Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Antarctica Nov 2016-Jan 2017

Here's a brief overview of my 7 weeks working as staff ornithologist on the Akademik Sergei Vavilov. There she is in the background, eclipsed by a frolicsome young Humpback Whale that breached 20 times or so as we were close by in zodiacs. (Not too close!) There were several Humpbacks in Wilhelmina Bay that day in December. We visited there in November, before any had arrived from the tropical waters where they breed. But as the summer progresses, numbers build up spectacularly. They have recovered better than any other whale from the depredations of the whaling years. 

This image was on the same zodiac cruise, but we can't be sure if this was the same whale. This looking-around behaviour is known as spy-hopping: the small eye is visible to the right of the huge mouth. On the throat and stretching down to the belly are the ventral pleats which expand into a vast balloon, filled with water and krill. By bringing the tongue up to the palate, the water is extruded through the baleen plates, leaving a ball of krill to swallow. In the background is one of our zodiacs and a few Kelp Gulls, on the lookout for spilt krill. 

I was on board for four voyages: during the first we had two Emperor Penguin encounters - both far north of their usual range. This immature came first, on Half Moon Island. I had the privilege of finding it for myself, as I laid out a trail for passengers to follow. It stood with my back to me, asleep with head lowered. I mistook it for a black backpack which I assumed had been carelessly left behind by another visiting ship. Big thrill when the backpack stretched out a flipper and raised a head! We watched it for an hour from the recommended distance of 5 metres, as it preened, walked towards us, rolled in the snow, and flapped flippers as if trying to take off. A magic encounter. 

 Still better was to follow three days later, when this adult Emperor appeared on ice in front of the ship as we sailed north through Dallmann Bay. Many passengers were out on the bows anyway, enjoying afternoon tea and cookies as it was mild and sunny. Hawk-eyed expedition leader Nate spotted it at a great distance, and announced it on the p.a. system, so that all passengers and staff had fantastic views as it passed almost underneath our bows. 

Our first voyage visited South Georgia, where we had a memorable morning at St Andrews Bay. This is one section of the King Penguin colony - the largest on the island - estimated to contain over 100,000 breeding pairs. The brown ones (click to enlarge) are the fully grown juveniles, mostly 8 months old, and nearly ready to moult into their first waterproof plumage. Parents returning from the sea full of fish will have to find their offspring by individual voice, even though they may have wandered far from where they were last fed! This spectacle is one of the wonders of my world. 

With such vast (and increasing) numbers of King Penguins, casualties are bound to occur. Here a Leopard Seal has caught hold of a huge meal - though renowned for attacking penguins, they also eat great quantities of krill.

On the Antarctic Peninsula, Gentoo Penguins are also increasing in numbers. On a typical voyage we visit two or three colonies of Gentoos, and a similar number of Chinstraps and Adelies. These two are waddling down to sea from their nests along a well-used highway. 

During a visit to Brown Bluff on 11 December, it was a big day for hatching in the Adelie Penguin colony. Adelies lay two eggs, usually hatch two young, and often raise both to fledging. We found four nests with eggs pipping, or broken eggshells and tiny chicks. It was a cold day however, and most parents were not inclined to show off their chicks. They would mostly lie on the nest keeping the chicks warm, only occasionally standing as if to marvel at what their eggs were turning into. Penguins are so confiding, letting us into their family life without reacting to camera-crazy visitors! 

 This is a very rare scene, taken at Port Charcot by penguin scientist Steve Forrest. Chinstraps, Gentoos and Adelies are all abundant, but not nesting together! Normally they stick to their own single-species colonies. Steve works with Oceanites, a penguin-counting N.G.O. which has built up an impressive inventory of penguin populations on the Peninsula, as a database to inform future science as the climate changes. 

 Macaroni Penguins are more a sub-Antarctic species, with only a few nesting pairs in the South Shetland Islands, just north of the Peninsula. Their bright orange plumes seem amost out of place in the monochrome Antarctic landscapes. 

Although they are the most abundant penguin in the world (about 9 million pairs), they are not well known as they choose remote, inaccessible sites on scree and in tussock to nest. 

It's been all wildlife so far! But I have to include one of the thousands of dramatic ice-scapes that we are lucky enough to admire during a season. This holy ice-berg is in Paradise Harbour. It would have calved from a nearby glacier, and is stuck on the sea-floor. Others float free, and drift around with the wind and currents. 

Back to the wildlife! (My work and passion in equal measure). The Antarctic Minke is usually a shy and elusive whale, but this one came close to each of our seven zodiacs in turn, allowing all the passengers who were out on the water an encounter like this. When will the Japanese stop hunting them?

Backtracking in time, I leave the largest whale till last. This Blue Whale surfaced ahead of the ship on our way to South Georgia at the beginning of the season. It is just possible to make out its mottled greyish colour and its small dorsal fin. I was on the bridge when the monumentally tall whale-blow ahead made us all take notice. I was able to announce it on the p.a., and give many passengers a chance to see the largest animal ever to grace the planet.

 After seven weeks on board, it's time to head north across the Scotia Sea back to Stanley and four flights home. The two sea days are a chance for many to catch up on sleep, but for me they are busy days. There are always seabirds to find, such as six species of albatross and various petrels. This a magnificent old Wandering Albatross, with a wingspan of about 12 ft. Only very mature birds - it may be 30, 40 or 50 years old - lose the white on the tail and show so much white on the leading edge of the wings. Many thanks to various passengers who took most of these images and allowed me to use them. I return to the sister ship, the Akademik Ioffe, for two more voyages in February.


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