seals

December - the busiest month? by Jerry Gillham

December felt hectic busy with more and more people on station - the vegetation and rodent monitoring teams, scientists studying soil and flora around the retreating glaciers. All had their own specific requirements regarding accommodation and movement around the local area.

Our zoologist Kieran headed off to Stanley to visit the dentist so I helped cover some of his work. At this time of year the key job was visiting the fur seal beaches at Maiviken to take photographs every other day. Upon his return he counted all seals.

Our zoologist Kieran headed off to Stanley to visit the dentist so I helped cover some of his work. At this time of year the key job was visiting the fur seal beaches at Maiviken to take photographs every other day. Upon his return he counted all seals.

The new team got on with their duties including learning the boat handling and regulations. Here the doctor Cat and boating officer Jim power away from the Nordenskjold Glacier.

The new team got on with their duties including learning the boat handling and regulations. Here the doctor Cat and boating officer Jim power away from the Nordenskjold Glacier.

It was difficult to relax with so much work so I had to make a real effort to get away. Fraser and I got out to Sorling Hut on the Barff Peninsula one afternoon. As it looked a nice evening we headed off straight away to climb Montebello, a small but interesting peak with a challenging ridge near the top.

It was difficult to relax with so much work so I had to make a real effort to get away. Fraser and I got out to Sorling Hut on the Barff Peninsula one afternoon. As it looked a nice evening we headed off straight away to climb Montebello, a small but interesting peak with a challenging ridge near the top.

The 800m+ Black Peak to the right and Nordenskjold Glacier to the left.

The 800m+ Black Peak to the right and Nordenskjold Glacier to the left.

The next day was one of the best I have had on South Georgia. We got up early and headed up Ellerbeck Peak, one that we attempted in September but were turned back by thick cloud. The views down on the glacier and interior of the island were breathtaking.

The next day was one of the best I have had on South Georgia. We got up early and headed up Ellerbeck Peak, one that we attempted in September but were turned back by thick cloud. The views down on the glacier and interior of the island were breathtaking.

It was another challenging mountain, with a fair bit of scrambling.

It was another challenging mountain, with a fair bit of scrambling.

Pretty much 360 from the top.

Pretty much 360 from the top.

I think this is one of my favourite photos.

I think this is one of my favourite photos.

From the top we dropped down and across Sorling Valley, through two passes, walking quickly but it was a long way. Our plan was to get picked up on the east side of the peninsula as the boats were out, dropping off the rodent team. I had my radio on so could hear all their discussions about where they were landing, how much kit they had.

Dropping down into Ocean Harbour we met builders Adrian and Dale who were hard at work fixing the door to the hut.

Dropping down into Ocean Harbour we met builders Adrian and Dale who were hard at work fixing the door to the hut.

Fraser cooling down inside the hut.

Fraser cooling down inside the hut.

A day or two after that we headed out for another night off station. This time we decided to bivvy over at Sappho Point, so setting off after work we walked over to Maiviken and up over the ridge. There we encountered a big bank of sea fog. We continued, taking our time going down an unknown slope to a location we couldn't see until we got there. Then we couldn't find any fresh water that wasn't occupied by seals so ended up walking round for what felt like hours. Still, it was a good night and the next morning the sun woke us up with the view we had hoped for.

A day or two after that we headed out for another night off station. This time we decided to bivvy over at Sappho Point, so setting off after work we walked over to Maiviken and up over the ridge. There we encountered a big bank of sea fog. We continued, taking our time going down an unknown slope to a location we couldn't see until we got there. Then we couldn't find any fresh water that wasn't occupied by seals so ended up walking round for what felt like hours. Still, it was a good night and the next morning the sun woke us up with the view we had hoped for.

Another night I bivvied out with Becky, Roger and Charlotte. We walked the few hours over toward Curlew Cave and found a spot with a great sunset.  (photo by Roger Stilwell)

Another night I bivvied out with Becky, Roger and Charlotte. We walked the few hours over toward Curlew Cave and found a spot with a great sunset.

(photo by Roger Stilwell)

The next morning Charlotte and I dropped down to the cave before heading back for work. It would be a good place to camp out but not in peak seal-breeding season and we could barely get into in because of the territorial residents.

The next morning Charlotte and I dropped down to the cave before heading back for work. It would be a good place to camp out but not in peak seal-breeding season and we could barely get into in because of the territorial residents.

Pre-Christmas we had the traditional decorating of the church, complete with mince pies and mulled wine.

Pre-Christmas we had the traditional decorating of the church, complete with mince pies and mulled wine.

Posing for xmas photo number 1.

Posing for xmas photo number 1.

Xmas photo number 2, in our bar prior to dinner.

Xmas photo number 2, in our bar prior to dinner.

We all chipped in to cook dinner, which was spectacular. Boating officers Bob and Jim took responsibility for carving the meat.

We all chipped in to cook dinner, which was spectacular. Boating officers Bob and Jim took responsibility for carving the meat.

40 people crammed in the dining room, cheers!

40 people crammed in the dining room, cheers!

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.

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.

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.

Quiet on the Blog Front... by Jerry

...but not in real life. Quite the opposite in fact, and the two are linked. Since my return to Bird Island in late January I have been busy as anything, but I finally have a bit of time to write up the last couple of months. An update on the wildlife will follow but first - what's been happening on base?

Travelling down with me were a few technicians (Alun, Dale and Barry) who had been employed to fit a fancy new bulk fuel system to the base. This will eliminate our need to refuel with barrels every year and all the associated risk of spills posed when moving them around. Along with Rob and Paul, who were already here, they worked some long, long hours in some very wet and dirty conditions to create a very fancy looking and, as far as I understand it, efficient and failsafe system. With time against them as boat schedules changed they got it all fitted in time to walk us through how it'll work and give it a test fuel pump.

They haven't been the only hard workers though as the Base Commander, Adam, was also out in all weather packaging up a seemingly endless supply of scrap metal and wood that is being sent off for reuse and recycling.

The other Zoological Field Assistants and I have been working non-stop too, but I'll cover that in further blogs. Instead I'll mention here some of the exciting events and relaxing evenings we've enjoyed.

Darts match

Following last year's close game against Signy we accepted a rematch despite not putting in any practice in the intervening 12 months. Instead we had a few ringers in the shape of Dale, Cous and Alun. With all the internet activities on base turned off except one computer we were able to get text updates and the occasional video stream from their base further south. As with last year the losers were to buy the winners a case of beer, and as with last year it was a close 2-1, though victory to us this year!

Darts night, with the competition on the big screen.

BBC visit

A BBC team filming Deadly Pole to Pole with Steve Backshall visited in mid-February for a few days. We accompanied them looking for some of Bird Island's deadliest wildlife, although unfortunately it wasn't quite the right time of year for the angriest male Fur Seals. The skuas too are surprisingly relaxed at the moment. They got some great footage of a Giant Petrel feeding on a seal carcass, the Wandering Albatross displaying and the Macaroni colony at night so I hope they can do the island justice. It was interesting having them around and they were a really nice team. We celebrated the end of filming with a big barbeque on the beach.

Deadly / Bird Island team photo. (Adam's photo).

Nights off base

When the weather's settled it's nice to get away from base and I've done this more in the last month than at any other time. Whether it's camping out near the Wanderers so we can watch them displaying late into the evening and then get woken up by Geeps trying to eat the tent, staying in Fairy Point Hut with incoming or departing winter teams or finding a dry patch on a misty night in the cave they all feel like great experiences. The hut especially has been very cosy since the heater was fixed and staying there we got some good views of the stars and of the burrowing Prions and Petrels returning at night.

The Love Shack with a rare clear sky and either aurora australis or high clouds.

Swimming with puppies


One of the most funnest things I've done while here was to don one of the thick wetsuits and get in the sea with the Fur Seal Puppies. They seem to be having so much fun learning to swim, chasing each other around in the shallows and fighting with kelp that we wanted to be a part of it. With us bobbing around they came over to investigate. A bold one would come closer than the others, have a bit of a sniff, decide we weren't worth eating or fighting and dive away, swimming back to its friends. We weren't in long before the cold got the better of us but it was a lovely sunny day and we rushed back to find the others eating sandwiches on the back step, so joined them with a big mug of tea.

Fur Seals. Less interested in us than we are of them. (Steph's photo).