weddell seal

Midwinter part 1 by Jerry

The past weekend saw us through midwinter, the biggest celebration in Antarctica. For the bases further south than us it marks the middle of the long months of darkness and they can start looking forward to the return of the sun. For those of us in sub-Antarctica it means the days will start getting longer - it will begin getting light before 11 and we'll be able to stay out after 6.


Dressing up for the photos we sent out to the other bases. These go out, not only to the other 40 BAS over-winter staff but to all the other bases on the continent and sub-Antarctic islands.

The day started with me, as winter base commander, making breakfast for the others. A big fry-up is a rarity but it was worth using up some of our limited supply of eggs and mushrooms along with the almost limitless beans and sausages. I didn't go as far as serving them in bed as no one wanted their room smelling of burnt bacon.

A healthy start to a long day of excess (the glass of orange juice is the healthy bit).

Despite it being a holiday there's some jobs that just needed doing. Rob had his checks or the generators and boilers to ensure the base is still running smoothly while Cian had the daily round in search of Leopard Seals. I headed out to help him with that while Rob and Jess made a start with the preparations for dinner. I say made a start but for a few days previously Jess had been making cakes and enough meringue to build an igloo out of.

Midwinter cake cooked by Jess. The Leopard Seal decoration was by Cian.

Warming up we settled down to watch the The Thing. A chance to compare my facial hair to that of Kurt Russell and, predictably, be disappointed at the lack of similarity between us.

At the start of winter we'd drawn names, like a secret santa, to see who would be making gifts for who. This is a tradition that goes back to Scott and Shackleton's times, when they had to improvise with what resources and tools they had available. Our materials may be less limited but the creativity is still there and the results are always amazing. The amount of effort that goes in is incredible as people find skills they never knew they had.

Proudly displaying our gifts.

The clock that Jess made me using retrieved bird rings and seal tags, with an illustrated history of each one.

The model I made her of a Wandering Albatross family.

Following a long, drawn-out dinner we collapsed into the comfy chairs and listened to the midwinter broadcast put together by BAS and the BBC. We were delighted to hear greetings from, amongst others, comedians Adam Buxton and Bill Bailey, spaceman Tim Peake and explorer Ranulph Fiennes.

Sitting down for an excellent dinner.

Games, snacks and drinks took us into the small hours.

The next day was supposed to be one of nothing but relaxation, slobbing out in front of a few movies. Yet the presence of two leopards and one Weddell Seal meant we were running around excitedly outside for far more of it than planned.

Weddell Seal. One of the few occasions it acknowledged our presence before collapsing back down to sleep.
The week continues to be both fun and relaxing. Coming up we've a few plans for days out and the traditional midwinter games, but yesterday we created a 12 hole crazy golf course around the base which was great fun.

Par 1 across the masking-tape bridge.

A couple of holes down the corridor.

A beautifully decorated generator room course. 

Begin the spring by Jerry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the seals?

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

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

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

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

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


Jerry.


An abundance of wildlife by Jerry

Saturday started off a bit grey and was written off as one of those days to finish reports, cleaning and maybe a bit of relaxing reading or artwork. Yet by lunchtime the sun had burnt off the mist and we saw the first blue skies in what feels like weeks. It looked an ideal day for heading up the hill, checking on what was happening on the meadows and further away beaches.

In the tussoc the Geeps are starting to assemble in their nesting locations. Many of them have been here, paired up, through the winter but they're now showing a bit more affection, mating and starting to refresh their nests with greener grasses and moss.

Pair of Northern Giant Petrels tapping at each other with their beaks in a display of affection.

Further across the island we looked down on Johnson Beach and saw it full of penguins. Over 2,000 pairs nested here last season and something approaching that number was present again (based on a very rough count from high above the beach). 

Johnson Beach, covered with Penguins.
As with the Northern Giant Petrels, it'll be another months until they're properly egg-laying and these ones weren't showing much sign of nest building apart from the odd one picking up pebbles, but Gentoos tend to do that all the time anyway out of sheer curiosity.

Gentoos in the sun.

There was a young Leopard Seal on Johnson too, with some Gentoos walking alarminly close to it, but that wasn't the end of the seal excitement for the day.

Not the best creature for a penguin to try and be friends with.
Leave only footprints.

We continued our journey round, enjoying the late afternoon sun and enjoying the fact that it's now light until about 8pm.

The view back to base and La Roche, with the narrow Bird Sound between us and South Georgia mainland.

As we dropped down into the next cove there was a head in the water. We expected it to be a Leopard Seal but the shape was all wrong. Perhaps an Elephant Seal, but I've not seen them floating upright in the water like that. I hurridly pulled out my camera and binoculars, handing the latter to Hannah who described it as an obese Harbour Seal, reluctant with such a brief view to call what we hoped – a Weddell Seal. When it came closer to check us out though there was no doubting this was what it was.

Big body, tiny face - it's a Weddell Seal.
Weddell Seals are seen here occasionally in the winter, but they're the most southerly breeding seal species, hauling out onto the pack ice to raise their young.


Following a celebratory three-course dinner to which everyone bar me had contributed (I did the majority of the washing up) we popped out to enjoy the clear evening that was brighter than many of the days have been recently.



Jerry.