.

Snow petrels accompanied us the whole time we were in the ice, whizzing round and round the ship, looking for marine crustaceans near the surface where we'd disturbed it.

At times it looked like you could have got out and walked across the ice. I think if we were here at the end of autumn, rather than spring, I'd have been concerned (and secretly excited) at the prospect of getting stuck.

Amazing colours of the icebergs (mostly white and blue).

This is a long exposure photo of us edging through the pack at night. 

When traveling through the ice at night these two huge spotlights move around as the skipper picks out the smoothest route. This is a long exposure photo of us edging 

Nearer the edge of the pack the gaps between ice get bigger and the channels open up.

Groups of chinstrap penguins accompanied the ship heading through the narrow channels of open water.

One cheeky adelie hanging out with the chinstrap penguins.

Absolute mirror-calm seas gave the place a somewhat spooky air. I spent a long time thinking about Scott, Shackleton and the others, but also people like James Cook and James Clark Ross himself, after whom our ship is named. They were amongst the first people to sail these seas, back when whatever was over the horizon was truly unknown.

It's difficult to get into pictures just how it feels to be in this environment, with ice as far as you can see, Even in a big, modern comfy ship you feel a sense of vulnerability. Like, if the weather turned against you there is nothing you could do to prevent it.

Jerry

Penguin counting by Jerry

This has been a busy month with the penguins. Al and I, with plenty of assistance from the others on base, have been out counting and weighing chicks across the whole island.

First up came the gentoos. There are 7 separate colonies containing between 200 and 1500 nests (counted at the end of October). The beauty of counting nests is that they don’t move around, whereas young penguins do. Especially once they’re large enough for their parents to leave them and head off to sea to feed. While awaiting their return the young ones crèche together in large, noisy and smelly (though undeniably cute) groups. The largest of these groups can contain several hundred chicks and require some co-ordination of counters.

We’ll try and position ourselves so we’ve a good view of a group, but also so we’re preventing them from running off or mingling with other groups. Then everyone counts as accurately as they are able. Chicks do move around but you do your best and hope that those missed are made up for by any double-counted. When done everyone calls out their figure, like a chaotic bingo hall, and if close enough we’ll move on to the next group. In most cases we aim to have at least six counts, with no more than 5% variation.
Assembled to count a group of gentoo chicks.

As we know how many occupied nests there were from the October counts we can say how many chicks have survived per nest. Gentoos lay two eggs though of course not all survive. A productivity of 1.2 to 1.5 would indicate a good year.
Stopping for lunch at the edge of the colony, it soon becomes the centre of the colony as the chicks head over to investigate.

Similar counts are carried out with the macaroni penguins, although with only one chick per year their productivity is naturally lower. This may be a product of their different behaviour, specifically foraging further from the colony for food. When entering the smaller colony, Little Mac, penguins cross a gateway that can identify and weigh them. An individual can typically leave the colony in the morning 500g lighter than it arrived the previous night – all food passed on to the chick, not bad for a 4kg bird!

We also weigh the penguin chicks at a specific age each year. Weight is a good indicator of general health and many birds are weighed prior to fledging. For the penguins this requires a team of volunteers willing to get muddy and smelly as the chicks have to be caught in a net, put in a strong bag and weighed on a spring balance. It takes less than a minute before they’re running back into the mass of fluffy compatriots.
Still a bit fluffy, young gentoo chicks taking their first steps into the sea.

The penguin chicks are now starting to leave. The macaronis clear the colony within a week, disappearing off to sea while their parents will return in a week or two to moult their feathers before spending another winter in the ocean. The gentoo chicks spend more time familiarising themselves with the water; wading in and putting their faces below the surface then getting freaked out and running back onto the beach when they get knocked over by a wave. Gradually they get more accomplished and start swimming, though often are too fat to dive underwater properly, needing to lose some weight as they develop their swimming muscles.

Not only are there waves, the young penguins also have to deal with over-playful fur seal pups, themselves just getting used to the water and inquisitive about anything near them.

As they lose their downy feathers and a little fat they become more streamlined and start to look like proper penguins. They spend more time in the water and start heading further from the shore.

Jerry

Fur Seals by Jerry

Apologies it's been so long since the last update. We've been hectic busy here with the spring arrival of the penguins, petrels and albatrosses as well as the summer staff – the returning base commander, new technician, a couple of senior scientists and our replacement field assistants. We'll be spending the next few months here working with and handing over to them.

As I was away at this time last year I missed one of the unique experiences of Bird Island; the fur seal season. This started seriously around the beginning of November when the big males started establishing territories on the beach. At 2m long and weighing around 150kg they are by no means the largest seals in the sub-Antarctic but they will not give ground to anyone. As they are more like sea lions than the phocids (elephant and leopard seals as well as the grey and common found around the UK) they are very quick and agile on land.

Charging up river, a male Antarctic Fur Seal.
A male arriving at a crowded beach will have to charge up the river (where no one holds territory) fighting off other males from either side. If cornered he will try and be repelled by a demonstration of superior size, but it won't take much for them to start fighting – biting and thrashing – and the majority have scars somewhere on their upper body.

The males are holding out for the return of the females. They face an equally difficult charge up the beach as they will try and be herded into harems. The largest males with the best locations will have the best chance of attracting and keeping them, outside our window one big guy is keeping his eye on 31 ladies and their pups.
The males can weigh as much as five times the weight of a female. They will typically hold their breeding territory for 20 to 40 days, during which time they will largely rely on the food reserves stored in their body fat.
The pups are born within a few days of their mothers returning from the ocean. Cast an eye over the colony at the right time and it won't be long until you see a female writhing round and giving birth to a little puppy that quickly shakes off its birth sack, opens its eyes and starts crying for food. There's a lot of calling as the mums and pups bond with each other as it's not long (about a week) before the former head back to sea to feed and when they return they need to recognise their young by call and by smell.
Female and newly-born pup taking its first look at the world. 
A female working out which of these two attention-seeking puppies is actually hers.
Once left alone the pups start to interact with one another, climbing, sniffing and play fighting. If there's no one else around they will happily play with their own flippers.

Dreaming of milk, a content pup.

Less than 1% of the pups are born blonde. With very few natural predators (the occasional leopard seal or orca) they tend to survive as well as the more typical black ones though they stand out more.

A stand off between a pair of puppies enjoying the chance to play while their mums are away.

A definite winner in this little battle, though the loser was straight back up for another bout.


95% of the world population of Antarctic Fur Seals Arctocephalus gazella is based around South Georgia with population estimates of 1.5 to 4 million. This has hugely increased in the last 50 years, by which point they were nearly hunted to extinction. Bird Island, being largely inaccessible, was one of their last strongholds.

Much of the science and research being done on these species focuses on finding out where they feed, what they're feeding on and how keeping track of how healthy the population is. Other projects have focused on their genetics and learning more about mother-pup interactions. I've been helping out over on the special study beach where the pups are weighed and samples of their umbilical cords are taken for genetic analysis.  

While some pups put up much more of a struggle than one would expect of their 5kg frame, others fall asleep in your arms.


Jerry.

Wildlife update 4: Seals by Jerry


The Fur Seal pups were starting to be born as I departed for my enforced break, so I missed a good amount of seeing them small and cuddly. When I returned they'd started to shed their black puppy hair and develop the sleek grey fur that will keep them warm in the water. They'd also begun to be left alone more as their mums headed out to sea to feed, returning full of milk to help their pups grow big. Before leaving many of the mums take their pups up the slopes, finding somewhere safe to leave them and somewhere they can return to find them again.

Curious young pup,

Grumpy blondie pup.

That's the theory anyway. It seems as soon as many of the mums leave the pups go exploring, heading back down to the beaches to meet up with other pups for playing and fighting (often indistinguishable) and later on heading into the shallow waters and rock pools to have a go at swimming.

Splashing down the stream in heady anticipation of some fun in the sea.

Seeing them charging round the small pools, chasing each other or wrestling with bits of kelp is hugely entertaining. It's like they've just discovered what their flippers are for, discovered what it is to be a seal. At this time they're both very curious and a bit nervous, so will come and investigate anything unfamiliar, such as a person or a camera, but will quickly turn and swim off once they feel unsafe, usually returning a minute later for another look.

Fighting with a bit of kelp.

Fighting a friend over a feather.

The goal; to be so good at swimming you can lie on your back, scratch and yawn while doing it.

Investigating the underwater camera in a small pool.

As with the birds, weighing the pups on specific dates is a simple way to get an idea of the health of the population that can be compared to previous years. This is done three times through the year and by the third occasion they're pretty big, quick and feisty. With the heaviest nearly 20kg it can be quite a task, but a good one that ensures everyone gets muddy together.

Three mud-spattered puppy-weighers.



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.


Last trip to Skomer by Jerry

This week sees my last few days in the office in Cambridge before spending some time back in the Lake District. The weekend just gone was a fun one though...

I headed down to Pembrokeshire on Friday night, to The Griffin in Dale, where people had gathered for what should have been the final episode of Dream Island, the documentary about Skokholm made over the last two years (due to last weeks football it was actually episode 5, the last one is next week). It was great to see assorted programme-makers, boatmen and volunteers, as well as Chris and Sarah, enjoying our work and applauding loudly during the end credits.

South Haven, Skomer

Despite all expectations the weekend was sunny and calm and we were able to get over to Skomer. Porpoise passed us on the way, seeming to celebrate my return. It's a lovely time of year to be there as the low sun brings out the greens and browns of dying vegetation, while plenty of migratory birds are making their way through. There wasn't anything too rare this weekend but it really felt like autumn as Sunday morning brought several hundred thrushes as well as finches and others passing overhead. Flocks of Jackdaws and Starlings are hanging around, enough to hear the 'wooooosh' as they fly past.

Grey Seals on North Haven beach.

Probably the real draw of this time of year though are the Grey Seal pups. It's the middle of the season down on Skomer and around 130 had been born already. A big storm last week had moved them around a little, with big waves picking up some and depositing them on different beaches. This can potentially be very bad news as pups get injured, cold or separated from their mothers, but the majority we saw were sleeping away all fat and happy.

Fat, healthy, moulted pup on the slipway.

Because of the storms and the high number of pups still being born Dave is very busy running round recording and identifying them. We got to go with him down to the bottom of The Wick, an exciting part of Skomer only accessed at this time of year. A bit of a scramble takes you down to the shingle where many years worth of driftwood has piled up and young seals are surprisingly camouflaged. The seal pups are marked with an agricultural dye on their white coat. This moults before they head off on their own and is used to differentiate them and record how successful a season it has been. There was one or two particularly aggressive mothers down The Wick so it was useful to have one person distracting them while the other nipped in and marked the pup. I'll report how different work on Bird Island is, where each angry seal is surrounded by thousands of other angry seals.

 Trip down to the bottom of The Wick to mark and record seal pups.

We departed on Sunday afternoon and stopped briefly by my Grandma's house, a wonderful place looking out over Tenby and the beach, where I spent many happy childhood holidays. It's the last time I'll see it as it's being sold, so saying goodbye was harder than saying goodbye to many people. There was time for an stroll down to the beach in the evening sun before stopping at another pub for tea.

Looking along the beach to Tenby.

A damp day in Cardiff followed by a long train journey back to foggy Cambridge couldn't detract from the joy of two sunny days on the Pembrokeshire islands, including my last chance to swim in the sea.


Jerry.