Saturday, 18 April 2009

Bird Island

We did some base relief, honest (food and new batteries for the power supply in, waste and empty oil drums out). Then we went for some walks and took some photos. Amazing place:

Thankfully it didn't eat the ship

The corollary of so much life is a rather large amount of death. In the summer this beach is packed full of Fur Seals.

A warm seat. Not many pups survived this year due to a lack of food in surrounding waters, possibly linked to the very high temperatures this year.

Other people working, moving waste into the cargo tender to be taken back to the ship.

Death in action: a Sheathbill pecking at an open wound on a soon-to-be-ex Gentoo Penguin. Being a science base, there is no intervention to help or save the animals (there are tens of thousands of penguins and 10 scientists max, 4-5 in winter so it would be impracticable as well as messing up the science)

Anti-seal fence. Fur Seals are excluded from a small area to study their effects on the tussock grass. Antarctic Fur Seal numbers have rocketed from low thousands (maybe hundreds) globally (due to incredibly thoughtless and unsustainable hunting) to approximately two million around South Georgia now. Being Fur Seals theys are far more competent on land than 'true' seals so can climb high up the island, trashing the tussock and destroying breeding habitat for burrowing petrels as they go. It isn't clear whether the current population is back to 'normal' and the lack of damage was a positive side-effect of the hunting or whether the removal of huge numbers of baleen whales (competitors for food), also by thoughtless and unsustainable hunting, has allowed numbers to overshoot. The extremely low numbers that they reached may also have made predators (mainly seal-specialist Killer Whales) die out, move away or reach very low numbers from which they haven't increased as rapidly as the furries. Many scientists would like there to be fewer, due to the damage and the fact that they try to bite you while you do base relief.

Wandering Albatross brooding its chick with the base behind.

Wandering Albatross chick, ready for the winter (hopefully)

Some adults were still brooding the chicks while others were left as both adults foraged.

Black-browed Albatross chick almost ready to fledge - the smaller albatrosses raise chicks within one summer so are out of synch with the Wanderers.

Not quite ready for sea. Note that all these photos were taken with a short lens (this one at 85mm, the top end of the zoom)

The endemic South Georgia Little Brown Job (Pipit). Mostly restricted to rat-free islands around South Georgia.

I have mentioned the death haven't I?

Yves at 'Big Mac' - the large Macaroni Penguin colony. Breeding is over but many birds are still around moulting or mooching.

I wish I could fly...
I just wish I could swim! Penguins have to come ashore to moult as they lose their waterproofing and insulation. They obviously have to fast through this period.

Skuas playing king of the castle, waiting for another penguin to die.

Displaying Wanderers. They return to colony at about 7 years old and display for a few years before breeding with a lifelong (normally, they do 'divorce') partner. They live to 50+ so there is no rush, unless huge numbers die on long-lines trying to catch fish, which they currently are - see but there are recent encouraging results significantly reducing the bycatch around South Georgia and South Africa.

Cute, just stay away from the bill!

Less cute - Southern Giant Petrel chick.

Overall an amazing day with amazing sights and sounds - being on the ship you hear very little bird noises (engine, forced air ventilation, music and each other is about it) so hearing them call is very pleasant. You can also hear the air over the Wanderers' wings from about 50 yards as they come into land (the wingspan is about 10ft). Walking was also a novel experience but I just about managed to keep up with the guys from base over/between the tussock and around the Fur Seals (dead and alive).

Past South Georgia and onto Polar Front

Icebergs again, plenty around South Georgia after few in the open water north of South Orkneys

Now tied up at Fipass in the Falklands so will catch up with the happening of the last couple of weeks (or at least the more photogenic aspects - I'll spare you the physics cruise report, which is possibly the dullest piece of writing I'll ever produce. We got to the Georgia Basin, the site of the South Georgia bloom (fertilised by iron coming from the island and/or shallow shelf around the island) and the end of our transect - a line north-east(ish) from South Orkneys to west of South Georgia. The aim of the transect was to sample different environments along the way - from ice and Antarctic Peninsula influenced water to the south, through 'open water' (low iron as not downstream of land) and into warmer and South Georgia influenced water to the north. This year has been very warm - 1.5 degrees Celcius warmer than the same time last year. Not sure yet why it is so different but will be an opportunity to see what effects the temperature has (but also cause some problems comparing between this autumn and the summer cruise last year).

After two stations in the bloom we set off for the Polar Front to see why King Penguins go there, swimming for several days through areas with seemingly higher productivity (plant growth). The Polar Front is a transition zone between Antarctic and Sub-Antarctic water masses, a region of strong currents and also an important habitat zone in its own right. Most people define it as a single line rather than a two-dimensional area so I was hoping to use finding the King Penguins and Grey-headed Albatrosses all lined up to identify the front! As it was we had to rely on my satellite work and a series of eXpendable BathyThermographs (XBTs) to get us to a suitable bit of the Polar Front. We had to hove to and do nothing the first night as there was too much swell - we have to deploy the nets at night or otherwise the fish see it coming and swim away. However, in a break with the past couple of years we could work the next couple of nights, getting three net hauls done per night and hopefully some interesting insight into the myctophid fish (penguin food) of the area. Then it got rough again - force 10 for a day. We managed to run slightly across the wind and tack back to South Georgia to do the Bird Island base relief call (pick up summerers, give food and other supplies to the winterers). See next post.

Windy, but it got windier. Force 9-10 winds aren't too bad - not dangerous and you know you're not going to work for a bit so can relax for a bit and watch some films.

What you get for steaming across the swell.

One of these happened to fly past - young (3years?) Wandering Albatross. They stay at sea until they are seven, then attend the colony and display for a few years and start breeding at 10-12.