Bird Island Diary — November 2010

30 November, 2010

Welcome to Bird Island

When I told people that I was going to live on a tiny island in the sub-Antarctic for two and a half years, most of them looked at me like I had lost my mind. When I told them that I wouldn’t be leaving the island at all during that time, that there would be no Christmas trips home or anything, they usually started to sidle away, convinced that I was a dangerous lunatic. But apart from not seeing family and friends for so long, I couldn’t be happier. I will be working mainly on long-term monitoring of penguins and giant petrels, but will help out with other BAS science projects as needs be. I will eventually be replacing Stacey, the current penguin assistant, who has been here for two years herself and now has six months to teach me everything she knows.

On the 30th October the James Clark Ross arrived at Bird Island, and I got the first glimpse of the place that will be my home for the next 30 months. It was (unusually) a beautiful, sunny day and both Bird Island and South Georgia looked rugged and stunning in the early morning light. All those disembarking the JCR were ushered into the cargo tender and ferried ashore, where we were met at the jetty by Stacey, Mick, Claudia and Joe, the current winterers, and Andy, who arrived a few weeks before we did. After some hasty introductions we began unloading cargo and that pretty much became the theme for the rest of the day.

For the winterers, who have spent the last six months in the company of just three other people, First Call must be overwhelming. Not only is the island inundated by all the new summer people and visiting BAS dignitaries, but also by about a dozen people from the JCR who have come ashore to help with relief and have a look round. And there is certainly plenty to look at. The thing that grabbed my attention first as I stepped ashore was the three elephant seals relaxing on the beach. Elephant seals are really big. That may seem like a redundant statement given their name, but you simply cannot begin to appreciate until you see them in the flesh – and that’s a whole lot of flesh – just how gigantic they really are. A fully grown male elephant seal can reach five metres in length and weigh up to three tonnes, yet they can move on land with surprising speed, rippling across the beach like, well, there’s nothing that ripples across a beach in quite the same way as a three tonne seal, it’s something you just have to see. As you might expect from such large animals, the elephant seals spend most of their time lying around dozing, or floating languorously in the water of the bay. Occasionally one would rear up its head and roar; a booming, low-pitched sound that echoed around the hillsides and could no doubt be heard all the way across to South Georgia. Then two of the seals would make some wild-eyed lunges at each other and crash their blubbery bodies together. These fights never seemed to amount to much, however, and pretty soon they would be dozing once again, often cuddled up together.

As well as the elephant seals, there were several male Antarctic fur seals hauled out on the beach. The males show up early in the summer to establish territories in preparation for the coming breeding season, and their behaviour alternates between gentle snoozing and violent confrontations with neighbouring seals. In amongst the seals were flocks of sheathbills and brown skuas, all brazenly investigating anything that might possibly be edible. At the height of seal breeding season there will be lots for them to eat; the beach is littered with the bones of seals that didn’t quite make it last year, giving it a slightly macabre feel. Giant petrels paddled around in the water of the bay and on the hillside behind us were hundreds of white dots — one of the island’s breeding colonies of black-browed albatrosses. I kept finding myself simply standing staring at the wildlife, mouth agape, and would have to force myself back to the task in hand — unpacking a year’s supply of tinned pineapple chunks.

All of this was just what I could see from the jetty within the first five minutes of landing. There are, of course, many more delights waiting to be discovered on other parts of the island-wandering albatrosses, diving petrels, storm petrels, blue-eyed shags and penguins; tens of thousands of them in all their noisy, smelly, clumsy splendour. But there is plenty of time for all that. Did I mention how long I’m staying for?

Ruth Brown