Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Welcome to Bird Island

On the 30th October the JCR arrived at Bird Island, and I got the first glimpse of the place that will be my home for the next 30 months. It was (unusually) a beautiful sunny day and both Bird Island and South Georgia looked rugged and stunning in the early morning light. Everyone disembarking the JCR was quickly ushered into the cargo tender and ferried ashore, where we were met at the jetty by Stacey, Mick, Claudia and Joe, the current winterers, and Andy, who arrived a few weeks before we did. After some hasty introductions we began unloading cargo and that pretty much became the theme for the rest of the day.

The peak in the background is La Roche, the highest point on Bird Island (1200 feet). The base and white satellite dome are just visible on the shore.

The base and jetty. Those specks all over the beach are Antarctic fur seals.

The most unimaginatively named mountain in the world, Snow Peak, on South Georgia, peeping through the mist.

For the winterers, who have spent the last six months in the company of just three other people, First Call must be overwhelming. Not only is the island inundated by all the new summer people and visiting BAS dignitaries, but also by about a dozen people from the JCR who have come ashore to help with relief and generally just to have a look round. And there is certainly plenty to look at. The first thing that grabbed my attention was three elephant seals relaxing on the beach. Elephant seals are really big. That may seem like a redundant statement given their name, but you simply cannot begin to appreciate until you see them in the flesh – and that’s a whole lot of flesh – just how gigantic they really are. They are huge, colossal, vast, enormous and any number of additional big sounding adjectives you care to think of. A fully grown male elephant seal can reach five metres in length and weigh up to three tonnes, yet they can move on land with surprising speed, rippling across the beach like, well, there’s nothing that ripples across a beach in quite the same way as a three tonne seal, it’s something you just have to see. As you might expect from such exceptionally large animals, the elephant seals spend most of their time lying around dozing, or floating languorously in the water of the bay. Occasionally one would rear up its head and roar; a booming, low-pitched sound that echoed around the hillsides and could no doubt be heard all the way across to South Georgia. Then two of the seals would make some wild-eyed lunges at each other and crash their blubbery bodies together. These fights never seemed to amount to much, however, and pretty soon they would be dozing once again, often cuddled up together.

Don't mess with me: an elephant seal shows off its dentition.

A rather more relaxed elephant seal having a bit of a float.

As well as the elephant seals, there were several male Antarctic fur seals hauled out on the beach. The males show up early in the summer to establish territories in preparation for the coming breeding season. Their behaviour alternates between gentle snoozing and violent confrontations with neighbouring seals. In amongst the seals were flocks of sheathbills and brown skuas, all brazenly investigating anything that might possibly be edible. At the height of seal breeding season there will be lots for them to eat; the beach is littered with the bones of seals that didn’t quite make it last year. Giant petrels also benefit from the glut of food provided by dead seals, and a few paddled lazily around in the water of the bay on the offchance that they might spot something worth scavanging. Albatrosses swooped by overhead, and on the hillside behind the base hundreds of white dots revealed one of the island’s albatross breeding colonies. In fact there were creatures everywhere you looked, and I kept finding myself simply standing staring at the wildlife, mouth agape, and would have to force myself back to the task in hand – unpacking a year’s supply of tinned pineapple chunks.

A male Antarctic fur seal stakes his claim.

Sheathbills love to eat seal and penguin poo, a habit which has earned them the unfortunate nickname 'shit-chickens'.

A brown skua waits patiently for something to die.

Skua bath time.

Seal bones lend a touch of the macabre to the beach.

Fur seals sleep wherever they damn well please.

This was just what I could see from the jetty within the first five minutes of landing. There is, of course, a whole cornucopia of delights waiting to be discovered on other parts of the island- wandering albatrosses, diving petrels, storm petrels, blue-eyed shags, and penguins, penguins, penguins; tens of thousands of them in all their noisy, smelly, clumsy splendour. But there is plenty of time for all that. Did I mention how long I’m staying for?

Rugged: the north cliffs of Bird Island.

A pair of southern giant petrels.

It can snow at any time of year on Bird Island, but you still have to stay on your nest.

In the background are Willis and Trinity Islands, in the foreground is Big Mac, the largest penguin colony on Bird Island where an estimated 40,000 pairs of macaroni penguins come to breed.

A suspicious blue-eyed shag.

Some of last year's wandering albatross chicks are still here, and should be fledging soon. They start off a lovely chocolate brown colour and get gradually paler as they age.

A wandering albatross chick, with me for scale.

Another wanderer chick, with some particularly spectacular cloud formations over South Georgia in the background.

Some of my comrades. From left to right: Julia (atmospheric scientist), Paul (technical services) and Ags (base commander).

A macaroni penguin. This one is sitting on an egg, which is why it looks a bit weird.

King penguins do not breed on Bird Island, but a few haul out here to moult, during which time they look exceptionally scruffy.

Gentoo penguins look sleek and sophisticated in their black-and-white outfits...

...though not all the time.

1 comment:

  1. Some great photos, & I do like your door mat (that bites no doubt!).