Bird Island Diary – June 2003

30 June, 2003 Bird Island


The true South Georgia winter weather has now firmly established itself on this wee island in the Southern Ocean. As I write, ensconced within the shelter of base, the wind howls relentlessly outside and the temperatures remain consistently below zero. Although the climate here at 54°S is not as extreme as further south on the Antarctic continent, the air temperature did recently hit a new low of -11°C, with wind speeds in excess of 60mph.

The hundreds of wandering albatross chicks are now 3 months old and growing fast. Although well insulated with down, they have no escape from the weather. Unable to fly or seek shelter, they must crouch low in their nests and wait for the weather fronts to blow over. Life is hard for these creatures and their existence is a constant struggle against the elements.

“…There was a hint in it of laughter, but a laughter more terrible than any sadness – a laughter that was mirthless as the smile of a Sphinx, a laughter cold as the frost and partaking of the grimness of infallibility. It was the masterful and incommunicable wisdom of eternity laughing at the futility of life and the effort of life.”

Jack London, White Fang

When work necessitates being outdoors in inimical conditions, you always know that the hot showers and radiators of base are only 35-40 minutes walk away. In possession of the most advanced thermally retentive clothing and many modern conveniences, I sometimes think how much less arduous life in the Antarctic has become since the days of Scott and Shackleton, with their antediluvian equipment. After all, I rarely lose feeling in my extremities; I’ve never been snow blind; suffered from under nourishment or lacking in anti-scorbutics; but then this is progress.

One day we had a massive blizzard with big accumulates of snow. Never ones to pass up a good opportunity for a snowball fight we all rushed outside and got stuck in.

Despite the inclement weather there have been some brilliant days with little wind and clear skies. These are the occasions when you really appreciate this paradisiacal setting. On one such day we all climbed up to the top of Molly Hill, which lies towards the western end of the island. It’s difficult to convey in words the raw unfettered beauty of the scene that unfolded before us. Standing from our now elevated position we could see in all directions; the imposing, steep, snow laden rock faces of the South Georgia mainland to the east and the icy waters of the Southern Ocean, loaded in floating cathedrals of ice, to the west. In other environments, the rim of sky above the horizontal is often broken and obscured; here it is infinitely vaster than that of any rolling bucolic scene or forested expanse. There is no better place to stand than on one the highest apexes of the island; the angularity of the surrounding mountain landforms imparts a seemingly illimitable polar architecture.

We’ve also had some excellent wildlife encounters this month. During one of Nick’s daily rounds of the beaches to check for leopard seals he saw one attacking an elephant seal (or ellie for short). With a length of just under 4 metres, a weight of 500kg and a row of razor sharp teeth, it’s not hard to see why these huge beasts (affectionately known simply as leps) are one of the top marine predators in the southern ocean, second only perhaps to the killer whales.

He radioed base and with no time we were all watching from the rocks. Closer scrutiny revealed not one, but two leps circling the ellie. The larger of the leps was attacking it; clamping its massive jaws repeatedly around the neck of the seal, before forcing it under the surface. Despite the ellie being larger than an immature fur seal (more typical prey for a lep) this was hardly an equiponderant tussle. A lep is stronger, faster and, armed with an array of formidable teeth, can easily inflict fatal wounds. Again and again, the ellie frantically tried to break free, but every time it looked as though it might escape, the lep’s giant jaws latched onto its neck again. This relentless attack continued for another 90 minutes while we all remained rooted to the spot.

The wind and tide gradually pushed the two writhing bodies closer and closer to Freshwater beach. As they got closer we were able to see the full extent of the ellie’s injuries. Its neck was covered in deep gashes that oozed blood; the seawater around the two animals took on a tinge of pink. Death of the ellie now appeared inevitable; it was only a matter of time, or so we all thought.

Suddenly, the ellie broke free from those terrifying jaws and made a dash for the shore. The lep had miscalculated the distance to the beach. It turned and pursued rapidly, but it was too late. The ellie had reached the safety of the rocks and hauled its incarnadine body from the water. The creature then slumped down, exhausted; it had survived. The lep could do nothing except watch from the shallows in the knowledge that the energy expended over the last 90 minutes had been for nothing. It would have to hunt again soon.

A few days later we were fortunate enough to see a Weddell seal, a species that is typically associated with the pack ice further south and hasn’t been seen on Bird Island for a number of years. Cameras in hand, we slowly crept up so as not to alert it to our presence. It was certainly a hefty beast, its profile similar to that of a lep, except with slightly larger rear flippers and a more rounded head. As we got closer it sluggishly raised its head and peered up at us. It clearly wasn’t overly bothered by our presence and continued to snooze.

The 21st June is the most important day in the Antarctic calendar – Midwinter’s day. During the days leading up the shortest day we received numerous faxes of good wishes, including one from the Prime Minister’s office at No. 10, the Indian Prime Minister and the Bush administration. We now have quite a collection covering the lounge walls.

Here on Bird Island, we celebrate with the Highland Games. After a very filling brunch, we all donned our tartan berets, ginger wigs and kilts, and ventured out into the chill to begin the first event. There were six events in all; throwing the haggis; throwing the welly with your teeth; tossing the caber; target crossbow; target snowballs; and the cold feet endurance. It was a brilliant laugh and here are some action shots of us.

The toughest event (a new addition this year) proved to be the cold feet endurance – wading into the shallows up to your knees in freezing water; the last one to remain in is the winner. There was no way any of us were going to beat Benny as he nonchalantly stood there, apparently entirely unfazed by the cold (I’ve no doubt that he was in as much pain as the rest of us, but did a better job of hiding it!). Fearing I might lose my toes, I finally succumbed after 4½ minutes to claim second place. Congratulations must go to Benny who was the overall victor and got to down the winner’s pint.

After some tea and cake to warm up, it was time for the traditional midwinter’s swim – in fact, a very rapid dip is probably a better description. We all stripped off and posed for a quick group photo, before jumping off the end of the jetty. As soon as we were all in the water there was only one thing going through over minds – get the hell out as fast as possible! We did a lap of the base; the two broken-winged skuas that frequent the beach looked on curiously as four naked bodies scampered past, screaming.

In the evening Nick prepared an excellent roast beef meal with all the trimmings, before it was time to listen to the broadcast from the BBC on the HF radio. This year the special guest was David Attenborough and we all listened with interest as he recounted a few tales from when he visited this island to film a sequence for Life in the Freezer.

Well, that ties up the adventures of the BI posse for this month. Adrian will be writing next months installment, so you can all look forward to more exploits of our lives in the fridge then. Love to family and friends back home.