Bird Island Diary – August 2003

31 August, 2003

Cakes and messages in bottles

As I am sitting in my room trying to write this newsletter, an adult male fur seal, having returned from an oceanic trip, is lying on the walkway a few metres away, nonchalantly scratching the wet fur of his back, his snout pointing to the only patch of blue in our clouded sky. He seems perfectly at peace. The arduous breeding season when fighting, sometimes to death, for the eternal reward of passing on one’s genes is still a couple of months away; now is time for resting and fattening up.

And so started August. We do not recall exactly the sequence of events that lead us to indulge ourselves with an apple pie, a sponge cake, lemon cake, bakewell tart, cheese cake, coffee & walnut cake, chocolate cake, sponge cake with chocolate fondue and finally another cheese cake in as many days, but I think Ben owed Chris a cake and one thing lead to the other. “Cake week” started with greed and gluttony and ended with us needing to dedicate the next week/month/year to exercise. Cakes are Bird Island’s betting currency as is two and half years salary, but we usually try and stick to the former. In order to satisfy our sweet tooth we try and regularly place bets on for example: “when will the first pup be born, how many chicks will hatch the coming season, is it going to snow in the following two days? Etc.” Although the examples in this diary do not point to such conclusions, I usually am the one baking as all my bets turn against me. For proof I baked all the cakes for the examples I gave and supported France in the last Football World Cup. The people of base now wisely stay well clear of the side I am betting for and similarly are very open to all my suggestions for new bets. One day I will learn I promise.

Anyway since then, Adrian has been on a diet and on strenuous daily exercise routines for which Chris promised him a cake if he kept it up until the end of the month. After having cycled some 500km on the exercise bike, done 1200 pull-ups, 1500 press-ups and 4500 sit ups, I can tell you now Ade made it with ease and at lunch today, we just enjoyed another tasty, sugary bakewell tart! It is great when other people do all the hard work and you get to share the reward!

As the month progressed, Chris, Adrian and I were getting more and more concerned by the increasing number of bottles of wine stashed under Ben’s desk. A day came when this habit of his could no longer go unnoticed and as I questioned him on this, he shared his story with us.

Having studied and lived with albatrosses for the past two years, observing them gliding over the southern swell and the austral mountains either through direct observations or passively via the satellite tags he attaches to their backs, Ben had the romantic idea to launch some twelve messages in a bottle from our most north-westerly point of the island, namely Gold Crest Point, hoping they would journey as far as those winged travellers go on the surf and currents of the howling fifties and find a human soul. The launch was to be on Friday the 15th and so we went along, crossing the meadows and the empty Big Mac Colony until we reached destination. From the rocky shores he carefully awaited the right moment to launch his bottles one by one in front of the full house of spectators that his three other companions were. The white horses came in, breaking noisily on the rocks and as they retreated he catapulted the bottle as far as he could throw. Our major concern lay with the next wave simply returning our gift and shattering the glass and our dreams on the rocks. But this never happened; all twelve bottles were launched successfully. The only close encounter was not to be with a rock but something maybe as solid when a curious leopard seal popped his head out of the surf to investigate what four humans were doing standing on these shores.

Having incanted all Gods under Mother Earth, professed the return of deep snow would be coupled with sightings of snow petrels and being very patient, our month long thaw finally ended half way through August providing yet again enough coverage for us to put on our skis and go sliding down the slopes of BI. All four of us had been longing for snow to return for what seemed like an eternity that no sooner had the last flake touched the ground we were out following one of the streambeds up to the back of the valley. For Chris this was to be a first experience. As we reached the top of the slope, the skins we had attached to the sole of the skis enabling us to ascend but hindering our descent came off. Having myself learnt to ski in ideal conditions on well groomed mountain slopes where miles were cleared for such purpose, I could not but marvel at the way Chris learnt to fall, snowplough, turn and ski across the slope on runways sometimes a few metres wide while avoiding the playful fur seals & the odd tussock lumps. The first couple of hours were spent on the ground, however after a few afternoons, Chris is now the King of the snowplough.

The end of August/ beginning of September started as always with our Wanderer chick survey. And so we dispersed, each to our corner of the island. The mist had swallowed up the entire place in an opaque peasouper. On the upper slopes of my area I could see nothing ahead and nothing behind. It was quite a surreal experience walking for hundreds of metres where my eyes could discern no shapes, no colours other than the greyness of the engulfing air and the evenness of the snow, both combining to produce the most empty, deserted scenery I’ve ever experienced or can imagine. There was nothing other than the ghostly calls of the giant petrels I could hear downhill.

As I was visiting my chicks more by touch than by sight, Chris, Ben and Adrian were enjoying their respective rounds, visiting their “friends”. Ade conversing with all the fluff balls as he walked passed them, Chris sitting next to some to get his hair preened, Ben losing one of his gloves to a cheeky chick when he deposited them within reach of its beak.

Now it is time for the summer visitors to slowly return. Grey headed and black browed albatrosses will be with us in a few days. A fat male elephant seal has even made himself at home on one of our beaches.

J’embrasse ma famille et mes ami(e)s,