Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Antarctica October 2015-January 2016

My latest Antarctic adventure was my longest: 12 weeks on the Akademik Sergei Vavilov, seen here on a sunny morning off the Antarctic Peninsula, at 64 degrees south. In recent years, there has been too much ice to head further south than this much before Christmas. February and March are the easiest months to cross the Antarctic Circle, at 66 degrees, 33 minutes. As usual this and her sister ship are operated by One Ocean Expeditions, from Canada. Although my main jobs are spotting and identifying wildlife, and giving presentations on the seabirds (especially penguins), we staff all have plenty of other roles. Most revolve around ensuring that our passengers are safe and have a wonderful time!   

We had six groups of passengers while I was on board. The first voyage was just for South Georgia, since October is too early to visit Antarctica. Here King Penguins - with their brown downy chicks aged 8 months - form great colonies close to the beach. On some beaches they have to share space with hundreds of Elephant Seals and (from late November) Antarctic Fur Seals too. 

 Once we reach the Antarctic Peninsula, these are the three penguins we see most: (from left to right) Adelie, Gentoo and Chinstrap, though it's not common to see the three standing together as here on a beach in the South Shetlands. They usually nest in one-species colonies, apart from the other two. This part of Antarctica (the west side of the Peninsula) is changing quickly, with far less sea-ice remaining in winter compared with a century ago. This has caused a decline in Adelies and Chinstraps, which feed on krill. (Krill feeds on algae on the underside of the sea-ice). However, the more generalist Gentoo - a fish-eater too - is increasing rapidly at the expense of the other two.  

This Gentoo has a nest with two eggs, laid in mid-November. Then came a snowstorm, as often happens early in the season. Like all penguins, both Gentoo parents share all the nesting duties. In a day or two, the other partner will return to take a turn incubating. Provided the nest has a good foundation of small stones to help the eggs dry out quickly, they should hatch as normal - around Christmas or New Year's Day.

Adelies begin their nesting season earlier than Gentoos: this is the colony at Brown Bluff on 3rd January. After two more weeks the chicks' down falls off, revealing their first waterproof plumage underneath. Their first underwater forays are fraught with danger, as they have to learn to swim, find food, and avoid Leopard Seals and Orcas. 

Elephant Island, in the South Shetlands, is home to large colonies of Macaroni and Chinstrap Penguins. Here two Macs pose on the rocks with a Chinny. Macaronis are the world's most abundant penguin, with about 9 million pairs, but by no means the easiest to encounter. They nest in large inaccessible colonies on steep slopes, either under tussock or in scree. Although they lay two eggs, they only ever raise one chick to fledging. The first of the two eggs is often smaller than the second, and usually fails to hatch. 

On a snowy day on South Georgia, we are watching Albatrosses (Grey-headed and Light-mantled) on their nests. Some passengers are busy with cameras, while others enjoy the 30x magnification of the ship's telescope. In early November, the albatrosses are at the courtship stage, strengthening their pair-bonds with mutual preening on the nest and synchronized fly-pasts.

This is a pre-digital slide I took many years ago in South Georgia, of two half-grown Light-mantled Albatross chicks on their nests one February. As with all of the family, only one egg is laid. 

In the evenings there is 
often a chance to make music in the bar. Michael, Kaylan and I have just recreated the song 'My Hut on Elephant Isle' - written in 1916 by the crew of the Endurance as they awaited rescue by Shackleton. Some of these photos are mine; many thanks to One Ocean staff and passengers for the others.  

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