Bird Island Diary — November 2001

30 November, 2001

First Impressions

The peaceful isolation of Bird Island was almost shattered with the arrival of the James Clark Ross (JCR) on the 2nd. But as it turned out the shattering didn’t begin until the next day – the roughest seas in the world were living up to their name, and the JCR sailed north to do a spot of science before returning to stand by off Jordan Cove in the mist. It was early morning when we new arrivals finally landed, to be met by the three winterers standing on the end of the jetty, and the powerful musky aroma of male fur seals. There was a flurry of boxes and bubblewrap, crates and cardboard, fuel drums rolling, vermiculite and shredded paper, fresh fruit and veg, temperamental trolleys and bemused seals. When the dust (or rather mud) finally settled, there were nine people on base.

And what a base! We have an office that looks out over a beach covered in fur seals and penguins on one side, and the dramatic rocky peak of La Roche on the other, still with a few snow patches left over from winter. Our first encounters with the seals were a bit cautious. The males are a bit like grizzly bears with flippers and long whiskers, and pointy snouts like a womble. They sit on the beach for weeks on end with no food waiting for the females to arrive, which is probably what makes them so grumpy and why they spend so much time tearing chunks out of each other. They can be quite ferocious in guarding their territories, and we were warned to be very careful around them. I soon discovered that adopting a kung fu stance and shouting “hwaaaaaaa!” at them is not particularly effective (though it doesn’t stop me trying!!). A much better idea is to tickle them under the chin with a broom handle, otherwise known as a bodger. But they’re not that bad really, and we literally have to step over some that have taken up residence on the steel walkway between the base and the jetty.

We had a lot of visitors in November – HMS Leeds Castle arrived on the 15th, bringing Joe, two mailbags, and a box of bacon and eggs. The Golden Fleece sailed in unexpectedly on the 18th, on its way back to the Falklands with a team of snowboarders. Jerome tossed a leg of reindeer onto the jetty and shared quelques mots with Nick, though unfortunately they hadn’t time or tide on their side and didn’t come ashore. On the 21st, RRS Ernest Shackleton arrived with more cargo, and we met some of the winterers on their way to Halley. We said goodbye to John, who left for KEP having serviced the generators and fixed things all over the place to keep the base running smoothly. On the 28th, Richard and Sascha (albatross and seal scientists respectively) arrived in by helicopter from HMS Endurance. Thanks to the crews of the JCR, the Shackleton and Endurance who did a superb job of relief in less than ideal conditions.

The base complement now consists of the Base Commander (Maggie), two senior scientists (Richard and Sascha), a penguin postdoc (Jon), a seal postgrad (Joe) and no less than five zoological field assistants (Mark and Daf are handing over to Nick and me, and Jane continues as the penguin assistant). The seal team have been busy at SSB (the Special Study Beach) marking all the males, taking tissue samples and weighing the newly-born (and quite cute) pups. The first pups appeared in Main Bay on the 14th, and since then they have been popping out everywhere. They have soft black fur, a head about the same size as the rest of their body, big soulful eyes and pathetic bleating voices like little sheep. The work at SSB involves marking some with numbers in Born Blond hair dye, so once the first one had been dyed, most of the base went blond too (out of sympathy of course). The picture here shows Joe sharing an intimate moment with a pup.

Meanwhile, I have been learning about all things albatross from Daf. The first of the wanderers have finished growing proper feathers rather than fluff and have left the island on a five-year odyssey to no-one knows where. The battery life of conventional satellite transmitters is too short to follow their wanderings, so BAS scientists have developed a geolocator device that could reveal where they go. The idea behind it is simple: a light sensor connected to a timer detects when it is day and night. The daylength on any date determines the bird’s latitude, and the timing of sunrise and sunset fixes the approximate longitude. This method is not quite as accurate as satellite tracking, but the advantage is that geolocators do not have to transmit a signal, so the battery life can be extended to at least five years, enough to follow a wanderer all the way from fledging until it returns to Bird Island! The geolocators weigh less than 10 grams, and Daf and I have been placing them on some of this year’s fledglings. I will have left Bird Island by the time the first ones return, but hopefully they will help to fill in a gap in our knowledge of this threatened species.

Wandering albatrosses continue to be threatened by longline fishing, and many drown on hooks set for Patagonian toothfish and tuna in the Southern Ocean. It’s a worrying problem because they take so long to mature and breed, and can only have one chick every two years. I’ve known about all that for a while, but I thought things were being done about it, and it wasn’t until I got here and started finding hooks that I realised the scale of the problem. I have only been here a month and already I have found 13 longline hooks and pieces of monofilament fishing line in albatross regurgitations. Those are only the ones we see. Who knows how many birds die at sea, or fail to regurgitate the hooks, swallowed in fish heads which are tossed overboard by (often illegal) fishing boats?

On a brighter note, it was Jane’s birthday on the 6th, so we had a cake and candles and she got to dress up as a penguin in a cape that me and Nick got in the Falklands. In revenge, she got us painting rocks in Big Mac. Painting things forms an important part of working on Bird Island. We paint rocks (to mark transects), stakes (to mark albatross nests), seals, albatrosses, boxes, and in the process, ourselves! In the space of just a few weeks we have managed to make our shiny new gear look like it has endured an entire field season, and even the stormtrooper-style boots have started to leak!

In between bouts of painting, we have time to relax, and John’s departure towards the end of the month was the perfect excuse for a barbecue. The fact that it was snowing was hardly a deterrent, it just meant that woolly hats were a must as we feasted on burgers and sausages, with Mark’s special toasted marshmallows for dessert. On the 29th, we again ate outside, but this time it was bizarrely sunny. It was a slightly surreal experience sitting down at a dinner table on a beach carpeted with fur seals and skuas, but they behaved themselves and didn’t crash the party. Perhaps all the bleached heads on view put them off. The gentoo penguins just looked confused as they generally do, so that was nothing unusual. Occasionally one of them has a dizzy minute and runs around waving its wings and jumping onto tussac lumps.

I wasn’t quite doing that when I saw my first minke whale from Wanderer Ridge, but it was an exciting moment. I had been measuring and weighing some wanderer chicks. “Chick” seems a strange word to use for a 12 kilo creature with an 11 foot wingspan, but right now I can’t think of a substitute. The chicks look quite gentle but they resent being sat on, which is a necessary but hazardous part of measuring their bill dimensions. They have a large hooked bill designed for tearing up squid, and anyone who’s eaten calamari will know that squid is yummy but quite tough, so you can imagine how strong and how sharp that beak has to be. The consequences for hapless new albatross assistants (me) include lacerations to the backside and loud cursing. There’s no-one to hear for a very long way, so you can curse all you like. You can’t stay cross with them for long, though, because they are such amazing birds.

I’ve only been here a month, but already I feel completely at home here. The climate is quite similar to Ireland (cold, wet, mushy underfoot, lots of mist and drizzle and occasional days of unexpected sunburn) and the base is extremely cosy with a big Aga to cook on (everyone has turned out to be an excellent cook). The wildlife is off the end of the superlative scale, and icebergs float by in the sea (which already seems completely normal!).

I could keep writing, but I’ll let the next-most-gullible new person (who will be landed with the job of writing the December diary) tell you more about all the bits I’ve missed out this month. So until then, a happy and peaceful Christmas to my family and friends, and especially to a certain “wanderer” somewhere in New Zealand.

Ben Phalan

Zoological Field Assistant