Friday 29 March 2013

Antarctica Jan-Mar 2013

On March 5th I arrived home after six weeks spent on the Akademik Ioffe, where I worked as staff ornithologist for three back-to-back voyages from Ushuaia (in Argentine Tierra del Fuego) to the Antarctic Peninsula. There she is, with one of the zodiacs that we use to ferry passengers from ship to shore. And what's my staff colleague doing to that Antarctic Fur Seal with that tripod? Well, he's just keeping it at a distance since they often make mock-attacks, but they're more bark than bite. 

Here we've just landed on Cuverville Island, about to explore the penguin colonies on a fine January day. This is mid-summer, with the temperature in the range of 0 to +3 degrees C. On the Peninsula where the best wildlife is, we're a huge distance from the South Pole, and typical weather conditions on the Antarctic Peninsula are benign. Our passengers are taking a holiday, not a Ranulf Fiennes-type frost-biting toe-blackening endurance test! 

Of course it's the wildlife that draws me back to the Great White Continent again and again - the last of these three voyages was my 13th. We start with two days crossing the Drake Passage, a notoriously rough stretch of water that separates the South American mainland from the Peninsula. Rewards include sightings of the Wandering Albatross, here an old male with a 3.5 metre wingspan. Unfortunately all albatrosses are declining as they are often by-catch in the long-line fishing industry, but there is hope for the future as more ships adopt fast-sinking baited hooks. That way there's less chance for these wonderful seabirds to get ensnared on the hooks and drowned. 

Penguins are the main wildlife attraction on the Peninsula itself. On our first voyage, well grown Adelie Penguin chicks were discovering that life is tough. Here the chick (centre) is wandering through the colony hungry, looking for a parent to regurgitate krill for it. (Krill is a shrimp-like creature which most of the Antarctic wildlife feeds on). It's a mixed colony of Adelies (adult on left) and Gentoos (adult on right). But any penguin wandering through other breeding territories can expect a few pecks. 

Chinstrap Penguins also nest in large colonies on the Peninsula. Through my telescope I spy a stranger in their midst: the one with the orange eyebrows is a lone Macaroni Penguin which has spent the last few seasons in one particular Chinstrap colony. Macaronis nest hundreds of miles away to the north in places like South Georgia, but this individual seems to have made itself at home here. 

As we made our way along the Gerlache Strait, we watched this 30-tonne Humpback Whale repeatedly lifting its huge weight out of the water in an amazing display of breaching. Humpback numbers have recovered well from the horrors of the whaling days which lasted from the 1900s to the 1960s in these waters. One morning when I was watching from the bridge I counted 25 Humpbacks before breakfast. They migrate south to feed up on the vast krill stocks in the southern summer, and return to tropical waters - off South Africa, Australia and the South Pacific - to give birth. During their tropical months they fast for months, which gives an indication of how rich a diet krill must be. 

One of my three voyages was a longer one, taking in a few days in the Falkland Islands and South Georgia. South Georgia is a particular favourite of everyone who has ever been lucky enough to visit, as its wildlife riches are legendary. There are vast colonies of penguins, fur seals, and good breeding populations of elephant seals, albatross, petrels, and many other seabirds. One special highlight was watching a King Penguin egg in the process of hatching. Instead of making a nest of stones and laying eggs on the ground (as the Gentoos, Chinstraps and Adelies do), the Kings keep their single egg balanced on their feet. Usually they nest in vast colonies surrounded by non-breeders, so it's difficult to witness an event like this - but we found a very small colony in a remote location where we had a more intimate encounter. South Georgia's wildlife is about to get even richer - if the ongoing rat eradication programme is successful. Rats, introduced inadvertently by the whalers, are responsible for killing vast numbers of seabird chicks.

Finally, here's an Elephant Seal pup. Elephant Seals are remarkable creatures, the males growing to a weight of up to 4 tonnes. They can hold their breath underwater for 100 minutes and dive to a depth of 2 km. The huge alpha males are in their prime from 8-12 years old, when they fight each other for control of a harem of females far smaller than they are. Many thanks to fellow-passengers Jenny Varley, David Sinclair and Natasja von Gestel for permission to use three of the above images.