Bird Island Diary — December 2000

31 December, 2000

Seals with video cameras and seasonal festivities

Bird Island Diary

When we were asked who would write the December newsletter, we were told in the same breath that as the two newest base members it should be either Richard or I. And whoever didn’t do December would do January! I volunteered my services in a flash, realizing that with Christmas and New Year there would be plenty to write about. So Richard, I just hope January is as exciting!! Of course, a lot else has happened besides just Christmas and New Year…

The month began with a visit from RRS Ernest Shackleton en route to Halley station. Lots of people came ashore and were taken by our qualified guides to visit the local wildlife. It was funny to see other people’s reactions to the seals, reminding the newcomers among us of our own reactions only a few weeks ago. It’s amazing how quickly you get used to some things – like negotiating your way through a beach full of growling fur seals to get from base to anywhere, while newcomers stand glued to the spot asking “Is it safe?”!!

We said goodbye to the Shackleton crowd, losing Mickie to them, and wished them a bon voyage to Halley. Unfortunately for them, they then had engine problems and turned back to pick up spare parts in the Falkland Islands. At the same time our December Royal Fleet Auxiliary also had engine problems, so RRS Ernest Shackleton volunteered to bring John Newman, our latest base member back here for us. So – we had a second visit brief visit from the vessel on December 12.

Work has been going ahead at an increasing pace on all fronts. Richard seems to have decided to take feathers and blood samples from every species of bird that is found here (although I wouldn’t put it past him to grab a couple of vagrants were they to turn up). Richard’s predilection for skuas can’t be hidden, and he’s been spending many the hour sampling skuas from one end of the island to the other! Daf too is out walking the hills – though he has just come down with a terrible bout of hayfever from the tussac grass! He can now be seen striding off over the hills to visit the wandering albatross nests, complete with his anti-hayfever ski-goggles!

Jane has been wearing a little path into the ground en route to Little Mac (the macaroni penguin study colony), where she’s been busy deploying satellite tags and time-depth recorders on the macaroni penguins. The satellite tags allow us to see where the animals are while they’re at sea. I’m also using the same equipment on the fur seals so each night, when we get our e-mail download of the latest satellite positions of our animals, Jane (for the macaronis) and I (for the fur seals) plot their progress out to the shelf break (and for Jane’s first penguins – far beyond!!). I had a sad night this month in which there were suddenly no more uplinks from one of my seals – which I’ve decided must have run into a killer-whale shaped grim reaper!

Phil has been out practising his counting skills from various vantage points around the island. For the most part, his fur seal quadrats managed to survive the onslaught of the males colliding with the marker posts during fights! We put back those that we could, but daren’t go into some of the denser parts of the beaches! We thought that we would be losing Phil to HMSEndurance in the first week of December, but this was postponed as the ship was doing some work at the south end of South Georgia. He then managed to get his helicopter aerial photography done in a day and a half (of which they kindly picked him up and dropped him back home again)! After that, I think they decided they would rather leave him here – which we were all very happy about!! So, after a special hike to the other side of the island, as “Phil was leaving tomorrow”, plans changed yet again! This became a continuing saga, as Maggie had to repeatedly alter the cooking rota! I was especially grateful, as I was given a stay of execution before Saturday night dinner, and let off Christmas Day dinner!! Cooking has to be one of the more terrifying activities here on Bird Island – if only because the standard is so high! I have never eaten quite so well as here!

The SSB (Special (or maybe Seal) Study Beach) work has continued apace through the month – with what seemed like enormous numbers of pups born (some call it the black plague, though I think that’s unfair – they are very cute even when growling!). The SSB is a piece of beach 100 foot long by 50 foot wide bounded at either end by rocky outcrops and a cliff behind. Mark and Nik trudge off there each morning to monitor who is where on the beach, who is new on the beach, and how many new pups there are. Ian and I were over there a lot too during the mornings, and with Mark were putting cattle-ear tags in their flippers to mark individuals and collecting morphometric and genetic information from some of the new females on the beach. Meanwhile, Nik has been busy taking biopsy samples from males on the beach, to provide data for a project to look at who fathers most of the pups born on the beach, and how this relates to their tenure.

Ian, Mark and I have also been busy with deployments on Freshwater Beach – right in front of base. Probably the most exciting part of the month has been the success of the video camera that we brought down to try out on the fur seals. Many thanks go to Ollie Cox for this gismo – he’s converted a digital video camera into a depth-triggered underwater video camera that can be stuck to the back of a seal. This is the first iteration of the unit, so it was very much a trial run. However – the results have been superb. After a successful deployment of a dummy unit (of the same size and weight), we deployed the camera for the first time on December 2. We had a fun time deploying that one as it was a rainy, drizzly day – so the chosen seal had to be brought up to a hut on base and given a quick hair dry (complete with diffuser) so that the epoxy would stick. We fixed the camera to some webbing (plenty of self-amalgamating tape and cable ties!) and then glued the webbing to the seal’s fur. This design means that when the seal returns after a week-long foraging trip we can just cut the cable ties to get the video camera back.

So, after all the excitement of deploying the first unit, we sat back and waited for her to go to sea. .. And waited.. And waited. We had specially chosen this female because her pup was already five days old! But five days after the deployment, she was still sitting on the beach – and several among us were about ready to go and throw her into the sea! However, she finally left and nicely of her (obviously a very good mother) was soon back again. The moment of truth was the data-download. I’m a little jaded when using new equipment, and always expect the worst, but this time the results came pouring in. We have some slightly blurry but absolutely amazing pictures of krill! We’re already into our third deployment now – and the pictures get better and better!

The animals on which we deploy tags all carry a radio-transmitter so that we can check when they arrive back on the beach. We try to monitor the radio frequency receiver twice a day for all these seals. After one evening in which I checked it at 11 pm to find that one of the seals was in, and in the last 30 minutes of daylight, Ian and I chased the seal halfway across the beach and got completely covered in mud(!), there was talk of putting a sign by the receiver which says “Go to bed, Sascha!”

The beach is already beginning to thin out again now – from a veritable carpet of seals, back down to a rather threadbare carpet! We’ve had a few more white seals this year – this is an unusual colour morph which occurs in some of these fur seals. They are quite beautiful – and provoke the odd “no – is it a polar bear?”! There is a lot of death around too though. The weather hasn’t been too kind to the fur seals and there are quite a few pup carcasses strewn over the beach. The giant petrels and skuas seem to be pretty happy about that and you can’t help think that what goes around comes around.

We’re seeing increasing numbers of entangled animals which is a reminder of the drastic and painful influence that humans have on this system. I’ve always been one for taking a pair of scissors to the plastic binders used on six-packs (in fact, why do they bother with those – are they really necessary?)! However – here the problem is packing bands which the seal swims through and then slowly over the next year or two grows into so that the band gradually cuts into its flesh! Quite nasty to see. (I would suggest going back to string or some biodegradable packing material!!)

We finally waved goodbye to Ian and Phil just before Christmas. After an enormous number of changes to the schedule, their departure date was finally brought forward by five days, from Boxing Day to December 20 as HMS Endurance had some problems (again engine related I think) and needed to get back to the Falklands) . They were taken off the island in grand style. It was an incredibly blowy day – too windy for the helicopter to land – so they were winched up to the helicopter hovering 30 feet overhead!! Quite exhilarating, or maybe absolutely petrifying – I’m not sure which!

Although we were all sorry to say goodbye to Ian and Phil, Mark couldn’t help a little grin – he got to move inside the base to a comfy bed after seven weeks in the fieldhut! So we were down to eight base members (Jane, Maggie, Richard, Mark, Nik, Daf, John and I). We’ve had a wonderful Christmas on base. It’s been quite nice to be away from the media and the masses at Christmas time, though Mark and Jane made sure we had gaudy decorations strewn from head to foot of the base! Christmas Day itself turned out to be glorious sunshine, which has been a rare sight over the past few weeks – so we all scattered, cameras in hand to various parts of the island. Back by sixish and all scrubbed up for a fantastic dinner – many thanks to Jane for such an excellent job, and enormous quantities of food!

December 29 saw the second birthday among us. Richard – fondly termed the geepmaster – the king of giant petrel (GP pronounced ‘geep’) impressions, turned 32!! Mark produced a quite amazing photoshop rendering of the geepmaster himself, which he mounted in 3-D.

Now – it’s almost the end of the year. I just hope it’s full of fun and excitement for everyone! We shall be toasting everyone with a cocktail or two on the night. We’ve decided to have a pub crawl around the station outbuildings for the evening. There’s even talk of coming up with a Bird Island special cocktail – though I do dread to think what that could involve (probably krill bits!)!!

Anyway, a very Happy New Year all round. Lots of love to everyone I know.

Sascha xxxx