Thursday 8 March 2018

Antarctica 2017-8

 I am recently back from my seventh season with One Ocean Expeditions, working as ornithologist for passengers travelling between Ushuaia or Stanley and the Antarctic Peninsula. We also made two longer voyages that included the Jewel of the Southern Ocean, South Georgia. Here the ship is at anchor at Grytviken, South Georgia, with the remains of the rusting whaling station and the church, built in 1913, in the foreground.
 One Ocean always keeps a few berths open for scientists, such as Dr Ari Friedlaender from the University of California, Santa Cruz, whose research involves tagging whales with suction caps and biopsy darts. The caps soon drop off, and reveal important information about ranges, length of dives, etc, while from the darts we can learn about diet and any toxins in the blubber. Here Ari creates history with the first ever tag placed on an Antarctic Minke Whale. 
Another inspiring colleague was Falcon Scott, only grandson of Captain Scott of the Antarctic. Here he is in the Presentation Room, just after he presented his interpretation of the explorer, his scientific achievements, and ultimate tragedy. On staff we always have a few naturalists, a historian, a photographer, two kayak guides, several zodiac drivers, and often an artist in residence. 

Occasionally I have the opportunity of leading a hike, such as here at Penguin Island in the South Shetlands. Adelies and Chinstraps both have nesting colonies here, but on this occasion we were heading up to the viewpoint on top of an extinct volcano: a cinder cone with great views in all directions.  
Among the other ships we passed was the latest Greenpeace ship, Arctic Sunrise, which is down in the area doing underwater research and campaigning for a marine sanctuary to be declared in the heavily visited Antarctic Peninsula, where most of the penguin colonies on the continent can be found.  

As for this season's wildlife sightings, this was one of the most remarkable. When we were in open ocean, 140 miles south-west of South Georgia, we saw a small songbird flying around the ship. During lunch it found its way through the open door into the bar-lounge, where it landed on the only object that looked familiar - which happened to be the Christmas tree. It was a White-crested Elaenia, a flycatcher that normally nests in woodland in Patagonia and was seriously lost. Sadly we had no food for it, and it must have perished at sea. 

On the crossing to South Georgia, we are used to seeing many Light-mantled Albatrosses, but this is a much rarer cousin, the Sooty Albatross, which nests in small numbers in the Tristan group in the South Atlantic. Its most important seabird island, Gough, is about to be the target for an ambitious project to eradicate the invasive house mice, which have grown almost rat-sized by eating the eggs and chicks of the seabirds.  See
Gold Harbour on South Georgia was the setting for this dramatic and unprovoked attack by a Northern Giant Petrel on a young King Penguin on the beach. Within a few seconds, other giant petrels joined in, and the unfortunate penguin was soon dismembered. 

King Penguins are increasing on South Georgia, and the loss of some young or weak birds is only to be expected in their huge colonies. Their main diet is lanternfish, a small species that has no commercial fishery, so they have most of the stocks to themselves.  
On a zodiac cruise at Elsehul, South Georgia, we witnessed the amazing spectacle of a huge feeding frenzy of Antarctic Prions, small burrow-nesting petrels which must have had a bonanza of copepods at the surface. Cape Petrels, giant petrels and three species of albatross were joining in the feast. 
 At Fort Point in the South Shetlands, there's a mixed colony of Gentoos and Chinstraps, with a single pair of Macaronis nesting in the middle. This encounter between a Mac and a Chinny looks aggressive, but it only lasted a second and the two birds soon waddled off in different directions.

We were at Hope Bay during the week when all the Adelie chicks were taking their first swims. This proved to be a great opportunity for a number of Leopard Seals, which were too fast for these innocent youngsters.  

Finally, a photo I took on Saunders Island, in the Falklands. It shows that King Penguins teach their chicks to indicate their intention to turn left at an early age!
Many thanks to Nigel Hacking and Steve Rose for those photos which are not mine. It was another great season - one reason I look forward to our winters. Thanks also to all One Ocean staff and passengers who made it possible for me to return yet again to this unique wilderness.

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