Bird Island Diary — March 2002

31 March, 2002

The end of the season approaches

Bonjour à tous et à toutes,

The start of March was punctuated by departures and arrivals. As RRS Ernest Shackleton sailed past, we knew it was time for Sascha and Jonny to leave. The now usual delays due to poor weather conditions gave us all great excuses to have several leaving parties. Mr Cocktail did his final shakes and tricks, and we put an end to the busiest part of the Bird Island year as we have through out the season with laughter. It was a real pleasure to spend my first season with this team of people, and unfortunately it seems for the moment as if Sascha will not be joining us next season, but I can already send my welcoming message to Jonny. As they both sailed away, three new people were amongst us for the final month: JD (the electrician), Richard B. (the plumber) and Matt (the joiner and the fourth winterer). The base was back to its fullest and a new equilibrium was to be made. The “ice” was melted with, and I hate to make both those puns, a slide presentation of the Halley Station on the Antarctic continent by Richard B. who has just spent two and a half years there and a lovely barbecue prepared by the technician team. The pictures of the ice continent at its hardest and most beautiful display of colours even made a bunch of hardy zoologist want to visit that sterile environment. The image here shows the Base from the Ridge on a beautiful day. In the background you can see the top of Willis Island.

On the 10th of March, time had come to see how well adapted the new people had become to Bird Island with the final third of Main Bay Pup Weighing. In a nutshell, the whole base puts on their dirtiest piece of equipment and walks over to the neighbouring bay to catch, sex and weigh one hundred of the most feared animals in BAS – the Antarctic fur seal pup. True, people are usually more apprehensive about the adults and rightly so as they can respond to an inadvertent or unlucky walker with a nasty bite. As we were all busy catching and weighing the new generation, an old friend started following us around the beach. It was Wendy!

Wendy is a female furseal with a very, very strange habit of seeking human company. She got her name from a sci-fi book we have on base with a friendly Antarctic fur seal named Wendy as a character. We first met her a month ago while on our monthly pup weighing activity, and already she was very inquisitive and friendly. All of us were wary of this abnormal behaviour and went back to base having met a very unusual seal. It was not however until this month’s weighing that Wendy became the base star as she followed us back home. She stayed with us for a week on the back door step eagerly awaiting one of us to go by and stroke her. If she did not have enough attention she would chase you to the door and very gently grab your trousers with her canines and simply pulled you out for a cuddle. On the 7th day she left us, and although we were all saddened not to hear her now familiar call, we were all glad she went back to sea to forage. Ten days passed with John’s interrogative face asking us “how long do seals feed at sea for?” when she returned to that same back door step. Now, she comes and goes on a more regular basis but still gets as much attention as she so wishes.

Winter is slowly inviting itself to Bird Island. The enigmatic islands of South Georgia to the East and Willis to the West are getting dressed with a white coat making them even more mysterious and scenic, but then the snow melts because although the days are getting shorter and the temperatures lower, it is a bit early yet.

Maggie, JD, Richard B. and Matt are all very busy with the maintenance of this base, doing the final tuning of pipes and wires to keep us cosy and warm. We are all doing respective indents to our work. Richard P., Ben and Daf are still very active collecting their final samples, carrying out their last experiments and starting monitoring the hatching success of the wandering albatross. Jane keeps a good eye on her moulting penguins, and Mark and I keep ourselves out of mischief with our final deployments on furseals for the year. Some very heavy and unusually early snowfalls, coupled with strong winds have proven disastrous for this year’s Wandering albatross breeding attempt. The most severely affected area which is known to us as Top Meadows had 40 failures out of 123 nests in the first few weeks after hatching. We all hope that the rest of their long breeding season will be more successful.

Some of the most enjoyable and memorable moments for me this month have been watching whales on top of north cliffs with Daf, Mark, Jane and Ben, and having an end of day talk above Colony J (a black browed albatross nesting site) with Richard P., Jane, Ben and I again…..funny that! One evening as we were all showered and ready for what seemed yet an other delicious dinner, Daf called base with a very excited tone to his voice. Off North Cliffs, he was observing killer whales swimming by. The four other assistants grabbed our field equipment and raced up to join him. We never got to see those elusive cetaceans but as the sun was setting on Willis Island, we observed the blows of unidentified baleen whales in the distance. The light was gold over the Southern Ocean with a very light mist. Dark clouds and evening conditions made the highest peaks of South Georgia turn deep blue behind us. The numerous blows of those distant whales within those weather conditions were just like a firework. We walked back to base under snow.

After a full day in the field, having helped Richard P. recover a satellite transmitter from a black browed albatross and joined Jane at Fairy Point Hut to mark individual macaroni penguins during their annual moult, Jane and I were walking back to base across the meadows when we noticed both Richard P. and Ben still working at Colony J. We decided to go and join them and see if they were ready to head back to base for the Saturday night dinner. Having battled through the lumps of tussock grass and climbed a slight hill, here we were all four of us on top of Colony J. The wind was bitterly cold, dark and heavy snowy clouds were surrounding us. However, where we were standing we were slightly warmed by a few sunrays. As we were all four casually talking and joking about everything and anything, we watched a snow storm come and go over Willis, Wandering albatrosses, Black Browed Albatrosses, Giant Petrels, and other seabirds flying above us, with their white feathers severely contrasting with the sky. In the background we could hear the vibrations and whining of courting Wanderers. From those courtship vocalisations we could picture the different postures associated with the calls as we had stopped and observed the whole dance of the Wandering Albatross so many times during the season. Ben, Jane and I left Richard on watch at the colony for the final retrieval of a satellite tag to join the rest of the gang around a warm and cosy dinner table.

RRS Ernest Shackleton is scheduled to visit Bird Island once again in less than a week but this time it is the final call of the season. Seven months of winter are awaiting the four winterers and I am looking forward to that. Maggie has shown us how to maintain our skiing equipment.

I wish to end this newsletter with a huge hello to many people I love and care for. My family of course which I particularly wish to thank for all their support, my friends all over the world but particularly in New Zealand and Finland as this is where these world travellers seem to be now. Et bien sur à tous mes ami(e)s francophones à qui je pense très très souvent.

A bientôt tout le monde

The Team – From left to right: Jane, Nick, Richard P, Richard B, Mark, Ben, Daf, Maggie, Matt and JD – Click to enlarge.